Khalip & Collings, "Introduction: The Present Time of “Live Ashes”"

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Romanticism and Disaster

"Introduction: The Present Time of “Live Ashes”"

Jacques Khalip & David Collings
Brown University, Bowdoin College


TEI

Mieux vaut un désastre qu’un désêtre
Alain Badiou (230)

Disaster (OED): Anything that befalls of ruinous or distressing nature; a sudden or great misfortune, mishap, or misadventure; a calamity.

1.        In an entry in her journals about her brother’s struggles with writing "The Pedlar" , Dorothy Wordsworth notes: “Wm very ill, employed with the pedlar . . . Disaster pedlar” (96). The evocation here of grievous embodiment in a figure typically defined as one of the hallmarks of Wordsworth’s literary personae gives rise to several perspectives that bear on the persistence of calamity in romantic thought. Dorothy elucidates a figure of and for imminent disaster that seems proper to the act of reading itself: enigmatically foretelling a disaster that Wordsworth in his numerous revisions of the Pedlar narrative had sought to control and shape, her words have the effect of bearing witness to an event she cannot fully know or summon into clarity. Much like Benjamin’s angel who looks back at the debris of history while being drawn forward into a future tense inscribed by the unknowability of the past, the pedlar is hallucinated as the promise of an exemplary persona whose task is impossibly to ameliorate the ruination that emerges in the witnessing or reading of the poem. Yet Dorothy's comment points to the undoing of this scenario, for the pedlar's potentially angelic vocation is disarrayed as he becomes a disaster, a persona that incorporates and transmits the horror of what he sees.

2.        Here, text produces a referentiality that seemingly lives beyond it while at the same time seeping outward as an event that is necessarily tied to linguistic deferral.

3.        How and why does a text generate this “necessity” of catastrophe? In Paul de Man’s classic essay, "Shelley Disfigured" , the poet emerges as the material precipitate of processes of fragmentation, erosion, and drowning in "The Triumph of Life" , which ineluctably participate in a canonical monumentalization of the poem that cannot be freed from the critique of those processes themselves (de Man). At once on the page and away from the page, the “body” of Shelley is what is different from language and posited by linguistic cueing—a phantom excess or catastrophic materiality that is intrinsic to the reading of the poem. Similarly, Dorothy’s reading returns us to the scene of disaster as both the future and present of a condition of reading and interpretation. In this way, the pedlar might very well signal less something wicked this way coming than a conceptual dissonance that implicitly sustains the life-world of romanticism and which cannot be accounted for.

4.         This optic suggests that the emergence of the pedlar is partly in line with the form of traumatism Derrida defines as the fear of the yet-to-come, or the possibility of some greater catastrophe ever about to occur despite the sense that it has already taken place. This hope, in turn, is not easily distinguished from Derrida's treatment of the messianic orientation to the to-come, hinting that in his work, as well as in the romanticism it inherits, the promise of a certain futurity is always shadowed by its catastrophic counterpart in a pairing that ruins the very temporalities through which we might attempt to manage disaster and its aftermaths. Accordingly, in the pages that follow, we have sought to think about how romanticism endures or bears with (a term central to Rei Terada’s article) the difficulties of defining what constitutes a disaster and what kinds of changes it can provoke in social, political, epistemological, and ethical life. After all, if disaster etymologically suggests a disorientation of place in relation to the stars, this loss of footing is less about a saturation in despair than a recognition of how the attending disappointments, reaction-formations, and imperilling states of disastrous experience might signal a vital rethinking of the untapped powers that lie amidst the ruins. The pedlar can be at once a threat and an invitation to stare a bit longer at the valuable consequences that lie in reorganizing ourselves to a catastrophic reality that is not meant to be withstood but rather accepted as our ineluctable present.

