Carter, "'Insurgent Government': Romantic Irony and the Theory of the State"

Irony and Clerisy

"Insurgent Government": Romantic Irony
and the Theory of the State

Adam Carter, University of Lethbridge


  1. "As a temporary condition," Friedrich Schlegel writes in Athenaeum Fragment 95, "scepticism is logical insurrection; as a system it is anarchy. Sceptical method would therefore more or less resemble insurgent government." The statement is one of many in Schlegel's published fragments that present suggestive analogies between his philosophical and aesthetic concerns, for which he has been widely read, and political concerns for which he has often been either ignored or critically evaluated. Missing from such responses is the sustained attempt to read Schlegel's fragments on aesthetics and philosophy in relation to his fragments on politics and government—a relation that Schlegel himself repeatedly gestures toward. This must, perforce, take the form of a consideration in Schlegel's fragments of the relation between politics and irony.

  2. Schlegel's reintroduction of the ancient rhetorical concept of irony into modern critical and aesthetic discourse, as well as (arguably) his significant revision and expansion of the meaning of this term, have been, along with his theorization of romantic poetry itself, among the most significant legacies attributed to the fragments published in the Lyceum and Athenaeum journals between 1797 and 1800. While the published fragments directly devoted to irony are relatively infrequent (less than a dozen among over seven hundred) the concept as Schlegel theorizes it and attempts to enact it is central to the interpretation of the fragments as a whole and to Schlegel's politics in this period in particular. The strongest case for taking irony as the master trope of the Fragments is provided by Schlegel's own testimony to this effect in his essay "On Incomprehensibility" published in 1800. In this essay Schlegel looks back upon his then scandalous fragmentary style—on "all the offence the Athenaeum has given, and . . . all the incomprehension it has provoked" (35)—and attempts (albeit with irony) to explain and justify it. "A great part of the incomprehensibility of the Athenaeum," Schlegel asserts, "is unquestionably due to the irony that to a greater or lesser extent is to be found everywhere in it" (36). Schlegel then proceeds to quote two of his most important statements on irony, Lyceum Fragments 48 and 108, in full, both as an illustration of what he means by irony, and as a clear indication of the best hermeneutic strategy with which to approach the Fragments as a whole. To read, in the manner Schlegel here invites, the fragments through his theorization of the concept of irony is to glimpse both the politics of his irony and the irony of his politics.

  3. My analysis finds a starting point with Frederick Beiser's thesis that the politics of the "early" German Romanticism of 1797-1800 constituted an attempt to negotiate between a tradition of enlightenment liberalism widely believed to have precipitated the French Revolution and a conservative response to the violence, rapid change, and disempowerment the Revolution produced.

    [Early German Romanticism] struggled to avoid the extremes of liberalism and conservatism: an insistence on individual liberty that destroyed all social bonds on the one hand, and an emphasis on community that suppressed all individual liberty on the other hand. It accepted the communitarian elements of conservatism, but rejected its paternalism, its identification of the community with the old social and political hierarchy. It endorsed the defence of individual liberty of liberalism, but criticized its free-for-all of self-interested agents. (223)
    The romantics initially supported the ideal of a democratic republic propounded by the revolutionaries in France: "They believed that the true community will come into existence only through the liberty, equality, and fraternity of a republic" (Beiser 223). They even "hoped that, eventually, through increasing enlightenment and education, the need for the state itself would disappear" (Beiser 223). Yet they were not revolutionaries in the sense of supporting violent political upheaval, not, in any event, in their own German political context. They remained suspicious, even critical, of the violence resorted to by the French Revolutionaries—a suspicion that, I maintain, is manifested in Schlegel's philosophical critique of the violence of abstract conceptuality upon particularity and individuality. In place of political revolution they supported, in the tradition of Schiller and the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, the role of culture, of art, poetry and philosophy, as Bildung: as educating the people to become the future citizens of the ideal republic (Beiser 228-229).
  4. In his reading of Schlegel's aesthetic theories Beiser is primarily concerned with demonstrating how they partake in the Schillerian project of "the aesthetic education"—in the progressive reformist tradition of the German enlightenment (247), and how his theory of romantic poetry constitutes "the aesthetics of republicanism" (260). Irony, however, generally regarded as so central to Schlegel's theory, is not mentioned by Beiser. Irony is, nonetheless, the best overall description for the dialectical relationship between the antinomies of liberal and conservative positions that Beiser seeks to delineate as the early Romantic's political position.

