Tag Archives: media

All Songs [(Post)Romantically] Considered

This summer’s been a contemplative one for me. Packing up and moving to a new city to start my second program in two years has been cause for self-reflection. Such is the nature of moving right on from the M.A. to the Ph.D. (now ‘repping Northwestern, exchanging the #B1GCats for the Oregon #GoDucks). Recently, a thought provoking listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered–in line with some work I’m doing on music for my ICR paper–catalyzed a key moment of self-realization. I began to think back to how my trajectory into Romantic studies was, in fact, launched through music. It’s a great episode, so I highly recommend checking it out (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160431581/the-most-important-band-of-your-college-years).

Broadly, in this post, I look to sort through some issues of scholarly development in dialogue with a close reading of the alternative artist Brand New’s song “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows.” Importantly, though, I hope to generate some comments that look to different points of departure into the field. It was music for me. Was it music for you? Or was it something visual, literary, or a different medium or some other circumstance entirely?

As already mentioned, the discussion on this episode of All Songs Considered reminded me of how my own intellectual interests were formed. It also alerted me to a function of contemporary music in line with Romantic poetics. Notably, the last person featured in the program discusses the way the group Fun. speaks to her in a language that she simultaneously knows while opening her up to new experiences in fresh ways. The music, for her, is a means to think through and habitually fall “blissfully in love with her life”–as she I think so profoundly puts it. At the core of it, for this person, listening to Fun. generates a headspace that forges a comforting emotional connection between band and listener that parallels what Coleridge famously describes as the defamiliarizing functionality of poetry in Chapter 14 of the Biographia. Poetry shatters what he describes as “the film of familiarity” whereby “we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” Music, like poetry and art, can manifest a medium through which to clarify a sense of self-identity and  perception of one’s relation to the world. Granted, this is always historically situated, but nevertheless potentially purposeful.

Brand New performing at the Academy, Academy 1, Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photograph by Natalia Balcerska. 23 June 2009. © Natalia Balcerska Photography

I can’t help but think. Isn’t this precisely what is operative in Romantic art, both literary and visual? For me, in this respect, it was coming of age in the early- to mid-2000s that engendered a sense of the satisfaction of exploring emotionality in an intellectually charged way. The group Brand New, who’ve been charged by various critics and listeners as “the American Radiohead,” did this for me. Music in the period, generally, but Brand New, specifically, captured a deeply felt affective intensity. To my mind, Brand New’s sophomore effort Deja Entendu (2003) expanded artistic vocabularies of musical expression in especially important ways. It brought new influences into play that went beyond mere musical predecessors. I recall being particularly struck by the allusion to Picasso’s painting Guernica in the title of one of the songs–thereby connecting the psychological tumult of the track to the chaotic aesthetic underpinning the famous Picasso canvas. Deja was a record that directed the listener beyond itself in extraordinary ways.

Centrally, to explore a concrete example, the artistic self-consciousness of singer/songwriter Jesse Lacey’s lyricism is what catapults Brand New’s art into a rich interspace between music and textuality (See: “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” from Brand New’s VEVO page on YouTube). Now, as when I heard the song for the very first time, the opening verse strikes me: “We saw the western coast / I saw the hospital / Nurse the shoreline like a wound / Reports of lovers tryst / Were neither clear nor descript / We kept it safe and slow / The quiet things that no one ever knows.” Initially, I was immediately drawn to my sense of Lacey’s unusual diction. The rhyme between “tryst” and “descript” elevated lyrical content beyond what I knew to be everyday language. The “western coast” signifies melancholy emotions, intersecting the direction in which the sun sets. The speaker’s woundedness is underscored both by seeing “the hospital” and the metaphorical turn towards “nurs[ing] the shoreline like a wound.” What I found to be Lacey’s brilliant poetry sparked an ember of interest in me for the literary.

Now, “deconstructionist me” can quite clearly see the intersections between all of this and the forms of Romantic literary and visual culture we’ve all come to know and love. In Lacey’s song, the “reports” the speaker alludes to are positioned in an impossible breach, being “neither clear nor descript.” The song therefore confronts the impossibility of resolution in the face of an intense set of emotions: specifically, an emotional knot between loss and a projected wedding day wrought with boredom. In doing so, it generates a polarity between description and clarity that’s impossible to resolve. Such an aporiaic play in Lacey’s lyrics accords well with tropes in Romantic art and literature, as I’ve realized in my graduate studies in both Art History and English at Oregon.

