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Anahid Nersessian - Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. Review by Carmen Faye Mathes

Thursday, February 11, 2016 - 18:17

Anahid Nersessian, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard University Press, 2015). 280 pp. (Hdbk., $39.95; ISBN 9780674434578).

Carmen Faye Mathes
University of British Columbia

In the 22 June 2015 podcast in which comedian Mark Maron graciously guided Barack Obama through paces both nimble and hedging, the political legacy that less than a month before had been labeled by Harper’s Magazine as “What Went Wrong” was none-too-subtly recast as progress. “Sometimes,” said Obama, “the task of government is to make incremental improvements, or try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south so that ten years from now, suddenly, we’re in a very different place than we were.” This rhetoric of adjustment speaks of a historical moment especially conversant with the arguments contained in Anahid Nersessian’s first book, Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. Hopeful without being credulous, Nersessian’s project is to redefine utopia as “limited” and thus to reroute that notion’s conventional superabundance towards her investigations of change by degrees. The “perfect world[s]” she finds represented in or called for by works of art are not El Dorado but “place[s] where grief, loss, suffering, and habits of self-denial […] become essential to the idea of utopia per se,” when that idea hinges on, for example, abstinence as the key to more plentiful resources through population control (2). Such limited utopias Nersessian grounds in her explorations of “adjustment,” first at the level of form (the “pruning” or “paring” involved in hewing ideas into metrical or stylistic shape) but subsequently on an ethical level, since Nersessian considers formal adjustments to enact the circumscription or reduction of nimiety more broadly. This is a book about art’s attentiveness to finitude in poetry and prose, but also paintings and the occasional film—a timely book capable of engaging readers from many humanistic disciplines, including and especially Romanticism. For, as Nersessian makes clear, “it is from Romantic practices of poetic composition that this book’s proposal for a utopian doing-with-less is derived” (3).

Nersessian’s tagline, “doing-with-less,” captures the coincidence of ecological and political thinking upon which her investigations of limited utopias build. Turning away from the all-or-nothing attitude of the far left (an attitude recently derided by Rebecca Solnit for its refusal to recognize small victories), Nersessian means to push “against more familiar takes on Romanticism as a literature of extremes” and, in so doing, against that “lately dominant ‘critical mood’ that informs and mirrors the ‘political pedagogy’ of many contemporary left and radical social movements” (3). What emerges instead is something more measured: “Romanticism’s own pedagogy of utopian limitation,” which prescribes reduction, restraint, or targeted inaction in order to persevere and prosper in a world of finite resources (6). Unlike other books that move along eco-critical trajectories, Nersessian’s does not take pains over its anthropocentrism but turns unapologetically to human relationships (or deistic ones, in the case of William Blake) by curating an archive predominantly of lovers’ tales. In her second chapter, for instance, sustained readings of Blake’s America, A Prophecy, P.B. Shelley’s The Revolt of Islam, and Thomas Holcroft’s Anna of St. Ives uncover genealogical connections between Shelleyan free love and a “utopian program” inspired by utilitarian philosophy and agrarian socialism (79-80). In her third chapter, colonialism turns out to fit the shape of heterosexual desire, and a chapter on “Hazlitt’s Disappointment” considers an account of a failed romance, William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris, Or, The New Pygmalion, as the anticipation of “partisanship as a paramilitary mode of resistance” (146). Thus formal and ethical adjustments emerge from texts not really “about” nature or the environment or nonhuman animals but about the dynamics of anthropoid connections. This suggests both how and why Nersessian chooses to mobilize affect theory (a framework to which, in her introduction, she somewhat ambivalently subscribes): as a means to theorize these embodied attachments. Sometimes rapacious and violent—sometimes built on abstinence—Nersessian reveals the Romantic limited utopia as one imagined, in different ways and to differing degrees, in the forms of intimate engagements that are otherwise than grasping. At their best, her examples reveal the generativity of compromise, at worst, a zero-sum game of getting what’s yours, and in between, a melancholic tendency to let go willingly what is most dearly desired in pursuit of a greater good.

Nersessian has a talent for the well-turned phrase, and the legs upon which these arguments stand are smoothly elegant and often quite memorably adorned. The book is a joy to read. Her final chapter, “Narrating Capital, Reading RCSM,” bookends a unique discussion of Northrop Frye’s “low adjustment,” the recalibration of everyday life by the minimally new, that she began in her introduction (21-22). Here we get a sense both of the direction that Nersessian will cast the net of her evolving thought—towards a future study of “calamity form” already percolating in an article for MLQ—and her most focused (though still eclectic) treatment of the thoroughgoing links between form, ethics, and affect, and “utopia, limited.” In this final chapter, the “phenomenology of subsistence” that is formally registered by free indirect discourse becomes a diffuse and pedantic force by which we, readers and thinkers already exposed to our own political atmosphere of incremental change, might come to feel with the Romantics the hopeful exigency of readjusting our relation to what’s possible.  

Works Cited

Bromwich, David. “What Went Wrong: Assessing Obama’s Legacy.” Harper’s Magazine (June 2015): 28-39. Print.

Maron, Mark. “Episode 613 – President Barack Obama.” WTF Podcast with Mark Maron. Web. 1 July 2015.

Nersessian, Anahid. “Two Gardens: An Experiment in Calamity Form.” Modern Language Quarterly 74.3 (2013): 307-329. Web. 12 December 2013.

Solnit, Rebecca. “A Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left.” The Guardian. 15 October 2012. Web. 1 July 2015.