"Afterword: Public Feeling, Ethical Entailment and the Poetics of Complicity"


Afterword: Public Feeling, Ethical Entailment and the Poetics of Complicity


It is true of a great deal of what goes on in me that normally if it is to be known I must tell it, or give expression to it. But for nothing in me is this absolutely true. Whatever in me I have to conceal I may betray exactly by the way in which I conceal it. Just that is what is concealed; the concealment of what it is up to me to express is a perfect expression of it—the slight edge to my denials, the over-casualness of my manner . . . There are those who know how to read such concealments. —Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason

1.        Let me begin by suggesting that the phrase “public feeling” might involve redundancy in the same way that “public language,” and “private feeling” might be as much an impossibility as “private language.” [1]  I do not mean that we do not often, for good reason, wonder about “what is going on in his head,” or worry that “she’s keeping it all bottled up inside,” or mutter about “never understanding what they want.” Such utterances are themselves articulations of feeling—frustration, apprehension, bewilderment—issued in response to words and deeds that may well include unmistakably apparent suppressions of feeling such as the concealments Stanley Cavell describes in my epigraph. To assume an existential rift or metaphysical divide between what is hidden (“private feeling”) and what is expressed (“public feeling”) is to deny (perhaps inadvertently) how well we ordinarily read one another. Even resolute withholding, cold indifference, and blank impassivity are recognizably expressive. The depth and extent of our feeling together entails no singular or important “feat of cognition,” as Cavell reminds us, but is an incumbent “call upon us,” an ongoing task that is shared even if rarely mutual (435).

2.        The editors of this volume ask how poetry “interferes in, perpetuates, or rearticulates feelings circulated in zones of sociality loosely denoted as public,” and in so doing they begin with the kind of acknowledgment Cavell urges. To recognize that emotions pass between us as expressions and outcries (and also as the felt silencing of expressions and outcries) is also to acknowledge that there is no other “zone” in which they circulate: the “publicness” of feeling is coeval with its forms of expression.

3.        The contributions gathered here expand the region of the public in a way that invites us to consider that even the precincts of privacy are shaped by sociality. The first essay stakes itself on the grounds of just such a paradox. Anastasia Eccles begins with the juxtaposition of two apparently contradictory assertions from Godwin’s Political Justice: the first stating as a given the necessary interdependence of all persons (“no man… can stand alone”); the second asserting the prospect of independence: “We ought to be able to do without one another.” [2]  The phrasing of the latter formulation is curious. Prescriptive and wistful at once, it draws attention to the interrelation between the tone or mood of an utterance and the conceptual possibilities it allows and forecloses. “We ought to be able to do without one another” sounds rather more like “we ought to be in Rome” (the reverie of a busy afternoon when the prospect of such an escape is impracticable) than “we ought to pay down this debt” (an imperative that might or might not be possible). If the “ought” commands the impossible, and thereby intimates a wish, then the sentiment itself seems in disagreement with the grammatical subject of the sentence: the inclusive second person plural. Godwin’s “we” joins us together in conceding the fleeting, occasional desire for an independence that is impossible precisely because we know that “no man stands alone.” I am suggesting that “We ought to be able” in this phrase is akin to “I (sometimes) wish I could,” but that Godwin’s syntax lays stress on the collective and shared fantasy of doing “without one another.” Let’s say that Godwin counts on, and elicits, our complicity in this “ought” that is really a wish.

4.         “No man stands alone” is best understood as a “sociological” fact and a “third person” epistemic claim rather than a “first person” testimony. We are all, each one of us, existentially interdependent, shaped by and vulnerable to political and economic conditions, historical encumbrances, material constraints, and so forth. Kant would classify such considerations as matters for “practical anthropology.” By contrast, an assertion (or is it rather an exclamation?) such as “We ought to be able to do without one another” expresses a determination, a discovery (or is it a longing?) freed from all empirical considerations. Godwin’s oddly phrased counterfactual wish corresponds to the imaginable, unreal, and unrealizable autonomy that is the stubbornly held aspiration of Kant's metaphysics of morals——the “precarious position” philosophy must somehow hold “firm” though there is “nothing on heaven or on earth” on which it is based (Kant 35). [3]  The distinction between the subject matter of “practical anthropology” and the concerns of what Kant calls “morals” is meant to clear the way for theorization of a “pure will,” the activity of which can never be proven or verified by our experience but is nevertheless not fantasy either. We are not being asked to choose between anthropology and morals, between “sociological fact” and speculative fiction or theory, but to recognize how the form of an inquiry itself shapes the object of the inquiry. This methodological insight is especially germane to the claims made in this collection about the epistemic contributions of poetic form. Maintaining a strict “division of labor” between empirical and non-empirical modes of inquiry is crucial, Kant thinks, in order to meaningfully account for, and to take seriously, intuitions involving freedom, obligation, respect, and dignity that seem to have no foundation in “things as they are.” But if those intuitions are without empirical basis, why take them seriously at all? It is fair to say that all the essays in this collection argue that it is the work of literature to bring us to know something—about power, about guilt, about aversion, fear, and resolution—which can only be recognized as such if we grant the possibility of what the editors term a “poetics of knowledge."

