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Early in The Politics of Aesthetics, Marc Redfield quotes from Paul de Man’s 1967 Gauss lectures as a reminder of romanticism’s once-assumed centrality: “whenever romantic attitudes are implicitly or explicitly under discussion, a certain heightening of tone takes place, an increase of polemical tension develops, as if something of immediate concern to all were at stake” (33). Throughout his thoughtful and demanding book, Redfield pursues the roots of this tension, asking, in the most challenging terms possible, what the study of literature—particularly romantic literature—offers us as members of the modern democratic state. Refusing the embattled position popular among romanticists in recent years, Redfield instead takes up what he considers to be most essential about the field. He seeks nothing less than the rejuvenation of the critical and historical category. The “surprising displays of passion or anxiety” (33) that continue to surface in discussions of romanticism concern something very deeply rooted indeed, and to ignore the investments in theory and aesthetics that provoke these feelings, he argues, is to overlook what is most fundamental about the romantic field.
The book is, at bottom, a defense of theory, though it is written without a hint of defensiveness. No mere exercise in academic nostalgia, The Politics of Aesthetics presents as a missed opportunity the reception of theory in the last two decades (years that coincide with the diminishing prestige of romanticism as a field of study). Far from seeking a return to the heady days when to study literature was to study the romantics, Redfield questions the rejection of “theory” as politically suspect and asks, instead, what a reconsideration might turn up. De Man’s writings prove valuable to a reading of national and academic culture (two categories, among many others, that Redfield shows to be not so easily separated). De Manian theory is shown always to be a resistance to theory. In this, it resembles aesthetic discourse itself: “If aesthetics intends its own ultimate transformation into a political program, its dependence on figurative language … causes it to split into a critique of itself that confronts as its own condition of possibility an exposure to dispersal, dissemination, or loss” (148). Theory—like aesthetics, and like romanticism—is said to offer a version of ideology critique very much suited to an age when saturation media-coverage of wars abroad and threats at home should raise our alert-level on claims of linguistic and referential stability.
As its title indicates, the book starts from the premise that the aesthetic is political—that even those conservative critics who argue to the contrary are acknowledging its fundamentally political nature. Schiller, Arnold, Eliot, along with New Historicists and multiculturalists, Redfield says, all agree: “Culture is acculturation—the forming of subjects, the reforming of the world” (1-2). Disinterestedness, in the Arnoldian argument, seeks ultimately to make itself felt in the social sphere, and even modified versions of l’art pour l’art (such as Harold Bloom’s recent writings) “find it difficult to avoid the sideways slide form aesthetics to politics” (2). So far, so simple, but Redfield proposes to complicate the customary equation, defamiliarizing it so as to reactivate its significance for us. He interrogates the very language in which we talk about such things, and this begins with the terms in his title: aesthetics (which he equates to romanticism, and whose shared boundary with theory is critical to his effort here) and politics (which is decidedly not ideology—just as this book is decidedly not Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic).
The Politics of Aesthetics offers important qualification of Eagleton’s well-worn claim that “aesthetics was born as a discourse of the body.” The method, initially at least, is to unfold the complexity of the body as an aesthetic trope. Redfield’s conception of aesthetics is not narrowly formal but rather macrocosmically so: it has to do “with such large protopolitical matters as the definition of the human, the possibility of judgment without rule, or the perception of psychic, natural, social, and cosmic harmony”; it is “pedagogical, political, and historical” (12). It posits the possibility of a common, formal identity, the empirical representative of which is the State itself. Aesthetic discourse has for its goal the Arnoldian “best self,” or the Schillerian “pure man” that is “represented by the State.” Since one of the goals of aesthetic discourse is a citizenry capable of making informed judgments, it is no surprise that the modern democratic state arises in tandem with the institutions concerned with promoting a sensus communis. But the intimacy between aesthetic discourse and technology is troubled, and one of Redfield’s concerns here is to consider the technical “processes of mediation and reproduction” that hold together the fantasy of a unified social body (16). Technics, in his argument, proves a “dangerous supplement,” one that “is simultaneously a source of power and contagion: a form of mastery that threatens to wound or even destroy the human subject it defines” (19).
So this is a book about theory that is also a book about politics. And it is political through and through. Redfield writes with a quiet, contained rage, which is emboldened and intensified by the scrutiny to which he subjects aesthetic discourse. “Aestheticized political models not only conceal real social injustice,” he writes, “they actively produce violence as a by-product of their own impossible reliance on, and projection of, sociopolitical homogeneity and transparency” (22). It is also a book about gender—or rather, it contains the seeds of a bravura reading of gender’s role within aesthetic discourse, which is “to anchor the turns of figurative language to the putative naturalness of sexual difference” (37). The argument about gender, however, is carefully subordinated, despite its running in some form throughout the book, from the metaphor of the social body, to Arnold’s invoking of “a girl called Wragg,” to Schiller’s description of the Juno Ludovisi.
