Affect in Music

Music Lessons on Affect and Its Objects

by Roger Mathew Grant

The essay begins:

Picture it: East Prussia, autumn, 1814.

I had been spending some time in the country there, and on quiet nights with moderate winds I used distinctly to hear long, held tones, which would begin to resemble a deep, subdued organ pipe, then also the vibrations from the ringing of a muffled bell. I often could discern precisely the deep F and the striking C a fifth above it, and often even the E-flat a minor third above that also sounded, so that this piercing seventh chord, in the tones of the deepest lamentations, filled my chest with an innermost penetrating melancholy, and even horror.

These words belong to Lewis, a central character in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “Automata.” In this tale, Lewis describes a fantastical encounter with the overtone series, or the “chord of nature,” as it was then called. The sounds of this natural phenomenon overtake him, producing in his body a sympathetic resonance—a sudden, gripping, visceral reaction that he cannot explain.

The critical term for the type of experience Lewis relates is affect. Twenty-first-century theorists describe affect as corporeal, immediate, and nondiscursive. Affect is said to relate conditions of feeling that cannot be adequately captured with the tools of language. Affect theory has recently benefited from a huge resurgence in interest among humanists and social scientists, and whether the apex of this new popularity has already passed or is yet to come, it’s safe to say that affect has not always attracted the attention it does today. As the story typically goes, critics have recently favored affect theory in their search for alternatives to the focus on discourse that characterized the linguistic turn. But this narrative is not exclusive to the twenty-first century; it is also the story of a less well-known movement in intellectual history that occurred in the middle decades of the eighteenth, when debates on music created a fundamental transformation within aesthetic theory.

Affect has a long and rich intellectual heritage, and its relationships to the objects that are said to generate it have been anything but uniform. In early modernity, the affects—or the passions, as they were also called—were important components of an elaborate semiotic system that explained the impact of aesthetic objects. Today, by stark contrast, affect is often explicitly opposed to theories of the sign and of representation; theorists construe affect as a matter of subjective reception that is fundamentally objectless or nonintentional, occasionally even contrasting affect with ideology. The narrative traced in this article draws attention to an earlier moment during which affect was slowly separated from representations of aesthetic objects, and it illustrates the central and surprising role that music played in this separation.

Unfolding two parallel transformations within affect theory’s history, I endeavor to highlight formal features of affect theory that we have been given to repeating. I also aim to draw the history of affect theory into conversation with another, equally vexed archive: the history of music theory. Affective experience and musical sound have created similar problems for theorists. Both are said to act on the body in a material fashion that can be explained with a certain degree of specificity, and yet both are also said to produce transformations within us that exceed and overspill linguistic or rational containment. Music theory and affect theory, I will suggest, have much to teach each other.

Music scholars have not completely neglected the early modern turn to affect within music theory; it used to be called the Affektenlehre, or the “doctrine of affections.” But work on this phenomenon came to a halt in the 1980s, when George Buelow and others decided that its documents contain too many internal contradictions to be considered a cohesive doctrine. Buelow was correct about this, but he underestimated both the importance of those thorny, contradictory treatises and the scope of the intellectual movement they represent. The Affektenlehre was bigger and messier than we had previously thought, and it is now more pertinent to our contemporary discourse than we could ever have imagined. The time has come for a careful reconsideration of this vital and challenging intellectual moment.

