"Aesthetics, Sovereignty, Biopower"

Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis

"Aesthetics, Sovereignty, Biopower: From Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen to Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten"

Marc Redfield
Brown University

1.        Of the narratives currently in circulation about the origin, tendencies, and discontents of modernity, Michel Foucault’s account of the emergence of biopolitics out of an older political model grounded in sovereignty has proved particularly influential among cultural theorists and has gained further traction in the wake of Giorgio Agamben’s imaginative complication of the distinction between sovereign and biopolitical acts of power. Foucault, as is well known, usually represents the relationship between sovereignty and biopolitics as sharply contrastive and sequential. Sovereign power, which radiates from a center, is “essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself”; biopower, which radiates from multiple, dispersed sites, works to “incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (History 136). If sovereignty reduces to “the right to take life or let live,” biopolitics unfolds as “the power to ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die” (“Society” 241). Both are forms of organized violence; and indeed, the biopolitical regimen of “making live and letting die” has greater lethal force than its precursor: “wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations” (History 136-37). This destructive potential is the dark side of biopolitics as the regulation of life: “Wars are no longer waged in the name of a sovereign who must be defended; they are waged on behalf of the existence of everyone; entire populations are mobilized for the purpose of wholesale slaughter in the name of life necessity; massacres have become vital. . . . the power to expose a whole population to death is the underside of the power to guarantee an individual’s continued existence.” Throughout this broad-brush historical account, Foucault emphasizes the break distinguishing modernity from earlier eras. “If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population” (137).

2.        Agamben’s by now well-known speculations on the origin of Western theories and practices of sovereignty interlace the master tropes of sovereignty and biopolitics to produce a narrative grounded more in figures of acceleration and transformation than in those of rupture and contrast. According to this account, which Agamben elaborates via the lurid fable of the ancient Roman figure of “homo sacer”—the criminal who can be killed with impunity—sovereignty has always been an archaic biopolitics. “[T]he inclusion of bare life in the political realm constitutes the original—if concealed—nucleus of sovereign power. It can even be said that the production of a biopolitical body is the original activity of sovereign power” (6). This claim generates a perspective from which the complicity between democratic and totalitarian forms of the modern state can be established and renders visible shards of sovereign violence throughout the modern biopolitical order; Agamben goes so far as to discover in the camp “the nomos of modernity,” the “hidden matrix of the politics in which we are still living” (75). Camp names any space in which policing agents “temporarily act as sovereign,” from holding zones in airports, to refugee camps, to sites of genocidal violence—any space, that is, that in some way brings to manifestation an “absolute impossibility of deciding between fact and law, rule and application, exception and rule” (173). Although the “sovereign,” properly speaking, may have long since disappeared into the dispersed conglomerate of biopolitical controls that Foucault calls “governmentality,” the biopolitical order nonetheless, as Judith Butler puts it, “reanimates a spectral sovereignty within the field of governmentality” (62). [1] 

3.        As my thumbnail summary also hopes to suggest, however, Agamben’s speculations do not simply oppose head-on Foucault’s narrative of broad historical change. Agamben accepts and builds on the Foucaultian thesis that modernity consists in the management of life; and indeed, his analysis supplies at least one intriguing addendum to Foucault’s account of the transformation of nineteenth-century Western society. The thesis that sovereignty and biopolitics meet in the production of “bare life”—the body politicized in and as quasi-biological existence: the body that is born; the body that can be quite simply killed—allows Agamben to add to the familiar Foucaultian list of nineteenth-century biopolitical developments (sanitation reforms, population control, surveillance, sexuality, etc.) a surprising supplement: the advent of human rights. Rights extended at birth are rights inscribed, as it were, on the body: “Declarations of rights represent the originary figure of the inscription of natural life in the juridico-political order of the nation-state” (Agamben 127). Like Hannah Arendt before him, Agamben notes that, since rights have historically depended for their enforcement on the nation-state, the universality of human rights contracts rapidly to the emptiness of “bare life” (“the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human,” as Arendt puts it [300]) in the case of the stateless person. Nationalism, human rights, and the refugee emerge together during the era that literary scholars call romanticism; thus Agamben’s work opens for scholars of romanticism a fresh and interesting line of questioning.

4.        From this perspective the history of modern aesthetics asks to be rewritten in relation both to the Foucaultian concept of biopolitics and to Agamben’s modification of it. The link between aesthetics and biopolitics is easily established. If we understand by modern aesthetics not a minor field of specialization within philosophy but a broad discourse of acculturation and of self-fashioning or Bildung, aesthetics visibly becomes what its great modern theorists have always said it was: the name for a seemingly non-coercive form of social control. This theme dominates to the point of defining modern aesthetic discourse from Friedrich Schiller through Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Norbert Elias, and the various tributaries of twentieth-century literary and cultural criticism, including most formalisms (which rarely cut their ties to the aesthetic-pedagogical dream of reshaping subjects) and the cultural criticism of the present day (which, paradoxically and erroneously, often imagines itself to be achieving critical distance on this tradition by calling it an “ideology”). [2]  Terry Eagleton helpfully updates this Schillerian theme by transposing it into an idiom closer to that of Foucault:

The ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order, in contrast to the coercive apparatus of absolutism, will be habits, pieties, sentiments and affections. And this is equivalent to saying that power in such an order has been aestheticized. It is at one with the body’s spontaneous impulses, entwined with sensibility and the affections, lived out in unreflective custom. (20)
Eagleton’s concept of “the body,” as I have commented elsewhere, may be a little simplistic, and his representation of the causal efficacy of aesthetic discourse may be somewhat idealized (at times in his survey he runs the risk of seeming to suggest that treatises on the beautiful are magically capable, more or less on their own, of “refashioning the human subject from the inside, informing its subtlest affections and bodily responses with this law which is not a law” [42-43]).  [3]  But the notion that aesthetics forms an integral part of the broad web of modern discourses, institutions, and practices responsible for the production of docile bodies cannot but seem inherently plausible, for biopolitics is precisely what the aesthetic, particularly in its modern form, has always claimed to be.  [4] 

5.        Aesthetic education as Schillerian Bildung has also frequently been cast as a temporizing and temporalizing response to the revolutionary affirmation of the declaration of the rights of man by the Assemblée Nationale in 1789. Eagleton’s catalogue of Burkean virtues (“habits, pieties, sentiments, and affections”) lists normativizing practices of socialization that shape subjects over time and in local contexts. Rights, in contrast, make their claim with the universalizing and impersonal immediacy of a law. The complexity of the history, politics, and concept of human rights—of a right to have rights—cannot be properly addressed here;  [5]  but the clashing temporalities of rights and aesthetics turn out to relay a tension internal to aesthetic pedagogy itself in texts by Friedrich Schiller and J. W. von Goethe that frame aesthetic education as a response to the French Revolution and les droits de l’homme. The specific problematic of human rights engages these texts only sporadically; the more general question, however, of the “inscription of natural life in the juridico-political order,” as Agamben puts it, turns out to be a recurrent motif. Unlike Agamben’s, however, Schiller’s and Goethe’s texts represent the inscription of life into law as a process dependent on a movement of iterability, a figural and figuring violence, that composes and exceeds the temporality that sustains both aesthetic organicism and sovereign decisionism.  [6] 

I. Schiller

6.        With a bit of interpretive pushing, one could say that Schiller represents aesthetics as a tentacle of biopolitics in Über die Ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (On the Aesthetic Education of Man [1795, 1801]). [7]  The political dimension of aesthetics resides not simply in its transcendence of immediate politics, but in its ability to ward off the shock of revolution by preserving the animal existence of humanity—the Tierheit that is the condition of humanity’s humanity, die Bedingung seiner Menschheit (3.3)—while the moral existence of humanity is being formed. The aesthetic is to serve as the “support” and “sensuous pledge” that will “ensure the continuance of society” as humanity passes from a natural to a moral state (3.4). Aesthetic form mediates the moral law’s impact upon the social body, thereby cushions the fragmenting force of revolutionary change. The artwork (die schöne Kunst) is the instrument (Werkzeug) of humanity’s historical transformation (9.2). “In vain will you assail their precepts, in vain condemn their practice; but on their leisure hours you can try your shaping hand” (“Ihre Maximen wirst du umsonst bestürmen, ihre Taten umsonst verdammen, aber an ihrem Müssiggang kannst du deine bildende Hand versuchen”; 9.7). It is not a developed theme; but in embryo here (to pursue the organic metaphor) we have the biopolitical strategy: immerse subjects in a sea of minute disciplinary practices, shape them quietly, invisibly, when they are at work but above all when they are consuming “leisure” (“Müssiggang”: idleness, otium), without argument, or sovereign decree, or spectacular acts of violence. Meanwhile—though here, to be sure, it is only the barest hint—the figure of a “shaping hand” suggests an aftershadow of sovereign force within this biopolitical process.

