Five Questions: Jacques Khalip on Last Things

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Jacques Khalip is Professor of English at Brown University. His research interests include Romanticism, critical theory, photography and queer theory; he has recently published work on William Blake, Michel Foucault, Percy Shelley and ‘The Last Animal at the End of The World’. He is the author of Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession (Stanford UP, 2009); his editorial projects include Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism (with Forest Pyle; Fordham UP, 2016), Minimal Romanticism (with David L. Clark; Romantic Circles Praxis, 2016), Romanticism and Disaster (with David Collings; Romantic Circles Praxis, 2012) and Releasing the Image: From Literature to New Media (with Robert Mitchell; Stanford UP, 2011). His most recent monograph, which we discuss below, is Last Things: Disastrous Form from Kant to Hujar, published by Fordham University Press in 2018 as part of the Lit Z series.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write a book on lastness?

I was initially working on a manuscript that centered on historical “disasters” and Romantic responses to them; more specifically, I wanted to explore the multiple ways (aesthetic, ethical, political) in which texts ambivalently process, respond, and provide the contours for understanding what counts as a disaster. When I was halfway done, however, I was invited to contribute to a MLA panel on the “Triumph of LIfe,” organized by Joel Faflak, and I found myself reshaping my manuscript around the terms of my talk (so I have Joel and Orrin Wang to thank for that opportunity). Additionally, constant collaborative conversations with David L. Clark also helped me morph that talk into an entirely new chapter and, as a consequence, a redefinition of my book.  As a new starting point, then, I became interested in how Shelley’s fragment of a poem powerfully evoked and explored its own deployed figures of lastness–last of life, of romanticism, of “Romantic studies,” etc. The critical work surrounding that poem’s incomplete state led me to think about how to reflect on lastness otherwise–not as a marker of a late period, a point of termination, or a nostalgic threshold of sorts, but rather as a particular formal unit of unfinishing, undoing, or unmaking that crystallizes the extent to which Romanticism urgently ponders the “ends” of normative worlds, lives, identities, and whether or not we need not hold onto these in our various vocabularies. Additionally, in an era where we face professional ends like the “end” of the humanities, thinking about something like the end of Romanticism as a field might seem relatively parochial, but this question massively energized my book’s polemic. How to take seriously the last of Romanticism in a way that isn’t wistful or melancholic, but rather as a provocation for other forms of thought that do not assume the survival of the “human,” for example, as their bedrock.

2) Your introduction opens with Kant, and your earlier subjects are mostly drawn from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  To what extent would you locate a shift in understandings or activations of the possibilities of lastness within this chronological window?

Kant’s “The End of All Things” doesn’t directly deal with lastness–it is a takedown of the kind of catastrophic logic that my book also wants to critique–but it became a touchstone because of what Kant wonderfully suggests but doesn’t develop. He opens the door, as it were, to ask the following: What is a “last thought,” and what would that mean as something that already inscribes thinking? It would be a thought within thinking itself, in other words, an unthought, that inhibits knowledge. Kant’s last thought becomes a kind of thinking that exists unto itself, and in this way, quite counterintuitively, it severs itself from the humanist aspirations of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it is this philosophical species of  lastness that interests me as the thought within Romanticism, a period that emerges out of and yet responds to the sense of dark crises dominating that time in history–a time, moreover, of endless world warfare, human enslavement, economic exploitation, and despotic retaliation.

3) Rather than confining its attention to the Romantic period, your book considers a longer heritage or constellation of Romanticism, juxtaposing film, installation art and photography with poetry, philosophy and painting.  How important is this sustained perspective for your conception of how Romanticism can help us better articulate or understand lastness?

Romanticism is a concept, a theoretical force but also a force of theory, of speculation and the imagination’s “right,” as it were, to fail at imagining and thinking. Failure here, however, doesn’t mean something tied to matters of agency or identity, nor is it about celebrating the heroics of failing or “failing better.” Rather, to imagine theoretically or to theoretically imagine (to guess, to ponder, to assay) is to allow for a kind of non-productive, non-instrumentalized thinking that takes us outside of ourselves and our lived “needs” or practices. In this way, to think theoretically with Romanticism is to risk going to the side of life: to side step the narrow bounds of experience, and approach the unlived. After all, no thought can aspire to completion, development, termination; thinking thinks its failures. I turned to contemporary art works because I wanted to explore less how the present interrogates or inherits the past, and more how Romantic lastness rends contemporary aesthetics; the works I chose became unreal spaces where one could read and see what is impossible, what is irreducible to the socio-material.  How might the movement between two stanzas, for example, create hitherto unknown relationalities? In what way might a photograph constellate with a Romantic painting to help us consider what it means to render the last “visible”?

4) You write that your book is ‘about dwelling with the last of romanticism and romantic studies today and addressing the now no more as the midst in which we find ourselves’, but your argument also makes clear that Romanticism has seen itself as on the verge of endings from early moments of its conception.  In what manners do you think the risks or sensibilities of our time lend particular urgency to addressing lastness, and what might Romantic texts teach us about negotiating with, resisting or reconciling with these circumstances?

In our present state of things, we are confronted with lastness incessantly, and often it appears in apocalyptic terms: an “end of the world” that is being thrust up against us to fear, and rightfully so. Who would want to be in a world that is tragically perilous, a world full of contagion, class conflict, anti-Blackness, populist violence, and ecological breakdown? As we work against this world, however, we also need to reflect on what kind of world we want to hold onto or put back together. Indeed, perhaps what we can learn from Romanticism is that certain worlds need to end now in order to appreciate the kinds of humanistic privileges that often underscore our flawed intentions, good or bad. Romanticism has always responded to these crises, acknowledging its own complicities and continuities but also its differences, pushing us to various ends that throw into relief thoughts that other literary fields might otherwise not want to theoretically consider. This dynamic of resistance is extraordinarily needful right now, and it marks the intellectual power of Romanticism. On a more local level, grappling with the lastness of our own field is a profoundly valuable thought to hold to, as perverse as that may sound. Of course, no one would wish an end to Romanticism, but what might thinking about its end help bring about? How might a disastrous thinking unsettle some of the more hygenic responses (administrative, critical, affective) put forth to keep the field intact even as they prove to be utterly inadequate?

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a manuscript that deals with the concept of regret in Romantic and post-Romantic literature. A small part of that project appears in Orrin N.C. Wang’s edited collection, Frankenstein In Theory: A Critical Anatomy (2021). I also have an abiding interest in queer photography, and have an embryonic article in the works. Finally, I am again writing with Tres Pyle (Oregon) a polemical essay that derives from and further extends our earlier collaboration, Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism (2016).