Response: A Love Supreme

The Triumph of Life compels us to read it, asserting how much reading, Romanticism, and reading Romanticism are all different modalities of compulsion that structure our cultural, historical, and material lives. Yet as much as the origins of this volume might have been based on this insight, each of the essays collected here alight upon a dimension of Shelley’s poem—for Khalip the figure of the last, for Fay the notion of the pre-vocative beyond, for Pyle the operations of the minor, and for Washington the activity of post-Newtonian light—that eschews the compulsions of visuality for an encounter with in Fay a non-optical alterity and in the other three something defined by either its own passing, boundedness, or willingness to let go. In doing so, these latest readings of Shelley’s work are not so much compelled by the triumph of (human) life as energized by the emergence of a Shelleyan queer love defined more by the act of non-possession than anything else.

Response: A Love Supreme

1.        Inviting me to be the respondent for the MLA panel on The Triumph of Life (1822) that evolved into this RC Praxis volume, Joel Faflak sent me an email to explain how he and Jacques Khalip had discussed “how certain Romantic texts require repeated unearthing and burial—require/compel our productively melancholic attachment to them. . . . We just thought it would be cool to devote a whole panel to one poem in order to demonstrate precisely its compulsive hold on our critical imaginations (a la de Man).”

2.        I quote Joel in order to identify what I found so compelling about his invitation: the equation between reading The Triumph and the fact of compulsion itself as a main, perhaps necessary component of critical thought—how Romantic texts like The Triumph “compel our productively melancholic attachment to them,” how they demonstrate their “compulsive hold on our critical imaginations.” Certainly, we become in thrall to The Triumph, just as the captive multitudes are to Life’s chariot. There’s also something viral about the trope of compulsion, where reading and writing about compulsion compels, necessitates, our attention as well. Anyone coming near Shelley’s poem, along with the meta-commentary that accompanies it and, by extension, Romanticism, knows what I mean. Once the compulsion of, or about, The Triumph takes hold, it’s hard to look away.

3.        Let’s make no mistake: compulsion might not simply or essentially be a bad thing. If, for example, agency is impossible perhaps compulsion will do. If one inhabits a post-revolutionary age, like Shelley’s or our own neo-liberal end of history, a compulsion to reenact the trauma of radical social change, to refuse to let go of the possibility of that event, might be the necessary first breach toward fashioning whatever type of art, thought, or politics one wants to carry out next. Likewise, the compulsion to read Romanticism, so well allegorized in de Man’s "Shelley Disfigured," might be of some comfort when market forces have the institution of Romantic studies under siege—when, contrary to my opening observations, so many of our academic higher ups, colleagues, and students don’t really seem compelled by Romanticism at all. Yet perhaps because of this nexus of compulsion, Romanticism and reading still seems so readily available for us to intuit; I’d like to ask if that’s really the only existing option open to us with regard to our encounter with Romanticism and its texts. And what might it mean, for a poem like The Triumph and its force field of meanings, if that wasn’t the case?

4.        Catherine Malabou gets at something like this when she asks whether anything can exist truly detached, unattached to anything else, in Hegel (612–24). But I’m wondering if we can even talk simply about attachments that don’t immediately ratchet themselves up to the affects and intensities of compulsion per se. More exactly, is there a way to encounter The Triumph without seeing its attachments as well as our attachments to it as purely compulsive? Amanda Jo Goldstein’s recent, agile Lucretian reading of Shelley’s poem, in which senescence and the waning of vitalist life are actually privileged over the intensely cathected relations of a triumphalist bio-politics, would seem to say yes. Similarly, W. J. T. Mitchell gives us a certain language to help think this issue through, which we can consider, with a sidelong glance to The Triumph, as the question of history: is it possible to consider history as something besides either a fetish or an idol, the latter of which we must either submit to as idolatry or attack iconoclastically? Can we, would we, want to conceive of history as instead a totem—as that term means in the Ojibwa language, a relative or friend (175, 184)?

