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  • Agonizing Affection:Affect and Nation in Early America
  • Peter Coviello (bio)

Mourning is immensely reassuring because it convinces us of something we might otherwise easily doubt: our attachment to others.

—Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts

Is it possible anymore to imagine the shape and substance of American nationality, and of the bonds that comprise it, in the absence of visions of trauma, woundedness, suffering, and bereavement? Does the ideal of national cohesion have any more prominent form of expression in America than the language of affect, of impassioned feeling, proper to scenes of tragic severance and loss? We do not, of course, come by these matters as innocently as once we might have. But even before the events of 11 September 2001 gave these once-academic questions such horrific resonance, a number of critics had observed the strangely insistent correlation, in the American context, of national belonging and something like devastation. Writing in 1998, for instance, Mark Seltzer described the contemporary American scene as a "wound culture." "The contemporary public sphere," he writes, "represents itself to itself, from the art and culture scenes to tabloid and talk TV, as a culture of suffering, states of injury, and wounded attachments" (254). He goes on to describe the peculiar "sociality of the wound," arguing that in wound culture, "one discovers the sociality that gathers, and the public that meets, in the spectacle of the untoward accident: the pathological public sphere" (278). Similarly, Lauren Berlant has argued that in a much broader swath of American liberal democracy, ranging across centuries, subjects have been bound to the nation "through a universalist rhetoric not of citizenship per se but of the capacity for suffering and trauma at the citizen's core" ("Poor Eliza" 636). The sense of belonging that results, Berlant suggests, "involves a fantasy scene of national feeling": "In this imaginary world," she writes, "the sentimental subject is connected to others who share the same feeling" ("Poor Eliza" 646). Woundedness, suffering, trauma: the modern citizens these critics evoke [End Page 439] are less "subjects of violence" than of feeling: convulsed and, in turn, galvanized in a sense of collectivity by their shared emotional responses to the suffering before them.1

From one angle, everything about these dynamics seems relentlessly modern, as contemporary as the new millennial rhetoric of war, or the still-otherwordly moving images of airplanes diving into skyscrapers. But we deceive ourselves if we imagine our present fascination with the nation's affective states to be some strictly latter-day declension—a fall from a more vigorously conceived ideal of national citizenship into an often mawkish or opportunist sentiment. As it happens, the question of affect, impassioned feeling, and American nationality has a startlingly long history, one that stretches back as far as the Puritans, and animates with particular vibrancy the era of the nation's founding, when the matter of affect and its place in civic life became the source of a remarkable degree of contention and volatility. That era, and the volatility that courses through its political and literary accounts of affect, will be my primary object of study in this essay. But in a curious and sometimes unsettling way, my own sense of its defining dynamics has been ghosted throughout by questions and concerns that, in our present moment, seem anything but antiquated. We may now find ourselves speaking with new urgency about war and bereavement, collective affect and the fate of the nation; but it is a conversation that, as I hope to show, precedes us by centuries.

We tend, of course, to think otherwise of the era of the Founders. Indeed, from one point of view—a rather commonsensical point of view, informed as much by Plato's Republic as the Federalist papers—the question of affect and its relation to early American civic life is fairly simple to answer: ungoverned and ungovernable intensities of feeling can have virtually no place within a civic structure premised upon such high-minded Enlightenment principles as calm orderliness, dispassionate reason, and well-tempered rationality. Strong feeling would appear, in fact, to undermine both these principles and the new republic that was hoping to embody them before the world. Nor is...


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