Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”


Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.



Heather Love: “Feeling Backward”



“The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants” 1. The project of the book is to look back at the painful, moving stories of queerness rather than only “affirming the legitimacy of gay and lesbian existence” 2. “The turn to the negative in queer studies was also the result of a deep intellectual engagement during this period with [Foucault, who] describes the ways that dominated groups may take advantage of the reversibility of power… discourse produces power ‘but also undermines and exposes it'” 2. For example, as homosexuality (“inversion”) was translated from religious taboo and legal violation into the discourse of illness, it became possible for it to ‘speak in its own behalf'” 2.

The contradiction of queerness as “delicious and freak… is lived out on the level of individual subjectivity; homosexuality is experienced as a stigmatizing mark as well as a from of romantic exceptionalism” 3. It also exists between celebrity gays and lesbians and the real violence and inequality of the everyday. Love is concerned with the deep emotions that painful texts (like Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness) stir in us; even if the project of queer studies has to be to affirm, for Love, it seems it also has to be to dwell in the affects of pain and damage, to turn “attention to several late 19th and early 20th century literary texts visibly marked by queer suffering” 4. Whether vague or explicit, the texts of Pater, Cather, Hall, and Warner are all engaged in “feeling backward,” the “painful negotiation of the coming of modern homosexuality… an account of the corporeal and psychic costs of homophobia” 4.

The backward-looking image of the text is drawn from Lot’s wife, who could not but look back at the loss of the city as a consequence of sin 5. Like “trope,” which means a turn of the “word away from its literal meaning,” Love will turn characters and phrases out of context “to create an image repertoire of queer modernist melancholia in order to underline both the losses of queer modernity and the deeply ambivalent negotiation of these losses within the literature of the period” 5. Inherent in modernity’s insistence on progress are also its failures and regressions 5. Aesthetically, too, “the new” is prized alongside nostalgia, primitivism, and melancholia in modernism 6. Queerness is “a backward race,” “a past,” a confrontation with death for Love 6.

“Backwardness has been taken up as a key feature of queer culture. Camp, for instance, with its tender concern for outmoded elements of popular culture and its refusal to get over childhood pleasures and traumas, is a backward art” 7. “I also consider the backward feelings – shame, depression, and regret – that they inspire in contemporary critics” 8. If queer critics seek to “reach back and save” isolated artists, what happens when those texts “resist our advances”? 8. Horkheimer and Adorno “discuss the danger of lookng backward in The Dialectic of Enlightenment… the allure of the Sirens… [is] ‘losing oneself in the past'” 9. What saves Odysseus is that “even as he looks backward he keeps moving forward… an ideal model of the relation to the historical past: listen to it, but do not allow yourself to be destroyed by it” 9. (This also has some kinky implications – the S&M/bondage of history?)

The integration of queer life into the mainstream may come on “the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it – the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected, and a host of unmentionable others… the temptation to forget is stronger than ever” 10.

For Love, Raymond Williams “offers a crucial link between cognition and affect” in Marxism and Literature in describing ‘structures of feeling’ – “the idea that feeling flows naturally from the subject and expresses the truth of that subject” 11. Since “literature accounts for experience at the juncture of the psychic and the social,” it is a privileged example for Williams 12. Love also pauses to consider Wendy Brown’s idea of “Left Melancholy,” where a “crisis of political motivation” also entails a focus on traditionally nonpolitical affects like shame and melancholia 12. Love also mentions Ngai, whose affects expressly do not inspire political action, but are rather, as Ngai herself writes, “diagnostic” 13. Critics such as Warner, Sedgwick, and Crimp have suggested the shared experience of shame and the shamed as a potential space for collectivity 14. Love wants to expand the “bad feelings” that seem apolitical and consider how they might be transformed into action regardless.

Love calls on Butler’s questioning of the term ‘queer’ in “Critically Queer,” where Butler suggests that the term queer itself will have always to be turned and queered to remain questioning, relevant, though for Love, it should also be aware of the past it is staging and overcoming 18. In other words, for Butler, we must not linger in the history of injury implied in the word. “D.A. Miller suggests a way to think about the relationship between the queer past and the queer present in terms of continuity rather than opposition or departure” that focuses on “the indelible nature of ideology’s effects” – the “before and after” of gay experience, in which “gay pride is a reverse or mirror image of gay shame,” even for those individuals who did not themselves experience events such as Stonewall 19-20.

Love, like Berlant, calls on Lacan’s description of love as failure, and in Freudian terms, “homosexuality is often seen as a result of a failure of maturation or a failure to overcome primary cathexes, and it has been associated with narcissism and infantilism as well as with incomplete or failed gendering… as selfishness… fleeting and doomed” 21-2. Here, “homosexuality and homosexuals serve as scapegoats for the failures and impossibilities of desire itself” 22. Lee Edelman, “recommends that queers embrace their association with the antisocial, while still pointing to the antisocial energies that run through all sexuality” 22. Rather than the antisocial voiding the future, Love focuses on failures of the social and ambivalence toward the future through a look at the past 23.

Love is skeptical of the systems and structures of psychological readings, and aligns herself instead with Sedgwick’s idea (in Touching Feeling) of “a swerve away from ‘paranoid’ toward ‘reparative’ reading… from exposure as a reading protocol… toward the descriptive rather than the critical” 23.

“Foucault’s legacy to queer studies is most closely allied with his critique of identity and his development of the method of genealogy…[in homosexual love] the best moment of an encounter is when you are putting the boy in the taxi… a historical real that is always receding, always already lost” 24. “Though bad feelings have been central to the history of queer experience and queer feeling, there is little room for them in the contemporary climate… While I do not argue for the political efficacy of any particular bad feeling in this book, I do argue for the importance of such feelings in general. Backward feelings serve as an index to the ruined state of the social world… It is true that the small repertoire of feelings that count as political – hope, anger, solidarity – have done a lot… not nearly enough” 26-7.

Love advocates for the term queer because “rather than disavowing the history of marginalization and abjection, I suggest that we embrace it… Modern homosexual identity is formed out of and in relation to the experience of social damage… it also makes visible the damage that we live with in the present” 29. “It is this disposition toward the past – embracing loss, risking abjection – that I mean to evoke with the phrase ‘feeling backward… It may in fact seem shaming to hold onto an identity that cannot be uncoupled from violence, suffering, and loss. I insist on the importance of clinging to ruined identities and to histories of injury. Resisting the call of gay normalization means refusing to write off the most vulnerable, the least presentable, and all the dead'” 30.

