Masks of An-Archy: Shelley, Rancière, and the Anarchist Turn

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This essay reads Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy in the context of the resurgence of critical interest in anarchist theory. The essay meditates on how recent developments in anarchist-related critical theory, specifically the work of Jacques Rancière, make visible an aesthetics of anarchism. Using Rancière's re-contextualization of the Romantic aesthetic philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller, the essay argues that Shelley's protest poem can be read as an anarchism not only in terms of its political content, but, perhaps more radically, with respect to its form. In so doing, the essay attempts to think beyond the critical impasse in which The Mask is understood as sacrificing aesthetics for politics, or politics for aesthetics, by asking how The Mask might be read as expressing an anarchic politics, in Rancière's words, "simply by being literature."

Masks of An-Archy: Shelley, Rancière, and the Anarchist Turn

Jared McGeough
Independent Scholar

1.        Percy Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy (1819) has been revered by political radicals of all stripes, from Chartists to Marxists, and although a Marxist orientation arguably comprises the “mainstream” interpretation of Shelley as a political radical, the same history sees Shelley more or less adopted as part of an international anarchist literary canon. Indeed, as Eric Hobsbawm avers, in the early part of the twentieth century “interest in Shelley” became something of a sign by which anarchists often recognized one another (82). In his canonical 1962 history of the movement, George Woodcock noted that it was in Shelley—as the chief disciple of William Godwin, his father-in-law and unofficial founder of modern anarchism—“that anarchism first appears as a theme of world literature. And, though Shelley must perhaps cede to Tolstoy the honour of being the greatest of anarchist writers, he remains the greatest of anarchist poets” (91).

2.         Yet, as Michael Scrivener noted some time ago, Shelley’s connection to anarchism has received little more than “spotty acknowledgement” (35), a forgetting that persists today despite the abiding critical interest in his politics. Recent years, however, have seen a dramatic resurgence of popular and academic interest in anarchist theory and practice, prompting Simon Critchley to propose an “anarchist turn” across the disciplines (“The Anarchist Turn”). This turn marks, among other things, a certain return by contemporary radical theorists to one of the root insights of anarchist thinking; namely, its fundamental critique of archē, the foundations or “first” principles which historically serve as the metaphysical ground and justification for a hierarchical construction of the social. If, as Kir Kuiken has recently argued, the political and aesthetic upheavals that mark Romanticism make its aesthetics the locus “for a fundamental set of questions that can no longer be resolved by reference to a pre-given ground or authority” (4), then the recent anarchist turn is itself the return of a certain Romanticism that remains to be thought through.

3.         In this essay, I explore the implications of the anarchist turn for Romanticism as the possibility of a return to Woodcock’s view of Shelley as an anarchist poet. My purpose, however, is not simply to interpret Shelley’s politics as anarchist; rather, this essay meditates on how recent developments in anarchist theory make visible an aesthetics of anarchism, and how this aesthetics is deployed in one of Shelley’s most expressly anarchistic poems, The Mask of Anarchy. What follows investigates this possibility primarily via the work of Jacques Rancière, whose work on the politics of aesthetics has strong ties to the anarchist turn. [1]  The relationship between anarchic and Romantic discourses in Rancière’s thinking, and their importance for Romanticism itself, has yet to be explored in detail. The coordinates for relating these discourses are found in Rancière’s notion of the “aesthetic regime,” which he locates in the Romantic period. For Rancière, texts such as Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), [2]  Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), and, for our purposes, Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, generate a “literary formula for the democratic principle of equality” (Politics of Literature 10-11). [3]  This democratic principle does not correspond to political anarchism per se but with a “primary ‘anarchism’ at the heart of politics” as such, a “rupture in the logic of archē” which “presupposes that a determinate superiority is exercised over an equally determinate inferiority” (“Democracy” 174-75; Dissensus 30-31).

4.        This an-archy provides a critical architecture for understanding Shelley’s relationship to anarchism not in terms of its political content but as form, specifically in its paradoxical Kantian-Schillerian modality as a “suspension” of relations of domination, which, I argue, provides the aesthetic coordinates for The Mask’s emphasis on passive resistance. Examining this an-archic conception of form, this essay thus attempts to think beyond the critical impasse in which The Mask is understood either as sacrificing aesthetics for politics [4]  or a mere “aesthetic processing” of politics (Wolfson 195). Rather, by linking Rancière’s analysis of the aesthetic regime to one of Shelley’s most exoteric political poems, the essay asks how The Mask might be read as expressing an an-archic politics “simply by being literature” (Rancière, PL 3).

