Skip to navigation – Site map

Erik S. Roraback, The Philosophical Baroque: On Autopoietic Modernities

Leiden, Brill, (Literary Modernism) 2, 2017, xvi + 295 pp. 3 ill. ISBN: 978-90-04-33985-9. 110 €
Bibliographical reference

Erik S. Roraback, The Philosophical Baroque: On Autopoietic Modernities. Leiden, Brill, (Literary Modernism) 2, 2017, xvi + 295 pp. 3 ill. ISBN: 978-90-04-33985-9. 110 €

Full text

1“Baroque” began its conceptual life as a negative descriptor. Most accounts derive the term from the Portuguese term for a misshapen pearl, and the term began to be used in the neoclassical period to refer to what were then seen as the ungainly excesses of European artistic production of the seventeenth century. The Baroque as a period of art history worthy of its own study and appreciation was largely rescued by Heinrich Wölfflin in the mid-nineteenth century, before being fully revived by Avant-garde poets and the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin in the 1920s and then with greater focus and intensity in the 1960s through to the present, in the work of philosophers and critics such as Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and José Antonio Maravall in Europe and a parallel movement of Latin American poets and intellectuals. In the wake of these contributions baroque and neobaroque studies have achieved the status of a subfield of literary and visual studies and critical theory, with a growing number of monographs and articles dedicated to it.

2By virtue of its development the Baroque has extended its reach both historically and conceptually to encompass a longer range and a richer set of philosophical concerns. In European cultural history it may now date back to the late sixteenth century and extend to the end of the seventeenth. The Neobaroque may now refer to the colonial expansion of early modern baroque aesthetic practices, or the repetition and return to baroque concerns that we see beginning in the early twentieth century and intensifying up to the present. Its philosophical concerns exceed the limits of aesthetic categorization and encroach on the fields of epistemology and political theory. In particular, starting with Maravall’s historical study The Culture of the Baroque, questions concerning the role of baroque cultural production in ideological manipulation on the part of the emerging nation states of the early modern period became a central area of inquiry, with argument situating that production both on the side of the state and in more critical positions.

3It is into this rich and variegated landscape that Erik Roraback has entered with his The Philosophical Baroque. As the title suggests, his focus is on the conceptual contributions of the term, however, with a special eye to twentieth-century German and French thought and Anglo-American literary modernism and post-modernism, specifically the works of James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. The structure of the project supports this set of foci. After a detailed introduction on the relation of the Baroque to the aesthetic and political determinants of Western modernity, the book is divided into three sections. The first considers the systems theory of German sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann as an example of neo-baroque thought by reading it together with Orson Welles’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, on the one hand, and an epistemic-libidinal approach to baroque aesthetics emerging from a reading of texts by Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze on the other. The second section turns more decisively to literary modernism, with five chapters focused on the literary-philosophical consequences of looking at such canonical modernist writers as James Joyce and Henry James and postmodern writers such as Maurice Blanchot and Thomas Pynchon through the prism of baroque theory. Finally the third section hones in on the implicit and explicit relationship between the philosophical Baroque and Lacan’s post-Freudian psychoanalytic thought, bringing the latter into engagement with the two most central literary writers of the study, Pynchon and Joyce, albeit with Walter Benjamin’s notion of baroque allegory playing an important supporting role.

  • 1 William Egginton, The Theater of Truth: The Ideology of (Neo)Baroque Aesthetics, Stanford Universit (...)

4In his opening salvo on the relation between the baroque-neobaroque complex and modernity Roraback acknowledges the parallels between “centripetal and fundamentalist” cultural co-optations of cultural production as one of the main signatures of historical baroque aesthetics and similar tendencies arising today. That said, he explains at the outset that his purpose will be to focus on the more subversive elements of the neobaroque movement, identifying his project with that of Antoine Compagnon as an unearthing or revelation of an “antimodern” baroque and neobaroque aesthetic, which strives to destabilize or undermine precisely those aspects of baroque production most conducive to authoritarian impulses and strategies. I should also disclose at this point his supportive acknowledgement of my own taxonomy of baroque strategies1, which he builds on by focusing his own critical work on a twentieth-century modernist and postmodernist literary production that is outside the ken of my original analysis. As he outlines in his introduction, the fields of literature, philosophy, critical theory and cultural studies are to be brought together in this book in an effort to reanimate the potentialities of an anti-modern baroque thought that has been immanent to modernity since its inception.

