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This collection thinks the “rights” of the negative against the more common association of the term “rights” with human rights and rights that can be posited. Such rights, despite their seeming liberalism, produce a normative notion of the person which is in the end biopolitical, and moreover, in assuming that rights can always be posited, they assume the primacy of the public sphere. The essays in this collection all resist the current emphasis on the public sphere that has resulted from the absorption of “Romanticism” into the “Nineteenth Century,” and focus instead on Romanticism as a retreat from publication, publicity and consensus. Whether this retreat is absolute negation or a withdrawal that holds something in reserve is a question left open in the spaces between these six essays on Godwin, Charlotte Smith, Coleridge and Goya.


Tilottama Rajan
University of Western Ontario

1.         The impetus for this collection of essays came from a recent conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism on “Romanticism and Rights” that, in evoking discourses of natural and human rights, also raised the question of the right to, or of, the negative. As Jean-Luc Nancy admits, in critiquing rights which have “pragmatic definitions,” the “suppression or suspension” of such rights “opens directly onto the intolerable” (2). But as Lyotard suggests, rights are no simple matter: there are “wrongs” which cannot be remedied through “rights” because they cannot be phrased in a “language common to . . . the other party” (28). Lyotard is more broadly concerned with a differend that eludes capture in discourse and that will always persist even if a new discourse and the right to it are established. Since the utopianism of human rights discourse is only one aspect of a larger foreclosure, the bigger question here is of what is left out by the emphasis on the public (or even counter-public) sphere that has come to dominate much writing on Romanticism, and for which rights—juridical or otherwise—are only a metonym. Within a discourse that assumes the sufficiency of the public sphere, there are things that cannot be said or done, because a discourse for them does not, or does not yet, or may not ever exist; there are things that cannot be published, to give an example used by Lyotard (4), which is pertinent to this collection.

2.         It is this question of what is foreclosed by the social that has led the biopolitical philosopher Roberto Esposito to argue in Third Person that human rights include only by exclusion, and that this aporia is “the line that passes . . . between rights and the human condition, and in the process rips them apart” (68–69). By this Esposito means, following Hannah Arendt, that “the law allows entrance only to those who fall into some category—citizens, subjects, even slaves—hence, insofar as they fall into a political community” (69–70). Thus it is not so much that rights exclude certain people (who can always be included in a new category), [1]  as that this very inclusion excludes a differend concealed in these individuals: for instance Caleb Williams in Adam Sneed’s essay, who is never quite inside the category he fills, that of the person who seeks truth and justice. At the heart of this aporia that traverses the notion of rights, according to Esposito, is the distortion imposed by the term “person,” introduced to bridge the gap between “the concept of human being and that of citizen” (3). In the discourse of rights only a life “that can provide the credentials of personhood” is “qualitatively significant” (2). With the delimitation of human being in terms of personhood, and with the definition of a person as the condition of possibility for a citizen, or in Giorgio Agamben’s terminology, with the absorption of zoe into bios, comes a set of normalizing values that enfranchise not just some forms of psychological life but also certain modes of thinking at the cost of others.

3.         The essays in this collection are not necessarily concerned with rights in a juridical sense, though not surprisingly the issue does come up in the two pieces on Godwin. Indeed, the right of the negative inevitably entails a use of that word that is more metaphoric and elusive than any positive right. We speak here of the “right” of the negative because the plural might imply a range of rights that can be specified, but it is also necessary to think in terms of “rights” because the effects of this right, and indeed what an effect is, are far from clear. And we speak of a right “of” rather than “to” the negative because the right not to be or do something, as in civil disobedience, risks being a determinate negation that is simply an antithetical form of positivity. These essays, by contrast, explore a certain insistence of the negative that cannot always be encompassed in the right not to do or be something: an insistence that traverses a subject such as Christabel without exactly being something that she “has” or of which she, or even Coleridge, is fully conscious. Christabel’s odd passivity, explored in Marc Mazur’s essay, makes her no more than a channel for a negativity that cannot be easily located. But we must also speak of a right “to” the negative, as a way of conveying the force that the negative can have, for instance in my own essay on Godwin’s Mandeville, whose protagonist, even as a “non-ens” (439), insists on his right to be in the mode of not being. Hegel explores this retreat from the collectivity, which is more perverse, more difficult of access, than non-conformity, when he describes a self that is “turned against its structure” so that “the negative thing is the structure itself.” In Hegel’s words, “the organism is then in the opposed forms of being and self; and the self is precisely that for which the negative of itself is,” that which “relates itself to itself as a negative” (428).

