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After Romantic Ideology - A Special Issue of Romanticism On the Net

  • Michael John Kooy

…plus d’informations

  • Michael John Kooy
    University of Warwick

This February issue of Romanticism on the Net takes its title, and indeed most of the seven articles, from a conference held in Oxford in April 1998. What we sought to consider then, and seek to consider now, might best be conveyed by suggesting what is not meant by this rather proud title with its provocative, millenarian ring: "After Romantic Ideology". We did not seek to address that large and politically contentious issue, posed by some postmodern thinkers following Althusser, that the age of tenable ideological critique (if there ever was one) has now passed, giving way to a time when ideology itself constitutes subjectivity, a time when false consciousness is the only consciousness.  [1] Nor did we look specifically at the relationship between ideological criticism and the aesthetic, or even try to defend, as George Levine has done, the latter from the former—though I suspect that at least some of the contributors would be sympathetic to that program.  [2] Nor, finally, did we set out to assess how romanticism in particular (or rather romanticisms?) stands up to the ideological critique that has been made of it. (This, for example, was the subject of a recent issue in Studies in Romanticism, edited by Susan Wolfson.)  [3]

Less programmatically than any of these discussions, we asked ourselves the broad question: what shape is literary criticism of romantic period writing now assuming, given that it is no longer organized around the ideological critique of the High Romantic Argument. The "After", then, of the title should be understood in terms of succession rather than causality, and the whole of it should be read in an interrogative rather than affirmative mode. In a recent article published in Textual Practice Paul Hamilton observed wryly that nowadays "literary critics of Romanticism have mostly given up excoriating its philosophical sublimation of real issues and just get on with interpreting the neglected archives."  [4] But what are the assumptions, aspirations and defences of a critical project aiming to "just get on with interpreting the neglected archives"? That question is what lay behind the conference and this special issue. What we deliberately chose to avoid, though, was a metacritical or exclusively theoretical discussion of the issues. Instead, keeping an eye on the texts at hand (whether from the neglected archives or not), contributors engaged obliquely with the question of the status of their work.

One of the assumptions uniting all the contributors to this issue is precisely this: that criticism need no longer labour the point about how Romanticism occluded the historical (political, social) with aesthetic and metaphysical razmataz. That is a recognition shared more broadly by many in the profession who can now only regard with irony the claim (did anyone really believe this?) that poetry "can set one free of the ruins of history and culture", to borrow McGann's famous phrase. Of course "they" did and what's remarkable is how quickly so many of these Old Believers have disappeared from sight, no longer keen to defend publicly the coherence of the Romantic aesthetic project. Scholars trained up on Frye, Abrams and Bloom retire while a new generation of ideologically alert Romantic scholars (who never really took seriously Shelley's claim about "legislators of the world" in the first place) go on to cut their teeth on new material. It is now clear that this plurality of romanticisms has effectively succeeded what had been a single-minded, albeit controversial, project: that of exposing the romantic ideology. David Chandler, in an essay published here, makes just this point when he contrasts the coherence of 1980s historicism, which was expressed in confident and comprehensive terms by a number of critics committed to the canon (McGann, Levinson, Liu), to the variety of variants practised today, which resist easy formulation. More diverse than ever, the romantic archive is now seen as the crossroads for a variety of critical paths leading to a richer understanding both of the period—as a highly political, gendered and historically conscious age—and of ourselves as heirs to it. And the essays published in the issue, with their focus on such subjects as cannibalism, political disaffection, plant reproduction and sexual obsession (to name just a few), can be read as symptomatic of this broadening agenda.

Yet there is something suspicious about today's historicist methodology and it has to do with its complacency. Whereas earlier that methodology was rigorously and self-consciously championed in the name of unmasking a long-standing and hostile ideology, now it is not addressed at all, but left as an unspoken, unexamined assumption: history will save us from poetry. And criticism that unconsciously privileges history risks degenerating into literary history of the most banal kind. Banal, because it begins to make mistakes, like disregarding literary form or treating poetry as if it simply recorded political reality or discussing ideology as if it were natural and universal. Even preeminent cultural critics working in the Marxist tradition, like Gramsci, say, or Adorno, were careful to avoid these sorts of reductive reading practices. My point is that one cannot write good historicist criticism (or indeed any sort of criticism) without being aware at a theoretical level of the assumptions and risks involved. And much writing on Romanticism today is precisely that: unconsciously historicist.

