Common Things: Romance and the Aesthetics of Belonging in Atlantic Modernity

Common Things: Romance and the Aesthetics of Belonging in Atlantic Modernity

Common Things: Romance and the Aesthetics of Belonging in Atlantic Modernity

Common Things: Romance and the Aesthetics of Belonging in Atlantic Modernity

Synopsis

What are the relationships between the books we read and the communities we share? Common Things explores how transatlantic romance revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth century influenced - and were influenced by - emerging modern systems of community. Drawing on the work of Washington Irving, Henry Mackenzie, Thomas Jefferson, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Montgomery Bird, and Charles Brockden Brown, the book shows how romance promotes a distinctive aesthetics of belonging - a mode of being in common tied to new qualities of the singular. Each chapter focuses on one of these common things - the stain of race, the "property" of personhood, ruined feelings, the genre of a text, and the event of history - and examines how these peculiar qualities work to sustain the coherence of our modern common places. In the work of Horace Walpole and Edgar Allan Poe, the book further uncovers an important - and never more timely - alternative aesthetic practice that reimagines community as an open and fugitive process rather than as a collection of common things.

Excerpt

In a powerful series of paintings composed between 2005 and 2008, the French artist Armelle Caron creates a set of decontextualized images of the modern cityscape (figure 1). On the left side of each image, the artist presents a familiar, monochromatic map of a major city—New York, Montpellier, or Paris, for example—while on the right side she identifies the units of the map and rearranges them in neat rows. She often exhibits these paintings along with wooden blocks, shaped in similar units, that are spread out on the floor underneath. Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to rearrange these blocks and to form their own cityscapes.

Caron’s work helps us to visualize a key problem that besets the study of community: the tendency to think of both its space and its function as if it were a repository for things-in-common. Her decontextualized cityscapes perform a similar analytical operation, reducing each urban community to a neat code, a system of atomistic hieroglyphs that stress the thing out of which community is composed. But what is lost in this itemization of the commonplace—in the reduction of its community to an inventory of universalized common things—is precisely the gravity of belonging that holds these parts together in their unique urban constellations. Without addressing this other dimension of the experience of community, these individual, essentialized units—the common things so central to our understanding of modern politics and personhood—become what Jean Luc-Nancy has called “merely the residue of the experience of the dissolution of community. By its nature … the [modern] individual reveals that . . .

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