Archive for the ‘Frühromantik’ Tag

Nine Provocations to a Sympoetics

The Analytic and Synthetic Writer. “The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments 112, (1797-1801).

Christian Wolff, difference, and Saussure. “Wolff’s importance for philosophy generally and for the philosophy of language in particular tends to be underestimated today. For example, staying within the philosophy of language, he seems to have been a prime source, not only for the doctrine in question here [thought’s dependence on language], but also for the revolutionary idea in the Herder-Hegel tradition that language and hence conceptualization and thought are fundamentally social, as well as for the idea, later fundamental to Saussurean linguistics, that difference is at least as important for the constitution of concepts as similarity.”—Michael N Forster, After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition, Oxford, 2012, 79.

“semiotics cannot generate semantics” and related matters. “…there is a crucial homology in modern European philosophy between the constitution of metaphysical systems in ‘Spinozist’ terms via the principle of determination as negation, the structuralist idea of language as a system of differences with no positive terms, and the commodity-based economy of negatively related exchange values. In all these cases the question arises as to the ground upon which the differentially constituted system relies:  the system of ‘conditioned conditions’ leads in Jacobi’s terms to the question of being; meaning cannot be explained in differential terms because mere differentiality requires a ground of identity (semiotics cannot generate semantics); and the notion of value itself makes no sense in purely relational terms because exchange values are grounded in use values.” —Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (New York:  Routledge, 1997), p. 169.

Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810) on speech as writing. “Tell me, how do we transform the thought, the idea, into the word; and do we ever have a thought or an idea without its hieroglyph, its letter, its script? Truly, it is so:  but we do not usually think of it. But once, when human nature was more powerful, it really was more extensively thought about; and this is proved by the existence of word and script. The original, and absolute, simultaneity was rooted in the fact that the organ of speech itself writes in order to speak. The letter alone speaks, or rather; word and script are, at source, one, and neither is possible without the other…”—in Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York:  Verso, 1977), pp. 213-14.

Duncan on Language. “‘What was it like in the late 1940s if you were concerned about language?’ And then you found that language itself was a process, in Whorf and Sapir. And along with this, Olson wanted to reject the symbolic role of language. I was also interested in Cassirer’s approach to language as a total system of symbols. But it’s a process, you see; it’s not a system.” —Robert Duncan, 1983 interview, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012, 89-90.

On Poetic Form.

“Form is never more than an extension of content”—Robert Creeley, quoted by Charles Olson in “Projective Verse” (1950).

“[Ron] Silliman wrote Revelator according to a simple procedural concept: a long poem with exactly five words per line, and exactly enough lines to fill one notebook.”—Sam Rowe’s review of Revelator (2013) at Full Stop.

“…there is a ‘fluid’ as well as a ‘solid’ content, that some poems may have form as a tree has a form, some as water poured into a vase.”—Ezra Pound, “Credo” (1912), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (9).

Against Expression. “…it’s meanings I’m after, not expression. I’m anti-expressionist. But I don’t think expressionism is disorder. I’m anti-expressionist because I dislike personality and I dislike integration. And in general, I have a double play between meaning and feeling, which keeps me quite busy.”—Robert Duncan, in an interview with David Ossman, 1960, in A Poet’s Mind:  collected interviews with Robert Duncan, 1960-1985, ed. Christopher Wagstaff, Berkeley:  North Atlantic Books, 2012.

The Reader as Producer. The thesis of Benjamin’s “The Writer as Producer” might be cast as “the reader should not be a consumer but a producer alongside the writer.” This demand echoes later formulations that turn on oppositions analogous to consumer/producer:  Bernstein’s absorptive/anti-absorptive or Goldsmith’s readership/thinkership. However, such demands that the reader labour along with the writer are already met in the the Jena Romantics’ opposition of the analytic/synthetic writer and their practice of the fragment that require of the reader active collaboration in a “sympoetry”. Theoretically, the opposition between the passive reader and active writer collapses in Barthes’ work/text, which he thoroughly deconstructs in S/Z:  reading is a kind of writing. What power, then, can Benjamin’s demand have if in practice it was met a century before he made it and in theory it is always already met?

