Shelley’s Aesthetic Dimension: The Politics of Resistance and Reform

Given the resurgence of interest in the relation between Shelley’s political essays and poetry, what concept of relationality can be posed to move beyond an old, entrenched opposition between the social commitment of prose and the abstract withdrawal of poetry to theorize a novel form of “political poetics”? In what ways do Shelley’s reflections on the history of modern revolution inform his ideas of literary experience and political subjectivity? How, moreover, does Shelley’s work provoke what he outlines in A Defence of Poetry (1821) as “a beneficial change in opinion or institution” through aesthetic experience, without falling prey to an escapist flight into inwardness? Taking these questions as points of departure, this essay traces within Shelley’s work a theory of aesthetic resistance by reading between his historical-political reflections on the British reform movement in A Philosophical View of Reform (1819-20) and his critical aesthetics. The essay also explores how Shelley’s appeal to an aesthetic dimension in politics creates new modes of experience that resist forms of inhumanity by making visible the otherwise invisible wrongs suffered by groups who remain excluded from participation in the public commons.