Responses to Rita Felski’s Hooked: Art and Attachment
Complexity enchants ANT, new materialism, posthumanism, media studies, affect theory, and the literary undertakings of postcritique, new descriptivism, and “weak theory.” Its prophets claim as virtue that reality is immanent to itself, that no individual element of a complex web can be said to activate “a more fundamental reality” than any other. There is therefore a propulsive purpose accorded to critics: count up the everything, trace out the complexities, caress nuance, feel the vibe, what is connected to what. When everything is complicated and criticism calls itself to the tasks of phenomenological witnessing and empiricist tabulating, the vocation of criticism to make a cut in the swath of experience, to shift registers to a different order of knowing, is abandoned.
What kind of knowledge do scholars of literature, art, and media produce? What value does scholarly criticism add to the hypothetically democratically available experience of reading, spectating, or listening? Ordinarily we answer these questions with a commitment to immanence: aesthetic criticism relays the critic’s experience of engaging with an object, encouraging others to engage it as well as producing an additional aesthetic experience of engaging with the engagement; propagating experiences, we cultivate sensibility rather than ideas.1 In extraordinary times, however, when simultaneously everything is aesthetic experience and aesthetic experience is starkly maldistributed—when the multi-decade institutional and economic restructuring of creative labor, professional writing, and education has terribly constrained who makes art, who makes ideas, and who has access to the conditions for their making and making anew—in these extraordinary times, the questions clamor for different answers. If, say, the rare tenured critic wanted to stretch to investigate new notions of critical knowledge, she might develop theoretical statements about imagination and synthesis and composition, about truth and beauty and humanist reason and the common good, about intellectual and creative labor. She could illuminate the uniqueness of collaborative and contingent knowledge-making, emphasizing the classroom as aesthetic criticism’s primary domain.2 She might reckon with the political economy of knowledge production: if it looks like we make knowledge, that might be because so few get the time and resources we get; if it looks like we don’t make knowledge, that might be because our entire culture is a ruthless technocratic oligarchy. She could turn the question of what knowledge we make into one of how institutions support and mobilize it: it is no accident that the major exponents of the burgeoning field of Critical University Study are professors of literature.3 She might even argue that the ideas made in aesthetic criticism ignite the practical social work of institution building, including university service, university labor organizing, political activism, and unacknowledged legislating.4
Lots of options for elaborating higher-order aesthetic knowledge—arguments that synthesize, evaluate, float value claims, analyze causes. Yet scholars of aesthetics have baked-in obstacles to pursuing them. The ideology of the aesthetic encompasses our allergy to institutions, our idealist preference for representation over redistribution, and our absorption in singular, beguiling objects that resist totalizations. Too many of us probably also feel that our analytical strengths lie elsewhere than in knowledge production. We prefer to remain on our own terrain, in the everyday art of noticing which we know only in doing, teaching classes and writing essays that attend closely to works of produced culture. We have fewer students in liberal arts and sciences inquiry, we have fewer and fewer colleagues employed in conditions fair enough to afford them time to be our readers, and we live amid torrential quantities of cultural products on infinite streaming services and warehouse shelves and pop-up interactive museums, utterly impervious to critical estimation. We can still teach and write with and for these students and these surviving colleagues and these occasional unaffiliated readers, and we carry on celebrating the idea that what makes literary criticism special is its negative capability, oblique to other kinds of knowledge, resisting “value added,” promulgating only sensibility.
This impasse about knowledge-making molds the past decade’s abundance of midlevel reflections on scholarly criticism. Here scholarship tries to describe and reinvent critical practices, going slightly meta to attest to their strengths and prescribe their horizons, but making the content of that meta a counter-transcendent immanence: surface, experience, form. “Method wars” court conversations—they are our currency to engage across specialized national and linguistic traditions, and across media, and across disciplines—and they often sublimate the gruntier institutional and political solidarity work that would actually capacitate cultural criticism as a free practice for unindebted students and unexploited intellectual laborers. Manifestos abound, as do branded techniques, as do encomia to pluralism from manifesto-scolds. These descriptions and reinventions often involve naked contempt for peer critics, field-torching, and wholesale discrediting of cultural objects. That they have consumed so much oxygen is probably finally owing less to their pique than to the relative absence of counter-ideas: two tenure cycles are already passed of the generations that should have been hired without the 2008 devastations of forced austerity; their missing work makes our conversations tinnier. Despite its often quarrelsome character, the methodological debates try to explicate principles in our work, thereby pursuing knowledge of a different register than specific exercises of literary critical interpretation, but tend to remain at a middle level opposed to theorizing. It carries us away from what we’ve understood as our primary practice. It occasions charges of callow polemicizing, careerist branding, and inattentiveness. It scarcely constitutes scholarly critics as a social class who might contest the conditions which diminish their course enrollments, devalue their labor, and divest the public support for cultural abundance. On this middling grade, Rita Felski’s Hooked: Art and Attachment intervenes.
Impressively, this is not Felski’s first foray into mezzo controversy; it is at least her third book that identifies critical orthodoxies, laments their blindspots, and proposes alternatives (and she has co-edited two others). Uses of Literature (2008) diagnosed a prevalence of politicized contextualization and a preoccupation with resistance, directing critics “back to the things themselves” to generate “thick descriptions of experiential states;”5 The Limits of Critique (2015) situated that prevalence as part of a putatively hegemonic ethos of detachment and suspicion and proposed attachment as an alternate object of inquiry. Hooked is intended as the development of that program, via rubrics of attunement, identification, and interpretation, and with a catalogue of examples from essays, literature, painting, music, and film. The dedication to reflect on our habits of critical knowing and to wonder what else there might be is genuine; the often barnstorming tone makes for both fun and a sense that something could actually be at stake. Across all of these works, Felski has moved toward specifying her dissatisfaction in reading her fellow critics, and vending the phenomenological domain that she finds more compelling. As she puts it in Hooked, her commitment is to “the irreducible nature of phenomena;”6 her prescription for criticism is to attend to the complexity and variability of aesthetic experience: of “attachments to artworks” “considered for their own sake rather than as effects of a more fundamental reality” (24), thereby “combatting the intellectualism of recent theory” (76). What is undeniably stirring about her work, then, is how fixedly she pursues metacriticism in the very interest of repudiating it; for Felski attachments and artworks in themselves merit something “much messier” (87) than idea-making. Having in other work delegitimated the presumed negative ethos and vertical spatial logic of critique’s commitment to interpreting fundamental realities and pursuing utopian possibilities, Hooked looks to the pleasures of the “midlevel” (123), the engrossing mire.
