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This review appeared in Volume 6 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Vertiginous Semiotics

by Scott Simpkins

Libidinal Economy, By Jean-François Lyotard. Translated by Iain Hamilton Grant. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. xxxiv + 275 pp. ISBN 0-253-33614-7.

Imagine a critique of contemporary theory co- written in the early 1970s by Dostoevsky's underground man, Antonin Artaud, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Biting, offensive, ferocious, painfully self-conscious, darkly antic, outrageous... and conceptually stunning. That's essentially what Jean-Francois Lyotard offered with the 1974 publication of Economie libidinale, a book that one reviewer hailed as "une nouvelle fa,con de lecture, lecture énergumène" (Damisch 1975:462). Its vitriolic assaults (on structuralism and Marx in particular) cost him some friends, made him some new enemies, and helped to disturb the enterprise of critical theory as it stood at the time. Looking back on it years later, Lyotard himself would refer to it as "my evil book" (1988:13), a "crisis" (16), and "a piece of shamelessness, immodesty, and provocation" (14).

Even though Economie libidinale has been - albeit uneasily and only begrudgingly - part of the theoretical arena for twenty years, its recent appearance in translation promises to resurrect concerns it raised upon its initial publication now that "the English-speaking world" (Hamilton's expression) can take its turn with it. In addition to the suspicion that theory was becoming fascistic, antihumanistic, and hopelessly fatalistic, Lyotard's book raised a further and clearly related concern that is still quite relevant: what is happening to contemporary semiotic studies?

Lyotard charges that semiotics has begun to harbour a type of stultifying nihilism that threatens to reify the very forms of conceptual closure it presumably tries to open through the analysis of signs and sign systems. Semiotics, he claims, has so given way to an "informational"(48) hyperationalism that sign-oriented studies have become little more than a "business trip" or a "voyage of conquest" (45) undertaken by needlessly limited "men of the concept" (211).

"There is no sign or thought of the sign which is not about power and for power," he says. "The model of all semiology is not The Purloined Letter, it is The Gold-Bug" (45). This, of course, is a serious (although admittedly comic) allegation, more so in light of the continued growth of such attitudes toward semiotics. Michel Sicard noted accurately in his review that Lyotard was engaging in gun art de la guerre Contra... sémioclastes" (1975:216). Yet, this is not to say that such critiques seriously damage the semiotic enterprise as much as they provide it with new sources of potential vitalization. Accordingly, while Economie libidinale appears to offer little more than a sarca- stic, dismissive overview of an idiosyncratically selective representation of modern semiotics, it does so in a manner which is wholly recuperative in spirit (but by no means naively so). in retrospect, Lyotard concluded that "the book did perform the ruin of the hegemony of conceptual reception" as he attempted to show that "the dominant position given to the forms of writing or style could indicate nothing other than how impossible any argumentation, any debate over the so-called content was, and how all that was possible was the opportunity to like or dislike the signifiers of the text" (1988:13).

In his useful introduction (a bonus not tendered in the French-speaking world edition), Hamilton surveys the early 1970's response to the hangover of structuralist theory and studies that led to several theoretical avenues of pursuit, and situates Economie libidinale as an effort to "exploit and accelerate the movements of generalized disruption in a fundamentally affirmative manner, seeking to 'conduct' new and unheard-of intensities" (xvii). This sums up Lyotard's project in this book exactly, for his critique of semiotics is nothing if not an attempt to enliven and decenter a field that generally inclines toward structuralistic restraint. As Lyotard later recalled the theoretical scene at the close of the 1960's, he argued that semiotics was privileged at the time because of its theoretical presupposition of systemic order inherent within any conceptualizable "text". Semiotic "analysis could be flexible, incorporating ambiguities and paradoxes, as it was in Freud's reading of dreams and art works, or it could be and occasionally was rigid like a dogma," he contends. "Structuralist enthusiasm could lead to the simple reduction of sensuous forms to conceptual structures, as if understanding were the unique faculty qualified to approach forms" (1988:10). To Lyotard, then, a free- form supercharging of semiotics entailed "cutting across semiotics" (1979:24), as Marc Eli Blanchard notes, endeavouring to "tap sign-systems for the intensity, not the structure of their communication" (21).

