Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Conspiracy


Orrin N. C. Wang, University of Maryland, College Park

  1. During the 1960s history seemed in many ways to be an apocalyptic proposition; not coincidentally, at that same time, a revitalized Romantic literature occupied a central role in literary studies in North America and Great Britain. The apocalyptic tendencies of a Romanticism based on imagination and revolution spoke vividly to a period characterized by the reflexivity of intense social change and the perverse normalization of believing in an impending nuclear holocaust. Now, as the 1990s draw to a close, some years after the end of the Cold War, apocalypse is still surely with us; we have witnessed, however, its dissemination into a variety of fragmented, sometimes contradictory scenarios, a fitting predicament for an era fixated on the paradoxically twin phenomena of global consciousness and local knowledge. Arguably, today we no longer turn to apocalypse to bring human history together into one shared destiny; rather, our cultural and political discourses evince a totalizing epistemé based on another coordinate, one that very much colored the apocalyptic tone of the 60s, but which has now risen to prominence in its own right. If the 1960s have come to mean the age of apocalypse, the 1990s signal the age of conspiracy; as all the essays in this volume attest, such a situation still resonates with the age that we now call Romanticism.

  2. Conspiracy, of course, is a tricky thing. The desire to unmask a--or the-- conspiracy, the desire for a totalizing perspective, is always met by conspiracy's self-defining proposition that it can never fully be known, that the absence of conspiracy is its best evidence, and that the conspiracy always turns out to be just a conspiracy, one counter-plot to a plot's many counter-plots, oscillating proof for either a synecdochic whole or an infinite metonymic chain. This tension between totality and heterogeneity, underlying the always virtual component of any possible conspiracy, certainly speaks to our postcontemporary, postmodern existence. The same could be said of conspiracy's attendant experiences of doubling, betrayal, paranoia, and surveillance.

  3. Such qualities might at first seem alien to a period associated with the emotive aesthetics of Romantic sincerity, but an extended consideration of Romantic history and topoi proves otherwise. Indeed, the years associated with British Romanticism arguably rival our own fin-de-siecle in their debt to the explanatory powers--social, philosophical, and cultural--of conspiracy narratives. Towering over that period as the embodiment of the conspiracy hermeneutic was, of course, the French Revolution, an event whose very unfolding, as François Furet has argued, was largely generated by ghostly, self-referential structures--perhaps unsatisfactorily called rumors and innuendo--of both Jacobin and anti-revolutionary activities. If Furet's revolution seems itself to be composed of a series of responses to plots and counter-plots, imagined or otherwise, the French Revolution as some symptomatic conspiracy of alterity bearing down and transforming history was a common point of departure for many who lived during and after its convulsions. From that perspective Burke's Reflections is best understood as part of a spectrum of texts, including works by Abbé Barruel, John Robison, and Seth Payson, that warned against the Illuminati conspiracy that threatened all the established governments of Europe. (Is it too hard to imagine a tract with Robison's 1797 title, Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe circulating through cyber-space today?) For many, the Illuminati were responsible for both the American and French Revolutions. At such a point conspiracy absorbed all other narratives, becoming the totalizing motor behind history itself.

  4. But if history was a conspiracy the inscription of this dynamic within the political and cultural discourses of British Romanticism was an uneven, heterogenous set of effects that belied conspiracy's totalizing imperative. Certainly, the Great Britain that warred with France and its Revolution, and then with Napoleon's Empire, was a fertile site for the conspiracy hermeneutic and its accompanying affects. As Jerome Christensen has recently suggested, the Romantic writing produced between the "last decade of the eighteenth century and the first decade or so of the nineteenth" should in fact be considered "wartime poetry" (603). But if fear of invasion and enemies abroad produced a policy of paranoia for English conservatives, state oppression begun in the 1790s against sympathizers of the Revolution and supporters of domestic reform produced an equal atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion for those on the English left. And, as the first three essays in this volume attest, the rhetoric and epistemology of conspiratorial thought also acted in varying, emphatic ways upon the imaginary of the second generation Romantics. Retrieving the pervasiveness of conspiracy during the Romantic era therefore means retrieving the variety of forms that the suspicions and representations of conspiracy took. It means retrieving local instances of conspiratorial logic both at the material level of institutions, policies, and events and at the figural level of writings; it means considering the machinations of Romantic conspiracy in terms of its heterogenous forms as well as various content. The essays in this volume start to explore these levels of significance for a Romanticism steeped in conspiracy.

