Romantic Materialities, or 'This is not a Thing'

Romantic Materialities, or "This is not a Thing"

Sara Guyer
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Celeste Langan
University of California, Berkeley

1.        In his landmark essay, "The Secret Life of Things," (1999), a prelude to Thing Theory (2003), Bill Brown acknowledges that his title will bring to mind "a line from William Wordsworth or Percy Shelley, or one of ETA Hoffmann's uncanny tales."  This gesture at once cites and brackets Romantic writers, allowing them to reverberate in the background of an argument in which Brown attends explicitly to the 1920s (as a period in which "things emerge as the object of profound theoretical engagement" in Georg Lukács, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin), and to a short story by Virginia Woolf, "Solid Objects" (1920). It somehow seems fitting that Brown's reference to Romantic things should be so vaguely allusive—not to say elusive—given the longstanding tendency to oppose Romanticism and materialism.  But the inexactness of the citation has the unexpectedly amplifying effect of allowing a palimpsest of lines to spring to mind:  from "Tintern Abbey" ("We see into the life of things") "And I have felt... / a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused... A motion and a spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things"; and from Shelley's "Mont Blanc" ("The everlasting universe of things/ Rolls through the mind").  As this virtual universe of "thing" lines rolls through our minds, it's worth stopping in our tracks a bit, to notice something to which Brown does not pay attention:  the proximity of things to thinking in these Romantic examples of "thing theory."

2.        One could cite many more examples of such proximity, but we'll content ourselves with one of the most familiar, from Byron's Don Juan:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think (3.793-95).
To (re)read this passage in the context of Thing Theory is to imagine that it was Byron, not William Godwin, who responded to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's own "call for papers":
I wish you would write a book on the power of words, and the processes by which human feelings form affinities with them - in short, I wish you to philosophize Horne Tooke's System, and to solve the great Questions . . . Is thinking impossible without arbitrary signs? . . . In something of this order I would endeavour to destroy the old antithesis of Words & Things, elevating, as it were, words into Things, & living Things too. All the nonsense of vibrations etc you would of course dismiss. (Coleridge to William Godwin, 22 September, 1800, Letters, 1:625-26)
Many readers of Romantic Circles Praxis will be familiar with John Horne Tooke's etymological argument that "to think" bears a direct relation to "things":  "Remember, where we now say I think, the antient expression was—Me thinketh, i.e., Me thingeth, It thingeth me"(609).  "Thinking things"—in the sense of (1) attributing thought to things; (2) thinking about things; and (3) thinking through things—would seem to be at the foundation of Romantic interest in the "real language of men" (emphasis added, Brett & Jones 241).

3.        No doubt the amount of ink (and other material supports for discourse) recently expended on the topic of "things" in literature had the not-quite uncanny effect, in 2011, of independently prompting the MLA's English Romantic Period and the Comparative Romantic and Nineteenth Century Literature Divisions to convene panels designed to explore how "things" might be thought Romantically.  Certainly these sessions were not in any way the first to wonder what a thing theory might look like; Colin Jager in 2007 and Eric Lindstrom in 2010 both suggested the subtitle of William Godwin's Caleb Williams—"Things as They Are" —ought to be considered as a point of departure.  This "astringent, jointly metaphysical/political" phrase (Lindstrom 481) implicitly opposes itself to "things as they might be" (Jager par. 7).  And at more or less the same time as our panelists were presenting their papers, Mary Jacobus' book Romantic Things: A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud (Chicago, 2012) appeared.  

4.        Jacobus' Romantic Things makes only passing reference to thing theory, but in linking the objects of her subtitle to such other putative "things" as death, absence, and vacancy, she makes a case for Wordsworth as "the negative phenomenologist of Romantic thingness" (129).  Not clouds but "/cloud/"— Hubert Damisch's name for what in painting "is the sign of the volume repressed by modern painting's fixation on the flatness of the representational surface" (12)—is the paradigm for this negative phenomenology:a phenomenology which notably undermines both idealism and the materialism which counters it.  In one chapter, "Touching Things," Jacobus suggests why Romantic writers should be so interested in intangibles—in things that are not immaterial, but whose materiality is evidenced less by direct perception than in their aftereffects.  Drawing a parallel between the poem, "unable to speak for itself," and other things that lack standing as subjects or objects, Jacobus hints at the relation of Romantic practice not only to thing theory, but to so-called "object-oriented ontology."

