Isobel Armstrong’s Material Imagination

Isobel Armstrong’s Material Imagination

Steven Connor

This is the text of a paper given at the conference ‘Radical Aesthetics: The Work of Isobel Armstrong’, organised by the Institute for English Studies by Anne Janowitz, Sally Ledger, Jo McDonagh and Laura Marcus on 21 June 2002.

I draw the phrase ‘material imagination’ from Gaston Bachelard, who uses it to describe two intersecting things: firstly, the ways in which the material world is imagined, not just by scientists and engineers, but by everyone, all the time: poets, children, footballers, cultural analysts, cabdrivers, medics and mad Hatters: the ‘material imagination’, then, as the way in which matter is imagined. In an age of conventional scepticism, in which the mind is always, as a Beckett character says, ‘on the alert against itself’, the prescribed move to make at this point is to doubt whether one can ever look steadily at anything other than one’s own conceptions or categories. But where do these conceptions and categories come from? For there is no way of imagining the nature of the material world which does not draw on and operate in terms of that material world, its spaces, substances, stresses, processes. Imagination is itself always prepossessed by the world that it attempts to imagine, made up, like the gingerbread-man enquiring into the question of his dough, of what it makes out. So the phrase ‘material imagination’ must signify the materiality of imagining as well as the imagination of the material.

Isobel Armstrong’s work is a the most richly significant extension we have seen in recent decades of what might be called a Hegelian materialism of signification. Perhaps that work is, as a result, sometimes caught in the fix that Hegel bequeathed to us all, whereby one cannot imagine any kind of object except as dead and other to us, even as we also cannot help wanting to take that object into epistemological custody, making it our own, making it us, by flooding it with feeling and concept. We either leave the object out in the cold of our objectifying, or we kill it with the kindness of our identification. Wherever you look, whether within the recesses of the subject, or at the object, the same subject-object pingpong is always about to start up.

And yet, Isobel has always been disinclined to let such predicaments bake into impasses. Indeed, the effort of her entire work has been to show the vitality of such predicaments, predicaments which are largely epistemological inLanguage as Living Form and political in Victorian Poetry. The problem which keeps generating and regenerating the ‘living form’ of nineteenth-century poetry is that of how to marry the self-forming contemplations of Hegel, in which the mind risks overwhelming its own world by taking itself as its own other, with Marx’s insistence on relationship. It is only when there is a relationship between the material act of mind represented by a poem and sets of material circumstances that relations can really exist, that time can be inhabited as well as merely unfolding, and that the poem can act and work (1982, 48-9).

The most significant moments in Isobel’s virtuoso readings of nineteenth-century poetry are often those where a certain field of material possibility is isolated, rotated and worked. There is, for example, the moment in which she reflects on Hopkins’s use of the phrase ‘glassy peartree’, saying that ‘[t]he idea emerges through the particular physical nature of glass and one might say that the notion of transparency is given a soul because it is incarnate in the specific irreducible and particular qualities of glass’ (1982, 8). Or there are these reflections on the idea of an ‘air’ in Victorian Poetry:

An air is a song and by association it is that which is breathed out, exhaled or expressed as breath, an expiration; and by further association it can be that which is breathed in, literally an ‘influence’, a flowing in, the air of the environment which sustains life; inspiration, a breathing in. All these meanings are present in the elegy, as perfume, breezes, breath or sighs, where they are figured as a responsive, finely organised feminine creativity, receptive to external influence, returning back to the world as music that has flowed in, an exhalation or breath of sound. (1993, 326)

Another example would be the reading of a passage from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in Language as Living Form which concludes that

Everything is moving through everything else and the kinship of exhalation and winds, rain and aerial dew, which are all offered as separate entities and actions, is such that forms and functions merge, reverse and exchange. With ‘it circles round’, ‘it’ is not merely either the original exhalation or the aerial dew but every element in the passage. Exhalation, winds, blooms, fruits, flowers, stems, leaves, dew, as a totality, a unity, circle round. The rapidity, the flux of syntax, the capacity of Shelley’s words to make things dematerialise into aery thinness, is extraordinary. (1982, 45)

