Romanticism and Biopolitics
Alastair Hunt and Matthias Rudolf, "Introduction: The Romantic Rhetoric of Life"
This essay introduces a collection of articles intended to initiate a conversation about and between biopolitics and romanticism. Its broad contention is that the study of biopolitics reanimates the question of romanticism in two senses. First, the set of conceptual resources provided in recent work on biopolitics opens up inventive lines of inquiry that enable scholars to re-think the already established awareness that the literature, philosophy, and culture of romanticism displays an obsession with life. In another sense biopolitics reanimates romanticism insofar as the current scholarly concern with life as an object of power marks the radical survival of romanticism. If romanticism responds well when examined in the light of contemporary biopolitical theory, then a constitutive part of this response is a certain resistance to biopolitical theory. As the contributors to this volume demonstrate, the biopolitical intervention on life engages paradoxes, predicaments, and aporias that have been widely or fully appreciated neither by theorists of biopolitics nor by critics who take up their work. Romanticism, we suggest, is a privileged locus for the awareness that even the most assured representation of life turns upon an irreducible “literariness.”
Marc Redfield, "Aesthetics, Sovereignty, Biopower: From Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten"
Redfield argues that the very density of aesthetics means that biopolitics may not be exactly what contemporary theorists claim it to be. As much as aesthetics can be read as an extension of biopolitics, biopolitical sovereignty finds itself subject to the technicity of aesthetics. Explicitly a political response to and solution for the violence of the French Revolution, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man outlines an aesthetic program that aims for nothing less than a body at one with the law. What Redfield focuses on, however, is not just the violence that sovereignty performs and disavows, but also the force that it exploits yet cannot control. To elaborate this claim, he turns to a text published in the same year (1795) as Schiller’s treatise, Goethe’s Conversations of German Refugees, seven stories that are intended by their refugee tellers to embody the promises of aesthetic culture to restore the moral and political order of the ancien régime after the violence of the French Revolution. The controlling figure for this order is, in the words of the leader of the refugees, the Baroness, der gute Ton, a literal translation of the French bon ton. Yet Ton in German also means “noise.” Exploiting this double meaning, Redfield traces a remarkably consistent pattern by which sovereign responses to shocking noises in the text reproduce rather than put an end to the revolutionary shock such noises are associated with. Insofar as Goethe’s text is itself an aesthetico-pedagogical effort to disseminate den guten Ton, it allegorizes its own inability to rigorously distinguish between the shock to which it responds and the shock upon which it turns.
Emily Sun, "What is Poetry in the Theater of Biopolitics?"
Sun examines how J. S. Mill develops in his aesthetic writings a theatrical rhetoric of poetic citizenship that challenges the bio-political theatricality of Benthamite panopticism. Mill derives his definition of poetry, which involves at its core a dissociation between the visible and the audible, from the Wordsworthian figuration of nature as the site of a disjunction between sense and sense-perception. Poetry, for Mill, serves as the medium of a voice that circulates beyond the regulatory gaze of panopticism to address the political subject as helpless, inactive overhearer rather than as bio-political actor-spectator.
Sara Guyer, "Biopoetics, or Romanticism"
Guyer’s essay "Biopoetics" opens by noting that it was not just natural and social scientists who became interested in life around 1800, but also poets. What, Guyer asks, would be a poetic understanding of the relationship between literature, power, and life? To answer this question, she turns to Barbara Johnson’s account of the relation of poetic apostrophe, a rhetorical figure of animation, and the politics of abortion, as well as to John Clare’s romantic-period poem, "To Mary." The conjugation of Clare and Johnson suggests that what is at stake in the relationship between romanticism, biopolitics, and literature is not a shared thematic representation of life but, rather, a shared predicament concerning the representation of life. Guyer reveals the nature of this predicament in an economic reading of the apostrophic complex in Clare's poem.
Eva Geulen, "Response and Commentary (Sara Guyer, Marc Redfield and Emily Sun)"
Eva Geulen’s response to the essays included in this volume contends that all three essays more or less explicitly defend romanticism “from any biopolitical charges and suspicions” by calling on the literary aesthetic, a move she takes as an indication that what is at stake is not so much biopolitics as it is “aesthetics by way of biopolitics.” Rather than opening up new lines of inquiry, the appearance of theoretical accounts of biopolitics provides the occasion to redraw, however contingently, the lines defending the literary aesthetic. Geulen’s discussion turns to and remains focused on Agamben’s account of sovereignty and bare life. In her reading, the concept of sovereignty provides an opening onto the relation of biopolitics and literature. Yet contrary to the readings offered by Guyer, Redfield, and Sun, Geulen suggests that aesthetics does not as much mark an aesthetic resistance to biopolitics as it paradoxically participates in and furthers biopolitical violence. Geulen argues that merely identifying and recognizing moments of textual ambivalence and rhetorical undecidability does little to resist, let alone change, the effectivity of the biopolitical structure.