‘In daily life, we regularly rely on hinges, clamps, buttons, zippers, Velcro, laces, knots, stitches, tape, stickers and glue,’ Rita Felski writes. ‘What are their aesthetic equivalents?’ In Hooked, she examines the way we connect to novels, films, paintings and music, and argues that our enthusiasms should be an integral part of conversations about art. Only this can deliver the ‘course correction’ the humanities need, and dissolve the boundary between academic interpretation and ordinary appreciation. Hooked sets out a quartet of what Felski calls experiential concepts – attachment, attunement, identification and interpretation – which organise our responses to art in a postcritical climate, a climate created in part by her earlier study The Limits of Critique (2015). There, Felski urged readers to stop burrowing into a text ‘for its hidden causes, determining conditions and noxious motives’. In her new book, the prescription to stand ‘in front of the text, reflecting on what it unfurls, calls forth, makes possible’ receives some necessary refinement. Disappointingly for the literalist, however, there isn’t a clear account of what the equivalent of Velcro is in a work of literature or how it’s different from a zipper. Felski offers rather abstract haberdashery.
There are, though, some very unabstract emotions on display in Hooked. Felski is interested in the feelings writers, theorists and critics have about the works of art they encounter – particularly the feelings they feel they ought not to have. She quotes George Steiner, that ‘most mandarin of critics’, on Edith Piaf’s ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’:
‘The text is infantile, the tune stentorious, and the politics which enlisted the song unattractive,’ Steiner begins stonily, yet ‘the opening bars, the hammer-beat accelerando … tempt every nerve in me, touch the bone with a cold burn and draw me after into God knows what infidelities to reason, each time I hear the song and hear it, uncalled for, recurrent inside me.’
‘The phrasing is a tad overheated,’ Felski writes, ‘but it is to Steiner’s credit that he is willing to own up to the intensities of his response: how a popular tune is able to seize command of his mind and body.’ Felski is good company here. She laughs a little, but not too much. An academic readership, conditioned to be detached, is gently rebuked for its stoniness, but she also reminds us of the dangers of going too far the other way. It is this line, between irony and sentiment, that Hooked encourages us to tread.
An anthropologist of 21st-century literary studies would be quick to note that the discipline has not lost its love for the prefix ‘post’, decades after the death of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and that one place the prefix now loiters is next to the words ‘critical’ or ‘critique’. Felski didn’t invent postcriticism, but she is its most visible face. Shortly before Hooked was published she wrote the entry for ‘postcritical’ in an Oxford handbook called Further Reading; it sounds much like a blurb for her book. To be postcritical, she tells us, is to ask new questions when we read and to answer them in a new vocabulary. The impulse to do so comes from dissatisfaction with two dominant readerly positions: ‘the furrowed brow of the scholar deciphering an intractable subtext and the blissful mien of the subway rider devouring a bestseller’. The Felskian postcritic slices through the supposed divide between detached, academic reading and lay reading with pleasure. These caricatures aren’t new, of course, though proponents of postcriticism argue that literary theory has pressured such concepts over the past fifty years.
What postcritical reading claims to offer is a solution: tuning back in to the force of attachment in order to find a way to read on. Or rather, this is the particular emphasis of postcritical manifestos like Hooked: Felski offers just one view of a landscape that has been sketched by Michael Polanyi, Paul Ricoeur, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Bruno Latour, Stephen Best, Toril Moi, Hal Foster, Namwali Serpell and others. Her current work is perhaps the liveliest and least plangent forum for questions about how to read and write criticism after theory. But read in isolation from this larger and longer conversation, it can look precariously open to the charge that postcriticism abrogates the ethical and political work of reading.
How, then, can we measure the contribution of Hooked to postcriticism? Felski’s book works to establish ‘a language of attachment as intellectually robust and refined as our rhetoric of detachment’. The Limits of Critique demonstrated that, from the late 19th century onwards, a tone of lofty dispassion became embedded in writings about literature, culture and art. A critic’s ‘intellectual rigour’ became synonymous with ‘ferocious and blistering detachment … defined in the light of a prevailing ethos of scientific objectivity’. For too long, Felski suggests, critics have clung to ideals of ‘self-effacement and willed impersonality’. This approach – which ‘screens out any flicker of emotion, tamps down idiosyncratic impulses and steers clear of the first-person voice’ – contributes, in her view, to the clipped and colourless nature of much contemporary criticism.
