Criticism

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Criticism
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Criticism
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Criticism

About this Volume

About this Volume

The essays in this volume probe the way that Romantic writers explored the limits and possibilities of thinking in terms of systems. The purpose of the collection is not to provide a single perspective adopted by Romantic authors, any more than it is to provide a single theoretical perspective with which to view those authors. Still, the

March 2016

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In the Spirit of “clever inventions and constellations”: the Mechanics of Romantic Systems

This essay offers a new perspective to German Romanticism's thinking about systems by exposing its indebtedness to a mechanical idea that pervades the organic model of systems and operates in the blind spot of organic discourse. Against the common point of view that to think “organically” is to think “non-mechanically,” this essay argues that these two perspectives can in fact co-exist, and it is precisely the particular dynamics of this co-existence that will put the Romantic concept of system in a new light.

March 2016

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Models for System in Idealist Encyclopedics: The Circle, The Line, and the Body

The Eighteenth Century has been called the “age of the encyclopedia,” but the understanding of that word is very different in the encyclopedias of Chambers and Diderot on the one hand, and on the other hand the German Idealist tradition variously exemplified by Hegel’s Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Schelling’s On University Studies, and Novalis’ Romantic Encyclopedia. In Kant’s terms, the first provides an aggregate of knowledge, whereas the second attempts a system that entails an architectonic. Focusing on Hegel’s desire to unify all the sciences through the meta-discipline of philosophy, this paper explores the increasing complication of his architectonic by the very figures he uses to safeguard it: namely the circle, the line, and the body. Tracing the supplementary relationship between the first and the second, I argue that the body with its multiple subsystems brings to a head the collapse of the “smooth” system Hegel intended into a “tangled’” system: a productive collapse, because instead of being a forced unification of knowledge, the encyclopedia becomes a thought-environment for transferences between disciplines and potentially the emergence of new disciplines. Or, in effect, it becomes a form of “Theory” avant la lettre.

March 2016

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Introduction: Making and Unmaking Romantic Systems

This essay introduces the essays in the current volume by beginning with the work of William Hazlitt. Hazlitt’s relation to the work of noted system-builders of the age (from Kant to Bentham) was far from straightforward: he criticized their “derangement” but admired and even envied their vision. Hazlitt’s views echo a range of other writers (Blake, Wollstonecraft, and Godwin, to name a few) who were adept at constructing systems as well as attacking them. Such responses demonstrate the startling range of positions that could be taken with respect to systematic thinking of the age, and the essays in the volume demonstrate that Romanticism presents us not with a unified set of beliefs or ideologies about systems but rather with a vibrant display of contrasting arguments, anxieties, and ambitions.

March 2016

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Shelley’s Pauses: Systemic Change in Laon and Cythna

This essay examines two interrelated strategies Shelley uses to conceive of the systemic context for individual agency. In both cases, Shelley portrays agency as moving or acting upon air. First, drawing on new scientific accounts, Shelley examines the weather as a global system that is subject to local variability. Comparing the movement of weather to the movement of ideas, Shelley postulates that systemic change occurs when air from a “free” region moves into and temporarily disrupts air that has been tainted by despotic social and political structures. In this analogy, weather provides a model for the action of poetry because air is the medium through which the poet acts on readers by literally changing their breath. And the second way Shelley explores the possibility of systemic change is through adopting and altering poetic form to move readers’ breath. ​Poetic form proves such an important resource for Shelley not only because it shapes readers’ breathing to its metrical patterns but also because, originating in another era, it stands apart from current sociopolitical systems. In Laon and Cythna, Shelley envisions the caesura within the Spenserian stanza as a tool for moving systemic structures.

March 2016

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The Cenci: Gothic Shelley

According to the period’s dominant imaginary conspiracy was ‘totalizing’; it explained everything. Against this was the urgent task of imaging a form of agency that could effectively countermand the spirit of tyranny. Why was the Gothic necessary for Shelley? Part of our answer lies in the fact that Gothic precedents addressed both these crucial points. At the heart of the post-Walpolian Gothic’s ‘symbolic constitution’ lies the ‘dead hand of the past’, a metaphor for the way the past not only reaches into the present, but holds it in its palsied grip. The Gothic is a means of imagining vicious circles of transgression and violence repeating themselves down through the generations. As we shall see, the inherited vicious circle is precisely the crux that motivates The Cenci. But by the time Shelley started his Gothic experiments crucial modifications had been made to its symbolic constitution that made it even more eligible for his purposes. These changes were instigated by Friedrich Schiller, in Der Geisterseher (1789; translated as the Ghost-seer, 1795) and William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794).

Schiller’s primary contribution to the Gothic was to provide a narrative form for representing the threat of conspiracy, whether revolutionary or Counter-Reformational.     

It was Godwin who urgently raised the question of historical agency. When he refers to the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” he is just one of many radicals responding to Burke’s defense of the Gothic constitution and chivalry, the legal and social customs he celebrates as the ties that bind the English present.

All these constituents of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution (as it stood in the late 1810s) come together in The Cenci:

As a work of abstracted Gothic, The Cenci explores the problematic nature of modern systems of power by drawing upon the symbolic constitution of the Gothic as it stood post-Schiller and post-Godwin. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley references the key elements of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution that will concern him: the dead hand of the past; the baleful influence of Gothic institutions that live on in the present; the tendency of this influence to leave us living in vicious circles of abuse; a moral antinomy that prods the reader into analytical action as a way of rising above such circles; the self-defeating nature of conspiracy; a belief in the totalizing power of tyranny; the strenuous difficulty of regaining historical agency; the delusive glamour of the sublime; and, finally, and certainly not least, critique of Burke. After noting these key Gothic elements, Shelley’s thought takes a surprising turn. Rather than freeing us ‘self-anatomy’ is shown to lead to more Gothic entrapment. The Cenci suggests that the way to lighten the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” is through the austere prescriptions of the categorical imperative.

In effect Shelley is telling us that he has moved on from his juvenile, jejune understanding of conspiracy (the sublimity of the secret societies) to a more abstraction proposition in which counterproductive conspiracy (any literal endeavour) is compared unfavourably with a conspiracy to make the reader think.

November 2015

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