Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic

Introduction: 'The Power is There': Romanticism as Aesthetic Insistence

Forest Pyle, University of Oregon

Introducing essays by Balfour, Ferris, Swann, and Redfield on the topic of Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic, Pyle argues that the question of power is integral to Romanticism's conception of the aesthetic. These essays insist on the problem of the aesthetic in readings that address Kant (Balfour, Ferris, Redfield) and Shelley (Balfour, Swann, Pyle) and that include discussions of Keats, Wordsworth, and Schiller. This essay appears in _Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic_, a volume of _Romantic Circles Praxis Series_, prepared exclusively for Romantic Circles (, University of Maryland.

  1. In the famous "hymn" Shelley addressed to the "Spirit of Beauty," the poet must call out to an absence: if this particular aesthetic spirit is that which "consecrates" with its "own hues all" it "shines upon/ Of human thought or form" (13-14), the whereabouts of the spirit are unknown. "Where art thou gone?," asks the speaker, "Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,/ This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?" (15-17). In "our state," this "dim vast vale of tears," we are left only with the effects of the spirit of beauty, precious and "dear" though they are. These effects take the form of likenesses, semblances of the aesthetic spirit which has departed and which pays "visits" to our human world—"each human heart and countenance"—"with inconstant glance" (6,7).

  2. One might well invoke Shelley's lament to characterize one consequence of the attention to history and sociology that has governed the state of Romantic studies over the past two decades. Indeed, one might well say that the methodological diversity that has come to distinguish Romanticism and its allied or subsidiary fields is predicated upon "vacating" the aesthetic spirit (or theories or forms or practices) that had delineated Romanticism in the first place. What, then, does it mean to pose the question of the aesthetic—indeed, to insist upon it—at a time, as David Ferris puts it in the first of the essays to follow, "when the interpretive pendulum has swung towards increasing textual transparency in the form of an insistence upon historical and sociological concerns as arbiters of literary significance"(1)? When so much of the recent important work on the period has focused on the disparate topics of history, sociology, politics, gender, ecology, and the archive, what does it mean to insist on an insistent relationship between Romanticism and the aesthetic, to declare that the aesthetic itself insists, remains insistent, has never not insisted?

  3. If aspects of Shelley's life and work have often been marshaled to support much of the historicizing impulse of contemporary Romantic studies, "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" not only speaks of and to the aesthetic, it recounts its deep commitment, and in the process recommits itself, to the "binding" spirit of beauty. As much an elegy as a hymn, the poem mourns the absence of the "awful LOVELINESS" (71) to whom the poet "vowed" to "dedicate" his personal "powers" (61). But it would be more accurate to describe the spirit as transient, fugitive, perpetually impermanent rather than simply absent. After all, the poem identifies "Intellectual Beauty" as the primary and even prime "Power" which, though unavailable to the sense of sight, casts an "awful shadow" that "Floats though unseen amongst us"(1,2). While it is forever elusive as presence—it is nothing that we could point at—Shelley's "spirit of Beauty" is nonetheless a "Power," a force which insists.

  4. In the three essays collected for this issue, David Ferris, Karen Swann, and Ian Balfour address the question of "Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic" by turning in one form or another to Romantic versions of the relationship between the aesthetic and power, whether as a form of violence or a force of possibility. These essays demonstrate that far from the being the exclusive property of historicists and sociologists, varieties of power are produced and avail themselves to reading and to critique by Romanticism's own relationship to aesthetics. None of the critics gathered here have construed the topic as the return of the aesthetic and certainly not, to cite one important recent anthology, as the Revenge of the Aesthetic. To attend to the insistence of the aesthetic is not to offer it as a refuge from the conflicts of politics and history. Indeed, in the German and English examples examined in these essays, the aesthetic does not appear as a form of space—not haven or enclave or utopia—but precisely as an insistence, as something that was nevernotthere, however obscured, overlooked, or repressed it might have been. Beyond its more recent—and certainly relevant—role in Lacanian psychoanalytic discourse as an English translation ofinstance, insistence is defined by the OED as the very "action of insisting, the fact of being insistent," "emphatic or urgent dwelling upon a statement, a demand"; and it is closely related to persistence, to something that persists. Webster's offers some minor but suggestive variations by defining insist as "to stand or to rest" and insistence as "to take a stand and refuse to give way." We are prompted by these definitions to understand insistence as a kind of gnawing annoyance, the tendency of something to keep pointing to itself, to remind us that it is there, that it has never ceased to be there, that it will stay there. At the same time, this quality of aesthetic insistence is contrary to the nature of an aesthetic judgment which presents itself as something singular and instantaneous. And, as the following essays demonstrate, Romanticism's version of the insistence of the aesthetic is distinguished by what is either an antinomy or an aporia between the insistence of the aesthetic and the instantaneousness of judgment. In each of these essays, the aesthetic makes insistent demands on our understanding of Romanticism and it is something that, despite critical efforts to ignore it or render it symptomatic, persists into the present. Each of these essays explores aesthetic insistence not only as a demand but as action and statement. And each of these essays demonstrates in one form or another the romantic irony of insistence as an urgent dwelling upon a statement at the very moment that the aesthetic reveals that there is nothing upon which such a statement might securely dwell.

