Reviewed by Merrilees Roberts (Queen Mary University of London)

book cover

Romanticism and Consciousness, Revisited, ed. by Richard C. Sha and Joel Faflak, 416 pp, 12 b&w, 2 colour illus. (Hdbk., $130, ISBN 9781474485104)

How does consciousness “show up” in literature? How does literature “show up” in consciousness? These are the questions that Romanticism and Consciousness, Revisited asks its readers to consider. Explicitly responding to the 1970 volume Romanticism and Consciousness: Essays in Criticism, edited by Harold Bloom, the editors of and contributors to this volume reappraise the way Romantic criticism tends to read “consciousness” as “self-consciousness” in a bid to put Romantic literature (and criticism) at the forefront of contemporary neuroscientific debates and philosophies of mind. The key issues at stake are whether the brain’s ability to represent, or re-represent, the body constitutes self-awareness, and how we might distinguish propositions about consciousness from consciousness itself. The introduction takes us through the terms and conceptual nuances involved in contemporary cognitive science, exploring Romantic anticipations of what is often termed the “4E” model of cognition, where cognitive processes are spread out, or “distributed” throughout the brain and its surrounding environment. The 4E’s in question are “embodied”, “embedded”, “extended”, and “enactive”, and this volume draws particular attention to the distinction between “extended mind” theories, where the mind relies so much upon external media that mental representations become redundant, and “enactive” theories which propose that, because the mind is constitutively shaped by its environment, perceiving and acting may not be separate processes. The volume’s sub-sections address these debates by exploring “New Models of Consciousness”, “States of Consciousness”, “Social and Ecologies Models of Consciousness” and “Race and Consciousness”. This is unashamedly philosophical criticism which expands the traditional boundaries of the literary critic’s expertise. The volume’s contributors, with varying conceptual emphases, deftly demonstrate how Romantic texts and their authors engaged with incipient versions of current theories in cognitive science, affect theory, and philosophy. The range of approaches and arguments is wide, but there is also a conceptual focus in the determination of this volume to explore how technical discussions can resonate with and even be carried on by literary texts. Fresh and provocative, this mixture of the broad and the narrow, the old and the new makes unusually good use of the format of the edited collection to inspire scholarly dialogue and debate. 

           Many of the essays, as well as the introduction, address the dramatic reversals in understandings of consciousness that have occurred since the publication of Bloom’s volume, which took nature to be “an alienating (and alien) as well as sustaining matrix” (5), so much so that, as in Geoffrey Hartman’s thinking, the “price” of self-consciousness “was alienation from the world, even from life itself” (3). In Bloom’s volume, the alienating capacity of self-consciousness is recuperated into a philosophical awareness of the human condition as divided, or as unable to see beyond its own mental and linguistic constructs (Paul de Man). The situation now, as Sha and Faflak describe it, is that the “entangled” or “ecological” view of consciousness creates the opposite problem: a unification with the world so entire it risks more than the naïve collapse into the uncritically immediate relationship with the world which troubled Bloom et al, but hazards complete loss of the capacity for deliberation, scepticism, and awareness of when our mental acts might be objectifying. Faflak and Sha write that the “radical disconnection” attributed to Romanticism by the 1970 volume now “seems nearly impossible, and might be labelled ‘autism’” (4). The connection to disability studies is not taken up, but the authors are nevertheless committed to examining critically instances of possible disenfranchisement by theories of consciousness which claim that immediate access to the world through sense data is “reality”. In the volume’s engagement with race, the most intriguing proposition is offered by Sha in his essay, “Blakean Experience and the Hard Problem of Consciousness Revisited”, where it is suggested that the ability to recognise racialised bodies is part of the innate capacity of consciousness itself to perform acts of suspension and self-differing. So, whilst the earlier volume is called out for stressing the “centripetal” (5) pull of consciousness towards its own interiority, the Romantic interest in casting encounters with that which is outside the mind as alienating also provides a necessary corrective to the “compulsiveness” (13) of contemporary views which inextricably entangle mind and world. Hence the introduction’s sub-titling as a “redux” of older issues in the study of Romanticism and consciousness. The language of cognitive science is used to stretch the boundaries of more familiar literary critical concerns such as “affect” and “the unconscious”. Whether some of this work is considered to be a stretch of what consciousness is, will partly depend, first, upon the degree to which we are convinced of the idea that literature is a site for exploring modes of knowing, rather than a demonstration of the more familiar positionalities of “subjectivities” or “identities”, and, secondly, whether we are convinced that the difference between “knowing” something and “accessing” something has been sufficiently parsed.