  5. To take Schlegel's theory of irony as the dominant trope defining his political position is to begin to modify and problematize in significant ways Beiser's thesis on the politics of the early romantics. We find that Schlegel hovers between the antinomies of conservatism and liberalism in a less synthetic and more vertiginous fashion than Beiser's reading suggests. Beiser, indeed, while he proposes to read Schlegel and his circle as positioned between liberalism and conservatism, in effect shows Romanticism's strong leanings toward liberal republican ideals at an early stage followed by a turn in a very short space of time toward conservatism. In this conventional narrative of Romanticism's movement from an early idealism to a later reactionary position, much of Romanticism's proposed political inbetweeness is lost or ignored. One rather conventional hermeneutic strategy with which to explain such contradictions would be to characterize the published fragments of 1797-1800 as politically transitional and, in a sense, confused; this, in part at least, is Beiser's position.[1] But to assign the Fragments, and this entire period, to a transitional confusion is to do away with most of Schlegel's early Romanticism including the theory of romantic poetry that Beiser delineates as the "aesthetics of republicanism" (260) and thus to involve Beiser in a further contradiction.

  6. To read Schlegel's political statements in the Fragments through his own theorization of the concept of irony and to attempt to see these statements as structurally homologous with this theory constitutes another, and I would argue more satisfying, hermeneutic strategy. In this reading we see Schlegel deliberately and self-consciously juxtaposing and alternating between the antinomies of liberal and conservative assumptions on such fundamental issues as the individual, the community, progress, authority and the status of reason, in an attempt to delineate a politics comprised of a non-synthetic dialectic that might permit both individual freedom and the recognition of one's place and duty within the wider totality of the polis or nation. The contradictions remain in this reading, certainly, but we do Schlegel—who in advance even of Hegel begins to thematize the productivity of contradiction—the credit of dealing with them self-consciously.

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  7. To consider Schlegel's directly political statements in the Fragments is to experience the same vertiginous motion of "contradict[ing] oneself continuously and join[ing] opposite extremes together"[2] that characterizes Schlegel's method in the fragments as a whole and which comprises one of Schlegel's several distinct but related definitions of irony. In Athenaeum 121 Schlegel writes: "An idea is a concept perfected to the point of irony, an absolute synthesis of absolute antitheses, the continual self-creating interchange of two conflicting thoughts." It is important to note along with numerous commentators on Schlegel's irony that the "absolute synthesis" to which Schlegel refers is not the monistic identity sought for in certain articulations of the dialectic, but precisely this "continual self-creating interchange" of opposites (Eichner 63; Muecke 194; Mellor 11; Handwerk 15; Albert 826-829, Miller 368).

  8. In reading Schlegel's fragments devoted to political concerns this "continual self-creating interchange of two conflicting thoughts" applies first and foremost to his evaluation of the very worth of politics and political discourse. On the one hand, Schlegel lists "a positive politics" as being amongst "the most important desiderata of philosophy" (Ath 28), and asserts that in a society "antipolitical or unlawful people are the only ones who shouldn't be tolerated" (Ath 272). On the other hand Schlegel asserts: "Wherever there are politics or economics no morality exists" (Id 101); and he enjoins his reader: "Don't waste your faith and love on the political world" (Id 106). Beyond this fundamental antinomy, which amounts to a simultaneous embrace and rejection of politics, one finds analogous contradictions with respect to two other key indices to Schlegel's politics: his position with respect to the French Revolution, the support for or opposition to which determined the ideological spectrum for his times; and his view of the cultural/political program of the romantic poetry and philosophy he theorized and championed.

  9. In Athenaeum 216 Schlegel lists the "French Revolution, Fichte's philosophy, and Goethe's Meister" as "the greatest tendencies of the age," a statement that might appear, given Schlegel's high estimation of the latter two elements in this list, forthrightly to endorse the Revolution. The remainder of the fragment, however, qualifies such an assessment. The greatness of the "noisy and materialistic" French Revolution, Schlegel suggests, is a rather vulgar quantitative greatness, in comparison to which in "the history of mankind . . . many a little book, almost unnoticed by the noisy rabble at the time, plays a greater role than anything they did." Nonetheless, that Schlegel contends that Fichte's philosophy and Goethe's Meister should themselves be considered revolutionary indicates that he at least sides with the idea of revolution.

  10. Schlegel's sympathies with the Revolution's republican cause and the means it employed are more directly evident in Athenaeum 251 where he derides "the delicate morality of a century that only tried to slander the French Revolution." Schlegel defends the morality of the revolutionaries Honoré Mirabeau and Sebastien Chamfort, contending that while they might be among those whom "the rabble considers . . . criminals or examples of immorality . . . a truly moral person would class [them] among the extremely rare exceptions who may be regarded as creatures of his own kind, as fellow citizens of his world" (Ath 425). As late as his last published Fragments of 1800, Schlegel asserts a positive impetus behind the revolution.

