Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Anonymous LifeRomanticism and Dispossession$

Jacques Khalip

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780804758406

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804758406.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM STANFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.stanford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Stanford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in SSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

Coda What Remains: Romanticism and the Negative

Coda What Remains: Romanticism and the Negative

(p.173) Coda What Remains: Romanticism and the Negative
Anonymous Life
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents some final thoughts from the author. It returns to Keats and Shelley in order to demonstrate just how both poets explore “negatively capable” models of subjectivity that oppose the kind of “identity-thinking” Adorno warns us against. Indeed, the negativity that runs in their work draws attention to the complex relations through which the dispossessed subject comes to bear no (re)productive possibility, no referential positivities that might announce it as a pivot point for ethical and aesthetic reflection.

Keywords:   Keats, Shelley, poets, poetry, subjectivity

  • All look and likeness caught from earth
  • All accident of kin and birth,
  • Had pass'd away. There was no trace
  • Of aught on that illumined face,
  • Uprais'd beneath the rifted stone
  • But of one spirit all her own;—
  • She, she herself, and only she,
  • Shone through her body visibly.

In an essay on Blanchot entitled “The Poet's Vision,” Levinas describes what could only be called a poetics of refusal that takes as its singular watchword, “this veil of the ‘no,’ this inessential character of the ultimate essence of the work. This no is unlike the Hegelian and Marxist negativity: the labor that changes nature, the political activity that changes society. Being, revealed by the work—brought to self-expression—is beyond all possibility, like death, which one cannot assume despite the eloquence of suicide, for I never die, one always dies.”1 What is the nature of this negative “being” that Levinas identifies, one that will not be bereaved and disclosed after the death of the “I,” but nevertheless immanently surfaces as the remainder of an unyielding labor? Like the worklessness at the heart of Keats's vision of aesthetics and culture, or the gentle reticences that typify Anne Elliot's melancholy, Blanchot's “no” sounds the note of a mournfully romantic form of censure that keeps “being” always a matter of the afterlife, of dying into a life that is fundamentally allergic to the glories of individuality and self-description. One possible question arises here: who says “no,” and to whom, and for whom? As Levinas reminds us, to think of a speaker behind such renunciations is to wholly misunderstand the negativity of the “errancy of being”: the “I” never (p.174) dies, after all, because it is always one who dies, a minimal acknowledgment of being that is rid of revelatory stance, and like Deleuze's “a life,” one remains as the no-more-no-less, the indefinite or anonymous that represents the barest eloquence of the subject.

Throughout this book, the force of this bareness has arisen as the leitmotif of a profound negativity infusing anonymous life, and the romanticism of this Blanchotian “no” should alert us to the ways in which anonymity conceptually evokes forms of ontological impoverishment or indefiniteness that are profoundly antihumanistic. One aspect of this revisionist critique I have wanted to emphasize is the irrecuperable dimension of anonymous subjectivity—that is to say, its resistance to any momentum that would resuscitate it as the apogee of enlightenment. In this sense, anonymity would evoke a peculiar being-in-the-world that fails to adequately reflect welcome and greeting, although its negative ordeal keeps it alive to the sociality it ostensibly abjures. “Ordeal” is in fact Jean-Luc Nancy's word, which he uses in his book Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative: “‘Self’ means being unto the ordeal of being. Being that has nothing to found itself, to sustain itself, or to fulfill itself is being posited naked in its identity with the logos…. ‘Self’ is therefore first of all what finds itself in nothingness. Rigorously: self is what does not find itself.”2 Nancy's reappraisal of Hegelian negativity counterintuitively theorizes that the philosopher's momentous “discovery” of the subject is utterly opposed to such notions as the “individual” or the “self,” and reaffirms it as “what (or the one who) dissolves all substance—every instance already given, supposed first or last, founding or final, capable of coming to rest in itself and taking undivided enjoyment in its mastery and property” (5). If we take from Hegel the understanding that negativity is inextricable from the movement of the dialectic—it authorizes something like the “self” to occur in relation to that which it is not—then Nancy rereads negativity as a persistence that cannot be readily overcome, an endless overturning of manifest existence in favor of a subjectivity immersed in a “consciousness of the negativity of the substance” or the “restlessness of sense” (5)—an experience, moreover, that cannot conceptually coincide with something like an origin or category of thought. What interests me in these last few pages is just how such a restless—and relentless—negativity is brought to bear on romantic theorizations of anonymity, and how it extends and complicates the kinds of aversions to recognition and sociality already mapped out in the previous pages.

