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Romanticism and Disaster



Jacques Khalip and David Collings, "Introduction: The Present Time of 'Live Ashes'"

Romanticism and Disaster considers and responds to the timely concept of devastated life by thinking about how the capacity to read, interpret, and absorb disaster necessitates significant changes in theory, ethics, and common life. What if the consequences or "experience" of a disaster were less about psychic survival than an unblinking desire to face down the disaster as a challenge to normative structures? The essays in this volume attend to the rhetorical, epistemological, political, and social effects of romantic critique, and reflect on how processes of destruction and reconstitution, ruination and survival, are part and parcel of romanticism’s grappling with a negativity that haunts its corners. Put in this way, "disaster" does not signal a referential event, but rather an undoing of certain apparently prior categories of dwelling, and forces us to contemplate living otherwise. In confronting the end of things, what are the conditions or possibilities of existence amidst catastrophe? What is a crisis, and what kinds of challenges does it occasion? What can be philosophically gained or lost by analyzing disaster in its multiple sites, contexts, and instances?

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Scott J. Juengel, "Mary Wollstonecraft's Perpetual Disaster"

This essay reads the moments in the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) in which Mary Wollstonecraft imagines future disasters and grieves for losses yet to come. Taking his cue from William Godwin's comment that her prejudices suffered a "vehement concussion" from the events of the French Revolution, Juengel argues that these moments of disastrous affect register a traumatic apprehension she cannot otherwise articulate - not even in her Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution (1794). Devastated by a wounding realization of revolutionary hope, Wollstonecraft is "[h]aunted by what was to have been the future," and weaves "the time of revolutionary politics with what we might call 'species time,' resulting in forms of untimeliness that figure as disaster without end." Her sense of this disaster, so threatening to the value of individual lives, is attuned to the discovery of a planetary "deep time" that took place in the decades before and after the 1790s and to the prospect, articulated two years later by Malthus, of an ongoing "disaster of sensation and feeling that paradoxically moves the species toward life rather than death." Yet all these untimely reflections may enable her to avoid confronting the disasters of the present, such as the consequences of the fire that destroyed large portions of Copenhagen just before her arrival there; the thought of disaster, she suggests, would relieve her from the task of treading on "live ashes," on ills not yet reduced to scenes in fancy. Ultimately, Juengel argues, these movements of disastrous thought may all speak of what Reinhardt Koselleck describes as the radical temporalization of revolutionary time, a temporalization to which Wollstonecraft ultimately responds with a generous passivity, with a more-than-Kantian hospitality to disaster itself.

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William Keach, "The Ruins of Empire and the Contradictions of Restoration: Barbauld, Byron, Hemans"

This essay explores how Regency ruin culture developed at once as the apogee and the ambivalently repressive (and repressed) symptom of British imperialism, articulating the nuances of “Britain’s role in determining the trajectory of the Napoleonic imperial project at moments unstably situated between triumph and catastrophe, commercial and military pre-eminence and social crisis.” Working through Walter Benjamin's comments on ruination in The Arcades Project, Keach marks out how the difference between a “canonical” and “critical” ruin culture depends on gestures of delayed fascination tempered by an “awakening” that throws the ruin into sudden critical knowledge. For Keach, the ruin is indelibly coupled to restoration, thus producing a double movement of destruction and reconstruction that not only operates separately, but is intrinsic to the ideology of the ruin. As fragment, the ruin figures as a remainder of other cultures newly “acquired” and transmuted into the mournful excesses that haunt their reinstallment in pre- and post-Waterloo Britain. Even more, it either constitutes a celebratory surplus that hints at renovation or offers itself as unyielding matter—the debris of political and social violence.

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Timothy Morton, "Romantic Disaster Ecology: Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth"

Our world appears to be on the brink of disaster, an appearance that is itself disastrous. The disaster of disaster is that disaster is everywhere, all the time: while on the one hand it appears obvious that disaster should be the exception that proves the rule of a generally non-disastrous world, in actuality no non-disastrous moment arrives. Like a deer in the headlights, thinking is paralyzed by disaster. Do Romantic texts reinforce this problematic state of affairs, or resist it, and if so, how?

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Rei Terada, "Hegel's Bearings"

In her essay, Rei Terada ponders Hegel's style of "tarrying with the negative," particularly with the narrowing of political possibility in German territories both under Napoleonic liberalization and after Waterloo. In correspondence with his friend Friedrich Immanuel Niethammer, who states his wish to persist in fighting a losing cause even - or especially - if he is the "last man" to do so, as if to find sustenance in his inability to bear his dark times. Hegel bears up in another manner, seeking a middle way that "allows nothing to get too bad and nothing too good." Rather than trusting himself to a truly open history, Terada argues, Hegel protects the civic life of the middle class, but in doing so he also carries through on a philosophy in which "another middle, the middle of transition, always rules the world." Drawing on a description of a dream Hegel sends to his friend, in which "a certain realist calculation and foresight is implicit," his critique of "the mirror reifications of empiricism and idealism" in the Logic, and his account in the Encyclopedia of how the subject, reading every negativity that comes from outside as actually from inside, can become "a being capable of containing and enduring its own contradiction," Terada shows how Hegel becomes a "privileged figure of the new dispensation," someone capable of enduring "the horizonless condition of an antipolitical society that extends from the late Napoleonic era to our own."

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Published @ RC

January 2012