History, Affect, Literature


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.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

Charlotte Perkins GilmanCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is preoccupied above all with the secret and mysterious life of things. It’s concerned with the human and the non-human, and the surprisingly porous line between them. The narrator takes for granted that things have what she terms “expression.” Her only surprise is that, in the circumstances in which she finds herself, they turn out to be more alive than ever: “I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression they have!” (3). Yet immediately after declaring that the liveliness of things is an open secret, that “we all know” that they have expression, she backtracks somewhat by suggesting that perhaps she is more attentive to their mysterious vitality than most: “I used to lie awake as a child and get more entertainment and terror out of blank walls and plain furniture than most children could find in a toy-store” (3). In part, then, the plot turns on this uncertainty: is the narrator a special case, abnormal, perhaps insane? Or is she simply telling us something we all know, to some extent or another: that things are more like us and we are more like things than we care to admit. Then there is a third possibility: that the “we” she invokes is general but not universal. It may be that there are some, particularly women, who can sympathize with things and know what it is to be treated as a thing. And that there are others, above all men, whose sense of subjectivity depends on marking (exaggerating?) their difference from things, and on asserting their superiority over the objects around them.

From the outset of the story, the narrator has a sense that things are not quite right. The house that she and her husband are to rent for the summer is, she intuits, perhaps “haunted”–though she doesn’t want to say this outright, for fear she may be accused of “romantic felicity” (1). Is this her (supposed) problem, that she is too much of a romantic, too easily affected by her surroundings? Still, she “proudly” insists, as though to defy any such insinuations, that there is “something queer” about the place. But by contrast, her husband John won’t admit to any such intimation: he is “practical in the extreme [. . .] and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (1). But is his problem perhaps that he in fact takes too little interest in what can be “felt and seen.” For we soon observe that the narrator focuses intently on the sensible, on her senses and sensation. For all her misgivings, she eagerly describes the house, for instance, and describes its garden as “delicious,” as though she could physically taste it. Her conviction that there is “something strange” is confirmed by her senses: “I can feel it.” Her husbands responds that what she “felt was a draught, and shut the window” (1). So begins the confinement.

Encouraged to rest, forbidden from working or writing, stuck in a room with barred windows at the top of the house, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper that lines the limits of her seclusion. It provokes, from the start, intense feelings: “I never saw a worse paper in my life. [. . .] The color is repellent, almost revolting: a smouldering unclean yellow” (2). But equally, from the start, it is described as though it had a strange (if self-destructive) will of its own: its “lame uncertain curves [. . .] suddenly commit suicide–plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions” (2). Over time, the narrator elaborates on the contradictions that she perceives in the paper, perceiving faintly “a kind of sub-pattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then” (3). Eventually, she comes to conclude that “it is like a woman stooping down and creeping about the pattern. I don’t like it a bit” (5). And ultimately, the tensions in her own situation, that of a frustrated woman writer, hemmed in at all sides by a husband who dismisses her sensations as hysteria, come to parallel and merge with the strains that she perceives in the patterns around her. She tears at the paper, grasping at the presence she perceives within it: “I pulled and she shook, I shook and she pulled” (8).

None of this is really about identification. The narrator has written herself into her surroundings, which in turn have opened up to her. It’s best to think of this as a production–better still, a co-production–of an expansive subjectivity immanent to the things of this world. Against the authoritative (and authoritarian) airs of her doctor husband, the narrator makes the whole world tremble and vibrate. And in the end, her particularity, her singularity, affects him, too, when he falls down in a faint upon entering the room that she has made her own by abolishing the distance between subject and object, human and inhuman. She has become part of it, and it finally becomes her.

Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud, Civilization and Its DiscontentsLike Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morals, Sigmund Freud in Civilization and Its Discontents
is interested in the puzzling fact that ultimately we are our own worst enemies. However hostile life may be–and in Freud’s vision of things, life is pretty hostile; “one feels inclined to say,” he tells us, “that the intention that many should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’” (43)–the sources of our unhappiness are as much internal as external. But the real puzzle for Freud is the fact that it seems to be precisely the efforts we make to protect ourselves from external suffering that cause us most inner torture. In Freud’s words, this is the “astonishing” contention that

what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery [. . .]. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization. (58)

But Freud wants to propose a similarly astonishing contention for individuals as well as for larger groups: our attempts to defend ourselves from pain rebound on us and cause us still more and still deeper unhappiness.

There are plenty of reasons, Freud suggests, why civilized man might be unhappy. Not least, for instance, is the fact that we are forced to restrain our libidinous desires, which are policed and restricted to socially-approved love-objects (a unique partner in a monogamous heterosexual relationship), sublimated into “higher” pursuits (art, education, politics), or simply repressed. Moreover, we are also forced to restrain our instinct for aggression, which likewise has to find approved outlets (expressed as hatred of the stranger, the scapegoat, or sublimated in the pursuit of war, sport, politics again) if it is not be stifled altogether. But Freud’s “economic” theory of the drives–derived, it has to be said, from a rather primitive, mercantilist version of Economics–states that instinctual energy never fully disappears. The repressed returns, and in its new incarnation is all the more threatening and destabilizing in that its original occasion is now long forgotten.

As with Nietzsche, moreover, for Freud the deepest unhappiness of civilized man revolves around his feeling of guilt: a guilt which is quite strictly undeserved because it is prompted by what may happen, rather than by what has. Indeed, Freud distinguishes between guilt and remorse, where remorse is regret for any actual injury that has been incurred by the other; guilt by contrast is anticipatory or speculative, in that it encompasses any injury that may be or may possibly have been incurred. Guilt is not so much a response to what happens out in the world than it is the consequence of our having internalized and turned against ourselves our own aggressive instincts. Guilt is prescribed us by our super-ego, an introjected combination of parental disapproval and repressed aggressiveness. And yet it is the super-ego that, in communities as much as in individuals, is given the task of keeping our desires in order, of ensuring coherence and cohesiveness. It is the super-ego, with its imposition of a pre-emptive sense of guilt, that keeps both civilization and individuals together, restraining the dissipative tendencies of our instinctual drives.

Nietzsche once wrote: “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Freud’s motto might almost be: “What makes me stronger, also kills me.” Or as he puts it, “What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defence against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself!” (146). And note that almost exactly the same could be said about libidinous desire, which is just as much a threat to civilization, but without which civilization would be unimaginable. Yet if Freud is never as hopeful as Nietzsche–who is always seeking to affirm the will and the affects, even ultimately the will found in the will to nothingness itself–nor is he ever quite as apocalyptic, despite the sombre tone added in the final line of the book’s revised version. “Who can foresee,” Freud here asks, whether Eros or Thanatos will finally win in their eternal struggle against each other, “and with what result?” (149). Earlier, by contrast, he had stressed that that the two drives, desire and aggression, almost always come together, “alloyed with each other in varying and very different proportions” with the result that they “become unrecognizable to our judgement” (106-7). In the end, for Freud the difference between love and aggression is undecidable; we simply have to live with both. Ambivalence is all.


Nietzsche, Genealogy of MoralsThere’s no doubt that that Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals is, as its subtitle announces, “a polemic” (13). Nietzsche rages against Western (so-called) civilization and the palpable sense of claustrophobia, defeat, sickness, and enervation in which we find ourselves: “Enough! Enough! I can’t take any more. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are manufactured–it seems to me it stinks of so many lies” (47). Hence he rails also against the various forces that have led up to and keep us in this dire situation: slave morality and its inversion of values such that what was once good is now pronounced evil; ressentiment and its negation of all that is “different” that is “not itself” (36); the cult of guilt and “the oppressive narrowness and punctiliousness of custom” (85); the ascetic ideal and its priesthood that, by making us feel that our own sinfulness is to blame for our predicament, seeks “to exploit the bad instincts of all sufferers for the purpose of self-discipline, self-surveillance, and self-overcoming” (128).

No wonder Nietzsche’s style is so impetuous and abrasive. To wake his somnolent readers and alert them to the damage they have been doing themselves for centuries, let alone to carve out a different path, requires “a kind of sublime wickedness, an ultimate, supremely self-confident mischievousness in knowledge that goes with great health” (96).

One can almost feel the ebb and flow of his emotions as Nietzsche writes: disbelief, anger, impatience, frustration, irritation, annoyance, exhaustion… and hope. Yes, hope, not only because his belief in mankind’s potential as great as his dismay at the ingeniousness with which we have perversely tortured and hobbled ourselves, but also because even the ruins themselves have something that can be salvaged.

First, there is the fact that even the immense disasters that afflict us (that we have inflicted on ourselves) have their own value. The sick body, too, has its own perspective and there is no perspective so misguided that it should be summarily eliminated. Or to put this another way: the sick body, too, knows something; we cannot deny the body even in its weakness and its suffering. And all knowledge should be welcome to those who really seek to know. The various “reversals of accustomed perspectives and valuations with which the spirit has, with apparent mischievousness”–note that word again–“and futility, raged against itself for so long” allow us “to see differently in this way for once, to want to see differently” (119). They add to the stock of human experience and discovery, and against the poisonous ideal of a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” we should welcome even this hobbled perspective in that “the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will be our ‘concept’ of this thing” (119). Even the sick and the weary, the defeated and the self-defeating, have their contribution to make.

(Note by the way that it is this impulse to see value in ruination, this accommodation of impurity and difference, that makes Nietzsche very far from the proto-fascist he is sometimes lazily assumed to be. Nietzsche is engaged in a war, that’s true, but in his view the noble spirit always learns even from his enemies. And ultimately Nietzsche’s goal is more variety, not less; more life and more different kinds of life rather than the death and destruction upon which the Third Reich became fixated.)

Second, the very stubbornness and ingenuity with which we have turned against our better natures is, Nietzsche believes, itself a sign of hope. He concludes the book by noting that mankind’s self-abasement, its “rebellion against the most fundamental presuppositions of life,” indicates our nihilism, our “will to nothingness.” But precisely the fact that we struggle so hard for our own oppression shows that at least we are still struggling: “it is and remains a will!” The final consolation that Nietzsche offers is that “man would rather will nothingness than not will” (163). There is life in the old brute yet, however much that life may be turned against itself. We may be weary, we may be suffering, but the very effort we invest in perpetuating our own degradation shows that we are not dead yet. Now if only we could put the same amount of affective energy into a battle for life, rather than against it. What a wonderful sight that would be!


Shelley, FrankensteinIt’s easy enough to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a warning against scientific hubris, or what might these days be termed “over-reach.” Indeed, this is the moral drawn for us in Victor Frankenstein’s own death-bed speech: “Seek happiness in tranquility, and avoid ambition, even it if be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries” (220). And Maurice Hindle, the editor of the Penguin edition of the book, expands upon the same theme in somewhat leaden terms:

The “incestuous” violation of life on this planet has reached epidemic proportions, and much of the blame for this state of affairs must surely be laid at the feet of those who find an endless thrill of excitement in scientifically “penetrating” the “secrets of nature,” taking little or no responsible account of the damaging implications “theory” might have for “practice.” (xlvii)

Is this then a Romantic critique of Englightenment hubris, an argument for more feeling and sensibility, against single-minded dedication to abstract goals?

Yet it is surely strange that a book purportedly promoting tranquility and repudiating excitement should be written in such a thrilling manner, with the design (it seems) to perturb even the calmest of souls.