Lauren Berlant: “The Female Complaint”



“Everyone knows what the female complaint is: women live for love, and love is the gift that keeps on taking” 1. Popular culture

“market[s] what is sensational about the complaint, speaking from a pretense to skewer an open secret that has been opened and skewered, in US culture, since at least the 1830s. Fusing feminine rage and feminist rage, each has its own style of hailing the wounded to testify, to judge, to yearn, and to think beyond the norms of sexual difference, a little… [they] foreground witnessing witnessing and explaining women’s disappointment… they are also sentimental, and therefore ambivalent: they trust affective knowledge and irrational assurance more than truths of any ideology; they associate femininity with the pleasures, burdens, and virtues of emotional expertise and track its methods in different situations; they focus on the sacrifice of women’s emotional labor to a variety of kinds of callousness, incompetence, and structural inequity; they catalog strategies of bargaining, adaptation, and flouting the rules. But in popular culture ambivalence is seen as the failure of a relation, the opposite of happiness, rather than as an inevitable condition of intimate attachment and a pleasure in its own right”1.

The “thrilling encounter with pleasure, foreboding, and disappointment familiar to fans of the soap opera and the melodrama” might be placed on a spectrum with the type personality of the sitcom 2. “Complaint genres” blame “flawed men and bad ideologies” for “women’s intimate suffering,” but also “maintain some fidelity to the world of distinction and desire that produced such disappointment in the first place” 2. This is a “vigilance” in “recording how other women manage” – “a space of disappointment, not disenchantment” 2. The sentimentality lies in the American “love affair with conventionality,” as well as with the “tomorrow is another day” attitude that demonstrates a “confidence in the critical intelligence of affect, emotion, and good intention… agency that is focused on ongoing adaptation… transcending the world as it presents itself” 2.

Such “permission to thrive” constitutes “permission to live small but to feel large; to live large but to want what is normal too; to be critical without detaching from disappointing and dangerous worlds and objects of desire… the aesthetically expressed desire to be somebody in a world where the default is being nobody” 3.

“Thus to love conventionality is not only to love something that constrains someone or some condition of possibility: it is another way of talking about negotiating belonging to a world. To love a thing is not only to embrace its most banal iconic forms, but to work those forms so that individuals and populations can breathe and thrive in them or in proximity to them. The convention is not only a mere placeholder for what could be richer in an underdeveloped social imaginary, but it is also sometimes a profound placeholder that provides an affective confirmation of the idea of a shared confirming imaginary in advance of inhabiting a material world in which that feeling can actually be lived. In popular culture, when conventionality is not being called a homogenizing threat to people’s sovereignty and singularity it is seen as a true expression of something both deep and simple in the human… I span the term’s normative and aesthetic senses and claim that the mass mediation of desires in women’s genres constructs a deep affinity between them” 3.

A genre “mediates what is singular, in the details, and general about the subject. It is a form of aesthetic expectation with porous boundaries allowing complex audience identifications: it locates real life in the affective capacity to bracket many kinds of structural and historical antagonism on behalf of finding a way to connect with the feeling of belonging to a larger world, however aesthetically mediated” 4.

“To call an identity like a sexual identity a genre is to think about it as something repeated, detailed, and stretched while retaining its intelligibility, its capacity to remain readable or audible across the field of all its variations. For femininity to be a genre like an aesthetic one means that it is a structure of conventional expectation that people rely on to provide certain kinds of affective intensities and assurances” 4.

Importantly, for Berlant, this means that ‘performativity’ often means variations within convention, rahter than “dramas of potentially frame-breaking alternativity” 4. The swerves a genre takes as “transgressions” on the way to the ultimate end are often part of the convention: “women’s culture always contains episodes of refusal and creative contravention to feminine normativity, even as it holds tightly to some versions of the imaginable conventional good life in love” 4. “The gender-marked texts of women’s popular culture cultivate fantasies of vague belonging as an alleviation of what is hard to manage in the lived real – social antagonisms, exploitation, compromised intimacies, the attrition of life… one of the main utopias is normativity itself… an aspirational site of rest and recognition in and by a social world” 5.

“An intimate public operates when a market opens up to a bloc of consumers, claiming to circulate texts and things that express those people’s particular core interests and desires… participants… feel as though it expresses what is common among them, a subjective likeness that seems to emanate from their history and their ongoing attachments and actions… seems to confirm the sense that even before there was a market addressed to them, there existed a world of strangers who would be emotionally literate in each other’s experience of power, intimacy, desire, and discontent, with all that entails… ‘Women’s culture’ was the first such mass-marketed intimate public in the United States of significant scale” 5.

“As long as they have had a public sphere, bourgeois white women writers have mobilized fantasies of what black and working-class interiority based on suffering must feel like in order to find a language for their own more privileged suffering at the hands of other women, men, and callous institutions [The Help!]… Compassionate liberalism is, at best, a kind of sandpaper on the surface of the racist monument whose structural and economic solidity endures: in the intimate sphere of femininity a kind of soft supremacy rooted in compassion and coercive identification wants to dissolve all that structure… while busily exoticizing and diminishing the inconvenient and the noncompliant… But… intimate spheres feel like ethical places…” 6. [vs Mad Men?]

“The problem at hand is of naming what appears when a collectivity is historically created by biopower, class antagonism, nationalism, imperialism, and/or the law and, at the same time, is engendered by an ongoing social life mediated by capital and organized by all kinds of pleasure… Intimate publics elaborate themselves through a commodity culture; have an osmotic relation to many modes of life; and are organized by fantasies of transcending” 8.

“Biopower has indeed reorganized individuals into populations deemed incompetent to the privileges of citizenship… fields of historical commonality that are at once specifically related to events… and to what it was like back in the day” 9.

“A public is intimate when it foregrounds affective and emotional attachments located in fantasies of the common, the everyday, and a sense of ordinariness, a space where the social world is rich with anonymity and local recognitions… textually mediated: as Miriam Hansen has argued, modern publics required stylistic strategies and modes of narration to absorb viewers into textually constructed positions of general subjectivity that also served the historical convergence of social and economic objectives [think Williams and the code and Mulvey and the gaze]…. in mass society, what counts as collectivity has been a loosely organized, market-structured juxtapolitical sphere of people attached to each other by a sense that there is a common emotional world available to those individuals who have been marked by the historical burden of being harshly treated in a generic way… a sense of lateral identification… revelations of what is personal, regardless of how what is persona has itself been threaded through mediating institutions and social hierarchy” 10 [think faceting!]

“Mass-mediated popular culture is always generating more opportunities for fomenting a sense of focused belonging to an evolving world in this intensely connected yet mediated way… Belonging to an intimate public is therefore a condition of feeling general within a set of porous constraints, and of feeling held or sustained by an evolving sense of experience that confirms some homogeneity and elaborates social distinctions” 13.

