The Intimacy of Infrastructure: Teaching Wordsworth with Bataille

David Sigler (University of Calgary)

I have sometimes taught William Wordsworth’s sonnet “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” first published in 1833, alongside a chapter from Georges Bataille’s Theory of Religion, posthumously published in 1973. The selection from Bataille is chapter four of Theory of Religion (87-104), entitled “The Rise of Industry,” which I upload to our course learning management system. I have attempted this combination several times in senior-level undergraduate courses and Master’s-level graduate courses at the University of Idaho, and will be trying it again in the upcoming semester at the University of Calgary.

I usually organize my Romanticism survey courses thematically rather than chronologically or by author. The themes have included global British Romanticism, including topics like hospitality, Orientalism, and empire; sexuality and the family, including sororal-fraternal sexuality and the history of the idea of “sexuality” itself; the aesthetic demands of the French Revolution; class, labor, and the Peterloo massacre. I find a thematic structure can encourage students to see literary writing as a form of problem solving, as they see texts working through common problems and responding to each other. In such a context, reading twentieth- or twenty-first century theory alongside older literary texts becomes a way to reconsider what these texts are able to accomplish or imagine. As we read Byron’s Manfred, for instance, we will also be reading Felicia Hemans’s “A Spirit’s Return” and the introduction to Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, so that we’re ready to think through the difficulties inherent in summoning ghosts and making demands of them. Before reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” and Mary Shelley’s Mathilda, for instance, we spend a day discussing Sigmund Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” and Slavoj Žižek’s “Melancholy and the Act,” so we will be ready to discuss in detail the processes, and ethico-political stakes, of Romantic-era despair, and especially so we can consider what might be gained by summoning dejection deliberately. At the end of the course, we spend two weeks thinking through the big picture of Romanticism—its political and cultural upheavals, its critical potential, its exclusions, its limits, its blind spots and complicities. It’s during this last part of the course in which my students have read Wordsworth’s “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” alongside Bataille.

Bataille delineates two orders of experience in “The Rise of Industry”: there is, he explains, an “order of things” devoted to clarity and precision, in which economics, labor, politics, and scientific research play out; there is also an “order of intimacy” involving spiritual rapture, divinity, and, if one is doing it right, eroticism. Modernity is defined by the separation of intimacy from things. As capitalist ideology becomes hegemonic, European culture gradually accepts the total elimination of divine grace (i.e., intimacy) from one’s works (i.e., things). For Bataille, the world of things, too much with us, expands everywhere and crowds intimacy out: capitalism, imperialism, secularization, and science collude to keep intimacy at bay. It’s a thoroughly Wordsworthian concern. The tone of Bataille’s chapter isn’t nostalgic or lapsarian, but it outlines a tragic forfeiture at the heart of modernity, one by now so firmly entrenched in European thought that it cannot very easily be challenged. In Bataille’s view, capitalism satisfies theological and psychological needs. Yet it has severe costs even beyond the concentration of wealth: a society organized around getting and spending opens the “reign of autonomous things,” leading to military expansion, imperialism, and commodity fetishism (90). Even science, which might have seemed to have critical potential, requires “the reduction of all life to the real order” through its attachment to clarity and precision (96). These developments have severe psychological effects, warns Bataille: with the separation of intimacy from things, people become estranged from their own consciousness and begin to fear the consequences of modernity. Though no dates are mentioned, one can surmise that Bataille considers the European eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as eras in which “the order of things” began to take over and dominate intimacy, and this makes “The Rise of Industry” especially useful for courses in Romanticism. He explains, for instance, that the situation brought about a change in the nature of state power, such that sovereignty became a function of capital, not the throne.

