Miranda Burgess

Department of English

The University of British Columbia

397-1873 East Mall

Vancouver, B.C. V6T 1Z1 Canada


On being moved: affect, aesthetics, and Romantic traffic

An affective turn in literary studies? It is becoming clear, I think, that we are experiencing one; less clear that the participants are entirely comfortable with it. The title of our session provides a metonymy for one of the important ways—itself metonymic—that the discipline has responded to the discomforts of the affective turn: the substitution of emotions, or feelings, for affects. Another way, I will suggest, is the methodological move that analyses of the discipline’s trajectories have called “the new aesthetics.”[i] In reading these turns in method together, I would like to raise the possibility that they emerge from the angle at which literary studies transits an increasingly global affective field. This paper will argue for the urgency of talking more specifically about affect, especially in conjunction with aesthetics, as a way to rethink the relationship between literary studies and the global conditions that surround it.

In this paper I will centre my discussion on the history of affect and its mediation in Britain and Ireland, especially in Romantic poetics. I am a Romanticist, so there is some degree of opportunism at work in this procedure. But the proposition that Romantic poetics provides more than a rhetorical occasion for reflecting on the profession will play a prominent part in my discussion. In the few minutes I have, I will make three primary claims. First, I want to propose that what Adela Pinch has called the long eighteenth century’s “concern with the vagrancy of emotions” heralds, and illuminates, twenty-first century anxieties about globalization.[ii] Second, by sketching out some theoretical and formal responses of Romantic writers to the emergence of this traffic, I want to show how feeling, figuration, and the aesthetic cooperated to regulate and mediate an emerging global scene of affect in ways that have persisted into the present. And third, I would like briefly to revisit the global affects against which the aesthetic and feeling have provided this kind of hedge as a preliminary step toward identifying new ways of theorizing literary pleasure. Here an analysis grounded in Romantic poetics will prove especially critical to avoiding a politics, or poetics, of the gesture, what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has called “the bossy gesture of ‘calling for’ an imminently perfected critical or revolutionary practice that one can oneself only adumbrate.”[iii]



Let me begin by describing an earlier turn in the understanding of affect: from the analysis of “panic” outlined by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708), and upheld in David Hume’s discussion of “sympathy” in the Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), to the theory of “transport” that emerges, for example, in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). When Shaftesbury examines the circulation of affect, he concludes that it takes place through “contact or sympathy”: “looks are infectious. The fury flies from face to face.”[iv] Hume affirms that “no quality of human nature is more remarkable. . . than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different from, or even contrary to, our own.”[v] Sentiments are communicated by means of “contiguity,” which allows the reception of visual cues, the deduction of their causes and, finally, the development of “such a lively idea of the passion as is presently converted into the passion itself” (318, 576). For Smith, too, “passions. . . may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them.”[vi] But in his account the transfusion requires no visual contact. Rather, he explores the possibility of sympathy at a distance.

In Smith the theory of communicable feeling becomes a theory of mediation, which begins with a theory of reading. As readers, Smith writes, “we transport ourselves in fancy” to the scene of a book, “enter into” or “sympathize. . . with the highest transports” of the characters, and thus “bring home to ourselves the situation” in which their feeling takes place. Alternatively, however, “we feel ourselves naturally transported towards” the object of our sympathy, regardless of whether or not we wish to be so moved (87-89). This account of “transport,” as a force by turns volitional and inexorable, unites the experience of being moved emotionally with the experience of being physically moved. The connection is underlined by the possibility, mentioned earlier in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, that a subject’s sympathy may “transport him” toward “extravagant” objects, carrying him as it were beyond the pale (59).

In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s dictionary had defined “transport” in two ways: “to convey by carriage from place to place” and “to hurry by violence of passion.” The preoccupation of contemporary literary criticism with “tendency,” defined by Johnson as “a direction or course” as well as “the purport. . . of a writing or discourse,” helps clarify the relationship between these two forms of passive movement. In Smith, in particular, transport seems to involve a kind of automatism in which books make their readers move precisely to the extent that they make their readers feel. They make their readers feel by exposing them to already wandering or extravagant feelings. The passage of these feelings is eased, in turn, by technologies of communication—by books and their modes of carriage.

