In a 2003 review on this site, Mary Favret identified a new paradigm for romantic historicism: “A might-have-been, could-have-been, evermore-about-to-be historiography is … emerging as the Romanticism of our own turn of the century,” she wrote. Favret was reviewing William Galperin’s The Historical Austen; she grouped that book with Jerome Christensen’s Romanticism at the End of History and James Chandler’s England in 1819. What all of these books shared, according to Favret, was an abiding interest in the political possibilities that adhere to a history of lost chances, foreclosed opportunities, and near misses—those moments, in other words, when romantic texts seem to gesture toward alternative kinds of social organization that never quite come into focus. Now we can add Paul Hamilton’s Metaromanticism to Favret’s list.
The book itself gathers together much of Hamilton’s writing over the past ten years; about a third of it is entirely new material, but that new material provides the rationale for the whole. At the center of the book are subtle and detailed readings of British romantic writers, most of them already published in various forms: Coleridge and Godwin, Keats, Scott, the Shelleys, Austen, and romantic republicanism. These chapters make up the middle section of the book, headed “Literature.” They are preceded by a section on “Aesthetics,” consisting of a chapter each on Schiller and Rousseau, and followed by four chapters, dominated by Friedrich Schlegel and Habermas, entitled “Theory.” The first and the third sections, where much of the new material is located, thus place the local readings within a wider theoretical context; taken together, they constitute a compelling apologia for romanticism itself and make an audacious claim for its relevance to contemporary theoretical concerns.
What, first of all, is metaromanticism? It’s complicated. At its most basic, metaromanticism describes “the specific ways in which major writers in the romantic period generalize their practices” (1). But complications immediately ensue: “meta,” for Hamilton, does not mean “above,” so we are not dealing with a discourse that claims to evaluate romanticism from a perspective outside of it. Rather, metaromanticism is a product of romantic discourse itself; in a phrase that recurs frequently in this book, metaromanticism is “another way for romanticism to be what it already is.” Then, there’s a second complication. The immanence of metaromanticism is immediately open to the criticism (offered for instance by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) that its self-critique is not real critique, but rather a way to perpetuate itself while appearing to engage in critical activity. Hamilton accepts this objection—an objection that now goes by the shorthand “romantic ideology”—but turns it on its head: metaromanticism is not itself romantic ideology but rather the recognition of romanticism’s susceptibility to romantic ideology. Metaromanticism, it emerges, is marked by a basic discontent with its own habit of self-reflection. It knows its own bad faith and struggles against it.
So understood, Metaromanticism positions itself between two major trends within romantic historicism. The first of these can conveniently be linked to Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology and the work that followed in its wake throughout the 1980s. It is this tradition, and specifically McGann’s use of The German Ideology, that stands behind Hamilton’s acknowledgement that metaromanticism is not “critique” in the materialist sense of the word—it is not, that is, critique from some other perspective outside the aesthetic. The second trend within romantic historicism is what ties together the various books that Favret cited in her review, and it may be described as a reaction to the first trend. This reaction is impatient with critiques of the romantic ideology precisely because such critiques gain their traction elsewhere. Romanticism, from this perspective, seems to be unfairly indicted according to terms originating outside of it, and this accounts, I would say, for the renewed affection for immanent critique, whether that critique goes under the name of “possibility” (Galperin), “anachronism” (Christensen), or “the case” (Chandler).