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Scholars have turned recently to affect as a way to better understand human agency. This essay identifies key similarities in the preoccupations of affect theorists and writers of the age of sensibility, while considering both the usefulness of affect theory for the literary critic, and the political consequences of adopting the underlying assumptions of affect studies as a guide for critical practice.
Recent theory offers a promising tool for interpreting the scenes of affective excess that punctuate literary and visual works in the eighteenth century, works governed by a representational mode that assumes heightened affect is significant in itself. Affect theorists focus on the emotional energies in interpersonal encounters, moving past interest in mere sociability to celebrate the power of raw affectual states to be transformative in themselves. The implication is that some emancipatory potential resides in the stimulation of the sensory-perceptual apparatus. Yet this potential cannot be articulated clearly, neither by affect theorists nor by writers of sensibility—for it's an article of faith in both camps that these limit intensities generate a profound knowing that is ineffable.
The paper asks, finally, whether the underlying assumptions of current theory—as with the ideals of the age of sensibility that came before—are perhaps at best hopeful, and at worst naïve, perhaps no less conservative than progressive, and in the end prone to ridicule.