Mitchell, "The Transcendental: Deleuze, P. B. Shelley, and the Freedom of Immobility"

Romanticism and the New Deleuze

The Transcendental: Deleuze, P. B. Shelley, and the Freedom of Immobility

Robert Mitchell, Duke University

audio version (in MP3 format)


  1. One of the primary goals of this special collection is to highlight the utility and importance of Gilles Deleuze's philosophy for scholars of Romanticism. This essay seeks to establish the relevance of Deleuze for Romanticists and Romanticism by linking Deleuze's philosophy both to one of the central Romantic-era philosophers—Immanuel Kant—and to one of the more philosophical of the British Romantic poets, Percy Shelley. What I argue, in short, is that part of Deleuze's philosophical method—what I'll call, following James Williams, Deleuze's method of "transcendental deduction"—both connects Deleuze to the Kantianism with which scholars of Romanticism are so familiar, but at the same time, digs deeper into tensions that vex Kant's system, and that this reading of Kant then helps us to better understand the roles of passivity and temporality in Percy Shelley's writings. Taking as my case study Shelley's poem "Mont Blanc; Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni," I argue that Deleuze's discussion of the role of rhythm and sensation in Kant's philosophy helps us to understand how Shelley connects the thematic content of "Mont Blanc"—namely, the experience of being in the presence of the mountain—with the rhythmic structure of the poem itself. Moving away from the premise of his earlier poem Queen Mab, in which he suggested that poetry could produce moral improvement by inculcating in readers a sense of being part of an animated whole, "Mont Blanc" instead aims to moralize its auditors by suspending animation, which in turn allows readers and listeners to isolate their capacities for sensation.

  2. Before moving into my argument proper, though, I want to note my motivations in writing this essay. This paper had its origin, in large part, in a graduate seminar on "Romantic Conceptions of Life" that I taught in spring 2006. For that class, I had students read part of Deleuze's Difference and Repetition, and in one of the sections we considered, Deleuze suggests that our experience of time is the result of three syntheses. There is, first, what Deleuze calls a "sensible synthesis," by which he means the synthesis of past and future into the present that occurs "in the mind which contemplates, prior to all memory and reflection" (this is something like the phenomenological account of the unconscious modes of "retention" and "protention" necessary for any experience of time) (82).[1] There is, second, the active synthesis of conscious memory. However, Deleuze argues that both of these syntheses are dependent upon

    organic syntheses which are like the sensibility of the senses; they refer back to a primary sensibility that we are. We are made of contracted water, earth, light and air—not merely prior to the recognition or representation of these, but prior to their being sensed. Every organism . . . is a sum of contractions, retentions and expectations (DR 73).

    A particularly bright undergraduate who was taking the course objected to Deleuze's attempt to ground sensible and perceptible syntheses in an "organic" synthesis, and the nature of his objection was quite astute. The student argued that whereas Deleuze's contentions about the first two syntheses seemed like philosophical claims, in the sense that philosophy could adjudicate their validity, the question of an organic synthesis seemed to be operating in a completely different level of analysis (e.g., biology or physics rather than philosophy). Or, as he put it, and in a more Kantian tone, Deleuze was guilty of making an unwarranted movement from transcendental to ontological claims: that is, from conditions that had logical necessity to conditions that (purportedly) had ontological necessity. I think this is an astute observation, but the purpose of this paper, in part, is to map out the itinerary that would justify Deleuze's movement through Kant to something like ontology.

    I. The Kantian Transcendental Deduction

  3. I'll begin with a quick reminder of how Kant understands the term "transcendental." Kant introduces the concept of the "transcendental" in the Introduction to The Critique of Pure Reason, defining there as "transcendental all knowledge which is occupied not so much with objects as with the mode of our knowledge of objects in so far as this mode of knowledge is to be possible a priori" (CPR, A 12; p. 59). In this quote, the pronoun "our" is quite important, for it highlights the fact that Kant is interested in the a priori modes of knowledge of the particular kinds of beings that we are. And we are, according to Kant, a kind of being characterized by three active "faculties" and one passive faculty. We can certainly imagine—and there may in fact exist—beings with different arrangements of faculties, or perhaps even beings that lack faculties entirely, but in order to understand our own conditions of knowledge, we must understand the possible relationships between our active and passive faculties.[2]

