Introduction: Romanticism and Affect Studies

This volume presents new work by scholars working at the intersection of British Romanticism and affect studies. Each essay takes a different approach to affect and emotion, from a piece on Joanna Baillie’s passion plays, co-written by a literary scholar and a cognitive psychologist, to a piece that utilizes affect theory and rhythmic studies in a reading of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This volume does not propose a single definition of “affect,” but all of the essays share the conviction that the kind of interdisciplinary work demanded by affect studies is beneficial to both Romantic studies and affect studies. Much more than a passing trend, affect studies has transformed the study of emotion for a generation of scholars.

Introduction: Romanticism and Affect Studies

1.        This volume presents new work by scholars working at the intersection of British Romanticism and affect studies. The past two decades have seen a growing interest in the use of affect theory, cognitive science, phenomenology, and neuroscience to reconceptualize theories of feeling and emotion in British Romantic writing. This “affective turn” has renewed emphasis on emotion, which experienced relative marginalization in new historicist scholarship throughout the 1980s and 90s. Once dismissed as ideologically suspect, emotion has been put to increasingly sophisticated use by literary critics, often in relation to affect’s effects on the body and its relationship to emotion, cognition, and action. Much more than a passing trend, affect studies has transformed the study of emotion for a generation of scholars. [1] 

2.        While much of the foundational work in affect studies tends toward the theoretical and scientific, an influential group of Romanticists has shaped the field in relation to literature, culture, and history. In particular, scholars such as Joel Faflak, Mary Favret, Steven Goldsmith, Thomas Pfau, Adela Pinch, Alan Richardson, and Richard Sha have applied affect theory and cognitive science to the study of Romantic texts, revising our understanding of the emotions in relation to thought and action. [2]  This unique exchange between Romanticism and affect studies has produced a body of important scholarship that fruitfully crosses disciplinary boundaries. The essays in this volume both capitalize on and extend this scholarship in new and exciting ways, demonstrating the broad application and theorization of “affect” in Romantic-era studies. Each essay takes a different approach to affect and emotion, from a piece on Joanna Baillie’s passion plays, co-written by a literary scholar and a cognitive psychologist, to a piece by Mark Lussier that utilizes affect theory and rhythmic studies in a reading of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). This volume does not propose a single definition of “affect” or “emotion,” but all of the essays share the conviction that the kind of interdisciplinary work demanded by affect studies is beneficial to both Romantic studies and affect studies.

3.        While “affect studies” refers to a broad range of scholarship rather than a unified movement with a shared theoretical or methodological perspective, affect theory has taken two general trajectories relevant to British Romanticism. The first reflects interest in the writings of American psychologist Silvan Tomkins, who argued for nine “primary affects” rooted in biology. [3]  Tomkins’s writings on emotion and affect from the 1960s have inspired a range of studies on the physiological basis of affect, including work by Eve Sedgwick and Patricia Clough, as well as research in affective neuroscience. [4]  Scholars in this group propound the Basic Emotions paradigm, which asserts that primary affects operate on a different system than cognition. Primary affects such as fear and joy are automatic responses to external triggers, as opposed to emotions like love or hate, which require memory, reflection, and awareness.

4.        This Basic Emotions paradigm presents perhaps the most contentious debate within affect studies: cognitivist vs. anti-intentionalist arguments. Are we really in control of our thoughts, actions, and responses to external stimuli? Or are we pre-programmed, in a sense, feeling and responding before cognition and volition? The Basic Emotions paradigm suggests the latter, and, in doing so, brings up pressing questions about agency, ethics, and action. Theorists and scientists continue research in these areas without consensus. [5]  Meanwhile, scholars such as Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ruth Leys, and Richard Sha see too much agreement among affect theorists. Why is it, Leys asks, that so many affect theorists champion anti-intentionalism, while philosophers, psychologists, and literary scholars gravitate toward a neglected cognitivism? Barrett and Sha also worry about this anti-intentionalist strand, which essentially argues for emotion and cognition as separate systems wherein “concepts like the human, the subject, and agency” are left behind (Sha, “The Turn to Affect” 260). Leys suggests that we need more social and cognitive psychological research, and, significantly, that we also need to embrace literary approaches to affect: one hesitation among affect theorists to abandon the Basic Emotions paradigm is that “intentionalist interpretations of the affects” require “thick descriptions of life experiences of the kind that are familiar to anthropologists and novelists but are widely held to be inimical to science” (Leys 471). This is the kind of affective-literary project taken up in studies such as Joel Faflak and Richard Sha’s Romanticism and the Emotions (2014) and Lisa Ottum and Seth T. Reno’s Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century (2016). It is also the approach modeled by the essays in this volume.

