The Ruins of Experience

"A brilliant study of legal events and of literary texts concerned with the Scottish Highlands in the late eighteenth to nineteenth century, which then provides a structure for exploring the decay of and nostalgia for experience in subsequent culture."—Tilottama Rajan, University of Western Ontario

The Ruins of Experience
Scotland's "Romantick" Highlands and the Birth of the Modern Witness

Matthew Wickman

2006 | 272 pages | Cloth $59.95
View main book page

Table of Contents

Preface: Scottish Highland Romance: A Reappraisal
Introduction: Experience and the Allure of the Improbable

Chapter 1. A Musket Shot and Its Echoes: The Romantick Origins of the Modern Witness
Chapter 2. Aftershocks of the Appin Murder: Scott, Stevenson, and "Storytell[ing]"
Chapter 3. Evidence and Equivalence: The Parallel Logics of Proof and Progress
Chapter 4. Improvement and Apocalypse: Afterimages of the "Promised Land" of Modern Romance

Chapter 5. The Compulsions of Immediacy: Macpherson, Wilkomirski, and Their Fragments Controversies
Chapter 6. Of Mourning and Machinery: Contrasting Techniques of Highland Vision
Chapter 7. Highland Romance in Late Modernity


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Scottish Highland Romance: A Reappraisal

Phantoms pervade late modernity. Archival remnants, con-/hyper-/textual traces, and blinking technologies with their storehouses of undigested information represent but few of the spirits haunting our material world. This makes for a conflicted arrangement, to be sure. For one thing, specters do not reside easily amidst an ethos of skeptical disenchantment which remains our legacy—in some ways, our embattled ideal—from the Enlightenment. For another, it seems inherently contradictory to accord spirit substance, or to acknowledge "[h]aunting [as] a constituent element of modern social life." Nevertheless, a world of "post-"s (e.g., postmodernism, postindustrialism, poststructuralism) is a world of ghosts.

Do these ghosts have phantoms of their own? That is, do some specters come into being only when we make ourselves critically self-conscious of others? This book contends that they do, and that experience is one such ghost. Like Poe's purloined letter, experience hides in plain sight, becoming more evanescent the longer we stare at it. Seemingly a universal category (doesn't everyone have experiences?), experience has been both requisite and inadequate to knowledge since the Enlightenment. In our world of modern objectivity—or, as I will engage it over the course of this book, our world of "evidence"—experience plays the part of the dubious witness, functioning as knowledge under erasure. Even to pretend to summon experience, to purport to "know" it, is to displace it all over again.

Experience, in short, is one of modernity's great phantoms, silently and spectrally informing models of being, doing, and knowing. But how do we undertake an investigation of experience—how do we come to understand experience objectively, as it were—without causing it to fade once again, phantasmatically, from view? In chasing this rainbow, I return to one of the quintessential sites of modern spectrality, the romantic Scottish Highlands. I do so somewhat anachronistically, for "romance" has been on the wane in scholarship on the Highlands for at least the past twenty years, during the era of the "return to history." Conjuring the spirit of such de-romanticizing classics as James Kellas's Modern Scotland (1968) and T. C. Smout's A History of the Scottish People (1969), scholarship of the past two decades has drawn new attention to the traditionally mythic status of the Highlands, and to the uses and abuses of that myth. Peter Womack's landmark book Improvement and Romance (1989) highlighted the systemic relationship between the image of the primitive, picturesque Highlands and the false consciousness universally promoted by capitalism. Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997) revealed the impact of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Celtic peripheries on the widespread image of Highland romance, an image which permeated Britain and both magnified and distorted the influence of these local cultures. Leith Davis's Acts of Union (1998) divulged the instrumentality of the Ossianic Highlands in the formation of Scottish and British national identity during the eighteenth century. And Janet Sorensen's The Grammar of Empire (2000) reflected rigorously on the recurrent dynamics of core and periphery (e.g., "British" versus "Celtic") in the linguistic (and, by extension, cultural) mechanics of national and imperial identity.

