Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Philosophy
in an Historical Age

Introduction: The Uses of Interiority in the Domain of Pleasure

Karen Weisman, University of Toronto

  1. Theresa Kelley and Thomas Pfau rehearse a debate—I would call it an anxiety—about Romanticism that has inflected culture since its very inception: can the aesthetic, and our critical engagement with the aesthetic, produce meaning that is, well, meaningful? The question begs too many qualifications, of course, not least of which is the often plaintive cry about the contingencies of predication; that is, meaning for whom, for what, and why do we even bother about it in the first place? We cannot predicate sure attributes of cultural purpose because, abstraction that it is, we end in circular claims about the meaning of meaning. We are not quite circus animals chasing our respective tails, I hope, but this problem is consistently played out in the domain of pleasure, or at least of affective responsiveness. For surely we come to ask the question of cultural products only at the point in which we are radically invested in them: we profess in the domain of culture, and few professors in the humanities extricate their own modes of self-understanding from their professional preoccupations. The issue, that is, defines us in banal ways too: after all the debates about the uses of pleasure, what can be said about our status as professional critics and scholars? (This is partly the issue that Thomas Pfau takes up polemically.) And must this question truly be allied with the more conceptually difficult one about the place of affective experience in aesthetic judgment? Both Pfau and Kelley are concerned to define the place of the aesthetic within a judgment that comprehends a relation between that which is meaningful for our interiority and that which is meaningful from the perspective of the socially iterable. Kelley finds reassurance in Hilary Putnam's recent re-thinking of philosophical realism, in which mind and world may be stitched together more thoroughly. But still more questions arise. Does the potential solipsism necessarily inherent in any aesthetic pleasure find a rapport, or a reciprocal production of meaning, with the empirical world? If Romanticism has a grasp upon the actual (to recall F.R. Leavis's famous indictment of Shelley) that is not merely weak, how do the actual and the pleasure of that aesthetic "grasp" signify to each other? These are the questions that I hope a brief consideration of Romanticism and philosophy in an historical age might open on to. The essays and counter-responses in this volume represent works in progress by Kelley and Pfau, and we invite our readers' input into their respective polemics.

  2. I am fascinated by the problem of affect in the culture of literary criticism, and hope that a few remarks in this regard will help to draw together some of the issues that follow in this volume. For the question persists: can we find a way into poetic formal properties in ways that make contact with the felt experience of our reading without reducing those experiences to paraphrase about historical correlation? Instead, I wonder if can we tease out the text's historical reflexivity in a manner that is responsive to its affective yield—to our experience of its affective yield. This is a tricky situation, relentlessly vulnerable: for there must be a way of describing "how it feels" that does not reduce a theorized structure of feeling to sentimental recapitulation (that doesn't simply paraphrase attributed emotions here and there). Again, though, as Pfau's concluding polemic makes especially clear, the critical discussion of "feeling" is a ground vulnerable to the worst kinds of misunderstandings. Like Pfau, I do not believe that a deeply felt response is tantamount to a moral response, and I do not believe that a conceptual structure is equal, of necessity, to a principled one. That is, one question I hope we are implicitly asking is, how might interpretive reading move us beyond thematic paraphrase while still locating us within a conceptual structure whose syntax is constitutive of that structure?

  3. It was Foucault, of course, who re-ignited interest in the question, "What is Enlightenment," and the questions, "what is maturity?" and "what is modernity?" followed quick on its heels. But Foucault knew that the "aesthetics of existence" is interrogated precisely in the service of establishing an "ontology of ourselves," and the historicist passage between them must comprehend also the minutiae of expression. We need to know now what a mature reading in this post-enlightenment age of deeply vexed modernity can possibly mean. The ascesis so vital to the final Foucault is an exercise of oneself; and if thought is an activity that yields a "game of truth" by which one undergoes change, then surely an interrogation of the technical "games" of poetics may be said to speak to a vital aspect of human need. Kelley's close analysis of John Clare's poetry is an instructive instance in this regard.

  4. If poetic cadence, for example, resonates—or more to the point, if what we believe about the allure of cadence is that it answers to a rhythm essentially held within us—then we are, it is true, treading on structuralist ground: poetics touches us at the level of resonance sounding deep within us. But determining the historicity of formalist norms (this is just one instance of a possible avenue of exploration) is still fecund scholarly ground. What seems to have needlessly polarized the academy, however, is the assumption that poetic resonance must be interpreted as either ideological or, alternatively, structural in an essentialist, naively psychologized manner. But again, how could a psychological resonance not be, at least in some manner, a participation within a dominant norm? Or at least, in what arenas were such assumptions ever challenged? The genealogy of the ideological ground of aesthetic compulsion still needs to take account of an aesthetic history. In this volume, Pfau and Kelley respond to one another partly in the terms of such issues (a response follows each essay). They help us find a way into a cultural context that does not, as it were, forgive the text merely its social determinations on the one hand, or fetishize its historical contingencies on the other. In some respects, what they articulate about Romanticism is nothing less than the uses (variously conceived) of its pleasures.

About this Page

Published @ RC

August 1999