  4. So what does it mean to say that we are a being composed of active and passive faculties?

  5. As Deleuze notes, Kant in fact uses the term "faculty" in two senses. Sometimes, Kant uses the term faculty to refer to relationships between representations and objects, and in these cases he refers to the faculties of "knowing," "desiring," and "feeling." So, for example, Kant speaks of the "faculty of knowing" when he refers to our efforts to make our representations conform to external objects; he speaks of the "faculty of desire" when he refers to our efforts to produce the objects of our representation (as when, for example, we seek to be the cause of a moral action); and he speaks of the "faculty of feeling" when he refers to the effect of a representation on the "vital force" of the subject: that is, the capacity of a representation to intensify or diminish the sensed vital force of a subject. According to Kant, our everyday experience involves different—and often confused—kinds of relationships between the three faculties of knowing, desiring, and feeling. For example, we may claim to have knowledge of an object, when in fact we simply desire it, or we may believe we desire an action, when in fact the representation of this action simply produces pleasure. Thus, as Deleuze notes, a transcendental analysis of these faculties—that is, the faculties of knowing, desiring, and feeling—means for Kant the task of locating the "higher" form of each of these faculties. A higher form of a faculty means a form in which the faculty gives itself its own law, rather than being directed by other faculties (KCP 4). The higher form of the faculty of knowing, for example, would be that form in which knowing gives itself its own law, rather than being directed by the faculties of desiring or feeling.

  6. However, Kant also uses the term faculty in second way, to refer to a source of representation, and in those instances, he speaks of the faculties of "reason," "understanding," and "imagination." The faculty of imagination, for example, links what Kant calls "intuitions" of objects—that is, sensory perceptions of objects—with concepts; the faculty of understanding produces concepts; and the faculty of reason produces "ideas" (which, in Kant's system, are concepts that go beyond the possibility of experience). He actually speaks of four faculties here, for there is also the faculty of sensibility, by means of which we generate intuitions. However, this faculty is not of especial interest to Kant, because it is not, for him, active: that is, it does not synthesize, but is simply a faculty of reception. As Deleuze notes, for Kant, "[o]ur constitution is such that we have one receptive faculty and three active faculties" (KCP 9).[3]

  7. It is the method of "transcendental deduction" that allows us to link these two senses of the term faculty. We locate the higher form of the faculties of knowing, desiring, and feeling when we employ a transcendental deduction to determine relationships of legislation between the faculties understood as sources of representation (that is, the three faculties of reason, understanding, and imagination). For Kant, the faculties of reason, understanding, and imagination are all always involved in each of our pursuits and activities, but the question is: which of these faculties directs—that is, which legislates for—the others? In the Critique of Pure Reason, transcendental deduction reveals that a higher form of knowledge is possible when the faculty of understanding legislates over—that is, directs the activities of—the faculties of reason and imagination, while in the Critique of Practical Reason, transcendental deduction reveals that a higher form of desire is possible when reason legislates over the faculties of the understanding and imagination.

    II: The Deleuzean Transcendental Deduction

  8. All of this will strike most readers, I assume, as uncontentious—that is, as simply an explication of Kant's claims, as Kant himself presented them. However, what interests Deleuze are Kant's brief allusions to what Deleuze calls the "genetic" aspects of Kant's system: that is, those moments in which Kant realizes that he can't simply assume valorized particular legislative relationships between faculties, but instead has to show the conditions of possibility that would allow such relationships to be produced. With respect to these genetic moments in Kant, Deleuze argues two points. First, he argues that the condition of possibility for any determinate, legislative relationships between faculties is that these faculties are capable of a free and indeterminate—that is, a non-legislative—mode of accord. And, second, he argues that such non-legislative modes of accord can only be understood if we understand the terms "sensation" and "Ideas" differently than Kant. Rather than understanding sensation as simple receptivity, as does Kant, we have to understand it as a mode of synthesis, and rather than understanding Ideas as non-determinate concepts produced by reason, and we have to understand them as tensions—what Deleuze calls "problems"—that traverse all the faculties and tie these faculties into the world itself.

  9. I'll begin with Deleuze's claim about the relationship between legislative and non-legislative modes of relationship between faculties. Deleuze argues that Kant cannot, within the terms of his own system, simply "invoke a harmonious accord of the faculties" (KCP 22) that characterizes the different legislative relationships of knowledge and morality. Rather, "the Critique in general demands a principle of [this possibility for an] accord [of the faculties]" (KCP 22-3). Deleuze argues that Kant himself locates the condition of possibility for these different forms of harmony between faculties in a more fundamental capacity for a "free and indeterminate accord" between faculties. That is, Deleuze argues that, within the terms of Kant's system,

    every determinate accord [between the faculties] presupposes that the faculties are, at a deeper level, capable of a free and indeterminate accord (CJ para. 21). It is only at the level of this free and indeterminate accord (sensus communis aestheticus) that we will be able to pose the problem of a ground of the accord . . . (KCP 23-4).