Disappointment and fulfillment are “partners” in the culture of women and love: “Each is central to the absorbing anxiety that gets animated by having an object of desire” 13. In Lacanian terms, “the loss of pleasure, then, can be defined as the insufferable interruption of a repetition with which a lover has identified the optimism of a fundamental attachment” 14.

“Love is the gift that keeps on giving when people can rely on reexperiencing their intimates’ fundamental sympathy with the project of repetition and recognition [importance of ‘tomorrow’]… Love is the gift that keeps on taking for the same reason: the search for mirroring (desire) demands constant improvisation (anxiety) and taking of accounts (disappointment)” 15.

When a success, this is called reciprocity. For Jacqueline Rose, “anxiety is the core affect of femininity, which operates under an imperative never to fail to stop working on itself” 16.

“In women’s culture, normative femininity and aesthetic conventionality constitute the real central couple, with the love plot as the vehicle for and object of desire. Spivak’s description of the ‘concept/metaphor’ that is simultaneously descriptive and transformative is useful here… for not changing, but adapting, propping the play of surface against a stubborn demand to remain in proximity to the promise” 19.

“For a woman committed to romantic fantasies of love as reciprocity to break with the normative emotional bargains is to threaten her participation in the good life that seems to unfold from desire and to be maintained by ordinary emotional labor. The sentimental bargain of femininity… receives her own value back not only in the labor of recognition she performs but in the sensual spectacle of its impacts. In this discursive field the emotional labor of women places them at the center of the story of what counts as life, regardless of what lives women actually live: the conjuncture of family and romance so structures the emergence of modern sexuality, with its conflation of sexual and emotional truths, and in that nexus femininity marks the scene of the reproduction of life as a project… to be proximate to this story of emotional centrality. The circularity of the feminine project… is a perfect form, a sphere infused with activities of ongoing circuits of attachment that can at the same time look and feel like a zero” 19. [think Joan Holloway Harris]

“The mechanism of sentimental saturation of the intimate sphere with materials and signs of consumer citizenship has been crucial to what Mark Seltzer has called the ‘pathological public sphere’ of the contemporary US… the sensationalism of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Uncle Tom genealogy is notable precisely because its sensationalism was a politically powerful suturing device of a bourgeois revolutionary aesthetic” 20.

Why write the history of these privileged, mostly white and straight women, Berlant asks? “For too long the only importance a counterpublic has had to intellectuals is its convertibility to politics… to make transgression and resistance the values against which the data were measured” 24. Berlant turned away from a cultural history of these artifacts and toward affect and intimate publics 26. Because not all life is political, “it seems important to understand what is absorbing in the defensive, inventive, and adaptive activity of getting by, along with the great refusals to go through power to attain legitimacy” 27. (The repetition of absorbing here is so interesting – given what it says about TV/femininity/absorption as lack of intelligence vs action as exercising intelligence.)

The chapter on Imitation of Life “develops a notion of prosthetic subjectivity and prosthetic bodies as vehicles for self-generalization, or leaving history behind through identification with celebrity… To identify with someone in mass society is not necessarily to want to be them or to have them, but to be freed from being who you are, with all of its burdensome historical determinations. To see identification as a departure from rather than an imitation of might seem ironic in a chapter on imitating life, but the imitators turn out all to have chosen bad objects in their flights from their historical (racial, classed, sexual, and gendered) unfreedom” 29. It is also about the “white supremacy” invoked by films that exploit the sorrow of black pain.

“Each chapter closes with an opening, a segment of ‘unfinished business.’… to unpredicted destinies of material in the chapter that precedes them… what happens when a capitalist culture effectively markets conventionality as the source and solution to the problem of living in worlds that are economically, legally, and normatively not on the side of almost anyone’s survival, let alone flourishing. Nonetheless, flourishing happens” 31.

“For many people, sentimentality and the fantasy of a better proximate world so close that one can experience it affectively without being able to live it objectively produces art that does, that transports people somewhere into a situation for a minute… the terror of detaching… the emphasis is on the process of bargaining with what there is… most revision and adaptation is the activity of making change take place, even if it is also usually the opposite of that, and a mirage… endings can be made into openings” 31. [again, yonic]


Berlant begins with Passing, suggesting that Irene does not so much desire Clare as desire to be in her body – to experience ‘passing’ 109. The ‘mulatta’ is “the paradigm problem citizen” 111. In the novel and both film versions of Imitation of Life, “the white woman struggles to achieve economic success and national fame while living in a quasi-companionate couple with the black woman, who does the domestic labor; the black woman, who is also instrumental in the white woman’s mastery of commodity culture, remains a loyal domestic employee, even in the wealthy days” 112. Importantly, it is with money that “their bodies reemerge as obstacles, sites of pain and signs of hierarchy” and Annie’s death “from heartbreak effectively and melodramatically signals the end of this experiment in a female refunctioning of the national public sphere” 113.

Moving from novel to film to film, the source of “passing” moves from a husband (Bea Pullman, with Delilah as the logo) to Delilah herself (Bea, with Delilah still as the logo) to Lora as the public entity entirely (and Annie as the domestic labor support) 113. In the first case, men connect Bea to “the public sphere and capitalist enterprise” 115. When Mr. Pullman dies and Bea finds herself pregnant, she is “imbricated more deeply into separate spheres: the domestic/maternal and the public/capitalist… an impossible position, mapped out according to two mutually reified gender logics” 117. In the novel and Stahl’s film, “when Delilah stands framed in the store’s plate glass window making her authentic pancakes, the mise-en-scene of capitalist aesthetics merges with actual production” 118.

“Because Bea herself is so desperately liminal, masquerading as the difference between the white man’s name and the black woman’s body, she has no consciousness of her privilege. Rather, like Delilah’s light-skinned daughter, Peola, Bea has the perverse opportunity to capitalize on racist patriarchal culture by creating a compensatory ‘body’ to distract from the one already marked by the colonial digit” 119. Delilah becomes the trademark – ” a consensual mechanism” who “triangulates with the customer and the commodity… a ‘second skin’ that enables the commodity to appear to address, to recognize, and thereby to ‘love’ the consumer” 120. When she dies, part of her well-attended funeral is due to this “facsimile” which has “legitimated blackness in public white culture” 121. “The recurrent success montage that traces Delilah’s transformation into a trademark begins by emitting the same odor of racist expropriation that permeates Hurst’s novel. For Bea takes Delilah’s pancake recipe, her maternal inheritance, and turns it into a business; she takes Delilah’s face and turns it into a cartoon trademark. Stahl stages Delilah in this scene as a buffoon, a position that provides her an opportunity for ironic commentary” 125. (It’s interesting that Stahl flips this logo over and over again…)

If Delilah signs over her body thus, but still critiques the system in her “perplexity” about “where the blame lies,” Peola is focused on becoming “less meaningful and more American” 130. In this early version, “national nostalgia for a safe domestic space was played out in commodity culture through the production and transcendence of a black trademark” 132. Sirk’s film “pulls back the black trademark’s curtain and reveals the white woman hovering there: in one of the great tu quoque sequels of our time, his… exposes the form of the white woman to the commodification she has for so long displaced onto the black woman’s body” 132. Berlant maps Lora’s progress from face above the Coney Island sign to disembodied face to the point of fame where “women in the audience mime her look so that projection of her visual image is no longer necessary to transmit to us her dominion in the national/capitalist space of fantasy consumption” 133.