These passages have in common the fact that they are reading poems which are themselves at these moments reading aspects of the material world, the world of nonhuman objects, substances, organisms, and processes, dew, air, transpiration, evaporation and, in the process, perhaps also trying to become these objects. In the last quotation, Isobel’s argument is that Shelley can do anything, because the mind of his poem makes everything over into itself. At this point in her argument, she is instancing Marx’s critique of Hegel, that, in the latter’s philosophy, ‘Man cannot create himself in terms of a meaningful and evolving relation with externality; he can only create himself anew as an entity of thought’. (1982, 43) But, in evoking Shelley’s dematerialising power, Isobel seems also to limit or partly to revoke it: if there is evaporation, coalescence, there is also work in Shelley’s writing, if only the work of dissimulating work. Isobel’s own working out of the process whereby work is dissimulated in Shelley’s poem restores the sense of an encounter, a striving, a resistance, an abrasion, a transforming, a surpassing. At moments like these, Isobel is borrowing a poem’s encounter with material objects or processes to release and disclose the nature of the poem as a worked object for her.

All of this might come down, as is suggested at the opening of Language as Living Form, to a question of digestion. You cannot eat the idea of a cabbage; but equally you cannot have your cabbage and eat it except by taking in the idea of a cabbage along with the object itself. Isobel shows the poem wrapping itself round what lies outside it. She similarly wraps herself round or assimilates to herself the poem which lies initially outside her own powers of assimilation. In reflecting upon the struggle of the Romantic poem to find and secure its objects, Isobel is also reflecting on her struggle not simply to swallow up the actuality of her object, the poem. She is trying to protect herself from becoming an ‘entity of thought’, that grows thinner and more spectral the more it consumes. For this reason, she will seem to want to fail to some degree, will want to reveal that Shelley’s poem does not quite bear out her argument, cannot fully be assimilated to its reading, lest she convict herself of taking the poem into custody, as she is saying it does with natural process. She will want, to borrow the term she borrows from Gillian Rose in a chapter of The Radical Aesthetic, to tarry, with a judicious anxiety, somewhere in the broken middle between world and word. Hence a certain rhetoric of approximation and curtailment, a cordon sanitaire that the critical act seems sometimes to want to throw around its object of analysis, as it were to protect its objecthood, and thus to allow the continuing possibility of relationship between object-poem and subject-critic. Significantly, this chapter in Language as Living Form begins and ends with Hopkins, and his ‘sustained attempt to prevent the world of objects from disappearing’ (1982, 51). There are two kinds of disappearance: the disappearance into objecthood uninterpreted, unrelated, untransformed; and the evaporation of objects into mind. Between these two alternatives, allegedly, there is labour, love, life, the life of the worked poem, its corporeal, living form.

Michel Serres suggests that every metaphysics is governed by a physics, that a specific form or theory of the material world bears upon every theory or philosophy. What kind of materiality could be said to be at work in Isobel Armstrong’s writing through the poetry of the nineteenth century during the 1980s and 1990s? It is conspicuously a materiality that makes itself known through struggle, strain, stress, and other similarly stringent terms evoking prodigious labour and strongarm tactics. One of the commonest words of description in Isobel’s analyses is also almost always a word of commendation: the word ‘strenuous’. The cogito of Isobel Armstrong’s work is a cogito not of knowing, but what Bachelard, following Maine de Biran, has called a cogito of striving (1948, 78).

What does one strive for, or, better perhaps, against? The answer is a thoroughly Victorian one, even, should you choose, a thermodynamic answer, since Victorian physics bequeathed its terms to twentieth-century aesthetics, via Freudian energetics. One strives against death, in all its forms, which is to say against the lowering or degradation of energies. And what is death, but depletion of energy available for work? What is death but the incapacity to strive? Death is entropy, indolence, indifference, randomness, chaos, unrelatedness. Without critical striving, with and athwart its poetic objects, there is either the deadness of fixed canonical truth, or the gaseous Brownian motion of mere ‘ludic energies’. Running through the aesthetics of living form, there is the parsimonious impulse not to let energy escape or become unbound, to keep the potential for work high.

