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Romantic Frictions

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Theresa M. Kelley, "Introduction"

In recent decades skirmishes about how to read literature and culture have at times polarized critics, who find themselves identified, or identify themselves, with distinct critical dispositions toward either historicism or toward some version of poststructuralist writing, in particular deconstruction, supposed to be suspicious of historicism for espousing an empiricist, neo-positivist perspective on the past. What emerges from this standoff can seem comical or simply bizarre as one side imagines the other as its constitutive other, and as such productive of readings in which something is missing. Deconstructive and poststructural readers who ground their readings in philosophical argument and rhetorical nuance are at the very least bemused by the focus on detail in new historicist readings or the large gestures of cultural studies readings. In reply historicist and cultural critics find the lacunae in arguments from philosophical points of departure damaging to the lived temporality of writing and culture. Although this dispute animates more than one moment of literary study (it has become more marked in Victorian studies), its most sustained version has concerned Romanticism, understood variously since the 1980s as the disputed subject of new historicism and deconstruction.

Whatever else it is, Romanticism arises in a moment of extraordinary and divisive recognition of differences among races, peoples, and political programs. And at least since the 1980s, the era has remained the focus of critical dissent as deconstructive, new historicist and other critical arguments debated whose Romanticism was theirs. This debate has in turn helped to shape public understanding of how we read literature and culture now as an enterprise strangely and contentiously divided between thinking about the work of language or the character of historical difference as though each goal could be separated from the other. This opposition is strangely rigid, easy to caricature and, as importantly, easy to dismiss. What gets lost in this critical antagonism is the shimmer of historical and philosophical friction in Romanticism itself and in compelling Romantic criticism in the last decade.

Romantic Frictions emphasizes this important critical turn, which supposes that the pressure of Romantic difference is as much historical and cultural as it is philosophical and theoretical and that it is ongoing in critical discourse. So positioned, these essays address the rub of critical differences as the work at hand as well as the work that Romanticism itself frequently performed. Hearing critical voices rather than taking stands, these essays stage frictions that make Romanticism engaging for modern readers, precisely because this era and its modern critics remind us of the value of difference as the work of thought in time and culture. The essays in Romantic Frictions find in Romanticism what philosophical modernity has often found there: a disposition to recognize oppositions that cannot be squared or resolved precisely because they constitute the ongoing work of culture and writing. Such frictions are embedded in a shifting temporal moment whose inner complexity is similarly textured such that neither history nor philosophy assumes a master (and fictional) disguise. Both are instead crosscut and assembled in ways that sustain an inner friction that invites being read.

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Ian Duncan, "The Trouble with Man: Scott, Romance, and World History in the Age of Lamarck"

Sylvan the giant captive Ourang-Outang is only the most spectacular figure in an array of monsters, prodigies, and other anomalous characters who trouble the categories not just of culture, gender, ethnicity and race but of humanity as a species in Walter Scott's late romance Count Robert of Paris (1831). Dismissed by most commentators as a bizarre effusion of Scott’s dotage, Count Robert of Paris sets its scene decisively outside the developmental continuum specified for “the classical form of the historical novel” by Georg Lukács. Eleventh-century Constantinople is scarcely the scene of “our own” past, a setting that may provide “a concrete prehistory of the present” (The Historical Novel 269). It is doubly divided from modern British readers: by the schism between the Greek and Roman churches, which cast Byzantium as the decadent shadow of a more vigorous “western civilization”; and by the Ottoman conquest of 1453, which cut off the Greek empire from the progressive path to modernity. J. H. Alexander’s new edition of Count Robert of Paris (Edinburgh, 2006), restoring extensive passages that were cut by Scott’s executors, allows us to see more clearly than was hitherto possible the novel’s philosophical investment in alien histories, alien origins.

Among the passages published for the first time is a conclusion in which Scott acknowledges the unprecedented, experimental character of what is “probably the last of my fictitious compositions” (362). The quest for “novelty at whatever rate” has driven him to “lay his scene in distant countries, among stranger nations, whose manners are imagined for the purpose of the story – nay, whose powers are extended beyond those of human nature.” Scott’s prime example of a romance that goes beyond human nature is “a late novel . . . by the name of Frankenstein” (363). Scott had reviewed Frankenstein for Blackwood’s in 1818, and a new edition of the novel, revised by Mary Shelley, was published just over one month after he completed Count Robert of Paris (and less than two months before its publication). On Scott’s own authority, then, this essay will read Count Robert of Paris not as a historical novel but as a work of anthropological science fiction. Scott’s late romance reveals the link between the historical novel and science fiction to be more intimate than we might have thought, genetic as well as analogical, soon after the foundation of both genres (Waverley, Frankenstein) in British Romanticism.