Flat ontology and phenomenology find that no dimension of human existence has explanatory purchase on another, that a work of art and the experience of it cannot be explained by recourse to abstractions like “capitalism” or “freedom” or “literary thinking.” Felski’s guide for this worldview is Bruno Latour, the philosopher-theologian cum historian of science whose actor-network theory (ANT) scales attention to a plane where “everything counts” (135) and the critic asks “what is connected to what?” (138). The questions and para-tautological equivalences of this way of doing criticism (Felski quickly asserts she is “more interested in doing ANT than explaining it” ) are absorbing and portend an apparent openness, a horizon crackling with the everythingness of near infinite options for all the connections the critic can count. This electric charge of immanence couples with the rejection of the “intellectualism,” consigning the critic to enumerating the “countless” actors and nodes in the network (Google counts 14 uses of “countless” in the book) without acceding to cause and effect analyses or ideas. How very appealing, that call to hustle: in an economy that has increasingly expelled professional critics in the course of immiserating the professional class that might have once imagined itself amenable to the ruling class, in an institutional domain where there are so few future colleagues, it is a species of consolation to feel that the work itself still needs to be done. Experience wants to be named.
As the agenda for that percolating work, lists of questions accumulate woozily in Hooked. Entire paragraphs of unanswered questions yield many a moment hungry for summative energy but subsisting on copulatives and complexities that refuse to countenance integration. The contrastive coordinating conjunction “yet” occurs on virtually every one of the book’s pages (134 times), mostly in the phrase “and yet,” which anacoluthically opens dozens of the book’s sentences. Vacillation, variation, inconclusion. “We are left, simply, with the variability of how people become attuned to works of art” (61). “Attunement is the result … of things ‘coming together’ in expected or unexpected ways” (78). “Identifying is not one thing but differing things that occur in varying combinations” (94). “It seems impossible to nail down any definitive answer” (104). The final paragraph of the book seeds eight questions among its eleven sentences, with the final sentence merely confirming the ingress of all these questions: “the idea of attachment, I’ve suggested, offers one possible avenue for tackling these questions” (163). Hooked is a book brimming with curiosity that is nonetheless devoid of concepts.
Nominalism of this type, though, answers the question of critical knowledge production: what do we know? Quantity. Recasting sensibility as hyper-wired “receptivity” (52) akin to algorithmic uptake, the critic is commissioned by vibrancy to make lists: lists of disciplines that can participate in naming, lists of actants to be named, lists of different media to whose specificity the attachment approach can remain largely indifferent; “actor-network theory’s style of thinking, however, is additive, not subtractive” (6). The book’s second paragraph avows the motion of its “argument” without the substance of a thetic statement—“My argument edges forward crabwise by attending to examples” (2)—and then lists eleven independent examples of artists or artworks or critics writing on artists/artworks (that the artworks are almost entirely considered via the prism of writing about them, in the form of reviews and essays, is a crucial oddity).
Listing climaxes in the discussion of “identification” is a way of feeling attached, and Felski rather stunningly lists repeated characterizations of Thomas Bernhard’s own propensity for lists seemingly without realizing that this is what she identifies with. She introduces him as “Thomas Bernhard, acknowledged master of the tirade, the diatribe, the rant” (101) and continues:
A typical Bernhard novel consists of a single unbroken paragraph of insults, invectives, and exaggerations spewing from the mouth of a monomaniacal narrator. Its language is repetitive, relentless, incantatory, spiralizing obsessively around the same ideas and phrases …
Sound takes precedence over sense; selfhood sags and sways under the torrential force of words gone wild; the reader is bludgeoned by repetition heaped on repetition, by a flood of verbal tics and manic twitches. Language churns relentlessly, as if without human intervention; readers find themselves trapped in what feels like an automatic writing machine. (101–02)
Throughout the five pages on Bernhard, only one sentence of his prose is quoted; Felski does not even mention whether she read Der Untergeher in German or in translation (though the footnote to that one sentence is to the English version). This is surely because the specifics of his prose matter less than their spirit of repetitive accumulation, but attunement tunes out the mirroring of this spirit in ANT. At the precipice where it could emerge, gears abruptly switch: “What I share with Bernhard, I want to say, is an irritation situation” (italics original, 104). Justifying this switch from glossing his listy ethos-less style (relentless, repetitive, churns relentlessly, automatic writing machine) to imputing an ethos, she writes: “a certain kind of critical response would focus on language alone, yet the force of this language lies in conveying a certain attitude” (104). Where that certain kind of critical response might underscore the formal affinity between Bernhard’s listiness and Felski’s listiness, a crabwise sidestep over the formal arrives at affect: “By temperament I am something of a malcontent, prone to brooding and seething. There is something exceptionally gratifying about Bernhard’s channeling of this irritation” (104). Bernhard’s writing is an item for attention, but the specific way it conveys an attitude of malcontent is not illuminated (could not repetitive, incantatory, obsessive language also disclose enjoyment?). Sure, charm glints in the potential self-deprecation of confessing in the pages of a university press book to brooding and seething. But this sequence reveals how the supposed richness of attachive affect circumvents and smokescreens real adhesions, how no amount of looking at stuckness guarantees that critics can see when they themselves are stuck.7
Were the thought not truncated in this way, it might have been possible for the attachment to listy repetitive itemization to come into focus. And in turn this might have opened onto the problem of what comes after the list, of the immanence of aesthetic critical knowledge, of whether critics make things aside from fancy parasitic description and sensibility farming. But in naming Bernhard’s listfulness only to then name irritability only to then name Viet Nguyen’s anatomy of empathy in Mohsin Hamid’s fiction only to then founder on what “remains, of course, an open question” (108) and conclude only by naming, yet again, complexity—“variety and unpredictability are built into practices of identification” (118)—Hooked does not ascend toward analysis. In expressly resigning the prospect of higher order knowledge—in ontologizing flatness, in phenomenalizing the speculative dimension of art and literature into affective and corporeal intensity, in forging ever new links in the sensibility chain of criticism-begetting-criticism, in bracketing intellectualism to embrace positivism—Hooked is an exemplary article of contemporary criticism’s retirement of argumentative mediation in favor of immediacy. In place of detachment, and dialectics, criticism offers attachment and description. Wary of synthesis, normativity, and institution, criticism extols unmaking, fugitivity, and dissolution. Tired of persuasion and opposed to reason, criticism literalizes that negative capability of abiding ambiguity into the shrug emoji. What does criticism contribute to knowledge? It’s complicated.
Complexity enchants ANT, new materialism, posthumanism, media studies, affect theory, and the literary undertakings of postcritique, new descriptivism, and “weak theory.” Its prophets claim as virtue that reality is immanent to itself, that no individual element of a complex web can be said to activate “a more fundamental reality” than any other. There is therefore a propulsive purpose accorded to critics: count up the everything, trace out the complexities, caress nuance, feel the vibe, what is connected to what. When everything is complicated and criticism calls itself to the tasks of phenomenological witnessing and empiricist tabulating, the vocation of criticism to make a cut in the swath of experience, to shift registers to a different order of knowing, is abandoned. Felski and other Latourians find this abandon desirable, ethical, right. But Raymond Williams, Alex Galloway, Kieran Healy, and other critics of complexity worry that this listing is ultimately vapid, and redirect us to the simplicity of the “intention” that organizes multifarious phenomena. As Williams puts it, “the recognition of a large variety of miscellaneous and contemporary practices … is essentially empty” unless the critic considers the dominant tendencies of complexity:
While it is true that any society is a complex whole of such practices, it is also true that any society has a specific organization, a specific structure, and that the principles of this organization and structure can be seen as directly related to certain social intentions, intentions by which we define the society, intentions which in all our experience have been the rule of a particular class.8
The critic must translate from the list to the intention; this is one of the topoi of higher order knowledge, thinking with literature and art to envision freedom and world building, critiquing this inadequate society out of loving attachment to the possibility of a better one.
