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Beyond New Historicism: The problem of subjectivity in Adorno, Beethoven, and Wordsworth

Sung-Joong Kim, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Since New Historicism became an influential method in literary criticism, William Wordsworth has often been regarded as a power seeker, who uses his poetry as a means to support the social ideology of the status quo. Because of its basic principle that every human being is ideological, New Historicism does not posit a possibility of subjectivity in poets, and Wordsworth is no exception. Theodor Adorno's theory can function as a resolution for New Historicism's problem of eliminating subjectivity in poets because he claims the dialectical relationship of subject/object. He presents Ludwig von Beethoven as a good example of an artist, who demonstrates his subjectivity in a resistance against the status quo. Beethoven's music is effective in refuting New Historicists' argument of Wordsworth's evasiveness in historicity because, although his instrumental music does not carry any verbal message to articulate his social situation, he still expresses his revolutionary ideas through the usage of his musical materials. His music shows that it was not uncommon for an artist to express subjectivity in the Romantic period. ^ Wordsworth also expresses his subjectivity as a political dissenter by using unconventional poetic materials. For the New Historicists, the material is natural or involuntary because it is impossible for an author to choose the kind of material according to his/her subjectivity. Adorno argues, however, that choosing experimental materials should be seen on a social level, instead of on a personal level. He believes that although one cannot transcend historical boundaries, an artist can have autonomy, which enables him/her to envision an alternative world other than the one imposed by the status quo. The New Historicists' tendency to explain all human beings only in terms of ideology is similar to what Adorno calls the principle of identification. His negative dialectic, which defies an identifying principle, which identifies the non-identical, refutes any attempt to see all human thoughts only as the result of ideology. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Kim, Sung-Joong, "Beyond New Historicism: The problem of subjectivity in Adorno, Beethoven, and Wordsworth" (2002). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3041357.