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Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic

Response: Reading the Aesthetic, Reading Romanticism

Marc Redfield, Claremont Graduate University

This essay responds to essays by Ian Balfour, David Ferris, and Karen Swann that examine the centrality of the question of the aesthetic both within Romantic studies and within the academic institution of literary and cultural criticism. These essays all, in their different ways, show that the aesthetic fulfills itself in turning against itself; that it succeeds through failure; that it ruins even as it reproduces the monumental artwork, the monumentalized artist, the psychological subject, and the space of pedagogical and political formation within which modern subjects come to pass. This essay appears in _Volume Title_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. The challenge, already formidable, of responding to these essays becomes all the more imposing when one returns them (as one is so often told to do these days) to their context, and recalls the fact that they form part of the ongoing work of three critics who rank among the most significant contemporary interpreters of Romantic literature.  In what follows I won't try to trace filiations between the essays collected here and their authors' previous work—David Ferris's analysis of modernity, criticism, and aesthetics in his brilliant Silent Urns, or Ian Balfour's reading of inspiration and self-loss in his award-winning The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy, or Karen Swann's meditations on form, reception, gender, and figuration in those extraordinary essays on Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats that for twenty years have taught Romanticists how richly consequential close reading can be.[1] It will be enough to try to say something about each of the texts at hand, and about how we might read them in each other's company.  Written in very different styles and taking on markedly different tasks, these three essays all affirm the centrality of the question of the aesthetic both within Romantic studies and, more generally, within the academic institution of literary and cultural criticism.  They may also all three be said to exemplify the diverse legacy of deconstruction, and more particularly that of Paul de Man—and it may be that the best way to understand this legacy is as an ongoing reflection on the aesthetic.  To reflect on the aesthetic is necessarily, as our authors show, to reflect on language, history, and the subject; it is to have patience with the problem of why and how powerful texts at once compel and resist reading; it is to pause over the uncertain mutual imbrications of textuality and psychic and political life.  Nothing more distant from the banal misreading of the aesthetic as an apolitical "aestheticism" can be imagined than the arguments to be found in these essays.  Rising to the challenge of their difficult subject matter, these texts return us, in their different ways, to the skewed, double character of the aesthetic and its privileged period-metaphor, "Romanticism."[2] The aesthetic fulfills itself in turning against itself; it succeeds through failure; it ruins even as it reproduces the monumental artwork, the monumentalized artist, the psychological subject, and the space of pedagogical and political formation within which modern subjects come to pass.


  2. David Ferris, in "Aesthetic Violence and the Legitimacy of Reading Romanticism," mounts for inspection de Man's analysis of aesthetic education as founded in a violence it must also conceal.  Ferris suggests that historicist approaches that treat literature as a more or less transparent window onto a social and historical landscape—approaches that imagine themselves light-years away from de Man's concerns or formulations—depend upon the possibility of recognizing such violence.  The complication here is that, in setting out to locate a failure of ideology, a moment when the labor of aesthetic concealment falters or goes awry, criticism repeats the trajectory of aesthetic education itself.  For, in "failing to conceal its concealment of violence," the aesthetic opens the space of a criticism that must always be in complicity with the aesthetic.

  3. Ferris locates in criticism the possibility of the political itself, insfar as the political, in coming into being, must criticize and set itself against some other politics.  He is thus led to claim that modernity produces itself through an ongoing reproduction of the very category—the aesthetic—from which, in the name of critique, it claims to separate itself: the contemporary rush to reduce the aesthetic to ideology occurs in the name of aesthetico-political goals—the formation of self, community, and state.  "To speak of the aesthetic in these terms," Ferris observes, "is to speak of a historical unfolding governed by a critical project unable to authorize itself by critique alone, even by the invocation of a violence within its own operation."  It is this excess within criticism that historicist criticism seeks to evade, through the hyperbolically aesthetic gesture of imagining the abolition, through criticism, of the aesthetic.  The aesthetic becomes the impensée, the encrypted and cherished secret, of historicist-political criticism.  Thus a "critical project unable to authorize itself through criticism alone" masks its predicament by transforming the uncriticizability of the aesthetic into the unconscious of its practice, thereby refusing to recognize its failure to recognize failure.

