Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Before Emotion: The Language of Feeling, 400-1800

Reviewed by Jonathan C. Williams

Juanita Feros Ruys, Michael W. Champion, and Kirk Essary, eds. Before Emotion: The Language of Feeling, 400-1800 (New York: Routledge, 2019), ISBN 978-0-367-08602-2, 262 pp., $112.00

[1] At least since the 2009 publication of Melissa Gregg’s and Gregory J. Seigworth’s  The Affect Theory Reader, the “affective turn” has sustained itself by its continued interrogation of the question of what affect actually is. Affects are not quite the same as emotions, of course, but the two are clearly connected to one another. One of the tasks of affect studies has been to think through the social, cognitive, historical, and linguistic valences of the connections and distinctions between affect and emotion. In this vein, one of the greatest achievements of Before Emotion is its insistence that the question of what affects are (or feelings, or passions, or emotions, or whatever terms we might use to describe these phenomena) is not a new one. As Tomas Zahora notes in an essay on affect and spiritual capital in this collection, we are often conditioned, thanks in large part to Deleuze, to think of Spinoza as the first serious theorist of affect (p. 109), but what this collection accomplishes is to show us that, for more than a thousand years before Spinoza, thinkers were preoccupied by the questions of what affects are, what they do, where they come from, and whether they can be trusted.

[2] These questions, as the contributors to this collection demonstrate, have a wide range of answers, and what this collection proves is that the history of affect is in many ways also a history of debate about how to define affect. For Cicero, as Rita Copeland notes in her essay, affectio is the name for a temporary if powerful emotion and is a hermeneutic device for exploring things like intention (p. 39). For Augustine and for Abelard, as Juanita Feros Ruys shows, affectus guides the will and points one toward heaven (p. 63). And in the work of Hugh of Saint Victor, as Michael D. Barbezat points out, “affectus is the desire of enjoying something thoroughly” (p. 77). None of these definitions (and there are many more in this volume also) are quite the same. Some of these definitions see affect as something that brings one closer to God. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, as Constant J. Mews observes, went so far as to suggest that God is in fact “affectivity,” or affectio, itself (p. 88). Other formulations of affect reveal a suspicion of its power. In Elena Carrera’s account, for instance, early modern thinkers, following in the tradition of Augustine and Platonism, saw affectus “as impulses and tendencies that needed to be controlled” (p. 175). And, as many of the authors in the collection point out (Barbara Newman and Kirk Essary stand out in particular), there can be a serious distinction between affectio and affectus.

[3] One of the more recent trends in the field of affect studies (and I use this term in a very broad sense) has been not only to ask after the meanings of bodily affects but also to think about the importance of moods that might pervade a space or a historical moment. As Thomas Pfau and Jonathan Flatley, among others, have considered, moods might not lodge themselves in any one person’s body; instead, moods can detach themselves from individuals and bleed through an entire setting. Moods become a hermeneutic device: a way of interpreting a set of social relations or a given point in history. What the authors of Before Emotion have done is to remind us that affects are also phenomena felt and produced by specific persons whose lives intersect with other persons.

[4] But this collection also does more than just that. One of this collection’s more interesting contributions lies in the ways that it frames its critical interventions. For Michael Champion (one of the editors of the collection), the affective turn originally emerged as a response to the rise and subsequent fall of literary studies’ linguistic turn of the 1970s and 80s. As Champion puts it in the book’s concluding chapter, affect theory originally saw one of its calls as a need to offer a corrective to the insistent discursiveness of movements such as deconstruction. Champion suggests that many proponents of affect theory worried that the linguistic turn went too far and “reduc[ed] human experience to discourse” (p. 244). For Champion, however, the contributors to Before Emotion pursue a vision that, following the work of Monique Scheer, sees affect as neither total discourse nor total embodiment but rather as an intersection of the two that crystallizes in what Champion refers to as “practice” (p. 245). This mode of practice might manifest in Augustine’s practice of piety that Jonathan Teubner expounds in his essay, or in Erasmus’s distinction, discussed in this volume by Kirk Essary, between affectus as “affections of the soul” (p. 164) and affectio as “distress of the body” (p. 164). In bringing spiritual and social elements into the mix, many of the authors in this volume develop a vision of affect that includes the body but that also goes beyond it.

[5] This study is a sprawling account of the long history of affect (as the scope of this review might suggest). I am left with a deeper understanding of the richness and depth of the pre-history of what we refer to as “emotion.” In thinking about the scope of this collection, I also find myself asking about the critical stakes of what we might think of as affect theory or the history of emotions more broadly. As one reads this volume, one gets a clear sense of the reservations that thinkers have long held about affects, feelings, passions, and sentiments. In response, I find myself wanting to know more about some of the social or political consequences of feeling. In our own historical moment, for instance, feelings can be a way of making legible the urgency of the innumerable social and political crises with which we are faced. Similarly, feeling can become a way of registering the power of socially conscious political thought. For a wide range of contemporary thinkers, ranging from Fredric Jameson to Sianne Ngai to Steven Goldsmith, feelings are both the residue and evidence of critical and socially conscious thinking. In this vein, I am drawn to ask what social/critical possibilities might inhere in the kinds of feelings that the authors of Before Emotion explore. How might an understanding of affect’s multiple dimensions register as forms of social consciousness? How does an attention to affect influence our understanding of what Raymond Williams, for one, might refer to as “lived experience”? How might an attention to affect enrich the ways that we think about bodies and the social spaces that they inhabit? It is a testament to the richness of this work that it inspires these questions. More than anything, the breadth and depth of this project have reinforced for me the capacity that affects have to do things in the world. In our own historical moment, in which the demand for praxis seems more urgent than ever, perhaps the question of what affects are is most useful insofar as it opens onto the question of what affects can do.

Bilkent University, October 2019

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