Shelley's Aesthetic Dimension: The Politics of Resistance and Reform

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Given the resurgence of interest in the relation between Shelley’s political essays and poetry, what concept of relationality can be posed to move beyond an old, entrenched opposition between the social commitment of prose and the abstract withdrawal of poetry to theorize a novel form of “political poetics”? In what ways do Shelley’s reflections on the history of modern revolution inform his ideas of literary experience and political subjectivity? How, moreover, does Shelley’s work provoke what he outlines in A Defence of Poetry (1821) as “a beneficial change in opinion or institution” through aesthetic experience, without falling prey to an escapist flight into inwardness? Taking these questions as points of departure, this essay traces within Shelley’s work a theory of aesthetic resistance by reading between his historical-political reflections on the British reform movement in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819-20) and his critical aesthetics. The essay also explores how Shelley’s appeal to an aesthetic dimension in politics creates new modes of experience that resist forms of inhumanity by making visible the otherwise invisible wrongs suffered by groups who remain excluded from participation in the public commons.

Shelley’s Aesthetic Dimension: The Politics of Resistance and Reform

Joshua D. Lambier
Western University

The last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Philosophical View of Reform

1.        Given the resurgence of interest in the relation between Shelley’s political essays and poetry, what concept of relationality can be posed to move beyond an old, entrenched opposition between the social commitment of prose and the abstract withdrawal of poetry to theorize a novel form of “political poetics”? [1]  In what ways do Shelley’s reflections on the history of modern revolution inform his ideas of literary experience and political subjectivity? How, moreover, does Shelley’s work provoke what he describes in A Defence of Poetry (1821) as “a beneficial change in opinion or institution” through aesthetic experience (535), without falling prey to an escapist flight into inwardness? [2]  Taking these questions as points of departure, this paper will locate within Shelley’s work a theory of aesthetic resistance by reading between his historical-political reflections on the British reform movement in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819-20) and his critical aesthetics.

2.        Shelley’s reception, from his own time to the present, testifies to a persistent vexation over his radical mixtures of aesthetics with politics. William Hazlitt, reviewing what he describes as Shelley’s “electrical experiments in morals and philosophy,” sketches him as a reckless contrarian “drawn up by irresistible levity to the regions of mere speculation and fancy,” where “[b]ubbles are to him the only realities: —touch them, and they vanish” (201, 200). Matthew Arnold famously describes him as “a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain” (327), an ethereal figure that serves as an alibi for F. R. Leavis’ later complaint over Shelley’s “weak grasp upon the actual” (206). Though more recent criticism has rescued Shelley from such dismissive appraisals, critical concern over his “levity,” his immateriality and dreamy idealism, survives in the neglect or disavowal of his political works as naïve, patronizing, enthusiastic, ideological, or even dangerous.

3.        And yet, as I will argue, Shelley’s aesthetic departures from things as they are present new aesthetic formations that are subversive to established ways of experiencing the world. In this sense, Shelley’s political aesthetics stages a “dissensus,” to import Jacques Rancière’s term, where the prevailing form of common sense, the public sense of what is shared in collective life, is disrupted through artistic practices that reconfigure the “distribution of the sensible,” or partitions of sensory experience that legislate what is made visible and invisible in the common world. [3]  I will suggest that Shelley’s “levity,” his appeal to an aesthetic dimension in politics, creates new modes of experience that resist forms of inhumanity by making visible the otherwise invisible wrongs suffered by groups who remain excluded from participation in the public commons.

4.        At the time Shelley is writing his essays on the reform movement, British social and political life is undergoing a moral upheaval, a transvaluation of values arising, at least in part, from the growing international success of the American and French Declarations of universal rights. Attracted to the emancipatory potential of this new genre of writing, Shelley himself drafted a Declaration of Rights (1812), a broadside with thirty-one enumerated articles, organized around the two fundamental principles of the emerging rights tradition: “The rights of man are liberty, and an equal participation of the commonage of nature” (Prose 56). But despite the claim of universal freedom and equality for all, one of the most disquieting paradoxes of Enlightenment rights discourse lies in the limited scope of its application, which excluded the equal recognition of women, slaves and free blacks, the poor and unpropertied, as well as many religious groups. [4]  Without solid foundations in the established laws and constitutions of states, the rights of man also ran the risk of becoming “metaphysic rights,” to use Edmund Burke’s phrase, a situation in which there is a perceived discrepancy between the a priori concepts of rights and the complex realities of pragmatic politics. [5]  What these familiar critiques misrecognize is the vital life of rights, which is activated by the resistances of subjects who are denied the rights they have by virtue of their common humanity. Women’s rights, though conspicuously missing in the major rights declarations of 1776 and 1789, are powerfully championed in the political writings of Olympe de Gouges as well as Mary Wollstonecraft, and are publicly contested in the emergent genre of the Jacobin novel. [6]  Moreover, in the colony of Haiti, slaves and free blacks revolted against British, Spanish, and French colonial forces, eventually claiming their rights as the citizens of an independent state in 1804, an historic event that foreshadowed the British abolition of the African slave trade in 1807 and the subsequent emancipation of nearly eight hundred thousand colonial slaves in 1833. [7] 

5.        These transformative historical and political events taking place in England, Europe and America held out the possibility for what the Chorus of Spirits in the utopian Act IV of Prometheus Unbound announce as “the new world of man,” an age unfolding as if according to a universal plan of Promethean history (V.157). In a paragraph of the preface to Hellas, originally deleted by his publishers Charles and James Ollier, Shelley takes an even more revolutionary position to declare that his age has embarked on a “war of the oppressed against the oppressor,” a struggle that will produce “a new race” intolerant of the excesses of Sovereigns, “those ringleaders of the privileged gangs of murderers and swindlers” (Norton 432).

