Passionate Affinities: A Conversation with Rita Felski

By Francesco GiustiSeptember 25, 2019

Passionate Affinities: A Conversation with Rita Felski
LITERARY WORKS ARE NEITHER autonomous, transcendent objects nor mere by-products of historical circumstance, but rather co-actors that exhibit a certain degree of agency. They cannot be easily extricated from the network of relationships in which they are entangled, nor can they be reduced merely to the context of their production. Even the variety of methods that have dominated academic criticism in the last decades, usually gathered under the label “critique,” reveal the passionate attachments and affective investments that animate and motivate them. This is what Rita Felski argues in her brilliant 2015 book, The Limits of Critique.

Felski, who is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark (where she leads a large research project on “The Social Dimensions of Literature”), has brought the conceptual tools of Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT) into literary studies. Such re-orientations in critical and creative vocabularies are becoming increasingly visible in academic discourse, and Felski has been at the forefront of these transformations, a position that will only be further cemented by her new book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, forthcoming in fall 2020.

This conversation, which took place via email, addresses the main arguments and aims of Felski’s scholarly work in the context of current trends in literary and cultural criticism.


FRANCESCO GIUSTI: The declared intent of your influential book The Limits of Critique (2015) is to question the “mood and method” of the “thought style” usually called critique or critical thinking that has dominated academic practices for a long time. This attitude, which you associate with the hermeneutics of suspicion that French philosopher Paul Ricoeur detected in Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, assigns to the critic a rather ambitious (and perhaps elitist) task: “[T]o expose hidden truths and draw out unflattering and counterintuitive meanings that others fail to see.”

I would like to open our conversation with a linguistic shift that you address in your first chapter and that is now visible not only in academic vocabularies but also artistic ones. In the last decades, “de-” has been a pervasive prefix in the imperatives to demystify, decenter, destabilize, defamiliarize, denaturalize, decipher, and of course, though not always explicit, deconstruct. In recent years, instead, a new key prefix appears to be spreading: the “re-” of reenactment, reactivation, and, in your own scholarship, the desire to reappraise, redescribe, rename, reimagine, revitalize, recontextualize, and reconfigure. Would you like to expand on your remark on this possible “turn”?

RITA FELSKI: The phrasing of the sentence you’re referring to runs as follows: “We shortchange the significance of art by focusing on the “de-” prefix (its power to demystify, destabilize, denaturalize) at the expense of the “re-” prefix: its ability to recontextualize, reconfigure, or recharge perception.” When I drafted those words, I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to them, but it’s striking how often they’ve been picked up in responses to The Limits of Critique; this sentence is frequently quoted back to me, echoed, amplified, or developed, as you’re doing now. It clearly crystallizes something for many of the book’s readers, and so it seems like a good place to start.

Your question, it seems to me, raises two distinct, if related issues. In its original position in The Limits of Critique, the sentence is commenting on our impoverished vocabulary for describing what art works do. In literary studies especially, we’ve tended to associate both the agency and the value of literature with what is often called a negative aesthetic: that is to say, its potential to undercut and undermine, to defamiliarize and estrange. Of course, this is one of the things that literature is capable of, but it does a bunch of other things as well! In using the word “reconfigure,” for example, I’m thinking of Paul Ricoeur’s view of mimesis — his claim that literature can reshape or remake cultural schemes in order to disclose new realities. Meanwhile, “recontextualize” pushes back against reductive uses of text/context distinctions in the humanities. Rather than taking it for granted that a work gains its meaning in relation to a historical or political context that is being assumed by the critic, why not insist on its potential to transform what counts as a relevant context? And, finally, “recharge perception” underscores that any potential insights offered by art are often tied up with sensual-perceptual relations: we can be re-attuned in ways that feel transformative yet are often hard to categorize or pin down. In this sense, then, the language of “re-” offers a way of conceptualizing what art does beyond the familiar schemes of social conformity or social antagonism.

