Greg Ellerman begins Thought's Wilderness by exploring the “unexpected affiliations” and surprising “conjuncture” between the Frankfurt school and the formative midcentury Romanticist criticism of M. H. Abrams, Paul de Man, and Geoffrey Hartman (7–8). In their distinct accounts of Romanticism as an imaginative project of repairing the “relation of mind to nature,” these influential critics, Ellerman argues, internalized key insights of “Adornian critical theory” regarding “capitalism's domination of nature” and “the critical or utopian possibilities latent in aesthetic forms.” In Ellerman's retelling of this story, Romantic writers recognized that the work of art, as an expression of “appropriative consciousness” determined by the capitalist value form (3), perpetuates human mastery over nature. The very impulse to reconcile with nature in an act of imaginative apprehension results in “nature's annihilation” (16). The intuition of this contradiction led Romantic writers to experiment with forms of aesthetic self-negation by which art could stage human withdrawal, letting “nature speak.” This twentieth-century view of Romanticism, sharpened by Marxist social theory, continues to speak to us today, buffeted by the professional, political, and planetary crises of the twenty-first century. Ellerman's ambition, in this incisive and sophisticated book, is to recover the forgotten “political implications” of this theory of Romantic aesthetics (2).

In the important final section of the first chapter, Ellerman turns to Alfred Sohn-Rethel's concept of “real abstraction” in order to define Romanticism's “historical milieu” (23–24). In Intellectual and Manual Labour, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1970, Sohn-Rethel argued that the abstraction produced in commodity exchange, the generation of a shared principle of value bringing equivalence to heterogeneous objects and acts, establishes “the ground of abstract thinking” (28). Abstraction in material practice is the condition of abstraction in the mind. Philosophical thought is made possible by the simplification brought about by exchange. For Sohn-Rethel, the Romantic period—exemplified by Kant's “transcendental synthesis”—is “when the exchange abstraction finds its greatest philosophical reflection” (26, 28). Kant's insistence on the autonomy of mind is the most acute expression of the alienation brought about by commodity exchange. Real abstraction is a signally important Marxist concept but a difficult concept with which to periodize or establish “historical causation” (27). Ellerman does identify more specific forces of historical change, such as early industrial capitalism, but for him Romanticism is a response to a crisis with a single root cause: “thought . . . determined by value” (30), the general extension of what Shelley called “the calculating principle” (8).

Chapters 2 and 3 treat the problem of nature in German idealism. Usually I have little patience with Kant's transcendental philosophy, but I was captivated by Ellerman's account of Kant's lifelong inability to reconcile human mental autonomy with evidence of the “revolutions” in Earth's history. For Kant, time is known by an “a priori form of intuition,” the temporal regularity in nature providing the underlying coordinates for human reason (44). Yet from his early Physical Geography (1759–78) to the late notebook collected as the Opus postumum (written between 1796 and 1803), Kant kept returning to the irregularity—and unknowability—of the “natural-historical time” revealed in the “dreadful ruins” of the shattered earth and fossilized remains of extinct organisms (43). Showing neither regularity nor purposiveness, Earth in its capacity for inhuman change came, for Kant, to stand for the “remaining time” that exceeds human mastery.

In his chapter on Hegel, Ellerman focuses not on natural history but political economy. During the Jena period (1801–7), Hegel witnessed the “actually existing forces and relations of production” in “nascent industrial capitalism” (55). It is the “unevenness” or “nonsynchronicity” of industrial capitalism's emergence, in a society still largely feudal and agrarian, that allowed Hegel to recognize both capitalism's crisis-prone tendency and its historical “contingency” (56–57). Capitalism was not yet so pervasive as to seem inevitable. Hegel also articulated a version of the materialist insight, taken up by Marx, that Kant's “idealist subjectivity” is a symptom of the loss of interrelation caused by “the calculating spirit of modernity” and the sensual enjoyments of consumerism (61). The “promise of freedom”—whether in the mind's claim to self-determination or in capitalism's remaking of the world—produces only “ruins,” a beautiful forest transformed into a “levelled grove” (67–68).

Chapter 4 turns to Mary Wollstonecraft's extraordinary Scandinavian letters and her short essay “On Poetry.” Wollstonecraft internalized “a dialectic of enlightenment” first narrated by Rousseau (75). Highly expressive figurative language is the original medium of human social relation. As it paves the way for other forms of social praxis, such as cultivation and commerce, poetic language loses its original liveliness and is reduced to “mere ornament” (76). As for Hegel, for Rousseau and Wollstonecraft ruination is the cost of civilization. As Wollstonecraft observed the “uneven development” of Scandinavia in the 1790s, she came to recognize that industry and commerce, fed by speculative finance, left “devastation” in their wake (85). In “On Poetry” and in her travelogue, Wollstonecraft equates anthropomorphic figuration with the “appropriative humanization of nature” (70). Her use of strained, “inoperative” anthropomorphisms is a way of reflexively “commemorating nature's devastation” (72). This is a compelling reading of Wollstonecraft's rhetoric as anticipating the Romantic “poetics of wilderness,” but Ellerman does sidestep the implication of de Man's claim that anthropomorphism is unlike other tropes, such as personification, because it takes as “given”—as a “proper name”—the “identity” of the human. As Barbara Johnson (1998: 551) glosses de Man's argument, “To use an anthropomorphism is to treat as known what the properties of the human are.” The issue with anthropomorphism is not only the projection of human characteristics onto nature but the foreclosure of contestation over the very identity of the human.