5.        In this respect, parts of my argument dovetails with recent work on Shelley by critics like Kuiken and Matthew Borushko, who have re-emphasized the centrality of form in Shelley’s political texts. My analysis of the suspension of form in Kant and Schiller via Rancière echoes what Borushko has called, via Adorno, the “alliance between the aesthetic [form] and nonviolence” in Shelley’s Mask (97). In turn, my own argument extends these critical insights by linking this inherently political conception of the aesthetic to Rancière’s aesthetic regime so as to provide a different accent on the critical history that often touches upon, but rarely examines in depth or in distinctively aesthetic terms, Shelley’s connection to the anarchist political tradition.


6.         We can begin with a brief reminder of some of the core ideas informing Rancière’s approach to the politics of aesthetics. Central to this approach is his disjoining of the politics of literature from the politics of writers. For Rancière, the politics of literature is not concerned with “the personal engagements of writers in the social or political struggles of their times,” nor to “the way writers represent social structures” or “political movements . . . in their books.” Instead, the politics of literature concerns the way literature “intervenes as literature” in the “carving up of space and time, the visible and invisible, speech and noise” (PL 3; emphasis added). In this respect, intervention is not the demonstration of a program for political resistance in poetic form; rather, intervention is located in the articulation of form itself, which Rancière sees in Kantian terms as the a priori “shape” that reconfigures sensible-perceptual space. By disrupting the tacit distribution organizing the sensible, form also bears a distinctively political potential as “dissensus,” or the “reconfiguration of the distribution of the sensible that defines the common of a community, by introducing into it subjects and new objects, in rendering visible those who were not, and of making understood as speakers those who were only understood as noisy animals” (AD 25).

7.         Rancière locates the historical emergence of this political dimension of aesthetic form with the “aesthetic regime” of art during the Romantic period. The aesthetic regime arises, in particular, in opposition to a prior “representative” regime of art formulated on the basis of an Aristotelian theory of mimesis. The representative was composed of three interrelated elements analogous “with a fully hierarchical vision” of society: the “primacy of action over characters,” a “hierarchy of genres according to the dignity of their subject matter,” and the “primacy of the art of speaking” (PA 22). The privileging of narrative as “the imitation of men who act” establishes an opposition between the “rationality of action against the empirical nature of life,” such that “the superiority of the poem, which links actions” over other forms, appears “homologous to the superiority of men who take part in the world of action” (PL 9-10). Men of action are further privileged in their possession of efficacious speech: orators, princes, princesses, generals, and so on. Moreover, the definitive nature of the rules for aesthetic production means that works of art demand an equally determinate effect on their audience: a successful tragedy, for instance, always culminates in a catharsis.

8.        The aesthetic regime, conversely, emerges precisely when the hierarchies of the representative begin to break down. The innovation of the aesthetic regime is an acknowledgement that there are no pre-existing rules for what counts as the subject of a work of art and, therefore, that there are no solid boundaries between the forms of art and those of life: art is freed “from any specific rule, from any hierarchy of the arts, subject matter, and genre” (PA 23). The aesthetic regime dismantles the hierarchical distribution of subjects, instead promoting an “equality of represented subjects” and an “indifference of style with regard to content,” such that artists no longer have to represent subjects according to specific rules (Rockhill 81). The aesthetic regime thus revitalizes aesthetics by placing it in contact with life, while life is thought to be potentially transformable by its renewed contact with art. One of the byproducts of the aesthetic regime’s abolition of representative rules, however, is precisely “the loss of any determinate relationship between a work and its audience, between its sensible presence and an effect that will be its natural end” (Rancière, “Art of the Possible”).