Your remarks, however, point to the historical as well as analytical significance of the language of “re.” Does an increasing use of such language on the part of both critics and artists point to some kind of epochal shift in thought or sensibility? Perhaps. We’re certainly witnessing a dramatic surge of interest in alternatives to critique: actor-network theory, new materialisms, object-oriented-ontology, ordinary language philosophy; the interest in surface reading in literary studies, the (by now decades old) return to beauty in art criticism. Still, I remain a little wary of the language of “turns” because of its potential to homogenize and simplify thought by forcing it into a schematic historical narrative. As you know, current thought and criticism is quite heterogeneous in its methods, styles, and intellectual affinities. There are still numerous thinkers and artists who are committed to various forms of critique, and I’d certainly want to reject any attempts to paint such commitments as retrograde or behind the times.

It’s also important, I think, not to conceive of the shift from “de-” to “re-” as a straightforward or unidirectional shift from negative to affirmative ways of thinking. One of the points I make in The Limits of Critique is that critique has never been purely negative, at either a philosophical or a phenomenological level. It’s a familiar theoretical argument — repeatedly made by Adorno, among others — that the most uncompromising act of denunciation or condemnation contains an implicit reference to something more positive, even if the nature of that something remains purposefully unspecified. Critique and utopia are interrelated rather than simply opposed. Meanwhile, the extraordinary success of critique as a “style of thought” in the 20th century cannot be explained without some account of how it lures us in. Why are intellectuals — and not only intellectuals — so deeply invested in postures of detachment? What kinds of gratifications do we get from practicing critique? At what point does a style of thought become so deeply ingrained that it forms an essential part of one’s identity? There’s an increasing willingness, I think, to consider how critical thinking might itself constitute a form of attachment.

Of course, I’m not referring to any acknowledged “turn,” but rather to the visible emergence of “re-” words in a variety of fields and disciplines — as if a different critical vocabulary was suggesting itself. My impression is that, rather than implying a pre-established critical task, “re-” words are generally taken to generate unpredictable resonances among a variety of phenomena, methods, and perspectives, without necessarily ascribing an intrinsic value to the critical endeavor itself. With its double meaning of “back” and “again” — which combines intensification and iteration — the “re-” prefix is meant to signal complex movements in space and time, affective attachments, and multidirectional processes with no preset suspicion or intellectual agendas.

That’s a striking rendition of the force of “re-”! One word that appears frequently in The Limits of Critique — largely inspired by my former colleague at the University of Virginia, Richard Rorty — is redescription. Rorty was fond of saying that significant shifts in perceptions are not just a result of better arguments, but of changes in vocabulary that reveal or disclose reality in a different way. This seems right to me. By redescribing what is commonly called “critique” in literary studies as a hermeneutics of suspicion, I wanted to highlight features that are often overlooked — namely, the role of mood or disposition in the making of critical arguments, as well as a reliance on often formulaic methods.

But “re-” has much broader implications for criticism. In its emphasis on reiteration, for example, it has certain affinities with the language of “post” and “postcritique” — a word I employ with a certain ambivalence, but that has been repeatedly taken up in the reception of the book. Both “post-” and “re-” indicate an unavoidable link to the past rather than any kind of clean break. For this reason, any account of postcritique as a form of anti-critique is a misrepresentation. My own line of thought obviously depends on critique, historically and theoretically, even as it returns to — while also striving to articulate differently — approaches to art that have often been occluded in the last few decades. Your phrase “multidirectional processes” seems very apposite here as a way of trying to skirt the language of novelty that pervades academic life: see, most recently, the promotional discourses around new materialisms, new formalisms, et cetera. One of the things I stress in the book I’ve just finished — Hooked: Art and Attachment — is that I’m not interested in hawking some shiny new method that will redeem us from the errors of the past; rather, I want to offer a different slant on what is already going on.

