Jayda Coons: Unveiling Desire, Affirming Pleasure

Many of the essays in V21’s boundary2 online special issue validated a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about much of the criticism I see: underneath the rigorous interpretations of our literary objects lies a serious, often pleasurable and sometimes discomfiting interest in unveiling our own desires. Sitting in graduate seminars, for instance, where I know some personal bits about my peers, I am often struck by how their critical insights seem determined to understand the text in a way that reifies a pre-existing idea, or conversely, in a way that pleasurably challenges a pre-existing idea by relieving the psychical tension that idea originally conjured. I’m certainly not immune. This interpretive tendency is rightly challenged because it runs the risk of being simply untrue, and at worst, perpetuating a culture where opinion and desire trump rationality and fact. A great deal of academic training rightly pulls us out of our own unsubstantiated opinions and affective whims which dictate what we want from the text and instead asks us, through close reading and trying on different theoretical stances, to see what is there when we do not take our desire as central.

Less training involves a return to those feelings that brought us to our objects to figure out why and how we ended up there, a training that takes subjectivity and receptivity as major concerns. This method sees the process of interpretation as occurring relationally, recognizing exchange and the veiled desires that circulate through and invigorate criticism. Part of what I see V21 doing in this issue is to expose the disavowals belonging to (a possibly caricatured) historicism by asking less what the texts tell us about a past, which historicism does well, and instead what our attachments to these texts reveal about our lives as readers and creators of meaning now. I use disavowal here as Freud depicts it in “Fetishism,” where he describes a psychological reaction formation protecting the subject from what he or she knows to be true, a sign representing recognition, refusal, and replacement at once. Historicism in some ways guards against the exposure of desire by transforming potentially singular pleasure and vulnerability into evidentiary, archival certainty–what V21 marks in its manifesto as “a fetishization of the archival.” V21 sets itself apart from a Victorianist tendency to use context as a mechanism of burying desire under the de-eroticized “amused chuckle” (V21). The “amused chuckle,” like the fetish, simultaneously signifies pleasure and distance from the object; it lets the text work on you, as long as you assert some superiority over it. It’s no surprise, then, that this kind of criticism is deployed so readily when interpreting Victorian literature, a cluster of texts that master the art of veiled desire, and that often use literal and metaphorical veils to represent the complicated entanglements of desire and knowledge.

But the boundary2 online issue revels in pleasure. Ellis Hanson’s call for a “sexual formalism” that leads to a more robust and rigorous “erotics of art” is an obvious start. The “kink” in temporalities theorized as a method for reading the 19th century alongside the 21st is no arbitrary term, and its perverse homophone intends to titillate and intrigue. Daniel Wright’s enactment of Nietzschean love, his “play” with the text, uses a series of present participles rolling along to demonstrate an embodied, tactile reading experience, a pleasurable tussling and turning that leads to a new making. And Jesse Rosenthal’s essay on the “developmental” aspects of truth in our discipline asks us to look in the mirror (as so many realist novels also remind us to do) so that we recognize how “we come to find ourselves in our current place by producing the past which produces us.” In several ways, V21’s boundary2 online issue reminds me why I got into this field to begin with, what seduced me, too, into studying the Victorians. In the vulnerabilities of pleasure and desire, related but distinct terms, there is connection.

By attempting to synthesize a predominant affective mode in the boundary2 online issue, I hope I do not maintain the perceived division that Elaine Hadley characterizes as “a line between us and them, between good criticism and bad, or literary work of complexity and something else, and in particular between some kind of pedantic historicist labor and, well, fun.” This is in part because I fail to see how V21 forwards that stark division within their special issue. It appears to me that the contributors of V21 are aware in their work how “our neoliberal moment packages [our] affects.” In fact, I would argue the turn to understanding pleasure and affect, which may appear to be the “power of positive psychology,” is a product of our currently felt insecurity. Self-reflection is unsurprising in moments of crisis, and it seems important that as the discipline–both Victorian studies and the humanities more generally–repeatedly justifies its necessity, we remember to include not only the critical apparatuses essential to complex and nuanced understanding, but also the aesthetic pleasures that, if they do not bring us to the art first, keep us there and encourage depth of feeling. It is certainly a “survivalist” (Hadley) moment for the humanities, and it has been for a while. But is survival all we’re after?

University of Arizona

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Fetishism.” Sexuality and the Psychology of Love. Ed. Philip Rieff, Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997, pp. 204-9.

Hadley, Elaine. “Closing Remarks.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, issue 2, 2016. Accessed 9 January 2017.

Hanson, Ellis. “Kink in Time.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, issue 2, 2016. Accessed 9 January 2017.

Rosenthal, Jesse. “Maintenance Work: On Tradition and Development.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, issue 2, 2016. Accessed 9 January 2017.

V21 Collective. “Manifesto of the V21 Collective.” V21:  Victorian Studies in the 21st Century, 2015. Accessed 9 January 2017.

Wright, Daniel. “Unhistorical Reading and Mutual Playing.” boundary2 online, vol. 1, issue 2, 2016. Accessed 9 January 2017.

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