David L. Clark and Donald C. Goellnicht, eds., New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-8020-2890-X. Price: US$55.
Wilfrid Laurier University
The essays in New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice ( by Tilottama Rajan, Shelley Wall, Alan Bewell, Donald C. Goellnicht, J. Douglas Kneale, David L. Clark, Ian Balfour, Jean Wilson, with an afterward by Asha Varadharajan) address primarily canonical writers, yet, as editors Clark and Goellnicht state, in order to read them against the grain or 'otherwise.' In New Romanticisms Romanticism is used as a mirror within which to view darkly the 'unfolding interpretive drama' (p. 6) of the past century, during which literary studies waged often fierce contests over the cultural capital of 'Romanticism.' This drama moves from Lovejoy's salvaging of Romanticism from critical obscurity, to New Criticism, to poststructuralism's deconstruction of the formalist and organicist imperative of New Criticism, to a post-organicist concern with constructions of history and culture which, as the Introduction suggests, ironically returns us to a version of Lovejoy's Romanticism as a plurality of 'quite distinct thought-complexes' (p. 3). Read as a series of further episodes within this drama, the volume thus comprises a rich and often self- contesting narration of a Romantic (critical) subject always at odds with herself/himself/itself.
The Introduction situates the multiple perspectives of this telling within the critical milieu of what is referred to as 'post-poststructuralism' (p. 7), which resists the end of the subject purportedly announced by deconstruction. Yet the post-deconstructive 'return' of the subject, first in New Historicism and then as part of a broader critical practice that has 'sought to develop the connections between deconstruction and cultural criticism in a far more explicitly materialist fashion' (p. 6), has been rather overtly concerned with the subject as a social construction, a subject always more hollowed out than complexly interiorizing. As if in response to this flattening, more often than not the essays in New Romanticisms put forth what could be called, after Tilottama Rajan's work in Romantic studies, a deconstructive phenomenology of the subject. The viability of this approach lies in its demonstration that if there is a vanishing subject on the post- Heideggerian horizon, there at least is a subject who vanishes, certainly insofar as criticism is always articulated through the matrix of psychosomatic forces constituting the critic himself. As Scully says to Mulder, who is reluctant to accept another apparently pointless assignment because he cannot at first discern a living 'case' in the deadness of the crime, 'There's a body, isn't there?'
So permit this subject to say that the essays in New Romanticisms are essential, at times brilliant readings of Romanticism and its texts and should be studied by anyone who remains a student of Romanticism. They make it difficult for one not to privilege the idea of Romanticism's periodization, primarily and paradoxically because the heterodoxy of Romanticism frequently mounts such a compelling case for the continuing debate about its own de-periodization. As a subject, that is, Romanticism demands a subject, if only to be contested in that subject's hearing of it; it leaves us as perpetual students by 'teaching' us the extent to which it cannot be taught in any coherent or systematic manner. To otherwise 'teach' Romanticism, or to use this volume as a way of teaching, i.e. of mastering, Romanticism, would be the greatest folly. Guarding against this folly by instead teaching Romanticism 'otherwise,' as always the other to our own prescriptions of it, is precisely the volume's point, to which this review addresses itself, albeit sometimes, and with apologies, at the expense of a more detailed analysis of its parts.
Instead, I want to confess the sense of critical luxury that comes with reviewing a work published in 1994. While in the marketplace of academic writing there can be a substantial lag between a work's appearance and its initial critical reception, six years is a rather longer than customary time for a review to appear. However, looking back from such a vantage point to a somewhat earlier critical moment allows one to contextualize prevailing notions about literature according to the passage of history and thus to gain a certain advantage in the historicizing process that, increasingly, literary studies both does and does not undertake. Such a confession is itself symptomatic of a deeper anxiety about this volume's currency, however, both in the sense of the value of its critical capital and in the sense of this capital's being current, not devalued within the economy of the critical marketplace. This is not to suggest that New Romanticisms lacks 'currency'; indeed, by pointing toward ever newer Romanticisms for critical study, it constitutes an all-too prescient meteorology of our critical climate. Rather the volume raises the specter of one's always being prone to anxiety about the currency of one's critical capital, a having to question our own standing within the economy of criticism.
