Sensation has been traditionally associated with the body and all of its pejorative valences. As Ann Cvetkovich points out, by the seventeenth century, sensation became increasingly synonymous with the faculty of perception, rising in epistemological prestige alongside the ascent of the natural sciences and empiricism. For literary affect theorists, however, the term sensation emerges from the critical response to the nineteenth-century sensation novel, which was seen to provoke “excited or violent feeling” (OED) (Cvetkovich 13). It is here where the traditional association of sensation with the body assumes considerable complexity for affect theory, for the politics of sensation is tied to the history of the body and physiological experience. Official discourse in the nineteenth century held that “the sensation novel is deplorable because it reduces readers to animals who are driven by instincts” (Cvetkovich 20). By referring to an “excited or violent feeling,” sensation might seem inherently subversive.

Thus, in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1960, Jane Tompkins argues that highly sensationalized plots and characters address real social and political problems (xvii), a position corroborated through much second-wave feminist criticism. Through its sensational violations of mimetic verisimilitude and its reproduction of stereotyped characters and formulaic scenes, sensational fiction provides, Tompkins claims, “a basis for reconstructing the social and political order in which events take place” (xvii). Yet affect theory also recognizes that sensation may accord with the systems of inequality that a politics of sensation seeks to critique. If sensational novels were attacked for debasing elite literary taste, they were equally invested by conservative ideologies and repressive economic systems. To subscribe to the fantasy that sensation in fiction expresses true, socially repressed feelings overlooks that the concept of “personal expression” may itself be a sensation created and circulated through compromised political discourse.

Tompkins’s notion that sensational fiction creates new sensations reinforces a central tenet of affect theory articulated by Deleuze and Guattari, which is that affect exists, not only in the feeling subject, but in the object sensed. If, for David Hume, the self consists solely of a bundle of perceptions, Deleuze and Guattari regard not the self, but the artwork as an autonomous “bloc of sensations,” a “being of sensation and nothing else” that we feel as affect before translating into “the plane of composition” (164-168). The free-floating nature of sensation through the artwork affords the possibility for aesthetics to remake the social sensorium and redefine cultural attitudes. This capacity of art is addressed by Jacques Rancière, who claims that the shaping of a sensible field in the social is invariably politically charged. Since artworks can redistribute sensations across social barriers, they not only alter the sense perception of individuals but potentially open up a social space of contestation and political innovation.

As noted earlier, of less interest to affect theory is sensation’s physiological component. Yet such neurological research has explored how sensation relates to affective and emotional experience. As with affect, sensation occurs at the pre-conscious and pre-linguistic level. Recent psychological and neuroscientific research offers intriguing empirical evidence suggesting that ‘information’ gathered through the ‘five’ senses passes through the emotional centers of the brain prior to entering consciousness. According to Marcus et al., the human sense-organs lack the processing capacity to assimilate the vastness of even mundane experiences. Neuroscientists generally agree that there exists roughly a half-second latency before ‘sense-data’ enter conscious awareness. Thus, “the emotional systems that reside in this region of the brain are well placed to get first crack at sensory information,” suggesting that “emotional systems evaluate sensory information before and without the involvement of conscious awareness” (Marcus 38). This physiological synthesis of feeling and sensation reveals the central role of affect in any account of sensation, consciousness, or language. That affect gets “first crack” at sensory experience invites further analysis of how affective judgments ‘color’ sensations transmitted socially and politically.

 Benjamin Philippi

Works Cited:

Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Percept, Affect, and Concept.” What is Philosophy? New York: Columbia UP, 1996. 164-199.

Marcus, George E., W. Russel Neuman, and Michael Mackuen. Affective Intelligence and Political Judgment. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2000. 

Tomkins, Silvan. “What are Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins ReaderEds. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 33-73.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.