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Reviewed by:
  • Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture
  • G. Kim Blank
Alexander Dick and Angela Esterhammer, eds. Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2009. 306 pp.

What? No Keats? No Blake?

Perhaps we can justify Blake’s absence in a book about language, performance, and agency during the Romantic period. With all that obscure mythmaking, prophetic mysticism, and eccentric art, Blake arguably remains the “odd duck” among the flock of canonical Romantics. But back-to-your-pill-boxes Johnny Keats seems autumnally ripe for a speech-act picking: his all-too-short writing career was an excruciatingly self-conscious struggle between the private and public voice, and his fragile sense of poetic worth was compromised by a tradition he often felt too big—and exclusionary—for him. One simple question lurks everywhere in his work: What voice can I assume that will give me enduring poetic power? But no whisper there is of Keats (or Blake) in this otherwise remarkably diverse and often engaging collection of original essays.

From nitpicking about who has been excluded, there may be inclusionary issues in the large, perhaps too large, guiding principles behind Spheres of Action: Speech and Performance in Romantic Culture. To examine [End Page 201] poetry, drama, fiction, theatre, politics, journalism, legal texts, public speaking, walking, gestures, clothing, laments, elocution, orality—not to mention history—under the umbrella of “performance,” “performativity,” and “speech acts” may be to compromise the explanatory powers of such theoretical terms. What isn’t a speech act or a performance? To write, as the editors do, that “language is a form of action” may be to rehearse an all-too-familiar gloss.

The disconnect, then, between the more theoried introduction and the more practised contributions is discernible in that many of the ten essays have little or no engagement with the likes of Judith Butler, J.L. Austin, and John Searle. Thus terms like “performativity,” “speech acts,” “identity,” and “agency” could be vacuumed out of some of the essays with no loss to their critical insights.

The volume’s stated purpose is to “liberate” the “bastilled tongue of Romanticism so that it may sound again.” “Liberate”? From whom or what? The implication that the Romantics were a muzzled bunch of dell dwellers does not ring altogether true. The journalists, pamphleteers, preachers, politicians, and dramatists of the era were an exceedingly noisy bunch who operated in an expanding (and often lucrative) public sphere, which was perhaps the first era where we might slide in the notion of mass culture. And then there were those loquacious poets—Coleridge with his conversational cadence and supernatural balladmongerings; Wordsworth’s not so tranquil words about language rising out of feelings and experience, not to mention his belief in poet as a “translator” adopting “the very language of men”; Byron’s imperious and ideologically challenging verbal and public gestures, and what M.H. Abrams long ago called “an ironic counter-voice” that uncomfortably splits open the age; and, of course, there’s Shelley, who ventriloquizes just about every object or idea he encounters, though better known for his radical, high-flying, and legislating voice that yearns for mankind’s ear. All this wrestling with voices, styles, and forms suggest strong soundings indeed. Is there something to be gained by saying that their “words act”? The editors note that “Romantic culture is a performative culture” because it “grants efficacy to verbal utterances; it is conscious of . . . various forms of social and political representation; it cultivates performance, on and off the stage, as constitutive of identity.” Once more, does any of this go, so to speak, without saying? We get it: “Romantic culture” grants language cultural powers.

All of this may sound a bit cranky, which is too bad. It just may be that the introduction works a bit too hard to spin everything around “performativity” and its attendant lexicon when it didn’t really have to. I say “too [End Page 202] bad” because the chapters in the volume are full of valuable and original insights, especially in the historically based essays that place us squarely in a Romantic milieu. We get smart, lively...


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