Alicia Christoff Responds to Matthew Sussman

What I most appreciate about Matthew Sussman’s response is his delicate nuancing of Cohn’s claims concerning “mid-Victorian aestheticism” (17) and the non-instrumentality of still life. Specifically, by turning to Kant and to the later Victorian aesthetes Wilde and Pater, Sussman clears a space for the “ethical potential” of the moments of suspended animation and dreamy states Cohn highlights without reducing their separation from traditional forms of development or teleology. This strikes me as an important claim at a moment in which we risk a false division in our criticism between affect and politics, emotion and ethics, and perhaps dreaminess and action. Our criticism can be nuanced and sensitive, Sussman seems to say, and still do something to and for us, intellectually, personally, and socially.

Because I can’t seem to resist, I’ll add to Sussman’s list of aesthetic-ethical thought a psychoanalytic text I would have loved to see Cohn engage: Masud Khan’s “On Lying Fallow” (1983). Khan describes this mood as an “unintegrated, psychic suspended animation,” a “mode of being that is alerted quietude and receptive wakeful lambent consciousness,” a “benignly languid passive mood” – everything, in other words, Cohn identifies for us in the Victorian novel. It is Khan’s answer to his own question about the purposiveness of this state I most wish to point out: “What does the fallow mood achieve for us? The answer is a paradox: a great deal and nothing.” What Sussman is asking, I think, is that Cohn hold that paradox rather than treating it as a dialectic whose natural movement toward Aufhebung we must resist with all of our might. Khan goes on to identify the fallow mood as the “energetic substratum for most of our creative efforts,” allowing for an inner experience “which distinguishes true psychic creativity from obsessional productiveness.” As Sussman points out, such creativity is exactly what we truly desire in the critical work we read and produce.

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