Criticism

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Criticism
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Criticism
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Criticism

Teaching Romanticism with the Contemporary

Date published: 

April, 2017

This special issue explores the notion that many of the forms, ideas, and practices inaugurated or exemplified in the Romantic period continue to shape and drive our contemporary discourses. Literary critics, cultural and political theorists, and, indeed, our students continue to encounter new permutations—if not the continued presence—of something that might be called the romantic. But how is the (neo-)romantic expressed in contemporary culture? And how might we best prepare students to listen for and hear its repetitions? How might we teach the romantic alongside the contemporary without either reducing one to the other or eliding important historical, cultural, and social contexts? In response to these questions, the nine essays and three interviews that comprise this volume address the repetitions and reverberations of the romantic as it recurs across genre, period, and media boundaries in popular culture, contemporary political situations, changing classroom dynamics, and the constantly shifting domains of literary and pedagogical practice and production.

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Against Utilitarianism: Two Hundred Years of “Useful Knowledge”

This essay challenges students to think about how we might make the case for the public value of the humanities by grounding our own debates about these issues in a close reading of Percy Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry.” It argues that Shelley’s argument against the primacy of utilitarian pragmatism is not, despite its apparent rhetoric, a lofty and off-putting retreat into elitist claims for the arts, but quite the contrary, a radical and politically engaged account of why the arts ultimately matter more than applied forms of “useful knowledge,” even within the context of social reform.

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Constellations, Contemporaneity, and Coltrane: A Conversation with Tres Pyle

In his latest book Art’s Undoing: In the Wake of a Radical Aestheticism (Fordham University Press, 2013), Forest (Tres) Pyle asserts that certain poetic texts “produce a radical engagement with the very processes by which we conceive of the aesthetic, those processes by which the world is not merely known, but felt—and felt as an effect of representation” (5). This model for a poetics of history draws on a rich web of sources, from Shelley, Benjamin, and de Man to John Coltrane, Todd Haynes, and Cy Twombly, in which constellations of aesthetic experience, not unlike signs and flowers, are self-originating. They “flash up” like flares in a night sky whose apprehension, always possible but never determined, is felt with something of a shiver. In this conversation, Tres and I discuss the poetry, music, painting, cinema, and scholarship that make him shiver, focusing on how this constellation of art, artists, philosophy, and criticism, which spans two centuries, has shaped his approach to understanding and teaching Romanticism. That which makes the Romantic poem particular, Tres says, those characteristics around which we have organized a canon and a name, are precisely what challenge periodization in the first place. If Ian Curtis exhibits a sense of possession that summons up Coleridge, then how are we to reconcile historical specificity with aesthetic continuity? What are the “strange subterranean force[s]” that exert themselves in “adventurous poetic forms, musical examples, cinematic forms, or the visual arts?” Since this conversation, Tres and co-editor Jacques Khalip have assembled a collection of essays that addresses these questions. With essays by Ian Balfour, Sara Guyer, and Gayatri Spivak, among many notable others, Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism (Fordham University Press, 2016) inquires into the implications of Agamben’s notion of contemporaneity, as an adherence to one’s own time through disjunction and anachronism, for studies of Romanticism. As a constellation itself, the book not only illuminates certain shadows, or future anteriors, of Romanticism as they irrupt in Benjaminian now-time, but it also postulates Romanticism itself as a trope that dramatizes—or “detonates”—such now-time by forcing an experience precisely with that which has been passively deposited into the archives of historical time. It is this sense of Romanticism “with its tentacles extended into the future” that drives our conversation.

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Romantic Selfhood and the Selfie: Relating to the Novel

This essay offers a defense of the concept of “relatability,” an impulse in students we’ve long derided as unproductive and even ethically suspect. In particular, it aims to sketch out a series of attempts to use contemporary texts to disrupt students’ assumptions about their emotional and psychological distance from Romantic-era fiction. Rather than dismissing talk of readerly identification, I show how I have attempted to leverage my students’ desire to relate in order to launch a discussion of historical reading practices and the emergence of relatability as a value.

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Pedagogy of the Depressed: Romanticism and the Long Revolution

This essay discusses how a course about 'literature and revolution' invites students to make use of depression as an affective explanation for the history of optimism, disappointment, reluctant transformation, and fear of the future. Students assess their relationship to the ongoing past in which modernity, mobility, self-making, and optimism were first offered as political goals for entire societies, and consider how a 'long revolution' shapes their relationship to the disappointing present, in the literature classroom as a locus, instrument, and effect of radical social transformation.

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Romantic Continuities and Feminist Contemporaries

In Romantic Era Feminism, students engage in deep and broad learning about the 18th and 19th centuries’ intellectual and cultural legacy, and its continuing presence in 20th and 21st century feminism. Among others, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, William Godwin and John Stuart Mill are studied alongside Malala Yousafzai, Azar Nafisi, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Jessica Valenti and The Young Lords Party’s “Position Paper on Women”; “The Saudi Women Revolution Statement” is read with “The Declaration of Independence” and “Declaration of the United Irishmen”; Rush Limbaugh is heard echoing Richard Polwhele, and Daryush Valizadeh, Rousseau. This dialogue between 18th - and 19th -century feminist and anti-feminist texts, and 20th - and 21st -century ones launches students’ exploration into three areas: 1) the cultural and intellectual history of feminism since the Romantic era; 2) the feminist implications 18th- and 19th- century political discourse, and the arguments used then and now either to support or to suppress those implications; 3) the range and diversity of feminist positions within and across generations, and the role of class, race, and historical context in expanding or limiting the literary and political imaginations of feminists in all eras, including our own. Students also study the lives and works of individual writers, and their intellectual influence on one another; the intersections of abolitionist or anti-racist with feminist imagery, discourse, arguments and action; the second and third waves’ rediscovery, reinvention and revision of earlier feminist critiques of unequal marriage laws, the sexual double standard, employment discrimination and similar issues; and the utility of diverse literary genres for presenting these topics richly and persuasively. Most importantly, by learning that the Romantics are indeed our contemporaries, and by critically examining the assumptions we still share with them, students become more self-conscious, better informed, and more effective participants in the continuously ongoing cultural construction and critique of gender and human rights discourses.

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