Once More, with Feeling

By Michael NorthMay 3, 2020

Once More, with Feeling
TO SPEAK OF feeling in the abstract, as a category distinct from any particular feelings, seems almost a contradiction in terms. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to include feeling in academic discussions, because feelings are thought to be too specific, too fleeting, too ephemeral to merit much intellectual discussion. In the first of Sam See’s two projects, though, the one that was to be called Queer Natures, feeling as such plays a central role. Drawing on Darwin, Sam sees feeling as a constant force in nature and therefore durable. This line of reasoning starts with Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, by which he hoped to explain the development and persistence of some of nature’s gaudiest structures, things like the peacock’s tail, the hummingbird’s bright throat, and all the other crests and colors that mark the mating rituals of the world of birds. Structures like this may not conduce to survival in any direct way. They may persist simply because they are indifferent as to survival. In this sense, their existence must modify the common notion that every trait in nature exists because it somehow increases the chances of a species to perpetuate itself.

The idea of sexual selection also does more than this. By suggesting that a particular species form may be the result of various aesthetic preferences accumulated over time, it introduces feeling, aesthesis, into the evolutionary system, where it plays a role, alongside natural selection, in making organisms what they are. It is especially important to Sam’s version of this idea that the force in play here is feeling in general, not any specific feelings. Darwin at times seemed to believe that nature favored certain particular feelings, or at least he talked at times as if the male display, so common in the world of birds, was meant to appeal only to the females. For Sam, though, feelings constantly change and replace one another, and it is in fact because they do so that feeling in general can persist.

These ideas resonate with me as they do right now partly because they are strongly reminiscent of a work, both scholarly and artistic, with which I have spent a lot of time recently: Aby Warburg’s great collage of aesthetic motifs, which he called the Mnemosyne Atlas. Warburg was a German art historian, mostly independent of academic institutions, who read Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals early in his career. Partly under this influence, he developed a theory of what is usually called in English “pathos formulas.” According to this theory the recurrence of certain aesthetic motifs over time, especially the reappearance of motifs from ancient Greece in the Renaissance, signified the survival of certain patterns of feeling. These patterns could not be identified with any of the traditionally named emotions because they were much more amorphous, more fundamentally physical. For Warburg, a pathos formula was often vested in a particular pose or gesture, a stance that once having embodied a feeling then revives it whenever it is repeated.

If Warburg has never been as influential as colleagues like Ernst Cassirer or Erwin Panofsky, it is probably because the best expression of his theories is not a conventional work of scholarship, not a written work at all, but the grand compendium of images he assembled as the Mnemosyne Atlas. Initiated in 1924, the atlas is a multi-panel collage of reproductions that never reached a final form because Warburg was always rearranging and reworking it. On his panels, he combined images of Greek sculpture, reproductions of Renaissance paintings and decorative arts, and photographs of contemporary scenes, many of these from the American Southwest. The whole point of the arrangement, of course, was to avoid the traditional linear narrative of art history and to replace it with a spatial array, where the recurrence of certain feelings might appear in the concatenation of images in an anachronistic space. The atlas thus pictured in its very form the tendency of feeling to jump across time and thus to violate both chronology and teleology. Warburg was vitally interested in what he called the nachleben of works of art, a term that is usually rendered in English as survival but which might more accurately be translated as afterlife. For Warburg was not interested in the mere persistence of particular motifs in an unchanged state but rather in their reoccurrence in different situations and circumstances. His is then a jumpy and reversible art history, not the usual steady plod through distinct periods.

As such, Warburg’s art history tends to undermine the distinctness of particular periods, including modernism, and in this way it also happens to coincide with Sam’s work. Sam was a devoted student of modernist texts, but he always questioned the association of those texts with a narrative of progress in which the modern comes into being by overcoming the past. This narrative seems so much a part of what we mean by modernism that it may be hard to see what is left if we remove it. Here, again, the answer is provided by the category of feeling, since any feeling must necessarily take place in the present. In fact, the persistence of feeling over time is a paradox a little like the paradox of the present itself, which is both fleeting and constant, always there and always gone again. So a modernism based on feeling would be the modernism of a present not cut off from any past, since the persistence of feeling is based on its continuing presence over time. Thus it might be said that any time is modern when there is emphasis on the sensory effects of art, for these effects inevitably locate those who experience them in the present. The possibility for art to prompt pure feeling corresponds to the constant possibility of it to be modern.

It’s in this sense that Sam’s work will always be timely, in that it calls us to attend to the transformative power of the feelings that go into a work of literature. For me, the feelings that come from certain works of literature, particularly the poetry of Hart Crane, will always be in part the ones I had when reading them with Sam. The words on the page are the same as they were before, but they have been changed for me, and it’s in that change that something persists.


Michael North teaches English at UCLA. His recent publications include Novelty: A History of the New (2013), What Is the Present? (2018), and “The Afterlife of Modernism” (2019).

LARB Contributor

Michael North teaches English at UCLA. His recent publications include Novelty: A History of the New (2013), What Is the Present? (2018), and “The Afterlife of Modernism” (2019).


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