The main argument against Lora’s career is that “public life is ‘imitation’ and private life is ‘real’ where women are concerned” 136. Sarah Jane’s role is that of “internal estrangement,” with “no space safe from performance or imitation” 137. “Annie and Steve, who police imitation with an unwavering moral passion, become implicated in female fraudulence by their addiction to it. Steve and Annie assume pain the way Lora and Sarah Jane want pleasure: and if the star-crossed women overinvest in the ecstasy and value of being public objects, the star-crossed blood lovers turn their pain into its own kind of spectacle,” showing not just “the prosthetic public female body” but “the problem of the female body itself becomes a commodity” 139.

Sirk films the funeral scene through windows for “costume rentals” and “fakery,” and insisted that Mahalia Jackson should have read as grotesque to viewers, rather than moving. The problem of the racialized body becomes one of suppressing evidence 140.

“One of the main ways a woman mimes the prophylaxis of citizenship” is marriage – “borrowing the corporeal logic of an other, or a fantasy of that logic, and adopting it as a prosthesis… But marriage turns out to embody and violate the woman more than it is worth. Thus other forms of bodily suppression have been devised. This is how racial passing, religion, bourgeois style, capitalism, and sexual camp have served the woman… this ameliorative strategy has become the ‘trademark’ of female existence across race and class and sexual preference” in Sirk’s film 141. The text belies the reality that existence in public space will never truly emancipate the white woman, and certainly not the black woman, who remains a laborer even in the house of the “nicest” white woman 142.


Sianne Ngai, “Ugly Feelings”



Ngai calls her book ” a series of studies in the aesthetics of negative emotions, examining their politically ambiguous work in what T. W. Adorno calls the fully ‘administered world’ of late modernity” 1. They follow on gaps and Spinoza’s “‘waverings of the mind’ that can either increase or diminish one’s power to act – and attend to the aesthetics of the ugly feelings that index these suspensions” 2. Interestingly, Ngai notes that Bartleby’s area is cordoned off by a screen (and is thus ‘ob-scene’ in Williams’ sense) 3.

“Art itself… is a relatively autonomous, more or less cordoned-off domain in an increasingly specialized and differentiated society. As Adorno’s analysis of the historical origins of this aesthetic autonomy suggests, the separateness from ’empirical society’ which art gains as a consequence of the bourgeois revolution ironically coincides with its growing awareness of tis inability to significantly change that society – a powerlessness that then becomes the privileged object of the newly autonomous art’s ‘guilty’ self-reflection. Yet one could argue that bourgeois art’s reflexive preoccupation with its own ‘powerlessness and superfluity in the empirical world’ is precisely what makes it capable of theorizing social powerlessness in a manner unrivaled by other forms of cultural praxis” 2.

(It would be interesting to compare this with bell hooks on the academy and also the humor of Woody Allen.) For Ngai, art is the site of study because art : society : : ugly feelings : subject 2. All Ngai’s affects – envy, anxiety, paranoia, irritation, animatedness, stuplimity – are “a mediation between the aesthetic and the political in a nontrivial way… knotted or condensed… signs that not only render visible different registers of problem (formal, ideological, sociohistorical) but conjoin these problems in a distinctive manner… allegories for an autonomous or bourgeois art’s increasingly resigned and pessimistic understanding of its own relationship to political action… the very effort of thinking the aesthetic and political together – a task whose urgency seems to increase in proportion to its difficulty in a increasingly anti-utopian and functionally differentiated society – is a prime occasion for ugly feelings” 3.

Still, these affects are marked by “an ambivalence that will enable them to resist, on the one hand, their reduction to mere expressions of class ressentiment, an on the other, their counter-valorization as therapeutic ‘solutions’ to the problems they highlight and condense,” even if Ngai’s interest is to use them in critically productive ways 3. “Capitalism’s classic affects of disaffection [insecurity, fear, anxiety –> flexibility, adaptibility, reconfiguration of self] are neatly reabsorbed by the wage system and reconfigured into professional ideals” 4. Versus Jameson’s argument for the waning of affect in postmodernity, Ngai argues that these affects are “perversely functional… the very lubricants of the economic system which they originally came into being to oppose” 4.

“In the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear… the sociopolitical itself has changed… calls upon a new set of feelings – ones less powerful… though perhaps more suited… for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency… a certain kind of historical truth” 5.

Ugly feelings can “expand and transform the category of ‘aesthetic emotions,’ or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks” – they are “explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release… [they] tend to interfere with the outpouring of other emotions” 6-7. Overall, Ngai is “calling for a more fluid reading across forms, genres and periods than is the prevailing norm in academic criticism today” 7. “In the tradition of Barbara Johnson’s book The Feminist Difference, this method of disjunctive alignment is intended to allow the texts to become ‘readable in new ways’ and thus generate fresh examinations of historically tenacious problems” 8.

Ngai contends that there is “a special relationship between ugly feelings and irony, a rhetorical attitude with a decidedly affective dimension, if not a ‘feeling’ per se… an unpleasurable feeling about the feeling… that significantly parallels the doubleness on which irony, as an evaluative stance hinging on a relationship between the said and the unsaid, fundamentally depends. In their tendency to promote what Susan Feagin calls ‘meta-responses’… there is a sense in which ugly feelings can be described as conducive to producing ironic distance in a way that the grander and more prestigious passions, or even the moral emotions associated with sentimental literature, do not” 10. (Interesting to think about this and the death of ‘postmodern’ in favor of the word ‘hipster’ or ‘meta’ or ‘ironic’ as a distancing/fearful self-loathing.)

