45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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The Sensuous Dimension of Literary Experience: An Alternative to Materialist Theory

I keep trying to find some compensation for the movement from "growing older" to the absolutes of "growing old." That task is not so difficult if I confine myself to issues that arise in professional life. For it is fairly easy to take pride in an old man's obstinate skepticism about new research directions that make many younger scholars eager to test their mettle. "They" might have the excitement of working out the possibilities of new methods and new ideological commitments, but "we" have a commitment to connecting with research to the pleasures and involvements texts can afford readers. "They" seem committed to narrow research agendas; "our" ideas are shaped by concerns for what a literary education can produce.

Such thinking has provided me a surprisingly effective tonic for my academic ego. But in itself it does not sufficiently focus my skepticism or engage the anger I feel about the price scholars seem willing to pay for shaping literary theory around what seem their research interests. Therefore I will try an experiment. I want to focus my skepticism on one now dominant agenda for research-the effort to imagine how one can study literature and its place in cultural life in a manner consistent with materialist commitments that adamantly resist the ways literary criticism, if not literature, has become a substitute for the edifying dimensions of religious education. There are certainly good grounds for seeking such a change and turning to critical languages devoted to the realities of political life. There is for example the appallingly obvious need to do something about politics in the United States. Then there are needs specific to criticism since traditional theory seems driven largely by the idealist tradition in its emphasis on what geniuses produce, and by moral idealism in its more or less covert efforts to perform the edifying tasks for which people once looked to religion. And even deconstruction, which came on the scene with such ferocity, now seems little more than a new version of idealism free from its cult of genius but preserving its gulf between textual structures and any real world that the textual play might suggest. Nor is deconstruction free from charges of moral idealism since its newest versions are replete with talk of "knowledge of the heart" and "the ethics of letting be." But even when we reason the need, I will argue that the prevailing forms of materialist criticism in fact prove far less capacious and less promising than do traditional understandings of literariness for articulating the distinctive roles literature can play in social life.[1] Ironically these models are especially myopic with respect to the two features that one would think materialist discourse was best suited to honor-the qualities of sensuousness that distinguish various kinds of work and hence the qualities of the maker's labor that are manifest in these distinguishing properties.

I call this essay an "experiment" because it will not be content with argument. There will be arguments attempting to demonstrate how various strands of materialist criticism fail in connecting their commitment to the senses to what is most striking about the sensuousness of literary experience and about the labor producing that sensuousness.[2] (I define "the sensuousness of literary experience" as the work of art's ability to make an audience imaginatively engaged in aspects of the concrete world focalized through it-both on the level of the writing and on the level of what the writing makes available as represented experience.) But since I have nothing original to put in the place of what I criticize, I am forced to hope that these criticisms can also produce considerable forcefulness for the traditional characterizations of literature as a fine art that I think lie behind them.[3] The experiment involves finding out whether I can lead others to see those traditional materials differently without quite invoking them as stable authorities. I want just to give readers cause to recognize how those who once held the greatest degree of authority earned their status.

That these traditional generalizations are ignored is not surprising since most theorists would rather run with the new than attempt to reconstruct the old-a good economy in life perhaps but less productive in relation to the arts. Nonetheless in my case there is no option but to return to these sources for their thinking about what literature is and what differences it can make in our relations to experience. For rather than relying on binary oppositions with what they cast as "idealist" to frame the values involved in literariness, they depend on triangulation and so establish a more complex positioning for the tasks of theory. The simplest form of triangulation in defining literariness is the imperative to delight and to instruct. This is not as simple as it sounds because delighting and instructing together requires distinguishing the literary from both the commitment history has to unfolding particular stories and from the commitment philosophy has to sharpening our sense of the universals available for reasoning.[4] Such triangulation can explain why literary experience affords not just the details of material life but also an affectively charged sensuousness calling forth and rewarding the free play of imagination. And the more richly we engage that triangulation, the more fully we can see how the accounts of classical theory also serve as provocations to writers to establish modes of sensuousness undreamt by the philosophical mind.

Efforts to develop a materialist sensibility in literary studies now take several forms, of which I will deal with the three that for me have the most theoretical power-arguments concerning the material text, arguments grounding "cultural materialism," and arguments emphasizing the ontology of things.[5] Unfortunately I can here work only on the level of organizing ideas so I will not be adequate to the intricate analyses sponsored by these ideas. In fact I will use the first two primarily to introduce ideas and thinkers making it easier to contextualize and to put pressure on the third, the newest version of materialist governed by what Bill Brown calls "the sense of things."

My first version of materialism is a movement popular among poets and critics attempting to continue a particular version of experimental modernism. In their view the modernism of Eliot and Stevens has become the dominant model in academic study of the twentieth century. That model pursues the organicist ideals of art that stress how intuitions or expressive acts produce intensive manifolds that, unlike discursive arguments, create their effects by the power of their elements to interpenetrate one another in intricate ways beyond the scope of explication. As Coleridge put it, what is the organization of a living body "but the connection of parts to a whole, so that each part is at once end and means" (Coleridge's Shakesperean Criticism, ).These are initially Romantic assumptions, but modernism makes that organicism depend on will and intelligence rather than on affinities with natural processes.

Proponents of "the material text," on the other hand, reject both Romantic and modernist models, emphasizing instead a level of self-consciousness that would treat claims about the "organic" in literature as metaphors now to be relegated to the dump. In the place of these models, theorists stressing the material text put two principles that shape an alternative modernism best represented by Gertrude Stein and by the Objectivist poets. First there is the concern to resist the ideology of the autonomous author by demonstrating how the text exposes, undermines, and plays with the signs of literariness--in the process revealing the considerable extent to which the elements of the text are woven into the material textures of the world. Writers devoted to the material text construct "their poems quite literally out of the ghostly 'marks' of others, not to celebrate the triumph of aesthetic form over the quotidian but to foreground the ongoing historical project of poetry" (Davidson, xii). Then, in order to flesh out what is involved in foregrounding the historical project of poetry, these critics stress the possibility of engaging "subterranean levels of historical resonance" by exploring the parallels between material aspects of the writing and the constituents of the actual situations eliciting the writer's political commitments.

I see four basic ways this theorizing attributes meanings to the "materialization in various types of textual practice" (Davidson, 5). "Material text" provides a label for what resists ideals like straightforward communication; it indicates the importance of various sensations-linguistic and dramatic-- that the writers work free from their place in the interpretive codes sustaining that straightforward communication; it establishes a blanket term for the ambition to "liberate" readers from authorial control so that they in effect construct against established ways that society has for constructing them into good citizens; and it signifies the commitment to treat historical situations and the literary imaginings that engage them as closely interwoven sets of phenomena. The "material text" becomes a name for an open-ended, often apparently aleatory inventiveness that simultaneously resists the efforts at closure of the traditional literary imagination and places the reader actively in a world that would otherwise be reducible to the smooth flow of commodities. Therefore that name also becomes an important device for creating community among those highly suspicious of the more idealized and the more empty principles that keeps capitalist social machinery in its interpretive place.

Michael Davidson's superb Ghostlier Demarcations:Modern Poetry and the Material Word is probably the best introduction to how these materialist readings are attuned to the authorial practices of this alternative modernism and to the movements like Language Writing which locate themselves in this tradition. But I want to concentrate on Barret Watten's TheConstructivist Moment: From the Material Text to Cultural Poetics because Watten's fierce and very intelligent efforts at once to honor and to transcend the ideology of "material text" provides the fullest engagement with the values at stake for this version of materialism. From the start he is careful to define the material text as nothing conventionally material because it presents not representations of sensation but instead materializes words and techniques for communication that deliberately "disrupt communicative ideals" (xxviii). Therefore "the material text is never a thing in itself; it circulates as a form of cultural critique" (xxiv) "laying bare the device of its construction to a wider cultural poetics" (xxiii). More generally, the material text is the negative drive by which constructivist art in the twentieth century gains reflexivity and frees its reworked material relations in a particular medium to take on reconstructive and utopian projects: "The constructivist moment is an elusive transition in the unfolding work of culture in which social negativity-the experience of rupture, an act of refusal-invokes a fantasmatic future-an horizon of possibililty, an imagination of participation. Constructivism condenses this shift of horizon from negativity to progress in aesthetic form; otherwise put, constructivism stabilizes crisis as it puts the materiality of the medium into production toward imaginary ends" (xxi). And the material text then prepares the way for a richer utopian effort to reconstruct society along democratic lines made increasingly substantial as authority loses its idealist protections.