This is the suggestion, for instance, of Donald Goellnicht's essay on critical responses to Keats's 1817 Poems, a classed and gendered public discourse that Keats in turn attempts both to manage and to exploit as part of the complex social inflection of his self-image. More tellingly, however, Goellnicht begins the essay by casting his reading as part of a brief critical psychodrama with Marjorie Levinson's strong reading in Keats' Life of Allegory, the style of which, by contesting 'the critical norm of the Harvard Keatsians, . . . reminds us of the privileged and elite position of reviewers in both the Romantic period and the present day. As professional academics paid to re-view literature from positions of relative security and comfort, we share a great deal in common with the class of nineteenth-century reviewers' (pp. 102-103). This habit of returning the abstract critical present back to the material realities of the past, however, is itself placed in acute psychoanalytical relief in J. Douglas Kneale's reading of Alan Liu's Wordsworth and the Sense of History, which forms a critical prelude itself to Kneale's own readings of The Prelude. Kneale's approach provides an essential paradigm here by demonstrating how the turn back toward history is predicated on a mastery of a primal scene of meaning that is the unsignifiable Real always unsettling this mastery, the trauma behind the critical authority we use to mask dealing with this trauma. The volume's focus is located in this uncovering of the primal scene of our critical presumptions in both Goellnicht's and Kneale's accounts, or rather in the provocative critical revisionism silently negotiated between them. All of the eesays in New Romanticisms are in one way or another versions of how theory drags the philosophical confidence upon which its critical facade rests to the scene of its own authority, placing criticism's ratiocentric claims always on trial/in process.
Hence, that the volume suggests itself as a type of casebook of various approaches in critical practice is symptomatic of a larger trend, the interrogation of which is, I would guess, precisely the point of the volume's 'collective' methodology. As casebooks go, the essays' manifestations of various critical stances are exemplary. In the phenomenological deconstruction of Rajan's reading of Alastor, for instance, the autonomous yet illusory philosophical self-possession of lyric totality is continually placed into (rather than being only displaced by) the heterogeneous social body offered by the contingency of narrative. The cultural materialism of Bewell's reading of Keats's floral imagery as the site of a revisionary gendering of the aesthetic uses the instruments of formalism beyond themselves in order to consider the 'hermeneutical and (new) historical' (p. 13) dimension of material circumstances in excess of the (merely) figural. In the cultural psychoanalysis of linguistic performativity in Balfour's reading of Godwin and Inchbald, the constative power of the social contract, the political viability of the law of government according to an Enlightenment faith in human perfectibility, is always undone by a 'law of language' which, like Christabel, it 'cannot tell' and by which it is always already mastered. And in both Jean Wilson's reading of variations of the 'real' of woman in Continental and British Romanticisms (by authors of both sexes) and Shelley Wall's analysis of the Maniac as an objectified and feminized presence in Shelley's Julian and Maddalo, 'ratiocentrism and androcentrism' are confronted by their 'professed others, madness and the feminine' (p. 56), in order to articulate a force of gender in Romanticism (in the case of Wall) in excess of or (in the case of Wilson) as a productive alternative to entrenched gender codes.
While offering a type of critical multi-perspectivalism, however, the idea of the 'casebook' or 'textbook,' an increasingly prevalent phenomenon among academic publications, also evokes a type of critical utilitarianism: a volume of essays 'collects' its own thoughts by offering a model of how those being taught in the critical marketplace might in turn collect those of its readers or students. The focus of this collectivity, itself the feint of critical pluralism, is frequently located within the apparently far-reaching and meta-democratic rubric of 'Cultural Studies.' That we are currently witnessing the critical moment of a powerful subsumption of all methodologies under this rubric (an alarming number of job ads, for instance, proclaim a familiarity with Cultural Studies as a prerequisite for hiring) makes this volume rather timely. For if the ever-broadening and splintering movement toward what is fast becoming the 'void circumference' of culture, concurrent with a powerful movement toward de-canonization and de-periodization, is the consciousness of cultural pluralism or multi-culturalism, its unconscious is a negativity which suggests that a critically meritocratic positivism can only define itself as what, by virtue of being an instrument of critical discrimination, it can never be: an ideal inclusivity.
One does not take exception to Cultural Studies itself, which frequently produces a rich, diverse, and unprescriptive hybridity between disciplines, a way of using critical practices as cultural strategies without containment. Rather, one is wary of the increasingly orthodox exertion of this rubric as itself the antithesis of the very cultural heterodoxy for which it purports to speak. It is precisely this tendency, in the guise of an ever-expanding circumference, to still speak for a critical center, which this volume so effectively explores. If it is within criticism's genetic makeup always to tend toward a hegemonic exertion of its own internal forces, this volume reads this hegemony as the fragile binding together of these forces as unstable, the radical of which is the fact that the hegemony exists only by virtue of the potentiality of its own instability, its ability never fully to signify itself. As its subtitle suggests, the volume articulates this fragile interconnectedness as a negotiation between 'criticism,' as an evaluative process that places a work within the intellectual genealogy of both past and prevailing methodologies and ideas, and 'theory,' which is a crucial supplement to criticism but also, and more provocatively, a strategy for questioning criticism's intentionality. Yet the volume also explores the limits immanent within theory itself, not as the illumination of criticism's blindness, but as criticism's Other, the place where it is reminded of the Real it cannot signify, a Real that theory 'names' as the unnameable of criticism. (In this and many other related ways, the volume should be read in conjunction with the essays in Clark's and Rajan's Intersections: Nineteenth-Century Philosophy and Contemporary Theory.)