The name of that link, “man,” designates the philosophical problematic of Count Robert of Paris and marks the novel’s station not just at the end of Scott’s career but at the end of a century-long project of cultural modernization, the so-called Scottish Enlightenment. In 1739 David Hume had given that project a name, “the science of man.” By the 1770s it seemed as though history had become established as the discipline best equipped to realize the science of man, in conjectural histories of society, of manners and institutions, the arts and sciences, as well as of particular nations. It was the attempt to totalize these projects, to write the history of man as a species that laid bare a fault-line in the secular category of “man”—a fault-line constituted by its biological foundation. “The Human Species is in every view an interesting subject,” wrote Lord Kames in the preface to his Sketches of the History of Man (1774): however, “there is still wanting a history of the species, in its progress from the savage state to its highest civilization and improvement.” “The subject of this volume is the History of Man, by which I mean, not what is commonly called History, that is the History of Nations and Empires, but the History of the Species Man”: thus Lord Monboddo, introducing the fourth volume of his Antient Metaphysics (1795). These best-known of Scottish essays in the history of man as a species are notorious for their disruption of the category they invoke: Kames for his argument that humankind consists of different species (originally unified but then marked with biological as well as linguistic difference after Babel), Monboddo for his insistence that the mysterious great ape, the Orang-Outang, is man in his natural state, lacking only the artificial acquirement of language. For these accounts, it seems, “man” signifies at once too much and too little. By the time Scott was writing Count Robert of Paris, in 1830-31, the trouble with man had blown up into a scandal. Amid a rising tide of mainly French morphological speculation on the transmutation of species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had cited the orang-utan as a human prototype—not just a type of natural man but a figure for man’s animal origins and the mutability of species. Lamarck’s work was diffused across British literature by the controversy that peaked in the early 1830s, in endorsements by “Edinburgh Lamarckians” such as Robert Jameson and Robert E. Grant, as well as in refutations, most notably by Charles Lyell in the second volume of Principles of Geology (published one month after Count Robert of Paris, in January 1832).

Count Robert of Paris finds its imaginative opening in the contemporary crisis of world history and the science of man. Scott’s Constantinople swarms with different creeds, nations, races and species, in which the boundaries between nation and race and species, and between human and non-human species, shift and blur. The main figure for this boundary-flux is the Orang-Outang, who, among his other accomplishments, understands instructions given in Anglo-Saxon and kills off the principal villain of the story. The newly restored text of Count Robert of Paris allows us to see that various forms of biological difference (including sexual as well as racial and species difference) are everywhere in play in the novel. Count Robert earns its place beside Frankenstein, if we understand Shelley’s novel (following Maureen McLane’s analysis in Romanticism and the Human Sciences) as enacting a radical critique of the “specifically anthropological discourse of man” that underwrites the newly-won autonomy of imaginative literature in British Romanticism. Scott’s Constantinople opens a new kind of setting for a new kind of historical romance: the cosmopolis or world-city as conjectural arena for the natural history of man. Within this radically heterodox imaginary space, Count Robert of Paris explodes the monogenetic trajectories of national progress charted in the Scottish Waverley Novels for a fantastic exploration of the multiplicity of developmental paths and forms that humankind might take.

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Mary A. Favret, "Field of History, Field of Battle"

Over the course of the eighteenth-century, Great Britain built a formidable military power stoked in no small part by financial instruments devised not by merchants but by the state. "The ability of government administrators to establish the routine by which revenues were collected, money raised and supplies requisitioned," writes historian John Brewer, "could make the difference between victory and humiliation." The rise of the "fiscal-military state" strengthened both British military forces and the state itself to an unprecedented degree. The financial, even clerical mode of waging war gained extraordinary value over the course of the eighteenth-century; hardly visible to the public at large, their effects were felt more than they were seen. New modes of taxation and deficit spending "put muscle on the bones of the British body politic, increasing its endurance, strength and reach" (xvii). Brewer's magisterial account deliberately turns attention away from military exploits and heroes, even away from devastating violence, to focus on the driest aspects of a nation dedicated to its martial power: taxes, book-keeping, numbers. In doing so, his account translates a system of fragile abstractions into corporeal tissue, converting what might be dead matter—the bare bones of the field of history or the field of battle—into a robust "body politic." More curious perhaps, and a sign of the uneasy passage of numbers to bodies, is Brewer's acknowledgement that the fictive body is also a feeling one: "humiliation," rather than defeat per se, is the haunting alternative to British victory.