In any event, in looking at the present, I may have seen too much in the past. There may even be some over-intellectualizing going on. I’m not sure. Also, and perhaps mercifully, my tastes have certainly since evolved. However, it’s been interesting to see how past engagements inform present interests. In closing, I’d definitely love to hear from you all what experiences from the past connect to the work you’re doing in the present.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Composition” and “Execution'”: The Dramatic Efforts of William Godwin

The Romantic era witnessed the reemergence of closet drama, the rise of what scholars have come to call mental theatre, and Charles Lamb’s famous declaration that Shakespeare has always belonged in print and has always been meant to be read. Examining these attempts to remediate the theatre – to have print supplant the stage as the correct medium for theatrical exhibitions – under the larger categories of poetry, imagination, or mental theatre does not consider the shifting material situation of the period. While valuable work has been done examining theatre’s relationship to these categories as well as the social space offered by the theatre and changes in theatrical laws and practices, this post will show that one of the principal objections regarding writing for the stage during the Romantic era was more pragmatic. William Godwin, an early and neglected participant in this conversation, claims that the lag time between the composition and performance of a play prevents the theatre and playwrights from staying current.

As many critics have shown, Godwin and his circle – including Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Thelwall, and others –share a “profound mistrust of the theater and theatricality in general.” [1] Summarizing the chief goals of Godwin’s landmark 1793 Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, Mark Philip echoes these sentiments when he claims that, according to Godwin, “as people become more fully autonomous, rational and benevolent, the institutions of property and government will fall by the wayside, but so too will such invidious practices as concerts and theatrical performances.” [2] A reexamination of his famous dismissal of the “invidious practices” of concerts and theatrical performances, however, reveals the effects print had on the theatre. It is when he is writing about cooperation that Godwin turns his attention to the arts, specifically music and the theater. Before asking “shall we have theatrical exhibitions,” the political thinker asks “shall we have concerts of music?” Godwin dismisses both music and the theater because he believes that it is detrimental for men to “come forward in any mode, formally to repeat words and ideas not their own.” [3] The, in Godwin’s terms, “mode” of music and theatrical exhibition simply facilitate repetition.

The distinction between “executing” and “composing” music and dramas reveals Godwin’s main concern regarding these two “modes” of artistic representation.[4] G. Thomas Tanselle’s discussion of literary texts and musical scores in A Rationale of Textual Criticism is useful in understanding Godwin’s objections. For Tanselle, both types of art serve as sets of instruction for the reader and performer: “As artifacts, literary texts are analogous to musical scores in providing the basis for the reconstitution of works, even though the medium of those works is different.” [5] According to Tanselle, both are sets of instructions for their reproduction. It is this idea of reproduction that Godwin believes to be problematic. The “execution” of earlier compositions is a type of submission to the authority of the past. To privilege the work of earlier generations is, according to Godwin, to “yield supinely to the superior merit of our  predecessors.” This anxiety regarding the “merit of our predecessors” connects Godwin’s concerns regarding music and the theater with the larger issues of Political Justice. For example, discussing the legislative decisions of the new national assembly in France, Godwin writes, “‘Man and forever!’ was the motto of the labours of this assembly. Just broken loose from the thick darkness of an absolute monarchy, they assumed to prescribe lessons of wisdom to all future ages.” As Angela Esterhammer points out, Godwin claims the French Constitution “fell into exactly the same trap of attempting to legislate for all time.”[6]  Likewise, the musical and theatrical compositions of his predecessors have come to dominate the art of the age.

It would seem, then, that the rehabilitation of the artistic modes of music and theatrical production is possible. When he concludes his discussion of the arts of his time, Godwin gestures towards a solution. He claims that the current moment’s submission to past compositions “borders perhaps, in this respect, upon a breach of sincerity, which requires that we should give immediate utterance to every useful and valuable idea that occurs.”[7]  “Every useful and valuable idea” must be expressed immediately. Godwin’s longing for “immediate utterance” reveals his “Romantic proclivity for the oral.” [8] It also begins to show why the theater, which “tended to relegate the written word to secondary significance, behind the spoken”[9] would appeal to him. Furthermore, as George Woodcock recognizes, “Godwin’s view of social change,” especially in 1793 when he was first gaining notoriety, required “a certain immediacy, for he believed men’s minds would be open to the persuasion of reason” if “the truth were shown to them.” [10] Therefore, showing “the truth” to men immediately through a medium that privileges the spoken word would be quite persuasive. Those capable of reviving the artistic modes of the music and theatrical production are not the performers or actors – that is, those who are responsible for the execution of a given work – but the composers. In other words, the execution of compositions written during his own moment would, for Godwin, put an end to the practice of “supinely” submitting to the superiority of his predecessors.

The extent of Godwin’s investment in the stage is most evident when after the performance of his play Antonio in 1800, he claims, “I regard the 13th of December last as a great era in my life, & I am not without hope that it may ultimately prove an auspicious one.” [11]   Despite the fact that the play was performed only once, this quotation shows that he clearly hoped that the first production of one his plays would not be his last. The fact that he labels the staged performance of his play as an “era” is also important. As Julie Carlson notes, writing for the stage is “precisely a writing for – for a future representation and reception that may or may not occur.”[12]  The “great era” Godwin identifies further highlights the distinction between the writing of a play and its staged performance.

