Griffin, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 1 - The Fate of Our Field

Robert J. Griffin, NASSR-L Discussion, Message 1 - The Fate of Our Field

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Date: Wed, 15 Jan 1997 13:53:24 +0200 (IST)
From: "Robert J. Griffin" (
To: North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR-L@WVNVM.WVNET.EDU)
Subject: Re: The Survey/a response

There seems to be general dissatifaction with the survey and its interpretation. While I share that view I can also offer a constructive way of defending something that could be named "1750-1850," which after all is the subtitle of Nicholas Roe's excellent new journal, *Romanticism*.

First, a critical observation. Like Bill Jewett, I am not happy with the separation of theory and practice. While I understand and am sympathetic to the anxieties that lead to such an expediency, there is another, more darker disciplinary side to that call, which I am sure was not intended, but must be mentioned. It recalls Frederick the Great's statement to the intellectuals: "argue all you want, just obey." Kant celebrates Frederick in "What is Enlightenment" (1784) for allowing freedom of thought and speech, but surely the challenge for us is to invent new and adequate forms of intellectual practice, rather than to enforce a split between thinking and practice in defense of an established "period." It is worthwhile looking at John Rieder's essay on romantic periodization as institutional expediency in the collection *At the Limits of Romanticism*, eds. Mary A. Favret and Nicola J. Watson. Very insightful!

Periods slice up a temporal continuum in arbitrary ways, so why not 1750-1850? The key is not the time-unit, but the methodology. The long 18th-century makes sense at the moment because it is based conceptually on cultural-historical perspectives not aesthetic ones. The problem with 1750-1850 as it was presented to us is the name "The Romantic Century." The implicit assumption still places the aesthetic value of "Romanticism" at the center, and the logic of temporal expansion is governed by addition, adding on this author or that decade under the same rubric. I can imagine instead a course titled, "English (or British) Literature, 1750-1850," in which romanticism is an important component but not the organizing principle, and in which that "romanticism" would be treated as a site of literary and critical contest in its dialogical, hence social, specificity. It would include novels, letters, political tracts, the whole shebang. A course of this type might try to make interesting sense (to give one example) of that fact that Keats and Carlyle were born in the same year. The methodological perspective would be historical-critical but obviously sensitive to aesthetic structures and rhetorical uses of language. It could no longer be based on aesthetic evaluations alone, nor would it revolve around a few great figures, who could be treated in greater detail and specialization in seminars. Practically speaking, such a "course" might involve more than one semester; my point is to suggest ways of conceptualizing viable alternatives in an era of downsizing. I imagine that many people already offer courses of this type.

Underlying this speculative proposal, obviously, are whole sets of assumptions that I cannot defend in a brief message.

Bob Griffin
Tel Aviv University