On our “romantic” unconscious.  “A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our ‘modernity’ [or ‘postmodernity’]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.”—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute (trans. Barnard and Lester), Albany:  SUNY, 1988 (original French, 1978), 15-16.

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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.

Reflecting on “Romanticism” we see ourselves

imagesI post below two passages from the Preface to Lacoue-Labarthe’s and Nancy’s The Literary Absolute, a study of twelve texts from the Athenaeum (Jena:  1798-1800).

The original French version L’Absolu littéraire appeared in 1978, the English-language translation in 1988, i.e., a solid generation ago. The francophobic likely to reject the volume out of hand might be more  circumspect  did they know the investigation carried out by Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy parallels the equally generally unacknowledged thinking of the German-language scholars Dieter Henrich and Manfred Frank and England’s Andrew Bowie. Those who find such matters too philosophical or overly-intellectual were already answered in the Athenaeum:  “If some mystical art lovers who think of every criticism as a dissection and every dissection as a destruction of pleasure were to think logically, then ‘wow!’ would be the best criticism of the greatest works of art….”—Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments, 57.

A veritable romantic unconscious is discernible today, in most of the central motifs of our “modernity” [or “postmodernity”]. Not the least result of romanticism’s indefinable character is the way it has allowed this so-called modernity [or postmodernity] to use romanticism as a foil, without ever recognizing–or in order not to recognize–that it has done little more than rehash romanticism’s discoveries.

…it is not difficult to arrive at the derivatives of these romantic texts, which still delimit our horizon. From the idea of a possible formalization of literature (or of cultural production in general) to the use of linguistic models (and a model based on the principle of auto-structuration of language); from an analytic approach to works based on the hypothesis of auto-engendering to the aggravation of the problematic of a subject permanently rejecting subjectivism (that of inspiration, for example, or the ineffable, or the function of the author, etc.); from this problematic of the (speaking or writing) subject to a general theory of the historical or social subject; from a belief that the work’s conditions of production or fabrication are inscribed within it to the thesis of a dissolution of all processes of production in the abyss of the subject. In short, we ourselves are implicated in all that determines both literature as auto-critique and criticism as literature. Our own image comes back to us from the mirror of the literary absolute. And the massive truth flung back at us is that we have not left the era of the Subject.

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

Turning the table on Bernstein’s spin on Reznikoff

Recently, Jerome Rothenberg posted Charles Bernstein’s liner notes to a CD recording of Charles Reznikoff reading from his Holocaust. As much as I am very much in favour of Reznikoff and his work receiving praise and a wider readership, I must take exception to how Bernstein at points seems to characterize Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony in a sectarian way, one exemplary of much of our contemporary avant-garde.

Both Testimony and Holocaust take up documentary material, court documents from turn-of-the-century America and the Nuremberg Trials respectively, and present it in a powerfully understated manner Bernstein quite illuminatingly compares to the style of Italian neorealist cinema. However, regarding this manner, Bernstein claims

What’s most radical about Testimony is the kind of reading his method makes possible, because this work … can’t be read in traditional literary or aesthetic ways. At first reading Testimony is numbing, but this experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins. Reznikoff’s refusal to aestheticize or sentimentalize (some would say humanize) the legal cases presented is exemplary of Testimony’s ethical grounding…