What I characterize as the second aspect of materialist sensibility has been the most influential among literary critics, primarily because it is the most complexly theorized and generally applicable. I refer to the basic mode of cultural studies practiced in Britain over the past thirty years. This orientation makes a brilliant grounding move for evading what it perceives as two basic forms of blindness pervading literary criticism-that it tends to form a cocoon around the ideal of the organic imaginative object and that when it turns to materialist values it tends to produce only allegories interpreting what the details "express" about a given cultural moment. This version of cultural studies replaces the object and stories about objects with a focus on the effects created by how people create and use language, especially as those uses become absorbed into "literary practice."[6]

The most obvious difference this assumption makes is that literary criticism is no longer centered in the text or in any hypotheses that frame the author as a single, undivided and purposive presence. At one pole the text dissolves into its readings and the applications people make of those readings. At the other pole the text dissolves into its cultural elements--the practices, the active ideologies, and the webs of interest that are largely responsible for the author's sense of the possible significance of what he or she writes. Therefore there need be no idealizations about coherent meanings or guesses about authorial intentions (or about the author's unconscious). Attributing meaning does not involve piecing together the appropriate ideal structure, grounded in formal relations or in hypothesized intentions. Rather attributing meaning involves tracing how the textual effects respond to other sets of signs and how that response generates demonstrable cultural consequences. Working in this spirit the artist Hans Haacke displayed under famous impressionist paintings the record of their ownership. Several of these pieces ended up in the hands of Hitler's close associates. So now, when we speculate on how the values made vivid in such work solicited these owners, it may prove more difficult to gush about the beauty of these paintings.

As the Haacke example shows, much of the critical work sponsored by this position consists in intensely particular historical analyses, very difficult to recapitulate in a brief abstract statement. So I will flesh out this orientation by turning instead to the Althusserian theory that is often called upon as a rationale for this historical work. Althusser promises to base the study of ideology on an intricate and flexible materialism:

All ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from them), but above all the (imaginary) relation of individuals to the relations of production and the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live (Althusser, 152)

This project immediately faces a momentous problem: how can something imaginary be the focal point for materialist work? How is the imaginary a material force, and how can we interpret that materiality without returning to allegorical frameworks where the imaginary is a symptom expressing some underlying "real" material force? Althusser begins by admitting that the relevant aspect of material existence "does not have the same modality as the material existence of paving-stone or a rifle" (153). But that does not mean there are not other modalities of material existence for characterizing how social roles and social relations get formulated for agents.

For materialist thinking the important feature of those social relations is their structure, and no method that stresses the phenomenological awareness of the individual agent can achieve the appropriate level of generality to deal with structures. This theory emphasizes not states of mind but the habits and practices shaped by the meanings one embraces. These practices are the real effects of how ideology gets naturalized. That naturalizing begins with the patterns of question and answer that underlie how agents form social identities that make it possible to negotiate social and political life. Ideology, then, is not an imposition on the subject but the manifestation of what seem deeply held commitments on the part of the subject in these negotiations. These commitments derive from agents' need to be recognizable as subjects. Therefore they have to develop answers to the fundamental questions posed by social life-who are you and what claim do you have on the institution? And these answers have to provide the desired recognitions; therefore only certain answers will count (I once ran into Judith Butler in a jury call, where she informed me that lawyers have no questions for those who announce themselves as Lesbian Marxists.) So the agent wills to take on the new skin formed by coming up with answers that provide smooth passage through what could be a constant sense of crisis.

However the need for "re-connaissance" creates fundamental aspects of "meconnaissance." In order to be a social subject the individual must redefine subjectivity in rough generic terms in such a way that symptomatic resentments and violences are likely to have to find uneasy and unstable modes of coexistence with the definable social identities. This subjection will be evident in a Lacanian approach to the person's language and to the structures developed to avoid encountering what may be real in the person's life. And by the very nature of these efforts at public recognition, large groups of people who identify with each other will manifest roughly the same symptoms of misrecognition. Rather than treat certain racial and economic others as participants in the society, they will forge all sorts of combinations of aggression and self-defense.

The final version of materialist criticism that I will address is more recent, taking shape primarily in Bill Brown's influential The Sense of Things. Brown is quite clear about the dissatisfactions that shape his work-first with textualism and then with the various forms of cultural criticism that tried to restore the texture of historical experience:

However much I shared the new historicist "desire to make contact with the 'real,'" I wanted the end result to read like a grittier, materialist phenomenology of everyday life, a result that might somehow arrest language's wish, as described by Michel Serres, that the "whole world derive from language." Where other critics had faith in discourse or in the "social text" as the analytical grid on which to reconfigure our knowledge about the present and the past, I wanted to turn attention to things-the objects that are materialized from and in the physical world that is, or had been at hand. (3)

Four years later Brown would characterize his enterprise as "historical ontology" that operates "not by tracking the biography of things, but by considering . the ontology in things, by which I mean the historical ontology concealed within objects" ("Reification, Reanimation, and the Historical Uncanny," 182-83). This ontology is intended to call attention to the limitations of Frankfurt school versions of materialism that treat all things under the same category as commodities without returning "the object world to its heterogeneity, where the lives of things are variously differentiated" (177).

Attention to the life of things requires focusing on how things are imagined, and hence "how they become recognizable, representable, and exchangeable in the first place."[7] Concentrating on late nineteenth and early twentieth century American novels, Brown tells a tale of "being possessed by possessions" that "is something stranger than the history of a culture of consumption":

It is a tale of not just of accumulating bric-a-brac, but also of fashioning an object-based historiography and anthropology, and a tale not just of thinking with things but also of trying to render thought thing-like. . My gambit is simply to sacrifice the clarity about things as objects of consumption . in order to see how . our relation to things cannot be explained by the cultural logic of capitalism. (Sense of Things, 5-6)

Brown begins as theorist at the same site as Watten does, with William Carlos William's dictum "no ideas but in things." But where Watten celebrates the text's achievement of thingness, Brown concentrates on how Williams' conviction struggles against the abtractness and sentimentality of American culture. Williams does not want to invest "objects with interiority" but to "evacuate objects of their insides and to arrest their doubleness, their vertiginous capacity to be both things and signs" (11). When objects are freed of mysterious interiority, they become capable of taking on more suggestively mysterious relationships with the humans who attach to them. These objects generate stories of "possession" that are "not reducible to ownership," and tales of affinity that are not translatable into any language of correspondences. Instead the tales Brown foregrounds articulate the slippage between having and being, and hence between "possessing a particular object" and "identification of one's self with that object" (13).

Hence Brown's book is "about the indeterminate ontology where things seem slightly human and humans seem slightly thing-like" (13). This ontology proves central to the modern American novel, since one of its basic perplexities is how to represent agency in relation to a world of things that can be more alive than the protagonists, who are likely to experience moments of paralysis as their models of identification and for possible identifications become so indefinite. Unfortunately I do not have the space in which to summarize the brilliant readings that elaborate these programmatic remarks. But one can see even as Brown develops his program how his imagination and sense of style make for extremely lively treatment of texts. One brief mention of James's Spoils of Poynton, for example succinctly captures both the power of things and the kind of dilemmas that creates for agency: "The effort to redeem things results in a subjectification of objects that in turn results in a kind of objectification of subjects, which is why, arguably, James come to abjure the ideal of the precious object" (17).

