AESTHETIC MATERIALISM: ELECTRICITY AND AMERICAN ROMANTICISM by Paul Gilmore, Reviewed by Jason Rudy
 

AESTHETIC MATERIALISM: ELECTRICITY AND AMERICAN ROMANTICISM
By Paul Gilmore
(Stanford, 2009), viii + 242 pp.
Reviewed by Jason Rudy on 2010-07-15.

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For a while in academic circles it seemed naive to have any confidence in aesthetics. That time has now passed. The Radical Aesthetic (2000), Isobel Armstrong's important intervention, addressed the "anti-aesthetic" turn in criticism that followed from "Marxists, cultural materialists, post-structuralists, and deconstructive psychoanalysts" who all in their way "shared a hermeneutics of suspicion" with respect to beauty (Armstrong 1). According to Armstrong, these scholars imagined the aesthetic as too easily recapitulating the order of things, normalizing uneven developments, and consolidating power. In response, she called for rethinking aesthetics by "uncoupling" it from "privilege" (4), and exploring the ways beauty functions outside convention. Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just (1999) likewise challenged the critique of aesthetics, noting how a beautiful object "catches attention yet prompts one to judgments that one then continues to scrutinize, and that one not infrequently discovers to be in error" (29). Over the past decade, other scholars have continued this line of thought by showing how aesthetics can stimulate individual thought rather than mandating homogeneity. (I have in mind Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics [2006] and the contributors to The Aesthetic Subject, ed. Pamela R. Matthews and David McWhirter [2003]).

Paul Gilmore's book might be read as conversing with this larger intellectual project insofar as its overarching questions focus on the "problem with aesthetics" (3) and the centrality of that problem to both British romanticism and the American renaissance. Gilmore depicts the electric telegraph as a paradigmatic figure for "the revolutionary potential of aesthetics," and he argues that this potential reached its apex in the mid-nineteenth century (184). The book is productively transatlantic in its canon, moving from Coleridge, Byron, and Percy Shelley to Melville, Hawthorne, Douglass, and Whitman. All these writers, Gilmore claims, grapple with what he calls embodied transcendence, a paradox of the aesthetic whereby one experiences the beautiful as "sensuous and individualizing, yet seemingly universal" (5). Like the physiological experience of electricity, then, aesthetic encounters seem entirely individualized (that's my body shocked by an electric charge) even as we know them to be on some level communal (any body, not only mine, would experience the electric charge in a similar way). Gilmore suggests that this double gesture, this idea of embodied transcendence, led both British and American writers to use electricity as a figure for aesthetic experience.

The book's transatlantic framework allows Gilmore to consider the circulation of aesthetic ideas, or at least the movement of those ideas from one side of the Atlantic to the other (most of the commerce in Aesthetic Materialism travels from east to west, Europe to America). Gilmore explains how electricity, and the electric telegraph in particular, highlighted the "ability of commodities, conceptions, and people to cross national borders and move across great distances" (21). Electricity thereby becomes a figure for free-market capitalism, the "unimpeded flows of commerce and ideas" (29), even as for some writers, like the later Coleridge, it "came to signify the dangers of a materialistic view of the world" (31). Gilmore suggests that the rise and fall of the capitalist ideal – "the heroic stage of capitalism" (184) – ought to be understood as occurring in tandem with the original confidence in and then disenchantment with literary aesthetics. By the end of the nineteenth century, according to Gilmore, both capitalism and aesthetics were suspect, "alienated and alienating processes" (184). But the writers treated here, Gilmore argues, used electricity as a figure for commerce, transnationalism, and aesthetics. Percy Shelley, for instance, privileged poetry as both electric and potentially world-making (69); Stowe likened sentiment to electricity, thereby making it politically significant (116); and Douglass used electricity as a metaphor for the way readers might "identify with his feelings" (137).