5In the first section of the book, Roraback explores the theatrical structure of modern knowledge through critical engagements with Shakespeare, Henry James, Blanchot, Joyce, Pynchon, and to a certain extent Lacan as well. Here he goes into greater detail than I was able to do in teasing out the nuances of the “major and minor” strategies of baroque representation, something I believe will entail a major contribution to the field. Particularly informative in this regard I find the analyses on Luhmann, whose “system of art” Roraback reads as a kind of theoretical manifestation of the centrifugal tendencies of a minor strategy, albeit with a greater tolerance for complexity and nuance. Specifically, what he finds in Luhmann is a language or vocabulary for conceptualizing modernity as a structure for thinking and perhaps differentiating baroque modernities. With Luhmann, too, he finds a vocabulary adequate to capturing the contemporary together with the early modern, and to a certain extent of thus blurring conceptual boundaries that have kept us from seeing how very much analogous our world today is with the system that was emerging around 1600.

6The most significant contribution of Roraback’s book comes in his elegant readings of key literary texts. The long reading of Lear in chapter two is a striking example of this. While also a pivot for later engagements, it stands on its own as a screen through which to see the dawning of baroque modernity and the tensions that will animate it: Lear, the embodiment of an authoritative, major, centripetal Baroque, against the unsettling “quietism” of Cordelia, whose sacrifice eventually tumbles her father’s baroque edifice into paroxysms of horror. Another prototypical example of the kind of illumination that Roraback’s approach to criticism enables is his construction of the literary-aesthetic triangle of Finnegan’s Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Writing the Disaster. The cross fertilization of the major works, each encyclopedic in its own way, of Joyce, Pynchon, and Blanchot, permits Roraback to undermine more canonical and nationalist constructions of literary history. The key to such an approach is the neobaroque minor valence of seeing how each author was, in specific and different ways, a foreigner in his own national context, as Blanchot and Pynchon follow the model Joyce left of residing in and burrowing out of a nationalist, reified modernity. What binds the three authors under the rubric of the baroque minor discourse is also identifiable under a Luhmannian framework as “second order observations,” recursively deployed in multiple ways—a strategy, it must be recalled, that is coterminous with the historical baroque having been installed at the heart of the modern novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

7Exemplary of Roraback’s approach is his engagement with Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. As he explains, “Finnegans Wake too with its nondissociationistic texture and form non-regularizes language, and opens up all kinds of joyful investments and tumultuousness with its uncodified (minor) flows of phonetic, of semantic and of syntactic power that overturn, to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari parlance, the “molar” (major) units of regularized and so ordinary and standardized language.” Reading the Joycean phrase “For here the holy language,” Roraback uses this as an entry into a Deleuzian rumination on the (minor) baroque response to (major) political theological underpinnings of the modern state: “Is there some way of saving the theological ideal at a moment when it is being contested on all sides, and when the world cannot stop accumulating its ‘proofs’ against it, ravages and miseries, at a time when the earth will soon shake and tremble … ? The Baroque solution is the following: we shall multiply principles […] The Baroque […] is […] when Some Thing is kept rather than nothing, and where response to the world’s misery is made through an excess of principles […].”

8With The Philosophical Baroque Erik Roraback has made a significant contribution to the growing field of baroque and neobaroque studies, as well as to the larger field of literary modernism and postmodernism. His readings of key literary texts as well as his reinterpretations of major philosophical figures are likely to become important points of reference in debates around these authors and thinkers.

Top of page


1 William Egginton, The Theater of Truth: The Ideology of (Neo)Baroque Aesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2009.

Top of page


Electronic reference

William EGGINTON, « Erik S. Roraback, The Philosophical Baroque: On Autopoietic Modernities », E-rea [Online], 15.2 | 2018, Online since 15 June 2018, connection on 07 August 2020. URL :

Top of page

About the author


Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

Top of page
  • Logo Laboratoire d’Études et de Recherche sur le Monde Anglophone
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals