I comment in my most recent previous post about affective reading, noting as I have many times that I ought not to do it. It occurs to me that I’ve not really spent time with the idea outside my years-ago graduate coursework, not in any substantive way, and that a fair number of the people who read this blog (thank you!) may not know what “affective reading” is or why someone like me might have been trained away from it. Thus, the following, in which I offer a cursory discussion of those ideas; as with many things, others have treated the topic more intelligently than I have (ever had?) it in me to do, but I do what I can.
Now, again, this is entirely cursory and paraphrased from years of courses and readings, so it will necessarily gloss over and simplify matters; I can’t give a doctorate in a blog post. But my experience with the term “affect,” and how I’ve used it subsequently, has been something related to reader-response theory. In that theory, the meaning of a given text (and this can apply, really, to any artwork, but I talk about things in terms of text because it’s easier for me to do it that way) exists somewhere in the negotiation between the work as itself and the reaction of the reader to the work. That is, a text is not the words on the page, but the experience of the reader with the words on the page; if there is no reader, there is no text, even if there is a verifiable physical object to consider. It has no meaning unless the reader acts upon it to produce meaning, although it is also the case that the meaning the reader produces from the object is guided and directed by the object itself. I think a lot of people understand this at some level; most of the people I have known have run into readings they didn’t understand, and so those readings didn’t mean a damned thing to them. Certainly so much was true for students when I had them, and I’ll admit that I don’t get a lot out of watching dance; I don’t understand a lot about how dance conveys meaning, so I don’t know how to act upon the performances I see and have seen to make meaning from them.
(Please don’t take this to mean that I don’t like dance or don’t esteem its value. That I don’t understand a thing doesn’t mean I think it has no worth. The failure is mine, and one of many, not that of the medium.)
“Affect,” at least for me, becomes something of an emotional engagement with the text, a self-identification with the events described in the work. That is, it is the manifestation of affection for the characters and their situations, which moves from the meaning-making into over/investment in the emotional content of the work in which they exist. To use the repeated example from the Hobb reread, I find myself sympathizing with Fitz an awful damned lot; I end up feeling as I read as much as or more than I find myself examining and considering what I read.
So much is a problem insofar as attempts to plumb a text for meaning go. For one, reading with affect ends up making the reading more about me than about the text, and even if it is the case that the text does not exist as a conceptual thing without readerly interaction (and I do tend to follow a reader-response-informed theoretical approach, insofar as I have a theoretical approach–which may be part of why I never landed a “real” academic job), overreliance on the effect a work has on one reader inhibits the ability of others to use such a reading to glean their own knowledge and further their own understanding of the text. Too, sympathies constrain and restrict the ability to arrive at some understandings; it is harder to identify faults and label them as such amid some emotional engagements, and far too easy in others, which is not necessarily fair to the thing being examined or appropriate to the context of examination. So much is not to say that what is praiseworthy should not be praised and what is flaw should not be rebuked, but it is to say that it’s a lot easier to find the praiseworthy in what is liked and the blameworthy in what is disliked than the opposite, regardless of its actual presence or absence.
There’s also an issue I think is at work at deeper levels in the minds of teachers such as I have had and as I doubtlessly, in my own lesser fashion, have been. There is an apprehension in those who work in the academic humanities that their work is of no value; it is certainly said often enough and by enough voices to raise the concern. Long-standing practices associate emotional reactions with unserious things–and vice-versa. Consequently, emotional over/investment becomes something to be avoided; it becomes something unserious, and fields of study that already operate under the onus of perceived uselessness can ill afford additional associations with a lack of seriousness.
I have the sneaking suspicion that such associations and the admitted problems of reading with too much (any?) affect combine to move those who study the academic humanities from the love of the things that actually brought them to that study. I know that, for me, the idea of being a band director was one that emerged (at least in part) from a love of music and of playing as part of an ensemble; my shift to English studies emerged almost wholly from a love of reading and a desire to do more of it and be better at it. (I left off being a band director for other reasons, but there’s a difference between moving from and moving to, and it’s more than just a shift of preposition.) I also know that playing while I was trying to be a band director and reading while I was trying to be an English professor were…fraught; the adage about doing what you love so that you don’t ever work is wrong, and its prevalence leads to feelings of inadequacy and insufficiency. Or it did for me, at least.
Anyway, for me, reading with affect happens. And I’m not trying to work in the academic humanities anymore…
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