In what follows I first elaborate the relationship between affect and the objects that induce it within the classic formulations of Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes. Tracing the lineage of this thought through eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, I demonstrate the crisis that musical tones created in failing to conform to the period’s prevailing aesthetic doctrine of imitation—the perceived failure, that is, of music to imitate any objects or create representations with any regularity. Within the critical quarrels that occurred during this tumultuous period of music theory’s history there emerged a new and much overlooked stage in the Affektenlehre. Certain eighteenth-century music theorists began to posit a mode whereby music aroused affect in listeners through sympathetic resonance. This theory of affective attunement, which reached its fullest elaborations in the writings of German Romantics such as Hoffmann, is closest to our contemporary, corporeal, nondiscursive understanding of affect. Drawing these two moments into conversation, I argue for a refraction of our current thought through earlier models of affect and a renewal of attention to the objects that generate affect in subjects. Continue reading …

This article places the recent turn to affect into conversation with a parallel movement that took place in eighteenth-century music theory. Because theorists in that period struggled to explain how music functioned as a sign, they began to propose an alternative, materialist theory of vibrational attunement in order to account for music’s affective power. By refracting contemporary affect theory through this historical antecedent, the essay argues for renewed attention to the objects in the world that generate affects in subjects.

Roger Mathew Grant is Associate Professor of Music at Wesleyan University and the author of Beating Time and Measuring Music in the Early Modern Era (Oxford, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the turn to affect within eighteenth-century music theory.

The Politics of Affect

Afteraffect: Arabic Literature and Affective Politics

by Nouri Gana

The essay begins:

On December 17, 2010, the Tunisian public was gripped by a horrific act that I will qualify as a melancholy act. A young street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, set himself ablaze in front of the municipal headquarters of Sidi Bouzid, southern Tunisia, following his alleged humiliation by a local policewoman, who not only fined him and confiscated his cart but also slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his dead father. While terribly tragic, Bouazizi’s act proved, retrospectively at least, somewhat empowering: it sparked what would become a nationwide wave of contention and protest whose ripple effects would then reach Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria (among several other countries not only in the Arab world but also in the world at large, where demonstrations against dictatorships and the neoliberal dispensation took place).

Bouazizi’s act, which also gave rise to several copycat self-immolations across North Africa, is reminiscent of many instances in the Arab world where suicide has served for some as the only means left for communicating their rage and disgust and for protesting against injustices of various kinds. These instances have ranged from the infamous suicide bombings in Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world to the very shocking suicide of the modernist Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi, who shot himself to death on June 6, 1982, to protest against the Israeli invasion of Beirut that same day.

The ideological motives and empowering or disempowering effects of these suicides (not just in the sense of autosacrifices but also of heterosacrifices or martyrdoms, as in the case of Palestinians living under the iron-fisted system of Israeli Occupation) remain debatable and vary from case to case. But there is ample evidence, I argue, that they are individual materializations of a more collective or group disposition toward melancholia, on the one hand, as a psychoaffective response to the ever-deepening crisis of the postcolonial project of Arab nationalism and, on the other, as a desperate or despairing response to the unyielding hegemony of the joined-up forces of local despotism and global imperialism. Regardless of their variably distinct individual or ideological character, these suicide protests are nurtured by the affect that occasions them, ranging from the circumstantial shaming of a single person to the historical shaming of entire peoples or collectivities, which is what colonialism constitutes from a deep or surface psychic and cognitive perspective. The interconnections between individual and collective responses to acts of shaming cannot be overstressed: while Bouazizi’s case illustrates how personal shame results in collective identifications and mass protests, Hawi’s case demonstrates how the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as an act of colonial aggression is privatized and decried at the personal level of one individual poet and Arab subject.

Given the continuities between settler colonialism, neocolonialism, and authoritarianism in the Arab world, there is no logical, much less historical, disconnect between Hawi’s and Bouazizi’s suicides. Both are embodiments, or graphic materializations, of a morbid affective disposition that is equally outraged by colonial and national acts of aggression and shaming. It may be the case that both suicides are, from a Lacanian perspective, the tragic testaments to the conscious assumptions of the unconscious death drive—not to say modes of self-realization in the face of the “subjective impasses” generated by the collusion of authoritarianism and colonialism in Tunisia and Lebanon—except that they are, from a historical perspective, unequivocal indictments of both authoritarianism and Zionism. Insofar as shame is variably embedded in colonial and postcolonial societies—instilled and felt at both the individual and collective levels—there will always exist a psychoaffective response that runs along the spectrum of melancholia from depression and self-loathing to reactionary rage and regressive or assertive narcissism. The loss of national sovereignty and individual self-regard may be embodied and substituted by an ideology or a leader, or displaced by cultural forms of artistic creativity that aim in various ways at the recovery of or from lost sovereignty.