An argument emerges that literature is especially good at engaging debates in studies of consciousness because both literary studies and cognitive science involve working through questions about the metaphysical function of figuration: how figures ontologically manifest or provide conceptual scale to their referents. Claims about consciousness might really be metonyms for consciousness itself, when experience “is necessarily metonymic of a larger awareness, a frame, and that larger scale thereby makes a space of the revised salience and meaning of the current experience” (Sha, 104). Some contributors to this volume take this “revised salience” and explore, not only the limits or evanescence of consciousness, but how reaching these limits might feel. Alienation or loss can be re-figured as part of the operations of consciousness at large, which are themselves epistemologically fluid and capacious – making consciousness more than “the strait through which everything must pass” (Hartman 1970, 51). In his chapter “Romanticism Against Consciousness”, Alan Richardson explores how Romantic poetics pressed even further into the idea of non-conscious experience than has previously been thought, when Romanticism’s ubiquitous states of mental “vacancy” take us beyond the reach even of unconscious processes. The literary text itself gains a curious agency in capturing such moments of loss and in creating an “anti-transcendental, materialist sublime” (44). Colin Jager’s “Romantic Panpsychism” makes the somewhat inverse claim that, “if ‘panpsychism’ (the view that all things have mind-like qualities) is right”, then the “mystery of consciousness is no mystery at all, but a basic fact about the world” (49). If everything is reduced to a relationship with immediate experience, because the world thinks alongside us, (something which mortifies De Man’s assumptions that linguistic consciousness divides us from phenomenal experience), knowing and not-knowing can seem curiously close together. One of the phenomena Jager identifies is the paradox of having a relationship with something of which we have no conceptual grasp. Romantic texts give us a feel for this kind of problem, leading us to consider whether distinctions between deliberative distance and immediacy of experience might still be noted in panpsychic models when the limits of consciousness can feel like various constructions of “death” (64). This point reflects interestingly back on how Bloom et al gave Romantic consciousness the feel of heroic self-transcendence. Faflak’s “Shelley and the Real of Faith” creates a dialogue with Jager by using the poetry of P.B. Shelley to think through how psychoanalysis might have a role in revaluing Romanticism through contemporary studies of consciousness. If we can accept a certain indistinction between the literal and the figural, faith in our own cognitive capacities may come from enjoying the melancholic attitude of seeing symptoms as symptoms: not as stand-ins for underlying truths but as aporetic ways of knowing that are nevertheless constitutive of knowing. A faith in the material reality of our perceptions, which nevertheless do not have to be transparent to themselves, does not have to collapse perceiving and knowing in the way panpsychism threatens to do. Such faith rather places consciousness, and Shelley’s poems, “between cognition and phenomenality” (87), in a mode of epistemological sensing that can acknowledge the inaccessibility of unconscious experience, but also perhaps imagine, as Kant did, that non-cognitive experience can be accessed in some form. Chapters like these by Faflak and Jager make a nonsense of the idea that theoretical criticism cannot achieve the same kind of affective nuance as more “text-based” analyses.

Some of the chapters explicitly bring Romantic era philosophies into dialogue with contemporary thought. Sha and Jacques Khalip, for example, stress the continuing importance of considering Kant’s division between the noumenal and the phenomenal when thinking about consciousness, while Kate Singer and Ralf Haekel explore contrastingly non-dualist metaphysics. Robert Mitchell’s chapter, “May Flies and Horseshoe Crabs: Romantic and Post-Romantic Consciousness, Institutions, and Populations” explores how the extended mind approach to conscious can be seen as a reconfiguration of a ‘conceptual matrix’ (285) originally developed in Romantic period thinking about population management and the ways in which identity is regulated by systems like law and private property. In his analysis of Wordsworth, these may be ‘sustaining institutions’ (303) so fundamentally constitutive of our thinking it becomes difficult to make the more Shelleyan objection that consciousness differs from its objects. Ralf Haekel’s chapter, “The Media Ecology of Romantic Consciousness: Knowledge in Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head” makes an interesting slide between describing a literary text thematising something about consciousness and one enacting consciousness itself. Media theory is brought to bear upon historically-based understandings of how Smith creates a non-dualistic conception of the human mind by demonstrating, and reflecting upon, the way consciousness relies on external forms to operate. Other contributors focus more on the distinction between literary and cognitive affordances, and how the one may manifest the other. Lisa Zunshine, in “Why Reasonable Children Don’t Think that Nutcracker is Alive or  that the Mouse King is Real”, uses the technical apparatus of cognitive science to take the epistemological scepticism recommended by the introduction away from questions of Idealism and into ideas of the coherence of “character” and other literary constructs. Zunshine defends a cognitive model of reading where acts of “metacognition” show us how we can imagine characters as people, and literary constructs such as narrative and personae as if they were minded entities. Yasmin Solomonescu, in “Prone Minds and Extended Selves: The Cenci” also expands what we mean by “character” in her reading of Beatrice Cenci and Count Cenci’s relationship as an extraordinary example of what is called “mental extension”, whereby it is conceivable that minds can have modes of access to other minds and spaces outside the individual body. Consciousness is thus taken as a function of character, as well as of the production of literary affect, when the force of the rape of Beatrice by her father is portrayed by Shelley as the existential threat of one mind entering another. 

