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date: 26 September 2022

The Love of Literaturefree

The Love of Literaturefree

  • Deidre LynchDeidre LynchStudies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, Harvard University


The notion that theoretical inquiry and the love of literature are at odds is a tenacious one, likewise the related account of the theorist as heartless killjoy. This article, however, challenges the notion that theory is necessarily down on love. It surveys the several strains of theory that since the turn of the 21st century have made it possible for practitioners of theory to acknowledge more readily that concept-driven intellectual work inevitably has an affective undertow. But it also looks further back, to the late 18th-century origins of the literary studies discipline, so as to understand why the love question cannot be confined to the sphere of amateurism but instead hovers persistently around what literature professors do in their classrooms: what does that persistence say about the place of ethical and affective norms in the discipline’s intellectual enterprise? And just why and how does aesthetic receptivity get defined as “love” in the first place?


  • Literary Theory

The Loveless Literary Academy?

As a knowledge practice in which philosophy, literally, the love of wisdom, comes together with philology, literally, the love of words, literary theory by rights should be well acquainted with love. However, by the start of the 21st century, it seemed that many commentators were inclined to position scholars of theory and lovers of literature in opposite camps. That there could be no combining those identities appears to be taken for granted, for instance, in Vincent Leitch’s assertion—an aside in the 2014 book he dedicated to the proposition that theory remained alive and well and a good thing in the 21st century—that theorists generally call their detractors the “I love literature crowd.”1 Tellingly, Leitch does not bother to explain why defenders of theory would or should think of this as a put-down.

“There is something about love that does not sit well with the literary academy,” the novelist Zadie Smith had complained in 2003. To chart her generation’s literary education, Smith recalls in this much-cited essay her dawning realization during her undergraduate years at Cambridge that within that institutional setting any affirmation of her literary loves—any expression of, for instance, her passion for the fiction of E. M. Forster—would appear “anomalous” and downright “sentimental.”2 One does not have to cast one’s net widely to find descriptions of literary theory’s goals, even written from within the literary academy, that seem to supply an explanatory context for Smith’s implicit equation of the theorist and the killjoy. Works of ideological criticism (those written, for instance, in the tradition of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment) have frequently represented aesthetic commitments like those Smith articulates as evasions of weightier political commitments. The practitioners of ideology critique, moreover, have long since become accustomed to treating both love and literariness as ripe for demystification and debunking. In the wake, particularly, of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979, translated into English in 1984), individuals’ affirmations of their love of literature were more likely to have been construed as strategic exercises in social positioning and one-upping—as so many claims on cultural capital—than to have been assessed for how they might illuminate emotions, or reading practices, or the imagination, or the protocols of aesthetic evaluation.3 Reading conceived as resistance long received more respect within the academy than the affirmative, heartfelt reading of readers who assent to their captivation by texts. Similarly, as Michael Warner explains, critical reading has become “the folk ideology” of the literary profession: thinking of “the axis of opposition” as “fundamental to our institutional role,” theory-minded professors of literature often describe their pedagogy as a process of imparting to otherwise naïve readers the techniques of distantiation that might secure them their freedom and end their complicity with the political status quo.4 Problematizing the text has had priority over admiring it. Admiring it may be tantamount to being seduced by it.

That mistrustful downgrading of aesthetic enjoyment is only one factor in the situation that Smith lamented, however. The emotion of love—emotion itself, some would complain—by and large fell off the agenda of those theorists who in the late 20th century cast their lot with poststructuralist, post-humanist arguments. It likely felt too entangled with just the outmoded theories of the human subject that they were aiming to jettison.5 (Desire—not love—generally seems, to this day, the concept to turn to for leverage on sexual politics or for assistance in exposing the illusoriness of conventional notions of individual autonomy.) It might in fact be said that for a long time in academic circles—so long a time, indeed, that one needs to look past the post-humanist discussions of the late 20th century and back even before the mid-century moment of the New Criticism—questions about the emotional connections engendered during readers’ literary experiences have been peripheral to the study of literature. To take up these questions could seem anti-intellectual. The existence of such emotional connections was never explicitly denied: few scholars would dissent from the proposal that the representing and the evoking of emotions are things that help give literature its distinction among the discourses. But these connections could not, it was long maintained, represent the core concern of university literature departments, intent on producing new knowledge. Instead, as many commentators have observed (sometimes while hinting at their envy of lay readers who seem not to be so constrained), one way to ensure that literary studies would qualify as a properly objective and impersonal, credentialized academic discipline was to present that study as a method for holding the emotions at bay.

Certainly, for the New Critics, attention to semantic complexity or to form as an intellectual abstraction—attention paid at the expense, say, of the sensuous, intuitive appeal of poems’ rhythms and rhymes, or at the expense of the characterization that gives plays and novels much of their emotive power—seemed the surest route to academic legitimacy. (Thus William Kurtz [W. K.] Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s “The Affective Fallacy” [1946], which argues for the superiority of “dispassionate, objective, cognition-based interpretation” over “the unpredictable solipsistic motions” of the feeling body. Criticism worthy of the name, Wimsatt and Beardsley declare, “will not talk of tears, prickles, or other physiological symptoms.”)6 During the later, late-20th-century moment of the New Historicism, attention to the reclamation of the historical contexts of literary works might on occasion have operated in similar ways—that is, to insulate scholarly reading practice from the taint of feeling. To call attention to the historical distance severing one’s reading from the moment of the work’s reception in the past serves quite neatly to preempt the suspicion that the scholar might herself be susceptible to a literary work’s allure and might fall in love with it in her turn.