6.        Shelley’s provocative announcement of an age of war with sovereign power marks a radical shift from a thinker like Kant who, nearly forty years earlier, claimed his time to be an age of Enlightenment, where the ruler keeps open, under the idea of liberal toleration, a space for the development and exercise of the free use of public reason. They do, however, share an aversion to the idea of forcing historical change through the unnecessary use of violence, especially if there is a non-violent alternative for political reform. “A revolution,” Kant argues, “may well put an end to autocratic despotism and to rapacious or power-seeking oppression, but it will never produce a true reform in the ways of thinking. Instead, new prejudices, like the ones they replaced, will serve as a leash to control the great unthinking mass” (Political 55). Shelley’s later political thought similarly advocates for a gradualist conception of social and political reform, but he also expresses a profound sympathy for global revolutionary movements, sympathy akin to Kant’s description of the spectatorial “enthusiasm” arising from the French Revolution. [8]  Spectators of world historical events possess, Kant argues, a capacity for universal, disinterested sympathy that reveals itself publicly as “wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm”; this affective response, provoked by the spectacle of a people’s struggle for natural rights and republicanism, testifies to a “moral predisposition in the human race” (Conflict 302). As a collective experience, the spectator’s shared feeling of enthusiasm marks the revolutionary event as “a sign of history” (301), or in other words, an event whose occurrence on the world stage, bursting forth as an unpredictable rupture in the prevailing historical-political reality, affords an indication of humanity’s inherent capacity to author its own progress.

7.        Jean-François Lyotard’s influential reading of Kantian enthusiasm as “a modality of sublime feeling” re-inscribes this form of revolutionary spectatorship within an aesthetic dimension by reading political judgment as an analogue for aesthetic reflective judgment (Enthusiasm 29). [9]  Like the experience of the sublime in nature, where the imagination confronts instances of formlessness or immensity that exceed its ability to comprehend what it has just apprehended, revolutions “are formless and shapeless in the history of human nature” (33). The sublime, however, occasions a second moment of recovery. Following the painful experience of the imagination’s impotence, the judging subject is enlivened by the pleasurable discovery of our “supersensible vocation” to strive after Ideas of reason beyond the chaotic particulars of nature (Kant, Critique §27.141). Despite the violence and disorder of revolution, the spectator’s enthusiasm reveals a collective fervor for “the Idea of the republican contract,” which offers a sign, or “complex hypotyposis,” of humanity’s progress toward the better (Lyotard, Enthusiasm 33, 40). It is therefore not the event of the French Revolution in itself that affords an indication of historical progress, just as sublime feeling is not wholly attributable to the object of nature under investigation. Rather, the judging subject’s feeling of pleasurable pain arises from the imagination’s struggle to present an unpresentable Idea of history, such as the Idea of a republican constitution emerging from seemingly lawless political rebellion. It is the task of the world spectator to bear witness to political upheavals and to discern signs of the regulative Idea of purposive progress underlying world history.

8.        In the opening chapter of A Philosophical View of Reform, a text that shares Kant’s commitment to republicanism, Shelley traces what could be called a universal history from an enthusiastic point of view. Driven by the dialectical opposition between “the spirit of freedom and the spirit of tyranny” (214), his narrative of world historical upheavals pays close attention to the rebellions in England in 1688, America in 1776, and France in 1789, before looking forward to anticipate the wave of revolutions in the 1820s across Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Unlike other universal histories of the period, he also acknowledges the world historical significance of the slave rebellions in the West Indies. “Two nations of free negroes are already established,” writes Shelley, “one, in pernicious mockery of the usurpation over France, an empire, the other a republic; both animating yet terrific spectacles to those who inherit around them the degradation of slavery and the spirit of dominion” (214). The establishment of Haiti (Saint-Domingue) and Liberia—the former by revolutionary violence, the latter by colonial settlement—offered the world community further indications of the advance of human freedom, or “signs of the times” (213), even as the coherence of the Enlightenment narrative of “the march of progress” is disfigured by the use of violence in political rebellion as a means of last resort.