These are intelligent and timely positions that have been quite successful because they address significant needs among those in the academy who teach and write about literature. Some of the needs are political; others stem simply from how they encourage research projects that promise an originality and a usefulness no longer available from practices of close reading single works of art, however imaginatively these readings are performed. And then there is a crucial matter of tone. Materialist criticism promises a hard-headed, politically committed realism sharply at odds with the now somewhat embarrassing claims to sensitivity and to wisdom all too common in those close readings. Intellectually those close readings tended to rely on the idea that they were disclosing how the work achieved a distinctive unity that established a non-discursive knowledge more fluid and more complex than the knowledge available from empirical pursuits. And affectively these readings ran the risk of identifying with the object thought worthy of this close attention, so that critics were tempted to speak as if they possessed the edifying wisdom they asserted for their texts.

As I look back at incarnations of myself as this kind of reader, I cannot but sympathize with these efforts to change the literary playing field. But I am not convinced at all that these particular materialist doctrines are the best vehicles for redefining the work of literary criticism. Their materialist positions have their own pieties-political rather than aesthetic. And they have to rely on foundational principles that are even more problematic than the idealist principles sanctioning the notions of organic unity and non-discursive knowledge. For materialist criticism takes much of its strength from what it opposes. Its dream is that it can free criticism to turn from various aestheticist versions of idealism to the gritty complexities of historical existence. Yet this grounding binary opposition seems to me no longer appropriate to describe the options for contemporary work.

Does one have to be an idealist or organicist in literary criticism if one attends primarily to how a work deploys various structuring devices to give it a kind of internal force and hence an intensified individuality capable of affecting our sense of possible actions and possible ways of caring for others? Instead of recapitulating complaints based on the contrast between matter and mind, it seems more prudent to explore how critics can use concepts first developed within idealist frameworks for their secular possibilities. Certainly very few critics now use the terms borrowed from idealism to develop coherent idealist metaphysical positions. (Frederic Jameson is an interesting exception since he seems to think idealist themes are necessary to bolster not aestheticism but Marxism.) And I question attributing idealism to the thinking of major modernists like Pound and Stevens and even Eliot. They flirted with idealism largely because that thinking provided the best practical means to oppose an increasingly dominant and reductive empiricism that was commodifying everything in its path. It was because idealism challenged such empiricist principles that it seemed to provide the richest models for how works of art developed the power to perform cultural work.

In other words, the modernists (with the exception of Yeats) shared more with the Wittgenstein of On Certainty than they did with Berkeley or Hegel. Wittgenstein makes the central question not which ontology to choose but how to see the limitations of all philosophical thinking that depends on ontological claims, and that question still I think pervades current critiques of empiricism.

(Comparing Yeats's critique of G. E. Moore to Wittgenstein's will make these different attitudes toward ontology abundantly clear.) For Wittgenstein the basic problem in philosophy is represented beautifully in Moore's thinking that he could prove fundamental realities such as a person's having two hands. For that perspective has to imagine that there is something behind empirical truths that makes them true, and for Wittgenstein that kind of claim is insufficiently concrete. If one doubts that one has two hands, there is nothing that cannot be doubted and hence no truths that are secure. Philosophical empiricism undermines itself because it creates doubt in the very effort to defeat that doubt totally. So Wittgenstein argues that it is much more economical and effective to recognize that some assertions just map the possibility of assertion: they are not true because they refer to something else but true because they anchor the practices that allow for further inquiry into the world. What cannot be doubted has to be taken as true-on formal and not empirical grounds. Analogously we would never be aware of these elemental decisions and modes of awareness opening on to the world if we continued to insist that talking about "matter" and "spirit" or the "senses" and the "mind" are still effective ways to carve up the world.[8]

This criticism is pragmatic, since it argues that the oppositions grounding materialism also prevent it from doing much effective work. It is also important to recognize that such reliance on binaries is likely also to be downright misleading.[9] As deconstructive thinkers were fond of repeating, these oppositions tend to cover up ambiguities and equivocations, and they confuse acts claiming to be descriptive with what in fact are assertions of power. Moreover the oppositions evade difficult concrete questions and open up an endless series of further questions. Are feelings the province of matter or spirit? What about ambitions or convictions? How can we resolve such questions without further oppositions that are equally unstable-for example between ideology and knowledge? It is difficult not to conclude that shorn of its enabling metaphysical oppositions materialism cannot do significant philosophical work but functions instead rhetorically to mark a critic's political allegiances.

My most intense criticisms pertain to what materialism does to literary experience, especially to the sensuousness of literary experience. Because these critics so distrust organicist metaphors stressing how bodies blend ends and means, they impose problematic distinctions between means and ends that make it very difficult to correlate the sensuous and the reflective. This is most evident in the glee with which materialist critics dispense charges of "aestheticism." Apparently "aestheticism" is attributed to all emphases on formal or internal relations within a text, then that emphasis is presumed to be the end shaping the endeavor rather than an aspect of a more inclusive project. Of course some authors do make the medium the matter. But it is much more common to consider this internal density as the means to build imaginative engagements with how characters and lyric speakers think and suffer and find satisfaction. The text's sense of the world interprets and puts to work its exploration of the powers of the medium.

The distinction between means and ends can work if one allows it be supplemented by a sense of how texts try to integrate these aspects. Indeed it has to work if one is to avoid the bind Watten gets into by emphasizing the materiality of textual features. When he tries to generalize about the importance of fighting off the devices of closure and restoring the pleasures of contingency and variety, he has to treat these features as comprising the negative element in a dialectical relationship with "the constructivist moment." His treatment of such devices as the matter of the text simply does not provide enough assertive sensuousness to justify talk of positive values. So he has to locate what can be positive only at the other pole of his dialectic-in the constructivist utopian features for which the negation clears the way. Ironically this critic of "literary" content has to put all the social value of literary experience in its political content. Worse, he does so in a way that Hegel foresaw would be a temptation for all thinking that blundered into an idealist position without having a sufficiently intricate grasp of how the ideal has to be grounded in the sensuous. Any effort to go directly from the negative to the utopian is a case of the "bad infinite" so eager for spiritual content that it foregoes the patience to trace how human labor has to mediate whatever might be productive of social change.

Few would find anything utopian in the prospects of literary studies. Yet there are degrees of hopelessness, or at least I hope there are. We can try to base literary studies' ambitions to make a difference in cultural life on a contrasting model of how the senses are engaged in literary experience and of the nature of the labor giving significance to that sensuousness. This model will involve richer accounts of how sensuousness is produced by readers and of the kind of labor involved in the author's fostering of these possibilities for production.

The case depends on honoring two features fundamental to traditional treatments of "the literary" as a product of imagination. First, we have to maintain "literary" experience as distinct from other experiences mediated by texts. For this we do not have to identify any distinctive ontological traits. Rough pragmatic ones will do, since the crucial matter is not what the texts are but what we make of them in relation to cultural practices. On these grounds we can say that for the past five hundred years at least in the West one meaning of 'literary" has prevailed (even though there have also been competing uses of the term): literariness has been attributed to those works that seem to educated readers to induce them to produce an imaginatively concrete world, engage with the actions it dramatizes, and respond to how the medium itself takes on a density which contributes to our attributing an affective dimension to what we engage. Then we can further specify this concreteness by defining the "literary" as the domain where we becomes self-reflexive about the values involved in the modes of identification (or withdrawal of identification) the text produces through that concreteness. If the text cannot come alive as an engagement in processes of identification and resistance to identification, the text is only an element in one's cultural heritage that for the individual fails to take on literariness. One can recognize that literariness is attributed to texts without experiencing the differences that make this distinction appropriate. This text fails to achieve the triangulation effect.