It is not hard to adduce further evidence supporting Zadie Smith’s diagnosis of the literary academy as constitutionally allergic to love and the literary affections especially. Even so, it is high time to reverse course and acknowledge that it is misleading to tell the story of literary theory as the story of how the love of literature was repressed.

For one thing, Smith’s complaint about the loveless literary academy was, as is evident in retrospect, strangely timed. 2003 was, after all, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick published Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, the essay collection soon heralded both as a fundamental text for the field of affect theory and as paradigmatic for the methodological shift now known as the “reparative turn.” The latter label takes its cue from an essay, originally published in 1997, titled “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading.” There Sedgwick took aim at a culture of critique too convinced of the rectitude of the analytic work of exposure and disenchantment. Drawing on the child analyst Melanie Klein’s account of love, Sedgwick made the case for criticism’s adoption of an approach to its object that would be founded on intimacy rather than detachment and on a compassionate redescription of the text rather than on the critical reading that might excavate its repressed truths. In 2000 in The Radical Aesthetic Isobel Armstrong had similarly called time on critique: doing so, theorizing a feminist aesthetic education that would challenge the binary between thought and feeling, Armstrong drew, moreover, on one of the chapters of Touching Feeling—the essay on the psychologist Sylvan Tomkins that had been co-authored, originally in 1995, by Sedgwick and Adam Frank, and which they had centered on the question “What does it mean to fall in love with a writer?”7

There are additional reasons to qualify Smith’s account of the cold hearts of the theorists who in the mid-1990s made her generation embarrassed about love. Smith acknowledges herself, for instance, that an exception to her account might be found in the writings of Roland Barthes. Over time, and as posthumous publications like the lecture series The Preparation of the Novel (2003; English translation, 2011) have taken their place alongside The Pleasure of the Text (1973), it has become ever more evident how ready throughout his career Barthes was to spotlight and also stage the amateur impulses of pleasure to which the otherwise dispassionate critic will sometimes succumb. Barthes was ready to privilege these affective intensities (to which “epistemic dignity” is generally denied) precisely for their capacity to disrupt and redirect the routine, professionalized protocols of criticism.8 That concern with amateur impulses suggests, furthermore, something important about the affects belonging to Continental theory that is often forgotten by theory’s detractors, just as that concern’s reappearance in works by Barthes published posthumously captures something important about the complex temporality of theory’s reception. Over time it has become evident that readers’ experiences of the often exhilarating emotive effects that the canonical figures of “French theory” (Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, as well as Barthes) cultivated in their writings had effects that belie the association of theory with a value-neutral, bloodless intellectualism. In her retrospect on the late-20th-century North American academy, Rita Felski thus recalls the “fannish dimension to theory” and notes how central an “intense attachment to charismatic figures” has been to theory’s reception.9 (That theory was the sexy academic specialism back then should count for something.)

The would-be historian of the literary academy might well suspect that, however surreptitiously, these experiences came to facilitate the recovery within literature classrooms of the sorts of affective identities that ascetic ideals of scholarly respectability had aimed to sideline. (The uses of literary texts developed within queer and feminist theory and ethnic studies had similar effects as well, as the section entitled Intersectional Politics and the Literary Humanities: Race, Gender, Sexuality . . . and Love? will explore.) This historian might also admit that her history also evidences how often “thinking about thinking”—Jonathan Culler’s much-cited definition of theory per se—has overlapped with thinking about feeling and with feeling about thinking.10

Such evidence suggests some reasons for putting the feeling of love—the love of literature—on theory’s own agenda. Rather than following Leitch’s lead and dismissing it (as a middle-brow or conservative or superannuated topic), one should instead acknowledge the role that love has played, for better and worse, in the literary discipline’s defining methods and ways of knowing. This article tries to do that acknowledging, while also adopting a long view on the history of literary attachments.

Intersectional Politics and the Literary Humanities: Race, Gender, Sexuality . . . and Love?

At the very least, the details about publication dates and lines of influence that have been set out here should call into question the narrative about the love lives of the theoretically minded that Zadie Smith and Leitch each evoke, albeit to opposing ends. As theory’s fortunes ascended, was the love of literature inevitably, increasingly, jeopardized? The counterclaim seems just as credible: namely, that since the late 20th century, conditions have become ever more propitious for scholars to acknowledge that concept-driven intellection always has an affective undertow, that there are nonconceptual elements to all modes of intellectual practice.

