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All Things Common: Community and Contingency in Romanticism


My dissertation All Things Common: Community and Contingency in Romanticism draws its title from William Blake: “The whole Business of Man Is The Arts & All Things Common.” What would it mean to take such a radical claim seriously, and indeed as giving voice to the paradigmatic problem of the Romantic period? My project narrates the emergence of what I call “groundless community” in Romanticism, in addition to tracing its crucial, if submerged Romantic legacy in twentieth-century continental and environmental thought, up to its relevance to contemporary discussions about politics, critique, and ecology. Groundless community names a way of experiencing community as contingency, i.e., not guaranteed by essence, nature, identity, or any other authoritative term. Between the breakdown of traditional organizations of collective life and the consolidation of modernity in post-Revolutionary Europe, Romantic writers articulate a fecund poetics and praxis of the common—one that critics, in their eagerness to assimilate Romanticism’s communal impulses into emergent regimes of identity like empire or nation, have yet to recognize. Historically situated and attuned to the affective and literary-formal registers that accompany social change, the poetics of groundless community I find in Romanticism also unfold a furtive, unfulfilled promise of modernity; these communities are open, egalitarian, everyday, and shot through with an unpredictable entanglement with nonhumans. All Things Common thus turns to Romanticism for resources in reframing our relations to the environment in the Anthropocene, a time of global ecological crisis coextensive with political, economic, and energy shifts in the Romantic era itself. I also provide a novel interpretation of the topos of the everyday in Romantic poetry, locating a matrix of collective possibilities in the Romantics’ attention to the mundane, the local, and the ordinary.

My first two chapters, respectively on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacques Derrida, work in tandem to demonstrate the nearly identical ways in which these two thinkers are pre-Romantic, broaching the possibility of groundless community while ultimately foreclosing it. Constellating Rousseau and Derrida sets up the long, untimely Romanticism that my dissertation unearths, counter-intuitively finding in Rousseau and Derrida’s rejection of community the closest analogue to the groundless community Romanticism and its twentieth-century inheritors would formulate. “Rousseau’s Doubles” traces an opposition between singularity and the double that obsesses Rousseau, who is deeply invested in protecting the unique singularity of the individual at all costs. For Rousseau, this singularity—exemplified both by his idea of humans in the “state of nature” and by his literary self-portrait in The Confessions—is constantly under siege in society, which seeks violently to impose a common measure onto singularity. By positing a purely historical and contingent state of nature prior to society’s imposition, Rousseau opens the door for a thinking of “existence en commun” that is not tied to any essential nature—one that is, in a word, groundless. Yet Rousseau refuses to think this historicity as an opening onto community, in a social or an environmental key. Although Romanticism’s thought of community is not possible without the breakthrough of Rousseau, his ultimate rejection of community as being merely social commensurability leaves him only at the threshold of Romanticism.

Chapter Two, “Derrida’s Islands” turns to Derrida for an investigation into deconstruction’s close intellectual and institutional relationship to Romanticism, as well as a broader methodological reflection on the practice of critique in relation to recent “post-critique” debates. This chapter focuses mainly on Derrida’s late work, and uncovers the logics by which Derrida’s own explicit resistance to community makes him an unwitting heir of Rousseau. Although Derrida began his influential career with a critique of Rousseau’s desire for immediacy in Of Grammatology, the later Derrida places a radical emphasis on singularity that deeply resembles Rousseau’s (with whom Derrida remained in constant dialogue), and which culminates in a rejection of everyday community. Looking especially at Derrida’s final seminar course The Beast and the Sovereign—which itself reads another anti-relational pre-Romantic text, Robinson Crusoe—I critically examine Derrida’s claim that each singularity resides, like Crusoe, on an isolated island. Putting pressure on Derrida’s anti-communal stance by drawing from thinkers like Jean-Luc Nancy, Fred Moten, and Lauren Berlant, I conclude the chapter by conceptualizing an eco-critical thought that attends to the relationality and community inherent in the everyday and the local, while still able to think on a global scale to confront global ecological crisis.

My next chapter, “Blake’s Circulations,” takes its departure from Blake’s extensive engagement with the related motifs of circles and circulation. I show how Blake is attentive to the tendency of circulation to generate a hierarchical regime of commensurable equivalence from a grounded center. Against the historical backdrop of changing conceptions of sovereignty and economic circulation around 1800, I examine Blake’s critique of grounded community, as well as the alternative vision of shared life displayed in his difficult late epic Jerusalem. I cast Jerusalem as a more everyday and domestic, as well as ecological, poem than what is suggested by its forbidding reputation and surface difficulty. Close readings of passages and images—including attention to Blake’s understudied metrical theory and practice—allow me to provide novel interpretations of important issues in Blake like his conception of life, his aesthetics, and his idiosyncratic but perceptive forays into political theology. Rather than rejecting all measure outright, Blake finds the promise of groundless community—“all things common”—in what exceeds measure. Blake names this shared circulation of excess “forgiveness.”

An interlude develops the Blake chapter’s conceptuality of excess and measure to uncover Blake’s vast but unexplored influence on Georges Bataille, a key figure in the twentieth-century thought of community. I employ insight into Blake and Bataille’s shared concern with excess energy to intervene in the nascent eco-critical subfield “Energy Humanities,” taking the Romantic-era transition to fossil fuels and changes in the very concept of energy over Blake’s life as a case study for a Romantic vision of energy as a groundless commons. Through Blake and Bataille’s communal inflection of solar energy, I orient the critical study of energy forms towards thinking excess rather than scarcity.

My penultimate chapter, “Wordsworths’ Parts,” primarily takes up William’s understudied poem “Home at Grasmere”—but Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal and poetry as well—to show how the Wordsworths conceived groundless community in and as the sharing of domestic life, at a time when the French Revolution and emergent feminism had opened up the home as a contested space of contingency. In an extended reading of “Home at Grasmere” that traces its partitive formal logic, I show how Wordsworth figures the locality of his home, Dove Cottage, as neither a complete organic whole nor an isolated and detached part. Rather, community take places place in the very incommensurability of part and whole, and the domestic is where this is shared and lived—including with nonhumans, for the domestic oikos also always carries a precarious ecological charge. Recent debates on the conceptualization of the Anthropocene—should it be named for the whole of humanity (the Anthropos) or only part?—provide another framing for the stakes and affordances of “Home at Grasmere,” itself planned to be a part of The Recluse, William’s unfinished poem of totality. The Wordsworths’ domestic space never coheres into a whole, and it is in this groundlessness that they cultivate a utopian kernel of sociality, such that “solitude is not / where these things are.”

“John Clare’s Worlds,” the final chapter, examines the early and mid-career poetry of the English Romantic peasant-poet John Clare, and is concerned with representations of local community, environment, and emergent logics of globalization in the early nineteenth century. I ask how Clare’s well-known localism and defense of the commons against land enclosure might be studied in not just political or ecological, but also ontological terms: that is, as the poetic experience of particularity and community without reference to a unified world or totality (the “world” of globalization). Reading the under-theorized Clare, especially his poetry’s emphatic deploying of prepositions and sharp shifts in perspective, I consider the situated ways that unique relations happen in Clare’s alternately exuberant and elegiac poems, with particular attention to relations to nonhuman beings.

A concluding coda opens future comparative possibilities between European Romanticisms via an engagement with an untranslated, mysterious fragment by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin called “Communism of Spirits.” In Hölderlin’s very nostalgia for a lost world of divine presence—asking “where will you find community?”—I find an early intimation of groundless community.

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