It struck me today that I was on the wrong track.
I’ve been searching for some use of subversive in art or literary criticism in the 19th century. And I have found texts that are about things that I associate with subversion – for instance, many, many texts about overturning conventions and rules in painting, poetry, fiction. And I have been doing what seems natural - grouping them together, looking for the subversive theme, style, attitude. Yet the actual use of the word subversive is lacking. That isn't a big deal, but it was available. It was certainly as there for Baudelaire or for Delacroix as for me. Yet ... the first use of it in the modern sense that I’ve found, so far, is from a Lionel Trilling essay in the 30s.
And then it struck me: I was not seeing the blank where the blank was. To see a blank is not always the easiest thing. Especially when you are vampire hunting in the vaults of history. Artists, writers and critics wrote in the beginning of the 20th century wrote about revolutionary art. Or they wrote, under the influence of Zola, of experimental art. The blanks were filled in, but not the blank that I thought I was just so naturally filling in. Today, you can find a thousand titles referring to the ‘subversive tradition in Spanish renaissance poetry”, or the ‘subversive Shakespeare,’ but oddly, none of those titles actually quote uses of subversive by the poets or playwrights they are analyzing. Rather, our modern day academic uses the word ‘subversive’, unconsciously, as an instrument, without worrying too much about when it was invented. But LI has been worrying about when it was invented, when it became such a critical commonplace. Thinking about it as competing with experiment and revolution is actually very clarifying. Experiment, linked to modernism by every bond, seems not to enjoy the prestige it once enjoyed. And revolutionary? Nobody is writing about, say, the revolutionary tradition in Spanish Renaissance poetry. Why? because revolution has a bolder profile that would call for some self-consciousness. Delacroix painted the revolution of 1830. When Russian futurists wrote manifestos back in the 1920s, they didn’t call for a subversive literature – they called, explicitly, for a revolutionary one. But who among all of these writers called for a subversive art?
Which makes LI suspect that the normalization of subversion as a critical category is not linked to the rise of feminism, or gay studies, or post-colonialism – but is linked, much more interestingly, to the post 1968 loss of faith in revolution. This has a jarring effect on my sense of the politics of ‘subversive’.