On the Uses and Abuses of Theory (for Life)

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This piece relates some strategies for creating a generative tension between theory and romanticism in the classroom. Its examples are Badiou's strident critiques of romanticism as the "philosopheme" of historicism and Kant's imbrication of "theory" and "practice." At stake more broadly is the problematic notion of use (and misuse), so common in recent discussions about the humanities: how to "use" literature—which literature, or which theory, and for what ends.

On the Uses and Abuses of Theory (for Life)

Andrew Warren
Harvard University


It is therefore not the fault of the theory if it is of little practical use . . . The fault is that there is not enough theory. —Kant

Introduction – Resistances to “the Theory Generation”

1.        In a recent and widely read n+1 piece, Nicholas Dames reflects on what happened when a generation of writers raised on theory began asking questions about how theory shaped them, as both writers and human beings. In those works (by Franzen, Eugenides, Egan, Moore, Cole, etc.)

Theory is judged from within the forms it tried to dismantle (psychological realism; the bildungsroman), by criteria Theory could only recognize as regressive or naïve: What kind of a person does Theory make? What did it once mean to have read theorists? What does it mean now? How does Theory help you hold a job? Deal with lovers, children, bosses, and parents? [1] 
In Dames’s account, Theory, which he capitalizes throughout, becomes a kind of unified thing or shared experience, and “novelistic realism” becomes the form with which to best investigate it. Dames is careful not to caricature that realism, just as he resists caricaturing Theory. Realism for him is capacious, both in the forms it takes and the ideas it swallows; Middlemarch obviously counts as a realist novel of ideas, but so do Tristram Shandy, JR, and The Crying of Lot 49. For Dames, the question is: can realism, or rather today’s realism, swallow theory? Is it, in Dames’s words, one of realism’s Others?

2.         Absent from Dames’s narrative is another one of realism’s Others, Romanticism. If it shows up at all, it does so under the guise of “that most antique of realist modes,” the bildungsroman. In a related study, Judith Ryan’s The Novel After Theory, Romanticism is similarly a kind of ur-stage of Theory. And Theory itself must in turn be integrated into the concreteness of a novel’s scenes and story. [2]  Given the contemporary writers who interest Dames and Ryan, it makes sense that Romanticism would be off the menu. But I think their approaches raise larger questions about a constellation of topics—Realism, Romanticism, Theory, History, Form, and Narrative—that have recently been re-opened in our field. I have in mind, among other things, Tilottama Rajan’s strong defense of Romantic “narrativity” (a kind of working Theory) against what she sees as the normalizing influence of the “(Victorian) Novel.” [3]  As an institution or practice of reading, the Novel’s impact, for Rajan, happens in the real world. It shapes disciplinary boundaries, such as the ongoing collapse of Romantic and Victorian into Nineteenth-Century Studies, and it conditions our expectations of people and organizations.

3.        At stake in all of these diverse accounts is the problematic notion of use. “Use” (and “misuse”) resonates with a recurring theme in recent discussions of the humanities: how to use literature—which literature, or which theory, and for what ends. The question seems particularly pressing for Romanticism, which consistently resists an idea of instrumentality more amenable, one would think, to other periods or modes. Because of that resistance Romanticism becomes a kind of paradigm of literary studies more generally. So we now ask how and whether Romanticism—or Romantic texts, or Romantic reading practices, or even Romantic ways of being with the world—can or should be instrumentalized. Late in his essay Dames brings up that very question with respect to the related problem of teaching: “what does Theory do for its former students in these novels?” His answer is as surprising as it is unsettling: “Theory, it turns out, is less intellectually powerful than emotionally useful; it habituates you to the anomic, precarious existence you were destined to lead in any case.” Of course, this isn’t exactly Dames’s answer, nor (God forbid) my own. It is the novelists’, and it sounds perversely marketable to critics of the usefulness of the humanities. Not to show the fly the way out of the flybottle but to model its twists and turns and make it livable. Theory in this reading is mimetic or therapeutic—a puzzling position for something often defined by its resistance to representation or its unsettling of habit.