And yet the materiality at work in much of Isobel’s writing about nineteenth-century poetry can also become paradoxically abstract and null, as it is often is in the work of Marx, the great idealist of the material. The most striking feature of this materiality is that it is without form and void, a mere mute, insensate impediment to the striving and form-giving actions of mind. Reading Blake’s Jerusalem in a later chapter of Language and Living Form, for instance, Isobel finds him at one moment locked or tonguetied in the enumeration of names:

The listing here is arbitrary and incoherent. The successive items have no meaningful progression or order, neither defined against one another nor related to one another. Repetition is random. It is a landscape of dispersal. Since each item has no existence but in itself it is a landscape of pure matter. Correspondingly words here have become pure matter. If fire, snow, sand, have no meaning but in themselves they are meaningless, and so ‘the voids, the solids’ are equivalents and collapse into one another. (1982, 107)

The assumption that governs this thinking about energy, matter and form, is of a fundamental, energising duality between dark and unreflexive matter and lucid mind. Without this jagged fissure running through things, there can be no struggle, no possibility of charging matter with life, no mastery or winning over of matter to the side of mind. Interestingly, the last completely ‘Victorian’ discussion in Victorian Poetry is of the work of James Thomson, who is seen as a materialist poet, where materialism is the name for a theory in which all the customary energising distinctions between man, nature, God, mind and matter itself have been obliterated. In the end, Armstrong tells us, the dissolving freedom of Thomson’s ‘atheist epistemology’ becomes frozen into negativity (1993, 475). One cannot help but feel that Thomson is not only a forerunner, but also a representative of those modernist and postmodernist writers (she says that Thomson’s is the Nietzschean predicament of the deconstructive sublime) who have abandoned the struggle to create living form out of substantial and intractable social and political content.

For two centuries, the aesthetic has been assumed to be the necessary, sometimes desperately necessary alternative to mechanism, that willed subjugation of life to rationalised matter. Without the flickering, cryptic powers of the aesthetic, we have become accustomed to think for the last couple of hundred years, there would be only blind utility, a life lived according to the imperious, rationalised, calculative logic of the machine. Adorno makes an occupation out of the aesthetic fixes into which this gets him. Either there is not enough form, and the aesthetic becomes mere distraction and frivolity, a mere spume upon the surface of things; or there is too much form and the aesthetic hardens into a kind of machinery, powerful but inert. The specific form of the material imagination at work here is perhaps Bachelard’s ‘cogito pétrisseur’, with the aesthetic as what he calls the ‘ideal paste’ between the alternatives of the soft and the hard (1948, 78).

Do these categories, of form, life and mind, that continue to drive discussion of the aesthetic, and determine the ways in which the relations between the aesthetic and the political are thought about, belong to a classical physics founded upon form rather than information, and a set of ideas about the nature of form, energy and life that no longer seem universally to hold? The interest of the passages such as the ones I have isolated from the two books about nineteenth-century poetry is that in them materiality is never pure, and so starts to breathe, to breed, to work, becoming therefore less abstract, more complex and differentiated, and less merely massy.

Two remarkable departures characterise the distinctive work that Isobel has been doing over the last decade. First of all, there is her remarkable investigation of the cultural history of glass. Isobel began her work before the current rise in the stock of ‘things’, which has made us accustomed in popular cultural history to biographies of subjects such as cod, nutmeg, salt, dust, TB and the colour mauve. Isobel’s apprehension of what it might mean to read the ‘cultural poetics’ of a produced substance goes far beyond this work, while also holding back from some of the places it goes. Where her earlier work on nineteenth century poetry showed matter either being wrought and wrestled into meaning, or falling away exhaustedly into cindery residue, her work on glass implies the active participation of the substance itself in forming consciousness: ‘glass consciousness’ (2000a), a phrase which is meant to evoke not just the heightened awareness and sensitivity to glass in the new culture of lustre and transparency that grew up in the nineteenth century, but a kind of thought and awareness into which vitreous form and organisation have entered and begun to operate.

Isobel’s continuing work on glass has become a kind of mythic endeavour: being a colleague of hers at Birkbeck during these years has been not unlike what it must have been like to be around Walter Benjamin when he was at work on his Arcades project – with the difference, one profoundly hopes, that it will not end its days being lugged in a suitcase over the Pyrenees. Even before it has been finished, and perhaps partly because of this, the very idea of what she has been doing and her many ways of speaking about and characterising it have created rich possibilities for new work at Birkbeck and beyond. Her nonce-characterisation of her work as a ‘cultural phenomenology’ has given me a name for some of the semi-farcical investigations I have tried to undertake of the status of magical objects in the modern world. It has inspired students in Birkbeck to undertake work on different aspects of the cultural life of material forms and processes: a cultural history of gravity, a poetics of air and odour, a philosophy of tremor. Suddenly, and because of Isobel’s allowing, materiality has a tellable history, other than as the raw, primal stuff on which art and culture go puffing to work.

