THE ROMANTIC HISTORICISM YET TO COME by Jonathan Crimmins, Reviewed by Padma Rangarajan
 


THE ROMANTIC HISTORICISM YET TO COME
By Jonathan Crimmins
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) 179 pp.
Reviewed by Padma Rangarajan on 2021-02-18.

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This densely challenging study aims to answer two distinct but related questions. First, should we construe history as something processed through ideology or as the after-effect of sympathetic engagement? Second, what is the place of revolution or historical rupture in the longer arc of history? Finding traditional historicism stymied between the "fullness of lost time and its corollary empty freedom" (20), Crimmins sets out to redefine history as "that which persists into the future" (3). Reorienting history around its futurity, he argues, will enable us to see how historical eras are not so much discrete and successive as interpenetrative and continuous. Taking a two-pronged approach, the book models a future-oriented historical methodology (more of which later) while simultaneously uncovering examples of future-oriented Romantic texts. As inspirations for his study, Crimmins cites Emily Rohrbach's Modernity's Mist (2015), Timothy Campbell's Historical Style (2016), and Anahid Nersession's Utopia, Limited (2015), but this book also complements Christopher Burdock's account of prophecy's affective temporality in Romantic Prophecy and the Resistance to Historicism (2016).

To circumvent the limitations of a single approach, Crimmins adopts a methodology that seems indebted to Gilles Deleuze and Pierre-Félix Guattari's theory of assemblage. In a catholic spirit, he embraces what he calls "our eclectic set of contemporary historical lenses--the longue duree and microhistory, ideological critique and historical sympathy, antiquarianism and genealogy, and the contrary formalisms of close and distant reading" (20). Fittingly, the book is not a methodical study of Romantic historicism. Instead, Crimmins selects key texts--Immanuel Kant's "Idea for a Universal History," G.W.F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Sir Walter Scott's Waverley, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound--and poses a series of theoretical questions about each one. Crimmins's call for methodological eclecticism is generative, and his command of a broad range of Romantic-era and contemporary theoretical texts is impressive, but since fundamental concepts such as mediation seem to vanish after the book's first chapters, this embrace of heterogeneous methodologies leads to readings that are sometimes overwhelming and unsatisfying.

A key part of Crimmins's future-oriented historicism is his approach to mediation and media, which in this book are primarily textual. Rather than seeing media's mediation as a boundary between past and present, or even as an always artifactual way of intervening between the two, Crimmins stresses the transmissive work of media, or as he puts it, a "semisynchronous agglomeration of residual temporalities" (15). Reading "incremental contributions" across a critical environment (15), Crimmins makes scholars past and present participate in ongoing critical conversations that are both historical and philosophical. Tracing the history of ideology in his second chapter, for example, Crimmins moves from William Godwin's essay "On History and Romance" (1797) to contemporary critiques of New Historicism. Rather than explaining how present critics read past ones, he reads them beside each other. To construct a narrative about the continuity of the historicist's dilemma, he finds echoes of Romantic-era debates in the critical writing of Marjorie Levinson and Thomas Pfau, and the effect of this approach is exciting and dynamic.

Starting with Gothic mediation, chapter 1 compares versions of materialism (Descartes versus Hobbes) with contemporary debates (Robert Miles versus David Punter) on the sources of the Gothic. Does it chiefly spring from psychological impulses, or it is a more conscious product of social forces? For Crimmins, this "unresolved duality inherent in the Gothic" (41), which he identifies as a tension between materialism and ideology, explains why readings of Frankenstein seem endless and ultimately inconclusive. Crimmins then reads the novel as a tale of two contrasting developments: beginning in a world of sensation, the Creature comes to realize that love's ideological constrictions cut him off from human society; safely ensconced in ideological and social privilege, Frankenstein embarks on an ultimately ruinous experiment to "understand materiality" (47). This reading of the novel is provocative and insightful, but it moves too quickly through crucial parts of the text, and Crimmins's side references to Lacan and Freud are more distracting than enlightening. I left the chapter wondering why Frankenstein should exemplify the duality of the Gothic that Crimmins so elegantly describes: whether because the endlessness of its interpretations prove it essentially Gothic, or because its Gothic elements are unique, or because it exemplifies Gothic tropes that are evident, if to a lesser degree, in all gothic literature.

