Arbitrary Power: Romanticism, Language, Politicsby William Keach
"William Keach has long been recognized as one of our best readers of Romantic poetry, and in this excellent book he attunes his readings to political resonances as well. He finds his way around a poem like few other critics I can think of, and he also finds the wherewithal to report on his mental travels in terms that claim originality without idiosyncrasy."
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"William Keach has long been recognized as one of our best readers of Romantic poetry, and in this excellent book he attunes his readings to political resonances as well. He finds his way around a poem like few other critics I can think of, and he also finds the wherewithal to report on his mental travels in terms that claim originality without idiosyncrasy."James Chandler, University of Chicago, author of England in 1819 and Wordworth's Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics
"This book offers a new synthesis between linguistic and political approaches to British Romantic poetry. It reflects very thorough research and close attention to many important authors from this period and responds judiciously to a broad range of contemporary literary criticism. William Keach is especially to be commended for his clear and thorough command of a body of linguistic theory that ranges from Locke to Saussure, following in the footsteps of Hans Aarsleffa body of work that is absolutely essential to any understanding of Romantic speculation about language, yet all-too-little consulted by recent critics. Bringing together all of these sources of information, Arbitrary Power will be regarded as compelling, and in many respects definitive, by its readers."James C. McKusick, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, author of Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology
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Arbitrary PowerRomanticism, Language, Politics
By William Keach
Princeton University PressWilliam Keach
All right reserved.
THE CRITICAL issues in this book are framed by the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century discourse of the arbitrary-or rather, and more precisely, by what appear to be two discourses of the arbitrary that do not, at least at the level of explicit theorization and articulation, converge. On the one hand, "arbitrary power" establishes itself in the course of the eighteenth century as the concept through which republican or liberal or even Whig political discourse names monarchical, and in some cases patriarchal, tyranny and despotism. Here are two instances that cross the conventional historical span of British Romanticism:
He saw talents bent by power to sinister purposes, and never thought of tracing the gigantic mischief up to arbitrary power, up to the hereditary distinctions that clash with the mental superiority that naturally raises a man above his fellows. (Mary Wollstonecraft on Rousseau in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)1
[The Tories] will yield nothing of the patronage of the Crown; and, until forced, they will lessen none of the people's burdens. They are friendly to large military establishments; patrons of arbitrary power [at home and] abroad . . . (The Edinburgh Review, 1818)2
This is the overtly political discourse of "arbitrary power," and it marks virtually all writing during the late Enlightenment and Romantic eras in which the tyrannical authority of monarchy and aristocracy is contested. It is there in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, where George III is charged with "abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rules into these Colonies."
On the other hand, "arbitrary" gets established at the end of the seventeenth century and variously repeated and worried over through the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century as the prevailing term for characterizing the distinctive features of the linguistic sign. My own preoccupation with this discursive strain began as I was trying to understand what Percy Shelley means when he says in A Defence of Poetry that "language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagination and has relation to thoughts alone" (SPP, 513). My first impulse was to read forward and see Shelley anticipating a central tenet of Saussurian and post-Saussurian linguistic theory. Then I read Hans Aarsleff and realized that I also had to read backwards, against the grain of Blake- and Coleridge-induced accounts of the enemies of Romanticism, into Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.3 And there it was, of course, in the second chapter of Book 3:
Words . . . come to be made use of by Men, as the Signs of their Ideas; not by any natural connexion, that there is between particular articulate sounds and certain Ideas, for then there would be but one Language amongst all Men; but by a voluntary Imposition, whereby such a Word is made arbitrarily the Mark of such an Idea. (3.2.1)4
Part of getting our historical bearings on Shelley's notion of language "arbitrarily produced by the Imagination and ha[ving] relation to thoughts alone" involves our seeing in his prose and letters that he had not thought of Locke as the enemy or an enemy at all-that he had read him with great interest early in his career and kept reading and re-reading him at important junctures later on.5
But even with these fresh historical bearings on Shelley's notion of language as an arbitrary production, the discourse of the arbitrary remains deeply contradictory. It is not just that Shelley's affirmative commitment to the arbitrariness of language in the Defence stands so directly against the ways in which Wordsworth and Coleridge try to resist the arbitrariness of words. It is that, as Coleridge says in an often-quoted letter to Godwin, there is something arbitrary about the word arbitrary itself, something inherently and inescapably contradictory about it in Shelley and Locke, and in modern and postmodern theoretical discourse, too. "Arbitrary power" is the name of a problem-not just about the relation between the two aspects of the sign, but about the relation between political power and agency on the one hand and linguistic institution and performativity on the other.6 This problem is a constitutive feature of much that we are still trying to understand about Romantic literary ideology, practices, and institutions.