4.         Our first essay on Godwin’s Caleb Williams is the closest to engaging with the judicial system as an arena in which to think the right of the negative. In “Caleb’s Unreasonable Doubt” Adam Sneed takes up the concept of reasonable doubt in legal epistemology, which he relates not to Humean skepticism but to a seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tradition of “constructive skepticism” in which the entertaining of doubt is meant to establish relative certainty. Against this containment of doubt, Sneed finds that the reasonable doubt which Collins’ story of Falkland’s innocence elicits in Caleb generates a further dissatisfaction with Caleb’s own unreasonable desire for certainty, thus resulting in a spiraling doubt that goes beyond skepticism, which is still a kind of position. For the affective excesses of the narrative—Caleb’s excessive curiosity, his seemingly unwarranted sense of guilt, and his peculiar elective affinity with Falkland—all function as remainders that prevent us from reading the text straightforwardly as positing something, for instance a critique of the ancien régime. Paradoxically, in all the cases where Caleb doubts Collins or where his own credibility is called in question, Caleb is in the right. Yet being right casts him into a life that is somehow wrong, a life that cannot be vindicated, as the novel unfolds along the fragile line between rights and human being. And here, we might add, Esposito’s analysis of the troubling relation between rights and citizenship has much to say about Godwin’s novel. For the right Caleb asserts to uncover and publish the truth about Falkland, and indeed his very curiosity, are intimately linked to the claim of Godwin’s “humble,” upwardly mobile protagonist to personhood and citizenship (Godwin, Caleb Williams 59). So by the end of this profoundly deconstructive narrative, Caleb has “no character to vindicate” (434) as he reverts to being a third person, the voice in which Godwin began the novel, and which for Esposito is the voice of writing: “to write has always meant to ‘pass from the first to the third person’” and to a “relation of self nonidentification” (130–31). [2] 

5.         If the aleatory doubt that becomes the very structure of the novel comes from Godwin’s emphasis on “the right of private judgment” (Enquiry 1: 170), our next essay moves to a genre more traditionally allied with a retreat from the public, namely the lyric. Readings by Abrams and Wasserman that saw the Romantic lyric as conjoining self and nature, inside and outside, or subject and object, have long since ceased to be the norm, given that critics after de Man have seen the greater Romantic lyric as invoking this paradigm only in the mode of compensation. But in his essay on Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets, Samuel Rowe questions the marginalization of Smith as a sentimental poetess, and makes a bold claim for Smith (rather than Coleridge) as having initiated a tradition of lyric negativity. The negative turn in her sonnets (referring to a thematic but also a formal turn at the sestet or couplet) is particularly radical because while the poems are about loss, Smith will not divulge what has been lost. The containment of elegy within the sonnet’s tightness rather than the more sprawling forms of Lycidas or In Memoriam contributes to this reserve, which refuses any return from object loss through “normal” mourning. Thus unlike Adorno in “Lyric Poetry and Society,” Smith thinks the lyric outside of a correlationism in which withdrawal from the social sustains “the integrity of a coercive reality precisely by refusing to align with it” (Rowe par.17). In thus protecting the Real of loss, Smith does claim a right “to” the negative, a right “not to communicate” (par. 25), but this claim, by declining all phenomenal content, produces an “empty” subjectification that holds “subjectivity in a contentless void” (pars. 5,19).

6.         Like Rowe, David Collings in his essay “Positive Negation” focuses on the lyric, or more precisely the short poem, since Coleridge’s “Limbo,” “Ne Plus Ultra,” “Human Life” and his late poems generally, are less easily categorizable than Smith’s sonnets. Using these fundamentally metaphysical poems to theorize negativity, Collings raises the philosophical problem of how the negative can have “rights.” How can it make a demand, when it has not been named and “given specific powers within a discourse or practice” (par. 2)? Whereas Smith’s right not to communicate does exist within a discursive practice and so is still a right exercised by a subject, for Collings the idea that what cannot be posited has rights is metaphysically an oxymoron. And yet non-being, even as absolute nullity, somehow is: a problem also faced in Ages of the World by Schelling, who comes up both in this essay and my own. For Schelling the negative is not simply privative. Not only is negation originary, because the positive can have being “only by repressing the negating force in itself”; a being also “cannot negate itself as actual without at the same time positing itself as the actualizing potency that begets itself” (17–18). To describe the presence of absence, or how that which has no being, can assume a “face, voice, or agency” through a “trope of direct embodiment” (par. 2; emphasis mine), Collings borrows the term “positive Negation” from Coleridge’s “Limbo.” Milton’s Death, invoked by Coleridge, provides a first “template” (par. 14) for this right of the negative to be posited as that which (it) is not: a claim for which Coleridge’s own “positive Negation” is also a catachresis.

