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Finding Romantic Commonplaces: An Interview With Jerome Christensen

Site One: A Romantic Education

Steve Newman, Temple University

Johns Hopkins Seminar Room
Johns Hopkins Seminar Room
  1. Steve Newman: So I thought we’d start with a blurry picture of the seminar room at Hopkins. That image seems fitting because it’s where I first made your acquaintance, a place we’ve both since departed but one that had an important impact on both of us. My first question is, "How did you get there?" Basically, what I’m asking for is a brief intellectual autobiography of how you came to be a professor of Romanticism and co-founder of the Film and Media Studies Program and the Center for Digital Media Research and Development.

  2. The blurriness of the image is in fact a result of my using a subpar camera, but let’s re-describe that flaw as a happy accident, since it points to your own skepticism as a rhetorical critic about the historicist’s faith in the picturablilty of the past. It consequently complements the empty space where your sillhouette would be if we had followed the practice set by Orrin Wang in his interview with W. J. T. Mitchell — which provided a visual pun of the cameo series. I decided to break that very short tradition as a way of pointing to the position you occupied when I first came to Hopkins and to announce some themes I’ll be returning to over the course of our discussion.

  3. I want to couch the question "How did you get there?" by drawing on some terms you introduced in an essay entitled, "From Rhetoric to Corporate Populism: A Romantic Critique of the Academy in an Age of High Gossip."1 In that essay, you trace two basic ways of being initiated into a way of knowing — or perhaps an ethics of knowledge would be more accurate— "seduction" and "recruitment." So were you seduced or recruited into Romanticism? And by whom or what? I’m thinking particularly of the early part of your Romantic education up to Coleridge’s Blessed Machine of Language.2

  4. Jerome Christensen: I was a political science major at college. I was baffled by the New Criticism as it was applied in my lit courses (I learned the word "Alexandrine" in order to describe its enigmatic protocols), sunk as a prospective English major by a disastrous attempt at a close reading of Spenser. I eventually learned how to analyze art by watching moving pictures in a film course. At the end of my undergraduate career, I began to think I could learn how to read literature. But it was too late to learn anything. Although it was the heyday of formalism in the classrooms in the late 60s, it was a carnival of political demonstrations outside whether in the quad or on the Mall in D.C. Many of my classes senior year looked as empty as this seminar room.

  5. That you mention Stanley Fish is interesting, because a summer course I took with him at Berkeley, during a year pretty much away from the academy, was a pivotal moment in my career. In fact, I would say that Stanley was the first person who really taught me to read, to address in a systematic way what reading is by situating reading within a rhetorical context. He was at that time teaching what I think was the last iteration of the lectures that became The Self-Consuming Artifact. The title of my first book, The Blessed Machine of Language, was meant to echo the title of Fish’s book. After a year at Illinois I left for Cornell. I went there to study with Abrams and quickly became impressed with how unlikely it was that I was ever going to achieve the scholarly stature that Abrams commanded so effortlessly and with such modesty. I was lucky enough to take a course on the sublime with Neil Hertz, where I was introduced to Derrida, along with Rousseau, Sade, Wordsworth. That course was the unum necessarium of my graduate career. And it was from there that I began reading De la Grammatologie just before Spivak’s translation came out. My French is only a little more fluent for me on the page than it is off my tongue, but it was worth the labor.

  6. Reading Derrida in the eighteenth-century context was like finding a subterranean treasure, because in fact most of the responses to Derrida at the time had focussed on his relation to structuralism. The section of De La Grammatologie that mattered was the deconstruction of Levi-Strauss’s Triste Tropique. But for me Derrida’s engagement with Warburton’s Divine Legation of Moses made sense of Romanticism in a fundamentally different way.

  7. SN: What kind of resistance did you encounter, if any, from, say, someone like Abrams, who later on his career has published attacks on what he feels to be the excesses of the criticism that dates from the rise of post-structuralism? How did you negotiate any resistance you might have come up against?

  8. JC: If you’re asking was Mike Abrams’s later work a disguised attack on me, the answer is. . .

  9. SN: (laughing) No. . .

  10. JC: (laughing) The answer is as much I’d like to think so, I regretfully doubt it. On the one hand, there is no more tolerant, and the word that’s always used, it’s his word—"genial"—scholar, critic, and teacher than Mike Abrams. On the other hand, he left no doubt that his views were fundamentally opposed to those of Derrida and de Man.

