From the Print Journal

Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature edited by Kara Watts, Molly Volanth Hall, and Robin Hackett

Affective Materialities
Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature. Ed. Kara Watts, Molly Volanth Hall, and Robin Hackett. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2019. Pp. 274. $85.00 (cloth).

© 2020 Johns Hopkins University Press

As I read Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature, my mind wandered to a 1929 essay by Theodor Adorno. The essay considers the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven and the early compositions of Franz Schubert. Adorno describes the transition between the two composers as follows:

He who crosses the threshold between the years of Beethoven’s death and Schubert’s will shiver, like someone emerging into the painfully diaphanous light from a rumbling, newly formed crater frozen in motion, as he becomes aware of skeletal shadows of vegetation among lava shapes in these wide, exposed peaks, and finally catches sight of those clouds drifting near the mountain, yet so high above his head. He steps out from the chasm into the landscape of immense depth bounded by an overwhelming quiet at its horizon, absorbing the light that earlier had been seared by blazing magma.[1]

A reader of modernist criticism will be instantly familiar with the grand style and chilly backdrop Adorno adopts here. Four years earlier, in his introduction to The New Science (1925), Erich Auerbach imagined a Giambattista Vico who “stands alone in the icy air of a glacier, and above him stretches the immense baroque horizon of the vault of heaven.”[2] Ten years earlier still, in The Theory of the Novel (1915), Georg Lukács described how an antiquity “guided by the stars” was superseded by a modern “world abandoned by God,” to whose prayers and hopes the starry sky had cooled.[3] Inspiring or perhaps enabling each other, modernism’s literary-critical greats had an infinity of such cold abysses at the ready, holding them out before artists and writers to echo their solitude, futility, and belatedness, but also the enormous latent force of their feelings.

Such passages spring to mind when reading Affective Materialities for two reasons. First, they illustrate a thesis that forms the volume’s through line. For all of modernism’s suspicion of sentiment and emotion, the authors argue, it brims with affects understood as more impersonal psychic and bodily forces. But modernists find affects in unexpected, counterintuitive contexts in which one would not have expected them to emerge or linger. Barren like crystals, ruins, corpses, and moonscapes, these contexts testify to affect’s survival beyond, and independence of, the fixtures of subjectivity.

Present-day lovers of such counterintuitive affective sites will be pleased by this volume’s themes and approaches. From Molly Volanth Hall and Kara Watts’s introductory essay on ether, through Karen Guendel’s reflections on flesh and granite and William Kupinse’s on “cold crystal,” the essays weave together some of the most radically anti-humanist strands of affect theory and new materialism. They also show that these late twentieth-century theoretical standpoints describe modernist aesthetic attitudes very well. Each chapter focuses on one or two major writers: T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Djuna Barnes, H.D., and others. Most are Anglophone, the rare exception being Kathryn Van Wert’s discussion of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Monophone as it is, the volume does not feel provincial. Its philosophical and political aims are broad and the range of topics on which it touches—from ecology to queer theory—is considerable. In the concluding essay, Robin Hackett movingly brings the volume’s concerns into the present moment. She applies its methods to the racism and queerphobia that subtend the architectural and affective politics of gender segregation in twenty-first century America—and powerfully condemns the ways in which emotions, as opposed to affects, bolster these harmful social patterns. “[E]motion produces the others of racist seclusion” in the “circumstances” Hackett describes; “[b]lank affect, alternately, produces access” to shared social spaces by challenging and partly neutralizing the normative categories that emotions reinforce (249-250).

The second tie that links Adorno’s, Auerbach’s, and Lukács’s icy landscapes to Affective Materialities is metatextual: it concerns all of these authors’ analogous relations to their critical method. Readers familiar with the passage from Adorno cited above will probably have encountered it in Edward Said’s On Late Style (2007), a meditation on representations of decadence and belatedness. Neither Said nor Adorno sees “lateness,” as the former calls it, as an intellectual catastrophe. Indeed, for both of them, as for Lukács, Auerbach, and many others, its pathos is rather appealing. Lateness enables a particular kind of attentiveness that has less to do with breaking new ground than with what Said describes as the “deepen[ing]” and solidifying of preexisting mental tracts and paradigms. In the hands of their belated users, these paradigms become an impersonal, inanimate mold, striking in both its clarity and its increasing separateness from its messier, improvised origins.[4]

The authors of Affective Materialities deploy affect theory with this late-style familiarity. In the authors’ arguments, we see affect theory and new materialism crystallize into a predictable and structured method. This method has its rituals, like the invocation of the intrinsic multiplicity of its “claims” and “perpetual state of transformation” of its objects (127). It has canonical authorities, such as Sianne Ngai, Lauren Berlant, Brian Massumi, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, and others, whose writings are invoked but no longer contested or critiqued. Like a classical memory palace, it leads one through a series of familiar loci: the non-human relation; the moment of emergence; the ugly feeling.

The arguments through which the authors of Affective Materialities reach those points are elegant, at times acrobatically so, and locally very illuminating. Karen Guendel’s “Flesh over Granite,” an analysis of Walt Whitman’s “embodied presence” in Williams, stands out as especially accomplished (33-54), as does Stuart Christie’s “E. M. Forster among the Ruins.” But these essays’ confident clarity comes, in part, from the degree to which the cognitive moves they execute have become predictable. This is affect theory’s and new materialism’s late style. The authors of Affective Materialities use the affordances of this framework to their fullest potential. It is crystalline in a satisfying sense, its intricate precision not unlike the beauty of snowflakes. But it is hard to tell how much longer we will be able to remain in these cooling conceptual spaces. Even as it makes one feel grateful for the belated present moment to which we belong, the volume highlights the need for a new, different critical future that might follow it.


[1] Theodor Adorno, “Schubert” (1928), trans. Jonathan Dunsby and Beate Perrey, 19th-Century Music 29, no. 1 (2005): 3-14, 7.

[2] Translated by René Wellek in Wellek, “Auerbach and Vico,” Lettere Italiane 30, no. 4 (1978): 457-469, 461. The original passage is to be found in Erich Auerbach, “Vorrede des Übersetzers,” in Giambattista Vico, Die neue Wissenschaft über die gemeinschaftliche Natur der Völker (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1924): 9-39, 30-31.

[3] See Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), 88. 

[4] Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 13.