Mieszkowski, "Tragedy and the War of the Aesthetic"

Schelling and Romanticism

Tragedy and the War of the Aesthetic

Jan Mieszkowski, Reed College

  1. Over the past two decades, interest in the "aestheticization of politics" has turned philosophical discourses on perception, taste, and beauty into important research areas for the study of ideology, state violence, and social justice. While this may be due to efforts to broaden literary studies to include more political and cultural issues, the disciplinary assumptions at work are not new. Aesthetics is a discourse in which the autonomy of the cognitive faculties with regards to material reality is both forcefully confirmed and denied. In marking the limit of a purely rationalist model of representation and experience, it demands that we analyze judgment not simply as a logical operation, but as a complex economy of pleasure and pain. To identify and explore the subversive possibilities of aesthetics, in short, is a thoroughly classical gesture.

  2. Yet even with the most innovative configurations of affect and intelligibility, it is hard to dispel the suspicion that aesthetics may ultimately be a reactionary field, the flight of critical thought from real exigencies via the fanciful whims of the imagination. At the end of the eighteenth century, as the Idealist reconceptualization of negativity which continues to shape modern theory began, these difficulties were explored in one of the oldest figures for the interactions of reason, affect, and violence: tragedy. Juxtaposing the work of Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Schiller, this essay will examine tragedy as a specific disruption in the relationship between aesthetics and politics. The disruption takes place at the site of art's "militarization," the point at which the medium and the mechanics of expression divide, not in indifference, but in strife. This conflict, I will argue, marks the emergence of a language that demonstrates its aesthetic and political authority only by undermining its very status as language.

  3. Recent scholarship has announced a Schelling renaissance. A thinker who influenced the nineteenth century from Feuerbach to Nietzsche is finally getting his due in the twentieth century, proving himself to be more than just an intermediary step in the development of philosophy from Leibniz to Hegel. Far from simply equaling his better known contemporaries, Schelling, once criticized for failing to develop a single coherent system, is lauded for doing more than simply repeating and refining a model established by others. In these terms, he is the only member of his generation to point the way beyond a philosophy of the subject, exposing speculative thought to a range of implications and possibilities one would not expect to find until Marx or Kierkegaard.

  4. This trend in the criticism may simply represent a change in the reading of Schelling, or it may be part of a broader reevaluation of Idealist thought. Nowhere is this question more confusing than with the concept of system. With post-Kantian thought, our routine association of the term with notions of methodology or regularity drawn from the natural sciences is misleading. In an early review of Fichte's Science of Knowledge, Schelling writes: "System we call only such a whole [Ganzes] as supports itself [das sich selbst trägt], something contained within itself [in sich selbst beschlossen] [that] presupposes [voraussetzt] no external ground for its movements and its coherence" (Treatise 101-102)[1]. This "system" is the opposite of an investigative or experimental procedure that processes external data. It cannot be reduced to a function of observation, distinguished as a particular perspective, or defined by its capacity to incorporate or assimilate an "other." Anything but insignificant in its pretensions, this system may dictate the workings of the cosmos, but it cannot be evaluated in terms of how it presents itself to something outside itself or how it constructs meaning through or from an "object." It is in this sense that the human spirit is systematic:

    For if the human spirit is primordially autonomous, it is a being that not only supports (trägt) within itself the ground but also the limit (Grenze) of its own being and its reality, and whose limits consequently cannot be determined by anything external, a self-contained and intrinsically complete totality, a monogram, as it were, of freedom constructed out of the infinite and the finite. (Treatise 100)
    The familiar Kantian idea of autonomy as something you freely give to yourself as if you already had it is here formulated as an agency that grounds and limits itself by presupposing nothing more or less than the anticipation of the presupposition of itself. To presuppose itself as anything more than its own presupposition would require this entity to compromise its primordial autonomy by exposing itself to limits and grounds not uniquely its own. The question is whether Schelling thereby replaces inquiry into the grounds of grounds with inquiry into the presupposition of presuppositions. Does he equate presupposition and ground? Or to ask this another way: Will this self-limiting/self-grounding autonomy prove to be inherently self-destructive and dissolve in its own particularity, or can this system constitute a ground for schemas of self-reflection and self-production on which a rationalist logic and epistemology can be founded?
  5. During the 1790s, these problems were explored in debates about how many philosophical systems exist and whether one can "choose" among them. Schelling's Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, written in 1795 (approximately two years before the passages cited above), has long been recognized as a crucial intervention in these arguments. The text is organized as a series of letters addressed to a fictional interlocutor whose imaginary commentaries serve as the impetus for each subsequent contribution. In the most general terms, the discussion develops as a contrast between criticism and dogmatism, an opposition which is also described as idealism versus realism and Kantianism versus Spinozism. For Schelling, the two projects share a common goal, namely, the perfecting of human knowledge through the articulation of a single absolute principle that would dissolve any contradiction between subject and object. Criticism demands that the objective order vanish in the self's intellectual intuition of itself, while dogmatism insists on the absolute identity of the object at the expense of the subject.

