Stanford Univ. Press, 1989 , 726 pp., ISBN-10: 0804718938, ISBN-13: 978-0804718936

front cover
[Catalog copy: original description on hardcover jacket]

The imaginative power of Wordsworth’s poetry stems from a denial of history so strong and precise that denial itself—the determined absence of history—must be studied as positive fact. The author argues this thesis with the aid of substantial methodological innovations allowing the best of formalist, deconstructive, and New Historicist reading strategies to be synthesized and informd by a wealth of historical matter. Drawing upon recent advances in the history and theory of the French Revolution, art history, economic history, family history, and the social history of the Lake District, he shows that history—however absent it seems to be—influences literature deeply at the level of form. In particular, the most telling register of historical change and perception in Wordsworth’s poetry is generic transformation. Studying the works of the early and middle years intensively, and the later works suggestively, the author argues that Wordsworth’s overall shift from description to narrative, and from narrative to lyric, is a mimetic denail of contemporary cultural history. By the time “imagination” invests lyric imagery, it has learned to capture history within an empire of self that is no less than a surrogate history, a facsimile ideology.

Part One of the book introduces the subject by rereading the Simplon Pass episode in The Prelude as a denial of Napoleon’s Alpine crossing of 1800. It then formulates a methodology of historical reading by witnessing in the modern and postmodern notion of “context” a developing collaboration between formalist and materialist perspectives. The “matter” of history, the author argues, is collectively structured, witnessed, and uttered absence; and the reading of history is therefore a discrimination of forms of absence. When a city or a cottage is effaced, there is left only the nothing that is the constitutive basis of conventions of difference—of hate, prejudicial discrimination, “nation,” “culture,” and, as one of the most discriminating of cultural discriminations, the differential forms of art.

back cover

Part Two draws upon art history, political history, contemporary journalism, and narrative theory to study the formal collision between Wordsworth’s early picturesque and the predominantly narrative mode of French Revolutionary violence. Out of this collision, “time” arose as the massive denial of history, giving the poet his first authority separate from the “People.” In chapters entitled “The Tragedy of the Family,” “The Economy of Lyric,” and “A Transformed Revolution,” Part Three traces the development of authority into the “originality” of the poet’s mature ideology of autobiography. Part Four concludes the work by pointing ahead in Wordsworth’s corpus toward “The Idea of the Memorial Tour” and the self-critical stance of a poet whose quintessential act was to “collect” himself. The book ends with a brief epilogue on history and critical self-consciousness.

[Jacket Illustration: La Journée des Brouettes (or Préparatifs de la Fête de las Fédération au Champ de Mars, Juileet 1790) by Etienne-charles Le Guay. Musée Carnavalet]

Table of Contents
back cover

Part I. Introduction

  1. The History in "Imagination"
  2. History, Literature, Form

Part II. Violence and Time: A Study in Poetic Emergence

    Before Time

  1. The Politics of the Picturesque: An Evening Walk
    • Motive and Motif
    • From Form to Institution
    • Toward the Indescribable
  2. The Poetics of Violence
    • London: The Silence
    • Paris: The Story
  3. A First Time: Descriptive Sketches, Salisbury Plain
    • The Tragedy of Nature
    • Unexplained Violence
    • The Terror of Time

Part III. The Flight of Forms: A Study of Poetic Individuation

    Lyric and Empire

  1. The Tragedy of the Family: The Borderers
    • A Question of Legitimacy
    • The Crime of the Family
    • Toward a Discourse of Self
  2. The Economy of Lyric: The Ruined Cottage
    • The Value of Imagery
    • The Economy of Debt
    • Peddling Poetry
  3. A Transformed Revolution: The Prelude, Books 9-13
    • The Contest of Genres
    • Autobiography and Ideology

Part IV. Conclusion

  1. The Idea of the Memorial Tour: "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge" (excerpt)



Citation: Alan Liu, David Durand, Nick Montfort, Merrilee Proffitt, Liam R. E. Quin, Jean-Hugues Réty, and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. Version 1.1. August 5, 2005. Electronic Literature Organization. Retrieved [date of access]. <>.

This white paper is part of the Electronic Literature Organization’s PAD (Preservation / Archiving / Dissemination) initiative. PAD aims to create methods for preserving or migrating experimental, “born-digital” works of creative literature that are perishing with their original hardware and software environments.

/ excerpt » /

University of Chicago Press, 2004, 552 pages, ISBN-10: 0226486990, ISBN-13: 978-0226486994 (fuller precis of book)

front cover
[Catalogue copy]

“Knowledge work” is now the reigning business paradigm and affects even the world of higher education. But what perspective can the knowledge of the humanities and arts contribute to a world of knowledge work whose primary mission is business? And what is the role of information technology as both the servant of the knowledge economy and the medium of a new technological cool?

In The Laws of Cool, Alan Liu reflects on these questions as he considers the emergence of new information technologies and their profound influence on the forms and practices of knowledge. Liu first explores the nature of postindustrial corporate culture, studies the rise of digital technologies, and charts their dramatic effect on business. He then shows how such technologies have given rise to a new high-tech culture of cool. At the core of this book are an assessment of this new cool and a measured consideration of its potential and limitations as a popular new humanism.

According to Liu, cool at once mimics and resists the postindustrial credo of innovation and creative destruction, which holds that the old must perpetually give way to the new. Information, he maintains, is no longer used by the cool just to revolutionize human knowledge—it is also used to resist it. What counts as cool today, however, is too frequently narrow, shallow, and self-centered. The challenge for the humanities, then, is to help redefine cool and to use technology in a way that mediates between knowledge work and a fuller lifework glimpsed in historical lives and works.