I want to emphasize what may already be apparent: that these rhetorics of “transport” and “tendency,” which govern the philosophy of feeling even as they gesture to contemporary modes of vehicularity, coincide with a pivotal period in the history of global transport and of Britain’s participation in it. Developments ranged from the rapid expansion of canal systems within Britain after mid-century—resolving the ironic contradiction that saw Britain’s ports “incessantly crowded with innumerable vessels” from around the world even as the parts of the interior remained wholly disconnected from one another—to the 1793 establishment of Boards of Victualling and Transport that regularized the merchant marine and placed the fleet at the official service of Britain’s military and imperial projects.[vii]

It may be helpful to add that, in their analysis of the means and effects of the systems and technologies of transport developing in the period, the transportation histories of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries highlight the defeat of distance and the critical role of will in similar terms to Smith. Moreover, just as theories of reading associate communication with transport, so transportation historians assess the benefits and risks of new transport technologies with reference to what John Aikin called “communication.”[viii] Attributing improved communication to the development of transport can convey approbation, as in the claim of one anonymous historian that the building of canal networks extends a “social intercourse of benefits” derived from transnational commerce to the interior of Britain.[ix] But attention to communication can also imply a concern with contagion, or vulnerability to contamination from without, as in John Phillips’s uneasy recognition that the canals have, “in effect, converted the internal parts of our island into coasts” (v). The difference between benefit and risk seems to turn, as in Smith, on the unreliable guardianship of the will.

I describe these conversations in order to demonstrate that the analysis of mobile feeling that emerges in the last part of the eighteenth century is also an analysis of mobility more generally—one that corresponds with the development and refinement of new systems and technologies of movement and that attends as closely to these systems and technologies as it does to the feelings for which they are a medium and vector. I would like to suggest, that is, that the histories and anxieties of feeling and global traffic are entangled at their late eighteenth century source.



Emotions “transfused. . . instantaneously and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them”; sympathies by which “we feel ourselves. . . transported towards,” at times, “extravagant” feelings: feelings, for Smith, are no respecters of borders. In this sense, and in the invocations of volition that establish a divide between the feeling self and the feelings of the other, the theory of transport anticipates two prominent current theories of mobility. In affect theory, for example the work of Brian Massumi, affect is distinguished from feeling or emotion by its limitlessly and amorphously mobile quality. In the theory of globalization, especially as it is discussed generally by Craig Calhoun, with respect to Ireland by Peadar Kirby, Luke Gibbons, and Michael Cronin, and with regard to Asia by Arjun Appadurai, global interconnectedness moves forward at a high level of abstraction, or amorphousness, in which the needs and wants of individual as well as local and state actors are continually swept aside.[x] I want to argue that the affective and the political economic story represent two versions of a single global narrative—in current theory as in Adam Smith’s theory of transport and its Romantic elaboration.

When Massumi describes affect as “intensity,” his identification of a force that moves amongst bodies rather than existing within them is strikingly close to Smith’s.[xi] His use of “tendencies” to designate affect as at once inchoate and insistent is equally striking in its resemblance to Smith’s account of transport as a moving force, and also to the eighteenth-century reader theories of which transport is an elaboration (30). And when Massumi identifies cognition as the origin of the process of affective arrest, or “fixing,” that establishes individual emotions as points of “qualified intensity,” he emphasizes, with Smith, that the process is “consensual” (28). Cognition is indistinguishable from self-consciousness and self-consciousness from volition: subjectivity is enacted in the experience of will. All this takes place in the processing of affect, so that moving affects emerge as (individual and sometimes sympathetic) feelings precisely in locating themselves within (individual and sometimes sympathetic) subjects.

Just such a process is at work, I think, in Smith’s insistence on volition, the entering into and bringing home that identifies a sympathetic, and a feeling, subject by distinguishing the subject from the objects of his or her feeling, however intense, intimate, and evidently shared. Massumi, then, can help with a reading of Smith, identifying his aims and also, I think, his anxieties. But Smith can also assist in a reading of Massumi by highlighting what Massumi does not address in depth, at least in his theorizing of affect: the spatial dimension of the affective field and also of the acts of will that produce discrete sites of feeling and subjectivity. Reading Smith in conjunction with current theories of affect, feeling, and emotion highlights the global scene of affect theory, not least by highlighting the technologies transport that serve as affect’s media, expanding the field of its operation beyond the local, visual, and contiguous.