  11. As much importance as De la Grammatologie had, the other book of fundamental formative or deformative importance in my career was the Biographia Literaria which was taught as a text for a semester-long seminar by Abrams. I remember an occasion when I had to present "The Rhetoric of Temporality," de Man’s great essay, to the seminar. It was my first engagement with theory as opposed to something that would call itself criticism. I can say that after at least five readings, I was not sure that I understood a word of it. I finally worked through to what was no more than a paraphrase and someone irritably remarked (the accent was English, I recall), "Well, this is just nonsense! The man can’t write. Why are we wasting our time?" And Abrams, to his eternal credit turned to the carper and said, "What makes you think that you don’t need difficult language for difficult ideas?" And this in the context of a thorough critique of de Man’s essay. The margin for independent thinking that Abrams opened for his students was very productive for me.

  12. SN: This brings up one of the interesting things about your work, and you announced it in the early review in Diacritics3 on the sublime. My sense is that you have never been drawn to the sublime or nature or subject-object relations in general as a topic. Questions of mind seem to occupy you, among them how the self is to hold together given the ruptures that inhere in language, but not in the same way as for Hartman and those who followed the more phenomologically-oriented paths of post-structuralism. So, why "writing" and not "nature" or "death"?

  13. JC: At Cornell, I was able to orient myself by embracing the mystification that the eighteenth century stood for History and the Romantic era for Literature. I was allowed a license to make use of that figurative divide in my work. So Warburton looked like a ground from which one could produce figurative elaborations that would be literary counterstatements to that attempt at producing conceptual totality. Hartley worked the same way for me. What you learned from reading Warburton and Derrida was to look for those moments in which something like History or the historical emerged as an irresistible trope within a text that was otherwise dedicated to a completely synchronic reading of the nature of things—

  14. [Editor’s note: At this moment, we heard the distinct whistle of a bird, a cuckoo no less, from the clock in Prof. Christensen’s office, one of those clocks that emits a different birdsong every hour. This made both of us laugh.]

  15. SN: There’s history now!

  16. JC: It’s warbling its woodnotes wild. . .[both start laughing again as the song continues. ]

  17. SN: I hope the tape picks that up. . .

  18. JC: Neil Hertz once told a seminar that according to Leo Spitzer there were just two ways to read a text — to look for the thing that is repeated constantly or look for that thing that is never repeated. And those historical moments are the eruption of that origin, the origin here being the origin of writing, with Warburton positing it in some place in Egypt with a priest carving hieroglyphs in a tomb or, in Hartley, Moses receiving the commandments in stone on Mount Sinai — unrepeatable, unique moments in those texts — unrepeatable, unique moments that, uncannily, were repeated again and again.

  19. There were very few jobs in the mid-70s—about the same as the late 90s. Getting a job seemed like a statistical accident. The buyers’ market and the advent of post-structuralism placed a premium on being able to perform theory moves, even if, apart from high structuralism, there wasn’t really anything out there systematic enough to call theory as yet. There were people at Yale, Hopkins, and Cornell who had access to primary French texts or who had studied with or worked closely with French philosophers and critics. Diacritics was an important vehicle for the importation of that kind of criticism.

  20. My criticism is theoretically informed. But I’ve never been a theorist—at most a method theorist. I learned a technique for performing theory in the service of critical argument. For a self-confessed rhetorician, it was opportune to be able to discover what looked like a new trope and irresistible to imitate the Derridean style. I had been primed for this by Stanley Fish, by having learned to read for tropes. "Différance" looked like the first post-classical trope — and arguably a romantic trope because it could be articulated so effectively with the scenario of the sublime and with the taste for the incommensurable.

  21. Doubtless, deconstructive reading—reading for instances of différance across an array of texts, reading texts as occasions for the operation of différance — was sophistical, artful rather than truthful, the exercise of talent rather than the unfolding of wisdom. At least I had no doubt it was: my Coleridge book featured his hyperbolic attack on the sophists as invitation to and commentary on the deconstructive enterprise in which I was engaged. And I do mean "enterprise," for if deconstruction, like sophistry, could claim to be value neutral, it was certainly not market indifferent. To abandon the goal of truth (if not the path of "rigor") entailed the recognition that one taught for money. And that recognition was the prelude to a more historically informed, non-Marxist, illiberal institutional analysis, which I undertook in my later work. It also solicited institutional critique, the attempt to apply the tools refined in reading Coleridge to the situation of my own writing and teaching.

