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Romanticism and Complexity

Complexity and Order

Hugh Roberts, University of California, Irvine

  1. Why science? This is a question that long-suffering scientists must ask themselves whenever they see another attempt in the Humanities to borrow from their disciplines in order to construct new interpretive frameworks in contexts for which they must appear strangely ill-adapted. Why seek out analogies between the epistemology of quantum physics, or chaos theory, and that of a poem by Blake, for example, as Arkady Plotnitsky and Paul Yoder have in the papers presented here?

  2. It is not that there is anything startlingly new in recent critical attempts to fish the pond of our next neighbors across the campus—other, that is, than the specific content of the scientific models being borrowed. Indeed, scientific analogies and analyses have regularly found their way into literary criticism. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in the criticism of the Romantics. From that "Newton among poets" Shelley, to the practicing scientist Goethe, to the anti-Newtonian "visionary physicist" Blake, Romantic writers have invited investigation into their own scientific thought, and speculative explorations of their work in the frameworks of more recent scientific developments.

  3. This should not surprise us. If modern science can be seen as the most prominent inheritor of the aims and methods of the Enlightenment project, the Romantics’ conflicted attitudes toward that project—at once rejecting and completing it—guarantee the continual renewal of an old dialogue. Friedrich Schlegel once claimed, trenchantly, that "the whole history of modern poetry is a running commentary on the following brief philosophical text: all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one" ("Critical Fragments #115," 14). At almost the same time, however, he was asserting—with the same trenchancy—that "the concept of a scientific poem is quite as absurd as that of a poetical science" (#61, 8).

  4. The question to ask, then, is perhaps not "why science," but "why this science?" Why are literary critics so drawn to sciences that—in one way or another—are controversial, or at least problematic, with respect to the Enlightenment notion of the scientific project? Quantum physics is now "old" science—the Copenhagen interpretation has held off challenges for over seventy years—but the fundamental limitations it imposes upon the coherence and consistency of any possible knowledge of the world remains a standing challenge to the materialist determinism which lies at the heart of the Enlightenment understanding of the world. Quantum physics’ famous "absurdities"—Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, nonlocality, Schrödinger’s cat—which prompted Einstein’s equally famous cri de coeur that "God does not play dice with the universe" are, as Arkady Plotnitsky describes in some detail in his "Chaosmic Orders," fundamentally incompatible with the Enlightenment’s central drive towards a complete mathesis, the Laplacean dream of a universe in which there is a time and a place for every atom, and every atom is in its place at the determined time. Chaos theory, similarly—even if it be reconciled with classical physics as Plotnitsky suggest—puts absolute limits to the "knowability" of the underlying deterministic origins of a world that can only be understood as a dynamically emergent system. Such developments within science are necessarily arresting for the student of Romanticism, because they are analogous to (but sometimes no more than analogous to) key Romantic criticisms of the materialist and determinist bent of the Enlightenment project: we think of Blake’s rejection of "Single vision & Newtons sleep," or Wordsworth’s claim that "we murder to dissect."

  5. The central figure here, as with so much of Romantic thought, is Kant. It is conventional enough to view Kant as at once the culmination of the Enlightenment and its first and most profound "post-Enlightenment" critic. Taking up the problem of reconciling freedom of the will with a necessetarian understanding of the physical world, Kant, in the first two critiques, can resolve this fundamental antinomy only by appealing to incompatible regimes of explanation. Within the framework of time and space, the world is deterministic and actions can only be understood as the necessary consequence of the events that have preceded them. Moral freedom, however, has reference to an unconditioned absolute, which need not, and indeed cannot, be understood within the deterministic framework of space and time. If this solves the dilemma by subjecting us to two utterly incompatible orders of explanation, the third Critique will point the way to a reconciliation. It is the beautiful object—that excessive eruption of significance, of a beauty that verges inexplicably on truth—which seems somehow to live in both realms at once, and to reconcile our moral and physical beings.

  6. This, at least, is how the post-Kantian philosophers and the Romantic poets they influenced so heavily choose to see the role of the work of art. Beauty, says Schiller, proves "the compatibility of both natures . . . the practicability of the infinite in finiteness, and consequently the possibility of a sublime humanity" (Letters, 123). The infinite, the unconditioned, can be reconciled with the finite, the determined. Sometimes this can seem to suggest that in the work of art, the freedom of the will triumphs over the mechanistic constraints of mere physical reality—and certainly those who think of the Romantic legacy as simply a rejection of Enlightenment scientism have taken this view. When Friedrich Schlegel writes of "the romantic kind of poetry" that "it alone is infinite, just as it alone is free; . . . it recognizes as its first commandment that the will of the poet can tolerate no law above itself" ("Athenaeum Fragment #116", 32) he certainly seems to invite such an understanding. Here is the root of Schlegel’s celebration of the "arabesque," of "chaos"—a bravura display of the artist’s freedom, of that "versatility" which "consists not just in a comprehensive system but also in a feeling for the chaos outside that system" ("Ideas #55," 99).