7.        Of course the production of docile bodies is not the announced intent of aesthetic culture—quite the opposite: Schiller, though anxious about the French Revolution, writes as a champion of Kantian Enlightenment. But a reading of the Aesthetic Education along the lines sketched above is a fair one if our guiding context is Foucault’s narrative of a transition from early modern forms of sovereignty to late modern instantiations of biopower. It would be wrong, however, to claim that Schiller is oblivious to the potential for violence concealed within the aesthetic image of a non-violent synthesis between bodies and the law. Though the artwork seemingly exemplifies this synthesis, and is the instrument both of historical continuity and historical transformation, Schiller draws attention to the difference between material and political artworks in a famous passage:

When the artisan lays hands upon the formless mass in order to shape it to his own ends, he has no scruple in doing it violence; for the natural material he is working merits no respect in itself, and his concern is not with the whole for the sake of its parts, but with the parts for the sake of the whole. When the artist lays hands upon the same mass, he has just as little scruple in doing it violence; but he avoids showing it. For the material he is handling he has not a whit more respect than has the artisan; but the eye which would seek to protect the freedom of the material he will endeavor to deceive by a show of yielding to this latter. With the pedagogic and the political artist, for whom humanity is at once his material and his task, things are very different. Here the end turns back into the material, and it is only because the whole serves the parts that the parts should submit to the whole. The statesman-artist must approach his material with a quite different kind of respect from that which the artist feigns toward his, and must accord consideration to its uniqueness and individuality not merely subjectively, so as to create an illusory effect for the senses, but objectively, for the sake of its inner being.
[Wenn der mechanische Künstler seine Hand an die gestaltlose Masse legt, um ihr die Form seiner Zwecke zu geben, so trägt er kein Bedenken, ihr Gewalt anzutun; denn die Natur, die er bearbeitet, verdient für sich selbst keine Achtung, und es liegt ihm nicht an dem Ganzen um der Teile willen, sondern an den Teilen um des Ganzen willen. Wenn der schöne Kunstler seine Hand an die nämliche Masse legt, so trägt er ebenso wenig Bedenken, ihr Gewalt anzutun, nur vermeidet er, sie zu weigen. Den Stoff, den er bearbeitet, respektiert er nicht im geringsten mehr als der mechanische Künstler; aber das Auge, welches die Freiheit dieses Stoffes in Schutz nimmt, wird er durch eine scheinbare Nachgiebigkeit gegen denselben zu täuschen suchen. Ganz anders verhält es sich mit dem pädagogischen und politischen Künstler, der den Menschen zugleich zu seinem Material und zu seiner Aufgabe macht. Hier kehrt der Zweck in den Stoff zurück, und nur weil das Ganze den Teilen dient, dürfen sich die Teile dem Ganzen fügen. Mit einer ganzen andern Achtung, als diejenige ist, die der schöne Künstler gegen seine Materie vorgibt, muss der Staatskünstler sich der seinigen nahen, und nicht bloss subjektiv und für einen täuschenden Effekt in den Sinnen, sondern objektiv und für das innere Wesen muss er ihrer Eigentümlichkeit und Persönlichkeit schonen.]
(4.4, translation slightly modified)
The paradox flickering into view here is that Schiller’s analogy between the politician and the artist itself repeats the duplicity ascribed here to the latter. The artisan (der mechanische Künstler) does violence to his materials and does not care; the artist (der schöne Künstler) does violence to his materials but conceals this violence; the politico-pedagogical artist or statesman-artist (der pädagogische und politische Künstler or Staatskünstler), however, should not do violence to his materials—but precisely to the extent that the politician has become a politico-pedagogical artist, the distinction between the politician’s respect and the artist’s concealment of violence threatens to devolve into another way of concealing violence. Thus a violence that ought to belong strictly to art, not aesthetic politics, begins to spread throughout the Aesthetic Education. To the extent that the artwork forms the matrix of this descriptive and prescriptive system, the politico-pedagogical artist risks deforming his artwork in the very act of forming it—and, worse, disguising this deformation as freedom, human dignity, and all the other master-tropes of aesthetic pedagogy. Thus aesthetics itself becomes the site of a certain autoimmune disorder within the body of aesthetic education: a place from which violence and deceit (the deceit of violence as non-violence) promises to spread through the text.

8.        That is not Schiller’s official theme, of course; but a careful reading would uncover various traces of the instability haunting the figure of art-as-life and life-as-art in the Aesthetic Education. Hints of this instability can even be detected in the framing contexts of the text. Consider Schiller’s advertisement, published on 10 December 1794, for Die Horen, the ambitious cultural journal in which the Letters on Aesthetic Education were first published. Schiller had contracted with the Tübingen publisher J. F. Cotta to edit this new journal, which had as its ambition nothing less than the creation—the aesthetic shaping—of a national literary public. The journal was to unite Germany’s intellectual talent and publish philosophical, historical, and literary texts aimed at the general cultivated reader. The diversity of its genres and topics was to submit to one overall restriction: discussions of anything related to established religion and the political constitution was forbidden, as was discussion of “the favorite topic of the day” (“Lieblingsthema des Tages”), that is, the French Revolution (“Ankündigung” 870). [8]  In his advertisement, Schiller explains that the new journal takes its name from the three Horae, Eunomia (“good legislation”), Dike (“justice”), and Irene (“peace”), who personify agrarian temporal order (the times, the seasons, “the rhythm of the sun”). “Legend makes them the daughters of Themis and Zeus, of Law and Power; of the very law that rules over the change of seasons in the corporeal world, and preserves harmony in the world of the spirit” (5: 871). Furthermore, in the variant of the myth that Schiller expounds (his source is one of the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite),

It was the Horae who received the newborn Venus at her first appearance in Cyprus, clad her in divine garments, and thus brought her, adorned by their hands, into the circle of the immortals: a charming story, through which it is signified that already at its birth Beauty must submit to rules, and only through lawfulness can become worthy of maintaining a place in Olympus, immortality, and a moral value.
[Die Horen war es, welche die neugeborene Venus bei ihrer ersten Erscheinung in Cypern empfingen, sie mit göttlichen Gewanden bekleideten und so, von ihren Händen geschmückt, in den Kreis des Unsterblichen führten: eine reizende Dichtung, durch welche angedeuted wird, daß das Schöne schon in seiner Geburt sich unter Regeln fügen muß und nur durch Gesetzmäßigkeit würdig werden kann, einen Platz im Olymp, Unsterblichkeit und einen moralischen Wert zu erhalten.] (5: 871-71)
This version of one of the most tenacious figures of the aesthetic—the aesthetic as Venus veiled—hints at a certain violence marking the intersection of body and law. [9]  This feminized body never quite unites with the law that clothes it (it submits to rules—and must submit to them: “sich fügen muß”), even though we are being teased by the possibility that this aesthetic body does not exist as body prior to its inscription by law (“already at its birth Beauty must submit to rules”: according to that logic, Venus, even newborn, is never quite unclothed). The aesthetic both veils and uncovers a body-making violence at the origin of biopolitics.

9.        If then, taking our cue from Agamben, we speak of a certain “sovereign” violence being allegorized here, we uncover a tricky overlap between the states of exception and of harmonious free play in which sovereignty and post-Kantian aesthetics, respectively, manifest themselves. The sovereign decision, at once “outside and inside the juridical order” (Homo Sacer 15), exceeds yet sustains law, much as Zeus exceeds and sustains Themis in Schiller’s allegory. Aesthetic judgment, a seemingly much gentler personification—sovereignty’s dutiful daughter—claims to act freely yet lawfully. Aesthetic judgment would thus be a harmonious state of exception, a sovereign decision taken without violence—yet just as the trickery of the artist is exposed in the text that theorizes his exemplarity, so reflective judgment, reflecting on itself, tells the story of a certain law-like force at work in the coming-to-figuration of aesthetics. This force, furthermore, turns out to be hard to locate in the topography of these scenes: on the one hand it seems to come from “outside” the aesthetic phenomenon per se (coming from the artist, shaping his art; from the Horae, clothing Beauty in the garments of the law); on the other hand it seems to emerge “inside” aesthetic theory, as a force that aesthetics seems obliged to represent as part of its narrative of its own origins. Aesthetic theory thus tells the story of an insight that coexists with blindness, and of a power—the artist’s power to conceal—that comes into existence thanks to a double movement of revelation and concealment that the artist as sovereign demiurge cannot master. For because the artist cannot control the repetition and potential exposure (in, say, a treatise on aesthetic education) of a violence he imagines himself (as shaping, violence-concealing artist) to be controlling, the sovereignty of the artist becomes, within the terms of the text, a legible delusion. All the more illusory, therefore, the sovereign willfulness of the pädagogische und politische Künstler, who, modeling himself on the artist, needs all the more desperately to conceal (or justify or mythologize) the violence he does to his fellow human beings. These compulsively reiterated acts of sovereignty, in other words, never know quite what they do nor why.