In chapters 5 and 6, Ellerman argues that Wordsworth and Shelley, sensitized by Wollstonecraft to the “apprehensive” qualities of “poetic language,” developed a poetics of wilderness that begins in the suspension of the mind's “compulsion to grasp” (87). Wordsworth intuits a parallel between “intentional” human consciousness, or “apprehension,” and the commodification of nature. His poems are experiments in which he seeks an alternative to the teleological conception of nature inherited from natural theology and materialized in capitalism. Ellerman reads Wordsworth's “There Was a Boy” as staging a “hiatus in appropriative perception” that allows for “accidental revelation” (94). It is only “when we ask nothing of it” that nature reveals itself to us in its “genuinely nonhuman” difference (86–88).

The final chapter tracks the figure of the “ethereal atmosphere” in Shelley's revolutionary epics Queen Mab (1813) and Prometheus Unbound (1819). For Shelley, vitalistic ether theory offers an alternative to mechanistic philosophy, which, in its distinction between consciousness and matter, sustains the real abstraction of nature, including human labor-power, as available to commodification. In his reading, Ellerman extends J. H. Prynne's claim that Shelley's figurative language sees the metaphorical vehicle “take on an autonomous life and develop free from subordination to the initial tenor” (102). This, it should be noted, offers a profound contrast with anthropomorphism, where the vehicle (the human form) is precisely what is always already determined. For Ellerman, the very ethereality of Shelley's utopian poetics illuminates his effort “to think nature differently” in terms of a sentience distributed through “the common atmosphere” (108). This airy politics develops not from intentional action but though “the cessation of activity or work” (112), or, in Prometheus Unbound, in unbounded love itself.

Against the grain of recent ecocriticism, Ellerman defends “nature” as an “indispensable concept.” Nature, he asserts, “allows thinking to begin with difference,” the difference between the world made by capitalism and “relations and laws” external to it (2–3). Ellerman is less interested in those actual relations and laws than in recovering a Romantic understanding of wilderness as elusive and ethereal, “hallucinatory” and “indeterminate” (32). He regards ecology—and, I suspect, related sciences such as evolutionary biology, geology, and earth system science—as expressions of the “appropriative” apprehension of nature. In my view, such a willfully antiscientific stance has debilitating implications for the explanatory power of Ellerman's critical historicism—and, no less, for the “politics” he locates in Romanticism. As Jason Moore (2015: 78) reminds us, nature and society are themselves real abstractions, which is why we must approach history through the “double internality” of ecological and social relations. To begin with capitalist real abstraction as one's orienting principle of “historical causation” is to have accepted the terms provided by capitalist reification (27). As we are rediscovering in the Anthropocene, we live (as we always have) in a world shaped by a dialectic of planetary dynamics (from trophic cascades to tipping points in the climate system) and human projects, including the world-transforming machinations of the capitalist value form.

Wordsworth's apocalyptic imagination and Shelley's utopian myth-making share with Frankfurt school critical theory an insistence “that another relation to the world is possible” (4). Romanticism, Ellerman observes, articulates no “plan or a course of action,” only a “reminder that things could be different, that other forms of life are possible” (118). It is the work of the imagination to present us with an image of a world so different from our world that no conceivable social praxis, other than the withdrawal of intention, can lead us there. That there is a need for such images, and that their circulation may even be said to constitute a “politics,” is surely further evidence of capitalism's totalizing reach and the impossibility of distinguishing any idea, intention, or relation not determined by its logic of accumulation. What is left to us when confronted with the catastrophe of capitalism triumphant is the consolation of a total negation enacted in art or critical thought.

For Ellerman, the Romantic poetics of wilderness begins not in the sustained observation of the living world—as we find, say, in the poetry of Romantics such as John Clare or Charlotte Smith—but in the “suspension of intent” (22), the “suspension of mastery” (116), the withdrawal of apprehension. This approach closely aligns with what may be the most influential account of Romantic aesthetics developed in the past two decades, Anne-Lise François's (2009: 22) redescription of Romanticism in terms of reticence and “recessive action,” a noninstrumental and nonheroic relation to the world. I would like to take seriously and consider the potential “political” implications of Ellerman's claim that this Romantic mode of “letting be” (118) should be understood as offering “another relation to nature” (33), a “poetics of wilderness” (117). Ellerman chooses not to link the wilderness of his title with wilderness conservation, the areas protected, for example, by the Wilderness Act of 1964. In “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon (1995) identified the Romantic aesthetics of the sublime as inspiring a politics organized around the protection of “pristine” natural areas, which, in the settler colonies, legitimated the violent displacement of Native peoples. Although Ellerman—with the exception of single footnote—does not explicitly intervene in the “wilderness debate” that followed Cronon's essay, Thought's Wilderness can be seen as contributing to the recent reevaluation of Romantic ideas of wild nature (see, for example, Poetzsch and Falke 2021; Mahoney 2021). Ellerman's book historicizes an aesthetics of wilderness quite distinct from the violent fantasy of terra nullius, an aesthetics that begins in the “ruins” of a world devasted by extraction, industry, and commerce. Ellerman's poetics of wilderness—defined by “withdrawal” and a “consent to distance” (118)—offers a notable precedent for contemporary practices of rewilding, which involve both active management and careful withdrawal, an act of “letting be” (118). It should be no surprise that the discourse of rewilding has resonated especially powerfully in the United Kingdom, one birthplace of Romantic aesthetics and today one of the most ecologically ruined countries on earth.

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