My first book is The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). This book traces the argument from design (the idea that the smooth functioning of the universe points to its divine creator) from the late seventeenth century into the early romantic period. Major figures discussed include Hume, Barbauld, Paley, Wordsworth, and Austen. My claim is that close attention to design significantly complicates the secularization thesis (the idea that religion declines as societies modernize). Design offers an important way of being religious, and it does so well into the nineteenth century. As a result we need to rethink the equation of romanticism and modernity that has traditionally undergirded romantic studies.
In 2015 Penn published my new book, Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age. This book investigates the social and political disorders that arise within modern secular cultures, and their expression in works by Jane Austen, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and others. I place romantic-era writers within the context of a longer series of transformations, begun by the Reformation, that have privatized and depoliticized religion. I argue for the distinctive power of literary responses to these arrangements, for the ability of imaginative writing to register the “unquiet things” that characterize the mood of secular modernity, and for literature’s unique capacity to inspire new and more equitable possibilities for the future. In the twenty-first century, I contend, we are still living within the terms of the romantic response to secularism, the moment when literature and philosophy first took account of the consequences of modernity.
While it joins recent scholarly work that has brought religion back into focus, Unquiet Things reframes the discussion by emphasizing secularism rather than religion as its primary analytic category. I identify three characteristic ways in which romanticism and secularism interact. First is reform, and its consequent mood of melancholy. Second is minoritization, literature’s capacity to measure the disturbances produced by new arrangements of state power. Finally, after the secular is the characteristic strategy of a future-oriented romantic thinking.
I remain interested, too, in what we might call the political possibilities of literary language, particularly but not exclusively as those possibilities are accessed and exploited by romantic writing. In an essay called “A Poetics of Dissent,” published in Theory and Event in 2007, [PDF] I explored some of the conceptual and agentive possibilities of Pantisocracy; rather than viewing it as a failure—and thereby aligning literary activity with a failed and/or complicit politics—I argued that Pantisocracy’s specific mode of opposition was to be found precisely in the way that it made “failure” possible. I hope to continue working in this vein in future.
Another project, still in the very early stages, is inspired by my work as co-director of the “Mind and Culture” working group at the Center for Cultural Analysis at Rutgers. From 2006 to 2008 this group exchanged work between the cognitive sciences and the literary humanities. I am by no means a convert to “cognitive literary studies.” However, the ever-widening split between the sciences and the literary humanities strikes me as increasingly debilitating for those of us on the literary side of things. So I’d like to find a way to talk responsibly about that quality we call “literariness”—the things that literary language has and does that seem unique. I’m interested in how this quality is constituted, both historically (that is, culturally) and philosophically (that is, cognitively). I hope to produce a series of essays, circling around well-known romantic texts, on some of the categories of literary experience: consciousness, intentionality, and belief, for example. The idea is to bring together the way these things are talked about in literary circles and the way they are investigated by philosophers and cognitive scientists.
My first foray into these waters is an essay entitled “Can We Talk About Consciousness Again? (Wordsworth, Natural Piety, Emergence),” in Romantic Circles Praxis.