McLane, Response 2: "Afterword: Body, Number, Rank, Measure: Romantic Reckonings"

"Afterword: Body, Number, Rank, Measure: Romantic Reckonings" "Romantic Number(s) Set 2"

Maureen N. McLane
New York University


1.        Each of the papers in this second "set" traverses, we might say, a calculus and a discourse (lyric in Savarese and Earle, population theory in Broglio). They offer extremely different, yet complementary, routes into the terrain of “Romantic Number(s)”; they also resonate with some of the concerns of the first "set" of essays. Among the operations we encounter here: ranking, assembling, operating, making, surveying, enclosing, forecasting, measuring. One notes in this work an oscillation between quantitative and qualitative accountings—between the uncountable “mass” in Broglio and “mere countability” (to quote Earle) in Earle and Savarese. Here Hegel’s reflections in the Logic might help clarify what is at stake: “Measure is a relation, but not relation in general, for it is the specific relation between quality and quantity” (Volume One, Book One, General Division of Being, “Being,” §128). And: “Measure is the qualitative quantum, in the first place as immediate—a quantum, to which a determinate being or a quality is attached. Measure, where quality and quantity are in one, is thus the completion of Being” (“Measure,” §107).

2.        Whether the “cranial measurements” of Robert Burns’s skull (introduced as a case for reflection in Savarese) align with a Hegelian discourse of measure is doubtful: though certainly such excursions attest to the longstanding fantasy of generating “quality” (of mind, of genius, what have you) undialectically out of “quantity.” One finds in this longing for the materialization of mind—whether evidenced in phrenological or more current neuro-imaging technologies—a profound and in some ways disquieting continuity between the romantic period and our own, as Savarese makes clear. (On romanticism as a kind of cognitive science avant la lettre, see, for example, Alan Richardson. On the pleasures and dangers of the new “science” for literary study, see, e.g., Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” and the array of responses in the Winter 2012 issue of Critical Inquiry; see too Saverese’s and Jager’s acute review essay on recent work in cognitive science and romanticism.) If faculty psychology would seem to be obsolete, contemporary theories of “the modular mind” (see Savarese) have re-opened the historical question of what precisely romantic poetry was supposed to do (as it were) for faculty psychology. “Being, as we first apprehend it, is something utterly abstract and characterless; but it is the very essence of Being to characterise itself, and its complete characterisation is reached in Measure,” writes Hegel. “Measure . . . may serve as a definition of the Absolute” (§107); measure also, in another key, manifests itself in historically inflected forms of techne and praxis, as these essays all demonstrate.

3.        Earle and Savarese are preoccupied by the question of poetry: for each, poetry has a special status in theories of mind, yet is also specifically embodied—whether in Savarese’s diagnostically “idiot minstrel,” Scott’s Davie Gellatley (“the cognitively disabled minstrel of Tully-Veolan” in Waverley), or in the notional poet-athlete proposed by Mina Loy and amplified in Earle’s meditation. Earle explores a Benthamite refunctioning of romantic lyric, that notorious mode of defining and communicating individuality. Like Broglio, Earle reactivates a calculating discourse (here Benthamite “ranking” as opposed to the “counting” of population) to show how romantic lyric ceaselessly “stag[es] a breakdown of the act of romantic lyric subjectivity,” yet also invites us “to make rehearsal of the inevitable failure of this pursuit a new more modest kind of aesthetic aim.” He continues:

This is not to make failure the basis of just another disciplinary norm, but to wager a new more formally complex, tenuous and nonviolent mode of sustaining social normativity, weave enactments of failure as such into the texture of a new Wittgensteinian or Loy-ian “way of life.”
Earle’s essay takes up Ferguson’s work such that romantic lyric emerges as a peculiarly triumphant way of reckoning with and dissolving “calculating subjectivity”—Earle’s Shelley, for example, “evoking a non-calculating and incalculable subjectivity not as a determinate cause unto itself but as an emphatically absent cause,” opening the space for an unforeseen future, anticipating “the rigorously negative aesthetics of art.”

4.        Earle’s essay explores a poetry which renounces knowledge transmission in favor of perpetuating a certain formal pattern. Savarese’s Scott also explores this possibility: “With Davie, Scott toys with the notion of reducing lyric expressivity to the brute elements of memorization and counting time. He thus raises the specter of the ‘automaton poet’ that Coleridge had sought to exorcise.” Building on previous scholars’ reckonings with Davie Gellatley, Savarese takes up the figure of automata haunting Scott, Coleridge, and romantic philosophy and poiesis more broadly. Hartleian mechanism here gets its due and its come-uppance, as Savarese incisively explores Scott’s minstrel’s materialist yet non-mechanistic time-keeping.

