August 18, 2012
Common Things: Romance and the Aesthetics of Belonging in Atlantic Modernity

My new book, forthcoming from Fordham UP (Fall 2013) in their Commonalities series.


What are the relationships between the books we read and the communities we share?  Rooted in an innovative archive of transatlantic materials, Common Things explores the ways in which a specific kind of literature—the romance novel—influences and is influenced by new systems of community that begin to emerge in the Eighteenth Century.  While much recent and prominent work in political theory and U.S. and British literary studies has focused on one or two of these systems—the imagined communities of race or nation, for example—this book is the first to treat the relationship between literature and community as a question of universal aesthetic form as well as a problem of particular, imagined content.  Instead of approaching romance as a mere repository for collective images or as a passive medium through which to convey mutual ideals, Common Things shows how it also promotes a distinctive aesthetics of belonging, a mode of being-in-common that is shared across a variety of modern systems of political, biological, temporal, and economic community.  Drawing on foundational texts in the transatlantic traditions of gothic, sentimental, and historical romance, I trace the development of a powerful aesthetic regime that renders visible new qualities that inhere within the singular and secure its connection with the common.  Each chapter focuses on one of these common things—the stain of race, the “property” of personhood, ruined feelings, the genre of a text, and the event of history—and demonstrates how these elusive and interrelated qualities of the singular work to sustain the coherence of their respective common-places.  Furthermore, I show how these same common things and their shared aesthetics of belonging help give birth to the mysterious figure at the heart of Western political communities: the liberal, rights-bearing subject. 

From Washington Irving’s tales of American idling to the adventures in exchange punctuating James Fenimore Cooper’s Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief, Common Things revisits and reinterprets the famous signatures of modern romance.  It reads the processes of feeling, contagion, metempsychosis, mesmerism, commodification, alienation, and ruin that animate its pages as amplifications of the thingifying logic already at work in key rhetorics of U.S. and British democracy.  As such it intervenes in debates concerning the rise of the romance novel and the birth of the modern, biopolitical subject by reading these two phenomena as mutual, coproductive processes.  After all, as Jacques Rancière has recently argued, aesthetics and politics both bring to light a certain distribution of the sensible, establishing the parameters of what can be seen and who gets to be counted.  It is the goal of Common Things to illuminate this peculiarly modern distribution of community.

To register the mutuality of these literary and political distributions of the sensible, Common Things establishes a diverse archive of primary texts.  It explores the strange, universal property “planted” in Lockean personhood; the “voluptuousness” of sentimental ruin shared by Henry Mackenzie’s men of feeling; the “black of the negro” that, for Thomas Jefferson, stamps and singularizes this race by forever veiling its affections; the contagious “pest” that devastates public space and delimits personal identity in Charles Brockden Brown’s romance of yellow fever; and the idle hiatus that, for Washington Irving, fragments the experience of modernity and consigns the Native American to the ruined, manifest annals of history.  Because these peculiar qualities of time, race, feeling, and personhood continue to animate our own commonplaces, and because our political horizons remain restricted by their forms of belonging, Common Things is propelled by the urgent need to both identify and to rethink their aesthetic regime.  This is why the book begins and ends by analyzing the work of two writers, Horace Walpole and Edgar Allan Poe, who describe new forms of relationship between the singular and the common.  Instead of communities grounded in the notion of a shared similarity or a timeless essence that each of its members somehow possesses, these writers develop an aesthetic practice that celebrates and collects the “uniquity” of the singular—a term invented by Walpole and, later, resurrected by Poe in order to identify inessential vectors of relation and fleeting forces of difference.  At stake in their work is what Eureka, Poe’s enigmatic romance of cosmological origins, calls a new “brotherhood among the atoms,” an active mode of being-in-common that establishes fugitive connections “among”—rather than the passive, common essentials “of”—unique singularities.

In posing the problem of community as a question of aesthetic form, Common Things practises a methodology influenced by recent and classic work in both literary and political theory.  To help illuminate its archive of primary texts, it draws on and develops Roberto Esposito’s investigation into the relationship between paradigms of immunity and modes of collectivity; it reads Walter Benjamin’s “idea” of allegory as a genre that assembles irreducibly multiple fragments of the singular; it approaches the biopolitics of Giorgio Agamben’s and Jean-Luc Nancy’s sovereign “ban” as the central aesthetic regime of modernity; it tracks the “wooing glances” cast in Capital’s tawdry romance of commodity exchange; it illustrates the dialectic of enlightenment at work in Jefferson’s man of science and his mournful double, the man of feeling; and it revisits the troubled origins of set theory to show how Deleuze’s notion of the virtual and Rancière’s concept of poiesis offer new insight into the dead-ends of genre studies.  Equally attuned to the theoretical work of the romance novel and to the aesthetics of political theory, Common Things uncovers the logic of belonging shared between the key texts of Atlantic modernity and reopens urgent debates concerning the genealogy and the potentiality of our commonplaces.

