Livia Woods Responds to Matthew Sussman

Matthew Sussman’s response opens by considering Elisha Cohn’s concern about “whether [the book] accepts too readily and self-punishingly the marginalization of the humanities of the academy, or whether it might be said to modestly return to the practices and varied modes of attention that have long been at the heart of literary reading” (187). Sussman closes – having carefully traced the “modest” ethical and aesthetic agency of Cohn’s arguments – by concluding that Still Life does accept a kind of marginalization too readily, though this acceptance evinces and prompts a particularly compelling mode of reflection on non-reflection, one capable of inviting that elusive thing that is “feeling” into scholarship.

Feeling as knowing is elusive in scholarship in part because it can be pleasurable, painful, and perversely idiosyncratic. We certainly can map the specific ethical and aesthetic agencies of such modes, but these maps chart worlds that seem to recede the more we know them. I wonder whether it is modesty or pragmatic moderacy to eschew strong critical agency in the face of that which always threatens to exceed and escape us? Sussman’s focus on the aesthetic textures and theories of engagement with the intransigent excesses of art and experience offers a helpful emphasis on the relevance of Cohn’s work to Victorian and contemporary studies of aestheticism, but I remain uncertain about the impulse to shift Cohn’s passive readings of pause into active resistances that one might know more immodestly.

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