4.        Problematic, too, seems the novelists’ treatment of emotion or affect in Dames’s account, a topic explored and complicated by recent work in Romanticism (often by Romanticists the same age as Dames’s novelists, a very different “Theory Generation”). Speaking of Rei Terada’s Feeling in Theory in his own Blake’s Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions, Steven Goldsmith explores the way in which emotion exceeds subjectivity. “The real strangeness of emotion’s subjectlessness,” he writes, “rubs critically against the ideological fullness and familiarity of identity-affirming experience. . .The emotion that survives in and as criticism still carries an unsettling electric charge” (Goldsmith 278). Yet it seems safe to say that what’s missing in Dames’s characterization of a generation’s relationship to Theory, Goldsmith’s “criticism,” is that “unsettling electric charge.” If we think of Theory (and perhaps Romanticism) as a kind of “lightning which has yet found no conductor,” the question becomes how to “conduct” that charge in a class. Following Ohm’s 1827 discovery, I suggest that the answer might have something to do with resistance, especially theory’s inherent resistances and the formal resistances posed by literary texts. [4] 

5.        My point in bringing up Dames’s (quite teachable) essay is to show what Theory and Romanticism seem to be up against. But in these reflections I would like to bracket the question about generations’ differing relations to Theory, pressing as it might be, and focus on a problem complexly related to the question of resistance: how to use theory to get students to think differently about—or with—Romanticism. In my experience it is a rare student who readily grasps—much less is enthusiastic for—critical theory if they are not putting it to use either in reading a line of poetry, in a discussion, in an essay, in a thesis, in their own lives. This has little to do, I believe, with an anemic curiosity, much less with a lack of ability or willingness to think abstractly. It has to do, in my experience, with a lack of resistance. For students unfamiliar with it, Theory often appears in the guise of either a punishing authority figure or as a kind of crystalline, frictionless surface. In the first instance, Theory seems inaccessible because It is pure resistance: It knows everything you don’t; It thinks in ways that seem unthinkable; It has anticipated your own criticism of it. [5]  Theory is inaccessible in the latter because it has no foot- or finger-holds, “like a spaceship with no components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart." [6] 

6.         My goal here is therefore to discuss a few instances where it seemed like I created a healthy resistance between Theory and Romantic texts. I have divided it into two sections:

  1. Opposition Is True Friendship: Badiou, Romanticism, History
  2. As If Possessing Artistic Force: What’s the Use of German Idealism?
So: opposition and force, concepts complexly related to resistance and use, formulated and marshaled differently by different thinkers. My examples are Badiou and Kant. [7] 

7.        Among contemporary theorists, Romanticism has found few opponents as strident as Badiou. Romanticism for him collapsed philosophy and history, truth and poetry; it also lifted “Romantic” fusion up as the ideal of love. I have found this blunt resistance useful for thinking through a number of Romantic texts, particularly those where it turns out that Badiou’s thinking is only minimally different from what he’d purportedly critique. My case study there is Shelley, who shares a philosophical heritage with Badiou in the figures of Plato and Lucretius. He also holds, of course, a Badiou-ian “fidelity” to the spirit of the French Revolution. In the second part, I move on to a discussion of Kant, a seldom-taught but oft-referenced figure in Romantic literature courses. I look at some moments where he explicitly discusses the interrelationship between theory and practice, and explain how and why I teach German Idealism in my literature courses. These kinds of minimal differences create productive tensions, like those between two drafts of a poem. They are perhaps akin, on a larger scale, to those between Theory and Romanticism. What David Clark has called Theory’s thrumming afterlife feeds on those tensions. [8] 

8.        Badiou has claimed his project is tied to education, a fact articulated in his recent translation of Plato’s Republic. In his introduction to that work, Kenneth Reinhard notes that “for Badiou, education is not merely an activity of proper cultivation. . . it requires the interruption of ‘the consensual routine’ of culture through the experience of an ‘event’ and the subjective reorientation that it involves” (Badiou , Plato’s Republic, xx). The same is true, Reinhard continues, for Badiou’s free translation of Plato. It “forces” Plato’s text, and our reading of it, to expand. I will later describe Badiou’s more technical use of force, and how it is used in Kant. Force and resistance link the two halves of this essay. But I also want to preserve the word’s basic impulse. I often teach a work to “force” myself to think differently about it; students sometimes take classes so that they are “forced” to read a difficult text that they might not get through on their own; and I am consistently “forced” to teach something differently based on how students, or other texts, resist (or do not resist) it. The classroom—and the readings and assignments that condition it—can be a space for recognizing and enabling this energetic play of forces and resistances.

