Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice
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Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice

A Feel for the Text

Stephen Ahern, Stephen Ahern

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Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice

A Feel for the Text

Stephen Ahern, Stephen Ahern

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Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice develops new approaches to reading literature that are informed by the insights of scholars working in affect studies across many disciplines, with essays that consider works of fiction, drama, poetry and memoir ranging from the medieval to the postmodern. While building readings of representative texts, contributors reflect on the value of affect theory to literary critical practice, asking: what explanatory power is affect theory affording me here as a critic? what can the insights of the theory help me do with a text? Contributors work to incorporate lines of theory not always read together, accounting for the affective intensities that circulate through texts and readers and tracing the operations of affectively charged social scripts. Drawing variously on queer, feminist and critical race theory and informed by ecocritical and new materialist sensibilities, essays in the volume share a critical practice founded in an ethics of relation and contribute to an emergingpostcritical moment.

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© The Author(s) 2019
Stephen Ahern (ed.)Affect Theory and Literary Critical PracticePalgrave Studies in Affect Theory and Literary Criticism
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction: A Feel for the Text

Stephen Ahern1
Acadia University, Wolfville, NS, Canada
Stephen Ahern
End Abstract
When it comes to accounting for affect, it’s not yet known what a critic can do. In representations of embodied agents literary texts have long strived to capture human experience in its multivalent forms. Recent theorizations of affect have made us more attuned to the passing modulations of bodies affected by and affecting the others they engage with and the environments they inhabit. The challenge for critics is how to develop a critical practice that accounts for the importance of affective phenomena in the psychological models and rhetorical strategies deployed by poets, dramatists, and novelists to depict the forces that move characters to feel, to think, to act. Also requiring attention are occasions when affect breaks free of the text or script to circulate through readers or audience members in ways that are hard to predict yet palpable nonetheless. The essays collected here seek to move forward our understanding of how particular affects, as well as affect conceived more broadly as modulated intensities, can determine character development and narrative form, and can influence those who come to texts open to the promise of worldmaking they offer.
Literary critics have of course long been interested in the role played by emotion in the motivation of fictional character or the response of reader or audience; in the Western tradition this interest goes back at least as far as Aristotle and Longinus. Yet the particular territory on which our current intervention hopes to make a mark is quite wide open and sparsely populated. For though a turn to affect has gripped disciplines such as social psychology, human geography, and political theory over the past two decades or so, interest in affect as embodied experience, as analytic category, as interpretive paradigm has developed more slowly in literary studies. The watershed year of 1995 saw the publication of foundational texts in what have become the two primary lines, perhaps now even traditions, of affect theory : Brian Massumi’s meditation on affect’s autonomy as prepersonal intensity , influenced by philosopher Gilles Deleuze (himself indebted to Baruch Spinoza ); and Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank ’s interest in social scripts that are driven by biologically hardwired affect-pairs, according to the primary affects theory of psychologist Silvan Tomkins .
Given that professors of literature initiated what has become an explosion of interest in affect, it’s remarkable how few works of literary criticism take an approach explicitly informed by the insights of affect theory ; at the time of writing this amounts to a scattering of articles and a handful or two of books. We do have an excellent overview of key principles and challenges in the new Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism (Wehrs and Blake 2017; see also Hogan 2016) as well as a few recent guides to model in a self-reflexive way how we might attend to affect: in the Tomkins line, for example, Adam Frank’s development of a model of “transferential poetics” (2015); or in what we might call the Massumi–Deleuzian process-philosophical line, Ilai Rowner’s exploration of the significance of “the event ” in relation to literature (2015). But we are in the early stages of a field of inquiry still in the process of becoming, a time of exciting potential as new lines of pursuit open to those attuned to the affective charge of the text. And so the chapters in the present volume develop novel ways to read texts ranging from the medieval to the postmodern, drawing on the insights of scholars working in affect studies across many disciplines. In the midst of developing readings of texts, the author of each chapter here reflects on the value of affect theory to literary critical practice , asking: What explanatory power is affect theory affording me here as a critic? What can the insights of the theory help me do with a text?
Contributors here limn the contours of affective experience figured forth in the literary text, those intensities of being that often escape the attention of the critic. In so doing they keep in mind questions central to the project of accounting for affect:
  • What are the limits of representation, especially as regards fictional characters by definition removed from the quickenings of affect that impinge on physical bodies?
  • What are the sensual resonances, the aesthetic engagements, the affective investments of readers and writers?
  • What identities, what affective assemblages—queer, hybrid, transnational—take shape in the spaces opened by heightened emotion?
While keeping these questions in mind contributors consider how attending to the circulation of affective energies might deepen—perhaps even move us beyond—the insights of cultural materialist, feminist, or postcolonial readings. And at the most metacritical level, we consider to what extent a turn to affect could or should supplant the turn to discourse in critical theory, and to ponder the implications for political critique of calls to embrace a more reparative project by theorists who tend to conceive of affect as pre-cognitive, non-representational, and thus resistant to analysis.

