Victorian literature

Feeling the Affects

To some degree, all of our posts this month have flirted with affect. Whether it’s waking up dazed in confused in graduate school or exploring the significance of melancholia, memory, and reverberating energies, all of these topics point to a larger picture of attempting to understand and read feeling in texts and our daily lives. This week, we’d like to revisit how we’ve engaged with discourses of emotion and feeling in the past. In the following post, Noelle will give a brief overview about [SOMETHING ABOUT VICTORIANS BEING ANXIOUS ABOUT FEELING], and Tyler will focus on [SOMETHING ABOUT HUMANS AND MATERIALS]. Together, these posts reveal how two graduate students attempt to navigate trying to understand what we feel, how/if texts feel, and what we can attempt to say about it.

Mechanics of Victorian “Nervousness”

As a Victorianist, I spend a lot of time talking about nineteenth-century, and specifically Victorian, anxieties. So much of my time is devoted to this in fact that recently, when I was telling someone about research I’m currently doing for a seminar paper, they replied by saying, “So, is your research interest Victorian anxiety because you relate, or…?” As it turns out, my research interests do not center around Victorian anxiety disorders. However, I am very interested in the ways the phrase “nervous energy” is explicitly or implicitly invoked across discourses in the Victorian era.

To make the statement that Victorians were anxious because they were forced to witness and experience THE transition into modernity seems like a fallacy because a “fear of modernity” is noticeable throughout history. There is always something new, changing, incomprehensible and, therefore, ominous on the horizon. So, a general fear of modernity itself may not be the best way to explain the “nervousness” of the Victorians.

Because most of my research up until this point has focused on nineteenth-century anxieties surrounding affectation and performance, much of my time has been spent trying to understand the apparently problematic nature of inauthenticity and fake or forced feeling. My “obsession” with Victorian anxieties began with an interest in Victorian sensation fiction. Specifically, how period critiques of the genre called the incitement of fake feeling—the genre’s need and ability to “make the public’s flesh creep”—one of sensation fiction’s worst offenses.

More recently, a conference paper I presented on performance in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park focused on the problem of theatricality and acting (i.e., faking feeling) and mediation—more specifically, the ways in which mediation affects the performance and interpretation of feeling. While this paper focused on how the body and printed text can be used to mediate and remediate affect, a recent line of inquiry (as stated in a previous post) has gotten me thinking about Victorian “new” media’s relationship to affect and feeling. Although I’ve encountered arguments describing the “nervousness” of the Victorian era when looking at various elements of Victorian popular culture (such as sensation fiction and theatre), I came across the phrase “nervous energy” multiple times while reading about Victorian new media. This phrase might help elucidate the Victorians’ relationship to and anxieties surrounding modernity.

Media theorist Marshall McLuhan has used the phrase “the affect of the electric age” to describe twentieth-century changes in aesthetic and social interaction. Though he is writing roughly a century later, this phrase can be used to reference the problem of energy (gas, steam, electricity) beginning to permeate Victorian life in much the same way fears of affectation appear to. If criticisms surrounding nineteenth-century sensation fiction and theatre often described feeling as a contagion that could infect bodies and attack nerves, electricity might necessarily be a hypermediated, physical manifestation of this anxiety.

This thought leaves me with many thoughts and questions, but I’ll wrap up this section with just a few: If nervous energy and feeling can infect bodies and attack nerves, is it possible to understand electricity functioning in a similar way if media are interpreted as mechanical bodies? How might the concept of affective economies be applied to media, if at all? What might a comparison of Victorian new media/technology, sensation fiction’s (female) readers, and the figure of the (female) occultist medium reveal if we think of energy as something that is able to possess and control fleshy or mechanical bodies?

In the next week, I’ll be attempting to tackle some of these questions in a seminar paper. I’m not quite sure how I feel, but I’m hoping it’s affective.