This seems to come at just the right time, at a time at which scientific thinking about the nature of life, matter and form has become unignorable, even by literary critics, and at which the relations between the mental and the material have become so much jumpier and more interesting. How can one any longer Hegelwise counterpose matter and form in the era of DNA, when it becomes apparent that there has never been any wholly uninformed matter except in human fantasy? Information now overflows the gap between form and matter. Previously blind and insensate material forms prove to be alive with information. How will an aesthetics founded upon the laborious, in-forming confrontation of the material and the mental help us to manoeuvre in which the prerogatives of life and the living seem so little assured and in which material processes, from viruses to hurricanes, have come to seem so richly and unnervingly lively? A physics, and an aesthetics formed in its terms, which is based upon work, one-way transformation and determinate output (heat, light, poetry) is giving way to a physics of interfaces, ecologies, probabilities, reciprocities, probabilities and the turbulent circulation of energies. Following the curious temporality of science, from now on, for the time being, this will have been the way it always was.

Nevertheless, I think that what I take from Isobel Armstrong’s work is not altogether what she has put into it. In the end, her work turns to and on specific kinds of object, specific kinds of outputs and integrations. I take from her work an attention to systems and substances and processes – always linguistic, sensuous, actual, material, affective even when they are also theoretical, generalised, abstract – that run through and spill beyond these holding-stations or resting-places, of the poem, the poet, the work. Not that nothing remains to be said about such things; but more remains, at least now for me, to be said about processes of cultural work, about the meteorology, the epidemiology, the natural history of culture. Isobel Armstrong has begun to make available to be thought a world in which matter has its own ‘living form’, and in which ‘life’ is no longer concentrated at the thinking end of matter.

At the same time, and even, as a sort of planned digression from the historical investigation of glass, serving both to detain and prepare for it a little, there has been for Isobel the work which makes up the masterly Radical Aesthetic. Just as the work on glass offers a new way to think about and with the cultural history of matter, the struggle with intransigent and alien materiality seems to drop out of the picture when it comes to the new arguments about the force of the aesthetic deployed in The Radical Aesthetic. In place of struggle, there is now regulated play. Here, for example, the work of André Green helps her to a new stress on ‘the agonistic broken middle between conscious and unconscious’ and ‘the melancholic moment of scattering, of unassimilated material, not the reconciled symbol of completed mourning’, (2000b, 132). In the brilliant and resourceful diversification of the notion of the aesthetic ofThe Radical Aesthetic, she shows how idealistic, abstract and fixated most other accounts are. Like John Dewey, to whom she devotes a discussion, she wants to be able to see the many ways in which experience is art-work, as well as furnishing the raw material for works of art. Hence a notion of the aesthetic which must find a way of having to do with dreams, dancing and gunfire as well as odes and sculptures. Like Dewey, however, she also shrinks – and I will say, like Dewey, not quite intelligibly – from a complete deregulation of the idea of the aesthetic. The aesthetic will be preserved as the name of the form-giving propensity lifted up into its highest form. As such, it will be what ‘quite simply keeps us alive’ (2000b, 19). I hope I would have Isobel’s warrant to point to the many other things, from safety-belts to streptomycin, that keep us alive, while noting, in the spirit of the Auden who decided his line ‘We must love one another or die’ would be better revised to ‘We must love one another and die’, that ultimately of course, nothing does. For Isobel, for whom the work of Klein and Bion have become important, the aesthetic is important partly because it is a way of holding play and disintegration together; but perhaps we will be able to hold on much better to the sheer diversity of ways of being and staying alive that she awakens us to in The Radical Aesthetic by letting the aesthetic go. Yes, I suppose I am saying that I will want to have been led by her radical aesthetic further than she herself will at this moment go with it, to somewhere radically beyond even its rainbow: clean out of the aesthetic.


Armstrong, Isobel (1982). Language as Living Form in Nineteenth-Century Poetry. Brighton: Harvester Press.
———————- (1993) Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics. London and New York: Routledge.
——————— (2000a). ‘Technology and Text: Glass Consciousness and Nineteenth-Century Culture’. In Culture, Landscape and Environment: The Linacre Lectures 1997, ed. Kate Flint and Howard Morphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 149-75.
——————– (2000b), The Radical Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bachelard, Gaston (1948). La Terre et les rêveries de la volonté. Paris: José Corti.