Gilmore gradually shifts his focus from capital to race, primarily in the works of Douglass and Whitman. In Douglass' short story "The Heroic Slave," electricity works equally on both black and white bodies, thereby offering "a form and force through which [Douglass] could delineate the problematic of an egalitarian union between whites and blacks that denies neither the body nor the need to transcend bodily limitations and embodied identities" (141). Whitman similarly views the body "as the necessary if troubling basis for an egalitarian politics" (144). From this point of view, the "body electric" would be a body that, like any body, experiences sensation, and might be a vehicle for electrical impulses. Though Gilmore does not make this connection explicit, his account of the auction block scene from "I Sing the Body Electric" reminds me of his earlier discussion of capitalism. Gilmore observes that through the slave's body, offered to readers in an unsettling catalogue of limbs, breast, and blood, "Whitman attempts to emphasize the specificity of the body on display" – that is, to understand the slave as an individual – while at the same time noting "its similarity to any other human, specifically white, bodies" (168). The slave's body might thus be read as paradigmatic of the conflict within aesthetics, and in particular within Gilmore's notion of embodied transcendence. The slave represents both an embodied individual and a transcendent, universalized human being. As both human and commodified, he might be read as showcasing the underbelly of both international commerce and an approach to aesthetics that relies on the embodied particularities of individual human beings (even if those individual bodies are meant, ultimately, to be transcended).

Gilmore's Whitman chapter raises for me questions about genre, a category mostly overlooked throughout the book. In moving among poetry by Coleridge, Shelley, Whittier, and Whitman, and prose works by Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, and Hawthorne, among others, Gilmore abstracts the particularities of literary genre into a broader consideration of aesthetics. Implicitly he suggests that the figure of electricity works with equal facility in, for example, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and Melville's Pierre. On some registers this is true: in political effect, for instance, what a poem says about the ideas inspired by the passage of electricity through human bodies will resemble what a novel says about these ideas (Gilmore foregrounds ideas about human equality, and about the political necessity for transcending the body). But Gilmore himself contrasts Whitman's free verse lines with Whittier's heroic couplets and rhyming quatrains. Whittier's form, Gilmore writes, "moves forward inexorably, powerfully, rhythmically, as the poems themselves envision the forward progress of Christian civilization" (171). Whitman's free verse, on the other hand, "refus[es] to grant the reader (or himself) the idea of full knowledge," and instead opens "the lines... for interpretation, addition, negation" (172-73). I agree. But why not read the other primary texts with similar formal attentiveness? Surely the prose of Melville, Thoreau, and Douglass deserves thoughtful formal consideration. In a long passage Gilmore quotes from Pierre, for example, I'm struck not only by the figure of electricity ("like electricity suddenly received into any sultry atmosphere of the dark"), but by the sheer length of Melville's sentence (Pierre [Harper & Brothers 1852] 118-19, qtd. 100). In the novel itself, the paragraph from which the passage is quoted comes near the start of book five and is composed of just one sentence, broken by no fewer than eight semi-colons, all of which suggest to me a logic of formal connection that might well be as significant to Melville's sense of electricity as free verse is to Whitman's. That one author approaches questions of aesthetics and electricity through poetry and the other through prose deserves accounting, given the present book's investment in aesthetics, which in the literary sphere ought not be dissociated from genre.

On the topic of long sentences, I should note that I don't quite understand some of Gilmore's. Discussing Whitman and an 1858 poem published in The Atlantic, he writes: "This sexualized innovation on the idea of the telegraph creating a universal language and universal body has its greatest implications due to its insistence on there being ‘always a knit of identity.... always distinction' in terms of bodies, language, and selves" (154). Apropos Pierre and Isabel in Melville's novel, Gilmore notes their "shared experience of the bewilderingness of the vulgar caldron of an everlasting uncrystalizing Present" (107). I have a general sense of what these sentences mean, but they tend to obscure rather than clarify Gilmore's argument. These moments and others would have benefited from more precise language and a less strained style of prose.

Gilmore's real contributions follow from his transatlantic thinking, which is worth noting again. I'm persuaded that Burke's anxious response to electricity (because it fostered too-democratic a public spirit [35]) ought to be understood in relation to both Samuel Morse's federalism and his "anti-immigrant and pro-slavery politics" (59). Shelley's famous invocation of the "electric life" that gives poetic language its radical potential (76) similarly strengthens our understanding of Whitman's "body electric" and the "new sorts of connections with different peoples around the world" and "the cultural and sexual disintegration of racial and sexual difference" he hypothesizes in response to it (176). To read the American renaissance in conversation with British romanticism's unruly politics, aesthetic predicaments, and technological reflections is, undoubtedly, to get closer to the way these authors might have been read in their own day. The telegraph, and especially the transatlantic telegraph first attempted in 1857, may well offer the ideal figure for this sort of critical study – though, I should add, one ought to think equally about the eastward movement of ideas from America to Britain. After all, those transatlantic telegraph signals didn't move in just one direction.


Jason R. Rudy is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park.


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