Tag Archives: history

Hans Blumenberg – Prospect for a Theory of Nonconceptuality (1960)

A small essay appended to the longer work Shipwreck with Spectator, trans. Steven Rendall (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977). He argues that Metaphorology (i.e. the shipwreck, etc.) can be seen as a special case of nonconceptuality. Whereas metaphorics had been seen as the study of discursive phenomena irreducible to literal coordiantes, nonconceptuality emphasizes the opposite: “the connections with the life-world as the constant moving support…of all theory” (81). Metaphors are “fossils that indicate an archaic stratum of theoretical curiosity” (82), but also as (in the moment) ways of repairing disturbances in consciousness and experience. Metaphor acts as a “resistance to harmony” (Husserl) that also reestablishes harmony by incorporating that which exceeds a given paradigm of experience. Thus metpahors are not only read as contributing to concept formation, but as establishing various a-concpetual links to a Husserlian life-worlds.

But metaphors do not come from nowhere: unlike abstraction, they carry the social and cultural weight of their own heritage. Saying the “laughing meadow” disrupts the flow of information, but reestablishes harmony “by assigning the meadow to the inventory of a human life-world in which not only words and signs but also  things themselves have ‘meaning'” (84). Through a series of examples (book of nature, fluxus temporis, “The Devil’s time is short) Blumenberg gives what he calls a “historical phenomenology,” which “[attends] to decayed forms, which appear after speech that is taken literally, as embarrassment in the face of the demands of realism” (93). The point is to disassociate the nonconceptuality from intuitiveness, since the former does not necessarily come temporally prior to something we might call “abstraction.” Rather, there is a sort of uneven development. At times, metaphor can be a late form, not only evading realism’s demands, but establishing its own forms of realism in the form of analogy (95).

Blumenberg finishes by comparing symbol and metaphor. The former is indifferent to the presence of what it represents. Money, for example, represents a value that is not present. Or, take Heidegger’s question about “the meaning of being.” We are meant to already possess the answer to this question–not in conceptual form, but within a primordial structure of consciousness. “here, nonconceptuality consists in our thoroughly learning what kind of thing the understanding of being is not” (99). This implies a strict prohibition of metaphor that is nevertheless violated over and over again–for nothing cn be represented of all mode of behavior are rooted in a care that runs too deep for understanding. A similar prohibition applies to Kantian “Freedom.” Blumenberg argues that this essentially converta all the critiques into “practical” philosophy. Thus nothing is no longer theoretical: everyone is indeed appeased, but nothing is learned” (102). And to believe that this freedom can then be converted into a mode of unrestrained action, is simply to mistake an absolute metaphor for something literal.



Joseph Conrad – Nostromo (1904)


If Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness dramatize the difficulty of narrating a life, confronting that difficulty by dramatizing the various subjective, generic, historical conditions that frame our experience of the world, then Nostromo ups the ante, expanding the palate of narrators (13 main characters) and opening the stage to the history of a continent and the circuits of global trade. Nostromo is “constructed” in ways similar to Jim, but this novel is not so much interested in characterization, as it is interested in how the past becomes present, and the present becomes future, and how all the various characters deal with these historical becomings.

Conrad employs a basic rectangle of characters:

Nostromo   –   Decoud (loves Antonia)

Mr. Gould   –   Monygham (loves Mrs. Gould)

On the top, two men that are killed by the silver. On the bottom, two men who are able to resist that death. On the left, two idealists. On the right, two pragmatists. Acting outside of these rectangle, are the two women, Antonia and Mrs. Gould.

Nostromo the character is a composite of what other characters believe him to be. We see him consistently fail to live up to the idea of the hero–he is literally a “man of the people” to the degree that he becomes subject to the same temptations of the silver.

When the old Garibaldi soldier kills Nostromo (not knowing that he does it), Conrad is showing who the older foams of heroic revolution are not tenable under the new regime of global capitalism.

Discuss the difference between catching a moment out of the stream of time and Mrs. Gould’s beliefe that we need to see the past, present and future within every moment….this is a different way of seeing the relationship between particular events and history in general.

