"Ranking and Romantic Lyric"
University of British Columbia
1. Mina Loy once appealed to “Imagine a tennis champion who became inspired to write poetry . . . . Would not his meter depend on his way of life, would it not form itself, without having recourse to traditional, remembered, or excepted forms?” (270). Loy’s ideal of poetic form as organically, spontaneously embodying the rhythm of lived experience has Wordsworthian echoes. But why is it that an athletic champion should epitomize her ideal? The athletic contest’s intense focus on the temporal spectacle seems more typical of the “savage torpor” of modern consumerism that Wordsworth set out to counteract than the interior rhythms of tranquil recollection that he pursued. Moreover Loy’s emphasis upon ranking, the suggestion that the champion, precisely by virtue of being champion, would best embody organic poetic form seems in jeopardy of giving way to an Ayn Randian or worse aestheticizing of market ethics. By contrast, a familiar romantic trope associates mere countability with social breakdown, such as the impasse that concludes Wordsworth’s “We are Seven” and the mystical clockwork barking of Christabel’s mastiff. In Peter Bell the Third Percy Shelley makes the countability of Peter Bells emblematize a radical and pervasive cultural and political bankruptcy.
2. But another (and importantly not unrelated) romantic trope emphasizes that what we have to fear in modern capitalism’s arbitrarily abstract quantities is not the form itself of competitive ranking but the ideological baggage this so often carries, baggage that diverts attention from the aesthetic spectacle of competition as what Loy terms an on-going “way of life.” Two interrelated, key ideological constructs of capitalist culture—the idolization of winners on the one hand, and the presumption to know, to have an understanding of the causal mechanism behind what makes winners win—constitute two sides of the same literal coin, money or capital itself, whose “riddle,” Marx said, is “but the riddle presented by commodities; only it now strikes us in its most glaring form” (105f). It is such fetishism that makes horserace coverage politics so politically numbing and paralyzing, and why, on the contrary, the spectacle of a boxing match, as Hazlitt showed, can make the horserace concern for who won and why quite beside the point.
3. A if not the seminal motif of Romanticism’s critique of capitalism is sympathy for losers. Before Wordsworth gave such sympathy its iconic lyrical expression Adam Smith theorized it as a remediating, complementary currency to capital. Smith assumed that the two currencies were mutually correcting, that sympathy modulated capitalist self-interest to the benefit of all rather than a few. In Smith’s famous example, sympathizing with a lunatic in the street is essentially a matter of a viable consumer sympathizing with an unviable or failed one:
4. Yet this radical formalization of social experience exclusively in terms of iterations of consumption is also eminently unstable. The pathos of one of Keats’s best-known letters hinges on this precariousness. Keats does not pretend to renounce or escape Smith’s basic formal model and yet nonetheless demolishes any ground for optimism about sympathy’s redemptive power. Keats describes the experience of being at a party and sympathetically inhabiting other people in a compulsive, serial way, moving insatiably from one individual to the next: “the identity of everyone in the room begins so to press upon me,” Keats writes, “that I am in a very little time annihilated” (To Richard Woodhouse, October 27th, 1818). Keats anticipates Baudelaire’s great portraits of the self-dissolving erotic life of urban crowds, and in both cases the critique of consumerist imagination is doubled-edged: on the one hand the poets deny that the sympathetic imagination stands to repair social disunity (on the contrary, the sympathetic imagination that was supposed to connect the poet with others ends up alienating him from himself); on the other hand though, Keats and Baudelaire alike recognize this defeat as inescapable: it is the structural condition upon which their respective poetic efforts build. Individualist consumerism is the condition of its own critique.
5. Thus there’s a partial truth to Smith’s account that haunts subsequent modernity both in spite and in virtue of its partialness. Like his poetic successors Smith has the implicit good faith to acknowledge that the commodity form is total and consequently that the critique of consumerism must be immanent, must follow a consumerist logic of its own. The difficulty of such acknowledgement is that it makes critique difficult to distinguish from complacency. Whatever alternative Keatsian and Baudelairian sympathy offers to capital, this alternative cannot be simply an alternative but must instead somehow constitute a second-order alternative, an alternative to the consumerist way of experiencing alternatives. Even stating the problem this way just reposes it, since the commodity’s constitutive “magic” is to promise the consumer escape from the limitations of actual, consumerist social life. But Keats and Baudelaire introduce a formally more intricate arithmetic to this problematic that might be termed “romantic ranking.” Rather than either reifying capitalism’s losers, or impossibly pretending to escape such reification only in order to reify failure as such, such ranking entails a second-order standard of comparison. Beyond the question of mere winning or losing it hinges on the subversively distinct question of the relative effectiveness of several instances of failure, subversive because this latter question stands to crystalize norms of value anchored not in commodities’ magic itself but its underlying condition of necessary impossibility. Comparative ranking stands to make this condition vivid because it is inherently open-ended and cannot pretend to capture this condition definitively.