5.        Both Earle and Broglio speak to the socio-political implications of numbering and ranking operations: one might think of Earle’s essay as a Rancièreian meditation on the use and abuse of hierarchy for democracy, the problem of “staging” equality first emergent around 1800 and still very much with us. Broglio proposes an “ordering of life” which resists organization into “population”: surveying not only Malthus but other visual and textual representations of “the swinish multitude,” Broglio explores how “bodies resist quantification where biopower of the body cannot be subsumed by population, statistics, and homogenization of the biopolitical apparatus of capture.” Food—people’s preferences, aversions, local foodways—becomes in his account a crucial “way in which that the biopower of the masses, the swinish multitude, resist quantification.” Broglio astutely proposes “homo oeconomicus,” that bane of Horkheimer and Adorno (among others), as a peculiar opportunity emergent in the romantic period: with Foucault’s analytic of biopower in mind, Broglio observes that homo oeconomicus is resistant to certain constructions of homo legalis or homo juridicus. He further suggests (following Foucault) that the subject of interest (as the State conceives homo oeconomicus) might escape the strictures of the subject of right (as the State previously construed homo juridicus); that the emergence of calculating, economic man (so passionately decried by Wordsworth and in Shelley’s Defence) offered in fact a moment of contingent freedom before regimens of governmentality were fully established and legitimized:

In other words, modes of quantification—counting bodies and counting them as citizens of the State subject to its control—become the means of rhetorical and material control of peoples. In contrast, homo oeconomicus uses qualitative differences between peoples as a way of evading quantification and counting. Homo oeconomicus leverages a biopower—the biological capacities and resistances of bodies—as that which has yet to be co-opted by the biopolitical.
Homo oeconomicus, on this account, can exploit qualitative differences (and here we might recall Earle’s discourse on ranking), however much he might also be counted by the census or massified into population tables or mustered into armies. There are many ways of being interpellated, these essays point out, incommensurate modes of becoming-a-(perceivable)-subject.

6.        If Earle proposes a kind of Beckettian “Fail Better” as an optimistic slogan we might embrace in a universe of ranked yet, because ranked, perceivable subjects, Broglio tells a story—despite flashes of chances for freedom—about the growth of a restricted economy and the loss of commons. Here we might think of other contemporary (re)turns to the commons, including Peter Linebaugh’s suggestion that we would do well to think of “the commons” as a verb, not a noun: “to common” (279): “[i]t might be better to keep the word as a verb, an activity, rather than as a noun.” Drawing on Linebaugh, Lauren Berlant writes in “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness”:

It’s not “the people,” but the common. Not “citizenship” or social membership or “belonging” but “being with.” Not suffering or precarity, but awkwardness and a world-building endurance.
Berlant’s embrace of “awkwardness and a world-building endurance” chimes with Earle’s optimism-via-failure—a call for a deeper playing of the ranked game, a persistence and inclination toward other palms and other races we in common might yet run. Taken together, these essays offer a preliminary sketch of a political economy of Romantic perceptibility—whereby such formulations as “We are the 99%” (say) become not the rallying cry of a swinish multitude nor the idiot-savant automatized chant of the lower ranks but the calling out of an emergent collectivity, uncapturable because nondenumerable by the State. This work helps us to think, both for the romantic period and our own, what we needs must feel.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. “Austerity, Precarity, Awkwardness.” Paper presented at “Sensing Precarity,” panel at the American Anthropological Association, 25 November 2011. Downloadable at Web. 7 November 2012.

Bloom, Paul, et al. Responses to “Against Literary Darwinism.” Critical Inquiry. 38: 2 (Winter 2012). 388-430. Print.

Ferguson, Frances. “Organic Form and Its Consequences.” Land, Nation, and Culture, 1740-1840: Rethinking the Republic of Taste. Ed. Peter de Bolla, David Simpson, and Nigel Leask. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 223-40. Print.

---. Pornography, The Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action. Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 2004. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. Science of Logic, Volume One: The Objective Logic; Book One: The Doctrine of Being. From Hegel’s Logic (Part I of the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences). Trans. William Wallace with foreword by J. N. Findlay. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.; Web. 7 November 2012.

Kramnick, Jonathan. “Against Literary Darwinism.” Critical Inquiry 37:2 (Winter 2011). 315-47. Print.

Levinson, Marjorie. “Of Being Numerous.” Studies in Romanticism 49:4 (Winter 2010): 633-657. Print.

Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U. of California P, 2008. Print.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

---. Ecology Without Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Richardson, Alan. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2010. Print.

Savarese, John and Colin Jager. “Cognition, Culture, Romanticism: A Review Essay.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. 57-58 (February-May 2010). Web. 7 November 2012.