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno assesses our beleaguered inability to “think without identifying.” While consciousness might be able to see through the (p.175) “identity principle,” “nonidentity is the secret telos of identification. It is the part that can be salvaged; the mistake in traditional thinking is that identity is taken for the goal”:

Dialectically, cognition of nonidentity lies also in the fact that this very cognition identifies—that it identifies to a greater extent, and in other ways, than identitarian thinking…. The more relentlessly our identitarian thinking besets its object, the farther will it take us from the identity of the object. Under its critique, identity does not vanish but undergoes a qualitative change. Elements of affinity—of the object itself to the thought of it—come to live in identity.3

The governing formalism of identity thinking works to assimilate synthetically the object under universal criteria or rubrics, with the effect that the nonidentity of the object ironically becomes identifiable with “that which has been pushed out of it. In that sense, the nonidentical would be the thing's own identity against its identifications” (161). More importantly, however, Adorno intuits that this dialectic never fully achieves completion: as Sue Golding remarks, “there must always exist some kind of ‘excess’ which slips past the mirrored reflection of a positivity netted point-forpoint against its oppositional distinction,” which is to say that what escapes is less a residual identity-form—what Coleridge calls in “Limbo” a “positive Negation”—than “something” that cannot be subsumed and reposited under the logic of difference.4 Such an excessive remainder thus comes to represent the problem of articulating a form or a thought of being that is at once contained in and repudiated by the force of negation. As Adorno states, “To negate a negation does not bring about its reversal; it proves, rather, that the negation was not negative enough…. What is negated is negative until it has passed” (159–60).

To begin asking, “What remains?” in remembrance of these things past is to reorient our discussion to the ethico-aesthetic framework of a darker kind of romanticism, one whose formalizations frequently produce excesses that unsettle the conceptual distinctions they apparently are meant to conserve. And like the phantom spirit in Coleridge's poem that erases the sense of embodiment it nonetheless means to evoke as the “trace” of something like a “self,” anonymity becomes just such a concept that signifies a negative excess or melancholic obstinacy from within the paradigms of knowledge. At the risk of recapitulation, I want to return to Keats and Shelley in order to throw into greater relief just how both poets explore “negatively capable” (p.176) models of subjectivity that oppose the kind of “identity-thinking” Adorno warns us against. Indeed, the negativity that runs in their work draws attention to the complex relations through which the dispossessed subject comes to bear no (re)productive possibility, no referential positivities that might announce it as a pivot point for ethical and aesthetic reflection.

Turning again to a passage from The Fall of Hyperion, I want to remark on the poet's determination to see, to behold what needs to be impossibly seen as the unseen:

  • But yet I had a terror of her robes,
  • And chiefly of the veils, that from her brow
  • Hung pale, and curtained her in mysteries,
  • That made my heart too small to hold its blood.
  • This saw that Goddess, and with sacred hand
  • Parted the veils. Then saw I a wan face,
  • Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanched
  • By an immortal sickness which kills not.
  • It works a constant change, which happy death
  • Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
  • To no death was that visage; it had passed
  • The lily and the snow; and beyond these
  • I must not think now, though I saw that face—
  • But for her eyes I should have fled away.
  • They held me back, with a benignant light,
  • Soft-mitigated by divinest lids
  • Half-closed, and visionless entire they seemed
  • Of all external things—they saw me not,
  • But in blank splendour beamed like the mild moon,
  • Who comforts those she sees not, who knows not
  • What eyes are upward cast.5

