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Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman.

Phantom Formations: Aesthetic Ideology and the Bildungsroman. By MARC REDFIELD. Cornell U.P. 1996. pp. xiv + 220. 27.50 [pounds sterling].

IN THE preface to Phantom Formations, Marc Redfield describes as its `central argument' the views that `the notion of the Bildungsroman brings into sharp focus the promises and pitfalls of aesthetics, and that aesthetics in turn exemplifies what we call ideology' (p. viii). Not only, for Redfield, does the Bildungsroman `exemplif[y] the ideological construction of literature by criticism' (p. vii), but aesthetics itself `partakes of the emergence of the universal subject of bourgeois ideology' (p. viii). In an openly confessional, almost penitent, paragraph, Redfield admits that his book `situates itself in the tradition of rhetorical reading associated with the work of Paul de Man' (p. x), but he draws equally on the work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy on German Romanticism, arguing that the notion of the Bildungsroman `functions as a pragmatic, aestheticized rendering of the notion of the "literary absolute'" (p. xi). Redfield chooses four texts by Goethe, Eliot, and Flaubert to analyse how they `explore, and ultimately exhaust, the resources of aesthetic or dialectical irony' (pp. 202-203), although his wider target is the notion of literature, the subject of aesthetics, and literature theory and its practice within academic institutions: `Literature may be a ghost, but the aesthetic machine that it discreetly haunts continues to play a major part in the production of norms of cultural identity' (p. xii).

Chapter 1 announces that `literary theory seems [to be] a specter without substance' (p. 1). Yet literary theory is not an honest ghost, as Redfield attempts to show. Building on Fredric Jameson's `indispensable genealogical insight' (on the dust jacket of Terry Eagleton's `academic bestseller', The Ideology of the Aesthetic) that `theory originates "in the contradictions of philosophical aesthetics'" (p. 4), Redfield rehearses the history of aesthetics, from its development as a specific eighteenth-century discourse, via Kant's Third Critique and post-Kantian aesthetics, to the twentieth-century preoccupation with `theory'. On the premise that, `[t]hrough the category of the aesthetic, philosophical systems seek to manifest and guarantee their own truth and coherence' (p. 6), Redfield claims that aesthetics functions as a variety of discourses. Above all, the universality as well as subjectivity of aesthetic judgement on Kant's model makes it a political notion, Redfield contends, pointing to Schiller's extension of Kantian aesthetics. Because he believes that `the imaginary totality of "Culture" is fragmented at its origin by its double task of producing what it affirms', Redfield argues that aesthetics becomes unstable and turns into `theory' (p. 27). Whereas de Man held that `theory is itself the resistance to theory', Redfield believes that `"[l]iterature" ... is another name for the crisis of theory' (p. 37), and it is at this point that he turns to the Bildungsroman.

Tersely, Hegel summarized the Bildungsroman as a genre whose hero gets the girl, finds a job, marries, and turns into yet another philistine. Such irony proves to be thoroughly appropriate, for Redfield argues that the Bildungsroman is found everywhere but exists nowhere, being both `excessively available' yet `hyperbolically absent' (p. 63). As a result, he regards the Bildungsroman as `the genre of the aesthetic' (pp. $2, 65). Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, often taken as the Ur-Bildungsroman, was regarded by Friedrich Schlegel as so unique that it could only be understood in itself (aus sich selbst), because `it does not just judge itself, it also presents itself' (stellt sich auch selbst dar). Or, in the language of literary theory, the `intricacies of closure' in that work make it `a paradigmatically self-conscious novel' (p. 79). The title Wilhelm Meister in fact refers to two novels, the Lehrjahre (1795-1796) and the Wanderjahre (1821/1829), and Redfield devotes a chapter to each. The correspondence between Goethe and Schiller in 1795-1796 provides a link between the Aesthetic Letters as a `founding text of aesthetic culture' and the novel, described by Wilkinson and Willoughby as its `fictional counterpart' (p. 66). Yet, Redfield contends, the Lehrjahre is `a Bildungsroman about the impossibility of Bildung, renouncing Bildung as a literal accomplishment so as to recuperate it as a pure fiction, the fiction of an impossibility' (p. 107). Furthermore, the contradictions inherent in the Bildungsroman are said to be embodied in the figure of Mignon, whose puppet-like headbanging apparently underscores `the violent, figurative origins of all identities' (p. 91). In the Wanderjahre, that violence is even more apparent; and, one of the tasks of Redfield's chapter on this novel being `to suggest that the "politics of aesthetics" resides in the peculiar and fundamental relation of aesthetics to the technical' (p. 97), the footnotes and references to Heidegger on technology increase. Whereas the various communities proposed in the Wanderjahre emphasize the importance of pragmatic knowledge, the work as a whole `demonstrates that such pragmatism is finally an exacerbated aestheticism' (p. 107). The interplay between Handwerk and Kunst in the novel's `master-trope' of surgery constitutes, Redfield argues, a fragile solution to the problem of the relationship between aesthetics, knowledge (Wissenschaft), and power. In short, the Wanderjahre is read as a `dark parody' of the Aesthetic State of Schiller's Letters (pp. 121, 207).