9.        In shifting to an aesthetic mode of representing the spectator’s sympathy for the actors of revolution, a form of spectatorship that takes place within what Lyotard calls the “the theatre hall of history” (Enthusiasm 29), Kant’s theorization of an aesthetic perspective within the political opens the possibility for a novel way to think through world historical change. As in William Blake’s “The Mental Traveller,” where “the Eye altering alters all” (62), the world spectator’s point of view and participatory mode of perceiving the events of history is as important as the events themselves. The aesthetic experience of viewing political events, “this game of great revolutions,” is transformed into a mode of mental drama, where the events of history are internalized and reflexively considered by spectators “who are not engaged in this game themselves” (Kant, Conflict 302). Framed as drama and viewed from a cosmopolitan point of view, the sublime image of revolution creates a dissension within the “hearts of all spectators” (302). The stirring and discordant play of the faculties is not caused by a call to participate directly in rebellion, nor is it provoked by widely condemned images of the abuse of sovereign power under the ancien régime, nor even by the horrific spectacle of the terror of Robespierre. What makes the spectator’s judgments subjectively universal and communicable, as in the case of aesthetic reflective judgment, is a shared common sense (Critique §20-22, 40), or the pleasurable accord of the imagination and understanding without the mediation of a concept (in the case of the beautiful), or the discordant accord between the imagination and reason (in the case of the sublime).

10.        In his explication of Kantian common sense, Gilles Deleuze describes the unique form of common sense generated by the sublime as one “engendered in dissension” (53). The violence done to the imagination brings to light what Kant calls a “capacity for resistance,” that is, our disposition to confront nature’s seemingly unsurpassable authority over us (Critique §29.144). Sublime common sense, revelatory of our shared ability to resist the given sensory experience of the natural order, is therefore a dissensual common sense. The Kantian conception of a dissensus stirring in the psychic life of the judging subject, an inner aesthetic experience that manifests itself in artistic practices, links onto Shelley’s use of imagery drawn from the natural sublime as a mode of presenting “the operations of the human mind” on the verge of revolt (Norton 207). In Prometheus Unbound, for instance, the figure of “the sun-awakened avalanche,” accumulating “flake after flake, in Heaven-defying minds” (II.3.37, 39), prefigures the revolutionary overthrow of Jupiter’s rule by the palingenetic power of Demogorgon.

11.        Though Shelley joins a chorus of Romantic writers who figure revolutionary upheavals within the discourse of the natural sublime, his own restless experimentation with literary forms presents a subversive challenge to established norms and classifications of the arts, one that threatens to blur, even overturn, the carefully legislated boundaries between hierarchical orders of genre. The prospect of this kind of aesthetic revolution is, indeed, what triggers Hazlitt’s criticism of Shelley’s experiments:

Curiosity is the only proper category of [Shelley’s] mind, and though a man in knowledge, he is a child in feeling. Hence he puts everything into a metaphysical crucible to judge it himself and exhibit it to others as a subject of interesting experiment, without first making it over to the ordeal of his common sense or trying it on his heart. … Mr. Shelley has been accused of vanity—I think he is chargeable with extreme levity; but this levity is so great that I do not believe he is sensible of its consequences. He strives to overturn all established creeds and systems; but this is in him an effect of constitution. He runs before the most extravagant opinions; but this is because he is held back by none of the merely mechanical checks of sympathy and habit. He tampers with all sorts of obnoxious subjects; but it is less because he is gratified with the rankness of the taint than captivated with the intellectual phosphoric light they emit. (200)
Shelley, for Hazlitt, is a dangerous alchemist of Promethean proportions, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein working feverishly on his sublime monster, and with potentially horrific—if unintended—consequences when carried over into social and political life. Hazlitt’s charge against Shelley for possessing dangerous levels of levity, as though it were an inflammable gas in one of Humphrey Davy’s chemical experiments, coincides with rhetorical tropes deployed to critique the idealist claims of natural rights theorists at this time. In the Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), for example, Burke appeals to his reader to stand on “the firm ground of the British constitution” rather than emulate “in their desperate flights the aëronauts of France” (249), an analogy between the drafters of the 1789 Declaration and the craze for hot-air balloon flights, beginning with the Montgolfier brothers’ first manned hot-air balloon flight in France in 1783. [10]  Jeremy Bentham’s Anarchical Fallacies, too, makes light (pun intended) of natural rights as nonsensical rhetorical fictions, “nonsense upon stilts,” which tends toward “a spirit of insurrection to all laws” (501). This attack on the fictionality, the levity, of human rights discourse has a long legacy up to the present, with Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that “there are no such rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns” (67). Coincidently, Joseph Montgolfier named the property that lifted the balloon into the air as “levity,” a principle of flight that the young Shelley uses to send copies of his Declaration of Rights to the disenfranchised via fire balloons. In one of his early poems, “Sonnet: To a balloon, laden with Knowledge,” he deploys the balloon as a symbol of human freedom, “a ray of courage to the opprest and poor,” which soon “through the tyrant’s gilded domes shall roar” (Norton 6. 9, 11).