Bouazizi’s act does not then so much constitute a melancholy turn as a return to the morbidly traumatic legacy of the June 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel singlehandedly defeated and shamed the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and expanded its territory to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Desert (now returned to Egypt in the wake of the 1978 Camp David Accords). While the events of 1967 have routinely been used in the social sciences as an analytical lens through/against which to read the Arab Muslim world (in the very same manner that notions of Islam or “the Arab woman” have previously offered Orientalists indispensable categories of analysis), they have rarely been studied as an object of analysis per se, much less through the combined lenses of postcolonial theory and psychoanalysis. In this respect, the late George Tarabishi’s 1991 book, Al-Muthaqqafūn al-Arab wa-Turāth (Arab intellectuals and tradition), is a salutary undertaking—really, an exception to the generalized reluctance, if not resistance, by Arab intellectuals to discern the psychoaffective legacy of 1967 through the productive lenses of psychoanalysis (in favor of generally Marxist and historicist methodologies).

For Tarabishi, the 1967 defeat resulted in “a psychic epidemic or wabā’ nafsī” that poisoned the affective map of the Arab psyche and resulted in a “pathological effect on Arab subjectivity [maf‘ūl mumriḍ ‘alā al-shakhsiyya al-‘arabiyya].” The subtitle of Tarabishi’s book is Al-taḥlīl al-nafsī li‘usāb jamā‘ī (The psychoanalysis of a collective neurosis); as such, it offers a symptomatic reading of Arab thought in the aftermath of the 1967 military defeat, foregrounding the psychoaffective dynamics of which it was a product. For Tarabishi, while the sudden 1798 colonial encounter with European modernity (Napoleon in Egypt) had resulted in a productive shock that impelled Arabs to start the process of modernization (the so-called nahḍa, or Renaissance), the 1967 defeat resulted in a counterproductive trauma. This trauma compelled Arabs to look backward to the protective shield of tradition, a move that ran against the opening and openness to European modernity that the nahḍa had enacted. In other words, the 1967 defeat compelled Arab intellectuals to turn away from the nahḍa rather than return to it. Disowning the nahḍa, which had opened the region up to European modernity, and reclaiming early Islamic tradition became synonymous with the effort to regain cultural identity and national sovereignty.

This disowning and reclaiming became, according to Tarabishi, all the more pronounced as Israel’s phallic omnipotence (symbolized by the superiority of its air force) was seen to neutralize Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and his power as a protective father figure. With the demise of that towering figure, Arabs, for Tarabishi, found in the return to turāth (tradition) an alternative or compensatory symbolic father. While the nahḍa was dominated by the searing sense of belatedness and the urge to catch up with Europe, the naksa (setback) of 1967 was dominated by the shame of castration and the impulse to act out, react, repair, or compensate for the traumatic losses incurred in the war. The 1967 defeat was traumatic, according to Tarabishi, not only because of its utter unexpectedness (at a time when victory over Israel was thought to be only a matter of time) but also because of its humiliating decisiveness and recursive aftereffects—aftereffects that still reverberate in Arab contemporaneity and that can best be illustrated by the dawning realization that victory over Israel has become as impossible as protection from its aggression. It’s as if the defeat had catapulted or expelled Arabs out of history at the very moment when they were reentering it with the ideology of Arab nationalism and the success of anticolonial movements (especially in Algeria). These nationalist and anticolonial movements have become exemplars of a third-worldist and nonalignment imagination. The symbolic victory of Nasser in 1956, which had engendered feelings of euphoria and good omens at the time, must have made it even harder to stomach the subsequent trauma of the 1967 defeat. Its untimeliness was too much to bear at a moment of high expectations for renewed Arab glory, which is why, for Tarabishi, it resulted in many regressive psychopathological practices.