5.        Mitchell’s options—fetish, idol, and totem—are, of course, terms he applies to our relationships with images, with objects in the world (188–99). But if Shelley’s Triumph is about history or history’s disfigurement, that history is by and large composed of images and other sensory phenomena. The poem brims over with objects that demand or invite a reflection on the question of sensation, on our sensory relations with the world, whether they necessarily become fetishistic or idolatrous or if they’re able to manage the energies of compulsion and remain more modestly totemic instead. De Man for one tried to move his reading of The Triumph away from the physical aspects of language (59–69), but the role of sensation is still very much an unavoidable part of anyone’s engagement, linguistically or phenomenologically, with this work. So, the question of compulsion with regard to The Triumph seems also to be in many ways about how the senses work in this poem, how senses might idolize or fetishize, or be idolized or fetishized in turn; how they might figure a compulsive relation or become the object of compulsion, and how as figures the physical senses seem both to define and wander aggressively beyond our encounter with the medium of the printed or scripted word, the act of reading qua reading as well.

6.        Fredric Jameson’s observation about the inherently pornographic nature of film brings much of what I’m trying to articulate together, where film’s pornographic character means the visual has “its end in rapt, mindless, fascination,” with film asking us to stare at the world “as though it were a naked body” (1). Yet his claim also has to be balanced against Rei Terada’s consideration of the meaning of optics in one of Keats’s own fragmentary poems, Hyperion (1820), where looking seems also to embody the question of the non-phenomenal possibility of cognition itself (277), a query that de Man’s reading of The Triumph answers in the negative with a linguistic violence perhaps not that distant from the pornographic energies unleashed in Jameson’s characterization of film. The visual then, might realize mindless compulsion or complicate the mind’s operation in a way not simply or only about sensory experience, insofar as that experience itself is also in some way about what cognition should, can, or can’t do.

7.        It’s with these questions in mind—can you approach The Triumph in a way separate from compulsion? And how does The Triumph ask this through its multi-layered, formal and thematic sensory overload?—that I looked forward to seeing how the four adventurous readings in this volume might encounter Shelley’s poem. I wasn’t disappointed. Jacques Khalip seemed to be reading my mind when he references his own haunting attachment to a close-to-last line of The Triumph, “as if that look must be the last,” and, indeed, to the meme, sensation, or trope of the last that for Khalip underwrites so much of the poem. But Khalip’s attachment to the last seems in fact to be about detachment, a recognition, oftentimes erotic, as in Rousseau, of the last both as and before the moment of letting go. A spectral structure, the last is the impossible end point by which the exhaustion of frisson, the end of compulsion is imaged as if, even as that end is imaged as the last image, the last look, the last sense of sensation. I take that exquisitely subtle calculus to be the point of Khalip’s fabulous close reading of the “coercive logic of The Triumph’s spectacular visuality,” the poet’s eyes sick with the sights of the Triumph and the eye cast by Rousseau’s blind figure towards the chariot; what might the last look be after the ontological compulsions of the image but the end of the fetish? I say fetish and not idol not only because of the story of exhausted commodity culture lurking behind Khalip’s use of Shelley’s references to Charles I and the Regent’s consumer excess but also since Khalip’s poetics seems to work at the minimal level of the small and absorbing, where the fetish operates. Yet, in this poem at least for Khalip (and maybe this is why Rousseau, the supposed talisman of fetishes, is so important) we can let the fetish go, as if William had in it in him to let Dorothy with her wild eyes wander away instead of absorbing her into his Bildungsroman of Romantic maturity. We let go of our compulsive energies by imagining letting go, of, indeed, looking away, because of the nature of the last in our look, which, paradoxically, allows us to dwell within a non-fetishized optics precisely through a reflexivity that fashions such seeing “as if” it were the last. Whether such reflexivity rises to the level of what we might want to call cognition—I’m eager to hear Khalip’s own response to that question.

8.        Recently he and I had a discussion of what the everyday might be and I wonder if this might be it: a history of things, the barely noticed marked desiderata on a manuscript, the last kiss or last look before sensory exhaustion, a bundle of low level sensations that are gone, or present themselves as going, before we fully register them, an everyday life instead of a triumph, defined by not its magnetic compulsions but the strange though not malignant sense of a slipping away. (Certainly worthy of further exploration would be how such a terrain of behavior might compare tonally with what William Galperin has explored in his own recent envisioning of the Romantic everyday, The History of Missed Opportunities.) If these last objects, like Hujar’s last car, are totems, they are such in a way that might help us navigate what a last friendship might be.

