Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Formations of Feelings, Constellations of Things

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Formations of Feelings, Constellations of Things

Article excerpt

-INTRODUCTION

In this essay I want to try and accomplish two things. The first is to revisit Raymond Williams's notion of 'structures of feeling' with the intention of clarifying what Williams meant by 'feelings', and of exploring the concept's possible range and reach within the study of culture. In the midst of the enthusiastic championing of what Patricia Clough and others have named 'the affective turn' in the human and post- human sciences it might be an opportune moment to return to this foundational (though often criticised) concept within cultural studies to see what it can productively offer cultural investigation and how it might inflect and accentuate the current and diverse interests in affect.1 The second goal is to suggest that while the analysis of 'structures of feeling' has been deployed primarily in studies of literary and filmic culture it might be usefully extended towards the study of more ubiquitous forms of material culture such as clothing, housing, food, furnishings and other material practices of daily living. Indeed it might be one way of explaining how formations of feeling are disseminated, how they suture us to the social world and how feelings are embedded in the accoutrements of domestic, habitual life. The joining together of a socially phenomenological interest in the world of things, accompanied by an attention to historically specific moods and atmospheres, is, I think, a way of mobilising the critical potential of 'structures of feelings' towards important mundane cultural phenomena.

Informing these two aims is a much larger project that is the deep background for this essay. In trying to describe and chart changes in postwar British society at the level of everyday life (changes that could be described with a very broad brush as the journey from a welfare state consensus to what will become neoliberalism) I want to reserve a place for feelings and tastes as historical agents (rather than just as symptoms of more fundamental historical processes).2 Seeing feelings and tastes as agents of history and as form-giving social forces means having to depart from the insistent de-materialising of the sensorial aspect of these terms. By reminding ourselves that 'feeling' is related to a world of touch, to a sensual world that is fabricated out of wood, steel, denim, crushed-velvet and tarmac, and that 'taste' is connected to a world that is ingested, that triggers olfactory and gustatory sensations, I hope to push social and cultural history towards an attention to changes in the hum-drum material world of carpets and curries, beanbags and bean sprouts. My intuition and my gamble is that the felt world is often experienced in something like a synaesthetic mode where feelings of social flourishing and struggling take on particular flavours, sounds, colour-schemes and smells; where hope and nostalgia, melancholy and exuberance have sensual forms that are sometimes durable and sometimes fleeting. Such structures of feeling might have particular sensorial amalgams such that a particular mood of optimism comes with textures, fragrances and soundscapes; or an atmosphere of low-level anxiety has a colour-scheme, an aroma and a tactility. This, I hope, is to inject historicity into what is now a slightly old-fashioned term-'lifestyle'.3

Treating feeling and taste as historical agents also requires apprehending 'fashion' (the engine of lifestyle) as process: fashion is not an accomplished fact that characterises an epoch or a group, rather it is the ongoing process of worlding, where history is seen as continual fashioning and re-fashioning. (Just to be clear here, by fashion and lifestyle I don't mean 'being in-fashion' or the world of 'designer brands' but the ubiquitous process that we all undertake, albeit with radically different resources, of fashioning worlds with whatever is to hand.) To treat fashion and lifestyle seriously is, I want to suggest, one way of overcoming the inflexibility of a system of social classification inherited from the nineteenth century. …

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