    Not surprisingly, Deleuze turns to Kant's Critique of Judgment, and to its analysis of the so-called "reflective judgment"—that is, the kind of judgment that Kant describes as characterized by free and indeterminate accord of faculties—in order to locate the ground of the determinate accord that characterizes legislative relationships between faculties. In the third Critique, Kant's two primary examples of "free and indeterminate accords [of faculties]" are judgments of beauty and sublimity, and Deleuze argues that in both cases, Kant suggests that these accords of faculties are produced as responses to experiences of difference or intensity.

  10. In the interests of space, I'll focus here on Deleuze's discussion of Kant's account of sublimity. According to Kant, judgments of sublimity are dependent upon an accord between reason and imagination, insofar as in judgments of sublimity, "the soul" must discover that both of these faculties have a "supersensible destination." However, Kant contends that the pleasure produced by this accord of the faculties of reason and imagination emerges from an initial dissonance between reason and imagination, a dissonance produced by the fact that the faculty of reason demands something of the faculty of imagination—namely, that external objects be gathered together into a whole—which the imagination cannot accomplish in the case of very large or powerful objects.

  11. Kant himself is primarily interested in the result of this accord between reason and imagination. That is, for Kant, "[t]he sense of the sublime is engendered within us in such a way that it prepares a higher finality and prepares us ourselves for the advent of the moral law" (KCP 52). What interests Deleuze, however, is not the result of the accord, but the fact that such an accord is produced: that is, in judgments of sublimity, "the imagination-reason accord is not simply assumed: it is genuinely engendered" (KCP 51-2).[4] From Deleuze's perspective, what Kant neglected to do—but should have done, within the terms of the Critical system—was to account for the condition of possibility of such a production of an accord that is free and indeterminate; that is, the production of what Deleuze calls a "discordant harmony." Deleuze is interested in this "discordant harmony," since, he claims, in such moments, "each [faculty] communicates to the other only the violence which confronts it with its own difference and divergence from the othe[r faculties]" (DR 146). For Deleuze, in other words, judgments of sublimity are interesting philosophically less on account of what they may or may not point the subject toward—for Kant, they point subjects toward the higher finality of the moral law—but rather for what they reveal about the limits of each faculty and the conditions of possibility that allow faculties to relate to one another in the first place.[5]

  12. Deleuze's analysis of the conditions of possibility for the discordant accord that is produced in judgments of the sublime produces two important modifications to the Kantian system. First, Deleuze suggests that accounting for the genesis of judgments of sublimity requires that the Kantian understanding of sensation—of "sensibility"—must be modified. Where Kant understands sensation as a simple receptivity, Deleuze argues that Kant's own discussion of the sublime suggests that, in fact, the faculty of imagination can carry out its tasks—apprehension, reproduction, and recognition—only if there is a prior, non-conceptual, but also non-imaginative mode of synthesis proper to sensation itself.[6] Deleuze suggests that we call this mode of synthesis proper to sensation "rhythm," and he proposes that Kant needs to assume precisely such an understanding of rhythm to account for the capacity of sensation to connect us to the world.  Sensation connects us to the world not through concepts of the understanding or through the specific synthetic activities of the faculty of imagination; rather, "[t]he being of sensation is . . . the compound of nonhuman forces of the cosmos" (WIP 181). Deleuze suggests that it is only by establishing the mode of synthesis proper to sensation that we take the true measure of the understanding of transcendental philosophy: that is, "[e]mpiricism truly becomes transcendental, and aesthetics an apodictic discipline, only when we apprehend directly in the sensible that which can only be sensed, the very being of the sensible: difference, potential difference and difference in intensity as the reason behind qualitative diversity" (DR 56-57).

  13. Yet, Deleuze suggests, we still have to go further, and ask "[w]hat forces sensibility to sense?" (DR 143) Here is the second departure from Kantian terminology, for Deleuze suggests that we use the term "Idea" to refer not—as did Kant—to the non-determinable concepts of the faculty of reason, but rather to the "problems" that tie living beings into their environment, "problems" that also serve to link the different faculties of the human subject to one another. Thus, writes Deleuze, "it will be necessary to reserve the name of Ideas not for pure cogitanda but rather for those instances which go from sensibility to thought and from thought to sensibility, capable of engendering in each case, according to their own order, the limit- or transcendent-object of each faculty" (DR 146). It is through the concepts of "rhythm" and "Idea," then, that Deleuze moves the methodology of transcendental deduction from a purely epistemological to an epistemological-ontological foundation, for it is by means of the rhythmic capacities of sensation that we are bound into those fields of tension and differentials—that is, Deleuzean "Ideas"—of which we are part.