Within the humanities broadly construed, this reorientation of criticism around affective categories has perhaps been most obviously formative for fields in which literary inquiry opens up onto social critique and political activism: in particular, feminist studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, critical race studies, and queer of color critique (the locus where, under the sign of intersectionality, many of the methods defining the latter fields converge).11 For instance, as the 21st century opened, postcolonial and ethnic studies scholars such as Timothy Bewes, Anne Anlin Cheng, José Estaban Muñoz, and many others began engaging with a new explicitness the subjective emotional effects as well as the social damages wrought by American/Eurocentric racial ideologies and systems of domination, violence, and negation. They charted “pathologies of self-disgust,” “racial grief,” melancholia, and depression.12 With this enlarging of the territory of critique, these scholars began challenging, as well, the older assumption that any engagement with psychic materials would be bad politics, that it would risk naturalizing the notion that racialized subjects were those fated to suffer from “inferiority complexes.” That engagement with ethnic difference as affective difference led some of the architects of these fields to ascribe a kind of epistemic privilege to literary texts, precisely because, as Anne Anlin Cheng put it, the work of literature could prove indispensable for the scholar who sought to tease out the “complex social etiology behind racial grief”; “free from certain immediate political-legal protocols,” literature, Cheng states, is where “complex signs of cultural desire and unease” come most evidently into play.13

It might seem counterintuitive, even so, to associate these fields with an interest in love. Jennifer Nash, however, traces the so-called affective turn within 21st-century ethnic studies and queer of color critique back to the black feminism articulated at the end of the 20th century by figures like Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and June Jordan. She thereby gives priority to a political and academic movement that was programmatically committed to loving blackness—and that looks to have been in the vanguard in imagining racial justice as hinging on the formation of affective communities that would practice and be held together by that love.14 Nash thus clarifies, as well, that there has indeed always been room for affirmative feelings in methods whose opening out onto the territory of psychic life might otherwise seem to lead inexorably to the negative feelings (grief, melancholy, or shame) that necessarily feature in accounts of racialization and the damage it does. Subscribing (as José Estaban Muñoz did, for instance) to an understanding of emotion as deeply relational, rather than something private and inside persons, queer theory and queer of color critique especially have also been committed to envisioning the alternative forms of sociality and belonging that might be constituted through affective ties.15

Here is where literary attachments (and attachments to others made through literature) come to be at issue, even though scholars in these fields are generally associated instead with repelling such attachments: associated, that is, with projects of canon-busting that hinge on analyzing (and deploring) how often traditional literary study has weaponized works of canonical literature as an instrument of heteronormativity, compulsory conjugality, and white supremacy. And yet, at the same time, this body of critical writing often lavishes attention and care on specific literary texts and other art objects, and it is also often explicit in ascribing to those works a “stickiness” that prompts their readers to “stick” together, and which creates and shapes communities who share those writings.16 In 1993 Eve Sedgwick explicitly connected her own commitment to “car[ing] enough about literature to give a lifetime to it” to how the formal complexity of literary texts—those cultural “sites where the meanings didn’t line up tidily with each other”—had provided her and other stigmatized subjects a resource for “queer survival.”17 This declaration, it’s worth noting, radically reinvents the New Critical value system in which attention to semantic complexity served as guarantor of the critic’s proper regard for aesthetic autonomy (the passage from Anne Anlin Cheng cited earlier does this as well).

One more example might help clarify the complicated standing that literary reading and literary attachments have within these areas of the literary humanities. It comes from the writing of the feminist and queer of color theorist Sara Ahmed (author, among other works, of The Cultural Politics of Emotion), who has pointedly, and with a dash of camp, identified herself with the role of feminist killjoy: the hypercritical critic who makes other people feel bad about their emotional investments and desires.18 In Living a Feminist Life, setting out to identify an emblematic episode in the killjoy experience, Ahmed cites from Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye a passage in which Morrison’s child narrator Claudia, rather than cooing over it as though besotted, pulls to pieces the white baby doll that she has been given to love. As Claudia relates,

I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. . . . I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable.19

This African American girl-narrator here announces her deviation from the script for emotional life imposed on her by a culture organized around a love for whiteness. “[S]he uses the gift to generate counterknowledge,” Ahmed states as she glosses Claudia’s announcement and claims it for the feminist killjoy.20 Although this comment explicitly emphasizes the generativity of Claudia’s determination to (as it were) read white baby dolls against the grain, Ahmed also hints here at an understanding of critique as a practice that destroys gifts—a practice of an iconoclastic violence motivated by the knowledge that gifts will always come with strings attached. (Ingratitude is another charge often brought against the theorist, or even more frequently, against the would-be reformer of the literary canon—figures who in conservative commentary are deemed insufficiently appreciative of the gift that is the work of art.) And yet in this same book Ahmed also describes the feminist killjoy’s need for a “survival kit” whose contents will include works of literature—and identifies The Bluest Eye as part of her own kit. Ahmed both coins the label companion text to designate the works so included and endorses the near-personification of books, their recruiting for the sphere of intersubjectivity, that this label effects when she writes: “A companion text could be thought of as a companion species. . . . A companion text is a text whose company enabled you to proceed on a path less trodden.”21

Turns and Returns: Love as the Comeback Kid

So far, this article has contested the notion that theory is by definition down on love by suggesting that if 21st-century literary scholars have been less reticent about the affective dimensions of their knowledge projects than their predecessors, if taking an interest in the emotional attachments that are fostered in and through the aesthetic encounter no longer automatically prompts a charge of anti-intellectualism or of a retreat from politics, the impact of theory might well be named as a reason for the shift. And it has suggested that this shift in its turn might represent a primary reason why theory in the 21st century remains alive and well and is even experiencing a “renaissance,” just as Leitch insists.