6. At the conclusion of Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode, for instance, the image of the sunset does pretend to capture the same self-deconstructing imagination that had alienated the poet from nature, and this image thereby promises a kind of transcendence over such alienation. But the poet pointedly undermines this promise by calling it “another palm” in “another race.” With the formal insistence of a stutter the compound redundancy of these terms undoes the symbolic reintegration from within, staging a breakdown of the act of romantic lyric subjectivity. But this display of defeat doesn’t disown the pursuit of such subjectivity; instead this pursuit is re-cast as an ongoing race of days after an ever-elusive palm. Readers are thus enjoined to make rehearsal of the inevitable failure of this pursuit a new more modest kind of aesthetic aim, an aim that while implicitly masochistic is less violent than just suffering or suppressing such failure or, alternately, making the kind of mystified claim to transcending it that Jerome McGann called the Romantic Ideology. This is not to make failure the basis of just another disciplinary norm, but to wager a new more formally complex, tenuous and nonviolent mode of sustaining social normativity, weave enactments of failure as such into the texture of a new Wittgensteinian or Loy-ian “way of life”: one that supplants the ideology of romantic lyric selfhood by restaging its defunct vestiges in ways that elicit analogously theatrical responses.
7. Lyric that communicates by way of reiterating more or less referentially opaque formal patterns stands vividly to model the kind of extreme egalitarianism theorized by many contemporary political theorists of radical democracy. Jacques Ranciere for instance characterizes the latter as “a new stage of equality”—the pun on stage significantly deflecting the norm of progressive development to the form of theatricality—a stage where the “different kinds of performances would be translated into one another . . . linking what one knows with what one does not know, of being at the same time performers who display their competences and visitors or spectators who are looking for what those competences may produce in a new context” (22). Frances Ferguson’s Pornography, The Theory builds upon this leveling effect of aesthetic comparison to propose a revolutionary upending of Foucault’s still widely influential, disciplinary reading of Benthamite social structures. Ferguson suggests that such structures, compelling perpetual comparison and ranking of individual performances, doesn’t subjugate the particular to abstract knowledge, but on the contrary “capture actions and give them extreme perceptibility” (xiv). She writes that “The action that a sports team performs in winning a game is not a matter of their spirit or heart, because attitude disappears in the score, which makes their victory as much a matter of their opponents as themselves” (xiv). Ferguson’s Benthamite model doesn’t promise complete release from compulsory disciplinary exercise of sublime subjectivity, but it suggests a way of accepting the inescapability of modernity’s disciplinary regime while nonetheless managing to exercise the relative autonomy, and to access the modicum of pleasure, afforded by aesthetic judgment. Despite its apparent de-individuation, such ranking enables especially intense attention to the particular in a way that liberates normativity from abstraction, allowing value to be recognized in radically concrete terms. At the conclusion of the contest, socially normative value assumes eminently material and mortal form in a fleeting ranking of various human bodies’ relative success at some vicissitude of corporeal being. Because this model defines such being exclusively in terms of social comparison, the “extreme perceptibility” Ferguson evokes does not fetishize individual bodily wholeness but underscores its inherent elusiveness, its fantastic or ideological status. Hence the body’s pornographically heightened perceptibility prepares images of socially normative value that do not foster but undermine the ideology of possessive individualism.
8. For instance, if Wordsworth’s Ode insists on the material provisionality of its own attempt to figure immortality by casting it as “another palm” in “another race,” his ballad “Simon Lee” does not directly praise the athletic heroics of the old huntsman’s past so much as posit the present inaccessibility of that past grandeur as a new normative poetic challenge. Rather than an elegy for the loss of the feudal cultural integrity emblematized by the young Simon’s athletic triumphs, Wordsworth casts his ballad as formally continuous with those old ritual contests. Thus the very act of mourning the loss of those contests is made into the basis for renewing them, although now on admittedly much more complex, tenuous terms, since competition now is less a matter of relative physical and aesthetic power than a matter of paradoxically acknowledging that modern skepticism can no longer abide the ideologically normative conceptualizations of such power.
9. Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, which marshals a faculty psychology contrasting the functions of reason and imagination to defend poetry as a means of correcting the “inability to imagine what we know.” But as Shelley’s repudiation—in both this essay and in Prometheus Unbound—of the atomic egoism and calculation typified by Milton’s Satan, attests, the individualistic model of selfhood that faculty psychology presupposes is itself a symptom of runaway rationalization, or, as Robert Kaufman has trenchantly emphasized, “calculation.” In a newly enlightened and ever more calculated and calculating age of industrial and consumer capitalism, the appeal to imagine symptomizes the same problem it laments in its inability to figure imagination otherwise than in terms of what Kant termed “the conflict of faculties.” For the common agency underlying Shelley conflicted faculties is one for whom the world has been reified and reduced to so much data and numbers to be processed and, especially, crunched. Hence Shelley’s emphasis on the metaphor of eating, lamenting that “we have eaten more than we can digest” as if the revolutionary imagination were but a supplement to reason, and salvation but a matter of activating a higher order organ in the consumerist GI system. But, the promise that consumerist frustrations can be resolved precisely by consuming more is the signature conceit of commodity fetishism’s topsy turvy world.
10. This is to suggest that Shelley’s defense of poetry hinges crucially on a defense of the imaginative capacity specifically for irony, a defense he fittingly advances through performative demonstration (rather than rational justification or empirical corroboration) of this capacity. The former method is fitting not only because it better accommodates irony’s multiple layers of signification. As Shelley (again ironically deploying Lockean empiricist terminology) says of a joyous child’s spontaneous exclamation, poetry “administers to the cause by acting upon the effect.” If, as Shelley suggests, the specific “cause” of imagination particular to his time is that of dissolving the boundaries that confine “Satanic” individualism and the empiricist observer of cause and effect, then this is a cause that cannot be directly but only indirectly espoused (or “administered to”) by “acting upon the effect” of such dissolution. But if what is thereby dissolved is the model of calculating subjectivity that underpins the discourse of cause and effect, then effecting such dissolution is tantamount to affecting it: this dissolution is not represented as such but negatively evoked by ironizing the discourse that would represent it. Instead of pretending voluntarily to relinquish calculating subjectivity only thereby implicitly to affirm it on a deeper level, Shelley turns its very inescapability against it, evoking a non-calculating and incalculable subjectivity not as a determinate cause unto itself but as an emphatically absent cause, an irreducibly indeterminate “shadow of futurity” obscuring present calculations, making effects seem to blur into affects, without revealing any new word or measure to lead out of the darkness.
11. Devotion to such an uncompromising irony, that allows resolution to figure only as a dim shadow of an unconceivable future, anticipates the rigorously negative aesthetics of art that, in Adorno’s words, “renounces happiness for the sake of happiness, thus enabling desire to survive in art” (15). It arguably also motivates Samuel Beckett’s famous directive, “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” Beckett’s injunction is instructive because it underscores that failure and hierarchical normativity are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Keats suggests that they are even mutually implicating—that the force of failure cannot be registered unless situated in framework of normative comparison—in his rehearsals of the mortal poet’s impossible desire to seduce gods. The infinite coldness and impassivity of the urn and of Autumn, whose perpetual resistance of determinate meaning and purpose allows the poet to explore infinite performative variations on his inevitable failure. Likewise both Lamia and the Eve of St. Agnes emphasize that love is both incompatible with and requires time, that it is only from within a time-bound perspective that the erotic dream of timelessness can appear as such. As Lamia particularly emphasizes, gods fall in love with mortals who strive to be god-like, which is what gods cannot do: there’s something wonderful about Lycius at the races appearing “like Jove” which Jove himself could never manifest. Lycius evokes temporal transcendence, just as Wordsworth had, by way of the trope of racing, as eminently human and temporal activity as there is. Like Simon Lee, Lamia and the Eve of St. Agnes rehearse the formal incapacity of narrative to contain its own story in ways that cannot be final and thus communicate only by eliciting contenting iterations of the same exercise. Thus the trajectory of Lamia’s narrative follows a series of rival picturings of Lamia, from Lycius’s initial bejeweled fantasy of her, to his revised vision of her as the snake struck down by Apollo, to the communal fantasy of her that intoxicates the banquet, to Apollonius’s final determination of her as the merely animal snake. Indeed the whole series of Keats odes is profitably read as a rival reiterations of the act of submission before infinitely remote and cold goddesses.