9.         The aesthetic regime’s confusion of the lines between art and life finds its historical parallel in the French Revolution, which overturned the social and political hierarchies correspondent to the generic divisions within the representative regime, while investing transformations of sensible experience and the radical blurring of artistic boundaries with a desire directed towards a future human community. The logic of this shift is evident Wordsworth’s well-known refusal of the rules of engagement by which poets are supposed to “gratify certain known habits of association,” along with his arguments against poetic diction, and his promotion of the “language really used by men” as the proper domain of poetry, all of which exemplifies the aesthetic regime’s desire for art’s renewed contact with life. In the Defence, Shelley’s demand for “the poetry of life” (502) similarly manifests the aesthetic regime’s collapse of discursive boundaries. For Shelley, imagination “has for its objects those forms which are common to universal nature,” which includes not only poetry, but “the kindred expressions of the poetical faculty; architecture, painting, music, the dance, sculpture, philosophy, and we may add the forms of civil life” (488). In turn, the Defence emphasizes “the connexion of poetry and social good,” for poetry “contains within itself the seeds at once of its own and of social renovation” (492). However, Shelley also acknowledges the contingency of the artwork’s intention and its effect in the image of the fading coal whose “transitory brightness” emits only a “feeble shadow” of its original conception; hence, “it is impossible to predict the greatness of its results” (504).

10.         The collapse of the borders between art and life in the aesthetic regime is not as straightforward as it appears, however. On the one hand, the aesthetic regime inaugurates a project of “aesthetic revolution” through its “suspension of the relations of domination” and their transformation “into the generative principle of a world without domination” (Rancière, AD 36). On the other, art can only gesture towards this utopian future by virtue of its distance from life, that is, by virtue of the autonomy of its form. For Rancière, it is the “resistant figure of the work[’s form] in which political promise is negatively preserved” that generates its an-archic potential (AD 36-37). This paradox is compounded by the “generative contradiction” of form itself (PA 29): in order for art to preserve its “political promise” it must be distinct from the “natural” organization of bodies in the distribution of the sensible. At the same time, this promise also means that that art must be more than mere art; namely, it must become an agent of transformation. Art can hold onto its political promise only through its disincorporation from existing distributions of the sensible. The aesthetic regime is therefore “inhabited by a heterogeneous power, the power of a form of thought that has become foreign to itself” (PA 23). This heterogeneous power parallels dissensus: by virtue of its paradoxical autonomy and heteronomy, form produces a gap in the sensible through its neutralization of the customary meanings attributed to words and the assigned relations between bodies and their capacities. It is through this hiatus that form manifests alternative possibilities for a redistribution of the sensible.

11.         Rancière arrives at the constitutive paradox of the aesthetic regime through an examination of Romantic aesthetic philosophy, in particular Schiller’s rereading of Kant’s aesthetic judgment. What interests Rancière in Kant and Schiller is their shared emphasis on discerning in aesthetic experience a “form of judgment freed from the hierarchies of knowledge and those of social life” (“Art of the Possible”). For Kant, aesthetic judgment proceeds from a double negation that suspends both the law of the understanding and the law of practical interest. Judgments of the type “this is beautiful” are disinterested, Kant argues, since they function in the absence of any determinate law of the understanding or as an object of desire. As disinterested, aesthetic form is not the imposition of a conceptual unity on manifold sensation but that aspect of an object freely reflected in the imagination in the absence of any determinate concept or empirical interest, so that the imagination is “as it were, at play in the observation of the shape” (Kant, CJ 114). No longer subject either to the laws of reason or of sensibility, imaginative play manifests a free and indeterminate relation between the faculties of the imagination and the understanding, which in turn produces “aesthetic common sense”:

a faculty of judgement, which in its reflection takes account (a priori) of everyone else’s way of representing in thought, in order as it were to hold its judgment up to human reason as a whole . . . by abstracting from the limitations that contingently attach to our judging, which is in turn accomplished by leaving out as far as is possible everything in one’s representational state that is matter, i.e. sensation, and attending solely to the formal peculiarities of his representation. (CJ 175-76)
Although Kant’s conception of the aesthetic judgment of beauty is often de-emphasized in favour of the sublime, [5]  in Rancière’s terms it is precisely the emphasis on form in the aesthetic experience of beauty that generates the possibility of dissensus. Crucially, Kant distinguishes his version of aesthetic common sense from the common-sense “realism” of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose privileging of sense-experience Schiller critiques as “judging all experience whatsoever by one particular fragment of experience” (101). Conversely, the formalism of the Kantian aesthetic judgment divests common sense of its unreflected immediacy, encouraging a critical relation to the given. Aesthetic common sense emerges precisely when the given empirical distribution of “common sense” is no longer taken for granted.