The defeat of 1967 was, then, the beginning of an end that would later be gradually, but steadily, hammered home by a series of events ranging from the Camp David Accords to those in Oslo, up to the by-now routine Israeli onslaughts on Gaza. The finality of the defeat was such that it foreclosed the possibility of a second round. What is traumatic is not so much the defeat in itself, but the afteraffect in which it was and continues to be experienced and relived as an irreversible destiny—as a continually retraumatizing re-memory and reenactment of the foreclosure of a possible future, or worse, the foreclosure of the very possibility of a future. In other words, the defeat has left Arabs bereft of a dignified, let alone promissory, future, and, what is even more damaging, it has left Arabs with a sense that their past achievements (Arab Islamic glory and high nationalism) are actually the best they could ever have aspired to or achieved. Arab contemporaneity has become from this perspective unlivable unless it is imagined as a future anchored in a glorious Muslim past—“a future past,” to borrow David Scott’s felicitous expression.

Arab contemporaneity is then stranded, or suspended, in a present without potentiality, an impasse of individual dignity and national sovereignty. The severity of the defeat—its irrevocable verdict—matches only the cruelty with which it remained inassimilable to the Arab psyche. The very fact that the defeat is called a naksa or setback speaks volumes about the ways in which it had already been displaced and disavowed rather than reckoned with and worked through. Yet, the issue may not be with accepting defeat, much less with working through shame, but with giving up the struggle against the joined forces of local despotism and settler colonialism. Accepting defeat in the Freudian sense of mourning would amount to accepting the verdict of reality (Israeli superiority) and the injunction to mourn the lost object (sovereignty and dignity). The reverse amounts to the unyielding determination, or stubborn fixation in psychoanalytic terms, on recovering what is lost and redressing the colonial past of injustice and transgression. Indeed, Bouazizi’s suicidal protest and the various uprisings that followed suit suggest that the 1967 defeat has not been assimilated by the Arab psyche precisely because it continues to be contested locally through what I have been calling melancholy acts. While Slavoj Žižek contends in a recent article that melancholia has become the norm that must be subverted, I argue that in the Arab world melancholy acts of this sort are indeed ethical acts not only because of their fidelity to lost objects or lost causes but also because they dissent from the normative structures of mourning, which are in the Arab world aligned with the system of global imperialism and settler colonialism. There is a clear continuity between Hawi’s and Bouazizi’s suicides, just as there is a continuity between resisting authoritarianism nationally (Bouazizi) and colonialism transnationally (Hawi). The question for me henceforth, though, is not so much how suicide protests spark popular revolutions or at least public contentions, but how popular revolutions sparked by suicide protests are materializations of a cultural and critical capital that has largely been determined by a collective disposition toward melancholia.

There is of course nothing strikingly strange (or familiar for that matter) from a psychoanalytic viewpoint about the surety and reliability of the nexus I am trying to establish here between melancholia and militancy. It is already there in Freud’s “The Ego and the Id,” and it is especially articulated in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Toward the end of The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon overturns Freud’s conception of pathological and autodestructive melancholia and states that the French psychiatrists in Algeria “were accustomed when dealing with a patient subject to melancholia to fear that he would commit suicide. Now the melancholic Algerian takes to killing. The illness of the moral consciousness, which is always accompanied by auto-accusation and auto-destructive tendencies, took on in the case of Algerians hetero-destructive forms. The melancholic Algerian does not commit suicide. He kills.” Fanon does not theorize further this hetero-destructive disposition of colonial melancholia (which he also calls “pseudo-melancholia”) and does not actually worry that much, since, in the colonial context, everything, including psychic pathologies, would be mobilized for the purpose of decolonization in the very same manner that psychoanalysis, and more so psychiatry, were mobilized by the French colonial administration in the service of colonization. At any rate, the dynamic relationship between melancholia (regardless of its pathological component) and decolonial resistance in the decades following WWII were very much in the air and well established, such that by the time Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari published their Anti-Oedipus, Michel Foucault could gibe in the preface to the American translation of the book, perhaps in a fit of impatience and frustration: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant.”

