Archive for the ‘Continental philosophy’ Tag

Prophecy in Reverse: a notice of The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy

The Relevance of Romanticism

Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.

Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.

In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.

It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose

consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)

The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language:  from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.

The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology:  Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.

The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes

We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)

Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.

Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.

Uh-oh-oh: my flirtation with OOO

My “learned” self, out of curiosity and for the sake of its intellectual life, always has one eye on what’s happening in poetry and theory. So Amazon’s recommendation algorithm piqued my interest when it proposed The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, an anthology of contemporary European thinkers, who “depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.” It must have been via this recommendation I became acquainted with Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), a new philosophical movement (if not yet a school) marked by its being one of the first to come to the fore not via the traditional matrices of learned journals and conferences but on-line in what Graham Harman, who coined the movement’s name, calls the Blogopolis. Interested  but not having the time to conscientiously plunge into an immersion course in OOO I followed Harman’s lead and started to follow several blogs—Harman’s, Tim Morton’s, and Levi R. Bryant’s.

My first impressions were promising. I learned that Morton, who began his career as a scholar of British Romanticism, is the author of a widely-remarked work in ecopoetics (among others), a fan of Heidegger, and a man not unfamiliar with Buddhism in practice and theory. Harman, whose thought takes its initial impulse from Being and Time, is the author of several studies on Heidegger, both in general and more specifically. As arguably the first philosophical movement to develop its thought on-line, these thinkers have had to reflect on the writing process itself, culturing a spontaneity of formulation not dissimilar to that developed by poets with whom I am more familiar, such as William Carlos Williams, the Beats, and the Black Mountain poets (and not unimportant to my own practice, at times, as well). Finally, their work involves an explicit ecological dimension, attempting to formulate new, non-anthropocentric ways of conceiving relations and reality.

My enthusiasm began to cool, however, when Morton published  an excerpt from the conclusion of his latest book on his blog. I was troubled by Morton’s decentering the human being, grouping that “Heideggerian submarine of Da-sein” with those entities, those “objects” that “constitute all there is”, on the grounds that

[t]here is not much of a distinction between life and non-life (as there isn’t in contemporary life science). And there is not much of a distinction between intelligence and non-intelligence (as there is in contemporary artificial intelligence theory). A lot of these distinctions are made by humans, for humans (anthropocentrism).

If I understand him correctly, he is arguing against the grain of the most important insights of Being and Time, that distinguishes the being of the human being from that of all other beings and the ontological (that which explicitly raises the question of the meaning of ‘to be’) from the ontic (that which does not). It is hardly surprising that “contemporary life science” doesn’t make “much of a distinction between life and non-life” or that computer scientists and neuroscientists collapse intelligence and non-intelligence, since, in Heideggarian terms, these ontic sciences owe their  power to their presupposing that their objects are inanimate! How surprising is it that Western technoscientific culture is so lethal to other societies, organisms, and ecosystems when its worldview assumes Nature is neither living nor intelligent, that it is, as it were, dead?

One of the virtues of the early Heidegger, at least, is his project of the Destruktion of the history of ontology, the detailed, rigorous (one is tempted to write “phenomenological”) engagement with the history of Western philosophy with an eye to where, at crucial points, it has been guided by key ontological presuppositions, a project rightly renowned for Heidegger’s gift to engage the figures of the philosophical tradition as if each were a living interlocutor. When I read on Harman’s blog, then, that he agrees with Robrecht Vanderbeeken that the best way to deal with the “Berlin Wall” that stands between Anglo-American Analytic and Continental philosophy is “an agonistic pluralism” my misgivings deepened. First, anyone familiar with “Continental philosophy” will know that it is hardly a harmonious unity, because of a  long-standing mutual misunderstanding and enmity between French and German thought going back at least to the end of the Second World War. More seriously, though, even a philosophical amateur like myself is well-apprised that sincere and trenchant work has been underway for decades to articulate what these agonists—English-, French-, and German-speaking—must share in order to conflict in the first place. Here, I am thinking of the work of Dieter Henrich, Ernst Tugendhat, and especially Manfred Frank and Andrew Bowie, whose research and thought has explicitly traced the sparks that fly between the developed world’s philosophies, especially in terms of how the problems around meaning, history, and subjectivity are cast in an illuminating new light within the horizon of the epoch of their origin, i.e., the Enlightenment and its immediate critique in “Romanticism”.

It is very possible my misgivings are mistaken, based, as they are, on a perversely narrow sample of OOO thought. In my ideal library, there are shelves dedicated to the complete works of Morton, Harman, and their associates, where an avatar of mine is working diligently to register the fresh, strong, useful insights their work contains. However, as an old friend used to say when I encouraged him to look deeper into some matter not to his taste, “Life is short.” Perhaps a day will come when I, rather than my avatar, can attend more appreciatively to OOO, but, for now, my more mundane self is waiting with no little expectation for the latest additions to my Frühromantik library while taking notes on a future post on gene-tech and Poesie