Ann Banfield – Remembrance and Tense Past (from C. Comp. 2007)

Distinguishes between two tense involved in novelistic discourse: the narrative sentence that recounts events independent of a subject, and free indirect discourse, or represented thought, representing third person subjectivity (51). Subjectivity, in a novel like Dalloway, is represented as a “now in the past.” This division is possible only in the novel, because it is the only genre that distances itself from the structure of spoken communication.

Joyce’s phrase “aorist preterite proposition” characterizes this “objective” time outside of the subject. It is apparent in Ithaca, but also in the bracketed sections in Time Passes section of To the Lighthouse. According to Banfield, “Modernit experimentation strips away everything superfluous to the measuring of time’s passing” (52). The urban becomes a refuge for the “now in the past” of the subject: they stand in for point-of-view: the multiplication of points of “time-space.” Thus in the opening scene of Dalloway, we see the time of Clarissa contrasting with the time of Big Ben, the pause before the sounding of the clock registering subjective time as pure freedom. Clarissa’s “now in the past” can also include memory itself (she is simultaneously Clarissa of that moment and Clarissa as a little girl). Jacob Room limits to subject impression of the moment: Dalloway and Lighthouse limit to impressions that include the past itself. This connects to the famous “cave” metaphor that Woolf uses to describe modes of characterization: digging out the inner lives of characters to the extent that those caves create a network of connections.

Banfield believes that represented thought in the past is able to convey the moment in which history could have been otherwise just as it is congealing into history.





Sir Walter Scott – Waverly (1814)

Important as, in many ways, the frist historical novel. It tells the story of Edward Waverly, a rich, quixotic Englishman who finds himself involved in the failed Scottish uprising of 1745. The subtitle, “tis sixty years since” pins down the specific time and place of the story, which toggles between ROMANCE AND HISTORY. Late in the novel, after the Scottish forces attempting to restore Charles Edward to the throne are virtually vanquished, Waverly reflects, “with a sigh, that the romance of his life was ended, and that its real history had now commenced” (414 Penguin). The play between romance and history is crucial, and Scott is self-conscious about the creation of a literary artifact that positions itself as a Romantic intervention into a history that has already been told, officially. Despite the radical possibilities of imagining history otherwise, the romance of Scottish Highlanders is represented in the text as a representation, a painting that Waverly treat as a health sublimation of passion that he can dis-identify with even while drawing from it as a resource for his life as rich, vaguely conservative Englishman.

This isn’t to say that Scott is entirely conservative, or an English nationalist. Throughout, he portrays a gallantry and chivalry that transcends the disputes separating the Hanoverian and Stuart interests. Waverly can recognize in Colonel Talbot a physiognomy of nobel bearing even though he is his enemy.

Towards the end of the novel, Scott will rather clumsily insert his theory of narrative development, arguing for the novel’s great powers of characterological description. Scott will typically pair up characters similar enough to evoke their differences. Thus two small town officials–the politician Melville and the clergyman Morton–are both shown to be sympathetic, well-meaning interpreters of the law, but one is pessimistic while the other is more optimistic with regard to intention and human nature.

Charles Waverly can be connected to the long line of quixotic protagonists, from Quixote himself, to Crusoe, Catherine Morland, all the way up to Lord Jim. The chapter called “castle-building” is a good place to start conversations about architecture in relationship to imagination and history.

Further, one could say that the whole novel si a way of making it possible for Waverly not to be held accountable for his experiences. The sheer amount of luck, money and political maneuvering that allows him to be both Scottish and English, rebel and conservative, beings to point to the moneyed foundations of aesthetic experience tout court (connecting all the way with Forster’s “islands of money” on which the Schlegel sisters sit).

Read Scott in contrast to Austen. The former came to be considered a somewhat sloppy entertainer, while the latter was exalted as paragon of formal control. The former is more content, fact-based, while the latter was psychological, critical. in the former, there is a proliferation of languages and styles, while in the latter there is just Austen’s steady and refined free indirect discourse. But both can be seen as critics of Romanticism in certain ways: Scott levies a pretty serious critique of individualism along with social and political uprising. This pairs with Austen’s critique of sensibility in the character of Marianne Dashwood, etc.