To be sure, certain commentators have regarded the efflorescence of criticism that spotlights attachments both to texts and to other readers of those texts as an indication that the early 21st-century moment is one that comes “after theory,” and one that is situated “post-critique.” (The latter umbrella term has been applied to such works as Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s “Surface Reading” [2009] or Felski’s The Limits of Critique [2015]: a group of texts held together by their disavowal of the many late-20th-century projects that hinged on historicizing, problematizing, or demystifying the literary text.)22 This is quite often taken to be an indictment of the present moment. If, as Jeffrey Williams wrote in 2015, a “new modesty in literary criticism” has taken hold so that literature professors no longer try to do politics, that renunciation is mainly indicative, he states, of the diminished prestige their field commands during an era of academic downsizing.23

Yet periodizations in this style pose some problems, as this article will now propose. For a start, there are compelling reasons for avoiding the framework that chronicles intellectual life as a story in which, as time passes, one school of thought gets superseded and replaced by another, in which critique “runs out of steam” (as Bruno Latour said it had as of 2004), and post-critique overtakes it.24 That framework gets naturalized by the formulae that organize many narratives about the 21st-century fortunes of literary theory—such formulae as “the reparative turn,” “the affective turn,” “the ethical turn,” “the return to aesthetics.”

It is, of course, hard to avoid this handy language of “turns” and “returns.” One of its liabilities, though, is how it affirms individuals’ capacity to freely pick and choose their beliefs and allegiances and through those choices reshape a discipline that, as pictured in this account, is somehow magically exempt from any constraints that might be imposed by the larger institutional or political context or by the fiscal climate. That language, that is, “repeats the thesis of neoliberal rationality that gives full agency for individual and historical outcomes in a time of institutional retrenchment to subjects themselves.”25 Linear histories in which the new Latest Thing follows hard on the heels of the previous Latest Thing have another liability. They divert the would-be historian of the literary academy from noticing the significant continuities that persist underneath these rapid-fire alterations in the discipline’s self-presentation. Even a term like “shift”—hard to avoid—simplifies a much messier situation of overlap, asynchrony, retrojection, and recycling.

For instance, in his 2018 book Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures, Timothy Aubry spotlights the robust afterlife of the New Critics’ emphasis on the ambiguity, paradox, and irony defining the verbal icon that is the poem. The same New Historicist critics who deplored the New Critics’ apolitical aestheticism, and the way that it separated text from context, nonetheless perpetuated their opponents’ fetishizing of complexity, valorizing it now, however, for its political utility rather than as an achievement of art. In this way, as Aubry outlines, politicized theory did not eradicate, but covertly nurtured, reading practices aimed at achieving aesthetic satisfaction.26

Aubry’s story of late-20th-century scholars’ failure to break completely with the formalism that they meant to consign to history has precedents. One especially germane to any examination of the affective identities involved in literary studies is to be found in the section of Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic that revisits the mid-century program of Practical Criticism that was spearheaded by Ivor Armstrong (I. A.) Richards and William Empson, the New Critics’ immediate predecessors and trans-Atlantic cousins. Setting out to stabilize interpretive protocols at a moment of intense cultural conflict, those would-be architects of a new method for the literary field opposed the subjectivism and impressionism that they associated with an earlier belletrism. But, as Armstrong demonstrates, responding in part to the masculinist gender politics she identifies as having been—though tacitly—an organizing force of the New Critical project, “the discourse of seduction, present even in [these] very earliest attempts to theorize close reading, is created by the very means which would expel it.”27 Repelled by academic discipline, love came back anyhow.

There is a flip side to accounts that like these bear witness to the tenacity of aesthetic and affective commitments—those commitments’ staying power even at moments when it might appear they have fallen on hard times. The other thing that has had staying power is the charge that professional critics pour cold water on literary ardor. That charge looks to be endlessly reiterable; indeed (as was intimated in “The Loveless Literary Academy?”) its history looks to be coextensive with that of the literary discipline itself. Those cold showers certainly did not commence in, say, 1966, when the Johns Hopkins University seminar on the Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man introduced the latest thing in French thought to an Anglophone academy dominated by the New Criticism. Nor in 1970 when Kate Millett published Sexual Politics and assailed the sexism of the 20th-century (male) literary canon. (The other problem with popular formulae like “the affective turn,” “the reparative turn,” or “the return to aesthetics” lies in how, spotlighting turn-of-the-21st-century developments, they severely foreshorten the history of the discipline.)

Assessed historically, literary scholars’ disavowal of the love of literature looks to be the sacrifice they have been making ever since the 19th century in order to comply with the protocols of a modern professionalized discipline. It also, that is, registers the price that had to be paid and paid again if literary study were to be reconciled with the protocols of university culture and that culture’s criteria for intellectual rigor and specialization.

