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Diacritics 30.4 (2000) 15-37

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Kant's Strange Light
Romanticism, Periodicity, and the Catachresis of Genius

Orrin N. C. Wang

We might say that in deconstruction history is always posed as a question, at once urgent, ubiquitous, and insoluble, whereas ideological demystification conceives of its relation to history as an answer, a solution, to its critical hermeneutic. Certainly, this critical truism has special force in Romantic studies, a field very much shaped by the complex relation between deconstruction and ideological critique over the last twenty-five years. But it could just as well be said that the full implications of this relation are especially clarified by the field of Romantic studies, not least because its object of study replays the tensions between these two modes of inquiry. Studying Romanticism means knowing it as a historical period but also knowing it as a figure that stands for something else: an aesthetic practice, a form of consciousness, a political aspiration, an ideology, the possibility of historicity itself. That as a figure Romanticism can be either transhistorical or tied to its historical identity makes its situation all the more complicated and compelling. Romanticism especially dramatizes the interlocking relation between period identity and trope, and the investment of literary studies in that dynamic. Romanticism is the period metaphor that both stabilizes and disrupts the very concept of period metaphors.1 The deconstruction and demystification of Romanticism is very much about the deconstruction and demystification of history, its existence as either question or calculation, trope or immanent being.

But even as Romanticism asserts its special relation to history it must also confront an opposite trajectory, how its meaning is best understood through a constellation of other, larger historical identities, such as the Enlightenment and modernity itself. At present the potential disciplinary reorganization of Romanticism into the long eighteenth century is the most vivid academic expression of the question, where does the historical specificity of Romanticism reside, within itself or something larger, or both?

Sorting this issue out is certainly a historical proposition, but as Romanticism's special relation to history reminds us, it is also, in Paul de Man's sense, rhetorical. Which is to say, Romanticism's relation to history is, paradoxically, not special-or, more precisely, it is a trope for something pervasive among all the period fields of literary studies, insofar as they remain particular and distinct from one another. This includes those historical entities that might subsume or entangle with Romanticism itself, that would enact historicity by absorbing a field so intent on both the enabling and worrying of historical thought. Approached tropologically, the relation of Romanticism to these larger historical periods is not simply about events and formations that constitute [End Page 15] the boundaries of historical identities. It is also about best identifying and clarifying the workings of figure that create the intelligence of such periodicity.

Such labor, what de Man designated innocently enough by the term "reading," calls for its own crossing of a particular set of boundaries. A philosophical text, generated by the entanglement between Romanticism and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, might contain sections exemplary in their recording of the interstice between trope and historical periodization. Immanuel Kant's short meditation on genius in the third Critique is, like the rest of his book, about the limits and possibilities of the judging subject; his words on genius are also specifically about the artistically creative subject. In resolving the contradictions between aesthetic judgment and creation, Kant transforms the solar light of human genius into the historical genius of the Enlightenment, which is very much the linguistic genius of Romanticism. This all occurs in a register not of consciousness or of historical truth, but of something else before either's constative realization.

Kant's text is especially telling in its reflexive expression of this situation, so much so that it helps illuminate the sharp distinction between deconstruction and ideological demystification. For if deconstruction always poses history as the pressure of an insoluble, omnipresent question, it does so through figure, before truth. In contrast, ideological demystification, with...