A woman said to the profession,
“Hey, experiences of literature exist!”
“However,” replied the profession,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
My first conscious aesthetic experience, for the purposes of this blog post, is a moment when I must have been eight or so. We had gone to a theme park and had been riding on a rollercoaster in the dark (whee!); the rollercoaster stopped, we got out in the half-dark, guided by a single light (probably not, truthfully, but hey, memories) to a swing door. The door opened, and we stepped into the glistening lights of a (fake, obviously) Paris boulevard-side café, all white facades around us, little tables set under triple street lights, also white-painted, with large (fake?) maples (?) set between, everything bright, sparkling, beautiful. It was a shocking experience, so much so that I can still remember (or imagine) it today—and still feel the same about it today that I felt then. I’ll always have fake German theme park post-darkness Paris.
Looking back on it—not even as a trained reader of culture, merely as an adult—I recognize, of course, that my reaction was a bit out of whack: my response was partially manufactured (surely the theme park designer realized the effect of darkness-to-light), partially rose-tinted; those cutesy little tables were probably bolted to the ground and littered with discarded fast food boxes. Such criticism devalues, in a manner of speaking, my initial aesthetic experience. Am I “obscuring or overshadowing [my] objects rather than allowing them to shine forth” (134)? I suppose. Is that, in this instance, a bad thing? I’d like to say not.
This is a problem I will recur to throughout this meandering, long review of Rita Felski’s Hooked. I don’t know if Rita Felski would agree, and in part, I want to say that that’s because Hooked doesn’t actually tell me. It does, to its credit, tell me a lot that I didn’t know before about what Felski things the troubles with the discipline are and what we could be doing differently—after the polemic of Limits of Critique, that’s very refreshing. In fact, the entirety of chapter 4 of Hooked is meant to (but I’ll come back to that, too) tell us what her ideas about attunement and attachment could mean for the work we do in the discipline. But overall, I’m still baffled, and this is going to be a grumpy means of puzzling out why.
Hooked’s split into two parts: the first three chapters, on attachment, attunement, and identification, reiterate (in the last case, literally) points Felski has made elsewhere about how reading (to her) works, and what terms might best describe the personal relationships people build up with art. None of this is new, either in terms of content or in terms of style; and it’s this latter bit that grates more than the largely unspectacular claims about how people relate to art.
It’s strange to say it, but Hooked at 163 pages is wordy. It is repetitive—not just of earlier things Felski has said, including essentially reprinting her essay from Character, but also of itself, repeating over and over variations of the (controversial?!) idea that aesthetic experiences happen, and are not completely internal to either the observer or to the work of art . Felski has honed a writing style that is long on generalities and short on particulars, especially when it comes to naming names and providing evidence for her largest claims. Large claims stand on narrow grounds (“Attunement cannot occur without a nascent state of readiness; aesthetics cannot forgo or dispense with the first-person response” because Zadie Smith was surprised by suddenly liking Joni Mitchell on a visit to Tintern Abbey; 52). Words like “the usual” do very heavy lifting: throughout the book, Felski posits, but never establishes, common place versions of academia, critique, literary studies, professional reading, non-professional reading, indeed even of aesthetics and social theories of art, that she studiously avoids weighing down with footnotes. The breeziness of Felski’s prose makes Hooked a preternaturally easy read (that is, if you discount the breaks for throwing, cursing, breathing in, picking up, and settling back into a reading stance); it also makes it deeply annoying to anybody, I think, who would be interested in getting answers to the questions that Felski poses throughout. Nor does the book offer much in the way of readerly guidance as to the relevance of these claims for anything. My most frequent annotations, I see as I skim my notes, in the first three chapters are “evidence?” and “so?”—the latter being shorthand for “even if I grant you this wild claim, what the everloving hey does it mean!?”
