Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Marjorie Levinson reviews The Calamity Form

Anahid NersessianThe Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 240 pp.

Review by Marjorie Levinson

4 December 2020

The Calamity Form (TCF) consists of four chapters, framed by a substantive Introduction and Epilogue, both of which include dedicated critical readings of their own (such as, in the Epilogue, Dorothy Wordsworth). Each of the central chapters is organized around a particular rhetorical figure (parataxis, obscurity, catachresis, apostrophe) as it is shown to operate within core poems of the Romantic era (like William Cowper’s The Task, William Wordsworth’s “Michael” and The Prelude; John Keats’s “Isabella,” the two Hyperion poems, and the “Ode to Psyche”). Anahid Nersessian reads these figures as (inter alia) “site[s] of misalignment with the prospect of serving as evidence for something” and as means of “hold[ing] the poem back from referential extension into the world” (p. 18).

Each chapter bookends its core reading. Nersessian leads in with a sharply focused and critically intensive historical survey of commentaries on the rhetorical figure under discussion. Her sources range from antiquity to the present and feature writers who are far from the usual suspects. The learning not just on display but put to work is invaluable in and of itself. On the other end, we get an afterlives discussion of late-twentieth and twenty-first-century artists within diverse media. This discussion is as critically searching, detailed, and well-researched as the treatment of the Romantic era writers. Nersessian’s pairing of Romantic and post-Romantic exhibits shares a family resemblance with Mary Jacobus’s Romantic Things: A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud (2012). Both assemble noncontiguous studies in the history of sensory and cognitive engagement, producing a cumulative effect of illumination rather than a genealogy or an influence study.                                                                                         

Nersessian’s central claim is as follows. In sync with (note: not “caused by”) the new visibility of agrarian, mercantile, industrial, and imperial capitalism’s depredations (psychological, social, and ecological), poetry begins “staging [its] own . . . competence, or rather its lack thereof, to the representation and analysis of [these] consequences” (p. 2; italics mine). In line with Anne-Lise François’s Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (1999), Rei Terada’s Looking Away: Phenomenality and Dissatisfaction: Kant to Adorno (2009), and Nersessian’s own Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (2015), TCF casts Romanticism as an aesthetic of recessive action (François)—or, in a phrase I borrow from post-humanist philosopher Gianni Vattimo, a practice of “weak thought.” Romanticism’s peculiarly spectral quality—for Nersessian, a stylistic feature produced by the poetry’s distinctive use of selected rhetorical figures—recapitulates the peculiarly abstract, elusive experience of everyday life under the conditions of mid-phase capitalism. She discerns (sees “limned,” pp. 37, 53, 62) in the nonreferential, antidenotative properties of aesthetic objects “competencies suited to an everyday life grown spectral” (p. 5). (I emphasize Nersessian’s phrasing, such as “limned,” to signal her care throughout the book to avoid the language and logic of reflection.)

Vattimo’s trademark phrase, above—"weak thought”—can be read as a shorthand for the representational attenuations that Immanuel Kant identified as not just a feature or corollary of aesthetic experience but as a) constitutive of it; b) the source of its uniquely emancipatory effect on the individual; and c) the basis for its solidarity effect—viz., sensus communis—for a people or nation. (Nersessian doesn’t call attention to the Kantian dimension of her argument; that is my add on, meant to highlight her contribution to that conversation.)[1] Like others of her generation, Nersessian rejects the equal but opposite idealizations offered by post-war Kantian Romanticism (viz., the different triumphalisms of, on the one hand, Harold Bloom’s anxious self-surpassing, and of David Erdman’s and E. P. Thompson’s poetry against empire) and by 1980s and 90’s New Historicism (with its argument for Romanticism as a literature agonistically/heroically against itself). For François, Terada, and Nersessian (the most important names in this antivisionary company), the poetry is distinguished by its many forms of falling away from (without outright rejecting, and, thus, inadvertently reaffirming) the norm of achievement of any sort (psychic, social, political).

Nersessian’s chapter on catachresis (in her words, “a positive dereliction, a winning effort at going against the grain; a mistake . . . a disturbance [and] even an act of violence offering injury,” p. 96) could be the playbook for TCF as a whole. As she notes, Romantic deconstruction took catachresis as its privileged figure—for Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Spivak, catachresis is the figure for figuration itself. And given their identification of catachresis with, respectively, philosophy and politics, one could even call catachresis the figure for thought itself. Nersessian returns to much earlier commentaries so as to “underscore the uncommonly corporeal nature of catachresis” (p. 97) and thereby connect it to the stylistic violence and self-harm of Keats’s poetry and to the damaged life that is her picture of early nineteenth-century experience. At the same time, her discussion of how catachresis turns image and argument into practices that neither picture nor erase, neither assert nor negate, but rather instigate an infinite unfurling (in an older idiom, mise en abyme) of the join between history and poetry, brings back to our notice the breeding power of deconstruction, à la Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman. Anti-denotative and anti-referential, the Romantic is, on Nersessian’s account, an experiment in self-limitation (or, a cognate term from François, “affirmative reticence”). In the arts of both the early nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, TCF picks out and gorgeously tracks a practice of what I call, building on Nersessian’s coinage (see below), a sentient nescience, a mode of active unknowing (Keats’s "the feel of not to feel it”) that, like figuration itself, at once calls up and displaces/effaces its referent: namely, the Zeitgeist of its moment. There is a strong ethical strain at work here—“here” in the poetry and in TCF. Romanticism’s (and Nersessian’s) “attraction and allergy to historical analysis”—that ambivalence, releasing a poetics of suspension, obscurity, and hesitation—reads as an allegory of turning necessity into a virtue: a virtue that (unlike those that wear their virtuousness on their sleeve) is singularly proof against being charged with the same power-drive, the same harmfulness, the same performative fallacy that Nersessian and others of her scholarly generation reject. Another turn of the screw in the dialectic of enlightenment (even as, or just because, these writers reject dialectics as an answerable critical method or historical analytic).