    III: Shelley's "Mont Blanc": Rhythm and Suspended Animation

  14. In addition to helping us better understand Kant's own philosophy, Deleuze's reading of Kant also helps us to understand better the role of rhythm in Romantic era poetry, and in what follows, I'll try to support this claim though a case study of one poem, Shelley's "Mont Blanc." I want to stress at the outset, though, that this is not an influence argument: that is, I'm not arguing that Shelley read Kant in the same way that Deleuze read Kant, especially since Shelley's knowledge of Kant was relatively minimal. My point is rather that Deleuze's engagement with Kant provides us with a set of conceptual tools that allows us to make sense of some of otherwise confusing aspects of Shelley's poetry and philosophy.

  15. I've picked "Mont Blanc" as my case study because the poem has often been read as an exemplification of an essentially Kantian understanding of the sublime. This is the explicit claim of, for example, Christopher Bode, but there are also many canonical readings of the poem that—though they do not mention Kant—nevertheless develop interpretations that rely on the structure of Kant's sublime, in the sense that they read the poem within the paradigm of what we might call "threat to consciousness and its resolution."[7] That is, most critics seem to agree that the poem is, or represents, an attempt to confront and resolve a threat to consciousness. The threat itself is indexed by the "frozen floods" and "beaming ice" of Mont Blanc (ll. 64, 106)—phenomena that are, like Kant's examples of the sublime, either too powerful, extensive, or alien for the imagination to encompass. And for many critics the poem attempts—successfully or not—to resolve this threat to the imagination by, first, discovering in consciousness a capacity of becoming equal to this threat, and, second, by coordinating a moral, or at least political, interest with this capacity (those notoriously obscure "large codes of fraud and woe" that, the poem's narrator claims, will be repealed should the mountain's voice be heard).

  16. A Deleuzean reading of the poem does not so much contest this interpretation as point to a different aspect of the poem, focusing our attention not on the possible resolutions of the threat that the poem announces, but rather on the ways in which such threats allow us to understand—and, more to the point, more fully engage—our faculty of sensation. Shelley's poem focuses our attention on sensation by using the mountain to reduce its narrator to a state of passivity, what Shelley calls a "trance sublime and strange." It is within this state of suspended animation—that is, a state in which the narrator's faculties of knowing and desiring are placed in abeyance—that the specificity and complexity of the faculty of feeling can be best revealed. More specifically, it is from this perspective of trance that the narrator is able to sense the differentials that connect living beings with an embodied external world. Because this is a differential proper to the faculty of sensation, it can only be sensed, not conceptualized. However, the poem, as an instance of articulated language, necessarily deals with concepts, and the narrator thus must index this sensory differential through concepts that describe states of "static intensity"—for example, that "torpor of the year when feeble dreams / Visit the hidden buds, or dreamless sleep / Holds every future leaf and flower" (ll. 88-90). Less proximate indications of sensation are developed through nouns and adjectives that highlight tension and potential energy, as when Shelley employs representations of ice (e.g., glaciers and ice gulphs) to link adjectives of suspension, such as "stillness" and "serenity," with verbs of intensity, such as "revolving," "subsiding," and "swelling" (l. 95). It is these verbs of intensity—what Shelley calls in line 33 "ceaseless motion"—that ensure that the "torpor" of the year is not so much an accurate conceptual description as a translation into concepts of what can, in fact, only be sensed.

  17. Yet what makes this a poem—rather than simply a poetic restatement of Deleuze's philosophy—is that in its very presentation, as verse, it is designed to isolate and expand in listeners their own capacities for sensation, and it accomplishes this through its peculiar rhyme scheme. While "Mont Blanc" is sometimes understood as an example of blank verse, William Keach's classic study Shelley's Style revealed the complicated rhythmic structure of "Mont Blanc." As Keach notes, "[o]f the 144 lines in Mont Blanc, only three end in words which have no rhyme elsewhere in the poem." Yet because Shelley's poem employs irregular forms of rhyming—imperfect rhyme, such as the rhyme of "down" with "throne" in lines 16 and 17; internal rhyme, such as the rhyme of "glare" and "there" in lines 131 and 132; and homonymic rhyme, such as the extended  rhyme of "throne" with "overthrown" between lines 17 and 113—the poem nevertheless "feels" like it is somehow between rhyming and blank verse. Keach contends that the irregular rhythmic structure of the poem is related to its thematic content, through he also interprets this relationship by means of the familiar paradigm of "threat and resolution." He suggests that rhyme in "Mont Blanc" is sufficiently irregular to help evoke "the 'untameable wildness' Shelley spoke of . . . . Yet rhyme is [also] there as one of the resources with which the poet verbally counters as well as encounters an experience of threatening power and sublimity" (196). Keach, in other words, interprets the irregularity of the rhyme as mimicking for the reader the threat of untamable wildness, while the fact that there nevertheless is rhyme "counters" that threat.

