"Introduction: The Romantic Rhetoric of Life"

Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crisis

The Romantic Rhetoric of Life"

Alastair Hunt
Portland State University
Matthias Rudolf
University of Oklahoma

One might well imagine what it might have been like in 1800 for an analyst attempting to grasp the transformative implications of the forerunners of the ‘birth of the clinic.’
— Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose, "Thoughts on the Concept of Biopower Today" (215)
Our whole life is thus an education of error.
— Percy Shelley, "On Life" (507)

1.        Sometime during 1819, Percy Shelley interrupted the process of drafting his longest prose text, A Philosophical View of Reform, and began working on an essay equally fated to remain a fragment—"On Life," which Shelley wrote into the back of the same notebook he was drafting the Philosophical View of Reform in. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat, the editors of the Norton Critical Edition of Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, write that the fragment “grew directly from an early passage” in the former text (505, n. 1). Their choice of metaphor characterizes an essay “on life” as an organic, living outgrowth of a treatise on politics—as if life were continuous with and already contained by politics. At the same time, the animation bestowed by the metaphor renders the relationship of the two texts decidedly apolitical—not so much an action or even a response to a historical or writerly exigency, but rather the manifestation of a natural process, perhaps one as inevitable as Shelley’s individual disposition towards abstract and ineffectual musings. Yet, and notwithstanding the suicidal irony of an enlivened politics that, following this metaphor, does not so much politicize life as depoliticize politics, the significance of the inscription of "On Life" in the pages of the draft of A Philosophical View of Reform might have less to do with what compelled Shelley to turn from a treatise on politics—a survey of the historical and contemporary workings of political power that was to demonstrate a “necessary” because “inevitable” political change and to culminate in a practical proposal to enact a more egalitarian political model—to a metaphysically tinged reflection on life, than in the fact that he did so. From this perspective, the sheer material coincidence of these two fragments indicates an historical and theoretical exigency in which politics—the possibility of political change and more just government—comes to be staked on life and life predicated on politics. In this light, the conjunction of the two texts allegorizes a biopolitical relation between power and life, and so furnishes an occasion to read romanticism’s engagement with “life” as a formative moment in the modern genealogy of biopolitics. How, then, to read this turn to life?

2.        At first sight, "On Life" would seem to suggest that life offers an escape from politics. In the opening paragraph Shelley asks: “What are the changes of empires, the wreck of dynasties with the opinions which supported them; what is the birth and the extinction of religions and of political systems to life?” (505). The question is the first of three, and, insofar as it is merely rhetorical, is a more effective way of asserting that power is trivial next to the magnificence of life. However, this reading is immediately complicated by the fact that, of the three questions, this is the only one lacking the phrase “compared with” that unequivocally tells us that life is being measured or weighed up against something else. While the question can still be rhetorical, without the comparative prepositional phrase it also becomes increasingly legible as a sincere question: what is the relation of power to life? This is not only a question of what power makes of life, where life is rendered as the object of power, for insofar as the speaker asks what the cycles of power are “to” life, it is almost as if life itself, indirectly apostrophized, were called upon to give an account of its relation with power.

3.        This question is further sounded in the figuration of power’s historical forms as themselves alive: beginning in “birth” and ending in “extinction,” political power takes on the properties of a living being—a figuration that calls to mind Foucault’s quip about biopower as a “magnificent beast” (“bête magnifique,” qtd. in Chebili 142). Life, then, is not merely being compared to, or even being valued over, power when the very act of that assertion renders the relation of life and power indistinct. Shelley’s question instead suggests that power is staked on the separability and difference of “life” from itself, and that to intervene in politics always also entails coming to grips with the uncertain legibility of the relation between power and life.

4.        We would like to take Shelley’s meditation on the relation between power and life as the occasion to introduce a collection of scholarship intended to initiate a conversation about and between what is called “biopolitics” and what is called “romanticism.” The broad contention of this volume is that the study of biopolitics reanimates the question of romanticism. We mean this in two senses. First, the set of conceptual resources provided in recent work on biopolitics opens up inventive lines of inquiry that enable scholars to re-think the already established awareness that the literature, philosophy, and culture of romanticism displays an obsession with life. Biopolitics reanimates romanticism in the additional sense that the current scholarly concern with life as an object of power marks the radical survival of romanticism. If romanticism responds well when examined in the light of contemporary biopolitical theory, then a constitutive part of this response is a certain resistance to biopolitical theory. As the contributors to this volume demonstrate, the biopolitical intervention on life—the political project of targeting, capturing, making, and taking life—engages paradoxes, predicaments, and aporias that have been widely or fully appreciated neither by theorists of biopolitics nor by critics who take up their work. Romanticism, we suggest, is a privileged locus for the awareness that even the most assured representation of life turns upon an irreducible “literariness.”

