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  • Andrew Field

A Theory of Feeling


Rose Wylie, "Cuban Scene, Smoke," from 2016


The problem with literary criticism today is its inability to recognize that tone matters more than content, and that feeling, therefore, is more important for both artists and critics than thought. Literary critics are biased towards thought, because they are literary critics - they deal with language upon language. Language is conceptual and cognitive before it is affective. This is one reason why literary critics focus unfairly and misguidedly on thought at the expense of feeling, and why criticism today is often frighteningly and worryingly beside the point. It is also why graphic novels are neglected in English departments, and why some of the best poetry in the 20th century is not read at all.


Why this allergy to feeling?


  1. Feelings make people uncomfortable. One worries that if one speaks of how or what one feels, one will drown in it.

  2. Feelings are supposed to be "irrational," while thought is "rational."

  3. The critic is supposed to have a distance from the artwork. How does the critic do this if one is emphasizing feeling over thought?


We can see this bias in a recent important work of scholarship, Michael Clune's A Defense of Judgment, published last year by The University of Chicago Press. Clune takes up a very important subject - that is, why and how English departments all over the world have lost the spirit of the humanities, have forsaken the imagination, and have completely ignored the role that judgment plays in an actually robust and meaningful and lifelong aesthetic education. I resonate deeply with Clune's intentions. The problem is his exclusive emphasis on language and thought over feeling, and therefore his tone-deafness. Here is a characteristic passage in the book, chosen somewhat at random:


"There are two problems with Hagglund's commitment to the labor theory of value. The first is a technical problem. Value in capitalism is not a matter of socially necessary labor time, and therefore the value of free time isn't 'internal' to capitalist valuation."


The problem here is that Clune's emphasis on thought over feeling prevents his work from reaching a wider audience. Maybe that is not a desire of his, but I would think it would be, since has a deep abiding interest in the importance of aesthetic education for academia, and academia does not mean one solitary university battling against the sea. Thought can be a feeling or a hunch just as much as a rational argument, and often the former lead to more interesting, lasting, powerful, and provocative works.


Discernment relies more on feeling than thinking. It's a heart thing more than a mental thing. In a line like this by Ashbery in "Grand Galop," "The words had a sort of bloom on them," he is talking about the feel of the words more than their cognitive or conceptual nature. In other words, semantics is more affective than cognitive, and the feeling of semantics can help explain how works disclose new meanings over epochs, because when individuals encounter powerful works, it is the power of their feeling that leads to the power of their thought, but their feeling itself is a product of new contexts, and new contexts disclose new slants, which can then disclose new feelings of words, new associations.


This strange paradox, that works of imagination are siloed in academia to approaches that favor merely the cognitive, means that other genres that are the equal of any work being today in lexical literature - work in the graphic novel, for example, or cartoon - are neglected, because these works use words, images, and narration. Images are not cognitive, especially if they don't involve language. They burn past the cognitive and work in parts of the brain that are older. They therefore have more do with feeling than thought.


It's also why some of the best poetry of the 20th century - by Jay Wright, Thylias Moss, May Swenson, and Amy Clampitt, for example - are barely read. When we only emphasize language, we begin to staunch the blood flow of any kinds of poetry with other, equally important commitments: performance, embodiment, religion, film, music, painting. This is logical: language on language is not wide enough to catch the meanings of these poets in its net, and so they are just not read. The fault is in the criticism, not the poets. Our radar is defective, not theirs. And this is another blow to aesthetic education.


If one is to have a theory of feeling, we need to widen our critical vocabulary, and stop being pretentious about the critical slant as opposed to the artistic one. If a wonderful contemporary poet like John Beer writes in Lucinda. A Poem, the lines


and it made art new, it made plants

new, it made plants start to look like

people, it made people new, it made

moms new, it made the sky new, it

made earth new, it made language new,

it made water new, it especially made

a young woman named Lucinda and

a young guy named Julian naked

in the water together new, and it made

her art new, and the new art that she made

began to make my own art new, she taught

me all about how trees and kids existed,

and the colors, I started to write

about plants, the plants in her paintings,

how they really looked like people,

and everything became especially distinct,

the houses and the sidewalks and our

friends and vegetables each seemed lathered

with their own peculiar light, at the same time

everything was melting into other things,

and the twilight bathing all of it and muting

it, attaching it to us, detaching it from us,

I started to get a glimpse of the whole, Lucinda


Do we have any way of understanding this at first, outside how it feels? Even if we look at the book's table of contents, what strikes us immediately is that Beer, like Ashbery, is using language to step away from language. We can see this in the arrangement of the book and its sections, its mysterious "footnotes" that are not footnotes, and in its emphasis on creating a kind of new perfume based on things like music and the bottomless directions of words. When we read Lucinda, do we think of Lucinda Williams? Perhaps Beer is doing that deliberately. And perhaps it is original, since when is the last time you read a convincing poem about Lucinda Williams and Shelley? Beer knows more about the tradition than academia. Because he does, he's a few steps ahead of them.


Richard Rorty always wrote that changes in the arts do not happen because of arguments about specific details, which is another way of saying rational arguments. In my favorite passage in Contingency, irony, and solidarity, he writes,


"Interesting philosophy is rarely an examination of the pros and cons of a thesis. Usually it is, implicitly or explicitly, a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a half-formed new vocabulary which vaguely promises new things.

The latter "method" of philosophy is the same as the "method" of utopian politics or revolutionary science (as opposed to parliamentary politics, or normal science). The method is to redescribe lots and lots of things in new ways, until you have created a pattern of linguistic behavior which will tempt the rising generation to adopt it, thereby causing them to look for appropriate new forms of nonlinguistic behavior, for example, the adoption of new scientific equipment or new social institutions. This sort of philosophy does not work piece by piece, analyzing concept after concept, or testing thesis after thesis. Rather, it works holistically and pragmatically. It says things like "try thinking of it this way" - or more specifically, "try to ignore the apparently futile traditional questions by substituting the following new and possibly interesting questions." It does not pretend to have a better candidate for doing the same old things which we did when we spoke in the old way. Rather, it suggests that we might want to stop doing those things and do something else. But it does not argue for this suggestion on the basis of antecedent criteria common to the old and the new language games. For just insofar as the new language really is new, there will be no such criteria."


"Nonlinguistic behavior." He's talking about feeling, and therefore he's talking enormously robustly and brilliantly about life, just as William James does in Principles of Psychology or Emerson in The Conduct of Life. Harold Bloom argued almost fifty years ago that there is no difference now between the best verse criticism and verse. He also passionately loved Stevens' "the theory of poetry is the theory of life." Verse criticism, after Bloom and Ashbery, has lagged behind because of its neglect of the inherently ekphrastic nature of the humanities. This is because academia lost touch with the imagination, and ran to a rational politics as a temporary superficial bandage. A move towards a theory of feeling for the humanities, with the emphasis centered on the imagination, could go a long way towards helping us read, understand and value the most important work being done in image, word, narration, and performance, while making aesthetic education open to a wider audience.











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