Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic
In spite of the recent prevalence on historical and sociological concerns in Romantic scholarship, the aesthetic insists: indeed, its very mode is one of insistence. The essays by Balfour, Ferris, and Swann collected for this issue address the question of "Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic" by turning in various forms to Romantic versions of the relationship between the aesthetic and power, whether as a form of violence or a force of possibility. In readings that address Kant (Balfour, Ferris) and Shelley (Balfour, Swann, Pyle) and that include discussions of Keats, Wordsworth, and Schiller, these essays demonstrate that to read is not to take refuge from but to subject oneself to the adventures of power and force that are inextricable from the aesthetic. Redfield's response to these essays stresses their emphasis on the predicament of reading—the ways in which they "exemplify the diverse legacy of deconstruction"—and argues for the importance of their intervention in Romantic studies.
The essay argues that the dynamics of the subject, as conceptualized especially by Kant, are such that the word "subjectvity," with its psychological and individualistic connotations, is inadequate to them. The aesthetic subject, in the domains of both production and experience, is shown in Kant's Critique of Judgement to exceed what is merely "subjective". Some attention is given also the the poetry and critical prose of the British Romantics, especially Keats, to articulate a dynamic similar to that found in Kant.
An examination of aesthetic violence in de Man and Schiller, in particular, the role of such violence in sustaining the aesthetic practices on which the historical and political reading of Romanticism is founded.
The reader of Shelley’s poetry repeatedly comes upon beautiful slumbering human forms that exist in charged non-relation to a social world. A close reading of these forms as they appear in “The Witch of Atlas” suggests that they represent a fantasy of “the aesthetic” as that which is radically closed to human concerns. In contemporary accounts, Shelley himself is often represented as one who is not of the world, who is only minimally attached to life. I would argue that the Shelley circle’s posthumous constructions of “Shelley” as an other-worldly or unworldly figure are informed by an attentive reading of Shelley’s poetry, which figures the aesthetic as that which does not matter in terms of human economies of desire and exchange.
This essay responds to essays by Ian Balfour, David Ferris, and Karen Swann that examine the centrality of the question of the aesthetic both within Romantic studies and within the academic institution of literary and cultural criticism. They may also all three be said to exemplify the diverse legacy of deconstruction, and more particularly that of Paul de Man. David Ferris mounts for inspection de Man’s analysis of aesthetic education as founded in a violence it must also conceal. Karen Swann draws attention to those strange, beautiful human forms one encounters now and then in Shelley’s poetry—figures suspended between life and death, within landscapes of wreckage and loss—and she elaborates de Man’s severe emphasis on aesthetic monumentalization into a rich reading of the kind of biographical material—memoirs, anecdotes, letters—that is so often marshalled as an antidote to textual complexity. Ian Balfour emphasizes the way Kantian aesthetics and Romantic writing generally render inadequate psychological and individualist notions of the subject. These three essays all, in their different ways, show that the aesthetic fulfills itself in turning against itself; that it succeeds through failure; that it ruins even as it reproduces the monumental artwork, the monumentalized artist, the psychological subject, and the space of pedagogical and political formation within which modern subjects come to pass. These essays also suggest that the uncertain, conflicted phenomenon that we go on stubbornly calling “Romanticism” continues to have so much to tell us precisely because it names a literary-historical displacement of the aesthetic.