I. Biopolitics

5.        Before we go any further, let us offer an overview of the current understanding of biopolitics. The term “biopolitics” has a prehistory stretching back to the early 1900s, but in the last quarter of the twentieth century it emerged in the context of heterogeneous attempts to account for the novel intersections between power, the law, technology, culture, economics and the social sciences that over the last few centuries have increasingly come to shape and dominate social and political life—disputes over human rights and citizenship, the medical and demographic monitoring of population, the management of relations between a population and the environment, the legal regulation of abortion, the normative control of sexuality, the shifting strategies and objectives of war, the conflict over the status and rights of so-called enemy combatants, the emergence of biotechnologies, and the harnessing of life processes for economic purposes.  [1]  Behind the diverse surfaces of appearance of biopolitics, what theories of biopolitics have in common is a radical overturning of traditional models of politics as a specific sphere of human practice. Whereas, politics, following Arendt’s canonical elaboration of Aristotle’s account of political action in The Human Condition, names the activity of collective, non-coercive deliberation on the most just ways to organize community, biopolitics refers to political practices in which the capacity of collective deliberation is at best of secondary importance, since what is at issue is the biological life of the community. From this perspective, the emergence of biopolitics marks a fundamental transformation of the political order: from an order based on and involving individual “subjects” as active participants to one in which the biological life of “living beings” becomes the center and object of political intervention and practice.  [2]  If, as both Foucault and Agamben argue, human beings were for two thousand years understood to be animals whose capacity for politics was an extra-added feature that raised it above the life of animals, the modern human being is “an animal whose politics places his existence as a living being in question” (Foucault, History, 143). We would add that the modern placing-into-question of human life by politics is all the more powerful and effective because, as Arendt’s critique of human rights in The Origins of Totalitarianism suggests, the possibility of separating the juridico-political “subject” from the “living being” that was its ostensible bearer was the enabling premise of the French Revolution’s extension of the political capacity for collective deliberation and self-determination—which since its inception in the Greek polis had been confined to particular classes (social, economic, gendered) of human beings—to all human beings, solely on the basis of their belonging to the human species. It is not at all the case, then, that our conventional understandings of politics have become obsolete, as if superseded by biopolitics. Rather, and as the essays by Marc Redfield and Emily Sun collected in this volume eloquently show, the emergence of the subject is always accompanied by its disappearance into political and aesthetic modalities of representation that, in turning living beings into political subjects, figures the possibility of biopolitical power.

6.        Of the many, often divergent articulations of biopolitics, the seminal account of Michel Foucault and its reinterpretation by Giorgio Agamben have been the most influential; they figure prominently in the essays collected here, and so deserve some elaboration. Foucault introduced his use of the terms “biopower” and “biopolitics” in a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in early 1976 and in the introductory volume of the History of Sexuality also from 1976. Following on his earlier analyses of power in The Birth of the Clinic and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault traced the emergence, around the turn of the nineteenth century, of a new form of power—“biopower”— that came to “complement,” “penetrate” and “permeate” the sovereign power of the state. If sovereign power’s characteristic expression had been the right to kill, to “take life or let live,” biopower named a new, opposing right: the “right to make live and let die” (‘Society’ 241). Power no longer worked principally by means of deduction, “a subtraction mechanism, a right to appropriate a portion of the wealth, a tax of products, goods, and services, labor and blood, levied on the subjects”; instead, it began to work in positive manner to make its objects grow, “to incite, reinforce, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under it” (History 136). In short, biopower witnesses the “entry of life into history, that is, the entry of phenomenon peculiar to the life of the human species into the order of knowledge and power, into the sphere of political techniques” (History 141).

7.        Foucault specifies that life entered into the calculations of power in two ways. From the end of the seventeenth century the individual body was targeted “as a machine: it disciplining the optimization of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls, all this was ensured by the procedures of power that characterized the disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body” (History 139). In the second half of the eighteenth century this form of biopower was supplemented by a second, properly biopolitical technique that worked on biological features that became meaningful and efficient only when aggregated and understood at the level of populations. From the perspective of biopolitics the relation of “life” to an individual body is aleatory, but regular with regard to a collection of bodies that exists over an extended period of time. It hence became possible to establish control mechanisms—“forecasts, statistical estimates, and overall measures”—whose “purpose is not ... to modify a given individual insofar as he is an individual, but, essentially, to intervene at the level at which these general phenomenon are determined, at the level of their generality” (‘Society’ 246). The biopolitical intervention on life concerns not individual subjects, but rather the production of figures—statistics, estimates, data, totals, sums—that provide, and indeed are, the means to regularize, but also isolate and contain, the “random element inherent in a population of living beings” so as to “optimize a state of life” (246).

8.        That the project of biopower was to “make live” does not mean, however, that the old sovereign right of death simply disappears. It is rather subordinated to the power of making live, and manifests itself, Foucault writes, as “the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain and develop its life” (History 136). The power of death is no longer wielded “in the name of a sovereign who must be defended” but rather to protect the biological existence of a population (‘Society’ 137). And since “death becomes, insofar as it is the end of life, . . . the limit, or the end of power too” (‘Society’ 248), the power over death itself becomes unbounded, freed from all previously existing constraints. This, then, is a principal paradox of biopolitics: to the very degree that biopower makes it its mission to foster and guarantee life, life itself comes to be threatened by ever growing political and technological means of destruction: “It is,” Foucault writes, “as managers of life and survival . . . that so many regimes have been able to wage so many wars, causing so many men to be killed” (History 137). Foucault accounts for this paradoxical “death-function in the economy of biopower” with the paradigm of racism, which serves two important purposes (‘Society’ 258). It provides, first, the means to create biological “caesuras within the [population]” that allow a line to be drawn “between what must live and what must die” and, secondly, it creates a “positive relationship” in which “the death of the bad race ... is something that will make life in general healthier: healthier and purer” (254-55). Racism’s inscription in the biopolitical in this way at once justifies, exacerbates and regulates the asymmetrical play between the unbounded power over death and biopower’s control over life—a “play” that constitutively exposes state and population to the limits of its life-fostering power: death (260).

