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11A. Whither Romanticism
Edward Larrissey (Leeds):
David Vallins (Hong Kong): "Romanticism and Materialism: Functions of Criticism in the 21st Century"
Mark Edmundson (Virginia): "The Dead End of Historical Criticism-And Some Ways Out."
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The relationship between Romanticism and Postmodernism can most easily be posed in a genetic manner, according to which Postmodernism becomes the latest offspring of Romanticism. In support of such a notion one may point to 'Romantic irony', to the cult of the fragmentary and unfinished, and to other related phenomena, and claim that Postmodernism furnishes a more radical development of these tendencies than Modernism had already offered: perhaps they would be subject to the same 'flatness' that Jameson has discerned as a characteristic of postmodernist art in general. Yet there is a particular irony in offering postmodernist constructions of the past; for postmodern self-consciousness itself encourages an acute awareness of the hermeneutic problems involved in such construction. The most perplexing of these problems derives from the fact that, since the present is involved in constituting what the past is for us, even our sense of inheritance is constructed in the present, and therefore the questions how and what we see ourselves as significantly inheriting are the ones that need to be addressed before one can explainlet our sense of what 'Romanticism' is (or 'Romanticisms' are, to employ a current usage: a plurality which chimes with the de-essentializing moves of postmodern thought.) This hermeneutic question is one for literary theory, and it has been raised in a forthcoming book of essays edited by myself, Romanticism and Postmodernism (CUP, 1999). My purpose in the paper proposed, however, would be to engage in a parallel quest for versions of Romanticism to be found in postmodernist writing. By way of setting the scene, I would first look at the more general question of the contemporary influence of Romanticism. One may find some evidence in contemporary writing of a continuing search for origins in the Romantic period, and this search is not confined to types of writing one could easily agree to call postmodern. In these cases, a very broad indebtedness to the Romantic period may be suggested: it may be seen to provide the origins of political liberalism and of our own cults of spontaneity, innocence, etc. Nothing especially surprising here, though it may be worth noting that we seem to be living through a period when that indebtedness is more noted than it always has been. There are aspects of a play such as Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry which reflect the idea of political indebtedness. A more obviously postmodernist example, Iain Sinclair's poetry, while it uses Blakean symbolism to purvey a paranoid Gothic view of the contemporary polis, does not problematize its own inheritance of some measure of agreement with Blake. And another clearly postmodernist writer, John Ashbery, can plausibly be represented as offering a secularized version of Romantic infinity. But perhaps the most interesting inflection in contemporary writing is that which reflects a sense of the hermeneutic difficulty outlined in my first paragraph. In Michael Dibdin's thriller, Dark Spectre, contemporary America is seen as inheriting not only the hankering for Romantic innocence, but the flaws and blindness which, already present in the Romantic period, undid innocence then, and undo it now: the relationship with the past becomes uncanny, and the more sinister because Dibdin point up what he sees as the accelerating fragmentation and loss of meaning in the present. Paul Muldoon's Madoc borrows its title from Southey's poem about the legend of a Welsh discovery of America, but its ostensible narrative is the story of what might have happened if Coleridge and Southey had succeeded in establishing their Pantisocratic settlement in Pennsylvania. Muldoon does see the roots of the contemporary in the Romantic period. The connections include the search for innocent origins and the blindness of that search (a parallel with Dibdin). It also includes the postmodernist techniquest of his own poem. This may explain why Byron figures more than one might expect: though he shares the nostalgia of origins, his irony is less blind than the idealism of the philosopher poets. Nevertheless, Muldoon suggests, nobody can fully escape the blindness involved in inheriting the Romantic problematic: Muldoon depicts the modern as a closed, if developing, universe, beginning in the Romantic period, from which we have yet to emerge. This last idea finds an echo in Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia-- a play which includes a reference to Southey's poem, suggesting that Stoppard has been reflecting on Muldoon. Finally a note of precision: the words 'postmodern' and 'postmodernist' are inseparable from debates about their application. It can be seen from my first paragraph that I might have convictions about the proper application of these words to artistic technique (rather than theme). I shall attempt to distinguish postmodernist technique from thematic elements which suggest that the work 'inhabits a postmodern universe'. Ashbery and Muldoon are (in different ways) technically postmodernist artists; whereas Dibdin and Stoppard are very debatable cases for this category. Nevertheless, the question of theme is itself of interest. I shall accept the notion that Lyotard has provided a theory of considerable explanatory power in addressing both theme and technique; and I shall note the point that Lyotard's account of postmodernism begins in the Romantic period, partly by way of providing a parallel in the realm of theory to the points advanced by some of the writers studied here.