Homing in on such potential violence, Julie A. Carlson, in “Doubling Down: On White Consciousness, Friends, and The Friend” and Humberto Garcia, in “At Peace with Strangers: Feeling Disoriented in the London Panorama of Constantinople, 1801-1802”, discuss how we might ensure we do not slip too far in the direction of using the shared space between mind and world to make objectifying moves. Both suggest we examine how Romantic art and writing puts what Garcia calls mental “hospitality” “to the test” (339) by considering how acts of self-othering and our management of the perception of similarity and difference can lead to responsible attitudes to both race and relationships. This process should, as Carlson has it, lead to “affective-cognitive transformation” (380). These arguments engage what we might call an ethics of attention. In Sha’s essay on Blake also, disenfranchisement is taken as a possible cognitive resource that has traction to resist the drive towards prioritising the efficiency, not the creativity, of mental functioning. Sha, Garcia and Carlson touch on questions of agency, but do not extend this concept to engage with post-human discussions of what may lie behind the blind spots of a world predicated on the interior experience of consciousness. This is achieved by Kate Singer in her essay “Shapeshifting Romantic Consciousness”, which describes a post-human affect elicited by and read through the way Romantic texts sometimes portray consciousness as a  “corporate” (312) phenomenon: “corporate” meaning both embodied and involving multiple entities. Singer explores how this multiplicity might be possible without having to think of mental representations as self-same, with implications for expanding the Romantic canon to include black writers who experienced embodiment in less enfranchised ways. 

There is little explicit discussion of the role of language in consciousness, despite many of the essays explicitly challenging Paul de Man’s idea that the philosophical acknowledgement that we cannot think beyond language is all the certainty that can be achieved regarding human experience. This certainty, for De Man, is only an effect of our self-alienated state, which is also the state of language itself. Many of the essays in this volume give scope to an opposing argument about how aesthetic experiences, and their accompanying forms, shape (enact? extend? embed?) consciousness and cognition. John Savarese, in “Gothic Ecologies of Mind”, argues that literary forms and genres function as cognitive scaffolds. This chapter demonstrates how gothic styles and themes offered Romantic writers a model of entangled consciousness which enabled reflection upon the histories of how literary genres possibilise certain forms of thought. Thoughts and feelings can be shaped by operations of consciousness which work enactively with their literary-historical environment, without necessarily arising from direct contact with this environment.  Mark J. Bruhn puts the brakes on mimetic approaches to literature and consciousness by considering empirical approaches to reader response in “Poetry is passion’: Lyrical Balladry as Affective Narratology”. Literature can be seen as a highly reflexive version of cognition in general when empirical approaches to literary studies, which deal with how particular readers actually respond, can engage in productive dialogue with Wordsworth’s own manipulation of the fact that emotion and affect structure all cognitive acts of attention. This arguments risks conflating “knowing” with acts of attention, whether they are self-conscious or not. It also risks having aesthetics function as merely one aspect of cognition in general, rather than function through the intuition that there are modes of apprehension which do not shadow the actions of thought or reason.