  5. Kevin Gilmartin's essay, "William Cobbett and the Politics of System" explores Cobbett's resistance against the British conservative belief that domestic clubs and societies for reformists and radicals were outgrowths of one monolithic conspiracy against England. As Gilmartin shows, Cobbett's tactic was to exchange this monolith for a more complex historical causality, the volatile agency of "system" which blocked British reform for the working-class and the poor. The domain of Cobbett's rhetoric and activism, where he articulated the machinations of system, very much overlaps with what Habermas has called the "sphere of publicity"; in different ways Kim Wheatley's "Paranoid Politics: Shelley and the Quarterly Review and Charles Mahoney's "Periodical Indigestion: Hazlitt's Unpalatable Politics" also focus on the relation between a conspiratorial dynamic and the public sphere, specifically the public world of early nineteenth- century British periodicals. Wheatley's essay examines the relation between Percy Bysshe Shelley and the "fiercely" Tory Quarterly Review, a periodical whose 'paranoid style,' a totalizing discourse of self-aggrandizement and persecution," attacked Shelley as Satanic rebel. Wheatley suggestively argues that Shelley's letters and play, Prometheus Unbound, respond to the journal's demonization of him, by at once critiquing and participating in the antinomies of conspiracy theory rhetoric. Mahoney's article focuses on William Hazlitt's thoughts about the politics of periodical criticism, a politics mediated by the contradictions between public taste and populist sentiment, the tropes of food and digestion, and the goal of circumventing the ire of the "literary police." Mahoney thus explores one Romantic writer's negotiation of conspiracy's attendant experiences of surveillance and policing; in doing so Mahoney demonstrates how in Hazlitt those terms occasion a more complex relation between politics and language, one that includes not only a representation of the political but also a politics of the figural. Mahoney thus redirects the analysis of Romantic conspiracy away from simply its historical groundings to conspiracy's figural relation to Romantic writing. Thomas Pfau's essay, "Bringing about the Past: Prophetic Memory in Kant, Godwin, and Blake," further explores that dynamic, extracting from Romantic discourse a topoi of obsessive, retroactive intervention that strains toward a Romantic epistemé of prophetic, paraonoid certitude. For Pfau Romanticism is at once an origin for this "conspiratorial logic" and its product, insofar as the contemporary historicist study of Romanticism has implicitly assumed Romantic knowledge to be a form of conspiracy.

  6. Could this type of paranoid reading be an explanatory model for literary studies in general since the 1980s? That very question reintroduces the tension between a totalizing perspective and an unavoidable local knowledge with which we began. The relation between Romanticism and conspiracy invites the possibility of a theoretically transcendent view, even as it offers a number of discrete, immanent incidents, historical and rhetorical, as signs of its articulation. Like conspiracy itself this tension will most likely never be solved. This is not to say it should be shunned, nor should the thought that the critical act might always simply be the distillation of a constitutive suspicion. Both predicaments only mean that we have more work to do: the truth, like Romanticism, is out there.

  7. Thomas Pfau's and Kim Wheatley's contributions were originally commissioned for a special session on Romanticism and Conspiracy at the 1996 NASSR conference. Charles Mahoney's and Kevin Gilmartin's essays were solicited for this volume. Gilmartin's piece is an excerpt from his book, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in Early Nineteenth- Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); it appears here as part of an ongoing collaboration between Romantic Circles and Cambridge University Press, showcasing excerpts from a number of works in Cambridge's Studies in Romanticism Series. Romantic Circles Praxis Series would also like to thank Joseph Vicomi, the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, the Library of Congress, and the William Blake Archive for the links between Thomas Pfau's essay and the illustrated plates from Urizen from the Archive; and the collection of John Howard for this volume's cover and table of contents image.

    Cover and table of contents illustration: LCS plotters seized: Search-Night, or State Watchmen, mistaking Honest-Men for Conspirators, by James Gillray (1798)

Works Cited

Christensen, Jerome. "The Detection of the Romantic Conspiracy in Britain." South Atlantic Quarterly 95:3 (1996): 603-27.

About this Page

Published @ RC

August 1997