While Ngai’s texts “are drawn from both “high and mass culture, all are canonically minor… the cultural canon itself seems to prefer higher passions and emotions” 11. (Does this ring true? Girls, Seinfeld, vs her anachronistic Beckett examples in stuplimity… Does it serve her argument about relevance?) Ngai is particularly observant of a “subjective/objective problematic” across her ugly feelings:

“Marked by this conversion of a polemical engagement with the objective world into a reflection of a subjective characteristic, the confusion over a feeling’s subjective or objective status that we have seen become internal to paranoia also seems internal to envy… both… contain… models of the problem that defines them. Even an ostensibly degree-zero affect like animatedness has a version of this… high-spiritedness… or a puppet-like state analogous to the assembly-line mechanization of the human body famously dramatized by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. In the form of a dialectic of inside/outside, the subjective/objective problematic will likewise haunt Heidegger’s and Hitchcock’s strikingly similar conceptions of ‘anxiety,’ and will motivate the spatial fantasy of ‘thrownness’ that sustains the affect’s intellectual aura and prestige… between psychological interiors and bodily exteriors… similarly integral to the affect of irritation… its very liminality as an affective concept… its unusual proximity to a bodily or epidermal one (soreness…chafing) ” 21-2.

“The feelings in this study tend to be diagnostic rather than strategic, and to be diagnostically concerned with states of inaction in particular… The boundary confusions built into the structure of these feelings, whether in the form of inside/outside, self/world, or psyche/body, reappear in the aesthetic forms and genres they determine” 22.

“Genette’s unapologetically  subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment… in which a quality or value reflecting the negative or positive feeling inspired by an object’s appearance, in what amounts to a fundamentally subjective appraisal, is treated ‘as if’ it were one of the object’s own intrinsic properties. For Genette, who claims to out-Kant Kant by fully acknowledging the relativism Kant’s subjectivist theory of aesthetic judgment attempted to sidestep (by asserting the claim for universality in the judgment itself), aesthetic judgment is the illusory objectification” 23.

“Feeling’s marginalization stemmed from its perceived incompatibility with ‘concrete’ social experiences [in the 70s and 80s, and in the 80s and 90s] (as Terada most fully examines) from its perceived incompatibility with poststructuralism’s skeptical interrogation of the category of experience itself” 25. [Raymond Williams may have been the first, in ‘structures of feeling,’ to argue for emotions as social constructs and experiences]

“The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with ‘affect’ designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and ’emotion’ designating feelings that ‘belong’ to the speaker or analysand’s ‘I.’ Yet Massumi and Grossberg have made claims for a stronger distinction, arguing not just that emotion requires a subject while affect does not, but that the former designates feeling given ‘funciton and meaning’ while the latter remains ‘unformed and unstructured'” 25.

Affective states are not narrativized or organized in response to interpretations of situations, says Grossberg, and Massumi claims that they remain unsequenced, undetermined compared to emotions. For Nussbaum, emotions are tied to action, whereas affects are less intentional – hence Ngai’s use of the term here. She claims you can be confused about why you’re irritated, but not enraged (though this seems debatable, given the history of American violence in fiction…)


Ngai wants to address the issue of tone, since a lack of awareness of it can mean that “purely subjective or personal experience turns artworks into [what Adorno calls] ‘containers for the psychology of the spectator'” 29.

“While there has been a conspicuous absence of attention to tone itself, critics have continued to rely heavily on the notion of a text’s global affect for the construction of substantive arguments about literature and ideology or society as a whole. The ‘euphoria’ Jameson ascribes to a cluster of late 20th-century artworks, for instance, is designed to do nothing less than advance his critique of postmodernism as the logic of late capitalism, in the same way that Walter Benjamin’s isolation of ‘a curious variety of despair’ in the Weimar poetry of Erich Kastner enabled him to diagnose a much broader ‘left-wing melancholy’ that, as Wendy Brown notes, extends just as problematically into our contemporary political discourses” 29.

Yet Ngai finds tone hard to define. She uses Melville’s The Confidence-Man, “a notably ‘talky’ text that offers a useful allegory of the very problem enabling tone to do its aesthetic work… how feeling slips in and out of subjective boundaries in a series of transactions involving the exchange of writing and money for affective goods” 31.


“The affect I call animatedness, for instance, will allow us to take the disturbingly enduring representation of the African-American as at once an excessively ‘lively’ subject and a pliant body unusually susceptible to external control and link this representation to the rhetorical figure of apostrophe (in which the speaker animates or ‘gives life’ to nonhuman objects by addressing them as subjects capable of repsonse, and, further, to connect these to a symptomatic controversy surrounding the televisual aesthetics of dimensional animation, a technique in which clay or foam puppets are similarly brought to ‘life’ as racialized characters by being physically manipulated and ventriloquized” 12.

Animation points to the production behind the stereotype – the energy and work required to animate a particular lively image 94. Rey Chow has argued this in “Postmodern Automatons” – “having one’s body and voice controlled by an invisible other… whose origins are beyond one’s individual grasp” 99. (Think of the horror film  – Creed and The Exorcist). Chow points to “film and television, as technologies of mass production, [that] uniquely disclose the fact that ‘the human body as such is already a working body automatized, in the sense that it becomes in the new age an automaton on which social injustice as well as processes of mechanization ‘take on a life of their own'” 99 (think Chaplin). In Stowe, Ngai contends, a similar manipulation is in place for the black characters in the author’s hands 100. She highlights how the show The PJs focuses humor on how institutional laxity translates into real hardship, exposing racism as a larger-than-sight problem 106.

In Invisible Man, the fascinating (to the narrator) animated doll is paralleled, though Ngai doesn’t mention it, by the narrator’s own experience as an “animated” being at the conference he’s invited to ostensibly as a speaker 116. “Thus as an affective spectacle that Garrison finds ‘thrilling,’ Stowe ‘impassioning,’ and Ellison’s narrator ‘obscene,’ animation calls for new ways of understanding the technologization of the racialized body as well as the uneasy differential between types and stereotypes… between ‘sure bets and bad business'” 125.


Ngai examines how envy functions along the identification/desire/difference spectrum for women – both in films such as Single White Female & All About Eve and in feminist debates and conversations themselves. “Envy is, in a sense, an intentional feeling that paradoxically undermines its own intentionality” 21.


“Though Larsen turns the black-authored literary text into a ‘stinging,’ ‘pricked,’ and ‘lacerated’ surface… Quicksand’s cutaneous affect explicitly questions this ‘visible epistemology of black skin’ by pushing its logic to an extreme… telling contrast… between the epidermal rawness of the feeling and perceiving African-American subject in the novel and the unbroken smoothness of the skin that is objectified in the novel – as if only looked-at black skin can be free of inflammation or soreness” 107 (soreness as irritation). These signify the novel’s “larger effort to distance itself from the sentimental tradition of mulatta fiction and its politics of compulsory sympathy, while also enabling the text to resist the imperative that productions by African-American artists fill in their blanks” 208. The novel also works against the “assumption that, in order to politiclaly or aesthetically matter, feelings must be located below the surface or ‘under the skin’… a longstanding tradition of confining feeling to internal spaces, as well as the moralized opposition between depth and surface used to distinguish feelings viewed as politically efficacious and adequate to their occasions, from those which are not” 208. 