12. This series hangs together as such by virtue of turning failure into a kind of norm without thereby mitigating the specificity of particular instances of failure, each of Keats’s distinct poetic enactments of insufficient submission. Deleuze has emphasized a subversive potential in masochistic aesthetics that hinges upon a repetition of punishment by implied contract. The masochistic contract transforms punishment from an always somewhat contingent consequence of transgression that is to be awaited into a fantasy so zealously anticipated that it becomes integral to the transgression itself, transforming the latter into a kind of expression that thereby becomes plausibly, if paradoxically, a norm for transmission as such. This plausibility is due to the willingness of the parties contracted to give up supposed subjective interiority in exchange for an enhancement in the aesthetic tangibility and richness of the normative, communicative bonds than bind—and indeed constitute—them as discursive and social agents.
13. Perhaps Keats’s most vivid exploration of masochistic erotics is the following passage from the romance Lamia in which Lamia rapturously describes her lover Lyscius:
His passion, cruel grown, took on a hue
Fierce and sanguineous as ‘twas possible
In one whose brow had no dark veins to swell.
Fine was the mitigated fury, like
Apollo’s presence when in act to strike
The serpent—Ha, the serpent! Certes, she
Was none. She burnt, she loved the tyranny (II, ll. 75-81)
14. The “Ode on Melancholy” effects an analogous inversion of what it means to vanquish rivals and win the “trophy” without pretending to dispense with structural hierarchy. The poem issues an argument that relishing despair is the condition of relishing joy, but the poem ultimately enacts despair by way of its very failure to contain despair in such an argument. The poem concludes:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung. (ll. 25-30)
15. This reading applies especially well to the image of the tongue strenuously working to burst the grape, since that image, as evocative as it is, can be difficult to conjure since a grape might seem too dense and rubbery to easily imagine bursting, whereas, although the tongue is powerfully muscular, its power is diffuse rather than penetrating. A remarkable thing about the image of the tongue however is that in addition to being the emblem of receptive taste on the one hand and poetic voice on the other, the tongue is also a preeminent image of corporal compulsion: its muscle is naked and free-floating, unhinged from the skeletal mechanism. The tongue represents aesthetic purposiveness without purpose in terms both of aesthetic receptivity and of autonomous poetic agency, but also precisely the opposite of this; i.e., insatiable exertion, wild convulsions in the void, a terrifying rather than edifying, monstrous rather than beautiful, disconnection from use, purpose or effect. What the two aspects of Keats’s image finally do then is point out the dialectical inextricability of beauty and monstrosity. Keats’s images of the tongue's unhinged muscle and of the snake's mere animality revel in a kind of phallic humiliation, flaunt it like a trophy.
16. Reading the image this way also makes it, as an image, self-frustrating, since the image does something at odds with what it’s supposedly saying. Thus this masochistic aesthetic is not just communicated by the poem’s rhetoric, but is integral to the operation of that rhetoric as such, a contract to which we as readers might or might not choose to make ourselves parties. To choose to do so is to anticipate one’s own personal frustration but it is also thereby to cast that frustration not as idiosyncratically one’s own but as a moment in a social series. As Leo Bersani has compellingly suggested, the subversive potential of subaltern sexuality stems not from divestment but investment in norms of sociability, specifically what he terms “impersonal intimacy” (69).
17. Democracy’s historical symbiosis with capitalism makes it easy to underappreciate its revolutionary normative investment in failure: in defeat, not as something coercively compelled but freely conceded, the willingness of leaders voluntarily to cede power in consequence of popular opinion. Blake’s “The Lamb” evokes this by casting democratic equality as the shadow of authoritarian hierarchy. Its counterpart song, "The Tyger," is an iconically romantic example of form assimilating content as the poem’s compulsive rhythm provides an answer of sorts to its queries about the origin of power. But this answer works as a answer only by virtue of to some degree deflecting these queries; Blake evokes sublimity by demonstrating a failure to representationally contain it, inviting readers to give up the attempt to transmit a certain knowledge or meaningful content in favor of perpetuating a certain formal pattern. But it seems crucial that this pattern does not altogether displace the concern for representational content; rather it is a pattern precisely of displacements of the concern for such content; likewise Ranciere’s new stage of equality remains dialectically dependent upon the mystifications of power and knowledge that they would dispel. The promised autonomy is always only relative. Such equivocation is engaged by the form of "The Lamb" to a degree that that of "The Tyger" doesn’t allow. For instance, where the latter only poses questions, and thereby upholds the conceit of sublimely unequivocal answers, "The Lamb" also wagers answers that it can’t deny remain rhetorical. Such equivocation bespeaks less than complete enthrallment to sublime power, and allows a more nuanced kind of rhythm to emerge, a rhythm of such equivocation itself. Yet the lamb is a nonetheless radical critique of hierarchical power, which is most trenchant in its parody of catechism as an exercise in grammatical declension, mocking the pretense to divine instruction as a exercise in distinguishing among first, second and third person just as Blake’s plate for the “The Fly” evoked the game of badminton to mock Cartesian dualism.
