Review: Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 195.

The cover of Eve Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity features a black-and-white photo of artist Judith Scott embracing her sculpture. This image shows the attachment of the artist to the art object, the varied textures that create the sculpture, and an affect that is “mysterious, or at least multiple in quantity” (23). These multiple possibilities are difficult to put into words. For Sedgwick, the photo “conveys an affective and aesthetic fullness that can attach even to experiences of cognitive frustration” (24). The fullness of the picture anticipates the fullness of the collected essays that she describes as “a project to explore promising tools and techniques for nondualistic thought and pedagogy” (1). This book offers critical methods inspired by Silvan Tomkins’s ideas of affect to push against Foucauldian views of power and their “hermeneutics of suspicion” and explores the inexhaustible possibilities “beside offers instead of “for” or “against.” The notion of “beside,” essential for affect studies, is used to show how texture and affect are joined together phenomenologically. Sedgwick examines works by Henry James, J.L. Austin, Silvan Tomkins, D.A. Miller, and Judith Butler among others to illustrate her claims about the relationship between touching and feeling. These essays navigate the waters of performativity, affect, and pedagogy in an attempt to locate a middle space Sedgwick sees as a way for thinking beyond binaries.

In her first chapter, she explores shame and performativity in Henry James’s The Art of the Novel. She identifies shame as an affect “peculiarly contagious and peculiarly individuating” (36). Shame allows Sedgwick to better describe Henry James’s theatrical performativity, which “negotiate[s] the intersection between absorption and theatricality” (44). She finds that these “misplaced middles” highlight the “explicitness of James’s particular erotics” of queer performativity (52, 61). This performativity recognizes shame as a component of its creation and its potential transformation, enabling a new way to discuss identity politics. Addressing Tomkins’s differentiation between drive and affect, Sedgwick says, “In contrast to the instrumentality of drives and their direct orientation toward an aim different from themselves, the affects can be autotelic” (19). This distinction sets the stage for how Sedgwick sees shame working as an affect throughout this text. Shame in her personal essay about fainting at a demonstration in Research Triangle Park is placed beside what she sees as the other main ambition of the demonstration, smuggling. These “twinned ambitions” do not offer “clean distinctions between constative and performative, or between reference and embodiment” (32). The lack of clear demarcations between reference and embodiment suggests the middle and, in this example, offers the body as one site where these ideas might converge.

In her second chapter, Sedgwick examines Austin’s How to Do Things with Words to discuss words that are on the periphery of the performative. She coins the term “periperformative” to discuss utterances that are not “explicit[ly] performative,” but which are “about performatives and, more properly, they cluster around performance” (68). Sedgwick situates these periperformatives spatially, suggesting that they are near and around performatives. Through this spatialization, she hopes to open avenues of possibility for pushing interpellation further. She says, “In contrast to the performative, the periperformative is the mode in which people may invoke illocutionary acts in the explicit contexts of other illocutionary acts” (79). While the performative involves direct utterances, the periperformative relies on the unspoken. Austin’s performatives, such as “I do,” “I dare,” and “I swear,” lead directly to action, they make things happen (70). By contrast, periperformatives establish a different relationship at the spatial level, the situation is expanded beyond “I” and “you” to “I,” “you,” and “they” (72). The context of the situation when someone says, “I dare you” is generally understood to be between the person speaking and the “you” being addressed. Periperfomatives happen when “I dare you” becomes “I wish I had dared you.” Instead of an explicit vocal act, the periperformative highlights the context of that act, not just looking at the action, but what surrounds it. Ultimately, this chapter contributes to Sedgewick’s overall argument by offering periperformatives as a way to examine a middle ground that focusing on just performatives does not allow.

Sedgwick continues her discussion of shame by examining the work of Silvan Tomkins in her third chapter, “Shame and the Cybernetic Fold.” Written with Adam Frank, this essay examines Tomkins’s structural idea of shame as an affect motivated by internal and external systems in reaction to the strange. Sedgwick places Tomkins’s affective shame beside Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis” (98). For Tomkins, shame is the perfect example for discussing affect theory because shame is felt by the individual, expressed bodily, and perceived by others. Tomkins lays out his theory in two parts; first, all perceptual information has to be examined for its relevance to the affect, second, it has to have a set of mechanisms in place to either avoid or diminish that affect’s impact (115). Tomkins complicates the dichotomy of cognitive and behavioral response by theorizing a humanlike machine unable to learn because it would be incapable of error. The ability to be wrong and to feel shame at error acts as a motivational force for learning (108). Sedgwick situates this discussion of shame as transformational in “its failure to ever renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain” (117). As an affect, shame is a bodily reaction that is triggered by error, but it is not tied to the object that triggers it. The object of shame remains on the periphery of the subject, and thus acts as a motivator for change.

Sedgwick’s fourth chapter deals with paranoia and the hermeneutics of suspicion.  Paranoid practices are shown to be tools that seek a path to “true knowledge,” which relies on suspicion as a default practice. Paranoia is characterized by being suspicious all the time, by constantly anticipating bad news, and by “being a strong theory of negative affect” (130, 136). As a framework of thinking, a “strong theory” (an idea borrowed from Tomkins) is abstracted and comprehensive, but reduces actual spatial and situational awareness (145). The paranoid reader thus misses the middle in superimposing suspicion on everything. By contrast, a weak theory is localized and non-abstracting; because of its smaller scope, it better promotes richer individual understanding. Here, Sedgwick writes against the demystification of meaning through a paranoid framework alone. One of the traits of paranoid reading is the shift from the physical to the cerebral. This reduction of the body erases the motivational drives of affects such as shame and allows paranoia to be established in opposition to surprise. Sedgwick champions a “reparative” model of reading that asks the reader to let go of the model of reading that doesn’t allow for anything new to be experienced and instead be willing to “experience surprise” (146). The reparative reader is therefore one open to surprise, attentive to the rich description of a moment, and willing to be affected at the physical level.

The collection ends with an examination of Buddhist pedagogy, which in its exploration of selfhood, uses many tools that she advances in her discussion of affect. She learning what is already known as a way of finding knowledge (167). Belief or disbelief in this knowledge is less important than knowing itself. Locating the self in a space not anchored by binaries, she says creates a space for questioning that transcends self. She defines this space as, “Wish? Somewhere, at least, liberated by both possibility and impossibility, and especially by the relative untetheredness to self” (179) The “untetheredness” that she discusses in this section offers a temporal and spatial freedom that, by the end of this collection, seems to have been the point all along.

Touching Feeling ultimately offers a view of knowing that is not confined by binaries. By sharing her own personal experiences, Sedgwick also offers insight into how these shifting modes of thinking can be used outside of academia. The autobiography threaded throughout the text offers a way in and a reprieve from the sometimes dense language of critical theory that she works “beside.” Through the examination of the affect of shame, performativity, and paranoia, Sedgwick brings into focus the middle space between confining binaries of knowledge. This focus demands freedom from dualistic thought about knowledge, how it is learned and how it affects the body.

Melinda Borchers