Bataille’s chapter encourages us to rethink the meaning of “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” because it gets students to attend to the poem’s ambiguous literary language. I have gone back and forth, in planning discussions, as to the order of operations: sometimes when teaching a poem alongside some theory, I will have everyone work through the theory before getting at the poem. But in this sonnet, there’s a (seemingly) direct claim being advanced about the need—psychological, aesthetic, or economic—to reconcile industrial infrastructure with the “natural” landscape: the speaker, at least at one level, encourages us to find these congruent and “sublime.” This association between infrastructure and habit of mind is probably the most manifest of possible readings, so I want students to recognize and understand it as quickly as possible; I also want to give students ample opportunity to explore other readings that may occur to them, before we shift the conversation into Bataille’s particular set of concerns. So, to begin class, we spend a few minutes just reading the poem aloud and discussing its basic argument. I will display on a screen an 1830s-era image of a viaduct or railway in the context of a British landscape. This sort of print was a whole genre of 1830s visual culture, and examples are readily found online. With the image projected onscreen, I will ask a student to read the poem aloud for us. I do this even though the students have read the poem at home already, because the poem is brief, and listening to it read aloud well can attune us afresh to its meter and tone:

“Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways”
Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe'er it mar5
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind's gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown10
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man's art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o'er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.15

At first glance, the poem certainly seems to exonerate industrialists. The local environment is important, the poem says, but not nearly as important as our ability to cultivate a poetic habit of mind—and industrial infrastructure presents no impediment to that. Although industrial constructions admittedly “mar/ The loveliness of Nature,” in the speaker’s analysis these eyesores don’t interfere with a poet’s attainment of a sublime “prophetic sense,” and thus are perfectly acceptable. As the violent destruction of the landscape is acknowledged but forgiven, ecological damage comes to seem unimportant relative to “that point of vision” which poetry affords. Moreover, the point of vision is valuable not intrinsically but because it will allow an inquisitive person to have “discovered what in soul ye are.” In this reading, which I think is the most straightforward one, self-discovery is held to be the paramount thing, overriding all other concerns. This in itself is a controversial idea, especially in light of today’s ecological crises, and one that will stir up lively conversation among students in a classroom. To cultivate a sense of one’s authentic selfhood through a process of poetic reflection is not, after all, a genuine solution to the violence of capitalism but, on the contrary, its ideological supplement and necessary outgrowth.

The challenge is to get students to discuss the poem as a poem, not as an essay. It’s with this that Bataille is helpful. Read alongside Bataille, “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” becomes a viciously ironic poem and a poem that dares to imagine a solution to modern capitalist ideology. The solution surprises students because it emerges from within the very workings of industrial capitalism—the steamboats, viaducts, and railways—rather than as an alternative to capitalist development. There are of course many ways to encourage students to become attuned to poetic devices. Bataille offers one such way, and it’s an especially good one, because here, attention to poetic devices is not an end in itself. When read in combination, Bataille and Wordsworth show how poetic devices present an occasion for radically rethinking subjectivity in an industrial world. Literature and industry aren’t opposing forces here, as the argument of the poem makes plain. But they don’t necessarily support each other, either, and in learning to read poetry as poetry, we can learn to see the poem’s critical edge. The poem, at one level, appears to be trying to cordon poetry off from economic, developmental, aesthetic, and ecological crises—a poet can enjoy the sublimity of these crises from a wise and profound remove, it would seem (at first glance). But in reserving this space within capitalism, the poem is also maintaining a space for intimacy. Dreadful as it may seem, this space is not autonomous from industry but develops right within and through it. In tracing this development and seeing how we as readers become caught within it, we can arrive at a mode of thinking—a “point of vision”—that Bataille would call “fundamentally unreal” and genuinely radical (96).

