In what Sense "Communis"? Kantian Aesthetics and Romantic Ideology[Notice]

  • Simon Malpas

…plus d’informations

  • Simon Malpas
    Manchester Metropolitan University

In his introduction to From Romanticism to Critical Theory, Andrew Bowie offers the following proposition: I want to ask two related questions in this essay. First, can one speak of a "truth-potential" in Romantic art that "exceeds", or is at least irreducible to, the ideological? And, if this is possible, how might one begin to rethink Romanticism's relation to ideology? Bowie's statement presents a challenge to much of the recent literary criticism that has been produced in Britain under the auspices of new historicism in that he insists on the necessity of questioning the relations between aesthetics, subjectivity and epistemology as a precondition of any assessment of art's social or ideological function. This seems to run directly counter to what Paul Hamilton describes as the "current scene" of Romantic studies: If this is an accurate summation of the general state of Romantic studies, and there is no reason to suppose that it is not, then one of the key factors that has led to critics giving up reading Romantic poetry "through ... idealist philosophies" is the accusation of an acquiescence with "Romantic ideology", the ideology that "empower[s] poetry to save philosophy from its inability to grasp conceptually its own ideals". According to this line of argument, poetry stands in for the philosophical or political aporia projecting an ideal realm in which resolution has been realised; it sublimates the "real issues" when the insoluble problems facing the "real world" are displaced in the imaginative projections of Romantic idealism. More generally, the argument runs that Romantic aesthetics indulges in political quietism by escaping from material reality to questions of self-reflection and self-consciousness, and the modern critic must beware of identifying with the writers to the extent that his or her own account perpetuates this Romantic ideology. Crucial to this definition of Romantic ideology is the construction of a particular Romantic aesthetic based on Hegelian idealism. Jerome McGann locates this in the work of M. H. Abrams: At the time McGann opened this debate, Abrams's Hegelian "program" and its various derivatives formed a dominant model in Romanticist scholarship. McGann's materialist challenge exposed the ideological nature of this program's self-representations but, in so doing, frequently accepted those representations as an adequate account of the relation between Romantic literature and idealist philosophy. One of the more recent effects of McGann's critique has been a movement away from the philosophical analysis of Romantic aesthetics towards a reading of Romanticism that focuses almost exclusively on its socio-historical (and hence ideological) character but leaves Abrams's account of that aesthetic in place. At the extreme, the argument tends to be that if Romantic ideology is reactionary, so is Romanticism. To cite just one example, Aidan Day sums up Romantic-period writing in terms of the following distinction: In effect, Day's construction of an opposition between late Enlightenment and Romantic aesthetics turns its back on any possibility of a radical potential in Romanticism. However, as McGann's critique notes, Romantic aesthetics is a far more diverse discourse than Abrams's program allows, and the relations obtaining between it and idealism (which is equally irreducible to a monolithic voice) are more varied than writers such as Day acknowledge. What I want to do here, by way of providing an example of Romanticism's diversity, is examine Romantic writing in the light of a Kantian rather than Hegelian conception of the aesthetic in order to discuss the implications of this for a rethinking of the relations between art, ideology and modernity in which Romanticism has the potential to disrupt the sort of straightforward notion of aesthetic ideology presented by critics like Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is …

Parties annexes