5.        A literary approach to the affects, then, is much needed, and it reflects a second trajectory in affect theory: renewed interest in philosopher Baruch Spinoza, a figure familiar to Romanticists. Spinoza’s influential Ethics (1677) presented the affects as “confused ideas” rooted in both mind and body, a concept that thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Brian Massumi have revisited and revised. [6]  These “new affect theorists” tend toward the philosophical and theoretical, though neuroscience also plays an important role in their work. For example, in his seminal study Parables for the Virtual (2002), Massumi draws from both Spinoza and neuroscience in his argument for the autonomy of affect. Several of the authors in this volume take up Massumi’s ideas in diverse ways.

6.        Given Spinoza’s influence on Romantic-era writers and scientists, Massumi and the new affect theorists have much to offer Romanticists. While scholars have long studied Spinoza’s influence on the Romantics’ conceptions of nature, we have only recently begun to examine his theories of affect and emotion. In Ethics, Spinoza defines the affects as “affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. . . . affects are confused ideas of the Mind and Body at once” (493, 501; italics original). This dual process of corporeal and cognitive response inspired the work of the new affect theorists. Much of the Ethics involves outlining and explaining the various kinds of affects and their effects on us, and many contemporary scholars locate the basis of contemporary affect theory in Spinoza’s ideas. Through readings of Spinoza, these scholars have opened up new possibilities for understanding Romantic figurations of affect and emotion. For example, echoing Spinoza, Eric Shouse describes affect as “a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implying an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act.” Massumi similarly defines affect as a non-conscious “intensity” that the mind later “qualifies” as emotion (Parables 28). An emotion is only “a very partial expression of affect” that cannot “encompass all the depth and breadth” of our experiences (Massumi, Politics 5). For both scholars, Spinoza’s theory of the affects is key, as it incorporates both cognition and sensory stimulation. Many scholars thus distinguish affect from emotion: affect is an innate biological response, or physiological intensity, while emotion involves awareness of affect through memories, or narratives of accumulative experiences.

7.        For Shouse, Massumi, and others, Spinoza’s insights have great significance for politics, especially when coupled with neuroscientific research. For instance, Massumi argues that most political influence occurs at the level of pre-linguistic and sub-personal affect, and not “ideology” as is commonly assumed. Affect generates thoughts, feelings, and modes of knowing prior to conscious awareness; we feel affect before we know it. According to Leys, theorists in the Massumi camp believe that “political campaigns, advertising, literature, visual images, and the mass media are all mechanisms for producing such effects below the threshold of meaning and ideology” (451). [7]  Affective intensities exceed language, and thus transcend ideology. This kind of reading pushes Romantic studies beyond the modes of ideology critique and hermeneutics of suspicion that have dominated scholarship since the 1980s. However, other theorists have taken a different approach to Spinoza and affect, treating “affect” as “neither a solely biological phenomenon nor a solely ideological one” (Ottum and Reno 6). Elsewhere, I have shown how affective neuroscience helps us to rethink Wordsworth’s poetry, which is more scientific and ecological than many readers acknowledge. [8]  Such an understanding of affect helps to reconceptualize concepts such as nature and imagination. But of course, affect is also political. Philosopher and affect theorist Martha Nussbaum argues that we need to revive an emphasis on affect and emotion into politics: justice, she argues, necessitates the cultivation of love and compassion. [9]  In many ways, this is a return to Romantic-era poetry and politics, but the ground in shifting: rather than ideology critique as the dominant methodology, affect studies offers a more complex picture of the interacting forces of bodies, feelings, emotions, language, and ideas that constitute cognition and subjectivity.

8.        The amorphous nature of affect, as well as affect studies’ still-evolving trajectory, is precisely what makes it so ripe for exploration by scholars of British Romanticism. Indeed, as the essays in this volume show, the study of affect was incipient in the nineteenth century: following their eighteenth-century forbearers, the Romantics were deeply interested in matters such as the transmission and mediation of “sympathy.” In the first essay, Soledad Caballero and Aimee Knupsky highlight connections between Joanna Baillie’s “sympathetic curiosity” and recent work in cognitive psychology on “emotion regulation.” These connections open up new readings of Baillie’s theory of drama, as well as the particular work of De Monfort (1798), and they also inspire more scientific-affective research. This is the kind of interdisciplinary work called for by affect studies: Caballero and Knupsky use scientific research to study a literary text and use a literary text to direct new scientific research. As they point out, Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse” was influential and groundbreaking not only for its contributions to dramatic theory but also for her use of Romantic-era science, and so a cognitive approach to her work makes perfect sense. By highlighting the relationship between De Monfort and Jane in the play, Caballero and Knupsky re-envision investigations into social emotion regulation (SER) models. Specifically, they explore moments in the play “that highlight both the functioning and dysfunctioning of SER with an eye towards identifying those areas that are not currently modeled within constrained empirical investigations.” In their application and analysis of SER to De Monfort, with a particular emphasis on hatred, they show how affect is both biological and cultural, a process that operates within, as well as among, individual feeling subjects. Cognitive psychology suggests that affective and cognitive processes occur simultaneously in an intricate and sophisticated manner, which both challenges the conclusions of Massumi and pushes beyond the Basic Emotions paradigm.

