“Discursive Constructions of Identity in European Romanticism.”

This research program involves a team project between the Comparative Romanticism Research Group, created at The University of Western Ontario in 2003, and a working group on Romantic Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. The overall objective is to push beyond the current state of scholarship on Romantic subjectivity, the rise of nationhood, and the evolution of the categories of “self,” “community,” and “other” in Western European literature and culture during the transitional period 1750-1850. Through a cluster of interrelated studies of identity-formation in literary and philosophical texts, periodical literature, correspondence, and travel accounts, we analyse the mechanisms that govern identification “with” and identification “as” an individual or a group. More specifically, we elucidate the crucial role of language and discourse in these processes. By approaching the topic in the format of an international research team, we hope to extend both the breadth and the depth of previous studies, to test the validity of team members’ findings by sharing the results of a number of sub-projects, and to develop a shared, self-reflexive, historically viable framework for understanding the process of identity-formation on the level of both the individual and the nation or cultural group.

The research groups consist of 6-8 faculty members and graduate students at each of the two universities, all of them working on an aspect of the topic “Discursive Constructions of Identity in European Romanticism.” The partnership builds on existing research strengths: Western’s Faculty of Arts has an internationally recognized concentration of faculty in English Romanticism, European Romanticism, and literary theory, while the Romanticism group at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität is a leading area within the University’s Department of English and American Studies, itself the most highly ranked department in its discipline in Germany. UWO is the home of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, while Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität holds the presidency of the German Society for English Romanticism.

The project originates in shared observations deriving from team members’ recent work. The first observation is that the transitional period of Romanticism was no longer prepared to rest content with ideas of identity inherited from the Enlightenment and limited to binary oppositions between I and not-I, the “proper” and the foreign, male and female as biological or essential contraries, “nation” as the product of the exclusion of the other, or Western culture as determined by straightforward opposition to extra-European societies. Secondly: literary, philosophical, political, and legal texts of the period 1750-1850 repeatedly provide evidence that language, and language use, are essential to the formation of identity. Examples range from the role of public utterance in shaping the democratic subject in post-French-Revolutionary society, to the centrality of the linguistic-theological-philosophical notion “I am” in German idealist philosophy, to the bizarre ways in which the identity of characters is determined by dialogical utterances and legal documents in literary works by William Godwin, Emma Hays, or Heinrich von Kleist. A broader context for research on the discursive construction of identity during the Romantic period is provided by literary-theoretical, philosophical, and sociological models, including Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the eighteenth-century public sphere; the work of Anne Mellor, Stuart Curran, and many others on gender identity in Romantic literature; historian Benedict Anderson’s work on the emergence of nationhood; Foucauldian principles of discourse and power; Slavoj Zizek’s philosophical-psychoanalytic work on subjectivity; and Dieter Henrich’s groundbreaking studies of German Romanticism and idealist philosophy.

Thus, our working thesis is that, in the politically turbulent period around 1800, binary oppositions between “self” and “other” are complicated by a process of identity-construction that can be termed discursive, because of its increasing dependence on discourse, language, utterance, and verbal exchange. In literary texts, as well as in letters and non-fictional prose, through often surprising juxtapositions and hybridizations of binaries – which shift and evolve, moreover, as the discourse progresses – writers position themselves with respect to reading communities, shape their self-representations, and negotiate new categories that evade or complicate simple oppositions. These processes embody a recognition that identity is historically contingent and evolves on a temporal axis.

By focussing on processes of identity-formation in the highly international, rapidly changing, philosophically self-conscious and intensely self-reflective period of European Romanticism, we aim to develop a better understanding of the assumptions that underlie modern constellations of identity, ranging from the concept of a European Community to the influence of identity-politics on reading, speech, and action. We will also be in a better position to analyse the intentional and unintentional effects of discourse on the formation of identity in the rapidly changing, and globalizing, modern world.

Through the team approach, we seek to strengthen a shared theoretical-methodological framework that draws on research from both Europe and North America and provides support for a cluster of interrelated case-studies. By sharing results from the case-studies, we will refine the shared framework, testing its scope and applicability; team members will, in turn, draw on this framework to enhance and test the validity of their sub-projects. Members of the team will discuss their work “trans-Atlantically” by means of two workshops, one at the beginning and the other at the end of the three-year program period; structured visits to the partner university; ongoing electronic communications via the project’s website; liaison with and through a post-doctoral researcher recruited and hired for the first year of the project.