5.        The possibility of exploring these powers of acceptance is not entirely new to romanticism; indeed, for centuries British subjects had taken for granted the necessity of enduring catastrophic events - plague, famine, flood, drought - as an inherent part of human vulnerability. Yet as the institutions of modern governmentality begin to emerge, such events appear more negotiable than before; the narrator of Daniel Defoe's A Journal of a Plague Year oscillates between reading the plague as a visitation of divine will and a medical condition whose spread could at least be partially prevented through better measures on the part of the London municipal authorities. Catastrophic events, it seems, are in part cosmically given and in part subject to human intervention. Although a similar ambivalence remained in force through the romantic era and well beyond, the increasing confidence of medical practitioners, the growth in population, the shift toward a more secular and humanistic ethos, and the impress of Enlightenment demands for better governance cast new doubt on the necessity of disaster, giving a different tone to the collective response to destructive events. What might have previously been spoken of as an intractable dimension of divine will was now read as a potentially negotiable aspect of human biology or public governance; the recurrence of such events thus pointed either to the need for further enlightenment and reform or to a fault endemic to the public order itself. The fierce political debates that emerged during the famine of the mid 1790s, for example, shortly before Wordsworth labored on The Ruined Cottage, debates that often invoked notions of natural law (as in Edmund Burke's "Thoughts and Details on Scarcity" ) or of common right to subsistence from the land (as in John Thelwall's The Tribune), demonstrate how far Britain had moved into a secular, political idiom.

6.        Yet the adoption of such an idiom inspired others to extend it, to ponder the systematic recurrence of general distress, leading T. R. Malthus to argue in 1798 that the "checks to population" - war, famine, and plague - arise from population's endless pressure to exceed the limits of subsistence. In this view, disaster is a symptom of a certain disorder in the biological preconditions of human life as such, a disorder that he attempts to recuperate as a spur to human labor and ingenuity, in the mode of a secular theodicy, but which nevertheless speaks of a new possibility - that the domain over which medicine, governance, and political economy sought to exert their sway might be shaped by a constitutive contradiction, a non-negotiable incoherence that no administrative effort could finally extirpate, a fault in things that shatters even a secular theodicy. By the end of the eighteenth century, it became conceivable that rather than consisting of singular events, disaster was endemic to the human itself. As a result, while the apparently rational institutions of the modern state promised to remove certain domains - subsistence, reproduction, and public health - from the vagaries of divine will, the persistence of collective distress suggested that those domains were subject to equally intractable forces now rooted not in divine alterity but in natural law.

7.        A similar development took place as students of "the history of the earth" gradually articulated the elements of modern geological knowledge: by the late eighteenth century, natural disaster and vast extinction, rather than being exceptional events, were conceived as taking place frequently across the immense reaches of earth's history. Indeed, as Scott Juengel suggests, Malthus may not entirely be a theorist of catastrophe due to his avoidance of the exception in favor of “a mathematical horizon and the inevitability of time and instinct.” This awareness confronted late-eighteenth century people with a systematic catastrophe even less tractable than demographic crisis, less amenable to governmental intervention. If on some level geological crises could be explained with reference to fundamental natural laws, on another they revealed a primal fault in the preconditions of human life, creating another obstacle to the formation of a secular theodicy. Enlightenment investigation, in short, ultimately exposed a fault in the anchoring terms of the secular order itself, in nature and the human. One might almost say that as a result, only at this point was disaster truly disastrous, for only now was it possible to face the prospect of enduring it without recourse and without appeal.

8.        Yet even this notion of the non-negotiable disaster found its place within scenarios that in various ways attempted to confirm the ascendancy of governance or of a certain rationality. Malthus himself, for example, sought to learn the lessons of disaster and to modify the policies of the British state accordingly, encouraging it to revise its laws regarding the provision of aid to the poor (as it did in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834). The implacable laws of nature, in his view, justified the state's adopting only apparently inhumane and draconian policies of its own. The sublation of disaster into public policy created what one might regard, contra Malthus, as a kind of disastrous state. But others in the period explored rather different strategies. In his analytic of the sublime, Kant suggested that the mind encountering any excessively vast or powerful aspect of nature could overleap that threat and identify with its own capacity to conceive of the infinite, effectively mapping out a strategy whereby the mind could assure itself of its dominance over even the most implacably hostile aspects of nature. Rather than attempting to provide a theological or governmental response to devastation, Kant in fact left empirical devastation in place, superseding it not by imagining any historically actual resolution but by creating a new category of solace, the mind's reassurance of its destination in a zone beyond any empirically available experience. In effect, he created a new secular theodicy, an identification with the mind's transcendence, whereby one could face with equanimity any actually devastating experience by keeping in mind that even it could not fundamentally alter one's supersensible origin and end. The cost of such a strategy, however, is that it located human dignity in a space so remote from actual suffering that it left the latter in place, largely unchallenged, cutting that solace off from the suffering body and embodied mind that needed it most. The attempt to overleap disaster by sublating it into governance or by resorting to the virtual category of the mind's transcendence both failed to dislodge disaster from its newly provocative and difficult position as the obstacle to secular theodicy or to a rationally redemptive historiography, for these strategies either gave disaster even more force or provided an exit strategy from a history where it continued to hold sway.