And here your remarks about affective attachments involving complex movements in time and space are also à propos. One of my aims in Hooked is to wrest the language of attachment away from the ambit of particular disciplines in order to give it a broader analytical purchase. I remain unpersuaded by accounts of why we care about art that rely on either psychoanalysis or developmental psychology and the forms of explanation and causality associated with those fields. Yet I’m also unsatisfied — and I should say that quite a few cultural sociologists share this view — with the attempts of Bourdieu and his followers to reduce attachments to matters of exchange, cultural capital, and struggles for distinction. Rather, I’m interested in offering better descriptions of the many different ways we become connected to art without prejudging some of these attachments as more real or foundational or legitimate than others. Someone can be as tightly bound to a centuries-old painting as to a friend who is seen every day; as intensely invested in the crises of a TV series as in the dramas of their own neighborhood. I want to push back against the view that the former ties are inherently unworthy: escapist or apolitical, symptoms of bourgeois aestheticism, capitalist manipulation, or what have you. And what is especially noteworthy about aesthetic attachments, as you suggest, is their potential to cut across boundaries of space and time.

Your investigation escapes the risk of being just a critique of critique or a symptomatic reading of symptomatic reading. It does not aim at subjecting a certain style of thought to its own methods but at disclosing the affective attachments that both motivate and shape it. To that style, indeed, you apply the very vocabulary of passions, affects, and emotional investments that you propose as part of a postcritical approach. As you write, retrieving Heidegger’s notion of “mood”: “Critical detachment is not an absence of mood, but one manifestation of it, casting a certain shadow over its object.” Behind the critical assumption that “something, somewhere — a text, an author, a reader, a genre, a discourse, a discipline — is always already guilty of some crime,” a certain “mood” colors the relation between text and reader.

Drawing on Latour’s actor-network theory, your approach intends to free literature from a preexisting and determining system (a social and political context, mainly capitalism as an all-encompassing power structure) whose concealed reality and hidden forces the critic is supposed to reveal. In other words, there are not two separate spheres: the work of literature cannot be extracted from the workings of the world. The literary text, one actor among many others, is not simply a material object to be dissected, but something continually created and recreated through the interactions with, and mediations of, other actors in the network. I am wondering, though, whether the notion of “mood” (or “atmosphere”) does not risk producing another determining system, which provides a backdrop against which the work of critique could be read. After all, as Heidegger states in the sentence that you quote, “A mood is in each case already there, like an atmosphere, in which we are steeped.”

This is an intriguing question: to what extent does mood imply or escape determinism? As your question acknowledges, a constellation of terms is currently attracting a great deal of interest in the humanities: atmosphere, mood, Stimmung, attunement, and so on. Such language aims to circumvent the dichotomy of feeling and thought. There is, Heideggerians would insist, no mood-free relation to the world; critical detachment is one kind of mood rather than an absence of mood. Such terms are appealing in offering an alternative to subjectivism — a picture of feelings as housed within individual minds. Moods, by definition, are transpersonal as well as personal. Does this mean that they constitute a “determining system”?

It is true that moods cannot be willed into existence, that they often escape our control; in this sense, they point to the limits of individual agency. There is also, of course, the issue of scale. As David Wellbery points out in his remarkably thorough and illuminating genealogy of Stimmung, the language of moods is often applied to large collectives — we speak of the mood of a country or an epoch. And yet, I’d venture that moods are too diffuse and amorphous to constitute a system — though political or economic systems may of course strive to harness or promulgate specific moods, with greater or lesser success. Conversely, Jonathan Flatley has a fascinating discussion of the emergence of what he calls a “revolutionary counter-mood” among striking automobile workers in Detroit in the 1960s. Overall, I would see an affinity, rather than a conflict, between notions of mood and the insistence, in actor-network theory, that agency is distributed among multiple actors rather than something that is possessed by individuals. In both cases, we are talking about various things coming together, rather than heroic agents working alone.

At the same time, I’d agree that “mood,” precisely because of its diffuseness, is not a very helpful term for capturing the vectors of attachment that connect individual persons to specific works of art or literature. (Mood, in standard definitions of the term, is not directed toward an object.) It is here that I have found the related language of “attunement” and “attuning” more helpful in clarifying the acts of synchronizing or modulating that cause us to get, or fail to get, a novel or film or painting. Zadie Smith’s essay “Some Notes on Attunement” has been especially generative for me in its capacious account of the many different factors — phenomenological and sociological — that make such attunements possible. But I’d emphasize that mood and attunement are, for me, useful terms in tackling specific questions rather than the foundation stones of any kind of new “theory.”

