What Does Literature Feel Like
In Sensory Experiments (2020), Erica Fretwell argues that “literature is a sensitizing mechanism, not merely a representation but an amplification of experience,” positing literature as “a technology […] that has the potential to reproduce—not copy but produce more—feeling and […] to create more connections to the world by registering more differences in it” (28-29). Fretwell makes that claim in the context of her transatlantic study of the relations between American literature and the failed science of psychophysics as it developed in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. Doing so, her Sensory Experiments joins a wider body of scholarship that, for the past twenty years and in the wake of the “aesthetic turn,” has endeavoured to recover the aesthetics of literary experience as aesthesis, that is, as a set of bodily sensations (e.g., Silverman, 2012; McLaughlin, 2015; Patoine, 2015). Such efforts to frame reading as a bodily experience are often pitted against a version of reading as the abstract work of a disembodied mind. In this oppositional view, reading is either about making sense or about registering sensations, a division of reading practices which frequently aligns with the divide between professional critics and lay readers, as Jane Tompkins argued long ago. Merve Emre (2017), for instance, has explored what she calls the “paraliterary” reading practices of postwar American “bad” readers, with a view to theorizing these practices as useful models to reenergize the professional mode of critique now that it is increasingly perceived to have “run out of steam” (Latour, 2004) and to have reached its “limits” (Felski, 2015).
Building on these conversations, this proposed special issue asks what American literature feels like, how it produces feelings and sensory experiences. We thus wish to accent “the somatics of reading” (Stewart, 2006), while challenging the distinction between sense and sensation, meaning and feeling, interpretation and experience, that underwrites it. We invite contributions that explore the full range of the literary sensorium such as it is instantiated and theorized in American literature from the nineteenth century to the present day. We also welcome submissions that relate the literary sensorium to what Lauren Berlant (2011) has termed the “historical sensorium” whereby the present—that of the text as well as that of its readers—may be historicized.
Questions authors might consider include the following:
- How is reading a felt/sensory encounter with language? What other properties or “body” do literature itself or the literary have? What aspects of rhythm, sensation, temporality, sensuality exist or occur in fiction as well as in poetry? How does the materiality of literary texts relate to the matter of bodies?
- How does the imaginative function draw from or contribute to bodily experiences?
- What, if anything, is particular about “reading as feeling” to American literature? Are there aspects of American social or cultural experience or the body that U.S. writers seek to animate uniquely?
- What role do health and vigour as opposed to illness (mental or physical) play in American literature? How do depictions of ill health, disease, bodily/mental decay, or death inform or pervade U.S. writing? How might considerations of embodied literacies help complicate the division between ability and disability?
- How is history registered or experienced bodily? How does Jameson’s famous axiom “History is what hurts” inform understandings of literature and literary history?
- What important differences are there in gendered or sexualized texts that treat the body/feeling? What role do pleasure and/or pain play in queer or feminist writing that differs meaningfully from cisgendered or normative authorship?
- What are the limits – ethical as well as aesthetic – to considering literature and the body? Consider for example the role of suffering in particular kinds of racial narrative (e.g. the slave or captivity narrative; stories of addiction and recovery; chronicles of conquest or empire; versions of erotica). What claims on readers do authors who rely on bodily suffering make? What role do scholars and critics play in mediating or mitigating those impacts?
Abstracts of 250-300 words, in English or in French, along with biographical statements of 150 words, should be submitted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by October 11, 2021. Authors of selected proposals will be notified by October 25, 2021. They will be invited to submit their essays for peer-review by February 25, 2022. The journal stylesheet can be found at: https://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/5220.
Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
Emre, Merve. Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. Chicago: The Unievrsity of Chicago Press, 2017.
Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Fretwell, Erica. Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.
Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 225–48.
McLaughlin, Thomas. Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading. New York: Palgrave, 2015.
Patoine, Pierre-Louis. Corps/Texte. Pour une théorie de la lecture empathique. Lyon: ENS Editions, 2015.
Silverman, Gillian. Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Stewart, Garrett. The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
Tompkins, Jane. “The Reader in History: The Changing Shape of Literary Response,” in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Poststructuralism, ed. Jane Tompkins. Blatimore: Johns Hokins University Press, 1980, 201–32.