9.        Libby Fay’s key term is not the last, but the beyond, and I’d love to see how she and Khalip might negotiate how these different terms provide the conceptual pivots in each of their readings. I found Fay’s essay defiantly Shelleyan in a way that we most traditionally value, a courageous embrace of psychic and somatic vertigo that lays us vulnerable before a cosmos discovered to be beneficent, in this case a post-human universe still defined by its hospitality, an “otherness without distortion,” beyond the ontological and epistemological horizons that define perversion as a transgression of the Law. For Fay, Shelley’s gesture towards the post-human also vehemently rejects an Enlightenment empiricism that defines the triumph of life as human life, the catastrophe of the anthropocene. In the gaps and difficulties of the poet’s language, its rhymes of wonder, Fay sees The Triumph pressing against this post-human alterity, with Rousseau’s eyeless state actually resisting the supplementary double binds of Derridean écriture, opening up to a new horizon of sensation, an “absorptive beyondness” of the pre-vocal and musical.

10.        One might suggest that the tone of this surge towards this new sensory beyondness has a non-compulsive confidence to it that actually echoes the progressive empirical scientism that Fay sees Shelley wanting to leave behind. (Derrida’s complicated relation to empiricism and science in Of Grammatology might also indicate Fay has more of a fellow traveler in that work’s composition of techné and écriture than she thinks.) I wonder if, however, these potential continuities might also simply mean that the science in The Triumph is radically more strange, in a generative way, than we first suspect—an Enlightenment science already made more capacious by Shelley’s reading of Lucretius, as Goldstein argues, but also a science fiction of the post-human lurking within the rave of Enlightenment empiricism that Fay identifies, where the root that once was Rousseau exists singularly as a root, vegetal instead of animal or much less human; and where Fay’s wager clarifies itself by considering the extent to which the Shape all light is neither a figure for the human nor a priori a human figure, something Chris Washington’s essay takes up as well. Indeed, Fay adamantly associates the Shape with the rhyme of wonder, a non-compulsive aural alternative to the triumphalist visuality of Shelley’s poem that Fay, like Khalip, wants in some way to qualify, circumvent, or resist. Might this occupation with sound also be a way to identify and repudiate the link between a certain coercive optics with the anthropocene? If so, is the post-human that which resists the way compulsion ubiquitously informs both human idolatry and fetishism and animal instinct? Arguably, if sight is the sense of the idol and fetish in the human, sound is the sense most associated with the aural and tactile triggers (the whistle, the snapped twig, the vibratory air) of animal instinctual response. Is Fay’s Shelleyan “getting beyond” a musical space beyond this binary, a radical reworking of Shelleyan synthesia that helps us understand what we might mean, even or especially given the nightmare of history in The Triumph, by post-human freedom?

11.        Because of her deployment of the pre-vocative I wondered if Fay might turn towards Kristeva’s chora, but her movement toward Deleuze and Guattari seems equally apt, especially as Deleuze also motors Forrest Pyle’s lushly psycho-tropic evocation of the proto-cinematic apparatus in Shelley’s poem. But if attachment to a volatile immanence of sensation is Deleuzian, Pyle through Deleuze, Barthes, Benjamin, and Julie Andrews works to detach Shelley’s cinematic image avant la lettre from the compulsions of history written, or projected, in what Pyle describes as the mode of the major, an encounter with aesthetic and cultural forms normative in the excessive force of their attractions and bid for the profound, a dynamic familiar to every student of Romanticism. Pyle doesn’t quite associate the major with the affects of idolatry or the sensorium of an explicitly coercive triumphalist optics, eschewing any elaborate critique that might follow from such a connection. Yet it’s clear his interests lie elsewhere, even as he wittily reflects upon the existence of a favorite poem realized before any opportunity he might have had consciously to choose or name it as his favorite. For Pyle, if that work is The Triumph—he doesn’t disagree—the reason for that designation doesn’t so much have to do with the major but the occurrences of the “minor event” in that work, its own gift of those images in literature and art “that seem to arrest us without doing or promising anything more.”