Because the questions I enumerate below will seem, I fear, inflexibly Socratic, I will insist at this juncture of the essay that one can never predict how a good discussion will take shape. My aim is to start a conversation in which interpretation can take unexpected turns. To accomplish this, though, I like to make a long list of clustered questions to pose and a possible order for their asking, not because any discussion will ever obey this trajectory but because the list of questions ready at hand will encourage me to keep the conversation moving briskly and purposefully. In general, I find it best to start with small and answerable questions: what is a viaduct? What do viaducts have in common with steamboats and railways? What do steamboats, viaducts, and railways make possible? In whose service are they built? I explain that infrastructure was being built rapidly, all across Britain, in the 1830s: I will mention some examples and show more images, very briefly. Who is building these railways and viaducts, and for whose profit? How do they relate to the public good? Would there be resistance to these developments, and from whom? What is this “war” is actually about, and who’s waging it? Is it significant that it is figured in this poem as a war, instead of as “opposition” or “tension” or some other less metaphorical kind of hostility?

Even though everyone already has it on their desks, I’ll project the sonnet on the screen because I think it can help to focus the group’s attention on the actual words of the poem, as written. I’ll ask someone—often the reader, if the reader has perhaps volunteered in the hopes of avoiding other contributions—to offer some thoughts about the sonnet’s first sentence (ll.1-3). Students will often stumble for a moment when reading the first sentence aloud, I think because of the opening trochee and the unwelcoming unfamiliarity of the main characters: the speaker is telling a story about “Motions and Means” at war with “old poetic feeling.” The poetic apostrophe at work here makes this unfamiliarity especially pressing: what would it mean to speak directly to “Motions and Means”—to offer them reassurances—without addressing the movers or planners? Can one really speak to motions and means? I find it strange to imagine “motions and means” being opposed by a “feeling,” and stranger yet for a speaker to discuss the conflict with “motions and means” directly. This poem aggressively effaces human subjects, speaking only of their movements and emotions, as if movements and feelings could exist without belonging to anyone. In the sestet, we learn about a complicated contest between various vast abstractions: Nature, it seems, distances herself from beauty, who in turn is critical of motions and means, to form an alliance with art, as a strategy to defeat Time, who is sympathetic to the predicament of Space. Weirdly, they are presented as a family, each with offspring and siblings. What is implied by this?, I will ask. The reader is already embroiled in a family romance. Is it in any way fathomable that Time or Space could experience something like the Oedipus complex, for instance?

It’s a difficult story to follow at first, because of its allegorical nature and the way that the figures seem, against all odds, to be capable of strategy and sensitivity. There are traces here of human beings, but they are only traces: we have at stake “the Mind,” and we’re warned of possible interference by judgmental but tolerant “Poets,” but still we’re being left with the impression of huge impersonal forces at work, each working through complicated resentments that only vaguely relate to human thought and action. To frame it all, we have two modes of semi-autonomous being and thinking: “motions and means,” with which we might identify because the address is also implicitly to the reader, and “poetic feeling.” Why is the poem doing this? What are we supposed to glean from this tendency? The opening trochee of “Motions and Means” aggressively insists on the substantiality and violence of the motions and means: they are very real and present. If there is any resistance movement here—and we are assured by the speaker that there is not—it is allotted the anapest (and extra syllable) of “Poets, even,” and thus bridled with a kind of weakness and inefficiency. It’s good that poets have decided not to cause too much trouble for the motions and means, as it would hardly be a fair fight by the sound of it. We are left with a poet sycophantically currying the favor of the motions and means, directly.

