NASSR 2016 Rapid Response: Day Three

Saturday’s tweets about NASSR 2016 via Storify

Saturday at NASSR was a marathon day for me, starting with an 8:30 am seminar run by the brilliant Mary Favret. Cheekily titled “Affect: Enough Already!” the seminar examined the role affect studies has played in the field. Among other questions, Favret asked: What has a focus on affect taught us to see? What has it taught us not to see? What are the historical conditions (academic, political, socioeconomic) that have promoted the study of affect, and to what ends?

Over the course of the two-hour seminar, we grappled with the always difficult question of how different affect authorities (eg: Baruch Spinoza, Sylvan Tompkins, or Adam Smith) shape our understanding of what “affect” even means. Among other topics, we discussed the relationship of affect to excess, and the possibility of recycling or recuperating affective excesses. We also pondered the sometimes problematic ways affect gets attached to questions of freedom – freedom of individual feeling in particular – and the tacit assumption that affect has positive connotations, while “ideas” tend to be viewed negatively. And we addressed the way affect’s mobility can (sometimes troublingly) erase distinctions, as well as affect’s tendency to take material or embodied form, even as we often insist on its immateriality. We also asked how and why affect gets deployed, both in the literature we study, and in our own literary analysis.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s NASSR (Romanticism and its Discontents) we did take some time to discuss the frustrations and anxieties affect studies – and literary studies more generally – can incite. But we ended on a positive note, considering the ways literary forms and genres give voice to different kinds of affect, as well as the unique archives that literary history offers. I left the seminar feeling reinvigorated, and excited to consider the ways affect studies can contribute to my own work.

Attending the panel, “The Then and Now of Our Romantic Discontents,” I was particularly excited by Devoney Looser’s talk: “Jane Austen and Her Discontents, Then and Now.” Addressing the long history of “Austen aversion,” Looser detailed an early Austen (and Austen-ite) take-down by Walter Frewen Lord, first at a 1902 dinner at a London club, and soon after in the journal, The Nineteenth Century and After. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lord’s article also triggered a flurry of angry responses in ardent support of Jane Austen. Looser, who has competed in Roller Derby under the unrivaled name “Stone Cold Jane Austen,” concluded that we need to “examine a wider range of Austen’s lovers and haters.” I’m eager to see where her research takes her next.

Later that afternoon, I attended a roundtable discussion: “New Work in Romantic Studies, or Why We Shouldn’t Be Discontented.” On the table for discussion were Anahid Nersessian’s Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment, Lily Gurton-Wachter’s Watchwords: Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention, and Timothy Campbell’s Historical Style: Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740-1830. Moderating the roundtable, Jonathan Sachs called attention to each author’s dual investment in historical research and close reading. While the responses to made me eager to read the actual books, the most intriguing part of the roundtable occurred when the authors joined the conversation to talk about their writing process. They debated whether they considered themselves to be writers – or critics – first, and discussed the challenges of communicating and developing their ideas, as well as the difficulties of writing a first book that is supposed to preserve the archive, while adding to it at the same time. Nersessian stressed the importance of pushing ideas well beyond one’s first, second, or third instincts. It’s that kind of approach that produces new work, although she admitted that such counter-intuitive thinking is easier said than done. The roundtable left me feeling some combination of inspired and daunted. In defiance of the conference theme, I came down in the end on the side of inspiration – I’m looking forward to getting back to my own work.