Anxiety “comes to assume its prominent role in structuring the ‘philosophically stylized’ quests for truth, knowledge, and masculine agency fetured in Pierre, Vertigo, & Being and Time precisely as a way of rescuing the intellectual from his potential absorption in sites of asignificance or negativity. Moreover, the fantasy of thrownness [character as projectile] central to each representation of anxiety enables the intellectual to achieve a strategic form of distance without the fixed or constant positions on which our concept of distance ordinarily depends, since the sites from which the intellectual flees are either revealed as nonplaces lacking positive coordinates, or as feminine or discursive sites already subject to projection and displacement – sinking, retreating, or in the throw… anxiety emerges as a form of dispositioning that paradoxically relocates, reorients, or repositions the subject thrown – performing an ‘individualization’ (as Heidegger puts it) that restores and ultimately validates the trajectory of the analyzing subject’s inquiry… a ‘revolutionary uplift’ which anxiety’s projective character makes available to these intellectual subjects and which directs attention away [from sinking worlds and monstrous femininity]… codification as the male knowledge-seeker’s distinctive yet basic state of mind” (246).


“While Kant’s sublime involves a confrontation with the natural and infinite, the unusual synthesis of excitation and fatigue I call ‘stuplimity’ is a response to encounters with vast but bounded artificial systems, resulting in repetitive and often mechanical acts of enumeration, permutation, and combination, and taxonomic classification… comic exhaustion rather than terror” 36.

“Difference as what could be described as difference without a determinate value or ‘difference without a concept’ – which is one of the ways Deleuze defines repetition” 252 [reminds me of Kant’s free/non-purposive beauty] – “the problem of the self’s relationship to a particular kind of linguistic difference that does not yet have a concept assigned to it” 254.

In repetition, language seems beyond the production of the subject (Tod and Homer in Nathanael West). Repetition is also boredom, slowing down, thickness (Beckett, Stein). “When language thickens, it suffers a ‘retardation by weak links,’ slowed down by the absence of causal connectives that would propel the work forward” 256. (Is the logic of paranoia the same as the logic of faceting or even literary criticism? An expanding network of information in which everything must be integrated to a particular end…) For Ngai, this causes temporary paralysis, what Stein calls ” ‘open feeling,’ a condition of utter receptivity in which difference is perceived (and perhaps even ‘felt’) prior to its qualification or conceptualization,” asking how artists “engender” this 261 (seems deeply feminizing, then! not least in its duality, a hallmark of the feminine…)

“Though repetition, permutation, and seriality figure prominently as devices in aesthetic uses of tedium, practitioners have achieved the same effect through a strategy of agglutination – the mass adhesion or coagulation of data particles or signifying unites… the stupendous proliferation of discrete quanta held together by a fairly simple syntax or organizing principle… less mosaic than congealaic… the accumulation of visual ‘data’ induces a similar strain on the observer’s capacities for conceptually synthesizing or metabolizing information” 263.

For Ngai, the sublime is perhaps the originary ugly feeling, “being explicitly contrasted with the feelings of qualities associated with the beautiful… an observer’s response to things in nature of great or infinite magnitude (what Kant calls the mathematically sublime) or of terrifying might (Kant’s dynamical sublime” 265. In Kant, this “failure of the imagination” and “sense of physical inferiority” are resolved by alternating between repulsion and attraction, reason and the imagination, to ultimately find reason triumph over the concept 266. This seats the interaction firmly in the mind of the beholder, rather than the object.

“Boredom’es antithetical relation to both shock and serenity, the two competing affects of the Kantian sublime, actually underscores the oddly discrepant status of affective lack throughout Kant’s writings on sublimity… the apatheia [freeing] that Kant finds ennobling involves a calmness and neutrality that ultimately distinguishes it from the dissatisfied (and often restless)  mood of boredom” 269.

Ngai talks about Stein and others as creating texts “in which the reader’s or observer’s faculties become strained to their limits in the effort to comprehend the work as a whole, but the revelation of this failure is conspicuously less dramatic… does not confirm the self’s sense of superiority over the overwhelming or intimidating object” 270. (Think TV, the hysterical realist novel?) Stuplimity is “a concatenation of boredom and astonishment – a bringing together of what ‘dulls’ and what ‘irritates’ or agitates… reveals the limits of our ability to comprehend a vastly extended form as a totality, as does Kant’s mathematical sublime, yet not through an encounter with the infinite but with finite bits and scraps of material in repetition” 271. Ngai links this to slapstick, with its “small subjects” and “big systems” 272. Like many of her examples, it seems bizarrely and unnecessarily anachronistic.

For Ngai, it seems these “agglutinations” work more like suture, causing boredom, than like faceting, confronting difference? “What stuplimity does not seem to involve is the kind of mesmerizing, hypnotic tedium aimed at the achievement of higher states of consciousness… Stuplimity also evades the kind of wholly anti-absorptive, cynical tedium often used to reflect the flattening effects of cultural simulacra… the first type of tedium is auratic or hypnotic, the effect of works in [the latter would be] glossy and euphoric” 278. Instead, stumplimity “relies on anti-auratic, anti-cyclical tedium” 281.

Ngai touches on depth as important to Kant’s sublime (Burke’s too – reminds me of Linda Williams on Avatar…), versus the “superficial and almost abject horizontality” of repetition 281. If in Stein we get “a body’s outline gone flaccid, having lost its original form,” (think Woolf or Kant on outline), we are open and alert and responsive in Stein to repetition with a difference 283. This “resisting being” seems similar, too, to Serpell’s “uncertainty” and Byatt’s “agnosticism.”

Ngai next discusses Jameson and his “relentless spatialization,” his claim for glossy flattening, and the waning of great affects and considerations of time 285. Jameson’s “heaps of fragments… the randomly heterogenous and fragmentary and the aleatory,” Ngai argues, “lacks the slick and unifying glaze of most of Jameson’s other examples… in the slippage from ‘heaps of fragments’ to ‘the fragmentary’ (a slippage in which Jameson shifts his emphasis from a specific form to the kind of aesthetic practice that gives rise to it), what gets eclipsed… is the heap” 287. (If slick is suture, jagged is heap? Actually, no, faceting instead?) “If we follow the logic of Jameson’s passage, ‘coherence’ refer primarily to a preexisting concept or idea of order, dictating in advance how particles might be shaped or molded, rather than the activity by which particles are brought together in the first place” 289. “Stein’s description approaches ‘coherence’ as a process of creating form, rather than a value or ideal imposed on things made… it involves possibility… not just of new kinds, but of as yet unforeseen kinds in the future… becoming as varied in its process as the forms that it generates… new ‘consistencies’ are produced through the ‘mixing’ of others” 290.