12.        Unlike Burke and Bentham, who criticize what they perceive to be the anarchic and terroristic potential of natural rights, especially the “right of resistance,” Shelley sides with Richard Price in recognizing such a right as constitutionally guaranteed as a legacy of the English Revolution in 1688. In his famous lecture, A Discourse on the Love of Country (1789), the lecture that incited Burke to write his Reflections, Price affirms that the English people accomplished a shift in the idea of sovereign power from “passive obedience, nonresistance, and the divine right of kings” toward the multitude’s active power to choose their sovereign on the basis of consent (190). This idea of the people as the autonomous and primary foundation of the sovereign’s legitimacy, as set out by John Locke in the Two Treatises on Government (1689), is also the source of Price’s provocative claim that it is the people’s right to resist sovereign power when it is abused, and ultimately to replace the “cashiered” king with a new individual or mode of governance chosen by the multitude.

13.        In Shelley’s most systematic political text, A Philosophical View, humanity’s natural right of resistance is, as we have seen, the vital principle that initiates and legitimizes social and political change. The text’s condensed universal history traces the hopeful realization of liberty and equality, the “elementary principles” of rights (216), as humanity progressively activates its irrepressible capacity to resist oppression. Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire, he narrates the story of the human will to resist as it manifests in the republics of the Italian Renaissance, the Reformation, the English Civil War, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, up to the American and French Revolutions. Like the chained Prometheus forced to witness images of exploitation and repression, Shelley’s history registers each singular abuse of the rights of man as “rapid passing shadows, which forerun successful insurrection” (224). As a world spectator, he then turns an eye to liberatory movements in South America, China, Turkey, and India, struggles that are fueled, to a greater or lesser degree, by “the arts and philosophy of Europe” (226). In the theatre of his political thought, poets and philosophers play a crucial role as “unacknowledged legislators of the world” because their works circulate globally as “the contagion of good” (227, 225), sowing seeds of rebellion. And yet, the narrative also has the opposite effect of turning “European art and literature” into a colonizing discourse (226), thus usurping indigenous histories and systems of knowledge and, in turn, transforming the unacknowledged legislators into prophets of rather than against empire. Human rights discourse today runs a similar risk of becoming an inhuman instrument of neo-colonial control and exploitation rather than a source for a more radical politics.

14.        However, Shelley’s critical history of the “mighty calamity of government” defies any uncomplicated reinscription into a narrative of British imperialism (228), and his criticisms of the British system of government are devastating, including his critique of the development of the national debt, the issuing of paper money, the system of landed property, and the misdistribution of parliamentary seats throughout England. His description of the apparatus of the British state coincides with what Rancière has called “the police,” or “the set of procedures whereby the aggregation and consent of collectivities is achieved, the organization of powers, the distribution of places and roles, and the systems for legitimizing this distribution” (Disagreement 28). Rancière’s concept of “policing,” which is usually offered as a description of politics, captures the anarchic character of Shelley’s proposals to reconfigure the exclusionary logic of the “police,” such as the extension of suffrage (though he retreats from granting women the vote), electoral reform, the abolishment of standing armies and sinecures, and the repayment of the national debt by the rich. [11]  He condemns the British system of elections for being chaotic, corrupt, and widely recognized in the popular press as entirely dysfunctional. In his later essay On the English Reform Bill (1831), Hegel is similarly critical of the “bizarre and informal irregularity and inequality which prevail[s] at present” (Political 234). After outlining the problems of rotten boroughs, the purchasing of seats, bribery, and the concentration of power in the hands of a small elite, Hegel observes, “It would be difficult to discover a comparable symptom of political corruption in any other people” (236). The challenge, as Shelley knows well, is to convince those in power, whose material interests are secured by unequal distributions and rights, to recognize the necessity of reform.

15.        As a counter to the logic of the police, Rancière reserves the term “politics” for changes that are antagonistic to the given order of the visible. Politics, then, refers to “whatever breaks with the tangible configuration whereby parties and parts or lack of them are defined by a supposition that, by definition, has no place in that configuration—that of the part of those who have no part” (Disagreement 29). Political activity, in other words, unsettles the hierarchical distribution of bodies, places, roles, occupations, and so forth, such that previously marginalized groups and heterogeneous parts of the social whole are made visible within the configuration of what is perceptible, or “the distribution of the sensible.” Rancière’s aesthetics of politics involves, therefore, an egalitarian reconfiguration of what is intelligible on the occasions where the excluded, the parts that have no part, demand equal participation in the common world.

16.        To make a case for those without a place or part in the political process, Shelley recommends gradualist interventions as a first mode of reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible, such as the remedies of petitions, passive resistance, agitating public opinion, publishing dissenting opinions, and seeking the writings of poets and philosophers in a proto-public intellectual capacity. “Suppose the memorials to be severally written by Godwin, Hazlitt, Bentham and Hunt,” writes Shelley, “they would be worthy of the age and of the cause” (259). If all measures fail, however, the people must take the gravest of actions: “The last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection” (260). In the final unfinished, fragmentary pages of A Philosophical View, we encounter a radical side of Shelley’s politics. If all peaceful, nonviolent measures are exhausted, violent upheaval is occasionally necessary as the end game of political struggle. Drawing on “the most approved writers on the English constitution,” Shelley argues, “which has in this instance been merely a declaration of the superior decisions of eternal justice, we possess a right of resistance” (260). What he is referring to is the contested declaration of the 1689 Bill of Rights, which includes a provision for Protestants to bear arms in self-defense, a provision that William Blackstone later interprets as “a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression” (143). After witnessing the bloody reprisals of counterrevolutionary measures on behalf of the state toward collective demonstration and peaceful protest, notably in the case of the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819, Shelley mines juridical-historical precedent to bolster his case for the multitude’s right to rebel.

