A few of us from the Floating Academy are attending the Northeast Victorian Studies Association conference this weekend at Princeton University. It has been a very enjoyable conference so far and my brain is swimming with lots of new ideas about conflict, debate, and even pugilism (as the topic of the conference is “Fighting Victorians”).

One of the interesting issues to come out of this morning’s keynote panel, featuring Anna Clark, Elaine Hadley and Alex Woloch, was the question of what we, as critics, should do with our aesthetic responses to a text. Woloch’s talk, “Conflict and Criticism,” generally interrogated “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” discontinuities between generations of critics, and the tendency of contemporary Victorianist critics to efface their personal emotional responses to, and aesthetic judgments of, a text.

The papers on this panel, and the ensuing discussion, were fascinating and left me with a variety of questions: how can critics of Victorian literature talk about aesthetic valuations or personal affective responses in a productive way that neither reifies hegemonic ideas of what constitutes “good” literature nor devolves into the merely anecdotal? Secondly, I wonder how the aesthetic and the affective are related to each other (some slippage between the concepts seemed to emerge during the discussion).  That is, where does affective response end and aesthetic judgment begin when reading and writing as a literary critic?

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3 thoughts on “Report from NVSA: Saturday

  1. Sometimes I get the sense that we’re not exactly being honest to ourselves when we refuse to acknowledge that there is “good” and “bad” literature. Which isn’t to say that I’m not committed to busting up hegemonic aesthetic views. I just think that we all struggle against those deeply ingrained forces in our bodies that demand instant gratification (whether through like or disgust of an experience). Some of us quell those forces through sober critical judgment; others through the drawing of ideological lines. Affect still remains, rippling under the surface, ready to explode in those moments when we let our critical guards down.

    This recent turn to questions about our own affective responses to literature seems kind of strange to me, primarily because it’s a return to many of the same questions that interested the Victorians. Think of Poe’s arguments about the short story, for example, or many of the physiological critics that Nicholas Dames discusses in his study of the novel. The Victorians understood, in ways that we still don’t, the affective nature of reading.

    Of course, I’m very happy to see this turn to affect in Victorian criticism, but it just doesn’t seem that new to me. Certainly, breaking the critical chains of poststructuralist thinking requires some significant intellectual muscle, but we seem to talk about affect studies as the latest trend, when really it is more of a return to a type of criticism began as far back as the nineteenth century.

    For some reason, we want aesthetic judgment without the judgment. I’m not sure if that is a tenable critical maneuver.

  2. I think you’ve struck it Daniel– “we want aesthetic judgment without the judgment”! Is that asking for too much??

    Seriously though, I do understand that pretending that I don’t have an aesthetic or affective response to something is insincere but, on the other hand, I’m not sure how to mobilize that personal response as a critic.

    Also, I’m not sure how useful it is to separate “good” literature from “bad” literature. For one thing, as you acknowledge, the category of “good” has historically been decided by those with power. How do we ensure that doesn’t continue to happen? This question of literary value seems to be eternally unsolvable so I appreciate you lending a longer view and historicizing this potential turn to affect.

    (By the way, we seem to be continuing the conversation about Eliot and Collins that we had in the comments of your post on Eliot).

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