I’ll ask the students about the effect of the enjambment and caesura in these opening lines of the sonnet: the poem is offering a meditation about interruption and dividedness, in some way, I would suggest, and we can try to figure out what the poem might be implying about such conditions. Especially in the octave, but also in the sestet, the strongest and most meaningful pauses tend to come midway through a line. One syntactical reason for all of the caesura is that this is a poem filled with subordinate clauses, and therefore commas, as if the speaker feels compelled to explain ever further, or as if further context were always necessary (e.g., “howsoe’er it mar / The loveliness of Nature”). We can discuss why this might be: from where does this anxiety stem? On the other hand, we can begin to consider the form of the sonnet as a possible solution to dividedness. Petrarchan sonnets, in particular, are difficult to break into more than two pieces: the extreme concision and the tight, woven rhyme scheme encourage us to think about how things are connected to other things; the mechanism of the volta, though itself a line of division, also encourages us to think that the problems have direct and discrete solutions. The sonnet isn’t a form that encourages one to think about irreconcilable differences or critical aporia. Can we think through the combination of this sonnet’s the enjambments and caesura, on the one hand, and its apparent formal cohesion, on the other? Where the poem seeks to locate division and aporia, I will suggest, is not in the big picture of things. Rather, these are internal, and things that contribute to, rather than interfere with, larger systems of meaning—poetic form, or, one might even say, commerce. After all, “motions and means” are likewise, at one at the same time, running all over the place and internally broken: the short circuiting of industrial capitalism is internal to capitalism itself—consider how, for Marx and Engels, the bourgeoisie trains its own grave-diggers (483)—even while its internal failures and excesses do not really prevent Britain, through the very force and ambition of its industries, from becoming a (seemingly) monolithic and devastating entity in the world. I don’t fetishize the alignment of poetic form and content by any means, but such alignment can be a useful teaching tool when the opportunity presents itself.

What I will suggest is that the poem may not be about finding common ground or forgiveness between “old poetic feeling” and “motions and means,” as steamboats, viaducts, and railways begin to crisscross the landscape. Rather, the apparent tension between “motions and means” and “poetic feeling” can be said to enable industrial progress, so-called: poetic feeling can be turned into a kind of ideological supplement to “motions and means,” stubbornly reaffirming a community’s investment in nature at the very moment that this commitment has been abandoned. In this way, perhaps Wordsworth is right to see poetry as the support for industrial capitalism, against all odds. I ask: who stands to benefit from explaining away the tension between industry and poetry, as the poem endeavors to do? What is initially so startling about this poem is that it appropriates the infrastructure of capitalism to its poetic register. But the reverse situation is even more startling, and is also a part of the poem: it is poetry, here, which becomes part of a general industrial and commercial project. More than anything, the tension that Wordsworth is seeking to explain away is explained away to the benefit of industrial capitalism, so it can better continue in its motions and means. Yet—to complicate this further—this reconciliation happens “in spite” of the tension between industry and aesthetic judgment, not because industry is ever made beautiful. We will discuss, briefly, what might be meant by Wordsworth’s “in spite,” in this context. Perhaps some other form of resistance is taking shape, here? We might brainstorm about this for a minute or two, as a class.

I will note that the poem immediately offers judgment about this tension, ironically by disavowing judgment and the tension itself (i.e., “not for this”). The “not for this” is a textbook case of Freudian-style negation: by saying “not for this, / . . . shall you, be judged amiss” unprompted, we are left with the strong impression of harsh judgment. We talk about what the poem accomplishes through this failed exculpation, or backhanded incrimination. Which is it?, I ask my students. Then we discuss why the speaker identifies poets (“Poets even”) as the most obvious and likely place where we would find disapproval. Because Wordsworth was by this time a highly visible poet, someone quite closely associated with the very category of the poet, we can infer that this poem has the potential to deliver a particularly devastating critique of these dehumanized “motions and means.”

We come back, then, to the steamboats, viaducts, and railways: these are figures for shipment and therefore connection, a national and European economy, of the infrastructure of global commerce. I ask: in what way might this world of commerce challenge old poetic feeling? After all, isn’t poetry also about connecting people across time and space? Isn’t poetry a viaduct and railway of sorts? Once we have discussed that question we can get into a direct discussion of Bataille’s thoughts on industry.