10.        Of course such political allegories, which inevitably appear when aesthetic discourse reflects on its own origins and its own purchase on the world, should not be taken at face value. We are, after all, dealing here with personifications, not persons; with figures, not bodies; and why should we believe what aesthetic discourse says about itself, anyway? Who would want to trust a trickster, particularly when he (or she) claims to be exposing the sleight-of-hand for which, as lovers of beauty, we are also supposed to fall every time? Yet precisely because it reflects on figuration and iterability in reflecting on itself, a text like the Aesthetic Education exposes sovereign biopolitical body-making violence to the possibility of an irreducibly erratic, non-end-directed movement of figure-making. The echo is faint; but if we strain our ears we hear murmuring within the story of Beauty submitting to law the counterplot of a law producing and gripping a body without quite knowing what it is doing. Writing and erasing its story of the harmony of law and freedom, aesthetics endlessly invokes and exorcises and reinvokes the specter of a freedom or force—the “or” here marking an essential undecidability—that might not reduce to law and to the sovereign decision that refers exception back to law. This spectral freedom or force can be represented in various ways: as blindness; as iterability; as singularity in excess of rule; as desire or death-drive; as the absolute yet absolutely uninsurable right to something more than “rights”; as an openness to the impact of revolution, revelation, origin, death, event, miracle, catastrophe, history—the many names of a potentiality in excess of positive existence, irreducible to a will to power. [10]  (I shall say a little more about one of these terms, “history,” in what follows.) The tenacity of aesthetic discourse in modern life derives from its uncertainly utopian promise to display traces of a force that sovereigns commandeer, but cannot properly command.

II. Goethe

11.        In order to explore further the possibility of detecting within aesthetic discourse traces of a spectral disorder afflicting sovereignty in its rapport with biopolitics, I turn now to a text that, like the Aesthetic Education, was serialized in the opening numbers of Die Horen and has often been read as a response to or critique of Schiller’s treatise: Goethe’s Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (Conversations of German Refugees [1795]). [11]  This text is not well known in the Anglophone world, so my first task is to provide enough plot summary and contextual information to make an interpretation communicable. In form Goethe’s text pays homage, at least to some extent, to Bocaccio’s Decameron. The frame-narrative, set in 1792-93, and particularly in the spring of 1793 during the siege of Mainz (which Goethe had witnessed, as I shall review in a moment), tells the story of a noble German family headed by a gentle matriarch, the Baroness, displaced by the war with France and then partly restored to its Rhine holdings by the Prussian advance. By the time the story has really begun, these “refugees” are in fact not really refugees at all, since they have reoccupied their property on the east side of the Rhine, and can expect to recover possessions on the other side when Mainz capitulates. They are at home yet not quite at home; borders are shifting, the times are changing. As I hope to be able to indicate even within the limits of a brief study, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (hereinafter short-titled as Conversations) is fundamentally—that is, not just in its range of topical reference, but in its dominant figurative patterns—a text preoccupied by war, revolution, and modernity. Until Goethe wrote and published his memoirs Campagne in Frankreich 1792 and Belagerung von Mainz (Siege of Mainz) some thirty years after the fact (they were written in 1820-22 and published in 1822), the Conversations may be said to be the text in his oeuvre most obviously inspired by his grueling experiences at the beginning of the revolutionary wars. Before continuing my summary of the plot of the Conversations, therefore, let me offer a summary of the campaigns of 1792-93, up through the siege that forms the backdrop for Goethe’s narrative.

12.        With the announced intention of restoring Louis XVI even at the cost of razing Paris to the ground, an Austro-Prussian army commanded by the Duke of Brunswick and King Frederick Wilhelm of Prussia crossed into France on August 19, 1792. Duke Carl August, who was an officer in the Prussian army, contributed troops from Weimar, and Goethe, at the duke’s request, accompanied his patron. Longwy and Verdun were captured easily; but the French general Dumouriez maneuvered to confine the invaders to the inhospitable terrain of the Argonne, through which the allied army advanced slowly, hampered by unrelenting rain and insufficient supplies. At Valmy, Brunswick found himself boxed in by a numerically inferior but tactically well-positioned enemy possessed of an outstanding gunnery corps. After an inconclusive artillery exchange on September 20, the “cannonade of Valmy” ended in an Austro-Prussian retreat. Fewer than two hundred allied soldiers were killed in the bombardment itself, but during the retreat the army endured losses in the tens of thousands. The weather continued terrible, to the point that soldiers sank in mud to their waists; dysentery was pandemic; the supply train broke down, and men and horses starved. A minor battle in itself, Valmy was later recognized as a turning point in the revolutionary wars: a moment when the French Revolution was saved. In his memoir of the campaign, Goethe famously (and somewhat improbably) claimed to have achieved and expressed this insight on the night following the cannonade: “‘From this time and this place a new epoch is beginning, and you will be able to say that you were there’” (10: 235/5:652).

13.        The French then counterattacked, occupying Mainz and Frankfurt—Goethe’s natal city—in late October. Prussia retook Frankfurt in December. On March 18, Mainz, in the control of a local Jacobin club, proclaimed itself a republic; and at the end of March an ascendant Prussian army surrounded Mainz. The blockade became a siege, and bombardment began on the night of June 17, 1793. Goethe, having spent a few months back home in Weimar, rejoined Carl August and witnessed the city’s destruction. Mainz burned for five weeks, and capitulated on July 23. Over the course of the siege, the city’s cathedral, library, churches, palaces, theater, and custom-house were reduced to rubble. Tourists came from Frankfurt to watch the fireworks. Thirty years later Goethe wrote of the “terrible spectacle” of Mainz, a city he had visited and admired before the war, burning at night under shellfire: “the bombs seemed to vie with the heavenly lights, and there were moments when it was really impossible to distinguish between the two. The ascending and descending of the incendiary bombs was something new to us....” (10:375/5:757). He went on to recall that two of his talented companions, the English painter Charles Gore, and the director of the drawing academy at Weimar, Georg Kraus, “treated this event artistically and made so many sketches of fires that they were later able to produce a translucent model of the night scene; the model still exists, and when well illuminated it is capable of conveying, better than any number of words, the representation of an unfortunate, burning major city of the fatherland” (10:375/5:757-58).

14.        I cite these remarks because they relay a blend of voyeuristic aestheticism and unease that has certain equivalents in the text we shall be considering. Fascinated though he is by the satanic glitter of bombs vying with stars, Goethe’s persona remains touched by—overvulnerable to—the sublime vista, and never quite settles comfortably into the slot of spectator ab extra before it. Instead, proxies are generated who produce a “model” of this “unfortunate, burning major city of the fatherland”: a gesture that doubtless serves as an avatar of a coming spectatorial media culture, yet also hints at a compulsive, Shandean reenactment of an experience that relays the shock of an event that is historical insofar as it outstrips sensory and cognitive processing. [12]  Goethe’s story of his mot at Valmy (“From this time and this place a new epoch is beginning, and you will be able to say that you were there”) is precisely a claim to have been able to experience—to perceive, process, and recognize—the historical event as such. His story about watching Mainz burn is less brash, and the story he wrote some thirty years previously—twenty-odd months after Valmy, about twelve months after Mainz—is cagier still. A sense of everything solid melting into air characterizes the opening lines of the Conversations, spoken by a narrator agitated enough to hint at anal rape as he describes the French army violating both the body of the fatherland and the piety due to fathers:

In those unhappy days that brought such sad consequences to Germany, to Europe, indeed to the rest of the world, when the French army burst into our fatherland through an ill-kept gap, a noble family abandoned its properties in that region and fled over the Rhine, in order to escape the afflictions threatening all distinguished persons, who were treated as criminals because they remembered their fathers with joy and respect, and who enjoyed many advantages that any right-thinking father would want to provide for his children and descendants. (10:15)
[In jenem unglücklichen Tagen, welche für Deutschland, für Europa, ja für die übrige Welt die traurigsten Folgen hatten, als das Heer der Franken durch eine übelverwarhrte Lücke in unser Vaterland einbrach, verließ eine edle Familie ihre Besitzungen in jenen Gegenden und entfloh über den Rhein, um den Bedrängnissen zu entgehen, womit alle ausgezeichneten Personen bedroht waren, denen man zum Verbrechen machte, daß sie sich ihrer Väter mit Freuden und Ehren erinnerten und mancher Vorteile genossen, die ein wohldenkender Vater seinen Kinder und Nachkommen so gern zu verschaffen wünschte.] (6:125)
The frame-narrative of the Conversations begins in the wake of the disastrous retreat from Valmy, when Custine’s army poured through Landau (the “ill-kept gap”) to capture Speyer, Worms, Mainz, and Frankfurt. The world has been turned so upside-down that, when first absorbing the trauma that makes her a refugee, the Baroness’s eldest daughter loses self-control to the point of entering “a sort of complete absent-mindedness [Abwesenheit]”, in which state she mistakes “an old servant for her fiancé” (126/16). The Baroness and her entourage are thus grappling not just with the age-old horrors of war, but with the fragmenting force of a political struggle that affects both polis and oikos, endangering relationships between master and servant, parent and child. For within the family, as within Mainz (and, for that matter, within “Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world”), internal differences are generating conflict. Cousin Karl has allowed himself to be “seduced by that blinding beauty [blendenden Schönheit] who under the name of Freedom had known how to acquire so many admirers, first secretly and then openly” (127/16). A fervent supporter of the French Revolution, he gets into such violent arguments with the Geheimrat (“Privy Councillor”), a conservative friend of the family, that the latter leaves in anger (“exiled a second time, and this time through a countryman” [134/21]), taking with him his wife, who is the childhood friend of the Baroness. Karl repents of having caused his aunt pain; and the Baroness, after excoriating the damage done by the male desire for sovereignty (Herrschaft), prohibits all conversation having to do with the “interest of the day” (“Interesse des Tages”; 139/24)—a version of the prohibition we saw Schiller propounding in the prospectus for Die Horen against the “favorite topic of the day” (“Lieblingsthema des Tages”). Her command has no more performative felicity than Schiller’s (when she goes to bed, the group—like the Conversations itself and, for that matter, the Aesthetic Education itself—continues to discuss the news and rumors of the day). But the family members agree to tell and listen to stories that, nominally, will have no connection to current events.

15.        The seven stories told make up a curious bouquet. Only the final two are, strictly speaking, original to Goethe: the first is a supernatural story from an eighteenth-century French source; the second is a ghost story that was circulating orally in Weimar in Goethe’s day; the third and fourth are translations of tales by the seventeenth-century French writer François de Bassompierre; the fifth is a story from a popular, much-republished Renaissance collection, Cent Nouvelles nouvelles; the sixth, "The Story of Ferdinand’s Guilt and Reformation," is original to Goethe; and the seventh, which breaks the frame of the frame-narrative and ends the text, is Goethe’s famous "Fairy Tale," a richly enigmatic text that has often been studied in isolation from the Conversations. It is little wonder that Schiller and the journal’s first readers felt some disappointment, even frustration, when they read Goethe’s contribution. The Conversations exemplify one of the many ways in which Goethe is a far more interesting writer than the marmoreal image of him as the mainstay of the classical German literary canon would suggest. No less than such famously difficult works as Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Faust II, and the late poetry, the Conversations is an experimental text, and a shrewd and disturbing one. It is not just about liminal conditions, border crossings, and ambiguous states of warfare, homelessness and exception; it welcomes foreign bodies into itself. It reveals that conversation (Unterhaltung) destroys itself in becoming a form of socio-aesthetic support (Unterhalt). And in doing so, the text stages and deconstructs the sovereign violence entwined with the biopolitics of an aesthetic education. Often dismissed as a Nebenwerk to Goethe’s more serious work, Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten is a highly ambiguous instance of light literature (Unterhaltungsliteratur), to say the least.

16.        Let us look again, and this time a little more closely at the Baroness’s command that the community renounce political conversation—which is to say, political strife, for when Karl and the Geheimrat reach the climax of their argument, they are exchanging death threats (the Geheimrat hopes to see the collaborationists in Mainz hanged; Karl, losing all control, desires that “the guillotine would reap a rich harvest in Germany too” [133/20]). Newly politicized and imbued with revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence, conversation must now undergo a new process of de-politicization. The Baroness proposes that under her gentle, matriarchal leadership, both the phallic brutality of the ancien régime and the anarchy of revolution will be overcome. “‘Come here, children!’ called the Baroness. ‘We have had a serious discussion, one that, I hope, will restore to us peace and unity, and once more bring us the manners [den guten Ton] that we have lacked for awhile’” (139/24). Der gute Ton: the Baroness proposes this old-regime Franco-Germanic expression, a literal translation of bon ton, as the figure for an aesthetic culture that will trump the French Revolution and restore old-world manners, yet without violence, without manifestations of male Herrschaft. Though she imagines herself to be proposing a return to the old ways (138/23), the Baroness is offering something closer to Schiller than to Castiglione. Her new maternal, aesthetic state will unite law and freedom. “I do not like to give orders,” the Baroness states; rather, she will provide a piece of advice (einen Rat) and a request (eine Bitte). “And,” replies one of her auditors, “both shall be an unbreakable law [ein unverbrüchliches Gesetz] for us” (137/23). The law is that of conversation as good tone: the company is to converse pleasantly, sich angenehm unterhalten, and to tell stories that engage the imagination in harmony with reason and understanding. In and through this aesthetico-politico-linguistic law, a newly aesthetic community is to emerge: a storytelling community that begins by hearing ghost stories (while the Baroness is in bed, since they are beneath her dignity) and progresses toward the heights of the "Fairy Tale." Many critical analyses of the Conversations have interpreted the text as narrating the arc of such a communal aesthetic Bildung, though more common in recent years has been a skeptical approach, in which the Conversations is read as an ironization of Schiller’s program of aesthetic education. [13]  The present interpretation belongs, broadly speaking, to the second camp, but with the proviso that Schiller’s writings on aesthetics, as we have seen, are themselves haunted by half-acknowledged instabilities. Goethe exacerbates those instabilities in the Conversations in several ways, and perhaps above all by extending, elaborating, and exploding the figure of the law of aesthetic conversation and community, guter Ton. In passing from custom to law-without-law—in passing, that is, from being the tacit watchword of ancien régime courtliness to being the figurative, seemingly non-coercive, “maternal” law of modern aesthetic acculturation—guter Ton figures the arrival of a biopolitical era of discipline and rights. This new community of refugees—refugees restored to their property, but forever exposed to future deracinations and displacements—is built on aesthetic citizenship as the right to speak and to be listened to without fundamental political consequence (a right that unfolds in and as the dialectical tension between, on the one hand, high aesthetic disinterestedness—the right of literature or art to say anything—and on the other hand, that great modern aggressively passive middle-class prerogative: the right to be entertained). [14]  Yet such aesthetic depoliticization presupposes as its context the political and technical dislocations of modernity: a plague that cannot be kept outside the city walls. Predictably, guter Ton, a figure that etymologically reiterates the French invasion that it sets out to cure, generates echoes of war, revolution, and sovereign or pseudo-sovereign violence. [15] 

17.        In the frame narrative and in the two ghost stories, disruptive noises and shocks inscribe and disfigure the figure of Ton (a word that not only translates the English word “tone,” but also has as one of its principal meanings “sound” or “noise”). The opening sentence, with the French army breaking in, sets the tone; and a page or two later, when the refugees return to their right-bank estate, their ontological vulnerability becomes encoded as a tonal disturbance: “Unfortunately their joy in the enchanting area was often disturbed by the thunder of cannon [Donner der Kanonen], which was heard more or less distinctly in the distance as the wind shifted. No less could political discussion be avoided, with the many in-streaming news items of the day [zuströmenden Neuigkeiten des Tages]” (130/18). At home but never enough at home, these refugees are enduring what Mary Favret has described as the everyday peace of wartime in late-eighteenth-century Europe; their ears are cocked to the sounds of “a history not entirely possessed” (605). [16]  In her scrupulous reading of eighteenth-century British georgic poetry, Kevis Goodman disinters a symptom akin to the one we encounter here: “the figure of ‘noise,’ non-ideational sound experienced as sensuous unpleasure” functioning as “the noise of history, or, more accurately, the presentness of ongoing history beyond lived experience or phenomenological verification” (63, 64). One of the contextual frames for Goodman’s study is the newspaper as a figurative “limit of conversability” (87); consistent with this pattern, Goethe’s text encourages associations between the sound of cannon-fire destroying Mainz and the invasion of news items, Neuigkeiten, about Mainz (and more broadly about the “topic of the day. At one point the old family priest (der Geistliche, der Alte: an authority figure who will tell the most important of the text’s stories) comments that a drive for novelty (etwas Neues) is more exciting than serious subjects; novelty (die Neuheit) gives incidents a dangerous charm that depends neither on internal coherence (Zusammenhang) or on self-sufficiency (141/25). As Andreas Gailus has pointed out, the text thus encourages an opposition between “sociable speech” and “the plague of revolutionary news” (453). Yet the Baroness’s attempt to revive the former by banning the latter is undermined by spectral disturbances afflicting the figure of sociable speech, guter Ton, itself. In the first story told, the "Story of the Singer Antonelli," the singer’s jilted lover returns from the dead to haunt her in the form of a “violent, fearful sound” (“gewaltsame, fürchterliche Ton”; 152/33). This sound appears variously as a voice (Stimme) or cry (Schrei), but also as a shot (Schuß). Lingering in ears and limbs, it threatens to disarticulate the body. It is “penetrating” (“durchdringend”; 152/33), appearing between walls, between lovers, crossing borders between insides and outsides, and bringing with it a little death: in one instance, when “the shot penetrated through the carriage,” the women inside are lifted out, taken for dead (155/35). Finally the mysterious noise is successfully aestheticized; it changes into “more pleasant sounds [angenehmer Töne] . . . not actually melodious, but unbelievably pleasant and delightful. . . . It was as if a heavenly spirit wanted to draw attention by a beautiful prelude to a melody he was just about to perform” (156/35).

