Negative Capability in the Wild

Suzanne Barnett
Francis Marion University

Re: Keats’s 21, 27 Dec 1817 letter to George and Tom Keats

I don’t know how to confront a closed mind.
I keep thinking Keats but I don’t have enough
‘Negative Capability’, whatever that means.
– from ‘Dear Mom’ by Daniel Bosch[1]

In my contribution to the forthcoming collection Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives (under contract with Liverpool University Press), I consider how Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995–2000) offers a radically different reading of negative capability than we’ve seen in most twentieth- and twenty-first-century readings of that slippery concept. Towards this end, I compiled a list of recent references and allusions to negative capability in both popular and critical texts, some of which are listed below. By the end of the twentieth century, negative capability had become so firmly entrenched in popular culture—yet so hazily defined—that in Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan, Diane Keaton’s character claims that a featureless steel cube ‘was perfectly integrated, and it had a marvelous kind of negative capability’, and viewers read that obfuscation as cultural shorthand for critical jargon.

Negative capability has appeared recently in discussions of climate change (Deborah Lilley[2]), in political philosopher Roberto Unger’s theories of false necessity and formative context,[3] and, in a development that aspiring apothecary Keats might have appreciated, within the emerging field of narrative medicine (Terence E. Holt[4] and Delese Wear[5]). It lends its name to an independent press founded in 1981 in Mobile, Alabama and its associated journal, collections of critical essays, at least one play, and seemingly innumerable blog posts. Dozens of poems with ‘Negative Capability’ in their titles or works that reference the idea have appeared in print in the last few decades alone, including Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Mind Writing Slogans’ (The Poetry Ireland Review No. 43/44, Special North American Issue (Autumn-Winter, 1994), pp. 17-20), Cort Day’s ‘A Little Song About Negative Capability’ (Agni No. 49 (1999), p. 151), Suzanne Buffam’s ‘On Negative Capability’ (The American Poetry Review Vol. 39, No. 5 (September/October 2010), p. 30), Charlotte Matthews’s ‘Negative Capability’ (Mississippi Review Vol. 41, No. 1/2, The 2013 Prize Issue (Summer 2013), p. 80), William Kumbier’s ‘Negative Capability’ (The Centennial Review Vol. 38, No. 1 (Winter 1994), pp. 132-3), and Paul Nelson’s ‘Negative Capability’ (Ploughshares Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1997/1998), pp. 139-41), Margaree Little’s ‘On Negative Capability’ (The American Poetry Review Vol. 36, No. 4 (July/August 2007), p. 12). Other recently published poems that include the phrase ‘negative capability’ include Lance Larson’s ‘Sit Ups, with Mr. Johnny Keats’ (Salmagundi No. 160/161 (Fall 2008-Winter 2009), pp. 164-5), Albert Goldbarth’s ‘Keats’s Phrase’ (Poetry Vol. 199, No. 5 (February 2012), pp. 404-5), and Daniel Bosch’s ‘Dear Mom’, part of which appears in the epigraph above. In ‘Reflections on Teaching Playwrighting [sic] in the Schools’, Jonathan Levy explicitly equates negative capability with sympathy and claims that ‘a novelist or poet may have this ability. A playwright must have it’.[6]

Back of The Urinals’ LP Negative Capability. . .Check it Out!

Negative capability is also represented in contemporary music from a variety of genres, including the albums Negative Capability…Check It Out! (1997) by the post-punk band the Urinals and A Negative Capability (2000) by singer-songwriter Fancie. “Negative Capability” is also the title of a 2003 song by the noise-pop band Medicine. The 1996 album American Bard by Ed Sanders, founding member of freak-folk band The Fugs (whose oeuvre also contains musical settings of several of William Blake’s poems) includes a song entitled ‘The Keats Negative Capability Letter’ in which Sanders recites Keats’s words over minimalistic guitar accompaniment. Negative capability has recently been featured on television: In ‘The Locked Room’, the third episode of the first season of the HBO noir drama True Detective, negative capability is quietly invoked as a reason for Rust Cohle’s (the character played by Matthew McConaughey) remarkable ability to coerce confessions from suspects by exuding empathy until they practically beg to confess their crimes. When asked for his secret, Cohle demurs: ‘Oh, I never really found it that hard. You just look at somebody and think like they think, negative capability’.[7]

Ou Li notes that by the 1980s negative capability had become so commonplace that it began to appear in criticism of authors other than Keats (as in William V. Spanos’s ‘Charles Olson and Negative Capability’ or Beth Lau’s ‘Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative Capability, Romance and Reality’[8]) and became ‘part of the general education of literature, beginning to enjoy a more or less established status’.[9] In recent years, negative capability has even wound its way into legal scholarship; in A Modern Legal Ethics: Adversary Advocacy in a Democratic Age, Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits posits a framework for legal ethics that emphasizes the lawyer’s passivity and invokes negative capability as a model for client engagement. In his review of Markovits in Georgetown Law Faculty Publications, David Luban defines negative capability as the quality ‘according to which the poet’s art lies in suppressing her own viewpoint to permit the subject of the poem to shine forth’ (p. 4). According to W. Bradley Wendel,[11] Markovits claims that:

The lawyer’s role must, therefore, be constructed in such a way as to maximize the possibility for affective, transformative participation in the political process, which at the retail level primarily occurs through adjudication of litigated disputes. It follows that a lawyer ought to be a kind of conduit to participation, enabling clients to be as directly involved as possible. In order to do this, a lawyer must possess the virtue of ‘negative capability’. ‘Negative capability’ means effacing one’s own personal beliefs about the justice of the causes of one’s clients, serving literally as a mouthpiece for clients’ positions.[12]

In Markovits’s permutation, then, negative capability means that an individual becomes a mere ‘conduit,’ an belief-less ‘mouthpiece’ for his or her client. Barton Beebe, the John M. Desmarais Professor of Intellectual Property Law at New York University, argues in ‘Search and Persuasion in Trademark Law’[13] that ‘Trademark law is arguably the most difficult of the intellectual property laws to contemplate […] because it requires a form of what John Keats called ‘negative capability,’ the capability, more specifically, to think through the consumer and see the marketplace only as the consumer sees it’ (2022).[14] Or, in other words, What Would John Keats Buy?

These references are just a taste of the many ways that negative capability has been found “in the wild” in recent years. In my forthcoming essay, I consider how in these modern permutations of negative capability, ‘doubt’ gives way to ‘patience’ before it eventually arrives at ‘empathy’ and how Pullman returns in His Dark Materials to a renewed skepticism about the role of the self in poetic creation, so be sure to check out Keats’s Negative Capability: New Origins and Afterlives for more on negative capability in contemporary literature and culture.


[1] Agni, No. 40 (1994), pp. 159-60.

[2] Deborah Lilley, ‘Theories of Certain Uncertainty: Climate Change and Negative Capability’, symploke, Volume 21, Numbers 1-2 (2013), pp. 97-108.

[3] Roberto Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (London: Verso, 2004).

[4] Terence E. Holt, ‘Narrative Medicine and Negative Capability,’ Literature and Medicine Volume 23, Number 2, Fall 2004, pp. 318-33.

[5] Delese Wear, ‘Toward Negative Capability: Literature in the Medical Curriculum’, Curriculum Inquiry Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 169-84.

[6] Jonathan Levy, ‘Reflections on Teaching Playwrighting in the Schools’, The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 26: 3 (Autumn 1992), p. 105 (italics in original). Dan Simmons makes a similar claim that negative capability ‘remains … a required precursor to empathy in life and in art’ (p. 402) because it ‘allow[s] the best of writers to become skinwalkers and shapeshifters and to create characters more real and memorable than many of the living, breathing human beings we meet in our lifetime’; he then blames a lack of negative capability for the two-dimensionality of so many characters in contemporary speculative fiction (p. 414). (‘Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers: the Writer’s Curse of Negative Capability’, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 8: 4 [1997], pp. 400, 405.)

[7] ‘The Locked Room’. True Detective. HBO. 26 Jan. 2014. Television.

[8] William V. Spanos, ‘Charles Olson and Negative Capability: A Phenomenological Interpretation’. Contemporary Literature Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter, 1980), pp. 38-80. Beth Lau, ‘Jane Austen and John Keats: Negative Capability, Romance and Reality’, Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. 55, (2006), pp. 81-110. Lau defines negative capability as ‘the ability to negate one’s own personality, project oneself into the thoughts and feelings of others, and remain open to a variety of points of view” (84); she associates this quality with Austen, whom she claims ‘best exemplifies’ it (86).

[9] Ou Li, Keats and Negative Capability. Bloomsbury Literary Studies Series. New York: Continuum, 2001, p. 19.

[10] Princeton University Press, 2008.

[11]  In ‘Methodology and Perspective in the Theory of Lawyers’ Ethics: a Response to Professors Woolley and Markovits’ (The University of Toronto Law Journal, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Fall 2010), pp. 1011-19).

[12] Wendel, p. 1016.

[13] Michigan Law Review Vol. 103, No. 8, 2005 Survey of Books Relating to the Law (Aug., 2005), pp. 2020-72.

[14] Ibid, p. 2022.

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