One way of moving further inside this problem, through a predictable and conservative route, is to look at the OED and Johnson's Dictionary. Locke's meaning of arbitrary-"not by any natural connexion," "by a voluntary Imposition"-does not fully appear in either of them, although Johnson's fourth and last definition comes closest: "Voluntary, or left to our own choice." We are left to infer that the rather specialized linguistic meaning that Locke and his contemporaries give the word is somewhat askew to, though constantly colored by, its more common uses. What we learn from the OED is that the word originates in Latin as part of a specifically legal or juridical set of terms: a noun arbiter (from ad + be/itere), literally "one who goes to see" [an eye-witness], "one who looks into or examines," subsequently "a judge in equity," and from there "a supreme ruler"; and a verb arbitrari deriving from the legal/ juridical nouns. These legal terms come into English early on, through Old French, and the legal senses remain prominent in most variants into our own day: think of arbitrate, arbitration, arbitrator, or arbitrage (the latter names a financial practice which is, as it turns out, quite often illegal). But alongside this tradition of legal meaning another tradition evolves, a tradition at times antithetical to the original ideal of looking into, examining, judging. Even in Latin of the second century A.D. (Aulus Gellius) arbitrario could mean "depending on the will, inclination, pleasure"; and in English by the sixteenth century arbitrary comes to mean "to be decided by one's liking; dependent upon will or pleasure," and a little later "derived from mere opinion or preference; not based on the nature of things . . . capricious, uncertain, varying," and also "unrestrained in the exercise of will . . . despotic, tyrannical."
This divergence in the meanings of arbitrary and its variants appears to arise out of the dissolution of an originally constituted social or legal authority, out of the degradation of such authority into despotism or whimsy. The divergence is strong in Johnson's Dictionary. Johnson defines the adverb arbitrarily only as "with no other rule than the will; despotically; absolutely," and the adjective arbitrary as: "1. Despotick; absolute; bound by no law; following the will without restraint . . . 2. Depending on no rule; capricious." But when you move down the page to the verb arbitrate, you find Johnson returning to the cool Latin legalisms that contrast so sharply with the despotic and capricious: "1. To decide; to determine . . . 2. To judge of."
Strikingly undeveloped and only intermittently implicit in these traditional lexicological sources is the identification of the arbitrary with randomness, chance. We are made indirectly aware of this difficulty in Hugh Roberts's recent effort to "reconcile" the "skeptical" and "idealist" impulses in Shelley by rethinking the influence on him of Lucretius from a perspective informed by late twentieth-century "chaos science" and by the work of Michel Serres. In "nonlinear dynamic systems," Roberts writes, "arbitrarily small effects have a tendency to take on a life of their own under feedback amplification," producing "negentropic subsystems" within "a system that is globally entropic."7 Though Roberts never reflects on his own use of arbitrary ("arbitrarily small" could have several different meanings) or on Shelley's distinctive relation to Enlightenment discourses of the arbitrary, he brings the conceptual strategies of "chaos science" to bear on Shelley's texts and on the complex natural and political processes they often represent (storms, revolutions) in ways that provoke fresh questions about the place of randomness in his writing, and that bring into sharp focus the distinction between modes of the arbitrary that depend on human agency (whether tyrannical or capricious) and modes that do not. I will have more to say later about the arbitrary as mere contingency. What I want to insist on here is that in both political and linguistic frames of reference it is not only the doubleness of the arbitrary-its signifying at once absolute determination and utter indeterminacy-that characterizes the problematic I am attempting to define. It is also the interaction between the terms of the doubleness-the historical and social processes through which what is initially random and contingent becomes absolute, or conversely through which absolute will and authority give way to the random and contingent.
