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Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic

Subjecticity (On Kant and the Texture of Romanticism)

Ian Balfour, York University

The essay argues that the dynamics of the subject, as conceptualized especially by Kant, are such that the word subjectvity, with its psychological and individualistic connotations, is inadequate to them.  The aesthetic subject, in production and experience, exceeds the merely subjective.  The essay glances briefly at poetry and prose of the British Romantics to support this claim. This essay appears in _Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

Kunst schafft Ich-Ferne.

                                   —Paul Celan

  1. It could have been a typo, in this word that is not exactly a word: subjecticity. The "c" is so close to the "v" on the keyboard that one could always easily type one for the other. In what follows, I am proposing that we might begin to use, deliberately, this non-word "subjecticity" in a good many cases when we would usually have written, typed, or said "subjectivity". Why advocate such a neologism, why "subjecticity"?[1] The older, often perfectly good word "subjectivity" is decidedly multivalent. In its most neutral senses, it denotes that which is of the order of the subject, as it sometimes does in Kant. Yet the word now tends so often to come with the considerable baggage of psychologism, as well as with connotations of individualism and sometimes its attendant ideologies, as if the subjective were a matter of sheer difference, that is to say, absolutely subjective. Along these lines, the second definition of "subjectivity" in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: "The quality or condition of viewing things exclusively through the medium of one’s own mind or individuality; the condition of being dominated by or absorbed in one’s personal feelings, thoughts, concerns, etc. …".

  2. Yet, as I hope to demonstrate, much of what passes in and through and as the subject is hardly subjective in that individualistic, psychologistic sense. That is, in effect, what a good many philosophers and poets of the late 18th and early 19th centuries conspire to suggest. Romanticism, broadly understood, can be said to trouble the reduction of the subject to the merely subjective, even as the very same "movement"—though that term suggests a false homogeneity—sometimes unequivocally promoted that somewhat newfangled thing called the subject in the various registers of philosophy, politics, literature and beyond.

  3. In thinking through this inadequacy of the notion of the sheer or merely subjective, we can begin by drawing on a late, powerful essay by Adorno, "On Subject and Object". Adorno is perhaps the theorist who has most resolutely attended to the complexities of the subject, as well as to the mutual determinations of subject and object. Adorno shows, in typically dialectical fashion, how "equivocal"—that is his word—the key terms in question are (Adorno, 741). He takes for granted that we know that the term subject used to mean something close to the opposite of what it now does. If we now tend to think of "the subject" as some version of the Cartesian thinking, willing, and acting ego (complicated or not by its inflections and subversions in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud), it is good to recall an older, "more original" sense of the subject as the person who is "subject to …". This older sense—consistent with its etymology in subjectus (thrown under, placed beneath)—mainly entails the subject as subservient to a sovereign. The historical dividing line could be drawn, roughly, with the emergence of the bourgeois, democratic or quasi-democratic subject of the Enlightenment. But Adorno seems to imply that the switch from the older to the more modern sense is not as complete as it may appear, not least because the freedom of the modern subject is, in crucial ways, illusory. And to make matters slightly more complex: the term also comprehends, Adorno notes, the subject as what we would now more likely call "object," a sense still resonant in the term "subject matter", such that the terms subject and object can be thought to flip dialectically, on occasion, into each other. Subject and object are inextricably and often asymmetrically bound up in each other in a dialectic of a sort that exceeds the air-tight machine and the tendency to resolution characteristic of Hegelian narrative.