9.        In the wake of these and other developments, Wordsworth's labor on The Ruined Cottage takes on new weight, for a figure who at once bears and embodies the disaster takes the measure of an unyielding negativity without attempting to sublate it into a new mode of governance or a new philosophical category. Under the new conditions of secular knowledge and governance, the capacity to abide with and as disaster has new and surprising resonances. Although the pedlar does conclude his tale with a consoling meditation, those lines remain embedded in the context of the story of Margaret's suffering and point back to it, remaining vulnerable to a countervailing interpretation of her tale. Indeed, Wordsworth's very difficulty in composing this conclusion, or rather in deciding how to bridge the gap between the affective resonances of suffering and of consolation, led to the perpetual crisis of composing this poem, to William's illness, and eventually to Dorothy's designation of "Disaster pedlar." In effect, Dorothy's gesture of naming the pedlar in this way suggests that how to respond to a disastrous world is itself an ongoing compositional, affective, aesthetic disaster, one that admits of no resolution, that disables, even as it effects, the task of interpretation. In that case, however, the emergence of this figure exceeds its contexts, recasting the various discourses it evokes to undermine the explanatory virtues of historical location per se. This disabling element extends as well to our reading: the poem never makes clear what referential scenario we are to privilege as we comprehend it, on what ontological level we are to locate the disaster it addresses, nor how exactly to conceive of disaster itself. Placed within and against its manifold contexts, The Ruined Cottage thus indicates that romanticism takes as its point of departure these very difficulties. Here and elsewhere, romanticism maps out what we might now recognize as a negative dialectics, one that refuses the stratagems of sublation as long as a certain catastrophic materiality remains in force, and a negative historicity, one that invokes yet refuses historical location. In its hesitations, impasses, and foreclosures, this poem outlines an aesthetics not of failure but of rigorous resistance to a false redemption, indeed to theodicy itself, one that ultimately hopes not to evade what it sees in disaster but to dwell with it, bear with it, and thus to find in this very abiding its own mode of impossible consolation.

10.        Our reading of the disastrous pedlar thus suggests that if romanticism has often been defined as a being-in-the-world that coincides with liberal processes of secularization, increased progress, and amelioration, then it would appear that reading romanticism through its capacity to dwell with disaster attends to the ways in which optimistic revelation is split or displaced (an etymological improvisation on désastre—“from the stars”) by the “traumatic kernel,” as Žižek would put it (For They Know Not 102), which influences the romantic projects that continue to make a claim on our contemporary thinking. It is the task of this special issue to approach the problem of reading the romantic varieties of disaster and to engage a host of attending issues. What are the social, historical, and political conditions or possibilities of living amidst devastation? How does one recognize such devastation in the first place, and what are the criteria through which it is posited? What is a crisis, and what kinds of temporal changes does it occasion? What can be philosophically gained or lost by analyzing disaster in its numerous sites, contexts, and instances? Anecdotally, the idea for this issue emerged out of our felt experience of the topicality of disaster in our own post-9/11 “dark times”; and yet, to quickly say that “disaster” is the zeitgeist of our age evokes an amnesiac, anxious belief (as Timothy Morton argues in his essay) that a holistic world was at some point possible and has been recently rent asunder. The nostalgic leitmotif here seems to avoid the more critical intervention made by many romantic texts that disaster has already phenomenally occurred within our social, political, and cultural structures and that perpetually attempting to sift the real from the imagined disasters fails to plumb the depths of what we assume “befalls” us. It also turns away from providing challenging responses and intellectual reorientations to catastrophic events. “A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession,” said Barack Obama on February 4, 2009, “a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future . . . . That's why I feel such a sense of urgency about the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan." The urgency of the request is underwritten by the sense that impending dissolution is the likely terminus that can be avoided by skirting inaction and passivity—failures to “act now,” in other words, are what turn crisis into catastrophe, but what is missing from Obama’s measurement is the more jarring sense that the crisis has always already been here, and that guarantees for normative restoration and reconstitution are themselves consequences of an inability to develop modes of thought and agency that desist from the “catastrophic imperative” (Hoens et al.) that structures us already.

