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Reviewed by:
  • Idealism without Absolutes: Philosophy and Romantic Culture
  • Ian Balfour
Tilottama Rajan and Arkady Plotnitsky, editors. Idealism without Absolutes: Philosophy and Romantic Culture. SUNY Press2004. 262. US $50.00

A good many people who come terms with Romantic philosophy and literature (which is here understood almost exclusively as German) are divided on the question of Hegel, wanting to distance themselves from any number of impossible or embarrassing positions and postulates in Hegel's corpus, on the one hand, and yet finding in the very same oeuvre a more or less endless source of insight and speculative rigour, not least as the premier thinker of difference. For most of the distinguished contributors to this volume, what is true of Hegel is true to a greater – or usually lesser – extent for the other thinkers addressed here (Schelling, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Hölderlin, Novalis, Friedrich Schlegel, etc.): the only palatable idealism would be one shorn of its commitment to or [End Page 146] faith in the Absolute, or even more extreme and almost as unlikely, an idealism looking rather more like what formerly had been its opposite: materialism. Whereas the volume as a whole generally stops or falls short of what Tilottama Rajan calls 'critical materialism,' the contributors are often attentive to the textuality or rhetoric of idealistic thought, reading with and against the grain of their authors, and thus, in theory, are in keeping with what Paul de Man thought of as 'materiality.'

Space does not permit even cursory attention to all of the essays in this volume, so I shall highlight some of the more compelling and symptomatic among them. Andrjez Warminski's 'Allegories of the Symbol: On Hegel's Aesthetics' is a probing analysis of that massively influential set of lectures (whose status as a text remains in flux to this day). By concentrating on how the text is structured and on certain confluences among disparate 'moments,' the Greek and the Romantic, the symbolic and the Romantic, Warminksi can show how the performance of the text belies some of its overt pronouncements, as in Hegel's – and the period's – promotion of symbol over allegory. He demonstrates the complexity of Hegel's simultaneous theory and history of aesthetics, though we perhaps wonder whether it is Hegel or just Hegel's more flat-footed readers who have missed the point(s).

Tilottama Rajan's 'Toward a Cultural Idealism: Negativity and Freedom in Kant and Hegel' turns productively to the aesthetic, for it is in the aesthetic, alternately marginal and strangely central in Idealism, that a certain 'materiality' cannot be avoided. Rajan succeeds in showing how the twin forces of negativity and freedom work against and with the overarching demands for totality in both thinkers. Philosophy, it seems, cannot 'free' itself from either its fascination with or its dependence on art, and it is art that, pre-eminently, can never completely shed its materiality.

In a related vein, Jochen Schulte-Sasse coins the term mediality to focus on how in the Hegel of the Phenomenology truth, which he provocatively calls a 'relative concept' in Hegel, is so inexorably bound up with the negativity and the work of (self-) consciousness and their unfolding in language such that Hegel's thinking of the medium, of mediality, recasts older notions of ontology almost altogether.

To the volume's central preoccupation with Hegel, any number of counter-Hegelian figures constitute a refreshing contrast: Gary Hand-werk stresses the anti-foundation character of Friedrich Schlegel's historiography, and Joel Faflak underscores Schopenhauer's insistence on the body, which, as a seething mass of impulses and desires, poses a threat to any totalizing philosophy that would operate only in the ethereal realm of 'spirit.' Jan Plug points us, following Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, and before them, Maurice Blanchot, to the destabilizing force of the new concept of 'literature' in the period, which, by absolutizing itself, [End Page 147] threatened to render obsolete the time-honoured renditions of what used to pass as the Absolute.

Still, it is the de-absolutizing of Hegel, as in Arkady Plotnitsky's intriguing reading of him in relation to Deleuze's vision of the baroque, that remains the core of this volume and...


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