Chapter Overview:


              i  The Grammar and the Gravity of Belonging

1. Genre

              i  A Singular Blend: Genre and the Aesthetics of Belonging

              iiAllegory, Romance, and the Idea of Genre

              iiiWalpole and the Belated Origins of Genre

2. Feeling

              i  Romance, Race, Ruin: Mackenzie and the Afterlife of Sentimental Exchange

              ii  Transatlantic Man of Feeling; or, Why Ossian was Jefferson’s Favorite Poet

3. Property/Personhood

              i  Conjuring Community: Arthur Mervyn and the Aesthetics of Ruin

              ii  Metempsychosis and Modern Personhood in Sheppard Lee

              iii  Cooper, Mesmerism, and the “Immaterial Substance” of Taste

4. Hiatus/Event

              i  Irving and the Aesthetics of American Idling

              ii  Indian Removal and the Grimace of Ruined History

              iii  Poe and the “air distingué” of Imperial Modernity

5. No Thing in Common

              i  Studies in Uniquity: Horace Walpole’s Singular Collection

              ii  Eureka’s Inessential “Brotherhood Among the Atoms”


Chapter Descriptions:

Introduction: The Grammar and the Gravity of Belonging

My introduction begins with a brief discussion of the cityscapes of contemporary French artist Armelle Caron (See Figure 1).  On the left side of each painting, the artist presents a monochromatic map of a major city, while on the right side she identifies the units of the map and rearranges them in neat rows.  What is lost in this itemization of the city—in the reduction of its community to an inventory of universalized common things—is precisely the gravity of belonging that holds these parts together in their unique urban constellations.  Caron’s cityscapes thus help to visualize a key problem in recent literary and political analyses of the common-place: the tendency to approach systems of community as if they were passive repositories for things-in-common.  I then outline how each chapter redresses the limitations of this scholarship by tracing the genealogy of a modern aesthetics of belonging, taking seriously Jonathan Culler’s claim that “the relationship between literature and society is not one of identity of content but of homology of form.”  In order to demonstrate that this intimately political aesthetic “form” has an identifiable history, I introduce the most important terms of my study—romance, genre, allegory, and symbol—by showing how their meanings have been transformed by modernity and its movement toward what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls “the subjectivization of aesthetics.”

Chapter 1: Genre

At stake in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764)—the first work of modern fiction to identify itself as a romance—is the way in which the singular text belongs in communities of genre.  Walpole’s work as an author, historian, and architect both begins and concludes my study, and in my first chapter I show how Otranto rejects the essentializing, symbolic logic that produces the common things of the modern collection. While antiquarians and poets plumb the relics of ancient poetry for signs of a shared national history or the symbols of a common literary tradition, Walpole refuses to tie the idea of generic community to any timeless and transcendent symbols that the text possesses.  By inventing an ancient romantic manuscript that Otranto’s pseudonymous narrator claims to have uncovered, the performative origins of the gothic romance demonstratehow generic community—and belonging itself—is enacted as a singular creative force as well as collected as a common symbolic thing.  Throughout this chapter, I read Walpole’s Otranto alongside the concept of allegory developed by Walter Benjamin in the Trauerspielbuch, bringing forward the ways in which these texts help us to rethink the limitations of recent work in genre and set theory by opening up new forms of relationship between the singular and the common.

Chapter 2: Feeling

While my first chapter explores how the singular text belongs in communities of genre, my second chapter examines how private feelings are collected into an eighteenth-century and transatlantic culture of sentiment.  Scholars of early national and antebellum American literature often read the sentimental romance as a democratizing genre in which marginalized subjects, excluded by their gender or race, can make their feelings and voices heard in the public sphere.  Icomplicate this approach by identifying mutual aesthetic processes of inclusion and exception that enable these feelings to be collected by the sentimental community.   I argue that while Mackenzie’s and Jefferson’s men of feeling promote public principles of sympathy and affection, they also mourn the ruin of utterly private feeling that such publicity entails.  Rather than simply championing liberal ideas of freedom, charity, and public equality, the sentimental romance secretly longs for the prestige of singular and private differences that have been ruined by, and excluded from, this new political community and its concepts of universal feelings and rights.  By examining how this erotics of private ruin fragments heterosexual desire and stains the body with the fateful force of race, I show how the aesthetics of sentimental romance inflects the formal structure of our modern systems of identity and belonging.