  22. I didn’t get round to doing that in a relatively straightforward way until the mid-eighties when I wrote on critical apostasy, the de Man controversy, the issue of academic celebrity, and on the uses of Romanticism at the end of history. But the funny thing was that even early on, I felt that everything I wrote about Coleridge was an allegory of criticism at the present time: the aftermath of collegiate activism, the insistence of market considerations. It was, I concede, an especially opaque, even private allegory, at best the expression of what might be called a socio-political preconsciousness. But, then, I was and am no historian, no sociologist, no economist. Because I had (and wanted) no explanatory apparatus to deploy, the readings had to come first. I couldn’t assume as the Marxisant historicist assumes that I knew what agenda the text was serving. That was not a political or philosophical bias, but a disciplinary burden. As a critic trained in Romantic poetry and prose, held fast in the no man’s land between formalism and rhetorical criticism, which "writing" names, I believed then as I believe now that the only capital I have that is not the spare change of others is readings that derive from the application of an opportunistic technique to a set of compelling literary texts — readings that recursively or, if you prefer, allegorically illuminate the site of their making.

  23. SN: So, to try to transpose this back into the terms that you set out in "Corporate Populism," it sounds as if what the savvy grad student at that time did was to take what was really a matter of use and turn it into what looks like a Bloomian priority without the struggle between the people practicing that technique for the Oedipal mantle. You were there — in on the ground floor. You had something like priority but you were purveying it rather than being seduced by it. Does that seem right?

  24. JC: Yeah, the sophistic idea was to be the seducer rather than being seduced, although it would be making myself out to be slightly more cynical and a great deal more self-possessed than I was or am to claim that this was a deliberate project or to deny that there was no seduction by Derrida, behind whose chariot I danced.

  25. SN: I’d like to jump further in your career, because the next book was on Hume, Practicing Enlightenment.4 It seems to me there were some important continuities between the Coleridge book and the Hume book — the emphasis on writing, on the man of letters — but the new term seems to me "composition." If you say that your earlier use of tropology involved technique rather than system, you get interested in the system of systems in that book, which turns out to be a political economy that involves not only goods but discourse itself. You see Hume getting systematic in a way that Coleridge never managed to be.

  26. JC: Right, a treatise in action.

  27. SN: What moved you in that direction?

  28. JC: (long pause) Well, as I said I began to understand that I had drastically foreshortened the social dimension of the texts that I had studied, that is, the account of how the texts operated in the world, even if it was a world of their own imagining. I did not aspire to find the deep cause because I have no ambition to isolate any deeper cause than the writer writing, nor to prove what effects such writings did in fact (indeed, Hume became my subject because causation could be set aside except as a compulsive figure of the mind) but I was interested in the social effect that a writer might imagine that he or she could have by writing philosophical treatises or essays or poems or a biographia literaria. In deconstructing Coleridge, the philosophical critic, I rendered a Coleridge whose text was the allegory of the chiasmus, but, inescapably I posited a writer who could imagine that the felicitous deployment of such a trope entailed a practice of social consequence. Coleridge’s philosophical aspirations were disabled by his sophistical rhetoric (Who would want it otherwise? Who would prefer that Coleridge be Schelling?), but his career as a writer in motley genres and sundry places was enabled by his vacillation, his apostasies, the intractable irritability of his text. But I had no real narrative. And not just me. Among deconstructionists in the late seventies and early eighties, resistance to the illusory comforts of narrative was the badge of critical rigor.

  29. I’ve never had much success at writing history, but I have found it congenial to write prehistory. What I mean by that is that although I haven’t the skills to write a thickly described causal account of the emergence of the social formation called the professional writer, I could effectively imagine the emergence of the professional writer, supported by the institutions of the press, the book trade, and the university as a kind of horizon, a point in the future where something like a true social history begins—where the Victorian period, with its Mayhews, Dickenses, and Eliots begins. History would follow. What belongs to the writers that interested me was a prehistory, where one could hope to escape the pressure and ignominy of writing for hire and aspire to a cultural prestige, financial prosperity, intellectual independence that could not be fully achieved because of the lack of the enabling socio-economic infrastructure. The word that Coleridge used for that pre-professional (later para-professional) species was the man of letters.