  5. Both Ferris and Balfour address in some detail relevant features of Kant's aesthetic critique, but one of the more insistent and perhaps most misconstrued features of the Kantian legacy is the notion of aesthetic autonomy which is, in turn, the source of our understanding of the aesthetic as a state or domain, distinct from the domains of ethics or politics. No genuinely dialectical criticism—and Adorno remains its unsurpassed exemplar—understands the disinterestedness of aesthetic judgment or the autonomy of the aesthetic simply as the retreat of art to its own domain; but the characterization of the aesthetic as a space often underwrites the now familiar political criticism of aesthetic autonomy.[1] Terry Eagleton's neat summary of the left-wing position demonstrates the pervasiveness of this spatial logic: "art is ... conveniently sequestered from all other social practice, to become an isolated enclave within which the dominant social order can find an idealized refuge from its own actual values" (IA, 9). Other critics have developed the logic of spatialization in a more complicated and interesting fashion than simple "enclaves" and "refuges" by demonstrating how the aesthetic does not simply retreat from its historical moment but incorporates it, takes it into itself. Thomas Pfau has described this as "the capacity of the aesthetic to encrypt its own contingent historical situation" (WP,3). And Marc Redfield, in his response to the following essays, offers a particularly acute analysis of the insistence of the aesthetic as the secret space of historicist criticism, its unacknowledged crypt. Even when historicist critics seek to disavow or disallow the aesthetic in the name of politics, Redfield asserts, they do so only by encrypting the aesthetic itself: in their efforts to abolish it, the aesthetic "becomes the impensee, the encrypted and cherished secret, of historicist-political criticism" (3). But however symptomatic or inevitable the spatialization of the aesthetic may be for our understanding of the relationship between art and non-art—the aesthetic is here or there or insidethis or that—aesthetic spacing can only be derived from force: it is the effect of a break. Indeed, it may well be much more productive to understand aesthetic insistence as the imposition of sensuous apprehension upon historical narratives or ethical claims. If we understand an aesthetic judgment as something which forces itself upon us without the grounding of concepts and which breaks the grip of the ethical, and if we approach aesthetic experience as something which does not deliver knowledge but which plays against the claims of knowledge, we gain a better sense of the power, force, and even violence of aesthetic insistence.[2]

  6. The following essays found their first forms as invited papers on a panel that I chaired at the 2001 NASSR conference in Seattle. I asked Ferris, Swann, and Balfour to write papers on the topic of "Romanticism and the Insistence of the Aesthetic" not only because I am a great admirer of the work of each of these scholars but also because each of them has in the midst of our historicisms and sociologies consistently reflected on the questions posed for Romanticism by problems of the aesthetic. Marc Redfield, whose own recent Politics of Aesthetics marks an indispensable contribution to these issues, graciously accepted my invitation to respond to the essays once they were prepared for publication. As Redfield notes in his response—titled, appropriately enough, "Reading the Aesthetic, Reading Romanticism"—"these three essays all affirm the centrality of the question of the aesthetic ... within Romantic studies [and] exemplify the diverse legacy of deconstruction" (1). Redfield emphasizes how that "diverse legacy" is reflected in essays that continue to "bear the signature of Paul de Man" and to represent "the kind of thinking that we may best call reading: reading as the effort to read the predicament—the fascination, the difficulty, the aporia or possible impossibility—of reading itself" (9). If, as Redfield points out, the insistence of the aesthetic as the necessity of reading continues to "bear the signature of Paul de Man," it also demonstrates "how differently the theme of reading can be written and read, and how diversely this theme's recurrent motifs can manifest themselves" (9).