Here are two examples illustrating that point: each indicates both the compulsive reiterability of the charge that literary critics do not love literature enough and the longevity of the countervailing expectation that loving nonetheless represents an integral part of their job description, an expectation that illuminates the very definitions of literariness that are at issue in this charge. In anti-theory writings of the late 20th century, the New Criticism often figures as the loyal guardian of the literariness of literature. Its mid-20th-century moment is regarded with nostalgia as the time when criticism knew its place and knew it was meant to serve only as a handmaiden to literature. And yet in 1949 Harvard professor Douglas Bush faulted the New Critics’ program for how it betrayed the aesthetic attachments of the common reader: “However valuable the processes and results of the new criticism, for some readers its preoccupation with technique, its aloof intellectuality, its fear of emotion and action, its avoidance of moral values . . . suggests the danger of a timid aestheticism.” And one finds complaints about the aloof technocrats peopling academic departments earlier as well. In 1894 Cornell professor Hiram Corson issued a comparable warning about the increasing power of his philologically minded colleagues in English studies and about their zeal for making literary study an objective science that could take its place alongside subjects like history or biology. Those philologists were spoiling things for the common reader (recalling Ahmed, one might declare them killjoys). They were doing that spoiling in not realizing, Corson declared, that “inspiring power must come from an author’s or a teacher’s being and not from his brain.”28

Take the long view, then, and one sees why in 1993 Bruce Robbins commented as he did on the “antiprofessionalism” that gets manifested whenever literature professors complain that their theory-minded colleagues obtrude their expertise just when their students simply want to get on with their love of great authors. Such antiprofessionalism, Robbins proposed, has actually been a “ritual of professional legitimation.”29 Pouring cold water on other people’s literary ardors is in some measure what has marked out criticism as a line of work and a proper job. And, as Robbins indicated, deploring such negativity is in equal measure what has marked out criticism as a line of work and a proper job.

Take the long view, as Marjorie Garber did when she observed how the previously “forbidden subject” of aesthetics was as of 2001 “on every one’s lips,” and one realizes, as Garber put it, that this return was the sort of “turn of the wheel, which has been repeated in every literary-scholarly generation (remember the move from the Old Philology to the New Criticism?).” One realizes, moreover, that inevitably such turns reveal themselves to be “closely connected to the ‘love’ question.” For the love question, Garber continued, “always hovers . . . closely (like a pesky putto) around . . . ‘literature.’”30

A Long Age of Sensibility

Understanding the persistence of this pesky putto, a comeback kid, requires a historical retrospect that sends one back to (and beyond) the era sometimes called “the age of sensibility.” Sometime in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the term literature in English lost its association with (Latin) literacy at large and began to serve as a designation that carved out from a larger field of reading matter a restricted category of especially valuable, exclusively imaginative works. The consolidation of this new discursive category coincided with a historical transformation in the West charted by such figures Jurgen Habermas, Albert O. Hirschmann, and Michel Foucault among others, in which virtue came to be relocated in the polity’s intimate zones. In this era, feeling, formerly devalued for how it could lead human beings astray, was newly found to have social benefits.31 The accompanying development—one registering the imperatives of this age of sensibility—saw the literary work “trade an expansive set of interests—endangering, altering, or reforming individuals and communities—for its status as a privileged venue of affective expression.”32 (Dissociated simultaneously from the domain of utility, literature thus came in this era of canon-building to exclude texts addressed primarily to the understanding—the science, philosophy, history, and politics that had counted as “literature” so long as that rubric designated erudition in general.) As James Chandler observes, British Romanticism in particular played a formative role in this episode of disciplinary formation, with William Wordsworth’s notion of a “history, or science of feelings” (part of the definition of poetry Wordsworth proffered in the note to his 1800 poem “The Thorn”) naming both topic and method for the emergent discipline. As Chandler puts it, by Wordsworth’s day achieved sensibility was identified as the object of aesthetic education—meaning by object, Chandler clarifies, both a subject matter and a goal.33

This episode of disciplinary formation unfolded as well as a structural transformation of the relation between work and reader: the aesthetic relation became a privileged domain for the affective intimacies of private life. Accordingly, in his history of the 18th-century advent of literariness, Simon During dates to the 1760s “a fissure between literature and civility” and writes of how, as part of this ethical and affective transformation, literature became available to readers first and foremost as private, passional persons rather than as members of a rational public. And thus, early in the 1760s, as surviving student lecture notes tell us, one 18th-century architect of modern literary studies, Hugh Blair, the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University, informed his students that “It is not enough to admire. Admiration is a cold feeling.”34 And thus the comment on the proper etiquette of literary appreciation that Frederick Denison Maurice set out in the 1840 lecture that marked his installation as the first Professor of English Literature, so called, at King’s College, London University. We are to be grateful to the great author, Maurice declared, but “we are not to express our thanks by bestowing on him the shabby, heartless, newspaper praise, that he is a man of power, or talent, or genius.” Something more personal is requisite, Maurice explained: “we must feel to him as a . . . friend.”35 (Here, where one might least expect it, is an anticipation of Sara Ahmed’s “companion text.”) Revealing how the prehistory of the discipline intersects with the history of emotion, such statements help one understand how the love question came to hover so persistently around literary study.