The mentoring, “visionless” stare of Moneta wants not and cares not, and the “immortal sickness” that blanches her visage abstracts just as easily as it compels the very figure of her materiality. This “sickness” eternally decays and exposes the contradictions of Moneta's own physiognomic self-negativity, but the poem complicates our sense of what moves the face—that is to say, whether it expresses itself autonomously or is the medium of affective forces that lie beyond it. Rather than be destroyed by its own “deathward progressing” pull, however, the face's singularity is conveyed in its seemingly denatured expression; indeed, it doesn't move toward any sense of death: it is a “progressing” without progress, a restless “purposiveness without purpose” (p.177) that fails to provide a “telos of identification” for Moneta's adorers—a movement that is carved out, moreover, in the poem's spatial poetics:

  • The embossed roof, the silent massy range
  • Of columns north and south, ending in mist
  • Of nothing, then to eastward, where black gates
  • Were shut against the sunrise evermore. (1.83–86)

The careful design that governs the impossible perspectives here, culminating in a “view” of what Keats wonderfully calls a “mist of nothing,” turns our eyes not away but indeed to a nothingness that cannot be focally penetrated because there is nothing there to begin with. All that might remain is what Levinas calls the “impersonal, non-substantive event of the night and the there is” that whispers the most neutral kind of nothingness, a sheer “density of the void” or a flatlining of being to the point where the “there is” is “empty even of void, whatever be the power of negation applied to itself.”6 Responding initially to Bergson's positive reclaiming of negation, one can almost hear in the pitch of Levinas's descriptions of nonaffirmed being a desire to luxuriate in the nocturnal sounds of a displaced subjectivity he so strenuously denies, as if to move the eye away from what the ear now retains as the soundscape of a there is that seduces just as well as it blinds. Something of that synaesthetic confusion haunts Keats's Fall, to be sure, where to look upon the “mist of nothing” would amount to being fascinated (in Blanchot's sense of the word) by the impropriety of envisioning Moneta's graven image as anything but a smoky vapor, evocatively twisting out of her altar like the scent of a death to come.

To refocus our fascination on Moneta's abject image is to turn away from those humanizing gestures that seek to represent her; indeed, her image is the alienated entity of a life that cannot be embodied, an anonymous life that guarantees no affirmative glances nor promises any hopeful ends. The poet's encounter with her turns upon a self-destroying figurality that evacuates the compulsive rigor of sympathetic attachment underwriting the social. However, to acknowledge the impossibility of rescuing such “visionless” recognitions doesn't simply halt motives for solidarity, community, or sociality; rather, as writers such as Keats, the Shelleys, and Hazlitt intuit, these latter terms are rethought in the context of an anonymous relationality that negates all conciliatory gestures:

If we reason, we would be understood; if we imagine, we would that the airy children of our brain were born anew within another's; if we feel, we (p.178) would that another's nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into ours, that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart's best blood. This is Love.7

Although Shelley here describes the self 's relation to the other as an affective project always bordering on what William Keach calls a “splendid blankness” or “blank splendor,”8 “love” remains an “as if” possibility—a wish of the mind that works intermittently in order to allay fears over the subject's own constitutive nothingness—a nothingness, moreover, that also provokes the subject to remain intolerant to any forms of attachment that threaten to reify the self by offering it easy forms of stability and foundation. In Shelley's contrasting sense, love marks the absence of, or at least a waning regard for, the appeals of identification; it effects what R. Clifton Spargo has defined as a “negative anagnorisis” or recognition that “would involve an element of irony, an inversion or suspension of any compensating recognition, while at the same time intimating an ethical recognition that might yet occur … a structure of compassion that, although unrealized, might refuse contrived identification or dialectical incorporation.”9 Spargo's revaluing of compassion is complex here, since it depends in part on underlining the rhetorical force of “negative anagnorisis” as a trope, or an ironic “inversion or suspension” of the temporal immediacy that idealistically sustains the self-evidence of fellow feeling. Spargo's anagnorisis introduces a retrospective delay that reveals the illegibility of contrived affect: in other words, compassion is a transmuted suspension of belief that upsets the ascriptive and inscriptive effects of a liberal ethics of recognition. I want to suggest that it is just these moments of anagnorisis in Keats and Shelley which tend to produce a negativity that ruins the gap between the self and other and short-circuits the dialectic's appeal to the counterfactual—to make good on the promised appearance of the other.

