My dissertation will reflect my interest in the new task propelling romantic criticism since the conjunction of an ‘affective turn’ and of an ‘aesthetic turn’ in the 1990s. My claim about this task is that it is still evolving, and that it has roots very deep in the twentieth century critique of the cogito. For the French thinkers with deepest impact on my project (Foucault and Deleuze, particularly in their work in the 1970s), this critique actually began with Hume and Kant, read with a certain inflection, if not most obviously with Spinoza and Leibniz.  That is, “counter-philosophy” has always been part of the enlightenment.  Yet the particular task of this counter-philosophy, since the 1990s, has been less to cut language (and experience) free from representation (Bergon’s “the actual”) than to attend to non-representational relations active in what Hume called “passions,” Spinoza “affect,” and Bergson the “virtual.”

This turn to the (micromolecular and multiple) body was characterized by Foucault and Deleuze as an ethos or way of life, perhaps most accurately summarized in Spinoza’s definition of virtue as an increase in the body’s capacity to be affected by other bodies, or an increase in its “powers.”  Brian Massumi’s recent gestures toward an “aesthetico-politics” may remind us not only that this is a politics of pleasures but that these joys or pleasures (intensities) are intensely desanitizing or deterritorializing. It matters that, as Foucault indicated with his turn to biopolitics, the stakes of the politics of language (the linguistic turn) have exposed the stakes of the politics of sensation (the affective turn).  Arguably, the Derridean semiotic ecology of difference has made it possible to see the Deleuzian virtual ecology of affect. Derrida’s insights into acts of knowledge as operations of power (the cogito as a logocentric, metaphysical violence) are continuous with Foucault and Deleuze’s insights that the intellectual task was not to ground the subject but to problematize the subject-practice divide. More recently, Bruno Latour has accentuated this labor, problematizing the epistemic assumption that knowledge is non-coincident with ecological or ‘geological’ (inanimate or agentless) action.  For Latour, knowledge/action and thing/agent divides must be reconceived as “actant-networks”.  In this view, to know is to affect (knowledge not only has cultural effects but ecological effects, and calls forth rapid reactions from ‘nature’, such that knowledge-nature mutually reorganize).

The impact of this “virtual ecology” or “political ecology of things” is to bring western thought face to face with its implicit ‘orthodoxy’.  My argument about romanticism is that – if we dare to put aside the defense mechanism of an orthodoxy that as if by reflex recoils so quickly from hints of ‘the visionary’ or ‘the ‘prophetic’ (or of mysticism) that it prevents itself from being receptive to what romantic poets even meant by ‘vision’ – we can read it in ‘new’ ways (with ‘new’ eyes), ways that might suggest organization around an affect-kernel yet closer than Latourian ‘actant-networks’ to Deleuzian ‘immanence’, ‘intensivity’, or virtuality.  We can become more sensitive to the unironic register of ‘deconditioning’ or ‘dereifying’ material counter-effects that prompt aware of ourselves as agentless networks.

Put differently, the task is to read romanticism for its materialism, and to read its materialism as active and affirmative, or in terms of “vibrant matter” (Bennett).