I’ll ask a student to summarize Bataille’s concerns, and I will fill in as needed, to ensure that we’re all on the same page before working through this problem via Wordsworth. Once we’ve had a satisfactory summary, I back away and allow students to ask each other about Bataille’s ideas. Once I’m convinced that people understand Bataille’s concerns, I ask: is this division between intimacy and things a real problem? We can devote perhaps five minutes in debating that question. Next, I ask: can poetry be a solution to this problem? Do you think so? Does Wordsworth think so? We might spend seven or eight minutes talking through these questions. I then will ask: are there other modes of discourse, besides poetry, that attempt to reconcile the order of intimacy and the order of things? After gathering some ideas, I’ll point out Bataille’s opinion, that there are people who have tried to approach the order of intimacy through the techniques of science, trying to bring clarity and precision to something fundamentally unreal (96). This attempt at reintegration, he says perhaps insensitively, has produced only “stammerings”: we’re trying and failing to represent the intimate order in the real world. We can access intimacy in this way, he says, but only through meek, weakened voices, and at a severe psychological cost.

Is this poem an instance of such “stammering”? It’s an opportunity for us to consider the syntax and punctuation of the poem, including the many subordinate clauses of the octave. We move from there to considerations of its tone, as the poem attempts to reconcile intimacy with things. Wordsworth says that there is no “bar / To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense.” Is this convincing? Surely it cannot be so easy as Wordsworth suggests: Bataille says that these registers can only be reconciled through “an impossible operation” (99). Self-consciousness has a bad habit of tending toward things, not intimacy: intimacy is, in a way, the very horizon that self-consciousness cannot attain, and hence the impulse for us to swerve away from intimacy. Bataille regrets that when people have tried to solve this problem previously, they have simply tried to undo the swerve, and end up caught in “a contrary operation, a reduction of the reduction” (99). Does this happen to Wordsworth? Moreover, for Bataille, intimacy is unruly and violent—it threatens to annihilate the order of things, even while it has historically been a condition for the order of things too. I return, then, to the abstractions that populate this poem: does this indicate a new mode of subjectivity? Is this the destruction, or perhaps dissolution, of the Enlightenment subject—the subject of the Cartesian cogito? Here we follow the liberation of concepts and words from their subjects, of motions and means from industrialists, and poets from poetry.

This leads us to reconsider the meaning of Wordsworth’s “ye”: whom and what does it address? At one level, it refers only to the motions and means of industrial capitalism. But as we encounter a “ye” on the page, we become, as readers, necessarily interpellated into that apostrophe. What are the risks of such belonging? I will ask the students. After some discussion, I will try to suggest that the “ye” is folding together the motions and means of industrialization with a newly industrialized subject-reader: a subject who becomes the subject of these motions and means, and ultimately subjected to them as well. If the poem is to make any sense, the reader is forced to recognize herself in the harsh features of industry. More alarmingly, we are told that, given industrial progress, Time “smiles on you with cheer sublime.” Again, the “you” being smiled upon must necessarily refer to the motions and means of industry and the reader herself. This is, I will suggest, basically horrific: capitalism doesn’t “smile on you”—it truly doesn’t care about you except as a market or demographic—and it’s not our duty to smile on it, either! Here, we confront the alienation of modern industrial capitalism by means of our total integration within it. Meanwhile, haunting the edge of the discussion, is the possibility that the poem has generated enough irony to destabilize these motions and means from within. After all, we are not really assured that poetry won’t be critical of industry or of the subjects it produces: we are promised only that it will criticize industry “not for this”—that is, it won’t criticize it on aesthetic grounds primarily.

By this late point in the semester, the students have read quite a lot of Wordsworth, Dorothy and William alike. So they can see immediately what’s unusual about “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways”: the poem seems to resist or complicate quintessential William Wordsworth fascinations such as nostalgia, selfhood, sympathy, and the indispensability of nature to spiritual recovery. Then again, it can seem to revisit famous Wordsworth meditations such as “Tintern Abbey,” which too seeks to find in the cultivation of “pleasing thoughts” “abundant recompense” for the “loss” of one’s ability to appreciate a natural landscape. In “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” as in “Tintern Abbey,” it’s a habit of mind really at stake and it seems especially important to cultivate a way of thinking able to confront the “future years.” I ask my students decide if “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways” is aligned or out of step with Wordsworth’s earlier thoughts on the confluence of nature and mind. Despite its reputation, is high Romanticism, even that of William Wordsworth, devoted to nature at all?