  7. The diverse modes of reading exemplified and explored by the following essays demonstrate that to read is not to take refuge from but to subject oneself to the adventures of power and force that are inextricable from the aesthetic. The readings undertaken by the following essays explore the forms of the power, force, and even violence inscribed in and concealed by the aesthetic as well as the power or capacity of the aesthetic to institute, to produce, to trouble. In "Aesthetic Violence and the Legitimacy of Reading Romanticism," David Ferris addresses the question of the aesthetic by attending to the figures and function of violence in contemporary critical discussion. For Ferris, it is not merely the case that the recent emphasis on historical and sociological knowledge can occur only at the expense of—and violence to—the question of the aesthetic; he is interested, rather, in the ways in which violence itself has come to serve as a legitimizing principle, much as beauty served for previous generations of criticism. Ferris explores this question by returning to the crucial—perhaps even founding—relationships between aesthetics and politics in Kant and Schiller. In revisiting this de Manian nexus of violence and the aesthetic and extending the argument set out so compellingly in his book Silent Urns, Ferris arrives at some crucial formulations which complicate the de Manian reading and demonstrate that insistence is the perhaps the best way to characterize the relationship between Kant and Schiller: the aesthetic, in other words, is insistent from the beginning. "What Schiller undertakes," says Ferris, "is the authorization of the aesthetic Kant invokes in the place of such an authorization. In this respect, Schiller pursues the political project of Kant's critical enterprise by fulfilling the political consequences of Kant's attempt to ground judgment" (6-7).

  8. In Ferris's reading, those who would critique the aesthetic on ideological grounds fail to realize that the very possibility of critique is inextricable from the aesthetic:

    This is also why the critique of the aesthetic as an ideologically charged category can in no way overcome the aesthetic or even the ideology it associates with the aesthetic since, as an example of critique, it can only appeal to the category it would dismiss for its power of dismissal. To undertake an ideological critique of the aesthetic for failing to critique itself for its aestheticism (that is, for being unable to be critical in any sense, for being simply about beauty, or simply beautiful) is to affirm precisely the means by which Schiller has secured the possibility of critique (9).
  9. The power of the aesthetic is also a precondition for Ian Balfour's critical explorations of the figures of "Subjecticity" that appear in the texts of Kant and in what Balfour terms "The Texture of Romanticism." His account of Romantic forms of "subjectivity beyond the subject" opens with a sustained discussion of the status of the Kantian aesthetic: "It is here that we can begin to insist on the crucial place of the aesthetic, as expounded paradigmatically and in massively influential fashion by Kant. His thinking along these lines, as much as that of anyone, prompts us to conceive of a subjectivity beyond the subject, of something we might call "'subjecticity.'" Balfour's reading of Kant suggests how a genuine critique of aesthetic judgment demands and even generates alternative models and figures of subjectivity, or what Balfour calls "the not-so-single subject with respect to the dynamics of aesthetic judgment" (13). While it would be wrong to suggest that Romanticism or the aesthetic creates what Balfour is calling "subjecticity," it is more to the point of his argument that the genuine crisis posed by aesthetic judgment for the status of the subject simultaneously gives rise to the need to think subjectivity otherwise:

    "Romanticism, broadly understood, can be said to trouble the reduction of the subject to the merely subjective, even as the very same 'movement' — though that term suggests a false homogeneity—sometimes unequivocally promoted that somewhat newfangled thing called the subject in the various registers of philosophy, politics, literature, and beyond" (2).
  10. In his exploration of the relationship between aesthetics and subjecticity in the registers of philosophy and Romantic literature, Balfour's attention to the "linguistic character of aesthetic judgment" in Kant demonstrates the strange power of the aesthetic to insist upon language. If, as Balfour puts it, "aesthetic experiences are first and foremost feelings, nothing more than ... feelings," a properly aesthetic judgment forces or demands its linguistic articulation: "Kant insists again and again on the linguistic character of aesthetic judgment, on the somewhat mysterious need to render a judgment that, for example, this tulip is beautiful. Indeed, it is crucial to call the tulip beautiful rather than simply to feel it is" (8). It is crucial, in other words, to indicate in language the beautiful tulip, to point it out and say "that tulip there is beautiful." Moreover, the singular, "subjective" quality of an aesthetic judgment is in turn compromised by its insistence on being spoken "with a universal voice" [eine algemeine Stimme].