7.         The difficulty of thinking this catachresis may be why Coleridge did not publish these poems for many years, and then too only as anomalies. This withholding surfaces repeatedly in Romanticism, in work referred to in several essays—for instance, Smith’s right not to communicate, Schelling’s unpublished Weltalter project, and Goya’s Disasters of War in David Clark’s essay, which were never exhibited. It is the explicit concern of the next article by Marc Mazur, which explores Coleridge’s delay in publishing “Christabel” even as he circulated it privately, and the continuing “retreat into self” (Schelling 6) that characterizes the published versions. Mazur begins by theorizing two versions of this retreat based on work by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy and by Catherine Malabou. In the former’s Retreating the Political (as in Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”), what is involved is a withdrawal that re-treats the political. Such withdrawal, as we have already seen, risks being caught in a correlationism that reconfirms what it retreats from. But for Malabou the retreat is not voluntary, not political; it does not assume the intentionality of a fully constituted subject, and so is not even readable. What Mazur notes as the “indifference” that attends the narration in the unpublished versions of Christabel (par.18) allows for this unreadability; we can think of these versions as written in the third person, le neutre in Blanchot’s term, which Esposito sees as resisting any interpellation into civic personhood. But in the “Conclusion to Part the Second,” added in 1816, the Symbolic Order is reestablished through the pact between Geraldine and Sir Leoline, even as Christabel herself retreats from the empty place of this reconstitution of the social. Coleridge tries to take control of the poem as narrator, intervening into a narration whose earlier indifference had cathected the trauma or unassimilable effraction traced by Malabou in Ontology of the Accident (par. 4). And yet in finally publishing the poem, Coleridge does not so much complete it as himself retreat from it by handing it over to a public about which he remains deeply ambivalent: an ambivalence mirrored in the ineffectuality of Bard Bracy, as the poem “turns over and over again around an insoluble secret which retreats from the author” (par. 8).

8.         Retreat is also at the center of my own essay on Godwin’s Mandeville (1817), a historical novel whose protagonist never enters history as he progressively retreats into the closet of his psychic history. The novel, which has many resonances with Godwin’s own time, is set in the interregnum, the only period when Britain had no King, and is bookended by two rebellions: the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and Mandeville’s private attack on his unimpeachably good classmate Clifford, who is about to marry Mandeville’s sister in a domestic simulation of the impending Restoration. By way of the protagonist’s “eternal war” on Clifford, the novel engages in an almost pathological deconstruction of the beautiful, the good, and the true. It ends shockingly with his accidental defacement by Clifford, an effraction that dis-figures all schemes of restoration. Against readers who find the climax hard to absorb and feel that Godwin meant to “complete” the novel otherwise, I argue that he deliberately stages a psychoanalysis of “taste” and indeed of aesthetics itself, as what Baumgarten calls the art of thinking beautifully (533). Godwin wrote the novel after a long retreat of his own following the failure of 1790s radicalism, during which he struggled with how to write history negatively, or how to write the negative as history, as positive Negation. In this history, the fanaticism of the seventeenth century and its later secularization as the misanthropy that so fascinated him are tropes that must be turned round and back in on themselves, so as to discern within them “something not yet made good” that “pushes its essence forward” (Habermas 78). Yet in the context of the novel, this potential remains “contracted and self-negated” (Schelling 18), withheld in an absolute reserve.

