Neither David Bowie nor Romanticism are explicitly named in Todd Haynes’s 1998 film, Velvet Goldmine; but this essay takes on Haynes’s fictional account of the origins of “glam rock” to reflect on Bowie’s Romanticism and Romanticism’s Bowie. The essay approaches the topic using what Brian Eno called “oblique strategies” and what Walter Benjamin called “constellations”: Percy Shelley and Oscar Wilde, Benjamin and Bowie, Todd Haynes. At the center of this “constellation” is the “Bowie-Image,” an image of and about the Romantic image and what Shelley would call its “electric energies” or what might be called its “currencies” for Romanticism and for the “sounds and visions” of contemporary popular culture.
The developments of the Romantic period set the stage for modern framings of art and the artist, establishing powerful institutionalized discourses that both created the privileged spaces in which art is presumed to operate and reified the special modes of authority that Romantic poetry and poets had claimed. However, these discourses have never been set in stone. Instead, subsequent practitioners have negotiated and renegotiated them in making their selves and works. While the rock stars of the sixties did so principally through amplification, David Bowie established a more skeptical relationship with Romantic notions of art and artistry. His mastery of mediated interaction allowed him to throw himself with gusto at the task of expanding the field of the represented and representable, but his works also consistently articulate meaningful doubts about the possibility of transcendent communication through art. Rather than claiming to reveal truths in the manner of high Romantic conceptions, his works place the power to make meanings in the hands and minds of his audiences, employing the potency of Romantic vision while knowingly undercutting its potential for totalizing imposition.
This essay argues that David Bowie’s explorations of identity can meaningfully be linked to explorations of the same topic by Enlightenment philosophers. It analyses these connections in both Bowie’s work and his life and considers the ways in which that life and work extend the thinking of John Locke, David Hume, and George Berkeley to offer a new possible construction of identity, one that depends on the viewer rather than the viewed.
Poised at the start of the 1970s, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory now feels prophetic in its visions of a cynical “world to come” and the embittered generation who lived the long post-Woodstock comedown. This essay argues that the album mobilizes a discourse of idealized childhood that is one of Romanticism’s most enduring legacies, in order to enact a generational struggle that is both personal—the anxiety of the parent who fears creative displacement by their child—and public: the nostalgic and idealistic parent generation of the 1960s versus the bitter realism of their descendants. Tracing how “Kooks” replicates the image of the ‘Romantic child’ as articulated primarily in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s poetry, the essay situates the narrator’s reactionary impulse to keep the child a child forever against the album’s surrounding cast of angry, knowing teenagers. It argues that the Romantic child discourse—and the ways in which it still shapes, implicitly or otherwise, ideas about the relationships between parents and children, authors and texts, and reproduction and creative genius—enables the album to dramatize as a coherent text the ways in which those who inherited 1960s counterculture might, like Romanticism’s children in the 1820s and 1830s, resist calls to mythic, timeless unknowingness and instead turn to face painfully unfolding knowledge.
This essay seeks to demonstrate how David Bowie’s (New) Romantic project engaged with spatial understandings that were first embedded in poetic practices in early-nineteenth-century Britain. Building on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s—fundamentally spatial—concept of the “I AM,” this essay suggests that spatial readings of Bowie’s “Major Tom” series can help us to echolocate innovative forms of (New) Romantic identities. More than this, it argues that reading Bowie’s tracks in light of Romantic concepts might assist in our ongoing project to engage with and respond to earlier works in ways that productively bring modern technological and spatial experiences to bear on historical literatures.
This introduction lays out the predicates of David Bowie and the Legacies of Romanticism, exploring the diversity of Romantic inheritances and considering the ways in which David Bowie can be seen as engaging with them. It argues that while the Romantic period’s influence is less obvious than that of some other literary epochs, this is in large part because Romantic innovations changed so fundamentally the ways in which culture conceives of art and identity. Considering how Bowie engages with these changes allows us to see how Romanticism survives in a range of dynamic shaping forces, empowering later artists through providing both flexible tools to repurpose and overarching systems to reconfigure and oppose.
The varied explorations of "public feeling" in this volume all attend to the affective convergence of helplessness and guilt, injury and incrimination. This afterword tracks the mood of complicity through the collection, with the aim of elucidating how the co-implication of emotions and ethics brought to the fore in each of the essays seems also to require new ways of speaking about agency—even while reckoning with individual and collective powerlessness.
In prose both similar to and crucially different from the Romantic celebration of human wholeness, throughout the collection Sister Outsider (1984) the Black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde pursues an “impulse toward wholeness” to repair the divide between feeling and knowledge. For Lorde, poetry is an urgent resource and practice of imaginative experience rescued from oppression, not defined by its formal features, which she calls “sterile word play.” This conviction aligns Lorde’s poetics with Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821). This essay considers Shelley not only "juxtapolitically" with Lorde, but in a common imaginary space of networks of feeling and imagery with contemporary theorists of public feeling including Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, to establish a critical idiom for the world of public feeling and world-making. I show how the “harsh light of scrutiny” valued by Lorde resonates with Shelley’s critical reassessment of the poetic imagination set in opposition to calculative enlightenment reason. Yet I also argue that Lorde’s “quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives” helps us to make the difficult, necessary intervention into Shelley’s unresolved problematic — both theoretical and lived — concerning the relation of love to fear.
Abolitionist Publics in Robert Southey’s "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" and Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"
In his abolitionist poem "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" (1799), Robert Southey ventriloquizes the story of a sailor who has murdered an enslaved woman onboard a “Guineaman.” Southey explains in a note to the poem that the sailor’s confession is a true story, which he wishes to make “as public as possible.” At the same time, however, Southey leaves many subtle clues that he is also imitating Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad, “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” (1798). As he draws out the possibility that Coleridge’s mariner’s guilt is an allegory for the guilt involved in the Atlantic trade, Southey presses on the “public” uses the ballad form can be put to. A comparison between these poems therefore offers a case study for broader questions about the ethics of representation in abolitionist ballads designed to capture public feeling.
For all of its ubiquity in present discourse, complicity is also uniquely susceptible to repression and disavowal: pervasive and totalizing, yet always somewhere else. Working against the reflex to mystify complicity or to externalize it, this essay recovers an aesthetics of complicity in Caleb Williams, a novel that readers have long experienced as difficult to get beyond or to set at a distance. As a mode of reading, complicity is defined by a mixture of intense involvement and aversion, identification and disidentification. A story about radiating damage that also implicates its readers in its harms, Godwin’s novel ensures that any recognition of shared guilt will also amount to a claim in it. In the process, it elaborates a politics grounded not in negative rights but in mutual responsibility.