I would like to return for a moment to the issue of context and to the interrelation of critique and utopia. How do we conceive of a literary work as neither free-floating in a transcendental timelessness nor irrevocably chained to the context of its production? How do we preserve both its singularity and its sociability? The way out of these dichotomies, you suggest, is to give up historicist ideas of society as a distinct totality that determines all human practices and embrace Latour’s view of the social as existing only in the concrete “coming together of phenomena to create assemblages, affinities, and networks.” Within such a network, a critically detached viewpoint appears to be impossible. Objects, ideas, images, and texts aggregate and collide in ways that cannot be easily predicted, or explained away, based on external causation.

A network, moreover, is not perfectly synchronic. Its actors can come from different times and introduce diverse temporalities. Actors reassemble, but they are not superseded. In other words, there is no such thing as a preexisting context or a linear succession of discrete periods to be traced, maybe not even a historical progress to be discerned. Yet a network can assume configurations more durable than others (critique itself could be an instance) and even more pernicious than others for some of its actors. Latour’s network has been blamed for blurring the distinction between those who/which act and those who/which are acted upon — that is to say, in human terms, between perpetrators and victims. Within the network, it may be difficult to identify individual actors, determine their respective shares of power, and assess their roles in history. Today a person in favor of the study and determination of contexts could identify the current configuration with neoliberalism and see in your project a renunciation of critical opposition and a certain complicity in the market system. Personally, I think you are doing something quite different, but would you like to respond to these kinds of objections?

Texts from the past can contribute to reimagine the present, but how can current actors envision (if not create) a possible future constellation and engage in political action from within the network? In other words, can individual actors act upon, and against, their own present? Some critics, indeed, seem to argue that a relative detachment of literature and/or of its critical readers from society is necessary. 

In The Limits of Critique, I took on a quite specific and delimited task: to redescribe the prevailing moods and methods of literary interpretation over the last few decades. So my questioning of how “context” is often deployed needs to be situated, first of all, in this discipline-specific frame.

The book pushes back against the picture of “history as a box,” or what Wai Chee Dimock calls synchronic historicism: the assumption that a literary work is encased within the sociohistorical conditions of its origins, which serves as the ultimate arbiter of its meaning. Rather, it argues for greater attention to transtemporal networks — how literature continues to possess meaning and to give pleasure across time. Aspects of this argument strike me as uncontroversial, even if their implications have yet to be fully explored. Most scholars nowadays would surely agree that history is not composed of a “linear succession of discrete periods.” Period terms are heuristic categories that are useful in allowing us to differentiate and distinguish, but they also obscure commonalities across periods as well as the heterogeneity within periods.

I also took issue with a literary-critical maneuver that is often used to connect “text” and “context”: close-reading a handful of novels or films in order to make broad diagnostic claims about social systems. My reservations here are summed up in Lawrence Grossberg’s apt phrase for this method of interpretation: “Reading the world in a grain of sand.” Like Grossberg and other cultural studies scholars, I do not think that a few texts can be taken to represent the truth of a social whole. Nor do I believe that their meanings lie hidden in their depths, discernible only to scholars trained in specialized techniques of interpretation. Any social meanings, rather, are actualized or realized in their reception by audiences, requiring a far more differentiated and variegated vision of what counts as a relevant context.

The use of Latour to question dominant models of context in The Limits of Critique was thus a specific intervention in debates over literary methodology. How, then, might this line of thinking be relevant to social and political analysis? Here a whole set of other issues comes into play. I’m starting a new book that engages in dialogue with contemporary Frankfurt School thinkers such as Axel Honneth, Robin Celikates, and Nikolas Kompridis, who have received virtually no attention in literary studies. While these social and political theorists retain an investment in critique, they also have a clear-eyed view of its pitfalls that resonate with my own concerns. These pitfalls include the problem of epistemological asymmetry: styles of critique that assume the knowingness of the critical theorist and the gullibity/naïveté/ignorance of everyone else. They also address the dangers of functionalism: totalizing frameworks that reduce the many-sidedness of social phenomena to the single purpose or function of reproducing systems of inequality.