I might explain this thought by quoting a remark made by Adorno in Minima Moralia. In considering the viability of cultural criticism, he writes:

Among the motifs of cultural criticism one of the most long-established and central is that of the lie: that culture creates the illusion of a society worthy of man which does not exist; that it conceals the material conditions upon which all human works rise, and that, comforting and lulling, it serves to keep alive the bad economic determination of existence. This is the notion of culture as ideology, which appears at first sight common to both the bourgeois doctrine of violence and its adversary, both to Nietzsche and Marx. But precisely this notion, like all expostulation about lies, has a suspicious tendency to become itself ideology.  [5]

I think in romantic studies we are at that point, the point where "the expostulation" about the lie of the Romantic aesthetic has itself turned into a new set of unexamined assumptions about how to approach our field. Adorno, revealingly, tended to think of ideology not in classical Marxist terms, as the "false consciousness" of a given economic class which ought to be submitted to immanent critique, but rather in more broadly humanist terms, as an exclusionary set of ideas seeking to efface difference and dissent and which ought to be resisted by the assertion of particularity. Ideology, in other words, (including the ideology of cultural criticism) cannot cope with reality in its fulness and will always elide its distinctive features. In the light of this kind of thinking, we might well ask what it is that criticism can do to remain faithful to its subject? How can it resist this "suspicious tendency to become itself ideology"?

One way is to cultivate a more nuanced historicism, one that remains sceptical of the certainty of its own historical pronouncements as well as aware of the variety of ways ideologies operate at any given time. It seems to me that Paul Magnuson, in his essay on Coleridge's poem, "Monody on the Death of Chatterton" does just that. Though still committed to an reading of the poem informed by its original context, Magnuson takes into account a plurality of originary moments, each of which in turn opens up new interpretive possibilities. Peter J. Kitson employs a similarly nuanced historicist methodology in his essay on cannibalism. Resisting the temptation to map a post-colonial critique of cannibalism directly onto romantic period writing, he nevertheless shows how overlapping domestic discourses of the period, including those of politics, race and theology, were haunted by the figure of the cannibal. In a contribution that also focuses on public discourse, Luisa Calè offers a penetrating analysis of how ideologies of female behaviour and reading practices were deployed in terms of flower iconography in politically reactionary botanical texts of the period.

Another way for contemporary criticism to resist slipping into ideology is to face up to the particularities which it risks effacing. Three such distinctive features come to mind. One is aesthetic form, including genre, and the ways in which form is employed by romantic period writers. As Susan Wolfson has shown, an analysis of form need not take the shape of an aesthetic romanticism. And scholars as diverse as Jerome McGann, Michael O'Neill and Tilottama Rajan have contributed to that emerging discussion.  [6] In this special issue, James Treadwell brings that discussion to bear on Hazlitt. He argues how in the case of Liber Amoris criticism ought to resist the impulse to choose between the literary and the historical in order instead to examine the border where the two meet.

False choices, this time between art and action, also operates in the dismissal by cultural criticism of romanticism's educational program of Bildung. This, it seems to me, is a second area of particularity which deserves rethinking now. Both High Romanticism and its critique rested to a large extent on the validity (or invalidity) of epistemological claims made on behalf of self-conscious subjectivity. What happens when criticism instead considers the moral justifications for romanticism's aesthetic experience? Thomas Pfau and others have already begun to ask that kind of question.  [7] Towards the end of her contribution, which looks at how ideologies have conspired to keep from critical view Coleridge's Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, Elinor Shaffer suggests how such an interrogation of romanticism might proceed, while remaining wise to its own ideological inheritance.

Finally, a third particularity of romanticism that invites rethinking, namely, its philosophy. Paul Hamilton has made the case for returning to romantic philosophy with an awareness of its multivalent operations, calling for a criticism that looks beyond the ideological function of idealism to the level where romantic thought engages in practical ways with "knowledge, labour, gender".  [8] In this kind of analysis, romanticism itself appears conscious of the temporality of its transcendental claims; it anticipates, in other words, its own ideological critique. Simon Malpas makes that argument below, linking Kant's "sensus communis" with Keats's "negative capability" in order to unseat our presumptions about romantic subjectivity and its ideological critique. In cultivating a more nuanced historicism or in showing itself open to these particular features of Romanticism, contemporary criticism possesses the means, I think, to preempt its own tendency towards ideology and furthermore to affirm its own status as a tool for understanding.

Parties annexes