12.        Kant further describes the sensus communis generated by aesthetic judgment as possible rather than “actual” (CJ 174). The universality of the aesthetic experience of form does not affirm the sensus communis as an already existing state of affairs, as it does for the Scottish realists, but identifies it as a possibility whose withdrawal from the given opens towards Rancière’s conception of equality as a supplement that “separates the community out from the sum of the parts of the social body.” As a universal presupposition in which “to think for oneself” is paradoxically “to think the position of everyone else” (Kant, CJ 174), aesthetic common sense identifies the moment when a singular judgment is no longer part of the conventional distributions of the sensible, but identifies itself with “human reason as a whole,” “a communal sphere different from the official public sphere” (Rancière, “Democracy” 174-75).

13.         Schiller’s rereading of Kant in the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man makes the politics within aesthetic judgment explicit. For Schiller, “if man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic” (90), whose “play” encompasses the very definition of humanity itself: “man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays” (131). In the sixth letter, Schiller criticizes the increasingly “sharper divisions between the sciences” and the “rigorous separation of ranks and occupations” (99) that constitutes the representative regime and its itinerant police order. In aesthetic play, conversely, the mind finds itself a “medium” between reason and sensation: “it is, precisely because it is divided between the two, removed from the constraint of the one as of the other. . . . By means of beauty sensuous man is led to a form of thought” and “spiritual man is brought back to matter” (129, 137). Schiller describes play as emerging in the experience of form, which in its Kantian definition affects the “whole man,” whereas subject matter affects “only one or other of his functions” (151). Schiller encounters the contradictory play of this formal effect at work in his description of the statue of the Juno Ludovisi: “the whole figure reposes and dwells in itself, . . . neither yielding nor resisting; here is no force to contend with force. . . . we find ourselves at one and the same time in a state of utter repose and supreme agitation, and there results that wondrous stirring of the heart for which mind has no concept nor speech any name” (132). The aesthetic experience of the statue’s autonomy is inextricably intertwined with its heteronomy, its strange fascination promising a new form of life in its formal difference from ordinary sensation.

14.         For Rancière, Schiller’s conception of aesthetic play as the free agreement between reason and sensation articulates a “pure instance of suspension, a moment when form is experienced for itself,” which stands in direct contrast to any “state that governs human societies and puts each person in his place by separating those who command from those who obey” (PA 24; AD 97). Hence, the free agreement made possible through aesthetic experience is “already . . . dissensus” (AD 97). On the one hand, aesthetic play is dissensus in its refusal of a cognition in which one faculty is subordinated to another; on the other, it is the refusal of any hierarchical division in which one form of life is superior to another. In turn, Schiller’s desire for an “aesthetic education” of humanity comes about as a distinctively nonviolent suspension of (sensible) force contending with (rational) force. This suspension, mobilized by the Kantian-Schillerian concept of form, locates an aesthetics of passive resistance within the politics of Romantic aesthetics, a state in which utter repose is paradoxically and simultaneously a mode of supreme agitation.

15.         In the Defence, Shelley also speaks of poetry as the play of “exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change” that in its synthetic “union under its light yoke all irreconcilable things” (505). This union does not reconcile us with things as they are but “makes us the inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos,” defeating both “the curse which binds us to be subjected to the accident of surrounding impressions” as well as reason’s “enumeration of quantities already known” (480). Neither “mere life,” nor “mere form,” the suspension made possible in the experience of aesthetic play, creates what Schiller calls “living Shape” [lebende Gestalt] (128). Echoing the “Shape” that breeds living thoughts “As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken” in The Mask (l. 122), Schiller’s “living Shape” expands Kant’s formulation beyond mere disinterestedness to redeploy aesthetic play as the figure through which both mind and world can be imagined otherwise: on the basis of equality.


16.         The tensions Rancière foregrounds in the Kantian-Schillerian notion of aesthetic form—the suspension of attraction and repulsion, repose and agitation, neither yielding nor resisting—provide coordinates through which we can begin to approach similar tensions at work in The Mask of Anarchy. The play of these tensions stage The Mask’s political promise of equality inherent within the notion of form that emerges with the aesthetic regime.

