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Criticism 46.3 (2004) 511-524
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Some Avenues for Feeling
What can an attention to affect offer those of us who continue to be engaged by criticism, who do it for a living or find it indispensable for some other reasons? For one thing, thinking about affect can change what counts as material and what material might do. I am using the word material in the psychoanalytic sense to mean "the patient's words and behaviour as a whole, in so far as they offer a sort of raw material for interpretations and constructions."1 Affect is part of what an analyst or critic considers in order to build a convincing interpretation (of a lived scene, of a literary or cultural text): one sign that I am performing a good reading or interpreting well is if this reading helps me to understand why I feel a certain way, or why a text makes me feel this way. This is especially the case if a feeling is counterintuitive or perverse in the sense that it undermines or is simply outside of what I recognize to be my "own" desires or wishes. Affects or feelings fit the psychoanalytic bill perfectly when they are felt to be, as Laplanche and Pontalis put it, somewhat "alien . . . as far as the conscious subject is concerned" (246); when they are considered "incommensurate with [a subject's] conscious motives" (246), they become material for analysis, symptomatic of unconscious wishes, for example, or structures. [End Page 511]
Affects may serve as exemplary material in this specific psychoanalytic sense, but they need not only be symptoms or objects of analysis. Affect, and it will help to specify a range of affects to make this point, may also play other roles in elaborating interpretations or in theory construction, and may play an especially crucial role in the formation of objects and practices. For example, I may take my excessive distress at being interrupted in the classroom as a symptom; but my excitement at coming up with some explanation may not itself be symptomatic of anything besides a general addiction to posing and trying to answer questions. Or consider my nervous curiosity in developing tactics to do something about this distress, my frustration when these tactics fail, or my relief when they actually work: I do not take these various feelings to be symptoms, but rather as accompanying and motivating activities other than explanation, including (and primarily, in this case) a revised relation to my teaching practice.
In contrasting these ways of thinking about affect (as object of symptomatic analysis, or as motivating practice) I do not mean to oppose them as, for example, the unconscious may be opposed to consciousness, but rather to insist on more intricate and unpredictable relations between consciousness and unconsciousness and a set of associated oppositions (theory/practice, subject/object, self/other). Laplanche and Pontalis point out that the notion of raw material as absolutely distinct from its interpretation or construction can be supported neither temporally, in terms of successive stages of the analysis (first you produce material, then you interpret it) nor in terms of the functions of subject and analyst (to produce material, to interpret it). Psychoanalytic theory, especially in Freud's writing, has offered so many tools for criticism in part by making possible a precise openness with respect to such reciprocal relations between material and construction; this openness has permitted psychoanalytic methods their incalculable effects on twentieth-century criticism more...