- Poetic Force: Poetry After Kant by Kevin McLaughlin
It’s hard to know what tone to take with this intelligent and learned book in a review that advises readers of this journal how—indeed whether—to receive it. Kevin McLaughlin’s Poetic Force: Poetry After Kant contains one chapter on Matthew Arnold, which frames a pungent argument about that author’s conversion from poet to sage and devotes to one poem, “Resignation” (1849), several pages closely explicating an account of Arnold’s less than disinterested attachment to self-consciousness that McLaughlin first advanced in these pages some years ago (“Culture and Messianism,” Victorian Studies 50  615–39). On the whole, though, the interest here centers not on poems, but on poetry, approached less as a literary kind or medium than as a proving ground for high-energy thought experiments in post-Kantian aesthetics, whose flashpoint lies at the intersection between linguistic deconstruction and the philosophy of mind.
Not, in other words, your ordinary Victorian studies book. Classics of nineteenth-century dynamism—like Thomas Carlyle on might vs. right, Walter Pater on the convergent/divergent forces of life, and Gerard Manley Hopkins on stress—do not appear as contexts here; much less do the formulas of thermodynamics. For McLaughlin, the major players, after Immanuel Kant, are instead Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, [End Page 137] Giorgio Agamben—philosophers convened in symposium around a few dozen lines by Friedrich Hölderlin, then Charles Baudelaire, and then Arnold. These poetic prooftexts serve as pretexts for investigating a zone of intellection (vital, yet obscure) that emerges as prior both to empirical perception and to concept formation. Insofar as this super-sensible, transcendental force field is also radically dialectical or antithetical, it is under-written by the negative capability that belongs to poetry: “The language of the poets expresses the capacity and the incapacity to communicate the feeling of the divisive finitude of reason as a force and an unforce” (xiii). Poetry’s (un)force or Gewalt proves steadily if distantly political. While not even close to sponsoring any praxis, the examples McLaughlin chooses for discussion consistently derive from conditions of war or oppression, against which poetry is shown to harbor, beneath the superficies of merely “lyrical politics,” deep resources of critique (70).
So speculative a book should pose a salutary alternative to the strong bias towards the historical, the documented, and the positivistic that typifies Victorian studies. Yet I can’t predict much traction for it there: McLaughlin’s approach is too littered with impediments to enjoy a broad hearing even within the academy. One signal deterrent is stylistic. Readers puzzled by the sentence just quoted must gird for a lot more of the same, like this from the Arnold chapter: “This phrase now means, not simply effacement, but the extending and winding round of mankind in a polarizing existential space in which natural limitation is supplemented and completed in a process of living, moving, and breathing freely in the communicability of community” (101). Tough going, for writer and reader both: not without pertinence to the passages from Empedocles (1852) and “Resignation” that McLaughlin is addressing, or to the tensile strength of his social and political themes; but not offering, all told, such rewards as to encourage any but the most persevering to go the distance with him.
Another deterrent is the hermeneutically sealed quality of the overall argument. The sheer purity of focus that is entailed by the tracking of such rarefied quarry as McLaughlin’s keeps the discussion resolutely intramural, where a more robust curiosity would want to assay findings against instances broadly drawn. Percy Shelley’s, Ezra Pound’s, and Wallace Stevens’s poetic transactions with violence go unmentioned; the substantial archive of deconstructive practical criticism (e.g., Frances Ferguson’s Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit, 1977) is rarely summoned; even so nearly concerned a major theorist of power as Michel Foucault earns but one arbitrary endnote (149). A searching consideration of Baudelaire’s engagement with Thomas...