17.        The Mask is an especially appropriate example of how such tensions operate; indeed, for much of its reception history, the poem finds itself divided by the very politics and aesthetics it ostensibly tries to reconcile. On the one hand, The Mask’s historical popularity with radicals, including anarchists, [6]  has fed its reputation as “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English” (Holmes 532). To be sure, Shelley seems to have intended the poem to be read this way; writing to Leigh Hunt in 1820, Shelley includes The Mask as part of a “little volume of popular songs, wholly political, & destined to awaken & direct the imagination of the reformers” (Letters 2: 191). Conversely, Susan Wolfson has contested The Mask’s celebrated interventionist status on the very basis of its form, seeing in the poem’s blend of dream-vision and political awakening a series of external and internal impasses that undermine the very causes it seeks to promote. Such impasses, from the poem’s belated publication in 1832 rendering it “unable to affect the struggle it addresses” (195), to its framing as a dream-vision from which “the poet never seems to awaken” (195-96), and its reduction of mass political action to a “static aesthetic spectacle” (198-200, 203), disarticulate Shelley’s attempt to put poetry to work in and as politics.

18.         Yet even Wolfson’s penetrating reading of The Mask’s formal contradictions remains within the scope of critical judgment that measures the poem as a “litmus test” for Shelley’s politics (Kuiken 188). In this respect, Wolfson less overturns the political monumentalization of Shelley than reproduces it negatively as a sign of poetry’s failure to be politics. Such approaches potentially miss something crucial about the complex tensions between autonomy and heteronomy that contribute to the aesthetic regime’s political theorization of form itself.

19.         In order to gauge how The Mask can be an interventionist text “as literature” let us return briefly to Shelley’s statement that The Mask is a poem “destined to awaken & direct the imagination of the reformers.” At first glance, Shelley’s comment would seem to posit a simple cause and effect relation between poetry and politics. One notes the subtle wording of the remark, however: what is being awakened is the imaginations of the reformers. That is to say, what Shelley expresses in The Mask is not necessarily poetry as the causal spring of a failed, programmatic, model of politics, but a politics of poetry capable of imagining new forms of collective life. This imagining becomes possible through the poetic reconfiguration of the sensible; hence, the imaginative awakening to which Shelley refers in his letter becomes the “sense awakening” in The Mask, something “heard and felt” (l. 136-37).

20.         Shelley’s much-discussed use of the court masque genre provides a convenient starting point for the poem’s manner of “carving up” the sensible, since it renders palpable the differences between representative and aesthetic regimes. As Stuart Curran points out, Shelley inverts the hierarchy of values typically associated with the masque-antimasque genres. Whereas in the conventional masque, the vulgarity, grotesquerie, and chaos of the antimasque are invoked only to be “superseded by the ritual celebration” of “the received order of society and . . . its structures of authority” (Curran 188, 190), Shelley repurposes the masque such that the authoritative embodiments of order (“God, King, and Law”) now inhabit the “motley crowd” typically associated with the antimasque (l. 27, 40-41, 66). Conversely, Shelley transvalues the masque into an aesthetic form that gives voice to that part that has no part, the “Heroes of unwritten story” (l. 148). In so doing, The Mask reconfigures the masque-form as a genre available to everyone: its subjects are no longer situated within the hierarchical arrangement which defines the crowd as the chaotic “other” of social authority, but rather access the passion of ritual celebration hitherto reserved for these forms of authority as available to all.

21.         The theoretical basis for this inversion is formulated in the Defence, where Shelley redefines drama in the context of the aesthetic regime’s an-archic breakdown of the representative hierarchy of genres. Shelley shifts the meanings of the dramatic form from a code properly separating genres to that “under which a greater number of modes of expression of poetry are susceptible of being combined than any other” (491-92). Though The Mask is not as ostentatious in its generic hybridity as the “lyrical drama” of Prometheus Unbound, its redeployment of the masque nonetheless performs a dramatic function which Rancière identifies with “the practice of bringing into play the capacity of the greatest number,” the “many” of the “Ye are many – they are few” (“Democracy” 175). In this context, the function of the masque for Shelley is not political action, insofar as action remains within the representative schema that that aesthetic regime calls into question. Rather, its function in bringing into play the capacity of the greatest number is the suspension of action, exemplified both in the transvaluation of “God, King, and Law” as the arbiters of Anarchy without progression, as well as the equivalence of the multitude’s “folded arms and looks” with “Weapons of unvanquished war” (l. 321-22).

