Theoretical Crossings Then and Now
-User Responses and Discussion-
NASSR 96 Plenary Panel: Saturday, 16 November, (4:30pm).
Organized and chaired by William Keach, Brown University
Please enter your observations or opinions about the panel as a whole, individual papers, or other user responses in the space below, along with your name and e-mail address. Appropriate comments are appended to this page on a daily basis.
Last Updated 1/19/97
At one point in her plenary talk, Tilottama Rajan registered her concern that the field of Romantic studies was now pursuing notions of gender and containment in ways that were harmful to the field. She went on to say that Romanticism as a field was b ecoming "Victorianized," that is, that we were looking for "resistance" to Victorian ideology from a "separate" feminine "sphere" of women writers. For her, this amounted to pitting one conservatism to another. To apply the Kantian terms she used in the talk, she wished to replace this "determinate" thinking with "refelctive" thinking.
I wanted her to speak more about her comments about gender and containment, and when I asked her to, she said that, when she looked into the undergraduate curriculum, she saw novels by women replacing poems by men. In her view, Wordsworth in particul ar was being set up as a target for attacks on male poetry, was being used as a metonymy for that poetry, and was being carelessly read in that regard.
My chief response to this, as I recall, was that I hoped we'd continue to work with and teach women writers and that those who were also poets interested me in particular. It struck me (though I'm not sure I said this) that the con-cept of "woman poe t" might challenge in useful ways the dichotomy that concerned her, woman novelist vs. male poet.
We talked further on our way to Sonia's house. I wondered whether it might be "poetry" rather than male writers that troubled us these days and whether our problems were more pedagogical than political. Her conversation also turned to pedagogy, as s he spoke of the undergraduate Romantics course at her university and the way it was half of a year-course in nineteenth century and thus configured as a prelude to Victorian literature. Thus our conversation turned to the very sort of "determinate" histo rical issues that her plenary talk had hoped to lead us from.
Since that evening, and since seeing Susan Wolfson's "Fate of Romanticism" mailing and questionnaire, I've thought about Tilottama's invocation of humanist and centrist views. She was not alone in making this gesure at the meeting; I'm thinking of Da vid Simpson's talk and discussion at an early session. There's more to sort out here than I have time for: our recent interest in Habermas as a theorist of such a center; the difficulty in using the Habermasian "public sphere" and Victorian "separate sph eres" in the same breath; the necessity, still, to historicize and at the same time to be literary critics who do not underread female or male poets. I end thinking of work like the essay on Wordsworth's "Nutting" in the latest *SiR*, which meets both cr iteria for me (and whose author has escaped me because I just loaned my copy to a student).
University of Missouri-St. Louis
We've just heard a lot about the politics of moralism, but I want to raise the issue of the politics of enjoyment. And I'm extremely grateful to Stuart for raising these sorts of issue in his paper, of which I think we should hear more, as we've been hearing in many of the papers presented at this conference. But I'm struck by the moralistic attack on moralism that we just heard, and Id like to comment on it, because I'm afraid it's beginning to annoy me as a historicist. In a homogenizing move iron ically typical of deconstruction (and I have to note that I'm terribly fond of deconstruction), a metaphysical and stealthily Arnoldian distinction between theoretical and "practical" criticism was established--the one reflexive, the other opaque--which d oesn't, I think, account for the ways in which reflexivity can lie on the side of practice, as anyone knows who's ever participated in any kind of political action. Deconstructionists don't have a monopoly on reflexivity. And it's in that light that I'd like to raise the question of the politics of enjoyment.
Addendum: I use "deconstruction" as a rather hasty shorthand for the institutional strategies of certain kinds of postmodern formalism.
While one may sympathize with the anti-moralistic strain of Tilottama Rajan's appeal for an undisciplined, unrestricted, and reflexively philosophical approach to romantic literature, a Kantianism without reserve is still, alas, a Kantianism, with or with out the censors. That is, it is still constrained by assumptions built into the categories that set up the analysis, among them a rather old (and tired) prejudice against pragmatism and much that is associated with it, including belief (doxa, mere opinio n). There are, for example, many instances of the disdain of the High European Tradition in Derrida (where the slack is made up by a Levinasian appeal to the other). Much needs to be sorted out regarding "pragma-" related discourse from Aristotle to Rort y, as well as ordinary language notions of practice, which Timothy Morton rightly wants to defend. But it should be noted that contemporary pragmatism (in, say, Poirier) has more to do with what Rajan/Kant call reflective judgment than with Kant's pragma tic anthropology, which appears to rely on metaphysical foundations for its determinant certainties.
One can agree that much new historicist criticism seems bent on demonstrating (repeatedly) the moral superiority of the critic to his/her historical subject, and find this to more of what E. P. Thompson called the enormous condescension of posterity. But it is hard to see that Rajan/Kant's formidable philosophical po wers were required to protect St. Leon from moral finger-wagging ("ambition vs. domestic care"). And once the philosophical big guns are brought in, the distortions begin. Do postcolonial studies, by being "pragmatic," therefore avoid or displace politi cal intervention? No doubt it is in some cases true (and one thinks of Rorty's similar complaints in articles in _Dissent_); but necessarily,by definition, in the Kantian legislative mode? These are practical, not theoretical, questions.
The romanticism Rajan advocates has affinities with the '70s briefs for romantic irony, process vs. product, naturans vs. naturata. Rorty (in "19th-c Idealism/20th-c. Textualism") argues for a link with modern pragmatism, and there is a similar prejudice against all fixed states, however temporary. But this philosophical tradition is also relentlessly anti-metaphysical (cf. Davidson's "The Myth of the Subjective") and, along the lines of Wittgenstein or Cavell, wants to read the so-called quest for meta physical certainty as a fantasy of reason, which may indeed be best understood through the wealth of resources found in the literary traditions, which have some purchase on actual historical, and psychological, forms this side of the bounds of sense (Stra wson's((Kantian)) term) and still "accessible in terms of sense-perception,common sense, and spatialization." Only when the purity of the metaphysical absolute (forever beyond our reach) is invoked does use value get demoted to "instrumentalization" and "positivism." If _St. Leon_ is about potlatch, and if _Prometheus Unbound_ is a novel, then being reflective means that anything goes, and even Godwin of all people can be a genius.
So much for a countervailing polemic, but I have a couple of questions others may be able to answer. First, Rajan (toward the end) seems to call Kant's humanism (which, the above notwithstanding, I admire) "positivist" but I don't see why. And if it is critiqued by both Hegel and post-war French theory, then isn't that for rather (radically?) different reasons? If fact, my sense, perhaps mistaken, is that yes, Hegel, critiqued Kant on several key points, but part of the effort was to show that the systemcollapses into the kind of endless, formless, ironic romanticism that Hegel thought inane and that feeds into the "ultra-romanticism" of Lyotard, Deleuze, etc.