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Justice, Dissent and the Sublime


Mark Canuel


Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

Hardcover. viii+175 p. ISBN 978-1421405872. $49.95


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière – Lyon 2



It is hard to determine which audience this book targets exactly, since its pages might well seem far too philosophical for students of literature, and much too literary for specialists of political theory, the two main categories of readers who are apparently addressed by the author, if one is to believe the blurb. One might already wonder what the contents of the book can be, judging simply from its title: “Justice” belongs to the vocabulary of ethics, “Dissent” here has nothing to do with its religious meaning, and “Sublime” normally refers to an aesthetic category. How could those three notions be reconciled within the covers of one volume? Interdisciplinarity may well be all the fashion, but this does not necessarily make for easy reading, especially as widely different subjects are being discussed. Frank Canuel must have partly foreseen that difficulty, as he felt the need to justify his approach in his Introduction: the time has come, he says, to reconsider the “connection between aesthetics and social justice … founded upon the sublime rather than upon the beautiful” [4].

The first chapter is mainly devoted to a discussion of several recent books which offer various analyses of beauty: Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (1999), Wendy Steiner’s Venus in Exile (2001) and Peter de Bolla’s Art Matters (2001), as illustrations of a new form of cultural eugenics, with an emphasis on imitation and replication. Scarry equates beauty with symmetry, the social dimension of the notion being linked with the biological reproduction of beautiful people for whom beautiful objects are to be preserved; symmetry also means social equality. For Steiner, beauty is interactive, it is a form of communication between equals. For de Bolla, art can incite us to justice, to sharing. The common point of those essays is that they assert new norms for beauty, that is why Canuel compares them with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, the political value of beauty being found in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. As opposed to beauty, the sublime seems to have attracted less interest in recent years, as a “negative force that must be subordinated to the interest of a more placid (and beautiful) form of social life” [31]. One cannot help but notice that Canuel’s conception of the sublime is a very specific one indeed, since it includes hardly any reference to God, an element which one might have thought was indispensable in relation to the sublime.

Chapter 2, “Justice and the Romantic Sublime”, is clearly philosophical, as it starts with a reading of Kant’s writings, and his “‘secularization’ of the sublime” [49]. “Throughout his aesthetic, ethical, and juridical thinking, Kant combines a commitment to authoritative discursive and institutional forms with an even more rigorous commitment to dissent” [41]. The sublime experience according to Kant lies in the paradoxical relation between the moral itself and the categorical imperative. In Manfred, Byron associates the aesthetic discourse with a critique of moral-political authorities, and more specifically of retributive penality. As opposed to the consensus encouraged by recent examples of beauty theory, “the sublime promotes a feeling that is simultaneously subjective and compatible with the disagreement and nonresemblance of others – with the incompatibily among, and nonheritability of, aesthetic experiences” [60].

Chapter 3 opposes “reparative justice” to its retributive conception. Mark Canuel examines queer theory and cosmopolitan analysis, two modes of critical analysis which he takes to depend on the logic of beauty, and which both view some “attitudes and practices as politically or socially valuable” [73]. He then passes on to the study of Coleridge’s conversation poems, which “make an effort to adopt a reparative vantage point toward others that insists on a rebuilt and strengthened sense of obligation” [83]. In “To Charles Lloyd, on his Proposing to Domesticate with the Author”, “The Nightingale” or “Frost at Midnight”, vibrant argument is an ideal linked with religious dissent. “Rather than mapping individuals and communities onto each other, Coleridge reimagines the structure of those relationships” [9].

Biopolitics, as the interpenetration of law and the body, is the subject of Chapter 4. In his study of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, Giorgio Agamben has shown that “all political subjectivity is tied to the formation of the bios – the naturalized, biologized community formed by drawing a boundary of inclusion and exclusion” [95]. The sublime highlights dissent and disagreement within a general scheme of social cooperation. To examine the links between aesthetics, nations, and rights, Canuel turns towards Charlotte Smith’s long poem in blank verse Beachy Head. This posthumous text is all about nationhood, defined as national integrity and enclosure: “the aesthetic mode of the sublime proposes a moral-political stance that involves extension and rebuilding beyond the quandaries of sympathy” [107].

Surprisingly enough, Chapter 5 considers the rights of animals in the Romantic age, as new individuals can be included within the scope of justice: black slaves, women and other marginal members of society, including non-human members. In “The Mouse’s Petition” (1773), Anna Barbauld assumes an identity among all living things, man having an “angelic” duty of kindness towards the animal, while “the poem also argues for the mouse’s inferiority to the human, just as the human is inferior to the angel” [128]. Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories (1786) advocate a specific set of duties towards animals. The theory of animal rights is also contaminated by beauty theory: “writers inevitably view the capabilities of animals in terms of their adherence to the logic of beauty, that is, in terms of their anthropomorphic resemblance to humans in their actions and affiliations” [13]. The sublime, however, is present in William Cowper’s depictions of the death of animals: “On a Goldfinch starved to Death in his Cage” (1782) and “On the Death of Mrs. Throckmorton’s Bullfinch” (1789) limit the grief one can feel for dead pets, as opposed to the pity inspired by the fate of slaves. In “Fears in Solitude”, Coleridge insists on the difference between harming humans and harming nonhuman beings. As illustrated by Queen Mab, beauty for Shelley is not based on symmetries and resemblances, but is much closer to the sublime, as a human form which strives to be more than human, to include all living creatures, even plants, since Shelley also advocated vegetarianism. Progress for mankind would mean “a progress toward increasing justice toward all beings” [144].


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