The book’s title phrase, “calamity form,” both summons and keeps at a critical distance Marx’s “commodity form” (just as its subtitle, “on poetry and social life,” echoes Adorno’s “Lyric Poetry and Society”). Calamity form is Nersessian’s coinage for a poetics at once “attracted and allergic to historical analysis” (quoted above) and for a critical practice—her own—that assertively entertains the same ambivalence. Her guiding questions are “how” questions, not “why” questions: “How such a poetics makes, manages its own epistemic and analytical constraints; how it presents those constraints as a mode of counter-cognition or alternative processing; how it variously valorizes, eroticizes, strains against, and surrenders to the decision to be poetry instead of another kind of practice, specifically one with a systematic and penetrating relationship to crisis” (p. 9).

The calamity form’s poetics revolve around practices of figuration that recapitulate the peculiar “nescience” (a distinctive experience of “unknowing” that Nersessian links to trauma, via Geoffrey Hartman via Sigmund Freud) embodied in the commodity form, that hybrid of materialized spectrality (or concretized abstraction) which at once mystifies the inner logic of capitalist exploitation and reveals it symptomatically. Like the commodity form, the calamity form enables an “active and in-depth knowing of nothing.” Its “peculiar achievement” is not to explain the conditions responsible for the epistemic and experiential dilemmas and contradictions of its moment but rather to put us “on close terms with incomprehension.” Through its “anti-denotative and anti-representational” strategies, the poetry “repossess[es] the occult character of the commodity and sets it not against but beside the inscrutability of its historical moment” (p. 4, emphases mine).

In other words, the relationship of commodity form to calamity form is one of adjacency: a serial, similarity, reiterative relationship rather than a hierarchical, logical, and causal one. The calamity form is Nersessian’s category-term for Romanticism’s way of suspending, attenuating, downgrading, vaulting over, fracturing, blurring, deforming, and misdirecting the normative relationships between signifier and signified that characterize narrative, statement, argument, and reference. The calamity form, on her reading, neither critiques nor idealizes the commodity form; it “rehearses” it (Derek Jarman’s “paratactical drifts . . . rehearse the supersession or overriding of evidence by insistence,” p. 27, my emphasis). However, by doing so under the special constraints and freedoms of the aesthetic, the calamity form becomes “a friend to man,” to whom it says “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” in order to live your lives at times like these. That’s me, using Keats as a shorthand for Nersessian’s formulations: “the pathos of being unable to understand the present, to discern it as a consequence of the past . . . is also the despair of the bourgeois subject. Cowper represents its early fortunes, [Derek] Jarman its latter day.” Neither Keats nor Jarman stages (that is, makes available to us as a knowledge-form) the development of class-consciousness; rather, both aspire to “translat[e] an economic bearing into an emotional one” (p. 28).  Nersessian asks what, then, do we get from reading Keats, from watching Jarman, or from reading her own critical reenactment. Her answer: “A more measured view of figuration as companion and goad, staying with us in a world in which we would rather not exist. We come back to what is unbearable; we cannot pretend that it is otherwise if we are to make our home there. The figurative grammar that organizes our return does not tell us what to do once we arrive. It makes only one slender promise: if you could stop caring what this is like, you might know, finally, what it must no longer be” (p. 177). In other words, commodity form and calamity form are epistemically equivalent refractions (corollaries, not consequences) of a single cultural dominant, the scale and complexity of which defy understanding.

Nersessian’s overall critical method carries forward the cultural philology founded by Erich Auerbach. She reads off from a work’s syntactic habits—its sentence-level logics of construction—a culture-wide structure of feeling, seeing, knowing, and believing. These formal patterns are shown to reflect a more deeply and collectively lived order of things than the work explicitly engages. The artwork is not, on this view, a symbolic resolution of problems occurring at a more materially foundational level. It is instead a medium for living through those problems in a fashion conditioned by key social/structural relations of the times. Whereas Auerbach focuses on syntax, Nersessian studies rhetorical figures, but of course the two bleed into each other. They also cross over from poetry to critical prose, with parataxis, for instance, clearly at work in Nersessian’s own narrative and critical syntax. TCF’s jumps, slides, and compressions at the level of critical idiom (from the strikingly current, colloquial, and earthy to a more standardly detached academic style) mirror the disjunctive poetics that she explores.