Sensuousness then is fundamentally an active construction. One's experience of the senses in literary experience will only be as rich as one's imaginative intensity in fleshing out the cues provided by the text. Yet now theorists very rarely talk positively about imagination (for pretty good reasons, as we will see), so our first need in talking about sensuousness is to address this issue of what we can still say about imagination. Althusser becomes an important test case because he at least makes the imaginary central and so poses the possibility that the same logic can sustain a more robust practical view of the imagination. Althusser would consider my efforts silly idealism. But this may be because of his being caught in the binaries I have been discussing. He creates an immense opportunity for my project when the shows that we have an impoverished view of "materialism" and of related concepts like "modes of production" if we do not include the psychological formation of social relationships as a crucial aspect of materialist analysis. We only understand ideology if we cease to think of it as something imposed by power and envision it instead as deriving from how agent's establish identities in relation to social institutions. But if we are willing to go this far in attributing effective powers to the imaginary, how can we dismiss as illusions or epiphenomena the other ways the imagination has obvious effects on social interactions? How can we not give equal importance to the imaginativeness that explores and adapts hypotheticals of all sorts to initiate, regulate, and evaluate behaviors? It is no accident that the most renowned anti-idealist artist in the twentieth century, John Cage, was a Buddhist, not a Marxist.)

There are negative and positive paths for reinforcing this practical argument about the civilizing work imagination can perform. Negatively I want to quarrel with a powerful aspect of Brown's approach. His arguments are quite strong that both things and objects enter complex relations for which "commodity" proves an impoverished concept. So it seems fair to conclude that "commodity" is an abstraction occluding the various ways things and objects take on life for the imaginations participating in a given culture.[10] (This argument against the commodity is structurally analogous to Althusser's argument against ideology as something imposed.) But Brown's opening to the imagination also presents a trap for it. The only value he can give imagination is its capacity to dwell on and intensify the uncanny relations when the effort to subjectify objects "in turn results in an objectification of subjects" (17).[11] I have to admit that these uncanny effects are crucial to nineteenth and twentieth century literature. The uncanny is the aspect of imaginativeness least involved in issues of intentionality and most effective in showing commodities can have particular unsettling qualities that evoke attention to particular cases. The uncanny recognizes agency without engaging us in the difficulties involved when we are committed to making sense of purposes. Instead the uncanny revels in the discomfort produced when we have to deal with agency as the undecidability of purpose. Therefore the uncanny is as far from dialectics as one can get. But it is precisely because the "uncanny" fits so well into contemporary habits of thinking that we have to examine the limits of that concept. Then we might also ask how it might be possible to get out of the trap where the production of uncanny effects becomes the only valued activity the imagination brings to works of art. There are, after all, quite powerful other modes of imaginative activity now given short shrift.

Predictably, I will argue that critics rely on the uncanny because this is the use of imagination that does not foreground human agency except in so far as it can show that such agency fails in its projections of mastery. Because the uncanny depends on failed mediation or uneasy mediation between the subject and the object, there is no way it can build to more capacious accounts of what is expressed in the uncanny moment. (The need to celebrate the uncanny occurs when we still consider imagination in romantic terms but have to apply those romantic terms to a situation where if nature speaks at all it is only in languages that are unintelligible or threatening.) In Brown's case this narrowing of the imagination's range stems, I suspect from a deep appreciation of what it can do matched by an even deeper fear of embarrassment if he succumbs to the old idealizations. A large part of his project involves a modernist setting the imagination against its own idealizations so that it can bring out what is different in the life of things, and hence what is lost when we idealize things as the stuff of symbols and metaphors (for example in The Sense of Things, 11). But at the same time he wants to concentrate on how that life of things becomes a problematic and dynamic force as it provokes and sponsors social constructions. He wants simultaneously to study how things present states that are valuable because they resist human making and how things matter in relation to what society makes of them. The tension between these two goals can be resolved only by emphasizing various aspects of the uncanny where things get to maintain their otherness even or especially when we try to turn them into objects.

Temporalized as the before and after of the object, thingness amounts to a latency (the not yet formed) or the not yet formable) and to an excess (what remains physically or metaphysically irreducible to objects). But this temporality obscures the all-at-onceness, the simultaneity, of the object/ thing dialectic and the fact that all at once, the thing seems to name the object, just as it is, even as it names some thing else (Things 5).

But Brown also wants to read novels and do social criticism, so it is not surprising that he also talks about "things" in this way: "This book is an experiment, then, to see what happens when we objectify literary texts so that they become for us objects of knowledge about physical objects" (18). What matters here is "the object materialized by human attention" (7). I submit that these are two quite distinctive and important modes of literary and critical imagination. But when one attempts to combine them, one has only the mode of the uncanny by which to articulate their interaction. If theorists are to engage imaginatively in the ontological status of things, they probably have to develop a version of Heideggerean phenomenology severe enough to fight off at every moment the desire to turn the situation into metaphors or other modes of social appropriation. But phenomenology is by no means the richest model for inquiries into how societies invest things with meanings or how things exert pressure within this world of meanings.

Yet Brown refuses to recognize the incompatibility here or the strength of each model of inquiry allowed to pursue its own imperatives. Why? I speculate that Brown is unwilling to grant the modes of human agency basic to both of those enterprises. As I cast them each deals with things but emphasizes the role of consciousness in the formation or disclosure of the significance of those things. But Brown wants a materialist stance on consciousness that will stress its limitations rather than its powers. Thus he projects "a new materialism that takes objects for granted only in order to grant them their potency-to show how they organize our private and public affection" (Things 7) To the obvious rejoinder that it is human imaginations that do the work of organization, however much that work is objectified by social structures, Brown would probably answer that he is interested in those states where the imagination cannot quite revel in its mastery but finds itself contaminated by the power it has given things-hence his remark on Spoils of Poynton. The "uncanny" is our name for this materializing of consciousness so that it has to encounter its products as other to its sense of its own powers. Again, this is not wrong. Brown is right to see how important it is for the culture he studies to stage the imagination bringing itself closer to the reification it is trying to resist or manipulate. But while Brown is a careful historicist about the things he deals with, he seems a careless historicist in emphasizing only those imaginative relations to things. There are texts like Beckett's Imagination Dead Awaken that take the imagination well beyond the sense of the uncanny relation to things in which it begins. And there are many different ways in which the imagination grapples with feeling the pressure of things on our processes of subjectification-from William James's explorations of what freedom can mean to T.S. Eliot's sense of the horrors of objectification to Wallace Stevens' efforts to rid the imagination of its self-importance so we can see how it functions as an elemental operator in the world of experience.

But how do we talk about those aspects of imagination that go beyond the uncanny without encouraging fictions of mastery which, in their turn, threaten to collapse imagining into the imaginary.[12] We are after all heirs of highly inflated, often transcendental ideals that were basic to discourse about the imagination from the idealist Romantics to the politically conservative New Critics. At the same time we are the heirs of an empiricist tradition in which the imagination is suspect for the opposite reason, for a sense of its impotence because it seems only to muddle any effort to secure the truth of propositions. But then I have to ask are these various suspicions necessary?