5.        As the editors note in their introduction, the essays collected here vary widely in method, subject matter, and historical sweep, but they all address the imbrication of aesthetic form and emotions, and each finds, in that imbrication, points of ethical inflection. The opening proposition of the collection—that “feeling is part of a structured world”—itself suggests a movement away from approaches to affect influenced by evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. There is no effort made in these essays to seek consilience with, or corroboration from, research in other disciplines. And if no single theoretical framework guides this movement away from a scientistically-inclined interdisciplinarity, there is nevertheless a tacit methodological commitment to the practice of close reading that is (as Jonathan Kramnick has recently argued) the most specific competency of literary studies as a discipline (4). It is from the renewed commitment to close reading in these essays that emotional and ethical response emerge as mutually determining. The question is how to understand that co-implication without losing the specificity of its articulation in literary form.

6.        The emphasis on complicity that is present in all the essays emerges from careful attention to subtle shadings of emotion, to spectrums of affective intensity, and to judgments that combine feeling, cognition, and bodily sensation. Even that most visceral of reactions—disgust—is shown to have such a composite structure. What the collection as a whole can be taken to argue is that certain forms of moral experience and reflection given to us in literature become available to us as readers only insofar as we resist the temptation to translate—and thereby subordinate—their logic and their poetry to explanatory frameworks (sociological, physiological, historicist). [4]  Moreover, and as the emphasis upon complicity suggests, the co-implication of emotions and ethics that all the essays in this collection attend to seems also to require new ways of speaking about agency—even while reckoning with individual and collective powerlessness. To return briefly to Kant, the “precarious position” the philosopher holds, ungrounded by anything “on heaven or on earth,” is the fragile “standpoint” upon which each thinks of herself as (if) “under the idea of freedom.” Something other than, or more than, mystification or delusion might be at work in imagining ourselves as capable of recognizing and resisting powers the determining force of which we also recognize. In much the same way, the feeling of complicity, even though it accompanies a sense of powerlessness, seems to depend on some “idea of freedom,” even as (only) a kind of negative capability.

7.        To take the first-person perspective seriously is to acknowledge that an adequate and complete explanatory account of our conditions (of “things as they are” for us and between us) is incommensurate with the bases upon which we expect and demand an accounting from one another. Christine Korsgaard (among the most important revisionist readers of Kant in the past half century) situates this first-person perspective in the “intersubjective” realm within which we hold one another responsible—for what we do together and apart, for how we fail one another, and even, yes, for how we feel. [5]  Crucially, to say that the first-person perspective is non-empirical is not to say that it is a kind of mistaken evasion of the material determinants that the third-person perspective discloses. The first-person perspective is not an illusion to be demystified. “We ought to be able to do without one another” does not aspire to be a counter-factual denial of “no man stands alone.” It is an utterance in a different register, so to speak. The complicity the phrase assumes and elicits—and elicits precisely by assuming it—depends on my assent in a way that “no man stands alone” does not. I must acknowledge, at the very least, that I know what it might mean to wish to do without another, that I get the gist of that sentiment even if (I say to myself) that I do not share it. (We may understand Godwin’s phrase as a speech act of the kind that Eric Lindstrom attends to in his reading of the poetic powers conjured by Audre Lorde and Percy Shelley.)