The figurative conjunction and conversion of numbers and flesh under the banner of war remains familiar. Harder to analyze in these verbal maneuvers is the level of sentience involved: what can the bodies born of numbers feel? The form of modern war emergent in the eighteenth century via taxes and debt financing is allied with other emergent regimes associated with numbers and finance: to what degree did the force of numbers amplify, dampen or otherwise transform the feeling body? If, as Brewer suggests, the economic repercussions of war in this period "are difficult to measure," how much more difficult is measurement when it tries to align what one contemporary called "the system of war" with the nervous system (xxi)? I would like to argue for a particular emphasis and delineation in the Romantic period on feeling numbers, especially among a group of reform-minded tinkers: Bentham, Godwin and Shelley—often in conversation with non-reformists such as Malthus. Heirs to and subjects of the fiscal military state, commenting both during and after the cataclysmic global wars with France that opened the new century, these writers unravel the neat allegory that Brewer paints, where the numbers of state finance and the cells of human bodies appear neatly woven together in the history of war. They employ numbers, by contrast, that tax the body to the point of disintegration so that, in fact, only numbers are left to register feeling.

Following recent critical studies on numbers and finance capital by Mary Poovey and Ian Baucom; and studies of the history of affect, I consider Romantic debates on the numbers of war, and how reformists developed philosophical and rhetorical instruments to convert a system of value so closely associated with and productive of imperial warfare, into a system of feeling numbers that resists and works to disintegrate the fiction of the robust body politic. My aim is less to show how these writers argued against the system of numbers, but rather how they embraced and reconstituted numbers, insisting on the correspondence between pained and suffering bodies and state accounting, pushing that correspondence for its affective yield. In these cases, it is difficult and perhaps counter-productive to decide whether the appeal to numbers by opponents of the "war system" can be read as irony or complicity. "In the scale of just calculation," observes James Callender, a reformist forced to leave Britain for his criticism of Britain's war policies, "the most valuable commodity, next to human blood, is money." In his tirade against the "war system," Callender literally seethes with numbers. Here is just his concluding flourish: “The question to be decided is, are we to proceed with the war system? Are we, in the progress of the nineteenth-century, to embrace five thousand fresh taxes, to squander a second five hundred millions sterling, and to extirpate twenty millions of people?” (8) The question that motivates my essay concerns what "just calculation" might mean in this view of history. I argue for war as a particularly potent site, indeed, perhaps the most potent and generative site for friction between universals and particulars, between theoretical (or in this case, numerical) systems and those forces (in this case, feeling or affect) that accompany as much as they disrupt such systems. The putative "difference" between calculation and sentience may be more complex than conventional accounts of Romanticism have led us to believe, especially when we are asked to respond to something like an unembodied sentience.

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Daniel O'Quinn, "Of Extension and Durability: Romanticism’s Imperial Re-Memberings"

William Hodges’s Travels in India During the Years 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 (1793) is a text literally structured by war. Hodges’s travels and his narrative are repeatedly interrupted by armed conflict between the forces of the East India Company and resistant native powers across the subcontinent. The particular conflicts in question did not go well for the British and the humiliating loss at Pollilur not only raised questions regarding Warren Hastings’s bellicosity, but also haunted representations of British rule in India until the final defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799. In spite of the fact that the Travels appears to be a pro-Hastings document, published in London at the turning point in the impeachment proceedings against the former Governor-General of Bengal, the narrative disjunctions instantiated by these conflicts destabilize Hodges’s explicit argument that British governance in the region is not only benevolent, but also far superior to prior examples of Moslem rule. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how the text’s figural economy–both textual and visual–attempts to ameliorate the narrative disjunctions which everywhere threaten to disclose the Company’s precarious claim to sovereignty. Through a close analysis of Hodges’s figuration of good and bad governance in the region, the argument will isolate precisely how his–and by extension, the Company’s--historical predicament erupts into the text and call in to question the very models of governmentality figured forth in his remarkable rendering of the banyan tree.

