History, Affect, Literature

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This is my brief contribution to a roundtable yesterday at the MLA in Chicago; the session was entitled Can Affective Criticism Read Material History in Literature? and featured also Eugenio Di Stefano, Rita Felski, Jonathan Flatley, Mathias Nilges, and Jen Phillis. A fairly lively discussion ensued after the presentations.

“History is what hurts,” Fredric Jameson tells us. Does this mean, then, that hurt (or any other affect) can provide an index to history, a means of understanding history in terms of affect rather than (say) narrative? In the first instance, Jameson’s answer would seem to be negative, as History here is portrayed as stubborn constraint, as material bulwark that forecloses the changes or transformations that we would normally associate with the historical: “It is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its ‘ruses’ turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention” (The Political Unconscious 102). And yet if affect marks history’s limits in this way, we surely touch upon those limits to varying extents and in different ways depending upon the prevailing social, cultural, and economic conjuncture. We may be consistently butting heads with history, but we do so in diverse circumstances, and indeed the “we” that butts heads will change over time. To adapt Tolstoy’s dictum about happy and unhappy families: desires and praxes that history enables (for these, too, surely exist) may be alike in their happy (if contingent) ability to deny the realities of historical constraints; but desires and praxes that history blocks or reverses may each be unhappy in their own specific ways.

More generally, in any case it is not as though Jameson is propounding history as simply some stubborn, featureless Real. The constraints that it offers up change over time, both in the short term and the long. The kinds of desires and praxes that are blocked today may be enabled tomorrow (or next week, next year, next millennium) and vice versa. The limits of the desirable or actionable, just like the limits of the thinkable or the intelligible, themselves change: sometimes glacially, sometimes with surprising speed. Indeed, is this not the import of Michel Foucault’s histories of sexuality: to chart the changing cartographies of desire, or topographies of affect, from the Ancient Greeks to our own time. Particular times (and places) are the occasion for particular affective investments or cathexes or (as we are by now accustomed to recognizing) for specific traumas, specific instances of historical hurt that are contingent in form and even in nature. To put this yet another way, what Raymond Williams termed “structures of feeling” are historically embedded and therefore mutable even if they are not directly accessible to consciousness or discourse. Affective landscapes, and the panorama of potentially identifiable and indeed nameable affective states, vary over time. From moral panics to summers of love, ages of contentment to times of fear, there is a visceral history of affect that is also a history of the body or bodies and their various capacities to affect and be affected. Our sense of time itself is colored by the sensations and intensities, fleeting or otherwise, that structure life and mark off particular experiences as distinct and memorable. Meanwhile, on another, more mundane level, codified as habit, regular and regulated encounters between bodies (the morning walk, the daily commute, the hourly peek at Facebook, Friday night at the pub) also make up the routine and the everyday, our parallel sense of time as packaged chronology.

Literature (and culture more broadly) is part and parcel of this affective history, from the banal regularities to the periodic explosions of intensity. No wonder that the history of aesthetics is a history of feeling, of the feelings that culture provokes and celebrates as well as those that it manages, softens, and even denies. From Aristotelian conceptions of catharsis to Romantic pronouncements of poetry as modulated emotion (“recollected in tranquility”), and on to fears about the impact of televisual violence or the distractions of social media, it is hardly an innovation to claim that culture seizes our bodies and is seized by them, is absorbed through the skin. Literature reproduces the structures of feeling of a given age and also (perhaps scandalously) goes against them, to open up new forms of embodiment, new lines of flight. Reading is a habit, and a habituating activity, as well as being at times a means to break with our habits, to channel the desires that history (in Jameson’s sense) may ultimately refute or allow. Whoever said that reading was merely a matter of interpretation or signification? On the contrary, what is at stake whenever we pick up a book is the mobilization or demobilization of affects, the consolidation or invention of habits, and the emergence of individuals or multitudes.

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