Matthew John Phillips: Storm Clouds and a Pallid Sun: Aesthetic Knowing in an Age of Crisis

I hear in many of the responses something like a historicism without the past, or a historicism with the past, where the preposition “with” implies simultaneity, endurance, and immanence. From Anna Kornbluh’s discussion of “repetitions” to Zachary Samalin’s skepticism of the “event” in relation to “patterns of ongoing or systemic exploitation,” from Tanya Agathocleous’s narrative of the affective and intellectual appeals of the anti-caste pamphlet “Slavery” as it travels across time and space to Carolyn Betensky’s anti-triumphalist admission of a shared “not knowing” between then and now, from Joseph Lavery’s provocative image of “absolute temporality entailing future no less than past” to Nathan Hensley’s minute and maximalist examination of how literary texts make imaginable the “anatomies of harm, catastrophe, and human waste” in empire—these responses all suggest that, far from living outside or after the history she studies, the critic lives in and with that history. They suggest that rather than study the past, we study the contemporary as it drags and endures.

Yet, it is one thing to assert that conditions of the past—environmental catastrophe, autochthonous nationalisms, financialized globalization, anti-blackness, economic crises—persist. It is another to ask how we study the historical ontology of these structures that, because they endure, necessarily exceed individual perception and experience. To quote Reinhart Koselleck: “We thus find ourselves in a methodologically irresoluble dilemma: that every history, while in process and as occurrence, is something other than what its linguistic articulation can establish; but that this ‘other’ in turn can only be made visible through the medium of language” (223). Koselleck’s “irresoluble dilemma” is perhaps most evident in the term “Anthropocene,” a belated neologism (another dilemma, insofar as belatedness undoes the novelty of neo–) used to describe history by way of the gradual and accumulative process of human industry. Precisely because “Anthropocene” is our word, past texts cannot articulate this history. Moreover, we perform a triumphalist heroism whenever we use our objects of study to prove or affirm our knowingness in the present. So, what does it mean to study history or literature in the absence of certainty?

In “The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884), John Ruskin asks his audience (for it was originally a lecture) to turn their gazes to the sky. Ruskin’s intention is simple. As he says, he has “no arrière pensée in the title chosen” but to make the audience aware of “a series of cloud phenomena, which … are peculiar to our own times” (1). To see the clouds, though, is no mere act of perception. Despite his puzzling claim that “a cloud is where you see it, and isn’t where you don’t” (10), the impetus of Ruskin’s lecture is to do more than make visible what is already seen. Ruskin’s pedagogy is both historicist and literary, and he takes his audience through the literatures of Homer, Chaucer, Dante, Milton, and Wordsworth (among others) in the process of educating them on the novelty of their modern epoch and its legacy of industrial ruin. What is remarkable about Ruskin’s lecture—one might say its contemporaneity with our present moment of discontent with institutional hierarchies—is his utter refusal to cede explanation to scientists. He describes the cloud, its features, its patterns, and its meanings, all the while refusing to grant priority to scientific instruments, like the anemometer, which “can only record for you how often it has been driven round, not at all whether it went round steadily, or went round trembling” (41). Ruskin’s methodology is thus formal in the sense described by Caroline Levine of revealing “patterns of sociopolitical experience” and “making order” (2–3). This formalism is also deeply imbricated with the form of “world-making” that Anna Kornbluh’s essay attaches to novelistic realism, insofar as Ruskin’s embrace of “imaginative vision” and “speculative intellect” is removed from the protocols of mimetically reproducing the present (iv). Perhaps because he so often maintains an orientation toward the world that is simultaneously melancholic and utopian, Ruskin performs a mode of living and writing in a present that is provisional and uncertain precisely because it is enduring.

Consider another moment of critical self-consciousness. In 1907, Vernon Lee re-issued her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (originally published in 1880), complete with a new preface that retrospectively describes the book’s critical achievements as well as its failures. Lee ends her eulogy—for she is disowning her prior work as much as she is recalling it—not with an affirmative gesture toward a new form of critique but with an early memory from the genesis of Studies. Lee describes hiding in the garden while her mother played the piano, working out the notes to the song “Pallido il Sole” from Johann Adolph Hasse’s 1731 opera Artaserses. “I could not remain in the presence,” writes Lee, “of what, I really do not know; I felt shy of those unknown, much longed-for songs, and had to escape into the garden … It is impossible to put into reasonable words the overwhelming sense that on that piece hung the fate of a world, the only one which mattered—the world of my fancies and longings” (xlviii). The act of hiding refuses to actualize the present, preserving a space beside the real, where perception is not yet bound to the telos of judgment.[1] It marks another domain of that “irresoluble dilemma,” a working out of the present as an act of constructive imagination rather than positivist knowledge. Lee’s crisis is certainly more banal than Ruskin’s, but in its ordinariness, it indexes the ways in which the everyday becomes structural as it persists.

The point I have made is that, if this contemporary is unknowable because it is extra-linguistic, then literature provides a way of limning this limitation precisely because of its investment in language and the forms of thought made possible by language. My argument has been that the problems of historical structure cannot be understood independent of literature as an engagement with that uncertainty.

Rutgers University

Work Cited

Agathocleous, Tanya. “Jyotirao Phule’s ‘Slavery.’” boundary2 online, 7 Oct. 2016,

Betensky, Carolyn. “Notes on Presentism and the Cultural Logic of Dissociation.” boundary2 online, 6 Oct. 2016,

Hensley, Nathan K. “Swinburne’s Oxford Notebook: Violence In/as Form.” boundary2 online, 7 Oct. 2016,

Lavery, Joseph. “Emergency Repairs Are Required On All Our Dams.” boundary2 online, 7 Oct. 2016,

Kornbluh, Anna. “History Repeating.” boundary2 online, 6 Oct. 2016,

Koselleck, Reinhart. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. Columbia UP, 2004.

Lee, Vernon. Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. 2nd ed., T. Fisher Unwin, 1907.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton UP, 2015.

Ruskin, John. Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century. John Wiley and Sons, 1884.

Samalin, Zachary. “Genealogies of Self-Accusation.” boundary2 online, 7 Oct. 2016,

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke UP, 2003.

[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick proposes the geography of beside in order to expose the ideological inadequacies of critical practices that look to expose meaning “beneath” or “behind” the text (8).

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