Professing Literature/Professing Love

Taking the long view reveals something else: literary studies has always had an odd standing among the modern professions and disciplines. It has had, for instance, an eccentric relationship to the gendered schema that have emerged over the last three centuries for segregating the intimate sphere from the public sphere and for segregating the affective life nurtured in the former site from the work life that unfolds in the latter one.36 A kind of boundary confusion pervades literary study. It is a tricky matter to locate the disciplinary work of English in relation to those normative mappings of experience that demarcate expertise from sensibility and the institutional from the intimate. For instance, as many will attest, to be a practitioner of this discipline is very often to bring one’s work home and to bring home to work. The pleasure reading, as it is called, that is done in one’s off-hours in the summer can become the topic of one’s lectures and seminars when term time comes around. This way of life is at cross purposes with what the sociologist of science William Clark calls (following Max Weber) “[t]he modern, bureaucratic distinction allowing the formation of a public-professional, expert self, and its insulation from the interest and hobbies of the amateur, private self,” since that distinction relies fundamentally “on the distinction between office and home.”37

The Victorian campaigners who established English as an academic specialization within universities insisted that their subject was as distinguished by disinterested, rationalized methods of inquiry as any other modern knowledge practice. Simultaneously and contrariwise, they embraced some of the same affects that those methods repelled, presenting their subject as an instrument of character-building and pastoral care, a form of instruction pivoting on the intersection of self-discovery and imagination. “English” was supposed to be an examinable subject. Philological study and, subsequently, formalist analyses helped with that goal, supplying impersonal, technical vocabularies that students could be required to master. And yet these same campaigners also touted literary studies on the grounds that it was uniquely suited to the cultivation of the sensibilities (the “genuine literary feeling”) of the students it enrolled.38 It is no coincidence, either, that from the start many of those students were female. (In 1848 Charles Kingsley, for instance, touting the curriculum in English literature offered at the newly established Queen’s College, University of London, declared literary study “most adapted to the mind of woman” because it would exercise her “blessed faculty of sympathy.”)39 Analyzing the fall out of these 19th-century arrangements, John Guillory concludes that literary studies, by melding together philological research with the belletristic cultivation of literary appreciation, ended up internalizing the fault lines that were constitutive of the disciplines. In a strangely self-canceling way literature was, as a result, “made to play a kind of allegorical role in the development of the disciplines, as the name of the principle antithetical to the very scientificity governing discipline formation in the modern university.”40 To similar effect, David Simpson writes that “literary criticism as a socio-educational complex is neither wholly objectivist nor wholly personalized, but subsists by a seemingly inevitable struggle between the two, between a masculinized professionalism and a traditionally feminized subjectivism.”41 Confusion as to whether the business of literary study lies with matters of the brain or matters of the heart, with texts or persons is accordingly recurring.

Generally, commentators portray the relationship between university-based theorists and lay readers in dichotomous terms: but the ensemble of mixed motives and multiple literacy styles that the 19th century bequeathed to the 21st means this sort of compartmentalization is ultimately unhelpful. One produces a flawed and partial picture of literary studies when one puts in one quarter a specialized guild of interpreters who are concerned with knowledge and meaning and puts in another an amateur audience who seek out feeling and pleasure. The performance of theoretical rigor was never that thoroughly entrenched as the sine qua non of the literature professor’s success in her field—something else obscured by the linear timelines conventionally used to package the field’s intellectual history. Undergraduates will bring even to the classrooms of the most committed post-humanist theorist intimacy expectations of a kind that one might otherwise associate with the institutions of home and family. They associate literary reading with the fulfillment of a wish for relation. In doing so, they merely take at its word the discipline’s account of itself as centered on a pedagogy that is defined by personal contact. They register the heavy use of a rhetoric of subjectivity and presence that informs that self-presentation. As noted earlier, professors of literature themselves do not find it easy (or necessary) either to maintain firm distinctions between disciplinary space and private space.

In their classrooms, professors of literature regularly enact reading practices that are difficult to square with the professional identities that belong to them as theorists or critics. Thus, reminiscing about the training he got as a graduate student in the 1990s, Timothy Aubry recounts how from time to time the practitioners of ideological critique who were his teachers would, while reading aloud to their students from the Victorian novels that were to be interrogated by their materialist or Marxist methods, break off,

gaze wistfully at some spot above our heads, and then remark, “It’s just such a beautiful passage, isn’t it?” before proceeding with [their] analysis of commodity fetishism. To reply, as I desperately wanted, “Wait! What exactly makes it beautiful?” would be to appear unsophisticated.42

Aubry wields his anecdote as an example of the critique-heavy academy’s repression of aesthetic pleasure (repression is the storyline that many people, of course, deploy to apprehend their graduate student experience in its contradistinction from their pre-professional, prelapsarian lives). But an alternative account suggests itself, since it becomes evident from Aubrey’s testimony that the break from routine—whether from the protocols of rigorous critique or from those of professional impersonality—was itself routine, a rite of deprofessionalized legitimation that was the counterpart to more frequently performed rites of professional legitimation. Beauty was regularly being smuggled in as Aubry’s professors interrupted themselves, performed for their students their susceptibility to enthrallment and self-surrender in their reading, and thereby demonstrated all they shared with undisciplined, unprofessional readers. What if one thought of literary study as proceeding through, rather than being diverted by, such interruptions and lapses?

Rather than overlooking the gap between the discipline’s theories of literature, on the one hand, and the definitions of literariness—and subjective orientations to reading—that emerge, on-the-ground, through pedagogical practice, on the other, one might take this gap itself as a prompt to theorizing. To take on that engagement would be one good way for literary theory to take itself as its own object. For beyond producing insights into the nature of literature and literariness, this way of proceeding can help the theorist enquire into the peculiarities of the psycho-social situations in which practitioners of literary studies find themselves, help her assess the boundary confusions endemic to literary study, help her to better discern the roles that are played in their intellectual enterprise by ethical and psychological norms. Furthermore, if one braves the charge of sentimentality and takes love seriously, one is positioned to recognize how emulation, or envy, or both, of amateur readers (who are freer to love, who appear to be engaging literature for its own sake rather than in anticipation of professional advantage) has often represented one way of managing those norms.