  7. "A feeling for the chaos outside that system": is it any wonder that Romanticists are drawn to "unruly" developments within "ordinary science"? Romantic literature is a literature of "complexity," of "chaos"—a literature of irony, fragmentation, and excess that calls into question the possibility of "system," at least, of system as understood by the eighteenth century’s esprit de système.

  8. But this is only part of the story. It is Schegel himself who warns against mistaking his purpose: "What appears to be unlimited free will, and consequently seems and should seem to be irrational or supra-rational, nonetheless must still at bottom be simply necessary and rational; otherwise the whim becomes willful, becomes intolerant, and self-restriction turns into self-destruction" ("Critical Fragments #37," 5). It should come as no surprise that Schlegel thought Spinoza the "ideal of the species [of philosophers]" ("Ideas #137," 107). Happiness lies in learning to bring about a harmony between the unlimited will and the limited world. All of Schlegel’s celebration of "chaos" and fragmentation is underwritten by a faith that the apparent disorder of the unruly part is ultimately to be recuperated by the implicit order of the whole. This faith is most familiar to us, of course, as Romantic "organicism." The "fragmentary" appearance of the part is only a product of our necessarily limited perspective. The "part" indeed has a kind of moral freedom, but that freedom turns out to be the freedom to will the whole, thereby bringing about that unity between "will" and "world" that Schiller had located in the beautiful work of art. Or as William Wordsworth puts it in "Ode to Duty": "Yet not the less would I throughout / Still act according to the voice / Of my own wish; and feel past doubt / That my submissiveness was choice . . . ./ Denial and restraint I prize / No farther than they breed a second Will more wise" (41-44, 47-48).

  9. All this is familiar, of course, as is the political organicism which is its corollary. Edmund Burke’s is perhaps the most vivid statement of this anti-Enlightenment credo:

    [Society] is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and moral natures, each in their appointed place. . . . (194-5)

    Schlegel demonstrates the congruence between the Burkean and the Romantic understanding of the artist/citizen: "Artists make mankind an individual by connecting the past with the future in the present. Artists are the higher organ of the soul where the vital spirits of all external humanity join together, and where inner humanity has its primary sphere of action" ("Ideas #64," 100). The liberatory impulse that lead the Romantics to rebel against Enlightenment systematicity—against the obsessive rationality of a complete mathesis—finds its uncanny double in systematic totalitarianism, the demand that each fragmentary part can only be understood as an expression of the whole that contains and justifies it.

  10. It is no surprise, then, that a Romanticist will be drawn to the contemporary sciences of complexity. Couldn’t this passage from Plotnitsky’s paper be a missing "fragment" from the Athenaeum?:

    In other words, a radical organization is an organization of individual entities, which are the constituents of the order or orders arising in multiplicities governed by radical organization, while each such constituent, considered in isolation, cannot itself be subject to this or any order, law, organization, comprehension, and so forth.

    A passage such as this strikes at the heart not only of Romantic organicism, but of the Romantic theory of meaning—specifically poetic meaning—which emerges from it. A "radical" organization which forbids us to subsume the constituent "parts" of the organism under any "law, organization [or] comprehension"—a world, in other words, in which God does play dice with the universe—would also make impossible the "symbolic" reading of the world which is central to the Romantic poetic. In Coleridge’s classic formulation,

    a Symbol . . . is characterized by a translucence of the Special in the Individual or of the General in the Especial or of the Universal in the General. Above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative. (30)

    The part "partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible" in a relationship which renders the world a manifold and temporally extended expression of a single eternal truth—the "one intellectual breeze" that sweeps through the "organic harps, diversely framed" of animated nature in Coleridge’s ecstatic vision in "The Aeolian Harp."

  11. The flipside to such ecstasy is the oppressive burden such a limitless potential for significance places on the poet. Coleridge, again, is our best witness to this. His "Dejection: An Ode" voices the despair of a poet who has collapsed under that burden. To "see, not feel" the beauty that surrounds him—to see it without "feeling" its symbolic relation to an "eternal" and "absolute" condition of all meaning—is an intolerable deprivation.