Notes on Method I: Histories of Emotion—And of Affect/s, Too?

Our hope in assembling this volume is that readers will find much of interest even in chapters that take up literature from outside the historical period or national literature that is their primary interest. Taken together the chapters model productive ways to bring the insights of recent theory to bear on literary texts, uncovering potentially transhistorical structures in the operations of affect while at the same time situating readings in the context of historical determinants such as culture and genre. All this to help us see the big picture: how the workings of affect—whether in moments when prepersonal intensities are actualized, or in narrative trajectories shaped by social scripts—drive formation of character and plot across 600 years of literature written in English.
In so doing we aim to complicate the presentism that marks much recent scholarship in affect studies. As Amanda Bailey and Mario DiGangi note in the Introduction to their collection Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts (2017), investigations of the circulations of affective phenomena and their material implications have tended to be firmly rooted in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, and more narrowly to be written from a perspective that assumes a particular model of selfhood and society and is critical of a neoliberal politics specific to the modern West (2–4). This scholarship on the cultural politics of emotion and affect proper has been groundbreaking, whether primarily concerned with the socio-anthropological, such as studies by Sarah Ahmed (2004), Kathleen Stewart (2007), and Lauren Berlant (2011), or—a much smaller corpus—with the literary, such as by Heather Love (2007), Rachel Greenwald Smith (2015), Pieter Vermeulen (2015), Jean-Michel RabatĂ© (2016), and Marta Figlerowicz (2017). Building on this conceptual groundwork yet seeking to take a longer view, many of the chapters in the present volume are informed by a history of emotions approach that allows us to register changes in conceptions of affective agency over time. An added benefit to such an approach is that it affords a measure of critical distance on the assumptions that underlie affect studies research whose object of study is us, now, as embodied agents forming social assemblages still in the process of becoming.
Such a historically aware perspective is crucial since without being attuned to changes in conceptions of affective agency, critics tend to read back into earlier periods a mentalitĂ© that was not in place at the time. So Earla Wilputte writes in Passion and Language in Eighteenth-Century Literature (2014) of the attempt by early novelist Eliza Haywood “to develop a language for the passions that clearly conveys the deepest felt emotions,” those “innermost feelings” (4). Yet as historian Thomas Dixon (2003) has shown, the conception of emotions in a modern sense does not emerge until 100 years later, in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Rather, still dominant was a vision of the passions as forces often outside one’s control. In the world of early romance novels popularized by Haywood and others, seduction begins with a process of unconscious influence that bypasses the rational mind; the transmission of affect happens without warning or intent, as characters are drawn involuntarily to one another (Ahern 2007). This is the model of “unfelt affect ” that James Noggle (2015) has recently shown governs all forms of writing in the eighteenth century, a model revealed in the prevalence throughout the period of adverbs such as “insensibly” and “imperceptibly.” And so more accurate would be to understand the model of affective agency at work in early modern texts such as Haywood’s as one not of interiority but of subjectivity , in the true sense of the word: the state of being subject to forces outside one’s control. To grasp the import of a protagonist’s struggles to govern their errant passions is to see that what’s playing out demonstrates the most fundamental insight of affect theory: that no embodied being is independent, but rather is affected by and affects other bodies, profoundly and perpetually as a condition of being in the world. Having an understanding of the workings of affect can help us avoid anachronism by not reading into a text a model of selfhood that was not available at the time. And it can help us recognize in early texts what is there: something that looks very like the forceful impingements on thinking-feeling bodies that Massumi et al. describe. Affect theory offers up to the critic rich accounts of the phenomenology of felt experience that can help us better grasp what’s at stake in early modern depictions of human agents under pressure from passions that rule more often than does reason.
Taken together the co...

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Citation styles for Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2018). Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice ([edition unavailable]). Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2018) 2018. Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice. [Edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2018) Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Affect Theory and Literary Critical Practice. [edition unavailable]. Springer International Publishing, 2018. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.