9.        If Foucault’s studies of biopower introduced the essential conceptions with which we still work, it was Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Italian 1995; English 1998) that the immediate occasion for the boom in contemporary studies of biopolitics. [3]  Bringing together philosophical reflection and political critique with philological erudition, Agamben’s book marked a significant theoretical revaluation of biopolitics. Whereas Foucault’s analyses largely bypassed traditional political and juridical theories of political power in favor of an analysis of the material mechanisms and techniques that made life available to the political machinations of the state, Agamben’s work marked a return to an analysis of the juridico-institutional model of power—albeit with a two decisive twists. First, Agamben interpreted Aristotle’s account of the Greek polis as indicating that the central political binary was not that of friend and enemy, as political theorists from Hobbes on had thought, but rather the distinction between “bare” or “naked life” (zoé) and political existence (bíos). Secondly, drawing on Carl Schmitt’s definition of the sovereign as the one who decides on the state of exception, Agamben argued that the decisive fact of modern politics was not the mere inclusion of life in politics, but rather its inclusion in the politico-juridical order by means of its exclusion. Hence the “originary relation of law to life is not application”—the Foucauldian schema in which life becomes the “principal object of the projection and calculations of State power” (Agamben, Homo 9)—“but Abandonment” (29, original emphasis): the situation, brought around by the sovereign decision on the state of exception, through which the bare life of political subjects, having been abandoned by the law and lacking all legal protection, is exposed to the vicissitudes of unregulated violence.

10.        Both Foucault and Agamben’s accounts of biopolitics can be articulated in terms of the relation of signifier and signified. As in Foucault, for Agamben biopolitics emerges at the moment life enters into representation, but it does so in a quite different sense. While for Foucault, representation concerns the relations—technical, material, and mechanical—that bind a signifier to a signified (that apply to it), for Agamben representation includes the de facto exclusion of the signified from the signifier, its de jure inclusion being merely the form of representation. The exemplary, paradigmatic figure of this predicament is the obscure Roman legal figure of the homo sacer, “who may be killed and yet not sacrificed” (8, original emphasis). Banned from the political community and abandoned by the law, he no longer can be licitly represented in the politico-juridical order of the state, and thus can be killed with impunity but not sacrificed, precisely because, in the first case, there can be no penalty for murdering someone who has no legal existence, and, in the second case, his very lack of representation protects him from being sacrificed. For Agamben, in other words, the entry into representation is always also accompanied by an exit from it; indeed, homo sacer occupies the threshold of representation and its constitutive outside, always already half live, half dead. With reference to Foucault, then, we might say that homo sacer appears at and marks the discursive limits, not only of biopower, but of sovereign power.

11.        Agamben’s theoretical intervention in this rearticulates the genealogy and horizon of biopolitics outlined by Foucault. Insisting on an archaic, originary complicity between the biopower and sovereignty, Agamben argues that, far from being peculiar to our modernity, the inclusive exclusion of life in the Greek polis meant that Western politics had from the very beginning been a biopolitics (181). Foucault’s historical rupture is thus supplanted by a schema in which modernity is distinguished from earlier periods merely by the acceleration of bare life’s movement from the margins of political existence to the center of the political order. Hence, Agamben writes, “the exception becomes the rule, and the difference between inside and outside, fact and law enter into a zone of irreducible indistinction” (9). As a consequence, the Nazi camps, which for Foucault were a contingent, singular paroxysm in which the field of biopolitics became “absolutely coextensive with the sovereign right kill,” in no way can be considered a historical exception but must rather be understood as the “fundamental biopolitical paradigm of the West” (181). In the last instance, then, biopolitics always amounts to a thanatopolitics, a murderous politics of death. As Eva Geulen concisely puts it in her contribution to the present volume, “For Agamben, then, sovereign politics is biopolitics and biopolitics is, at bottom, always a politics of death and killing.” Indeed, the secret link binding bare life to sovereign power—in short, biopolitics—has all along determined the trajectory of Western politics. Hence our present political moment becomes legible, in Agamben’s view, as the disastrous endpoint of a political tradition that, extending from ancient Greece to the Nazi concentration camps and beyond, exhibits an “inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism” (10).

12.        In the years since the appearance of Foucault’s and Agamben’s respective texts, scholars have taken up, elaborated, and revaluated their concerns. Critics such as Paul Rabinow and Nicholas Rose have built on Michel Foucault’s definition of “biopolitics” as “the attempt, starting from the eighteenth century, to rationalize the problems posed to governmental practice by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population: health, hygiene, birthrate, life expectancy, race . . .” (Birth 217), expanding his analysis to include those institutions and apparatuses, from ethics councils to the doctor-patient relationship, in and through which the politicization of biological life-processes takes place. Others, such as Achille Mbembe, have taken up Agamben’s subjectivist and decisionist model, arguing that “the ultimate expression of sovereignty resides, to a large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die” (Mbembe 11). The decade since biopolitics’ explosion onto the contemporary theoretical scene has also brought forward a number of important theoretical reconsiderations of biopolitics more specifically relevant to the humanities, which—even though we can’t them discuss here in any depth—deserve notice. We mention especially Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000) and Multitude (2003) as well as Roberto Esposito’s recent account of the “immunity paradigm” in Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy (2008). [4] 