  6. From the start, it is clear that Schelling is not simply denigrating one project at the expense of the other. Indeed, his first move is to proceed against the Kantians of his time and locate in the first Critique the possibility, even the necessity, for both a system of criticism and a system of dogmatism. For Schelling, Kant's philosophy is radical not because it sets forth a single, homogenous system, nor because it synthesizes different systems into a coherent whole, but because it gives rise to two absolutely opposed systems. Schelling's analysis develops not as the effort to subsume philosophy under one lone principle, but following Fichte, as the attempt to explain the inevitability of opposition or clash (Gegensätzlichkeit).

  7. Several questions thus present themselves: Do criticism and dogmatism cancel one another out, stabilize in a balanced equilibrium, or prove to be utterly indifferent to one another's existence? Can we speak of one system "contaminating" the other, or do the two merge in a productive dialectic? The stakes are high, for as Schelling emphasizes, philosophy is nothing other than the workings of this inter-system dynamic. To the extent that the essential plurality of system cannot be sustained, there can be no freedom of thought, no creativity, and no praxis of reason (Philosophical 170).

  8. This final qualification about praxis is crucial. While both criticism and dogmatism privilege the absolute synthesis of subject and object as their ultimate goal, this does not, as has often been assumed, amount to the empty hypostatization of a tautological statement of identity. Schelling stresses that neither criticism nor dogmatism tolerates what Kant would call a theoretical solution to its demand. The demand to realize the unconditioned absolute leads beyond the capacities of cognition to the realm of freedom and practical philosophy. Criticism and dogmatism unite, writes Schelling, in their demand for an "object of action," in their demand "for the action by which the absolute is realized," the free act by which subject and object, pure and practical reason, are made one ("Philosophical Letters" 190-91).

  9. Philosophy, whether as criticism or dogmatism, begins in and as a demand, but this demand does not posit the absolute as an object the spirit will encounter (in which case we would still be dealing with theoretical philosophy and questions of knowledge), and it does not present itself as a paradigm for conceptual logic (in which case the demand would simply be a transcendental principle of the understanding and have nothing to do with freedom whatsoever). The demand for the absolute demands only the ground and limit of its own demand, i.e., it asks for that in virtue of which it will be a demand, for the very difference between knowledge and action, between pure and practical reason. The demand demands the grounds of demand. This does not mean that criticism's demand for absolute subjectivity or dogmatism's demand for objective identity is a self-realizing performance, a circular schema in which the absolute act of synthesizing subject and object proves retrospectively to have been identical with the demand for it. In contrast to such a reflexive model, the demand for the act of the absolute confers upon the absolute no form and no content; it does not figure or prefigure it, and it does not lay down the parameters of its own enumeration. The demand exists, then, only as the permanent negation of its status as either subjective or objective thesis, as the denial that it is a proposition of criticism or dogmatism.

  10. From this standpoint, Schelling is in a position to distinguish between criticism and dogmatism. The former system, he explains, never regards itself as having achieved the absolute, and in fact, it views the goal for which it strives as essentially unrealizable. Once criticism views its goal as something, which can be achieved, it becomes dogmatism. This may mean that for criticism, the demand for absolute synthesis is identical with the impossibility of realizing the demand, in which case criticism is an action, which takes place only by failing to actualize itself. This would in turn suggest that criticism exists as a self-grounding, self-limiting system precisely by not existing, or, more damningly, that criticism, in treating its goal as unrealizable, confirms that its goal has in some sense always already been reached. If this is so, then criticism is always (also) dogmatism.

