Review: Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism

Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. Ann Cvetkovich. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Pp. x + 227.

“This book is the product of my own mixed feelings about a feminist politics of affect,” begins Ann Cvetkovich in Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism. Indeed, her “mixed feelings” inform her nuanced, holistic re-readings of affects in literary studies and the theoretical and historical frameworks typically used to interpret them. In this multi-methodological book, Cvetkovich investigates what she calls the “politics of affect,” or, the larger social forces that construct and politicize the meaning of female bodily expressions of feeling. Affect, she insists, is always discursive, collective, and relational, as well as associated, in literary studies, with genres of emotional excess. Victorian sensation fiction, in particular, is traditionally associated with affect as a genre that both presents and provokes affective responses. Looking to the sensation genre, Cvetkovich demonstrates how the discourse of affect is more political than biological, more constructed than natural, and more rooted in middle-class anxieties than in the everyday realities of female experience.

Despite vast amounts of critical work that investigates affect in literature, Cvetkovich argues that scholars have confined women’s bodies to the very restricting categories they attempt to subvert. This is one reason she takes issue with contemporary feminist reclamations of affect that view women’s individual bodies as vehicles for female empowerment and subversion; they are grounded in a “repressive hypothesis,” she asserts, that “equat[es] the unleashing of suppressed feelings with rebellion against social convention” (48). These claims have led to the association of female over-expression with diseases like hysteria, which not only perpetuate the idea that women’s bodies signify social illness, but, more importantly, naturalizes the connection between women’s bodies, sexuality, and affect. Only by shifting focus away from individual cases, Cvetkovich argues, can we examine the larger social forces that pre-determined how to interpret these affective and affecting individuals—that “nineteenth-century culture invented the suffering woman, and that she serves political purposes beyond the need to tell her story” (98). In other words, “if the sensational figures that Victorian texts render so compellingly affective are to be effective politically, those figures must be read as local symptoms of more general problems” (5).

In the first chapter, Cvetkovich investigates the politics of affect by “trac[ing] how affective experience is made meaningful” (23). She looks specifically at the way Victorian aesthetic and ethical discourse about the genre of sensation fiction “frequently masks a political discourse, enabling the disparagement of cultural forms that appealed to marginalized groups, such as the working class or women” (22). Cvetkovich investigates the discourse of affect generated by Victorian critics to locate the middle class’s role in its own self-consolidation as a dominant group using a language of consumption and disease to discredit the popular genre’s value. These critiques, she claims, ultimately shaped the continued association of affect with sensationalism and female sexuality—part of a larger historical pattern of using aesthetic and ethical judgments to promote politically motivated biases against oppressed groups.

Temporarily turning away from the nineteenth century, Cvetkovich’s second chapter traces the tensions between various contemporary theories and methodologies of affect, taking issue with their claims which do not consider what “made affect meaningful” (6). While these modes of thought seem at odds with one another in many ways, Cvetkovich imagines her work as a “framework in which the conflicting claims of Marxism, feminism, Foucauldianism, and psychoanalysis can be negotiated without assimilating any of them to a master-narrative provided by a single theoretical framework” (44). Instead, she argues for a nuanced, “more general theory of the politics of sensationalism” that focuses on close reading, history, and theory simultaneously and offers an integrative approach to the study of affect (14).

Her remaining chapters provide a model for how these methodologies could work together in various texts. In her chapter on East Lynne and melodrama, Cvetkovich envisions a synthesized psychoanalytic, Foucauldian approach that “illuminates how socially constructed affective processes are naturalized and deconstructs theories (including Freud’s) that posit a primary or natural affective bond” (117). In this way, Cvetkovich weaves her readings and methodologies together seamlessly to desensationalize three interrelated objects: figures of affect by investigating the forces that both produced them and constructed their meaning; literary theories by resolving perceived tensions and developing an inclusive critical framework; and the gendered politics of affect to allow for a more inclusive, effective way to analyze affect.

Her close readings in chapters three through six realize her first two objects: they use multiple theories in tandem to highlight how cultural anxieties about class position and commodity culture transform sensational women’s bodies into fetishized objects of capitalism. Cvetkovich discusses two types of figures in Victorian Sensation novels: the woman with the secret in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret and Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and the woman “whose secret is her feelings” from Ellen Wood’s East Lynne and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (98). Her analysis identifies the problem of reading these texts as cases of subversion when they actually reveal the process of construction, commodification, and naturalization of female bodies by mass culture. These close readings allow Cvetkovich to speculate about larger issues in the field, arguing that “the problems with a politics of affect may be that the affective experiences that progressive critics envision being put to other purposes might be too tightly bound to capitalism and bourgeois culture to be extricated from them” (163).

In chapters three and four, therefore, she reinterprets the woman with the secret as embodying the “madness produced by middle-class consumer society,” as in Lady Audley’s Secret’s case (93), or signifying anxieties about “male accession to power” and the “effects of urban development and industrialization” in The Woman in White’s (93). Cvetkovich also problematizes the figure of the confessing, emotional woman by arguing that East Lynne further reinforces the naturalizing of affect by linking “the problem of womanhood with the problem of expressing affect” (105), while Daniel Deronda mobilizes a moralizing sympathy to disguise the “property relations that underlie marriages” (138). Cvetkovich argues that women’s bodies in these texts express not their own inner pain, but the “relation between affect and capitalism,” signifying both the “desiring consumer and the desired commodity” (70). Through their “capacity to represent social problems as emotional problems and to naturalize affective experience” (112), these texts, Cvetkovich argues, fail to subvert the norm of “affective relations that are not based on the private and individual bonds of heterosexual romance or parenting” (157); they thereby endorse culturally constructed links between affect and femininity.

In her last chapter, Cvetkovich turns to the genre of documentary realism through Karl Marx’s Capital to highlight the political economy of affect. Comparing Marx’s text with the sensational and melodramatic, Cvetkovich argues for similarities between the objectification of middle-class women and lower-class men; how to interpret their bodies shows that “representing the body in pain is not unambiguously meaningful” (172). For Cvetkovich, a solution to the “repressive hypothesis” undermining contemporary feminist politics of affect lies not in specific instances of bodily expression, but in the concept of “surplus value” (174). Surplus value, she argues, “is neither a person nor a thing,” but when it is clear that the human body embodies surplus value, it becomes easier to “collapse the distinction between them” (187); this is the same with women’s bodies and affect. Drawing this connection, Cvetkovich imagines a way for contemporary critics to incorporate Marx’s concept of commodification as a way to move beyond discussions of women’s bodies as “secret repositories of suffering” (202). Instead, critics should consider how these bodies relate to things outside themselves, including commodities, other bodies, and pleasure and pain. Bodies overlap and synthesize with the interrelated, material world—a relationality much like that of contemporary literary methodologies—and it is only by focusing on this “aura of mystery” that we can understand how affect operates within a larger system of exploitation that turns bodies into fetishized objects of surplus value (203).

Drawing from history, theory, sensationalism, realism, fiction, and nonfiction, Mixed Feelings’ greatest strength comes from its relational self-awareness; her book amalgamates itself with the larger field of affect studies, demonstrating how these theories can work together toward similar liberatory goals.

Allison Clymer