Objects and Bodies

I’m a person that spends most of their time thinking about objects, space, and bodies. Even though there are similarities between objects and bodies, I still choose to separate the two. For instance: both move through cultural spaces, both can seem ‘out of place’, and both are manipulated for labor. I admit that the separation itself at first feels as if I am privileging the human over the inhuman. Except separating the two also allows for us to partially divest that which has been considered human from the body; creating lacunas that must necessarily be filled by that which is nonhuman.

While writing this I am listening to Porter Robinson’s, “Worlds: The Movie” and am having a memory of their performance at Electric Forest. People often refer to the festival and its [s]p(l)ace as ‘Forest’. Of course it has a different meaning for everyone, but I’ve come to understand this experience as a celebration of the (in)organic. There you will find a horse made of CDs in a small clearing, and more towards the center you might find a technicolor cloud installation among the branches of trees.

As a scholar, I seek to understand the relations between humans, materials, and art. This has led me to consider questions of media, remediation, and affect. To be clearer, I am interested in which ways the individual, susceptible to its environment, is affected by objects. I’m now entangled not only in considering the techne of affectation, but also in questioning how affect circulates between materials and bodies. Readers can find similar concerns being worked through in the modernist novel, Nightwood.

My obsession with Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood during the first semester made my cohort convinced that my dossier was going to be on melancholy. The extent to which Nightwood had affected me also affected my cohort – to put it in another way, we sensed something. How might a text not only contain affect, but also infect readers with affect? Strange discusses the melancholic affect within Nightwood as it relates to the incapacity of figural language that over represents, and occludes, sensation to mediate the truth (134). Parsons suggests that it is not just the text, but the narrative form that’s also structured in such a way that melancholia permeates (169). I consider Nightwood an affective object. However, what makes Nightwood an object of fascination for me is that the objects within Nightwood are affective as well (as mentioned last week). But, as a return to how we sensed something while in the presence of Nightwood: should we not call this, as Noelle has suggested, resonance? Further, what does thinking about the mediation of affect as ‘resonance’ afford in contrast to thinking of affect as an epidemiological phenomenon of ‘infection’?

I took breaks while writing this to watch the video of Worlds on YouTube. I’ve been thinking about which ways I resonate with this particular virtual object. Porter has commented that he created this album as a way to channel his feelings of nostalgia. This is interesting when you consider the fact that the video is compiled of videos from various performances, uploaded by disparate users and edited into a narrative that is just over an hour long. We can draw connections between the reasons for why the video was created, to fix the memory of an enjoyed performance from the past, and the emotion of nostalgia itself. I question whether the nostalgia I’m feeling is in fact my own feeling, or if it’s a resonate affect of this virtual object.

Parsons, Deborah. “Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism.” The Cambridge Companion to the Modernist Novel. Ed. Morag Schiach. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 165-177.

Strange, Martina. “’Melancholia, melancholia’; Changing Black Bile into Black Ink in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.” in Hayford Hall: Hangovers, Erotics, and Modernist Aesthetics. Edited by Podnieks and Chait. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 133-49, 2005.


Noelle Hedgcock is an MA student in English at Syracuse University. Her research and teaching interests focus on nineteenth-century British literature and culture.

Tyler Smart, an MA student in English at Syracuse University,  is primarily interested how space produces certain subjectivities, locally and transculturally, in literary and cultural imagination. Other research interests include cross-cultural influences, queer theory and the history of sexuality, subjectivity, phenomenology, eco-criticism, and post-humanism.

Overwriting History: “Just Reading” and the Case of John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman has been in my Twitter feed a lot lately. Apparently, when this Victorian cardinal wasn’t writing his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the nineteenth century’s longest and driest autobiography (sorry, Newman), he wrote religious commentary that some people still find instructive. But it wasn’t all that long ago that Newman was in the news for very different reasons.