Michel Foucault, in his essay “Governmentality”, defined “Government as the right disposition of things”. From the period immediately prior to the passing of the Regulating Act to the East India Company Charter Act, the hybridity of the East India Company generated significant controversy regarding the appropriate form and quality of colonial rule. Hodges’s text engages with this problematic by presenting figures of the right disposition of men and things. The most important of these, the banyan tree, is the subject of an extensive textual description and also one of the volumes most accomplished engravings. In the text, the tree offers shade and sustenance to all who come under its canopy and it is metaphorically linked to Hastings’s management of Indian affairs. Its vitality and above all its naturalness accrue to the governmentality of the Company and thus it ostensibly stands as a figure of prosperity, hope and stability in a time of war and economic uncertainty. It also stands in marked contrast to Hodges similarly iconic description of the ruins of Agra and especially of Acbar’s tomb later in the text. As ruins architectural traces of a similarly ruined Mughal empire, these descriptions ostensibly testify to the fundamental inability despotic powers to rule effectively. Akbar’s tomb is especially important in this regard because it is Akbar’s name itself, as rendered on the mausoleum that operates as the ultimate contrast to the banyan tree. In other words, a dead name, an almost Wordsworthian epitaph, figures forth the disappearance and obsolescence of entire period in Indian history and in its place, Hodges offers a living thing. What interests me about this contrast is that in both cases the historical obfuscations depend upon key slippages in the distinction between word and image, between living and dead, between name and metaphor.

My essay’s concluding gesture demonstrates how the visual renderings of the banyan tree and of architectural ruins attempt to contain or regulate what amounts to a crisis in figuration. Of particular importance is the way Hodges’s image engages with prior images, most notably in Picart, which link the tree to suspect forms of sexuality. At the heart of Hodges engraving is a resonant act of visual surrogation which figures forth a remarkable fantasy of phallic Company rule well before the East India Company fully consolidated its power in the region. In other words, one can discern within the relationship between textual figuration and the visual strategies of the engravings the kind of “wishful thinking” or self-delusion that C. A. Bayly has identified as a crucial element of British governance prior to and during the imposition of the Permanent Settlement.

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Matthew Rowlinson, "Allegory and Exchange in the Waverley Novels"

This essay will propose that for an historical understanding of Scott’s fiction—or Romantic texts more generally—we should read them not as representations but rather as objects of exchange that embody social labor. The historically specific forms of the exchanges in which they took part and of the equivalents in which their value was realized determined the texts’ formal traits, which when this determination is ignored have the appearance of unmotivated play. The essay will offer its critical practice as an example to show that by a formalist reading of Scott’s fiction we can gain an historical understanding of textual production in the years of British publishing’s takeoff into capitalism. This reading will attend above all to the topic of signature, to the differentiations of text and paratext, and to those of writing as material practice and as abstraction, both as motifs in the Waverley novels and as problems in their social production and circulation.

In Marx, capital is formally a moment of self-referentiality in the system of mediations that is a money economy. As capital money appears to lose the mediating relation to other commodities that normally defines it, and to relate only to itself in a process for which Marx gives the elementary formula M->M. The project of Capital is to dissolve this appearance of capital’s identity. In discussing Scott, however, we are concerned with an historical moment at which that identity has scarcely yet been constituted. Scott wrote at a time and in a place where the money supply was in practice extremely heterogeneous and the question of money’s identity was a hotly debated topic in political economy.

My main theoretical claim in this essay is that the indeterminacy of the money form for which Scott exchanged his labor as a novelist is allegorized in traits of the novels themselves. I will make this case principally through a reading of The Antiquary (1816), the third Waverley novel and one of the most playfully self-referential. In this novel the inhomogeneity of money and the difficulty of recognizing it is a recurrent topic; two of the novel’s subplots turn on representations of transactions in the form M->M as comedies of error. In one, the Tory Baronet Sir Arthur Wardour becomes the dupe of a German swindler, who in exchange for an investment of “dirty Fairport banknotes” promises him “pure gold and silver, I cannot tell how much!" In the other, Wardour’s comic foil, Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary of the title, pays in good money for what he takes to be curious old coins, only to find that what he has purchased, though old, is a still-current instance of Scottish token coinage. Money, far from providing a uniform standard of value, becomes the novel’s principal instance of irreducible difference.

Monetary difference in The Antiquary certainly allegorizes cultural and political difference; elsewhere in Scott’s work, in The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther (1826), written to defend Scots’ use of small denomination banknotes where the British system used coin, this allegory becomes explicit. The Scottish monetary system is defended not as superior to others, but on the grounds of difference itself. The frugality of a paper circulation that does not withdraw any useful commodity from circulation is explained as the expression of a frugal national character, formed by a harsh climate and poor land.