T.S. Eliot – The Four Quartets (1936-41)

Ongoing post:

Frist the title–each poem is a quartet, but the whole thing is also a quartet of sorts. If the whole thing is a quartet, then the “four” is tautologous. Throughout the poem, Eliot will play with tautology, equivalence and difference: ends are beginnings, etc. Also, the “quartets” have five parts each, like the Waste Land. Could the think of the larger four as subsuming the individual fives: from synthesis and progress, to symmetry and order, etc.

Burnt Norton

“All time is unredeemable”: what “might have been” can only be registered as an echo in the rose garden–the past, present and future are one solid whole, which we cannot comprehend, but that nevertheless determines our existence. Past and Future press so hard one on the other that there is room “for little consciousness.” The presentness has a spatial analog–the stillness in the midst of a swirling world. This limited epistemological envelop comprises the limits of our language: poetry, for Eliot, is always too late, and words, once established, will never stay. Art, in other words, is subject to the processes of life and decay that our bodies are subject to.

East Coker

A more earthy section, that talks about seasons while trying out various styles of poetry (Olde English, Vorticists) before admitting that these are all just attempts that always fail. Living “entre les deux-geurres,” Eliot claims that every attempt at poety is a new and fresh attempt bereft of former accomplishments–“a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment.” Curious, given the resonance of  The Waste Land throughout. The past, even if does not stay put as a tool for use, reamins that from which we cannot escape even as we continue to lose it.

The Dry Salvages

Draws attention to the changes of the human–not the same when they leave the station, etc. Focuses on image sof water and the sea. Despite being composed while being bombed, the poem is surprisingly hopeful. Connect imagery of boat and drowning to the the “Death by Water” section (the poem that wasn’t written), but also to the image of the boat guided by the craftsman at the end of the Waste Land.

Little Gidding

Circularity and fire are brought together in this final poem, that connects with imagery from Burnt Norton. The image of stillness in the middle of a circulating world is born out as paradigmatic poetic practice. it maintains the tension that runs throughout the poem: between time utterly lost and time redeemed, etc.


humility of thought (cf. Heidegger)

stillness in circle (cf. Yeats)

circular exploration (cf. Molloy)

inter-penetration of the seasons (cf. The Waste Land)

experimental nature of all language (M-P, Ulysses, early modernism)

the little space for consciousness (between past and present)



William Morris – The Lesser Arts (1877, 1882)

Originally a lecture with the title “The Decorative Arts,” given to the Trades Guild of Learning in London, 1877.

Opens with a sentiment consonant with News from Nowhere: neither laments the past, nor despises the present, nor despairs the future…but believes that all the current activity is merely life itself moving toward the betterment of mankind. The lecture explains why the decorative arts are integral to this historical process. In short, they “beautify the familiar matters of everyday life” (234). Morris draws no distinction between the forms of art and the forms of any human product: all must be either beautiful or ugly. Referencing Ruskin’s “Nature of the Gothic,” Morris claims that we should reject the “curse  of labor” thesis, and rather say that labor has become a curse only because of the artificial separation between art and work, which has degraded “the lesser arts” to mere mechanism and “the greater arts” to mere frivolous non-utility.

Morris is not calling for a return to a childish past, in which beautiful things were unconsciously made. Though history itself can be read in these quotidian forms, he does not call for a negative “unconscious intelligence” but rather a “new art of conscious intelligence” (241). Nature and History should be the teachers. Indeed, in 2102, Morris believes that the concept of nature will disappear all together, no longer able to be defined in contrast to a human that somehow would use it for ends exterior to it. History needs to be conceived from the dialectically mediated present. The restoration movement gets this wrong: they hypostasize a romanticized past and seek to patch over the real history that the centuries of “repairs” bear in themselves. [Curious dialogue could be conceived between Morris, Victor Hugo, Jude Fawley, and Jacob Flanders.]