Nancy Yousef, in “After-Affects and Second Thoughts: Wordsworth, Eliot, and the Forms of Emotional Thinking”, goes one step further than Bruhn, to argue that literary texts demonstrate that affective upsurges can result in deliberative thinking. Her discussion of literary characters’ inability to distinguish affects from “after-affects” – reflective moments not strictly divided into thought and feeling – demonstrates how thought per se can show up in consciousness through feeling. There is an interestingly mimetic relationship here between critic and character here, where the critic ventriloquises how, in reference to a particular character, affect reshapes itself into an “animating resolution when given a form around which to compose itself” (149). The point, for Yousef, is to understand literary composition as a “formal practice involving attention and composition” (156), implying that the forms and affective modes through which consciousness is mediated both shape and are shaped by consciousness itself. Jacques Khalip’s essay, “Studio States: Thought Out of Place”, results in a similar argument through examination of what is termed the “paraform” of the Romantic “studio states”, which reveal those modes of thinking that are “enclosed” but not “formally” bound by “a completion of processes” (170-1). The lens of “consciousness” gives a phenomenality (what De Man tried to rule out of court) to deconstruction’s ability to describe the limits of thinking itself. To be able to think and experience mental states without intentionality shows how disorienting thinking can be. But is it thinking or using thinking to think consciousness as a whole that is disorienting? By whom or what is this disorientation felt? Does consciousness presuppose a “self”? Is this self still coherent if we can express a feeling we cannot know, deliberatively or otherwise?

The introduction to this volume engages the way these questions about the coherence of the self as an idea are discussed in contemporary neuroscience. Sha and Faflak discuss the proposition that, though consciousness may toggle together “homeostatic feelings” and more complex emotions, there is always a self doing the perceiving (Antonio Damasio). Alternatively, though, the porousness of consciousness, which necessarily makes us relational creatures, might make experience without a self conceivable (Jesse Prinz).  One of the key propositions of the volume is that Damasio’s ideas might miss “normalising” “disjuncture, alienation and disconnection” (9) – something Romantic literature is so good at doing. But Sha and Faflak also extrapolate Prinz’s position to ask questions about the social and operational obstacles that may arise from his curiously prescriptive mode of relationality. The volume also accords with Prinz’s view in the sense that theories of consciousness are sometimes presented as having an explanatory immediacy and sufficiency for literary studies, giving a theoretical precision to the claim made by Hartman that Romanticism converts self-consciousness “into an energy finer than intellectual” (Hartman, 48). Yet some intermediate steps are missing between Hartman and Bloom’s alienated self-consciousness and the call for sceptical distance to disentangle us from the tyranny of relational immediacy. Marjorie Levinson’s work has argued that endemic to the workings of consciousness is our inability to think ourselves coincidently with our self-representations. Paul Hamilton has recently made a similar point in relation to Romantic re-orientations of Kant. He argues that post-Kantian critiques of the sublime demonstrate that performative departures from Kant’s idea of a regulative harmony between reason and its appearances ultimately yield the knowledge that we cannot perceptually catch ourselves in the process of living. In the introduction to Romanticism and Consciousness, Revisited, Kant’s idealism is a key philosophical stance to be defended, and we are asked to heed Kant’s “warning” (10) that taking appearance and thing as different phenomena avoids blurring all experience into indifferent kinds of affordance. Here, the Romantic ability to make metonymic slides, like consciousness itself, between representation and reflection, is detached from the ideas of critique which Hamilton associates with the sublime’s capacity to question normative epistemological modes. But perhaps Sha and Faflak’s call to integrate Kant’s scepticism about immediate, relational experience into the  4Es model of consciousness can point to ways of generating post-Kantian ways of obviating oppressive symmetries between appearance and reality. In any case, one key question this volume enables us to ask is: where – in all the hinges between mind, text and world – might critique take place? Such a question might go some way in troubling Foucault’s hermeneutically closed elisions of pleasure, power, and discourse in the experience of consciousness, with implications that might trouble the centrality of “discourse” in our understandings of subjectivity. However, what Sha and Faflak explicitly direct us towards is not discourse or critique, but the “affordances” made available to us by consciousness.

The idea of mental “affordances” is taken from the work of contemporary philosophers of mind like Andy Clark, who defines it as the way the environment surrounding the mind offers opportunities for “organism-salient action and intervention” (8, Clark, Surfing, 133), rather than the older phenomenological sense of this term as relating to aspects of our life-world revealed through intentional projects or gestalten. We might want to ask, anticipating those who may object that this volume treats literary texts as mere occasions for philosophy, rather than acts of philosophy in themselves, what kind of affordance is the text itself? With what is literature in direct contact? How must our ideas about literary mimesis, and its histories, respond to the idea that consciousness can be accessed through literary texts? Does literature capture the world through the auspices of consciousness, or does consciousness catch consciousness on the page? By whom is this capture perceived? The role of the critic is an interesting question here, which is glancingly addressed in relation to Mary Jacobus’s work on object-relations, which poses the question, “how does the observer observe herself?” (7)  The work of Marjorie Levinson again springs to mind, whose recent theory of lyric “autopoiesis” is cast by this volume as making consciousness appear to be mere “survival” (95). To suggest that survival is in opposition to deliberation seems to merit a broader discussion of agency and intentionality than is given here. And those who see Levinson’s work as devoid of humanism must ask themselves if her own critical observations of the self-organising workings of subjectivity interacting with deep historical layers of form and affect is not an enactment of the same metonymic slides between conscious experience and consciousness itself that are taken by this volume to have a humanising function.