The ethical and social violence of such negativity cannot help but reframe Keatsian and Shelleyan aestheticism, despite their particular divergences, as deeply ambivalent to the kinds of assurances that a politicization of culture can provide. I would say that the endurance, however fragmentary, of this strain of nonidentity appears in a variety of contemporary theoretical projects that are quickened by the negative romanticisms of self, sociality, and otherness. For example, Lee Edelman's No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive offers perhaps the most galvanizing exploration of the pitfalls (p.179) of liberal forms of recognition. Edelman argues that liberalism is singularly incapable of confronting the negativity that haunts its ends, and in this sense, the antagonistic portrayal of the queer as the insistent figure for the “death drive” that disrupts the reproductive hopes of the social, extends the kind of purposeless abjection of Keats's Moneta, whose own queerness (to adapt Edelman's words) “sever[s] us from ourselves, from the assurance, that is, of knowing ourselves and hence of knowing our ‘good.’ Such queerness proposes, in place of the good, something I want to call ‘better,’ though it promises, in more than one sense of the phrase, absolutely nothing.”10 The brilliance of Edelman's point lies in returning us to the romantic blankness of the “absolutely nothing” or anonymity of subjectivity—the fantasy of a fantasy of “reproductive futurism” that construes the heteronormative subject as always reborn on the brink of a brighter, ideological horizon. In revising de Manian theory in the service of unraveling the devotional claims of certain forms of gay and lesbian identity politics, Edelman believes that queerness must structurally embrace the death drive as the “force of mechanistic compulsion whose formal excess supersedes any end toward which it might seem to be aimed…. [The] death drive refuses identity or the absolute privilege of any goal. Such a goal, such an end, could never be ‘it’; achieved, it could never satisfy” (22). I cannot do justice in these pages to the density of Edelman's reading of the death drive, but suffice to say that as a corrosively ironic force, the “inarticulable surplus that dismantles the subject from within … the negativity opposed to every form of social viability” (9), the death drive renders asunder those social and political complacencies that define “life” as something needfully tied to the identitarian project of undertaking a certain “appearance in the world” (to recall Wollstonecraft here), a project that Moneta shatters in her “deathward progressing” figurality.

What Edelman helps to bring into view is the queer arc of a romantic negativity that casts aspersions on the viability of community and sociality, which are often too quickly offered as balms for the incoherence and nonproductivity of the subject. A question that arises in light of Edelman's work, however, is: how and why should the negative stay negative without recuperating itself? In other words, how might a poetics of the negative avoid being translated into a politics of negativity? Remember that for the poet in The Fall, the promise of looking beyond Moneta's undead form gestures toward a relationship with something that seemingly exists beyond the other, something that compels a sphere of interpersonal (p.180) communication to occur and thus establish the subject in terms of the extraneous “secret” of an alterity it cannot have but must solicit as the telos of its life. As David Collings notes, Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment aesthetics frequently “designate the precipitates of a transformation in symbolic exchange, whereby the subject, once located in an interplay of high and low, is now the scene for a battle between reason and the unconscious, the living and the undead body.”11 And yet, the Keatsian wager lies in imagining a path of interaction that finds no relief through the other, no mutual satisfaction in an interplay that would anoint the subject at the very moment it encounters the visionless vision its own “nature” opposes. Romanticism certainly brings us to the limits of such recognitions, or at the very least, it economizes that desire for revelation by rethinking “the social” as a name for the imaginary space that perpetually withholds the very figure of subjectivity it briefly enables.