II. Romanticism and Biopolitics

13.        Romanticism occupies an ambivalent position in the most influential contemporary theoretical accounts of biopolitics. Even though the historical period that romanticism occupies, especially in the British and German traditions, appears as a pivotal moment in the history of biopolitics, biopolitical theorists have not paid any real attention to romanticism as a literary, philosophical, and cultural formation, focusing rather on contemporaneous developments that take place within the concrete arrangements and theoretical paradigms of the social and political sciences. If at all, romanticism appears in their accounts as only as a name, a gesture, or as the metonymic designation of a historical moment outside of their critical purview. Thus, while Foucault locates the emergence of biopower at the “threshold of modernity”—the very historical moment punctuated by the emergence of romanticism—his historical analyses circumvent romanticism. Similarly, while Agamben focuses on the consequential role of the National Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 in inscribing the natural life of citizens in the juridico-political order of the nation-state (Homo 127)—an issue Marc Redfield takes up in his contribution to this volume—“romanticism” appears in his work only briefly and in passing, most significantly as the name of the pernicious ideology which “consciously created” the “symbiotic correspondence” between “language as the fact of speech and the people as the fact of community” which “defines modern political discourse” (Means 66). [5] 

14.        Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose provide a compressed instance of this ambivalence in a programmatic essay from 2003 titled "Thoughts on the Concept of Biopower Today." Having clarified and taken stock of the efficacy of the concept of biopower with a view to its critical future, they conclude the essay with a look back:

One might well imagine what it might have been like in 1800 for an analyst attempting to grasp the transformative implications of the forerunners of the ‘birth of the clinic.’ Today we are equally in a situation of major historical change whose directions are partially obscure and not yet solidified. … [W]e feel that the concept of biopower is pertinent to grasping many diverse contemporary developments. But the concept remains insufficiently developed, and has not yet demonstrated its analytic mettle in sufficient cases. We would recommend that analysts attended to that task, rather than succumbing to the allure of philosophies that turn a concept into a theory or a world view. (2003, 34) [6] 
Rabinow and Rose present the contemporaneity of their account of biopolitics by way of a return of and to the historical moment of romanticism. Yet where we might expect to find the name romanticism, we find instead the year “1800” and, moreover, not a poet, novelist, playwright or philosopher but rather an “analyst”—an analyst, it turns out, who not only, like Foucault and Agamben, does not pay any significant attention to the literary, philosophical, and cultural stakes of romanticism, but appears, insofar as he’s said to be examining the birth of the clinic, as their historical retrojection. The effacement of romanticism is underscored in Rabinow and Rose’s critique of “philosophies [the references are to Agamben and to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri] that turn a concept [biopower] into a theory or a world view.” In such resistance to theory it’s not difficult to hear the accusation that what theorists of biopolitics are guilty of is a certain version of the romantic ideology, which even as it can “see into the life of things” excludes from its field of vision “certain conflictual sights and meanings—roughly the life of things” (Levinson 24-25). [7]  Yet consider the particular means by which Rabinow and Rose present their clear-sighted prophetic analyst of history in 1800. It is upon the gesture of imagining the experience of “an analyst” trying to understand in 1800 that their theorization of their own effort to understand the present and ongoing transformations in biopolitics rests. To be sure, Rabinow and Rose would likely intend the analogy they draw between the present study of biopolitics and the analyst of biopolitics in 1800 to be no more than a heuristically useful rhetorical gesture. Nevertheless, in deploying the quintessential romantic creative faculty, their closing remarks indicate that romanticism, both as an object and act of imagination, is already a means by which biopolitics is made available to reflection.

15.        Despite the tangled knot of effaced references to and disavowed enactments of romanticism in biopolitical theory, critics have long agreed that romanticism concerns itself in a fundamental way with life. Indeed, scholars of romanticism have long characterized the years Foucault and Agamben identify as a turning point in the history of biopolitics as one of modernity’s most prominent and consequential sites for the intense thematization of life. In discussing the various controlling categories that positively define romanticism, M. H. Abrams gives life special prominence when he asserts that for romanticism, “The ground-concept is life.” Indeed, he continues, “Life is itself the highest good, the residence and measure of other goods, and the generator of the controlling categories of Romantic thought. . . . Life is the premise and paradigm for what is most innovative and distinctive in Romantic thinkers” (Natural Supernaturalism 431). For Abrams, the two principal signs of the life of romanticism are “vitalism” — “the celebration of that which lives, moves, and evolves by an internal energy, over whatever is lifeless, inert, and unchanging” — and “organicism”— “the metaphorical translation into the categories and norms of intellection of the attributes of a growing thing, which unfolds its inner form and assimilates to itself alien elements, until it reaches the fullness of its complex, organic unity” (ibid. 431-32). Abrams extends this growth in life to figural language, most particularly to those tropes whose “valid animation of natural objects … now came to be a major index to the sovereign faculty of imagination, and almost in itself a sufficient criterion of the highest poetry” (Mirror 55). Romanticism is a poetic project whose aim is to ‘make live’, and whose very rhetoricity denoted the sovereignty of its animating powers—not a political but a poetic sovereignty, a sovereignty of art on the far side of politics.

16.        The study of organicism in turn has developed into a concern for a greater variety of romanticism’s signs of life. Critics such as Denise Gigante, Charles I. Armstrong, Robert J. Richards, and Arkady Plotnitsky have extended Abrams’ insight about the discourse of organicism from poetry to texts drawn from the natural sciences and philosophy. Scholars have also increasingly focused on the various modes by which romantic writers engaged with and contributed to debates in the life sciences of the period, charting the transformation in the discourse of life that occurred around the turn of the nineteenth century—as Foucault notes in The Order of Things, the term “biology” was coined, first in French, in 1800 (xi)—even arguing for a romantic science of life. [8]  More recently a handful of critics have begun to make the case that life formed a persistent object of representation in romantic poetry and poetics, both with and without reference to the life sciences, showing that the discourses about life in romantic literature exceed the framework of organicism. [9]  In all these ways, then, the critical reflection on romantic organicism has given way to a more comprehensive and fine-grained reflection on life that emphasizes the variety of contexts and discursive modes in which it is constituted.

