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Speculative Aesthetics
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Speculative Aesthetics

A best-selling seduction novel. A frequently reprinted revolutionary poem. A private journal of an army captain. A single performance on a Philadelphia stage. Upon surveying this vast and variegated literary terrain—the same covered by the essays that compose this special issue—one feels not unlike Hector St. John de Crevecoeur when contemplating the diverse populations of his adopted home: the thoughtful tiller at once emboldened and challenged to articulate the common features of the “new” American man. Is it possible to do the same for an aesthetics of early America? What is—or was—this new style or mode or sense?

I lead with a version of Crevecoeur’s famous question not only to orient myself toward an early American way of looking but also—as these essays each encourage—to channel a commensurate critical approach: one that accounts for the full range of expressions that constitute that era’s aesthetic landscape. Christopher Castiglia, perhaps most explicitly, urges us to envision a “newly conceived method” (416) for reading the early American archive, one that counters the symptomatic mode that has long characterized scholarship in the field with a set of new reading practices inspired by the “speculative idealism” of revolution (398). By aligning the prospective stance inherent in revolution—a concept central to the eighteenth-century United States—with the “transformative faith” required of fiction, Castiglia attempts to open up an expanded vista on the “imaginative aesthetics of literature and the ethical positions it might enable in the present” (405, 398). In doing so, he seeks to draw attention to the “not-yet-real” worlds that fiction, like revolution, allows us to see (405). But the very idea of aesthetics—another concept born of the eighteenth century—also engenders a speculative mode. This mode, once identified and provisionally theorized, as the essays in this issue invite us to do, opens early American literary studies to a range of alternative futures: the “not-yet-real” worlds that Castiglia helpfully names, as well as those that might be termed the “never real”—the future worlds that, because of diminished social or political [End Page 437] agency, dispossession, or enslavement, while defiantly imagined, remain out of reach.

The genealogy of the term aesthetics itself addresses the imaginative potential, as well as the epistemological limits, of such a speculative stance. After all, the term did not enter common English parlance until the first decades of the nineteenth century; Edward Cahill dates the earliest reference to “Esthetics” in the United States to an 1812–13 essay on fine art published in a New York magazine, The Halcyon Luminary (33).1 Prior to that point, philosophers and cultural critics, as well as more explicitly literary writers, relied primarily on figurative language—and in particular, the metaphor of the sense of taste—through which to formulate their ideas about subjective experience and judgment.2 One might easily reference the “great resemblance between mental and bodily taste” that David Hume explores in his influential essay of 1757, “Of the Standard of Taste” (273). But in an early American context, we might also consider Jonathan Edwards’s extended meditation on the sweet “taste of honey” in “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1737) that Abram van Engen cites in his essay here (305); or, for that matter, John Locke’s analysis of the “tast of a Pine apple” (qtd. in Silver 48) (itself inspired by Richard Ligon’s account of the “Queen’s Pine” in his True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes) that directly influenced Edwards’s thinking (Ligon 147). These examples can and should be read as full philosophical investigations into the function and significance of aesthetics, and yet none possess the ability to refer to that concept by name. It follows, then, that an account of aesthetics in the eighteenth century is speculative at its core. In regard to early America, what we talk about when we talk about aesthetics—to connect this inquiry to the question recently posed by Cindy Weinstein and Christopher Looby in their own valuable contribution to the field—is an aesthetics before the fact.3

In positing early American aesthetics as speculative...