  4. Not only does the term "subject" have a complicated history, the thing itself, that is, the subject itself, has a variegated track record, according to Adorno. For him, any subject worthy of the name is defined by the activity of self-reflection, of having one’s eyes open. Thus in the ages of myth and fate, Adorno claims, there was simply no such thing a subject. Yet epistemology, to say nothing of grammar (following Nietzsche), contrives to have us think of a subject in general, indeed of the possibility of a transcendental subject, even if, as Adorno suggests, history will have this subject now and then encounter what he calls the "primacy of the object" ("Vorrang des Objekts")(746) in a variety of mutually transforming relations. In the end, Adorno can almost predictably reverse himself to say—this time in a non-historicist vein—that actually "there is no such thing as the subject," ("Ebensowenig allerdings 'gibt' es eigentlich Subjekt") certainly not something that could be hypostasized in a single definition (754). But to think of epistemology and even social relations as a dialectic between subject and object, however stable or equivocal these terms are, risks leaving obscured an important domain for which the words "subjectivity" and "objectivity" prove inadequate. It risks losing sight of a kind of in-between state, a subjectivity beyond the subject, a subjectivity whose objectivity is not given and yet is not simply subjective either.

  5. It is here that we can begin to insist on the crucial place of the aesthetic, as expounded paradigmatically and in massively influential fashion by Kant. His thinking along these lines, as much as that of anyone, prompts us to conceive of a subjectivity beyond the subject, of something we might call "subjecticity". But why the aesthetic in the first place? In Kant's critical system, the aesthetic does not come in the first place but the third, as the subject matter of the Critique of Judgement or Third Critique, and yet this third position acquires in the end a kind of firstness or at least secondariness. For the aesthetic—initially almost an afterthought for the critical system whose two poles were pure and practical reason—retroactively becomes the necessary but also problematic link, the perhaps impossible bridge crossing the gulf—Kluft is Kant’s word—between nature and freedom, between knowledge and action. (Kant, German 83, English 14)[2] In this, the aesthetic is by no means simply a matter of art. (Surely if one turns to the Third Critique to learn about art, one is bound to be deeply disappointed, since Kant is so much more concerned with wild flowers than with poetry or painting. Beyond that, Kant is interested in the representative of figurative character of the aesthetic understood in the broadest terms, as is perhaps implied in the root sense of aesthesis as perception.[3] ) Despite all the famous strictures about Kantian aesthetic judgement having to be a purely disinterested affair, cut off from the realm of concept or desire—such that one wonders whether anyone has ever actually had an aesthetic judgement—the aesthetic, in Kant’s terms, is in some sense ubiquitous, not least because of the omnipresence of imagination posited in the first Critique. There Kant had maintained that the figural and synthetic character of imagination was a necessary ingredient in every act of knowledge. So the "aesthetic" in Kant exceeds its status as merely aesthetic by its massively important mediating function, such that it informs, in fundamental fashion, all the protocols of knowledge and action. Yet even in the circumscribed sense of aesthetic judgements of something beautiful or sublime, aesthetic experience poses a potential problem for the integrity of the Kantian system.

  6. In the Copernican turn effected by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, philosophy turned finally, as it had begun to do with Descartes and Locke, from object to subject and found that much of what was thought to be objective—most famously, space and time—emerged rather as subjective. Thus space and time became categories of a priori intuition (Anschauung), yet so hard-wired into the human subject as to allow for a certain possibility of shared experience and knowledge, at least at the level of phenomena, that is, short of knowing things in themselves. But the subject matter of the Third Critique poses a more radical problem, for it takes the singularity of aesthetic experience as its object. The experience of the beautiful risks being merely subjective: no one, by definition, can have someone else’s experience—at least not yet.[4] Kant repeatedly refers to the sheer or merely subjective status ("bloss subjektiv") of the experience of the aesthetic (99, 29), so one can wonder, at the outset, how this sort of experience is even available to philosophy. Aesthetic experience, for Kant, is of a radically singular nature, as is the "reflective" judgement that it prompts. It is by no means a matter of knowledge and so the judgement it elicits is not a "logical" one, in Kant’s terms. It is always a matter of whether, for example, this or that tulip is beautiful, not whether tulips in general are beautiful. Aesthetic experience is of the order of the sheer example, but not, unusually, an example of something larger than itself. Moreover, it is not so fortuitous for the philosophical system that, as Kant insists, aesthetic experiences are first and foremost feelings, nothing more than ... feelings. They are even, as Lyotard underscores, the feelings of thought, such that even thought has the feeling of feeling.[5] This utterly singular experience of, or feeling about, a single beautiful object seems then a rather uncertain ground on which to construct the bridge between knowledge and action, even for the ordinary human being, much less for the transcendental subject (Lyotard 1991, esp. 13-33).[6] Unless, as we shall see, language comes, arguably, to the rescue.

