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Orrin N. C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory

Wednesday, July 4, 2001 - 11:58
Orrin N.C. Wang, Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. x + 232pp. (Hdbk; 0-8018-5220-X).  $17.95 (Pap, 2000; ISBN: 0-8018-6525-5).

Reviewed by
Adam Carter
University of Lethbridge

"Il faut etre absolument moderne."
–Arthur Rimbaud

In "Literary History and Literary Modernity," Paul de Man theorized an "inherent conflict" between the concepts announced in his title--concepts which, he suggested, might even constitute "logical absurdities."1 "The continuous appeal of modernity," de Man wrote, "the desire to break out of literature toward the reality of the moment, prevails and, in its turn, folding back upon itself, engenders the repetition and continuation of literature. Thus modernity, which is fundamentally a falling away from literature and a rejection of history, also acts as the principle that gives literature duration and historical existence" (162). This inherent conflict, de Man contends, determines both literary history and the structure of literary language. However, the manner in which it does so, de Man concedes, "cannot be treated within the limits of this essay" (162). Although inevitably reductive, it would not be wrong to conceive of Orrin Wang's Fantastic Modernity: Dialectical Readings in Romanticism and Theory as an attempt to think through this inherent conflict and certain of its implications within the broader horizons of a book-length study.

Fantastic Modernity concerns itself, as announced succinctly in its opening sentence, with "the construction of knowledge, specifically the knowledge of Romanticism and postmodern literary theory" and with "explor[ing] the political, cultural, and theoretical consequences" of such constructions (1, 2). "Postmodern literary theory," in this context, refers both specifically to the theoretical/critical discourse on Romanticism in the American academy from the 1960s through to the mid-1990s, and more broadly to theorizations of postmodernity in such works as Fredric Jameson's which, Wang argues, while ostensibly not concerned with Romanticism, are engaged in a parallel effort to define the modernity of a particular cultural moment and which construe this moment in a manner strikingly similar to recent understandings of the Romantic period.

Wang's work, as he notes, is one of several recent studies that have concerned themselves with the relation between the Romantic and the postmodern. One such study to which Wang does not refer--David Simpson's The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge, which appeared three years prior to Fantastic Modernity--makes a particularly interesting contrast to the latter study. Simpson argues that Postmodernism is in essence a repetition of Romanticism in viewing knowledge as a local, poetic and narrative construct. Simpson then mobilizes this identity in order to critique postmodern academic discourse as derivative and conservative--a position which also entails a parallel critique, along the lines of Jerome McGann's, of the conservatism of the mainstream of Romantic discourse. Wang's study, by contrast, locates itself at the meta-theoretical level where arguments over the identity and/or difference of various cultural moments are an inevitable part of the writing of history and the production of knowledge. As such, it is a timely intervention in such debates over the derivativeness of postmodernism (or modernism), one which demonstrates that they have a lengthily history.

The book is organized around three terms: "fantastic modernity," "the representative figure," and "dialectical reading." The titular concept of "fantastic modernity" receives several articulations which resist easy paraphrase. It refers broadly, however, to the sorts of tensions between the concepts of history and modernity which are outlined by de Man. The various theorizations of Romanticism, Wang argues, share a stake in defining Romanticism's modernity: both in terms of defining how it represented a break from the past, and in terms of defining how it might have inaugurated an historical moment that is still our own. These theorizations of Romanticism's modernity, however, (or modernism's or postmodernism's for that matter) are constitutively indeterminate, unstable and hence mobile and phantasmatic; Romanticism's modernity appears, disappears and reappears in different, and similar, forms and guises giving rise to multiple narratives and agendas. Romanticism and postmodern theory, Wang asserts, "correctly structure themselves around the trope of 'fantastic modernity,' in which the possibility of historical difference operates as an aporia of historical thought, a condition that testifies to the radical indeterminacy of historical difference as a stable form of human truth" (3). Such aporias of historical thought adhere, for example, in the idea that both Romanticism and postmodernism are reactions to, and critiques of, an Enlightenment reason. If the modernity of postmodernism--what separates postmodernism from what it construes to be the past--shares an identity with Romanticism in this respect, then wherein lies the historical difference between them? And what is left of postmodernism's claim to historical difference? Furthermore, literary modernism of the early to mid-twentieth century understood itself as a break with what it construed as Romanticism--a sentimental, expressive literature of the individual which exhibited the "disassociation of sensibility" rather than an organically unified form and content. But the resuscitation of Romantic studies in the post-war decades, most centrally in the work of M. H. Abrams, consisted in showing the identity modernism shared with Romanticism (or the modernity of Romanticism) in that modernism's central assumptions about literature and organic form derived from the writings of the Romantic period. When one adds to these shifting articulations of historical identity and difference the influential understanding of Romanticism that de Man begins to articulate in the 1960s which posits Romanticism's modernity to lie in its radical critique of the very possibility of historical knowledge and of being modern (an idea which itself parallels Jameson's theorization of the modernity of postmodernism), and de Man's contention that in this respect the Romantics had a more profound (and thus, perhaps, more modern?) understanding of historicity than later realists and modernists, then the "aporia[s] of historical thought" become, indeed, vertiginous.