  4. In the second half of his paper, Ferris reads passages from Friedrich Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in order to develop and clarify the aesthetic's relation to politics.  Drawing attention to a footnote to Letter 20, Ferris examines Schiller's version of the Kantian identification of the aesthetic with a harmony between freedom and law: the laws of the aesthetic, Schiller tells us, are not represented (vorgestellt).  Aesthetic education is nothing less than a process of recognizing the aesthetic's unrepresentable laws, the unrepresentability of which removes them from the reach of criticism.  Historicist criticism, which is at bottom a thoroughgoing aestheticism, transforms the aesthetic into that-which-cannot-come-to-representation, thereby securing the political by way of an uncriticizable law.  Thus the aesthetic secretes and assures the power it posits: a power that achieves force of law precisely as the uncriticizable, and achieves this through failure (the failure of the aesthetic law to be represented).  This is a difficult moment in Ferris's essay, since the "failure" he notes here seems to be the opposite of the aesthetic's "failure" to conceal its violence that he was discussing earlier: here the law cannot come to representation, whereas earlier, the violence of the aesthetic had to come to representation (or more precisely, to recognition; but even the recognition of a non-representation demands a certain manifestation of this non-representability).  Both imperatives are perhaps more ambiguous than they may seem at first.  The aesthetic's claim to recognize its originary violence was in a sense an illusion, since the aesthetic was simply recognizing itself, thereby establishing itself through failure.  And the aesthetic's claim to recognize its laws as unrepresentable (and therefore uncriticizeable) is also in a sense an illusion, since, as Ferris will soon show, this unrepresentability can immediately be read as, once again, violence.

  5. At this point Ferris turns to a famous passage in Letter 4 of the Aesthetic Education, where Schiller contrasts the artist or artisan with the politician.  The artisan uses his material with overt violence; the artist, who manipulates his material just as violently, "will seek to deceive the eye," as Schiller says, and conceal this violence; but the politician, whose material, "man," is also his goal, may not use violence.  The political or pedagogical artist must exclude violence altogether.  And as Ferris comments, adding a skeptical twist to Schiller's sequence, "the political state in which true freedom occurs is then one in which the concealment of the artist is concealed to the point of appearing not to exist." Thus, "the emergence of the political artist, the artist of the state, is then the emergence of the position from which all art can be criticized as an essentially violent undertaking because it is essentially aesthetic....This is why Schiller can only speak of true political freedom as the perfect work of art: it lacks the violence that renders art imperfect, or, to put this bluntly, it is more successful in hiding art's concealment of its violence since the law that guides it is without representation." The art of politics is the concealment of the concealment of art; it is the presumptively non-violent moment "in which the critique of violence is established." Consequently, "the political critique of the aesthetic is hopelessly compromised from its inception since it is already part of an aesthetic project it has forgotten how to remember." Ferris concludes by sharpening his critique of the debate current in the United States around the period-term "Romanticism." To reject Romanticism as the aesthetic is endlessly to "legitimize Romanticism at the very moment of its critical rejection." And to engage in a genuine critique of this predicament is to risk repeating the Schillerian paradigm.  "Here, de Man's remark...also faces its most difficult challenge: the challenge of ignoring a history and a politics that remains inseparable from the critical necessity that underwrites our understanding of literature since the advent of Romanticism, the necessity of the aesthetic." This challence would be that of "entertain[ing] the end of Romanticism, and, with it, the end of the concept of freedom through which our history and our politics is refracted."

  6. Ferris's powerful reading raises more issues than I can address here; let me point to what I take to be one or two significant complications suggested by his closing sentences.  Throughout, his emphasis on the complicity between aesthetics and the critique of aesthetic violence finds validation in his own text's highly self-conscious critical performance: Ferris must repeat the gesture he critiques as he "recognizes" the concealment of the concealment of violence that is aesthetics as politics (which is to say, aesthetics per se, in its fullest Schillerian development).  When he suggests in his closing lines that we could "ignore" this politico-critical "necessity," I take him to be compacting the aporia he has encountered into a vibrantly ambiguous phrase.  As we all know from our personal as well as our professional lives, the act of "ignoring" someone involves considerable violence; even the act of ignoring something can be fraught with aggression, denial, and phantasmatic projection.  And if we are ignoring a "necessity," we are as likely as not to fall, like Thales, flat on our face—for, as the verb itself tells us in its circulation through various Latin-influenced European languages, to ignore is always possibly to be ignorant of.[3]    We will never be sure whether or not we have succeeded in ignoring the aesthetic because we will never be able to control our ignorance of the aesthetic—which is also to say that the violence of our ignorance is likely to fall short of cathartic or sacrificial violence.  And such, I take it, is Ferris's point.  The "end" of Romanticism may in this sense turn out to be, like art in Hegel, a thing of the past that has also, paradoxically, never quite arrived.