This may well be me: I’m clearly not attuned to insistences like “Mediation does not detract from the magic of art but creates it” (78; this is not Marxist mediation, sadly.) Fuck the magic of art! But while I can skip these kinds of esotericisms, I have a much harder time when, just a line or two before, Felski insists that she has “argued a thesis: that attunement is the result […] of things ‘coming together’ in expected or unexpected ways” (ibid.). The thing here is: if this were thesis in a paper I was grading, I would return the paper. That’s not a thesis: that’s a description of everything. “Life” is… “Happiness” is… “All there is, is…” This definition, such as it is, may even be correct: but eloquently describing an impossible “puzzle” (ibid.) does not make an operative theory, as the rest of her book also plainly shows. Sheila Liming has pointed to Felski’s rhetorical violence in her LARB review, her insistence on describing her intervention as cutting, slicing, and so on (I disagree that this is a major thing, by the way); I want to point, instead and again, to her persistent use of constructions that in her deft hands are variations of both/and: not all; and yet; another word is; but also. Felski throughout asks us to see as meaningful that attunement can be sudden and mysterious, but also explicitly worked towards; not all of it arrives as a bolt from the blue, some of it does and some of it doesn’t; attunement is societally prefigured, and yet people disagree with one another about art. Long and short, spontaneous or willed, this, and that, and something other yet, aesthetic experience is ineffable.
This remains of a rhetorical piece with her penchant to insist that those things she doesn’t want to do anymore are “only” doing one (bad) thing: “If a work exists only as an object to be deciphered, its impact will be attenuated” (152), she writes (repeating herself). Yes, I say. Who thinks art should be treated like that? Better: what theory proscribes that? What method works like that? These lines—and they remain frequent in this book—are still strawmen, still do not describe the reality of critical work. This is, perhaps, the most clearly frustrating aspect of the book: the sense that, after twelve years (since Uses of Literature) of repeating claims about the discipline that fellow scholars have resolutely sought to counteract, Felski cannot be bothered to engage. After Limits of Critique, which almost singlehandedly made postcritique a thing, such criticism on its part has engaged (not: dismissed) with Felski’s desire to move literary studies towards ANT, broken down the problems with her championing of experience, and commented explicitly on her penchant for sweeping generalizations about the discipline’s diverse methodology. In Hooked, none of these criticisms are picked up, no defense is made, no argument put forward to situate her work against her critics. After twenty years at least of engagement with the clear limits of Latour’s ANT, not critic of Latour warrants citing. What much of Felski’s argument boils down to, I think, is that modes that don’t pay attention to the experience of individual artworks cannot account for the experience of individual artworks (see 45-47 for what I mean). That’s shocking! The only thing more shocking, perhaps, is that Felski then proceeds to not account for these experiences either. In an echo of Caroline Levine’s Forms, subjectless actors in a Latourian network make things happen. “As constellations [of what?] come together or fall apart, as actors turn into allies or antagonists, as meanings are remediated and translated, new realities come into view—and new attachments to artworks are formed” (48). Does this help us understand why Felski is “captivated by The Unconsoled rather than Ishiguro’s other works” (47)? How is this not just a pretentiously theoretical paraphrase of “somehow!”? In point of fact: how, and why, do constellations come together? What makes networks? Who pushes actors into new networks? How do things happen? These questions are, to be sure, more readily addressed to ANT than Felski, but given that for the past twelve years or so, ANT has been what Felski champions as a replacement for critique, I find it baffling that she does not—one presumes cannot—answer them. Another way of saying that “ANT’s flat ontology is designed to skirt dichotomies” (138) is to say ANT doesn’t take a stance on anything. Network theory, certainly as Felski uses it, but I think generally, does not answer questions of why—or “is that a good thing”—it only answers questions of how. In fact, I think, she is wrong there, given that “how” seems to at least allow for a causal answer. “How does it do that?” “By doing X…”. What ANT seems to do instead is asked “what connections are made”? That is fine as a point of departure, I guess (if you’re not interested in questions of history, or of power), but it’s not a place to end.