Lyotard's chapter on "The Tensor" outlines the element of most interest to semiotics here as he proposes the notion of the "tensor sign" (as opposed to the conventional "intelligent sign") as the vehicle for making such studies vertiginous. Although he justly attacks a form of essentialistic presumption on the part of semiotics through its arguably unquestioned acceptance of a rational underlying ground for its activity, he does so in a manner that consistently relies upon a fairly limited portrayal of semiotic theory. For example, he begins this chapter by assaulting his reader ("you have not understood, you have remained rationalists, semioticians, Westerners, let's emphasize it again, it is the road towards libidinal currency that must be opened by force.") and then anatomizing a view of the basic assumptions of semiotics that both reveals the narrow range of his own comprehension of it while also anticipating the main critique he will raise:

What the semioticians maintain as a hypothesis beneath their discourse is that the thing of which they speak may always be treated as a sign; and this sign in its turn is indeed thought within the networks of concepts belonging to the theory of communication... which means that the thing is posited as a message, that is, as a medium enriched with a sequence of coded elements, and that its addressee, himself in possession of this code, is capable, through decoding the message, of retrieving the information that the sender meant him to receive. (43)

While it's true that some semioticians embrace some of these paradigms, this description in its entirety is hardly representative of a universally held theoretical configuration of semiotic theory and practice. To the contrary, most of these views toward semiosis are selected by Lyotard to set up precisely the critique he constructs here. Still, since each component of this schema of semiotics is indeed related to fundamental concepts pertaining to signs and their functions, Lyotard's flawed view of semiotics does not prevent him from offering considerably insightful suggestions for boosting the yield of studies in this area and this is the element of importance to this field that is found in Economie libidinale.

In order for Lyotard to establish semiotics as an unnecessarily static and desiccated activity in its current (circa early 1970's) form, he employs the passage cited above as a starting point for extending this framework into an increasingly reductive enterprise of his own based on a somewhat misinformed assumption regarding semiosis. For semiotics, he says, "it is no longer signification (what is encoded),... which the sign substitutes - this trick is invented: that signification itself is constituted by signs alone, that it carries on endlessly, that we never have anything but references, that signification is always deferred, meaning is never present in flesh and blood" (43). Most semioticians (beginning with Peirce) are willing to grant an at least temporary form of conclusion or meaning within this process of sign movement and do not wash their hands of such a possibility as Lyotard claims. But, it is obvious that his assertion is designed to prod semiotics into becoming even more willing to accept the possibility of something like a physicality of signs along these lines, thereby viewing signs as possessing a "living" corporeality and considering semiosis as a less-than-sterile exercise. In effect, he proposes that rather than associating semiosis with perpetually meaning-less slippage and deferral, we search for its potential to yield physical traction and something akin to presence. Although Lyotard articulates a discussion common now about the false consciousness attributed to pessimistic views toward infinite sign displacement (Eco,1976,1984,1990 and Simpkins, 1990, for example), he does so only to emphasize the shortcomings commonly lamented in this discussion in order to level his most damning charge against semiotics, namely, that it has cynically invested its paradigms in nihilism. In this manner, he establishes semiotics as theoretically parallel to the practice of intentionally losing money in investments as a means of gaining tax advantages - the "tax advantages" for semiotics being the negative benefits derived from conceiving signs as perpetually deferred. Or, another way to illuminate Lyotard's conception of a spiritless apprehension of semiosis can be found in its neat economics of absence-presence within this deferral. "Lyotard refuses to see in the determinative factor in an organism (i.e., a semiotic field) an intentionality which would direct it teleologically to some end-and ultimately on ending as such - a movement," Alphonso Lingis suggests, "that would take everything present as a reference, a sign, or a relay-point toward something absent, beyond, signified, and that, within the organism itself, would take every member or organ as a representative or substituted for another and thus for the whole" (1980:91).