  7. In her subtle reading of "Shelley's Pod People," Karen Swann draws attention to those strange, beautiful human forms one encounters now and then in Shelley's poetry: figures suspended between life and death, within landscapes of wreckage and loss.  They resist motion and transference and "the movement of trope and verse itself," and they speak to "a fantasy of the endurance of the poet and the poetic forms radically closed to our concerns." Swann links these figures to the labor of mourning and consecration that went into the making of "Shelley" by his circle of intimates, both before and after his death.  Noting that "it is not easy to disentangle the valuative work of commemoration from the rigor of a reading," she elaborates Paul de Man's severe emphasis on aesthetic monumentalization into a rich reading of the kind of biographical material—memoirs, anecdotes, letters—that is so often marshalled as an antidote to textual complexity.  Swann shows us how Shelley is figured as a figure in these biographical accounts: as a shape all light, volatile, vulnerable, yet also unreachable and not entirely of this world, "always on the brink of being lost." Lost in books, lost to and in the world, he is at once infinitely vulnerable and ruthlessly self-absorbed. "The posthumous creation of the circle that labored to give shape to the poet after his death, this glimmering figure is neither a naive nor an escapable construction," Swann affirms.  "It descends to haunt the most powerful of our modern readings of Shelley, for instance, de Man's—a haunting symptomatized by de Man's gestures of figuration and his inordinate attachment to the figure that refuses to attach itself to any life supports whatever."

  8. The analogous figures within Shelley's poetry, Swann proposes, at once elicit and represent our fascination with them.  They preserve "magical archaic forms from a devastating human interest," and offer a "ruthless, magical refusal of loss." At once "a fantasy of the poet, the work, and the baby," this glimmering body is also "the exquisite corpse buried alive in the heart of the one who cannot grieve." For to refuse loss is also to encrypt and cherish a wound beyond all healing.  Aesthetic monumentalization is at once loss and the refusal of loss; mourning and a failure to mourn; Mary Shelley's grieving heart and Edward Trelawny's vigorous trade in relics (of which the first and most memorable, of course, was the poet's literal heart).  We cherish and are held within the grip of this fascination: "In death, Shelley's bones arrange themselves into the posture of the reader arrested in a moment of absorption, but too late to save himself from drowning; or, perhaps, of the reader already drowning...or, even, of the reader halted before the 'shape' of the dead Shelley, discovering herself already absorbed into his circle."  Swann's lyrical and acute reading asks us to dwell with the possibility that it is "the radical alterity of this apparitional form to human desire" that entraps and fascinates us.   Perhaps, she affirms, echoing Adorno, "art may be most loyal to humanity's dreams when it preserves, encrypted within it, a resiliently inhumane impulse—a ruthless refusal to speak to what we may only imagine are our concerns."[4]


  9. Ian Balfour's "Subjecticity" emphasizes the way Kantian aesthetics and Romantic writing generally render inadequate psychological and individualist notions of the subject.  Through readings of Kant, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth he works to "conceive of a subjectivity beyond the subject, of something we might call 'subjecticity'." His title marks and deforms the subject with the stroke of a typo, a coquille, the semi-random byproduct of the workings of technological reproduction; his thesis is that "Romanticism, broadly understood, can be said to trouble the reduction of the subject to the merely subjective," even though Romanticism has also "promoted that somewhat newfangled thing called the subject."   This double bind finds its most concentrated expression in the domain of the aesthetic.  On the one hand, aesthetic experience is radically singular, a matter of feeling rather than conceptual thought; on the other hand, aesthetic judgment claims universal assent, and it does so via a detour through language.  Judging something beautiful or sublime, "we believe ourselves," Kant writes, "to be speaking with a universal voice, [allgemeine Stimme]."   Language, Balfour suggests, comes in to rescue aesthetics from its antinomy, facilitating the movement from singular to universal and transforming the subject of aesthetics into "something more and other than the simply subjective"; yet language proves a quagmire into which the "I" of the subject sinks, unable to speak itself except by obliterating itself.  This predicament of aesthetic judgment surfaces elsewhere in the discourse of Romanticism as the self-loss of the "poetical character" in Keats, the uncertain agency of the inspired imagination in Shelley, the haunted and redoubled narrative voice of Wordsworth's Prelude.  "Shuttling between the poles of the two main and not particularly compatible senses of 'subject,'" Balfour summarizes, "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 individual subject."

  10. One might dwell a little longer on the term subjecticity. Balfour offers it as a "word that is not exactly a word," a "non-word" and a "neologism"; but it is arguably both less and more than that.  It fails to appear in dictionaries but "one can find instances of it through a Google search, mainly in the context of linguistics" (Balfour, endnote 1).  That is not really surprising, since its morphology is unexceptional: "ivity" and "icity" are alternative suffixes for Latin words with stems ending in c (e.g., mendax, mendacis; thence, mendacity), and though subjecticity rings in our ears as the sort of barbarism we're used to encountering in the writing of social scientists and undergraduates, it is not quite a non-word, not simply improper or wrong.  It wavers in the gray area between proper and improper speech, and in that sense could be said to be a bit "more" than a mere neologism.

