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Discussions of periods like “Romanticism” and general claims about what people were motivated by or what traits distinguished art in that time strike me as requiring a rigorous justification. If we eliminated the concept of Romanticism completely, to what extent would one rediscover it, just by reading books? Is it inevitable? Is it necessary? Is it even true?

That kind of nihilistic denialism (above) has its own inherent flaw: kind of like what I think Wittgenstein’s essay On Uncertainty might be about, we sometimes commit the error that by exposing uncertainty in certain foundations of our beliefs we wrongly assume that therefore the opposite must be true - that perhaps, there never really was anything called “Romanticism”, but a very long, drawn-out confirmation bias. But, as stated, perhaps this is its own kind of naivety: anyone who likes “classical music” for example might have a pretty strong conviction that there really is something different about, say, baroque music, the time of Bach, and Romantic music, the time of Beethoven and onwards. We might argue that art is a blended smoothie of “the spirit of the times”, it folds in so many diffuse aspects of culture at any given moment that there do emerge consistencies and patterns in the kind of art forms figures produce - allowing us even to ask what the “spirit” of our time may be - (I think of things like generative AI, but also numerous background contextual factors, the very epistemology of our own culture and civilization, Darwin, Einstein, Freud, Chomsky, Lacan, blah blah blah, everything there in the background, that makes our time so different from say the Attic (Greek) one.

Thus it seems to be able to study literary history is a polemical challenge, where one is faced with a banal conclusion on both sides, that of trivially reifying what your own culture has told you is its own history, or completely denying that history had ever had any characteristics or patterns but was largely amorphous, or something coming close to that claim.

It seems like to me this realm of theory requires us not just to interpret subjectively but to maybe view society as a large-scale dynamical system almost from maybe an “analytical sociology” viewpoint - that rigor is actually possible, we just need to remember the staggering complexity of the phenomenon we are dealing with - the merging and melding of literally millions of human brains and minds - and I mean “complexity” in the sense of complexity science/theory.

So, who takes that to task? Has this viewpoint been excavated? I know there was some active work in hermeneutics by people like Paul Riceour, and I wonder if that remains the most relevant theory hitherto?

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  • The short answer is that, since the post-modernists, there has been a trend to de-periodize or de-canonize the canon. Consider the de-glorification of dead white European men or DWEMs. That said, among the most salient of recent critics is the work of John Guillory in two books: Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation and Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study, both well worth a look.
    – DJohnson
    Jul 17, 2023 at 13:28

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