Hooked wants to build a warm vocabulary and grammar of bonds (or Velcro fasteners). It’s an optimistic project, one that has something of Richard Rorty’s pragmatism. One chapter in the book is given over to ‘attunement’, which Felski defines as the ‘affinities, inclinations, stirrings that often fall below the threshold of consciousness’ but play a key role in our responses to art. Zadie Smith’s essay ‘Some Notes on Attunement’ offers her the opportunity to set up some key questions about ‘omnivore taste’ and aesthetic education, as well as to set out her worries about the schism between popular and academic ways of talking about the things we love to listen to.
Smith’s essay, like Steiner’s confession, turns on a ‘hook’. The hook, in this case, comes from a song on Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, which is at the centre of a long anecdote Smith tells about being driven to Tintern Abbey. ‘Switch it off,’ Smith begs the driver, ‘that bloody piping … like a bee caught in a wing mirror’. What she really wants is a service station sausage roll. Mitchell’s song ‘River’ becomes an earworm as Smith walks around Tintern Abbey – the start of a transformation from loathing to love in her ‘undefended mind’. She describes her resistance to being hooked up to something others love, only for it to surprise her with its forceful hold. ‘But you’ll like it,’ her mother urged a reluctant teenage Zadie, who was soon ‘pinned to the ground’ by Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Does Smith suddenly, through inattention, become attuned to the beauty of ‘River’? This is her own explanation and Felski allows it to pass unchallenged. Or does she perceive the song’s beauty because she has been trained to recognise aesthetic quality? ‘Be prepared’ is contemporary scholarship’s Boy Scout motto, Felski tells us. She takes up Smith’s anecdote because it seems to offer an alternative mantra: ‘Be undefended’ or ‘Be open to attunement.’ But does it? Smith comes well-equipped to her conversion experience at Tintern Abbey: she is an essayist wandering around a heritage site known for inspiring a famous poem. She also, as Felski fails to note, is primed by her reading of Elaine Scarry’s 1998 lecture ‘On Beauty and Being Wrong’: a source for Smith’s novel On Beauty. In the lecture, Scarry asked Smith’s question: how ‘did she hate something so completely and then love it so unreasonably?’ ‘I had ruled out palm trees as objects of beauty,’ she writes, ‘and then one day discovered I had made a mistake.’ She calls this ‘the error of undercrediting’, and situates her experience of bouleversement within a history of aesthetics that runs from Plato through Kant to Weil and Wittgenstein. Smith’s own conversion to Mitchell ‘arrives as if out of nowhere’, but in fact comes from her well-readied mind, from her education in aesthetics as a discourse of overturned detachment. Felski doesn’t discuss this because she is more interested in the immediacy of stories of attunement than in the history of aesthetic discourse that makes them possible. This shallow pitch is deliberate (Felski labels it ‘flat ontology’), but can a new aesthetics of attachment really be built on foundations that fail to credit the history of aesthetics?
Smith’s anecdote troubles some of Felski’s arguments about the nature of attunement, and it doesn’t work in support of her claims for omnivore taste. Hooked proposes that we change our ideas about aesthetic evaluation by loosening the hold of professional critics, and by demonstrating that the social meanings of artworks are created outside the university as well as inside it. She also argues that attachment experiences aren’t limited to our encounters with popular culture: more rarefied material can affect us in just the same way. The Tintern Abbey anecdote, however, repeats a pattern that occurs throughout Hooked: trained interpreters surprise themselves with their attachment to some aspect of popular culture. Early in the book, Felski asks why professional literary types are so dishonest about their feelings – or so quick to qualify them. Why can’t we share our captivation if we’re the kind of reader for whom ‘the pull of Ulysses is stronger than that of Game of Thrones’? None of the many examples in her book resolves this question. Instead, we are given multiple versions of the Ulysses expert who secretly lives for Netflix. It’s not clear that these neat dramas of aesthetic experience provide any more nourishment for a truly relational sense of art than Smith’s microwaved sausage roll.