12.        Resonating with the reflexive moment of Khalip’s as-if-it-were-the-last, Pyle’s minor event does compel us, but in so arresting a minor key, it seems to avoid the feverish energies of the fetish, where unlike the fetish it exudes a self-sufficiency absent of any lure or promise of something more. Neither a wound nor a fragment, the minor sidesteps the obsessive logics of wholeness and castration exuded by the fetish in a way that gestures toward something like Fay’s beyond, a realm delinked from the fear, though maybe not the joy, of perversion. Intriguingly, while the minor doesn’t promise anything grandiose beyond itself, Pyle nevertheless sees the possibility of a minor history, so different from the spectacle of the chariot of Life’s paraded captives. In contrast to that particular triumph, Pyle posits a Benjaminian constellation of minor events that coalesces still into something like a resource, a place of favorite things, even if the politics or policy of such a gathering remains furtive, just on the other side of modernity’s stultifying, teenage suburban boredom, so achingly extracted from Todd Haynes’ film, Velvet Goldmine, in Pyle’s dreamy reading of that work that appears in an extended version of his essay.

13.        Through the deployment of Haynes, of Joel Faflak’s own heady reading of The Triumph as dizzy Hollywood musical, and of Barthes’s filmic still image, “the obtuse,” Pyle appears to lock the minor event solely within the cinematic or proto-cinematic apparatus. That doesn’t quite appear to be the case, however, with Pyle saying as much. Indeed, I wondered if mapping the tensions between minor event and major history onto those between the lyric moment and narrative drive in literature might give us a fresh new way to reconsider the traditional meanings of the latter dichotomy. More pointedly, there is also Pyle’s conclusion, its dwelling with the poetic minor event of several lines in Shelley’s poem that simultaneously allegorizes the coming-to-be of the minor event, “As when a veil of light is drawn / O’er evening hills they glimmer”—of, as Pyle describes, “the detached glimmering image of a veil of light drawn over evening hills.” Eminently readable (again and again!) in its unreadability, here for Pyle, in a veil of light drawn, is the stuff of what dreams are made of, and on: poetically, theatrically, pictorially, photographically, cinematically, if not more. [1] 

14.        Perhaps because of Pyle I couldn’t help but associate Chris Washington’s quantum physics sense of light in The Triumph with the cinema, or more exactly, with cinema’s death as a human activity. For if, following Laurent Mannoni, we observe that the dream of the pre-cinema and cinema was the interplay of light and shadow, what occurs when that light in its post-Newtonian form, something Washington asserts Shelley knew of through the scientific experimentation of his day, implies a temporal scale that repudiates any notion of that dream’s intrinsically anthropocentric character? Independent of, immune to, any human reference, such starlight for Washington is non-specular, a “non-figural materiality as inter-involved aspect of any figurality.” I might put pressure on Washington’s “as” to indicate the unavoidable figural distance, no matter how small, between any physical candidate (post-Newtonian light, say) for de Man’s own non-figural “materiality without matter” and that latter materiality itself, a distance that one might say is precisely, and paradoxically, the effect of de Man’s materiality (Derrida 350). But that doesn’t lessen the power of what Washington sees in the implications of a post-Newtonian light in The Triumph, one whose character asserts not our immortality but our non-permanence, while yet also enabling new possibilities of entanglement among various subjects and objects in the universe, new opportunities for what Karen Barad calls “intra-action,” something according to Washington defined by its very resistance to the “transcendental temporalities” of an inescapably monumentalized form of human politics, revolutionary or counter-revolutionary. Light in Shelley’s poem is thus not for Washington about its triumph, not about the coercive form of optics that Khalip, Fay, and Pyle in their different ways also see The Triumph resisting. Indeed, while his speculative realism perhaps most noticeably matches up with Fay’s reading of a post-human sonic “beyond” in The Triumph, Washington finds the promise of the non-human already displayed in the operation of light in Shelley’s work.