    The few revolutionaries who took part in the Revolution were mystics as only Frenchmen of our age could have been mystics. They legislated their characters and their actions into religion. But future historians will consider it the greatest honor and destiny of the Revolution that it was the strongest stimulus to a slumbering religion. (Id 94)
    One could imagine these words to have been penned by Marx in a derisively sarcastic vein. "Mystic" and "religion," however, are not derisive terms in Schlegel's vocabulary. On the contrary, there is a persistent messianic strain in Schlegel's Fragments and, thus, to be labelled a mystic is to be paid a compliment generally accorded to an elite of artists and intellectuals dedicated to pursuing the absolute. Furthermore, in invoking "religion" Schlegel is not, at this stage, referring to any orthodox traditional belief system but to an as yet only dimly glimpsed faith that will characterize the coming "organic age . . . of the next solar revolution" (Ath 426). In Ideas 94, then, Schlegel suggests that the French Revolution be regarded as contributing to this progressive movement of the Zeitgeist.
  11. However, in what Kierkegaard (with Schlegel fully in mind) aptly named as irony's "negative dialectic" (133), the antinomy to Schlegel's support for the Revolution is equally well presented in the Fragments. Athenaeum 424 represents the Revolution as "the most frightful grotesque of the age, where the most profound prejudices and their most brutal punishments are mixed up in a fearful chaos and woven as bizarrely as possible into a monstrous human tragicomedy." "There is no greater need of the age," Schlegel later contends, "than the need for a spiritual counterweight to the Revolution and to the despotism which the Revolution exercises over people by means of its concentration on the most desirable worldly interests" (Id 41).

  12. That Schlegel is not simply shifting from earlier radical to later conservative political sympathies in the course of the Fragments published over three years between 1797-1800 is well indicated by his placement contiguously of the two fragments cited above alternately critiquing and upholding the Revolution, Athenaeum 424 and 425. That he is not, on the other hand, simply confused but is deliberately presenting an ironic doubled perspective on the Revolution is clearly established in Athenaeum 422.

    Mirabeau played a great role in the Revolution because his character and mind were revolutionary; Robespierre because he obeyed the Revolution absolutely, devoted himself entirely to it, worshipped it, and considered himself its god; Bonaparte because he can create and shape revolutions, and destroy himself.
    The description of the revolutionaries closely reiterates Schlegel's articulation of irony in Athenaeum 51 as a dialectic of "self-creation and self-destruction."
  13. While Schlegel refers to a process of self-creation and self-destruction at various points in the Fragments, to the extent that Ernst Behler describes it as "the dominant theme in the exposition of irony in the Athenaeum" (German 148), Athenaeum 51 is the sole fragment where this process is explicitly discussed in conjunction with irony: "Naive is what is or seems to be natural, individual, or classical to the point of irony, or else to the point of continuously fluctuating between self-creation and self-destruction."

  14. In Athenaeum 51 Schlegel works with Schiller's concept of naive art as an art that "is nature," that provides "the completest possible imitation of actuality" (Schiller 274, 275). Schlegel's point is that irony, in the sense of a hovering between instinct and intention, must inhabit even the most apparently natural "naive" works of art. "If it's simply instinctive, then it's childlike, childish, or silly; if it's merely intentional, then it gives rise to affectation. The beautiful, poetical, ideal naive must combine intention and instinct" (Ath 51). The dialectic of self-creation and self-destruction, then, represents in this context the artist's movement between instinctive (un-self-conscious) and intentional (self-conscious) attitudes toward the work. For Schlegel, the way to achieve such a movement is to alternate between enthusiasm and skepticism, "inspiration and criticism" (Ath 116), toward the creative artifact (or in a philosophical context toward the idea or concept), alternately affirming it as natural and true and negating it as artificial and false.

  15. In the schema articulated in Athenaeum 422 Mirabeau, distinguished by his "character" and "mind," represents the Revolution's conscious idea and intention; Robespierre—"obey[ing] the Revolution absolutely, devot[ing] himself entirely to it, worshipp[ing] it, and consider[ing] himself its god"—represents the Revolution's un-self-conscious, instinctive moment in which it is actualized by being enthusiastically and unreflectively embraced. Bonaparte is the true ironist in this schema hovering between the two positions, "continuously fluctuating between self-creation and self-destruction" (Ath 51). He can "create and shape revolutions, and destroy himself," a reference to the popular view of Napoleon at this pre-military-dictatorship stage (1798) as simply extending France's republican revolution and its attendant enlightenment ideals to other nations and as such acting merely as an instrument of progress. Once another nation was freed from monarchic government and granted a republican constitution Napoleon's work in that nation would be finished.

  16. The fragment has been interpreted as indicating Schlegel's support of the Revolution (Beiser 242), but in contrast to the other statements I have examined it appears to be positioned in the interstice between an enthusiastic and a critical position, a space within which Schlegel attempts to theorize the condition of the possibility of these actors playing "great role[s]" in an historical and political upheaval. What appears to constitute the condition of such a possibility is the structure of irony. What Schlegel might mean in so proposing a necessary irony in the political sphere will become clearer after further consideration of Schlegel's political position.

  17. Schlegel's perspective on the cultural and political program of the romantic poetry that he champions also enacts an ironic dialectic of "contradict[ing] oneself continually and joining opposite extremes together." Does Schlegel, as Beiser among others has contended[3], view romantic poetry/philosophy as extending and radicalizing the enlightenment project of Bildung, of educating and cultivating the masses to become the citizens of an ideal future state? Athenaeum 222 is, perhaps, the most programmatic statement to this effect: "The revolutionary desire to realize the kingdom of God on earth is the elastic point of progressive civilization and the beginning of modern history. Whatever has no relation to the kingdom of God is of strictly secondary importance in it." By this view modern poetry and philosophy, given that they are by no means "of strictly secondary importance" for Schlegel, must participate in this revolutionary process.

