- The Politics of Unfeeling
In the years since the 2011 occupation of Wall Street by anticonsumerist activists, a palpable sense of positivity has saturated left-wing politics. This tenor has shaped a variety of contemporary progressive campaigns, from Jeremy Corbyn's "politics of hope" and Bernie Sanders's invigorating push for the Democratic Party nomination to the work of the popular antifascist organization HOPE not Hate. Against this cultural backdrop, however, there remain those critics of literature and visual arts who maintain an interest in the progressive political possibilities inherent in less palatable branches of affective experience: feeling bad, feeling nothing, or feeling something indefinable but recognizably unsettling. In 2015, three publications looked to the possibilities that artworks generative of typically "negative" affects might have for producing political change. Hal Foster's republished essay "Abjection" in his book Bad New Days, Nikolaj Lubecker's study The Feel-Bad Film, and the topic of this review, Rachel Greenwald Smith's monograph Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism all consider the role that traditionally "negative" affect might play in reconfiguring and resisting the hegemonic experience of neoliberal subjectivity.
In Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, Smith sets out to challenge what she terms [End Page 289] "the affective hypothesis," defined as "the belief that literature is at its most meaningful when it represents and transmits the emotional specificity of personal experience" (1). In the context of neoliberalism, Smith argues, this hypothesis has been transfigured into a contract between author and reader, wherein the latter demands of the former a tangible affective payout in return for a temporary emotional investment. This payout comes in the form of "personal feelings," which are private and recognizable and can be networked for further individual gain. For Smith, this formulation is strictly compatible with the neo-liberal injunction to draw all forms of human behavior under the ambit of the market. In short, for Smith, reading has become transactional. Against these personal feelings and the contract model of reading on which they depend, Smith offers an alternative in the form of "impersonal feelings." These are feelings that are unpredictable and difficult to codify, and works that generate them are frequently labeled as "cerebral" or "cold." Drawing on key theorists of affect including Deleuze and Massumi, Smith sets out to describe how impersonal feelings generated by works of "cold" literature can catalyze "attitudinal states that suggest alternatives to the apparent permanence of the neoliberal status quo" (29).
Smith structures her book around a series of close readings organized into four thematically arranged chapters. Smith's case studies are acknowledged by the author herself to be a mixed cohort with few generic or generational affinities but are instead grouped by their shared experimentalism. In each chapter, she presents two of these case studies in tandem, with one example representing complicity with the affective hypothesis and one successfully challenging it: Paul Auster generates impersonal feelings, while Cormac McCarthy generates personal ones; Jonathan Safran Foer narrates the events of September 11 from a perspective complicit with neoliberal hegemony, while Laird Hunt manages to draw attention to the "deep entanglement" occluded by narratives such as Foer's; Dave Eggers generates a false sense of agency contiguous with neoliberal subjectivity, while Ben Marcus curtails and subverts this same illusion of autonomy; and Lydia Millet fails where Richard Powers succeeds to write an ecological narrative that neither domesticates wildness nor fails entirely to accommodate non-capitalist life in literary representation. Several theses thread through these chapters: a wariness of manipulative sentiment and overt appeals to empathy; a celebration of feelings that resist easy codification (such as unease or "metafeeling"); an attendant resistance to illusions of agency, control, and systemic representation; and an interest in [End Page 290] alternative systems for the circulation of both affects and the literary objects that generate them, most arrestingly in the form of the ecosystem.
In Smith's first chapter, she pits Cormac McCarthy's The Road against Paul Auster's Book of Illusions, arguing that...