9.        In the second essay, Renee Harris also draws from the cognitive humanities in a rereading of John Keats’s Isabella (1818). While scholars have traditionally read the poem’s digressions as evidence of Keats’s youthful and immature poetic style, Harris argues that this critique doesn’t hold up when we consider the digressions in light of nineteenth-century reading practices: though the kinds of “passive” or “immersive” reading that Keats practices were disparaged by Wordsworth and other high arbiters of literary taste, a counter-tradition reveals the cultural work of such reading, which modern cognitive psychology helps to illuminate. Keats breaks down the structural norms of the text and calls attention to the reading experience itself. In doing so, he “unveils the invisible cognitive mechanisms that allow for absorption in the narrative,” fostering psychic development and intellectual growth in the reader. Harris links this practice to Keats’s concept of the “material sublime,” which he adopts and adapts from Coleridge. In poems like “Kubla Khan” (1797) and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), Coleridge models an immersive, affective reading that moves between fiction and reality in ways analogous to what cognitive scientists call Theory of Mind. Both poets, then, reveal an interest in the regulation and circulation of affect within the literary text, and they do so in an eerie manner, through narratives of ghosts, nightmares, deaths, dreams, and sleepwalking, all Gothic elements that figure the immersive reading experience “in which the reader is absorbed, lost in the automaticity of the affect”—not absorbed forever, but rather awakening to a more enlightened state.

10.        Moving from canonical figures to a lesser-known author, Jonas Cope’s essay focuses on Eliza Fenwick, whose understudied gothic novel Secresy (1795) shows unparalleled dramatization of the impersonality of emotion as compared to other novels of the same period. What’s more, the novel illustrates several core tenets of contemporary affect theory in surprising ways—surprising, I say, given its relative obscurity amongst most readers and scholars. In contrast to existing scholarship that situates characters in the novel as specific “types” isolated from one another, Cope’s affective approach shows how their bodies interact in intimate, non-cognitive ways, in the shared space of affect. Cope also intervenes in affect studies by arguing that Secresy “illuminates the more recent, physiological-theoretical work in affect theory” espoused by Massumi “as much as that work illuminates” the benefits of the literary-historical strand of affect studies—that is, how characters interact in the novel. Cope thus advances existing scholarship on the novel to show how affect theory can contribute to the ongoing recovery of neglected women writers.

11.        In the fourth essay, Mark Lussier draws from both affect theory and rhythmic studies to shed new light on what is arguably William Blake’s greatest and most complex work: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In an essay dazzling in its theoretical breadth and critical understanding of Blake, Lussier uses his unique critical lens to make sense of Blake’s continuing influence on and engagement with each new age (Blake, as Lussier points out, is cited more than any other Romantic poet in popular culture), weaving together the poem’s reception history, scholarly history, and his own personal relationship with the poem, from his Master’s thesis to the present project. This is perhaps what is most novel about the essay: while affect studies tends to take an almost detached approach to the emotions—treating them historically, theoretically, or scientifically—Lussier takes a personal approach, for what is more personal than our emotions and our bodies? Indeed, Lussier reads Marriage as a textual body itself, one that transmits affects to its reader through its structure and rhythm, a process of “affect contagion.” Blake’s material text embodies affective intensities that work on the reader prior to cognition. The text is an “affect-generating machine” that continues indefinitely as it is a body that cannot die. Yet, as Lussier makes clear, Marriage cannot represent affect but only trace affect through poetic form: affect remains outside of conscious thought. But the movement and rhythm of the work unveils the presence of affect at work.

12.        In the final essay, Joel Faflak rereads Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) as the poet’s ultimate statement on the global and cosmic intersections of affect, emotion, and feeling. By drawing from a range of recent work in affect theory, Faflak presents a masterful close reading of Shelley’s lyrical drama wherein emotion is “the event” (via Badiou) that “materializ[es] subjects as subjects.” The movement of the drama is the movement of emotion itself, the transmission of affect that constitutes “a world moving both within and beyond its own boundaries.” In a kind of affective feedback loop, subjects “call the world into emotional existence,” and that existence in turn materializes the emotional lives of the subjects. In Prometheus Unbound, Shelley images this complex matrix, this “broader feeling network” that we are unable to grasp fully because we exist in its midst. By reading affect theory through Shelley and Shelley through affect theory, Faflak offers a new understanding of Prometheus Unbound as more material and much less idealized. Importantly, the essay helps to illuminate key concepts and arguments in affect studies as much as it illuminates Shelley’s poem.