The negative "God" of the nihilism Lyotard discerns in semiotics, furthermore, is paradigmatically aligned with the Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost. Within this framework, Lyotard argues, "if we have religious souls like Freud or Lacan, we produce the image of a great signifier, for ever completely absent, whose only presence is absentification" (44). As a result, Lyotard concludes, for those who embrace this attitude toward semiotics, "there is nothing but signs." By positing the existence of a God-term (Burke 1945:xvi-xvii), or God-concept, such as the transcendental signified, but infernally transforming this existence, Lyotard doubly condemns semiotics for not only perpetuating an empty enterprise ("the zero of book-keeping" (164)), but also for celebrating this situation as well. Lyotard attacks those who embrace this model by establishing both his critique of his refusal to structure it as a pragmatic, even theoretical, program, seems to take full advantage of the slippery condition of infinite deferral while at the same time yielding a form of energy from sign movement in the process. This is where the tension, the incandescence, the jouissance of a vertiginous semiotics may be found - or, at least sought, engaged - for Lyotard.

Otherwise, he contends, semiotics becomes an increasingly self-impoverishing con game predicated on the wrongheaded pursuit of capital based on negation - a conceptual form of junk bonds, as it were, with no prospect of expected future redemption. "Semiotics is nihilism," he declares (49).

In this apparently senseless pursuit. the constitution of meaning.... there will be some hermeneut or pessimist who will say to us: look, we never have meaning, it escapes us. it transcends us, it teaches us our finitude and our death. - so, while the edifying pastor tells us this, his soldiers and his businessmen collect organs, pulsions, pieces of the film, stock-pile, capitalize them. And the time we "know so well" . .: is fabricated in the double game of this despair and this hoarding, despair of lost-postponed meaning, of the treasure of signs which are simply "experiences" happened upon. run through, the Odyssey. (47)

This sense of "semiotic nihilism" essentially characterizes semiotics as investing its practice in studied despair, a selfish acquisition of tokens that cannot possess materiality or constitute a semblance of positive value. For Lyotard, semiotics engages in an unfortunately soulless rehearsal of capitalistic absence - a labor of hate, as it were. "To continue to remain in semiotic thought," he asserts, "is to languish in religious melancholy and subordinate every intense emotion to a lack and every force to a finitude" (49). Lyotard opposes this conception of semiotics to that of the dizzy potential of embodied play he proposes to cultivate through intersecting tensions, a semiotics that takes signs and representation beyond this pathetic market of worthless exchanges into a realm of continuous, yet not empty or negated, energetic effects.

A surprisingly significant component of Economie libidinale in terms of outlining an alternative semiotics is found in Lyotard's style. Blanchard likens it to the writings and pronouncements of Timothy Leary, William Burroughs, or Henry Miller (1979:28), but it is more closely aligned with the figures I mentioned earlier. This is especially apparent in the strident dismissal of its status as a theoretical manifesto. "To do justice" to the book "would be to insist that it is a theoretical piece only malgré sol, in spite of itself," Blanchard says. It "advertises itself as some sort of impossibility," he adds, noting that "it simply rejects, not only the possibility of any metacritical position, but also possibility itself as an expression of the will to structure with which we limit and shortchange our desire" (18). Undeniably, the vehemence Lyotard employs in his attacks on an overly complacent semiotics (that he nonetheless essentially esteems) can be compared, as one reviewer put it, to "un champignon atomique de la pensée destructrice et recréatrice" (Chapsal 1975:64). Thus, as another reviewer asserts, Lyotard constructs a "déplacement, fuite dans le style, fuite de style, style de fuite!" (Sicard 1975:220-221).

Ironically, Lyotard denies even the presence of a dramatistic program in Economie libidinale. "My prose tried to destroy or deconstruct the presentation of any theatrical representation whatsoever, with the goal of inscribing the passage of intensities directly in the prose itself without any mediation at all," he recalls. "It induced a manner of acting out, the renationalization for which (now it was my turn to rationalize) was the pretension to make writing so bent and flexible that no longer would the representation of errant feelings but their very presentation be performed in the flesh and blood of words" (1988:13). Obviously, however, he engaged in this antitheatricality by way of a semiotic economy wholly aligned with Artaud's sense of translinguistic drama and consisting of multiple, contradictory assaults geared toward creating a stylish flux of energy and wit. As Geoffrey Bennington observes, Lyotard draws upon the aesthetic of "parodic, dandyesque writing" here, and perhaps no better parallel can be found to identify the logical underpinning of such a text (1988:30).