This essay argues, however, that the monetary difference that repeatedly disrupts exchange within the diegesis of The Antiquary also corresponds to formal traits of the text that do not readily lend themselves to culturalist interpretations of the kind that Scott himself pioneered. The uncertain boundary between what is and what is not money in the novel is the expression of a specific conjuncture in the historical development of capital and also an instance of a general problematic of the textual boundary that pervades the Waverley novels, with their serial form, indistinguishable protagonists, and extensive textual periphery in Scott’s introductions, prefaces, notes and other apparatus. When money is represented in The Antiquary as bearing effaced or illegible signatures the novel incorporates within itself another instance of one of its own formal traits, framed as it is by the long performance of his own anonymity that Scott carried on before finally acknowledging in 1827 that he was the author of the Waverley novels. These formal traits of the Waverley novels, I will show, are determined by the historically specific forms of exchange by which the value of Scott’s labor was realized and ultimately transformed into capital.

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Colin Jager, "Can We Talk About Consciousness Again?: (Emergence, Natural Piety, Wordsworth)"

Talk about consciousness has largely disappeared from Romantic studies and, indeed, from literary studies more generally. As a symbol of this disappearance we might look to Harold Bloom’s edited volume Romanticism and Consciousness (1970). While the volume was officially dedicated to the proposition that to talk about Romanticism simply was to talk about consciousness, its inclusion of Paul de Man’s proto-deconstructive essay “Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image” in fact marked the beginning of the end of the association between Romanticism and consciousness. Sometime later de Man could retrospectively mark his own deconstructive turn as a break, however imperfect, from consciousness-talk. Noting the emphasis on “rhetorical terminology” in his landmark essay “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” de Man writes in 1983: “[t]his terminology is still uncomfortably intertwined with the thematic vocabulary of consciousness … that was current at the time, but it signals a turn that, at least for me, has proven to be productive.” One could note other similar turns at about this same time, not only within the “Yale School” and its turn away from phenomenology (Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller) but also for example in Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s Literary Absolute (1978).

Meanwhile, the historicism that has dominated Romantic studies for the past-quarter century has likewise had little patience with consciousness talk, which, particularly under the influence of Marx and Engels’s German Ideology, it has tended to identify with “false consciousness.” The Frankfurt School, from Horkheimer and Adorno through to Habermas, has also been suspicious of consciousness, for largely cognate reasons.

The end result of these powerful intellectual movements has been to deprive students of literature in general, and of Romanticism in particular, of a vocabulary for describing what goes on in the mind as anything other than a series of effects produced by some other structure, such rhetoric, history, or ideology.

There are, of course, many good reasons to be skeptical about consciousness-talk, and this essay is not intended as a jeremiad. Rather, I seek here to remark upon an ironic countermovement in intellectual history, namely that just as consciousness-talk was disappearing from literary study it was re-emerging in the disciplines of cognitive science and analytic philosophy of mind. The result of this re-emergence has been an extraordinarily rich body of work—empirical and conceptual—on consciousness over the past 20 years: a rich body of work about which literary scholars, with one or two exceptions, has had nothing to say. It is that lack of conversation, the missed opportunity, which my essay dwells upon.

One immediate objection to any effort in this direction is that reintroducing consciousness will result in mind-body dualism, and this result needs to be avoided for a variety of political and intellectual reasons. A stronger version of this claim is that the Romantic writers themselves were anti-dualist, but that this fact went unappreciated until the advent of deconstructive and historicist criticism. Talking about consciousness again would thus be like turning back the clock. And yet almost all cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind writing today agree that consciousness-talk and materialism are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, this is precisely the issue around which much of the current conversation circles: whether a non-reductive physicalism is possible, and what it would look like. The mind-body problem, that is to say, remains just that: a problem. One implication of this claim is that it may be impossible not to talk about consciousness. Any position on the mind body-problem (which would include virtually any theory of how literature produces meaning, as Knapp and Michaels demonstrated a number of years ago in “Against Theory”) is also implicitly a theory of consciousness, even if a strictly negative one. There is value, therefore, in getting such hidden theories out into the open.