  18. In keeping with my interpretation of the poem's content above, I would slightly shift Keach's point, and argue that instead of producing and resolving a threat, the irregular rhythm of the poem instead functions for the reader as an intensive series—that is, an oscillating movement between the torpor of repetitive rhyme and the leap beyond rhyme.  As a consequence, where the representational content of the poem re-presents the importance of sensation, the poem's rhyme presents the reader with sensory material that must in fact be bound together by the faculty of sensation. Thus, rather than understanding the irregularity of the meter in "Mont Blanc" within the paradigm of a sublime "threat-to-consciousness-and-its-resolution"—a paradigm that Keach refines, rather than contests—we should instead understand rhyme in "Mont Blanc" as a non-signifying means for isolating sensation. By employing rhyme irregularly, "Mont Blanc" keeps its listeners in a state of suspension, neither able to locate a consistent and stable rhythmic measure that would allow a "prediction" of the occurrence of the next rhyme, nor able to move rhyme to the background of the reading or listening experience (as would be more the case for actual blank verse).

  19. If the poem is able to produce an experience akin to the sublime in its listeners and readers, it does so not through the conflict of faculties that Kant described in the Critique of Judgment—that is, the tension between apprehension and comprehension that occurs when the faculty of imagination attempts to accomplish what the faculty of reason demands (CJ 110-11)—for the poem does not in fact present an object that challenges sensory comprehension. As David Collings astutely notes in his response to my original presentation of this argument, "Mont Blanc" represents, rather than presents, an object that challenges sensory comprehension. No doubt many of Shelley's readers have imagined to themselves that if they were in the actual presence of the mountain, they too would be able to apprehend the individual parts of the mountain, but unable to comprehend the whole—but this is an exercise in the imagination of failure, not an actual failure of imagination, for the concepts that the poem presents are well-formed, suited to both apprehension and comprehension. If, nevertheless, the poem enables a sublime feeling of distortion and straining, such a feeling is produced by the link the poem establishes between the well-formed representational content of the verse and the intensive series established by its rhyme. What the poem presents is sonic material: that is, the sounds of the words themselves. These sounds do not challenge imaginative comprehension or apprehension, but they do produce a strain through the irregularity of their rhyme, as sensation continually seeks for the measure of the poem.

    Conclusion: Shelley on Animation, Sensation, and Freedom

  20. By way of conclusion, I would like to dwell briefly on what I see as the implications of this Deleuzean reading of "Mont Blanc" for our more general understanding of Shelley's poetics. I focus here especially on the ways in which this helps us to understand what Shelley saw as the purpose—or, more precisely, the practical effect—of his poetry on his readers, for it strikes me that the emphasis in "Mont Blanc" on sensation marks a significant shift between Shelley's early and later understandings of what we might think of as the social effects of poetry.

  21. I agree with most interpreters of "Mont Blanc," who have felt confident that Shelley intended his poem to produce its effects in an explicitly moral and political register. This intention on the part of Shelley seems supported by the narrator's suggestion that the mountain has a voice that, when heard properly, has the power "to repeal / Large [political] codes of fraud and woe" (ll. 80-1). However, the mechanism by means of which Shelley thought that a poem could effect, or at least encourage, political and legal change is not so clear. On the one hand, the suggestion that perceptions and conceptions of natural objects produced moral and political improvement was not a particularly contentious position in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and authors could defend such a position with a variety of schemas, ranging from "physico-theology," which emphasized the moral improvement that resulted from a conscious awareness of the complexity of nature, to the Wordsworthian claim that love of nature led to love of men, to the Kantian suggestion that beauty "symbolized" morality while experiences of sublimity allowed us to "feel a purposiveness within ourselves entirely independent of nature" (CJ 100). On the other hand, though, the emphasis in "Mont Blanc" on the inhospitability of nature seems to preclude these sorts of solutions: "Mont Blanc" stresses not the complexity, but rather the chaos, of the natural world; it aims to reveal not a "love" of nature but rather a vacancy that is inhospitable to humanity; and the sublimity that the poem invokes leads us into a facultative free play focused on sensation rather than the more hierarchical "free play" between the faculties of imagination and reason that Kant invokes in his explanation of the sublime. We are thus left with a question: what, in the case of "Mont Blanc," justifies a connection between its emphasis on sensation, on the one hand, and politics and morality, on the other? Why, in other words, should the attention to sensation that "Mont Blanc" enables have moral and political implications?