Its violent assaults on the reader's presumed complacency, along with the common strategy of postmodern theorists to employ neologisms (helpfully addressed in Hamilton's glossary - another addition not found in the French version), are undoubtedly designed to place the reader in a position of actively questioning firmly held theoretical investments that may be just a bit too firmly held. A good example of the impact of style on the substance of Economie libidinale can be found in Lyotard's transformation of theatricality from its constrained display in conventional semiotics to that which might be performed vertiginously. "We know your objection, semioticians: whatever you do or think, you tell us, you make a sign of your action and reflection, you cannot do otherwise, due to the simple perspective it provides on the referential axis of your action-discourse" (50). This semiotics embraces the unnecessary limits of conceptual binarism, he insists; it makes the sign "hollowed out into a two-faced thing, meaningful/meaningless, intelligible/sensible, manifest/hidden, in front/behind; whenever you speak, you tell us, you excavate a theatre in things." In effect, Lyotard suggests that semiotics has taken Artaud's theatrical image of the victim signalling through the flames (1938:13) and murdered it through rationalistic dissection. Lyotard's response to this charge within his Dostoevskyian dialogism fleshes out his portrayal of a dramatism that at least partly embraces the nihilism he sees in semiotics, but does so energetically in a manner remarkably similar to related scenarios in works by Walt Whitman, William Blake, and again Artaud:

Fair enough, we don't deny it, we've been through it and go through it all the time, it is in no way a matter of determining a new domain, another field, a beyond representation which would be immune to the effects of theatricality, not at all, we are well aware that you are just waiting for us to do this, to be so "stupid" (but such an error does not warrant this name, we will soon reclaim stupidity) which amounts to saying: we quit signs. we enter the extra-semiotic order of tensors. (50)
This passage (and the others cited elsewhere) illustrates Lyotard's style well: sprawling, aggressive, paratactic, self-negating, polyphonic abstractly lyrical, non-scientific - all used to highlight the limits of semiotics (at least as he sees them) as opposed to the benefits of a theory and practice aligned with a form of libidinal drift. This often remarked theatricality is in many respects the center of Lyotard's enterprise here, for he consistently offers positions that are undercut in a way that ironically empowers them, much in the manner of Nietzsche's work such as his essay, "On Truth and Lies in A Nonmoral Sense."

In this way, Lyotard avoids the obvious shortcomings of proposing a concrete alternative semiotics. Several reviewers took note of this component of Economie libidinale. Lingis asserts in this respect that "For Lyotard the libidinous effect is without aim as it is without cause" (1980:97). Similarly, Hubert Damisch suggests that Lyotard's book offers "un sens directionnel (mais non directif)" (1975:461) or, essentially, "le complot sans projet ni programme" (464). Instead of a program per se, Lyotard reconceptualizes the sphere of structuralist studies based on what he calls the "dissimulation" (52) of the sign. Damisch reinforces this contention when he notes that "le vrai ressort du livre" is the "dissimulation dans signe sémiotique, substitutif, le signe qui fait sens par ´cart et opposition, du signe intensif, non localisable, non assignable" (462-463). To construct or engage in a vertiginous semiotics, it is not a matter of theorizing "another kind of sign," Lyotard contends. The signs we already have are quite adequate. "Signs are not only terms, stages, set in relation and made explicit in a trail of conquest; they can also be, indissociably, singular and vain intensities in exodus" (50). in order to re- vitalizesemiotics, Lyotard proposes that it utilize a model patterned after the spectacle. "To understand, to be intelligent, is not our overriding passion. We hope rather to be set in motion," he says. "A dance....not composed and notated, but on the contrary, one in which the body's gesture would be, with the music, its timbre, its pitch, intensity and duration, and with the words (dancers are also singers), at each point in a unique relation, becoming at every moment an emotional event" (51).