Such "obstructions" (12) to historical knowledge as a stable form of human truth are not, however, an impasse which defeats or renders meaningless historical inquiry. Rather, the shifting identities and differences of one historical moment and another, and indeed the non-identity of an historical moment with itself, constitutes the openings within which history and historical thought become possible. Potentially it is a space of freedom. It is one of the virtues of Wang's study to lay particular emphasis on this point and to work through what such a constitutive indeterminacy has meant, and could potentially mean, not simply for the academic study of Romanticism, but for a revolutionary tradition that must always be associated with Romanticism. In this respect the concept of "fantastic modernity" takes on yet another resonance in keeping with Derrida's more recent vocabulary, with respect to Marx and a revolutionary socialism, of spectrality--of being haunted by the ghosts of those dead and unborn to whom one owes a responsibility for modernity's unfinished projects.

Wang approaches the critical discourse on Romanticism through what he terms "the representative figure," a concept that has at least a double signification. In successive chapters a key, or representative, figure for an influential contemporary understanding of Romanticism is read in conjunction with a Romantic writer whose works have been key, or representative, in the working through of the theory. Thus, chapters two and three are devoted, respectively, to how Romanticism has been variously articulated, or disarticulated, within deconstruction through de Man and Shelley, and New Historicism through McGann and Heine. Chapter four turns to the constructions of Romanticism within Feminist studies which does not, Wang argues, present a "representative figure" on either side of the historical dialectic. (However, one might suggest that Anne Mellor and Mary Shelley would have been as convincing a pairing as any of the others in the book.) The absence of the representative figure in Feminist studies is, rather, taken to be significant insofar as the concept of the representative individual is part of the Romantic and masculine tropings of culture, genetics and paternity which feminist studies have detected and critiqued in the canonical work of the period and its reception. This chapter is devoted to an engaging reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and aimed at recuperating Wollstonecraft's stature for contemporary Feminist studies. Against Wollstonecraft's relative dismissal within Feminist studies of the period where she is interpreted as a proponent of a masculine Enlightenment rationality, Wang argues that her work provides a theoretically complex, non-essentialist view of gender and politics. The final chapter is devoted to the construction of Romanticism within the writings of Harold Bloom--who is at once the most idiosyncratic and traditional of Romantic theorists, giving rise to no identifiable school--and Emerson, Bloom's own representative figure of American Romanticism.

It has become commonplace in a postmodern academic milieu to maintain that knowledge is constructed within discourses, discourses which are indelibly marked by their historical, political and institutional contexts. It is one of the many virtues of Fantastic Modernity that while it works out of such assumptions and concretely demonstrates precisely what such a process entails with respect to the discourse on Romanticism--most fascinatingly in an early half-chapter devoted to A. O. Lovejoy's and Leo Spitzer's long-forgotten debate, in the pressing context of the Second World War, over the continuity or discontinuity between German Romanticism and National Socialism--the book largely avoids the predictable topoi that could be expected to derive from such informing premises. This is achieved in some measure by a refreshingly untimely turn out of the fashionable neighborhood of Michel Foucault toward the down-market property of Paul de Man.