The longer project from which this article is extracted seeks to probe the concept of melancholia in psychoanalytic and postcolonial thought in order to illuminate its far-reaching relevance to an Arab decolonial critique of colonialism and neocolonialism alike. Because of space constraints here, I will not engage in detailed analyses of the literary examples I intend to make use of as illustrations. Instead, I will cite short statements and dictums and at times even aphorisms in order to first hammer home what I mean by “melancholy acts” and then show how these “melancholy acts” do indeed serve as acts of decolonial critique. If, as Edward Said argues, Arabic literary writing became “a historical act” in the aftermath of 1948 and, “according to the Egyptian literary critic Ghali Shukri, after 1967, an act of resistance,” my aim herein is to inquire about the psychoaffective apparatus, force, or disposition that must have sustained the production of literature as a resistant and dissident act.

By “a melancholy act,” I mean to describe, insofar as the literary examples are concerned, the manifestation or materialization in language of the melancholic after-naksa-affect whose illocutionary and agentive force registers no less than an act of refusal of forgetful mourning practices and a demand for justice and redress. It is my contention that melancholia’s underappreciated dissent from normative structures of mourning is a threshold moment of critical and cultural empowerment in colonial and postcolonial societies, namely, in the Arab world, where the nexus between proxy and settler colonialisms continues to produce and reproduce almost all aspects of literature and culture. In this sense, Enzo Traverso’s postulation that “melancholic critique is the condition of all critical thinking,” is nowhere more relevant than in the context of the Arab world where this melancholy condition of critical thinking is compounded by the litany of wars and military defeats that mark modern Arab history. The various literary and cultural examples I engage with make legible—at the level of language, imagery, and rhetoric—the legitimacy of Arab political grievances and the continuity Arab artists have established between resisting authoritarianism at home and fighting colonialism abroad. Continue reading …

This essay discusses the politics of affect in post-1967 Arabic literary and cultural production. It argues that melancholia’s underappreciated swerve from normative structures of power and mourning is a threshold moment of critical and cultural enablement in the Arab world, where the nexus between proxy and settler colonialisms continues to produce and reproduce almost all aspects of literature and culture.

NOURI GANA is Professor of Comparative Literature and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning and the editor of The Making of the Tunisian Revolution: Contexts, Architects, Prospects and of The Edinburgh Companion to the Arab Novel in English. He is currently completing a book manuscript on the politics of melancholia in the Arab world and another on the history of cultural dissent in colonial and postcolonial Tunisia.

“My Heart Is Swimming …”

Heartfelt Musicking: The Physiology of a Bach Cantata

by Bettina Varwig

The essay begins:

There is a notational oddity in the autograph score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantata 199, “Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut” (My heart is swimming in blood). Instead of writing out the word “heart” every time it appears in the text, at several points the composer used the familiar heart symbol—not exactly shaped like the physical organ, but apparently as instantly recognizable then as it is now. In some instances, the abbreviation may have resulted from pragmatic considerations of space, but in others clearly not. Instead, perhaps Bach was invoking, in an inconsequential and semi-private manner, the rich significatory potential of this pictogram. Already by the early seventeenth century, the heart image had come to appear frequently in a variety of contexts, from courtly chivalry and religious iconography to sets of playing cards, encompassing an extensive field of associations and meanings. Severed from the human body, the organ could be subjected to a dazzling variety of treatments, as in the extraordinary Emblemata sacra (1622) by the German Lutheran theologian Daniel Cramer. In this widely distributed volume of devotional emblems, the heart appears in no fewer than fifty different scenarios, demonstrating its protean capacity to stand in for the believer’s life, soul, conscience, consciousness, memory, earthly existence, or inner self: the heart as a rock being softened by God’s hammer, a winged heart escaping from the claws of earthly demons up to heaven, the heart with a seeing eye, Jesus inscribing his name on the heart, the heart adrift in a stormy sea, a burning heart filled with cooling liquid from the Holy Spirit, the heart’s mettle being tested in a hot oven, and so on.