5.        As Steven Shaviro explains (in an essay whose title, "The Universe of Things," references Shelley's "Mont Blanc"), aesthetics has a central status in object-oriented ontology:

For aesthetics is about the singularity and supplementarity of things. That is to say, it has to do with things insofar as they cannot be cognized, or subordinated to concepts; and also insofar as they cannot be utilized, or normatively regulated, or defined according to rules. No matter how deeply I comprehend a thing, and no matter how pragmatically or instrumentally I make use of it, there is still something of it that escapes my categorizations. Even when I obliterate a thing, or consume it utterly, there is still something of it that I have not managed to incorporate, some force to it that I have not been able to subsume. Aesthetics involves feeling an object for its own sake, beyond those aspects of it that can be understood or used. The thing withdraws into its network, luring me into the shadows; and it bursts forth in a splendour that dazzles and blinds me. In these cases, the understanding is frustrated, and the will reaches the limits of its power. It is only aesthetically, beyond understanding and will, that I can appreciate the actus of the thing being what it is, in what [Graham] Harman calls "the sheer sincerity of existence."
If a "Romantic" thing theory is one dialectically related both to things as they are and things as they might be, it would also seem to resist the idea that attention to "things" represents a supercession or redemption of the supposed "abstractions" of theory.  Partly in the spirit of a resistance to the final dominion of things—and that spirit of resistance is perhaps a shibboleth, a specifically Romantic inflection of thing theory—both of the initial calls for the papers included here also encouraged dialectical or resistant engagement. Titling the English session "This is Not a Thing," the committee wished the allusion to René Magritte to suggest a certain distrust of the "thing" as a repudiation of, or correction for, Romantic theory.  More subtly, by elevating the deictic "this" as its object, it raised the question of how to understand the materiality of Romantic words and letters.

6.        The Comparative Literature Division accomplished a similar end by devoting two complementary sessions to "Romantic Ideality" and "Romantic Materiality," staging a chiasmus such that at the very moment in which one thought (even hoped) to think on one side of things, that thought turned out to be inextricable from ideas, idealism, and ideality. Essays delivered at both of these comparative sessions—on ideality and materiality—appear in this special issue.  These two panels were initially prompted by the way that object-oriented ontology seems to have troubled anew the assumed opposition between materialism and idealism.  In actuality though, each of the essays that appears here is held together by a rethinking and reanimation of Paul de Man's subtle account of linguistic materiality.  These essays are preoccupied with the matter of words and letters, and the undoing of any sustainable opposition between formal and material approaches to literature and culture.  

7.        While object-oriented ontology sets out from the re-introduction of realism into a theoretical terrain that since Immanuel Kant had given up on its legitimacy, the question remains whether this thinking has a precedent or parallel in some readings of Romanticism, in particular, those that, at least since de Man (the explicit subject of Tom Toreman's and Mario Ortiz-Robles' essays and a key intertext, if not the implicit subject, of essays by Anna Kornbluh and Brian McGrath) have focused on "Kant's Materialism."  These essays hold on to materialism, but do so in order redescribe materiality as a possibly displaced name for a linguistic predicament.  Put another way, the essays collected here lead us to ask whether Romantic materialities say more or less the same thing as "Speculative Realism"? Do they, far from collapsing into relativism, instead embrace a sense of things in their very awareness of linguistic force?

8.        Put another way, just as the essays we have collected here register the emergence of new methods and ways of thinking, they also remind us of the endurance of an earlier account of radical—and radically unconventional—materiality, one that Jacques Derrida registers as a "nothing" that operates as "a force of resistance," neither substance not matter, but rather a "materiality without matter" (350). Resistance, whether or not it takes shape, emerges in this sense as materiality itself. This is the resistance to which the this of "this is not a thing" bears witness.

9.        The two papers from the English Romantic Period session represented here (the others—"Specimen Poetics: Reanimating the Romantic Object," by Dahlia Porter, and "Marx's Romantic Atom," by Amanda Goldstein—were destined for other publications) concentrate our attention on the strange way in which the process of reading might be understood to exhibit the imbrication of things and thought.  In her essay "What Wordsworth Touched," Sonia Hofkosh challenges the prevailing conception of Wordsworth as a poet averse to "the touch of the real," as a poet who instead favored encounters with "phantom" reality (Hartman).   Yet Hofkosh's focus is on the text as a thing: reinterpreting "the touch of earthly years" not as nostalgia or mortality but as "somatic pressure," Hofkosh describes reading as a process of "tandem touching" ("what we touch touches us").