  22. To begin with, the link between sensation and moral and political improvement suggested in "Mont Blanc" seems to represent a significant refinement of the philosophy of progressive materialism that Shelley outlined in his early poetic epic, Queen Mab (1813). Queen Mab is also a "trance poem," beginning with a description of girl sleeping so deeply that the narrator is uncertain whether she is dead or alive. The rest of the poem describes the girl's imaginative "abduction" by Queen Mab, who reveals to her the past, present, and future of the world, focusing especially on the history and destiny of social and political institutions such as Christianity, the family, and the state. Drawing on authors such as David Hume, William Godwin, and d'Holbach, Shelley argued for a form of philosophical materialism in the text and notes of Queen Mab, contending that mind and thought were causally linked to the physical interactions of the material world, and would—as a result, and necessarily—change as the material world changed. Shelley believed that these material changes were progressive, and thus the world was—albeit slowly—"re-forming" along utopian lines. Since this reformation included both the material and mental worlds, Queen Mab outlined a prospect of the future in which the earth was become a temperate paradise, human disease and suffering were alleviated (if not entirely abolished), and divisive and inequitable political systems had been replaced by pacific social relations. In Canto V of the poem, Shelley connected this progressive materialist philosophy to the concepts of life and activity, suggesting that his progressive materialism could be intuited through the image of one "wide-diffused" "spirit of activity and life, / That knows no term, cessation, or decay" (80).[8] At this early point in his poetic career, Shelley seems to have understood "animation" and "activity" as linked concepts that allowed his readers to think systemically: that is, by imagining the universe as "activity and life, / That knows no term, cessation, or decay," readers would be able to sense and orient themselves toward global and systemic changes already underway, and of which they themselves were parts.

  23. In "Mont Blanc," Shelley remained interested in orienting his readers toward systemic perceptions, but he seems no longer to have believed that representations of motion and activity were the keys to enabling such understandings. Rather than representing his readers' activities as part of a more general spirit of animation, "Mont Blanc" represented the suspension of animation. Shelley remained committed to the goal of encouraging a sense of system, but "Mont Blanc" shifted the register of such awareness from understanding to sensation, presenting its auditors with a rhythmic and linguistic technology able to isolate a listener's capacity for sensation. The poem also suggests that such a capacity is necessary if readers are in fact to become able to orient to themselves toward systemic change.

  24. "Mont Blanc" thus points toward a complex understanding of the way in which sensation serves as the link between matter and mind. While Shelley was still clearly indebted to the sensationalist empiricism of Locke, Hume, and Condillac, "Mont Blanc" reveals the poet's awareness that sensation cannot be understood as simply an "impression" of external matter on a malleable surface. Rather, "Mont Blanc" emphasizes the extent to which for Shelley, as for Deleuze and Guattari, the being of sensation must be understood as a "compound of nonhuman forces of the cosmos." Sensation, that is, should be understood neither as a passive opening to the outside nor an active imposition of the human phenomenal matrix on the noumenal non-human; it is rather a mode of synthesis that binds a living being into the non-organic forces of the cosmos. Deleuze and Guattari's point—and I take this to be Shelley's point in "Mont Blanc" as well—is that sensation involves a synthesis of these non-human forces; that is, it brings together and binds different nonhuman forces.

  25. In the register of its rhythmic elements, "Mont Blanc" is designed to enable listeners/readers to attune themselves to the differentials of the world, rather than focusing solely on the ways in which those differentials could be turned into means for ends determined by consciousness. However, Shelley's poem also aimed to reproduce this freedom of sensation at the level of consciousness, thereby momentarily freeing the listener from the habits of the past.[9] What distinguished an auditing of Shelley's poem from an experience of pure sensation per se is that in the former case, sensation is linked to concepts, enabling a work of interpretation that allows one to align the affective opening to non-human forces enabled by sensation with the moral and political message established by the poem's conceptual content.