Felski, appealing for generosity of spirit in a (slightly tacked-on) final couple of paragraphs, is not generous enough to acknowledge, let alone debate her critics; this is all the more unfortunate given that her final chapter does address some of the obvious gaps in her previous writing. I’ll turn to this section now. Perhaps a “period of incubation” (58) will be necessary to appreciate the first three chapters of Hooked as more than a somewhat trite set of banalities about aesthetic experiences reported by an expert spinner of tales. But I rather think not. The problem with this book is not that its attempt to make attunement, attachment, and identification operative as points for professional critical engagement are unpersuasive; it’s that even if they were persuasive, Felski does not manage to make them cohere into a program for literary studies.
There so, so many ways in which this book takes long strides over logical crevasses. Felski takes reported experience for granted as actual experience; and of course, she must, because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have anything to write about. But she never deigns to theorize this gesture of surrender to the truth of self-reportage. Would anything about her theory (such as it is) change if it turned out that Zadie Smith liked Joni Mitchell all along, or that T.J. Clark is not offering a “painstakingly precise record of what he sees,” but rather a record of things he sees that he a) consciously noticed and then b) felt worth reporting to his readers (59)? When she insists that to understand the analysis that Claudia Breger’s film Western puts forth, “no strenuous reading against the grain is needed,” but only what she calls readerly “actualization” (146), why does she appear to think that a critical reading of Breger’s film is not merely an “actualization” of things in Breger’s film that another actualization does not achieve? How does she determine what is “in” a film, and what is not? If this is not the point, why does a critical reading, being read in turn, not simply aid in the actualization of a different reception of Breger’s film? If it is—then why does Felski not have the courtesy to acknowledge that point? (And of course, in saying all of this, I’ve not even mentioned the simple point that no-one disputes that some films have overt political messages that need not be read against the grain!) What are we to make of a line such as “coactors are needed to discern the metaphysical subtleties of Mozart” (140)? Are these “subtleties” actually there, in Mozart all along—that seems to be the force of “discern.” Or are they “made” in the network of actors—like Latour’s “social”? Are metaphysical subtleties “valuable”? If so, why? A text, she avers, “is not a sequence of signs to be decoded but a structure that we come to inhabit” (77). Surely, at the very least, and very practically, a text is exactly a sequence of signs to be decoded before anything else can happen with it or through it or from it to anybody else: decoding signs is precisely what reading is, is it not? Does decoding play no part in inhabiting the “structure” of the text? What kind of structure is it? Is this structuralism’s structure (surely not)? Do the words “structure” and “inhabit” mean anything here, or are they just nice-sounding ? Again: the breeziness of Felski’s prose, the light steps she takes when paragraphs end in declaratives whose corollaries remains studiously unexplored and whose evidence remains thin at best, the rapid-fire, individually low-stakes but cumulatively fundamental, no-evidence claims that Felski has made her trademark are very much present here.
But here, I think the fact that Felski departs from polemic in the final section, and turns towards attempting to forge a pedagogy, makes it all the more problematical. What remains utterly, and shockingly, unclear, is what all this ANTish work is supposed to be doing. Felski is quick to dismiss the “unearned complacency” of “humanists patting themselves on the back for creating empathetic persons or democratically minded citizens” (130), but precisely what it does to “trace out the entanglement of humans and nonhumans within the borders of literary works” (136) does is left obscure. It’s also left obscure how this work is in any way more “attuned” or closer to how ordinary people read—as in, my mum doesn’t trace out the connections to the world in Virginia Woolf’s careful description of the stamp (see 136-137), in large part because mum doesn’t read Virginia Woolf, but in a smaller part because that’s no more how real people read than critique is. In fact, when Felski cites Gabriel Hankins’s “compositionist aesthetics” as a possible ANTish reading practice, noting that it shows how “novels give eloquent testimony to the force of things” (137), I wonder if I’m being messed with. Who can take seriously, as meaningful, readings in which “the postal service” of Imperial Britain becomes a “thing” like her pencil, and the “worldwide network” in which Woolf sits “just a “commonplace object,” imperialism, power, and institutionalizing political and social forces vanish, and stamps become the “stars” of a book (ibid.)? Such is the magic of art. But problematically, what this no longer is, is a turn towards more ordinary forms of reading. If everybody has aesthetic experiences, nobody reads networks; but if reading for networks, for connections drawn, is now a thing that can be taught to students, why can we not also train people in better critique? Network-reading is “relevant model” for their own reading; but it’s not something that interests them in the first place. But if critique being “offputting,” as she had it in Limits, should be a strike against it—by what rationale can you not teach everybody, Johnny Q. Public included, to appreciate it, and the work it does? This returns me to the question I raised above: in what way are critical readings not means to a “better” actualization of the text, but rather violence on it? The answer is, of course: in no way, except in so far as Felski wills it.