22.         This suspension of action is figured from the outset of the poem in the ambiguous status of the speaker, who dreamily ventriloquizes a voice heard “from over the Sea”:

As I lay asleep in Italy,
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me,
To walk in visions of Poesy. (l. 1-4)
For Wolfson, the quadruple single rhyme and the drowsy sibilance of “As I-Sea-Poesy” generates an effect at once hypnotic and claustrophobic. Initiating the verse’s rhyme scheme not with the first end rhyme “Italy-me” but with the internal “asleep-Italy,” which then becomes “me” and “Poesy,” The Mask binds its desire for political agency to the ideologically (en)closed “specular seeming” (Wolfson 197). This agency is further perplexed by the syntactic echoes between the voice of the “indignant Earth” (l. 139) that calls for political action and the poem’s specular preamble. The “As I” that initiates the dream sequence thus returns as the “As if” through which the Earth’s “words of joy and fear arose”: “As if their Own indignant Earth / . . . / Had felt her blood upon her brow / . . . / As if her heart had cried aloud” (l. 138-39, 141, 147). The poem’s form thus works to restrain the “political agency of the oratory to a dream” (Wolfson 198).

23.         But in making the oratory a dream, The Mask at once formally demonstrates the restraint that the poem’s content will exhort as passive resistance, while further displacing the hierarchical modes of sensibility within the representative order. As Rancière notes, in the representative order, “speaking was the act of the orator who persuades an assembly. . . . The power of making art with words was linked to the power of a hierarchy of speech, of a relationship of address regulated between speech acts and defined audiences on whom these speech acts were supposed to produce the effects of mobilizing” (PL 12). It is precisely this hierarchy of the active speech of men-in-action over a passive multitude that the poem goes on to challenge by displacing both the source of the orator’s voice and its addressee: its origin is not a localizable figure within the social hierarchy but in the “Earth,” while its addressee is no longer “magistrates, princes and preachers” but the “many,” or rather, as Rancière puts it, “any one at all, no one in particular” (PL 12). Like the masque form itself, the representative function of oration here becomes subject to the an-archic formula of the aesthetic regime that dismantles “the distinction between men of speech-in-action and men of noisy suffering voice” (PL 13). The dream is the form of the oration; as such, the oration functions only “as if” it were the objective content of a political program. Rather, insofar as the dream is its form, the oration itself is a “vision of Poesy,” an experimental shaping of the sensible materials for a new program of political resistance, a program whose content remains indeterminate, suspended between passion and action.

24.        The dream frame can also be read as the necessary prerequisite for allegorizing the paradoxical autonomy and heteronomy of aesthetic form. The poem’s dream effect announces less the erasure of its historical-material referentiality than what Herbert Marcuse calls a “sublimation” of it. The function of aesthetic sublimation in its “transcendence of immediate reality” is precisely to disrupt “the reified objectivity of established social relations . . . while preserving its overwhelming presence” (Marcuse 6, 7). Hence the aesthetic stylization of the masque is doubled by the poem’s reference to having been written “on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester.” At the same time, the strangely unlocalizable “voice of the Earth” that will emerge in the poem to exhort passive resistance from the masses announces “a new dimension of experience” (Marcuse 7) through the “as if” that hypothetically restores Henry Hunt’s truncated speech to the Manchester assembly, the content of which becomes the sublimated form of Shelley’s revised masque. The “truth” of the Peterloo massacre, then, is not the event of the massacre itself, which would only confirm the existing order of things, but the sublimated poetic world which breaks from this reality so as to become “a vehicle [for] recognition and indictment” (Marcuse 9), or in Rancière’s terms, dissensus.

25.        At once recognized and indicted in the early part of The Mask is the violence that sustains the consensual apparatus that defines normative distributions of the sensible. Prior to Hope’s intervention, the poem is suffused with images of theatricalized violence, as the pageant of Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy tramples “to a mire of blood” the “adoring multitude” (l. 39-40), whose adulation shows them colluding in their own oppression. The culminating point of the multitude’s complicity lies not only in its “ideological blindness” (Borushko 103), however, but in the specifically consensual mode that this blindness takes: “Then all cried with one accord; / ‘Thou are King, and god, and Lord; / Anarchy, to Thee we bow / Be thy name made holy now!’” (l. 70-74). It is only with the “one accord” that Anarchy’s reign converts its more overt forms of theatricalized violence into manageable forms of instituted violence: “Bank,” “Tower,” and “Parliament” (l. 83, 84).