  11. In the second half of his essay, Balfour moves from the ramifications of the force of this aesthetic linguisticity in Kant to the "discourse of aesthetic production" where "something of the same paradoxical texture" can be discerned or "read off" (13), "where the subject is said to be subject to something beyond itself and yet whose force finds enunciation only in, through, and as a subject" (15). Balfour turns to the letters of Keats where the famous articulations of the "poetical character" and "negative capability" offer the kind of dramatic or theatrical self-erasure that supplies "another instance of what we might call 'subjecticity'" (18): "Keats anchors poetic production in the work of a subject that exceeds the workings of what is usually thought of as a subject, a subjectivity beyond the merely subjective, a paradoxical absence of subjectivity that is the prerequisite for producing poetic subjects" (17-18). Even Wordsworth's most detailed thematizations of subjectivity in The Prelude are riven with the kinds of temporal and linguistic doublings and splittings that can be said to demonstrate the workings of subjecticity. But Balfour's most sustained account of "subjecticity" in the Romantic discourses of aesthetic production is devoted to Shelley's Defense of Poetry and its representations of poetic agency, a force or power that does not originate in the subject but would seem only to be available—expressed or represented, named or performed—through the subject. As Balfour concludes, this "texture of Romanticism" demands "the possible desirability of a word like 'subjecticity' to get at what happens in the language and thought of poetry, the aesthetic, and more, some 'thing' or some process that exceeds the subject without ever simply transcending it or leaving it behind" (25).

  12. Between these two accounts of the Kantian legacies of the aesthetic—or what one might call the Kantian insistence—Karen Swann discerns and examines a certain recurrent "shape" in Shelley's poetry, "a beautiful, slumbering human form" (1). In "Shelley's Pod People," Swann explores these strange forms, alien and "beautiful dreamers" that "live a posthumous life, beyond life and death, but transcending neither" and that "speak to a fantasy of the endurance of poet and the poetic work, not as endlessly renewable, socially-efficacious resources, but as forms radically closed to our concerns" (2). As such, Shelley's figures are "related to a construction of 'the aesthetic' that descends to us from Kant through Adorno: 'the aesthetic' as autonomous, enigmatic, auratic form" (2). Swann's essay brushes against the grain of recent interpretations and mobilizations of the poet which emphasize his political and historical poetics—Shelley's "commitment to social and political change"—by stressing how the power of this poetry, the "experience" of reading it, often derives from its very resistances to our concerns: it can "strike us as most wonderful at its most difficult and hermetic, the point where it fails to yield to our reading" (2).

  13. Swann's essay is marked by startling insights into the nature of the psychic and cultural investments in the Shelleyan reliquary, from the tortured passions of the Shelley circle to the often unavowed obsessions of professional Romanticists. By attending so acutely to the rich and the strange in Shelley's works and death, Swann may well produce a genuine sea change in our understanding of the poet. Her essay also intervenes in the question of aesthetic space as a kind of cryptology. Rather than decrypting Shelley's aesthetic, Swann attends closely to the aesthetic form—and power—of the Shelley crypt, the "Shelley circle's posthumous constructions" (2) and preservations of the poet as well as the "radically arrested figures" that are "strangely insistent in The Witch of Atlas" (13). By reading the figures of "live burials" in Shelley's strange poem alongside the poet's own overdetermined afterlife, Swann's essay demands that we reconsider the presumed naiveté of friends such as Trelawny who loved the poet enough to ask not only for his bones but for as much of the corpse as could be salvaged from the fires. In its course, Swann's essay teaches us to recognize the aesthetic as the medium through which we can read the fluid, chiasmic relationship between what is living and what is dead in the life-work and death-work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. If the Romantic figure of Shelley is aestheticized in the process, it is a process which has insisted itself from the start, a process that demands we learn how to reckon with what Swann calls the "figures of the aesthetic as that which adamantly refuses to matter in terms of human economies of desire and exchange" (3).

