May 3, 2007 – David Simpson: “The Ghostliness of Things: The Poetics of Commodity Form”

Thursday, May 3 / 4 PM / Humanities 210

After authoring a number of pathbreaking works in nineteenth-century studies—on romanticism, the English and American novels, the English language in the U.S., and other topics—David Simpson began to make a series of broad critical interventions in theory and criticism. Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (Chicago, 1993) gave a convincing and original genealogy of Anglo-American resistance to theory, filiating it to eighteenth-century British conservatism’s ideology of nationalism and common sense. The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half Knowledge (Chicago, 1995) does similar genealogical work with postmodern theory, analyzing some of the political and ideological consequences of postmodernism’s unacknowledged roots in literary studies. Situatedness, or, Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (Duke, 2002), is an exploration of the aporetic, antinomic quality of the universalist/situated binary in a range of discourses: legal reasoning, social science, literature, biography, and philosophy. Following the aftermath of September 11th, David Simpson wrote a series of widely discussed essays on the dominant U.S. discourses of apocalypse and commemoration. These and additional essays are collected in 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (Chicago, 2006). His talk is from a project titled “Wordsworth’s Spectral Modernity: Commodification and the Poetics of Social Concern.”

He writes:

It takes up the uncannily unresolvable qualities of Wordsworth’s poetic encounters with strangers, especially needy or afflicted persons, which subsist without such familiarizing resources as sympathy, charity, hospitality or even dialogue itself. As such these poems undercut the civil society discourse that has been a linchpin of the neoliberal consensus since the triumph of the ‘West’ in 1989. Instead they reflect and embody the effects of a rapid increase in the effects of commodification (an increase in the scale and influence of commodity form) around 1800, a process analyzed by Marx, restored to literary life by Derrida, and poetically staged by Wordsworth. The abstraction performed by commodity form as the agent and distributor of social as well as economic relations renders virtual and indeed spectral the characters in poetic stories, who appear as figures of death in life. It is also reflected in and analyzed by a Wordsworthian aesthetic that is critically concerned about the ambiguous and often death-dealing effects of poetic images whose mortifying attributes are not restricted to the worn coinages of poetic diction but impinge also upon the best aspirations of high poetry. Finally it is in the sphere of reading and the context of print culture that ghostliness, commodification and concern come together to create a poetry whose analytic power is as fresh now as it was in 1800, because the mature capitalist formation that Wordsworth saw coming into being has not yet become a thing of the past.