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Wary Boldness: The Aesthetics of Political Agency in Renaissance England


This dissertation argues that foundational works of the English Renaissance, most notably the later books of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, proleptically model a key ambiguity in modern aesthetic theory concerning the work of art’s relation to external reality. On the one hand, these texts lay claim to a vital social efficacy, inserting themselves unmistakably into contemporary public controversy and holding out the possibility that imaginative literature could bring about a reformation of political subjectivity more radical and lasting than other forms of expression. On the other hand, the texts also fail to set forth a positive political program that could be translated from aesthetic experience to social activity. Instead, they train readers in a mode of cautious and attentive critical reflection, an interpretive agency that Spenser and others regard as the necessary precondition for enlightened praxis, but that falls short of—and, in many respects, actively complicates and confounds—a politics in itself. Such a critical disposition thus maintains a pre- or proto-political character, in which artistic experience becomes the simultaneously enabling and disabling condition for reformative social action. The project thus seeks to complicate the longstanding insistence, in early modern literary criticism, on the directly political character of artistic experience. Associating Renaissance literature with immediate didactic and ideological aims, in contradistinction to the putatively de-politicizing tendencies of post-Enlightenment art and aesthetic theory, historicist scholarship in recent decades has perpetuated a reductive narrative about the relationship between the aesthetic and the Real, one that an earlier tradition of Kantian and Marxist philosophy treats with greater subtlety. This dissertation analyzes Renaissance literature from just such a perspective, making the case for the semi-autonomy of The Faerie Queene from within an Adornian framework, and stressing the profound but attenuated relationship between the literary and the extra-literary in the early modern period. Through fine-grained analysis of Spenser’s Legends of Justice and Courtesy, alongside a number of related texts, I argue that the political and historical content of The Faerie Queene—and, by extension, any literary work of sufficient formal complexity and extra-textual ambition—is accessible only through an attentive engagement with the text at the level of the individual word. Such an analytical process, moreover, becomes both the mechanism for training subjects in the critical judgment necessary for redeemed political action, as well as a mode of deliberative caution that re-directs the concentrated urgency required for such action back into the patient work of literary analysis.

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