Just before his beatification in 2010, gay-rights activists protested the Vatican’s exhumation and relocation of Newman’s remains from the grave he shared with his dear friend, Ambrose St. John, to a chapel for public veneration. Claiming Newman as one of their own, protestors pointed his written command that his body join his friend’s in death: “I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Father Ambrose St. John’s grave and I give this as my last, my imperative will.”1  To the protesters, the Vatican’s flouting of  this will was a deliberate erasure of what they perceived to be a same-sex relationship from public memory in order to “sanitize” Newman’s biography before sainthood.2

In response, the Vatican commissioned an article that, in reactionary fashion, proceeded to do just that. Ian Ker, a professor and priest, insisted that Newman and St. John’s relationship was purely platonic; that Newman had fought off heterosexual lust as a youth and remained committed to continent celibacy as a priest; and that had Newman been alive today, he would surely have submitted to the wishes of the Church, even if She wanted him reburied away from his dearest friend.3 Ker also would claim that none of Newman’s human remains had been discovered in the exhumation.4 With these four claims, Ker discredited the possibly homosexual nature of Newman’s relationship with St. John at the same time as he called into doubt the enduring existence of the relationship itself.

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The public debate over Newman’s identity—saint or sinner, homosexual or celibate5—in 2010 echoes the public debate over Newman’s identity nearly 150 years earlier. In 1864 Newman responded to the criticism of Charles Kingsley, a popular author and adherent of “Muscular Christianity” who publicly accused Newman of displaying perversion in his converting from the Church of England to the Church of Rome—which, since the Reformation, had in England been popularly associated with sodomizing popes and the Whore of Babylon. Curiously, this exchange has today led to scholarly and non-scholarly speculation about Newman’s sexuality.

When I researched Newman for a class on Victorian life-writing, I was struck by how Newman constantly battled public misinterpretation of his life choices and writings during his lifetime. Hence, his publication of that autobiography—an attempt to definitively set the record straight on his supposed perversity. The way in which readers still endeavor today to read between the lines of his writing for evidence of sexual preference seems to me to unravel his endless work to prevent others from commandeering his self-narrative.

This potential for misinterpretation is a problem with declaring historical figures to be “lesbian/gay/bi/trans*.” To call George Washington Carver simply “gay” erases the whole history of slave castration in the American South. To call Joan of Arc simply “trans*” ignores the complexity of early notions of sartorial gender transmutability. Likewise, searching for Newman’s active (homo?)sexuality overwrites not only his stated longtime personal preference for celibacy but also the value of romantic friendship as a relationship that doesn’t have to be hetero–, homo–, or any kind of– sexual.7

To counter this tendency, queer-studies scholar Sharon Marcus advocates a reading process she terms “just reading” as a means of avoiding falling into the trap of “symptomatic reading”—that is, reading our modern versions of sexualities into earlier texts. For her, “‘just reading’ … attends to what texts make manifest on their surface.”8 The symptomatic readings of Newman’s supporters in 2010 looked for “symptoms” of homo– or heterosexuality in Newman’s life. A just reading would take Newman’s text at its word, perhaps with an eye to understanding what it meant for him, as a Catholic priest in nineteenth-century England, to be a celibate man in a romantic friendship. For this reason, “just reading” helps to do justice to the text, its author, and the full spectrum of queer possibilities across the centuries.

Next week: Queering LGBT history


Notes

    1. Ian Ker, “Oxford and Rome Again,” in John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 698.
    2. Robert Verkaik, “Plan to Exhume Cardinal is ‘Homophobic’,” Independent (London), August 25, 2008.
    1. Ian Ker, “Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Exhumation Objectors,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 3, 2008, weekly edition in English.
    1. Ibid., afterword to John Henry Newman: A Biography, new edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 747.
    2. This is their strange set of false dichotomies, not mine.
    1. John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua & Six Sermons, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 137.
    1. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 3.

Images of John Henry Newman and Ambrose St. John’s grave marker found here: http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2010/09/pope_to_beatify_cardinal_newma.html


Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”