Johns Hopkins University Press

"Anyone who attends academic talks," Rita Felski observes in The Limits of Critique (2015), "has learned to expect the inevitable question: 'But what about power?'" "Perhaps," she continues, "it is time to start asking different questions: 'But what about love?' Or: 'Where is your theory of attachment?'"1 Leaving aside that the only plausible sounding answer to the question "Where is your theory of attachment?" is something like, "under my Freudian slip?," I want to use this question as a prompt to think about the postcritical perception that critique doesn't adequately account for our attachment to literature. In what follows, I'll identify some problems in the way postcritique characterizes critique's relationship to attachment and gesture to some eighteenth-century examples that I think offer a more nuanced account of how aesthetic attachment works, in particular because they register the role that aggression and separation play in attachment and the ways in which attachment has as much to do with the form as with the content of affective experiences.

In order to understand the postcritical relationship to attachment, we first have to understand how postcritique envisages critique. Critique, as characterized by its (post)critics, is part gothic villain, part survivalist, holed up in its heavily fortified castle. The critiquey critic "dig[s] wide moats—of history, ideology, formal analysis," and "erect[s] thick conceptual walls," according to Michel Chaouli.2 Extending Chaouli's metaphor, Felski adds that "the critic feels impelled to beat off the barbarians by raising the drawbridge" (LC, 28) and retreats behind the "barbed wire" of suspicion, [End Page 309] which "holds" her back and "hems" her in (LC, 12). If the critiquey critic ventures out, she "advances holding a shield, scanning the horizon for possible assailants" (12). Clad in "the straightjacket of suspicion" (56, 184) (which must surely make holding a shield quite challenging), the critiquey critic's gaze is "sharp-eyed and diligent" (37), her posture "guarded, tense, wary, defensive" (38), her attitude "vigilant" and "mistrustful" (188), her demeanor "hardheaded and dispassionate" (25). In sum, the critiquey critic's ethos "blocks" and "inhibits" (188); it "narrows and constrains"; it "highlights the sphere of agon (conflict and domination) at the expense of eros (love and connection)" (17). Critique is a language, in short, for "repudiating … aesthetic attachments" (181).

While Felski asks, rhetorically, "Who would want to be associated with the bad smell of the uncritical?," after reading The Limits of Critique it's the scent of critique that seems more noxious (LC, 8). Who would want to be tainted by association with a crowd that "scan[s] the text for weak spots and vulnerable areas that will yield to [its] critical probes and pliers"; that will readily "take a hammer … to the beliefs and attachments of others," as if in compensation for its own "affective inhibition" (111, 129, 188)?

By contrast to sad, cynical, lonely critique, the postcritique gang are adorably entangled. Sure, they're messy, "enmeshed in a motley array of attachments and associations," but it's in an endearing way (LC, 170). The postcritics are continually "rubbing against" each other and producing generative frictions (184), riding their hobby-horses off into the sunset as if they, like Tristram Shandy, understand that it's "by long journies and much friction" that lasting attachments are made.3 But, rest assured, it's a gentle and consensual friction: the postcritics don't "probe" texts but rather allow them to "gradually yield" themselves (33). In short, where critique is aggressive, dispassionate, detached, and guarded, postcritique is receptive, passionate, attached, and generous. What is wrong with this vision? Felski wants us to have a less impoverished vocabulary for discussing aesthetic attachment. But this zero-sum game vision of how attachment works—you're either detached and aggressive or attached and loving—feels overly stark and also at odds with what we know about how attachment actually works.

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that postcritique wants to talk about attachment but, leery of the results produced by critique's prior entanglements with psychoanalysis, is hesitant to theorize it, recalling, perhaps, how an earlier iteration of critique found itself caught between the arms—and vocabularies—of Girard and Lacan. The result of postcritique's skittishness about theorizing is a vague view of attachment as the opposite of "detachment"—seen as critique's default stance—and associated with verbs like "yield" or "surrender." This view of attachment as letting go [End Page 310] or loosening of bonds is captured in the question Felski asks her readers: "Why are we so … excruciatingly tongue-tied about our loves?" (LC, 13). The implication here and elsewhere is that if we only loosened our tongues, unhemmed our seams, and shed our inhibitions, we'd all be happier and better attached. Indeed, this seems to be what Felski envisages: in her classroom, she describes the "collective sigh of relief" that emanates from her students when given an opportunity to talk about their attachments (LC, 181).