In accounting for the emergence of feeling subjects, Massumi is very clear that the process of establishing volition, and of converting affects in motion to personal feelings, by no means exhausts the affective field. For Smith, too, the continual failures of the will, coupled with the mobility of the feelings he addresses, suggests that his theory of sympathetic feeling remains situated amid the continuing traffic in affect, which retains the capacity to overrun and set aside the will. When Romantic-period writers intervene in the scene of mobile affect, and in their account of the defeat of volition, they are still more explicit in their identification of the global stakes.

Discussions in the Romantic period range from the 1795 sermon in which the clergyman Gilbert Austin laments print and its carriage as a “potent invention! which in a moment communicates to thousands the same ideas” and “in a moment directs the thoughts of whole nations into a single channel” to a revolutionary pamphlet of 1794 that metaphorized radical print as an irresistible “vibration” with a “dangerous tendency” that can “create Atheists in Ethiopia—Republicans in the Tartarean deserts and—Municipalities in Patagonia.”[xii] I would like to attend especially closely to the ways in which William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge theorize the scene of global print and its mediation of affect. I will do so because these poets anatomize the scene in ways that herald current theories of globalization and also because their discomfort with the global mobility of affect shed light on the aesthetic and political theories at work in the present-day discipline of literary studies.  

 Several of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s most major critical statements were also interventions in the scene of what I would now like to identify as Romantic transport, the global circulation and amplification of affect. In the 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth argues that  “the rapid communication of intelligence”—the production and circulation of print, with all the technological advancements that implies—“blunt the discriminating powers of the mind and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion. . . reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor.”[xiii] Passive receptacles for moving books and affects, Wordsworth’s readers crave and thirst but cannot think, so that they are moved decisively but automatically by affects from afar. This accounting for the affect of others posits something very like Sianne Ngai’s conception of “animatedness”: an encounter, at once fascinating and horrifying, with the affect experienced by a racially or otherwise alien other in whom it seems to have been provoked from outside, lending the apparently passive and otherwise immobile other an involuntary kind of agency that mirrors the viewer’s own appalled passivity.[xiv] The relation emphasizes the contingency of Wordsworth’s own hard-won subjectivity.

In 1817 Coleridge remarked in the Biographia Literaria on the emergence of the “multitudinous Public” from the “multitude of books and the general diffusion of literature”: by these means, he argues, “the world of letters,” once equivalent to “the Town,” had widened to incorporate “all men.”[xv] Where Wordsworth emphasizes the loss of subjectivity and volition, Coleridge complained of the simultaneous concretion and intangibility, or violence coupled with ghostliness, of agency. In the emerging global network of affects and readers he descries the ironies of a “despotism” founded on “the magic of abstraction” and the work of “invisible ministers.”

Taken together, these arguments provide antecedents for current understandings of globalization as a process that leads with abstraction in order to achieve something all too concrete: an erasure of difference notwithstanding local will. As precursors to twenty-first-century globalization rhetorics, the Romantic statements reveal the affective dimension in political economic responses to the networks of global exchange as well, perhaps, as the response to global traffic that is latent in a poetics of subjectivity. More importantly, however, their response to the loss of subjectivity they fear—a loss of individual feeling that was never more than a temporary and contingent bulwark against the pre-subjective mobility of affect, as Wordsworth comes close to acknowledging—may identify a need to theorize alternatives to globalization that take into account the pre-subjective networks that globalization has sought to technologize, extend, and channel.



To examine the response of Wordsworth, in particular, to the discomforts of affective traffic is to describe a poetics of subjectivity that is, I will suggest, an audible precursor to today’s “new aesthetic” turn. I want to suggest that the continuity of Wordsworth’s poetics with more recent theories of literary aesthetics helps to reveal the recent aesthetics as a response, at least in part, to an affective turn that began with the development of transportation networks, and that has turned, once again, on the advent of globalization.

Outlined in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads and some of the accompanying notes to that volume, Wordsworth’s poetics of subjectivity has two components: a theory of metonymy and a theory of reader response. Both define the relationship between parts and wholes, or individuals and masses, in terms of “participation” rather than contagion or circulation: a replication of generality at the level of the one through the medium of poetic language. Thus when Wordsworth claims, in a note to “The Thorn” in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, that poetry is “the history or science of feelings,” he relies on the disciplinary role of poetic language, which he defines as a use of “words, not only as symbols of the passions, but as things, active and efficient, which are themselves part of the passion.”[xvi] Emerging from their organic relationship with feeling, the words of Wordsworth’s poems actively recreate the feeling in their reader.

