“Affect” gives us a way to talk about a description of the sound of bluebells agitating one another on a heath; to evoke a barely registered discomfiture in a marriage plot, the consequences of which won't emerge for several hundred pages; or, to explain why certain oddball literary characters don't quite feel like people. Critics use the term, broadly, to mark a minimal subjectivity that evades standard procedures for knowing the self and the social. Fugitive and impersonal, affective states are said to circulate outside of the individual, irreducible to the more conceptual thoughts or even emotions an individual might have about them. Neither active nor passive, they preclude a unitary vision of the self-willing subject, and instead point to the subtle processes by which the self is an “intimate public” absorbing what is outside it.Footnote 1 Therefore, the term is also metacritical: it offers a way to acknowledge a critical culture that overvalues exemplary individual acts of producing what counts as disciplinary knowledge, and to analyze the shifts in critical atmosphere that occur collectively, including the significant one brought about by affectively-oriented criticism itself.
Atmosphere and mood might be the most flexible and significant affective terms right now. Rita Felski, building on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's groundbreaking Touching Feeling, notes that critics are newly receptive to “delving into the eddies and flows of affective engagement, trying to capture something of the quality and the sheer intensity of attachments and orientations rather than rushing to explain them, judge them, or wish them away”; her recent The Limits of Critique attempts to steer critical mood away from a dominant, corrosive suspiciousness.Footnote 2 As Felski's recent respondents in PMLA have established, such “delving” cannot constitute the full work of literary criticism; the V21 Manifesto, moreover, approaches the question of critical mood from the opposite standpoint—suspicion is absent, whereas the “primary affective mode” of Victorian studies is said to be “the amused chuckle.”Footnote 3 Whether we recognize either, both, or neither characterizations of the field's mood, it seems ineluctable that in our shared spaces, whether live, paper, or electronic, some shift has undoubtedly taken place, even just insofar as mood has become a prominent term for metacritique. Mood is said—like affect more generally—to lack a telos; Jonathan Flatley defines it as an atmospheric precondition “in which intentions are formed, projects pursued, and particular affects can attach to particular objects.”Footnote 4 The term thus provides a way of thinking about the many scales of our critical project. It points to broad questions of the overall, sometimes far from conscious, tenor of academic discourse. Perhaps more importantly, it captures the work of reading in the classroom and beyond—the textures of a local, close reading, professional or not, alone or in a group, once or many times over many years.
What we do with “mood” points to the value as well as limitations of “affect” more generally. Affect theory offers an especially provocative critical vocabulary and approach for Victorian studies because it offers an alternative to painting the Victorians as constitutively anxious and self-willed, or ourselves as suspicious, bemused, or somehow both. Yet it is attended by two significant questions, recently posed with particular force: to what extent affect theory needs to rely on the findings of experimental science; and, whether its politics are necessarily progressive or even radical. If affect is “a process that is social in origin but biological and physical in effect,” according to Teresa Brennan, some theorists substantiate the distinction between affect and emotion by appeals to clinical studies.Footnote 5 Ruth Leys, however, has devastated these scientific claims by carefully taking apart the implications of studies and paradigms frequently cited by humanists, especially the line on affect derived not from Benedict Spinoza, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze, but the more partitioned accounts of feeling that come from Sylvan Tompkins, Paul Ekman, and Antonio Damasio. Moreover, affect theory's alliance with the non-conceptual (despite its affiliation with these more structured theories) tends to elicit utopian statements about the immanent possibility of political transformation.Footnote 6 For instance, Melissa Gregg and Gregory Seigworth, introducing the Affect Theory Reader, recommend “casting a line along the hopeful (though also fearful) cusp of an emergent futurity, casting its lot with the infinitely connectable, impersonal, and contagious belongings to this world.”Footnote 7 But with Steven Goldsmith, I would ask why there is any reason to believe that “critical emotion is the precondition of a future agency to come,” especially if, pace Leys, that feeling is imagined as utterly anti-conceptual and anti-intentional: the belief in affect's transformative power might merely invert hierarchies of value, privileging affect over reason, in order to redeem feelings often coded as far from positive (pain, self-loss, slow violence).Footnote 8 A kindred disenchantment of affect's politics appears in Amanda Anderson's account of the Kleinian psychoanalytic framework underpinning Sedgwick's work. For Anderson, this account, based upon extra-literary claims about mind, suggests a fundamental investment in psychic conflict that remains continuous with the relatively more cynical politics of the hermeneutics of suspicion.Footnote 9
These critiques must be taken seriously. Still, it does not make sense to view them as entirely foreclosing affectively oriented methods, nor does it fully explain why we might want a vocabulary for talking about non-intentionality or non-conceptuality, as slippery as the idea of a non-conceptual concept might be. A not-particularly-politicized concept of affect has been exceptionally productive for scholars of Victorian literature, notably Rachel Ablow, Jesse Oak Taylor, and Benjamin Morgan, whose recent monographs concern the intersection of aesthetic forms with scientific concepts—pain, atmosphere, physiology—that put pressure on the culturally enshrined but newly problematized concept of consciousness in the nineteenth century. Ablow, for instance, attends to affect theory's optimism historically, arguing that Charles Darwin's account of both pain and emotion “demand an affective registration that is discomfiting at least in part because of its incompatibility with concrete ameliorative intervention.”Footnote 10 Given many Victorians’ interest in theorizing the physical basis of mind both scientifically and in the arts themselves, it makes sense to see Victorian literature as theorizing what recognizably looks like affect's precursor. Particularly so because they were sometimes explicitly working in a recuperated Spinozist vein or in response to Darwin's account of emotion's evolution (both part of affect's dual genealogy). A historicized version of affect is more compelling than a purely theoretical one, perhaps, because these critics have at most a weak investment in affirming Victorian approaches to body-mind through the lens of our own currents in neuroscience. But given the emphasis in recent affect theory on affect's fugitive dimensions, it becomes more than a tool of intellectual history's documentation of changing approaches to thinking about how the self is constituted by, and shot through, with non-self. It also offers a way to consider how literary style and form register these shifting beliefs in terms that somewhat diverge from what Caroline Levine, in her major Forms, identifies as structures that forge social intelligibility, both like but also unlike the way mood is supposed to subtend intellection. “Atmosphere” and “tone”—which have little role to play in Levine's account—are formal terms that evoke a negative or inscrutable relation to the social structures that emerge from form in her sense.Footnote 11 And while they depend upon subtle formal features that benefit from the application of a technical literary critical vocabulary, they are perceptible and influential for many kinds of readers and readings. Affect, then, seems likely to continue to be productive as a way of thinking about how form, and various approaches to formal analysis, work.
Moreover, the fact that so much theoretical work oriented toward affect (for, against, or somewhere in between) comes from critics whose careers began with Victorian literature (Sedgwick, Felski, Anderson, Isobel Armstrong) is instructive, suggesting that Victorian literature has something distinctive to teach us about the relation between feeling and concept. Although Victorian novels and poems are filled with the phenomenological intensities and social contagions affect theory evokes, they also—according to Anderson and Armstrong—tend to feature a doubled, far more analytical and diagnostic project very much associated with, and directly related to, “criticism's” projects of “explaining” and “judging.”Footnote 12 How we position ourselves in relation to the knowledge we make is a major question of so many Victorian novels and poems. It's affect's question too.