Chapter 2 , "History's Body and the Historicist's Dilemma," shows how the role of ideology in history was debated in the nineteenth century as well as in our own time. First, Crimmins argues, the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Marjorie Levinson, and Thomas Pfau reveal that all four use the body as a metaphor for history. The chapter also suggests that Godwin's analysis of nominalism and idealism in "Of History and Romance" presages Michel de Certeau's identification of the historicism's methodological impasse in The Writing of History (1975). Hegel's interpretation of Kantian conceptuality guides Chapter 3, "Freedom and the Minimum Conditions of Historicity," which also critiques seminal readings of Hegel, notably what Crimmins takes to be Friedrich Kittler's misinterpretation of the role of materiality in Hegel's conception of history. Carefully examining Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Crimmins admirably shows how they differed on the relationshipbetween human freedom and historical change. Yet why, I wonder, does Crimmins ignore Romantic historiography itself, particularly Hegel's The Philosophy of History? Since nineteenth-century historical writing also includes James Mill's The History of British India (1817) and Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution: A History (1837), an acknowledgement of works like these could have buttressed Crimmins's philosophical arguments.

Chapter 4, which interweaves historicism, literary analysis, and theories of chance in its reading of Scott's Waverley, illustrates most effectively the catholicity of Crimmins's approach. Rejecting any one factor as the key to Scott's life and fiction, Crimmins takes as his model the complexities of the 1825 Scottish Banking Crisis, which ruined Scott. "Like an individual's intermingled personal motivations," Crimmins argues, "the interrelation of capital markets requires an account of how separate factors participated in the crisis, an account that does not break down into a hard opposition between the rational and irrational...as if the actions flowed from a single, stable system" (113). According to Crimmins, the risks of loss and profit associated with capitalism can be usefully applied to Scott's historical narratives. In lieu of any one determining factor, Crimmins turns to randomness or chance, which he defines "not as an unknowable emptiness or negativity, but rather as the interaction of relatively autonomous semi-deterministic systems" (113). To Scott's depiction of historical change in Waverley Crimmins applies critical interpretations of his theory of historical progress. Yet while Crimmins's account of chance is persuasive, the thread of his argument is hard to follow as it moves from specific passages in Waverley to system theory and Joseph Priestley's Lectures on History, and from Scott's embrace of stadialism to Derridian theories of futurity, with gestures to Alexandre Kojéve, Francis Fukuyama, Richard Rorty, and Jerome Christensen along the way.

In the book's final and most consistent chapter, which reads queer theory alongside Prometheus Unbound, Crimmins links Shelley's belief in the relationship between love and revolutionary politics to contemporary theorizations of queer futurity. Prometheus Unbound, Crimmins argues, is one of a number of Romantic-era texts that re-imagines how historical change can occur, and historical temporality more broadly. Here, I think, Crimmins misses an opportunity to consider the relationship between the ideological constraints on love that chapter 1 identifies in Frankenstein, and the love-as-liberation model championed in this chapter. Tracking Shelley's engagement with Kant's theories of moral progress, Crimmins describes how Shelley chooses neither freedom as autonomous power nor freedom as Kant's transcendent moral law, opting instead for "freedom of care." Like Frankenstein and Waverly in the previous chapters, Prometheus Bound becomes a vehicle through which Crimmins probes significant debates in contemporary critical theory, such as the dialogue between Leo Edelman and Lauren Berlant in Sex, or the Unbearable (2014). But this final chapter is tighter than its forerunners, and its claims more accessible. Reflecting on liberalism's impasse--in which, as Crimmins notes, the promise of freedom has invariably resulted in waves of violence--Crimmins rescues Shelley from familiar arguments about his impotent idealism by suggesting that his "affective politics" point the way to a future that is a praxis of care.

Padma Rangarajan is Associate Professor of English at University of California, Riverside.


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