10.        In a similar vein, Yoon Sun Lee brilliantly characterizes (an apt word) the Gothic novel as "both thing-like and person-like: thing-like in its obvious, clunky reliance on formula and cliché, and yet person-like in the way that its superficial character appears to indicate the existence of something deeper, or even unconscious."  Evidence of the dissolved opposition between things and persons, objects and subjects, exhibits itself in Ann Radcliffe's (narrative) passages about passages, often located within the walls of castles whose mouldering condition likewise suggests the collapse of boundaries.  In Radcliffe, when a door opens, it appears to do so of its own accord.  Tracing the strange effects of Gothic patterns, Lee offers us a ground-shifting (deterritorializing) way of reading Gothic descriptions as "assemblages" that fail to produce a single mental image, but instead register "the failure of things to persist." And if Lee is right to suggest that materiality, when understood as a shifting force field of intensities, is always already at risk of dissolving, emerging, and changing, then Wordsworth's apparent aversion to the "real" may instead register the poet's most profound attachment to the material.  For, as Hofkosh notes, the poet's attachment to "things which are not things" required Wordsworth to produce stories "about how things (entities, objects, bodies) change over time, must change, in order to endure."

11.        The remaining papers were presented at the two Comparative Literature sessions: those by Anna Kornbluh, Brian McGrath, and Mario Ortiz-Robles composed a panel on "Romantic Materialities," and Tom Toremans, together with David Clark and Tilottama Rajan (both of whom had committed their essays elsewhere) spoke on the "Romantic Idealities" panel.

12.        Two of these essays focus explicitly on Paul de Man whether in an effort to characterize agency as a literary effect, an example of what Mario Ortiz-Robles calls "literary immanence," or in order to situate the several texts devoted to materiality within their original context—the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University—and to reread them from that vantage (the aim of Toreman's essay).  McGrath and Kornbluh also turn to de Man, even if only by turning away from him. Indeed, while they allegorically treat our contemporary experience of virtuality—from the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath to the new knowledge economy—they do so by way of an analysis of "material events."  While Kornbluh makes a point of insisting that her essay will not repeat the gesture whereby reading Karl Marx after de Man, a conventionally understood materialism and a more enigmatic linguistic one seem not as different as one would otherwise presume, her subtle approach to Marx remains thoroughly informed by the mode of rhetorical reading that is de Man's signature.  The same can be said of Brian McGrath's essay.

13.        Like Jane Bennett, Brian McGrath sets out from Henry David Thoreau. While Bennett loops Thoreau through Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, in order to propose an alternative materialism to the dominant Marxist one, and in order to develop an account of "lively" or "vibrant" matter, McGrath takes us straight to the clouds—to Wordsworth's cloud and to cloud computing.  More specifically, McGrath's essay is a patient, but also wandering, reflection on the line "I wandered lonely as a cloud," which leads us to think through the economic and ecological costs of mobility that our contemporary fascination with clouds—specifically with the cloud in which, among other things, the words you are now reading are stored—reveals. In doing so, McGrath stages a canny reversal, whereby the emblem of poetic—and above all Romantic—immateriality turns out to be materiality itself. In McGrath's reading, Wordsworth turns out to be less a dreamy idealist than a vibrant materialist, attending to the life of things or the thingly life.  But McGrath doesn't see this as the end of the so-called linguistic turn, but rather, just as the theorists of objects have set out to recover the matter apparently lost by the acceptance of social or linguistic construction, McGrath turns this thinking of materiality resolutely back to Romanticism and to a renewed reflection upon its figures.

14.        Taken together, the six essays that we have collected here suggest that Romanticism exposes us to a materialism that cannot merely be overcome and an idealism with which it is not identical. By reading beyond the texts conventionally associated with Romanticism, and by recasting the critical tendencies—from thing theory to object oriented ontology—through the poets, genres, and critics of Romanticism, these essays position Romanticism (and show how Romanticism may always have been positioned) in another relation to things as they are—or may be.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Brett, R.L. and A.R. Jones, eds. Wordsworth and Coleridge: Lyrical Ballads. NY: Oxford, 1969. Print.

Brown, Bill. "The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism)." Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (1999): 1-28. Print.

---. "Thing Theory." Critical Inquiry 28.1 (Autumn 2003): 1-22. Print.

Byron, George Gordon. Don Juan. Complete Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. NY: Oxford UP, 1980-. Print.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Earl Leslie Griggs. Vol. 1, (1785-1800). Oxford: Clarendon, 1956-1971. Print.

Damisch, Hubert. A Theory of Cloud: Toward a History of Painting. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.

De Man, Paul. Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. "Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) ('within such limits')." Material Events. Ed. Tom Cohen. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 277-360. Print.

Jager, Colin. "A Poetics of Dissent: Or, Pantisocracy in America." Theory & Event 10.1 (2007). Print.

Jacobus, Mary. Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2012. Print.

Lindstrom, Eric. "Imagining Things as They Are." Studies in Romanticism 49.3 (2010): 477-506. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. "The Universe of Things." Theory and Event 14.3 (2011). Web. Jan 7, 2014.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "Mont Blanc." Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Neil, eds. Fraistat. NY: Norton, 2002. Print.

Tooke, John Horne. Epea Pteroenta: Or the Diversions of Purley. London: Thomas Tegg, 1840. Print.