Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Aesthetics of Affects: What Can Affect Tell Us about Literature?

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Aesthetics of Affects: What Can Affect Tell Us about Literature?

Article excerpt

(Yubraj Aryal interviewed Charles Altieri on Aesthetics of Affects. Mr Aryal is focusing on what can affect tell us about expression of value, judgment, subjectivity and aesthetic experience itself in literature.)

Y. A.: You wrote on your homepage "I also recently wrote a book on the affects and that shapes my thinking on most topics. But I am in transition. I have been teaching Shakespeare and Hegel and will teach the epic because I want a grand stage on which to figure out what I can say about affect in literature." What kind of transition are you talking about? Does this transition signal the change in your position of theory of meaning in interpretation of literature? What is that "grand stage," which allows you to say something in literature, which was not possible before?

C. A.: I felt I was in transition in many respects. I had written all I had to say about feeling and about mood. I did not feel I had anything original to say about other affective states. And I was dismayed that the position setting emotion against subjectivity seemed to dominate literary theory while philosophers did not even mention my book in their bibliographies. I also knew that what I was writing on Wallace Stevens was probably pretty good, but after that I thought I would have nothing new to say about Modernism and Modernist writers.

This is the negative side. Positively I wanted to teach Shakespeare and the epic because any literary theory seems to me to have to fully appreciate the many aspects of such work. And it, along with my continuing fascination with Wittgenstein, has considerably transformed my thinking. The most important change is that I want to talk about values and valuing rather than affect per se. Much of affect theory can be focused on how we make valuations, since value seems to me to depend on feeling plus a reflection that wants the feeling to continue or appreciates where it is leading. My dream is to reconsider formalist claims as in fact claims about invitations to perform acts of valuing. Then formalism is not an instrument for securing autonomy but rather an education in distinctive possibilities for aligning our senses of value with what occurs as we read. And the patterns in our valuings tend to produce an actual orientation toward what we take as significant values worth fighting for and adapting in general contexts.

Also reading those texts makes me think about how almost all literary theory seeks ways of talking about the worldliness of the text. We argue really only about to what degree this worldliness can or should be based distinctively on modes of reading and engaging the work that we can teach as literary and so shared by texts from different historical epochs. For me this worldliness is captured best by theories of expression, that is theories trying to explain how self-consciousness can take overt responsibility for what had been inchoate senses of who one is that become articulate in the process of writing. I do not equate self-consciousness with individual characters or authors but it is a property of the sources of energy and direction that seem to thrive on increasing levels of articulation that the text can take on.

Expressive self-consciousness is more capacious than any empirical self in part because it takes in part the role of force demanding emotional investment and projecting possible futures for what is given in the text. No one can read far in Shakespeare or in the epic without having to face the roles of grief and mourning in literary experience. But also no one can read far in those works without also feeling the need to be able to talk about how these works also try to contextualize such grief as a condition of seeking through art more capacious forms of self-consciousness that are oriented toward collective modes of awareness.

I find Hegel obviously our greatest thinker about what expression involves. The surprise for me has been that I find Wittgenstein's concepts of aspect seeing, radical subjectivity requiring confession rather than ethical generalization, and display rather than description the best possible means of finding a place for a Hegelian model of expression within what we can call the potential afforded by ordinary experience. …

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