restricted access The Romantic Circumstance: Novalis between Kittler and Luhmann
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The Romantic Circumstance:
Novalis between Kittler and Luhmann

The Romantic Circumstance

Romanticism was a philosophical movement concerned with the question of orders—orders of things, of persons, of being. Friedrich von Hardenberg, the Early German Romantic who called himself Novalis, writes that “only [the infinite stone] is firm (in itself) // it is the dos moi, pu sto [give me a place to stand] of Archimedes” (Hardenberg III 91). It is strange to find, among the foundational texts of Early German Romanticism, anything having to do with foundations. The movement has often been characterized as “anti-foundational” (Frank, Philosophical Foundations; Frank “Ordo inversus”) and even occasionalist (Schmitt). And yet statements revealing a fascination with figures of intervention, revolution, and altering are hardly rare in Novalis’s works. Novalis often speaks of a basis for such intervention, for complex attempts to intervene in the unstable natural and political orders already in transformation around him. Those orders set the rules for communication and action—they mediated philosophy, art, and politics. For Novalis, the very fabric of thought—and any possible Archimedean efficacy—would have to engage at the level of that mediation. Can there be a tool that crosses orders, that mediates or alters the rules for mediation? The answer, as I will suggest below, lies in the notion of mediation, and the possibility of altering the rules for media themselves. These concerns would coalesce in Novalis’s writings around the term “organ.”

There is in Novalis’s thought a media-theoretical core that surpasses even the important and neglected readings of his work by Friedrich Kittler and Niklas Luhmann. A historiographical point—namely, that Romanticism has plenty to do with the “new” problematics emerging from the New German Media Theory conjuncture—will be complemented here by a philosophical point: that, at least in the case of Novalis, Romantic thought offers something media theory has not (and perhaps did not intend to). Novalis engages media down to the very fabric of his writings, a point on which both Kittler and Luhmann agree; he also, I claim, offers a written fabric meant to observe and effect medial change, and to move between emergent orders of media.1 [End Page 46]

For that, one would need a tool for working across orders, and Novalis called this tool an “organ.” By focusing on the readings of Romanticism given by Kittler and Luhmann, I will defend a view of a Romantic philosophy as a flexible system meant not only to reflect media-systems in all their complexity, but also to mediate, and potentially alter, those very systems. In other words, I argue that Romantic thought—at least its Jena version—is meant to be a tool for mediation and indeed for intervention, in nature as well as in society.

Whatever a “Romantic system” might be, it is precisely not a closed circuit of thought without any windows—not a monad. Novalis’s friend Friedrich Schlegel makes organs a condition of systems:

And I too have been carrying the ideal of such a realism in me, and if it has not yet come to be communicated, then it was merely because I am still seeking the organ for it [weil ich noch das Organ dazu suche]. But I know that I will only find the latter in poetry, for realism will never again be able to take the form of a philosophy—not to speak of a system.


Schlegel goes on to state the full ambivalence of “systems”—i.e., it is just as lethal to have as not to have one (172)—and he suggests that the true poet must write in the spirit of Spinoza, that is, more geometrica demonstrata. As with system and non-system, Schlegel here recommends synthesizing the poles of the contradiction between poetry and demonstration. But a system premised on communication or interaction with other systems must have a circumstance. This is because a system (that which “stands with” itself—Greek sun [“with”] + histemi [“I stand”]—or makes a synthetic whole) must both be internally regulated and externally situated. That the proliferation and complex differentiation of natural and social systems makes up the “circumstance” of Romanticism can...