Reconstructing liberalism as a project conceived in response to historical challenges, and with awareness of limiting psychological, sociological, economic, and political conditions, this chapter elaborates the affective and existential dimensions of bleak liberalism, as it works between skepticism and hope, critique and aspiration. This understanding of liberalism is presented as an alternative to the longstanding critique of liberalism within literary and cultural studies, which has reduced liberalism to ideology. The approach is situated in relation to a wide range of work on liberalism and literature and also in relation to theoretical work critical of liberal democracy and proceduralism (with special attention to Giorgio Agamben). It is argued that the literary field’s investments in specific aesthetic values have made it difficult to conceive of a liberal aesthetic that would privilege the normative commitments, and especially the dedication to principle and transparency, characteristic of liberalism. Ironically, this problem has been exacerbated by liberal thinkers such as Lionel Trilling and Richard Rorty, who themselves assert a necessary gap between liberal politics and liberal aesthetics. Moving past this divide, the study aims to explore the formal dimensions of literary works that engage liberal ideas. The introduction concludes with overviews of the book’s chapters.
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