When we go back to Locke and Shelley with the contradictory or at least divergent semantic history of arbitrariness in mind and look at how they use arbitrary and its variants in contexts that are not explicitly linguistic, we may be struck by how oddly the nonlinguistic uses sit next to the neutral or celebratory sense of phrases such as "a Word made arbitrarily the Mark of such an Idea" and "language is arbitrarily produced by the Imagination." Here is Locke in The Second Treatise of Government (1689), in a passage I am sure Wollstonecraft was remembering in her sentence on Rousseau, speaking "of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together":
Paternal or Parental Power is nothing but that, which Parents have over their Children, to govern them for the Childrens good, till they come to the use of Reason . . . The Affection and Tenderness, which God hath planted in the Breasts of Parents, towards their Children, makes it evident, that this is not intended to be a severe Arbitrary Government, but only for the Help, Instruction, and Preservation of their Off-spring. (Ch. 15, sec. 170)
And here again is Locke, in the next section, on "Political Power":
Political Power is that Power which every Man, having in the state of Nature, has given up into the hands of the Society . . . with their express or tacit Trust, that it shall be employed for their good it can have no other end or measure . . . but to preserve the Members of that Society in their Lives, Liberties, and Possessions; and so cannot be an Absolute, Arbitrary Power over their Lives and Fortunes. (Ch. 15, sec. 171)
Locke's political uses of arbitrary are consistently negative in this way and coincide exactly with Johnson's definition-"Despotick . . . following the will without restraint . . . capricious." In Shelley's political writing the word has a wider and more subtly graded range of meanings: in the Essay on Christianity, for instance, he can say that "some benefit has not failed to flow from the imperfect attempts which have been made to erect a system of equal rights to property and power upon the basis of arbitrary institutions" (WPBS 6: 252). But for Shelley, too, the predominant ethical and political meanings of arbitrary are negative: "The savage brutality of the populace is proportioned to the arbitrary character of their government" (A Philosophical View of Reform, WPBS 7: 51).
Beyond making evident this divergence between the overtly political and the linguistic uses of arbitrary in Locke and Shelley, what the instances I have cited help us see is that arbitrary is a word deeply and inextricably embedded in material and political life, and that Locke's effort to give it a neutral philosophical meaning in his crucial attempt to confine linguistic signification to the interaction of "articulate sounds" and "ideas"-bracketing the entire process of referring to the world of "things"-and Shelley's related conviction that language is "produced by the Imagination and has relation to thoughts alone"-are both shadowed by the material and political frames of reference and value they momentarily set aside. Listen again to Locke's formulation: in speaking of "voluntary Imposition," he claims a remarkable kind and degree of power for the mind in its verbal invention and operations, a power that functions independently-at least in the context of Book 3 of the Essay-of "things" and nature. And while he goes on in this part of Book 3 to speak of the "Advantage of Society" and its dependence on "Communication of Thoughts," he says almost nothing about how this collective social impulse manifests itself through "voluntary Imposition," through the "arbitrary" appropriation of certain sounds for certain ideas. Locke never looks analytically at arbitrary linguistic institution, at "voluntary Imposition," as a collective historical process. "Voluntary" carries with it the ancient notion of words being instituted ad placitum-"according to what is pleasing, agreeable, acceptable"-and reproduces the ambiguity of the Latin phrase. As expounded in the Essay Locke's idea of the arbitrary has little explicitly to do with notions of "convention," "compact," or "custom," though it has often been assumed that these are the notions he intends by "arbitrary," and though later in the eighteenth century some of Locke's followers slide loosely back and forth between arbitrary and terms for referring to socially instituted signs.8 As a result, Locke's linguistic discourse of the arbitrary is left confusingly vulnerable to those senses of the "despotic," "willful," and "capricious" that are dominant in his political discourse of the arbitrary.
With Shelley's passage on language in the Defence, the case is even more striking. "Poetry," he says, "expresses those arrangements of language . . . which are created by that imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man." Shelley the radical democrat and revolutionary is suddenly associating "language arbitrarily produced by the Imagination" with an "imperial faculty" whose seat of power, a "throne," is usually a figure for the despotic patriarchal authority he detests. And he goes on to celebrate language for being "more plastic and obedient to the controul of that faculty of which it is the creation." Not only is this language about the power that produces language politicized, but it is politicized in a direction that runs directly counter to Shelley's explicit political convictions and ideals.<
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What People are saying about this
James C. McKusick, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, author of "Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology"
James Chandler, University of Chicago, author of "England in 1819" and "Wordworth's Second Nature: A Study of the Poetry and Politics"
Meet the Author
William Keach is Professor of English at Brown University. He is the author of Shelley's Style and the editor of Coleridge: The Complete Poems.
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