17.        Shelley looks back to the English Revolutionary period as a source of inspiration not only in law and politics, but also in philosophy, poetry, and literature. Just before writing A Philosophical View, he began composing Charles the First (1818), which would have translated the revolutionary politics of the English Civil War into dramatic form. The events that led to the execution of a king and the “temporary abolition of aristocracy and episcopacy” were, for Shelley, a “mighty example” to the world of a people’s capacity for “bringing to justice one of the chiefs of a conspiracy of privileged murderers and robbers whose impunity had been the consecration of crime” (Philosophical 213). What makes this departure from the existing police order possible is the “exertion of the energies of intellectual power” on behalf of the poets and philosophers reflecting the “spirit of their age,” particularly Shakespeare and Lord Bacon, those unacknowledged legislators of a new mode of the perceptible (213, 227). Works of literature have the enduring value of opening up new horizons of possibility that have yet to be activated beyond the current social order; they disclose an aesthetic dimension of politics where the prevailing common sense, shared by all, confronts alterative sensible configurations of common life.

18.        The theory of aesthetic experience outlined in A Defence, as Robert Kaufman observes, is “quite similar to the one that Kant offers in the Third Critique’s Analytic of the Beautiful,” though with Shelley’s “self-conscious usage of a revolutionary vocabulary” (709). And akin to the Kantian doctrine of the faculties, Shelley divides the human mind into a faculty psychology, namely, the analytic power of reason and the synthetic power of imagination: reason legislates the logical, associational relations of distinct thoughts and quantities, while the imagination is the mind’s transformative, creative capacity to act upon primary elements of psychic life to forge new relations and forms. The imagination’s most privileged form of creation is poetry. In the process of outlining the relation between poetry and life, aesthetics and politics, Shelley offers a further distinction between a “restricted” and “unrestricted” idea of poetry: while the former refers to productions of the imagination in “metrical language” (Norton 513), or individuated works, the latter refers to the activation of the human imagination in the form of a creative “poetical faculty” possessed by all with varying degrees of potency (531). The poetical faculty, in turn, is responsible for a two-fold process of first creating “new materials of knowledge, and power and pleasure,” and then formally ordering the new content “according to a certain rhythm and order which may be called the beautiful and the good” (531). Within the context of Shelley’s universal history, the restricted sense of poetry takes shape as the “great poem,” to which each individual poet contributes a verse (522); by contrast, the unrestricted poetry of the world has produced the various artistic disciplines as well as laws, civil societies, and religions. The poet of politics, therefore, “discovers those laws according to which things ought to be ordered” (513), and translates these laws into new practices of writing, like the modern genre of rights declarations sparked by the age of revolution. The original drafter of the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, affords an exemplary case of a poet of laws and constitutions whose revolutionary influence was felt on the authors of the French Declaration. [12]  This is not, however, to diminish the social importance of poetic works in favour of utilitarian forms of knowledge, as Thomas Love Peacock proposes in The Four Ages of Poetry (1820). Shelley’s theory of poetry situates poetic thinking as a universally shared capacity in all subjects, a poetic common sense, though one that wanes as corruption reigns and language ossifies. During “periods of the decay of social life,” the task of the poet, in the restricted sense, is to spark the imagination by stirring the poetic faculty, “the faculty which contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation” (520, 522). Where the calculating principle of instrumental reason deadens language, the practice and reception of poetry resuscitates the moral imagination.

19.        But how, then, does poetry excite an aesthetic of resistance, the catalyst of aesthetic revolution? Like the Kantian conception of aesthetic common sense, in which one “reflects on his own judgment from a universal standpoint” (Critique §40.175), the Shelleyan poetic faculty is the point of genesis for an enlarged mentality, both for the poet and his audience. Shelley’s theory of history, however, grants the poet a more genetic role to play in the production of common sense; he describes how poets at an early moment in human history apprehend an enduring “rhythm and order” between “existence and perception,” and then invent forms of language and representation to link “perception and expression” (Norton 512). Over successive epochs, the narrative traces how poets have been agents of social transformation, preventing the decay of language and defamiliarizing habitual modes of perceiving the familiar world. Because the imagination is the creative power that organizes and combines the basic elements of social life according to the mind’s laws (“equality, diversity, unity, contrast, mutual dependence” [511]), and because the poet possesses the most potent poetic faculty, poets have the imaginative power to make new sense of the world, to redistribute the sensible. Poetry acts upon the reader by making the mind “the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought” (517); the superior faculties are therefore not only enlarged by the sheer mass of the novel content but also awakened by the new formal relations that link familiar thoughts in unfamiliar ways. The enlarged mentality is a condition of possibility for the good because the viewer participates in a virtual form of “the common universe of which we are portions and percipients,” a common experience that allows one to “put himself in the place of another and of many others” (517). Poetry’s relation to morality does not reside in its doctrines—“Didactic poetry is my abhorrence,” Shelley writes in the Preface to Prometheus—but rather in its ability to expand the imagination beyond “the principle of self” in sympathetic identification with others (209, 531). Moreover, poetic experience opens up gaps within the perceptible, what Shelley calls “new intervals and interstices” (517), disjunctions that reveal an aesthetic dimension within the operations of psychic life and the perception of the world. The gaps that emerge in aesthetic experience afford opportunities for departure from things as they are, and poetry generates a “being within our being,” an epipsyche, which “defeats the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions” (533). This disjunction creates “dissensus,” to use Rancière’s term, “a conflict between sense and sense,” that is, “between a sensory presentation and a way of making sense of it, or between several sensory regimes and/or ‘bodies’” (Dissensus 139). [13]  As a moment of dissensus, the epipsyche of aesthetic experience presents two divergent senses of the subject’s relation to itself and the world, namely, the prevailing configuration as well as a virtual alternative, thus opening new possibilities to recalibrate one’s perception of the established reality.

