The only thing worse than the label “romantic” is its inverse, “anti-romantic.” Studying Romanticism [the capital R variety, often reduced to the “big six” of Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, and Keats] has convinced me that these people actually had very little in common. They lived near the same time in history; the similarity almost ends there. It is merely the textbook isolation of certain traits—faith in Nature [again with the capital letter] and belief in the individual— which provides an organizing trope to teach them as if they were the heroes or villains of a particular age.

The same thing is true of people lumped as postmodern, where the label is used to provoke either a fierce resistance to structure or an evasion of ethics. Anti-romantic is perhaps a better label, in the sense that these people resist the totalizing narrative of the heroic individual who fights against the system. In this resistance, however, postmodernists become the new romantics—regardless of all efforts to avoid such identification. The postmodern commonality with Romanticism is the badge of resistance to the status quo; they differ only in the means they suggest to accomplish such resistance.

Postmodernism [as a convenient group noun, not a suggestion that these people actually agree on anything] can be characterized by a focus on Institutions [with a capital letter for the sake of consistency] and de-individuation. Where most readers seem to have the most trouble is with the concept of de-individuation. “If I cannot make a difference, how can anything be changed?” The dull answer is simply to resist. Foucault’s preface to Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus is far more specific than that. Foucault never claims, as many people suggest, that the individual cannot make a difference. He primarily asserts that what we label the individual isn’t really individual at all. Foucault’s program is worth noting:

  • Free political action from all unitary and totalizing paranoia.

  • Develop action, thought, and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition, and disjunction, and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization.

Though saddled with the hobby-horse of the cultural bias of the “objectivity of nature,” this program could have been Wordsworth and Coleridge’s—caught in the blind alley of organicism, they both lamented the will to “murder to dissect.” And yet, there is a similar holism to Foucault and Lyotard, who unify the world into a land of simulation and endless replication of similitudes. I’m not sure what is more paranoid—believing that there is no “real” anymore, or believing that what lies outside man’s reach (nature) is the only thing that is real. Blake never bought this—“Where Man is Not, Nature is barren”— Blake’s organicism was internal, not external, and joyous rather than lamenting the endless results of the loss of innocence. Indeed, Blake could have written the next two points in Foucault’s call for action:

  • Withdraw allegiance from the old categories of the Negative (law, limit, castration, lack, lacuna), which Western thought has so long held sacred as a form of power and an access to reality. Prefer what is positive and multiple, difference over uniformity, flows over unities, mobile arrangements over systems. Believe what is productive is not sedentary but nomadic.

  • Do not think one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing that one is fighting is abominable. It is the connection of desire to reality (and not its retreat into the forms of representation) that possesses revolutionary force.

It is tempting to misread this (like Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”) as a license for a sort of narcissistic hedonism. In Foucault’s own genealogies, power is more often productive than negative—it generates systems, establishes “rights,” and yet the resistance to the very systems which generate society is central to his model of political action; the goal of society is to constantly create the overthrow of society. In a real sense, this is the way that things have always been. The conclusion is tautologically negative.

  • Do not use thought to ground a political practice in Truth; nor political action to discredit, as mere speculation, a line of thought. Use political practice as an intensifier of thought, and analysis as a multiplier of the forms and domains for the intervention of political action.

  • Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize” by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be an organic bond uniting heirarchized individuals, but a constant producer of de-individuation.

  • Do not become enamored of power

Though I really appreciate and embrace Foucault’s methodology, his suggestions for real political action seem to be “improve your thought.” This was Blake’s cry, when he called for “mental fight” rather than corporeal war. It seems no wonder that Cornell West would describe Foucault’s project as “a wheel that turns yet plays no part in the mechanism.”

What troubles me most though, is the flight from representation. In the postmodern sense, the abandonment of the project of representation and its replacement with what Blake would call “sensual enjoyment” does not result in a “better” society; I cannot accept the surrender of the desire to represent, to communicate with a goal of changing a status quo, even with all its problems.

The flight from representation to which the arts are prone ignores the real meaning of the affix re. To (re)present something does not just mean to present it again, it also means to present it in a more deeply considered way. It does not promote the absence of thought, but the proliferation of it. In this, I cannot agree with Foucault.

Real political action is always built on representation. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.