Introduction: Mary Wollstonecraft Even Now
This essay theorizes the conceptual and iconic power of the feminist meme, from Mary Wollstonecraft's writing and reception to twenty-first-century presidential and election politics in the age of the internet.
"Care: For Wollstonecraft" situates the feminist legacy of Wollstonecraft’s life works in contemporary discourses and practices of care in order to foreground the still-radical implications of her concepts of mothering, women’s writing, and passional activism. Fictional works frame her critiques of marriage within the broad context of care, both for impoverished communities and against the social institutions that diminish especially women’s capacities to care. Nonfictional and fictional works posit the linkage between women’s writing and good mothering as the chief vehicle of psychosocial reform, one that, in textualizing the biological and personalizing the sociopolitical, greatly expands notions of what a mother is and what good-enough mothering entails. At the same time, the essay argues that caring for Wollstonecraft involves confronting the severe hazards that this linkage created for Wollstonecraft and her progeny as a way of underscoring both why care is neither a safe topic nor a safe practice and why Wollstonecraft’s feminism is not as heteronormative or bourgeois as frequently is alleged.
This essay takes up the longstanding association between Wollstonecraft, feminism, and joylessness via feminist critic Sara Ahmed’s ironic appropriation of the term “feminist killjoy.” I argue that Wollstonecraft’s specific claim to being a killjoy can be traced to the mid-twentieth century, when two American ego psychologists, obsessed with what they called Wollstonecraft’s “twisted personality,” seized on her personal biography with a determined vengeance in their book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), and forged the still unbreakable link between Wollstonecraft and the annihilation of joy.
"The Radicalism of Queenship" calls attention to Mary Wollstonecraft’s engagement with exceptional historical women, focusing especially on her comments on royal women such as Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark and Norway. In highlighting how Wollstonecraft found it useful to think with royal women, the paper suggests the importance of placing Wollstonecraft—and feminism more broadly—within many different and often complimentary philosophical approaches and traditions. The paper then charts the role that queens and other elite women have played in the emergence and articulation of western feminisms, focusing especially on developments in Britain.
Ever since Paul de Man’s “Shelley Disfigured,” we have come to see Percy Shelley’s final, unfinished poem, “The Triumph of Life,” as a symptom of the end of Romanticism and Romanticism as end. If or once things are over, why bother to re-visit the end? This is one of many questions Shelley’s poem compels its readers to ask, which is in turn to ask why we any longer need to re-visit the poem at this a time when so little apparently rests on our doing so. So, as if to prolong the idea of an end (whatever that might be), this volume is comprised of four essays compelled to return to the same poem, as if to read the poem as a crime scene that leaves a barrage of clues, none of them adding up to a crime, but each lingering differently with Shelley as Shelley lingers with life and history and as we linger (or not) with the shadows his future casts (or not) upon our present moment, which seems more than ever beyond our grasp, if it ever was within our ken. Why even bother? But then again, and just in case: if so little and so much is at stake, why not?
This is an essay about a minor event in a major poem. I hope to demonstrate how the minor event of a detached poetic image offers us a way of understanding what is in back of or behind the proto-cinematic energies on display in The Triumph of Life (1822). And I am also interested in exploring the inverse proposition: can the “minor” lyricism of our own contemporary cinema open a means of beholding the image-event in Shelley’s poem? If this second possibility is realized, perhaps it is possible to discern in these past poetic and present cinematic images a form of historical “circuitry” that reveals something about the agency or “currency” of images. I want to propose that the currency of the poetic image is best understood by what Roland Barthes identified as the obtus or “third meaning,” a glimmering residue of the stilled cinematic image that offers the point of contact for the current that circulates between the literary and cinematic modes of image production.
This essay challenges Paul de Man’s famous reading of figurality in Percy Shelley’s The Triumph of Life to show how the poem thinks love as a figural-material quantum entanglement between two people that models a new materialist politics. I argue that for Shelley the “shape all light” and its interaction with the rainbow evince one instance of this figural-material phenomenon. This interaction I read as a form of what Karen Barad calls “quantum entanglement,” when the subject and object—as in physics’ double-slit quantum light experiment—emerges as a new entity that brings a novel spacetime into being. As Shelley theorizes it in the poem, this merger of subject and object, or lover and lover, allows him to finally conceive a love that serves as a cornerstone for a radical politics. While we tend to see the poem as breaking off into irresolution, Shelley’s poem, on my reading, instead envisions how two-person spacetimes are a triumph of love over the nihilistic autocratic politics of anarchy that the poem depicts running wild in the pageantry of life.
This essay reads the third-to-last line of Shelley’s , “as if that look must be the last,” as an aside that asks what occurs after that last look. In a post-Waterloo poem that imagines a hallucinatory end-of-the-world scenario amidst several last things, including a kiss, Shelley explores the adjacencies opened up by his unfinished late piece. It also turns to disparate works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Peter Hujar that serve as further instantiations of the kind of lastness that the poem complexly meditates on.
Focusing on the import of the last four lines of The Triumph of Life, "Rhymes of Wonder: Otherness without Distortion" explores the possible future that lies beyond the horizonal walling off of a triumphal Life that Shelley’s poem describes. Using Deleuze and Guattari to follow the traces of where dizzying speed can get us, the essay suggests that Shelley was headed with full speed toward the post-human, breaking off only with the stumble that inevitably occurs when human language fails to articulate what it cannot imagine. What remains is sound, the aural-oral capacity that tunes us in to life itself, to a living nature that cannot be captured by words yet within which we are thoroughly enmeshed. This is the enlightenment that Shelley’s poem gestures toward, against optically driven scientific knowledge; against the human condition as totalizing knowledge; against the impermanence of the material. Whereas the main part of The Triumph considers forms of self-willing within the human experience, it’s abandoned final lines suggest that Shelley intended to reread the alienating aspects of that self-willing as the first steps toward an alternate otherness that, in its beyondness, holds out the promise of a freedom from the human as a freedom from the distortions of suffering per se.