Turning to English and then French literature, Redfield regards Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-1872) as `the culmination of a discourse of sympathy which originates with Shaftesbury and eighteenth-century psychological aesthetics' (p. xi). He concentrates in particular on Dorothea's visit with Mr Causabon as newly-weds to Rome; Madame Laure's real murder of her husband instead of her enacted murder of her lover; and, in later works, on the `Gothic theme of telepathy' (p. 156). In Eliot's `sentimental aesthetic' and its concomitant mechanization of the body, `[a]esthetic embodiment has become a question' (p. 159). The same question becomes even more insistent, Redfield thinks, in L'Education sentimentale (1869), for if `Flaubert's name has come to signify the production and ratification of literature itself' (p. 172), his novel demonstrates `the inextricability of aesthetic history, phallocentrism, and commodification' (p. 186). Indeed, L'Education sentimentale is said to `take to the limit the aestheticization of irony as pure, impersonal form' (p. xii). Here, the key scenes for Redfield's analysis, Freudian or otherwise, are Frederic's first encounter with Madame Arnoux; his visit to the forest of Fontainebleau with Rosanette; his wait, as the forces of revolution gather, for Madame Arnoux in the Place de la Concorde; and an attack of the croup that afflicts Madame Arnoux's child. All these scenes are said to invite construal in terms of fetishism, along the lines of Sartre's approach in L'Idiot de la famille. But if Bildung can be rewritten as the making (factio) of a fetish (feitico), as Redfield punningly suggests, this still leaves History: `the inscription, the cut, or the rupture, through which an event occurs as an event of signification, which defines but remains radically external to the symbolic orders of consciousness and meaning' (p. 203). Even then, as Marx put it, in periods of revolutionary crisis men conjure up the spirits of the past (Eighteenth Brumaire)--just as `the specter of the Bildungsroman haunts literary criticism' (p. vii). The `irreducible fiction' that thought can become fully adequate to `history and death', dubbed the `German ideology' by Marx and Engels, is an `aesthetic lure' that, according to the conclusion of Phantom Formations, aesthetics itself (as `theory') destroys and `though we can hardly help experiencing this destruction as a loss, we also experience it as literature, and inhabit it as history' (p. 213).
   In his preface, Redfield also writes

   If my book has a single overriding purpose, it is to demonstrate that
   rhetorical reading is cultural critique and that, in the absence of a
   deconstructive or rhetorical analysis, cultural criticism will remain blind
   to the rationale and sometimes to the entire existence of the violent
   gestures with which aesthetic systems seek to exorcise their inability to
   ground their claims' (p.x)

The merely hypothetical existence of a unifying purpose, as well as the blunt, italicized equation of reading and cultural critique, should alert the reader to what might be regarded as some of the shortcomings of this book. And, just as Schiller suggested to Goethe that the relation between the Moral and the Fabel in the Lehrjahre remained unclear, so it seems that Redfield's `purpose' (his critique of aesthetics) and what he describes as the `central argument' (his account of the Bildungsroman) are insufficiently related and, at times, even at variance with each other. Furthermore, some of the key tropes of Goethean aesthetics--the relation between doing and knowing, the coordination of hand and eye, and the importance of self-limitation--are somewhat tendentiously interpreted by Redfield, who does not always adequately expound before censuring. Nor does he fully explore the debate about the relationship between Art and Life in the Enlightenment and especially Weimar Classicism. Similarly, the development of the notion of History itself in terms of categories derived from the concept of Bildung, clearly central in Herder, is largely ignored.

When Phantom Formations seeks to persuade us that ideology and literary theory are not just villains but arrant knaves, the reader, like Horatio, might well be tempted to reply: there needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see a professor of English investigating German aesthetics in general and Wilhelm Meister in particular, topics frequently neglected by many American modern language departments today.


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Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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