- Structures of Feeling:Or, How to Do Things (or Not) with Books
If Raymond Williams could have anticipated the current "affective turn" in literary and cultural studies—the centripetal force of which has been spinning through the humanities for more than a decade—would he still have named his perhaps most famous critical term "structures of feeling"? After all, as soon as he introduces the concept in Marxism and Literature, Williams walks it back, first explaining that he intends only to oppose "feeling" to "more formal concepts of 'world-view' or 'ideology,'" and then admitting just a few sentences later that "experience" would actually be "the better and wider word."1 The problem with the term is not that it somehow sanctions critical attention to the mushy-gushy world of subjective emotions. It doesn't. Or as Sianne Ngai has explained, "[M]ost critics today accept that far from being merely private or idiosyncratic phenomena . . . feelings are as fundamentally 'social' as the institutions and collective practices that have been the more traditional object of historicist criticism . . . , and as 'material' as the linguistic signs and significations that have been [End Page 419] the more traditional objects of literary formalism."2 The problem with the term, and with deploying it critically, is that by definition it names an ambiguous configuration of the social that has not yet fully emerged. As Williams explains, structures of feeling are "social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available" (133-34). The experiment is not over; relations are murky; we do not know the results.
The crucial feature of structures of feeling, then, is not the presence of feelings, but the presence of the present and our compromised perspective on it. As part of his broader attempt to make materialist social analysis more attuned to time, Williams locates structures of feeling in the process of the moment—so much so that we can recognize these structures only retroactively,at which point they have become the "finished products"that Williams intends the concept to resist (128). In short, if you can identify a nexus of social relations and experiences as a structure of feeling, you are either observing a historical configuration that has lost its indeterminate dynamism, or your observation will be imprecise and provisional because structures of feeling actually precede articulation. When Williams juxtaposes feeling to "more formal concepts of 'world-view' or 'ideology,'" therefore,he is making neither a subjective/objective distinction nor a particular/universal one; the relevant difference is between the immediate and the historical, the present and the past.
Kathleen Woodward's Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions and Jane Elliott's Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time—two texts broadly concerned with the lived experiences of women in the midst and in the wake of second-wave feminism—ground their literary and social analyses in Williams's key term. Taken together, their texts evince the inherent ambiguity of the concept: Woodward highlights [End Page 420] feeling at the expense of structure, while Elliott emphasizes structure at the expense of feeling. This divergence can be attributed to the historical boundaries of each project. Woodward's chiasmatic attention to emotions that yield new cultures(for example, angry geriatrics, ashamed racial minorities, compassionate conservatives) and cultures that yield new emotions(for example, cyborgs and the sympathy we might feel for them,bureaucracy and the rage it induces, statistics and the panic they effect) focuses intently on our immediate present. Grounded primarily in the 1970s heyday of feminism's second wave, Elliott's project is historicist, examining how popular women's literature of the period represents and seeks solutions to the second wave's epistemological and phenomenological conundrum par excellence: what Elliott calls "static time," or "the sense of dis-ease that accompanies time when it is perceived to become...