The book reveals a fundamental ambivalence about its own terrifying narrative. The Creature that Frankenstein created suggests (in what is his final speech, following the scientist’s demise) that it is best that the whole story be buried and forgotten: “He is dead who called me into being; and when I shall be no more, the very remembrance of us both will speedily vanish” (224). But of course Walton, the narrator who conveys us this tale, is keen to record and preserve its memory: he tells his sister, to whom he is notionally addressing his account, that the Creature’s revelations pronounced over the corpse of his maker constitute a “final and wonderful catastrophe” (221). And the book itself sets out to provoke and excite: born of a competition among friends who are bored on a rain-soaked holiday (“’We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron” [7]), and inspired by Shelley’s frightful dream (“My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me” [9]), it has been both distracting readers and giving them nightmares ever since its original 1818 publication.

How much in any case can we trust Frankenstein, given that he has just reprimanded Walton’s crew for their faint-heartedness in the face of their “glorious expedition” in the high Arctic: “And wherefore was it glorious? [. . .] Because danger and death surrounded it, and these you were to brave and overcome” (217). He and Walton alike have a decidedly Romantic conception of scientific inquiry. Walton ascribes his “passionate enthusiasm for [. . .] the dangerous mysteries of ocean [. . .] to that production of the most imaginative of modern poets” (21-22). For his part, Frankenstein finds inspiration in medieval alchemists and has to be reminded by his university tutors that these are not real scientists: “In what desert land have you lived, where no one was kind enough to inform you that these fancies which you have so greedily imbibed are a thousand years old and as musty as they are ancient?” (47). And the Creature himself is surely as much an offspring of the Romantic imagination–as “sublime” in his own way as the “awful majesty” of the Alps in which he thrives where humans struggle and stumble (100, 101)–as he is the product of scientific experimentation and toil in the laboratory.

If anything, Frankenstein is a polemic against neither Romanticism nor Science, but against the mixing of the two. It is not opposed to passion or affect or “unremitting ardour” (55); rather, it censures misplaced affect, the “enthusiasm of success” in domains that should be preserve of desiccated reason and careful consideration. Nature should induce high passions, the “sublime ecstasy” that gives “wings to the soul”; human artifice should not. Romanticism should know and keep to its own preserve; Science should do likewise.

And yet, again, the final irony is that there is no greater instance of the powerful admixture of scientific fascination and the Romantic sensibility, than the memorable and pulsating tale told by Frankenstein itself.


Rousseau, Discourse on InequalityIn the Discourse on Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau sets out to turn Thomas Hobbes’s famously pessimistic account of “natural man” on its head. Where for Hobbes life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish, and short” as everyone struggles against each other in a “war of all against all,” for Rousseau it is a form of existence characterized by self-sufficiency and relative harmony: “these men’s disputes would seldom have had bloody consequences” (102). We can prove this empirically, indeed, by looking to the New World: “the Caribs, who of all peoples existing today have least departed from the state of nature, are precisely the most peaceful in their loves, and the least subject to jealousy” (103).

This relative tranquility in the state of nature stems less, Rousseau argues, from any innate human goodness (indeed, the opposition between “good” and “evil” scarcely makes sense in such a situation) as from a number of more pragmatic considerations. First, as each of them is effectively self-sufficient, primitive humans have no need (and no desire) to maintain extended contact with each other. Beyond answering the call of sexual desire to mate (a singularly unromantic process, in Rousseau’s account) and reproduce, they keep themselves to themselves. Second, when they do meet, natural inequalities–of size or strength or speed, for example–are relatively minor; there would seldom be any obvious advantage in starting a fight, especially given that one could satisfy one’s needs for food and shelter etc. on one’s own. And third, any aggressive impulses are kept in check by a more fundamental sense of compassion: “It is pity which in the state of nature takes the place of laws, morals and virtues, with the added advantage that no one there is tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (101).

