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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.2 (2004) 269-310

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Knowledge of Freedom

University of Southern California

At the beginning of In Praise of Nonsense: Kant and Bluebeard, Winfried Menninghaus (1999) comments on a passage from Kant's Critique of Judgment:

"All the richness of the imagination," Kant cautions in the Critique of Judgement, "in its lawless freedom produces nothing but nonsense." Nonsense, then, does not befall the imagination like a foreign pathogen; rather, it is the very law of imagination's own "lawlessness." Kant therefore prescribes a rigid antidote: even in the field of the aesthetic, understanding must "severely clip the wings" of imagination and "sacrifice... some" of it.

If Kant prescribes what Menninghaus calls a "politics of curtailment" of the imagination, it must also be said that he acknowledges a resistance to that politics that occurs, as it were, before that politics (1). Menninghaus's work—as well as the work of some other recent readers of Kant like Diane Morgan (2002), Elaine Miller (2002), Robert Bernasconi (2001), and before them, Deleuze (1992) and Derrida (1980, 1981, 1987, 1989, 1992)—is structured by [End Page 269] the revelation of this ambivalence in Kant that can be said to disrupt and appose origin in general. I want to consider this necessarily irregular opening of the regulative and to think it in relation to Kant's deployment of race as the exemplary regulative and/or teleological principle. As Bernasconi's work shows, Kant uses race and the raced figure to ground the distinction between natural history—the production and discovery of purposive and singular, if internally hierarchized creation—and natural description's cataloging of a diverse set of observed natural facts potentially attributable to different origins. The regulative discourse on the aesthetic that animates Kant's critical philosophy is inseparable from the question of race as a mode of conceptualizing and regulating human diversity, grounding and justifying inequality and exploitation, as well as marking the limits of human knowledge through the codification of quasi-transcendental philosophical method, which is Kant's acknowledged aim in the critical philosophy. The critics I've mentioned illuminate the rich field of material figures that break Kant's erstwhile foundations: a floating bridge that moves and facilitates movement between eighteenth-century exclusionary fantasies of Africa and America, and the cultivated nature and organized fantasia of the English garden—between the domesticated and anthropomorphized beast (of burden) and the irreducible wildness of the cultured flower. I am concerned with the extent to which it could be said that the black radical tradition, on the one hand, reproduces the political and philosophical paradoxes of Kantian regulation, and on the other hand, constitutes a resistance that anticipates and makes possible Kantian regulation by way of the instrumentalization to which such resistance is submitted, and which it refuses. A further elaboration of certain material figures (especially by way of the work of Miller, Morgan, and on other equally important critical registers, Tera Hunter and Harryette Mullen) is demanded such that we understand that strife that ensues in the space between two fantasies—the black (woman) as regulative instrument and the black (woman) as natural agent of deregulation—as a turmoil foundational to the modern aesthetic, political, and philosophical fields. Thus my interest in the resistance to " [t]his politics of curtailment" that Kant prescribes. Such resistance, which might be called a radical politics of the imagination, moves in preparation for the question [End Page 270] concerning the law of lawless freedom; but it must be said immediately that this question, which is nothing other than the question of the free irruption of thought, is here and now inseparable from the racialization and sexualization—at once phantasmatic and experiential—of the imagination.

Such questioning requires that we note, along with Menninghaus, that

The "ideal" liaison between beauty and imagination... cannot be broken solely from the side of genius's excessiveness and unreason. [For instance,] in the 1790 s nonsense escapes—for a brief moment in the history of Romantic literature, extending from its beginnings in 1795 to its denouement in...