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130 BOOK REVIEWS Anahid Nersessian. Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment. Cam­ bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 273. $39.95. “Real tennis,” says 1996’s dystopian Infinite Jest, is about “wof-order, limit, the places where things broke down, fragmented into beauty” (80). David Foster Wallace—who came to Harvard to write a dissertation on Kant, the philosopher of limits—would go on to say the same thing about art, and ethics, and economics, and addiction, and the environment. The trick is in setting the boundary conditions so as not to replicate capital’s unbridled pleasure and growth. How, in other words, to define limits—on the self, on a nation, on ways of thinking and feeling and consuming, on our expectations—that produce joyful, elastic potential rather than austerity or beleaguered constraint. Anahid Nersessian’s Utopia, Limited argues that these have been ethical and artistic strategies since at least the late eighteenth century. Those strate­ gies, further, are not incompatible with a strain of social improvement, what she calls a limited utopianism. More specifically, her book makes the case that “Romantic literature functions as utopian thought insofar as it takes its own formalism to mime a minimally harmful relationship between human beings and a world whose resources are decidedly finite” (16). Her argument and method of reading are worked out from within a network of interdependent terms and concepts: form, limit, resource and environ­ ment, liberalism and political economy, secularism, utopia, and Romanti­ cism. A final member of this set, most closely related to limit, evades dis­ cursive articulation, like a Kantian judgment without a concept. It is named by a scatter of evocative words and phrases: loss, grief, damage, diminishment , “positive bondage” (6), suffering, tarrying, slightness, curtail­ ment, “learning to manage with less” (22), disappointment, decorum, di­ vestment, winnowing, “the renuciatory art of the diminuendo” (25), attentiveness, “a principled relation to imperiled life” (13), and, most im­ portantly, what she calls “Rcsm” and adjustment. Such is the “native lan­ guage of this book” (9), wherein she “gathers up a vocabulary of restraint in an effort to describe and to salvage Romanticism’s own pedagogy of utopian limitation” (6) for “our own restricted present” (13). Utopia, Limited is a book about limits that seems dissatisfied with the lim­ its imposed on it by the discipline of Romanticism: it transforms the Romantic period into a Romantic century, 1750-1850; it wonders openly about whether its chapters need to be tied to single authors and time peri­ ods; and it speaks directly to contemporary global problems, particularly poverty, scarcity, and climate change. Allying itself early on with Kevis Goodman’s claim that Romanticism can never exhaustively describe itself, Utopia, Limited strives to define and create its own system rather than be SiR, 55 (Spring 2016) BOOK REVIEWS 131 subdued by the one it inherits. I would suggest that Utopia, Limited’s grap­ pling with how form works in the Romantic era (or century) is equally a grappling with how form and history are treated within Romantic criti­ cism. In this way Utopia, Limited begs a kind of metaquestion: to what ex­ tent should it create its own forms and rhythms of reading, and what should we expect from them? It is a pleasure to watch the book grapple with concerns like these. The first chapter, “Rcsm, an Introduction,” begins just where one might expect, with Blake’s account of the bounding line. It ends with a quick, careful analysis of the form of the “Introduction” to Songs of Innocence. If these bookended accounts of Blake are the chapter’s ostensible “form,” a space is opened in between them where Nersessian grapples with an array of thinkers—-Jameson, Cavell, Wittgenstein, Rousseau, de Stael, Laura Kipnis, Ranciere, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, and a dozen more, but especially the Frankfurt School, and Frye’s late, unfinished “third book.” That’s where Nersessian gets “Rcsm,” Frye’s notebook shorthand for “Romanticism,” but which she uses to circumscribe her pro­ gram for creatively adjusting oneself and one’s art to a given environment or set of resources. A clear example Nersessian gives is George Herbert’s “Paradise,” where end rhymes are progressively pared...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 130-133
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-06
Open Access
No
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