These books have built on each other in highly useful and interesting ways. More than that, they reflect (and reflect on) the core assumptions of modern historicism in a way which reveals the skeletons—or ghosts, rather—hiding in our scholarly closets. Womack's Improvement and Romance richly initiates the dialogue by arguing that Highland "ghosts are impotent . . . impalpable presence[s] of the past, into whose illusive whirlings everything is constantly slipping." For him, romance is an emblem of ideology, the negative reflection (and, hence, the ratification) of progress; the romantic Highlands are "not cultivated, not populous, not rational, not regulated—above all, not extant." Trumpener concedes that "political and cultural imperialism" exerts a decisive influence on the Celtic peripheries of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. However, she restores virility to the "impotent" Highland ghosts by portraying "the Highlands [as] one enormous echo chamber," a return of the repressed, whose traces in aesthetic forms like the historical novel uncannily inflect the Empire to which these peripheries are subject. A similar dynamic informs Davis's 1998 Acts of Union, which self-consciously shifts the debate from Womack's "ideology critique" to new historicist "discourse analysis." Invoking Benedict Anderson's "imagined communities" and Homi Bhabha's cultural hybrids, Davis imagines the British Union of 1707 as "a dialogue between heterogeneous elements," an Ossianic "forgery" in the dynamic sense of that term. Sorensen, lastly, more closely examines the discursive economies enabling such dialogical feats of imagination, creating an interface between theories of language and cultural materialism (indeed, much like the generative and divergent nationalist traditions in Britain about which she writes). Perhaps of greatest interest here is the way in which Sorensen reconceives of the relationship between core and periphery on which the logic of romance is historically founded. Taking issue with Michael Hechter's pathbreaking Internal Colonialism (1975), specifically with Hechter's notions of an essential Celticism inhabiting the British peripheries, Sorensen traces the cultural modalities through which such identities historically emerged in Britain, all while preserving Hechter's model of core and periphery as a way of addressing British hierarchies of power and uneven development.

Experience assumes a shadowy, spectral existence in these post-romantic studies. In one sense, it is the implicit axis on which they all turn in their mutual focus on identity as the consciousness of collective experience, whether of the hegemonic state (e.g., Womack's capitalist empire) or the dialogical nations within it. And yet, in another sense, and adopting Hechter's vocabulary ourselves, experience remains a peripheral concern in these texts, subordinate to the core issues of capital, empire, nation, culture, and even consciousness itself as the knowledge of identity, of experience. Davis and Sorensen in particular subject Highland romance (in its old and new varieties, propounded by Macpherson and Hechter among others) to "the touch of the real," even as they cannily redefine that reality in terms of signification, the "grammar" of nation and empire.

Without necessarily renouncing the touch of the real, I seek to redirect it. In doing so, I implicitly shadow one of my favorite books of the late 1990s, Mary Poovey's A History of the Modern Fact (1998). While some scholars quibbled with certain aspects of Poovey's narrative—Barbara J. Shapiro's impressive study A Culture of Fact (2000) presented a different take on the "facts" in question—Poovey's book was certainly one of the most lucid commentaries on the culture of historicism. It focused on the emergence of systematic objectivity in a way which accounted reflexively for its own systematically objective study; as such, it highlighted the artifice of "evidence" which is the modern language of scholarship—indeed, of knowledge, including its (and our) own of the emergence of "fact." My project takes no issue with Poovey, but instead poses a set of correlative questions, namely, what happened to those modes of knowing which were displaced by factuality? Did they simply disappear, or did they come to occupy alternative cultural forms? Hence, where Poovey makes the case for "evidence," I turn my attention to "witnesses"; where she investigates "facts," I examine "romance." I do so, moreover, in a similarly reflexive way—that is, through a romantic account of romance.

The fact is, romance has not disappeared from studies of Highland Scotland, as Sorensen's clever adaptation of core and periphery indicates. And, while recent scholarship of the Highlands has not exactly embraced romance, a few insightful studies touching on this region propose that we should. In his magisterial book The Identity of the Scottish Nation (1998), William Ferguson remarks that "no one of any sense today would wish to substitute ancient myth for present reality," or realism. But, he contends, those

who would seek to understand the mental processes of past generations, and the residual substratum of those that are still embedded in our own consciousness, cannot afford to disregard the justifying myths and conveniently slanted pseudo-histories of the past. Besides, underlying all is a fundamental epistemological question—what is knowledge? Like us, our predecessors simply believed what was there to be believed; what, in short, could be grasped within the limits of their imagination.
Murray Pittock has shed light on precisely these limits, historically and in our own era. For instance, his 1991 book The Invention of Scotland assailed the "fake Celtic Scotland which dominated the Victorian consciousness" and correspondingly vitiated a real politico-nationalist critique located in and around Highland Scotland. However by the end of the decade, in his book Celtic Identity and the British Image, Pittock was underscoring the historical power of romance in the formation of national identities, Celtic or other. More self-consciously than most, Pittock's work divulges the fungibility of reality and romance—and the spectral presence of the one in the other—when imagined as a dialectical pair.