  12. What Coleridge lacks is that "feeling . . . for insignificance [Sinn . . . für das Unbedeutende]" that Schlegel reproaches his young avatar Julius for lacking in Lucinde (83). Julius has fallen prey to a paranoid pursuit of "subtle motives and deep plots" which he imagines (as did so many in the years immediately before and after the French Revolution) to lie behind "any given particular case" or event (83). Schlegel helps us to understand why the indeterminacy of Plotnitsky’s "radical organization" presents such a compelling challenge to High Romantic hermeneutics. The "symbolic" understanding of the world—so confident that the "meanest flower that blows" can be freighted with a truth that "lies too deep for tears"—is a form of paranoia, it insists upon a world saturated with Bedeutung, or significance. High Romanticism, like classical science, cannot believe in "pure chance."

  13. Significantly, Julius falls prey to a "passion for gambling" at the same time as he succumbs to his preoccupation with plot and intrigue. The connection is subtly suggestive. Does the gambler gamble in order to escape an overdetermined world saturated in "meaning"? Or does he gamble because he believes that "chance" is just Bedeutung misrecognized? The gambler, surely, does not really believe in a God that "plays dice." Gamblers live in a world in which chance does nothing at random—chance keeps score, teasing the player with "lucky streaks" and "losing streaks," constantly supplicated and propitiated with lucky charms, lucky socks, lucky days, lucky tables. The gambler feels, but rarely sees, how lucky they are. When Coleridge calls for the storm to break loose and "startle this dull pain, and make it move and live" in the opening verse paragraph of "Dejection," is he calling on an aleatory disruption that will at least break him free of the ever-frustrated quest for significance, or for a painful rebirth—a last, lucky, throw of the dice—in the godhead of the "intellectual breeze"?

  14. It is the question of chance, then, or of what counts as chance and whether chance is Bedeutende or Unbedeutende, which make the scientific understanding of complexity and determinism compelling for Romantic scholars. Plotnitsky writes:

    Classically, chance or, more accurately, the appearance of chance is seen as arising from our insufficient (and perhaps, in practice, unavailable) knowledge of the total configuration of forces involved and, hence, of the lawful necessity that is always postulated behind a lawless chance event.

    "Classically," then, chance is not chance—or at least, would not be chance to a sufficiently encyclopedic observer, a figure (like, say, Laplace’s famous "demon") that reveals a curious continuity in the paranoid lack of Sinn für das Unbedeutende from the rationalist Encyclopédistes to the symbol-hunting Romantics. It is the post-classical sciences that offer us, one way or another, an escape from a hermeneutics of paranoia.

  15. Or, at least, that is one way to understand their relevance to Romantic thought. What strikes me as particularly useful about the two papers we have in this edition of Romantic Praxis is that they show two distinct, even opposed, ways of applying the insights from sciences that trouble the classical resistance to "real" chance. Plotnitsky, I would guess, wants to recapture that Sinn für das Unbedeutende that the young Schlegel (sometimes) prized. He finds in the challenge that quantum physics poses to a strictly deterministic causality an analogy to Blake’s insistence that the "minute particulars" of the poem/world cannot be summed—symbolically—into any consistent hermeneutic totality. Like Wallace Stevens’s in "Connoisseurs of Chaos" he believes that "A violent order is disorder."

  16. But Paul Yoder, also drawing on contemporary sciences which have posed a challenge to the classical mathesis, makes a very different argument. He, I suspect, would prefer Stevens’s line "A great disorder is an order." He finds in the fractal, and its "hologram"-like self-similarity-across scales, a kind of "secret order" to the apparent complexity of the world—a confirmation of an overall design which we discover stamped on the most infinitesimal components of that design. What at first appears to be "chance" turns out to be "design."

  17. When Yoder discusses the "fractal" arrangement of plate 96 of Blake’s Jerusalem, with the text arranged in the shape of an L (for "Los") as it describes the encounter between Albion and the Savior "who appears ‘in the likeness & similitude’ of Los" he is struck by the fractal "self-similarity" more than by the potential contradictions across scales which Plotnitsky locates in Blake’s "minute particulars." Here we have something like Schlegel’s notion of "chaos." There is freedom—the interpretive freedom to move across scales without constraint—but that freedom exists always in a higher context of lawful constraint: freedom is the freedom to will the necessary, to discover a "narrative unity" that has (by a familiar symbolic logic) dispersed itself in a merely apparent fragmentation across the myriad levels of the work.

  18. It is then, I hope, sufficiently clear why a Romanticist cannot but be drawn to these scientific models, that allow us to re-engage with perennial struggles over the essential nature of Romanticism in new and heuristically provocative ways. But I want to end by returning to the discomfort I recognized at the outset that the scientist has for the ways in which we humanists make use of scientific models. This discomfort stems, in part, from what we might call—in Popperian mood—"falsifiability." We all know that scientists like to think (at least) that they deal solely with theories, models, hypotheses that are "falsifiable," that can be tested and proven wrong. When we import scientific models and theories into the humanities, one of the nervous twitches scientists get is precisely the fear that the theory has moved into a realm in which it cannot be falsified. They are, of course, quite right—or near enough as to make no difference. Theories in the humanities are rarely "falsified" in this sense—it is truer to say that they go in and out of fashion than that they become burdened down with disproven hypotheses.

  19. But if we don’t like to invoke the term "falsifiablity," I think we can import a term from the philosophy of science which Isabelle Stengers has recently made the center of her theoretical writings: "resistance." The scientist, Stengers argues

    must try to give its object the power to make a difference. The whole point of the experimental setting is to create a situation in which you are not free to interpret a fact as you wish, where what you address is able to severely restrict this freedom. (15)

    This "restriction" on the scientist’s freedom of interpretation—a restriction based upon the "resistance" mounted by the object of study—is something that in a slightly different way I believe we honor—and should honor—in the humanities. We all recognize that one way in which a literary theory plays itself out is in exhausting the resistance of the objects of its application. When all texts—rightly viewed—turned out to contain the familiar New Critical desiderata of irony, ambiguity and so forth, then the New Criticism began to seem stale. The New Historicism begins to run into problems when it seems to be able to discover "subversive" intentions in even the most complacently conservative of texts. Deconstructive critics of a certain type never found a text that didn’t celebrate the free play of the signifier and the indeterminacy of meaning. Again and again, literary approaches have been undermined by their success as much, or more, as by their failure.

  20. This is not to say that disagreement is desirable in and for itself. It is, rather, to argue that one of the purposes of literary study must be to preserve the role of the text—as far as possible—as a vital participant in the process. If an interpretation cannot in fact be "falsified" by the text, we should nonetheless give the text every chance to be a source of meanings, rather than a pretext for them. If not, why would we read at all? This is as much an ethical as an epistemological matter, but this is in the end as true for the scientist as it is for the critic. In both instances we make a choice that it is better to be willing to be taught by the world, or by the text, than to reduce it to a mere prop for an argument whose real springs are elsewhere.

  21. Shelley wrote in his "Defence of Poetry" that "a great Poem is a fountain for ever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence which their peculiar relations enable them to share, another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed, the source of an unforeseen and an unconceived delight" (500). The difficult trick is to construct a "new relation" with the text, rather than subjugate it entirely to the "peculiarities" of a new age.

  22. The question we must put to work of the kind represented by the present essays, and which I try to put to my own work in this vein, is the question of "resistance," which in Shelley’s terms is the question of the possibility of "unforeseen and unconceived delight." Will the application of chaos theory and quantum physics in literary studies find a useful kind of resistance from its objects of study? Or will we find—at first with delighted amazement and eventually with jaded indifference—that one author after another turns out to have been a "secret chaotician" or "secret Heisenbergian" all along, betraying an entirely predictable dedication to "chance"?

  23. We are particularly lucky in the present instance to have two readings of Blake, both drawing on different areas of contemporary science to construct closely related but significantly different arguments about the nature of Blakean "complexity." In the differences between the two papers—made clearer in the brief responses each author has generously supplied to the other—we have the most telling evidence that these approaches will continue to prove fruitful. In the long run, perhaps as important as the particular details of either argument is the fact of this evidence of "resistance." The appeal to models of explanation from outside the humanities is helping us to discover new insights into these texts, insights that offer us "new relations" to great poems.

  24. Reading work of the quality of Arkady Plotnitsky’s and Paul Yoder’s gives me confidence that these critical approaches are still unearthing "unforeseen and unconceived delights."

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. Edited by Conor Cruise O'Brien. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

Coleridge, S.T. Lay Sermons. Edited by R. J. White. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972. Vol. 6 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Bollingen Series LXXV.

Schiller, Friedrich. On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters. Trans. R. Snell. 1954. New York: Continuum, 1965.

Schlegel, Friedrich. Philosophical Fragments. Trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991

---------------------- Lucinde and the Fragments. Trans. Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1971

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry." Donald H. Reiman and Sharon Powers, eds. Shelley's Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 1977; 478-510

Stengers, Isabelle. "Scientific Reliability and the Challenge of a Democratic Society." Unpublished paper presented at the International School for Theory in the Humanities, Santiago de Compostela, 1999.

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Published @ RC

March 2001