18. It’s tempting to view the Lamb as a relatively facile, utopian dissolution of hierarchy; not just the pedagogical hierarchy separating teacher and pupil, adult and child, but also those distinguishing between human and animal and god and human. But hierarchy is unequivocally affirmed in the form of an abstracted, impersonal imperative—“little lamb, god bless thee”—a command that is addressed to neither a first personal I or second personal you but a third person of a higher order, god. The reader is invited to read this third person as simply the outcome of the leveling of the hierarchically divided first and second person; yet this ostensible dissolution of hierarchy conceals its implicit reinstatement in the form of a subject who is, so to speak, more equal than the others by virtue of its prerogative to speak to and for god. Thus Blake undermines his own poem’s promise to absolve the concretely, even violently differentiating grammar of language and of hierarchical social power. Instead he demonstrates how our very intimation of divine meekness and disenfranchisement dialectically depends upon unjustifiable claims to commanding power. Like Ranciere, Blake doesn’t abolish hierarchy in the classroom but virtualizes it: theatricalizes it to the point that my authority to catechize you ultimately derives from nowhere but my capacity to emulate your teachability. This is not to dissolve hierarchy so much as to effect a shift in its ontological status: hierarchy is no longer a worldly reality but a theatrical fantasy that, itself unreal, necessarily frames any presently conceivable reality. If drawing this distinction doesn’t realize utopian egalitarianism, it enables an at least relatively autonomous play of aesthetic spectatorship that is empowered if not to level arbitrary authorities then at least to expose their arbitrariness: to draw analogies between ostensibly real forms of ecclesiastic authority and apparently contingent forms of grammar. Dissolving ourselves collectively into these quantities of first, second, and third persons finally mobilizes such contingency as what Ferguson characterized as an aesthetic residue of heightened perceptibility, a rhythmic pattern whose sheer aesthetic there-ness opens readers up to a perspective that is beyond the will to know and command but also short of Dionysian or divine ecstasy; a non-domineering attentiveness, a curiosity to explore the world structured around these hierarchies of power if not escape it; to discover and learn in more promiscuous and variegated ways than those hierarchies have time for. Thus the pornographic image engages what Ferguson construes as romantic formalism’s “sense of form per se, the ability to continue a series or a pattern, in a way that ceases to rely altogether on the existence of any object.“ According to Ferguson, where modern criticism tends to see a sublime “gap” [between subject and object, norm and fact, self and other, etc.], Romantic formalism “sees an interval . . . . The interval represents the formalist discovery of the patterning of language as at least as important as its ostensible referents.” Romantic formalism makes communication just as much a matter of reference as “the spirit animating paraphrase, an exchange of what you mean for what I would say, and in which the coordination of meaning counts neither as oppression nor as formal accident” (Solitude and the Sublime 169).
19. In conclusion it seems worth noting that ranking is arguably the characteristic bane of the contemporary humanities academy. On the one hand, to the extent that one is at all beholden to a Marxian framework of analysis, one is committed to rooting out homogenization of value. On the other hand however, due to increasing commercialization of the academy and more broad-scale socioeconomic pressures, actual academic praxis is ever more implicated in just such homogenization, whether in the form of grading coursework, making admissions and hiring decisions, appraising the teaching and research of subordinates and peers, and evaluating grant proposals, departments and institutions, not to mention being on the receiving end of evaluation by peers, superiors and, now more insistently and consequentially than ever, students.
20. But the lesson of the above, and of so much humanistic critique, is one that bears repeating: the only way out is deeper in. To return to “The Fly:” if Cartesian conceptualism reduces life to a game of badminton, then the lesson is not to replace this violence with equally conceptual espousal of nonviolence. The lesson is instead to try to tarry with the negative side of Blake’s analogy, to accept as such the game we’ve been unwittingly playing all along, to inhabit its rhythms and form, and thereby—“spontaneously” as it were—find ourselves embodying a less violent, more lyrical “way of life.”
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