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Materialist interpretations of Romanticism have become so widespread in recent years that to approach the literature and thought of this period without emphasizing some aspect of the physical or economic circumstances of its production increasingly tends to be seen as eccentric, or even reactionary. That Romanticism's frequent questioning of the determinative nature of the physical should thus have come to be so widely dismissed in favour of a neo-physicalism which not only reflects the traditions of Marxist criticism, but also parallels the 'material' hypotheses of 18th-century psychology, might well seem surprising in an age when such theories are prominent among those which deconstruction has severely problematized. Rather than seeking to displace the questions raised by deconstruction, however, recent criticism often engages in a 'ludic' revival of materialist aesthetics, implicitly for political or ideological reasons. Post-structuralism's critique of all forms of essentialism, that is, was widely perceived as liberating the critic to engage in urgently-needed counter-attacks against the dominant ideologies of the new Right. At the same time, however, the ideological counter-attack represented by recent materialist criticism has inevitably occurred largely within university English departments, and seems unlikely to have substantial impact on the scarcely-less divisive policies with which governments of the revisionary centre-left have recently replaced (or perhaps absorbed) the neo-Victorianism of the 1980s.
My central thesis in this paper, indeed, will be that the indirect reaction to late 20th-century politics represented by materialist interpretations of Romanticism not only risks enclosing itself almost entirely within the conventions of academic argument, and hence achieving little in political terms, but also tends to devalue and obscure those aspects of Romanticism which are in fact most relevant to contemporary experience. Ironically, it is precisely Romanticism's critiques of materialism - that is, both of physicalist or deterministic views of consciousness, and of economic individualism or the view that financial objectives must (or ought to) be our primary and determining ones - that makes it so obviously relevant to societies increasingly dominated both by the 'market' philosophies of the 1980s, and by technologies and psychological theories which devalue consciousness and the individual in favour of mechanical processes and biological hypotheses. That merely to highlight material forces or conditions in the Romantic or any other period will contribute to a reformation of society by removing the ideological myths which enable market economics and social division to prevail, moreover, is a view which - though implicit in the modes of much recent criticism - can scarcely be endorsed by experience. If criticism is not merely to become a cultural epiphenomenon - or worse, to allow itself to be shaped by, and indeed to reflect, the values of economic competition and deterministic psychology - therefore, it must surely attack the dominant trends of global economics and society not through reductions of Romantic ideology, but rather by highlighting Romantic criticism of the renunciation of individual choice and the celebration of arbitrary competition which increasingly shape our lives, and threaten to determine our beliefs and values. As Nicholas Roe (among others) has demonstrated, indeed, the Romantics' quest for liberation from growing industrial and political oppressions can scarcely be described as politically conservative, or as needing to be challenged by a Marxian reduction of 'ideology' to the material forces it is said by some critics (and implied by others) to conceal. The fact that criticism of materialist theories - and especially of the objectification of the self which Coleridge (among other Romantics) so vigorously opposed - has been expressed by thinkers of the radical left as well as of the later Coleridge's and Wordsworth's paternalistic character, moreover, should dissuade us from too easily associating all forms of idealism or anti-materialism with the forces of political reaction. Sartre's description of the necessity of transcending the vacantly-external 'facticity' of our phenomenal existences, and his emphasis on the incommensurableness of the subjective and objective spheres, for example, is - I would argue - no less compellingly relevant to contemporary psychology (both popular and academic) than Coleridge's anti-materialism.
The central question which this paper will address, therefore, is: what is the value of materialist strategies, or: what do they achieve beyond expressing a certain identification with traditionally socialist theories, yet one which is unlikely to be recognized as such outside universities, and hence cannot contribute to any correction of the global market-system which is constantly reducing our freedoms and promoting the most reductive visions of the individual and of community? Just as Coleridge progressed from criticism of authoritarian government to criticism of market values and their suppression of individual thought, indeed, so - I will suggest - we should progress from Marxian critiques of ideology to a vigorous engagement with the diverse materialisms which, to an increasing degree, shape and determine our lives at the end of the twentieth century.
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