  26. The understanding of sensation that underwrites "Mont Blanc" complicated Shelley's progressive materialism, for the poem suggested that humans facilitate the progressive movement of matter by sensing—and then responding to—the differentials that traverse both the natural world and human bodies. Precisely because "the everlasting universe of things/ Flows through the mind" (ll. 1-2), the differentials produced by these "waves" can then be linked to the more small-scale differentials that the subject itself establishes. By listening to "Mont Blanc," the auditor becomes aware of potentials within the "system" of the world, and so can be inspired by the "voice" of Mont Blanc to change existing legal and political codes. If a poem can "moralize" its readers, Shelley suggests, it does so not through its content, but rather because the state of suspension that its reading requires frees sensation, enabling new forms of linkage between elements of the system of the world.[10]

  27. While I have focused here on ways in which Deleuze's work allows us to understand anew Shelley's poetics specifically, it also strikes me that Shelley's "Deleuzeanism" has wider implications for the study of Romanticism, as well as the study of literary poetics more generally. As David Collings has noted in his response to my podcast and essay, the irregularity of rhyme in Shelley's "Mont Blanc" means that my claims about this particular poem cannot be applied in simple fashion to other Romantic works that employ more regular rhyme, or to later modes of poetry for which rhyme is not a primary consideration. At the same time, though, I see the irregularity of rhyme in "Mont Blanc" as an analytic isolation of the rhythmic irregularity that traverses most, if not all, works that we deem "poetic." A Deleuzean approach to irregular rhyme and rhythm thus represents a way of engaging with what M. H. Abrams has called the "material dimension" of poetry and poetics, but in a way that focuses on the conditions of possibility for experiences of materiality, rather then looking toward a humanist physiology of the body as the ground of explanation of these experiences.[11] This Deleuzean-Shelleyan approach can also extend our sense of the rhythms of literature beyond prosody and into questions of reception, focusing on ways in which the periodicities of reading experiences—for example, the points in daily rhythms in which poems and books are read; how often they are read; and in what kinds of social settings they are read—can both enable and interrupt other social rhythms.[12] Finally, a Deleuzean Shelleyianism allows us to understand anew the afterlives of Romanticism. It enables us to discern, for example, a tradition of thought about "active passivity" that begins in the Romantic era, but which also finds expression at the end of the nineteenth century (in the work of, for example, Henri Bergson), and again in the latter part of the twentieth century (in the work of, for example, Gilles Deleuze, as well as in the work of literary authors such as Philip K. Dick).[13] Approaching this tradition from the perspective of the Deleuzean Shelley allows to understand its movement beyond the schema of historical continuity, pointing us instead toward a historical modality of suspended animation, by means of which potentials established in the Romantic era can again be revived and renewed in later periods.


1 Hereafter, all references are indicated parenthetically, with the following abbreviations employed: "DR" for Difference and Repetition; "KCP" for Gilles Deleuze, Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties; "WIP" for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?; "CPR" for Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason; "CJ" for Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment.

2 As David L. Clark notes, our ability to imagine beings such as aliens, angels, and animals that are constituted in other ways plays an important role in Kant's general system; see, for example, "Kant's Aliens: The Anthropology and Its Others," pp. 201-289.

3 As Deleuze notes in Difference and Repetition, "Kant defines the passive self in terms of simple receptivity, thereby assuming sensations already formed, then merely relating these to the a priori forms of their representation which are determined as time and space" (DR 98).

4 What intrigues Deleuze especially about the account of the beautiful in the Critique of Judgment is Kant's account of the role of "free materials of nature" (KCP 54), such as colors and sounds, in our experience of the beautiful. As is well known, Kant's account of the beautiful stresses the role of form over colors and sounds: for Kant, "form" names that aspect of an object which the imagination alone can "reflect," whereas (as Deleuze notes) "color and sound are too material, too entrenched in the senses to be reflected in our imagination in this way" (KCP 47). But at the same time, Kant's subsequent account of symbolism acknowledges, even if circumspectly, the importance of colors and sounds for the emergence of an aesthetic accord of the faculties. For Kant suggests that in experiences of the beautiful, the free materials of nature such as colors and sounds "do not relate simply to the determinate concepts of the understanding," but also end up relating to an Idea of reason: the white lily, for example, is a kind of plant from the standpoint of the understanding, but a symbol of innocence from the standpoint of reason. And, Deleuze stresses,

Two consequences flow from this: the understanding itself sees its concepts enlarged in an unlimited way; [and] the imagination is freed from the constraint of the understanding to which it remained subject in the schematism and becomes capable of reflecting form freely. [And this means that] The accord between imagination as free and understanding as indeterminate is therefore not merely assumed: it is in a sense animated, enlivened, engendered by the interest of the beautiful (KCP 55).

It is true, of course, that Kant seeks to position these genetic movements—that is, the emergence within the subject of new forms of common-sense—within teleological, developmental frames. So, for example, Kant suggests that emergence of "the indeterminate unity and the free accord of the faculties" that takes place in experiences of "the beautiful" "do not merely constitute that which is deepest in the soul, but prepare the advent of that which is most elevated, that is to say the supremacy of the faculty of desire, and make possible the transition from the faculty of knowledge to the faculty of desire" (KCP 55-6).