  7. The threat to the system is all the more pronounced—if that is possible — in the case of the sublime, when we no longer are faced with a readily knowable object, but rather a matter of "unboundedness" (Unbegrenztheit)(165, 90) or even "un-form" (Unform), as Kant terms it (103, 33 [translated by Meredith as "formlessness"]). It is an abuse of language, a catachresis, even to call any object sublime: the most we can do, Kant maintains, is say that something—which is not necessarily a thing at all—lends itself to an experience of the sublime.[7] Even less an object of knowledge or something resembling an object of knowledge than is the case with the beautiful, the sublime, by definition, exceeds our ability to comprehend the "object" eliciting judgement. And so with the sublime, we are arguably in a domain even more radically subjective than that of the already merely subjective realm of the experience of the beautiful.

  8. Yet the singular aesthetic experience, in Kant’s elaboration, prompts something possibly less singular: aesthetic judgement proper. Kant insists again and again on the linguistic character of aesthetic judgement, on the somewhat mysterious need to render a judgement that, for example, this tulip is beautiful. Indeed, it is crucial to call the tulip beautiful rather than simply to feel it is.[8] (This rendering of aesthetic judgement is not quite a categorical imperative but it is something virtually as inevitable.) One can glimpse in the following passage how so many of the key terms enlisted to characterize the dynamics of aesthetic experience, translated into judgement, are markedly linguistic. Kant maintains:

    Whether a dress, a house, or a flower is beautiful is a matter upon which one declines to be swayed (sich beschwatzen lassen) by any reasons or principles. We want to get a look at the Object with our own eyes, just as if our delight depended on sensation. And yet, if upon so doing, we call (nennt) the object beautiful, we believe ourselves to be speaking with a universal voice (eine allgemeine Stimme), and lay claim (Anspruch) to the concurrence, whereas no private sensation would be decisive except for the observer alone and his liking. (130, 57).
    To say that aesthetic judgement is linguistic is in some sense tautological or at least should go without saying—but the consequences of this notion are not always registered. The concatenation of terms emphasizing the linguistic character of the dynamics entailed in (Kantian) aesthetic judgement is notable. The passage invokes "the universal voice" (allgemeine Stimme), who "lays claim to" (Anspruch—literally a "speaking to") for the agreement of the others, what is here and elsewhere called the Beistimmung (102, 32), the voice of the other which is already surely included, virtually, in the "universal voice". The move from the singular to the universal is partly effected by a certain doubling of the subject to begin with. Already in privacy of aesthetic experience, one "plays the judge" (Richter spielen) (117, 42), as if, even in the feeling in response to a beautiful or sublime object, one had to step outside, internally, oneself. The distance within the self is underscored in Kant’s formulation: one is not just to be a judge but to play a judge. Moreover, in aesthetic judgement one "promises to oneself" (sich verspricht) the "agreement" of everyone (Beistimmung), a nice trick if one can do it. This structure of promising to oneself involves a certain splitting of the subject and it is all the more remarkable that this purely internal promise to oneself entails the agreement, in principle, of everyone else. Even if, as Kant says, it is only "an idea".
  9. In the third Critique, the metaphors for these moments are primarily oral, by contrast to the first Critique, where the emphasis is rather on the inscriptional character of the imagination and its products. In The Critique of Pure Reason the work of the imagination is the necessary ingredient in all perception and all knowledge and its products are consistently figured as "monograms" or inscriptions, thus forming a striking parallel to Kant’s reflections on the writing on his own philosophy, in the remarks on Darstellung in the two prefaces to the different version of the first Critique.)[9] That the imagination, as the faculty of representation, the Darstellungsvermögen, is categorically said to be blind—a "blind but indispensable faculty" (A 78, B 103)—does not bode so well for all perception and nothing less than all knowledge, since the understanding always depends on the materials delivered to it by the imagination. But I digress.