26.        Arguably the central figure of dissensus in the poem is the “Shape arrayed in mail” (l. 110):

A mist, a light, an image rose
. . .
With step as soft as wind it past
O’er the heads of men—so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked,—but all was empty air. (l. 118-21)
At once present and absent, the Shape marks a symbolic break in the poem that marks the shift from (revised) antimasque to masque and, in doing so, allegorizes the formal operation Rancière attributes to the dissensus through which a multitude previously invisible becomes visible. The Shape thereby opens a space in which equality will be inscribed in the staging of a dispute which establishes a community existing solely through its being divided from the status quo via a specifically aesthetic production, “a mist, a light, an image” (l. 102). The voicing of this dispute emerges through the anonymous figure of the “indignant Earth” (l. 139), whose speech evokes a counter-world that directly contrasts the existing one. In its hortatory function, the counter-world evoked in the rhetorical functions of the Earth’s speech enjoins the reader to undertake an aesthetic play in the observation of the poem’s Shape. As Ronald Tetreault points out, the Earth’s speech assumes an “imperative stance,” especially in the jussive refrain for the multitude to “Rise like Lions after Slumber” (205). Emphasis on the imperative is a conventional aspect of the court masque, which finds the “Master of the Revels” giving “commands to the masquers . . . phrased as wishes inviting corresponding actions” (Tetreault 206). Just as Shelley transvalues the masque form, however, so too must the rhetorical status of the poem’s repeated “let” shift in emphasis from command to invitation: “Let a vast assembly be / And with great solemnity / Declare with measured words that ye / Are, as God has made ye, free” (l. 295-98). Insofar as freedom can be declared through “measured words,” Shelley connects the invitation to think the possibility of a counter-world via a poetics that invites its audience to recreate the words of the poet on their own terms, thus rendering poetry itself a proving ground for the equality it desires.

27.         In the invitational refrain of the “let,” Shelley gestures towards passive resistance as the political index of the experience of form itself. The Shape, as the symbolic hiatus that begins the poem’s hortatory provocation, prefigures a formal “suspension” that will be translated into the multitude’s “folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war” (l. 319-22). Emptying the poem's content of its action, Shelley evokes form as a moment of utter repose that is simultaneously a moment of supreme agitation that reconfigures the distribution of the sensible, linking the promise of political autonomy as self-rule with the autonomy of the “Shape” of the work of art itself, whose measured (s)words signal the work of art’s heteronomy from things as they are. The “let” in turn invites the reader to take up the role of what Rancière calls the “emancipated spectator.” Just as Schiller’s rereading of Kant articulates an aesthetic that is already dissensus, the multitude’s spectatorship before the spectacle of the masque as antimasque, and the subsequent call for nonviolent resistance in the “let,” actively dismantles “the opposition between viewing and acting”: “emancipation begins . . . when we understand that viewing is also an action that [either] confirms or transforms” the existing distribution of positions (Rancière, Emancipated 13). As Joseph Tanke explains, for Rancière emancipated art “does not compel viewers to become active” by “dictating the terms of participation”; rather, the formal emptiness and indeterminacy of the Shape requires only “that we insist upon the postulates of equality implied by the aesthetic [regime] of art” (93).

28.         Shelley also hints at such postulates in more formally “external” ways. Although The Mask appears highly regulated, Shelley employs shifts in the distribution of the poem’s sensible structure and texture that periodically disrupt its apparent uniformity. One such destabilization occurs at the very outset with the pyhrric substitution “As I” slightly modifying the sing-song metre of the poem’s predominant iambic tetrameter; likewise, the frequent use of off-rhyme (“gown-on,” “who-fro” “Hypocrisy-by,” “crown-shone,” and others); the seemingly random distribution of five rather than four line stanzas (stanzas three, thirty-three, thirty-eight, forty-seven, fifty-five, sixty-seven, eighty-two, and the final stanza, ninety-one); and the use of stanzas alternating between one and two principal end-rhymes intermittently strips the veil of familiarity so as to call attention to possible reconfigurations within the poem’s sensible texture. The poem thus affects a play between regularity and irregularity which thematizes the Shape’s ability to bring together opposites, generating an “irregularity in regularity” that turns our attention to the contingency of the existing categories of the sensible, but also towards the paradoxical synthesis of opposites—the violence of nonviolence, the supreme agitation of repose—through which slight displacements in the poem’s formal sensorium provides opportunities to re-shape dominant configurations of the sensible.