Ngai goes on to give a lot of examples that seem not very much like heaps, and acknowledges that Jameson calls Stein and Beckett postmodernists, and she will too. Stein: “Sometimes many years of knowing some one pass before repeating of all being in such a one comes out clearly from them” 293. Does the “time spent to organize” imply a spatial organization of a temporal experience of reading? Is faceting in the mind itself a process of integrating textual surfaces? I’d like to think of stiff panels with flexible interstices forming a moving, crystalline, if empty, structure. “Unsightly heaping offers a strategy of what Stein might call a ‘little resistance’ for the postmodern subject, always already a linguistic being, hence always a small subject enmeshed in large systems… [Deleuze’s] ‘too-perfect attention to detail’ is the main strategy… [with artists who] exaggeratedly submit to structural laws in their work… going limp or falling down, among the bits and scraps of linguistic matter” 297. (Again, think of hysterical realism and postmodernism here.)


“The preference for the narrative stretch over a compression that ‘forces us to take in the entire story almost instantaneously’ [films that make discourse time longer than story time]… reflect the difference between the paranoia that suffuses the postwar film noir and the fear that drives classical tragedy; as a feeling without a clearly defined object, paranoia would logically promote a more ambient aesthetic, one founded on a temporality very different from the ‘suddenness’ central to Aristotle’s aesthetic of fear…. These uneventful moments mirror the general situation of obstructed agency that gives rise to all the ugly feelings I examine, allowing them to function as political allegories… What seems indeterminate here, however, is actually highly determined… what each moment produces is the inherently ambiguous affect of affective disorientation in general – what we might think of as a state of feeling vaguely ‘unsettled’ or ‘confused,’ or, more precisely, a meta-feeling in which one feels confused about what one is feeling… an affective state in its own right” 13.

All these thematizes the loss of the gaze, the transformation of subject into object. (Think about what this has to do with Jameson, space, faceting, fragmented subjectivity, hysterical realism, and seriality!)

“From Julia Kristeva’s theory of the semiotic as a rhythmic, polysemous dimension of language with the potential to disrupt a phallocentric symbolic discourse, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome as an acentered network capable of undermining rigid and hierarchical structures, poststructural models of textuality emphasizing heterogeneity and invested in a politics of form do seem to demonstrate… not only that the developments of theory and poetry in the late 20th century have been complementary” but that poetry is especially suited for these language theories 307-8. Ngai ties this to the feminine being used as a means of describing the decentered, irrational subject of the late, versus the early, 20th century, as well as feminist critiques concerned with why subjecthood would be decentered at the moment women tried to claim it (re: bell hooks) 312. For Rita Felski, feminism endangers its own ends by engendering new dualities (here’s where my desire to have faceting escape duality could be good). The ‘always already’ of theory emphasizes a “linguistically and retroactively determined subject” 314.

“The amorphousness of definition can be viewed as precisely the political point… while the vague or amorphous definition of a ‘total system’ suggests a certain failure on the part of the subject to conceptualize a social whole, one could argue that it is only in such failures… that a conceivable totality manifests itself” 330. (Here interesting with faceting – never a reproduction of the whole, but a unique, productive failure of integration and conception.) “By ‘writing work’ that insistently foregrounds the subject’s inscription within the system she opposes, but also assumes this situation as the beginning point rather than an obstruction to critical intervention, Spahr stages the poet’s encounter with social totality as a negative affect per se… ‘As in theories of capital, realize this situation and see it as the beginning place for all current thinking or escaping'” 331. (This is again, like faceting, also like Oedipa Maas!)


Ngai points out that, like Adorno claims, as contentious as art gets, it is as “harmless” as Bartleby – it is separate 353. “Like animatedness, irritation, envy, anxiety, stuplimity, and paranoia – nonstrategic affects characterized by weak intentionality and characteristic of the situation of scriveners – disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully… [but disgust is] closer to the domain of political theory… in its intense and unambivalent negativity… an outer limit or threshold… preparing us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions” 354.

Silvan Tomkins: “Shame & Its Sisters


INTRODUCTION: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

“Tomkins considers shame, along with interest, surprise, joy, anger, fear, distress, disgust, and, in his later writings, contempt… to be the basic set of affects. He places shame, in fact, at one end of the affect polarity shame-interest, suggesting that the pulsations of cathexis around shame, of all things, are what either enable or disenable so basic a function as the ability to be interested in the world. ‘Like disgust, [shame] operates only after interest or enjoyment has been activated, and inhibits one or the other or both.’ … The emphasis in this account on the strange, rather than on the prohibited or disapproved, was congenial with our motivating intuition that the phenomenon of shame might offer new ways of short-circuiting the seemingly near-inescapable habits of thought that Foucault groups together under the name of the ‘repressive hypothesis'” 5.

“Tomkins’ resistance to heterosexist teleologies is founded in the most basic terms of his understanding of affect… ‘It is enjoyable to enjoy. It is exciting to be excited. It is terrorizing to be terrorized and angering to be angered. Affect is self-validating with or without any further referent'” 7. [resistance to teleologies of pyschology]

“By the cybernetic fold [1940s to 1960s] we mean the moment when scientists’ understanding of the brain and other life processes is marked by the concept, the possibility, the imminence, of powerful computers, but the actual computational muscle of the new computers isn’t available… part of our aim is to describe structuralism not as that mistaken thing that happened before poststructuralism but fortunately led directly to it, but rather as part of a rich moment… a gestalt (including systems theory) that allowed it to mean more different and more interesting things than have survived its sleek trajectory into poststructuralism… the early cybernetic notion of the brain as a homogenous, differentiable but not originally differentiated system is a characteristic and very fruitful emblem of many of the so far unrealized possibilities of this intellectual moment. The cybernetic fold might be described as a fold between postmodernist and modernist ways of hypothesizing about the brain and mind” 12. [the ‘evocative lists’ of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness]

Tomkins “locates in the body some important part of the difference among different emotions. ‘Undifferentiated visceral arousal’ is in no sense less biologically based than differentiated arousal… [but is less Darwinian and] more thoroughly imbued with a Cartesian mind/body dualism” 19.  Sedgwick suggests that reading maps the affect of shame: lowering of eyes and lids, hanging of the head, etc 20. Why shame?

“Shame and theory are partially analogous at a certain level of digitilization… shame involves a gestalt, the duck to interest’s (or enjoyment’s) rabbit. Without positive affect, there can be no shame: only a scene that offers you enjoyment or engages your interest can make you blush. Similarly, only something you thought might delight or satisfy can disgust. Both these affects produce bodily knowledges: disgust… recognizes the difference between inside and outside the body and what should and should not be let in; shame, as precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body, can turn one inside out – or outside in… shame is characterized by its failure ever to renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain” 22-3. [surfaces – think of Ada!]