Godwin wrote four plays over the course of his career, two of which made it to the Drury Lane stage. What happens to our understanding of Romantic drama when Godwin is put into the conversation? What happens when we consider Godwin’s distinction between “composition” and “execution” in relation to attempts to locate the theatre and theatrical performances in print as opposed to the stage?


[1] Karr, “Thoughts That Flash Like Lightning,” 327.

[2] Philp, Godwin’s Political Justice, 1.

[3] Godwin, Political Justice, 272.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism, 23.

[6] Esterhammer, “Godwin’s Suspicion of Speech Acts,” 560.

[7] Godwin, Political Justice, 572.

[8] Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory, 135.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Woodcock, William Godwin, 125.

[11] Maniquis and Myers, Godwinian Moments, 227.

[12] Carlson, In the Theatre of Romanticism, 5.

Now Playing: Byron’s Manfred

Lord Byron’s first drama Manfred was published in 1817. While the play proved a commercial success, it never made it to the stage. In 1820, however, Marino Faliero was published and began being performed at Drury Lane later that year. As Thomas L. Ashton points out, Byron’s play is severely edited. Therefore, like Coleridge’s Remorse, the scholarly critic has multiple objects of inquiry: the original version of the play, the staged production, and the text of that production.

But perhaps what is most interesting about the staging of Marino Faliero is Byron’s response. In 1821, Byron published a collection of dramas containing Sardanapalus, Cain, and The Two Foscari separately from his regular verse. Contemporary reviewer William Gifford and Victorian commentator Matthew Arnold see the collection as the poet’s attempt to distance his weak dramatic experimentations from the rest of his work. Yet the features of this volume demand more attention. The collection lacks the usual Byronic trappings; most notably there is no frontispiece of the poet himself. Also, in his 1821 review of Sardanapalus, John Gibson Lockhart asks why Byron and his publisher John Murray decided to release the new collection during the same week that John Constable released Pirate, the new Walter Scott novel. Byron fought Murray to have his three dramas published at the end of theater season, despite the fact that such a release date would make the collection a commercial rival with Britain’s other top selling writer.

What if one of the plays in Byron’s 1821 collection made it to the stage in the poet’s lifetime? What are the implications of staging a play that the author contends was not written for the playhouse? In other words, what happens when the play is remediated? Furthermore, what happens to our scholarly narratives if we foreground the medium of the playhouse? Does Byron’s position in the canon change (he has proven disruptive and does not appear in certain foundational works including Natural Supernaturalism)?

Wordsworth and Coleridge’s early dramatic efforts have received attention but what of other prominent writers who forayed, or attempted to, into the playhouse? What are we to make of the fact that William Godwin continued writing plays, only one of which was staged and only once, when he had found success as a political philosopher and novelist? How are we to read the fact the only work of Shelley’s that needed a second edition in his lifetime was The Cenci?

Romanticism: A State of the Union

Inspired by the President’s recent State of the Union address, I have decided to offer you, my Romantic brethren, a review of the state of Romantic studies. Despite our brooding Byronic ways, our Union is getting stronger. The house of cards may indeed have fallen, but our field is not languishing on the marble steps. Moneta will come!

::obligatory applause break::

The 2010 NASSR Conference in Vancouver, British Colombia took the idea of “Romantic Mediations” as its theme. Participants were encouraged to submit proposals that explored communication technologies and print culture. As the call for papers makes clear, “The era that saw the invention of semaphore, telegraphy, the continuous-feed press, and the difference engine, the Romantic in all its senses might be characterized as a period of significant experimentation in media and ideas of mediations” (NASSR). While many papers engaged with new inventions and their effects on Romantic era works – I heard an excellent paper regarding the influence semaphore had on theatrical gesturing practices – others utilized the concepts and language of media and mediation in order to offer new and perhaps more precise ways of engaging with and understanding key Romantic writers and texts.

The issues and concerns of last year’s NASSR conference are also being addressed by McGill University’s ongoing collaborative endeavor “Interacting with Print: Cultural Practices of Intermediality 1700-1900.” Founded in 2005, the interdisciplinary and interinstitutional research group headed by Susan Dalton, Andrew Piper, Tom Mole and others sets out to investigate “how people interacted with printed matter, how they used print media to interact with other people and how printed texts and images interacted within complex media ecologies.” The group focuses on the relations and interactions between various media. In order to more accurately, in its terms, “situate” print, the collaborative group sets out to debunk three prevalent scholarly “myths”: that print displaced other media, that print equals letterpress or engraving, and that print culture is national culture. In the online manifesto for “Interacting with Print,” the group claims that their “research activities will provide a more specific understanding of print’s place in the production, dissemination and reception of culture in a period that saw the development of mass media.” Print, as this quotation makes clear, was only one of many mediums for producing and disseminating culture and oftentimes incorporated other forms of media such as printed images.