Attuned and busy, proliferating questions and counting connections, the contemporary critic resides on the plane of immanence, both because her profession has been flattened and because her few remaining colleagues have unwittingly rationalized that demolition in their distributed agency clouds, ethos policing, and entanglement poetics. It is critique-y to point out this convergence of criticism’s innovations with its expulsion, but, like all dialectical critique, one can assess these correspondences between our material conditions and our ideas not to be rote or mean, but to suss out the emancipatory inclinations in the present state of affairs. Felski is full of wonder at art and dizzy with the complexities of that wonder, even if perhaps impatient about actually thinking through the lists of agents and factors in her experience of individual works. If we want our fellow beings, our students and our readers, our groundskeepers and our grocers, to have access to that astonishment and giddiness, we have to connect our scholarship to organizing the building of social possibility. This requires stepping up from the vibrant flats. It requires formulating values, synthesizing commitments that make a decisive cleft amid the blurry complexity. It requires making arguments that expand knowledge. Here is a fact that has eluded Hooked’s empiricism: “art” is an object of our attachment because it is an exercise of our being. Since the beginning of time. This indelible archaeological universality must prompt imperatives for humane configuring of collective life: our being is creative and our infrastructures for existence should support that. If gross ecocidal base reality ensures that even with untold riches, almost no one has the security and freedom to encounter art, think with it, explore the “work-net” (143) of attachment, participate in the counter-knowing the aesthetic promises, or make something for its own sake, then nothing about ANT’s bland enumerations will add up. It doesn’t take criticism to know this social, material, human truth. But critics should know it well. We are the best equipped to illustrate it lushly, we are the best trained to advocate it powerfully. We can argue for the simple too.
Attachment to What?
Robert S. Lehman
Rita Felski established her position in the last decade’s “method wars” with The Limits of Critique. There, writing under the tutelary spirit of the philosopher of science, actor-network theorist, and “irreductionist” Bruno Latour, she affected a distrustful stance vis-à-vis the notion that the critic’s task is, first of all, “to expose hidden truths and draw out unflattering and counterintuitive meanings.”9 Her new book—Hooked: Art and Attachment—is very much a continuation of this project. As its title indicates, Felski is here interested in how we (in our role as professional critics as well as our role as fans) become attached to (or “hooked on”) novels, songs, paintings, and movies. This focus, she avers, works against the critical “language du jour,” which decries attachment to cultural products in favor “of dislocating, disorienting, demystifying,” of “unbinding and unraveling.”10 But it also differs from most versions of the so-called return to the aesthetic. For in locating our attachments to artworks within a network of other (social, personal) relations, Hooked abjures what has been central to nearly every modern conception of aesthetic experience: the assumption that this experience must comprise a “dyadic encounter on an empty stage” (15), must occur always and only between a disinterested subject and an autonomous object. Against this assumption, and again marshalling the resources of Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), Felski prescribes a more fine-grained analysis of how our attachments to cultural products are achieved and sustained.
Does Hooked succeed, then, in modeling an alternative not only to critique but also to more traditional conceptions of aesthetic experience? Here I am ambivalent. I find valuable some of Felski’s insights: her suggestion that literary, art, and music criticism ignore aesthetic experience at their peril, for example, and that this experience occurs within a network of relations irreducible to the subject-object dyad. I nonetheless find her notion of the aesthetic to be rather thin—and with real implications for the position that she is trying to develop. More exactly, Felski’s attempt to do justice to the diversity of attachments that support a certain aesthetic experience, and so to move away from the version of the aesthetic typically associated with Immanuel Kant and his epigoni, leads her into a kind of indifferent empiricism—she is more interested in chronicling attachments than in understanding the specificity of some as aesthetic—and, more problematically given what I take to be the aims of the book, into a version of reductionism, such that the aesthetic in any kind of robust sense threatens to disappear into its extra-aesthetic determinations. Thus, we might say of Hooked what Felski says of Frankfurt School aesthetics, that “there is a real sense … in which art still gets the short straw; the center of gravity … lies elsewhere” (20).
As a way of getting at these issues, I’m going to limit myself mostly to a consideration of Hooked’s second chapter, which focuses on the particular “attachment device” of “attunement”—that is, on the affinity we feel for the overwhelming presence of some cultural object, and on the fact that this affinity comes into being, thanks not only to the power of the object itself, but also to that of its “allies, supporters, helpers” (78). The chapter has as its centerpiece a longish reading of an essay by the novelist Zadie Smith, “Some Notes on Attunement,” wherein Smith describes her own becoming-attuned, after a lifetime of indifference, to the music of Joni Mitchell. Her awakening, we learn, occurred while she was driving to a wedding in Wales and, specifically, while she was on a stop at Tintern Abbey. Having heard Mitchell for the millionth time during the journey, Smith—age thirty-three, “the same age as Christ when he died”—finds herself standing before the ruins, humming a tune from Blue as her husband recites a few lines from one of the Lucy poems. Something has happened, something like a religious conversion; “the girl who hated Joni and the woman who loves her seem … divorced from each other, two people who happen to have shared the same body.”11
Reading “Some Notes on Attunement,” Felski underscores the overdetermination of Smith’s experience—underscores not just the role of the poetically-charged locale, but other factors that Smith mentions in passing, including her earlier encounters with Mitchell’s music (as something imposed on her by college friends) and her frustrated desire to get hold of a sausage roll for lunch. The point is that Smith’s attunement to Mitchell occurs as anything but a dyadic encounter on an empty stage. The stage, rather, is cluttered with Smith’s memories of college, with her annoyance at her husband, with some lines of Wordsworth, with the experience of the abbey (of its “inside, which is outside, which is inside”), with a phantasmatic image of a sausage roll, et cetera. Each of these “actors”—the term, Latour’s, describes “anything whose existence makes a difference” (21)—has its role to play. None, however, will be allowed to steal the show. For Smith’s conversion itself must be allowed to remain “ineffable,” impossible to explain (away).
Memories, music, marital strife, sausage rolls… If I refer to Felski’s position as an indifferent empiricism, I mean not only her readiness to acknowledge ever-more actors—which to some readers is sure to seem an advance over more austere approaches to texts—but also her allergy to any criteria that would allow us to decide these actors’ relative importance. Now I imagine that Felski would reject this characterization of her position. She has, after all, written that just because “actors are treated symmetrically by ANT does not mean their effects are held to be equal” (22). Moreover, she seems to want to say of at least literary works that, in the classroom, their formal properties are more important than their material determinations: “That my edition of The Turn of the Screw was made out of paper from an Ohio factory forms part of its networked existence but is less relevant to my Tuesday seminar than James’s words or the editorial commentary that encircles them” (24). But why is it less relevant? Is it just that this is how Felski tends to teach literature? How nearly everyone tends to teach literature? Is this the sort of answer we should expect? And if we ask whether Smith’s “longed-for sausage roll” (52) is really as important as the poetically-charged setting of her conversion, or as important as the particular open tuning that Mitchell used in that particular track from Blue, what sort of answer is on offer? Actor-network theory, and so an aesthetics based on it, “suspends our usual sorting and ranking mechanisms” (22). Does it replace them with anything? For in their absence, we’re left with a dispiriting choice: we can fall back, illicitly, on something like common sense (everybody knows that a craving for processed meat has a negligible impact on aesthetic experience; everybody knows that a novel’s paper is less important than the meaning of its words…), or we can hold steadfastly to the suspension of “our usual sorting and ranking mechanisms” and, confronted with an endless procession of potential actors, respond to each: sure, why not?