Richard Moran's powerful essay, "The Expression of Feeling in Imagination," shows how we can change the focus of our thinking to bring out some practical interests the imagination serves and literary texts elaborate. The specific target of Moran's essay is the tendency among philosophers to define "imagination" as the faculty of producing fictive, make-believe worlds that simply have no status in determining what is true or false. Therefore philosophers struggle to explain how we can feel anything in the real world for characters we know are only made up. It is as if common-sense joined radical aestheticism to exile imagination from any practical considerations. Moran proposes instead that the imagination need not be bound to this sense of fictionality. In fact we regularly and intensely experience various states in the "real" world that are fundamentally constructs of imagination. Imagination is largely responsible for the shape of our memories and our desires: "Most of the suffering and satisfaction in life takes place either prior to the expected events that are supposed to deliver the real goods, or after the fact, savored in remembrance or sticking in one's craw" (Moran, 79). It makes no sense then to treat literary invitations to the imagination as divided into propositions about the real supplemented by elaborate artifact. The artifact and the real are inseparable, since the artifact consists largely of modeling how some aspect of the real is to be encountered and negotiated.[13]

If we accept the picture of imagination Moran presents, we are in a position to provide a much stronger account of the labor involved in both producing and reading literary texts than is offered by our various versions of materialist criticism. Every theory of literature has to produce some account of how literary texts are created, and almost every theory has to anchor that account in an authorial activity. But because materialism is so suspicious of anything that smacks of an idealist heritage, especially when reinforced by the sociological effects of attributions about genius, materialism is notoriously weak on this point. Materialism can point to the features of a text that allow historical forces and the author's own politics to find expression, and recent versions can stress how authors play the marketplace, especially by manipulating their own celebrity. Yet it seems obvious to me that such thinking cannot adequately represent the kinds of activity responsible for most of the writing that keeps alive the concept of literature as a fine art. Such a representation must at least address the way most ambitious literary texts foster complex internal relationships producing a distinctiveness for the experience involved. Then it also might explain why many readers are willing to accept the disciplines allowing them to respond to those internal relations and try out the powers of sensibility that they engage.[14]

Again I have nothing new to offer beyond establishing a context for invoking classical theory. But a strong dose of what have been standard assumptions may just be the medicine theory now needs. Traditional theorists stress the particularity of the text because they appreciate the achievement it is to make particulars bear generalized reflection while holding off the ever greedy grasp of universals. So when they address questions of authorship they typically engage the question of how the shaping that the author does can establish the power for a particular object to take on exemplary status in relation to our ways of sorting the world. That is, we typically do not look for a class in which Othello fits, but we use Othello's character to define with considerable vividness what a certain type of person is capable of feeling and of doing, with also a sense of attendant consequences.[15]

The best available account of how art works invite attributions of such authorship, and of the sensuousness resulting from the authorship, is Kant's distinction between "purpose" and "purposiveness." Most acts of making involve the kinds of purposes that govern practical reasoning and moral reasoning. The maker has a concept of a product so he or she tries to create something that will serve the purpose usually sought by the users of such products. And the maker might well also have a clear sense of purpose in relation to what he or she wants from the consumer: the maker sees the object playing a clear role in a system of exchange and envisions what might satisfy the one who makes an exchange for it. Purposive activity, on the other hand, does not allow a concept of the product to govern production but generates an aesthetical idea though which flow many concepts:

Art . receives its rule from nature (the nature of the subject) rather than from a deliberate purpose. For we must judge the beautiful not according to concepts, but according to the purposive attunement of the imagination that brings it into harmony with the power of concepts as such.[16] (Critique of Judgment sect 57, p. 217)

Purposiveness then explains the presence of an authorial intentionality that is constantly modifying the work by local adjustments much more subtle and fluid than any concept might establish. Hence the presence of subtle patterns of images and syntactic effects, of intricately varied tones, of structural balances among concrete elements that do not easily yield to conceptual categories.[17]

Hence what Coleridge would stress as the texture of feelings established by that kind of hovering intentionality. And hence too the gulf between the work and criticism of the work, a distinction which in Kant becomes the difference between "aesthetic ideas" or "unexpoundable presentations of the imagination," and "rational ideas" that are "indemonstrable concepts of reason" (215).[18]

Were I a performance artist I would simply keep chanting "unexpoundable presentations of the imagination." Meditating on this Kantian mantra will tell all you need to know about the roles of sensuousness traditionally attributed to literary experience. But if I limited myself in this way, then I could not also build from Kant to Hegel's more ample and suggestive accounts of how this sensuousness is closely tied to the affective investments literary texts solicit. Making Hegel my climactic figure might seem odd, if not uncanny, because Hegel has become the arch-exemplar of a Platonic diminishment of that very sensuousness in deference to the abstracting power of philosophy. But this criticism of Hegel ignores how he labors to prevent the concept of an Absolute to collapse into vapid piety. The Absolute can only matter (in both senses of "matter") if it is the result of a difficult and continuous struggle to sublate sensuousness.

Hegel can dramatize this struggle so effectively because of all the great thinkers in the West, Hegel is the least bound by binary thinking. Triangulation is his basic mode. When he comes to address the sensuousness of art he does so in terms of facing a contradiction between the demand that the role of art is to instruct and the demand that art be a source of satisfaction in "the movement of feelings" and in the passions elicited by how subjects are represented (Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, translated by T.M. Knox, I, 50). In order to find a perspective within which this contradiction might be negotiated, Hegel has to turn from the manifest appearance of the work stressed by Kant to the probable satisfactions it might afford someone occupying the author position. This requires looking at the work in terms of its dynamics. One sees that if the aim of instruction is "to be explained directly and explicitly as an abstract proposition ., then by this separation the sensuous pictorial form,[19] which is precisely what alone makes a work of art a work of art, becomes a useless appendage, a veil and a pure appearance" (51). The distinctive labor of art is frustrated unless one can imagine a content for which the sensuousness establishes a distinctive version of instruction:

The work of art should put before our eyes a content, not in its universality as such, but one whose universality has been absolutely individualized and sensuously particularized. If the work of art does not proceed from this principle but emphasizes the universality with the aim of [providing] abstract instruction, then the pictorial and sensuous element is only an external and superfluous adornment . In that event the sensuously individual and the spiritually universal have become external to one another (51).

But if one follows this line of thinking, one will recognize the danger of the sensuous and the universal following separate paths. And one will begin to realize the cultural and historical task art plays in making the senses an inseparable aspect of experiences that take on metaphoric power.

At a minimum then art complements a culture's "religion and philosophy "by displaying even the highest [reality] sensuously, bringing it thereby nearer to the senses, to feeling, and to nature's mode of appearance" (7-8). Truth must find a mode of appearance before consciousness can sublate that appearance and frame the full phenomenon in the conceptual terms that establish "actuality." Therefore the sensuous is inseparable from the imaginative:

The work of art is not merely for sensuous apprehension; its standing is of such a kind that though sensuousness, it is essentially at the same time for spiritual apprehension; the spirit is meant to be affected by it and to find some satisfaction in it(35). . With this subjective life there enters at once the multiplicity and variety of individuality, particularization, difference, action, and development, in short the entire and variegated world of the reality of the spirit in which the Absolute is known, willed, felt, and activated (624).

That is, art offers a sensuousness that is inseparable from its artefactuality, itself inseparable from an authorial purposiveness intent on making the life of the mind as visible and as tactile as any given culture can engage. Art gives that culture a sense of possibility. That sense of possibility will prove inseparable from the culture's limitations-but the imagination's powers will be defined over time by how it manages to witness and to foster that dialectic.

Everything I have been arguing presupposes a single meaning of "sensuousness." This meaning emphasizes how authorial and readerly imagination collaborate to engage metaphorically with materials that engage the senses. And that collaboration also helps explain why our reflections on those details are inseparable from how we affectively engage both the actions within the text and the various kinds of eloquence framing those actions. But many writers have not been content with this reasonable picture. They want a more literal sensuousness that challenges the domain of reflection rather than merging into it. And they want not just sympathetic feelings for character and setting but more direct engagements of the audience in realizing its own affective powers directly, and not just through sympathy with surrogates. Most claims for sensuousness in art do not and need not distinguish between features that are evident in the handling of the medium and features that depend on representations offering surrogates for the senses. The work I will consider now challenges that by elaborating how far the immediacy of presentation can extend to the mediacy of an audience's recognition of the shapes taken by its own powers. Instead of accepting the task of imaginative representation, this work stages its own actuality as rivaling and redirecting the modes of reflection typical of those representational models. In essence this art tries to flesh out the difference between what art can do by virtue of its meaning and what it can do by the virtue of emphasizing its sensuous being.

Hegel provides one model for the challenge I am addressing by insisting on the dimension of reality that drama adds to the subjective expressions constituting the lyric:

Of all the arts poetry alone does not appear outwardly in something completely real and also perceptible. Now drama does not relate bygone deeds at all for our spiritual contemplation, nor does it express an inner and subjective world with an appeal to our heart and imagination; in its task, on the contrary, is to portray an action present before us in its present and actual character. . For the action confronting us is entirely the fruit of the inner life and, so viewed, can be completely expressed in words; on the other hand, however, action also moves outwards, into external reality, and therefore its portrayal requires the whole man in his body, . and all this is not only as he is in himself but also the way he works on others and in the reactions hence possibly arising. (1181).

The clearest examples for me take place in modernist painting's efforts to strip representation to its abstract elements, then to locate its metaphoric power in the force of the literal activity of these elements within the painting-for example in the "dynamic balances of Mondrian" and in the more intricate and subtle work of the "non-objective" spirit in Malevich's handling of line, shape, and color.[20] There are obvious parallels in modernist writing, for example in Joyce's concern to imitate nature not by representing it but by paralleling its creative force, in Stevens' having his poems exhibit the very force they claim for the imagination, and in Pound's vision of a writing that could display the ability of analytical geometry to have form actually create what becomes a figure for possible experience. But it is crucial to see that while almost all of the theorizing about art composing its own reality is confined to modernism, the ambition to have one's art take on reality is widely distributed in time and space. We can go back at least as far as Dante's creating the effect of literally entering the space of vision and Massaccio's intensifying in painting the sense of what it means to have a body.

Here I want to use two Shakespearean examples to illustrate quite different ways in which the stage can insist on its own reality and so exemplify what artists in other media can aspire to in their different ways. These examples will reveal how the ideal of sensuousness elicits various experiments in making literary experience produce surprising and intricate modes of affective presence.

And they should clarify why artists and writers are so often tempted to use their sensuous concreteness to project modes of thinking that rival even a philosophical practice, even one as capacious as Hegel's. The first example will use the resources of theater to make clear how it can present a sense of character that demands we create a distinctive space beyond what public discourse can understand or evaluate. The second example will go to the opposite pole by presenting the possibility of a public agreement so complete and so effective that it generates what can only be called a virtual community. What the audience comes to share with the stage presence cannot be pictured; nonetheless its reality is utterly manifest in a way that beggars any stance that might cast doubt upon what is being claimed.

This is the exchange that marks Hamlet's entry into the public world in the play, just after Claudius' long, syntactically intricate and semantically adept effort to accommodate Hamlet's apparent depression:

Claudius: But now my cousin Hamlet and my son-
Hamlet: A little more than kin and less than kind.
Claudius: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Hamlet: Not so much, my Lord, I am too much in the sun. (1.2. 64-67)

Minimally Hamlet's puns establish a fresh way to introduce his psychological concerns: he will not submit to common sense, nor will he try to express directly his tortured soul. Rather he marks himself as distinctive by refusing direct discourse and insisting that to know him one will have to grapple with a mode of presentation in which self-defense and self-assertion seem inextricable from one another.

I think the ontology here is even more interesting than the psychology, or one might say that this psychology entails a very interesting ontology. For the puns do not only indicate a complex and divided character. They establish a mode of existence that can be seen as the only way to deal with the kind of character Claudius is. For it is only by punning that Hamlet can define his mode of discourse, and his own mode of being, as something that can enter Claudius's world without being dominated by his immense skills. Claudius has shown himself in his opening speech to be a very smart and very effective king. He anticipates Hamlet's pain and he brilliantly seems to foreclose any justification for Hamlet's mourning, all the while handling other matters of state as well. In effect his rhetorical performance sucks up all the air in the room and leaves no place for Hamlet to state his feelings: after this comprehensive grasp of the situation there seems no room for difference. Claudius is the master and everyone else clearly nothing but his subjects. Yet Hamlet has two reasons to reject that mastery. It exercises power because of a murder, and it threatens to dominate Gertrude by blinding her to everything that lies behind this public facade. However any direct show of rivalry would only be marked as pathetic resentment. Hamlet can only hope to rival Claudius by changing the playing field-by not trying to be another competitor for the throne but by producing a psychological reality that exceeds in its urgencies and lived contradictions anything that such mastery as Claudius has can even comprehend. Hamlet's puns make his personal force felt by indicating a personal reality asserting the right to be only half-present in public space: an indecipherable partial withdrawal from unequivocal sense becomes a significant definition of a space the public world now has to recognize. (Lacan might say that because the puns stress the material out of which meanings are constructed, they can invoke a "real" that escapes Claudius' mastery of the symbolic order.)

In other words, Hamlet's speeches are the opposite of anything a chorus could represent. They offer no public wisdom and no effort to influence action in the state. They demand the space of subjective being, and insist on that being as at once upholding and withdrawing from the conversation. To use Hegelian language, whatever Hamlet experiences as spirit simply cannot dwell in the same kind of scene that Claudius directs and presides over. Its force is its ability to carve a different space where desperation and assertion somehow seem no longer in contradiction. Here there enters another level of Hegel's "present and active character," a level in which we cannot trust what we see but have to piece together what does not make literal sense. This spirit capable of comprehending this scene requires a different sense of what can be real. The political reason so powerfully represented by Claudius simply cannot sublate this will to expression by apparent non-sense because that will does not operate by the kinds of universals that allow for action.

Hamlet's puns and the activities that follow that logic of half-presence are indubitably real in the play's time and space. That initially sets the play against the audience's sense of the world, which is typically very much like the world Claudius rules. But suppose what the play conveys as real is more acute psychologically and more dramatically compelling in the real world than even Claudius's mode of mastery. Perhaps it is only the play that can define a space where the unreal merges with the hyperreal so as to be capable of indicating the force of the suffering and the possibility that informs these puns. Perhaps "The play's the thing" which in its manifest reality will never be sublated by reason because it presents a form of subjectivity that does not and cannot abide even by the capacious terms of Hegel's absolute.

My other passage from Shakespeare manifests a very different kind of reality. If Hamlet establishes a reality that must withdraw from the authority of reason, the "Epilogue" to The Tempest establishes a reality so complexly fulfilling the desires it elicits that it must be seen as transcending the ways reason must divide feeling from thinking. Here the individuality sustained by sensuous feeling proves inseparable from a collective body establishing the universal that constitutes its distinctive union of mutual forgiveness and mutual recognition:

Now my charms are all o'erthrown
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint. Now t'is true,
I must be here confin'd by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the gentle help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

It is crucial that this Prospero speaking is the actor who has played the person who has given up his magical powers. Now he can speak almost as an actual person while retaining all of the pathos earned by his part. Because he is playing the actor playing Prospero, he can call upon the audience as equals: he and they are mutually needy and mutually capable of social exchange beneficial to both. And that offer of mutual exchange allows the audience to do more than watch. Or, better, finally the audience gets to see that its applause is not mere empty ritual. Applause becomes overtly the confirmation of social bonds and a release from the anxieties that characterize performance-the actor must despair unless there is this show of what seems hearty affirmation. And while the applause the actor projects in fact is his due by mere convention, this way of asking for it elicits awareness of how important those conventions are to seal the performance as mutually satisfying. The more real the sense of the appeal, the better the opportunity is to allow agents to restore the original force underlying the development of such conventions.

I am still being too thematic and not honoring how radical this play is. For the audience's projected action is not a dramatic illusion. This projected mutual exchange embeds the play space within the actual world to which the audience and the actors must return. And by embedding this space the applause takes on significant figurative force. The audience can realize that it is not only participating in a convention but testifying to the reality of the psychological factors which the convention has been developed to mediate. They are in a position to turn automatic and conventional response into willed recognitions of the social work such conventions can perform. And they are in a position to recognize how the play has taken on the power to compose a dimension of virtual community where will can complete and fulfill the logic underlying the convention.

This virtual dimension gets more complicated and richer with the work done by the final two lines to insist on the quality of sociality now made available by recognizing the force of the conventions involved. The main body of the epilogue is dominated by the actor's appeal to the audience to alleviate his anxieties. But the last two lines ask for something more. They confer priestly power on the audience to confer indulgences.[21] And they ask for forgiveness for the one who dramatically has been the character who understands the importance of forgiveness. This doubling of forgiveness-the call to forgive the character who has understood forgiveness-then shows how fully this play works out its own version of Hegel's claim for comedy. Hegel sees comedy as the most spiritually advanced art because it can combine a version of absolute knowledge that can understand the sources of error with the individual's spirit's enacting that knowledge in the form of forgiveness. Comedy can spell out that knowledge or transform the subjective act of forgiveness into spiritual awareness of a command internal to that knowledge.

For Hegel this is still pretend forgiveness. The sensuous imagination still prevails over philosophy's ability to produce the appropriate real world understanding and consequent action. I have been trying to show how Shakespeare's play does not accept arrogating comedy to the realm of illusion. Instead he wants to alter the picture of forgiveness sufficiently to have comedy rival any claims philosophy can make. For this play emphasizes the degree to which the intellect is necessary but not sufficient to forgiveness. As in Hamlet, but at the opposite pole, this epilogue demands a level of activity that goes beyond anything conceptual or figural. Forgiveness is a disposition of the will that probably cannot be produced by understanding alone. Forgiveness in The Tempest depends not on universal conditions but on individual subjects taking up an attitude and making decisions that involve specific choices in interpreting situations and specific commitments following from those choices. The play may be the thing that can by contrast draw out the real conditions of agency that establish convincing modes of forgiveness.

One cannot ask an actor or surrogate to offer forgiveness that counts in the real world. Shakespeare seems to know this. So he has figural forgiveness, even the forgiveness Prospero offers within the play, pale in significance when compared to what the audience can realize as their enhanced understanding of what they can do as actual individuals. Here the person who played Prospero stands figuratively without his magic and literally without the protection of his role. His real neediness is apparent to the audience, as is what forgiveness can do for that neediness. His appeal is to each member of the audience. But each member knows that his appeal is also to the audience as a whole. By granting that appeal, by applauding because of that appeal, each person in the audience wills the most comprehensive activity comedy affords. Each wills an available understanding that is free of both irony and defensiveness. And each celebrates the mutual recognition of just this social bond that comedy affords.

Those materialists in the audience might take special pleasure in recognizing all that a hand can accomplish.

Works Cited


Altieri, Charles. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. New York:

Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses," in Lenin and

Philosophy. Translated by Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Brown, Bill. "The American Uncanny." Critical Inquiry, 32 (2006): 175-207.

------, ----. A Sense of Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

-----, ----. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Davidson, Michael. Ghostlier Demarcations:Modern Poetry and the Material

Word. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Easthope. Anthony, And McGowan, Kate, eds. "Introduction." A Critical and

Cultural Theory Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Goode, Mike. "Blakespotting." PMLA 121 (2006): 769-86.

Goodman, Nelson. The Languages of Art.


Hegel, G.W.F. Hegel's Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. 2 vols. Translated by

T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975

Kant, Emmanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar.

Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987.


Moran, Richard. Authority and Estrangement.


-----, --------------. "The Expression of Feeling in Imagination."


Plato. The Republic.

Price, Leah. "Introduction: Reading Matter." PMLA 121, 2006: 9-16.


Raysor, T.M. Coleridge's Shakespearean Criticism.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Edited by G. Blakemore

Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Stewart, Susan. Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 2002

Watten. Barret. TheConstructivist Moment: From the Material Text to Cultural

Poetics. Middletown, CT., 2003.


Wittgenstein, Ludwig. On Certainty. Edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von

Wright. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

[1] I can not spell out these traditional understandings precisely because they are traditional and so for the most part unstated. I would define traditional understandings of what literariness involves by pointing to what is roughly in common in defenses of poetry from Aristotle to Shelley and the various ways writers seem to be addressing that understanding, even when they do not agree with it. The past two centuries involve more diverse ways of interpreting that tradition, but I think that up though Humanist Criticism and the New Criticism theorists invoke pretty much the same documents in order to refine what they involve.

[2] Susan Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002) offers a very different, and very good, treatment of the importance of the senses established by lyric form. But her analyses are limited to poetry, so she does not discuss general issues of sensuousness in literature and she does not engage materialist claims.

[3] I speak about "literature as a fine art" in order to avoid the notorious difficulties of offering a definition of "literature," or of "literariness" that I touch upon in note 1. It is not much easier to provide a compelling definition of literature as a fine art. But one can clarify shared expectations (which are expectations about "literariness") and one can speak of prevailing tendencies in lieu of any definition offering necessary and sufficient conditions. One can tell which modern writers understand themselves to be offering literature as fine art from the places in which they publish, the accounts they give of their ambitions, the projections about their peers and rivals (both historical and contemporary) and the kind of statements that might satisfy them in a review. (I do not specify answers to these questions because they are open to various answers-the important issue is taking the question seriously.) And one can easily extrapolate from these concerns to project what fine art status would mean for writers from the past. Minimally it captures the ambitions of writers to have their art endure well beyond their own time to provide examples of what could be done in a specific genre. And institutionally it pertains to those artists consciously seeking to make an impression on those of their peers with the most sophisticated literary training. Shakespeare had his groundlings but his plays were also offered at court and were highly respected by his peers for their artifice.

Of course such moves will not satisfy materialist critics because in their eyes I am relying on a suspect, ideologically grounded psychologistic vision of what constitutes distinctively literary value. And the concept of the literary may be a construct of idealism attempting to evade the political measures of value that should be primary for social life. I have to confess that I do not have a strong theoretical response to such claims. But I propose a practical way of talking about values that I hope provides an adequate rejoinder. This consists of first recalling what strong literary criticism has been able to do in focusing reader's energies and making them aware of the imaginative sense of values and stakes and concerns they take on as they read. Then we have to ask what place the materialist critics can find for such experiences of value. And, if they cannot answer that question convincingly, we have to ask what plausible values they can put in the place of the senses of identity and identification provided by those texts. Would the political sphere really be improved if we had no idealizations about the literary and no systematic relief from the Puritanical values sponsored by political discourse of all stripe in the United States.

[4] Notice how the triangulation by Aristotle and Sidney based on disciplines becomes in New Criticism a triangulation based on uses of language. Allen Tate speaks of the poem as the tension manifest in the struggle between intensional and extensional uses of language, and John Crowe Ransom sees literature as integrating Platonic abstraction and empiricist denotation. Plato, on the other hand, offers the prototype of binary thinking when he contrasts the sensuous images of "imitative poetry" to the "figures" mathematicians draw. These figures are not caught up in appearance but can directly represent the "ideals which serve as means "to behold the things themselves": "the absolute square . can only be seen with the eye of the mind." (Republic book 6).