9.        Before getting into my case studies of Kant and Badiou, it might help to step back again and ask: what is theory? One answer comes in the talk Derrida gave in the 1966 Johns Hopkins conference that allegedly started it all. In “Structure, Sign and Play,” Derrida says that two things happen when the distinction between Nature and Culture (or any two fundamental supports to a structure) begin to break down: either a) you think you can “deconstitute” those concepts by historicizing them and “stepping outside” of philosophy—which, according to Derrida, most typically simply reinstitutes the very metaphysics one was avoiding. Or, b) you can, like Levi-Strauss, try to use those broken concepts, with the understanding that they can be discarded; “to preserve as an instrument something whose truth value he criticizes.” Or, says Derrida in reference to Genette, “bricolage is critical language itself,” and “bricolage criticizes itself.” [9]  And yet bricolage does not adequate to theory, inasmuch as it is still dominated by use.

10.         Theory’s vexed relationship to use and bricolage turns up in a formulation by Fredric Jameson, one which I think is worth quoting at length:

. . . dialectic belongs to theory rather than philosophy: the latter is always haunted by the dream of some foolproof self-sufficient system, a set of interlocking concepts which are their own cause. . .Theory, on the other hand, has no vested interests inasmuch as it never lays claim to an absolute system, a non-ideological formulation of itself and its ‘truths’; indeed, always itself complicit in the being of current language, it has only the vocation and never-finished task of undermining philosophy as such, by unraveling affirmative statements and propositions of all kinds. We may put this another way by saying that the two great bodies of post-philosophical thought, marked by the names of Marx and Freud, are better characterized as unities of theory and practice: that is to say that their practical component always interrupts the ‘unity of theory’ and prevents it from coming together in some satisfying philosophical system. Alain Badiou has recently coined the expression ‘anti-philosophy’ for these new and constitutively scandalous modes of intervening conceptually in the world. (Jameson 7-8)
I find this interrupting of theory by practice—and, as we shall see with Kant, theory’s interrupting practice—appealing, particularly within the context of teaching. At least for me, teaching is always experimental. In its best instances it has interrupted both my theories and my practices of reading.

I. Opposition Is True Friendship: Badiou, Romanticism, History

11.        “History does not exist. There are only disparate presents whose radiance is measured by their power to unfold a past worthy of them.” This is Badiou’s challenge at the end of Logics of Worlds (509). It is a challenge not only to historicism, but also to Romanticism, which Badiou elsewhere calls the “philosopheme” of historicism. It is a contemporary problem since, for Badiou, “the historicist kernel of romanticism continues to be the referential site of our thinking” (“Philosophy and Mathematics” 97). Earlier in Logics of Worlds Badiou makes a now-famous distinction between “democratic materialism” and “materialist dialectic.” The former, which he identifies with the present (and thus with his versions of historicism and Romanticism), makes the “natural” assumption that there are only bodies and languages. The latter, which Badiou describes as his own position, declares that there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths (4). For Badiou, a truth isn’t the correspondence between proposition and world. That would reduce it to being a simple relationship between language and bodies, a kind of knowledge. Rather, a truth is a procedure that punctures our knowledge of the world and opens up new possibilities for it; because being always exceeds knowledge, truths are infinite and eternal, immanent and everywhere. Exploring what exactly a truth is (or does) takes up major portions of both volumes of Being and Event; he is, in fact, planning a third devoted to just that question, entitled The Immanence of Truths. [10] 

12.        Truths “force” us to confront aspects of our situation that have gone unaccounted for or unarticulated—and they do so without any guarantee of their knowledge. [11]  They are wagers. Constructing truths forces the future to reorganize itself in such a way that it can decide upon them. “A forcing is a powerful fiction of a completed truth. Starting with such a fiction, I can force new bits of knowledge, without even verifying this knowledge” (Philosophy and Truth” 48-49).

13.         I bring up Badiou’s koans about history and the present, about bodies, languages and truths, because I have found them to be productive challenges to Romanticism’s received ideas—both in my own thinking, and in the classroom. Indeed, Badiou’s description of forcing truths sounds a lot like pedagogy. They ask us to confront our most basic assumptions: why we read what we read, and why do so in the way that we do. Such questions can be posed very generally: is Romanticism really, at core, an approach to history? What about competing kinds of Romanticisms? And is Romanticism really the “referential site” for “our thinking”? What would that mean? Who would “we” be, in such a case? Can we think differently than we do—and if so, how do we want to think?