5 Or, as Deleuze puts it in Difference and Repetition, judgments of sublimity are useful insofar as they allow us to investigate the "triple violence" to which faculties can be submitted: namely, "the violence of that which forces [the faculty] to be exercised, [second,] of that which [the faculty] is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, yet also that of the ungraspable (from the point of view of [the faculty's] empirical exercise" (DR 143).

6 Of course, Kant doesn't make this point directly; rather, Deleuze argues, it is in the changes that Kant makes to his account of the faculty of imagination—and the role of the human body and rhythm—between the first and third critiques that we can see that imagination's activities (apprehension, comprehension, recognition) must depend upon a prior synthesis of sensation.

7 The precise nature of the threat differs considerably from reading to reading: critics inclined toward philosophical interpretations have tended to stress epistemological threats, while historicist critics have emphasized threats that are more political, social, or environmental in nature. Examples of philosophical interpretations include I. J. Kapstein's classic argument in "The Meaning of Shelley's 'Mont Blanc'" that the poem manifests the threat of logical inconsistency resulting from Shelley's apparent allegiance to both philosophical materialism and idealism; Charles H. Vivian's counter-proposal in "The One 'Mont Blanc'" that the poem is in fact "self-consistent," since it is "not a poem in which the problems [about the "ultimate nature of mind"] are solved," but is rather about "the very experience of coming to grapple with the problems, and about the nature of the evidence available for dealing with them" (55, 61); Earl Wasserman's suggestion in Shelley: A Critical Reading that the inhospitable ice is an index of the possibility that nature is fundamentally "vacant"; Frances Ferguson's contention in "Shelley's 'Mont-Blanc': What the Mountain Said" that while the poem "exhibits its own repeated failure to let Mont Blanc be merely a blank, merely a mass of stone" (173), it also attempts to remove this as a problem by turning "epistemological language into love language" (173, 178); and Christoph Bode's claim in "Shelley's 'Mont Blanc': The Aesthetic 'Aufhebung' of a Philosophical Antinomy": that the apparent conflict between the epistemology and ontology of the poem itself makes for a consistent argument for an idealist philosophy. Historicist interpretations include Nigel Leask's assertion in "Mont Blanc's Mysterious Voice: Shelley and Huttonian Earth," that "Mont Blanc" constitutes a secular attempt to counter religious interpretations of the sublimity of the glacier and mountain and Alan Bewell's suggestion in Romanticism and Colonial Disease that the glaciers of the mountain—glaciers that "creep/ Like snakes that watch their prey"—register Shelley's fear of the threat of unstoppable global cooling (ll. 100-101).

8 This image in Queen Mab was a poetic reworking of a line of thought that Shelley first developed in correspondence with Elizabeth Hitchener. In his 2 January 1812 letter to Hitchener, for example, he argued that an understanding of life as "infinite" was equivalent to the position that "every thing is animation" (The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, I:156).

9 For an account of Shelley's more general interest in creating ruptures in his auditors' "time consciousness," see my Sympathy and the State in the Romantic Era: Systems, State Finance, and the Shadows of Futurity, pp. 163-204.

10 It was this understanding of sensation, I suggest, that motivated Shelley's belief that "passive resistance" was an effective political strategy. Shelley's doctrine of passive resistance—exemplified in a poem such as "The Mask of Anarchy" (1819), and inspirational for later figures such as Mahatma Gandhi—has often been interpreted from a purely psychological view. From this perspective, passive resistance is effective because it "shames" aggressors. It is more productive, however, to approach Shelley's understanding of passive resistance from the perspective of suspended animation: by suspending one's own action, one enables greater capacities of sensation—that is, lines of linkage with systemic potentials—for others. Such a perspective avoids the dubious causal claims of the psychological approach—it is not at all clear why passive resistance ought "automatically" to produce shame in aggressors—while retaining the emphasis on system to which Shelley was committed.

11 See M. H. Abrams, "Keats's Poems: The Material Dimensions."

12 See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "Rhythm and Meaning." While Gumbrecht draws on systems theory, rather than Deleuze, in his essay, his claims can be productively linked to a Deleuzean approach to rhythm and meaning.

13 For an example of Dick's interest in the activity of passivity, see his brilliant novel Ubik, which depicts a cast of characters who travel all around the globe, as well as between the earth and moon. These characters slowly come to the realization that they are, in fact, in states of suspended animation, yet they nevertheless retain a capacity to affect events outside these states, in the "real" world.

Works Cited

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---. Queen Mab (1813). Reprint edition. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth. New York: Woodstock Books, 1990.

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