The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form by Audrey Wasser (review)


“The problem of art in the modern era,” according to the opening of Audrey Wasser’s The Work of Difference: Modernism, Romanticism, and the Production of Literary Form, “is the problem of the new” (1). Citing the familiar maxim of Ezra Pound, “make it new,” Wasser locates in the problem of novelty the problem of modern art as such. Modernity inherits its fixation on the new from a longer tradition, which for Wasser begins with the German romantics in the wake of Kantian aesthetics. Crucial for Wasser is the way in which the romantic philosophers, particularly Friedrich Schlegel and other contributors to the Athenaeum, attempted to resolve the problems with the Kantian system by “invest[ing] the literary with the power to overcome the fundamental division of the sensible and the intelligible, the particular and the universal” (4). This power attributed to the literary hinges on a romantic concept of reflection, by which an artwork might overcome itself through a process of self-reflection that leads to self-knowledge. Yet as Wasser notes, “To assume that a work is capable of reflecting on itself, commenting on itself, and representing itself by means of its own figures is already to take the work to be coherent and self-sufficient” (9). Wasser’s main intervention, then, is to rethink the status of literature and our romantic inheritance in order to “articulate a non-romantic theory of literature” (3), while at the same time recognizing our inability to avoid a direct engagement with romanticism’s concepts.

The Work of Difference can be conceptually divided into two sections: first, a genealogical and theoretical engagement with the concept of literature, romanticism, and the inheritance of romantic thought that concludes with an articulation of a non-romantic theory of literature grounded in Deleuze’s philosophical work; second, a series of readings that stage this articulation. As the first chapter argues, one problem with the concept of literature as we have inherited it is the fact that “embedded in the very development of the concept is an indistinction between literature’s aesthetic and epistemological dimensions, between its value as beauty and its value as knowledge” (15). In the history that Wasser sketches, conceptions [End Page 113] of literature always attempt “to preserve a number of conflicting values,” which “reach a certain apex” in romanticism (16). Romanticism privileges a thinking of the fragment in its logic of reflection. Following a discussion of Schlegel’s characterization of the fragment as seed and mirror, and an engagement with Immanuel Kant’s third Critique, Wasser rehearses the central problem romanticism produces: “Between Bild and Bildung, or form and formation, or product and process lies the entire problematic of the romantic fragment, as well as the conflict of freedom and necessity that constitutes the romantic conception of art” (31). As Wasser continues, “rather than a dialectic of part and whole, we witness the specular reflection of the whole in the form of the fragment, and the formation of these fragments into a whole whose genesis lies in the fragment’s excessive and universalizing tendencies – fragments are seeds of systems” (32-33). Like the fragment, criticism for romantic philosophy, “act[s] both as the ‘part’ that incompletes the whole and as the monument to the always-already-lost of this whole” (36). As Wasser astutely remarks, this romantic characterization of criticism “cannot help but mark the failure of its own project. It would also seem to call for an endless repetition of this failure” (37). For German romanticism, “reflection gives the artwork access to an idea of the infinite. Yet by turning the work into a fragment of the speculative project of thinking the absolute, romanticism burdens literature with a philosophical task it cannot – and should not be asked to – shoulder” (37). The excessive task assigned to literature by romanticism announces, by its very excess, literature’s inevitable failure.

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