Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Michelle Weinroth, Reclaiming William Morris, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996, 302 pp., cloth.

Astrid Vicas[ # ]
Saint-Leo College, Florida

Æ - Volume 3: Fall/Automne 1998

This is a book that focuses on a central question : what is the relation that links speech, community, emotion and action ? It asks this question about a specific form of communication, one in which the appeal to community, emotion and action is inescapable, political propaganda. Reclaiming William Morris is organized around a handful of texts for which Weinroth provides a close, one could say almost loving, certainly attentive, reading. A pair of texts initiates and articulates the contrast between politically conservative and revolutionary stances, which is the focus of Weinroth's book. These texts are the transcription of Stanley Baldwin's 1934 speech for the centenary celebration of Morris' death and Robin Page Arnot's polemical reply to it. The first piece is representative of the conservative stance, the second, of the revolutionary. Weinroth undertakes what she calls, following Foucault, an archaelogical excavation of the devices they display as pieces of propaganda in the task of claiming the legacy of Morris as their own. This means that her method is a creative conjunction of textual, historical, political, and philosophical analysis. The archaelogy of political dissenting speech is pursued in examining samples of revolutionary discourse of the Popular Front and of the Cold War, affording a look at a somewhat neglected modernist genre, if it can be called that, British Marxist speech between the 1930s and 1950s.

The author's premise is that to understand the force of propaganda, whether consensus-building or dissenting, one needs to look upon propaganda not just negatively, as merely distorting and manipulative speech, but as a positive means of sustaining a mutually felt bond which both speaker and audience seek. This mutually felt bond is elaborated in terms of a Kantian aesthetic, and so, the strata uncovered by Weinroth's archaelogical investigation into propaganda follow a configuration ordered by a Kantian aesthetic. Whether it be to promote consensus or dissensus, a piece of propaganda, like a work of art, is the occasion on which the link between speaker and audience takes shape and is reinforced.

The specific form this meeting of individuals through feeling occurs depends on the kind of propaganda at stake: conservative or radical. On the one hand, conservative propaganda, exemplified by Baldwin, achieves a unity of feeling between speaker and audience by appealing to commonly accepted images of community. On the other hand, revolutionary propaganda, exemplified by Page Arnot and others, produces a sense of community of its own by drawing together speaker and audience in the drive to exhibit resistance to a dominant power, and exult in self-sacrifice. The first kind of propaganda is framed in terms of an aesthetic of the beautiful, the second, an aesthetic of the sublime. Thus, the distinction between kinds of persuasive speech is made to mirror a distinction that is readily available in a Kantian aesthetic. More specifically, conservative propaganda is an instance of non-rational consensus-building speech. Here, the speaker forges a link with the audience that draws on the audience's and the speaker's belonging to a common ethnic and historical background. This is typically evoked through appeals to images of place, land, and the customs of the forefathers. The persuasive force of conservative-style propaganda lies in fostering the sense of restful delight that the appeal to a common ground produces. The dissenting rhetorician has no such common ground to exploit. On the contrary, the dissenting speaker seeks to persuade the audience to turn their backs to the comforts promoted by self-recognition in a common history and place. The radical speaker wants the audience to grasp, non-conceptually, the discrepancy between an imaginable, and easy to adhere to, image of social harmony, and a utopian space that lies beyond human powers of imagination. This unimaginable utopian space is the ideal revolutionary society, of which no one has any experience, yet which is the object of a rational ideal. Awe in the face of the impossible to grasp ideal, and terror at ever being able to attain utopia creates a bond between speaker and audience. The commonly felt admiration for such a project unites them in fostering a common resolve. It calls on them to offer their lives in self-sacrifice, in subordination to something that surpasses them all.

Now one can think of Kant's aesthetics as establishing fixed, ahistorical structures of human awareness. Thierry de Duve sometimes speaks as if Kant's characterization of the aesthetic has revealed a permanent feature of human experience. Although this is not entirely clear, it appears that Weinroth takes a different view. The Kantian aesthetic connects players, emotion, action and speech in a community. But these players, their emotions, actions and speech are subject to historical transformations, unlike, according to Kant, the internal make-up of the cognizing and feeling individual. As Cassirer had historicized Kant's forms of the understanding, so Weinroth perhaps historicizes the Kantian aesthetic. The upshot of this use of Kant's aesthetic is that it affords us a way of looking at culture that does not turn it into a superstructural, ideological reflection of « what really counts » on the standard Marxist view, that is, relations of production among individuals. Reclaiming William Morris only looks at propaganda. But the underlying intent is surely broader. It lies, quite possibly, in attempting to capture the specificity of culture without appealing to such notions as reflection, mimesis, or superstructural reproduction of the real.