  14. "Figures of the aesthetic which adamantly refuse to matter in terms of human economies": this is precisely the kind of aesthetic insistence that resonates in Keats's engagements with what has become if not the "mother" then at least the "foster-child" of all aesthetic objects, the "silent urn" of the poet's most famous ode. However we ultimately regard that poem's relationship with the aesthetic, it is certainly the case that by the final stanza, the speaker is addressing the urn as that which insists, as that which "shalt remain, in midst of other owe/ Than ours." It is the insistence of the remainder, one which is also a reminder that however much "happiness" in all its forms may insist on the object itself, the ekphrastic response it provokes is a vexed one, that "dost tease us out of thought." If the poem's aesthetic seductions have teased countless critics into the delusions of understanding, they have also prompted some of the most important critical encounters in Romantic studies, among which Ferris's chapter on the poem in Silent Urns is the most powerful recent example that I can point to. There Ferris reads the poem's own reading of "a Grecian Urn" and demonstrates that far from proposing any resolution between truth and beauty or between history and the aesthetic, Keats's great ode alludes to an aesthetic understanding that the performance of the poem itself resists. For Ferris, the insistence of Keats's poem is itself a reminder in the midst of our own debates that "[w]hat has still to be digested is a romanticism that no amount of ideology finger-pointing will allow us to evade, a romanticism that undertakes a reflection on the relation of historical knowledge and aesthetic understanding" (SU, 60). "Finger-pointing" is a fascinating way to describe this contemporary aversion to the aesthetic, especially when we consider the diectic character of Keats's ekphrastic poem and of the insistence of the aesthetic in romanticism more generally. For if Keats's poem "consistently fails to answer its own questions about the historical status of the urn" (SU, 83), the questions it poses—the questions it insists upon—"confound, rather than lead to, understanding. Part of the problem that Keats points to in these lines is that what is being looked at does not guide or define the poet's" questions, "questions that are suspended because they cannot define what they ask after" (SU, 77, emphasis added). If Keats's poem insists that "the power is there," in other words, there, in the urn which the poem both indicates and addresses, it is a persistent if recalcitrant aesthetic power.

  15. "The power is there" is, of course, part of a crucial declarative line in a poem which Shelley wrote about another aesthetic spirit during the summer he composed his "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." Whatever else "Mont Blanc" may be, it is an aesthetic object, one which—composed in and about the "awful shadow" of the sublime—insists on the aesthetic even as it undoes the mystification of aestheticizing: "Mont Blanc yet gleams on high — the power is there" (l.127, emphasis added). And if the poem's speaker and perhaps the poem itself refer to a non-aesthetic power of the object—point at it—it is impossible to know whether or not the pointing or the power are merely aesthetic effects. For if the power is indeed there in the object as such, the poem leaves uncertain whether the poetic declaration is not itself the result of a properly aesthetic judgment about the mountain's insistent "gleaming." If in the course of his restless, uncertain surmising, Shelley's speaker finds himself and his poem colluding between signification and indication, these are the collusions of signification and indication generated by an aesthetic insistence. There, after all, is something that the poem can never make into a here: there is perpetually elsewhere, it insists at that place to which we point, and it insists in the aesthetic form of pointing.

  16. But it's at this point that I should, in turn, point you to the following essays: it is there where one can witness the power of critical readings which not only insist upon the aesthetic but which indicate that that's where the power of Romanticism is.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University Press, 1997.

Bernstein, J.M. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992.

Clark, Michael P., ed. Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Ferris, David. Silent Urns: Romanticism, Hellenism, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London: Verso, 2002.

Pfau, Thomas. Wordsworth's Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Pyle, Forest. "Kindling and Ash: Radical Aestheticism in Keats and Shelley." Studies in Romanticism, 42:4 (2003), 427-459.

Redfield, Marc. The Politics of Aesthetics: Nationalism, Gender, Romanticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.


1Aesthetic Theory is, of course, the principal philosophical text to address the question of autonomization in Adorno, though the problem is present in most everything Adorno explores in the domains of music, literature, and culture. While the debates over this issue have generated a field of discussion far too complex to do justice to in a footnote, two books are particularly relevant in the context of our discussion: see Fredric Jameson's A Singular Modernity and J.M. Bernstein's The Fate of Art.


2This is a distillation of an argument that I have recently made in more detail in "Kindling and Ash: Radical Aestheticism in Keats and Shelley."