Chapter one reexamines Benedict Anderson’s oft-cited claim that nations are imagined communities. Redfield unpacks this argument to reveal Anderson’s “resistance to his own insight,” his elision or blindness to the consequences of the very issues he raises, namely the relationship between aesthetics and technics (52). Taking up Anderson’s championing of a “real” nationalism based on kinship and religion (as opposed to “official” nationalism), Redfield shows imagination and nation to be rooted in aesthetic discourse as “fictions possessed of great referential force and chronic referential instability” (49). What Redfield calls the radical imagining of the nation is a process abetted by technological processes and developments; indeed, almost as important as capitalist modes of production in helping to foster these ties among strangers is the shock of print technology. He notes that, “Official nationalism constantly infiltrates Anderson’s account of the ‘imagined community’ because the state’s aesthetic-pedagogic project, or work or mourning, exploits the same processes of technical reproduction that makes the imagination of the nation possible in the first place” (58). Such is the funhouse mirror of community in an age of mechanical reproduction that “the nation imagines anonymity as identity, as an essentialized formal abstraction” (54). Unpacking the idea that nations are made out of grief, Redfield explores the significance of mourning as an abstract process turning on fictional or absent male bodies grieved over by female mourners, pausing to great effect over Anderson’s account of the Tomb of the Unnkown Soldier—“an invention of ‘official nationalism’ if there ever was one” (58). The chapter ends by turning to Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation as exemplary of these tensions. Fichte’s arguments about Volk turn on education and technology: he “aims at a total education, an utter making—or breaking and remaking—of human being” (68), through a speaking voice that has been made over as printed text (which must function as voice), such that the individual’s imagination is itself an object of aestehtic pedagogy, “’trained up’ to perceive the unperceivable Nation: a nation that is at once Germany and humanity itself” (68). Thus the nostalgic view of the national community is not so easily disentangled from the technics that abet this act of imagining.
Chapter two scrutinizes the trope of the nation as an organic body. This is a trope that is itself troubled by the vexed status of the body within aesthetics—a “discourse of the body” that “must never become too much wrapped up in the body” (77). In a series of penetrating readings, Redfield shows the body to be a figure without ground: like the nation itself, it too is radically imagined. But even as a figure it cannot help but raise questions about sex, gender, and race. To prove his point, Redfield turns to one of the most influential considerations of aesthetic disinterestedness (and recently a pet text of the political right), Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Here again, Redfield’s penchant for close reading returns the reader anew to a text many have come to take for granted. He focuses on Arnold’s contradictory emphases on an epistemological or scientific progress of culture and on monumentalization (84)—a tension Redfield nicely compares to the university’s competing emphases on research (“the imperative to publish something new or perish”) and teaching (“to the extent that the teacher is an aesthetic educator, presiding over the ritualized worship of a secular text”). Arnold resolves this tension in the figure of the mother, by figuring disinterestedness in maternal terms as the slow, organic, and natural gestation of ideas that is opposed to the violent, immediate, and short-lived insights of the present. And yet, in a curiously tense moment in the text, Arnold invokes a real and “unnatural” mother—Wragg, a factory worker who apparently murders her illegitimate child—in order to undermine the confident Englishness of interested philistines. Wragg, Redfield argues in a revelatory and attentive reading, “embodies the detritus of aesthetic history”; she is “the exemplary example,” an “abject double of Britannia” who represents “the ungovernable sexuality and productive power of a sub-working-class mother” and thereby hints at the “disruptive, antiaesthetic forces within the national body” (89-90).
Chapter three, which Redfield calls his “theory chapter” (a separating-out that strikes me as curious given the claims made for theory here), explores de Man’s status as a “phantasmatic personification of ‘deconstruction’ as ‘theory’” (95). Countering the widespread perception of theory’s political inadequacy—as against “the self-evident necessity … of ‘historicism’” (96)—Redfield traces the position of history in de Man’s writings to reveal the writer’s abiding interest in this category. This interest binds all of his writings; even as he slips into a more rhetorical register later in his career, the question of history retains a surprisingly intense charge. In the late essays on Kant and Schiller focused on here, “de Man’s prose … acquire[s] extraordinary intensity at the very moment when he is repudiating the pathos made available by notions of historical time” (97-8). In these late essays, Redfield claims, political criticism becomes a matter of reception—of de Man’s reception of German Romantic writings, and later of our own reception of de Man (and even “of ‘de Man’s’ reception of ‘himself’” ). Redfield is one of our best and most challenging readers of de Man, and his consideration of the ethics of reading is a valuable reminder of what is at stake in approaching the aesthetic (and aesthetic difficulty) today. Ideologies of the aesthetic, he claims, “have empirical consequences because of, rather than despite, their reliance on figurative language” (124). At the end of this chapter, we again see how the figure of a maternal body haunts the aesthetic, as Redfield zooms in on Schiller’s evocation of the Juno Ludovisi, which in the Aesthetic Education helps to embody not just the Aesthetic State, but what Redfield calls (through his reading of de Man) theory’s resistance to itself. Revealing a de Man—and through him a practice of Theory—deeply engaged with the historical, Redfield goes a long way not just toward repoliticizing theory, but toward bringing a reading of romantic-aesthetic discourse to bear on the often maddening (or at least confusing) “realities” (the term requires scare quotes) of post-9/11 politics.
