Orrin Wang, Romantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, History

Download Orrin Wang, Romantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, History

Post on 08-Jan-2017




0 download


  • Orrin Wang , Romantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, HistoryRomantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, History by Orrin WangReview by: Anahid J. NersessianModern Philology, Vol. 111, No. 2 (November 2013), pp. E229-E231Published by: The University of Chicago PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/671961 .Accessed: 15/05/2014 19:08

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.


    The University of Chicago Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toModern Philology.


    This content downloaded from on Thu, 15 May 2014 19:08:48 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • B O O K R E V I E W

    Romantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, History. OrrinWang. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. ix+369.

    For readers not lately familiar with Jacques Derridas Specters of Marx, thatlabyrinthine discursus on history, capital, and the end of the Cold War, itmay be worth recalling the books principal hypothesis: The time is out ofjoint.1 This, according to Derrida, is not only the exemplary utterance ofHamlet (ca. 1600) but also a good description of the phenomenological cir-cumstances of late capitalism. As it unfolds its allusive narrative of the pres-ent, Specters produces what it famously christens a hauntologya brumeof spectral shapes that probe and irradiate rumors about the death of com-munism and the budding extinction of historical consciousness. In his ownghostly ventriloquism of the dead King Hamlet, Derrida means to jar suchforward-facing narratives of progress and to pry open a space for the persis-tent moral authority of Marx and Marxist thought.

    Hamlet puts crisis in terms of time; Twelfth Night (16012), by contrast,considers its problems musically. Out o tune, sir, says Sir Toby Belch,before asking poor Malvolio that delightful question, Dost thou think,because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?2 Thoughit strongly identifies with the protocols of Derridean hauntology, OrrinWangs Romantic Sobriety recallsto my earsSir Tobys memorable re-buke to all things tightfisted or exacting. In an acrobatic performance ofthe impossibility of staying sober about Romanticism, Wang offers therare spectacle of criticism being done without a net and without an impulse

    For permission to reuse, please contact journalpermissions@press.uchicago.edu.

    1. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the NewInternational, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), 3.

    2. William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, or What You Will, in The Complete Works, ed. StanleyWells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery (Oxford University Press,1988), 2.3.122, 123-24; 699.


    This content downloaded from on Thu, 15 May 2014 19:08:48 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • toward precision regarding what is or might be suggested by the Romanticevent (2). This book, which jumps and dives, swoops, swerves, and leapsfrom Kant to William Gibson, from the 1790s to the twenty-first century,wants to describe the volatile relationship between those modes of inquirybroadly but persistently rendered as historicism and its various agonists:form, culture, history, embodiment, and, above all, what we call high the-ory (160). Put a bit differently, it wants to read Romantic literature, writlarge, as a parataxis of historical and theoretical concerns. Prodigiously lit-erate but seldom showy, Romantic Sobriety offers an energetic consolidationof recent and important engagements with Romanticism while linkingthem nominally to our own terror-filled, vertiginous Romantic moment(35). That said, Wangs real accomplishment lies in his introduction of acertain dissonance into contemporary paradigms of literary scholarship.Even as criticism migrates away from the set of propositions and ways ofreading associated with high (or French) theory, this study hazards a sus-tained engagement not only with Derrida but with Paul de Man, Jean-Fran-cois Lyotard, and the methodological ambitions of post-structuralism moregenerally. It should come as no surprise that, with interlocutors like these,Romantic Sobriety does not make for an easy read. For some, its difficulty willpresent a chance to think hard thoughts whose value precisely inheres inthe complexity of their form.

    I do not mean to plead for deconstruction, nor does Romantic Sobriety castits investments in such explicit terms. Rather, Wang begins by channeling deMans preoccupation with the Romantic figure and sets out to show thatthe historical problem of sobriety as the problem of the metaphor for thestability of metaphor, of the steady relation between figure and content,is what the circuit of ideology and figure in Romantic sobriety most force-fully and unevenly marks (31). This sentence, and that idea, are far fromstraightforward, and together they hint that sobriety (as Wang notes) isalways threatening to get caught in a mise en abyme, to fall behind in the met-onymic relays of signification, prescription, and description that constitutesobriety as such (42). Wangs sobriety means something like intellectualcertainty or confidence, but it also means the lost cause of trying forgetthings we know very well: that drugs are fun, meaning is unstable, art costsmoney, and ghosts are real. These are the four principles encoded in thefour subtitular clauses of Romantic Sobriety, namely, sensation, revolution,commodification, history. As Wang explains, sensation is the mediatingterm through which the other three become at once apprehensible andincoherent. Sensation keeps intoxicating us and, thereby, helps us holdonto our ability to track the epistemic inconsistencies Romantic figures tryto congeal and conceal. Here one might note that if witnessing Romanti-cisms inconsistency produces in us a kind of embarrassment, it is notonly the embarrassment of its stubborn persistence, as though Romanti-

    E230 M O D E R N P H I L O L O G Y

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 15 May 2014 19:08:48 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


  • cism, like Derridas Marxism, is like a party guest who arrives too early andthen overstays her welcome (285). It is also the affect of impatience with abody of literature that refuses to be candid about its purposes or to articu-late with clarity either its feelings about revolution or its availability to con-sumer culture.

    Getting a buzz from political and economic modernity reminds us topay attention to how they invite us to retreat defensively into fictions ofenlightenment, resolution, and certitude. Appropriately then, Wang usesan authorial style that might well be called vertiginous and that acts outthe falters, fits, and starts that characterize Romantic forms of cognition. Atthe same timeRomantic Sobriety is a book in which every claim carries withit a flip side, a remainder, a supplement, a runoffit aspires to a criticalomniscience emphatically unmoored from the distractions of human in-tent or desire, beholden, like Keatss To Autumn, only to the accuracyof its (ultimately) non-human truth. Here, the non-human resides notin that poems sonic and seasonal flush, nor in its detached pedaling oflyric Ritalin, but in the motional disequilibrium of Wangs prose (163).As Wang acknowledges, his extended readings of Romantic-period litera-ture by Kant, Keats, Byron, and Rousseau, as well as the work of contempo-rary theorists Walter Benn Michaels and Slavoj Zizek, do not cohere intoany ultimate grand blending; they are in pursuit, rather, of a mood, anepistemic disposition Wang associates with catachresis, or productive dis-attunement (34). The book styles itself as an echo chamber, in whichclaims are staked and points made not through argument but throughreverberation and by the uncanny ringing of words and phrases in thereaders curious ear.

    Catachresis, economimesis, figuration, hauntologythese are just someof the freighted terms that populate Wangs chapters, becoming spectersin their own right. One word that does not come up often is method,though Wang writes early on that his book aspires to distinguish itself [via]a methodology and though, as I have suggested, its style is evidently inte-gral to that project (2). Yet Romantic Sobriety exemplifies the commitment toRomanticism as a method and not simply a historical period or an aesthetictendency. It strives to inhabit what it represents as the formal and philo-sophical condition of Romantic writing and to produce a criticism that issimilarly self-reflexive and multivalent. The book is well suited for readers atonce intrepid and sure-footed, sufficiently committed to the methodologi-cal legacies of high theory to risk getting dizzy, every now and again.

    Anahid J. NersessianColumbia University

    E231Book Review

    This content downloaded from on Thu, 15 May 2014 19:08:48 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions



View more >