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plex network of human events and relations. As such, “facts” always have
to be reconstituted if those networks are to be clari¬ed and redeployed.
One of the special graces of poetic works “ probably their chief social
value “ is that they are conceptual forms which operate at a high level
of generality, on the one hand, and at an equally high level of particu-
larity on the other. The particulars, the “matters-of-fact,” are subjected
to a general organizing structure which precisely does not reduce those
particulars to conceptual ¬nishedness, but instead preserves them in a
state of (as it were) freedom. The particulars are grains of sand in which
the world may be seen “ may be seen again and again, in new sets of
relations and differentials.
It may be useful to recall at this point the more traditional theory
of literary imitation. Sidney™s Defence of Poesie, the ¬nest English re-
presentation of the Aristotelian doctrine of mimesis, concerns itself prin-
cipally with what he calls “right poets,” that is, those poets who in their
art of imitation “borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be;
but range . . . into the divine consideration of what may be and should
be.” When Coleridge, in the Biographia Literaria and his related essay
“On Poesy or Art,” distinguishes between what he calls “imitation” and
“mere copying,” he is recollecting the Aristotelian tradition. In this
view, what the poet imitates are not simply matters of fact or acciden-
talities or minute particulars; the poet imitates the essential qualities of
his subject, human beings or individual persons in their generic distinc-
tiveness. As a consequence, since human life “ in contrast to the natural
world “ is distinguished by its spiritual or moral dimensions, the object of
poetic imitation will have to be a re-presentation, via a judicious selection
of phenomenal details, of noumenal realities.
The authority of this theory of imitation, along with its related concept
of referentiality, began to be undermined with the development of
eighteenth-century empiricism and modern historical thought. The rise
±µ
A point of reference
of the novel is connected to the emergence of what we now call “realism,”
in which accidentalities and matters of fact are crucial to the deployment
of a new type of poetic imitation. Among poets, Wordsworth has the dis-
tinction of being the ¬rst “ in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads “ to
intimate the relevance of these new ideas. Minute particulars of time,
place, and circumstance gain in importance (for artists as well as for
people in general) when the character of human morals is seen to be a
function of social and political processes. Erstwhile “noumenal” realities
are functionally related both to the determinations of given phenomenal
circumstances, on the one hand, and, on the other, to the manipulations
of current human perspectives and engagements. Brie¬‚y, it came to be
believed that if one wanted to understand “human nature” in general,
one had to proceed along two dialectically related paths: along the path
of a thorough socio-historical set of observations, and along the path of
the (now so-called) “sciences of the arti¬cial.”° For “human nature” was
not (is not) “made” by God; it was (and continues to be) artfully, arti-
¬cially, constructed by human beings themselves in the course of their
social development.
What art “imitates,” then, what it “has reference to,” is this totality
of human changes in all its diverse and particular manifestations. Since
the totality neither is nor ever can be conceptually completed, however,
art works must always intersect with it at a differential. That is to say,
art must establish its referential systems “ including its reference to the
totality “ in the forms of dynamic particulars which at once gesture to-
ward the place of these particulars in the ceaseless process of totalization,
and also assert their freedom within the process. Such freedom is rela-
tional, and it illustrates a key element in the maintenance of the process
of dynamic totalization: that the particulars which are to count in art,
the particular acts, events, circumstances, details, and so forth, along
with the textualizations through which they are constituted, are those
which in fact make (and/or have made) a difference “ particulars which will
be seen to have been (and to be still) positively engaged in processes of
change. Whether these processes offer themselves as progressive or con-
servative does not in itself matter; in either case the reader™s attention
will be drawn, via such details, to the socially located tensions and con-
tradictions, as well as the responses to such things, which poetry imitates
and participates in. In art and poetry these particulars always appear as
incommensurates: details, persons, events which the work™s own (re¬‚ected)
conceptual formulas and ideologies must admit, but which they cannot
wholly account for.
± Byron and Romanticism
In this context one may see the emergence of a new theory of repre-
sentation that has modi¬ed the traditional Aristotelian theory. Modern
idealist and deconstructive attacks on literary referentiality, and hence
on any criticism which presupposes such a concept, assume “ as the tra-
ditional theory had assumed “ that no natural relation exists between
“what is, hath been, or shall be,” and “what may be and should be.”
(In traditional theory, the relation between the two is supernatural,
whereas in the poststructural model the relation is at best arbitrary and
at worst illusory.) Socio-historical criticism, however, argues that “what
may be and should be” is always a direct function of “what is, hath been,
or shall be,” and its theory of representation holds that art imitates not
merely the “fact” and the “ideal” but also the dynamic relation which
operates between the two.
In addition, socio-historical criticism will both assume and display
the determinate character of this dynamic relation. This emphasis upon
the determinate is fundamental if “what is” is to stand in a natural or
scienti¬c relation to “what should be.” But because knowledge is a project
rather than a possession, it always falls short of a complete grasp of its
objects. The determinate relation between “what is” and “what should
be” is what Shelley had in mind when he spoke of “something longed
for, never seen.” The determinate is “ in the alternative sense of that
word “ what exists by acts of determination. Knowledge as a project
is knowledge grounded in a Platonic Eros, which is in the end both
determined and determinative, in every sense of those two terms. Kant™s
“categorical imperative” is an analogous concept, though it seems to
me that subsequent readers of Kant have misleadingly emphasized the
categorical rather than the imperative salient in his thought.
This is the framework in which we are to understand the idea of
the “incommensurate” in poetry and art “ the “irrelevant detail,” the
“accidentalities,” all those arresting particulars of fact, language, text,
and event which seem to escape both the ideologies of the works them-
selves and the ideologies of criticism. Poetry aims to establish a holistic
and totalizing act of representation, but this project or purpose can be
achieved only in the dynamic condition of the work itself “ which is
to say that it must look to have, like the human life it re¬‚ects, an actual
rather than a conceptual ful¬llment, a completion in the continuous deed
and event which are the poetic work. Accidentalities and incommensu-
rates in art localize this permanent discontinuity between (as it were)
“the consciousness” of the poetical work and its complete if unrealized
self-understanding. The deep truths that poetry knows are, as Shelley
±·
A point of reference
observed, “imageless” even in the poems themselves; and that tension in
the unrealized desire of the images points toward the absent totalization.
The entire process was captured, in the most witty and understated way,
by Pope when he spoke of poetry as “what oft was thought, but ne™er so
well expressed.”
In sum, poetical work epitomizes the referentiality of communicative
action. Criticism moves in constant pursuit of the text™s lost and unreal-
ized points of reference “ all the verbal and eventual matters of fact which
constitute the work™s complex symbolic networks, and without which crit-
icism cannot hope to re-constitute those networks. That reconstitution
is not achieved, however, as some factive historicist reconstruction of
the “original context” of the work. Poetry operates a form of ¬nished-
ness, but that form cannot be ¬nished in conceptual fact. On the other
hand, when purely immanent criticism condescends to the historicist
and philological effort to reestablish an image of some originary form
of a poetical work, it has missed the point of why criticism must pur-
sue referential particularity and concreteness. The project of historicist
work, its insistence upon matters of fact and accidentalities, is a critical
re¬‚ection (and redeployment) of poetry™s incommensurable procedures.
Far from closing off poetic meaning, factive reconstructions operate such
an array of overdetermined particulars that they tend to widen the abyss
which is the communicative potential of every poem. It is as if, reading
Wolf on Homer, or Driver on Genesis, one were able to glimpse, however
brie¬‚y, the deep and totalizing truth in and toward which literary works
are always moving, and to feel as well how and why their images have
preserved an imageless and referential import, and their signi¬cance has
remained in process of realization.