What is designedly left out by those disjunctive, paratactic modes is the connective tissue that links, say, a particular poetic usage to the largest and most shaping conditions of its time and place. Institutional histories, local histories, histories of technology, reception histories, biographies, political histories—in other words, the whole province of Marxian mediation and of sociohistorical critique—fall away. What emerges is an Adornian illumination (Minima Moralia) or the kind of allegorical effect Benjamin describes in his study of the Trauerspiel. Reading this always arresting, often startling study feels a little like reading a poem by Donne; unlike things and scales of attention get pressed together to yield a new kind of understanding, at once intellectual and emotional.  In other words, Nersessian’s critical procedures produce an effect of imitative form. The features she picks out as the distinguishing moves of her study-texts—leaping over (Pindaric parataxis), address to absent things (apostrophe), strained comparisons (catachresis), obscurity (framing darkness or unknowing as “an object worthy of study and appreciation,” p. 28)—are all over and deep into her own thought and writing habits.  And this is consistent with her argument for a shared Gestalt binding Romantic and contemporary artworks. Her procedures imply that for critics like us, the historian’s linking of cause and effect in either a linear or dialectical fashion must be set aside, for in the weirdly folded time-space continuum of the twenty-first century, who could determine the sequence? All we can do without falling into bad faith is to “render the disfiguration of the social” (p. 9; emphasis mine). Decisively explaining or interpreting it, much less “drafting terms for its amendment”—these goals are off the table. There is a winning modesty to this disclaimer, especially welcome amidst the hype of our relentlessly—self-importantly—political criticism.

TCF’s central claim echoes Jameson’s classic reading of postmodernism (a claim supported by Nersessian’s superb readings of late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century artworks): namely, that in certain epochs, individuals can do no more than cognitively map at the level of their own experience the unrepresentable totality that is late capitalism. The difference is that Jameson retains for critique the task of explaining—giving a causally organized picture of—these unintelligibility and disorientation effects. For Jameson, explaining a non-representable totality becomes possible through recourse to revised models of causality (Althusser’s “structural causality”), of ideology (not false consciousness but how individuals live their relation to the Real), and of knowing (where “under erasure” substitutes for “repression” as a model of blindness and insight). 

Nersessian’s stated ambivalence about historical explanation emerges dramatically in the parallel she sets up between commodity form—a theoretical object and form of historical analysis—and calamity form: an aesthetic practice and the form of a sensibility that are historically specific (though over a wide span: 1785 to today). Her procedures tease us to wonder what exactly is the force of “the historical” in her argument and the modes of analysis—largely Marxian—that are favored. History is everywhere in TCF and it carries the aura of causality, but it will not step into that role. Maybe Nersessian is saying that there are satisfying causal explanations—of the calamity form, vis à vis the commodity form and the modes and relations of production that commodities embody—only not for us. Causal chains and relations exist, but they are inaccessible to us for cognitive and/or ethical reasons Cognitive, because our own organization of social and psychic life disables us from discerning those causes. Ethical, because explanation, like translation, is ineluctably error and betrayal of its object or source. TCF’s persuasive and provocative answers to the many “how” questions that it raises show how productive it is to set commodity and calamity form in parallel. But the book’s claims for the significance of the relationship are left floating. What does it mean that these two things are alike? As I’ve said, TCF is scrupulous not to make those claims; scrupulous to enact its own kind of “nescience.” In light of that, we might fairly ask to know more about the concept of history in play in this book.  

By the company it keeps (see my references, above), by the brio of its readings, and the intellectual sparks it sends flying, TCF is a work to be reckoned with on any scale of scholarly value. Although I haven’t offered comments on individual readings, all are rich with insight, their textual sensitivity is nonpareil, their linking of critical commentary to evidence is masterful, and they fully achieve that “opening up” that Nersessian says she aims for.  I was most strongly drawn to the reading of Keats’s “Isabella,” to the entire chapter on Cowper’s garden poetics, to the treatment of Constable, and to the many discussions of latter-day Romantics (Jarman et al.).

And, a not insignificant dividend, TCF is a page-turner, the likes of which I can’t remember encountering. Reading Nersessian is like talking to a person of enormous intelligence, originality, creativity, energy, wit, confidence, and style who also works to make herself unknowing enough—vulnerable, susceptible enough—to channel the unheard melodies of the best known of Romantic era poems. 



[1] I see Nersessian’s argument as, in effect, mobilizing the special resources of the Kantian aesthetic for a new kind of defense of Romantic disinterest: specifically, a) the Kantian distinction between subjective, reflective judgments and objective, determinative ones; and b) its distinction of judgments of the beautiful and the sublime along the axis of harmony vs. dissonance within the human faculties and between the human observer and nature’s sublime objects. I mention this only to evidence the kind of thinking that TCF generates. It really gets you going.