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  • “Structures of Feeling” as Methodology and the Re-emergence of Holocaust Survivor Testimony in 1960s Czechoslovakia1
  • Lisa Peschel (bio)

As Raymond Williams himself conceded while trying to define “structure of feeling,” “the term is difficult.”2 Some critics have agreed, calling it “ambiguous,” “slippery,” and “shifting.”3 Yet it is also a rich and evocative concept, and theatre historians and performance studies scholars have turned to it time and time again to try to describe affect in relation to performance. Few, however, engage with all its aspects. Some, for example, have applied the term simply as a label for almost any socially shared emotional experience. Others, more creatively, have selected individual elements from Williams’ description and then interpreted those elements more flexibly than he allows for, but in rigorous and analytically productive ways.

I think it is time to acknowledge that, in the most productive cases, scholars are using “structures of feeling” not as a term but as a methodology: as a way to isolate and identify certain characteristics of the affective experiences they are trying to analyze. If we concede that this methodology is creating richer descriptions of extremely varied emotional structures rather than identifying those that actually match Williams’ definition, we open the door to even more productive use of his work. For example, in Marxism and Literature, Williams specifies several elements that comprise the social experience he called a structure of feeling: spatial, temporal, and affective characteristics as well as a particular relationship to power. By considering all of these elements but allowing for a wider range of variation in each than Williams did, we can conduct more detailed analyses of socially shared affective phenomena. Such an approach also helps differentiate among multiple structures of feeling that exist simultaneously within a society and can lead to a better understanding of how their coexistence creates social change that may otherwise be difficult to explain. For example, the notion of two very different yet overlapping structures of feeling allowed me to shed light upon the question: why, in early 1960s Czechoslovakia, did survivors of the World War II Jewish ghetto at Terezín (in German, Theresienstadt) begin to testify about theatrical performance in the ghetto after more than a decade of silence? [End Page 161]

Williams limits the structure of feeling’s possible range of relationships to power, time, and social space by associating it with the notion of “the emergent.” By his own definition, structures of feeling are generated by emergent social formations, such as new social classes, which arise when “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships” begin to develop that are not simply elements of some new phase of the dominant culture but are “substantially alternative or oppositional to it.”4 Therefore, the structure of feeling exists in an alternative or oppositional relationship to hegemonic structures of power. Even though, in the emergent phase, changes in the structure of feeling cannot yet be clearly identified or described and remain “at the very edge of semantic availability,” they create a particular quality of social experience—“the undeniable experience of the present”—which gives “the sense of a generation or of a period.”5 Thus, temporally, the structure of feeling is experienced as “the specificity of present being,” but its orientation is toward the future, toward a moment “not yet come.”6 The experienced “affective elements of consciousness and relationships” are defined as a structure: as a set with “specific internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.”7 These relations and relationships configure social space by creating social boundaries; those who share a similar affect when they perceive qualitative changes in social experience are insiders to a particular structure of feeling. Because Williams emphasizes, however, that a structure of feeling is a social experience still “in process,” still “in solution,” as opposed to one that has already precipitated out into a fixed form, the boundaries may be quite fluid.8 Finally, different affective responses to change can give rise to multiple, coexisting structures of feeling. He suggests for example that, in England during the Restoration, two distinct structures of feeling arose among the defeated Puritans and in the restored Court.9...


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pp. 161-172
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