Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.
I propose bearing as a marker of an artwork’s purposive comportment in and toward the world whose various relations and dimensions the work engages and discloses. I have chosen this term because at least five of its senses apply to artworks as I understand them.  Artworks have a manner of comportment, a bearing, e.g. bold, reflective, ironic, etc.  They are generative (in the sense of ‘bear fruit’) in that they provide disclosures.  They are purposively oriented and thus have bearings, principally toward an addressee, but also toward some determinate end, e.g. to be beautiful, to please, to rework culture, to witness suffering, etc.  Works of art also make use of the very world that they disclose, which leads me to say that artworks bear, in the sense of carry, extant possibilities, transforming them until they coalesce into a phenomenon that is bindingly eloquent.  Finally, artworks also bear (or fail to bear), in the sense of endure, the world they absorb in order to disclose whatever possibilities they are able to bear.
There is certainly an important place for what we might call experiential heuristics—the empiricist teasing out of emotional ontologies on the basis of experience to define what it means to be a sentient living being. There is an equally important place for the definition of a politics of feeling, as distinct from a politics of reasoning. What I suggest in the present intervention is that to engage with affect on either of these planes without considering the epistemological basis for our current cultural interest in and privileging of affective logic and inquiry is tantamount to missing the forest of knowledge construction for the trees of knowledge subsets.
This brings us back to Jameson and realism. Jameson continues to insist upon the idea of meaninglessness in Zola’s abundant descriptive lists; in referring to the copious description of the cheeses in the shop in Le Ventre de Paris, he speaks of “their veritable liberation from meaning in all their excess.” The pungent cheese passage indeed shows a “delirious multiplicity,” but the cheeses are far from being meaningless or “autonomous.” For what does it mean when it is said that an element of a literary work is meaningless? Can it be true that multiplicity or excess leads to meaninglessness? Or that the moment something exists in the bodily realm, it does not signify?
What needs to be understood about my distance from those debates around affect polemics is that I still believe in the binary opposition, and am in that sense, I guess, some kind of structuralist Hegelian, or better still, that I include Hegel in Marx and structuralism in the dialectic. “Oppositions without positive terms”: such was Saussure’s great formula, his reinvention of the dialectic on a linguistic basis. Concepts do not exist in isolation, they are defined by their opposites: it is a dialectical lesson as well as a structuralist one, and in the best of worlds the latter should lead back to the former, which it reinvents in a new and contemporary way.
As critics have ceaselessly argued, the core problem with Brecht’s art and theory is his didacticism. Brecht undoubtedly saw art in moral and political terms. Moreover, he thought that morality was a consequence of his works. He described all works of art as “necessarily…bound to release emotional effects.” The only difference between his moralism and the moralism of “bourgeois” art was that he believed his effects could fail. Even though all works produce emotional effects, the job of the (non-bourgeois) artist was to defeat the free play of affect. Brecht’s art continually thematizes open-ended affect as the thing to be overcome, or to show how it had not been overcome by his characters, making that failure a problem to be resolved outside the theater.
It is often said by scientists that our understanding of the neural basis of empathy is in its infancy, the suggestion being that it is only a matter of time before problems will be solved, as if the difficulties facing the research field are merely technical. But the implication of my paper is that the issues confronting empathy theorists are as much theoretical or, say, philosophical, as they are technical or scientific.
Affects are, Berlant insists, “radically private, and pretty uncoded,” and like the fetishized commodity, they make their dazzling appearance with the labor behind them obscured. These private experiences are in fact beyond analysis—an affect, after all, “is just a fact.”
What I’ve been calling the work’s performance is nothing other than the causal account of its production, the kind of account you can give for any work of art. The difference is just that Chang has folded the process through which the work was produced into the experience of seeing it. This is a difference that matters.
But how can one person actually feel another person’s a? More plausibly, we might think that the causal chain involves a proliferation of effects from the same a — not different subjects having the same feelings about a, but the same a producing different feelings in different subjects. But then we also have a different source of pathos — how can I tell if my a is the same as your a? Not how can I feel another person’s a, but how can I know another person’s a?