11.        We have purposely left “disaster” open as a complex term in order not to narrow it to any one approach, standard, or form of evaluation. Disaster might very well be interchangeable with other terms such as “catastrophe,” “cataclysm,” “ruin,” “destruction,” or “trauma.” Indeed, trauma studies in particular has had a generative effect on romantic scholarship, especially attempts to think through the relationships between affect and historical consciousness. As critics such as Jerome Christensen and Mary Favret, David L. Clark, and Marc Redfield have taught us, much of what we call romanticism emerged under the stormclouds of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century warfare - a scene of violence that exceeds any Malthusian calculus of population loss in warfare, famine, or plague, that points to a more fundamental disorientation. According to Favret, the “everyday” life of the romantic literature was itself constituted by a sensitivity to battles far away but always experientially at hand, “a literature saturated by the awareness, conscious or unconscious, of a world lost to war . . . the pained effort to bind what is present and familiar with another reality, absent and destructive” (Favret 158, 159). Favret’s War At a Distance is one powerful response to the sense of unknowable crises that romantic writers shouldered, and we take her scholarship as an impetus for exploring in the following pages what forms of change on the Enlightenment landscapes (both hospitable and inhospitable) can be described as disastrous and for what reasons. For Favret, trauma becomes the operative model through which to read how historical knowledge is encrypted within literary form as “unclaimed experience” (to cite Cathy Caruth’s influential book). Like melancholy or paranoia, trauma has become the model par excellence of a romantic historicism embedded by a knowing that it cannot fully grasp. (See Pfau, Romantic Moods.) In this way, traumatic experience is by definition acquired involuntarily by not confronting it.

12.        But 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? As Terada notes, what if the propulsion to overcome disasters overleaps the healing effort and precisely misses their larger point: “Transition, and specifically one’s own change in it, is the main thing that it is necessary to ‘endure.’” Our employment of “disaster” partially signals Badiou’s differentiation (in our epigraph) of the désastre from the des être, a differentiation, that is, between a (dis)orientation towards the truth-event and a destructive non-being that nullifies the capacity to respond to the event in the first place. This power to nullify may be registered in part by gestures that, in attempting to respond, encounter the impossibility of doing so; producing figures of potential survival, they discover that such figures instead enable the ruins themselves to survive, personifying how ê tre has become, and has always been, the face of a more pervasive des ê tre, a desolation that endures through us even as we endure it. To fully face this radical fault in being, then, may require passing beyond the thought of trauma to conceive of a state that is not interrupted by crisis and does not seek to recover from it - a state that renounces even the redemptive narrative encrypted in the very notion of trauma.