20.        Far from escaping social and political life, the aesthetic dimension suspends and distorts our conventional understanding of the historical world. The work of art enacts a defamiliarizing refusal of the actual, of pernicious habits and customs that have insinuated themselves into a normative idea of human nature. Such moments of epipsychic dissensus, or subversions of common sense perception, reappear as an ongoing strategy in Shelley’s work. [14]  He begins to flesh out his concept of the epipsyche, or “little soul,” in his short essay “On Love,” where he describes it as “a miniature as it were of our entire self, yet deprived of all that we condemn or despise, the ideal prototype of every thing excellent or lovely that we are capable of conceiving as belonging to the nature of man” (Norton 504). As an animating principle within our psychic life, “a soul within our soul,” we strive to realize its material embodiment, or “antitype,” within the sensible world (504). It might seem odd to extract a radical politics from Shelley’s reflections on love, perhaps a moment of levity, but love’s sympathetic movement beyond the self serves as an activating principle in several of Shelley’s lyrical experiments, such as Alastor, Epipsychidion, and Adonais. In the short time that remains, however, I will briefly highlight a unique example in which the epipsyche is turned on its head and the necessity of eros is intertwined with thanatos, that is, the scene of resistance between Prometheus and Jupiter’s Phantasm in the opening act of Prometheus Unbound.

21.        The drama opens with the tortured, enchained Prometheus declaring, after “three thousand years of sleep-unsheltered hours” under Jupiter’s oppressive reign (I.12), that his blind hatred has ultimately resolved into pity for the “cruel King” (I.50), whose fateful fall will soon come to pass according to Demogorgon’s “mighty law” of Necessity (II.2.43). On the verge of mental revolution, Prometheus appeals to the Earth and her constituent parts (mountains, springs, air, and whirlwinds) to reiterate the forgotten curse he placed upon Jupiter long ago; what comes back from the world is the “sound of voices—not the voice / Which I gave forth” (I.112-13) and an “awful whisper” (I.132). The voices of the world are sensory but without standing in the symbolic order. The Titan senses a whisper “scarce like sound” (I.133); it “tingles through the frame / As lightning tingles, hovering ere it strike” (I.133-34). The voices of the Earth and her parts are felt as powerful sensory signals but without linguistic communication. Each exchange reveals Prometheus’ loss of the right to engage in a community of speakers, a capacity Lyotard supposes to be “perhaps the most fundamental human right” (“Other’s Rights” 141). Under the regime of Jupiter, the tyrant over “living things” (I.3), the Earth and the other elements of nature speak “the language of the dead” (I.138), an underground discourse of resistance unknown to the immortal Prometheus and his oppressor. To speak in the language of the living is to run the risk of Jupiter’s torture on “some wheel of pain” (I.141). The loss of an interlocutory community is not immediately apparent, however, because the “Daedal harmony” (IV.416) of the drama’s language produces the illusion of transparent dialogue, which, in turn, playfully mirrors and critiques the sinister way in which oppressive power generates a state of enforced consensus that masks the voices of those who remain excluded. Without the means to recall or present the curse he uttered to Jupiter, and without the capacity to understand the language of the witnesses, Prometheus finds himself the victim of what Lyotard calls a “differend,” that is, a situation in which “something ‘asks’ to be put into phrases, and suffers from the wrong of not being able to be put into phrases right away” (Differend 13). How can Prometheus work through his own psychic resistance to summon up the curse, without the testimony of Earth and her muted elements?