On the one hand, a cavalcade of actors—and on the other? Despite her claim to have discarded the dyadic model of aesthetic experience, and despite her claim to have adopted what Latour has characterized as a “flat ontology”—that is, an ontology that smooths hierarchical distinctions, not only between human and non-human actors, but also between those terms that have “rendered the study of society-nature so difficult: close and far, up and down, local and global, inside and outside”12 —Felski still has to build her analysis outward, as it were, beginning from the original dyad: the first-person encounter with a particular art object. What is at issue in Smith’s becoming-attuned is, finally, Smith’s attachment to Mitchell’s music (and not Smith’s attachment to sausage rolls, her husband, or Wordsworth). That’s fine; while Felski may not admit any criteria for determining the relative importance of this original attachment’s miscellaneous “allies, supporters, helpers”—including, it seems, even such banal criteria as matters of spatial or temporal closeness—there is nothing to prevent her from choosing to concentrate on some particular attachment at the expense of others.
This original attachment’s center of gravity, however, the art object, will prove tricky to characterize. I wonder what, for Felski, provides it with its boundaries—such that, when we want to point to some certain work of art, we can be sure of where we ought to be pointing. The work is not to be “reduced” to its formal properties, apparently; whatever the importance of James’s language in her seminar, Felski can still write that formalism, like historicism, risks taking us away from the experience of art itself (62). Nor can it be reduced to its material properties, for she waves away the notion that paintings are essentially “daubs of pigment on a stretched canvas” as readily as the notion that a novel is just its Ohio-made paper (65). Of course, these properties—alongside seemingly less relevant determinations—are themselves actors. Each has its role to play; none deserves to be reduced. But the work itself? Its place is left strangely empty, a kind of windsock through which however many distinct actors (open-tunings, song lyrics, sausage rolls) might pass. The same phenomenon that we found outside of the original dyad, then, the unending procession of actors, reappears “within” the artwork “itself.”
And if we shift our attention from the artwork “itself” to the aesthetic experience within which “it” participates? Felski states that the “existence” of artworks is a matter of their “being taken up by readers or viewers or listeners, as figures through whom they must pass,” that “we make the artwork even as it makes us” (7). Could we say, then, that the art object is constituted as such within the aesthetic experience? Here, again, problems arise. Alongside her readiness to admit onto the aesthetic stage however many actors, Felski is also quick to acknowledge that, when it comes to art, “people want all sorts of things”; and she goes on to list as examples “pleasure, knowledge, wisdom, catharsis, moral growth, political vision” (36).13 This list—and, in context, it suggests a corrective to the (Kantian) idea that people come to art just for disinterested pleasure—this list is, I take it, supposed to be an open-ended description of the sorts of experiences that art affords. But how open-ended? What if what I want from art is to use my well-bound edition of The Ambassadors to smash flies? Do I still want from it something aesthetic? Are some interested uses of artworks more acceptable qua aesthetic than others (political wisdom, for instance, as opposed to insecticide)? Is what we’re making in all of these cases, “even as it makes us,” still an artwork?
The problem—and now I come to my claim that there is, in Felski’s aesthetics of attachment, a surreptitious reduction of the aesthetic—is that what Felski ultimately seems to be describing by aesthetic attachment is any relation whatsoever to anything whatsoever. The former’s indeterminacy or “ineffability” complements the latter’s emptiness. In her attempt to be democratic, to admit diverse actors, diverse forms of attachment, Felski thus condemns the aesthetic to a sort of heat death. The source of the problem is, I suspect, Felski’s own attachment to actor-network theory. The latter is ill-equipped to grasp what Kant, for example, was after in his separation of the aesthetic from other forms of attachment (and not least because, owing to its reduction of normative force to causal force, actor-network theory is bound to miss what has always been essential to Kantian critique in the first place).14 The remedy? Discrimination, subtraction, the embrace of criteria that allow us to say which actors matter and which do not, what art or the aesthetic is and what it isn’t.15
Music and Postcritique
As a scholar working in music, sound, and the comparative humanities, my perspective on the phenomenon of “postcritique”—and Felski’s Hooked in particular—is slightly different from that of those who are positioned squarely in literary studies.16 I was grateful to receive the invitation to respond, however, for the book invites a conversation that ranges widely beyond literature; its arguments span media and its scope is expansive.17 While I share Felski’s interest in drawing attention to the topic of attachment and affect, I should note that I do not recognize much of my work in the world of postcritique. This may in part be because I do not understand critique to be dominated by negative attitudes.18 I have always presumed critique is in the business of producing, historicizing, and debating ideas—ideas that have the potential to point to alternative worlds and possibilities that aim higher than the path we are on now. This would be impossible, in my view, without thinking through social questions at a structural level. This difference notwithstanding, there are many insights in Hooked that will facilitate a productive interdisciplinary conversation about aesthetics, politics, and the future of critique.
When it comes to music, Felski has cited my work in support of her trajectory, and the reason why seems clear: I consider the ineffability of music to be a productive resource, not only aesthetically, but socially, politically, and philosophically. And Felski associates attachment with ineffability. I suspect she and I would agree that the affective qualities of attachment should not be caricatured as an irrecoverable, solipsistic, or meaningless indulgence. (I have said in the past—only half-jokingly—that if a music scholar is not addressing the affective dimensions of music in some way, they’re probably in the wrong line of work.) But music—which Felski notes came late to her in the project—also has a conspicuous prominence in Hooked. It is the medium at issue in the key example of her opening chapter on “Attunement.” The endpoint of this brief response to Hooked will contend that music’s affective and social entanglements invite critique, for they are no less structural or complex than literary history, art history, or class struggle.
Felski’s Hooked has virtues: she develops accounts of attunement, identification, and interpretation that are subtle and compelling. Her fluid style, filled with concise phrasing, weaves together summaries of sympathetic critics who themselves remark how complex this experience of attachment can be. I agree that the textured pull of the aesthetic has too often been overlooked in the humanities. Discussing and dissecting the apparently obvious dimensions of aesthetic experiences—just having them, and getting a bit lost in them—remains professionally hazardous; it can make readers nervous and defensive. In this sense, Felski’s right to provoke: theory can devolve into an echo chamber of citations more concerned with its own survival than it is with social change. Though I do not see critique as suspicious, paranoid, or estranging, I agree we should never feel too comfortable with what critique means or ought to be. It is often easier to apply or debate a theory than it is to pause our thinking enough to take in a new work, form, or history that is genuinely unfamiliar. There is also enough twisted Adornian praise of Kafka, Beckett, and Schoenberg out there to convince me that the motif of a resistant modernism can feel as routine as a quarter pounder.