  11. Schelling does not have a great deal to say on these points. The ninth letter ends here, and the tenth begins by taking us back to the initial problem which prompted the first:

    You are right, one thing remains: To know that there is an objective power which threatens our freedom with annihilation, and, with this firm and certain conviction in our heart, to fight against it exerting our whole freedom, and thus to go down. You are doubly right, my friend, because this possibility must be preserved for art even after having vanished in the light of reason; it must be preserved for the highest in art. (Philosophical 192).
    The imaginary interlocutor's initial objection at the beginning of the text was that a philosophy grounded in a moral good undermines the possibility for sublimely tragic struggle. At that point, Schelling argued that such a position misunderstands the Kantian conception of God and the postulates of pure practical reason. By the tenth letter, however, it has still not become clear how freedom and an aesthetic capacity are to co-exist, and it appears that neither criticism nor dogmatism can provide a definite account of the power which makes possible a struggle against the infinite, an account, that is, of how the subject will answer the imperative "Be!" without abandoning itself to the absolute.[2] Indeed, Schelling's abrupt designation of art as the one region in which this possibility can be preserved has put reason on the defensive, highlighting its failings rather than celebrating its capacities.
  12. Schelling's subsequent discussion of Greek tragedy has been viewed as the most important contribution of the Philosophical Letters, often to the point that the passage is read as a complete doctrine in its own right, in isolation from the rest of the work. With the Greeks, explains Schelling, the hero is punished for succumbing to the power of fate. This fate is an inherently superior power ("eine Übermacht"), a power against which the hero fights ("kämpft"), but in the face of which he could never hope to be successful (192-93). For Schelling, it is this defeat and this defeat alone that constitutes the recognition of freedom. Only when the hero is lost before the fact, only when he enters into a conflict in which he is, as it were, always-already defeated, does he demonstrate that he is free.

  13. Peter Szondi has described this argument as a recuperative movement in which freedom arises phoenix-like from the ashes of disaster, confirming its steadfast authority against all odds (45). In these terms, the loss involved in Greek tragedy is not absolute; if anything, it is a figure for the productive force of negativity, whereby Schelling's theory of tragedy is said to be a forerunner of the Hegelian dialectic. The problem with such an interpretation is that while freedom may be recognized, affirmed, even honored, it definitely does not triumph. There is, Schelling stresses more than once, never any reconciliation of freedom and fate. Nor is there an exchange of determinations whereby extending the logic of freedom inexorably leads us to the standpoint of fate, or vice versa. Freedom and fate are not specular opposites, and they are definitely not stand-ins for criticism and dogmatism. Echoing Kant, who muses at the end of the second Critique about the permanent state of fear and trembling which would attend a more direct, unhampered relation to the moral law, Schelling hastily reminds us that this tragic dynamic is conceivable only within the strict limits of art, and were it ever to take place as a human event, then humans would have to become a "race of titans" to survive its consequences (Philosophical 194).[3] In other words, the fact that the loss of freedom is in some sense "restricted" to art does not make it any less of a loss. Freedom is won through its failure, but it must continue to distinguish itself from this failure, or it is no longer freedom. Only a resistance which risks everything is evidence of freedom, but only a resistance which fails to risk everything—which fails, in other words, to risk its own failure—is free rather than objectively necessary. This is why Schelling views the essential incompatibility of freedom and failure with such concern. In Greek tragedy, freedom is not "rescued" by some "negation of negation"; it is rather articulated as negation's failure to relate determinately to itself, as negation's repetition of itself rather than its turn against itself. In these terms, the essence of art is hopeless struggle ("Kampf") (Philosophical 192-193). We speak today, perhaps far too casually, of the aestheticization of politics, but here the demands of philosophy run up against the barbarization, even militarization, of the aesthetic—something, which for Schelling was evidently much scarier than a lapse into the fanciful representations of Schwärmerei.