  18. Athenaeum 137 affirms such a worldly project for Schlegel's own writing. Here Schlegel declares that "there is a material, enthusiastic rhetoric that's infinitely superior to the sophistic abuse of philosophy, the declamatory stylistic exercise, the applied poetry, the improvised politics, that commonly go by the same name." This "rhetoric," one assumes, refers to Schlegel's own experimental critical discourse with its deliberate attempt to combine and juxtapose each of these other elements in a fragmentary form that might succeed in overcoming their traditional shortcomings. "The aim of this rhetoric," he continues, "is to realize philosophy practically and to defeat practical unphilosophy and antiphilosphy not just dialectically, but really annihilate it" (emphasis added).

  19. A later fragment again affirms the worldly mission of a newly construed culture, although in more foreboding terms.

    We agree on this point because we are of one sense; but here we disagree because you or I am lacking sense. Who is right, and how are we to settle the matter? Only by virtue of a culture that broadens every particular sense into a universal, infinite sense, and by faith in this sense or in religion. Then we will agree before we can agree to agree. (Id 80, emphasis mine)
    Echoing Schiller's Aesthetic Education, this represents Schlegel's strongest statement in the published fragments on the function of culture in the production of ideological hegemony—the maintenance of social consensus through the eradication of the very grounds of difference.[4]
  20. Yet Schlegel will also forthrightly defend the autotelic nature of art, rejecting a lengthy tradition that attributes a didactic role to it. He refers to the "vulgar prejudice that moral ennoblement is the highest end of the fine arts," and contends that "Wit is its own end, like virtue, like love and art. . ."[5] (Ly 59). "What if," Schlegel queries, putting into question the entire project of Bildung, "the harmonious education of artists and nobility is merely a harmonious illusion?" (Ly 110).

  21. One could argue that these two positions in Schlegel's fragments—that art cultivates the subject and thus allows society to evolve toward a more harmonious social order, and that art is primarily autotelic—present no contradiction. By this view what Schlegel is rejecting is the notion that art consistently has any moral content that might instruct its audience. It is, rather, its harmonious and non-instrumental form prior to all content that provides the potentially ideal model for the social/political order. Such a position would be close to the political program Schiller theorizes for the aesthetic.

  22. Schiller, like Schlegel at certain points, insists upon the aesthetic as a sheerly empty form:

    for beauty produces no particular result whatsoever, neither for the understanding nor for the will. It accomplishes no particular purpose neither intellectual nor moral; it discovers no individual truth, helps us to perform no individual duty and is, in short, as unfitted to provide a firm basis for character as to enlighten the understanding. (Aesthetic 147)

    The aesthetic is a nothingness, sheer potentiality and freedom prior to all determination, and yet as such is a very pregnant nothingness in so far as it becomes the ground for all determination. As an idealized form bearing a very uncertain relation to the real, the "aesthetic state" is, Eagleton argues

    the utopian bourgeois public sphere of liberty, equality and democracy, within which everyone is a free citizen, 'having equal rights with the noblest.' The constrained social order of class-struggle and division of labour has already been overcome in principle in the consensual kingdom of beauty, which installs itself like a shadowy paradise within the present. (Aesthetic 111)

    There is certainly direct textual evidence to support a reading of Schlegel as also drawing the analogy between aesthetic and political form. Yet Schlegel, I would argue, attempts to substitute a quite different aesthetic model in an attempt to circumvent some of the difficulties presented by the attempt to apply to politics the traditional aesthetic model with its harmonious mediation between general and particular. Schlegel, moreover, remains ironically ambivalent about drawing the analogy between aesthetics and politics in the first instance.

  23. Lyceum 65 predicates a direct analogy between poetic form and a republican political state, suggesting that the former provides an ideal model of a free and non-coercive public sphere: "Poetry is republican speech: a speech which is its own law and end unto itself, and in which all the parts are free citizens and have the right to vote." Lyceum 103 is consistent with this analogy and further suggests Schlegel's view of the politics of the particular fragmentary aesthetic that he theorizes under the name of romantic poetry in opposition to a more traditional neoclassical aesthetic with its emphasis upon unity, order, and generic purity. Schlegel's position on the fragmentary text anticipates and no doubt influences Benjamin and Adorno's idea of the "constellation" which as Eagleton writes "strikes at the very heart of the traditional aesthetic paradigm, in which the specificity of the detail is allowed no genuine resistance to the organizing power of the totality" (Aesthetic 330).