17.        Nonetheless, the focus on the figure of life in the archive of romantic poetry, philosophy, and science has yet to be matched by a complex understanding of the relation between life and power. Recent research has no doubt complicated Abrams’ proposition that life unproblematically generated “love” defined as “the confraternity of the one life shared not only with other men but also with a milieu in which man can feel fully at home” (Natural Supernaturalism 431). Nicolas Roe and Sharon Ruston have shown how vitalist and materialist positions in the debate about the nature of life at the turn of the century translated into normative political positions; Gigante point to the way in which poetic and scientific conceptions of life were understood to be a form of discursive, if not political, power; and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy and others have demonstrated the ease with which modern political programs invoke romantic organicism. What remains outside the conceptualization of such approaches—and what biopolitical theory offers to teach us—is an appreciation of the possibility that “life” in romanticism is neither just the analogue nor simply a form of power, but also and fundamentally a referent of political power.

18.        Faced with symmetrical views of the same terrain—the view of biopolitics without romanticism, and the view of romanticism without biopolitics—the present volume of Romantic Circles Praxis Series undertakes to explore the implications of the biopolitical problematic for romanticism. The initial results of our effort can be seen in the articles that follow. Each suggests possible directions for future research, some of which we can already gesture towards here. In no particular order, these include: aesthetics, which as Marc Redfield notes, has always claimed to be biopolitics; human rights, which Agamben, partly via Edmund Burke’s critique of the National Assembly’s 1789 declaration, has characterized as a technology of biopolitics; demography and its instruments such as the census, the institution of which in 1801 was precipitated by Malthus’s apocalyptic speculations in Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798; the social sciences, especially Jeremy Bentham’s seminal version of utilitarianism; the life sciences, including experimental projects at making inanimate matter live; race, that “caesura in the biological continuum” (Foucault, ‘Society’ 255), the invention of which has been claimed to take place in the writings of Kant; and the environment, identified by Foucault as one of four surfaces for the appearance of biopolitical pressure and newly renovated by ecocritics as the central category of romanticism. [10]  This list is neither prescriptive nor complete, but it nonetheless indicates some of the ways in which the politicization of life is already a constitutive, if nonetheless submerged, aspect of romanticism.

III. The Literariness of Life

19.        We hasten to add that we are not offering the electrifying proposition, le romanticisme, c’est biopolitique, let alone that romanticism is biopolitics. Nor are we making the historical assertion that romanticism is the—or the principal—origin of modern biopolitics. Romanticism is surely in the historical DNA of biopolitics, but the contemporary biopolitical situation claims a diversely branching genealogical web with multiple and often competing sources, not a single or genetic origin. Yet we are arguing, to introduce the second sense of our central hypothesis, that inasmuch as romanticism as a rhetoric of life responds to the question of biopolitics, it does so not just as something we are not yet done with, but also as something that is not yet done with us. Indeed, in our view, biopolitical theory is one of the more vital instances of what Ian Baucom has called the “afterlives of romanticism.” Biopolitics maintains romanticism’s afterlife in this sense not because life would be a romantic concept, but because claims to have made or to make life available—as an object of cognition, food for thought, or the grounds for action—call on the “life and afterlives” of romanticism as a compelling and not merely archival name of the difficulties such projects encounter (Baucom 20). The very fact that the emergence of biopolitics has been accompanied by legible effacement of romanticism in its official genealogies suggests that the current scholarly concern with life as an object of power, far from simply indicating a loss of romanticism, marks its radical survival.

20.        If contemporary biopolitical theory has become a necessary condition of our awareness of the political stakes of romanticism’s obsession with life, one way we might remark on romanticism’s biopolitical survival is to note that biopolitics, in constituting its principle object of inquiry, actualizes that trope most proper to romanticism: the substitution of language for life. As the focus of biopolitical studies on biomedicine, biocapital, sovereignty, humanitarianism, and so on all too easily allow us to forget, life, both in the work of Foucault and Agamben as well as of other theorists of biopolitics, becomes accessible to biopolitical intervention, not as such, but through its entry into language and representation. In Foucault’s account, the intersection of language and life takes the form of a discursive threshold, but not one that is located in any single subject or body. Rather, insofar as politics intervenes on life through the production, regulation and manipulation of figural regimes—the statistics, estimates, data, totals, and sums that represent the life of the population at a general level—the objective of power is to control the “random element inherent in a population of living beings,” where the “random element” names an anomaly in a statistical distribution with regard to the norm that is identified by means of a calculating apparatus rather than by discursive means (2003, 246). What is decisive is not any positive knowledge of the relation of power and life, but rather the mere facticity of the substitution of language for life that enables that intervention in the first place.

21.        Given that this substitutive structure is properly that of figural language in general, it is somewhat surprising that the specificity of literature’s contribution to, as well as its role in, the biopolitical project of “making live and letting die” have received little attention from either literary critics or biopolitical theorists. In a Foucaultian account of biopolitics, literature at most might be said to appear as but one discursive formation among many involved in the machinations of power-knowledge, as a concrete instance of the mechanism by which biopower mediately takes hold of the life of the body. Yet inasmuch as the quantitatively organized discourses of public health, criminology, labor management, and so forth are more effective ways of managing ‘life,’ literature would seem to be hardly pertinent to a form of (“post-ideological”) politics that targets bodily life. Agamben’s account will seem more amenable to inquiries attentive to the density of language, not least, as Eva Geulen observes, because of its roots in philology and its engagement with the philosophical tradition. Modeling his account of biopolitical sovereignty on a reading of the negative event of language in Hegel and Heidegger, Agamben can write that “Language is the sovereign who, in a permanent state of exception, declares that there is nothing outside language and that language is always beyond itself” and that the potentiality to signify is given to the precise degree that “language withdraws itself from every concrete instance of speech” (Homo 21).  [11]  The structure of abandonment that underlies the sovereign exception thus corresponds exactly to the negativity of representation. In their deprivation of language, the enemy combatant, the homo sacer, the subject of human rights, and, in the extreme instance, the Muselmänner of the Nazi death camps, each personify a figure of life that political power effectively takes hold of precisely by abandoning it at the limits of language. Thus unmoored from the referential force of language, they are given over to the sheer arbitrariness of their substitutive determination.