  14. To be sure, this is not the dimension of his text that Schelling himself championed. When he returns to these problems in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Art, he describes tragedy as the collision of freedom and necessity, but now the conflict is resolved such that the two impulses triumph and lose, culminating (or perhaps collapsing) into absolute indifference (251-63). In a similar fashion, the System of Transcendental Idealism ends with the determination of artistic production as the infinite opposition of the conscious and the unconscious, a determination in which art becomes the construction of knowledge as such (esp. 219-32). In both cases, freedom is essentially exposed to its other and is permanently open to demise, but tragedy is now the pinnacle rather than the limit of reason.

  15. These changes in Schelling's work can be understood as evidence of the increasing importance of art for philosophical understandings of the self. At the same time, it is important to note that in these two later texts, the perspective on tragedy is the perspective of criticism, whereas the tenth of the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism retains traces of Schelling's insistence on the inevitability of two essentially different systems. Could there also be, we wonder, a dogmatic, or at least a non-critical, tragedy?

  16. In the dramas of German Classicism, reason's exposure to the challenge of tragedy and its potential transformation of humanity into a race of titans is explored in terms of a linguistic praxis that would be neither subjective nor objective, neither critical nor dogmatic, yet which would confront us with a power in virtue of which we would face the possibility and impossibility of who we are. Two scenes from Friedrich Schiller's Maria Stuart will illustrate the point.

  17. Schiller's œuvre, like Schelling's, is a sustained engagement with Kantian thought. In contemporary discourse, Schiller has played the role of the bad Kantian. At best, he is said to highlight the dualistic facets of his predecessor's work without regard for the subtleties of the arguments; at worst, he is accused of turning the transcendental analytic into an account of empirical hopes and fears in the quest for a more entertaining theater. Nothing about these criticisms is in any sense new; they were regularly heard during Schiller's lifetime. A first glance at Maria Stuart indicates why this might be the case. Delicately combining passion and intrigue, drive and whim, the play is an aesthete's delight, the crowning triumph of an impulse that strives to articulate formal with psychological structures in a seamless union of the sensuous with the intelligible that confirms the vital integrity of dramatic production and its idealizing representation of a universal humanity. This Trauerspiel seems to have little to do with the Greek dramas in which Schelling locates an unyielding power of fate, and it appears to contain only the faintest echo of the inhuman voice of conscience or the haunted will we find in Kant or Hegel.

  18. The highpoint of Maria Stuart is neatly situated at the center of the middle act where the two protagonists, Mary and Elizabeth, confront one another in a duel of identity and difference. Catholic faces Protestant, beautiful seductress faces virgin monarch, legitimate heir faces unlawful ruler, only to find that their stylized contrast provides the impetus for a more complex relation between self and other in which each confirms her autonomy only through her simultaneous incorporation and rejection of her foe. Plot and character are thus neatly aligned in the phenomenalization of a specular ideal that in turn glorifies the presentational powers of the stage.

  19. Still, as is often the case in Schiller, the ramifications of this balancing act are far from clear. On the one hand, the scene can be viewed as the turning point of the characters' respective fortunes. As Mary gains inner freedom and becomes more beautiful, Elizabeth loses her moral authority and becomes more like a phantom. As Mary accepts death and approaches martyrdom, Elizabeth nears political impotence, becoming a figure of incompleteness, imbalance or failure. On the level of form and substance, the economy of gain and loss through the final two acts is exactingly self-contained.

  20. On the other hand, it is equally plausible to suggest that the confrontation of the two queens contributes little to the course of the plot. Mary's fate was sealed from the beginning, which is to say that throughout the play the very difference between freedom and fate is constantly at risk of being suspended. In this respect, the scene in which the two meet face to face in verbal combat is a testimony to the impossibility of establishing a genuine exchange between them. "It has happened [Es ist geschehen]", announces Lord Leicester when the two women first encounter one another on the field, not simply celebrating the fact that his intrigues have brought them together, but also spelling out the play's major ideological hope: when Mary and Elizabeth are on stage with one another, it is imperative that something happen (336)[4]. Something ought to happen; exactly what happens may be of secondary interest. Precisely what does not happen is a genuine clash between the two, a clash in which one sovereign challenges the other on her own terms. In Schelling's language, Kunst does not become Kampf. This is not because Mary and Elizabeth meet one another as a consequence of the scheming of others rather than on their own initiative, nor is it because they secretly like or admire one another. More crucially, Mary and Elizabeth defend incompatible accounts of the relationship between language and the praxis of freedom.