The gravity of this predicament powerfully emerges in Shelley's “The Triumph of Life,” where the poem's engagement with the criteria for what constitutes a viable historical subject is endlessly abandoned, debated, and buoyed by a conversation that takes place within a figural pageantry that seeks no assurances. Perhaps here, more than in Keats's Fall, we witness an exhaustion of sociality, or that error to compulsively (dis)identify with the attenuated and “spent vision of the times that were / And scarce have ceased to be” (233–34). Like the “benignant light” of Moneta's “half-closed” eyes that fascinate the would-be poet, Shelley's “Triumph” plays in light and darkness, presence and absence, sights and sounds that corrode “enlightenment,” and express the negativity of an apocalyptic vision that makes itself lyrically interpretable as a force that destroys, like Edelman's death drive, the meaningfulness it ostensibly seeks to derive. As a vision within a vision, “so transparent that the scene came through / As clear as when a veil of light is drawn / O'er evening hills they glimmer,” (31–33), the poem “begins,” as it were, in a blinding illumination that is far from any optical transparency. Yet it self-negates into this textual, proto-impressionism as the poet announces how “then a Vision on my brain was rolled …” (40)—a vision which is set off, as Forest Pyle remarks, by a “typographical cut” that proceeds with a “backward turn described in the lines [that] is not conducted by the poet, who remains stationary, but by the poem, which uses the temporarily stable position of the poet to shift its own axis.”12 Similar to the hermeneutical structure of “The Mask of Anarchy,” Shelley's poet is less a substitute figure than he is a figure for substitution—for an image or metaphor of “place” (p.181) from where to originate and at once repress the claims of those sightless “Visions” that violently arise throughout the poem:

  •    Struck to the heart by this sad pageantry,
  • Half to myself I said, “And what is this?
  •    Whose shape is that within the car? & why”—
  • I would have added—“is all here amiss?”
  •    But a voice answered … “Life” … I turned and knew
  • (O Heaven have mercy on such wretchedness!)
  •    That what I thought was an old root which grew
  • To strange distortion out of the hill side
  •    Was indeed one of that deluded crew,
  • And that the grass which methought hung so wide
  •    And white, was but his thin discoloured hair,
  • And that the holes it vainly sought to hide
  •    Were or had been eyes.—“If thou canst forbear
  • To join the dance, which I had well forborne,”
  •    Said the grim Feature, of my thought aware,
  • “I will tell all that which to this deep scorn
  •    Led me and my companions, and relate
  • The progress of the pageant since the morn;
  •    “If thirst of knowledge doth not thus abate,
  • Follow it even to the night, but I
  •    Am weary” … (176–96)

As the most frustrating and forceful of words in the poem, “Life” is apparently spoken by a disembodied voice, later revealed to be Rousseau's; but Shelley bookends the word between ellipses so as to distract attention away from figuring out which or whose life is being spoken about. And like Deleuze, Shelley captures the indefiniteness of a mode of existence that differs from the transcendental mystifications of the pageant that shortly comes into view. The passage gives credence to de Man's famous characterization of the poem's “trajectory from erased self-knowledge to disfiguration,”13 a trajectory that finds its most compelling shape in Rousseau, who appears as an “old root which grew / To strange distortion,” and like Moneta's “wan face,” arises as a marker or point of recognition and prohibition. As Rousseau instructs:

  • “If thou canst forbear
  • To join the dance, which I had well forborne,”
  •    Said the grim Feature, of my thought aware,
  • (p.182) “I will tell all that which to this deep scorn
  •    Led me and my companions, and relate
  • The progress of the pageant since the morn.” (188–93)

But the “choice” offered here, if it is a choice at all, is a pedagogically coercive one that delineates a special pact between philosophe and poet that transforms into an encounter without an exchange:

  • —“Let them pass”—
  •    I cried—“the world and its mysterious doom
  • “Is not so much more glorious than it was
  •    That I desire to worship those who drew
  • New figures on its false and fragile glass
  •    “As the old faded.”—“Figures ever new
  • Rise on the bubble, paint them how you may;
  •    We have but thrown, as those before us threw,
  • “Our shadows on it as it past away… (243–51)