  30. I once prepared a proposal for a big book on the eighteenth-century man of letters that would begin with Hume and end with Coleridge, including Johnson, Gray, et. al. along the way. The proposal turned out to be a map of my ignorance. I couldn’t formulate the meta-narrative and couldn’t really epitomize the careers of my subjects in micro-narratives. I am delighted to have as a colleague Mark Schoenfield whose ambition is similar but whose prospect for success is far greater. At any rate, the work on Hume emerged as a study of a single enlightenment literary career, a series of readings of philosophical, autobiographical, and epistolary texts, understood as something like the surplus value that the capital of the "stillborn" Treatise of Human Nature produced. Along the way I attempted to use Hume’s career as a conspectus of various themes, such as the composition of society, the role of women in the formation of the enlightenment man of letters, and the relation of the discourse of political economy to the practice of the literary career. Coleridge suffered from a self-consciousness that could never happily close upon itself or represent its own ground without undermining it. Suffered in two ways: because in the Biographia Coleridge fancied that the grounding of self-consciousness as world-fashioning starting point would establish philosophical criticism’s authority to vindicate philosophical poetry; and because he registered the failure to complete the philosophical proof as the fault of a disabling consciousness of self, which chronically embarrassed his noblest projects and, not incidentally, conveniently excused his failures. Hume saw self-consciousness as simply a problem, vexing, certainly, but hardly the most important problem and not at all disabling. From the perspective of Hume Coleridge’s debilitating self-consciousness looks like the predictable effect of a commitment to self-consciousness as some state of being that is qualitatively different from what we ordinarily believe and do.

  31. You’re right. I put a great deal of pressure on Hume’s term "composition," which described a relational writing that presupposes persons who are simultaneously the deliberate supervisors of their emotions and yet are wholly composed by the social system—the network of prevailing beliefs—in which they ineluctably find themselves. Where the narrative came in was in interpreting Hume’s science of man as a strategy for accruing social power and in showing how, for Hume, such aggrandizement followed, as if by a necessary association of ideas, from the practice dictated by the thesis. Such power talk was coin of the realm at the time. And no doubt I indulged in the dark pleasures of a hermeneutics of suspicion. But I was fortunate to have the deliciously bizarre account by Rousseau of his dealings with Hume, a narrative whose challenge to Hume’s intentions made my suspicions look imaginatively impoverished by comparison. What is wonderful about that mad text is that Rousseau did not attack Hume for being wrong as Coleridge would later do but for being right—so right that he had become a philosophical tyrant who threatened to eclipse all other lights and enslave other thinkers. And, however much he disputed the circumstantial details, Hume had to agree with the central charge. It is one of those rare moments where strong writers can successfully impersonate epochs and hyperbolically enact a historical crisis. Farcically, some would say, because history is always somewhere else. Or, tragically, as Adorno would say, because the history that they think they are enacting is forever the dialectic of enlightenment. For me Adorno is irresistible, and, thinking back, I suppose what beguiled me was not the chance to demonstrate the passage from classic to romantic, but the resemblance of the encounter to the great exemplum from Dialectic of Enlightenment: Hume as an Odysseus binding himself to the mast in order safely to listen to Rousseau’s siren song—except there is no safety, for though the song evaporates, the ropes cut deep.

  32. SN: It seems that one of the consequences of the thinking through Hume was to also take the pathos out of contradiction, the kind of bouncing around that Coleridge does in an attempt to find the thing in the system that makes it all fall apart. From your understanding of Hume’s perspective, failure looks merely like a possibility that Hume has already contemplated and worked through as just a thing that happens in system. Meta-critically, this also seems to be part of your suspicion of a certain mode of ideological demystification in contemporary criticism that thinks if it finds a contradiction, then aha! the revolution’s coming.

  33. JC: The great phrase that was a touchstone for me comes from Deleuze and Guattari, "No one was ever killed by a contradiction." And if there was one man who understood that, it was David Hume. . . . Even the great contradiction of Rousseau did not kill him. But it is also true that it did not make him stronger.


1Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 438-465.

2Coleridge's Blessed Machine of Language (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981).

3 "The Sublime and the Romance of the Other," Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 8 (1978), 10-23.

4Practicing Enlightenment: Hume and the Formation of a Literary Career (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987).

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Published @ RC

June 2002