  21. From the perspective of Mary Queen of Scots, it has been of paramount importance from the start of the play that she speak to Elizabeth and plead for clemency. Now, face to face with her adversary, it is more important that Elizabeth speak and free her: "Pronounce those words / Which you have come here to pronounce," says Mary, adding, "Pronounce those words! Say to me: Mary, you are free! [Sprecht es aus, das Wort, um dessentwillen Ihr gekommen. [Sprecht dieses Wort aus: Sagt mir, Ihr seid frei, Mary]" (339-40). As long as Elizabeth reveals that she has come in order to say something, as long as she has met Mary for the sake of her Wort, there is hope for the prisoner. Elizabeth thus proves to be a confounding sovereign not because she lacks rivalrous impulses or decision-making abilities, but because she refuses to cede to a linguistic paradigm in which her speech would have the power to make demands. Elizabeth speaks a language in flight from performance, in flight from its power to liberate, in flight from its very status as language. The key to her stance is her conviction that no utterance can inaugurate an exchange in which it could ensure a return on its speculation: "What pledge would guarantee you for me if / I were so generously to set you free? [Welches Pfand gewährt mich?]" (339). To Elizabeth's mind, there is no counter pronouncement that will answer her pronouncement with a security deposit: Kein Wort wird zum Pfand gesetzt. The pronouncement of freedom inaugurates no system of checks and balances. It is radically a-legislative.

  22. In its singular freedom, a truly liberating utterance can submit nobody, not even itself, to a law or principle. Accordingly, the pronouncement of freedom neither confirms nor denies freedom. "One word," pleads Mary, "and all will be as if it never happened [Ein Wort macht alles ungeschehen]," not only stating a conviction about Elizabeth's power to set her free, but also making clear that once this pronouncement is articulated, there is nothing else to be done—or more precisely, everything will be undone, since, among other things, Mary's freedom will have been freed from the pronouncement that would set it free (340).

  23. The language of freedom is to be a language free from language, a language so free that in its very demonstration of freedom's dependence on language, it frees freedom from this dependence. This "Wort" will transpire in such a way that nothing happens or will have happened. To argue, as do the characters throughout the play, that it is only in and because of the monarch's language that we know that something like freedom is possible at all suggests that it is only in the destruction of the language of freedom that freedom is realized, only in language's essential non-occurrence. The climactic encounter of the two queens in the third act thus becomes increasingly mechanical as Mary becomes more and more aware that it doesn't really matter what Elizabeth says to her as long as she enters into an economy in which her pronouncements can do some-thing that happens as no-thing or make something un-happen without itself happening.

  24. To be sure, Elizabeth's flight from performative speech is by no means self-evidently a success. The issue reimposes itself in the final act of the play when, after her lengthy wranglings about Mary's fate, Elizabeth hands her secretary Davidson Mary's death warrant with her (i.e., Elizabeth's) signature on it. Arguably, this gesture is at odds with everything that has just been said about the play. Far from situating herself outside a system of exchange in which the freedom of words garners a freedom that is anything but more words, Elizabeth appears to have set her name into play against her foe, or at least, against the name of her foe. The subsequent discussion of Elizabeth's actions, however, complicates matters. Seeing the death warrant, Davidson exclaims: "You have decided?" Elizabeth immediately rejoins: "I was supposed to sign it. I have done so. A piece of paper does not yet decide. A name does not kill [Davison: Du hast entschieden? / Elisabeth: Unterschreiben sollt ich. / Ich habs getan. Ein Blatt Papier entscheidet / Noch nicht, ein Name tötet nicht]" (368). Whereas Lord Leicester previously worried that while something ought to happen, it might not, Elizabeth now argues that the fact that something ought to happen should remove any concern as to whether it actually has. Elizabeth thereby reverses Mary's logic according to which the queen's speech, the possibility of freedom, would destroy itself in the realization of freedom.