[5] There is a fourth version of materialism that is trying to develop significant theoretical claims for studying "the material media of texts" and to "the movement of stories-their circulation, transmission, and reception" (Price, 9). But I have to confess that what I know of this model for criticism does not seem to have much conceptual power, in part because it is so closely bound to case studies. Price tries her best in the recent special issue of PMLA on that topic (volume 121, 2006) by arguing that study of the material media constitutes a resistance to idealism. This work attempts to speak for the "contingent details" that much traditional criticism treats the writer as overcoming by shaping an organic whole. For it is precisely these contingent details that make manifest how authors actually experience their historicity. Such details reveal the ways authors construct quite different means of establishing margins between the text and paratextual elements such as illustrations or editorial interventions. And the particular marks of such decisions also establish how an author can pursue an imaginary or actual place in a hierarchy of social relations. How texts get presented and how they establish concrete marks of literariness provide powerful markers of class differences and their manipulation establishes painful evidence of the lengths people are willing to go in the hope of overcoming those differences. But do such details reveal not only how authors experience their historicity but the significance of that historicity. Until material study of texts can explain how authors experience the significance of historicity I think the discipline will not evoke much theoretical interest. And I suspect that when it does speak well about significance, it will have drawn much closer to those concerned with literariness as an intentional category. For a brief test case see my remarks below on George Bornstein's Material Modernism.,

[6] I am paraphrasing here Anthony Easthope and Kate McGowan's introduction to A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, p. 2.

[7] If things could speak, they would reveal how they experience processes of interpellation analogous to how humans become recognizable.

[8] This last sentence offers a highly oversimplified paraphrase of Richard Moran's argument in Authority and Estrangement. Susan Stewart adds that Marx offers a utopian vision within which "sensual being is an end in itself and social relations are formed out of a recognition of the individual sensuous existence of others" (294).

[9] The effect of these binaries is clearest in a motif I ignored in the writing of this essay but now think I have to consider because the motif was featured in Mike Goode, "Blakespotting," in the most recent PMLA. Goode insists on a sharp distinction between idealism that seeks stable meaning for language and materialist criticism committed to how Blake's poetry "works to resist the idealist abstractions of the categories of reader, text, and corpus altogether, in the service of producing reading formations that cannot be mapped according to existing strategies and technologies" (772). This approach seems to me problematic in several important ways. First, it was materialist empiricism that most emphatically tried to find ways to make meanings completely stable. Second, Goode seems to think that categories are idealist and commitment to pure flux somehow materialist. But the languages that we inherit simply contain categories and meta-categories-that is how they manage to help do material work. Can he really think that relying on any abstract categorical name is somehow a breach of materialist faith. Finally, even Goode's refusal of categories relies on the power of linguistic categories to be sufficiently stable to allow his arguments to do practical work. Notice how the following claim invokes the language of "revealing" and so of truth, and at the same time relies on the idea of "potential," a term that would be idealist if it made sense to invoke "idealism" for the practical uses of language: "I suggest that the largely unmappable circulation of his proverbs today nonetheless reveals much about the politics, or at least the latent political potential, of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." (771)

[10] Ironically, Brown's effort to avoid talk of "commodity" makes me appreciate why that term took on currency. For only by going to a more abstract term can one specify a dimension in which differences between things and objects prove irrelevant. "Commodity" makes the important question not what kind of material we confront but how that material is characteristically used. If one resists that concept as Brown does, I think there have to be two different ontologies-one of things and one of objects, that is things that have already some trace of purposiveness because they have had cultural roles defined for them, however ambiguous the cultural roles they actually play.

[11] I have to admit that I noted only one use of "uncanniness" in The Sense of Things, p. 112. But Brown does make the uncanny central to his essay "The American Uncanny," which pursues pretty much the same interpretive framework as The Sense of Things. And the same logic fits his argument in the earlier study.

[12] The need to avoid all traces of investments in mastery is for contemporary theory the counterpart of the cult of the other so basic to its ethical pronouncements.

[13] Moran goes on to point out that his view of imagination sees it as serious error to treat style as something added to the description of an event, as if there were first a sense of a world, then the work of style to create intensity and vividness. Style is simply what establishes the vividness of an imaginative way of securing what can matter in the present and shaping what becomes desirable in the future (Imagination 82-85).

[14] For a cogent theoretical argument one would have to add several qualifications about the kinds of significance offered by literary texts and the nature of the audience pursuing this significance. But I think we can proceed simply on the basis of practical claims that there are good reasons to support the educational structures emphasizing how authors's labors to develop intricate internal relations for particular texts enable readers to participate in distinctive imaginative experiences. Here, as in most cases of literary theory, the best evidence comes from those cases where theorists try to push theories that account for meaning and for significance by quite different routes. George Bornstein's Material Modernism provides a useful contrast here. He wants to make historical claims about the force of modernist texts by stressing what the material texts show rather than what authors say or do in the aesthetic domain. But what historical value can be established when there is minimal concern for what the author thinks he or she is trying to do?

Bornstein makes intention almost irrelevant and defines meaning by how the site of publication provides the appropriate context. Hence he shows how four different contexts in which Keats's "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," substantially modify the force of the poem. But then possible associations-and his claims for political meanings because of the fact of publication in a politically committed journal seem much overstated given what young writers will do to publish-just take over from the adventure of engaging in the intelligence guiding the language of the poem. Then Bornstein can claim as values of the poem only its openness to modification by those contexts: "In each of the four material contexts we have considered, then, texts emerge as constructed objects, not as mystified transparent lenses giving us the "real" Keats or Shakespeare or Dickinson (14-15). I submit that there need be no talk of a real Keats to do a better job of speaking about why this Keatsian sonnet matters as an element of a culture's literary heritage.

[15] I am using, and abusing, the argument made by Nelson Goodman about denotation by exemplification in his Languages of Art.

[16] Kant goes on to show how idealist strategies struggle to provide some alternative to an empiricism that wants to deny that works of art are any different from other commodities: "Hence the subjective standard for that aesthetic but unconditioned purposiveness in fine art . cannot be supplied by any rule or precept, but can be supplied only by that which is merely nature in the subject but which cannot be encompassed by rules or concepts-namely the supersensible substrate (unattainable by any concept of the understanding) of all his powers . " (217) To show utility of this add how Coleridge supplements it .

[17] Where there are no fixed concepts to provide social roles, one cannot subsume the play of imagination into the production of imaginary states. There is an imaginary role connected to being an artist, but not to being the composer of Hamlet, at least until that appellation comes to have ideological value.)

[18] The ultimate danger of not having a strong account of authorship in literary studies is that then there is all too little resistance to the critic taking on the role of author by allowing his or her choice of context to determine what the object "really" means. But why is purposiveness not just also the attributing of a context chosen by the critic? I would answer that at the least the critic honoring purposiveness makes the context a context of human action rather than of the action of various forces that have no interest in the particularity of the experience or in the kind of achievements in style, intensity, internal structure, or the qualities of engagement and insight preserved by our language of authorship. And a concern for authorial intention can preserve a dialogical model for what the critic does.

[19] Hegel is speaking loosely here because he well knows that the sensuousness of music and of much poetry is not fundamentally pictorial. If there is any doubt about this, Hegel's next page makes his intention clear: "For the sensuous element in a work of art should be there only insofar as it exists for the human spirit, regardless of its existing independently as a sensuous object" (36). Then he develops three levels on which the sensuous can be related to the spirit.

[20] Perhaps I need to be more concrete about a motif I elaborate at length in my Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. In Mondrian's later work it seems that the sensuous domain is reduced to forms bound by straight lines and a variety of colors for the rectangles. But we are invited also to treat our seeing as including a participation in impersonal dynamic balances that afford another level of reality that cannot be pictured yet has to felt if one is to respond actively to the painting. For Mondrian participating in the dynamic activity of these impersonal forces provides a sense of reality not bound to the tragedy of individualism and therefore gives access to utopian possibilities of social life.

[21] Part of the delicious play on the real world here consists in the fact that these indulgence might in fact establish spiritual benefits because they do not depend on a priestly caste but only on what is in the audience's power to achieve in the real world and in the spiritual world.