Together, the conference and working research group speak to a set of issues being addressed by current critics of the Romantic period. Many scholars, including myself, have asked why this interest in media and mediation is emerging at the present moment. I believe that the answer, at least in part, lies in the new descriptions and definitions of the Romantic period and Romanticism offered by thinkers like Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler. In his 1982 work Orality and Literacy, Ong claims that the Romantic desire for “autonomous utterance” is facilitated by print and speaks to the “alliance of the Romantic movement with technology” (158). That is, print mediates the Romantic desire for interiority and individuality. According to Ong, there is a clear correlation between the mediums of Romantic art, in this instance print, and the prevalent artistic ideology of the period. Relying on and citing Ong’s work with notable frequency, John David Black’s recent book The Politics of Enchantment: Romanticism, Media, and Cultural Studies labels Romanticism as one of the effects of print: “Coming some three centuries after the invention of the mechanical press, romanticism was the mature cultural expression of the cumulative effects of Gutenberg’s breakthrough” (134). This quotation makes Romanticism the result of the proliferation of print that started with Gutenberg’s press.

Similarly to Ong, Kittler’s landmark work Discourse Networks 1800/1900, published in 1985 in the original German and translated into English in 1990, draws attention to the relationship between media and Romanticism. Especially important to Kittler’s text is Foucault’s essay “Maurice Blanchot: The Thought from Outside.” In this early work, Foucault develops what David Wellbery calls “a lexicon of exteriority” (xii). The French thinker sets out to distinguish between language itself and “the apparatuses of power, storage, transmission, training, reproduction, and so forth that make up the conditions of factual discursive occurrences” (Wellbery xii). Like Foucault before him, Kittler’s work situates what is said or written in a secondary position and instead focuses on these “apparatuses.” His decision to title his 1987 follow up work Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter further underscores the important role communication and storage apparatuses play in his thinking. For Kittler, scholars are always dealing with media, with the technological possibilities of any given epoch because it is through the media of a given moment that “something like “poetry” or “literature” can take shape” (Wellbery xiii). As Thomas Streeter points out, Kittler “suggests that one should understand romanticism, not as a collection of texts or a historical period, but as a way of organizing discourse through practices of writing, reading, and relating” (777). Streeter and other critics, however, also feel that Kittler’s work often places too much emphasis on technologies and, at times, veers towards techno-determinism. Yet, these criticisms aside, the German thinker’s influence over contemporary literary studies in general as well as Romantic criticism is undeniable.

Clifford Siskin and William Warner’s collection of essays, This Is Enlightenment, elaborates upon the ideas present in Discourse Networks as well as Gramophone, Film, and Typewriter. The two critics argue that every history constructed by literary scholars has its benefits but a history of what they term “mediation” has the potential to “clarify both the singularity of each local event and what those events have in common” (11). They “use “mediation” here in its broadest sense as shorthand for the work done by tools, by what we now call “media” of every kind – everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between” (4). In this passage we can begin to see the similarities to Ong, Foucault, and Kittler’s focus on the technologies and “apparatuses” of given historical moments. Siskin and Warner, who were the keynote speakers at the NASSR conference referred to at the start of this post, show that “mediation was always necessary but the forms of mediation differ over time” and therefore there exists “a history of mediation” (9). Under this new framework, the Enlightenment becomes “an event in the history of mediation” (1). The Enlightenment was facilitated by a historically specific set of forms of mediation such as print, reading, writing, and other associational and relational practices.

Naturally, redefining the Enlightenment in such a manner leaves critics of the Romantic and Victorian eras asking what place in the new history their own periods hold. Siskin and Warner address this question in their 2011 article in The European Romantic Review, “If this is Enlightenment, Then What Is Romanticism?” According to the article, “Enlightenment is an event, Romanticism is an eventuality, and Victorianism is a variation” (290). The forms of mediation do not change or proliferate in equal measure. That is, some moments, in this instance the Enlightenment, have both a greater variety and number of forms of mediation than others. The claim that Romanticism can be seen as an “eventuality” also reflects John David Black’s claim that Romanticism is the “mature cultural” result of the Gutenberg press.

If the “apparatuses” of storage, transmission, communication, etc. are worthwhile objects of inquiry and if the Enlightenment is an event in the history of mediation, then how is the current scholar of the Romantic period to engage with and comment upon a work or a collection of works? Or, as John Richetti asks in his review of the This Is Enlightenment collection, “How would foregrounding mediation change the kinds and areas of inquiry in our own epoch?”

Yours in Romanticism,

Randall Sessler, NYU