22.        A principal contention of the current volume is that if biopolitics is intimately involved with and intervenes on a language about life deeply informed by the legacy of romanticism, romanticism’s “literariness” might itself provide a compelling avenue to critically rethink the most influential biopolitical theories. As the essays collected in this volume demonstrate, in romantic texts the biopolitical intervention on life—the political project of targeting, capturing, making, and taking life—plays out as a venture fraught with difficulties and contingencies that unsettle theoretical models of biopolitics. In this sense, the encounter with romanticism reanimates biopolitics, restoring to it not a lost life but rather a critical awareness of the contingency of the uncertain literariness of its making live.

IV. Romanticism, Biopolitics, and Literature

23.        The present collection began life as a special session of the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco in December 2008. Despite being scheduled at the last timeslot of the last day of the convention, the session drew such a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd that we were encouraged to seek a larger avenue for the project. Continuities and differences between the two iterations of the project are worth noting. Marc Redfield’s and Emily Sun’s articles are substantially revised versions of the papers they presented at the convention; Sara Guyer chose to contribute to the present volume an entirely new piece on John Clare, loosely based on of the one she presented in 2008. Eva Geulen was not present at the MLA convention, and her essay responds to the version of the articles collected in this volume.

24.        Scholars of romanticism should not be surprised to see that we asked Sara Guyer to contribute to our volume. Her book, Romanticism After Auschwitz (2007) is the first and so far only book-length study of, among other things, romanticism, biopolitics, and literature. Guyer’s essay "Biopoetics" opens by elegantly noting that it was not just natural and social scientists who became interested in life around 1800, but also poets. What, Guyer asks, would be a poetic understanding of the relationship between literature, power, and life? To answer this question, she turns to Barbara Johnson’s account of the relation of poetic apostrophe, a rhetorical figure of animation, and the politics of abortion. Elaborating on her insight that the apostrophe to the not-yet born makes it “impossible to tell whether language is what gives life or what kills” (Johnson 34)—a gesture that anticipates Agamben’s notion of a “zone of indistinction” between life and politics—Guyer argues that “what occurs in the sphere of politics shares a structure with—indeed is—a problem in poetry. What Johnson reveals is not a literary biopolitics, but biopolitics as indissociable from literature and its indeterminacies.” While Guyer’s turn in the second half of her essay to John Clare’s romantic-period poem, "To Mary," might come as a surprise—the poem thematizes neither biopolitics nor abortion—the conjugation of Clare and Johnson in itself already suggests that what is at stake in the relationship between romanticism, biopolitics, and literature is not a shared thematic representation of life but, rather, a shared predicament concerning the representation of life. Guyer reveals the nature of this predicament in an economic reading of the poem’s apostrophic complex. If the speaker’s address to his dead lover fails to make her live or to let her die, then this ineffectivity is precisely what Guyer calls the “lyric structure of sovereignty.” Life is not simply a given to be quantified or captured, nor is the life of the lyric subject who makes live and lets die simply the life of a sovereign opposed to naked life. What rather emerges is a life whose viability is contested, a life contingent upon a failed abortion. Thus the lyric is not the symptom of some romantic ideology; it is the structure of power—and contestation. Such is the lesson of what Guyer, in a powerfully speculative coda, calls biopoetics: “This biopoetics sets out, as this essay set out, by admitting two scenes of making live, and it concludes by exposing the impossibility of a politics of life or a science of literature that would be free from poetics.”

25.        The event that Emily Sun treats in her essay "Mill’s Wordsworthian Turn: Poetry, Politics, Eloquence" is well known: John Stuart Mill’s emotional breakdown at the age of 20 and the important role that the poetry of William Wordsworth played in his recovery. What is so novel is her reading of this event as a real-world encounter between biopolitics and romantic poetics. Indeed the conditions that make the event such an encounter are so precise as to approximate those of a controlled laboratory experiment. Mill’s breakdown took the form of a loss of faith in utilitarianism. And utilitarianism, Sun observes, with its assumption that the good life can be measured, calculated, and manipulated provided—and arguably still provides—a crucial part of the liberal social scientific method for the efficient biopolitical administration of life. Reading the account of Mill’s crisis in his Autobiography, Sun demonstrates that the utilitarian reformer finds that his personal life is unaccounted for in the world he is supposed to reform. What restores his happiness, on the far side of utilitarianism, is an experience of reading poetry, specifically the poetry of Wordsworth. Indeed, the tropes by which Mill accounts for his recovery repeat and displace those of Wordsworth: where Wordsworth has Nature to aid him overcome his crises, Mill has Wordsworth’s poetry of Nature. Reading Mill’s essay "What is poetry?" as the account of poetry’s capacity to lead the self beyond the manufactured subjectivity of a strict utilitarian upbringing, Sun argues, against the critical opinion that Mill’s expressivist conception of poetry is apolitical or antipolitical, that the essay complicates the distinction between political speech and poetic speech. Poetry, for Mill, is not simply the antithesis of eloquence, somehow outside the circuits that tie it to an audience. For in characterizing poetry as “soliloquy,” he defines it as having an audience in a mode that exposes the audience’s world as incomplete. “If, according to Aristotle in the Politics, the human as a political animal is an animal that has speech,” Sun writes in a manner that resonates with the argument of Jacques Rancière, “Mill’s theatrical theory of poetry seems to imply that the human is the animal for whom what it means to have speech always remains in question. Politics, then, would consist of the interminable interrogation of that question and the renewal of the criteria for eloquence.”