Linking the aesthetic with the constitution of politics and the subject in the modern liberal state stemming from the Enlightenment is a recurrent theme in the contemporary literature, surfacing as it does in the writings of authors as diverse as Terry Eagleton and Luc Ferry. In a sense, Weinroth's work can be seen as an extension of Eagleton's in the Ideology of the Aesthetic. However, rather than brushing a sweeping panorama of the aesthetization of politics in modernity, as perhaps others have done, Weinroth patiently examines select examples of political communication. Her patient analysis of the aesthetic underpinnings of kinds of political speech leads her in effect to espouse a view of Marxist revolutionary speech that is at odds with Eagleton's. We might take ideology to be a form of performative speech whose function it is to convey and enforce upon its audience a determinate configuration of social relationships linking individuals. It, moreover, accomplishes this feat without its intended audience feeling that the way social relationships are configured is demeaning. This is, I think, a sense of « ideology » that both Weinroth and Eagleton could accept. Both Weinroth and Eagleton accept that a Kantian analysis of the aesthetic of the beautiful captures a conservative ideology that aims at sustaining the modern state and preserving it from inflammatory attacks of political dissenters. Both agree that a Kantian analysis of the sublime captures the form of speech of the dissenting revolutionary. Eagleton sees in sublime dissent an ascent to a higher mode, if not of intersubjectivity, then at least of a potentially more fruitful way of developing intersubjectivity. It aims at presenting what an utterly fulfilling life could be. The very attempt to present such a vision is sublime, since we do not have any actual experience or concept to draw on to do so. Yet these experiences and concepts are presumed to be forthcoming, and so dissenting political speech is a route to a higher rationality, and leads beyond deology. Weinroth's sympathies clearly lie with Communist dissenters. Yet her view of the sublimity of Communist dissenting rhetoric is more somber. On her view, Communist dissenting speech prepares its audience to assume a posture of perennial self-sacrifice, for a purpose that they are asked not to fathom, but to accept in blind faith. No guarantee that this faith is well-placed, or that it will ever bear fruit is offered, nor should the militant expect it. Weinroth, thus, highlights the non-rational austerity of Communist dissenting speech. It frames the state of mind of those who not only cannot envision what a better life could actually be like, but have resigned themselves to prospects of indefinite toil. The sublimity of the dissenter is not a gateway to a higher state of fulfilment, a more complete, rational and liberating theory of the social. On the contrary, the sublimity of dissent is itself ideological on Weinroth's view. To the extent that this is so, Weinroth's perspective on the sublime seems more consonant with Lyotard's in Peregrinations. For Lyotard, himself a disabused Marxist activist, political and historical understanding occur in a way that bypasses conceptual representation. Only something like the Kantian aesthetic can do justice to it. Likewise, political speech, Weinroth emphatically brings out, bypasses rational argumentation not only in its function of enforcing the acceptance of a status quo, but also in its function of contesting it. The purpose of political speech is not to lead to a more encompassing form of rationality, but to elude rationality altogether. Yet while Lyotard apparently jubilates in the permanence of the dissenting elision of rationality, it is not clear that Weinroth is willing to go so far. It would perhaps not be amiss to see in her preoccupation with the sublime a wistful longing to share in the kind of faith both Eagleton and Lyotard have apparently kept intact: Eagleton, in a Marxist eschatology, Lyotard, in his own Kantianized version of Breton's permanen revolution of the imagination. Yet, if her own archaelogicals investigations into the texts she examines has made Weinroth wary of sweeping claims for the redemptory nature of the sublime, the very idea of the sublime, one could say, continues to exercise its fascination on her. Perhaps a further critical step to take would be to examine the underpinnings of this fascination with the sublime.

This book is distinctive in engaging in an elaborate investigation of the sublime in modern political experience. While there are already a few general treatments of the topic, there is a relative dearth of detailed analyses of it. Reclaiming William Morris fills this gap, and so it is highly recommended reading for anyone who wishes to pursue contemporary renditions of a Kantian aesthetics. I for one, am looking forward to further installments of Weinroth's forays into the manifestations of the sublime in contemporary forms of communication.

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