  25. Appalled by the monarch's account of the situation, Davidson vehemently protests that in this case Elizabeth's name on this piece of paper, a death warrant, decides everything and does kill. His queen calmly replies that the paper is now in his hands, and he will be responsible for what befalls the Scottish woman. Panicking, Davidson asks what he is to do with the writ, whereupon Elizabeth answers, "It is a death warrant. Its name says it all [Es ist ein Blutbefehl. Sein Name spricht es aus]" (369, translation modified). More, Elizabeth tells Davidson, she will not say, adding, in an allusion to her earlier conflict with Mary, that she has already pronounced "das Wort." The pronouncement of freedom—"Blutbefehl"—is a freeing pronouncement, provided, of course, it is treated as anything but something which has been validated or signed for. The word "performs" its magic only divorced from a structure of intention or responsibility that would authorize it to perform anything. The word performs, but only in its impotence, only in its relational bankruptcy, divorced from any magic of signatures or titles, royal or divine, which could distinguish it from any other word or establish it as a meaningful proclamation or command.

  26. One could object to this reading of Maria Stuart by arguing that within the broader designs of the play, the problems raised by Elizabeth's interventions are wholly reincorporated into a psychological schema in which Mary's revenge is all but complete. In the closing scene, the Scottish queen receives communion, and her priest assures her, "The word is dead; belief gives life [Das Wort ist tot, der Glaube macht lebendig]" (380). Elizabeth, in turn, is left without friends, lovers, or advisors, her sovereignty intact but her life in shambles. It is nevertheless unclear if the priest's pronouncement describes Mary's triumph, i.e., her freedom, or Elizabeth's, i.e., her ability to speak the word that kills the word. In Schiller, the unrestricted freedom of the word proves, ironically, to mark the very absence of ambiguity, undecidability, or polysemia. This is a formalism, and it is a reduction; but it cannot be labeled an idealism any more than it can be called a materialism. The word, the free word—the word of language's freedom, the demand for the act whereby language would be free—is the name for language's infinite exposure to a stasis, to an economy in which words neither substitute for nor displace other words, an economy in which language facilitates no distinctions—transformations, anamorphoses or anything else—that would ground the difference between a language of events and an event of language. "Es ist geschehen." "Ein Wort macht alles ungeschehen." In her odd behavior, Elizabeth, Queen of England, offers a glimpse of a free dogmatic language, a language that renders undecidable the question of whether its performative power is autonomous in virtue of its capacity to escape its status as free or its status as language. This is tragedy: the militarized aesthetic, the Kampfkunst der Freiheit.


    1 German references are from Sämmtliche Werke, volume 1.

    2 Peter Szondi interprets this passage as evidence that "Schelling himself seems to have perceived that neither of these possibilities [criticism and dogmatism] sufficiently recognized the power of the Objective, since even where the Objective is triumphant, due to the absolute passivity of the subject, it owes its victory to the subject" (44).

    3 Cf. Critique of Practical Reason (153-155).

    4 German references within quotations from Schiller are derived from Schillers Werke, edited by Benno von Wiese and Lieselotte Blumenthal.

    Works Cited

    Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason. Trans. Lewis Beck. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

    Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von. "Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism." The Unconditional in Human Knowledge: Four Early Essays. Trans. Fritz Marti. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1980.

    ---. The Philosophy of Art. Trans. and ed. Douglas Stott. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989.

    ---. Sämmtliche Werke. Vol. 1. Ed. K. F. A. Schelling. Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856-61.

    ---. System of Transcendental Idealism. Trans. Peter Heath. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993.

    ---. "Treatise Explicatory of the Idealism in the Science of Knowledge." Rev. of Science of Knowledge by Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Idealism and The Endgame of Theory: Three Essays by F. W. J. Schelling. Ed. and trans. Thomas Pfau. Albany: SUNY P, 1994.

    Schiller, Friedrich. Schillers Werke (Nationalausgabe) Vol. 9. Eds. Benno von Wiese and Lieselotte Blumenthal. Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1948.

    ---. Wallenstein and Maria Stuart. Trans. Charles E. Passage. New York: Continuum, 1991.

    Szondi, Peter. "The Notion of the Tragic in Schelling, Hölderlin, and Hegel." On Textual Understanding and Other Essays. Trans. Harvey Mendelsohn. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1986.