13.        We still have much to learn about affect and emotion, and, as the essays in this volume make clear, Romantic literature continues to offer significant sites for such critical inquiry. In sum, these essays offer a representative example of how affect studies has transformed the study of Romanticism, and how Romanticists continue to shape the trajectory of affect studies. They also represent the future of Romantic scholarship: Caballero and Knupsky’s essay on Baillie is part their ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration and publication program on the intersections of Romantic literature and cognitive psychology; Harris’s essay on Keats stems from her award-winning dissertation, which will likely appear as a monograph in the near future; Cope’s piece on Fenwick speaks to the ongoing recovery of neglected women writers of the Romantic period; Lussier’s essay on Blake is one in a cluster of essays just published or forthcoming on Blake, affect, and rhythmic studies; and Faflak’s piece on Shelley is one of two forthcoming essays on Prometheus Unbound emerging from his influential work in affect studies. This kind of work will prove increasingly important in a world where emotion is growing in critical and popular appeal. As we continue to reimagine Romanticism during this renaissance of emotion facilitated by the affective turn, the Romantics will continue to teach us how to feel, and we can teach others how to love and make sense of that feeling. [10] 

Works Cited

Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

Clough, Patricia, ed. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Duke UP, 2007.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Faflak, Joel, and Richard Sha, editors. Romanticism and the Emotions. Cambridge UP, 2014.

Favret, Mary. War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Princeton UP, 2009.

---. “The Study of Affect and Romanticism.” Literature Compass, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 1159–66.

Goldsmith, Steven. Blake’s Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions. Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.

Hamann, Stephen. “Mapping Discrete and Dimensional Emotions onto the Brain: Controversies and Consensus.” Trends in Cognitive Studies, vol. 16, no. 9, 2012, pp. 458–66.

Leys, Ruth. “The Turn to Affect: A Critique.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3, 2011, pp. 434–72.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Harvard UP, 2013.

Ottum, Lisa, and Seth T. Reno. “Introduction: Recovering Ecology’s Affects.” Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Lisa Ottum and Seth T. Reno, U of New Hampshire P, 2016, pp. 1–27.

Pfau, Thomas. Romantic Moods: Paranoia, Trauma, and Melancholy, 1790–1840. Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford UP, 1996.

Reno, Seth T. Amorous Aesthetics: Intellectual Love in Romantic Poetry and Poetics, 1788–1853. Liverpool UP, 2018.

Richardson, Alan. The Neural Sublime: Cognitive Theories and Romantic Texts. Johns Hopkins UP, 2011.

Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Duke UP, 2003.

Sha, Richard C. “The Turn to Affect: Emotions Without Subjects, Causality Without Demonstrable Cause.” The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism, edited by Donald R. Wehrs and Thomas Blake, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 259–78.

Shouse, Eric. “Feeling, Emotion, Affect.” M/C Journal, vol. 8, 2005, np.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Ethics. Collected Works of Spinoza. Vol. 1, translated by Edwin Curley, Princeton UP, 1985.

Tomkins, Silvan. Affect, Imagery, Consciousness. 4 vols., Springer, 1962–1992.

Wehrs, Donald R., and Thomas Blake, eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Affect Studies and Textual Criticism. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.


[1] One recent example of affect studies’ far-reaching influence on a wide range of disciplines is Palgrave’s massive Handbook on Affect Studies and Textual Criticism. See Wehrs and Blake, eds. BACK

[2] See Favret; Goldsmith; Pfau; Pinch; Richardson; and Sha and Faflak, eds. BACK

[3] See Tomkins. BACK

[4] See Sedgwick; and Clough. BACK

[5] In general, there are four major theories of emotion in the cognitive sciences that bear on affect theory in literary and cultural studies: (1) James-Lang theory understands emotion as an interpretive result of autonomic physiological response; (2) Cannon-Bard theory understands autonomic response and emotion as occurring simultaneously; (3) Schachter and Singer’s cognitive-arousal theory understands emotion as the result of both autonomic response and cognitive attributions; and (4) Lazarus’ theory argues that thought precedes emotion and physiological arousal. For a useful essay on debates and findings within cognitive studies and neuroscience related to affect and theories of emotion, see Hamann. For a recent neuroscientific study that challenges the Basic Emotions paradigm, see Barrett. BACK

[6] See Deleuze and Guattari; and Massumi, Parables for the Virtual. BACK

[7] As Leys suggests, such a view extends to aesthetics as well: if experience trumps content, the structures and intentional meanings of artworks are of no consequence. BACK

[8] See Reno. BACK

[9] See Nussbaum. BACK

[10] Portions of this essay originally appeared in Wordsworth and the Green Romantics and Amorous Aesthetics. See Ottum and Reno; and Reno. BACK


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