26.        Anyone who has read Phantom Formations (1996) and The Politics of Aesthetics (2003) knows how much Marc Redfield has taught us about the thick entanglement of aesthetics and politics that we call romanticism. He opens his contribution to the collection, "Aesthetics, Sovereignty, Biopower," by effortlessly grasping the power of the concept of biopolitics to illuminate aesthetics: “biopolitics is precisely what the aesthetic, particularly in its modern form, has always claimed to be.” However, his principal contention is that the very density of aesthetics means that biopolitics may not be exactly what contemporary theorists claim it to be. As much as aesthetics can be read as an extension of biopolitics, biopolitical sovereignty finds itself subject to the technicity of aesthetics. The biopolitical reach of modern aesthetics is exemplified, Redfield argues, in Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Explicitly a political response to and solution for the violence of the French Revolution, Schiller’s treatise outlines an aesthetic program that aims for nothing less than a body at one with the law. What aesthetic education forms—or at least tries to form—is a political body whose life expresses the law. This intimacy of life and art is in principle non-coercive, as Schiller insists, and yet such insistence also turns out to reveal aesthetics’ capacity for violence. What Redfield focuses on, however, is not just the violence that sovereignty performs and disavows, but also the force that it exploits yet cannot control. To elaborate this claim, he turns to a text published in the same year (1795) as Schiller’s treatise, Goethe’s Conversations of German Refugees. In some ways a parodic response to Schiller aesthetic program, the unusual text comprises seven stories, all of which are intended by their refugee tellers to embody the promises of aesthetic culture to restore the moral and political order of the ancien régime after the violence of the French Revolution. The controlling figure for this order is, in the words of the leader of the refugees, the Baroness, der gute Ton, a literal translation of the French bon ton. Yet Ton in German also means “noise.” Exploiting this double meaning, Redfield traces a remarkably consistent pattern by which sovereign responses to shocking noises in the frame narrative and the seven stories reproduce rather than put an end to the revolutionary shock such noises are associated with. “Ton is Goethe’s deceptively modest figure for aesthetics as a discourse animated by shock.” Insofar as Goethe’s text is itself an aesthetico-pedagogical effort to disseminate den guten Ton, it allegorizes its own inability to rigorously distinguish between the shock to which it responds and the shock upon which it turns. What Redfield usefully points out to us is “a fundamental powerlessness underlying the violent operations of body-making.” Summing up his argument in his climactic reading, Redfield’s suggests that the story of an aesthetically reformed political revolutionary is “a story about the unruly critical force of aesthetic discourse, which exposes the violence and incoherence it is supposed at all costs to conceal.”

27.        Eva Geulen’s response to the essays included in this volume is both bold and provocative. Drawing upon both her extensive work on modern literature and aesthetics since German romanticism (The End of Art: Readings in a Rumor After Hegel [2006]) and her comprehensive familiarity with the work of Agamben (Giorgio Agamben zur Einführung [2005]), she contends that all three essays more or less explicitly defend romanticism “from any biopolitical charges and suspicions” by calling on the literary aesthetic, a move she takes as an indication that what is at stake for our contributors is not so much biopolitics as such as it is “aesthetics by way of biopolitics.” Rather than opening up new lines of inquiry, the appearance of theoretical accounts of biopolitics provides the occasion to redraw, however contingently, the lines defending the literary aesthetic. In view of her earlier observation that all three essays tend to “use [the term] biopolitics in such a way that it encompasses disciplinary strategies while the [the regulatory aspect of biopower] is eclipsed entirely,” we might read Geulen’s concession that there nonetheless might be “no better, more interesting or specific way of considering the question of romanticism and biopolitics” than by way of aesthetics to bear witness to the difficulty of conceiving the relation of literature to a form of politics that targets the biological life of a population rather than, say, the psychic life of an individual subject.

28.        It is perhaps for this reason that Geulen’s discussion turns to and remains focused on Agamben’s account of sovereignty and bare life. On her reading, the concept of sovereignty provides a critical, if tenuous, opening onto the relation of biopolitics and literature. Indeed, it is as if the intersection of Agamben’s claim that sovereign power is always already biopower with the well known romantic-era conception of the sovereignty of art (cf. Beiser, Menke) itself forms the nexus of biopolitics and aesthetic theory. Yet contrary to the readings offered by Guyer, Redfield, and Sun, Geulen suggests that aesthetics does not as much mark an aesthetic resistance to biopolitics as it paradoxically participates in and furthers biopolitical violence. Following Agamben’s critique of deconstruction in Homo Sacer, Geulen argues that merely identifying and recognizing moments of textual ambivalence and rhetorical undecidability—which Guyer and Redfield, more so than Sun, cast as signs of a literary-aesthetic resistance to biopolitics—does little to resist, let alone change, the effectivity of the biopolitical structure.