14.        These are, obviously, important large-scale questions that can be broached in a course on Romanticism. But in my experience Badiou is even more effective at a smaller scale. When teaching “Mont Blanc” in a graduate course, recently, I had the students read widely in the history of skepticism: the first half of Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding; a chapter from Cavell’s In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism; Eckhart Förster on the genesis of Kant’s first critique; the final paragraphs of de Man’s “Shelley Disfigured”; and Wasserman’s “The Poetry of Skepticism.” Plus Badiou’s Second Manifesto for Philosophy and the preface and conclusion to Logics of Worlds, where he tries to describe our contemporary skepticism. When in our reading of “Mont Blanc” we reached the section about the “still cave of the witch Poesy,” someone brought up Badiou’s declaration that there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths. The question—whether in “Mont Blanc” there is anything other than language and bodies—immediately catalyzed the discussion of the poem. What, in Shelley, constitutes a body, or a language, or a “truth”? The question can be fruitfully posed with respect to individual lines:

  • The everlasting universe of things (l.1)
  • Power in likeness of the Arve (l.16)
  • unremitting interchange / With the clear universe of things around (ll.39-40)
  • Ghosts of all things that are (l.46)
  • there! (l.48, 127, 135)
  • the human mind’s imaginings. . . (l.142)
  • silence and solitude. . . vacancy (l.143)
Would that posited “silence and solitude” constitute something different from a body or a language? Would “vacancy”? The list quickly had everyone flipping to passages from “On Love” (“the chasm of an insufficient void”) and The Defense of Poetry: “the before unapprehended relations of things” (§3); “the universal element with which [poetry] has perpetual sympathy” (§8); “new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food” (§13); “a burning atom of inextinguishable thought” (§29). [12]  Those familiar with Badiou will detect a certain resonance between his and Shelley’s terms: love, void, universal, relations, thought, and so forth. Teasing out the differences and similarities between Badiou’s and Shelley’s use, when it’s going well, compels us to read each anew. The goal is not to send the students into the icy abstractions of Being and Event or category theory, but rather to prompt them to rethink texts they’ve already read.

15.        Surprisingly, for Badiou the link between philosophy and art, since Plato, has always been education. This is true, he says, no matter what our actual beliefs about art are—whether we think it is a simulation of the truth (the didactic schema), the only path toward the truth (the romantic schema), or a human endeavor distinct from truth-seeking (the classical schema). Badiou himself tries to synthesize these views by declaring that art creates its own truths, separate from both philosophy and the other “conditions” of truth (science, politics, and love). Therefore, “art is pedagogical for the simple reason that it produces truths and because ‘education’ (save in its oppressive or perverted expressions) has never meant anything but this: to arrange the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them. What art educates us for is therefore nothing apart from its own existence. The only question is that of encountering this existence” (“Art and Philosophy” 9). I think that one thing that theory can do for students is help generate that encounter, or (for us as well) generate it anew.

16.        But on first blush Badiou’s formula would seem to play into the hands of critics claiming that the arts and humanities simply create their own standards, ones distinct from the more useful truths pursued by science and the social sciences. On such an account the arts (and many of the humanities) therefore become allied with something personal and transitory like love, which—though perhaps “important”—does not deserve sustained scholarship or funding. Of course, it would be hard to imagine such critics endorsing Badiou’s notions of science or politics. Neither are producers of knowledge, but rather of truth—truth defined, again, as a kind of puncturing of our knowledge of the world we find ourselves in.

17.        But why this cordoning off of domains of inquiry? Could Francis Bacon be, as Shelley calls him, “a poet”? Perhaps Badiou’s more recent thoughts on the relationship between truth procedures (art, politics, science, love) would strike us as closer to a Romantic notion of the interlinking of fields:

We need a theory of what I call the networking or the tying together of truth procedures. Eventually, I see no reason why this could not be called ‘culture’. . . Indeed, we can consider culture to be a network of various forcings, that is, at a given moment in time, the manner in which the encyclopedic knowledge of the situation is modified under the constraints of various operations of forcing which depend on procedures that are different from one another. (“Can Change Be Thought?” 315)
In a work like Prometheus Unbound, the relationship and potential differences between love and politics (and art) is a real problem for Shelley, one which Badiou can help frame. While my experience has been with using Badiou to think with Shelley, and vice versa—pairing, say, “What Is Love?” with Epipsychidion or Prometheus Unbound—I imagine the same might be done with other Romantic writers. That same conflict of fields, for instance, occurs in Blake, or Coleridge, or Keats, or Byron, or Scott, or Mary Shelley. More important than any resonance that might arise from placing Badiou with one of them would be the resultant resistances. The oppositions Badiou poses to Romanticism are often surprisingly clear, capturable in short selections or even single sentences. That clarity has helped hone my own thinking as well as, I hope, my students’.