15.        To return to my earlier language, we might say post-Newtonian light is neither idolatrous nor fetishistic, insofar as its non-specularity is the cold beautiful evidence of the limits of any referential attachment we might slavishly make to our sensory (and thus also our non-phenomenal) experience. Such attachments are ultimately to our selves as human immortal beings, a hope, desire, or compulsion that the physics of light in Washington’s Triumph explicitly eschews. We are abandoned by non-Newtonian light and in that fact we find the alternate affective possibility of Shelleyan love, one that in its awareness of its provisional character signals a horizon of “intra-action,” of non-compulsive, impermanent attachments to history and the world, something arguably Mitchell’s totemic sensibility as well as Khalip’s “last,” Fay’s “beyond,” and Pyle’s “minor event” also endeavor to articulate. [2]  Let me conclude then with a thought experiment that tries to build upon these suggested convergences.

16.        At the beginning of this response I qualified its inquiries by noting how compulsion shouldn’t necessarily be considered a thing to avoid, especially when as professional Romanticists we’re all at the moment suffering from an institutional aphanisis, the deadening of desire for Romanticism, the way the study and teaching of its texts doesn’t seem to compel attention in the academic marketplace even as we embark on a series of two-hundred year commemorative events for those works and the authors behind them. Without pretending to know completely how to proceed in this brave new world, I will venture the following, using Washington’s categories, by which his and the other pieces in this volume gesture toward a series of (non-)attachments and sensory encounters in The Triumph that model a different language than the compulsive by which we can begin to conceive of our relation not only to Shelley’s poem but to Romanticism and literature as well. I write this all the while acknowledging my own compulsive attachment to history and its nightmarish disfigurements, the possibility of politics and the effects of antagonism in and beyond the anthropocene.

17.        Still, if perhaps the goal is to maintain as Žižek might say, a “parallax view” that simultaneously shuttles between the compulsive and non-compulsive (4–13), let me suggest another way to consider why we return again and again to The Triumph. We do so, following Washington, out of a Shelleyan love based on something like the sensation of the impermanence of our selves and our readings, our cognition and our somatic experience, a love empowered, not disabled by this predicament, which is also one of reading not as cultural monumentalization but as the physics of intra-action, the momentary coming together or community—the constellation?—that constitutes each reading as well as the relations among every encounter with Shelley’s text and manuscript, with his words and words about his drowned body and buried heart. Furthermore: through Khalip’s description of the “queerly erotic openness” to the last look, Fay’s imaging of a beyondness defined by its detachment from any normative policing of perversion, Pyle’s exuberant constellating of Shelley and Haynes’s glam rock, and Washington’s physics of starlight delinked from any immortal, pro-creative human story, we might say that this love is in some basic way queer. We might then ask: if this is the case for our love of The Triumph, how might that redound and refract upon all our reading habits and motivations in relation to Romanticism, beyond but also, importantly, within the universities, colleges, and schools that many of us teach?

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.

De Man, Paul. "Shelley Disfigured." Deconstruction and Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom, Continuum, 1979, pp. 39–74.

Derrida, Jacques. "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) (‘within such limits’)." Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory, edited by Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski, U of Minnesota P, 2001, pp. 270–366.

Faflak, Joel. "Request." Received by Orrin N. C. Wang, June 26, 2014.

Galperin, William H. The History of Missed Opportunities: British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday. Stanford UP, 2017.

Goldstein, Amanda Jo. Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and the New Logics of Life. U of Chicago P, 2017.

Jameson, Fredric. Signatures of the Visible. Routledge Taylor, 2007.

Malabou, Catherine, and Judith Butler. "You Be My Body for Me: Body, Shape, and Plasticity in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit." A Companion to Hegel, edited by Stephen Houlgate and Michael Bauer, Wiley Blackwell, 2011, pp. 611–40.

Mannoni, Laurent. The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema. U of Exeter P, 2000.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Terada, Rei. "Looking at the Stars Forever." Studies in Romanticism, vol. 50, Summer 2011, pp. 275–309.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. MIT P, 2006.


[1] Might this misquote by the film The Maltese Falcon of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the distance between the prepositions of and on, signal yet another constellation of the minor event that Pyle is trying to describe? BACK

[2] In Goldstein’s Lucretian reading of the love for and in old age in The Triumph, we can see a similar movement (136–65). BACK


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