8.        Taking complicity in the narrowly negative sense of “unwilled and dysphoric” participation, Eccles suggests that the familiarity of the indictment in ideologically inflected critique has had the paradoxical effect of desensitizing and numbing. We readily identify complicity as we read, but do not ourselves feel complicit. This numbing or desensitization to aesthetic experience in ideological critique is analogous to the trajectory Samalin traces whereby unrepressed expressions of disgust at “things as they are” are transformatively sanitized in the ostensibly affectively neutral observations of early sociology.

9.        But of course, complicity is more capacious than its narrowly negative definition of feeling responsible for atrocities and injustice beyond our immediate control, just as ethics involves more of our speech and behavior than any isolated moment of choice. The conceptual and ethical valences of complicity are expansive—encompassing the vast extent of our co-implication with one another. In Caleb Williams, Eccles understands the interdependence of the two central characters as a “collective agency” that operates formally and structurally as an expression of our existential entanglement with one another. A similar insight is at work in Amelia Worsley’s essay on Coleridge and Southey, which reminds us that the abolitionist ballad, "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade," (1799) makes explicit the political and ethical commitments allegorized in the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798). Worsley understands that the feeling of complicity arises from a disruption of safe distance (be it spatial, temporal, or conceptual) between witness and perpetrator, and thus locates the complicity of the reader rather than the guilt and penance of the protagonist at the heart of both poems. Crowded with bystander figures, Southey's poem insistently draws the reader into the ambit of the sailor’s psyche, forcing a “collective, identificatory feeling of guilt” and a recognition of the urgency and immediacy of atrocities only allusively present in Coleridge’s abstract narrative of incrimination.

10.        Ultimately the sense of responsibility entailed in the very idea of complicity appears to be diffused into what Eccles describes as an “aesthetics of atmosphere” that encloses characters and readers together in a miasma of culpability within which participant and bystander are indistinguishable. Is this, as Eccles argues, a phenomenology of collective politics, or is the (aesthetic) “experience of responsibility that can neither be refused nor fully discharged” a despair-inflected version of the censorious insights of ideological critique? This may be the most challenging question posed by the arguments in this collection. After all, the feeling of complicity, understood as an anxious sensitivity to the unresolvable and the unforgiveable, is surely salutary in its persistence—unlike the attenuation of unrestrained disgust that Zachary Samalin gives us good reason to lament in his essay, "The Vomiting Mill." For Samalin, what late nineteenth century urban sociologists diagnosed as a deficiency of feeling (the pathologically “indifferent,” “emotionless” and benumbed forms of interaction in the modern metropolis) is etiologically linked to powerful feelings of “aversion” and “repulsion.” Samalin's primal scene of modern disgust is Wordsworth’s "Residence in London" from The Prelude (1805), a text that anticipates the strange condensation of “repulsion with alienation, of excess feeling with pathological unfeeling” that he finds determining the character of sociology as a discipline. Barely disguised or irrepressible disgust seems in Wordsworth's recollections of London and in Friedrich Engels’s later descriptions of the “offensive and repellent” conditions of industrial Manchester to be just the opposite of complicity—revulsion being also a kind of revolt at things as they are. If “social theory” in Samalin’s provocative formulation, is born from “the spirit of disgust," then the expurgation of “feeling from method” called for by Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and other originators of the social sciences necessarily entails a pacification of affective intensity as a mode of description and also as resource for critique. Neutrality of tone portends conceptual constraint, sets a limit on what a social scientific description aims to achieve. And in that way, neutrality itself can be construed as another form of complicity.

11.        It is perhaps symptomatic of our moment that this inquiry into “public feeling” limns the co-implication of aesthetic form, ethics and feeling by mapping bleak regions of sensibility to injustice, suffering, the unforgivable, and the irremediable. Turned inward, revulsion at things as they are risks turning into a sour mood of acquiescence, every passing moment of passive non-resistance being felt, in a stomach-churning sort of way, to be, in effect, a capitulation. For Eric Lindstrom this collective “mood of helplessness,” the “paradox of passive agency,” is precisely what the late Romantic Shelley contends with in the "Defense of Poetry" (1821). Lindstrom offers a willfully forward-looking alignment of poetics and the re-imagining of forms of community via a reading of Shelley’s “Defense” as a radical theorization of the distinction between value and fact. In Samalin’s genealogy, the aspiration to separate (social) fact from (subjective) value in sociology is traced back to a moment when they were conjoined in inescapably pressing emotional response to the “mean” and “vulgar shapes” of urban despair “forced upon my sight” (1805 Prelude Book 8: 804). That feeling—unwanted, unwilled, as undeniable and visceral as physical pain—was itself a powerful index of value, of what matters. On Samalin’s account, alienated numbness is at once a diagnostic posture and the lingering symptom of a revulsion that is at once involuntary and humane. On Eccles’s and Worsley’s accounts, complicity evinces a helpless paralysis that would not be felt at all were it not for the acutely present tension of stifled dissent. In this context, as Lindstrom argues in his essay, a utopian document such as Shelley's "Defense of Poetry," with its bold avowal of the power of the counterfactual, can only conjure the possibility of its "love-politics" by repressing and disowning "ugly" feelings of fear and anger.