  10. The relative "orality" of the aesthetic in the Critique of Judgement is a bit odd, since the aesthetic judgement of the beautiful is implicitly a universal affair. One can have private feelings and experiences of what is pleasant, das Angenehme, but the experience of the beautiful and its attendant judgement is in principle public or virtually so. I note this is odd, because in the famous essay "What is Enlightenment?" Kant insists on the necessarily written character of what is public. Strange as it seems, he maintains that a sermon given before what we might call a public—a church congregation—does not count as public.[10] Yet perhaps more important than deciding on the primacy of the oral or written character of this aesthetic voice is to recognize that the inexorable movement from feeling to language is the key moment in the objectification of the subjective, a movement of and within the subject to something more and other than the simply subjective. Given that language is, by definition, shared, however unevenly, within a community, the turn from feeling to language, even the language of feeling, seems to hold out the possibility of a more solid, non-subjective, foundation for the aesthetic in itself and as well as for its status as the posited link between knowledge and action.

  11. But is the move to the "I" of language much more certain a ground than the singularity of a possibly private feeling? Benveniste’s seminal essay "On Subjectivity in Language" suggests otherwise. Far from the "I" being the designator of a stable concept or of a discrete individual, the "I" refers to the act of discourse in which it is enunciated, to where the pronoun is pronounced, as it were. To imagine that "I"—an instance of what linguists call a "shifter"—referred to a "particular individual" would be, Benveniste says, "to admit a permanent contradiction in language and a state of anarchy in practice". (226). Benveniste goes on to argue:

    How could one and the same term refer indifferently to any individual whatsoever and still at the same time identify him in his individuality? We are in the presence of a class of words, the "personal pronouns," that escape the status of all the other signs of language. To what then does I refer? To something very peculiar which is exclusively linguistic: I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced, and by this it designates the speaker. It is a term that cannot be identified except in what we have elsewhere called an instance of discourse and that has only a momentary reference. The reality to which it refers is the reality of the discourse. It is in the instance of discourse in which the I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as "subject." And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language. (226-7)
    Benveniste’s notion of the instantaneous and temporary character of the subject as performed in language accords well with the radical singularity of the aesthetic experience as expounded by Kant. But both accounts suggest how the very terms needed to enunciate that singularity are shadowed by a certain generality, such that the voice is in some sense always more than that of a particular I, that is, a general or even "universal" voice. As such, Benveniste’s analysis of the I in its enunciatory mode jibes with Kant’s critical project, which attempts to lay out the conditions of possibility for the transcendental subject. But this is only to the extent that everyone can say "I" but cannot possibly mean the same thing—"I"—in saying so. It is no accident that Benveniste’s manner of thinking subjectivity beyond subjectivity proceeds, rather as Hegel’s does, via the grammaticality of the pronoun.[11]
  12. So far we have been considering the not-so-single subject with respect to the dynamics of aesthetic judgement. Something of the same paradoxical texture, it turns out, can be read off from the discourse of aesthetic production. One could pursue this line further in Kant, in his pointed discussion of genius in the Third Critique. Yet it would broaden and perhaps deepen the discussion if we turn away from Kant to consider a number of key passages in the reflections of the British Romantics on poetry and genius. Some of the Romantics reason, as Kant does, that "genius" is a faculty that contributes to the production of all art. Kant tends to speak of "genius" and not "a genius," as on the order of a Goethe or a Mozart. But others speak of a more singular sort of genius, designating by that term a particularly sovereign or inspired artist who vaults above the others more or less—less, actually—of his kind. This sort of artist is thought to be blessed with a preternatural gift unalloyed by or at least not interfered with by learning or craft, an "original genius". One sometimes imagines that the artist of this sort is a rather Romantic invention. Yet the genealogy charted long ago by M.H. Abrams, and rehearsed more recently by Jonathan Bate, returns us to Addison (especially Spectator 160) and his contemporaries.[12] (Here, as elsewhere, one has to re-think the absolute divide between the Romantics and the Augustans, of the sort trotted out in Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads.)