A study of enormous scope, ambition, and intellect, The Laws
of Cool
provides an indispensable account of knowledge work
today and its future.

[Original draft of catalog copy]

In The Laws of Cool, Alan Liu thinks about knowledge work in contemporary society from the viewpoint of the historical, critical, and aesthetic knowledges valued by the humanities and arts. He also looks through the glass in the other direction to reflect on the evolving nature of the humanities and arts under the pressure of the newly dominant, corporate knowledge cultures of lifelong learning,learning organizations, team work, and diversity management. Liu’s pivotal topic is information technology and its semi-autonomous culture of cool (as in Web pages so cool that they thwart the flow of information). Information cool, as he calls it, is now the symptom not just of consumer culture but of a producer culture–the culture of the cubicle–that seeks an “ethos of the unknown” within the world of knowledge work.

back cover

Liu draws on contemporary business theory, sociology, anthropology, art, literature, literary theory, cultural studies, history of information technology, and Internet and new media theory to create an argument that is at once historical, formal, and theoretical. After articulating the concept of postindustrial knowledge work, he narrates the rise of information technology in the workplace and the cognate rise of cool subcultures, countercultures, and cubicle “intracultures.” He then focuses on the formal, technical, social, and political features of high-tech “information cool” and concludes with a sustained reflection–and some practical suggestions–on how the humanities and arts can help educate the contemporary generations of cool.

One of Liu’s special concerns is the emergence of new “destructively creative” or viral arts that resist the postindustrial credo of innovation or what economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. Another is the current humanities emphasis on historicist critique, which also reevaluates the process of creative destruction. How might these twin tendencies in recent humanities and arts collaborate, he asks, to help shape the well-being–or wealth in a deeper sense–of the new classes of knowledge who spend their days and nights staring at a computer screen and wishing they were cool?

Since the early 1990s, Liu has built on his work in literary history, theory, and cultural criticism by exploring contemporary information culture through a number of technology projects, including his Voice of the Shuttle Web site and Transcriptions: Literary History and the Culture of Information (the NEH-funded research and curricular development initiative he directs). The Laws of Cool harvests the practical and theoretical experience gained in such projects.

(See fuller precis of book)

book spine
Table of Contents

Introduction: Literature and Creative Destruction

Part I. The New Enlightenment

Preface “Unnice Work”: Knowledge Work and the Academy

  1. The Idea of Knowledge Work

Part II. Ice Ages

Preface “We Work Here, But We’re Cool”

  1. Automating
  2. Informating
  3. Networking

Part III. The Laws of Cool

Preface “What’s Cool?” (excerpt)

  1. The Ethos of Information
  2. Information is Style
  3. The Feeling of Information
  4. Cyber-Politics and Bad Attitude

Part IV. Humanities and Arts in the Age of Knowledge

Preface “More”

  1. The Tribe of Cool
  2. Historicizing Cool: Humanities in the Information Age
  3. Destructive Creativity: The Arts in the Information Age
  4. Speaking of History: Toward an Alliance of New Humanities and
    New Arts (With a Prolegomenon on the Future Literary)



  1. Taxonomy of Knowledge Work
  2. Chronology of Downsizing
  3. “Ethical Hacking” and Art

Citation: “The Downsizing of Knowledge: Knowledge Work and Literary History.” Abridged and edited by Randolf Starn. In Alan Liu, Miryam Sas, Albert Ascoli, and Sharon Marcus. Knowledge Work, Literary History, and the Future of Literary Studies. Ed. Randolf Starn. Doreen B. Townsend Center Occasional Papers, No. 15. Berkeley, Calif.: Townsend Center, 1998. 1-22.

[Includes response essays by Miryam Sas, Albert Ascoli, and Sharon Marcus to the original paper delivered at the Townsend Center on March 12, 1998.]

  • Full text of pamphlet (.pdf)

/ excerpt » /

Citation: “Globalizing the Humanities: ‘The Voice of the Shuttle: Web Page for Humanities Research.'” Humanities Collections 1.1 (1998): 41-56.

/ excerpt » /

Citation: “The New Historicism and the Work of Mourning.” Studies in Romanticism 35 (1996): 553-62.

[Special issue of Studies in Romanticism entitled “Essays in Honor of Geoffrey H. Hartman.” Guest editor Helen Regueiro Elam.]

/ excerpt » /

Citation: “The History in ‘Imagination.” Romanticism: A Critical Reader. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford, UK; Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. 84-119.

[Reprint of chapter 1 of Wordsworth: The Sense of History.]


Citation: “Die interdisziplinäre Kriegsmaschine.” Texte zur Kunste, No. 12 (Nov. 1993): 127-37.

[German abridged version of “The Interdisciplinary War Machine,” later published in English in Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database).]


Citation: “The Economy of Lyric: The Ruined Cottage.” Romantic Poetry: Recent Revisionary Criticism. Ed. Karl Kroeber and Gene W. Ruoff. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 139-53.

[Abridged reprint of chapter 7 of Wordsworth: The Sense of History.]


Citation: “Local Transcendence: Cultural Criticism, Postmodernism, and the Romanticism of Detail.” Representations 32 (Fall 1990): 75-113.

/ excerpt » /

Citation: “Wordsworth and Subversion: Trying Cultural Criticism.” Yale Journal of Criticism 2.2 (Spring 1989): 55-100.

/ excerpt » /

Citation: Review Article on David Simpson’s Wordsworth’s Historical Imagination. The Wordsworth Circle 19 (1988): 172-81.

/ excerpt » /