Two things I find unconvincing about Felski's account are captured in a phrase she uses to describe what happens when we stop reading critically and start reading postcritically: "aggressivity gives way to receptivity" (LC, 184). This phrase fails to capture, first, how aggression is a key component of attachment and, second, how being attached isn't about swapping out one affect for another. A couple of eighteenth-century examples provide a richer account of how attachment works in practice—in short, the kind of account Felski wants. These examples illustrate how we become attached, not by yielding, but by pushing against something and also how becoming attached is less about having a particular feeling and more about becoming attuned to the particular way in which a feeling is expressed.

In the eighteenth century, William Hogarth recognized that aggression and repudiation are crucial to how attachment works. "Wherein would consist the joys of hunting, shooting, fishing, and many other favourite diversions, without the frequent turns and difficulties, and disappointments, that are daily met with in the pursuit?," he asks in his 1753 treatise, Analysis of Beauty.4 In theorizing the aesthetic appeal of what he calls intricate forms, Hogarth insists that liberty means having something to push against. Accordingly, the diversions to which we are most attached (his examples include hunting and fishing but also more domestic activities like solving riddles and reading novels) are frequently difficult and disappointing. We don't like them despite this—that's why we like them.

We also frequently have vexed feelings about the objects that enable the activity to which we are attached, just like "the hound dislikes the game he so eagerly pursues; and even cats will risk the losing of their prey to chase it over again," or—in the classic example from attachment theory—the infant relinquishes or destroys a beloved object in order to find it again.5 Object relations theorist Donald Winnicott argues that the appetite for opposition and resistance is a basic human impulse that, by contrast to the classic Freudian drives, has no climax; rather, it "needs to find opposition … it needs something to push against" in order to discover the extent and limits of the infant's agency in the world.6

Having a richer understanding of attachment is not simply a matter of adding more feelings into the mix. It is also about recognizing the significance [End Page 311] of how a given feeling is expressed: that is, its intensity, duration, and what psychiatrist Daniel Stern calls its shape, meaning spatial features that may be abstracted and reproduced in a different form.7 Stern's examples of what he calls "vitality affects" help explain what he means by shape: a vitality affect is a feeling like "fleetingness" or "surge" that is distinguished by a particular spatiotemporal structure whether it is associated with joy or anger, with a thought or movement. In his landmark study The Interpersonal World of the Infant (1985), Stern uses a moment from Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) to illustrate how we can imbue a thought with a vitality affect like fleetingness: Defoe has Moll reflect, of her time at Newgate prison, "I had no sense of my condition, no thought of heaven or hell at least, that went any farther than a bare flying touch" (58).8 For Stern, Moll's expression illustrates the way that vitality affects can be experienced in different modes: in this case, Moll's metaphor suggests that both a touch and a thought can have the quality of lightness and fleetingness. So too could a sound or a movement possess this quality.

Stern is particularly interested in how vitality affects enable communication. So, for example, a mother might bounce a baby on her knee with a tempo and rhythm that matches that of her baby's vocalizations: the matching depends on the fact that both a sound and a movement can share qualitative features. Such matching (which Stern calls "attunement") enables infants and parents to express attachment without language. As Stern recognizes, and as a literary critic would readily observe, in Moll's case, cross-modal matching results in a metaphor. Indeed, cross-modal thinking is at the heart of what we think of as "literariness," in that tropes such as metaphor and simile often operate by substituting one sense for another. In the Iliad, for example, Homer compares the quality of Odysseus's voice to snow falling on a wintry day, likening a cadence to a motion. "But when he let the great voice go from his chest, and the words came / drifting down like the winter snows, then no other mortal man beside could stand up against Odysseus."9 This is a good example of how we can recognize distinctive structures across different sensory fields because the comparison depends not on the similarity between Odysseus's voice and the sound of snow falling but on the affinity between a spatial event and an acoustic event that share the quality of being both soft and relentless, of being cumulatively powerful.