    Lyceum 103 commences:

    Many works that are praised for the beauty of their coherence have less unity than a motley heap [bunter Haufen] of ideas simply animated by the ghost of a spirit and aiming at a single purpose. What really holds the latter together is that free and equal fellowship in which, so the wise men assure us, the citizens of the perfect state will live at some future date; it's that unqualifiedly sociable spirit which, as the beau monde maintain, is now to be found only in what is so strangely and almost childishly called the great world.
    Schlegel does not deride such works for being little more than "a motley heap of ideas," but rather criticizes the impulse to turn such a heap into a unity. The fragment (a meta-fragment in effect—a fragment about fragmentariness) continues:
    On the other hand, many a work of art whose coherence is never questioned is, as the artist knows quite well himself, not a complete work but a fragment, or one or more fragments, a mass, a plan. But so powerful is the instinct for unity in mankind that the author himself will often bring something to a kind of completion at least with the form which simply can't be made a whole or a unit; often quite imaginatively and yet completely unnaturally. The worst thing about it is that whatever is draped about the solid, really existent fragments in an attempt to mug up a semblance of unity consists largely of dyed rags. (emphasis added)
    The "motley heap" Schlegel suggests is analogous to "the perfect state," a rather audacious figure in its very banality when one considers, as Ian Balfour has recently discussed, the rhetorical sublimity many of Schlegel's contemporaries employed to figure the nation ("Sublime"). The "motley heap" is a configuration in which each individual has its own autonomy and direction and yet loosely connects with the whole through an "unqualifiedly sociable spirit." The supposedly unified work, on the other hand, only achieves its coherence through unnatural manipulation. If we were to extend the political analogy Schlegel applies to the fragmentary text to such falsely unified works of the traditional aesthetic the latter would appear analogous to a highly coercive normalizing authority. Significantly Schlegel represents the presentation of unity as a covering over of the particular in its materiality and existentiality, as "dyed rags" thrown over, "the solid, really existent fragments," suggesting, in this allegory of govermentality, the uncodifiable particularity of the body politic.
  24. The falsely unified work, then, is a dissimulation, a mask, much as Schlegel defines Socratic irony in Lyceum 108 as "dissimulation."Yet unlike irony this "instinct for unity" does not present its false totality as a "completely deliberate dissimulation" (Ly 108). "Socratic irony," Schlegel insists in another conjoining of opposites, is "the only involuntary and yet completely deliberate dissimulation" (emphasis added). In this lack of self-consciousness of itself as artifice lies the potential danger of the falsely unified work. Lyceum 103 concludes:

    And if these [dyed rags] are touched up cleverly and deceptively, and tastefully displayed then that's all the worse. For then he deceives even the exceptional reader at first, who has a deep feeling for what little real goodness and beauty is still to be found here and there in life and letters. That reader is then forced to make a critical judgment to get at the right perception of it! And no matter how quickly the disassociation takes place still the first fresh impression is lost. (emphasis added)
    A later modernist poet and critic like T.S. Eliot, in a classic articulation of the aesthetic ideology, bemoans an epoch of the "disassociation of sensibility," and looks back nostalgically upon an idealized Renaissance society when thought and feeling, general and particular were, as Eliot quotes Johnson, "yoked by violence together" (60)—an aesthetic position whose political underpinnings were only too clearly represented in Eliot's political sympathies. For Schlegel, by contrast, it is this fundamental "disassociation" or fragmentation that must not be elided. Preferably, it should be presented openly in the work and when it is not it is one of the tasks of criticism to fragment the false totality.
  25. But a problem presents itself with respect to this coherent position I have attributed to Schlegel vis-à-vis the ideology of the fragmented versus the falsely unified work: the self-evident rhetorical irony in Schlegel's mode of presentation. The analogy between the fragmented text and the "perfect state" is interwoven with a series of what ironologists call ironic markers (Booth 3-8 and passim; Hutcheon ch. 6), verbal equivalents of the wink of an eye that distance the speaker's intent from his apparent meaning: "so the wise men assure us . . . as the beau monde maintains . . . what is so strangely and almost childishly called. . . ." These markers suggest both that Schlegel is hesitant to draw a definite analogy between the aesthetic and the political realms, and that he distrusts any invocation of a finished "perfect state." For even to counter the Schillerian aesthetic state with its subsumption of the general and the particular into a seamless whole with an aesthetic model that presents a greater resistance to totality is still to aestheticize politics with all the dangers that entails. Schlegel's strategy amounts to suggesting an aesthetic analogy that might surmount the difficulties presented in the traditional aesthetic model and yet simultaneously to ironize the analogy such that one views it as imperfect. Furthermore, as Peter Szondi has argued (63-65), history for Schlegel is a progressive movement towards an ideal and thus any attempt to characterize the future "perfect state" from one's own place in time must be inevitably flawed. Irony represents one strategy for expressing an awareness of such limitations. "[W]e have to be content," Schlegel writes, "with brief notes on the prevailing mood and individual mannerisms of the age, without even being able to draw a profile of the giant" (Ath 426).

