- Feeling, Form, Framework:A Review of Rachel Greenwald Smith’s Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism
In recent scholarship about contemporary literature, it has become in vogue to declare the death of postmodernism as an appropriate periodizing break for thinking of the contemporary as a unique, twenty-first-century category. In her first monograph, Rachel Greenwald Smith contributes to this conversation about “the contemporary,” but unlike some, she offers up the economic (and therefore, political and social) practices of neoliberalism as the parameters for defining contemporary literature and its various forms. Smith further defines neoliberalism with respect to affect, namely, that neoliberalism’s relationship to affect presents much more starkly than affective conditions in other periods precisely because of the unprecedented expansion of privatization, free market ideology, and individualism that has infiltrated both the external economy and the internal lives of its subjects. Many scholars of contemporaneity have connected neoliberalism to affect; however, Smith highlights the productivity of literary “feelings that are not as easily identifiable as such to readers trained to look for emotional payoff for their readerly investments” (33). In so doing, Smith maintains that in contemporary literature, there are affective modes that cannot be reduced to entrepreneurial individualism.
In Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, Smith argues convincingly against the “affective hypothesis” popular in literary studies. Smith defines this trend in literary criticism as “the belief that literature is at its most meaningful when it represents and transmits the emotional specificity of personal experience,” a theory Smith decidedly opposes, arguing that we do not require the presence of affect in literary texts in order to learn to be unique human beings, but instead, we need it so that we – as readers, subjects, citizens – can recognize neoliberalism’s impact on the human condition more collectively (1).
Smith explains that the prevalence of the affective hypothesis in criticism has surged under neoliberalism, not only because of the corresponding resurgence of books representing common personal feelings (such as fear, grief, happiness, hope, disappointment, and sadness) alongside the exponential rise of neoliberal policies, but also because of the spread of the neoliberal market mindset into everyday lives. In the lived neoliberal experience, “feelings frequently become yet another material foundation for market-oriented behavior: emotions are acquired, invested, traded, and speculated upon” (6). Throughout her study, Smith’s smart and consistent deployment of the vocabulary of economic policy when describing emotions enhances her argument structurally, bolstering the connections between economics and literature. The way to combat this neoliberal, investment-oriented attitude toward feelings, Smith proposes, is via the writing and subsequent reading of literary works that employ what she terms “impersonal feelings.” Importantly, “impersonal feelings” are still feelings (and implied here is that Smith sees feelings as essential to literature to some degree), but feelings which are less recognizable, more complex, and difficult to assign individually, thereby challenging neoliberalism’s hegemony in our contemporary moment. These impersonal feelings are what allow novels to move away from the model of reader-character identification, instead providing a space for a wider range of affects.
Subsequently, the first chapter dives much deeper into case studies of both personal (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road) and impersonal feelings (Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions), the literary difference between them, and the reasons for Smith’s reliance on this terminology. Before she does so, however, Smith recalls the recent debates about novelistic experimentation between Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus and posits that experimental form on its own is not enough to disturb the neoliberal model, and that recent tendencies toward formal experimentation are not “merely a result of the march of literary history, but rather [they reflect] the growth of neoliberalism during the period” (33). However, Smith maintains hope for formal innovation and even for novels more generally. In fact, each chapter’s structure – a presentation of one complicitly neoliberal novel countered by another that better represents impersonal feelings – highlights Smith’s hopes for contemporary literature’s political potential. Ultimately, this lack of doom and gloom strengthens her work. Because neoliberalism holds so tightly...