“Reason without affect would be impotent, affect without reason would be blind. The combination of affect and reason guarantees man’s high degree of freedom” 37.

“In the case of the sexual need, man enjoys a still greater time freedom compared with his need for air, food, and water… sexual deprivation is biologically tolerable… It is only when intercourse is not frequent or when abstinence is total that sexual excitement and fantasy can play a central role in personality. It is only when an absence of drive satisfaction can be biologically tolerated, as in this case, that a drive can assume critical importance in personality development” 47.

For Tomkins, Freud confuses drive and affect.

“Freedom of intensity of affect: Drives characteristically increase in intensity until they are satisfied, from which time they decline – gradually in eating, more rapidly in drinking, and most rapidly in the orgasm. In contrast, the intensity profiles of affect are capable of marked differentiation. Interest may begin in a low key, increase somewhat, then decline in intensity, then suddenly become very intense and remain so for some time… The rate at which affects develop intensity can vary as a function of the rate at whcih the perception of the object evoking affect increases. This latter rate may be learned or unlearned” 50-51. [think about Linda Williams’ observations about the disruption of this narrative of sexuality!]

“Freedom of density of affect: By affect density we mean the product of intensity times duration… an affect of high intensity but limited duration has equal density with an affect that is low in intensity but more enduring” 51. [think about this in terms of surface vs depth!]

“The recollection of past affect does not necessarily or even characteristically evoke the same affect. The affect which is evoked is either more intense, more enduring, more rapidly increasing in intensity, more dense, or less intense, less enduring, increasing in intensity more slowly, less dense. One of these sets of alternatives is affect sensitization, the other is affect desensitization or habituation… the affect evoked may have a longer duration but at a reduced intensity, or an increased intensity but for a briefer period of time. These are consequences when the affect evoked is the same affect that is remembered. The distinction between original affect, remembered affect, and the affect evoked by remembered affect is clearest when what is evoked is a different kind of affect than the remembered affect” 53.

“Affect-object reciprocity: The first freedom between affects and objects is their reciprocal interdependency. If an imputed characteristic of an object is capable of evoking a particular affect, the evocation of that affect is also capable of producing a subjective restructuring of the object so that it possesses the imputed characteristic which is capable of evoking that affect… It is this somewhat fluid relationship between affects and their objects which offends human beings… and which is at the base of the rationalist’s suspiciousness and derogation of the feeling life of man” 55.

“Freedom of substitutability of consummatory objects: Finally, the drive system has a limited degree of substitutability of consummatory objects. Quite apart from the restrictions of appetite of food, liquid, and sex objects, which are learned, hunger can be satisfied only by a restricted set of organic substances, thirst by a restricted set of liquids. Sexuality has a greater freedom of possible satisfiers since almost any object which is not too coarse in texture might be an adequate stimulus for stimulating the genitals, although the number of maximally satisfying possibilities is much more limited… the same affect may be enjoyed in innumerable ways… The prime example of substitutability of objects is found in art… To the extent to which human beings become addicted to specific satisfiers, either in the case of drives or affects, substitutability of objects declines… food… a lover may find there is no other love object than the beloved… there is no other city” 59.

“Freud’s concept of sublimation is quite innapropriate for drive satisfaction per se. One can eat only food, breathe only air, and drink only liquids. The concept was illuminating only with sexuality – the one drive which is the least imperious of all the drives, the drive in which the affective component plays the largest role, the drive in which activation of the drive even without consummation has a rewarding rather than a punishing quality… An erection in males or a tumescent state in females is more pleasant than painful” 60. [Freud’s idea of sublimation is that healthy transformation of a drive into something harmless, which is necessary for the functioning of society.]

Tomkins also notes that in order to control our affects, we often have to “imagine ourselves” back to a particular feeling to recreate it or to quell another 62.

“Affective responses have a low arousal inertia with respect to stimuli over which the individual usually has little control, high arousal inertia with respect to self-initiated stimuli which initiate affective responses, and high or low maintenance inertia depending on the specific affects over which the individual has little control. In other words affective responses seem to the individual to be aroused easily by factors over which he has little control, with difficulty by factors which he can control and to endure for periods of time which he controls only with great difficulty if at all… alien to the individual.. the primitive gods within the individual” 62.

“It is of fundamental importance to the understanding of the nature of a human being that we differentiate those aspects of his personality which vary because they depend upon the variable winds of doctrine and circumstance and those characteristics which are inherently human, whether learned or unlearned. We call these General Images… centrally generated blueprints which control the feedback mechanism… their generality among human beings… there is so high a probability that they will be generated that we may for the most part regard them as inevitable in the development of all human beings… 1) Positive affect should be maximized 2) Negative affect should be minimized 3) Affect inhibition should be minimized 4) Power to maximize positive affect, to minimize negative affect, to minimize affect inhibition, should be maximized” 67.  [this is tied to human capacity for memory and perception]

“We are suggesting essentially that the idea of God, omniscient and omnipotent, is a derivative construct. Man first conceives of the ideal of himself as all-powerful because he has wants which he cannot entirely fulfill. He wishes to live forever, but he cannot… He wishes to experience perpetual joy, but he cannot. Nor can he ever defend himself entirely from distress, from shame, from fear, from hostility… all secular revolutionary movements must destroy the image of God and restore omniscience and omnipotence to the state and to society” 72.

“If an individual is haunted with a chronic sense of shame for sexual exploration, then the idea of power becomes necessarily tied to the violation of the constraints which originated the taboo… sexual excitement [then] requires an exaggerated shamelessness or power to undo, reverse, and deny the power of the other to evoke shame for one’s sexuality… a reveling in shame” 72.

[non-sequitur: look up case of man who died on ‘balanced diet in Johns Hopkins hospital after subsisting on a self-selected diet beforehand.]

“We will use, wherever possible, a joint name which includes the most characteristic description of the affect as experienced at low and as experienced at high intensity, follwed by the component facial responses:


1. Interest-Excitement: eyebrows down, track, look, listen

2. Enjoyment-Joy: smile, lips widened up and out


3. Surprise-Startle: eyebrows up, eye blink


4. Distress-Anguish: cry, arched eyebrow, mouth down, tears, rhythmic sobbing

5. Fear-Terror: eyes frozen open, pale, cold, sweaty, facial trembling, hair erect

6. Shame-Humiliation: eyes down, head down

7: Contempt-Disgust: sneer, upper lip up

8. Anger-Rage: frown, clenched jaw, red face” 74.

If reading is shame-humiliation, viewing film is naturally fear-terror? Recall also Williams and others on how sexual pleasure would look more like 4 or 5 than 1 or 2 (horror film).