It is healthy and crucial to debate the basic social fact of being “hooked.” But I see no need to go from this foundational aesthetic question to the strangely conservative conclusion that we should move away from studying, explaining, and critiquing how attachment works at the scale of millions of people with the reality of larger inequities and structures in full view. We ought to persist in studying attachment and practicing critique at the same time, in fact, by retaining a dialectical method, one that enriches the study of attachment.
A key example in Felski’s Hooked concerns music: it recounts Zadie Smith’s sudden love for Joni Mitchell’s Blue (1971), as expressed in her New Yorker essay of 2012. Smith’s essay describes this dramatic transformation in metaphysical, near-theological, terms. But the event is also more than a simple instance of revelation. It is socially complex. As a child of a Black Jamaican mother and a white English father, Smith grew up attached to a wide array of Black singers from jazz to soul, reggae, and R&B (spanning Billie Holiday to Tina Turner, Luther Vandross, and Aaliyah) alongside a few white-male icons of classic rock (the Beatles, Bob Dylan). In her 20s, Smith’s dismissal of Mitchell’s Blue is associated with the whiteness she hears in the timbral purity of the singer’s buoyant, meandering falsetto. Ten years later, the song “River” creeps over Smith and gets stuck in her ear on the way to a friend’s wedding, and she comes to reflect on the transformation. An acclaimed novelist, Smith can weigh the intellectual interest of any novel without anxiety. By comparison, her attachments to music are complex, personal, intense; she ascribes some of its affective intensity—and ineffability—to her lack of expertise.19
But is Smith also registering something specific to the medium of musical sound? Unexpected ravishment, entrancement—the electricity of attunement—is hardly specific to the amateur. Without being able to harness music’s affective electricity, I imagine few working musicians would endure the endless hustle and stress of getting on stage. Other passages of Smith’s essay bear this out. She describes the impulse behind her family’s shared love of music as plainly affective and functional: “We wanted songs that made us dance, laugh, or cry” (30). Post-transformation, Smith compares her new way of hearing Blue to Allen Ginsberg on acid—an intrusion that physiologically rewires the coordinates of perception. From here, Smith recounts music’s characteristically inconsistent surpluses: “uncontrollable tears. An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy—if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty.” The level of affective exposure is almost dangerous; it induces “a mortifying sense of porousness” (31).
As a music scholar, I find it difficult to parse Smith’s account of her experience of Blue as a subversion of critique. Certainly, she is describing a powerful, unexpected aesthetic attachment. But via Blue, an album that amplifies, externalizes, and in some ways abstracts Mitchell’s own affective exposure and pain, Smith also shows how the album precipitates a discontinuity in her identity; her essay expresses a complicated, and deeply ambivalent confession. Smith’s attachments to music as a 20-something were strongly held, for reasons that are both personal and structural. They are raced; they are gendered. When first hearing Blue in her 20s, Smith—an avid R&B fan—recalls wanting to “say something facetious about white-girl music, the kind of comment I had heard, inverted, when I found myself called upon to defend black men swearing into a microphone” (30). Mulling over her transformation, Smith wonders about how her own attachment remains racialized. Her essay concludes by asking—but not answering: What, then, would it mean that Mitchell claimed to be “the only black man at the party” in her autobiography (35)? It is a loaded way for Smith to end her essay: in 1977, Mitchell dressed in blackface as a male pimp both for a Halloween party and subsequently for the cover of her experimental jazz fusion LP, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.20
Smith’s ending leaves open what it would mean for her to acknowledge or connect to Mitchell’s claim to Blackness. This is a pointed decision, however: in exploring the racialized underpinnings of attachment, Smith deliberately leaves her own ecstasies, discontinuities, and passivities unresolved. In Felski’s reading, by contrast, these tensions are all but forgotten. Smith’s reaction to Blue becomes a numinous affective revelation ex nihilo. Felski describes it: “A transformation, then, that seems unrelated to will or intent, one that arrives as if out of nowhere” (49). She reads Smith’s ambivalent, socially weighty confession as a “captivating story of conversion” in which the “active force” of Mitchell’s white falsetto comes to possess Smith with a charge that is mysterious and magnetic (53–54). Felski’s framing of the story, and by extension Blue, harnesses an instance of music’s ineffability, but not as a source of ideological weight, social tension, or perplexity. Instead, music’s ineffability is made into an allegorical gambit: Smith, one of the great literary talents of our time, gets overwhelmed just like us. The discontinuity and ambivalence expressed in Smith’s essay recede into the background. Mitchell, sorceress of the folk revival, functions as an exemplum for the miracle of attachment.
Meanwhile, Felski says very little about Blue in her own voice. The album’s forms and decisions, its ideological entanglements, and the particularities and vagueness of its affective disclosures are passed over in silence. In Hooked, she notes only that it is both “ordinary” (by which she means popular) and “extraordinary” (by which she means particularly emotional or affective).21 Why does the book not include any evidence that Felski has listened to, or tried to think about, Blue on her own? That she has grappled with the particularities of its intensities, intentions, meanings, and decisions? By 1971, Mitchell had invented her own language. She adopted the ubiquitous strophes of the folk revival and built an unmappable journey of remarkable intimacy and directness. There are the alternate tunings and fingerings for complex chords, the oddly long instrumental solos and interludes, and the famously irregular phrases filled with extra words that compulsively unsettle the meter. Blue also scales some amazing heights, given the sheer number of songs that keep living on, even growing in popularity. In “River,” the song Smith seems to recall, Mitchell floats from her ballet-like recitative to heavier gospel-like phrases that feel eternal: “I wish I had a river so long” lingers over the abyss.
How does one theorize Blue’s “active force” without giving voice to its particularity or acknowledging its ideological entanglements? The problem inheres in Felski’s chosen method. Her Latour-inspired empiricism asks us to repeatedly marvel—with little conceptual framework or explanatory telos—at the local varieties of aesthetic reception.22 Eschewing deeper explanations of an album that has such enormous significance to so many people, we are asked to restrict ourselves to this locality, to “midlevel ties between works and audiences” (xiii). Shorn of conceptual frameworks, Felski’s conclusions tend to affirm empirical multiplicities: “Responses cannot be corralled into tidy boxes; actors do not always hook up in expected ways; anomalies, surprises, exceptions are not uncommon” (25). But the limits to such multiplicities are stark; one must swear off any critical thoughts about the social weight of these experiences. As she says in her introduction: “[social] meanings can be activated or actualized only by their differing audiences” (xiv), who, we presume, are taken at their word. Meanwhile, Felski deftly localizes structural inequalities as “nurture” (51), “upbringing” (55), and “milieu” (55), or frames them as “pressures,” “prohibitions,” and “silences” (55) subsequently unwoven by the “epiphany” (36, 54, 55, 73) of aesthetic attachment.23 A single dimension of depth remains: a phenomenological drama of “conversion” in which aesthetic form and social meaning is deflated to the point of perfunctory acknowledgment (“glitches,” “surprises,” and the like). It is akin to a sociology of art in which we learn precious little about why the art matters to the people involved.