12.        Shelley's idealism seems an extraordinarily unabashed effort to inhabit the Kantian standpoint that is (in fact) “nowhere in heaven or earth" but in which we dwell "under the idea of freedom." The lightning speed of the poet's conceptual movements from aesthetics to ethics to politics betray a kind of desperate flight from the very feelings of terror, disgust, rage, aversion and helplessness that are the needful indices of the deplorable state of "things as they are." If Romanticists see something familiar in Audre Lorde's insistence that "thought is inextricable from feeling and its expressive formalization," Lindstrom asks us to understand that the "critical-creative" force of this "philosophical poetics" cannot be assimilated to the poetry of those Lorde identified as the “the white fathers [who write] . . . in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight” ("Poetry is not a Luxury"). In Lorde, Lindstrom finds a near-contemporary articulation of the "love-politics" that Romanticists recognize as Shelleyean, but in his essay’s accounting for the crucial differences and discontinuities between the two poets, the "denied metaphysical reality" of anger and fear emerges as necessarily constitutive of aesthetics as a utopian resource rather than as a collection of dark affective intensities to be overcome or transcended.

13.        To recall my epigraph from Cavell, if "the concealment of what it is up to me to express is a perfect expression of" what I wish to conceal, then there is no hiding of our shames—but perhaps something will come from imagining how to be shame-faced with one another, to avow complicities that clamor for articulation in words we cannot choose but share.

Works Cited

Anderson, Amanda. Psyche and Ethos: Moral Life after Psychology. Oxford UP, 2018.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason. Oxford UP, 1979.

Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice: And Its Influence on Morals and Happiness. London. G.G. and J. Robinson, Paternoster Row, 1798.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge UP, 1997.

Korsgaard, Christine. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge UP, 1996.

Kramnick, Jonathan. Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness. U of Chicago P, 2018.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 2007.

Rorty, Amélie Oksensberg. "Enough Already with ‘Theories of the Emotions.'" Thinking about Feeling: Contemporary Philosophers on Emotions, edited by Robert C. Solomon, Oxford UP, 2004.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 4th ed., by P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, translated by G.E.M. Abscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, Oxford UP, 2001.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: The Four Texts (1798, 1799, 1805, 1850). Edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, Penguin Books, 1995.


[1] Indeed, the question of private language in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (especially par. 243–315) is inseparable from questions about the privacy of sensation and the communicability of feeling. BACK

[2] See Eccles, “Feeling Complicit in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams.” The quotations from the Enquiry Concerning Political Justice come from the Appendix "Of Cooperation, Cohabitation, and Marriage" in the revised third edition (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1798), Volume II, 499 and 505. BACK

[3] For the distinction between “practical anthropology” and “morals,” see pp. 2–3. BACK

[4] Amanda Anderson has recently urged us to be wary of the convergence of two dominant intellectual currents: the “deflation” of ideals of considered deliberation and ethical reasoning found in the cognitive and neurosciences on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the decentering of agency, the emphasis on “forces that take place behind the backs of individual subjects,” that is paradigmatic of post-structuralist and post-humanist approaches in the humanities (24). For a useful account of how the “zeal of theory construction” hardens distinctions between the always “mutually implicated categories” of emotion, cognition, belief, desire and judgments, see Amélie Oksensberg Rorty, "Enough Already with ‘Theories of the Emotions'" (270, 273). BACK

[5] See the influential titular essay in Creating the Kingdom of Ends (188–221, especially 204–5 and 210–12). BACK