Shelley's virtuoso deployments of figure, glass, and shadow suggestively dislocate the referential claims of the historical “triumph” he paints. Indeed, the ebb and flow of his materialist vision reabsorbs Rousseau's narrative of disillusionment within the sphere of the poet's own lyrical narration. These involutions of language and points of view establish a strange, dissolving scene of instruction that unsettles both poet and Rousseau as dialectical punctums in the conversation. Like “those spoilers spoiled, Voltaire, / Frederic, and Kant, Catherine, and Leopold” (235–36), the poet and Rousseau are mere simulacra or “new figures on [the world's] false and fragile glass” that cannot sustain the staging of the sociality they apparently seek to reconstruct. Arguably, the most destructive effect of “The Triumph of Life” lies in its halting of the substantialization of that endless optimism (exhaustively hinted at in the poem's terza rima form) that links inscriptions to materialities—that is to say, figures to “worlds.” If the poet can no more turn to Rousseau for guidance than to the pageant of historical personages, then his disorientation is due less to his insertion into the theater or “Triumph” of the poem's fantasy than to the precariousness of that ideology that compels his subjectivity to be manifest in a dialogic space. And it is for this very reason that “Life” emerges for Shelley as the word that cannot be properly assigned to any one person, nor rendered meaningful through constant evocation: it starkly signifies the remains of a thought that cannot properly assemble (p.183) the various characters of the poem together. “Life,” then, provocatively misnames that excess of negativity and positivity that keeps subjectivity outside of the dance which we had all best forebear—the “thought from outside” Rousseau invokes later on in the poem where he recounts his meeting with a “shape all light” (352) that offers no reciprocating hospitality:

  • “I rose; and, bending at her sweet command,
  •    Touched with faint lips the cup she raised,
  • And suddenly my brain became as sand
  •    “Where the first wave had more than half erased
  • The track of deer on desert Labrador,
  •    Whilst the fierce wolf from which they fled amazed
  • “Leaves his stamp visibly upon the shore
  •    Until the second bursts—so on my sight
  • Burst a new Vision never seen before. (403–11)

Like the death-driven stare of Moneta's eyes, the burst of a “new Vision” forecloses the possibility of acknowledgment by blinding Rousseau's perception to any perspective from which he might properly constitute himself in the other—that is to say, the vision of enlightenment is a figure for the violence of that figuration (the deer replaced by the wolf), further pushing Rousseau into the “earth … grey with phantoms” (482), where

  • “… the air
  • Was peopled with dim forms, as when there hovers
  •    “A flock of vampire-bats before the glare
  • Of the tropic sun, bringing ere evening
  •    Strange night upon some Indian isle,—thus were
  • “Phantoms diffused around, and some did fling
  •    Shadows of shadows, yet unlike themselves,
  • Behind them, some like eaglets on the wing
  •    “Were lost in the white blaze …” (482–90)

What the poem forestalls, as critics since de Man have noted, is a certain process of monumentalization that would naively seek to enshrine and embody history in self-dissolving figures that relate “to nothing that comes before or after, [and] become inscribed in a sequential narrative” that erroneously forces us to read, to understand, and to perceive these figures as representatives of a phantom community to which they simply do not (p.184) belong, and whose conversations promise no easy answers and disclosures.14 The persistence of this aporetic claim, which for de Man underscores the arbitrary performativity of language, “having a strength that cannot be reduced to necessity, and entirely inexorable in that there is no alternative to it” (116), is inscribed with pressing critical dimensions that we face in trying to interpret the ungraspable inconsistencies of the poem's linguistic turns. For what de Man opens up (along with Rousseau and the poet) is an ethical collocation around the “nothing that comes before or after”—a “nothing” that hallucinates the social as the obscure term that loses its justifications between the poetic lines.

Indeed, a central question that immediately emerges out of the “Triumph's” grim tableau vivant is: what language do the poet and Rousseau speak in this strangely asocial meeting? After all, in the beats of their first encounter, we are not simply reading a conversation that takes place in a universalizing poetic idiom, nor one that promotes an early nineteenth-century national English that blithely trumps the Swiss philosophe's French. More powerfully, “The Triumph of Life” surfaces the problem of translation, of encountering the language of the other as a discourse of nonrelational relationality that surely needs to be spoken, with compromise, in a single language, but is at once irreducibly singular and an excess that cannot be completely understood in an absolute idiom—a negativity that cannot be fully translated and yet cannot not be translated, that compulsively must and must not resist its idiomatic inscriptions.15 To pause, then, and listen to the lyric pitch of the conversation between the poet and Rousseau is to conceive of the “as if” (im)possibility of a language for this anonymous community of two that repudiates the stale speech of a certain dubious version or “deluded crew” (“Triumph,” 184) of the Enlightenment, and the kinds of established aesthetic, political, and ethical spaces it promotes as settings to sustain itself. Moreover, the poem requires that we listen to a language that tarries with the “nothing that comes before and after,” or the Blanchotian “space of literature” that maps no topography, no society, no community, no personalities within or without its own interminability.16