By constructing a spectacular semiotics, then, Lyotard's dance imagines "at the same time a sign which produces meaning through difference and opposition, and a sign producing intensity through force and singularity." Where does this lead? To ask that question reveals a failure to grasp Lyotard's program, for in response, Lyotard says:

Libidinal intensity; we are almost tempted (but we will not do this, we have become sly old foxes, too often trapped) to give it a priority, and to say: in the last instance, if you, semiologists, have any cause to set up your nets of meaning, it is primarily because there... is, in short, a given, and this given is indeed the intensification of a... region... which has become an intelligent-intelligible sign! But we are not even saying this, we are indifferent to priorities and causalities, these forms of guilt, as Freud and Nietzsche said. Order matters little... (54)

Lyotard's images employed in his analysis of scenarios drawn from Marx, Freud, Klossowski, Greek sexual economics, imaginary and real-life libidinal exercises, and pagan theatrics create a leitmotiv characterized by the desire for variations of "incandescent vertigo" (60). Opposing a reliance (one he sees characteristic of semiotics) upon "intention rather than intensity," he instead searches for"intensity... dissimulated in signs and instances" (63).

While "The Tensor" outlines Lyotard's program for heightening potential apprehensions of the mise en signe his chapter on "Capital" contains an indirectly proposed model of a cautiously hopeful (versus a nihilistic) semiotics. Casting this discussion in terms of interest derived from capital (or, in this case, the "profit" from sign displacement), he suggests that "if all interest is only an advance from an energetic remainder yet to come, obtained by inhibition, and if one supposes a close system of energies, capital would not be able to grow at all, but would simply allow, through the game of interest and profit, energetic quantities...to pass into the hands of the creditors, with the total quantity of the potential system not increasing at all" (221). This view, when extended to semiosis, considers the exchange of signs as a zero-sum proposition, one whose energetic force is gradually sapped by a type of economic entropy. If the sign itself is reconfigured, "if the supplement to be put into circulation is already there in some way," Lyotard observes, "if it is enough to postpone the fulfilment of desire to free new energetic resources, then it is because these latter are due only to a saving, whether this is through constraint or spontaneous." Although this sense of "saving" seems aligned with the closure Lyotard had just decried, he points out that it is based on movement, not retention. This saving, he says, "is in reality a matter of the introduction of new quantities of energy into the system, but the important thing is that when the system is not isolated, it finds it supplements of wealth, not by internal inhibition, but by external expansion, by the seizure of 'external' energetic sources" (222).

Despite the substantial and engaging discussion of these and other issues not directly related to semiotics in Economie libidinale, over the last 20 years critical responses to the book (and perhaps most disappointingly, those by Lyotard himself) have rather meekly attempted to explain away most of the components that make it an important contribution, as well as a catalyst, to semiotic studies. The implication is that Lyotard has performed sufficient penance through the "humanism" of some of his later works (The Postmodern Condition, The Differend, Peregrinations, Heidegger and 'the jews', and The Inhuman, for instance), to compensate for - no, to disarm - the virulence of Economie libidinale and therefore defuse its intensely brutal, yet immensely corrective, critique of (among other subjects) semiotics. In Peregrinations, Lyotard engages in what is hard not to describe as an apology for the earlier work, asserting that "Unfortunately, following nothing but the intensities of affects does not allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff" (1988:15). Wheat? Chaff? It would have been interesting to have been able to show this to Lyotard back in 1974, for he likely would have scoffed at such trepidant restraint at the time and only intensified his forcefulness. By 1988, however, he avers that "The monk I tried to become should have reminded himself that the polymorphic paganism of exploring and exploiting the whole range of intensive forms could easily be swept away into lawful permissiveness, including violence and terror"(15). In his retrospective look at the book, Lyotard acknowledges that it "could be considered an honourable sinful offering" (14) although "the project was quite naive and a little impulsive" (13). To borrow a technique from Economie libidinale in which he scandalously contrasts two embodiments of Marx (the "Old Man Marx" and the "Little Girl Marx"), one might say that Old Man Lyotard has unfortunately sold Young Turk Lyotard short in this respect. Bennington joins Lyotard in this sheepish assessment ("the book in general is violent and in a sense advocates violence in thought, by the very celebration of intensity and force over theory and concept" (1988:31) and even attempts to condemn Economie libidinale by using the same conceptual paradigms that Lyotard had already identified as inadequate and outmoded in the early 1970's. There is "a perpetual running out of control of what was to have been a rational theoretical enterprise," Bennington says of the book (32), although he also tries to reclaim it by marking its undeniable theoretical "value" (as Blanchard also observes). "Despite (its) violent anti-theoreticism, it is in fact still too theoretical a book, as such still embroiled with the theatre, with representation and critique," Bennington argues (46).