Though the role of the critic is not discussed at length, one of the strengths of Romanticism and Consciousness, Revisited is its ability to subtly probe the complex ethical issues relating to the question of who can perceive what about the human experience of consciousness. When the editors pose the problem of what “price” might have to be paid for theories which make ‘unification’ with the world inevitable (8), they engage a crucial question for our intellectual moment posed succinctly by Colin Jager’s chapter: “how are claims about the nature of matter to be squared with the value to be extracted from it?” (64) There is an invitation here from panpsychism and extended mind theories not to jump too readily between propositions about consciousness and propositions about our moral relationship with the world: unification with our environment need not necessarily have moral implications. Or rather, how might a moral theory stemming from extended mind theories of consciousness be different from a humanistic one, bearing in mind the blurry definitions of the human that might follow? The thinking in this volume makes the possibility of a contemporary “humanistic psychology” and the age-old notion that the arts have a humanising function in society deeply interrelated. Yet “literary”, “poetic”, or “Romantic” are not synonyms for the possibility of a unified mental experience with no resistance to the world and its demands, nor merely place-holders for Bloom’s “internalized” Romantic quests (8). Neither are they affordances for “transcending” ourselves in the way the humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman describes this process as a weakly Kantian form of self-actualisation aimed at demonstrating the natural alignment between individual creative and larger altruistic goals. Rather, these terms are  invitations to engage with transcendental objects and experiences in Kant’s sense of the term “transcendental” as referencing that which is beyond our immediate epistemological capacity. This volume asks us to think responsibly about what we cannot know, armed with all that we can grasp about the ways not knowing consciousness can be known.

Thinking back through Bloom’s idea of Romantic consciousness internalising the romance hero’s quest to achieve self-integration through sublimating his or her alienation from nature, this volume enables us to say this: if the quest structure is something inherent in a consciousness distributed between world and individual mind, then it can be internalised without fear of violence having been done to non-human, or post-human entities. However, if the internalisation of the quest romance structure only shores up something only inherent in the interior experience of human consciousness, there is both a misunderstanding about what consciousness is, and an ethical problem with putting human modes of knowing at the centre of our epistemologies. The greatest strengths of this volume come, firstly, from the subtle call to think carefully about how we make the move between the ethical and the epistemological, and secondly, from the implication that there may be Romantic romances, quest-like or otherwise, between mind and world, and between different parts of consciousness, that contemporary philosophies of mind are only just enabling us to understand. Romanticism and Consciousness, Revisited calls on the self-reflexive powers of literature to create genuine dialogues with philosophies of mind, rather than making the coherence of literary texts depend on deployments of philosophical thinking. This volume casts the Romantic valorising of alienated experience as a “cognitive resource” (101), as Sha puts it. Literature’s capacity to explore discontinuities in consciousness is given a philosophical valence which complicates the difference between what cognitive scientists call “access consciousness” and “phenomenal consciousness”: between what can be reported and what can be felt. Sketched here is a push back, not just against Damasio’s elision of disjuncture and alienation, but against his view that consciousness can only be usefully thought about from a “bottom-up” scientific perspective. In his view, the complexity of the mental operations required for, for example, literary language, can trick us into thinking that the products of consciousness are consciousness itself. Damasio’s theories alert us to the fact that there are more basic “homeostatic” feeling of simply being alive which necessarily undergird the higher-order experiences of art and complex emotions. This volume begins to make a case that literature can give us some kind of access to the very symphonic workings of knowing, feeling and thinking that Damasio’s overarching theories of consciousness describe, but do not allow us to actually perceive beyond our immediate experience of self. Sha and Faflak note that some neuroscientists acknowledge that “embodiment might be context dependent and come in degrees” (8). Implicit here is the idea that literary texts can speak to different contexts and degrees of embodiment, and to what kinds of values and affects become attached to them, perhaps creating levels of nuance dreamt of, but not often activated, by cognitive philosophies of consciousness.