22.        Though we possess only fragments of Aeschylus’ lost play, Prometheus Unbound, many classical scholars agree that Earth, or Gaia, is a mediating figure that reconciles Prometheus with Zeus by revealing the Titan’s secret knowledge of the danger that will come if the tyrant produces a child with Thetis. [15]  Shelley’s Earth, however, resists her own interpellation into Jupiter’s state of consensus. Her task, to use Lyotard’s language, is “to bear witness to the differends by finding idioms for them” (13), a task that will help Prometheus to recollect and eventually revoke the misbegotten curse. To bridge the chasm between the “two worlds of life and death” (I.195), Earth proposes an alternative route that would intertwine both worlds by having a phantasm from the dead utter the curse in the language of the living. Rather than hear the curse from his own image, Prometheus opts for the specter of the reigning sovereign power. The invocation of Jupiter’s Phantasm stages a scene of dissensus between two seemingly incommensurable worlds, which not only facilitates Prometheus’ process of working through the repressed curse, but also bridges the domains of actuality and potentiality. Jupiter’s Phantasm is a kind of inverted epipsyche in that it affords Prometheus the opportunity to witness his disavowed sense of revenge and “calm hate” in a virtual, uncanny double of himself as tyrant (I.259), a transformative experience that precipitates his repentance and ultimate retraction of the curse. Prometheus’ experience of the phantasm is therefore not unlike the temporal sequence of sublime spectatorship: the feeling of misery and pain that accompanies his inability to present a seemingly ineffable event gives way to the pleasure of atonement that accompanies the reiteration and remorseful repeal of his words. This reading of the Phantasm also foregrounds the active role of Earth in refashioning the world; having created a breach in the sensible domain, she emerges as a revolutionary subject on behalf of her muted constituent parts—the parts of the world that have no part in Jupiter’s regime. Earth, in this sense, bears witness to an impassable differend and then generates novel passageways between existence and perception, then perception and expression, subversively restoring Prometheus’ right to speak to others. His monologic, lyric I becomes a dialogic, dramatic we. [16] 

23.        Shelley’s refusal of the normative constraints of common sense, to recall Hazlitt’s charge, is exemplified in his radical experiment with the “lyrical drama.” Prometheus translates the conventions of Greek drama into a hybrid genre where the classical structures of Aeschylus’ work are combined, like a chemical mixture, with modern forms of lyric subjectivity and democratic equality that refigure established hierarchical divisions between lyric, drama, and epic. [17]  Shelley’s imaginative departures from generic models is matched by a radical innovation at the level of the narrative: instead of reconciling “the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind,” Prometheus emerges as a revolutionary figure who embodies “the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature,” qualities that give the Titan’s patient defiance a sense of justice that is missing in the rebelliousness of Milton’s Satan (206-7). The image of Prometheus’ near-solipsistic solitude, not unlike Hegel’s description of the lyric subject as “an enclosed inner world” (Aesthetics 1115), is interrupted by the drama’s dialogic interaction with the world at large, which stages a scene of dissension that forges an alternative community of speakers and activates a new form of revolutionary subjectivity. But what ultimately makes this possible is the return of a repressed primordial power of resistance that emerges from the disjointure between the world of the living and the dead, that is, the overpowering force of Demogorgon. Just as tyrants rarely “leave a path to freedom but through their own blood” (Philosophical 213), Jupiter’s reign only comes to an end after a swift, decisive struggle with his more powerful offspring. Demogorgon’s defeat of Jupiter is the originary violence that founds the new Promethean age of humanity through “Destruction’s strength” (IV.564), a death drive that retreats from history until it is recalled once again, as a last resort, “To defy Power which seems Omnipotent” (IV.572). The disappearance of Demogorgon from the world at the end of Shelley’s lyrical drama mirrors, in an uncanny way, the withdrawal of the “right of resistance” after its revolutionary enactment in the Declarations of 1776 and 1789, serving only as a supplementary right in the French Declaration of 1793. Even in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the right to resist is only mentioned in the opening Preamble as an endgame to be avoided by granting universal rights to all peoples. And yet, as Shelley’s aesthetics of resistance brings to light, the capacity to resist is as irrepressible as the capacity for poetry: they are life and death instincts in humanity’s unsurpassable struggle to recreate the world.

Works Cited

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Conacher, D.J. Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound: A Literary Commentary. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1980. Print.

Curran, Stuart. “Lyrical Drama: Prometheus Unbound and Hellas.The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Michael O’Neill and Anthony Howe. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

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Hazlitt, William. Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1910. Print.

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[1] Recent reevaluations of Shelley’s political prose and poetry can be found in edited collections by Alan M. Weinberg and Timothy Webb, Darby Lewes, and Michael Scrivener. BACK

[2] All references to Shelley’s poetry and A Defence of Poetry are cited from Donald Reiman and Neil Fraistat’s Norton edition, Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, hereafter indicated as Norton in parenthesis. BACK

[3] In The Politics of Aesthetics, the translator and editor Gabriel Rockhill proposes the following helpful definition for the “distribution of the sensible” in Rancière’s work:

the implicit law governing the sensible order that parcels out places and forms of participation in a common world by first establishing the modes of perception within which these are inscribed. The distribution of the sensible thus produces a system of self-evident facts of perception based on the set horizons and modalities of what is visible and audible as well as what can be said, thought, made, or done. Strictly speaking, ‘distribution’ therefore refers both to forms of inclusion and to forms of exclusion. (85)