Bataille says, “The difficulty in making distinct knowledge and the intimate order coincide is due to their contrary modes of existence in time. Divine life is immediate, whereas knowledge is an operation that requires suspension and waiting” (98). This allows us to consider the ways that the poem emphasizes time and temporality. Why is poetic feeling “old,” for instance? It seems to reach into the future, as “the Mind [is] gaining that prophetic sense / Of future change.” This poem is sort of about the mind and its development: we are moving through old processes in an endeavor to attain some sort of futurity. Steamboats and viaducts might seem like the future, and they are the future, but they’re also here and now, and in this way they actually do interfere with the prophetic sense. They work in the here and now to bring about the future, but deny us the experience of the future in the here and now. Yet what’s at risk is the way in which we understand which “soul ye are”—that is, what we are already, and in the present tense. Not “will be”—are. But what we are must be discovered, uncovered, through “old” modes of discourse which open up an awareness of “future change.”

For all of Wordsworth’s emphasis on points of vision, it is important to think through Bataille’s warning, that we “will regain intimacy only in darkness” (100). Yes, restoring intimacy to the world will enable us to achieve much-desired clarity and passion, but it will also force us to rediscover “the night of the animal intimate with the world—into which it will enter” (100). This sounds like a threat, or a warning at least. But why would this “night of the animal” necessarily be a bad thing? Does Wordsworth worry about this problem, I ask them? There is a necessary blindness, says Bataille, because self-consciousness cannot ever become intimate: intimacy is indeed the modern name for the edge of “things,” and as such, it must remain somewhat at bay (99). Yet the combination of Wordsworth and Bataille is helping us to pose, and test answers to, difficult questions about subjectivity and politics. At one level I’m interested in starting a discussion about the way that subjectivity is formed, in Wordsworth’s understanding, around a gap or a renunciation. How could we know if there might be, despite Wordsworth’s reassurances, a “bar / To the Mind”? The speaker here asserts that there is no such bar, but the poem is perhaps less certain. This possible gap, I would suggest, is perhaps constitutive of subjectivity as Wordsworth construes it, not an impediment to it. This form of subjectivity is also, arguably, a historical development—an outgrowth of Enlightenment rights discourse, a new way to respond to ecological destruction and alienating labor practices. At a second level, I’m interested in the political ramifications of such wounded subjectivity: is this poem enunciating a new way of being in the world? Who and what can count as a subject? Here, a fruitful connection can be made to “We Are Seven,” too. Is this process of extending recognition necessarily democratic in every instance?

Teaching these texts together can open a discussion about the presence—or absence—of intimacy in Wordsworth’s thought, in British Romanticism, and in the modern world generally. Bataille, by alerting students to ideological debates playing out in Wordsworth’s poem, can show students how to consider features of a poem beyond its apparent argument. Conversely, students trained in the basics of poetry analysis can, through engagement with Wordsworth’s sonnet, learn to see aspects of Bataille’s thought that they may have otherwise misperceived—they see, for instance, that Bataille isn’t wistfully wishing for some impossible world, and that capitalist progress generates its own resistance. When read alongside Bataille, Wordsworth seems to challenge capitalist hegemony from inside its own ideologies. More broadly, reading Wordsworth beside Bataille can teach students that theory isn’t a “lens” through which we can examine British Romanticism, but rather a way of tracking subtle shifts of meaning within literary text and theory alike.

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. Theory of Religion. Trans. Robert Hurley. Brooklyn: Zone Books, 1989. Print.
Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” The Marx-Engels Reader. Ed. Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1978. 473-500. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways.” Selected Poems and Prefaces. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Houghton Mifflin, 1965. 438. Print.