You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Charles I. Armstrong. Romantic Organicism: From Idealist Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. ISBN: 1403904758. Price: US$85.00.

  • Robert Mitchell

…more information

  • Robert Mitchell
    Duke University

Article body

Charles I. Armstrong’s Romantic Organicism: From Idealist Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife is a lucid, compelling, and well-written account of reflections on organicism in both the German and British Romantic traditions, as well its “afterlife” in twentieth century literary and philosophical thought. As Armstrong notes in his Introduction, the methodology of Romantic Organicism aims at both “a ‘deconstruction’ of the organicist heritage ... provoked in part by simplistic (and often seemingly unconscious) recuperations of this tradition in modern thought and criticism,” as well as “a ‘reconstruction’ of the underestimated fecundity and complexity of romantic organicism” (2). As this description suggests, Romantic Organicism is neither an attempt to debunk Romantic organicism (à la Paul de Man), nor is it precisely an attempt to recuperate organicism. Rather, Armstrong seeks to confront the reader with what he contends are the “inherent problems of organicism” (133), while at the same time making it clear that the projects of philosophical and literary criticism must engage these “persistent aporias” (138), for attempts to ignore or sidestep them often end up adopting, though in confused form, precisely the premises of organicism they seek to reject. Focusing especially on the relationships between organicism and the sacred book, the limit-experience, and the problem of community, Romantic Organicism develops provocative readings of prose and poetic texts from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Romantic Organicism is divided into three parts, the first focusing on organicism in the work of German Idealists and Frühromantiker, the second on the organicist heritage in British Romantic thought, while the third examines the fate of organicism in the work of a number of twentieth century critics, including I. A. Richards, Georges Bataille, and Jacques Derrida. Part One offers extended readings of the work of a number of different German authors, including Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schiller, and Friedrich Schliermacher, but Immanuel Kant is the central figure of this section, and the Critique of Judgment the central text. Armstrong suggests that Kant’s third critique reveals the essence of Romantic organicism as the attempt to understood “wholeness,” or unity, by simultaneously applying three different criteria: namely, hierarchy, delimitation, and interrelation. By “hierarchy,” Armstrong means that the parts of a “whole”--whether it by a system, an organism, or a work of art--is understood to be subordinated to a central part. Delimitation “entails that a system can be clearly demarcated and separated from other proximate systems” (16), while interrelationship denotes the reciprocity of every part of a whole toward the other parts. Romantic organicism, Armstrong argues, does not limit itself to one of these criteria, but always attempts to hold all three simultaneously. This is, unfortunately, a logical impossibility--one cannot, for example, maintain both hierarchy and reciprocity--and the remainder of the book tracks the various attempts of Romantic and post-Romantic authors to mediate between these three different principles, often by privileging one of them over the others. Armstrong argues that Kant’s political philosophy, for example, ends up valorizing “the criterion of hierarchical organization, and discard[ing] the criterion of interrelationship” (18). Of all the authors whose work Armstrong explores in this first parts, only Friedrich Schlegel seems to developed a viable approach to understanding the interrelationship between these principles, for his work on the fragment takes the “principle of interdependence ... seriously” by suggesting the notion of always-only provisional hierarchical centers (40-1); as a result, Schlegel’s theory of the fragment enables a “radical” version of organicism.

Part Two is entitled “English Romanticism,” but in fact it focuses exclusively on the poetry and prose of S. T. Coleridge and William Wordsworth. In his two chapters on Coleridge, Armstrong argues that Coleridge’s version of organicism, like those of many of his German predecessors, tended toward a “conservative” form (53). Chapter four demonstrates this tendency toward the criterion of hierarchy through readings of later prose texts such as Aids to Reflection, Biographia Literaria, On the Constitution of Church and State, The Philosophical Lectures, and The Statesman’s Manual, while chapter five comes to similar conclusions by analyzing Coleridge’s earlier poems on friendship. Chapter six focuses on Wordsworth’s description of The Recluse as a gothic cathedral, and Armstrong argues that this architectural metaphor invokes a “spatial organicism” (111) that also finds itself beset by the tension between the principles of hierarchy and interrelationship. While Armstrong’s diagnosis of conservatism in the latter Coleridge and Wordsworth will not come as a surprise to many, the chapter on Coleridge’s early poetry is an especially intriguing part of the book, for it delimits both a new genre--the Coleridgean “friendship” poem (related, but not identical, to the conversation poem)--and a compelling account of the ways in which the category of “the friend” links Coleridge’s early work on the system of Pantisocracy with his later theoretical work on organicism.