Hence, while acknowledging the scholarly gains of the recent historicist enterprise, I suggest with Pittock that it has caused us to overlook one of the most important historical features of Highland Scotland: quite simply, its persistent association with romance. Or rather, while we have recognized this feature, we have restricted our purview of its scope in seeking rigorously to demystify it. Womack prepared the soil here by observing that the mythic Highlands "are not real; . . . not to be real is what they are for." As he persuasively argued, the unreal Highlands provided an increasingly commercialized British public sphere with an image of its own primitive past even as the "unreal" region also presented the illusion of a sphere closed off from capital and therefore associated with strictly human (as opposed to profit-driven) "values." Womack argues that the Highlands accommodated the ideology of capitalism by harmonizing the potentially contradictory interests of progress and humanity. In essence, then, the Highlands distracted attention from the rising social conflicts—the inequalities, the slums, the urban unrest—associated with commercialism.

This is a powerful argument in the context of industrial history, and its impact has clearly registered with recent scholarship of the Highlands. But Jean Baudrillard reminds us that even the most compelling productivist theses like this one (i.e., Highland romance as "productive" of capitalist complacency, or of British national identity) do not escape the taint of ideology and self-misrecognition. As he put it in a famous pastiche of the opening lines of The Communist Manifesto, "A specter haunts the revolutionary imagination: the phantom of production. Everywhere it sustains an unbridled romanticism" in the service of a generalized humanism—the notion that one must not "be" as much as "produce" oneself. Baudrillard's point is simple but beguiling, especially in a neo-"materialist" era like our own. By insisting on the "production" of identity, he argues, we neglect other ways of imagining "the human," or even thinking outside the latter's auspices. "Production" becomes compulsively repetitive, a hegemony unto itself.

Baudrillard has found a powerful new ally in Alan Liu, whose recent book The Laws of Cool (2004) reduces our modern historicist ethos and its rage for context (e.g., the Highlands in the "context" of new archival materials, or discussions of national identity, or theories of signification, and so on) to a social compulsion. "Information work"—the production of knowledge—drives the business world and the inclusive world of the humanities which purports in some ways to oppose it (as do the romantic Highlands relative to Womack's portrait of the capitalist state). The difference, coarsely put, is that commerce accumulates capital and hence power whereas the humanities merely hemorrhage it. As Liu sees it, cultural studies of all stripes have thus become ciphers—ghosts—in a world of technologic that has assimilated, reshaped, and subsequently excreted them as so much refuse. His solution to digitized modernity is what he calls "ethical hacking," a Bhabha-like mimicry and "creative destruction" of information work which struggles valiantly to distinguish itself from mere cyber-terrorism.

Baudrillard's solution to hegemonic modernity is intrinsically milder, quainter, more romantic—literally. He invokes alternative, symbolic economies, and in doing so implicitly models his critique on Michel Foucault's discussion of romance in The Order of Things (1966). Like Baudrillard, Foucault attributes the productivist mentality and the invention of "man" (as a narrow definition of the human) to Enlightenment thought, and specifically to the historical emergence of the disciplines during the eighteenth century. These disciplines—notably natural history, philology, and political economics—instituted discourses which in turn mediated human understanding of the objects of its inquiry. They did so even while promoting the illusion of a direct contact with these objects. From thenceforth, however, knowledge implied less the direct engagement of objects than a negotiation of discourses. And, when these discourses acquired a comparative and thus historical quality in the nineteenth century (e.g., when the discourse of natural history encountered the discourse of evolution), knowledge became ever more implicated in discourse, and hence in the interpretation of texts. Foucault contends that this Enlightenment-discursive system, a veritable Borgesian maze, "still serves as the positive ground of our knowledge . . . ."