13.        If this is so, we might start to think of romanticism and disaster as indelibly linked by virtue of the fact that the conceptual mobility of the latter term has often spelled for critics of all stripes (deconstructive, historicist, formalist) a catachrestic movement of critical ruination that defines a theory of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment modernity already damaged at its very core. In this way, to think of romanticism disastrously is to begin to question the successes of “modernity.” As Thomas Pfau has shown, romantic modernity is often conceived as a “cosmic miscarriage” ("Philosophy of Shipwreck" 951) symptomatic of the bureaucratized and professionalized disciplinary conceptions of knowledge through which we have ourselves become at once its bearers and critics. Like Wordsworth’s pedlar who signals for Dorothy a ruin at both the psychic and textual levels, emphases on voluntaristic models of agency are often undercut by an inoperative negativity that they fail to fully erase because their structure is already determined by what Blanchot has called a désoeuvrement at the heart of their labors. Himself a theorist of disaster, Blanchot will insist that this seemingly untraceable, unapprehendable negation is already there in the constructed surfaces of the world—an impossibility of writing that nevertheless conditions writing always to respond to that excess or non-identity which cannot be represented, felt, or recognized in spite of the fact that we already are inhabitants of disasters that have already occurred: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact. It does not touch anyone in particular…It is in this way that I am threatened; it is in this way that the disaster threatens in me that which is exterior to me—an other than I who passively become other” (1).

14.        As William Keach argues, to attend to the rhetorical, epistemological, political, and social effects of romantic critique is to consider how processes of destruction and reconstitution, ruination and survival, are part and parcel of romanticism’s grappling with this inoperative negativity, or what Tilottama Rajan has called "an unusable negativity" ("Mary Shelley's Matilda" 44), a negativity that haunts it at every turn. Put in this way, for us "disaster" does not signal a referential event, despite the historical sequence from which it arose, but rather a condition to which that sequence leads, an undoing of certain apparently prior categories: subjectivity, community, “world.” That undoing continues to resonate today in our own registering of contemporary devastation. In a review essay on New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, Lloyd Pratt has perspicaciously asked, was “the fate overtaking New Orleans an exceptional or an exemplary one? Was this gruesome spectacle of life stripped bare something in excess of the everyday, or did it in fact recapitulate the new shape of American society?” (251). What is at stake in Pratt’s questions is how to positively bear and process, under the most intolerable of circumstances, the magnitude of a disaster that exceeds nominal definitions and whose effects challenge the reparative desires of all social, cultural, political, and psychic structures. Neither example nor exception, “Katrina” refers to an incapacity that inscribes its own name, an incapacity to posit anything identifiably part of our past or present sense of what a disaster might be, and how to respond to it. If anything, “Katrina” signals an event, in Badiou’s sense: the irruption of an utterly new occurrence within a situation to which we have no prior knowledge or anticipation. The disastrous event, then, is neither eschatological nor transcendental: it is a movement of thought that calls upon us to reflect and act upon that which we cannot know but ultimately must bear.

15.        Insofar as disaster is not a referential event but an undoing of certain categories, it ultimately undermines any attempt to explain it as a dimension of a familiar history or to interpret it within the terms of any received historiography. To be sure, as we have argued above, the thought of disaster as this undoing emerges within a certain history, but precisely as a turn upon the discourses it inherits from that history, a turn that ultimately suggests that disaster floats free of any determining moment, or more radically lays bare a certain nontemporal negativity at the heart of modern historicity itself. In that case, the continuing resonances of romanticism's reflections on disaster in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina, as we have suggested above, suggests that what romanticism records is in some sense still contemporary with our own experience, that the sequence of periods and historical transformations coincide with an inoperable negativity that renders each era a further iteration of an unassimilable event. This strange temporality of disaster links romanticism as well with the condition that arises within the debris of Hiroshima and Auschwitz, an affiliation that has been registered variously by Frances Ferguson, Geoffrey Hartman, and Sara Guyer - an affiliation, however, that does not privilege romanticism as the first mode of writing to broach these themes nor post-Holocaust discourse as their most knowing treatment.

16.        But as we suggested a moment ago, even this disabling of familiar modes of historical and chronological mapping arises from an anterior ruining of evidence, of the citation of example or exception. An excellent example of such a ruining emerges already in "Mont Blanc," where Shelley meditates on the relationship between ruin, instruction, and exemplarity in a passage we will quote at length, if only to reread in a new key:

Some say that gleams of a remoter world
Visit the soul in sleep, - that death is slumber,
And that its shapes the busy thoughts outnumber
Of those who wake and live. - I look on high;
Has some unknown omnipotence unfurled
The veil of life and death? or do I lie
In dream, and does the mightier world of sleep
Spread far and round and inaccessibly
Its circles? For the very spirit fails,
Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep
That vanishes among the viewless gales!
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears, - still, snowy and serene -
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;
A desert peopled by the storms alone,
Save when the eagle brings some hunter's bone,
And the wolf tracks her there - how hideously
Its shapes are heaped around! rude, bare, and high,
Ghastly, and scarred, and riven. - Is this the scene
Where the old Earthquake-demon taught her young
Ruin? Were these their toys? or did a sea
Of fire envelop once this silent snow?
None can reply - all seems eternal now.
(49-75)
“Is this the scene / Where the old Earthquake-demon taught her young / Ruin? Were these their toys?” Mont Blanc here is posited as an example, but the question of what it taught already destroys the possibility of registering the place of that pedagogy in the first place because the contextual “scene” of that instruction has already been forgotten. Teaching ruin is already a process of ruination from which there is no objective outside: the disastrous pedagogy of the mountain suffers from an illusion of exceptionality and a failure of example: “Or did a sea / Of fire envelop once this silent snow? / None can reply—all seems eternal now." This erasure of exemplarity also undoes the respondent's confidence in himself as an example of a responsive subject, whether rendered as his individuality or the coordinates of his orientation to this scene: his spirit vanishes before a force that blows from a space he cannot locate, causing him to blend with a destructiveness that would annihilate him were he to attempt to survive intact. Furthermore, it frays even the privileged categories we might expect to underlie any mere example, for the "bare" world that appears with the erasure of human details is itself "scarred" and "riven," as if being itself sustains an infinite wound. In such passages, romanticism registers a baffled awareness that it cannot teach the lessons of such an encounter, cannot use disaster to found another positive discursive regime, cannot even formulate a new hauntology of des ê tre, but can only evoke it through texts that explore the terrain of their own defeat.

17.        The four essays in this special issue all concentrate, in different ways, on disastrous conceptualizations of a romantic modernity whose innovative aptitudes are belied by a felt struggle to come to terms with a ruin that refuses to be overcome, a struggle in which the possibility of survival devolves into delayed reaction, resignation, defeat, and critical endurance. Scott Juengel's essay, "Mary Wollstonecraft's Perpetual Disaster" , reads those moments in the Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) in which Wollstonecraft cribs from that quintessential Enlightenment genre, the conjectural history, to imagine future disasters and grieve 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." Moreover, such a speculative leap into the future is defended in Kant's "Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History" and finds its parallel in his writing on perpetual peace, where he imagines a world free of war — or devastated by a peace that transpires after a war without remainder. Even her apparent turn in the opposite direction, when she imagines that the sparsely populated landscape of Sweden speaks of human origins, may indicate her melancholic reflections on the "possibility of renewal" within the imagined ruins of the future. 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. Juengel's searching essay provokes us to suggest that if Wollstonecraft exemplifies a traumatic untimeliness characteristic of our modernity, her willingness to remain hospitable to disaster may exemplify with equal force an ethics for the ruins.

18.        In his contribution to this collection, William Keach explores a similarly dense affiliation of statements made roughly two decades later, at another moment of great affective intensity. His essay, "The Ruins of Empire and the Contradictions of Restoration: Barbauld, Byron, Hemans" , 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. Thus ruins “presuppose survival and materialize it; restoration seeks to sustain the survival of ruins, but in doing so imperfectly arrests and undoes both ruin and survival.” In Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, ruin emerges as cultural property that harkens to the catastrophes of European warfare, but it is also a feature of Harold himself who figures for a perverse internalization and enactment of ruination. The diverse rhetorical plays and critiques Byron mounts against Regency life display a powerful critical project: “Byron turns our attention towards the revered monuments of ancient empire not to debunk their affective force in the present but to redirect that force towards an awakened sense of how they may be read as commentaries on the present.” Similarly, Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, the spoils of British imperialism are evoked as traces of a ceaseless wartime, and rather than gesture proleptically at a future to come that is inscribed by past greatness, Barbauld imagines a waning future that institutionalizes ruins as anachronistic remnants, thus shortcircuiting the forward propulsion of post-Waterloo political life. By contrast, in Felicia Hemans’s The Restoration of the Works of Art to Italy — a poem Byron read and admired — the British seizure of Italian artifacts is conceived to be part of a dubiously optimistic political agenda, where the ruin is both “confirmed” and “confined” by Hemans’s narrative linking of destruction, survival, and restoration. As Keach charts the repressed historical materiality that haunts the poem, he notes that “for political and ethical as well as aesthetic reasons, Rome needs to remain in ruins; any prospect of a phoenix-like rise from its ashes would compromise its distinctive value as ruin—and also threaten Britain’s ascendancy as Europe’s new imperial champion of restoration.”

19.        What follows in the wake of thinking oppositely about ruin, survival, and restoration? How can one think with, rather than against, disaster? Timothy Morton’s "Romantic Disaster Ecology: Blake, Shelley, Wordsworth" explicitly reflects on romantic models of (ecological) knowing that take disaster as a part of their framework and the consequences of these structural choices. If mainstream ecological thinking is disaster prone in its visions of apocalyptic meltdowns and universal heat-deaths, then, according to Morton, ecology is construed as the perfect consequence (rather than antithesis) of global capitalism which depends upon futural projections of destruction that produce an unworkable state of exception. The critical difference lies precisely in how and why one wants to think through disaster: the traumatic possibility of something yet-to-come postpones a consideration of how our life-worlds are already shaped by catastrophe. In fact, disaster ecology potentially absents the world in favor of expectations of destruction that obviate the real effects of ecological damage that already define us. In the process, they also reify the “environment” as a preserved artifact that is distinctly separate from our own lives. “[I]s there another way to think, without disaster, a non-disastrous thinking, that isn't just postponement?” Turning to Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley, Morton describes three approaches that variously posit and critically re-imagine what ecological thought beyond disaster might be. Indeed, Wordsworth emerges as enabling poetic forms of listening that emerge in tandem with the evocation of catastrophe, and in this sense, Morton suggests that the aesthetic contributes to subjective, epistemological, and social formation in a way that exposes our ecological relationality through the disasters that supposedly interrupt thinking, but nevertheless inscribe our sociality through and through.

20.        The difficult prospect of thinking disaster in a mode that is not postponement, that takes the measure of something already taking place, raises questions that were of central and abiding interest to Hegel. In her essay, "Hegel's Bearings" , 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." By identifying the transitional movement of his philosophy with reality itself, Hegel as a result assimilates the grayness of his times into his own thought. For Hegel, disaster is "being unable to shake one's presentation of a situation as unbearable," yet by proposing that the subject might absorb any eventuality into its mode of endless transition, he constructs a model of pathological health, a subject for which nothing would ultimately be a disaster. This impasse, Terada suggests, "persists to the present day."

21.        Is it possible that by further reflection we might work our way past this and other impasses to a new possibility? Or is a certain impotence of thought inherent to dwelling in the ruins, much as, for Shelley, disaster erases any lesson we might learn from it? Does the undoing of certain categories (community, world) erase the prospect of a politics for the ruins, or does a critical reading of the ruin - and a hospitality to disaster itself - offer us a glimpse of another mode of collective engagement? Does the attempt to render disaster into discourse reproduce it, making us, like the pedlar, instances of what we would describe? Or might our reflections at least delineate the contours of our untimeliness, opening up the prospect of thinking otherwise? The persistence of these questions challenges our thoughts and expectations as well as our states of belonging, whether it be our age or another. This intense, unblinking openness inspires our contributors, for whom romanticism is at least partially the most pressing instance of multiple confrontations with what Adorno and Horkheimer referred to as the “disaster triumphant” of modernity in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (3), but with the difference that post-eighteenth-century thought is not merely to be defined by a violent attenuation of its commitments, but rather by a brooding, infinitely complex, and aggressive critical aliveness to the ways in which the un-thought of our common life is perpetually shadowed by its failures. That failure, however, spells out occasions to think about what it means to get by, as it were, or live on amidst the mere ruin of things—to perceive, hold on, and not look away—to have faith in the reminder that the disaster has a right or a value in and of itself, and one must dwell in it rather than leave it behind.

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Published @ RC

January 2012

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