  13. Certainly the poems of the British Romantics are replete with invocations of muses, testimonies to prophetic inspiration, and comparisons between poet’s voices and Aeolian harps, all of them pointing to the poetic persona being subject to a voice—or a force like a voice—that comes from somewhere above, outside, beneath, or beyond the poet. Sometimes these poetic devices seem just that: poetic devices, trappings of lyrical convention with little or no purchase on the beliefs of the poets. Yet appeals to Aeolian harps and prophetic inspiration riddle the poetological or theoretical reflections of the very same Romantics, where presumably the truth claims are rather different. Here too we shall see any number of configurations where the subject is said to be subject to something beyond itself and yet whose force finds enunciation only in, through, and as a subject.

  14. Keats's famous letter to Woodhouse on the "poetical character" actually takes the concept of genius as its point of departure. For our purposes, it helps to recall the text at some length:

    Your Letter gave me great satisfaction, more on account of its friendliness than any relish of that matter in which it is accounted so acceptable in the "genius irritable." The best answer I can give you is in a clerk-like manner to make some observations on two principle points, which seem to point like indices into the midst of the whole pro and con about genius, and views, and achievements, and ambition, and coetera. 1ST As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am anything, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime, which is a thing per se and stands alone), it is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character—it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen … A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence because he has no Identity, he is continually filling in for and filling some other Body. The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute. The poet has none; no identity. He is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures. If then he has no self, and I am a Poet, where is the Wonder that I should say that I write no more? (194-95)
    Feeling the burden of the past, the major Romantics were torn between the two not very similar exemplars of Shakespeare and Milton.[13] Virtually all of them aspired to write, variously, epics and dramas. All failed, more or less spectacularly, at the epic. A moderately higher level of success was achieved in the dramas. Keats was not alone in aspiring to be a kind of Shakespeare après la lettre. It is no accident that in this speculation about the non-identity of the poetical character, Keats invokes the author who scarcely, so far as we know, wrote in his own voice, an author who could just as easily speak (in) the voice of Imogen or Iago, conveniently bracketing morals or beliefs, since, for poetic purposes, its ideological content is beside the point. Never speaking simply in his or her own voice, the poet creates poetical characters, that is to say characters with definition, but his or her ability to create such defined and definite characters is predicated precisely on a lack of identity, a lack of definition in himself or herself.
  15. Drama is also the literary mode uppermost in Keats’ mind when he formulates the doctrine of Negative Capability. He had just been thinking of Richard III and Edmund Kean as a actor, when he praised to his brothers the disposition of the poet that can dwell in "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" and entertain a certain resistance to identity. (60). Shakespeare, we are told, possessed this capacity "so enormously". Drummond Bone, in a valuable essay on "The Emptiness of Genius: Aspects of Romanticism," invokes these moments of Keatsian theory, in an argument centering on Coleridge and Jean Paul, to point to the paradoxical status of genius for the Romantics: so often it is conceived in terms of emptiness, precisely where one might expect a rhetoric of plenitude (Bone, passim). For our purposes, it is crucial that Keats anchors poetic production in the work of a subject that exceeds the workings of what is usually thought of a subject, a subjectivity beyond the merely subjective, a paradoxical absence of subjectivity that is the prerequisite for producing poetic subjects. Another instance of what we might call "subjecticity".