  26. With respect, then, to two major indices to his political position (his response to the French Revolution, and the cultural program he envisions both for Romantic poetry and his own critical discourse), Schlegel retains a persistently ironic stance, enthusiastically embracing a worldly project of political transformation and critically negating such an intention. Is he, then, as Hegel would imply, being simply and, perhaps, uselessly evasive? The answer, I believe, is that he is not, that his ironic stance does translate into a more definite political vision of sorts, with a content that we may agree or disagree with, a vision that would be better described as provisional rather than evasive.

  27. Schlegel raises the idea of provisionality in Athenaeum 266, a passage that refers to philosophy but once again employs a suggestively political metaphoric vehicle, here a nation's constitution, to articulate the idea: "Couldn't we have a provisional philosophy right now, even before drafting a logical constitution? And isn't every philosophy provisional until that constitution has been sanctioned by acceptance?"

  28. A philosophical system is an attempt to construct an absolute of sorts, a totality within which each particular finds its meaning and its place. However, much as in Lyceum 103 with respect to the work of art, Schlegel will repeatedly emphasize in metaphors that clearly import the political concerns underlying his theoretical position, the violence that any philosophical system and its concepts must perform upon the particular in order to marshall it into system: "The demonstrations of philosophy are simply demonstrations in the sense of military jargon. And its deductions aren't much better than those of politics; even in the sciences possession is nine-tenths of the law" (Ath 82). For Schlegel no philosophical system has represented more than what he describes, in a phrase that anticipates later theories of ideology, as "polemical totality" (Ath 399)—a limited and motivated view of the whole which, while it "can no doubt destroy one's opponents completely, . . . does not suffice to legitimize the philosophy of its possessor . . ." (Ath 399). Thus a general "logical constitution" adequately governing all particulars is unavailable. Schlegel implies in Athenaeum 266 however, that this does not preclude the necessity of acting in the world as adequately as possible with the best knowledge that one does possess.

  29. Schlegel's provisional strategy is to combine system and non-system, the necessity of the organizing, governing concept, and the recognition of the always insurgent particular. This position is most succinctly stated in the often cited Athenaeum 53: "It's equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two." Furthermore Schlegel is clear that this is one of the several related ways we are to understand irony: "It [irony] contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication" (Ly 108). Politically this strategy (which is already an allegory of governability) translates into an attempt to negotiate between a strong governing authority and democratic freedom, to negotiate between conservatism and liberalism—the paradoxical figure of an "insurgent government" which Schlegel allies with his "sceptical method."

  30. Athenaeum 449 most directly indicates Schlegel's attempt to negotiate between the antinomies of a strongly conservative tradition and a liberal radicalism.

    As yet there has been no moral author who could be compared with the great masters of poetry and philosophy. Such a writer would have to combine the sublime antiquarian politics of Müller with Forster's great universal economics and Jacobi's moral gymnastics and music; and combine in his language, too, the weighty, dignified, and enthusiastic style of the first with the fresh hues, the lovable delicacy of the second, and refined sensitivity—so like a distant, ghostly concertina—of the third.
    The Swiss historian Johannes von Müller's "sublime antiquarian politics" consisted of a very traditional defence of the Holy Roman Empire (an anticipation, indeed, of the politics the later Schlegel would embrace); Georg Forster by contrast was one of the most radical political voices of late-eighteenth-century Germany, an ardent political reformist and such a strong supporter of the French Revolution as to be widely declared a traitor in Germany. Schlegel published a spirited defense of Forster's work in the form of a Charakteristiken, or pen portrait (Eichner 29), but in so doing was, as Frederick Beiser writes, "a voice crying in the wilderness" (154). Forster "recognized that the moral development of a people depends on its material conditions, particularly its economy and distribution of wealth" (Beiser 184), a recognition that would lead Lukacs in the 1940's to revive his reputation as a proto Marxian dialectical materialist. Forster's "great universal economics," as Schlegel describes it, came to increasingly emphasize in a socialist fashion that the "problem of the state . . . is to ensure a more equal distribution of resources that would enable everyone to develop their humanity" (Beiser 184).
  31. F.H. Jacobi's "moral gymnastics," as Schlegel's athletic metaphor suggests, straddles the positions of the two former writers. Jacobi was on the one hand, Beiser writes, no defender of the "ancien regime whose demise he regarded as inevitable" (151). He supported such liberal tenets as "free trade, liberty of conscience . . . civil freedom" (151), and a generally laissez faire conception of the state. Yet he was in effect "a spokesman for the aristocracy" (141); his economic writings expressed the "physiocratic orthodoxy" (141): agriculture, the land, is the fundamental source of all of society's wealth, all other forms of economic activity (exchange, consumption, transportation) are merely derivative of this productive origin: "Since all wealth ultimately derives from them, the landowners represent the true interests of the state" (141). Jacobi was, furthermore, an early and influential critic of the enlightenment, of what he described as its "tyranny of reason" (qtd. in Beiser 147). One of the leitmotifs of his moral and political writings was a "lament about the egoism and materialism of contemporary life" (Beiser 141), a disposition that would lead him in his later writings to posit religious faith as the basis upon which the state ought to be founded (Beiser 151). He was as equally an ardent critic of the French Revolution as Forster was a supporter, believing that it represented the worst excesses of rationalism and materialistic self-interest. In the Revolution's abolition of aristocratic land holdings, furthermore, Jacobi saw a dangerous precedent.