[4] For a discussion of the paradoxes of human rights, see Lynn Hunt. BACK

[5] In the Reflections, Edmund Burke described this clash as a process of “refractions and reflections”:

These metaphysic rights entering into common life, like rays of light which pierce into a dense medium, are, by the laws of nature, refracted from that straight line. Indeed in the gross and complicated mass of human passions and concerns, the primitive rights of man undergo such a variety of refractions and reflections, that it becomes absurd to talk of them as if they continued in the simplicity of their original direction. (61)

[6] For a perspicacious discussion of the place of revolutionary subjectivity and rights in the Jacobin novel, see Miriam L. Wallace. BACK

[7] See David Brion Davis for a comprehensive analysis of the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. BACK

[8] Despite his well-documented enthusiasm for the American and French Revolutions, Kant notoriously denies any notion of a constitutional “right of revolution,” claiming “the people can never possess a right of coercion against the head of state, or be entitled to oppose him in word or deed.” Of the English constitution, vaunted as an example to the world, Kant says “we find no mention of what the people are entitled to do if the monarch were to violate the contract of 1688” (Political 83). For Kant, any statement within a constitution of a right of resistance would fail the test of publicity, because it must then declare the remedies and powers responsible for keeping the sovereign within the bounds of the contract, a remedy that would in fact create another sovereign, or even a third to judge which sovereign power was in the right. BACK

[9] Keeping in mind Cian Duffy’s and Peter Howell’s critique of Kantian approaches to the sublime in Romantic studies, a critical look that foregrounds an alternative notion of the sublime as “the site of a complex interaction between different discourses” (3), my illustration of the affinity between Kant and Shelley on the sublime will highlight the analogical relations between aesthetics, politics, history, and, to a lesser extent, science. BACK

[10] See Richard Holmes, Chapter 3, for an exceptional discussion of the hot-air balloon craze in the Romantic period, with a vivid description of the first flight of the Montgolfier brothers. BACK

[11] Though Shelley hesitates in advocating for female suffrage, he does express his sympathy towards the idea of universal suffrage: “Mr. Bentham and other writers have urged the admission of females to the right of suffrage; this attempt seems somewhat immature. Should my opinion be the result of despondency, the writer of these pages would be the last to withhold his vote from any system which might tend to an equal and full development of the capacities of all living beings” (Philosophical 251). BACK

[12] Lynn Hunt reports that Jefferson’s original draft went through “eighty-six alterations made by himself, the Committee of Five, or Congress” (18). This painstaking level of revision and attention to detail stands at odds with Shelley’s remark that it is an “error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labour and study” (Norton 531). BACK

[13] In his essay, “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” Rancière offers a helpful outline of dissensus in art:

Dissensus is a conflict between sensory presentation and a way of making sense of it, or between sensory regimes and / or ‘bodies’. This is the way in which dissensus can be said to reside at the heart of politics, since at bottom the latter itself consists in an activity that redraws the frame within which common objects are determined. Politics breaks with the sensory self-evidence of the ‘natural’ order that destines specific individuals and groups to occupy positions of rule or of being ruled, assigning them to private or public lives, pinning them down to a certain time and space, to specific ‘bodies’, that is to specific ways of being, seeing, and saying. (Dissensus 139)

[14] Observing Shelley’s prevalent use of the concept of the “epipsyche,” Carlos Baker long ago identified this movement as “the psyche-epipsyche strategy.” Baker describes this term as follows: “To put the matter in Shelleyan terms, the mind (psyche) imaginatively creates or envisions what it does not have (epipsyche), and then seeks to possess epipsyche, to move towards it as a goal. Therefore the psyche-epipsyche strategy in a nutshell is the evolution by the mind of an ideal pattern towards which it then aspires” (Major Poetry 53). BACK

[15] In his reconstruction of the possible narrative development of Aeschylus’ Promethean trilogy, D.J. Conacher suggests that it is “reasonable to guess (as many commentators have done) that Gaia is in some way an intermediary between the two antagonists in the revelation of Prometheus’ secret to Zeus” (Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound 112). BACK

[16] For this insight, I owe a debt of gratitude to Tilottama Rajan’s essay, “Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness,” in which she argues that the lyric cogito is always already displaced by its inalienable difference: “My argument is that pure lyric is a monological form, where narrative and drama alike are set in the space of difference. The latter present the self in interaction with other characters and events. But lyric, as a purely subjective form, is marked by the exclusion of the other through which we become aware of the difference of the self from itself” (196). BACK

[17] In his essay “Lyrical Drama: Prometheus Unbound and Hellas,” Stuart Curran characterizes Shelley’s challenge as an “assault” on generic divisions: “’Lyric drama’, like the similar designation of the previous generation, ‘lyrical ballad’, is, instead, a deliberate assault on the integrity of the tripartite generic division—epic, drama, lyric—inherited from Aristotle and Horace and reinforced throughout the eighteenth century by major arbiters of neoclassical criticism” (290). The recalibration of generic structures through the poetic experiment of the lyrical drama brings to light Shelley’s revolutionary politics of aesthetics at the level of form. BACK

Published @ RC

September 2015