II. “. . . As If Possessing Artistic Force”: What’s the Use of German Idealism?

18.        German philosophy’s influence on the English poets and thinkers has been long discussed, contested, and caricatured. I find a basic familiarity with it is helpful for entering those debates, and for thinking about how we do literary criticism more generally. In other words, I think its use extends beyond Romanticism. So I turn now from an instance of contemporary theory, to theory that would have been contemporary for the Romantics. I address notions of theory and use as Kant may have conceived of them, before reflecting on what I have come to see as the specific use of German Idealism for thinking with British Romanticism. My concrete pedagogical example, with which I conclude, comes from my experience teaching Eckart Förster’s The 25 Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction (2012)—a chapter a week, alongside the literary texts—in a semester-length graduate course.

19.        In the 1793 Immanuel Kant found himself an object of a satire by the polymath Abraham Gotthelf Kästner. Its title was Thoughts on the Inability of Writers to Produce Rebellion, and its basic argument was a common one: theorists such as Kant had uncoupled themselves from the real world. Kant’s response that same year in the Berlinische Monaatschrift, “On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice’,” cunningly turned the tables: “It is therefore not the fault of the theory if it is of little practical use. . . The fault is that there is not enough theory; the person concerned ought to have learnt from experience” (Kant 61). The point is supremely Kantian: so-called natural experience is always already shaped by theoretical frameworks. Practical experience, in order to be practical, must build itself up into general, theoretical principles so that it can be communicated, reflected upon, actualized.

20.         Two years later, in 1795, Kant applied a similar bit of logical torque to a neighboring topic. I include the opening paragraph in full, in part because it is so eminently teachable:

THE PERPETUAL PEACE. A Dutch innkeeper once put this satirical inscription on his signboard, along with the picture of a graveyard. We shall not trouble to ask whether it applies to men in general, or particularly to heads of states (who can never have enough of war), or only to the philosophers who blissfully dream of perpetual peace. The author of the present essay does, however, make one reservation in advance. The practical politician tends to look down with great complacency upon the political theorist as a mere academic. The theorist's abstract ideas, the practitioner believes, cannot endanger the state, since the state must be founded upon principles of experience; it thus seems safe to let him fire off his whole broadside, and the worldly wise statesman need not turn a hair. It thus follows that if the practical politician is to be consistent, he must not claim, in the event of a dispute with the theorists, to scent any danger to the state in the opinions which the theorists has randomly uttered in public. By this saving clause, the author of this essay will consider himself expressly safeguarded, in correct and proper style, against all malicious interpretation. (Kant 93).
These are the sorts of moments in Kant that we, as literary critics, like. In the former example, Kant cuts to the heart of what we today would call false consciousness or ideology—a belief that the mind can have direct, unstructured access to the world. In this example from “Perpetual Peace,” Kant uses irony to shield himself from “malicious interpretation.” He finds a blind spot in the practitioner’s perspective, and wagers that if an efficacious critique is possible at all, it might be leveraged from that occluded site. He cheekily labels his essay a “sketch,” an Entwurf—that is, a design, plan or blueprint, with its obvious mimicking of a document from a practical vocation.

21.        Kant’s opening gambit is to take a mismatch between text, image, and site (“THE PERPETUAL PEACE,” the graveyard, and the inn), allegedly commissioned by a non-academic foreigner (the innkeeper), and use it to structure and defend a philosophical “sketch.” As critics we like this because here Kant challenges genres. We have even invented the term “fourth critique” to describe the constellation of political writings Kant wrote in the 1790’s, a series of fragments that simultaneously complete and disrupt the system that conditioned them. One thing that makes these texts often appear more “literary” than even something like the third Critique is Kant’s finding a rhetorical register that can put his theoretical apparatus to use. In the case of Perpetual Peace, the most immediate application is a self-generated “safeguarding” of Kant’s theses against misuse. In those moments I have a doubled feeling: of the texts being actuated or put in motion, and of their sudden halting. Jean-Luc Nancy has pointed out that, despite his alleged absence of style, few philosophers have found their way into more literary texts than Kant. He then mentions a 1917 letter of Walter Benjamin, who declares that Kant’s linguistic austerity