Aubry’s anecdote about his professors’ seduction by textual beauty clarifies, as well, the importance of distinguishing between 21st-century theorists’ explicit and newly enthusiastic and “post-critique” recognition of affects and aesthetic pleasures and the related-but-separate proposal—not necessarily one commanding a consensus among those same theorists—that the love of literature could be good for theory to think through and for it to think with. By figuring out where to place those boundary lines, one starts to learn how the theorizing of the literary affections might proceed.

To delimit aesthetic receptivity by calling it love—rather than, say, opt for related but rather more prestigious terms from the history of aesthetic encounters, terms such as admiration or appreciation—is, as this article’s sketch of the 18th-century origins of the discipline should have indicated, to do something quite specific. Hence the importance, finally, of distinguishing between 21st-century theorists’ explicit and newly enthusiastic and “post-critique” recognition of affects and aesthetic pleasures and the related-but-separate proposal—not necessarily one commanding a consensus among those same theorists—that the love of literature could be good for theory to think through and for it to think with. To call that receptivity love is, for a start, to bring that receptivity into the orbit of interpersonal relations. Once it is defined as a love object, literature becomes something that one takes personally. Love implies ethical commitment of a kind that people usually mobilize in their encounters with living persons rather than with lifeless things. Lovers of literature construct the aesthetic relation as though it put them in the presence of other people (they understand texts as companions). To love is to enroll oneself in an enduring relationship, for instance, and thereby test one’s capacities for fidelity. The jouissance promoted by Roland Barthes in his descriptions of ardent textual encounters does not seem to have entailed such challenges or responsibilities.

Love also implies relatability: that expectation that will cause so much havoc when undergraduates use it to decide which reading assignments on their teacher’s syllabus they will actually get around to completing. The connection these students who are reading uncritically want to create need not be seen as synonymous with co-option, as Rita Felski observes.43 Even so, the literary scholar who talks down her field for being so down on love must admit that to identify love as both the precondition and the desired outcome of the aesthetic encounter is sometimes a measure that reduces the diversity of the forms that aesthetic experience can and should assume. That identification sidelines uglier feelings like sorrow or repulsion or bewilderment or guilt-ridden conviction of one’s complicity in the horrors that a book depicts. In that last connection, it seems fair, for instance, to wonder whether love can really be—especially for the white reader—an adequate or appropriate response to a work like The Bluest Eye, given its insights into the torturous intertwining of love and self-hatred experienced by stigmatized members of America’s racist society; or an adequate or appropriate response to Toni Morrison’s later, tendentiously titled 1987 novel Beloved, which, the narrator warns three times, “is not a story to pass on.”44

As the framework for and the goal of an aesthetic education, love might promise both too much and too little. Such liabilities, one might note in concluding, represent an important reason why literary theorists have so often had a love-hate relationship to the very concept of the love of literature and why that will and should continue to be the case even in the wake of any reparative or affective turn. Granted that, though, one might still regret the lopsided way in which theorists have distributed their attention—the sublime, Felski also notes, was for a long time the sole affective response to have gained a dose of critical respect.45 It would be good to see theory explore more often the premise that affirmative feelings, even warm and fuzzy ones, might be prompts to thinking too.

Further Reading

  • Anker, Elizabeth S., and Rita Felski, eds. Critique and PostCritique. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Armstrong, Isobel. The Radical Aesthetic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
  • Aubry, Timothy. Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  • Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21.
  • Blum, Beth. The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.
  • Felski, Rita. The Uses of Literature. Blackwell Manifestos. Malden, MA and Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
  • Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Garber, Marjorie. Amateur Instincts. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  • Glazener, Nancy. Literature in the Making: A History of U.S. Literary Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Guillory, John. “Literary Study and the Modern System of the Disciplines.” In Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle. Edited by Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente, 19–43. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Hunter, Ian. Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.
  • Lynch, Deidre. Loving Literature: A Cultural History. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Lynch, Deidre. “Assigned.” In Further Reading. Edited by Leah Price and Matthew Rubery, 100–111. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
  • Reid, Ian. Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Vaade, Aarthi, and Saikat Majumdar, eds. The Critic as Amateur. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
  • Warner, Michael. “UnCritical Reading.” In Polemic: Critical or Uncritical. Edited by Jane Gallop, 13–38. New York: Routledge, 2004.


  • 1. Vincent B. Leitch, Literary Criticism in the 21st Century: Theory Renaissance (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), 1.

  • 2. Zadie Smith, “Love, Actually,” The Guardian, November 1, 2003.

  • 3. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

  • 4. Michael Warner, “UnCritical Reading,” in Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, ed. Jane Gallop (New York: Routledge, 2004), 14.

  • 5. For an important riposte to such accounts, see, however, Rei Terada, Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the “Death of the Subject” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001). To contest the assumption that poststructuralism by critiquing the subject promotes “a blank mechanistic world” (3), Terada works through the history of philosophical thinking about emotion since René Descartes so as to reveal that the “classical picture of emotion already contraindicates the idea of the subject” (7).