The deployment of the notion of the aesthetic here is simply too blasé and, morever, subtly spun to position Reznikoff and his work on one side of North America’s poetic, ideological struggles. Who reads Testimony will, yes, likely be “numbed”, overwhelmed by the relentlessness of its material, “numbed” by an exhausting over-stimulation. I cannot count how many times I have used Reznikoff’s poetry as an example of the power of sheer presentation, unsettling classes of college-level English students by reading them the poem from Testimony that begins “Amelia was just fourteen…“. Such  poetry is indeed neither “literary” nor “aesthetic” in a “traditional” way in its resolute refusal to metaphorically develop, embellish, or otherwise “cook up” its material, boiling it down, rather, to the plainest, factual presentation, a refusal of a certain kind of (poetically mainstream) “artistry” or “technique” that would make of the poem an “aesthetic” object possessed of artistic beauty, a beauty that would be at odds with the moral repulsiveness of what the poems present. But the squinting limitation of the notion of the “aesthetic” here is betrayed by a contradiction. Bernstein observes Reznikoff refuses to aestheticize his material while at the same time the reading “experience of being numbed is the place not where aesthetic experience ends but where it begins.” Bernstein, at best, seems to be playing two senses of “the aesthetic” off each other, claiming that the manner of Testimony and Holocaust divides one sense of the aesthetic from another, the traditional (derived originally from Alexander Baumgarten and referring strictly to theories of only artistic beauty) from the more radical, wherein “the aesthetic” denotes how something is or is made sensuously present (derived from Kant, related but not restricted to the experience of the beautiful whether in nature or art, a sense most recently and powerfully developed by Jacques Rancière). Arguably, though, a concept whose effective history can be traced back to Kant is “traditional” however much it differs from that concept found more locally ready-to-hand. It seems truer to say that Reznikoff quite literally re-presents the material that makes up Testimony and Holocaust by the mediation of his editorial labour that produces a striking, marked effect or response, which is precisely the index of its aesthetic power. Bernstein’s point here seems intended to serve interests other than to praise or illuminate Reznikoff’s accomplishment.

Regardless of exactly how Bernstein’s deployment(s) of “the aesthetic” might be taken, I find more troubling his apparent attempt to recruit Reznikoff as a “conceptual” writer. Bernstein remarks

…Reznikoff pose[s] a challenge to how we read and where we find meaning, creating conceptual works that make our initial inability to read an aesthetic challenge to read differently, read anew. As Kenneth Goldsmith remarks about conceptual poetry: it requires not a “readership” but a “thinkership.”

The argument here seems to turn on a too-easy distinction between what Barthes termed works and texts or what Bernstein himself has called in a similar vein absorptive and antiabsorptive. The absorptive work demands little conscious labour on the side of the reader, adhering to literary-aesthetic conventions whose familiarity enables them to function unconsciously and therefore ideologically; the antiabsorptive text, on the other hand, that breaks with or otherwise problematizes these conventions demands an engaged reading, whether playful or laboured, thereby inculcating an awareness of the conventionality of all discourse and the inescapable activity, and thereby collusion or power, of the reader. On the one hand, exactly how Reznikoff’s method demands more than a familiarity with the workings of metonymy to be understood and appreciated eludes me. On the other hand, the distinction apparently deployed here between the readerly and the thinkerly was one roundly and rigorously deconstructed by Barthes himself in S/Z that demonstrates in numbing detail that the readerly absorptive work is always already a writerly antiabsorptive text. More seriously, though, is the way Goldsmith’s distinction characterizes the reader of a conventional work as mindlessly passive, a characterization at odds with the de facto reception of literary and other texts. One need be no connoisseur of reader response theory or devotee of deconstruction to know that even the most prima facie literal texts are subject to an uncontrollable range of interpretation. How different (and humane) is this remark from Friedrich Schlegel’s Critical Fragments that addresses a similar distinction over two centuries ago:

112.  The analytic writer observes the reader as he is; he calculates accordingly and develops his machines in order to have the desired effect upon him. The synthetic writer constructs and creates a reader as he should be; he does not conceive of the reader as still and dead, but rather as lively and counteractive. He allows what he has invented gradually to come into being before his eyes, or he entices the reader to invent it himself. He does not want it to have a specific effect on the reader, but enters with him into the holy relationship of the tenderest symphilosophy or sympoesy.

Reznikoff, it seems to me, is precisely a “synthetic” writer, one who understands and assumes that his readers are “lively and counteractive”, thoughtful and sensitive enough to judge for themselves the facts of the case laid before them. His work doesn’t need to be ranked with an avant-garde or legitimated by its participating in the latest thing; it, like the matter it presents, might well be said to speak for itself.