If New Romanticisms marks a dialogue between what I would term the positivism of criticism, its impetus toward positing the claims of its own knowledge, and the negativity of theory, which always interrogates the limits of these claims, perhaps a more apt sub-title would have been 'Criticism and Theoretical Practice.' The editors call for the practical use of theory, not as a de-materializing or de-meaning force, but rather as a theory always placing in material relief through its own practice the non-material Idealism of criticism, its claims to truth in the spirit of Absolute Knowledge. This is the point of Asha Vadarahajan's provocative coda to the volume, 'Romanticism Unbound,' which, rather than summarizing the volume's contents, places them on trial/in process as if continually to remind theory of its own abstract, de-materializing drift toward the absolute of Reason. The plurality of the volume's main title, then, points in turn to the complicity between Romantic studies and its constructions of 'Romanticism' (the production of a new Romanticism for each critical moment), at the same time that it suggests how Romantic heterogeneity—Romanticism's propensity to submit itself to ceaseless self-interrogation and self- theorization—resists such constructions.
The danger characterized by New Romanticisms (a danger which, as Vadarahajan points out, it does not at all points avoid) is the risk of always needing to read Romanticism as a type of 'primal' force of theoretical dis/articulation. Yet far more often than not, the essays put aside critical insight as an originary gesture always in advance of its own effects. Instead, they turn Romanticism, as well as their readings of it, back 'against' its cultural 'moment' as, in the manner of Keats'Grand march of Intellect,' a genealogical rather than teleological progression toward the specter rather than the Ideal of Absolute Knowledge. In this respect, the volume raises the specter of de Man, whose legacy is difficult, even at this late stage, to avoid. Yet the volume wages a productive resistance to (de Man's) theory in the aftermath of de Man. On behalf of the volume, Asha Varadharajan argues against the 'futility and political quietism of a thought which ceaselessly exposes its own aporias,' in order to suggest how, if theory always risks being undone by the political contingencies of the experiential, it can also 'acquire the promise of concretion' (p. 276). The volume 'does not need to renounce its claim to knowledge in order to recognize the contingency of such claims' (p. 278) and so, as much as it is written in the wake of a critical indeterminacy and non-materiality which defined post-de Manian readings of Romanticism, it has its 'focus on the determinate conditions rather than the inherent limits of the possibility of knowledge and of selfhood' (p. 280).
This determinate and concrete attention to the 'possibility of knowledge and of selfhood' is, I am suggesting, perhaps, and rather ironically, sometimes missed in the current climate of politicized and socialized critical sensitivity to the material effects of history. This sensitivity might still profit from the dis/articulating effects of theory, which would temper the positivism of a cultural knowledge that looks suspiciously like the absolute of an idealism against which Cultural Studies is supposedly a reaction. Which places David Clark's essay, 'Against Theological Technology: Blake's "Equivocal Worlds",' at the volume's theoretical center—or rather, raises the specter of the volume's theoretical primal scene. Clark addresses, through a fascinating decoding of the visual technocracy of Blake's illustrations to the Book of Job, the fact that '[f]or Blake . . . creation is the originary Great Confinement, after which all other illegitimate forms of exclusion and imprisonment are patterned' (p. 198). Suggesting that we read Blake after the inauguration of the post-Heideggerian subject, rather than the other way around, Clark thus challenges a modern theoretical demystification of an earlier literature in order to acknowledge this literature's potent self-mystification, which theory shares as an embedded component of its own identity. For instance, by reading Discipline and Punish 'after Blake' (p. 168), Clark argues that Blake 'pursues what amounts to a nascent philosophy of finitude (p. in the manner of Schelling, for example, and anticipating Heidegger and Derrida)—a philosophy which, very simply put, recognizes that knowledge and the knowing subject are always in arrears vis-à-vis the structuring principle of their articulation' (p. 169). Thus articulating a metaphysics of difference in Blake's writing, Clark confronts us with a (Blakean) resistance to systematization, yet always within systems, that rehearses in the volume the most telling allegory of the current state of critical affairs. His essay implies that we need to find our own way of reading dia-logically rather than logically between the centripetal democratization and dissemination of ideas that sometimes too positively defines criticism, cultural or otherwise, and the centrifugal pull toward an ever-increasing inclusiveness of things, of which Cultural Studies is a most recent example. What we need to 'see' is that this inclusiveness always masks a more hegemonic containment defined by a center that is disturbingly absent and everywhere simultaneously, a circumference at once powerful and void.
|Title Reviewed:||David L. Clark and Donald C. Goellnicht, eds., New Romanticisms: Theory and Critical Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994. ISBN: 0-8020-2890-X. Price: US$55.|
|Journal:||Romanticism on the Net, Number 18, May 2000|
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