Printer-friendly versionSend by email

"Romanticism" in Crisis

The Business of Romanticism

Clifford Siskin

[See The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain 1700-1830, forthcoming Johns Hopkins University Press, December 1997]

I agree that what's at risk in the crisis over Romanticism is, in Chuck's words, "our own professional marginalization or extinction." It looks like we're in danger of going out of business.

But what business? The biggest problem in the discipline of English Literature is that we don't know--or can't agree on--what business we're actually in. To ask that question is not to mark ourselves off as obsessively self-reflexive humanists or, less charitably, muddle-headed intellectuals who--unlike workers in the "real" world--never quite know what we're really doing. It is, rather, to link us historically to that world of work, where, in the latter half of the twentieth century, reclassifications of knowledge and of labor have put "What is our business?" on everyone's lips. Listen to Ken Auletta's description of the fate of the company that owns the New York Times: "Like the railroads, which earlier in this century thought that they were in the railroad rather than the transportation business, or like the networks, which thought they were in the single-channel rather than the program business and ignored or fought cable, the Times Company was late to realize that it is in the information rather than the newspaper business." Such realizations--what is the ongoing nature of one's business?--are not easy tasks, for the cognitive terrain is often obscured by these metonymic displacements, in which the part or individual instance stands for the whole category.

The particular configuration of genres we call Literature is, in fact, a specific historical instance of a larger category--the technology of writing. To place Literature in what Raymond Williams first called the history of writing--his shorthand for the interrelated practices of writing, silent reading, and print--is the equivalent strategically of placing trains within the rubric of transportation. It allows the overall enterprise a future by clarifying the historical specificity of form and of function of the vehicles that have sustained it. The power of Literature past, present, and future is part of what I call the work of writing--and it may behoove us to think of that work as itself an instance of a more encompassing, longer-term enterprise--our business: the business of mediating society's encounters with changing technologies of representation and communication.

Mediation may entail varying degrees of resistance, accommodation, and transformation. Britain's eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century encounter with the technology of writing--its transformation into a print culture--was mediated under the sign of profitable pleasure, whether articulated as a disciplinary imperative to entertain and instruct, a professional rationale of the joy of intellectual work, or a literary claim to the most pleasurable kind of knowledge. These articulations, rationales, and claims came to be housed within institutions called English Departments. Here's where Romanticism and Romanticists should be playing a crucial role, for it was during our period that the first courses in English Literature were taught, that the first departments of English were formed, that the essay and the review--as well as the periodicals that contained them--assumed their modern forms, and that the disciplinary distinction between the humanities and sciences was first instituted. And yet we are only beginning to speak up. Whether we turn to politics, slavery, class, and empire--or return to aesthetic evaluation and the Big Six--we need to say out loud the ongoing business that invites such work.

Far from retreating from the historicizing work of the past decade out of the fear that we've demystified ourselves--a notion that, like Coleridge's clerisy, is both morally and politically suspect and, finally, bad for business--we need to use it to claim a future for what we do. In practical terms, I will grant Chuck and Beth the fact that invoking aesthetic value can still be a powerful move, but let me caution against a major risk: the risk of mistaking the means (aesthetic principles, canonical lists) for a historically-specific end (experiencing the technology itself as pleasurable). As technologies old and new change, our business will also require different means and, perhaps, even different ends.

In similar fashion, I learned a great deal from yesterday's papers on later poems by Wordsworth, but I want to stress that the problem that's kept those poems from view is not the Great Wordsworth syndrome but the Great Decade syndrome--a problem of periodization, of the kind of history that configures our work. That is why at the Duke Conference a few years ago Philip Martin and I first half-jokingly suggested a long Romanticism--but, as with the New York Times, length itself is not an answer to our business problems if we can't even name the business. Administrators don't award positions in proportion to years--and would any of us (aside from the individual candidate) really feel more sanguine about our profession if the same job was simply relabeled from long 18th to long Romantic?

The overriding problem is the diminished status of the discipline of Literature. My argument is that it acquired shape and status in and as English Departments at a particular moment of technological change, and it risks losing both now at another such moment. As our label for that earlier time, Romanticism is, not surprisingly, a rubric that seems particularly risky today. But it is thus also a primary rubric for deploying old and new forms of mediation. The historicizing of Romanticism--in regard to ideology, gender, empire--is the first stage of that redeployment--a necessary prelude to our learning how to do business in a world that--forgive the optimism--will need our services in newly urgent ways. I hope we don't blow the opportunity. We can do our part not by arbitrarily naming new dates--though redating may happen--but by pursuing scholarly work that no longer leaves Romanticism inside Literature as only one of its periods, but puts Literature as a modern disciplinary category within a re-formed Romanticism.

Return to INDEX


About this Page