What is needed at this juncture is a wide and diverse exploratory pro-
gram in socio-historical theory and method. That purely immanent crit-
ical procedures will no longer do is apparent to all, even to those who
have done most to establish and develop such methods.± What is not
apparent is precisely how we should best advance the resocialization of
literary studies. My own conviction is that what will have to be achieved “
methodologically “ is a criticism which joins together work that is at once
empirically comprehensive and hermeneutically self-conscious: a con-
junction, let us say, of what one ¬nds in Robert Darnton™s The Business
of Enlightenment, on the one hand, and Frederic Jameson™s The Political
Unconscious on the other. Such a criticism will also have to incorpo-
rate, in an antithetical way, the entrenched forms of purely immanent
± Byron and Romanticism
critical procedures, from New Criticism to the latest forms of intertextual
studies.
Elsewhere I have set forth, in a brief way, my view of how historical
criticism ought to proceed. The schema is based upon the “dialectic
between the work of art™s point of origin, on the one hand, and its point
of reception on the other”:
Although writing verse is itself a social act, only when the poem enters social
circulation “ in MS copies, in private printings, or by publication “ it begins
its poetic life. Once born, however, a poem opens itself to the widest possible
variety of human experiences.
To determine the signi¬cance of a poem at its point of origin demands that
we study its bibliography. That subject is the sine qua non of the ¬eld, for in the
study of the poem™s initial MS and printed constitutions we are trying to de¬ne
the social relationships between author and audience which the poem has called
into being. It makes a great difference if, for example, an author writes but does
not print a poem; it also makes a difference whether such a poem is circulated
by the author or not, just as it makes a very great difference indeed when (or if )
such a poem is printed, and where, and by whom.
The expressed intentions, or purposes, of an author are also signi¬cant for
understanding a poem. At the point of origin those intentions are codi¬ed in the
author™s choice of time, place, and form of publication “ or none of the above,
by which I mean his decision not to publish at all, or to circulate in MS, or to
print privately. All such decisions take the form of speci¬c social acts of one sort
or another, and those acts enter as part of the larger social act which is the poem
in its speci¬c (and quite various) human history.
What we call “author intentions” all appear in his particular statements about
his own work. Those statements may be part of a private or even a public cir-
culation during his lifetime, but as often as not they only appear later, when
(for example) conversations or letters or other ephemeral writings are posthu-
mously given to the world (an event that likewise occurs under very speci¬c
circumstances). All publications of such material are of course social events in
their own right, and they always modify, more or less seriously, the developing
history of the poem.
Once the poem passes entirely beyond the purposive control of the author, it
leaves the pole of its origin and establishes the ¬rst phase of its later dialectical
life (what we call its critical history). Normally the poem™s critical history “ the
moving pole of its receptive life “ dates from the ¬rst responses and reviews
it receives. These reactions to the poem modify the author™s purposes and
intentions, sometimes drastically, and they remain part of the processive life
of the poem as it passes on to future readers.
From any contemporary point of view, then, each poem we read has “ when
read as a work which comes to us from the past “ two interlocking histories,
one that derives from the author™s expressed decisions and purposes, and the
other that derives from the critical reactions of the poem™s various readers.
±
A point of reference
When we say that every poem is a social event, we mean to call attention to
the dialectical relation which plays itself out historically among these various
human beings.
The traditional function of historical criticism has always been taken to in-
volve the study and analysis of these past sets of relations. Roy Harvey Pearce™s
famous essay “Historicism Once More” shows this quite clearly. But the histor-
ical method in criticism, to my view, involves much more, since every contem-
porary critic, myself at this moment included, focuses on something besides a
poem written, read, and reproduced in the past. The critic focuses as well on
the present and the future, that is to say on the critic™s audience, in whom he
discerns the locus of his hopes for the project which his criticism is. Any reading
of a poem that I do is a social act not primarily between myself and (say) Keats™s
work, but between myself and a particular audience(s).
Since this is always the case, the same sort of historical awareness which we
would bring to bear on the past history of a poem must be introduced into every
immediate analysis. In this case, the analysis must take careful account of all
contextual factors that impinge on the critical act. Most crucially, this involves
the need for precise de¬nitions of the aims and the limits of the critical analysis.
Like its own object of study (“literature”), criticism is necessarily “tendentious”
in its operations. The critic™s focus upon history as constituted in what we call
“the past” only achieves its critical ful¬llment when that study of the past reveals
its signi¬cance in and for the present and the future.
I should add that everything I have noticed here is always involved in every
critical act, whether the critic is aware or not that such matters are involved in
his work, and whether the critic is an historical critic or not. (A person may,
for example, give a reading of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” in total ignorance
of the poem™s bibliographic history. Students do it all the time, and so, alas, do
some scholars. Nonetheless, that history is always present to a person™s critical
activity despite his ignorance of that history, and even despite his ignorance
of his ignorance. It is simply that the history is not present to his individual
consciousness.) One of the principal functions of the socio-historical critic is to
heighten the levels of social self-consciousness with which every critic carries
out the act of literary criticism.