The book’s fourth chapter is also its shortest. It takes as its the point of departure the strangely and disproportionately disturbed reception of Schlegel’s fragmentary novel Lucinde. The novel’s scandal, Redfield says, is its offense against form. Schlegel suggests that we understand gender identity as ironic and “potentially illegible”: the “materiality of the body as the pressure of an uncertainty that enables and destablizes gender” (127). Lucinde scandalizes the understanding of gender as a binary opposition: faced with the “conceptual and rhetorical world” of this novel it behooves readers to think “gender in terms of irony” (132). Fundamentally about the transgression of sexual, aesthetic, and interpretive norms, Lucinde enacts transgression, “confirm[ing] the performativity of gender and teach[ing] us furthermore that the ‘materiality’ of the body is best understood as a name for the nameless uncertainty through which signification occurs, and through which bodies achieve shape and meaning” (146).
The concluding chapter on Shelley’s political poetics returns to the nexus of aesthetic play and aesthetic politics, reading this as itself a false binary born of a tendency to read political action pragmatically. But if “Romantic ideology is aesthetic ideology, which is to say ideology in its most exemplary form, as the illicit, and politically consequent, universalization of a particular,” romanticism is “also the critique of aesthetic ideology” (149-50). This continual self-resistance (posited, in chapter three, as theory’s resistance to itself) is the hallmark of aesthetic discourse. Shelley offers fertile ground for exploring these paradoxes. Part of the excitement of this chapter is Redfield’s detailed analysis of The Mask of Anarchy, which emerges in dialectic with Susan Wolfson’s reading of the poem in her 1997 book, Formal Charges. (Indeed, Wolfson’s formal tour de force, also published by Stanford, may have its best advertisement in the intensity of response it provokes here.) Built on the traditional binary of visionary aestheticism and practical politics, Wolfson asserts that Shelley’s poem makes over (practical) politics as (ineffectual) aesthetics. She shows how the very excess of Shelley’s outspoken politics results in a silence: unpublishability becomes another version of the inaccessible idealism of Prometheus Unbound. But Redfield questions the assumptions underlying such an equation: “Why … should self-indulgence weigh so heavily in the ethical-political balance? And why should the political test of Shelley’s poem be its viability as a public utterance in 1819, rather than, say, 1832?” These questions contain the kernel of this book’s argument. To be fair, I’m not sure Wolfson is so much dissatisfied with Shelley’s politics as that she is interested by Shelley’s own self-awareness that his text won’t function as oration. Redfield’s point, though, is “that a critique of aesthetic ideology will always have to risk a certain ‘aestheticism’” (157), and his task in the rest of the chapter is to reimagine Wolfson’s claim that, at a key point in the poem, “words” are infused into “swords” to make a purely graphemic rhyme that registers only in reading, never in speech. In a stunning reading of The Cenci, he reads Beatrice Cenci as a version of a violated national body and Count Cenci as a figure for an anaesthetic poet, blind and numb to the effect of his words on the world. Political violence as well as its counterpart, he provocatively suggests, emerge equally from the poet’s blindness. The chapter concludes with a striking comparison between Shelley’s description of the poet in A Defence of Poetry and the soldier in A Philosophical View of Reform: the one “sings to battle and feels not what it inspires,” while the other “is a bloody knife that stabs and feels not what it inspires” (170). Both poet and soldier are presented as mere tools, bereft of affect and lacking awareness of the violence in which they participate.
Redfield makes this comparison not to indict the poet, but rather to reinforce his claim that the effects of poetry take place in a future that, like the storm into which Madeline and Porphyro escape at the end of Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes,” holds no guarantees. Revisiting Eagleton’s argument that aesthetics is the political unconscious, Redfield claims poetry as “the political unconscious of aesthetics”: “the unacknowledged disease of politics, but also its only hope, since poetry ensures that the possibility of revolution will always remain absolute” (171). In the end, The Politics of Aesthetics makes an impassioned case for attending to the aesthetic in all its ambiguity and multifaceted potency. Its final, moving pages, written in the days after 9/11, serve not just as further evidence of the arguments made across the two hundred preceding pages, but as a pointed reminder of just how much is at stake for us in how we read.