  16. A related but differently inflected speculation on the poetic subject can be found in Shelley’s "A Defence of Poetry." Shelley offers a decidedly expansive notion of poetry, returning it to its sometimes general, Aristotelian sense of making and thus seeing poetry where one might least expect it as, for example, in the making of laws. The poet, as maker, stands as the exemplary man, and of man in general Shelley says at the outset:

    Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven like the alterations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in a lyre and produces not melody alone but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds and motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them in a determined proportion of sound, even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre (277).
    The figure of the lyre, so often compared to the voice of the poet, is likened to nothing less than "man". Its enlistment makes sense in Shelley’s generalization of the poetic faculty far beyond those with a claim to being called poets in the strict sense. For our purposes, it is important that the subject is constructed here as simultaneously active and passive, "subject of" as well as "subject to". As an instrument subject to the wind for the sounds it produces, it is, in its structure, radically passive. The subject is hardly the source of the sounds it produces: it is rather the medium or vehicle for a discourse that comes from elsewhere. But Shelley is concerned that the comparison not issue in a sense of the sheer passivity of man, and so he stresses the sounds the instrument produces, commenting on the inadequacy of the figure of the lyre, not least for communicating the sense of the subject he has in mind. Thus the lyre "accommodates", it produces, it "acts".
  17. Moreover, when Shelley shifts from man in general to the poetical faculty, however broadly generalized from those we call poets, that faculty is said to "create new materials of knowledge, and power, and pleasure" (293).[14] This claim is immediately followed by one pointing to how—if it is not already clear—Shelley tends to conceive of two different modes of language corresponding, at least roughly, to the passive and active poles of the (split) subject of poetry: "… it engenders in the mind a desire to reproduce and arrange them according to a certain rhythm and order, which may be called the beautiful and the good" (293). Reproduction is linked to representation, the more or less passive, mechanical mirroring of what is. Shelley’s essay multiplies the terms for this sort of, typically mimetic, representation: "reduplication", "mirror", "picture", "record", "image", or perceptual equivalents such as "apprehension". The paradigm is summed up in the following passage:

    … poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language and especially metrical language, which are created by that imperial faculty [imagination] whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations than color, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which is it the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination and has relation to thoughts alone; … (279).
    Here we glimpse both the primacy of representation and the notion that language is subject to the inscrutable faculty of the imagination, whose glossing in Shelley hardly suggests a mode of mind available for control by one’s consciousness. (As in Kant, the source of the imagination is thought to be hidden from us, and as in Locke, the products of language refer not directly to things but to thoughts.) Poetry worth its name is not even composed, if that tends to imply deliberation. Poetry appears as if instantaneously:
    Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determinations of the will. A man cannot say "I will compose poetry." The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. … when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has even been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet. (294).
    Even when located within—though here too the figuration is sometimes cast as external, as it is in the wind—the source of poetry is far beyond the conscious control of the poet. Shelley can appeal to the example of Milton and his own thematization of inspiration: "… for Milton conceived the Paradise Lost as a whole before he executed it in portions. We have his own authority also for the muse having "dictated" to him the "unpremeditated song". (294) What many might understand as a mere "literary device"—the appeal to inspiration—Shelley construes in the most literal fashion.
  18. To this relatively passive model of representation and reproduction is conjoined, perhaps uneasily, a model of language as action or institution, of which we have already seen some versions: accommodation, institution, creation, etc. William Keach identifies the two poles as the representational and the expressive, the latter term indeed corresponding to a good many passages on poetic (in the strict and not at all strict senses) production. In linguistic terms, these two poles are aligned with the constative and the performative, the latter being not quite identical with the expressive, since that category assumes a certain interiority which is not requisite for the performative. Furthermore, this later pole, of expression of performativity is linked to what Keach calls the "non-representational" character of form, which Shelley variously designates by terms such as "arrange," "order," and "combination"[15] , that is, in general, to the syntactic aspect of language, which is not in itself meaningful but without which there would be no meaning. It is in this realm that the young Edmund Burke located the sublime power of words, the sublime being, once again, a veritable paradigm for the locus of subjecticity.

