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Passions of the Sign

, 240 pages
February 2006



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Passions of the Sign

Revolution and Language in Kant, Goethe, and Kleist

Passions of the Sign traces the impact of the French Revolution on Enlightenment thought in Germany as evidenced in the work of three major figures around the turn of the nineteenth century: Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Heinrich von Kleist. Andreas Gailus examines a largely overlooked strand in the philosophical and literary reception of the French Revolution, one which finds in the historical occurrence of revolution the expression of a fundamental mechanism of political, conceptual, and aesthetic practice.

With a close reading of a critical essay by Kleist, an in-depth discussion of Kant's philosophical writing, and new readings of the novella form as employed by both Goethe and Kleist, Gailus demonstrates how these writers set forth an energetic model of language and subjectivity whose unstable nature reverberates within the very foundations of society. Unfolding in the medium of energetic signs, human activity is shown to be subject to the counter-symbolic force that lies within and beyond it. History is subject to contingency and is understood not as a progressive narrative but as an expanse of revolutionary possibilities; language is subject to the extra-linguistic context of utterance and is conceived primarily not in semantic but in pragmatic terms; and theindividual is subject to impersonal affect and is figured not as the locus of self-determination but as the site of passions that exceed the self and its pleasure principle.

At once a historical and a conceptual study, this volume moves between literature and philosophy, and between textual analysis and theoretical speculation, engaging with recent discussions on the status of sovereignty, the significance of performative language in politics and art, and the presence of the impersonal, even inhuman, within the economy of the self.

Andreas Gailus is an associate professor of German at the University of Minnesota.

"Elegantly written and thoroughly researched, Passions of the Sign is a study of the philosophical and literary response to moments of foundational crisis in works by Kant, Goethe, and Kleist. It combines, in a sort of seamless perfection that is really quite rare, delicate textual analysis with an awareness of broader theoretical concerns. It treats figures of staggering importance and it addresses issues of pressing significance to the humanities. This study is the fruit of a remarkably thorough meditation, and makes for an enriching and enjoyable reading even for the non-expert."

"Gailus has chosen a specific moment in history—the French Revolution—to explore a general and systematic subject matter: How does crisis-a fundamental crisis of the social, cultural, and symbolic order-function as thematic object and as structural element, as destructive and constitutional moment in linguistic representation? Well written and solidly thought through, this book offers a cutting-edge argument for why literature and philosophy from the 'Goethe period' matters today: it is the exemplary case of a cultural system to understand crisis—to think crisis, develop form from crisis, and, first of all, let crisis have a place to happen."

"Offers original insights into these well-known works... A sound contribution to the critical literature."

"This book is far too short for the large and complex topics Andreas Gailus engages with so boldly and skillfully."

"Gailus' book provides a needful reminder that the concept of history is theoretical and the meaning of theory historical."

"The great virtue of this book is that its author is an attentive reader who reads important texts and writes well about what he reads."

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