Walter Johnston

I joined Williams College’s department of English in the fall of 2013, having previously offered courses in literature, philosophy, and art from antiquity to the present at Princeton, New York University, Barnard College, and The Cooper Union.

My research centers on the relationship between judgment and politics in English, German and French letters from the late 18th Century to the present. It is animated by the conviction that rigorously reconstructing the historical tension between reflective and practical forms of judgment, beginning with the Romantic reception of Kant, provides a newly enabling understanding of the cultural conditions of political dissent.

My current book project, Signs of History: the Power of Judgment in Times of Dissent, reads recent theoretical and popular critiques of the anarchic horizontalism, open-endedness, and ephemerality of contemporary social movements as extensions of the Hegelian derogation of “political Romanticism.” I argue that the opposition of mere contemplation and knowledge-based action upon which this Hegelian critique rests occludes what is most promising in a significant and neglected lineage extending from Kant’s writings on history and Charlotte Smith’s counter-historical poetics, through Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislators” and Benjamin’s post-Romantic notions of “criticizability” and “translation,” to current political enactments that reject the division between reflective emancipation and determinant political action. Those enactments—for example, of recent Egyptian and Occupy protest movements—are the subject of my recent essay “Critique of Populist Reason.” Here, I argue that the role of symbolic leadership in the auto-genesis of a “people” in Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason relies upon an ontology of lack in view of which the commitment to leaderlessness evidenced by contemporary social-movement populisms can only appear as melancholic self-castration, while neglecting the more promising resources contained in Claude Lefort’s analysis of the democratic “experience of indeterminacy” and post-Romantic notion of “unfinished work.” That dimension of Lefort’s thought provides the basis for my own view of what sustains the capacity for radical dissent that Laclau’s populism at once requires and puts at risk. An earlier essay, “Land and See: the Theatricality of the Political in Schmitt and Melville,” similarly engages this capacity for radical dissent as reflected in Melville’s “dark-Romantic” oeuvre, focusing on how the anti-colonial masquerade aboard Benito Cereno’s slave ship scrambles the coordinates of Schmitt’s avowedly Eurocentric reading of the story by presenting the striated stability of land- and the indeterminate fluidity of sea-based life as mutually entangled in a third element that underlies them both: that of world-theater, which emerges as a space of serious play that Schmitt’s anti-Romantic conception of “world-history” both presupposes and seeks to disavow.

My teaching at Williams aims to revitalize the study of Romanticism by situating Romantic literature and criticism in expanded historical and generic fields. Seminars I offer regularly include “Political Romanticism,” which explores the politics of judgment from Kant, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Delacroix and Turner through Schmitt and Benjamin to the post-Romantic praxis and anti-Romantic critique of contemporary protest movements;  “Signs of History,” which examines the nature of historical events in literature, philosophy, art, and historiography from Kant, Burke and Charlotte Smith to C.L.R. James, Richter, Agamben, and Moten; and “Romantic Natures,” which examines shifting conceptions of nature from Wordsworth to Latour. More detailed descriptions of these and other courses I offer are available via the links below.