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  • Occupy Romanticism
  • Chris Washington (bio)

Romanticism remains in the stranglehold of a backwardlooking historicism, a methodology that is a perverse kind of conservatism that seeks to consign the field to complete irrelevance in relation to present events. Some Romanticists allege that the Romantic past has nothing to do with the present and to claim otherwise is ridiculous, if not scholarly malfeasance. The Romantic then, the claim goes, is completely disconnected from the now, especially where politics is concerned. Resistance (to historicism) is futile.

It is a curious thing perhaps to argue for your own field's irrelevance, [End Page 190] kind of like an opposite-day Percy Shelley lyricizing poetry as meaningless and powerless. I'd like to propose instead that Romanticism pertains to the present because Romanticism is fundamentally about hopelessness. Mary Shelley's The Last Man, among other paradigmatic texts, depicts how nihilistic politics stub out any hope for the continuance of human life in the face of plague—what could be more apropos? To put it bluntly, it is time to start thinking with the spirit of resistance, this hopelessness in Romanticism, instead of shushing it. To occupy Romanticism is to recognize that hope can only arise from hopelessness, when all seems lost. In this sense, Romanticism speaks directly to protest politics engendered by Occupy Wall Street, Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo Movement.

Consider how a recent study found that the settler colonialism of the Americas that killed over one hundred million indigenous peoples accelerated climate change two centuries before the Romantic period inaugurated the Anthropocene and its relentless appetite for destruction. Settler colonialism, we see, initiated a "necropolitics," to borrow Achille Mbembe's term, still at work in the deployment of state forces to steal indigenous lands and pollute the water supply—"genocide," as LaDonna Brave Bull Allard says.1 Necropolitics of this sort continues to offer indigenous peoples ought but the hopeless shadow death.

As Nikki Hessell notes, British Romanticism and its indigenous translations were deeply linked to colonialism and that British Romanticism "is a meditation on colonisation" that reflects "the complexities of the relationship itself."2 We might consider, then, what British Romanticism, which is complicit in, and standing in, this shadow, might augur for us, as scholars, teachers, critics, students, sociopolitical activists, and protesters in the present. How, for instance, do signal anti-capitalist texts, Frankenstein and The Last Man, propose that colonizers occupy the earth? The creature mediates a decolonialism that cedes the land to indigenous peoples even as the post-plague animals [End Page 191] in The Last Man reoccupy the cities and evict the settler colonialists of industrial capitalism. Taken together, these two visions of life argue that settler colonialists must return the land to its original inhabitants to eradicate the necropolitics governing the globe. This Romantic politics agrees with indigenous scholars Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon who show that it is impossible to do climate, or any, activist work without understanding and advocating for decolonization.3 Romantic decolonization can contribute to a politics for living through the climate, and other, wars of the future—in the present.

Chris Washington

Chris Washington's first monograph, Romantic Revelations: Visions of Post-Apocalyptic Hope and Life in the Anthropocene, was published in 2019. He is currently completing his second, "#OccupyRomanticism: Revolutionary Protest from Now to Then," and has essays forthcoming on transgender in Frankenstein and Jane Austen.


1. Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, trans. Steven Corcoran (Durham: Duke UP, 2019). LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, "Why the Founder of Standing Rock Sioux Camp Can't Forget the Whitestone Massacre," Yes Magazine. 3 Sept, 2016.

2. Nikki Hessell, Romantic Literature and the Colonised World: Lessons from Indigenous Translations (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2018), 7, 14.

3. Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon, "Introduction," Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NODAPL Movement, eds. Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 1-12, 3. Dhillon, "What Standing Rock Teaches us about Environmental Justice," Standing with Standing Rock: Voices from the #NODAPL Movement, eds. Nick Estes and Jaskiran Dhillon (Minneapolis: University of...


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