In essence, Foucault attempts here a historical explanation of the issues to which scholars of Highland Scotland became so drawn in the late 1980s—the issues, specifically, of the "productive" ("forged") basis of Scottish and British national identities. But for Foucault, these issues do not beg an elaboration on what discourses yield (e.g., nationalism) as much as what they repress. In effect, "discourse" displaces objects in the world (the ghosts of Kant and Freud haunt Foucault's narrative here), making specters of seemingly material things. If, as Bill Brown puts it, "things" appeal to us, it is "because they lie both at hand and somewhere outside the theoretical field, beyond a certain limit, as a recognizable yet illegible remainder or as the entifiable that is unspecifiable." Things are spectral precisely because they defy reduction to discursive economies. In that respect, things are congealed experiences. Conventional wisdom has it that experience in and of the world, experience conceived as the direct contact with objects, fuels scientific discourse; our experience with objects incites us to build models through which to interpret that experience. And yet, functionally speaking, experience as "contact" is what science as "discourse" supplants. In essence, then, experience is to Foucault what the Highlands are to Womack: just as, for Womack, the Highlands presented a modernizing society with the illusion of human value separated from exchange value, thus generating the impression that capitalism contributes to the progress of "humanity," so for Foucault does the image of "experience" in science perpetuate the "discourse" which sustains this illusion.

If science (i.e., knowledge, consciousness, reality) constitutionally converts experience into a specter, then what recourse is left to us if we wish to recover it? How is one to tell the truth about experience? If experience is implicitly opposed to discourse, or if discourse reanimates experience as a specter, then how is one to grasp experience when one is obliged to proceed by means of discourse? Isn't an examination of experience inherently contradictory? For Foucault in The Order of Things, the answer, surprisingly, is no. But to arrive at experience, one must tell a story which does not pretend to scientific "truth" per se. In other words, one must adopt a literary methodology: it is only through literature, conceived by Foucault as the discourse about discourse (and not about things other than itself: natural history, philology, political economics, and so on), that we confront the "real" edges of our "symbolic," discursive being. "Literature" here is the same thing as Womack's "romance": it designates discourse severed from the illusion of experience as the direct contact with objects in the world. However, unlike Womack, who castigates romance for its patented unreality, Foucault turns this dynamic to advantage. In romance, he argues, discourse reflects on itself as discourse, removing itself from the supposed experience of objects; instead, romance enables the putative experience "of unthinkable thought," or of critical reflection at the border where the symbolic meets the real. As Foucault has it, every discursive operation is inherently romantic in this way; that is, every "truthful" discourse struggles and fails to make contact with the world outside itself. And yet, it is only in self-consciously "literary" places—e.g., the Highlands—that we perceive how such romance "really" works.

Romantic self-reflexivity is a virtual cottage industry, and I have no interest in entering it through either the front or back doors, especially inasmuch as such discussions typically turn on questions of consciousness rather than experience per se. I rehearse Foucault's romantic model only as an allegory of a problem which consciousness per se does little to resolve, though one should add that we are also probably less conscious of this problem (of experience) in our post-phenomenological era of productivist humanism. Also, by identifying the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the era of discursive self-reflexivity, the Foucaultian allegory implicitly conjures the late-Enlightenment Highlands as an exemplary site for reflecting on the spectral allure of experience in modernity. This allure, and the romantic Highlands themselves, emerge, we will see, from the rupture—institutional and epistemological—of experience from knowledge. Highland romance of the latter half of the eighteenth century partly emerges as consolation for this rupture, but also as an index of the strange new authority which, we will see, has accrued to experience in its long, ghostly afterlife.

Getting hold of a topic as elusive as experience is a little like catching lightning in a bottle. One cannot simply produce "evidence" for the loss of experience, since it is evidence (the process of knowledge or, in Foucault's words, discourse) which occludes experience in the first place. Consequently, I do not envision this book as an examination of the experience of eighteenth-century Highlanders. That said, I engage Highland romance in a variety of subjects, fields, and periods, and from the perspective of Highland and Hebridean Island natives as well as outsiders. In doing so, I hope to bring into relief the contours of experience as the vanishing point of knowledge, and as one of the farthest-reaching—and haunting—legacies of "enlightenment."