It is then (and this is Rousseau’s main argument) society that will create divisions, by accentuating natural inequality and adding to it the burdens that are artificial inequalities of wealth, rank, honour, and so on. So whereas for Hobbes, we are all equal before the law, because we are all equally lowly in the face of the Leviathan’s supreme power (for this reason, if no other, he is a classical liberal), for Rousseau civilization introduces difference–and, what is more, an awareness of difference (pride)–and therefore discord as we compete for status and to satisfy artificial needs. If there is a “war of all against all,” it is propelled by the fact that “inequality of influence and authority soon becomes inevitable among individuals as soon as, being united in the same society, they are forced to compare themselves with one another and to take into account the differences they discover in the continual dealings they have with one another” (132). This is the hectic social whirl, the “petulant activity of our own pride” (115) that makes social life uncertain and unstable.

By contrast, the life of a savage is also, then, one of singularly low intensity. Indeed, it is a life of “indolence” (115) that is scarcely ruffled by the slightest affect. Where Hobbes sees primitive man in terms of panic and fear, for Rousseau the passions are overwhelmingly artificial. Affect is the product of society and habit: there is nothing particularly natural about either love or hate, happiness or sadness, fear or joy. And even Rousseau (Romantic that he was) had to thank socialization for finally teaching us to feel.


Guy de Maupassant’s “Toine” is (much like “The Little Cask”) something of a parable of economic theory.

Toine, the eponymous innkeeper, is the very model of productive consumption. He is the biggest fan of his own product: the cognac that he calls “extra-special,” which he declares to be “the best in France.” His zealous praise of his own produce gives him his nickname, “Toine-My-Extra-Special,” and his loquacity and cheeriness draw customers from miles around, “for fat Toine would make a tombstone laugh.”

But what makes him special (and presumably what makes him cheery) is also his prodigious appetite, which is itself a marvel for visitors to this out-of-the-way hamlet, sheltered in a ravine from the ocean winds: “merely to see him drink was a curiosity. He drank everything that was offered him.”

This consumption, however, is not simply wasteful or a drain on his resources. It is in fact what makes his business profitable. Consumption and acquisition are happily mixed in Toine’s gregarious nature: “His was a double pleasure: first, that of drinking; and second, that of piling up the cash.”

Toine is a poster boy for profitable sybaritism. He is a living rejoinder to miserliness on the one hand, and the Protestant work ethic on the other.

And this is surely what irks his wife. She is angered by the fact that her husband “earned his money without working.” The story’s narrative, then, is devoted to her efforts to turn him into something more like a laborer: to reap profit not from his consumption but from a more stringent (and more morally acceptable) program of regimentation and discipline.

So she makes Toine into a broody hen.

Laid up after an apoplectic fit (the fruit of his excessive enjoyment, though it hardly slows him down: he sets up a regular domino game by his bedside and he would still “have made the devil himself laugh”), Toine is forced to keep his wife’s chickens’ eggs warm. For the long, anxious gestation season, his movements are even more radically restricted: he can no longer turn to left or right, for fear of “plunging him[self] into the midst of an omelette.”

As time goes by, Toine, whom his wife has long regarded as more beast than man (“You’d be better in the sty with along with the pigs!”) comes more and more to identify with the animal kingdom. There’s something almost Kafkaesque about his gradual metamorphosis, if not into a pestilent cockroach but into a mother hen. His arms become like wings, under which his precious charges shelter.

And becoming animal is also (here at least) a becoming feminine: he manifests “the anguish of a woman who is about to become a mother.” No wonder that his is an “unusual sort of paternity” as he is transformed into “a remarkable specimen of humanity.”

But the story is not so much about Toine’s gradual animalization, and more about simply his increasing recognition of his animal status. For Maupassant treats all his characters as, frankly, beasts: Toine’s wife “walked with long steps like a stork, and had a head resembling that of a screech-owl”; his friend Prosper, whose idea the entire stratagem is, has “a ferret nose” and is “cunning as a fox.” Another friend is if anything less human still: he is “somewhat gnarled, like the trunk of an apple-tree.”

So perhaps Maupassant’s final word is that, whichever economic regime they favour, and whether they choose the moral virtue of restraint or the sybaritic pleasures of unlicensed consumption, in the end all of his characters are animals. Either way, what you have are simply various modalities of affective labor. It’s just that some are more in tune with this realization than others.