“represents a limes of literary prose”. . . because he perceives in Kant a yet-unheard-of philosophical stake, still to come, Benjamin wishes to receive his prose—usually judged to be heavy—as if possessing artistic force, that is to say, the force of awakening, indeed of enthusiasm. Moreover, he immediately adds, “If this were not the case, would the Critique of Pure Reason have so shaken Kleist to the deepest parts of his being?” (xxiv).
We seek out these moments. I, for instance, have just cited Nancy, citing Benjamin, citing Kleist’s encounter with Kant. One thing that “theory” can do is bring these kinds of moments, simultaneously fleeting and eternal, into the present via an empirically verifiable lineage of influence. Their problems become our problems; their having been shaken shakes us. Of course, such neatly drawn lines of causation are precisely what theory teaches us to suspect. Yet many, myself included, find ourselves conceiving of these networks of relations “as if possessing artistic force.” I find this “as if” to be a motivating factor in my own work, and also a powerful pedagogical tool: read Kant as if it were powerful enough to shake someone’s inner sense; let’s talk as if Shelley were writing within a Badiouan framework; think of the German Romantics as if they were simply composing an alternative historical response to the French Revolution than the British; draft a sketch of what perpetual peace might look like if the Kantian paradigm were efficacious and true. The point is less about forcing similarities than unearthing differences: between genres, strategies and styles; between historical moments and places; between our first reading of a text and subsequent readings of it. “To think differently than one thinks, and to perceive differently than one sees.” This mantra, which I adopt from Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure, is probably the most concise articulation of how and why I bring theory into the classroom (and my own work) (8); and what North Americans call theory, the French often call thought. [13]  Even in courses where I do not explicitly teach theory—say, in an introduction to poetry—I find myself writing it on the board at one point or another. Together with the “as if” it is, after all, as much a literary orientation as a theoretical or philosophical one. [14] 

22.        Simon Jarvis has discussed verse’s “second repertoire of thinking,” the fact that we can read poetry in at least two incompatible ways at the same time—semantically and formally, with the latter interrupting and interfering with the former (934). I think reading Romantic texts with theory—be it Kant, or Judith Butler, or The Defense of Poetry, or Keats describing the Vale of Soul-Making to his brother and sister—mimics and models this kind of semantic and formal layering. Theory echoes the literary, but out of phase or in a different register—and what is an echo but a vibration, a shaking just at the threshold of perception. I think one thing that theory trains students to do is to become attentive to particular kinds of shifts and frictions among texts. Placing, say, “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” alongside Spinoza’s Ethics, is often simply a way of amplifying the tremors already threaded in Wordsworth’s verse. The danger, we are told, is in becoming enamored of “the application of gross and violent stimulants”—the solution is a return to therapeutic hermeneutics, or to the calming materiality of history. But it is unclear what an “untheoretical” return to the text or to history might look like, even in teaching. If nothing else, teaching theory forces us to lay our commitments on the table, and talk about them. So why, for me, this apparent commitment to post-Kantian thought? What’s its use?

23.        There is a notion, common enough in Romantic circles, that there has been an unwarranted “Germanification” of British Romanticism, that critics have applied Kantian or idealist paradigms to English Romantic texts that don’t properly conform to or need those paradigms. A running assumption here is that these literary texts have been historically conditioned by the German texts, and so a perfectly reasonable conclusion is that we need to examine those texts that did condition that literature. A way of closing the loop is to claim, with a fair deal of support, that the German philosophers and critics were themselves conditioned by English and Scottish texts: Hume, Sterne, Reid, Mandeville, and so forth. But I think that there are two factors in favor of the alleged Germanification, and against a narrower historicist reading. First, that even if particular texts—say, Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” or Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”—weren’t directly influenced by German thought, our reception of them, and our very mode of practicing literary criticism at all, is directly influenced by them. Too directly, might proclaim those who have recently had to teach the Biographia or “The Concept of Irony.” But that is another issue—one which, I think, perhaps lies deeper than the first. It is a moral or aesthetic issue, rather than a historical one.

24.        Secondly, I find myself, recently, pro-Germanification because I am beginning to see German Romantic paradigms as “possible worlds” versions of British Romantic paradigms. Call it the age’s second repertoire, or one of them—related, but out of phase or in another register. Those models and ways of thinking stretch and test the ones we encounter in the British texts we read, and I think that the novelists, poets and essayists may have approached the matter from a similar perspective. Germany presented them with an alternate history of the present, one confronted with many of the same problems: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; a simultaneous fascination and frustration with empiricism; a new understanding of and feeling for history; a burgeoning print market; a taste for irony. So when I say that I am for the moment “pro-Germanification” what I am perhaps really saying is that I am in favor of this sort of stretching and testing of limits. A Hegelian might call this dialectic; it strikes me as more like common sense.