  11. Yet Balfour's discussion implies that it is also a bit "less." Whereas a neologism is normally understood to be a new word formed consciously, by a subjectivity in possession of itself and its language, in Balfour's essay subjecticity falls into play possibly by accident: "It could have been a typo, in this word that is not exactly a word: subjecticity."  On one level, of course, we are being teased.  So you thought it was a typo (and an egregeious lapse in editorial proofreading) as you read Balfour's title?  Or even if you didn't: you always possibly did.  The joke, if it is one, lasts only a moment; but the punch line resonates through Balfour's essay.  "It could have been" a typo—a blow from outside, deforming language and derailing the subject's intention.  This kind of outside, however, is also always an inside: "The 'c' is so close to the 'v' on the keyboard that one could always type one for the other." Throughout his essay Balfour hints at the inseparability of language from its technologies of production and reproduction: the keyboard; the Internet and its technologies of search and retrieval; the technical reproducibility of experience itself in science fiction (Balfour, note 6)—which last, if fantastic, is in one sense no more than a lurid trope for the way our most intimate ("romantic") self-expressions are the most vulnerable to repetition, cliché, and literary encoding.  Language has always been our exemplary techne, above all when it seems to be doing things beyond subjective or semantic control—doing things, that is, by "accident."  The relation of the QWERTY keyboard layout to English-language morphology and its rules for generating suffixes is a non-relation, a sheer metonymy; yet here, by chance (or fate?  or neither?) the exteriority of the typo has become teasingly indistinguishable from the interiority of the language.  It could have been a typo—but maybe not.

  12. Such undecidable moments, when accident and form threaten to become impossible to hold apart, can inspire aggressive efforts to stabilize oppositions (a typo!) and fix blame (can't Balfour, Redfield, Pyle, and Orrin Wang and his staff read?).  Yet they can also inspire thought: the kind of thinking about Romanticism, language, technics, mourning, and subjecticity that these three essays offer us.  It is the kind of thinking that we may best call reading: reading as the effort to read the predicament—the fascination, the difficulty, the aporia or possible impossibility—of reading itself.  If that theme, particularly though by no means only in Romantic studies, bears the signature of Paul de Man, these three essays demonstrate both how differently the theme of reading reading can be written and read, and how diversely this theme's recurrent motifs can manifest themselves.  For it cannot be doubted that certain motifs recur: a violence or catastrophe at the origin of signification; a text's constitutive openness to accident; a reader's consequent inability to weigh her ignorance, hold herself apart from the text, or avoid repeating its error.  This "wound of a fracture that lies hidden in all texts" (de Man, 120) can leave its mark as a typo (Balfour); as the "formal material dimension" of the image "swim[ming] up into the supposedly living thing" (Swann); as "a historical unfolding governed by a critical project unable to authorize itself by critique alone, even by the invocation of a violence within its own operation" (Ferris).  Thus, in their vaious ways, these essays locate the aesthetic as the place where the seductions and problems of reading emerge most tellingly, and suggest that the uncertain, conflicted phenomenon that we go on stubbornly calling "Romanticism" continues to have so much to tell us precicely because it names a literary-historical displacement of the aesthetic.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

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

de Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Ferris, David. Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Redfield, Marc. The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Swann, Karen. "'Christabel': The Wandering Mother and the Enigma of Form." Studies in Romanticism 23: 4 (1984), 533-53.

---. "Harrassing the Muse." In Romanticism and Feminism, ed. Anne Mellor. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

---. "Literary Gentlemen and Lovely Ladies: The Debate on the Character of Christabel." ELH 52: 2 (1985), 394-418.

---. "'Martha's Name', or the Scandal of 'The Thorn'." In Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry. Ed. Yopie Prins and Maeera Shreiber. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, pp. 60-79.

---. "Public Transport: Adventuring on Wordsworth’s Salisbury Plain." ELH 55:4 (1988), 811-34.

---. "Suffering and Sensation in The Ruined Cottage." PMLA 106:1 (1991), 83-95.


1 See the bibliography for the full publication data of Ferris's and Balfour's books, and a sampling of Swann's essays.


2 On Romanticism as a period-metaphor inseparable from the discourse of aesthetics, see my Politics of Aesthetics.


3 The French verb ignorer, for instance, means "to be ignorant of."


4 "Art is loyal to humanity only through inhumanity toward it" (Adorno, 197).


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Published @ RC

February 2005