18.        The phenomenon being sublimated, however, is aptly described by Gailus as a “trauma of communicative desire” (467). [17]  The haunting Ton strikes its hearers with near-deadly force because it renders undecidable the difference between meaningful speech and sheer noise. It is a little like cannon-thunder and a little like news (news so new or so uncannily mediated that it cannot be assimilated without stress); and this “likeness” has to do not, finally, with any phenomenal characteristic that can be perceived as such, but with the threat of difference and dislocation that all these phenomena convey. If the strange sounds in the Antonelli story sometimes resemble the sounds of the cannonballs that nearly killed Goethe at Verdun and Valmy, as he was to describe them three decades later (“suddenly there was a fierce, whistling-crashing sound [grimmige, pfeifend-schmetternde Ton] behind me”), what this means is not that a fictional image has been traced back to a real-life experience, but rather that haunting, like cannon-fever, is being represented as a form of shock. [18]  I draw here, of course, on Walter Benjamin’s classic account of the shock experience as humanity’s historical encounter with the various phenomena we sum up as modernity, and above all with the dislocating force of technical reproducibility. Benjamin offers various examples of the shock experience: the reading of newspapers; the sterile repetitiveness of unskilled factory work; contact with the urban crowd; gambling and amusement park “fun”; photography; cinema; the ticking of quantifiable, capitalizable clock-time. Shock is an effect of mediation rather than simply of physical violence, though physical or literal battering is usually a possibility—sometimes overwhelmingly so, as in the middle of a battle or (to return to our text) as in the second story told in the Conversations, "The Story of the Mysterious Knocking," in which a fourteen-year-old servant girl suddenly begins to be accompanied around a nobleman’s house by knocking sounds (which are also described as irregular blows, Schläge). The nobleman conquers this figurative irruption of female sexuality and revolutionary violence by threatening a simpler and more terrible violence: “He took his largest hunting whip down from the wall and swore to beat the life out of the girl if the knocking were ever heard again. From that time on she went all over the house without a tap, and no further knocking was heard” (158/36). [19]  The violence of male Herrschaft returns endlessly; but the shock to which it responds is always split, redoubled, iterative, impossible to pin down spatially or temporally. The “news” of the French Revolution disrupts the peace of the ancien régime not just because it is unheard of, but because the hearing of it takes place in multiple places and times thanks to the disseminating work of what we now call media. The “limit of conversability” that Goodman traces in eighteenth-century georgic comes melodramatically into view as the news of revolution as language as noise as technical proliferation. Such “noise” is the shout of a crowd that is not simply present to itself: a shout that, in Thomas Carlyle’s famous image, “prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation.” [20] Ton is Goethe’s deceptively modest figure for aesthetics as a discourse animated by the historical event as the experience of shock.

19.        After the first two stories noises and knockings become less prominent in the text of the Conversations, but not before migrating from the embedded stories to the frame narrative itself. Just as the second ghost story has ended and the company is discussing the difficulty of uncovering the true causality of supernatural events, and just as the wise old Abbé has asked (for Goethe is having his fun), “Is it, after all, so easy to detect a conjuror’s tricks, even though we know he is deluding us?”, tonal shock recurs: “He had barely finished speaking when a very loud crack [Knall] was suddenly heard in the corner of the room. Everyone jumped . . .” (159/37). The curved top of a writing-desk standing in the corner has split completely across (quer völlig durchgerissen). “They had found the source of the sound; nevertheless it seemed remarkable that this desk, which was an example of Röntgen’s best workmanship and which had been standing for several years on the same spot, should have chanced to split at just this moment” (159/37). The emigrants measure the environment with barometer and thermometer, and regret they have no hygrometer (“‘It seems,’ remarked the old man, ‘that we are always missing the most necessary instruments when we want to experiment on spirits’” [160/38]). [21]  Having been informed that a fire is burning in the district, they consult a belvedere and locate the fire at their aunt’s estate; Friedrich, the Baroness’s son, recalls that the aunt possesses “a similar, indeed, one might say, identical desk…made with extreme care at the same time, from the same piece of wood, by the same craftsman” (160-61/38). Perhaps the writing-desk has split in sympathy with its burning twin. Friedrich, by this time a character nearly as obsessive-compulsive as the narrator of Wordsworth’s "The Thorn," has the refugees record the exact time when they heard the noise (Klang). Later, near the end of the frame narrative—right before the "Fairy Tale," which breaks the frame and ends the text—with the Baroness in attendance, the problem of the split writing desk returns: Friedrich has visited the aunt’s estate, and returns “cheerful, even though he had just come from scenes of misery and devastation” (208/69). The ravaging of family property is as nothing compared to the satisfaction of establishing motivated connections among events and signs. The twin writing desk had indeed burned, and a clock that stood on the desk had had its works broken just as it was being saved, confirming that the aunt’s desk burned just as the Baroness’s desk suffered its violent cracks (heftige Sprünge) (208/69). This blizzard of coincidences fails to overcome the Humean skepticism of one of the emigrants (“just because two events occurred simultaneously, one cannot be sure of their connection [Zusammenhang]”)—though as the Abbé had pointed out earlier, knowing about a conjuring trick does not necessarily keep it from working.

20.        Splitting and redoubling the writing desk, Goethe allegorizes his own text’s role in the dissemination of shock in and as the aesthetic of gutem Ton, which is to say the aesthetico-pedagogical project of Die Horen. He has also, of course, written into the frame narrative a surrogate for the siege of Mainz. The aunt’s ravaged estate, the burning desk and its cracking twin form a figurative complex that, gathered around the figure of Ton, relay a violence that is historical both in its excess over sensory apprehension or cognitive comprehension, and in the claim it makes on spectators who cannot properly measure their distance. A full reading of the Conversations would need to trace the aftershocks of the aesthetic through all of this text’s embedded tales; here, I can only consider briefly the story in which the political stakes of aesthetic education receive their fullest elaboration, the “story of Ferdinand’s guilt and reformation.” As it happens, the damaged writing-desk returns in this narrative.

21.        Ferdinand, the son of a well-off but careless businessman, discovers, through a strange accident (sonderbarer Zufall), that the lock of his father’s desk is defective, and the top will fly up if the desk is given a side-blow (Seitenstoß). The desk contains money that the father is in the habit of grabbing without counting to satisfy his pleasures; Ferdinand, in a domestic parody of revolution, steals from his father to support his own impulsive passions. (The parody is sharply drawn: Ferdinand chafes against parental restrictions in the idiom of les droits de l’homme: “And with what right [mit welchem Rechte] do they have to do it? And how did they get this right [Und wie sind sie zu diesem Rechte gelangt]? Should it depend on chance alone, and can there be a right [Recht] where chance is at work?” [192/58].) After stealing for awhile, Ferdinand repents and secretly pays back the money (unlike his father, who never notices the thefts, Ferdinand knows how to count and has kept track of what he owes); alas, his mother, stepping in to supplement the paternal role, has found out his crime, and suspects him of taking gold ducats that in fact he did not take. Threatened by his furious mother with legal persecution and public exposure, Ferdinand despairs; he prays to his Vater im Himmel (203/66), and is rewarded with an immediate act of providence: his mother, now cheerful, enters the room to tell him that, miraculously, the missing ducats have just then been found (the father had forgotten he had given them to his cashier for safekeeping). Ferdinand, having thoroughly submitted to paternal law by acceding to a guilt that outstrips his literal transgression, goes on to found a business and a family of his own in a different part of Germany (most of the characters in the Conversations, unsurprisingly, are exiles or emigrant of some sort). For our purposes the most interesting part of the story comes when the Abbé (who is telling the story and who claims to have known Ferdinand in later life) describes what sort of pater familias Ferdinand becomes. Anyone who imagines that Goethe is incapable of subjecting his great theme of renunciation (Entsagung) to astringent parody has not read this story to the end:

He told me his story himself, and as it happens with people to whom something significant has happened in early years, this story had impressed itself so deeply on him that it had a deep influence on his life. Even as a husband and a father he often took it upon himself to deny himself something that would have given him pleasure, simply in order not to get out of practice of such an admirable virtue, and his entire principle of education was, so to speak, that his children must, off the cuff as it were, be able to deny themselves something.
In a way that I at first could not approve, he would, for instance, at dinner forbid one of the boys to eat a favorite food. To my surprise the boy remained cheerful, and it was as if nothing special had happened.
And so the eldest children, on their own initiative, often used to allow a special piece of fruit or some such delicacy to pass; and yet he allowed them, I would almost say, everything, and there was no lack of good and bad behavior in his house. He seemed indifferent to everything and allowed them almost unbridled freedom, except that once a week he would get the notion that everything had to happen to the minute. Then first thing in the mornings the clocks would be synchronized, everyone got his orders for the day, chores and amusements were piled up, and no one was allowed to miss a second. (68-69)
[Er hat mir seine Geschichte selbst erzählt, und wie es Menschen zu gehen pflegt, denen irgend etwas Bedeutendes in früherer Zeit begegnet, so hatte sich auch jene Geschichte so tief bei ihm eingedrückt, daß sie einen großen Einfluß auf sein Leben hatte. Selbst als Mann und Hausvater pflegte er sich manchmal etwas, das ihm Freude würde gemacht haben, zu versagen, um nur nicht aus der Übung einer so schönen Tugend zu kommen, und seine ganze Erziehung bestand gewissermaßen darin, daß seine Kinder sich gleichsam aus dem Stegreife etwas mußten versagen können.
Auf eine Weise, die ich im Anfang nicht billigen konnte, untersagte er zum Beispiel einem Knaben bei Tische, von einer beliebten Speise zu essen. Zu meiner Verwunderung blieb der Knabe heiter, und es war, als wenn weiter nichts geschehen ware.
Und so ließen die Ältesten aus einiger Bewegung manchmal ein edles Obst oder sonst einen Leckerbissen vor sich vorbeigehen; dagegen erlaubte er ihnen, ich möchte wohl sagen, alles, und es fehlte nicht an Arten und Unarten in seinem Hause. Er schien über alles gleichgültig zu sein und ließ ihnen eine fast unbändige Freiheit, nur fiel es ihm die Woche einmal ein, daß alles auf die Minute geschehen mußte. Alsdann wurden des Morgens gleich die Uhren reguliert, ein jeder erhielt seine Ordre für den Tag, Geschäfte und Vergnügnungen wurden gehäuft, und niemand durfte eine Sekunde fehlen.] (207)
Ferdinand’s pseudo-revolutionary crime against the paternal bond that, as we know from the opening sentence of the Conversations, constitutes the essence of the ancien régime, has been impressed on him (eingedrückt) with a force that recalls all the verbs of breaking in, bursting into, splitting through, and so on that have proliferated throughout the text, from the fateful moment when the French army broke into the body of the fatherland through an ill-guarded orifice (durch eine übelverwarhrte Lücke in unser Vaterland einbrach). Ferdinand now passes his damaged life on to children who do not necessarily even notice they are being damaged—for his household is a parody of an aesthetic state (the first of what were to be several such parodies in Goethe’s work), and as we know, the violence with which the political and pedagogical artist treats his materials sometimes manages to go unperceived. [22]  The paradox of teaching self-mastery through decree is familiar enough in educational contexts; less commonly met with is the frankness with which Goethe’s text represents the spastic, pathological character of the patriarch’s attempt to instill freedom in his pupils through a contagious display of sovereign decisiveness reduced down to capriciousness—to a sheer act of will. The children are being taught to renounce for the sake of renunciation, and to do so without forethought or calculation—“off the cuff” is the English idiom to which I had recourse in the translation above, but it misses something: the German idiom aus dem Stegreife connotes improvisation and hints at the bravado of a highly skilled, impromptu aesthetic performance. [23]  Ferdinand’s household, Goethe suggests, is one version of what an aesthetico-bio-political state in which law and freedom coincide would look like—an obsessive-compulsive nightmare. The Baroness, who immediately draws the larger political parallel, is mad enough (or desperate enough) to approve of this crazed aesthetic polis: “The Baroness made a few comments, and confessed that this friend [Ferdinand] on the whole was probably right, for in a kingdom, too, everything depended on the executive power [exekutive Gewalt]; the legislative power could be as rational as it liked, it would avail the state nothing if the executive [ausführende] power were not strong” (208/69). But sovereignty reduced to sheer will-power becomes nothing more than a spasmodic effort to convince itself of its own existence. Ferdinand’s impulsive negations and compulsive bouts of temporal ordering relay and refigure the shock of a body- and subject-making power that cannot underwrite or understand itself.

22.        We may take this story as a little allegory about the degradation and dispersal of sovereign power within a biopolitical regime, or (which is perhaps not so very different) as a little allegory about the violence of aesthetic politics. Either way, it is also a story about the unruly critical force of aesthetic discourse, which exposes the violence and incoherence it is supposed at all costs to conceal. Let me close with a small clutch of images drawn from near the end of the "Fairy Tale" the appendix-text that ruptures the body of the Conversations. The Abbé offers the Fairy Tale as a story of pure imagination: “imagination itself cannot demand, it must await what is given it. It makes no plans, chooses no path, but instead it is borne and led by its own wings; and as it swings back and forth it traces the strangest courses, which constantly shift and change direction” (209/70). This strange, intriguing text does indeed often give one the sense of a world controlled by slightly mad laws that proliferate unpredictably and dizzyingly: in the opening paragraphs alone we encounter will-o’-the-wisps who feed on gold; a snake that feeds on gold; a river that will rise up to swallow anyone who tosses gold into it; a lamp that turns rock to gold (but timber to silver and dead animals to gems)—and on and on. The tale has a redemptive arc (at the end “all debts are paid”) and closes with a king restored to his throne; yet it also closes with a weird regicidal image. Over the course of the story we meet four living statues of kings (as distinct from the human king): one of gold, one of silver, one of bronze, and one of a mixture of metals; and this last statue, the mongrel “fourth king,” suffers a fate worse than the guillotine when, near the end of the Fairy Tale, his veins of gold are licked out of him by the will-o-the-wisps, causing him to collapse into himself formlessly (unförmlich zusammengesunken):

But when at last even the most delicate veins were consumed, the statue suddenly collapsed, unfortunately at just those places that hold their shape when one sits down; whereas the joints, which ought to have bent, remained stiff. There was no choice but to laugh or to look away; this middle-thing between form and lump was a hideous sight. (89)
[Als aber auch zuletzt die zartesten Äderchen aufgezehrt waren, brach auf einmal das Bild zusammen und leider gerade an den Stellen, die ganz bleiben, wenn der Mensch sich setzt; dagegen blieben die Gelenke, die sich hätten biegen sollen, steif. Wer nicht lachen konnte, mußte seine Augen weg wenden; das Mittelding zwischen Form und Klumpen war widerwärtig anzusehen.] (237)
This comic, slightly obscene figure of a king disfigured, collapsing as he attempts the royal act of sitting down, is then concealed under “a magnificent covering that no eye could penetrate and no hand dared remove” (241/91). As a “middle-thing between form and lump” (237/89), his deformed body offers a visual equivalent of the uncanny Ton (a middle-thing between speech and noise) in the Antonelli story. Both of these tropes figuratively register an uncertainty afflicting the secure establishment of figure, body, or meaning. The image (or, better, anti-image) of the disfigured king hints at a fundamental powerlessness underlying the violent operations of body-making. We may hypothesize that this deformed, material lump of sovereignty constitutes, for aesthetics, the repressed truth of sovereign and biopolitical violence. Alternatively, we could think of it as, aesthetically speaking, a metamorphic lump of history.