25.        But how to initiate students—many of whom, understandably, have little experience with philosophy as a discipline—into one of thought’s densest, deepest periods? Last year I chose to spend the first fifteen or twenty minutes of class each week discussing a chapter from Eckart Förster’s The 25 Years of Philosophy (2012). That book explains the thought of Kant, Fichte, Goethe, Jacobi, Schelling and Hegel, and situates it within a concrete historical context. Förster’s account is eminently readable without glossing over the interesting bits. Much of it, in fact, is a new interpretation of those thinkers, particularly its placing Goethe, and scientific inquiry, at the center of crucial debates. It was, for instance, Goethe’s copy of Spinoza on Schelling’s desk when he was developing his Identitätphilosophie. And Hegel arrived at several breakthroughs while tending Goethe’s botanical garden. I designed the syllabus so that most weeks there has been a medium-strong correlation between the 25YP chapters and the literary texts. For example, Förster’s chapter on the resurgence of Spinozism in Germany coincided with our reading of Wordsworth’s allegedly “pantheist” texts, and Levinson’s “Of Being Numerous”; the chapter on Fichte was juxtaposed with Shelley’s Cenci, a tragedy about consuming egos and unchecked, or self-checking, will.

26.        Literary texts, like theoretical ones, produce their own checks, their own resistances. But these are not always the most obvious, or even the most pressing, forms of resistance. Theory seems most useful, both in my own thinking and in the classroom, when it creates the right kinds of resistances to texts and ideas I have been taking for granted.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. “Art and Philosophy” in Handbook for Inaesthetics, tr. Alberto Toscano (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005). Print.

Badiou, “Philosophy and Truth” in Infinite Thought, ed. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 48-49. Print.

---. “Philosophy and Mathematics” in Conditions. Trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano. London: Continuum, 2006. Print.

---. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event, 2. Trans. Alberto Toscano. London: Continuum, 2009. Print.

---. “Can Change Be Thought?” Interview with Bruno Bosteels. In Badiou and Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

---. Plato’s Republic: A Dialog in 16 Chapters, tr. Susan Spitzer. NY: Columbia University Press, 2013. Print.

Badiou, Alain with Fabien Tardy, Philosophy and the Event. NY: Polity, 2013. Print.

Clark, David. “’Waving, not Drowning’: On the Lives of Theory,” Studies in Romanticism 44 (Summer 2005), 261-70.

Dames, Nicholas. “The Theory Generation.” n+1, 24 October 2012. Web.

de Man, Paul. “The Resistances to Theory,” in The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference. Tr. Alan Bass. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1978. Print.

---. Of Grammatology. Tr. Gayatri Spivak. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

Egger, Dave. Introduction to David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. NY: Little Brown, 2006. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure. Tr. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1985. Print.

Gillespie, Sam. The Mathematics of Novelty: Badiou’s Minimalist Metaphysics. Melbourne: re.press, 2008. Print.

Goldsmith, Steven. Blake’s Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Review of The Parallax View, London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 17 · 7 September 2006, 7-8. Print.

Jarvis, Simon. “For a Poetics of Verse.” PMLA 125.4 (October 2010), 931-35. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Political Writings. Tr. H.R. Reiss. NY: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Lotringer, Sylvère and Cohen, Sande. French Theory in America. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

McLaughlin, Kevin. Poetic Force: Poetry after Kant. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2014. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Discourse of the Syncope: Logodaedalus. Tr. Saul Anton. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008. Print.

Rajan, Tilottama. Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Redfield, Marc. “Philosophy” in A Handbook of Romantic Studies. Ed. Joel Faflak and Julia M. Wright. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.

Ryan, Judith. The Novel After Theory. NY: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.

Shelley, P.B. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Eds. Neil Fraistat and Donald Reiman. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.