Of course, this means that art loses its status as “useless” or “purposeless”: Morris writes, “nothing can be a work of art which is not useful.” His qualification isn’t enough to make this statement any less strange: “that is to say, which does not minister to the body when well under the command of the mind, ot which does not amuse, soothe, or elevate in a healthy state” (251). Simply put, the agreeable, the beautiful and the sublime are all lumped together, as is the mind and the body, work and rest, etc… Sympathetic to all this, but Morris needs to engage the history of aesthetics a bit more, perhaps. He also reverses the relation between taste and life. In Kant, the faculty of taste precedes the feeling life. In Morris, “Simplicity of life, begetting simplicity of taste…is of all matters most necessary for the birth of the new and better art we crave for; simplicity everywhere, in the palace as well as in the cottage” (251). One wonders whether the palace reference is a nod to Kant….


William Morris – News from Nowhere (1891)

Page numbers from Penguin (2004)

Sub-titled “An Epoch of Rest,” which is a polemic to keep in mind, since most of the novel describes scenes of labor.

A socialist fantasy that manages to combine Morris’ spiritual-romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages with his radical political beliefs. William Guest, the main character, falls asleep one night and wakes up in the year 2102. He is led around the new England by Dick Hammond. He gets a long history lesson from “old Hammond.” He takes a boat trip up the Thames all the way to Oxford and beyond, to a harvest party. On the way, he meets Ellen, a fairy-like woman prone to making elegant political speeches. Ellen guesses Guest’s secret just before the final dinner. When Guest sits down, he realizes that no one recognizes him. Despondent, he walks back to town, sees an old, dying, ragged man and everything goes black. He wonders, Was it a vision or a dream?

The bulk of News from Nowhere is a thinly veiled didactic exposition on what socialism could/would enable. But the narrative frame should not be ignored. Morris has to work pretty hard to justify the first person–in short, there is a conflation of the first and third person:

But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person….which will indeed be the easier and more natural for me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world. (45)

This cumbersome “getting over into the I” is matched by the task of getting over into the future, one could say. The possibility of assuming the position of self-narrating narrator depends on a temporal problem, which gets staged towards the end of the novel:

I said, falteringly: ‘I was saying to myself, The past, the present? Should she not have said the contrast of the present and the future: of blind despair and hope?’ (222)

Guest is pulled between despair and hope, as “Nowhere” pulls between past and future. So at times he reminds other characters of a melancholic, “wanting to nurse a sham sorrow, like the ridiculous characters in some of those old queer novels” (217). This is precisely what Morris wants to refuse, and what makes this novel so different…almost not a novel. Do we contrast the present with the past (depressed 3rd person) or the present with the future (hopeful 1st person)? [still trying to work this out….] Perhaps this draws the difference between the creation of myth, or the telling of fictional history. The Golden Age becomes something to anticipate rather than long for. Thus the obvious pastoral nostalgia is paired with a practical politics and sustainable environmentalism.

Specific things to remember:

Art is called “work-pleasure.” It is, in short, consonant with modes of self-preservation and community. (160)

People don’t understand the idea of something’s value exceeding its use (81)…and, in line with Morris’ commitment to beautifying the everyday, there is a commitment to making basic things beautiful: clothing, tobacco pipes, etc. “You have added the utmost refinement of workmanship to the freedom of fancy and imagination” (201).

Children are educated in practical things. “Book-learning” is is casually taken up according to their interests. Contrast this utopian vision with Jude the Obscure. Morris’ portrait of Oxbridge dovetails with Hardy’s critique: the centers of learning are catering to an upper class intent on reproducing the relations of production. (103)

Morris is skeptical of technology and labor-sacing machines in general. He follows the Marxist critique: more extraction of labor, etc. Labor itself is glorified as and end in itself. “The reward for labor is life” (122).

As Guest journeys into the heart of England, his intellectual activity slowly gives way to instinctual desires…those things that have been suppressed or perverted by industrial capitalism.

The idea of the sojourner. There is a disturbing unremarkable quality to Guest’s entry and exit into “nowhere,” which could be read in terms of “open secrets.” The intrusion of the narrative voice that would narrate the perfection of the future is both acknowledge and not acknowledged. [work on this…]