  19. As in Keats, so in Shelley, the poetic subject is scarcely a subject in vaguely Cartesian fashion. What emerges from the subject—but only through the subject—can only in the most neutral and misleading sense be termed "subjective". Shuttling between the poles of the two main and not particularly compatible senses of "subject," this poetic subject is better thought along the lines of "subjecticity" than "subjectivity," if the latter term connotes an individualized, and largely conscious discourse of an identifiable subject.

  20. But can the examples of Keats and Shelley really stand in for the variegated discourses of Romanticism, even in Britain, to say nothing of on the Continent? Would there not be significant counter-examples? Keats's own formulation seems to separate his Poetical Character from, for example, the "wordsworthian or egostistical sublime". Could we not find in Wordsworth, for one, a full-fledged discourse of the subject, highly individualized and attendant to the peculiarities of his life, his psyche, his psychology? Certainly the monument of The Prelude, perpetually scandalous in generic terms, insofar as it an autobiography and an epic at the same time, seems to offer a prime example of the "subjective". One could hardly argue that anyone else could have written The Prelude, with its wealth of autobiographical detail, whose charged meaning could not quite be so charged for anyone other than William Wordsworth. And yet from the original draft opening ("Was it for this … ?") or the eventually published beginning, "O there is blessing in this gentle breeze …," the poem’s voice is crossed by prior voices, Virgil’s in the first instance or a (transformed) invocation of the muse in the second. Wordsworth not infrequently invokes the model of the ancient Biblical prophets, who are nothing if not vehicles for a divine voice not their own. And sometimes at seemingly the most personal moments—such as the Dream of the Arab—will present an experience as happening to himself in one version and to another person in another, which is rather unsettling if we are to take the poem as the faithful transcription of a singular life.[16] Wordsworth is scarcely unaware of this divided or traversed character of his poetic voice and indeed the thematization of this split character may be one reason he can think of his own story as exemplary of the growth of a poet’s mind. I cannot do justice here to all the possible counter-examples to the paradigm of subjecticity I am trying to sketch but the over-determined example of Wordsworth does help suggest that a mere thematization of subjectivity rather than subjecticity is not quite enough to undermine the latter concept’s viability.

  21. We have been concentrating on theorists and poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the claims of these writers are not themselves cast in historical terms: they believe themselves to be addressing the character of art and aesthetic judgement irrespective of time or place. And certainly the sorts of insights rehearsed here are not narrowly limited to Romanticism conceived as a period. The epigraph from Paul Celan, a post-Romantic writer in a sense that respects from sides of the hyphen, claims, in his (in)imitable style, "Kunst schafft Ich-Ferne", literally "Art makes I-distance" (193). Even if the I in some sense makes art, art makes the I and in such a way that the I is distanced from itself: the I is not simply I. It cannot say I, anymore than it can say "I will compose poetry". And this dictum comes from a writer whose principal mode was the lyric poem, the mode where one might most expect to encounter a subject with subjectivity. Hence, the possible desirability of a word like "subjecticity" to get at what happens in the language and thought of poetry, the aesthetic, and more, some "thing" or some process that exceeds the subject without ever simply transcending it or leaving it behind.


Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. The Mirror and the Lamp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Adorno, Theodor W. "Zu Subjekt und Objekt," in Gesammelte Schriften 10.2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. 1977.  For an English version of the essay, see "Subject and Object" in The Adorno Reader, ed. Brian O'Connor. Oxford: Blackwell's, 2000, 137-151.