I have tried to show that, by way of refusing or, at the very least, circumspectly challenging the languages of reified identities, romanticism hovers around an anonymity that is as visionless as the uncertainties that haunt liberal hopes for transparency, reciprocity, and acknowledgment. To consider the poverty of such visions is to admit the incoherences of a life that claims an excess “nothing” as its nonprovidential form of justification (p.185) and reward—the anonymous as the negation of a certain poetics of identity whose narratives of self-development are but phantoms that know no bounds, circling around a dispossession or state of desertion where the other cannot presume to speak for and with us. It remains to reason whether what we cannot see, know, or become can help to discern the contours of an anonymity whose “unswerving negation” (writes Adorno) “lies in its refusal to lend itself to sanctioning things as they are.”17 Perhaps these are the romantic remains of a modernity that defines itself in the claims it cannot reflect, and which it also cannot bury. (p.186)


(1.) Emmanuel Levinas, “The Poet's Vision,” Proper Names, trans. Michael B. Smith (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 134.

(2.) Jean-Luc Nancy, Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative, trans. Jason Smith and Steven Miller (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 55, 56.

(3.) Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 149.

(4.) Sue Golding, “Curiosity,” The Eight Technologies of Otherness, ed. Sue Golding (New York: Routledge, 1997), 13.

(5.) The Poems of John Keats, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Longman, 1970), 1.256–71.

(6.) Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1978), 63, 64.

(7.) Percy Bysshe Shelley, “On Love,” Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers (New York: Norton, 1977), 473. All further citations refer to this edition.

(8.) Personal communication, September 18, 2007.

(9.) R. Clifton Spargo, “Begging the Question of Responsibility: The Vagrant Poor in Wordsworth's ‘Beggars’ and ‘Resolution and Independence,’” Studies in Romanticism 39 (Spring 2000): 79.

(10.) Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 5. See also Edelman's contribution to the roundtable debate on “The Antisocial Thesis in Queer Theory” in PMLA 121.3 (May 2006): 819–28.

(11.) See David Collings, “The Ghost of Revolution: The Politics of the Uncanny in The Monk,” unpublished ms., English Department, Bowdoin College (2007), 14. This piece forms a chapter of his forthcoming study, itself a reflection on the power of the negative: Monstrous Society: Reciprocity, Discipline, and the Political Uncanny, c. 1780–1848 (Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, forthcoming).

(12.) Forest Pyle, The Ideology of Imagination: Subject and Society in the Discourse of Romanticism (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995), 109, 110.

(13.) Paul de Man, “Shelley Disfigured,” The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 100.

(14.) Ibid., 117. For an incisive reading of de Man's essay, see Orrin N. C. Wang, “Disfiguring Monuments: History in Paul de Man's ‘Shelley Disfigured’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley's ‘The Triumph of Life,’” ELH 58.3 (Autumn 1991): 633–55.

(15.) On the question of romanticism and translation, see David L. Clark, “Lost and Found in Translation,” a special issue on “Romanticism and the Legacies of Jacques Derrida,” ed. David L. Clark, Studies in Romanticism 46 (Summer–Fall 2007): 161–82.

(16.) Referring to Rousseau's account of the procession, Rajan notes that “as he speaks, Rousseau creates a space in which he can think and in which he can unravel not only his earlier radicalisms but also his present condemnation of himself for having entered life. It is specifically the diacritical nature of dialogue which causes it to unsettle and generate penumbrial positions, for the presence of the other person makes us recognize that we are other than what we are, and yet that we are not the other or the other's perception of us” (The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990], 331).

(17.) Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 159.