Fielding's Wild: Sovereign Spectacle and the Beastly Sublime

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The Eighteenth Century

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The criminal, the beast, the sovereign, and the associated figures of the "worrying mutual attraction" that Jacques Derrida tests throughout his seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign I (2001-2) perform a drama that reveals the ethical limits of aesthetic experience. Henry Fielding's 1743 satire Jonathan Wild attributes the ascendant cultural fascination with these mutually entangled figures to what it reveals as the appropriation and corruption of the sublime by techniques of what I call spectacle. Bolstered by the insights of Derrida's seminar, I direct new attention to the way sovereigns, criminals, and beasts combine in Jonathan Wild to articulate a periodizing pessimism about the sublime, a bleakly satiric assessment of the demise of the ethical (and aesthetic) value of sublime representations under the spell of the suspicions bred by spectacle. Jonathan Wild enacts a crisis of aesthetics and morality that reveals the "uncanny reciprocal haunting" of criminal, beast, and sovereign to be the mortal symptom of a modern decline, the very conjunction that announces an emerging cultural shift in aesthetic values.


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