My essay examines two approaches to the question of consciousness that have lately caught the attention of Romanticists. The first approach is a neurological one. The strong version of this approach is that because the mind is identical to the brain, consciousness is an illusion (though perhaps an evolutionarily necessary one). This is sometimes referred to as “eliminative materialism,” and it is a popular position among neuroscientists (Francis Crick, Christophe Koch) and some philosophers (Daniel Dennett). Alan Richardson’s British Romanticism and the Science of Mind (2001), which argues for what Richardson calls the “embodied mind,” is considerably influenced by eliminative materialism. I will critique Richardson on the grounds that his neurologically-derived model cannot ultimately find a place for representation: a problem for any discussion of literary meaning, and (a larger claim) for discussions of culture in general.

The second approach is emergence theory, which has a longer track record (stretching back to the nineteenth century) but is currently less popular among cognitive scientists and philosophers. Neither bees nor ants possess consciousness, and yet a bee-hive or an ant colony could be said to possess consciousness; in much the same way, emergence theory proposes that consciousness “emerges” from lower-level self-organizing and self- modifying systems. Some properties emerge from a physical substrate in a way that cannot be explained from the perspective of that substrate (eg. from the perspective of physics), nor are those properties reducible to the properties of their physical parts. Emergence has one decided advantage: the issue of phenomenal experience (“qualia”) is a problem for eliminative materialism (David Chalmers calls this the “hard problem”), but it is not a problem for emergence theory. Thus emergence seems a more promising route for discussions of cognitive science and literature, since it makes room for discussions of representation and of culture, as Alan Liu has recently demonstrated in his consideration of Romanticism and creative destruction.

Emergence theory faces a problem, however, that eliminative materialism avoids: causation. This includes both bottom-up causation (from physical property to mental property) and top-down causation (whether a mental property can change the organization of its own physical substrate). Confronting this problem, Samuel Alexander, the late nineteenth-century emergence theorist, hit upon a phrase that ought to interest any Romanticist. The mystery of causation, Alexander wrote, had simply to accept with “natural piety.” My paper ends, then, with a consideration of Wordsworth’s “My Heart Leaps Up” in the context of emergence theory.

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Jacques Khalip, "The Ruin of Things"

"I see around me here / Things which you cannot see: we die, my Friend, / Nor we alone, but that which each man loved / And prized in his peculiar nook of earth / Dies with him, or is changed."

Speaking to the narrator of The Ruined Cottage, Armytage perceives what Adorno and Horkheimer call “disaster triumphant”: the invisible and intangible things of the destroyed environment, or things which in their utter lack of specificity and waste define the circulation of sentimental value that the poem has traditionally been thought to sustain. Part of that value depends precisely on this waste or decay that the poem proposes; after all, these things are not simply ghostly revenants but half-material entities on their way to death. Like Margaret, like the broken objects outside the cottage, and finally, like Armytage and the narrator, all things break down in the disaster that the poem paints, and their differences are rehydrated by its lines of sympathy, “in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed” (Preface). And yet, if Romanticism has often been read as synonymous with discourses of humanism, personhood, and community, how should we read Wordsworth’s insistence that we not look away from the disaster, from things in their states of destruction and difference? And more specifically, what would it mean to think of persons as different things themselves? In this paper, I want to consider the non-pathological and transformative effects produced by disaster—that is to say, how apocalypticism in certain Romantic poems is denatured or flattened out to the point where “disaster triumphant” expresses new forms of non-triumphal, wasted life that evoke different ethical versions of social vulnerability. I will work toward a ruined cottage as the place where Wordsworth explores the hospitality of dwelling in the rubble of disaster; in other words, disaster as not the pessimistic obliteration of enlightenment promise, but rather as a kindly reimagination of sociality without a future.

The spectral quality of things unseen echoes the commodity form itself which, as David Simpson has argued, describes not simply things-in-themselves but things as they leave the world. Although Wordsworth appears to be striving for a language of “thingification” in his scenes of disaster, he tries to think through a different kind of object relations that is not reducible to the logic of the commodity. The kind of interest in disaster that a poem like The Ruined Cottage appears to evoke is not simply a rehumanization of our relationship with things in the world, but rather an unworking or desoeuvrement of our modes of being, troubling the kinds of economies which shuttle persons and things between durability and transience, gain and loss, wealth and waste. I trace how persons live through and are readily thingified in the disaster, and why the desire to treat persons as things becomes a necessary component of Romantic modernity—to re circulate persons in an aesthetic economy that cannot bear to possess anything, that treats persons as res nullius, and would have us literally waste life.

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Published @ RC

September 2011