Here I see interesting affinities to ANT, although there are of course important differences. To resist functionalist and reductive styles of thinking, meanwhile, is not at all to deny that some associations of actors are more stable, durable, or powerful than others. That actors are treated symmetrically does not mean their effects are held to be equal, or that differences of scale are denied. And here I would not agree that ANT makes it “difficult to identify individual actors, determine their respective shares of power, and assess their roles in history.” Precisely because of its wariness of theoretical short cuts and its strong empirical commitments, it fosters more careful attention to specific actors, their relative force and weight, and the varying relations between them. As my above comments suggest, however, I do not see ANT as some new “master theory” or approach that will redeem us, but rather I am interested in the relations between ANT, the contemporary Frankfurt School, and other relevant frameworks — Boltanski’s pragmatic sociology would be another reference point, along with the post-Marxism of Laclau and Mouffe. Rather than seeing ANT as anomalous, in other words, I’d link it to other important and influential perspectives in social theory that are grappling with the limits of critique as well as its value.

None of these approaches, for example, prevent one from criticizing neoliberalism — quite the contrary. They would insist, however, that capitalism is neither the sole actor nor the master actor — that there are many vectors of power and inequality, that persons cannot be reduced to effects of structures, and any account of social relations must leave ample room for contingency, unpredictability, and surprise. It’s hard for me to see how such perspectives minimize or diminish agency; on the contrary, critiques of determinism are usually seen as necessary for any acknowledgment of agency! (To give a concrete example: I’m currently reading a fascinating essay by Oumelbanine Zhiri that uses Latour’s ideas to push back against stark antinomies of East and West by tracing the significant role of Arab scholars — often reduced to passive victims or shadowy informants — in the making of early modern Orientalism.)

Finally, on the question of detachment, I’ve never implied that we cannot reflect on or question our own assumptions. How else could thinking occur? But the best we can hope for, I’d argue, is a state of semi-detachment; we can distance ourselves from some things, but we cannot question everything at once. There is no position of pure externality — no view from nowhere. Again, this strikes me as a relatively uncontroversial point in contemporary thought. Disagreements are likely to arise, however, around the ethical and political merits of being attached or detached. There’s a tendency in contemporary theory to prioritize critical distancing, skepticism, self-reflexivity as the highest good; to assume that attachments, even if inevitable, are little more than constraints. Whereas I would argue — in line with Gadamer and Taylor and Haraway — that attachments are also a source of strength. Our investments and commitments — what Latour calls “matters of concern” — are not just potential obstacles to political action but also motors of political action. The assumption that change can only be the result of negation and opposition is a Hegelian hangover that we would do well to get rid of.

I’m glad you mentioned the “epistemological asymmetry” that sets critical theorists apart from everyone else. One of the things that strikes me in the recent debate about new formalism is the implicit attempt to provide a self-defense of literary studies as a discipline. By focusing on literary forms in their relation to, and correspondence with, social forms, literary critics, so the argument goes, would be better equipped to understand and contribute to the transformation of society. Your approach, by contrast, restores and reevaluates the affective dynamics at the very basis of reading that are shared by professional critics and ordinary readers alike. Acknowledging the text as a nonhuman actor, moreover, means that, for you, “affective engagement is the very means by which literary works are able to reach, reorient, and even reconfigure their readers.” Would you like to comment on the “democratization” (if I can use this term) of reading that emerges clearly in the last chapter of The Limits of Critique in the context of current trends in literary criticism? And, more generally, how would you characterize your relation to other recent influential methods in the United States, such as “surface reading”? 