This notion of linguistic activity shapes a theory of reader response from the projected encounter of individual readers with Wordsworth’s poetry. Notwithstanding the account of savage torpor existing elsewhere in the Preface, Wordsworth now asserts that an “understanding” that is “in some degree enlightened,” and “affections” that are “ameliorated,” are inevitable outcomes of reading his own works (1: 126). It is as though reading Wordsworth provides a kind of buffer against unwanted affects from outside the tight circuit of poet and reader. The reading process he describes involves a participation in the feelings of a poet whose own repeated meditations on the “influxes of feeling,” or affect, have, in turn, aligned his feelings with what is “general,” or “really important to men”—and, as we have seen, distilled a language at once disciplined and organically linked to general feeling (1: 126). However “spontaneous,” therefore, the reader’s sympathetic feelings have already been “directed by our [that is, by poets’] thoughts” toward a relationship of “Poet” to “Reader” that stands metonymically for human affective community (1: 126). The contact between the reader’s mind and the poet’s affects remains purely virtual, however—what Wordsworth will call, in The Prelude, a “Resemblance of that glorious faculty/ That higher minds bear with them as their own.”[xvii] This is the case, not least, because the resemblance is produced by metonymies for affect—emotions and their verbal cues—rather than by contact with the affects themselves.

The generality here is Kantian rather, say, than Humean. That is, it is aesthetic rather than sympathetic or, as Kant puts it, the “universal voice” it posits “is. . . only an idea.”[xviii] The poet’s self-conscious experience of being moved by poetic language prompts him to attribute a similar experience to unknown and unmet others—projected readers—based on his imagining of their encounters with his poems. This is Wordsworth’s version of Kant’s notion of the “subjectively universal” (Kant, 100). As in Kant, the Preface and Notes to Lyrical Ballads theorize a “universal communicability” born not of affective contagion but of the subject’s relation to the aesthetic object that confirms him in his subjectivity, or intentionality, and his consequent positing of shared intentionality, or “purposiveness,” without recourse to law or sympathy (Kant, 116). The free movement of individual subjects, whose pleasing encounters with poetry make them aware of themselves as subjects, and the formation of a community of readers, whose aesthetic pleasures bind them in relations of shared feeling, alike take place, as in Kant, solely in the exchange between the reader’s mind and the aesthetic object.

It is easy to see why such a theory of virtual communicability would appeal to a poet confronted with an increasing range, and speed, of transports, and with all the affective consequences the prospect of global traffic continued to imply. But the Kantian model of aesthetic experience continues to hold considerable appeal for literary aesthetic theorists in the present, as well as for philosophers engaging with the literary. So Charles Altieri has proposed that the feelings experienced in response to literature are purposive in the Kantian sense, activating the subject by provoking a second-order experience of his or her own emotional responses.[xix]The outcome for Altieri, as for Wordsworth, is the shaping of an ethical subject in the process of aesthetic encounter. So too Martha Nussbaum grants literature a prominent place in her account of the ethical role of the emotions on the grounds that reading teaches subjects how to feel, especially empathically, according with the established norms of rightness.[xx] Is there something about the current global scene that demands renewed attention to the constitution of ethical subjects by means of their literary aesthetic encounters? What of the foregone opportunities for empathy born of a different, less aesthetic, and perhaps more technological kind of mediation, or different understanding of literary encounter? Or—is there something intrinsically unethical about immersion in the field of global intensity? What exactly are the non- or pre-subjective forms of literary experience against which the aesthetic, and a poetics of metonymy, provide this kind of hedge? Are they necessarily assimilable to the damage done on otherwise passive subjects by globalization from without?


On being moved

With this series of questions, I am moving perilously close to a rhetoric of gesture. Let me conclude, instead, by beginning, at least, to outline some rudiments of what I have called for: a theorizing of alternative forms of global interconnectedness in versions of the literary that escape aesthetic purposiveness by orienting the reader differently to transport, and to the mediation of the printed word.