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Team Projects


The sub-projects carried out by team members are a series of interrelated studies of Romantic-period discourses: literature (with particular emphasis on the novel), travel literature, the periodical press, historiography, philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment and German idealism, and certain branches of scientific writing. They function as case studies of individual and communal identity-construction. The sub-topics, briefly outlined, are as follows:


“Subject-formation in British Romantic Literature”

With reference to both canonical and marginal texts of English Romanticism, by male and female writers, Prof. CHRISTOPH BODE (LMU) is analysing cases of subject-formation in literature. He is simultaneously engaged in a study of the progressive development of European/Western identity in contrast to the Oriental/Eastern pole, entitled “Travel Literature on the Orient and ‘European’ Identity.”


“Fashions and Fashioning Cultural Identity”

Prof. ANGELA BORCHERT (Modern Languages, UWO) is studying the changing definitions of “culture” and attendant notions of cultural identity around 1800 through the medium of two fashion journals, the German Journal des Luxus und der Moden and the French Journal des Dames et des Modes.


“Romanticism and the Discourse of Improvisation, 1750-1850"
Prof. ANGELA ESTERHAMMER (Modern Languages / English, UWO) is investigating the construction of national and cultural identity in Romantic-period Europe through a focus on the figure of Italian poetic improvisers and the responses to their performances by other European cultures.


“The Case History of Literature, 1785-1897"
Prof. JOEL FAFLAK (English, UWO) is investigating Romantic subjectivity by focusing on the emergence of the psychoanalytic case history in British Romantic literature and science, in advance of Freud’s use of the case history to diagnose psychopathology.


“Ruins of Ancient Culture and the Anxiety of Decay in Nineteenth-Century English Literature”
In her doctoral dissertation, STEFANIE FRICKE (LMU) is studying the nineteenth-century evolution of the eighteenth-century antiquarian interest in the ruins of ancient cultures, emphasizing the construction of national identities against the background of a history constructed under the influence of new discoveries in geological science and evolutionary biology.


“Sentimentalism, Eroticism and the Discursive Construction of Gender Identities in the Romantic Novel"

Dr. FRANZ MEIER (LMU) is focusing on the paradoxical fusion of the sentimental and the pornographic in Gothic fiction of the Romantic period, and its implications for gender-specific constructions of identity.


“Staging Identity in Programmatic Literary Texts of British Romanticism”

With particular reference to Wordsworth and Walter Scott, Dr. KAI MERTEN (affiliated with LMU; currently at the University of Giessen) is investigating dynamic processes of identity-construction in relation to the problematics of subject and object in Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and Romantic-period science.


“Elements of the Baroque in National and Cultural Identity-Formation"
The dissertation project of graduate student ADRIAN MIOC (Comparative Literature, UWO) concerns the importation and incorporation of Baroque aesthetics in the construction of Romanticism, with particular attention to the ways in which French and Spanish Baroque literatures play a part in the evolution of cultural identity in German and English Romantic writers.


“A Glimpse of England: The Reception of English Novels in Italy (1750-1850)”
Prof. SANDRA PARMEGIANI (Modern Languages, UWO) is investigating how English Romantic novels were received in the Italian literary press, and how this reception constitutes a key contribution to the discursive process of Italy’s social, political, and literary identity-construction.


“Dramatic Forms and Identity-formation in the Work of William Blake”
Doctoral candidate DIANE PICCITTO (English, UWO) is researching scenes of identity-construction in the work of William Blake, in relation to the dramatic theories and practices of his age, and to contemporary theories of performance and identity.


“Community Subjects”
In a comparative study of German, French, and English thought and culture, Prof. JAN PLUG (English, UWO) is tracing the genealogy of ideas about community and communal identity from the late eighteenth century to contemporary theory.


“Discursive Construction of Knowledge in the Romantic Period”

Prof. TILOTTAMA RAJAN (English, UWO) is researching the differences between the discursive construction of knowledge in Britain and Germany during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a specific focus on histories of philosophy by Hegel and Schelling, interactions between German (idealist) and British (empiricist) science, and the effect of the Scottish Enlightenment on Kant and Hegel.


“Ossian and the Discursive Negotiation of a Scottish Cultural Identity”

Graduate student FRANK RASTEL (LMU) is studying the construction of a Scottish identity in relation to the infamous eighteenth-century “Ossian” forgeries, with particular attention to the negotiation of the relationship between writing and orality.


“Constructions of Masculinity in British Romantic Novels by Women”

Dr. KATHARINA RENNHAK (LMU) is studying constructions of masculinity and cross-gendering in Romantic novels by women that make use of male narrators.

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