29.         Nonetheless, Shelley also acknowledges that aesthetics cannot fully determine the political effects it would have on its audience. As Mark Kipperman notes, the poet’s speech only directs the masses to the potential of its self-possession; it does not, and cannot, predict its outcome (“Shelley, Adorno”). This anxiety concerning the outcome of the poem’s effects is reflected in the fact that the “sense” awakened by the Shape gives voice and measure to words of both “joy and fear” (l. 138). Hence, the voice deems it necessary to warn the multitude against violent revenge, rendering the poem’s vision for a new collective a prospect for debate over a freedom that is possible and desirable, but also contingent. The voice of the Earth, an-archically democratic in its voicing of a wrong by which the excluded identify immediately with the universal, functions as a dissensus whose manifestation is an invitation and an incitement towards a future possibility that must be incessantly renewed: “words [that] shall then become / Like oppression’s thundered doom / Ringing through each heart and brain, / Heard again—again—again” (l. 364-68). This indefinite circulation of words that must always be heard again, whose transmission remains uncertain in their circulation “outside any determined relationship of address” (Rancière, PL 12), thematizes the promise of an an-archic world without hierarchies that constitutes the work of art in the aesthetic regime.


30.        Rancière’s exploration of the tensions within the aesthetic regime can potentially help us understand both the Romantic period in broader terms, but also hopefully offer a means to push forward the perennial debates surrounding the relationship between politics and aesthetics in Shelley. Rancière’s theorization of the aesthetic regime complicates received conceptions of the relations between politics and aesthetics, offering a more capacious view that departs from any strictly causal determination. As such, the concept of the aesthetic regime opens even more promising horizons with respect to Romantic texts that on their surface may not appear political at all, or conversely, appear to suffer from a desire to instrumentalize poetry as politics. In so doing, one can rethink the “anarchism” of Romantic aesthetics beyond its conventional senses, while retaining and renewing its anti-authoritarian potentialities beyond the antinomy of aesthetic autonomy and political commitment.

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[1] See in particular May, “Kant via Rancière: From Ethics to Anarchism” in How Not to Be Governed: Readings and Interpretations from the Critical Left, 65-82; Newman, “Post-Anarchism and Radical Politics Today” in Post Anarchism: A Reader, 58-61. BACK

[2] Hereafter cited parenthetically using the abbreviation CJ. BACK

[3] References to frequently cited Rancière texts are hereafter indicated parenthetically by the following abbreviations: Aesthetics and its Discontents = AD; The Politics of Literature = PL; The Politics of Aesthetics = PA. Other texts by Rancière will be indicated by shortened title. BACK

[4] The history of critical reception of The Mask either ignored the poem entirely (Bloom, Wasserman) or dismissed its deliberately stripped-down verse as poetically inferior (Webb 93). Even sympathetic appraisals by Scrivener, Richard Hendrix, Thomas Edwards, and Stephen C. Behrendt alternately characterize Shelley’s blend of “dramatic form” with “political insight” as “imperfect,” “contradictory,” and as such potentially damaging to the very causes it seeks to promote (Scrivener 199, Hendrix 68, Edwards 161-68, Behrendt 199). BACK

[5] See especially J. F. Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1994). Lyotard politicizes Kant’s ideas on the beautiful and the sublime as “conservative” and “radical” modes of aesthetics, respectively. Rancière offers a productive counter-reading of this interpretation so as to recuperate a radical politics of the beautiful itself. See Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, 88-105. BACK

[6] The index to American anarchist Benjamin Tucker’s magazine Liberty (1881-1908) lists over twenty references to Shelley. The Mask proved influential for Tucker himself, who frequently editorialized in the pages of Liberty concerning the use of violence as a means of overthrowing State power. Shelley was also frequently the subject of lectures at the experimental Modern School founded in New York in 1911 by anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman (Avrich 121, 129, 149, 352). “To the Men of England,” sections of Prometheus Unbound, and The Mask were anthologized in popular anarchist texts such as Marcus Graham’s Anthology of Revolutionary Poetry (1929), as well as singled out for praise in Victor Méric’s entry on “Poésie” for Sébastien Faure’s Encyclopédie Anarchiste (1934). See also Herbert Read, In Defence of Shelley & Other Essays (1936); Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language: A Defence of Poetry (1972). BACK

Published @ RC

September 2015