Some texts that take up this question include the following:

* the Irish novelist Sydney Owenson’s theory of reading communities, which is derived from the contemporary theory of transmigration at the point where it converges with Erasmus Darwin’s theory of universal matter and its conservation. If I feel with you, Owenson proposes in her 1806 novel The Wild Irish Girl, it is because I am materially a part of you. 

* the anatomy of memory in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), which builds on ideas about retention, recall, and affective plasticity that are drawn, at more than one remove, from Locke, and Hartley, and Laurence Sterne. If I have read it, then memory, with its alternation between inadequacy and “tyrannic. . . controul,” makes it forever a part of me.[xxi] Austen’s heroine partakes in multiple conflicting affects communicated by her reading, and the novel becomes a close anatomy of mind.

* the presentation of sociability as inhuman and narrative “noise” in Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), and the consequent interpretive challenges the novel self-consciously poses to its reader. Anyone seeking to be moved by Scott’s novel will have to work awfully hard—which is, I think, the point.

It is fair to say that engagement with global sympathy motivates these Romantic meditations on mediation, affect, and community. But it would not be accurate to align any one of them with, for example, the “solidarity” or self-conscious renewals of national or local cultural production that, for Calhoun, Gibbons, and Appadurai, resist the tyranny of the global. Indeed, it is difficult, in reading them, to identify even more purposeless forms of purposiveness. In attempting to please their readers, these writers are not necessarily aiming to move them, even as they engage in active and self-conscious play with literary form.

 The legacies of Romantic purposiveness are evident not only in scholarship but also in policy: in, for example, the investment in social outcomes, including nation-building, of British, American, and Canadian cultural funding. In this context it seems especially timely to recall the longstanding association between literary and global transport and to renew our investigations into the role of writing and reading—the literary AS the literary—in mediating affect in its genuinely global and nonsubjective form. I would like to hear more about the forms that might do this. And I would like to hear more, in scholarship and policy, about the ethics of this kind of reading.


[i] E.g. John J. Joughin and Simon Malpas, eds., The New Aestheticism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003); Christopher Castiglia and Russ Castronovo, eds., Aesthetics and the End(s) of American Cultural Studies (Durham: Duke UP, 2004).

[ii] Adela Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996), 10.

[iii] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), 8.

[iv] Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm, in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Lawrence E. Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999), 10.

[v] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978), 316. Subsequently cited in the text.

[vi] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 13. Subsequently cited in the text.

[vii] John Phillips, General History of Inland Navigation (London: Taylor, 1792), 70. Subsequently cited in the text. See also Roger Moriss, “Colonization, Conquest, and the Supply of Food and Transport: The Reorganization of Logistics Management, 1780-1795,” in War in History 14 (2007): 310-324.

[viii] John Aikin, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester (London: Johnson, 1785), 105.

[ix] History of Inland Navigations, Particularly that of the Duke of Bridgwater, 3rd ed. (London: Lowndes, 1779), 1.

[x] Craig Calhoun, Nations Matter: Citizenship, Solidarity, and the Cosmopolitan Dream (New York: Routledge, 2007); Peadar Kirby, Luke Gibbons, and Michael Cronin, eds., Reinventing Ireland: Culture, Economy, and the Global Society (London: Pluto, 2002); Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996).

[xi] Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002), 23-45 passim. Subsequently cited in the text.

[xii] Gilbert Austin, Sermons on Practical Subjects (London: Johnson, 1795), 143; Report of the Trial of the King versus Hurdy Gurdy (Dublin: np, 1794), 16.

[xiii] William Wordsworth, Preface (1800) to Lyrical Ballads, in Prose Works, ed. W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (Oxford: Clarendon, 1974), 1: 128. Subsequently cited in the text.

[xiv] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005), 89-125.

[xv] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Angell and Walter Jackson Bate, Vol. 7 of Collected Works (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983), 38-9, 59.

[xvi] Wordsworth, Note to “The Thorn,” in Lyrical Ballads (London: Longman, 1800), 1: 213.

[xvii] Wordsworth, The Fourteen-Book Prelude, ed. W. J. B. Owen (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985), 14: 89-90.

[xviii] Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment, in Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 101.

[xix] Charles Altieri, The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004).

[xx] Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001).

[xxi] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ed. James Kinsley, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003), 163.