Notes

[1] Nicholas Dames, “The Theory Generation,” n+1, 24 October 2012: http://nplusonemag.com/the-theory-generation BACK

[2] See, e.g., Ryan’s description of how Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping both reenacts the Prelude’s boat-stealing scene, but also “burst[s] the bounds of Romanticism” by moving closer to Derrida and bricolage. What exactly Romanticism’s “bounds” are, or whether they don’t extend to Derrida, or whether Romanticism is something “bounded” at all, remains undiscussed. Ryan, 65. BACK

[3] Rajan, Romantic Narrative: Shelley, Hays, Godwin, Wollstonecraft (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010), xii. BACK

[4] De Man, among others, argues that theory resists itself, that theory enacts a recalcitrance or resistance not unlike literary form’s. Even “rhetorical readings,” the most elastic kind of reading for de Man, “still avoid and resist the reading they advocate. Nothing can overcome the resistance to theory since theory is itself this resistance” (“The Resistance to Theory,” 19). Thinking with Susan Wolfson’s “formalist activism,” Goldsmith argues that “By attending to the specificity of literary language, readers participate in a text’s resistance to cultural generalization. No one’s words should be conscripted, least of all ‘as information’” (279). Of course, my allying of theory and form is not without its problems, as Wolfson knows well. Theory’s cultural conscription is precisely the goal of Dames’s novelists, an issue thornily involved in their use of the realist form. BACK

[5] A nervous mockery of these received ideas of Theory—the sheen and the threat—shines through in the names of theorists I had my students invent. Thierry Combadière. Xavier Zabik. Tintinnania Ania. Norman Bombardini. Maurice Decen (“pronounced de-CHEN!”). BACK

[6] I borrow this phrase from Dave Egger’s introduction to Infinite Jest: ". . . let's say a reader is a sort of mechanic. And let's say this particular reader-mechanic has worked on lots of books, and after a few hundred contemporary novels, the mechanic feels like he can take apart just about any book and put it back together again. That is, the mechanic recognizes the components of modern fiction and can say, for example, I've seen this part before, so I know why it's there and what it does. And this one, too-- I recognize it. This part connects to this and performs this function. This one usually goes here, and does that. All of this is familiar enough. That's no knock to the contemporary fiction that is recognizable and breakdownable. This includes about 98 percent of the fiction we know and love. . .. But this is not possible with Infinite Jest. This book is like a spaceship with no components, no rivets or bolts, no entry points, no way to take it apart” (xiii). Wallace, by the way, is notably absent from Dames’s account. BACK

[7] On the topic of the vexed connection between these concepts, particularly as they relate to feeling, I recommend McLaughlin’s Poetic Force. For instance: “the capacity of poetic language to exceed the grasp of empirical consciousness—for example, by breaking free from spatial and temporal metaphors that draw on an empirical world view—does not simply make it into a medium of rational or philosophical communication after Kant. The ability to communicate the feeling of reason transcending cognitive experience also brings with it internally a ‘withdrawal’ of communicability. The language of the poets expresses the capacity and the incapacity to communicate the feeling of the divisive finitude of reason as a force and an unforce” (xiii). BACK

[8] See “’Waving, not Drowning’: On the Lives of Theory,” Studies in Romanticism 44 (Summer 2005), 263. Theory’s afterlife in Romanticism is even more robust today than it was a decade ago when Clark made that pronouncement. BACK

[9] Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play,” 284-85; Of Grammatology, 139. BACK

[10] “The first volume asks: what about truths in relation to being? The second: what about truths in relation to appearing? The third will ask: what about being and appearing from the point of view of truths? In this way, I will have examined the question from all sides.” Badiou with Fabien Tardy, Philosophy and the Event, 107. BACK

[11] Sam Gillespie’s description of one of Badiou’s most difficult concepts, forcing, and its relationship to both Lacan and Cohen, is particularly incisive: “To be sure, Badiou is a thinker of force or action, but the genesis of this force finds its origin not in any vital energy as the possibility of existence, but rather in the internal impasses which render the conceptual closure of any situation impossible. Subjective action is what follows from this impossibility.” The Mathematics of Novelty, 15; see also 120, 125. BACK

[12] Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, 504. BACK

[13] See Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen’s introduction to French Theory in America (NY: Routledge, 2001), 1. And theoria in Greek meant viewing, or speculating. BACK

[14] I will not open here the Pandora’s box that is the debate over the relationship between Romanticism, philosophy and theory, despite my examples of Kant and Badiou. I will merely cite Marc Redfield’s apt genealogy of it: “at the crossroads of philosophy and literature, the early German Romantics not only theorized a fully modern idea of ‘literature’; in doing so they also unleashed, as Hegel suspected, the entrancing and threatening specter of ‘theory’ as the monstrous concatenation of philosophy-as-literature. Inevitably, an ambivalent romance with theory became, at a certain point in its development, part of the drama of ‘Romanticism’ as a field of study in the university. And that in turn has meant that philosophy and Romanticism continue to enjoy and suffer their strange elective affinity” (337). BACK

Published @ RC

December 2016

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