Ideological critique would hardly undermine the weight of Smith’s experience, for critiques are not simply suspicious or paranoid frameworks for interpretations hostile to the author. To the contrary, they bring the aesthetic to life. Smith’s essay, for example, makes clear that historical categories structure her ambivalent attachments to Blue. They underpin both the impact of her initial refusal and her subsequent transformation. Such structures organizing life on the level of millions—those of capital, race, gender, class, commoditization—are, in this way, essential, if paradox-inducing, conditions of aesthetic experience. Mitchell’s “River” is now a ubiquitous commodity and a staggering complex of form; it is both a Christmas song playing at the mall and a memorably intense cause of Smith’s racialized self-reflection. That fold, that insoluble duality—one that can be felt mulling over Trump’s use of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” (1971) as an alt-right pump-up song—exemplifies music’s generative ineffability. Music is a complex, decision-laden form with unavoidable electricity or magic. And it is also an ideological superhighway that supports all manner of conflicting fantasies and desires. Without critique, the medium’s perplexing affordances remain unthought.
Felski’s Hooked stands in a rich lineage. Sontag’s “erotics,” Barthes’s “grain,” Jankélévitch’s “inconsistency,” Abbate’s “drastic,” Gumbrecht’s “presence,” Smith’s “attachment,” and Felski’s “hook” are all allied in their calls to attend to the sensory character of what is overlooked in aesthetic experience. But they are not permanent places we can be.24 For all their talk of affirmation, the power of these interventions lies in a sense of productive negativity—something like a “critique of critique,” to use Felski’s locution.25 If such interventions become flattened into an affirmative mood, one risks muting the social investments that attach us to art in the first place. Consider the method of immanent critique developed by Fred Moten. A moment of attention to an “irreducible” affective inconsistency—as Moten hears in the ancestral descent of Aunt Hester’s scream reverberating throughout the Black avant-garde—would lose all significance without its dialectical mooring in Afro-diasporic formal, critical, and political historicity.26 To hear historicity, to maintain an immanent ear, one has to recover and amplify local, artistic, thought: the formalism, the atmospheres, and the politics in the studio. An immanent critique worthy of the name respects and amplifies local knowledge of the thinking that went into a work, its associated scene, and its social and political compulsions and desires.
There is bad affect theory that traffics in easy affirmations, just as there is no shortage of overplayed critique with strained or opportunistic claims of resistance. It is easy to fall into a polarized debate where affect and cognition exclude one another, whereas most scholars generally acknowledge their imbrication. I do not see a viable political economy of art that does not engage the experiential impact of affect and ineffability. One could write a labor history of exploited workers, but it would just be an empirical coincidence if they happen to play music or write novels. One could diagram chords and fantasize about esoteric resistances in the score, but it would be an accident—and frankly a miracle—if it compelled social change at the level of millions. And when we are talking about political economy, millions matter.
Adorno was most wrong about art when he fell victim to dualisms and insisted Schoenberg was brilliantly and dialectically cognitive, because of his historical use of counterpoint, and jazz was vulgar and affective because its innovations were in the false domain of rhythmic syncopation. At his best—say, in the Mahler book—Adorno had a genuinely sympathetic understanding of the local motivations and technical decisions of the artist and allowed his prose to register its affective impact. Recent instances of immanent critique—such as we have seen in Fumi Okiji’s recent work on jazz—have advanced this genre still further.27 They show that affects are essential to the workings of art, but they are inescapably mediated by intention, form, cognition, history, and politics.
The challenge of the humanities is to take in, expose, and think through the full complexity of those relationships. There are medium-specific reasons to issue reminders that music’s sheer intensity and numinous materiality is difficult to think. But to do so is to engage critique, not to repudiate it. The many compelling insights in Felski’s Hooked can be separated from the flat empiricism of the postcritical project. For critique saves attachment—an entirely worthy topic of study—from losing its relationship to the wild forms and social desires that give it significance and life.
Art and Actorhood; or, The Theatricality of Criticism
Rita Felski’s Hooked aims to answer a number of questions about aesthetic experience. “What do works of art do?” she asks. “What do they set in motion? And to what are they linked or tied?”28 While there are many ways to approach such questions, Felski—as her concluding query here attests—is interested in thinking about aesthetic experience as a form of “attachment.” Fundamentally, she wants to know “how people connect to art and how art connects them to other things” (viii). Moreover, Felski maintains that the humanities, in their current state, find themselves unsuited to the task of understanding art and its attachments. In Hooked’s estimation, humanists tend to explain away art in one of two ways. Either one borrows from Bourdieu (or some Bourdieu-like thinker) and reduces art to something else “by translating [the aesthetic] into the categories of another domain—economics, politics, psychoanalysis—that is held to be more fundamental or more real” (xi), or one continues the campaign of Kant (or a certain vision of Kant) by celebrating “poems and paintings … for being sovereign, self-contained, and severed from their surroundings” (ix), a move that effectively makes art both inert and otherworldly.
Hooked’s most noteworthy argument—and the one I will examine and press on in this essay—is that Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (or simply “ANT”) provides the means of slipping past this impasse. Because ANT refuses all forms of reduction—because it gives every “actor” equal footing—it can acknowledge the distinctiveness of art and thereby avoid “translating” the aesthetic into a political epiphenomenon. And because ANT abhors isolation—because it believes that actors are always tied together in various networks—it recognizes that art cannot be cut off from the rest of the world. In short, for Felski, an “ANT aesthetics” provides the right fit for art and its attachments.29
There are aspects of Hooked that are surely to be welcomed and celebrated. The motivations driving Felski’s project are particularly important, I think. That is, the questions Hooked seeks to answer—just why and how and in what ways do we find ourselves fascinated by or “attached” to art—are significant ones, which makes their relative neglect in some corners of the humanities (as if work in aesthetics were uninteresting, retrograde, or dangerously mystifying) all the more unfortunate and so worthy of a corrective. Felski’s insistence on approaching art and aesthetics, directly and unapologetically, is timely and encouraging.
But while I think the questions driving Hooked are valuable, the answers—delivered in large part by Latour and actor-network theory—are less satisfactory. More simply, I don’t think that Latour or ANT can provide a properly aesthetic theory. In fact, the same problems Felski finds at work in other methodologies (the tendency to transform art into non-art, the compulsion to disconnect art from life) are also evident in “ANT aesthetics.” That Latour’s work is inimical to art and aesthetics becomes evident when we appreciate that actor-network theory is an inherently “theatrical” mode of criticism.