I’ve been interested in what you call a democratization of reading for decades: for example, my defense of popular feminist novels that were often subject to academic disdain in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics (1989), or my exhumation of the forgotten best-selling Victorian novelist Marie Corelli in The Gender of Modernity (1995). Here I’m very much influenced by cultural studies and especially the marvelous ethnographic feminist work of Ien Ang, Janice Radway, Jackie Stacey, and others. At the same time, I have no interest in sustaining dichotomies between “high” and “popular” culture or between academic and lay readers. One of the aims of Hooked is to take responses that are often associated with popular consumption — attachment, engagement, identification — and to demonstrate their relevance to the reception of high art and to practices of academic criticism.

It’s worth stressing — in light of comments that I sometimes receive — that I’ve never advocated a rejection or refusal of value — quite the contrary. Evaluation is inescapable. But we must keep in mind that there are different regimes of aesthetic value, to borrow John Frow’s phrase. The equation of value with an aesthetics of transgression is the idée fixe of a specific academic subculture that tells us very little about why most people seek out works of art. Nor — to forestall another objection — am I arguing that academic reading should simply imitate lay reading: an anti-intellectualist position that would very quickly put me out of a job. But literary studies needs much better accounts of why people value literature and how they engage with literature — something that, in my view, requires more intellectual rigor rather than less.

Attention to form is obviously necessary for a literary critic, but declaring oneself a formalist strikes me as an act of purification, in Latour’s sense: a way of trying to ward off the contaminating effects of whatever is not form (which will be different things for different critics). There are, of course, many kinds of formalisms, ranging from the apolitical (New Criticism) to the political (Adorno, for example, or the Lacanian-Althusserian style of analysis popular in the heyday of Screen film theory). And while formalism and historicism are often contrasted, it’s perfectly possible to be a historical formalist — to close-read literary forms on the assumption that they possess some kind of homology with larger sociohistorical structures. All these formalisms, however, serve to bolster the authority of academic criticism over the more “naïve” concerns of non-academic readers, such as an investment in content, or meaning, or feelings, or identifying with characters. Whereas I contend that literary works can only exist when being co-composed by their audiences, bringing all these seemingly impermissible factors into play, whether or not they are acknowledged. I don’t see “form” as the only foundation for literary expertise, any more than close reading is the only activity that literary scholars should engage in.

I very much admire the scholarship of Sharon Marcus, Stephen Best, and Heather Love, including many of their arguments against orthodox styles of critique, but the phrase “surface reading” doesn’t really resonate with me: I don’t see literary works as objects that are equipped with surfaces or depths. Their more recent work, however, focuses on description and its relation to interpretation — as neither synonymous nor entirely separate — in ways that I find to be highly insightful and stimulating. And in this context, I should say that most recent accounts of literary studies have not done a very good job of mapping the range and variety of positions. Anyone who objects to the hegemony of critique is lumped under a term such as “surface reading” — a phrase that I do not use — or “postcritical reading” — a coinage of mine that other scholars tend to steer clear of. Before they rush to interpret the current scene, commentators need to describe it more accurately.

I would like to conclude our conversation with a reflection on transtemporal communities, an issue that is at the heart of my own work. You write that “critique is also a collective act — one that draws strength from a communal ‘we’ extending across time as well as space” and “[t]he present-day critic thus joins a transhistorical community of interpreters, decoders, and sign readers.” In fact, critique “can inspire passionate affinities and call into being groups and collectivities that did not previously exist,” even forming a community that may have complicated relationships with other (less “critical”) communities, such as those of lay or non-academic readers. 

By reevaluating the role of attachment and attunement before or beyond conscious thought (two concepts fully developed in your forthcoming book), you emphasize the singularity of individual, contingent encounters with literary or art works. Indeed, you approve of Derek Attridge’s notion of idioculture, the particular arrangement of knowledge, desires, experiences, and feelings that each individual reader brings to the text. On the other hand, you also suggest an idea of community that is primarily based neither on shared knowledge nor on common analytical styles, but rather on the similarity of affective responses. “We” can be brought together by responding to certain literary or art works, which matter to us more than others do. How do these works, even works from the distant past, engender such transtemporal communities that cut across timelines and national borders? What makes it possible?

