Fellow-Feeling, Cognitive Science, and Keats

I’ve lately been dabbling in cognitive cultural studies in efforts to understand the physiological registry of emotions and how the second generation Romantics theorized the phenomenon as embodied or immersive reading. I thought for this post, I would give a little background on how I got to this area of study and why scholars have linked it to eighteenth and nineteenth century British thinkers and Romantic poets, in particular. I limit this post to Gabrielle Starr’s work, as her book Feeling Beauty focuses on the cognitive processes involved in aesthetic experience, and I am particularly interested in the aesthetic experience of reading poetry.

My dissertation contends that Romantic poets, and Keats in particular, not only composed socially, but imagined a sociable afterlife for poetry, one that connects poets and their readers across time and space to accomplish the goals of individual and societal transformation. Imagining a sociable afterlife for poetry required Romantic writers to think about the expression and movement of affect in and through poetry.  I approach sociability from the writer-reader relationship and thus seek to understand how the circulation of affect is theorized and staged by Keats’s writing and how his poems become sites of shared feeling.

Let me briefly clarify my terminology: by “circulation of affect,” I mean the ways in which feeling is transferred and shared between the bodies joined in acts of reading: between readers sharing a text, between poets and their readership, between the text and reader. Sympathy, aesthetics, sensibility, passion, and sentiment are the umbrella terms used most often in the eighteenth and nineteenth century scholarship to describe the emotional work of a literary text. In choosing the term “affect,” I seek to register authorial designs to evoke emotional response in the reader of a text. I posit that Romantic writers conceived of the work of affect as constructing a bridge between the writer and the reader, turning the phenomenon of “feeling” into the phenomenon of “feeling with.”

A key point in my argument is that Keats and other Romantic writers theorize the circulation of affect as a physiological phenomenon. This is not original to them. Adam Smith explores the mechanics of sympathy, or “fellow-feeling,” as an act upon the body through the senses. He writes in Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759):

This is the source of our fellow-feeling for the misery of others, that it is by changing places in fancy with the sufferer, that we come either to conceive or to be affected by what he feels, may be demonstrated by many obvious observations, if it should not be thought sufficiently evident of itself. When we see a stroke aimed and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our own leg or our own arm; and when it does fall, we feel it in some measure, and are hurt by it as well as the sufferer. The mob, when they are gazing at a dancer on the slack rope, naturally writhe and twist and balance their own bodies, as they see him do, and as they feel that they themselves must do if in his situation. (I. i. 3)

Here the senses take cues from what they perceive and imagine. The spectator sees an action or sees the promise of an action (the stroke ready to fall), and his or her body registers the sensation. According to Smith, the fancy makes the necessary connection between visual object and sympathetic subject by enabling him or her to enter the “place” of the sufferer.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scans

Contemporary cognitive science upholds Smith’s theory of the physiological manifestation of affect. Scholar of experimental aesthetics, Gabrielle Starr explains how magnetic resonance imaging of intense aesthetic experiences in subjects shows the joint activity of sensual perception and what is called the default mode network. Also known as the core network, the default mode network is the area of the brain that activates during waking rest, in the absence of external stimuli. This network is responsible for the cognitive functions of memory and imagination; therefore, its activity during moments of perception, specifically during intense aesthetic experience, is surprising. Starr explains the brain architecture at work in these moments of perception:

The minute sequence of the neural events in aesthetic experience requires further experimental elaboration, but in general anatomical terms, neural activation moves from sensory cortex forward toward the basal ganglia (reward process) and toward the hippocampus and amygdalae (memory and emotion–though these functions are not exclusively carried out in these structures). Activation in the orbitofrontal cortex follows, but there are interactive loops that reach between these frontal areas and the basal ganglia so that higher-order, complex processes of cognition, and emotional and reward processes, may continually feed one another” (24).

Just as Smith posited in the eighteenth century, the imagination is indeed at work in moments of visual intake. Even more, modern cognitive science suggests that the imagination and emotions supplement the sensory registry to create the image seen, and that, therefore, in the act of seeing, the imagination is always already at work. Starr explains that similar pathways activate in mental imagery (the creation of an image in the mind, as one must do when an object is described verbally) as in the experience of perception (when the object is present). Someone’s suffering when read about in a text (or heard about from a witness) must be imagined by the reader; however, this mediation of a real life sensory experience into an imagined sensory experience does not hamper the translation of feeling. Moreover, brain activity during imagined sensory experience correlates most closely to that of active perception when a text evokes multisensory or motor imagery (Starr 75). Therefore, a work of art such as literature that engages the imagination to create or recreate smell, sound, taste, or movement writes feelings in the brain and on the body of its reader.

“This Living Hand”

Keats is very much attuned to the role of affect in acts of reading and the embodiment of the social interaction between writer and reader.  For example the fragment “This living hand” imagines the reader offering his/her own blood to revitalize the writer.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–

I hold it towards you.

Here the writer reifies the physiological connection between reader and writer in an imagined transfusion. The request for an anticipated offer of blood sacrifice presupposes an intimate emotional bond between the parties. And yet sympathy is always already a sensory experience. The hybrid embodiment of the living hand, a hand that is now part reader and part writer, literalizes that social bond of cooperative composition. And thus here the transference of affect gets translated back as a transference of the bodily. But what is more, this poem calls upon the cognitive registry of guilt. The reader witnesses the suffering of fellow being in the act of reading the poem, and feels the suffering or imagines he feels the suffering (the chill of his or her dreams touched by the icy silence of a dead hand, entombed and incapable of “speaking” or penning a poem). The reader’s brain translates this fellow-feeling into a moral recognition. Therefore for Keats, psychic change through the transference of affect and the development of sympathy leads to action (or the desire for action), efforts to remedy the suffering of a fellow being.

I am now participating in a workshop on the History of Cognitive Distribution that will take me to the University of Edinburgh in June to present on Wordsworth’s and Keats’s contrasting understandings of affect circulation. If you are interested in current scholarship on Cognitive Distribution, check out the project’s site, where you can access webinars and read discussion forums.

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