23.        What remains of the sovereign? A certain residue, to be sure. Ghostly to begin with, sovereignty disperses, degrades, and returns as its own attenuated figure. I mentioned earlier that at the end of the "Fairy Tale" a king has been restored; at the very end of the tale we are told that he leaves the temple (where the obscene remains of the “fourth king” lie covered) to go off to his palace by “hidden passageways” while “the people dispersed through the temple to satisfy their curiosity” (241/91). In a quasi-fairy-tale spirit, let us conclude with the observation that this king has no clothes. At best he is a chastened, post-revolutionary king, scurrying to his secure location; but we might just as well think of him simply as a minor celebrity, pursued by paparazzi and running for cover—a sliver of pseudo-sovereignty within a biopolitical order or, indeed, within a debased aesthetic state turned entertainment center. The temple-exploring Volk resembles a fan base or a tour group here far more than it does a people subject to a monarch. And indeed, in the final sentences of the text, government becomes sheer population control, and the fairy kingdom a theme park, the cynosure of a world-wide tourist industry:

The people would never have tired of looking and marveling, and the pressing crowd would have crushed itself inside the temple, had its attention not again been drawn back to the great court.

Unexpectedly gold coins were falling, as if from the air, ringing on the marble pavement, the closest travelers rushed to seize them. This miracle was repeated intermittently, now here, now there. It is easy to conceive that the departing will-o’-the-wisps were at it again and merrily squandering the gold from the limbs of the collapsed king. Greedily people continued to run about for awhile, jostling and fretting even when the gold coins stopped falling. At last they gradually dispersed, set out on their journeys, and to this day the bridge teems with travelers, and the temple is the most frequented in the entire world. (92)

[Das Volk hatte kein Ende seines Schauens und seiner Bewunderung gefunden, und die zudringende Menge hätte sich in dem Tempel selbst erdrückt, wäre ihre Aufmerksamkeit nicht wieder auf den großen Platz gelenkt worden.

Unvermutet fielen Goldstücke, wie aus Luft, klingend auf die marmornen Platten, die nächsten Wanderer stürzten darüber her, um sich ihrer zu bemächtigen, einzeln wiederholte sich dies Wunder, und zwar bald hier und bald da. Man begreift wohl, daß die abziehenden Irrlichter sich hier nochmals eine Lust machten und das Gold aus den Gliedern des zusammengesunkenen Königs auf eine lustige Weise vergeudeten. Begierig lief das Volk noch eine Zeitlang hin und wider, drängte und zerriß sich auch noch, da keine Goldstücke mehr herabfielen. Endlich verlief es sich allmählich, zog seine Straße, und bis auf den heutigen Tag wimmelt die Brücke von Wanderern, und der Tempel ist der besuchteste auf der ganzen Erde.] (241)

A hint of revolutionary energy flickers, perhaps, in the violent shoving with which the Volk (as crowd, Menge) threatens to destroy itself, though the dominant impression is that of a crowd that needs for its own safety to be manipulated from above. Certainly a touch of sovereign violence—a last an echo, within the context of the Märchen’s frame-story, of the bombs that have been falling on Mainz—is displaying itself as the manna-money that briefly trickles down from heaven as a crowd control device. As the gold pieces ring (klingend) on the pavement, one hears as well a last echo of the Ton that has been spurring and disrupting narrative and meaning, while doubling and undermining sovereign force, in this text. It is of course no accident that the will-o’-the-wisps are miming divine power—the mythic yet also, of course, emphatically modern, militarized power to deliver death and life from the sky—by excreting gold sucked from royal veins. Their manna carries the faint whiff of the blood of a beheaded monarch, even as it testifies to the survival of a certain mobile form of sovereignty in an era of population control and mass entertainment. The residue of sovereignty in the biopolitical order is reducible neither to sovereign-state intentionalism nor economic rationalism. If the Irrlichter parody God and king, they also parody any Aufklärung that would enthrone reason in the place of the divine. They are only half-present anyway, in the concluding paragraph of this strange and prescient fairy tale: they enter and leave it not as entities directly described, but as a narrator’s directive (“Man begreift wohl...”), and as the putative causal adjunct of the disappearing gold (“da keine Goldstücke mehr herabfielen”). The gold, vaporizing into sheer motion, may be said to be turning into capital, while the Irrlichter, the will-o’-the-wisps, at this point may be taken as parodies of “power” in Foucault’s sense. They disappear into a mass-in-movement—a multitude rather than a chosen people, caught up not in a divinely directed exodus, but rather in an Auswanderung as a dispersal or getting-lost (“verlief...sich”) that vacillates between intentional movement (“zog seine Straße”: the Volk takes its path, sets out on its journey) and swarming excess (“wimmelt die Brücke von Wanderen”: the bridge teems with travellers). Power, if we extrapolate from these images, has no center; we are dealing rather with multiple and mobile centering-effects: markets and profit mechanisms; localities with pseudo-religious (if never quite simply “secular”) auratic privilege (“der Tempel ist der besuchteste auf der ganzen Erde”). If one personifies power, one comes up with nothing more than Irrlichter: the lightning-flashes of sovereign violence within the biopolitical order. And in performing this personification, Goethe’s text performs yet another dislocation of sovereignty as a coherent and self-sufficient instance. The twin Irrlichter figure an errant, doubled and redoubled power of figuration that n’en est pas un: a power that cannot measure, represent, coincide with, or otherwise account for “its” own shaping, embodying, illuminating force.

24.        In its final sentence Goethe’s text registers this force in another way, as a disconcerting acceleration into the present tense (“Endlich verlief es sich allmählig, zog seine Straße, und bis auf den heutigen Tag wimmelt die Brücke von Wanderen, und der Tempel ist der besuchteste auf der ganzen Erde”). The eerily calm speed with which Goethe often tells stories has been a defining characteristic of the Unterhaltungen throughout this text’s many voices and genres; this final, uncanny acceleration, which breaks the frame of the frame-narrative, reads as a last affirmation of an imaginative power that exceeds sovereign control. Imagination, “von ihren eigenen Flügeln getragen und geführt,” would then no longer be the expression of an author-father’s will and identity, but rather a name for literature’s ability to open onto something else. That disruptive aesthetic movement underwrites yet also exceeds the discourse of aesthetic education as biopower.

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[1] “Governmentality,” Butler summarizes, “is broadly understood as a mode of power concerned with the maintenance and control of bodies and persons. . . . Marked by a diffuse set of strategies and tactics, governmentality gains its meaning and purpose from no single source, no unified sovereign subject” (52). For Foucault’s own definitions, see "Governmentality" BACK

[2] For a fuller account, see my Politics of Aesthetics (2003), especially chapter 1; for a study focused more specifically on the idea of Bildung, see my Phantom Formations (1996). BACK

[3] For my critique of Eagleton’s figure of the body as plenitude, see The Politics of Aesthetics, 80-81). For a refreshingly skeptical account of German cameralism that stresses the gap between theory and reality, see Wakefield’s The Disordered Police State (2009). BACK

[4] On the training of the modern body, see esp. Foucault’s chapter "Docile Bodies" in Discipline and Punish (1977), and compare Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process (1978). BACK

[5] For an exemplary collection of recent work in the field, see the collection And Justice for All? The Claims of Human Rights, edited by Ian Balfour and Eduardo Cadava (2004). BACK

[6] The limitations of Agamben’s study become particularly visible in its reiterated affirmation of the equation between “language” and “sovereignty”: e.g.: “Language is the sovereign who, in a permanent state of exception, declares that there is nothing outside language and that language is always beyond itself” (20; cf. 25, 50). Thanks to Matthias Rudolf and Alastair Hunt for drawing my attention to these moments in Agamben’s monograph. BACK

[7] As I shall be detailing in a moment, Schiller’s treatise was first published in installments in his new journal Die Horen; the first nine letters appeared in January, 1795; letters 10-16 followed in February, and the final eleven letters were published in June. Schiller made modest revisions to the text when he republished it in his Kleinere prosaische Schriften in 1801. In what follows my citations of Wilkinson and Willoughby’s translation of Schiller’s Aesthetic Education (1967) are referenced by letter and paragraph number. BACK

[8] A few subsequent references to the “Ankündigung” will be cited by volume and page number in the body of the text. Here and elsewhere, unless otherwise noted, translations are mine. BACK

[9] This is not the place to embark on an enumeration—let alone a sustained reading—of Schiller’s various appeals to the “feminine” as the privileged figure of aesthetic figuration; let Hegel’s comment in his Aesthetics suffice: “he makes the praise of women his particular subject matter, since in their character he recognized and emphasized just that present-in-itself unification of the spiritual and the natural [that constitutes the beautiful]” (Hegel, 91). My most sustained attempt to write on the vast topic of aesthetics, gender, and the figure of Venus is to be found in the fourth chapter of my Politics of Aesthetics, which reads Friedrich Schlegel’s novel Lucinde in concert with Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe’s ambitious essay "The Unpresentable." Lacoue-Labarthe, analyzing some passages in Hegel, argues that “between woman and art, the ‘symbolic’ equivalence, or the analogy, is rigorous and strong,” and that the figure of Venus figures “the ‘truth’ of figure and the fictional” in Hegel and in Western aesthetics (136, 155). I offer a critique of Lacoue-Labarthe’s brilliant but, it seems to me, overhastily essentializing argument in Politics of Aesthetics, 128-33. BACK