Balfour, Ian. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

Bate, Jonathan. "Shakespeare and Original Genius," in Genius: The History of an Idea, ed. Penelope Murray (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 76-97.

Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972.

Benveniste, Emile. Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1971. 

Bloom, Harold.  The Anxiety of Influence. New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Bone, Drummond. "The Emptiness of Genius: Aspects of Romanticism," in Genius: The History of an Idea, pp. 113-27.

Celan, Paul. Gesammelte Werke 3, ed. Beda Allemann and Stefan Reichert. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles. Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties, trans. Hugh Tomlinson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

De Man, Paul. "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics," in Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrzej Warminski.  Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1996, 91-104. 

---. "Phenomenality and Materiality in Kant," in Aesthetic Ideology, 70-90.

Derrida, Jacques."Parergon," in Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian Macleod.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant's Aesthetics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002.

Goetschel Willi. Constituting Critique: Kant's Writing as Critical Praxis. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Guyer, Paul.  Kant and the Claims of Taste. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press, 1991.

Henrich, Dieter. Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

Kant, Immanuel. Kritik der Urteilskraft in Werkausgabe, Vol. X. Frankfurt am Main: Sukrkamp, 1977. English: The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978.

William Keach, Shelley's Style. New York and London: Methuen, 1984.

Keats, John. Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Grant F. Scott. Revised edition. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

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Nancy, Jean-Luc. le discours de la syncope. Paris: Aubier Flammarion, 1973.

Pyle, Forest. The Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Shelley, Percy. Shelley's Prose or The Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. David Lee Clark. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1966.

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Wasserman, Earl. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.


1 The word does not, to my knowledge, exist in any dictionary, though one can find instances of it through a Google search, mainly in the context of linguistics.


2 On the place of the aesthetic in Kant’s system of critical philosophy, see Gilles Deleuze, Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of Faculties and Paul de Man, "Phenomenality".


3 Rodolphe Gasché, in his recent book on Kant is one of the surprisingly few critics to emphasize that in the Third Critique Kant is far more "interested" in nature than in art. Indeed, Kant's comments on literature and art are relatively flat-footed. It might even have been a mark of Kant’s sagacity that he turned down the offer of a Professorship in Poetry.


4 Almost inevitably, having someone else’s experience becomes the stuff of science fiction, as in Philip K. Dick, for one.


5 See Lyotard, esp. pp. 13-33. For an excellent account of the status of feeling in "poststructuralist" thought, see Rei Terada, passim.


6 See, for a similar judgement, Henrich, pp. 35-6.


7 Paul Guyer notes in this context that "we use the grammar of objectivity" (199).


8 Here I am following an argument made in Derrida’s painstaking analysis of Kant in the "Parergon" essay in Truth in Painting.


9 On the status of writing in Kant, see Jean-Luc Nancy, passim, and Willi Goetschel.  I address the inscriptional character of the imagination in Kant more fully in a work-in-progress on the sublime.  For the best general account of the theory and mobilization of imagination in the period, see Forest Pyle.


10 On this and related matters in Kant, see Habermas, especially pp. 102-116.


11 On the status of the "I" in its (interrelated) aesthetic and logical registers in Hegel, see Paul de Man, "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics".  De Man shows via Hegel's own analysis ("we cannot say anything in language that is not general") of the grammatical status of the "I" how, and in what sense, one has to conclude that "I cannot say I."


12 See M.H. Abrams especially chapter VIII, and Jonathan Bate.


13 For the two classic but differently inflected studies of this issue, see Walter Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom.


14 For a full, insightful, nuanced reading of Shelley's "Defence" in its rhetorical and conceptual complicities, see William Keach, especially Chapter 1.


15 Earl Wasserman's reading of the "Defence" stresses the crucial motif of order.  See especially Wasserman,  Chapter 7, passim.


16 I explore this texture of The Prelude's language in Balfour, 2002, especially pp.19-27.


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Published @ RC

February 2005