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"Lawless wingd & unconfind": aesthetics and the possibility of justice in early British romantic-era literature

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  • British Literature $X History And Criticism
  • Justice In Literature
  • Literature $X Aesthetics
  • Design
  • Economics
  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences


This dissertation seeks to remedy the gap in the scholarship pertaining to the intersection of justice and aesthetics in 1790s British literature. While many critics have considered the literature of this period within the historical context of the French Revolution and its tumultuous aftermath, few have questioned how contemporary writers use specific aesthetic categories to argue for egalitarian social change. My inquiry, however, is not limited to a discussion of the overlap between aesthetics and justice in early British Romantic-era literature. In addition to examining how Helen Maria Williams, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and William Blake radically rewrite sensibility and the sublime to articulate the possibility of justice, I also argue that these writers radically rethink subjectivity and demonstrate a parallel between formal aesthetic features and phenomenological identity structures. Thus, this dissertation is an overture into the possibility of justice vis-à-vis aesthetic expression of, as Wollstonecraft conflates the term, "sublime sensibility" about human suffering under inequitable laws and social customs. This aesthetic expression condemns the economic, physical, and emotional dislocation individuals endure, but it also harbors significant implications for how we understand the individual. Conflating the traditionally segregated categories of sensibility and the sublime, these writers also challenge the notion of a unitary self and articulate instead the existence of the subject as multiple, the "I" as "we," the "I" as, in Emmanuel Levinas's term, "being-for-the-other" or, in my phrasing, "communal subjectivity." Just as community in the form of egalitarian justice is essential to the aesthetic constructions of sensibility and the sublime of Williams, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Blake, so too is community at the heart of subjectivity as announced by these writers. Williams, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Blake deconstruct the traditional paradigms and uses of sensibility and the sublime, liberating them from aesthetic categories and resituating them onto sites of human egalitarian struggle. These writers articulate a possibility of justice beyond the written laws and social customs that aim to enforce compliance. The possibility of justice, for these writers, must be found beyond the call or command of the law, beyond, as Derrida describes it, the "force of law"; the possibility of justice, for these writers, is aesthetic(s).

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