[10] Among the various texts shadowing my thinking here, see Walter Benjamin’s difficult pages on “divine violence” (göttliche Gewalt) in "Critique of Violence" ; Jean-Luc Nancy’s meditations in The Experience of Freedom; and Jacques Derrida’s reflections on force in "Force and Signification." BACK

[11] References to works by Goethe will be cited by volume (when necessary) and page number from the Hamburger Ausgabe of Goethes Werke. Translations are my own, though I give volume (when necessary) and page numbers to the Suhrkamp edition of Goethe’s Collected Works; pagination is given German/English. BACK

[12] Since later in this essay I am going to be considering news and newspapers, it is worth noting in passing that, in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim, having built their model fortifications on Uncle Toby’s bowling-green, reenact battles from the wars of the Spanish Succession as they are reported in the newspaper: “regulating their approaches and attacks, by the accounts my uncle Toby received from the daily papers—they went on, during the whole siege, step by step with the allies” (Sterne, 313 [vol. VI, ch. 22]). Readers of the novel will recall that Toby’s model-building responds to his inability to tell the story of the wound to his groin that he received at the siege of Namur (see vol. II, ch. 1, and passim). BACK

[13] For an important study in this tradition, see Bernd Bräutigam, "Die Ästhetische Erziehung der deutschen Ausgewanderten" ; his main argument is that Goethe represents the emigrants as failing to respond in a disinterested, Kantian fashion to the tales they hear. See also Ulrich Gaier, "Soziale Bildung gegen ästhetische Erziehung." For a sharp recent response from the conservative camp, see Hartmut Reinhardt, "Ästhetische Geselligkeit: Goethes literarischer Dialog mit Schiller in den Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten." BACK

[14] For some brief but far-reaching speculations on literature and the right to say anything, see Jacques Derrida, "‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida." BACK

[15] The German word Ton (as sound, noise, accent, tone, etc.) returns to older Germanic forms don or ton (melody, song, sound, noise), and ultimately to the Latin tonus and Greek tonos (tension, cord, string). The English word din comes from the same source (as does the English word tone, of course). (German has another meaning for Ton, “clay,” but that is by way of a different etymology.) My authority here is the Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen, Q-Z (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1989). Ton as sound or tone has as much claim as any other Latino-German word to be deeply and traditionally “German.” Yet it shades into the other languages being spoken by the major European powers in the 1790s. In the context we are examining, its tone is being disturbed by the French word from the same etymological background, ton, as activated by the French aristocratic marker bon ton, stamping the German calque guter Ton. Ton and ton are (almost) cross-linguistic honomyms (the capitalization of nouns in German marks a tiny difference); they are pronounced a little differently in German and French, but they have an audible kinship. All of this makes this word a rich resource for a text interested in representing war and revolution by way of representations of familial violence. The authoritative study of the figure of Ton and Töne in Romantic and post-Romantic German literature is Menke, Prosopopoiia. Although Menke discussses Goethe only in passing, her powerful readings of texts by Brentano, Hoffmann, Kleist, Kafka, and many other writers underscore both the importance and the rhetorical instability of the figure of Ton within this tradition. BACK

[16] Favret’s references are to British texts and contexts, but her account of romanticism as marked by the low-grade trauma of distant war is certainly relevant here. BACK

[17] Gailus comments that “the terrifying nature of the sounds is intimately connected to their communicative character….The sounds are not simply physical phenomena but communications—that is, messages addressed to Antonelli and calling for a reply—and they terrify her not because they are untraceable in origin but because they are unfathomable in meaning” (467). Gailus’s essay contributes richly to the long tradition of understanding the Conversations as a crucial text in the development of the modern German Novelle. He argues persuasively that all the tales told in the Conversations (except for the "Fairy Tale," which falls outside the purview of his study) “are built around an incomprehensible kernel” (466), and that this circling around a trauma or secret characterizes the modern novella. BACK

[18] Goethe’s memoir is in any case no unmediated act of memory. It was written so long after the fact that he had to rely heavily on maps, documents, and other people’s journals: see Trunz, "Nachwort," 10:661ff. Campagne in Frankreich 1792 dwells repeatedly on the fascinations and horrors of modern artillery bombardment. Goethe had his first real taste of war at Verdun, where he nearly lost his life to a cannonball (this is the passage to which I alluded above): “suddenly there was a fierce, whistling, crashing sound [grimmige, pfeifend-schmetternde Ton] behind me so that I turned around immediately, without being able to say whether this about-face had been caused by the sound [Ton], the rushing air, or an inner, psychic, moral stimulus” (10: 209/5:633). In his account of the battle of Valmy, the scene in which Goethe stages his famous line about the “new epoch” is preceded by an almost equally famous scene in which he tempts the gods of war. “I had heard a lot about cannon fever and wanted to find out exactly what it was like. . . . I had now reached the area where the cannon balls were landing; the sound [Ton] is strange enough, as though composed of the hum of a top, the bubbling of water, and the whistling of a bird. . . . I could soon tell that something unusual was happening inside me” (233-34/651-52). BACK

[19] All the stories in the Conversations dramatize in some way or other the threat of ungovernable female sexuality. Luise’s mistaking a servant for her fiancé hints at an association between political and sexual trouble. The “mysterious knockings” begin when the servant girl reaches puberty and begins to attract admirers. Other stories feature sexually active women who cause trouble and endure various sorts of punishment: the singer Antonelli, who casts off her lover and refuses to see him on his deathbed (which is why, presumably, his ghost returns as the uncanny Ton); and three central female characters in three stories that I do not discuss in this essay: the beautiful grocer and the penitent adulteress in the two (very short) Bassompierre stories; the would-be adulteress in the “story of the Procurator” from Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Among these figures of threatening women there are a few dark doubles of the Baroness as gentle matriarch: the singer Antonelli; Ferdinand’s castrating mother in "The Story of Ferdinand’s Guilt and Reformation" (to be discussed below); even the Beautiful Lily in "The Fairy Tale," whose glance and touch are deadly prior to the fairy-tale world’s redemption. Given the thematic and figurative link in the Conversations between fatherhood and social order, these figures of unruly women form a visible part of the threat of revolution. BACK


The phrase comes from Thomas Carlyle’s famous description of the death of Robespierre, in The French Revolution:

At the foot of the scaffold, they stretched him on the ground till his turn came. Lifted aloft, his eyes again opened; caught the bloody axe. Samson wrenched the coat off him; wrenched the dirty linen from his jaw: the jaw fell powerless, there burst from him a cry;—hideous to hear and see. Samson, thou canst not be too quick!
Samson's work done, there bursts forth shout on shout of applause. Shout, which prolongs itself not only over Paris, but over France, but over Europe, and down to this generation. (744)
The motif of the globally communicated shout recurs frequently in writing about the Revolution, particularly in the Anglo-American tradition, indebted as it is to Carlyle. Here is an early twentieth-century example: “‘The Bastille has fallen!’ was the glorious news that greeted the ear of humanity the world over….There is force, tremendous force, in the shout of an incensed and infuriated mob…. Who would have thought that this mighty fortress, bristling with cannon, rock-ribbed from turret to foundation stone, fortified, garrisoned, supplied with stores and ammunition sufficient to have withstood the siege and assault of an army, would have fallen so quickly before the shout of the multitude. It was not besieged by an army of disciplined soldiers, but by a mob without order, organization or leadership. ‘And it shall come to pass . . . that the people shall shout with a great shout and the walls of the city shall fall down flat.’ As before the walls of Jericho, so it was before the walls of the Bastile” (Warwick 272-73).

The allusion to Joshua 6:5 reminds us of the ancient roots of the figure of the destructive shout, found in the Hellenic tradition as, e.g., the shout of Pan that saves Olympus from the Titans; the war-cry of Akhilleus; etc. Alala, the personification of the war cry in Greek mythology, is daughter of Polemos and attendant to Ares (god of the war cry: alalaxios). Her name can also mean a loud cry or noise, and overlaps with alalos, “speechless, dumb,” alalaô, “make dumb,” etc.; ancient etymologies have her name deriving from the terrifying cry of the owl.


[21] A hygrometer measures relative dampness. For a discussion of this scene attentive to the use of these instruments in the context of late eighteenth-century theories of mesmeric fluid, see Niekerk 84. BACK

[22] Goethe’s most elaborate parody is the Pedagogical Province in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre; for a reading of that text, see my Phantom Formations. BACK

[23] For an important general study of romantic-era discussions and accounts of improvisation, see Angela Esterhammer, Romanticism and Improvisation, 1750-1850. BACK