9.         Godwin went on to write a History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–28): a more sober and concrete sequel to Political Justice. If Mandeville is knotted into a negative dialectic with the History, as Caleb Williams was with Political Justice, its conclusion suspends any dialectic over a black hole. There is no such ambiguity in David Clark’s essay on Goya’s Disasters of War, the eighty two images of tortured and mangled bodies from the Peninsular War of 1808–14 that are the backside of Goya’s long career as a court painter. Clark’s essay has much in common with my own: both deal with texts from the second decade of the nineteenth century that are set against the backdrop of war, and both deal with texts that are brutally unaesthetic. But there is no “tropology” of the negative here, in which the negative too is not what it is; there is no future, only bare life. Unlike the essays by Rowe and Collings, Clark’s essay also bears directly on the public sphere, but there are no persons in the images, no citizens, as the figures are anonymous and lacking in what Heidegger calls “world.” Goya printed early proofs of many of the plates in the Disasters, but he never published them: not an accident, but “an artistic practice” (par. 5) that we have seen in other figures discussed in this collection. By keeping the images in a “studio rather than social state” (par. 5), Goya refuses them any refuge in the social. It is surely curious that in a Romanticism now configured around the Regency, and thus around a public sphere of consensus rather than dissensus, [3]  there are so many instances of this refusal: not just in England, but also in Germany and Spain. Rather than arguing that Romanticism invented the depoliticized category of “literature” as the delayed completion of Britain’s “bloodless Revolution” (Jarrells 7–14, 17–19), we should perhaps think Romanticism within this withdrawal into the rights of the negative, with all the differences about the negative that emerge in the spaces between these essays.

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. The Correspondent Breeze: Essays on English Romanticism. Norton, 1984.

Adorno, Theodor W. “Lyric Poetry and Society.” Translated by Bruce Mayo. Telos, no. 20, 1974, pp. 56–71.

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1995. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford UP, 1998.

Baumgarten, Alexander. Metaphysica. Halle, 1779.

Esposito, Roberto. Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal (2007). Translated by Zakiya Hanafi, Polity P, 2012.

Godwin, William. Caleb Williams (1794). Edited by Gary Handwerk and A.A. Markley, Broadview P, 2000.

---. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. 3rd ed. (1798). Edited by F.E.L. Priestley, U of Toronto P, 1946. 3 vols.

---. Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England. 1817. Edited by Tilottama Rajan, Broadview P, 2015.

---. “Preface” to the Standard Novels edition of Fleetwood. 1832. Reprinted in Caleb Williams, pp. 443–50.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Ernst Block: A Marxist Schelling.” Philosophical-Political Profiles, translated by Frederick G. Lawrence, MIT P, 1979, pp. 63–79.

Hegel, G.W.F. Philosophy of Nature. 1830/1847. Translated by A.V. Miller, Clarendon P, 1970.

Jarrells, Anthony. Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. 1983. Translated by Georges Van Den Abbeele, U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Luhmann, Niklas. Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy. 1982. Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L. Jones, 1986, reprinted by Stanford UP, 1998.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom. 1988. Translated by Bridget McDonald, Stanford UP, 1993.

Rajan, Tilottama. “The Prose of the World: Romanticism, the Nineteenth Century, and the Reorganization of Knowledge.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 4, 2006, pp. 479–504.

Schelling, Friedrich. Ages of the World. 1815. Translated by Jason Wirth, State U of New York P, 2000.

Wasserman, Earl. “The English Romantics: The Grounds of Knowledge.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 4, no. 1, 1964, pp. 17–34.


[1] This is the point made by Luhmann, who sees the public sphere as sufficiently open to accommodate continuous “structural transformation” through an expansion of communicative rationality in which even “improbable communications” of the most “personalized” nature develop a “code” that allows them to become part of the system, as the very existence of a “threshold of improbability” expands the “number of communicable topics” (8–9, 18–20). There is thus no need for anything outside discourse, which also means that what is not yet part of discourse is “understood and practised” not at a “thematic level” but at the level of its “codification” (20-1). BACK

[2] Esposito is quoting Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. In his 1832 Preface to Fleetwood Godwin says that he began Caleb Williams “in the third person,” but then made “the hero of [the] tale his own historian”; in “this mode I persisted in all my subsequent . . . fiction” (448). The point would be inconsequential, except that Caleb casts doubt on his own first person narrative when he oddly decides to convey Collins’ third person narrative in the first person (Caleb Williams 66), thus producing a continuous “aphonia of the narrative voice” (Esposito 131). BACK

[3] I explore the consequences of the current critical reconfiguration of the Romantic period around the Regency rather than the French Revolution in my article, “The Prose of the World: Romanticism, the Nineteenth Century, and the Reorganization of Knowledge.” BACK