Again, perhaps with the publication of this English translation, Libidinal Economy will foster a reversal of this previous reversal when the work comes under new - and possibly appreciative - scrutiny, as has been the case regarding related issues in fields such as rhetorical theory. An obvious example would be the undeserved denigration endured for centuries by the Sophists for presumably concerning themselves only with technique at the expense of knowledge and truth. The twentieth-century epistemic shift has undeniably contributed to a recuperation of the Sophists' epistemological relativism that has at least partially removed the formerly pejorative association with the term "sophistry". Even though this is an implicit criticism of Lyotard's alignment with sophistry in The Postmodern Condition, Seyla Benhabib effectively identifies the very component of Economie libidinale that may best illuminate its potential benefit to semiotics. "Lyotard wants to convince that the destruction of the episteme of representation allows only one option, namely, a recognition of the irreconcilability and incommensurability of language games," Benhabib contends, "and the acceptance that only local and context-specific criteria of validity can be formulated" (1984:111).

While I am reluctant to patronize or dismiss the energizing gusto of Economie libidinale by addressing its "morality," I agree with Bennington's observation that "much of what is advanced in (it) can be saved from itself" (1988:46) and undoubtedly deserves to be saved because it stands as a minority opposition to a firmly entrenched, institutionalized theory that needs close scrutiny to similarly save it from itself. For, in his earlier, "nonmoral" phase associated with this book, as Lyotard seeks "the chance of new intensities" (210), he faces a situation wholly reminiscent of the scenario Plato describes in the Gorgias. Plato's text begins with Socrates visiting the accomplished Sophist, Gorgias, who offers to put on a rhetorical performance presumably regardless of the subject and, of course, regardless of the "truth" of his argument. Socrates, ostensibly declining the superficial monologism of that discourse, opts instead for a dialogic investigation of the principal pursuits of rhetoric. In this manner, Plato evidently tries to yield the kind of truth that cannot be refuted, privileging Socrates' essentialistic, purposeful dialectic over Gorgias' relativistic, and thus inherently specious, rhetoric. Ultimately, Plato never gives Gorgias his chance to perform. In Economie libidinale, Lyotard finally gives Gorgias his chance.


Artaud, A.
1938 . The Theatre and its Double. Trans. by Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Press Inc. Benhabib, S.

1984. "Epistemologies of Postmodernism: A Rejoinder to Jean-Francois Lyotard," New German Critique, 33, 103-126.

Bennington, G.
1988. Lyorard: Writing the Event. New York: Columbia University Press.

Blanchard, M.E.
1979. "Never Say Why?," a review of Economie libidinale, Diacritics, 9(2),17-29.

Burke, K.
1945. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chapsal, M.
1975. "La Cit´ du d´sir," a review of Economie libidinale, L'Express , 64.

Damisch, H.
1975. "Le Discours du tenseur," a review of Economie libidinale, Critique, 31(336),461-464.

Eco, U.
1976. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

---, 1984. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

---, 1990. The Limits of Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Linglis, A. 1980. "A New Philosophigal Interpretation of the Libido," a review of Economie libidinale, Sub-Stance, 25,87-97.

Lyotard, J.-F. 1988. Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sicard, M. 1975. "L'Economie libidinale," a review of Economie libidinale, Les Cahiers du chemin, 24,213-221.

Simpkins, S. 1990. "Reeling in the Signs: Unlimited Semiosis and the Agenda of Literary Semiotics," Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici, 55/56(2),153-173.

Scott Simpkins, Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Texas, has published essays and reviews on Romanticism, modern literature, and semiotics in journals such as Semiotic, Style, Novel, Studies in Romanticism, The American Journal of Semiotics, European Romantic Review, Versus: Quaderni di studi semiotici, Reader: Essays in Reader-Oriented Theory, Criticism, and Pedagogy, Twentieth Century Literature, Comparative Literature Studies, and the James Joyce Quarterly. I n addition to serving as editor of Studies in the Novel, he is currently preparing studies on the Romantics' subversion of the book and their representations of stigma.

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