Aesthetics, Theory, And the Profession of Literature: Derrida and Romanticism (Jacques Derrida) (Essay) - Studies in Romanticism

Aesthetics, Theory, And the Profession of Literature: Derrida and Romanticism (Jacques Derrida) (Essay)

By Studies in Romanticism

  • Release Date: 2007-06-22
  • Genre: Language Arts & Disciplines


"DERRIDA AND ROMANTICISM": THE BRACE OF NOUNS THAT CONTRIBUTORS to this special issue of Studies in Romanticism have promised to discuss form a conjunction that will probably strike readers as neither surprising nor obvious. The joining of a famous name to a large topic, usually with the implicit half-hearted promise that the former will explain the latter, has over the years proved a popular formula in the humanities. (1)In the present case the formula works nicely as a prod to thought because the phrase "Derrida and Romanticism" grants access to compelling questions only after first teasing us with unpromising initial appearances. For at first glance this dyad can certainly seem as contrived as any set topic. The words "romanticism" and "romantic" enjoy no visible privilege in Derrida's work, and indeed almost never appear there. A trawl through his texts elicits little more than the rare throwaway usage, as when--I cannot in good conscience say "for instance," since this is almost the only instance I have found--during a late interview focused on books and electronic media, Derrida warns an interlocutor to "be wary of a progressivist--and sometimes 'romantic'--optimism, ready to endow the new distance technologies of communication with the myth of the infinite book without material support, the myth of universalist transparency, of communication that is immediate, totalizing, and free of controls, beyond all frontiers, in a sort of big democratic village. " (2) As a medium-strength, parenthetical pejorative in scare quotes, "romantic" here connotes a na'ive sort of logocentrism: a starry-eyed "progressivist optimism" propelled by fantasies of technology without technicity, communication without signs, and politics without mediation. The term has no dialectical complexity; Derrida is using it casually, in the somewhat informal context of an interview. We are a long way, here, from the "Yale critics" with whom Derrida was for a time associated--even a long way from a literary critic like Jerome McGann, whose influential reduction of romanticism to "ideology" still grants romanticism a certain satanic grandeur. (3) (After all, if romanticism in some way is ideology, it will never be just one topic among others--which, a skeptic might add, means that professors of romantic literature can rest assured that important work remains to be done.) From this perspective one would say that the best that can be said about the pairing "Derrida and Romanticism" is that it brings into relief the national, institutional, and perhaps above all the professional-disciplinary determinations of the idea of "romanticism." Located on the slippery divide between literature and philosophy, the notion of romanticism nonetheless remarks and reinforces that disciplinary difference. Derrida was of course well aware of this, as another rare appearance of the word romanticism in his oeuvre--the noun, this time, capitalized--makes clear. "One cannot understand [Paul de Man's] privileging of allegory--I was long puzzled by it for this very reason--if one is not familiar with the internal debates of Anglo-American criticism concerning Romanticism." (4) So far as one can tell, Derrida never actually became familiar with those "internal debates"; they were alien to his training and presumably never greatly interested him. (5) Yet on the other hand, as soon as one presses past the nominalistic question of whether or how or how often Derrida uses the word "romanticism," his relationship to romanticism and the professional study of it becomes vastly more dynamic and ambiguous. It is not simply a matter of reversing the poles of the inquiry and noting that whether or not Derrida was interested in romanticism, professional romanticists have been interested in him. They obviously have been; but so have critics from any number of fields and subfields of the human sciences. A stronger claim can be made. Professional romanticists in the United States have, I suggest, fe