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Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory

Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 03:01
Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2003). viii+316 pp (Softcover; ISBN: 0-226-31480-4).

Reviewed by
Colin Jager
Rutgers University

In a 2003 review on this site, Mary Favret identified a new paradigm for romantic historicism: “A might-have-been, could-have-been, evermore-about-to-be historiography is … emerging as the Romanticism of our own turn of the century,” she wrote. Favret was reviewing William Galperin’s The Historical Austen; she grouped that book with Jerome Christensen’s Romanticism at the End of History and James Chandler’s England in 1819. What all of these books shared, according to Favret, was an abiding interest in the political possibilities that adhere to a history of lost chances, foreclosed opportunities, and near misses—those moments, in other words, when romantic texts seem to gesture toward alternative kinds of social organization that never quite come into focus. Now we can add Paul Hamilton’s Metaromanticism to Favret’s list.

The book itself gathers together much of Hamilton’s writing over the past ten years; about a third of it is entirely new material, but that new material provides the rationale for the whole. At the center of the book are subtle and detailed readings of British romantic writers, most of them already published in various forms: Coleridge and Godwin, Keats, Scott, the Shelleys, Austen, and romantic republicanism. These chapters make up the middle section of the book, headed “Literature.” They are preceded by a section on “Aesthetics,” consisting of a chapter each on Schiller and Rousseau, and followed by four chapters, dominated by Friedrich Schlegel and Habermas, entitled “Theory.” The first and the third sections, where much of the new material is located, thus place the local readings within a wider theoretical context; taken together, they constitute a compelling apologia for romanticism itself and make an audacious claim for its relevance to contemporary theoretical concerns.

What, first of all, is metaromanticism? It’s complicated. At its most basic, metaromanticism describes “the specific ways in which major writers in the romantic period generalize their practices” (1). But complications immediately ensue: “meta,” for Hamilton, does not mean “above,” so we are not dealing with a discourse that claims to evaluate romanticism from a perspective outside of it. Rather, metaromanticism is a product of romantic discourse itself; in a phrase that recurs frequently in this book, metaromanticism is “another way for romanticism to be what it already is.” Then, there’s a second complication. The immanence of metaromanticism is immediately open to the criticism (offered for instance by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology) that its self-critique is not real critique, but rather a way to perpetuate itself while appearing to engage in critical activity. Hamilton accepts this objection—an objection that now goes by the shorthand “romantic ideology”—but turns it on its head: metaromanticism is not itself romantic ideology but rather the recognition of romanticism’s susceptibility to romantic ideology. Metaromanticism, it emerges, is marked by a basic discontent with its own habit of self-reflection. It knows its own bad faith and struggles against it.

So understood, Metaromanticism positions itself between two major trends within romantic historicism. The first of these can conveniently be linked to Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology and the work that followed in its wake throughout the 1980s. It is this tradition, and specifically McGann’s use of The German Ideology, that stands behind Hamilton’s acknowledgement that metaromanticism is not “critique” in the materialist sense of the word—it is not, that is, critique from some other perspective outside the aesthetic. The second trend within romantic historicism is what ties together the various books that Favret cited in her review, and it may be described as a reaction to the first trend. This reaction is impatient with critiques of the romantic ideology precisely because such critiques gain their traction elsewhere. Romanticism, from this perspective, seems to be unfairly indicted according to terms originating outside of it, and this accounts, I would say, for the renewed affection for immanent critique, whether that critique goes under the name of “possibility” (Galperin), “anachronism” (Christensen), or “the case” (Chandler).