As I’m using it here, “theatrical” is a term of art developed in the writing of Michael Fried, and one can find it both in Fried’s art criticism and historical writing as well as in the work of Stanley Cavell, whose writings on aesthetics are often in conversation with Fried’s.30 Felski is certainly aware of, and engaged with, both Cavell and Fried. (Although Fried’s name doesn’t appear in Hooked, his monograph, Absorption and Theatricality, is cited in Felski’s Uses of Literature. Meanwhile, Cavell has been—and remains in Hooked—an important interlocutor for Felski.) Nevertheless, Hooked doesn’t mention the “theatrical” or “theatricality”—despite the fact that, as I’ll argue here, Latour’s theories unknowingly take after “theatrical” art and criticism. Before demonstrating that connection, though, I’ll begin with a brief overview of the idea, paying particular attention to its tendency to undermine aesthetics.
As readers of Cavell and Fried can attest, “theatricality” is a remarkably capacious—and so, difficult to define—concept. Nevertheless, one way to capture its essence is to explain first what it is not. In his writing on eighteenth-century French painting, Fried points to a particular artistic quality which often serves as theatricality’s foil: namely, “absorption.” More simply still, anti-theatrical art is absorptive. Such art ensnares our attention; it fills our time and demands our single-minded engagement. When we are absorbed in anti-theatrical art—in a painting, poem, or play—it is as if the rest of the world (the world outside the frame, page, or stage) dims or even disappears. In such experiences, the only thing that matters are the figures on the canvas, or the words on the page, or the characters in the drama.
For instance, Fried discovered in the eighteenth-century paintings of Chardin a quintessentially absorptive art. Chardin depicted persons lost in some engrossing activity (blowing a soap bubble, building a house of cards). These figures—apparently unaware of both the diegetic world within the painting’s frame and the real-world beholders looking upon the painting—became models or inspirations for the audience’s own absorption in that very artwork. Just as these painted characters stood entranced by some activity, and so were indifferent to the (painted and real) world around them, we spectators, absorbed in kind by the absorption of these characters, soon forget everything but the focus of our attention: Chardin’s painting.31
To capture such intense captivation, Cavell and Fried often describe anti-theatrical art as having a particular quality of “thereness” or “presentness”—as if a bit of space had been separated from its surround or as if a spot of time had been plucked out of a steady stream of otherwise identical moments.32
Now, one way of capturing “theatrical” art is to think of it as something which disrupts or distracts from states like “absorption,” “thereness,” and “presentness.” So, instead of possessing “thereness,” a theatrical artwork will appear as an object amidst a sea of essentially similar pieces. (Think of strolling through an IKEA rather than an art museum.) Instead of providing the impression of “presentness,” theatrical art will seem monotous, ceaseless, aimless. (Think of scrolling through Twitter rather than reading a novel.)
For Fried, minimalist art—he has in mind the work of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Tony Smith—is especially good at illustrating “theatricality,” since, in his estimation, such art is purposefully theatrical. That is, minimalist works attempt to circumvent or revoke art’s “presentness” or “thereness.” So: instead of producing proper paintings or sculptures—works that would clearly set themselves apart—minimalism indulges in the generation of “objects,” in the production of uniform sculpted shapes, in the “repetition of identical units” (AO, 150). Likewise, instead of creating artworks that demand moments of singular, focused immersion, the minimalist, with his array of analogous objects, forges “situations” that give the feeling of “endlessness, or inexhaustibility,” as if everything and nothing merited our attention (AO, 165). Taken to this extreme, the brash theatricality of minimalism begins to transform art into something else: into an emphatically unremarkable object, into non-art. As Fried states flatly, theater is the “negation of art” (AO, 153).
Now, I realize it will seem odd to claim that a book called Hooked, which precisely sets out to account for the various “attachments” that bind beholders to artworks, has somehow found itself on the side of “theatricality,” a term for those forces (in art or its criticism) which disengage us from the aesthetic, which pull our attention away from paintings, poems, and plays. But it’s not the end goal of Felski’s book—to understand the aesthetics of attachment—that is “theatrical.” Rather, it is the means by which she arrives there: namely, Latour and ANT.
To drive home the connection between actor-network theory and theatricality, consider two passages. The first is from Felski’s account of Wayne Koestenbaum’s own account of an infatuation with Brahms. In Felski’s telling, Koestenbaum’s aesthetic experience, sensitive both to the power of Brahms’s music and to the various associations such music stirs up, serves as an ideal object for an ANT aesthetics:
Mulling over the puzzle of his affinity with a musical phrase from Brahms, Koestenbaum traces out a tangle of ties: the charisma of a music teacher, the force of a specific performance, memories of his childhood, psychosexual patterns of attraction, knowledge of other composers and music history. Rather than being traceable to a single cause, his attachment is woven out of multiple influences, their relative weight and impact hard to pin down. Koestenbaum’s account seems preternaturally attuned to ANT’s way of thinking, to what Kyle McGee describes as Latour’s mantra: everything counts. (135)
The second passage is from Fried’s essay, “Art and Objecthood.” Like Felski, Fried, in this moment, teases out the implications of a fellow critic’s experience. In this case, the critic-artist in question, Robert Morris, maintains that minimalists and their audience are not so concerned with particular paintings or sculptures but rather (in Morris’s words) “the entire situation” of an exhibit (154). Fried’s own commentary picks up by quoting Morris:
It is, I think, worth remarking that “the entire situation” means exactly that: all of it—including, it seems, the beholder’s body. There is nothing within his field of vision—nothing that he takes note of in any way—that declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question. On the contrary, for something to be perceived at all is for it to be perceived as part of that situation. Everything counts—not as part of the object, but as part of the situation in which its objecthood is established and on which that objecthood at least partly depends. (AO, 155)
The uncanny echo of a single phrase in these paired passages—“Everything counts”—is telling. If, as Felski suggests, this is Latour’s mantra, then, as Fried notes, it is perhaps also the mantra of theatricality.
It should be clear enough why “everything counts” for a theatrical minimalism, and, following from this, just why that attitude defeats, or at least dissipates, the aesthetic. If, for Fried (and Cavell), our experience of art is preeminently marked by qualities like absorption or thereness—by the feeling that our attention must be transfixed by the world within a frame, say—then minimalism, by creating “situations” that somehow include everything, that result in efforts to overflow or obviate all borders and boundaries, indulges in a distracting theatricality.
It should be clear, too, why “everything counts” for actor-network theory. The ear-catching “musical phrase” from Brahms certainly counts (for Koestenbaum, for Felski). But what also counts, and what perhaps counts just as much (for Felski if not also for Koestenbaum) is the “tangle of ties” that binds together Brahms, a music teacher, childhood memories, etc. As in minimalism, an “entire situation” soon manifests itself in this scene.
In other words, with this scene, we discover that what might appear, to the eye of a more traditional or more purely “Kantian” critic, as a solitary, engrossing encounter between art and its audience is, in fact, a situation bristling with a crowd of actors. And it is precisely the task of actor-network theory to enumerate all these performers, to demonstrate how they each play a part in the drama of aesthetic encounter, and to insist that nothing in this encounter—no matter how far removed from the center of action—can (in Fried’s phrase) “declare its irrelevance to the situation.” So while Felski readily grants that something like aesthetic absorption does occur in this instance (Koestenbaum is certainly swept up by Brahms), her ANT aesthetics attempts to, as it were, super-saturate that moment with actors. The danger being, of course, that a sea of actors can soon drown out the leads. After all, if everything counts, then nothing (in particular) does.