Chapter 3: Property/Personhood

In Arthur Mervyn, Charles Brockden Brown exposes the twin, Lockean foundations of U.S. political, racial, and financial communities—property and personhood—as gothic conjurations rather than as solid, common things.  Set during Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Brown’s novel shows how property and its ruinous “pest” work together to coproduce the illusion of the modern subject: if Lockean property is a romance of contagion enabling the subject to connect itself, through a labor of prosthesis, to a world of property, then the pest names the “thing” that animates its ruin.  No matter which direction these circuits flow—toward accretion or decomposition, toward civilization or destitution—their contagious current produces the fantasy of isolated-but-connected subjects who inhabit a world of private, ownable things.  With the pest’s inherent property of ruin immunized into both the formal framework of the novel and the physical frame of its protagonist, Arthur Mervyn unveils modernity’s pervasive aesthetic logic—a logic that connects the melancholia of the man of feeling with modern systems of identity, with the everyday operation of the modern city, and with its institutional common spaces.  In Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee (1836) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Autobiography of a Pocket-Handkerchief (1843), these same immunitary processes are converted into a regime of gothic effects that include metempsychosis, mesmerism, and galvanic reanimation.  Instead of ridiculing these concepts and practices, the texts in this chapter illustrate how such special effects help to congeal the “fleshly matrix” of spirit, matter, and personhood into the body of the Anglo Saxon “human.”

Chapter 4: Hiatus/Event

Critics of Washington Irving’s work often note its detachment from time and space, its “uncircumscribed” and idling hiatus from the norms of neoclassicism, the Enlightenment, U.S. political history, and modernity itself.  How odd, then, that this same body of work should both inaugurate U.S. literary history and introduce the new nation to its first professional author and historian.  In this chapter I argue that Irving’s texts—in particular The Sketch-Book (1819) and A Tour on the Prairies (1835)—offer an alternative approach to the oddness of this paradox, an approach that refuses to reduce the hiatus and its aesthetics of idling to a time and a place strictly outside the modern U.S nation and its history.  Irving, like The Sketch-Book’s Rip Van Winkle, is never simply modernity’s Other: in the same way that he will both critique and reinforce progressive myths of nationalist history over the course of his career, so too will Rip both eschew and, ultimately, embrace the “rising generation, with whom he soon grew into great favor.”  Instead of resolving the oddness of these important tensions in Irving’s work, I argue that that their dialectical mutuality works to establish rather than resist the peculiarly modern space and time of the U.S. nation.  Deploying Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the “ban”—a form of relation that blurs distinctions between politics and life and that soon begins to permeate and pattern our biopolitical horizons—I argue that Irving’s dialectics of hiatus and wholeness, of idle homelessness and destined homeland, are always intimately political forms of relation before they can become symbolically potent themes.

Chapter 5: No Thing in Common

My final chapter shows how Walpole and Poe refuse to imagine community as a simple collection of common things.  They instead practice a philosophy of “uniquity” that values and collects the singular for its totally accidental and inessential forces of relation and difference.  Eschewing the modern logic of belonging that ties the singular’s place in the common to some essential property that it somehow possesses, Walpole and Poe instead view being-in-common as an open and fugitive process that is enacted on the level of the verb rather than collected on the level of the noun.  Walpole writes histories that foreground the contingency of time rather than offer any definitive account of its passing, and his always-expanding collection of curiosities exhibits the harmonious confusion of the Wunderkammer rather than the taxonomic pretensions of the modern museum.   And for Poe, at stake in Eureka’s speculative cosmology is the aesthetic form of a “brotherhood among the atoms.”  Here and throughout this text, Poe attempts to think community as an assemblage of intensive differences that vibrates “among” atoms rather than as a collection of common, atomic things.  I end with these “hospital[s] for everything that is Singular” because they show us how to re-open the problem of belonging’s form at a moment of crisis in our own conceptions of cultural, economic, and political community.

Figure 1