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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.1 (2003) 25-52
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The Loophole in the Retreat:
The Culture of News and the Early Life of Romantic Self-Consciousness
'Tis pleasant through the loopholes of retreat / To peep at such a world": we are so accustomed to thinking of William Cowper as a figure of retirement that the "loophole" in these famous lines from The Task (1785) has often been read in its twentieth-century sense, as an escape or retreat—an "out," as in tax law—as if the phrase presents a mere redundancy, a retreat consisting of retreat. 1 Yet in its original sense (from fortification) a loophole is more precisely an aperture, channel, or passageway, and it is thus that Cowper uses it here to describe the newspaper, which he was not only addicted to reading but also fond of turning into verse. Recognized in his own day as the coauthor of an influential collection of congregational hymns, Cowper inhabits and animates both sides of the suggestive metaphor borrowed from Hegel by Benedict Anderson to describe the daily reading of the news:
The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing. . . creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption ("imagining") of [End Page 25] the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that. . . . The significance of this mass ceremony—Hegel observed that newspapers serve the modern man as a substitute for morning prayers—is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others. 2
The retreat has an "out"—that "of" is possessive, and not merely descriptive.
Where Anderson's interest lies in the newspaper's role in the imagining of national communities, my own purpose is to develop this passage's brief intuition of the historical and collective subjectivity engaged by the news as a permeable, open circuit of awareness. The "lair of the skull" is here no fine and private place, like Marvell's grave, or the Cartesian ego, but a curiously crowded haunt. As Raymond Williams suggested in several formulations of his elusive signature phrase, "structures of feeling," much of what we call "private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating" may be a misrecognition of social experience "in process." For Williams, the treatment of the social field as "past, in the sense that it is always formed," or always "precipitated," meant that we turn by default to find other terms for the immanent (though not unmediated) perception of any moment as a seething mix of unsettled elements. If the terms of analysis, "the known relationships, institutions, formations, positions," are fixed and explicit, then "all that escapes from the fixed and the explicit and the known is grasped and defined as the personal[,] this, here, now, alive, active ‘subjective,'" rather than recognized as social experience "in solution." "Feeling"—by which Williams usually meant unpleasurable sensations of "disturbance, blockage, tension, emotional trouble"—yields evidence, a sensitive measurement, of the uncertainty principle of history-on-the-move. 3
This essay explores the possibility that certain modes of affect that have seemed hallmarks of early Romantic self-consciousness offer significant sites of engagement with a historical presentness not—or not yet—available to thought or direct articulation, as well as registers of an expanding international structure of relations whose reach exceeds any individual grasp but which, like the Althusserian absent cause, is the precondition of any individual's subject's sense of "this, here, [and] now." 4 As a form of social [End Page 26] experience in process, the "subjectivity" we see engaged by the newspaper in The Task offers a loophole indeed—a channel through which the flux of Cowper's "now" can pass. My argument therefore implicitly queries the periodization assumed in most accounts of the distinctiveness of our own postmodern culture of...