While de Man is, on the one hand, one figure amongst others in this "institutional fable" of the (dis)articulations of Romanticism over the last three decades and the theoretical and political implications of these (dis)articulations, de Man's kind of deconstructive reading, particularly his reading of contemporary theory and criticism itself in the essays collected in Blindness and Insight and The Resistance to Theory, is more broadly characteristic of Wang's approach. Like de Man, Wang, in a method of reading which he properly terms dialectical, is consistently committed to working through how the texts of the Romantic period resist the kinds of meanings (or critiques of meaning) that have been attributed to them within the various influential (de)constructions of the period, and not merely to demonstrating how these texts might be read otherwise, but to demonstrating how they might even be ahead (in the sorts of temporal aporias with which this work is concerned) of their interlocutors with respect to the sorts of theoretical and political questions that have engaged Romantic studies, and theory more generally, in recent decades. Yet if de Man could pronounce on the "dead end of formalist criticism,"2 his own insistence, with respect to the self-consciousness of aporia, of the "impossibility of making this knowledge applicable to the empirical world,"3 would likewise seem to represent a dead end, one particularly troubling for a theorist like Wang who wishes to explore the relevance of Romanticism to global political events such as Tiananmen Square. Fantastic Modernity, then, can be understood on one level as a demonstration of the continued relevance of deconstructive reading in an era in which such readings must answer for their perceived ahistorical, apolitical character. Wang traverses a considerable distance in convincing the reader of this relevance and in convincing us, in a time which often looks impatiently and pragmatically to the beyond of theory, of the continued necessity to meet, as Wang writes, the "aporetic challenge of ruthless critique" (106).

If this an accurate characterization of Fantastic Modernity and the stakes involved in the work, then the chapter devoted to de Man lies at its heart. Here Wang dialectically juxtaposes de Man's infamous "Shelley Disfigured" with the poem it deconstructs--Shelley's The Triumph of Life. In a characteristically lucid fashion, Wang summarizes de Man's difficult argument: "Thus, de Man uses the 'questions of origin, of direction and identity' which punctuate Shelley's text to show how 'The Triumph of Life' makes itself unreadable and, in effect, history impossible. The continual imposition on and erasure of one question by another dispel 'any illusion of dialectical progress or regress'" (49). Against this impasse Wang argues that "'Shelley Disfigured,' deconstructs its own assault against history," (23) that the process of monumentalization and disfigurement that both de Man and Shelley theorize is the very opening which makes history possible. Furthermore, in one of the many compelling re-readings of Romantic texts that Fantastic Modernity provides, Wang draws upon historical research on the creation of post-revolutionary monuments in honor of Rousseau to argue that monumentalization and hence its disfigurement are self-consciously political acts in this period and that Shelley's poem must be understood within this historical context as a political critique of certain monumentalized versions of Romanticism and the Revolution (56–57). Thus, here Wang demonstrates how historical understanding itself challenges a reading of the poem that had seen the poem as challenging the possibility of historical understanding. For Wang the point is not that this dialectical moment of the reading is superior to the other, but that both must be kept in a certain tension so that the meaning of historical events (such as the French Revolution) or periods (such a Romanticism) is neither hypostatized nor dismissed as unanswerable but kept open to new appropriations, new strategies. The chapter on de Man is a sensitive, compelling and important consideration of the future of deconstruction from within, and beyond, its own terms--a refreshing rejoinder to the polemical discussions of the politics of deconstruction of a decade ago.

The complexities of Wang's detailed dialectical readings have been inadequately dealt with in the above paragraph, and I will not exacerbate the situation by attempting similar overviews of the pairings of McGann and Heine, Feminism and Wollstonecraft, or Bloom and Emerson, all of which are edifying and engaging. In each case Wang argues for a certain resistance in the Romantic texts against their representation within the contemporary theory. The underlying assumption is that there is a political potentiality in these resistances and in the openings to which they give rise. But as the work repeatedly pries open the gaps between Postmodern discourse on Romanticism and Romantic texts in a multitude of different directions which are each very localized--that is, dependent upon the particular texts being read and the dialectical relationship between them--one wonders at points just where one is going, what political potentiality such dispersions of meaning really do possess and whether they might not just as easily represent an impasse to political strategies. And while one might be largely sympathetic with a work which so resolutely refuses to bypass theoretical complexity, when Wang asserts that "Romanticism's relevance to the world will depend on its ability to stress the complicated series of discursive mediations, appropriations, and revisions that already define its presence in the North American university" (187), one is lead, in good dialectical fashion, to see the moment of truth in the pragmatist's critique of the hubris of theory. Nonetheless, Romanticism's relevance, if not to the world, then at least to a broad swath of the history of theory and criticism, has been convincingly demonstrated by a demanding and rewarding study of admirable breadth, patience and insight.

1. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, Rev. 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 142. (Back)
2. Ibid., 229. (Back)
3. Ibid., 222. (Back)