The assumption that we are connected to people, artifacts, and artworks of the past — that we are part of transtemporal communities — has been a taken-for-granted idea through most of history, one that was long captured by the idea of “tradition.” Of course, tradition has now become a problematic concept, even when it is used in a value-neutral sense by someone like Gadamer. However, the idea of modernity as involving a definitive break or rupture with the past has shown itself to be no less problematic. Rather, we need to account for differences and connections across time as well as space. Art is not the only vector of such connections, but it is one of the main ways we become attuned to the past via its reactivation in the present. To be sure, there are valuable resources in the current theoretical canon that can help us grapple with such questions — Benjamin’s references to cross-temporal constellations; Freud’s notion of Nachträglichkeit or “afterwardness.” However, it is actor-network theory, in my view, that offers the most powerful challenge to standard periodization models and the myth of the modernist break.

What I also find useful about actor-network theory is that it does not pit the “individual” against “the social” but acknowledges that phenomena are distinctive yet also connected. Hooked tackles the question of how aesthetic experiences are mediated yet can feel intensely immediate; it takes both aspects seriously, without using one side to cancel out the other. (“You may think you’ve fallen in love with that painting by Matisse, but in reality you’re engaged in a struggle for distinction!”) In some cases, aesthetic experiences connect us to others in the present; the film Thelma & Louise helped to broker new forms of collective political identification by aesthetic means. But reading a book, for example, can also be a way of escaping one’s milieu and everything it stands for (Orhan Pamuk’s 1994 novel A New Life gives a vivid description of this process). Yet even here, I would argue, connections are being forged — to an author or to a style, to fictional characters, to past or future readers of the same book. Such bonds, from the standpoint of ANT, are no less real or relevant; they deserve to be respected. Art cannot be reduced to a more fundamental reality; it has its own histories, conventions, practices, and modes of engagement. Yet the language of “autonomous art” is misleading insofar as it obscures how this distinctiveness is created by linkages and ties.

As you say, “attunement” interests me as a way of thinking about pre-reflective affinities to artworks that are hard to explain via standard analytical or sociological categories. Why, for example, am I touched by this particular Ishiguro novel and not that one — even though I admire both equally as literary works and even though both offer equal amounts of cultural capital? (To anyone interested in similar questions, I’d recommend Hartmut Rosa’s remarkable Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World [2016], which has just been published in English translation). I should stress, however, that I conceive of attachment as a much broader category than attunement; it includes conscious commitments as well as inarticulate affinities: ethical, political, and intellectual, as well as affective ties. Attachment is not just about feeling! Rather than opposing attachment to interpretation, for example, I see interpretation as a specific vector of attachment. I have a longstanding interest in pushing back against the thought-versus-feeling opposition, which remains surprisingly stubborn in literary studies, even after the so-called affective turn. And my current concern is to offer better descriptions of ties to artworks — whose plurality and diversity, in my view, have not been adequately registered — and to make a case for attachment as a much-needed key word for the humanities.


Francesco Giusti is currently a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. After completing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Sapienza University of Rome and the Italian Institute of Human Sciences (SUM), he pursued his research on the history and theory of the lyric at the University of York (United Kingdom) and Goethe-Universität Frankfurt (Germany).

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Francesco Giusti is currently a fellow at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. After completing his PhD in Comparative Literature at Sapienza University of Rome and the Italian Institute of Human Sciences (SUM), he pursued his research on the history and theory of the lyric at the University of York (United Kingdom) and Goethe-Universität Frankfurt (Germany). He is a member of the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis Après-coup at the University of L’Aquila. Besides many articles, he has published two books devoted respectively to the ethics and poetics of mourning and to creative and cognitive desire in lyric poetry: Canzonieri in morte. Per un’etica poetica del lutto (Textus Edizioni, L’Aquila, 2015) and Il desiderio della lirica. Poesia, creazione, conoscenza (Carocci, Rome, 2016).


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