Part Three takes leave of the nineteenth century in order to focus on the fate of organicism in twentieth century philosophy and literary criticism. Chapter 7 compares the “moderate” literary criticism of I. A. Richards with Georges Bataille’s theoretical reflections on excess; Chapter 8 discusses the hermeneutic theory of Hans-Georg Gadamer; and Chapter 9 compares Maurice Blanchot’s and Jacques Derrida’s attempts to “set aside organicism in order to replace it with the alternative, ontotypological figure of the text” (160). Perhaps predictably, both Richards’s and Gadamer’s projects of literary criticism are presented as ultimately unsuccessful attempts to “dissemble” the aporias of organicism through “ad hoc” solutions (145), while the work of Bataille, Blanchot, and Derrida are presented in a more positive light, in large part because all three accept the necessity of these “inherent problems” (133). As in many accounts of twentieth century French thought, Bataille’s work is presented as “anticipat[ing] and delineat[ing] some of the main tendencies of postructuralist thought, long before the advent of French structuralism.” However, while this prescience is often attributed to Bataille’s early and influential critique of Hegel (or rather, the anthropological version of Hegel promoted by Alexandre Kojève), Armstrong attributes it to Bataille’s willingness to articulate “the heterogeneity within organicism” (144). More precisely, insofar as “[o]rganicism is the desire for a solution of the dichotomy of form and matter, the dream of a perfect interfusion of these antagonists,” Bataille then “sets that desire to work, but does so only endlessly to postpone its completion” (146). The “price to be paid for the acknowledgement of this remainder,” Armstrong acknowledges, “is self-contradiction” (146), but he suggests that Bataille, Blanchot, and Derrida face up to the necessity of this paradox in ways that Richards and Gadamer do not. Yet Armstrong does not find Bataille entirely unproblematic, for he notes that the French critic’s inability to provide a criterion for differentiating between “Leftist and Rightist interventions” points to a “large-scale law” of organicism; namely, that “[a]ny politics that takes its exigency from a transcendental value beyond all dichotomies and all objectivity will run the risk of a similar undecidability, or indifference, with regard to the more orthodox configurations [i.e., of politics, such as the distinction between fascism and communism]” (147-8).

While the first two parts of Romantic Organicism focus on texts that one would expect in an account of German and British romanticism, the selection of authors in the third part may strike many readers as a bit more idiosyncratic. The choice of Richards, Bataille, Gadamer, Blanchot, and Derrida is by no means unmotivated, for all have been central, in different ways, to contemporary literary theory. Yet one wonders whether they were the most tactically advantageous critics with which to engage the question of the “afterlife” of organicism and “its still insistent relevance” (183). Armstrong presents Romantic organicism as an inherently “interdisciplinary” concept in the Romantic era, and so it is striking that this final part of the book focuses so exclusively on authors associated with philosophically-oriented literary criticism. While is certainly fair for Armstrong to exclude the “scientific and biological aspects” of Romantic and contemporary organicism in favor of philosophical explorations (5), his choice of authors in the final part of the book reveals an overly focused understanding of what counts as philosophy. It would have been intriguing, for example, to explore Evelyn Fox Keller’s observation that in the 1940s, cyberscience was “busy using the organism to illustrate a new kind of machine,” while, moving in precisely the opposite direction, “molecular biology was “seeking to model the organism after the machines of yesteryear” (97). Equally productive would have been analyses of Serres’s notion of the parasite that accompanies every system, and perhaps especially Niklas Luhmann’s “systems theory,” which clearly seeks (successfully or not) to undercut the principles of both hierarchy and interdependence.[1] While Armstrong concludes his book by stressing “the mobility of organicism” (184), the vision of unity that grounds the act of criticism that is Romantic Organicism is motivated by a seemingly less mobile understanding of contemporary disciplinarity.

To note the absence of discussion of authors such as Luhmann and Serres is not so much to criticize Armstrong’s principles of selection as to suggest possible future avenues of research on this topic. One may be more critical, however, of Armstrong’s tendency to miss opportunities to engage more fully with contemporary literary criticism on British and German romanticism. In his Introduction, Armstrong positions his project as in conversation with critics such as Paul de Man, Murray Krieger, Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, and Kathleen Wheeler. All of these authors have developed important work on the question of organicism, but these reference points highlight the extent to which Armstrong apparently sees more recent criticism as caught in either the dead end of “particularising historical approaches which strive for a form of radical empiricism” or problematic de Man-inspired approaches to romanticism “by way of the question of language” (2-3). One result of Armstrong’s disinterest in contemporary criticism is a tendency to make inaccurate--or at least unsubstantiated--claims about the state of contemporary research. For example, Armstrong supports his claim that the “precise theoretical foundations of [Coleridge’s and Southey’s] pantisocratic scheme” are by and large ignored in “the extant literature” (83) with a single reference to Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, thus neglecting the large body of recent work on this topic. Moreover, Armstrong’s project would have benefited by discussing the work of Tilottama Rajan, David Simpson, and Clifford Siskin on Romantic era systems; such an engagement could have helped to clarify the variety of relationships between terms such as “organicism,” “system,” and “holism” (all used as synonyms in Romantic Organicism), and certainly would have contributed to Armstrong’s discussion of the politics of organicism. One also senses that engagement with Rajan’s work in particular would have sharpened Armstrong’s critique of de Man, and strengthened his (Armstrong’s) attempt to “think language on the basis of organicism,” rather than (with de Man) reading organicism on the basis of language.

By ignoring recent criticism, in other words, Armstrong misses an opportunity to link his own methodology and claims to a wider body of scholarship. This is unfortunate in small part because his own study would have profited from such engagement, but in much larger part because his approach has considerable import for other critical approaches. Clearly, however, this criticism should be understood as a relatively minor complaint about what is, in all other respects, an exceptionally lucid and engaging discussion of romantic organicism and its afterlives.