As the seat of life and the source of sin, the heart in the Christian tradition mediated between flesh and spirit. It could taste, sing, sigh, and melt; it could be given to God or cleaned out and inhabited by Christ. And so one might also imagine a heart “swimming in blood,” as the German poet Georg Christian Lehms wrote in his cantata libretto of 1711; a text set to music not only in 1714 by Bach but also two years before by his German contemporary Christoph Graupner, and subsequently heard by congregations in Weimar, Cöthen, Leipzig, and Darmstadt. Lehms’s poem draws on a long-standing Christian devotional tradition that conjoined hearts and bodily fluids, in visions of faithful hearts crying blood or sinners’ hearts drenched in waters of fear. But what was it like to be a body whose heart could undergo such procedures? What kind of physiology underpinned the veracity of these formulations? Simply casting them as poetic flights of fancy would mean disregarding the fundamentally embodied nature of such metaphors, which acquired their meaningfulness precisely through a more or less tangible link to a perceived corporeal reality. In heeding Gail Kern Paster’s call for an “interpretive literalism” in approaching early modern tropes based on bodily parts and functions, we might instead start from the assumption that experiences of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century bodiliness were historically particular in such a way that they could give rise to this kind of imagery without too great a sense of rupture or alienation. If Lehms’s poetry strikes some present-day listeners as “repellent,” this response may exactly map out the distance to be traversed in order to recover those past modes of being-in-the-body that could produce and sustain such language.

Recuperating these historical forms of bodiliness has formed a key preoccupation of early modern scholarship at least since Thomas Csordas’s programmatic call in 1990 for a focus on “embodiment” in the study of human cultures, approaching the body less as a text to be deciphered than as the locus of lived experience. Of course, as Mark M. Smith has recently reminded us, any claims toward the recovery of a usable, consumable sensory past, potentially culminating in “lickable text, scratch-and-sniff pages, touch-and-feel pads” to convey an authentic historical experience to present-day readers, must be treated with extreme caution. My argument here, too, stays well clear of an attempt to recreate for current listeners any of those past corporeal habits of which a careful historical investigation might offer some glimpses; music already went through its own “authenticity” debate some decades ago, after all. Still, Bruce R. Smith’s invitation to “project ourselves into the historically reconstructed field of perception as far as we are able” can seem particularly intriguing in the case of music, since it not only encompasses the duality of presence and pastness in uniquely challenging ways but also ostensibly performs that effortless merger of sensation and meaning, both of which it produces in abundance, every time it sounds. Past musical practices and sound worlds in this sense offer an especially promising access point for a historical inquiry that aims to steer a course between the two extremes of positing the body either as pure presence or as mere representation.

