- Imagined Sovereignties: Toward a New Political Romanticism by Kir Kuiken
In Imagined Sovereignties: Toward a New Political Romanticism, Kir Kuiken ably takes up the perennial question of the relationship of Romantic literature to its political moment. Kuiken situates this political moment within two intersecting narratives: the first is the emergence of a new understanding of sovereignty, and the second is the secularization of the modern world. The former is Kuiken’s focus, as Romanticism both “witnessed” and “participated” in foundational changes in the notion of sovereignty (2). The mechanisms through which Romanticism engages ideas of sovereignty, and thus engages politics, are the diverse conceptions of “the imagination” in the period that Kuiken unpacks in chapters on the writings of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Shelley. In the “Introduction: Toward a New Political Romanticism,” Kuiken defines “the imagination” not as a faculty or “subjective capacity” but rather as both a locus of conditions and a constellation of questions connected to authority, legitimacy, and other concepts that at the same time inform the very possibility of political sovereignty (6). With the divine right of monarchy effectively in retreat, the Romantics confronted their new political reality by constructing alternative forms of sovereignty in and through their aesthetic experiments. The concepts of anteriority and antecedence are crucial here and help us grasp the contours of how Kuiken links the political and the aesthetic. While divine right rested on a transcendent and thereby always-already prior ground of authority, the new forms of sovereignty—secular and democratic—possessed no such ground but needed to claim something like it: to claim, that is, an anteriority that is not anterior. Kuiken nimbly summarizes this “tension” or “aporia” of modern sovereignty and connects it to the process of the Romantic imagination:
The Romantics attempt to address this anteriority through the imagination precisely because it mirrors, represents, and formalizes an a-legal, unconditional ground. By being prior to laws of judgment, laws of nature, and political law, the imagination enters into a relation [End Page 413] with what Agamben has called a ‘zone of anomie,’ a space prior to any particular determination of law.(10–11)
Indeed, Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life and State of Exception, along with Derrida’s Beast and the Sovereign inform Kuiken’s introduction. However, it is Carl Schmitt’s Political Romanticism that Kuiken engages most directly, and indeed most pointedly insofar as Kuiken pitches Imagined Sovereignties against Schmitt’s interpretation of the Romantic imagination. Schmitt’s reading of Romanticism is that it places the subjective imagination’s free play at the center of authority, thus enabling an escape from politics when everything becomes aestheticized: “In short,” Kuiken writes, on Schmitt’s reading “the Romantics substitute the subjective imagination in place of real ethical and political commitments” (13). Against Schmitt’s charge of avoidance (specifically, the avoidance of “the exception as the proper ground of modern sovereignty”), Kuiken proposes new avenues though which Romanticism does engage the exception (12). For one, Romanticism involves a “theory of the sovereign as constituted by something that cannot be made the object of his autonomous will” in a manner similar to how a poet’s creations will have effects long after she is gone (14). Second, Kuiken also argues that Romanticism offers an alternative to absolute sovereignty:
While the Romantics still ground sovereignty on the notion of the unconditional, they nonetheless invoke a relation to it that does not necessarily treat it as an absolute, which would in turn produce a figure of absolute sovereignty. Rather, a sovereign’s relation to the exception or the unconditional exposes him to an exteriority that he cannot master and reveals that the very thing he requires for legitimacy exceeds his grasp.(14)
Finally, for Romanticism it is literature that is “perhaps the most important element of its intervention into political theory” because its fiction-making power is analogous to the fiction-making that the sovereign of necessity undertakes (15). Kuiken is explicit on the analogy at the heart of his project: “The motifs...