  • 6. Jane Thrailkill, Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 1–2; and William Kurtz Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, “The Affective Fallacy,” chapter 2 of Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1954), 34.

  • 7. Isobel Armstrong, The Radical Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 134–135; and Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank, “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold,” chapter 3 of Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 117.

  • 8. Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans. Kate Briggs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); and Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1975), 57. See also Derek Attridge’s discussion of Roland Barthes’s long-standing privileging of amateurism: “In Praise of Amateurism,” in The Critic as Amateur, eds. Aarthi Vaade and Saikat Majumdar (London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 31–48.

  • 9. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 27.

  • 10. Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 15.

  • 11. The term “queer of color critique” is generally credited to Roderick Ferguson: see Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

  • 12. Timothy Bewes, The Event of Postcolonial Shame (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Anne Anlin Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and José Estaban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs),” Theatre Journal 42, no. 1 (2000): 67–79. One could add to the foregoing list, which is far from complete, works in queer theory like Anne Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); or Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

  • 13. Cheng, Melancholy, 15.

  • 14. Jennifer C. Nash, “Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and Post-Intersectionality,” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 11, no. 2 (2013): 12. An analogous project comes to view in Christina Sharpe’s 2016 proposal that an ethic of communal care must be integral to what she calls “wake work”—the artistic production, critical praxis, and rituals of mourning enabling African Americans to survive the aftermath of slavery; see Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

  • 15. Muñoz, “Feeling Brown,” 71.

  • 16. Stickiness is a key term within Sara Ahmed’s theorizing of emotion: see, for example, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 79 (2004): 117–139.

  • 17. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 3.

  • 18. Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004). In embracing this persona Ahmed joins a tradition with deep roots. The feminist critic in particular has long been made a figurehead for a puritanical resistance to the investments and attachments defining other people’s affective lives: this casting has been overdetermined precisely because feminism in the academy perennially needs to fend off femininity’s over-association with emotionality. For an important account of this dilemma that traces it back to the late-18th-century writing of Mary Wollstonecraft, see Cora Kaplan, “Wild Nights: Pleasure/Sexuality/Feminism,” chapter 2 of Kaplan, Sea Changes: Essays on Culture and Feminism (London: Verso, 1986), 31–56.

  • 19. Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); and Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (New York: Washington Square Press, 1970), 20.

  • 20. Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 41.

  • 21. Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, 16. Ahmed derives the term companion species from Donna J. Haraway’s work on animal-human bonding, The Companion Species Manifesto (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003).

  • 22. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21; and Felski, Limits of Critique.

  • 23. Jeffrey J. Williams, “The New Modesty in Literary Criticism,” Chronicle of Higher Education 61, January 9, 2015.

  • 24. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225–248.

  • 25. Robyn Wiegman, “The Times We’re in: Queer Feminist Criticism and the Reparative ‘Turn,’” Feminist Theory 15, no. 1 (2014): 18.

  • 26. Timothy Aubry, Guilty Aesthetic Pleasures (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

  • 27. Armstrong, Radical Aesthetic, 86.

  • 28. Hiram Corson, The Aims of Literary Study, cited in James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 270.

  • 29. Bruce Robbins, Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (London and New York: Verso, 1993), 73.

  • 30. Garber, Amateur Instincts (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001), 48.

  • 31. See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1989); Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977); and Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1980).

  • 32. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson, “Introduction,” in Reading the Early Modern Passions, eds. Gail Kern Paster, Katherine Rowe, and Mary Floyd-Wilson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 19.

  • 33. William Wordsworth, “Notes to the Poems,” in Lyrical Ballads, eds. R. L. Brett and A. L. Jones (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 289; and James Chandler, “The Question of Sensibility,” New Literary History 49 (2018): 468.

  • 34. Cited in Deidre Shauna Lynch, Loving Literature: A Cultural History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 21.

  • 35. Excerpted in Alan Bacon, ed., The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 70.

  • 36. For an extended account of this 18th- and 19th-century prehistory and its legacies in the 21st-century discipline of literary studies, see Lynch, Loving Literature.

  • 37. William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 7.

  • 38. A 1913 description of the role of the English teacher, cited in Ian Hunter, Culture and Government: The Emergence of Literary Education (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 110.

  • 39. Charles Kingsley, “On English Literature,” cited in Bacon, Nineteenth-Century History, 96. What the Old Philology of the 19th century represented in part, in its zeal for objective facts about texts, was a remedy for the literary discipline’s compromised relationship to masculinity.

  • 40. John Guillory, “Literary Study and the Modern System of the Disciplines,” in Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle, eds. Amanda Anderson and Joseph Valente (Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002), 37.

  • 41. David Simpson, The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 81.

  • 42. Timothy Aubry, “Should Studying Literature Be Fun?,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 14, 2018.

  • 43. Felski, Limits of Critique, 45.

  • 44. Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987). For a pertinent examination of this issue, see Timothy Aubry, “Why Is Beloved so Universally Beloved?: Uncovering Our Hidden Aesthetic Criteria,” Criticism 58, no. 3 (2016): 483–506.

  • 45. Rita Felski, “After Suspicion,” Profession 2009, ed. Rosemary Feal (New York: Modern Language Association, 2009), 31.