As Stern's research shows, cross modal expression is by no means unique to verbal forms of art. Hogarth is especially sensitive to these resonances between vitality affects across different sensory fields. For example, writing of the comparable effects of shade and sound, he observes, "as the gradating shade pleases the eye, so the increasing, or swelling note, delights the ear."10 The fact that we can recognize these resonances between vitality affects [End Page 312] across different fields of sensory experience is key for understanding how attachment works: not only attachment between individuals, but also between individuals and art objects. A dance performance, for example, can use movement to convey a sense of, say, melting, or of explosiveness, that is not necessarily tied to a feeling like joy or sadness. Stern in fact argues that "dance is the ultimate example—in fact the prototype" of the cross-modal thinking that constitutes attunement.11

Hogarth helps us understand why this should be the case by engaging in a thought experiment. He asks his reader to join him in "supposing a foreigner, who is a thorough master of all the effects of action, at one of our theatres, but quite ignorant of the language of the play; it is evident his sentiments under such limitations, would chiefly arise from what he might distinguish by the lines of the movements belonging to each character."12 The situation of Hogarth's imagined foreigner is analogous to that of the audience at a dance performance: in both cases, the spectator's sentiments respond to the nature of the lines and movements created by each performer. Hogarth personally attests to dancing's capacity to promote the attunement that produces attachment when he describes how, watching a dancer, his gaze matches her sinuous movement and "danc[es] with her."13 For Stern, the type of experience Hogarth describes, of observing dancers dancing, offers us a window into the infant's experience: "like dance for the adult, the social world experienced by the infant is primarily one of vitality affects."14 In each case—the foreigner at the theater; the infant interacting with his mother; spectators watching dancers dance—we respond to the way a given expression cuts a path through space and time.

Art creates virtual vitality affects: a static painting conjures movement; a marble sculpture conjures gauzy folds; a novel conjures racing thoughts. If attunement is how attachment works, it's not love that creates the conditions in which attunement can occur but rather separation. Without separation, without a fundamental breach between self and other, there would be no space in which attunement can occur, no favorite to be lost and found again, no cry in the dark awaiting a response. How then does Hogarth's attention to the shape of our attachments and his understanding of the intertwining of aggression and love help us think about critique and postcritique? We can begin to answer this question by returning briefly to The Limits of Critique. Felski characterizes the mood of her class after they discuss their attachments as "a surge of élan in the classroom, a collective sigh of relief."15 Although élan and relief are distinct states, her language yokes the two together as if perhaps to emphasize what they share: a certain carefreeness. But, if we shift our attention away from the content of feeling and towards its mode of expression, we might linger on the fact that a surge and a sigh are a study in [End Page 313] contrasts: a surge describes a build-up of potentially violent tension while a slow drawn out release of air makes a sigh just a sigh. Their coupling here speaks to the intertwining of aggression and love and makes me wonder if, when we throw critique out, we also attest to how very deeply we are still attached to it.

My hope, then (call me a romantic), is that those moments in The Limits of Critique in which Felski's own prose fairly crackles with impatience and irritation at critique's foibles are something like the monographical equivalent of Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis slamming doors in each other's faces in the 1980s' television series Moonlighting: a dramatic gesture that, in the intensity of its performed rebuff, registers an abiding preoccupation with the ostensibly spurned object. In part I hope that Felski remains attached, however ambivalently, to critique because, as in Moonlighting, it's the tension between attachment and estrangement that animates Felski's writing throughout The Limits of Critique and makes it so invigorating to read. Felski's next book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, promises to provide an account of aesthetic attachment that attends not only to the valences but also to the contours and temporalities that distinguish particular attachments. I confess to hoping that Felski lingers on ambivalent attachments and continues to wrangle with critique's legacy: for in both our aesthetic attachments and in our critical practice, sparks fly when we engage with objects that push back.

Sarah Tindal Kareem

Sarah Tindal Kareem is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kareem is currently writing her second book, Vexed, which is about how distance, obstacles, and negative feelings facilitate rather than impede aesthetic attachment. Her first book, Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder, (2014) recently came out in paperback.


1. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 17, henceforth cited parenthetically in the text as LC.

2. Michel Chaouli, "Criticism and Style," New Literary History 44 (2013): 328. I adapt the adjective "critiquey" from Christopher Castiglia. See his essay, "Critiquiness," English Language Notes 51, No. 2 (2013) 79–85: 79.

3. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Ian Campbell Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998): 61.

4. William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, ed. Ronald Paulson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997): 32.

5. Hogarth, 32.

6. Donald W. Winnicott, "Aggression in Relation to Emotional Development," The Collected Works of D. W. Winnicott: Volume 3, 1946–1951, ed. Lesley Caldwell and Helen Taylor Robinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 342.

7. I am grateful to Theo Davis for introducing me to Stern's work.

8. Daniel Stern, The Interpersonal World of the Infant (New York: Basic Books, 1985): 58.

9. The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), book 3, lines 221–23.

10. Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 78.

11. Stern, Interpersonal World, 156 note 5.

12. Hogarth, 112.

13. Hogarth, 34.

14. Stern, 57.

15. Felski, Limits of Critique, 181.

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