The problem with the whole of Felski’s approach comes through best, I think, in the final pages, where she addresses her sense of translating her ideas into practice. She reports on her use of Lost in Translation, a memoir by Eva Hoffmann, in a class usually reserved for critical readings of postcolonial and transnational theorists. Hoffmann, Felski notes, has been the subject of important critiques: her memoir has been read as “based on misperceptions that need correction.” But, she suggests, “one might [instead] come to identify with Hoffman’s perspective or find oneself reattuned by the sensuous gravity and clarity of her style” (152). Boldly venturing into Godwin’s law territory, we might note that it’s easy to attune with the Polish émigre longing for her home, slightly more taxing to think through what this alternative position to take on a work of art (oh, and by the way: that’s not a term Felski defines, in this neoliberal age!) would do if you had your class watch Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Her intense attachment to facism remains affectively foreign, but now I know what it means to celebrate the Fuhrer, hate the Jews, and glory in martial imagery (see 153—just to make sure, I’m extrapolating here terms appropriate for Nazi fascism, not saying that these things are things Felski thinks.). Is that a good thing? I, again, do not know; I doubt Felski knows; I doubt this is very well thought-through. Of course, Felski has earlier hedged her bets to note that dismissal or rejection are also forms of acknowledgment, and so she can certainly say for herself that her attunement to Leni’s camera work might not mean she “acquir[es] a deeper understanding” of a desire to celebrate the Fuhrer, hate the Jews, and glory in martial imagery “that has implications, both existential and political, extending well beyond [Riefenstahl’s] works” (154; I’m extrapolating again!). But she cannot say this for everybody: nor, theoretically speaking, should she; for ANT, all connections are the same.
I’m not fan of Felski’s work (and here she goes saying Marxists can’t deal with surprises). But I was genuinely curious, and like to think genuinely open-minded, when I read that she was going to explain the relevance of her thoughts for critical practice. I ended up in a strange place. It goes without saying that I still don’t know how attachments, attunements, and identifications work: I doubt we ever will, and the trite commonplaces of “it takes lots of things coming together!” are inexcusable, frankly. I’m partially intrigued by Felski’s ideas for a critical practice, the notion that to read with a sensibility for attunement in mind, we may be able to train students into being better “knowing how something is rather than that something is” (153). But to me, this just simply begs the question: what is the value of knowing, and being able to teach to know, the use of literature to know “how” something is—how to “learn to be affected by literature”? What is the value of affect? What is the work that this work will do? I can’t help but think that this is an unbridgeable impasse.
Rather than asking, “What does this work fail to see?” one can ask, “What is this work forcing me to notice?” Rather than deploying political or philosophical perspectives to interpret a work, one considers how it might alter or reframe those perspectives. (153).
Me, me, me. If you’re the kind of critic who thinks what you notice, what the individual is touched by, in the kind of flat ontology, ahistorical, and in principle necessarily value-free network of connections that Felski draws from Latour, is important, you’ll probably like this. You’ll like it when scholars trace the connections which Woolf’s description of her character using a stamp traces on a world map free of power struggles; you’ll like it when classrooms start paying attention to “beautifully handled reflection(s) on aesthetic attachments and how they are formed [in a single individual] in predictable [retrospectively] and unpredictable ways, without ever losing sight of the music” (154). And you’ll probably dispute that one, fairly major, problem with this “sense of inhabiting from within” (153) cannot theoretically be different whether you’re watching Triumph of the Will or Roots.
But make your case—Hooked doesn’t.