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  • The Fall of Robespierre and the Sublime Machine of Agency
  • William Jewett

Debates about historical agency—about the power or the obligation of individuals and collectives to act in making their own history—have recently been turning away from the sterile metaphysics of free subjects and conditioning structures, toward more pragmatic questions about how we understand things to get done. Theorists addressing such questions now seem less interested in identifying themselves as humanists or as antihumanists than in uncovering the interests that motivate people to try on those labels. 1 Questions about the grounds of agency, seen as unanswerable, have given way to questions about the beliefs we hold about acting: beliefs that are built into our everyday assumptions about rational behavior, and that are replicated in ordinary language. To ponder the rhetorical construction of agency is no longer to endorse Nietzsche’s dismissal of the human agent as “merely a fiction added to the deed”; to argue for the social production of agency no longer entails subscribing to Althusser’s cartoon of subjects hailed into existence by ideology. Thinking about agency is being done less in the service of theoretical olemic, and more by nuanced historical inquiry into situations, events, and texts that display unfamiliar configurations of circumstances, actions, and beliefs about agency.

This change of mood among critics at large has coincided—not accidentally, perhaps—with a renewal of interest among literary historians in romantic drama. Drama, of course, is the genre featuring complete actions with beginnings, middles, and ends, exhibited within an irreducibly social framework. Romanticism, however, is notoriously vexed both in its handling of action and in its social commitments. One might have expected that critics would confine themselves to the discovery of newly refined tools to use in the traditional bludgeoning of romantic playwrights; but this has not been the case. For romanticists have simultaneously begun to see how much contemporary criticism owes, in its understanding of the social production of agency, to the same romantic writers. Steven E. Cole, for instance, has uncovered in Coleridge an understanding of agency that fits remarkably well with recent pragmatist discussions. In Cole’s paraphrase of Coleridge, “personhood is itself constituted [End Page 423] by first, the capacity to recognize others as agents capable of having their behavior motivated by ends, and second, the belief that others are similarly capable of recognizing my own motivation by ends rather than means.” 2 Agency, in this understanding, is produced by a structure of reciprocal projection accepted as belief: it is irreducibly social, or, one might also say, irreducibly dramatic in its constitution and functioning. At the same time, however, it is indissociable from the tradition of the liberal individual, which might be said to have reached its apotheosis in the first years of the French Revolution. That these beliefs about agency came together, under specific historical pressures, to alter the making of history, was of such acute interest among romantic writers that it is no exaggeration to suggest we owe our fascination with historical agency to them. At the very least, I believe we should recognize our obligation to consult romantic drama as part of our efforts to rethink historical agency. As a case in point, I offer Coleridge and Southey’s neglected 1794 historical drama The Fall of Robespierre.

This text opens a wide range of questions about historical agency, and it does so, in the first instance, by virtue of its ambivalent stance on problems relating to the concept of individuality. On the one hand, it can be read as a kind of apotropaic defense of the individual, warning against the root causes of a political scene it depicts as devoted to the tragic annihilation of individuals. As such, it would belong to the same discursive universe as Burke’s Letters on a Regicide Peace, with its denunciation of French totalitarianism: “To them the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all.” 3 On the other hand, however, as a collaborative play about conspiracy, it must also be seen as instancing a critical rejection of...

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pp. 423-452
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