In the early modern context, such an exercise in retro-projection initially requires a fundamental repositioning of the category of “body,” by which that post-Cartesian self- contained entity separate from the mind is refigured instead as “body-mind,” or, in Susan James’s terminology, “body-soul composite.” The wealth of physiological and psychological processes that constituted these body-souls comes into sharp focus when setting out to reconstruct the ways in which music acted upon or within them. Since the historical record is frustratingly slim with regard to actual flesh-and-blood listeners caught in the act, their experiences of engaging with music (in particular in the context of a worship service) are pieced together here from a range of theological, scientific, and musical sources chosen for their proximity to the German Lutheran milieu inhabited by Bach. If, as Daniel Chua has observed, by the middle of the eighteenth century music would by and large come to be understood as only that which is heard, it is this later reduction to the acoustic that needs to be reversed (unthought and unfelt) in order to recapture how music’s sounding materials reverberated not only through “throats, mouths, lungs, ears, and heads” but also through hearts, guts, and limbs, as well as spirits and souls. Although the study of music as a performed, sounding activity has recently become something of a new orthodoxy within musicology, and this focus on performance has made the bodies behind (or, rather, in) music more immediately tangible, those bodies are still in need of much more nuanced historicization. Like James Q. Davies in his recent study of nineteenth-century virtuosity, I suggest that acts of musicking, in their capacity not just to reflect but to generate particular modes of inhabiting the body, offer a hitherto underused resource in coming to grips with the animate bodies of the past. What I envisage, then, is a kind of somatic archaeology that pushes Elizabeth Le Guin’s proposal of a “carnal musicology” to a new level of fleshliness. Such an approach might thereby begin to address that “huge gap in early modern sensory history” to which Penelope Gouk has recently alerted us, moving toward a radically revised, somatic ontology of early modern music making. Continue reading …

This essay proposes a somatic archaeology of German Lutheran music making around 1700. Focusing on a single cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach, it sets out to reconstruct the capacities of early modern body-souls for musical reverberation, affective contagion, and spiritual transformation.

BETTINA VARWIG is Lecturer in Music and Fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and is currently working on a book project entitled An Early Modern Musical Physiology.

Aesthetic Feelings

Reading for Mood

by Jonathan Flatley

The essay begins:

We all know that we have feelings when we encounter works of art. We laugh, we cry. We feel pity and fear. We like and we dislike. We shudder and shiver and tingle. We are amused, delighted, thrilled, teary, bored, relaxed, turned on, horrified, enraged, surprised, depressed, embarrassed, shocked, and fascinated. We know that these “aesthetic” feelings constitute one of the primary values of art as such, and that the problem of how to analyze and evaluate these feelings is one of the basic problems of aesthetic theory, at least since Plato worried about the way poets affected their audiences in The Republic. Many of our fundamental aesthetic categories—tragedy and comedy, the beautiful and the sublime—have become fundamental because they offer ways to think about how art affects its audiences.

Yet it is not always clear how to translate the insights from this theoretical tradition into the reading of specific works of art or literature. It can be hard to shake the sense that the discussion of “how art makes us feel” is necessarily subjective or anecdotal. Doesn’t the affective response produced by a given text depend on the reader and the reader’s particular situation? Don’t observations about aesthetic experience say more about the reader or viewer than the work? This, of course, is the concern voiced in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s essay on the “Affective Fallacy,” where they warn that evaluating a poem in terms of the feelings it produces “is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does).” Such a project, they write, “begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.” As a result, “the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear.” Even if critics are no longer as compelled as they once were by the New Critical devotion to the poem as an autonomous “verbal icon,” doubts remain about how critics can or should account for the particular affective or emotional impact of a given text on the readers who encounter it. The suspicion of “impressionism and relativism” lingers. At best, mustn’t such a claim be a specific  sociological account of a particular audience and a particular situated encounter? Don’t we risk universalizing our own subjective responses when we try to talk about the aesthetic experience of a particular work? Continue reading …

Beginning with a consideration of the distinct places of affect in aesthetic theory and in critical reading practices, this essay makes a case for mood as a critical concept that helps us to read for the historicity and potentially political effects of aesthetic practices.

Walter Benn Michaels has responded to the essay in his January 1, 2018, post at nonsite.org: Grimstad on Experience, Flatley on Affect.

JONATHAN FLATLEY is Professor in the English Department at Wayne State University, where he was the editor of Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts from 2007 to 2012.  He is the author of Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Harvard, 2008) and Like Andy Warhol (University of Chicago, Fall 2017).