Smith’s essay also mentions Allen Ginsberg’s acid-fuelled trip to Tintern Abbey in 1967. ‘What did I notice? Particulars!’ Ginsberg writes in ‘Wales Visitation’, a poem composed in response to his visit. Felski settles between Smith and Ginsberg, with a deliberately ‘mid-level perspective’ on art, not too mundane, not too ecstatic; not too detailed, not too systematic. But there is a danger in the absence of particulars. ‘One difficulty is that the language of love can feel descriptively thin,’ Felski remarks, mildly registering what seems a considerable problem for her attachment-based aesthetics. Hooked’s language about language suffers from the same problem. She is drawn to phrases that begin ‘the language of …’ and they seem to multiply: ‘the language of attachment’; ‘the language of politics’; ‘the language du jour’; ‘the language of aesthetic experience’; ‘the language of fandom’; ‘the language of flows and forces’; ‘the language of science studies’; ‘the language of epiphanies’; ‘the language of the ineffable’; ‘the language of presence’; ‘the language of relations’; ‘the language of the “relatable”’; ‘the language of generosity, receptivity, hope, vulnerability’; ‘the language of method’; ‘the language of orientation’; ‘the language of form’; ‘the language of amateurism’. We might wish for a bit more Ginsberg. When Felski addresses the linguistic detail of particular works, however, Hooked comes to life. There is meticulous care and phenomenological panache in her account of the way the reader is ‘bludgeoned’ by Thomas Bernhard’s repetitions and overwhelmed by his ‘twitches’. Similarly, in just a few sentences about Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Felski captures Hoffman’s ‘sensuous gravity’ of style and the ‘loving exaggerations’ her memoir uses to convey nostalgia.
Yet Felski is still tempted by abstractions. She talks about ‘our critical practices’ or ‘the critical frameworks of the last half century’ as if they are a monolithic enterprise. But all her examples are confessions or conversion narratives which demonstrate the sort of open attachment her book claims is missing from most critical writing. Who are the stalwarts who never admit their own allegiances, attunements, affinities? In the absence of details of their froideur, Hooked can seem torn between a succession of examples of attachment and a polemic arguing that attachment is absent in contemporary academia.
Hooked remains a self-doubting book. Questions refuse to go away. In the first chapter, Felski quotes Wayne Koestenbaum working through his obsession with a Brahms concerto: ‘Did I feel an affinity with D minor itself? … Did I feel an affinity with modernity or with tonality’s rupture?’ Later, she wonders about ‘the bewildered question’ that constitutes the title of Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? She discusses fan fictions, which are structured by hypothetical thinking: ‘What if Bilbo Baggins were queer?’ and so on. Her own prose is full of questions. They begin blandly. ‘Why do people seek out works of art?’ she asks, or ‘What are these encounters with artworks like?’ By the end of Chapter 1, several dozen questions later, the prose is pitched somewhere between willed buoyancy and alarmed despondency: ‘How might criticism change if we could admit that sometimes our real topic is dislike! … Why should anyone care?’
Hooked is most interested in the kinds of aesthetic experience occasioned by works that ‘strike’ us forcibly. Felski describes a writer being ‘hammered by’ Matisse, of Thelma and Louise striking ‘a nerve’, of Orhan Pamuk feeling his ‘body sever itself’ on reading a book’s opening page, of a filmgoer being ‘knocked backward by a sound’. She wants to shape a more ‘robust and refined’ language of attachment, but the emphasis is perhaps too much on robustness. She should remember her own observation that attachments vary in magnitude, intensity and scale.
For Elaine Scarry, beauty is contagion: we experience it and want to replicate it. Felski’s attachments, and her desire for us to be attached too, are also contagious. In one memorable passage she describes the start of her ‘crush’ on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. She picks up the book ‘on vacation in Konstanz’ and ‘cannot not read until the book is done’. ‘I give myself up completely to The Unconsoled,’ she writes. Criticism of the novel doesn’t perturb her. The episode performs its love for the book without need for any thin theoretical language of attachment. It is, as she writes of Smith’s tale, ‘a captivating story of conversion’.