29.        Geulen’s skepticism stems from her agreement with Agamben that what is ultimately at stake in biopolitics is the question of relationality. Drawing on his discussion of forma-di-vita, Geulen insists that the challenge to biopolitics, as well as the promise of the literary aesthetic, lies in thinking the nexus of life and law otherwise than in terms of a relation, since the form of relation as such always already “succumb[s] to the logic of the ban which … is the most extreme, most tenuous, hence most powerful form of all possible relations.” If any attempt to ‘relate’ aesthetics and politics runs the danger of being co-opted by biopolitics, the alternative she proposes at the close of her essay curiously bypasses both the question of Romanticism and that of aesthetics’ complicity with biopolitics. Through a reading of Lukacs’ Theory of the Novel as a “site where the question of form and life is played out exclusively as a problem of aesthetic form,” and thus also as a test of Agamben’s “enigmatic idea of non-relationality,” Geulen takes issue with the idea that one can “draw the line between aesthetic forms and politics,” (which, since it presupposes their relation, would be to remain caught up in the logic of the sovereign ban). What emerges from her reading is the account of the novel as “a form of life in which no bare life can be separated, whose law is life and whose life is its law,” with the consequence that “[t]here is no politics of the novel and there can never be one, neither biopolitical nor sovereign.” In the novelistic beyond of relation, then, and at an indistinct remove from Romanticism, the question of politics loses its force, and the novel comes to be “not about art but about life.” But if we are unable to decide whether this is a triumph of art or the evacuation of its critical force, what Geulen’s turn to modernism’s quest to “abolish or transform the distinction between art and life” does suggest is that the very idea of a “form-of-life” beyond politics, even and precisely in its turn away from the question of romanticism, reiterates romanticism’s substitution of language for life in the very effacement of what might yet be its critical legacy.

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[1] On the prehistory of the term “biopolitics,” see Dan Stone’s essay "Biopower and Modern Genocide." BACK

[2] In Michel Foucault’s seminal theory, biopolitics takes the form of concrete techniques of power that target individuals not as “legal subjects” but as “living beings” (Sexuality 142-43), while for Giorgio Agamben the nation-state is biopolitical to the degree that it engages “not man as a free and conscious political subject but, above all, man’s bare life” (Homo 128). BACK

[3] A quick search of the MLA International Bibliography for scholarship on “biopolitics” over the last 30 years reveals the following: between 1980 and 1989 we find one instance (by Donna J. Haraway), between 1990 and 1999 we find three, and between 2000 and 2009 there are 65. The astonishing increase in biopolitical studies since 2000 in which we’re interested is corroborated by the same search on WorldCat, a database unrestricted to just critical studies: between 1980 and 1989 there were 105 publications on biopolitics, between 1990 and 1999 there were 164, and between 2000 and 2009 there were 756. Comparing the two sets of data, one can see that studies of biopolitics grew at a much faster rate since 2000 in critical studies than in the academy in general. Both searches were conducted in June 2010. BACK

[4] Inventive reconsiderations of biopolitics with a theoretical reach have been offered by Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Lee Medovoi, Nicole Shukin, and contributors to a collection edited by Kathrin Thiele and Maria Muhle. BACK

[5] Agamben discusses romantic writers and texts on several occasions, specifically Sade (Homo 134-35), Keats (Remnants 112-13), and Hölderlin (Homo 32-33). BACK

[6] We quote the 2003 version of the essay rather than the revised 2006 version only because it more clearly exemplifies the ambivalence with which we’re concerned. However, this ambivalence is also legible in the later version:

One might well imagine what it might have been like in 1800 for an analyst attempting to grasp the transformative implications of the forerunners of the ‘birth of the clinic.’ Today we might well be in an analogous situation, where the drivers of change can be already be discerned, some consequences predicted, but where the overall directions remain obscure and their implications still in doubt. Thus it is hard to tell whether we are at the early stages of a momentous shift, in the middle of a process that is well under way towards stabilizing new forms, or in a conjuncture that will prove to be a dead end or at least marginal to other changes that we cannot envisage today. But in attempting to make a diagnosis from ‘in the middle’, we think that the concept of biopower focuses our attention on three key elements that are at stake in any transformation—knowledge of vital processes, power relations that take human beings as their object, and the modes of subjectification through which subjects work on themselves qua living beings—as well as their multiple combinations. (215)

[7] Ross Wilson quotes and comments on this passage from Levinson in the introduction to his collection, The Meaning of ‘Life’ in Romantic Poetry and Poetics (3-4). While we read this resistance to theory as an effacement of romanticism, the ambivalence we’re interested intensifies if we acknowledge that, as David Simpson has shown, the resistance to theory is also quintessentially romantic. BACK

[8] See Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats (1991), Helmut Müller-Sievers, Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800 (1997), Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life (2002), Nicholas Roe’s edited collection, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Sciences of Life (2002), and Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (2005). BACK

[9] See Charles I. Armstrong, Romantic Organicism: From Idealist Origins to Ambivalent Afterlife (2003), Ross Wilson, The Meaning of ‘Life’ in Romantic Poetry and Poetics (2009), and Denise Gigante, Life: Organic Form and Romanticism (2009) as well as Paul Youngquist, "Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics." As Sara Guyer demonstrates in her contribution to the present collection, the deconstructive rhetorical strain within the field has long been aware that romantic poetics turned upon such figures of animation as apostrophe and prosopopeia. BACK

[10] In "The Biopolitical Unconscious" Lee Medovoi insightfully begins the task of imagining an ecocriticism attentive to the “environment” as the figure of “nature” interpellated by biopolitics. BACK

[11] Agamben elaborates this reading in Language and Death: The Place of Negativity.BACK