Jul 28 2009

Chapter 4 of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism

by at 12:09 pm under Orals,Thesis

All passages from Chapter 4 (Aesthetic Electricity) of Paul Gilmore’s Aesthetic Materialism: Electricity and American Romanticism. These are passages related to the lightning rod, poetry, and Enlightenment. While this does not seem related to my paper on Pierre, these quotes will definitely be useful for my orals and for my thesis.  :

Here, Shelley echoes Friedrich Schlegel’s image of poetry in ‘On Incomprehensibility’ (1800). If Coleridge’s view of electricity parallels that of naturphilosophie, contributing to his organic and transcendent understanding of language and poetry, Shelley’s development of Schlegalian irony produces, as Marc Redfield has argued, a poetry which ‘poetic words do not understand what they express, or feel what they inspire,’ so ‘that poetry opens aesthetics to the contingency of history, and the constitutive uncertainty of futurity.’ Schelgel’s use of lighting hints at a kind of jouissance, paralleling Redfield’s de Manian-materialist understanding of language: ‘For  along time now there has been lighting on the horizon of poetry…But soon it won’t be simply a matter of one thunderstorm, the whole sky will burn with a single flame, and then all your little lightning rods won’t help…Then there will be readers who will know how to read. In the nineteenth century everyone will be able to savour the fragments’ (Gilmore 73).

Rather than invoking an idea of organic wholeness or mechanical determinancy, Schlegel uses electricity to convey both the intense, nearly physical emotion of ecstatic, shocking encounter with poetry and its ineffable ambiguity and open-endedness. Instead of comprehending or understanding poems, readers will come to have a sensuous, appreciative connection to poetic fragments. This intense feeling, sensation, flavor is contrasted, by Schlegal and others, with Enlightenment rationalistic technique, the attempt of such thinkers as Benjamin Franklin to tame these wild impulses through instruments like the lightning rod. The lightning of poetry belies the Enlightment dream of containing poetry, the human mind, nature itself by displaying the indeterminancy of language and history in its ability to constantly destabilize any attempt to delimit its meaning and use. As oppsed to merely mechanical readings of poetics, mind, society, Schlegel’s electric romanticism proposes a type of unstable materialism, a materialism built less on a Newtonian notion of individual atoms (including atomized individuals) in motion thant in the flow of forces disrupting, impinging upon, and reconfiguring the boundaries separating atom from atom, person from person (Gilmore 73).

While the preface [of Percy’s Prometheus Unbound] seems to embrace the idea of the great artist, out of time and out of place, by contrasting the writers who simply imitate by reflecting their age and those of genius who create ‘lightning,’ he insists that all poets ‘are, in one sense, the creators, and, in another the creations of their age: Every man’s mind is, in this respect, modified by all the objects of nature and art; by every word and every suggestion which he ever admitted to act upon his consciousness’ (2:174). Largely the product of its environment, especially of language, the mind is not finally determined, but rather modified, by that environment. Electricity provides a model for exploring a more fluid materialism of the mind as its lightning is not merely the mechanical product of its environment, not simply generated by the stimulus it receives, but rather the explosive culmination of the creative tension between the mind and stimuli acting upon it. Just as lightning does not simply flow from the clouds, but in fact creates an electric current between the clouds and the ground, so electric thought rebounds between the inner self and the outer world (Gilmore 75).

Lightning-rod and social change:

In ‘Defence,’ for example, Shelley indicates that it is poetry’s embeddedness in what we might now call social discourse that gives it its ‘electric life,’ as that life is ‘less [the poets’] spirit than the spirit of the age’ (7:140). Similarly, in the preface to Prometheus Unbound, in further developing the figure of lightning thought, Percy elaborates this relationship between mind and the world, gesturing to its political implications: ‘The great writers of our own age are, we have reason to suppose, th ecompanions and forerunners of some unimagined change in our social condition, or the opinions which cement it. The cloud of mind is discharging its collected lightning, and the equilibrium between institutions and opinions is now restoring, or is about to be restored’ (2:173). Echoing Schlegel’s prediction about the lightning charge of poetry, Percy at once envisions political revolution and at the same time insists that the changes to come are unpredictable, are ‘unimagined.’ Thus, in concluding his preface to Prometheus Unbound, Percy acknowledges his ‘”passion for reforming the world,”‘ but insists that his poetry does not contain a ‘reasoned system on the theory of human life” (Gilmore 76).


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