If theater, as Fried notes, is the negation of art and aesthetics, and if actor-network theory theatricalizes our experience of art by making a moment of absorption into a “situation” where “everything counts,” then it follows that Latour isn’t giving us aesthetics, but its negation.
That implication becomes clearer, I think, once we appreciate how theatricality reproduces the very anti-aesthetic forces that Felski herself wants to avoid in Hooked. Remember, again, that for Felski there are two tendencies undermining an authentic account of art and attachment in today’s humanities. The “Bourdieu-ian” transforms art into politics; the “Kantian” seals off art from the world. As a result, art is reduced to something else, or it is isolated from everything else.
And a theatrical art or criticism manages something similar. To be sure, unlike the Bourdieu-ian critic, the theatrical critic does not transform art into a mystified politics. Nevertheless, theater and theatricality certainly transform the artwork into another kind of object: an object like any other.33 And unlike some kinds of Kantian critics, the theatrical critic certainly does not want to put art behind glass, thereby making it too pure for our messy attachments. But if the fundamental worry here is that art would become sterile, that it would be incapable of making some significant impression on our lives, that it would never actually involve itself into our experiences or memories, then, curiously, theatricality manages a kind of isolation as well. That is, theatrical art can serve as the aesthetic equivalent of white noise or camouflage—something that is so intent on disappearing into an environment that it may as well not be there at all. When Fried notes that the most passionate reaction people usually muster for minimalist art is that it’s “merely interesting,” he has this dynamic in mind, I think (AO, 165).
Actor-network theory, it’s worth remembering, was developed in the cauldron of the sociology of science. Speaking very generally, we could say that Latour created ANT to circumvent two unhappy tendencies in science studies: on the one hand, the insistence that science somehow stood outside or apart from the social forces determining everything else, and, on the other hand, the contention that science, like everything else, was simply a species of politics or power or social coercion.34 (Felski, as we have seen, makes a parallel argument in the case of aesthetics: the trick there, she argues, is to avoid isolating art from everything else or reducing it something else.) To get off this merry-go-round, Latour grabbed hold of the “actor”: a term of purposeful promiscuity, one that could capture the workings of natural objects just as well as cultural artifacts.
But almost as soon as Latour launched ANT in science studies, those working in the field began to fault it for aggravating the very problems it diagnosed. For them, ANT had not avoided reduction; it had created a different, and perhaps more powerful, form of it. Or, ANT didn’t manage to connect science to the rest of the world; it had instead occluded that connection further.35 So it should be no surprise that we can launch similar critiques against the prospect of an ANT aesthetics. Understood as networked “actors”—a term that must apply to sculptures as well as to stones—artworks begin to lose their distinction as meaningful cultural artifacts. Because it countenances no qualitative differences between actors, ANT risks transforming artworks (sculptures) into objects (stones) and consequential artistic expression into discountable background noise.
Having argued that, though, let me stress once more what is important about both Latour’s and Felski’s projects. The puzzles, problems, and impasses they discern (in science studies, in aesthetics) are, I think, authentic ones. We really do want and need a science studies that can account both for the distinctiveness of science and for the fact that science is created—to quote the wonderful subtitle of Steven Shapin’s book—“by people with bodies, situated in time, space, culture, and society, and struggling for credibility and authority.”36 Likewise, we really do want and need an aesthetics that can speak of art as art (rather than as a mask for politics or something else) and that, in the process, doesn’t sever the aesthetic from its social or cultural surround. But once we grant those goals, it’s not clear to me that Latour or ANT can achieve them by making “everything count.” (Another way to say all this: it seems to me that one of the central ironies of Latour’s work is that, while he is officially allergic to all forms of critique, he’s actually pretty good at it. In other words, his critical moments—those moments where he diagnoses an impasse or stalemate in science studies—are actually rewarding, while the resulting constructive moments leave more to be desired.)37
But then what does a more satisfying solution to the problems detected by Felski and Latour look like? I’m not sure that anyone—at least that I’m aware of—has fully cracked the code. However, by way of concluding, let me outline one promising path in the work of Cavell and (especially) Fried.
So far I’ve used Cavell’s and Fried’s work as itself a tool of critique. A concept like “theatricality,” once we see it at work in ANT, helps us appreciate in turn that this theory cannot deliver on its promise to avoid reduction and isolation. But, of course, the aesthetics of Cavell and Fried have a constructive dimension, too, one that becomes especially evident once we remember that—just as theater “is the negation of art”—art persists in an effort to negate theater or theatricality. Indeed, in Fried’s art-historical writing especially, theatricality and absorption often appear joined in a struggle; they exist in a dialectical tension. There, theatrical art is theatrical precisely because it cannot (purporsefully or inadvertently) absorb its audience; likewise, absorptive art is absorptive because it’s able to negate or circumvent a slide into theatricality.
Now, in those terms, absorption simply seems like a concept close to the heart of Kantian aesthetics. And, in fact, it is. As numerous commentators on Fried’s work in particular have noted, such accounts of absorption aren’t so far off from Kant’s descriptions of disinterested free play.38 But if this is a kind of Kantianism, then it is nevertheless a Kantianism which avoids the trap worrying Felski. After all, art, even when it evinces a kind of “presentness” or “thereness,” is never fully disconnected or severed from the surrounding world—it can’t be, because theatricality is always a possibility, ever a threat. To define its identity, art actually needs to define itself against the world which frames it (other non-art objects, the socio-cultural surround). Fried stresses this point when he insists on the historical dimension of the absorption/theatricality dialectic. As he continually points out in his books on French painting of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, what could seem anti-theatrical to one generation of artists soon appeared theatrical to the next, which meant that newer artists needed to devise new ways to quiet the threat of theatricality. For example, when Chardin’s efforts at “absorptive closure, the walling out or curtaining off of the beholder standing before the picture” no longer worked, then Courbet developed a “more radical” strategy still: “the quasi-corporeal merger in the act of painting by the painter, conceived now as the painting’s first beholder or painter-beholder, with the painting itself.”39 And when even that solution appeared ineffectual, Manet, incredibly, began to use theatricality against itself, by creating paintings where the viewer’s presence was acknowledged but made unsettling, “as if his place before the painting were already occupied by virtue of the extreme measures that had been taken to stake it out.”40 In other words, the kinds of art that will appear as anti-theatrical, and the very means of achieving that effect, necessarily change over time thanks to shifting social, historical, and political factors. In Fried’s work, Kantian formalism plays out within a historical dialectic.41
And so, like Felski, Fried also worries, at least implicitly, about the threat of reduction and isolation for art. For him, fully reducing art to something else (to objecthood) is to give in to theatricality; while fully isolating art from everything else appears practically impossible, since theatricality is always waiting in the wings. But unlike Felski, Fried circumvents the unappealing alternatives of pure reduction or pure isolation not by avoiding them entirely but by embracing them, by acknowledging their inherent tension, and by keeping them in a kind of dialectical tension.42
NotesMy thanks to Rob Lehman for talking over, and seriously inspiring, some of these ideas. And thanks to Todd Cronan and Charles Palermo for their editorial guidance.