Although he doesn’t say it in so many words, Hamilton aims to thread his way between these two historicist trends. He does this by, in effect, splitting metaromanticism itself in two. Here I would like to introduce a distinction that is not Hamilton’s own. What we might call “weak metaromanticism” remains committed to immanent critique and hence to critical agency; what we might call “strong metaromanticism,” meanwhile, turns that agency over to the aesthetic object itself, but with the codicil that the aesthetic becomes a model or anticipation of something extra-aesthetic. Certain names accrue to each of these terms: on the weak side, Kant, Schiller, and Adorno; on the strong side, Schlegel, Benjamin, and Habermas. Many of Hamilton’s readings of literary texts in the middle section of the book begin with the weak variant and then seek to show how weak turns into strong—or might have turned into strong, given the right conditions. Thus near the beginning of the Keats chapter, Hamilton writes that “to work within the scheme of romantic idealism in relation to Keats is not, then, to forgo critique. It is, rather, to explore from within a frustrated and inhibited critique…” (90). A formula like this accepts the accusation of romantic ideology but resists its normative dimension; it insists, instead, that metaromantic discontent becomes available, in Adornian fashion, for critical recovery. In contrast to this weak metaromanticism, strong metaromanticism does not wait around for such critical agency. Thus “Keatsian critique begins to go on the offensive,” writes Hamilton, as soon as it draws its audience into its own discontent. This is the point at which Schlegel becomes crucial for Hamilton, for it is Schlegel’s idea that art “fashion[s] critical alternatives to and historical departures from its original generic performance” (11). Strong metaromanticism, thus, breaks out of the aesthetic altogether into something else.

The Schlegelian or strong metaromantic argument indicates that Hamilton is not simply looking over his shoulder at the debates about historicism. He has his sights set on the future—or at any rate, on the array of possible futures that strong metaromanticism makes theoretically possible. This dimension of the argument comes into prominence in the final section of the book, under the guidance of Habermas’s theory of communicative action.

I confess that I greeted this turn in Hamilton’s argument with some skepticism. In a general way (and I think I am not alone here), I associate Habermas with a broad philosophical tradition stretching from Locke to Kant to Rawls, a tradition that is in the main proud of its Enlightenment heritage and that seeks to extend it. Even with its canon under perpetual revision, romanticism seems to sit athwart this enlightenment tradition. Moreover, Hamilton’s own interest in German post-Kantian philosophy, especially that of Schlegel, would seem to commit him to a reading of romanticism that at the least revises enlightenment dialectically; again, therefore, the affection for Habermas seems counterintuitive. Hamilton’s case for Habermas, nevertheless, is persuasive. Historically, it depends upon the claim that both romanticism and Habermas are traversing the same post-Kantian philosophical terrain. Conceptually, it depends upon the claim that both share a “logical constraint.” Recall that what I have labeled strong metaromanticism encourages translation out of the aesthetic and into another medium by modeling a “hypothetical state in which the better life is logically obliged to exist, for the moment” (13). That tendency finds an elective affinity with “the aspirational character of all language toward full communication” (13). This is the logical constraint that communicative action and metaromanticism share: on the one hand, a theory of language that sets aside the privilege of prescription in favor of a facilitating role that models a future of complete communication, and, on the other, a theory of literature that sets aside the privilege of aesthetic autonomy in favor of an “openness to unprescribed possibilities” (13). What you think of this connection will largely determine whether you find the overall argument of the book itself congenial (though many of the individual chapters stand nicely on their own).

Hamilton’s positioning regarding two other trends within the field is equally well-considered. First, this is a book invested in the idea of a romantic canon—albeit a greatly expanded one. Hamilton finds metaromanticism operating in a range of British texts that cut across old and new canons. He has little interest in critiquing the old canon from the perspective of the new by, for example, playing female writers off against male writers. Rather, what interests Hamilton about romanticism is to be found not at its margins but at its very center—a center, it turns out, that “canonical” and “non-canonical” texts can in principle share. What they share is metaromanticism itself: not a set of determining influences nor a terminology but rather a habit of generalizing their discursive practices and a consequent discontent with those practices. Second, Hamilton has less interest in the more empirically-oriented historicism that in some respects has dominated romantic criticism in the last decade; his concern, rather, is the relation of German post-Kantian philosophy to British romantic literature. In some ways, perhaps, this is an old-fashioned interest, though the link to Habermas updates it for the contemporary moment. Indeed, these two aspects of Hamilton’s argument are reflexively linked in a manner characteristic of this book, and which depending on one’s perspective may seem either deliciously subtle or unpalatably elusive. The link is this: if the metaromanticism that ties romantic texts together is to be found not in a series of external relations but rather through bonds that link texts together internally, through a shared discontent with their own particular practices, then romanticism itself becomes an image or model of exactly the kind of multicultural republic that Hamilton extracts from his readings of Schlegel and Habermas. If this link holds, the result would be spectacular: the aesthetic, banished from discussions of the ideal republic, returns to ground those discussions as both enabling condition and exemplar.