  32. Such, then, is the peculiar constellation of political ideologies that Schlegel would wish to keep in play—a thoroughly ironic political vision in so far as it is a paradoxical one attempting to maintain apparently contradictory positions without privileging one over the other. It is at the same time, at least partially, a dialectical political vision. Schlegel recognizes in the Fragments that liberalism as the opposition to more traditional views is partial and incomplete, structurally dependent upon that which it opposes. A truer political vision would arise from the synthesis of these views, of community with diversity and individual freedom; and a provisionally adequate politics in avoiding the extremes of tyranny and anarchy would at least keep the polarities in tension.[6]

  33. Thus Schlegel, on the one hand, makes assertions of a broadly progressive democratic nature, such as calls for judicial reform: "Wherever a public prosecutor puts in an appearance, a public judge should also be at hand" (Ath 70); and generalized assertions of the right to liberty: "Perhaps no people deserves freedom, but that is a matter for the forum dei" (Ath 212), which is to say that in this political world one must assume that one individual or group has as much right to freedom as any other. Furthermore, in a salvo aimed directly at the Prussian absolute state, Schlegel asserts that far from being democratic it cannot even be described as aristocratic: "A state only deserves to be called aristocratic when at least the smaller mass that despotizes the larger has a republican constitution" (Ath 213). He further warns that the nominal possession of a republican constitution ought not to delude the public into believing that it necessarily enjoys a democratic government:

    What is it, if not absolute monarchy, when all essential decisions are made secretly by a cabinet, and when the parliament is allowed to discuss and quarrel about the forms openly and ostentatiously? In this way an absolute monarchy might very well have a kind of constitution that to the uninitiated might even appear to be republican. (Ath 370)
  34. Yet at the same time expressing an uneasiness towards "the rabble" (Ath 425) and its "demagogic popularity" (Ath 246) Schlegel supports a hierarchical structure of government based, at least in part, upon class and inherited privilege.

    A perfect republic would have to be not just democratic, but aristocratic and monarchic at the same time; to legislate justly and freely, the educated would have to outweigh and guide the uneducated, and everything would have to be organized into an absolute whole. (Ath 214)
    Such a position may not be reactionary, per se; in Schlegel's Prussian context the adoption of such a governmental structure would have, indeed, constituted a considerable movement toward greater democracy, and given the prolonged violence of the French Revolution such an evolutionary model of government had undeniable appeal. Yet it certainly represents a vitiation of the more radical political impulses that inform many of the fragments and herein we may begin to glimpse the failure of Schlegel's ironic dialectic to keep political conservatism and radicalism in tension.
  35. In two key fragments Schlegel sides strongly on behalf of political authority working against his own theoretical/political concern for the violence of the concept.

    In the transactions and regulations that are essential to the legislative, executive, or judiciary powers for achieving their aims, something absolutely arbitrary, something unavoidable often happens that can't be deduced from the concept of those powers, and over which they therefore seem to have no lawful authority. Isn't the authority for such extraordinary cases actually derived from the constitutive power and shouldn't that power therefore also have to have a veto and not merely a right of interdiction? Don't all absolutely arbitrary decisions in the state happen by virtue of the constitutive power? (Ath 385, emphasis mine)
    The passage fully demonstrates a political manifestation of Schlegel's philosophical concern for the concept and the remainder that eludes it—the ineradicable "contrast of form and content" (Ath 75) that Schlegel through irony characteristically attempts not to elide. Yet as compared to fragments in which the concept is figured as dictatorial and militaristic in its marshalling of the particular, Schlegel here figures the particular as threateningly subversive—"something absolutely arbitrary, something unavoidable"—and seeks only to locate the proper authority that with countervening "absolutely arbitrary decisions" can bring such insurgent elements under control. Significantly Schlegel locates such authority in the veto of the "constitutive power" by which he refers to the monarchy (Beiser 261). Beyond the problematic nature of granting the monarchy a veto over more democratically representative bodies, the very conception of the monarchy as "the constitutive power" is itself profoundly hierarchical and anti-democratic. One might argue that this fragment simply represents another moment in Schlegel's political dialectic of authority and insurgency that I have been outlining, yet there is an absoluteness and a finality to arguing for such a veto for the crown (itself a fully arbitrary power) that suggests, rather, the termination of such a dialectic.
  36. Athenaeum 369 on political representation also touches upon the very heart of the philosophical concerns that inform Schlegel's Fragments, yet like 385 it covers over the philosophical problematic of irony, of "the indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative" (Ly 108) in the name of political stability and authority.