A more detailed outline of these procedures can be found in a related
paper. I offer this here not as something de¬nitive but as a model
against which others interested in these questions may react. An adequate
program will emerge, however, only when literary students are once again
moved to initiate a related series of practical and theoretical studies that
correspond to what was produced in the great philological renascence of
the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That many of those studies
now seem to us the epitome of academic Dryasdust does not mean “ as it
once seemed to mean “ that socio-historical studies are peripheral (rather
than central) to literary studies; it signi¬es merely that such modes of work
° Byron and Romanticism
have to be retheorized. Were it otherwise “ were socio-historical methods
actually marginal to hermeneutics “ we would be able to dispense with
literary scholarship altogether and simply “read” our texts.
We cannot do this because scholarship “ the socio-historical acts by
which criticism preserves and reconstitutes the past for immediate use “
is the ground of every form of critical self-consciousness. We cannot know
the meaning of our own current meanings without setting our work in
a re¬‚exive relation with itself and its history, including the history of
which we are ignorant. And we cannot know that history outside its
documentary and otherwise material forms. This is why historical criti-
cism must also be material and sociological. It will be, ¬nally, dialectical
because the pasts reconstituted by present literary studies are established
for critical purposes: to expose to itself the mind of the present in order
that it may be better able to execute its human interests and projects for
the future.

NOTES

± The antihistorical line of the New Criticism and (generally speaking) of its
structuralist aftermath is well known. The same limitation applies to the
principal work of the deconstructionists, at least in America: see The Yale
Critics: Deconstruction in America, ed. Jonathan Arac, Wlad Godzich, and
Wallace Martin (Minneapolis, MN, ±), especially the summarizing

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