My description so far should give some idea of this book’s range and complexity; it might also begin to indicate potential sources of frustration. This is a dense and complicated and immensely rewarding book; it is also, in various places, inconclusive at just those spots where one hopes for a couple of clear, declarative sentences. Some readers will doubtless find this off-putting; my own impulse, though, is to link this tendency to something that Hamilton himself analyzes in the book under the name of “reserve.” Reserve is an awareness of untapped potential; for Hamilton, what writers do with reserve determines their relationship to metaromanticism itself. Reserve, as Hamilton understands it, can be preserved for its own sake, or for the sake of the “epistemic suspense that it incurs” (9); alternatively, one can try to make something of it. What might this “something” be? Here we encounter Hamilton’s own reserve, though the general outlines are clear enough: that “something” is the multicultural republic extracted once again from Hamilton’s interpretation of Schlegel and Habermas. This shift into the political realm represents the strongest form of strong metaromanticism. Or again: “reserve” is the Kantian aesthetic itself: it implies direction and intent but refuses to name directions and intents; it is self-contained; it demands respect but doesn’t give it back. Making something of reserve, on the other hand, is the Schlegelian revision of Kant, and it means among other things exchanging aesthetic self-sufficiency for a range of possible, non-aesthetic, futures. In a final twist, though, that exchange doesn’t necessarily mean giving up on reserve, for reserve itself models the sort of ethical respect for difference that characterizes the multicultural republic.

Reserve is a concept with rich cognates for romantic-era texts, and Hamilton locates a number of them: sensuousness (in the Keats chapter); dissent (in the Coleridge and Godwin chapter); wavering (in the chapter on Scott’s Waverly); and flirting (in the Austen chapter). These various instances of reserve are held together by an awareness of their fictionality: “The area where we make ourselves up,” writes Hamilton in the chapter on Austen, “is polemical and rhetorical rather than self-evident” (173). In Hamilton’s sophisticated contribution to the never-ending debate about Austen’s politics, it is Austen’s metaromantic awareness of the rhetorical nature of her conservatism that distinguishes her from more doctrinaire versions. It is worth pondering the results of such a move: it departs decisively from a simple conservative-liberal or Whig-Tory distinction; it does so by dispensing with the question of what “Jane Austen” thought about politics and attends instead to what her narrator’s aesthetic strategies necessarily reveal about politics at a particular historical moment; and it consequently renders moot a whole series of historicist discussions that revolve around terms such as denial or displacement. For Hamilton (and the chapter on Scott makes this particularly clear), the aesthetic is the place not of denial and displacement but of revelation and (yes) history—history, that is to say, understood as knowledge of what can and cannot be said, can and cannot be thought, at particular moments in time.

Metaromanticism itself, as I noted above, employs its own forms of discursive reserve. A review is not really the place for reserve, though, so let me end by saying that I like almost everything about this book: its verve and originality, its great ambition, and—not least—its attempt to bring romantic-era literature together with philosophy. By and large this last is something from which romanticists have turned away in the past decade, and the results, while invariably interesting, have not always been inspiring. Paul Hamilton’s book, by contrast, will remind some of us why we wanted to study romanticism in the first place: because, somehow, it seemed to matter.