    A deputy is something quite different from a representative. Representative means only someone who, whether elected or not, portrays in his person a political whole that is, as it were, identical with himself; he is like the visible world-soul of the state. . . . The power of the priest, general, and educator is by its very nature undefined, universal, more or less a kind of lawful despotism. Only by virtue of the spirit of representation can it be softened and legitimized. (emphasis added)
    In addition to the troublesome indifference to the democratic origin of the political representative—"whether elected or not"—the fragment asserts a naive view of totality, the "political whole," and the ability of an individual to stand in for such a whole. Such a view of totality is particularly unconvincing given that the entire tenor of both the form and content of the Fragments continually subverts it. The assertion, furthermore, that while the offices of power will always represent "a kind of lawful despotism," through "the spirit of representation [it] can . . . be softened and legitimized," is a disturbingly cynical articulation of the need for rule by hegemony. It says in effect that despotism will always continue but that the masses might be made to feel better about it through the recognition that it is being performed in their name. The dominant trope in this view of political representation as "the visible world-soul of the state" is, indeed, not irony but the romantic symbol: a spiritualizing, detemporalizing trope whose ideological implications have, of course, been explored by Benjamin and de Man.
  37. The positive political content in Schlegel's Fragments, that is, the direct statements about the arrangement of governmental powers and the structure of the constitution, become, then, troublesomely reactionary. One can see how certain of these statements attempt to propound an "insurgent government," a productive fluctuation between freedom and individualism on the one hand, and communalism and a necessary authority on the other hand. Yet such a dialectic is not successfully maintained and in certain fragments Schlegel fully affirms tradition and authority in a manner that will characterize his later largely reactionary politics. One might well maintain, as David Simpson has suggested, that having a determinate political content necessarily entails the curtailing of irony and thus assuming the inevitable shortcomings of any fixed position (198). After all, for Schlegel's ironic dialectic to have come to a standstill on the opposite pole in an affirmation of an anarchic individualism would have been, perhaps, equally unsatisfactory.

  38. I would, however, resist such a conclusion. Schlegel's fragments demonstrate how irony, rather than being opposed to political engagement, might represent a condition for the individual's noncoercive participation in larger political communities and movements, a sense of belonging within a larger whole, and a sense of the necessity of acting as and for such a whole, while at the same time providing a saving critical perspective upon that whole, a sense of it as artifice and of one's own position without it. This entails a necessary hovering between "naive" and "intentional" attitudes toward the polis, between the "self-destruction" of a communalist politics and the "self-creation" of a individualistic politics. That Schlegel himself is unable to successfully maintain this precarious position in no way detracts from the productivity of the model with which he has provided us, a model which reverberates in a variety of twentieth century cultural and political theories from Laclau and Mouffe's adaptation of Gramscian hegemony, to Spivak's "strategic essentialism," to what Rorty (with no apparent consciousness of the debt to Schlegel) will once again name "irony."

    Notes

    1 Beiser writes: "Throughout the Athenaeum Fragmente Schlegel's early radicalism is still very much in evidence" (261) and yet the "political doctrine of the Fragmente marks a definite retreat from the radicalism of 1796" (261).

    2 The fragment is among four by Friedrich Schlegel "included in Novalis's collection of fragments, Blütenstaub (Pollen), published by the Schlegel brothers in Athenaeum 1798" (Peter Firchow's Translator's Note, Philosophical Fragments 17). All quotations of the fragments are from this translation and noted by an abbreviation of the name of the fragment series and the fragment's number within this series: Lyceum (Ly), Athenaeum (Ath), and Ideas (Id).

    3 Beiser writes: "The fundamental political problem facing the romantics was therefore clear: to prepare the German people for a republic through further education and enlightenment. Their task as intellectuals in the Germany of the 1790's was to define the standards of morality, taste, and religion, so that the public would have some ideal of culture, some model of virtue" (229).

    4 See Eagleton's Ideology of the Aesthetic, chapter 4, "Schiller and Hegemony."

    5 Cf. Ly 58, 70, 77, 86, Ath 329, Id 12 for Schlegel's oscillation between the didactic and the autotelic artwork.

    6 Behler discusses the very similar political theory of Novalis, Schlegel's close friend in the Jena circle:

    In this oscillating manner of thinking, operating between opposites without overcoming them, accepting the antinomies as natural, Novalis reflected upon the two forms of government of democracy and monarchy. On the surface, the two seem to constitute "an insoluble antinomy--the advantages of the one to be terminated by the opposed advantage of the other." . . . Novalis adds to this observation: "The time must come when political entheism and pantheism are most intimately connected as interactive members." "Entheism" in this fragment is the designation for monotheism, and in political terms, it stands for the monarchic system, while pantheism is doctrine according to which God is everywhere and which therefore corresponds to democracy in the political realm. Monarchy and democracy, in other words, are the poles between which our thinking oscillates, the phenomena of an interactive quality that determine each other. (German 60-61)
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    Schiller, Friedrich. "From On Naive and Sentimental Poetry". Trans. Julius Elias. The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 274-277.

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Irony and Clerisy Introduction


Romantic Circles / Praxis Series / Irony and Clerisy / Carter, "'Insurgent Government': Romantic Irony and the Theory of the State"

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August 1999

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