Attachment Theory

Rita Felski, Hooked: Art and Attachment

University of Chicago Press, 200pp, $22.50, ISBN 9780226729633

reviewed by Nell Osborne

In 2015, in The Limits of Critique, Rita Felski argued that critique, a term she uses to characterise the predominant institutionalised practices of interpretation, solicits the critic to adopt a stance and tone of ‘ferocious and blistering detachment’. The critic’s encounter with a text is driven by ‘desire to puncture illusions, topple idols and destroy divinities,’ that is both combative and paranoid. Towards the end of this book, Felski invokes Actor-Network Theory (ANT) as one possible way out from the uncomfortable corner that critique has backed us into. Felski’s 2020 book, Hooked: Art and Attachment, returns to this possibility: to demonstrate an intellectual and political alternative to the method of ‘critical reading’. This book extends Felski’s belief that criticism cannot fully account for broader questions of attachment: ‘What do works of art do? What do they set in motion? And to what are they linked or tie?’ Here, as elsewhere, one of Felski’s most convincing claims is that aesthetic relations always involve ‘more than power relations’.

The language of attachment prompts anxiety about ‘bad reading’. It is sticky with charges of naivety and passivity in ways that, Felski suggests, reproduce the aesthetic economy of both critical attention and presumed social value. Hooked is concerned with the phenomenological and sociological vagaries of aesthetic experience; the seemingly intangible or impenetrable nature of our attachments with art. From the outset, Hooked states its aversion to ‘overpoliticizing and overpsychologizing’ theories of aesthetic attachment, impulses that Felski identifies as ‘intellectual temptations’. Instead, attachment is a matter of thought and feeling mediated by social ties. Felski both invokes Bruno Latour, who helped to develop ANT in the 1980s, and carefully retains her distance: Hooked outlines its commitment to an ‘ANT-ish approach’ and holds steadfastly to the ‘ish’ throughout. ANT is a methodological approach to understanding the social world that observes the relationships between actors. It provides, claims Felski, ‘a way of proceeding and paying attention — rather than a series of propositions or a self-contained body of ideas'. ANT suspends ‘our usual sorting and ranking mechanisms’ to ‘grant the nonhuman world equal footing’. At the same time, it moves the critical gaze away from questions of representation. An attention to questions of attachment that learns from ANT, claims Felski, can elucidate missed connections between humanities scholarship and lay audiences.

The book is organised around three ‘attachment devices,’ each of which constitute a different chapter. The first is aesthetic ‘attunement’; an elusive term, which ‘is about things resonating, aligning, coming together’. Felski draws on Zadie Smith’s essay about her relationship with the music of Joni Mitchell. Smith had previously found Mitchell’s music off-putting: it was discordant, white woman’s warbling. Smith’s essay details an inauspicious day when, thinking of sausage rolls, having been forced to listen to Mitchell’s music in the car, a sudden, devotional attachment to her music emerges, fully formed, within her. This kind of experience, of being struck down by our connection to art, is one that contemporary criticism seems poorly equipped to countenance. Smith’s story is exemplary to Felski’s argument for a variety of reasons. She uses it to illustrate that the felt intensity or influence of an aesthetic encounter is not circumscribed by the cultural exclusivity of its object, nor by historical or identity-based allegiances alone. It highlights the ambiguities of thinking agency through the aesthetic encounter: did Mitchell’s music act upon Smith, or vice versa? Whilst for Adorno attunement denotes an ideological state of passivity (a false sense of harmony), Felski suggests attunement as a concept that can help elucidate the ways in which an aesthetic encounter is always both co-produced and socially mediated.

Chapter Three makes a defence of that most maligned of literary attachment devices: identification. Felski refuses the notion of character as a literary device that emerged from genre conventions of 18th and 19th-century European novels, intimately tied to the rise of liberalism. Indeed, Felski pushes against the idea — deeply ingrained within Literary Studies — that characters are not real and should not be treated as such. The author was never dead. Instead, Felski argues that characters ‘cannot be separated from their mediations,’ as they cause readers to re-assess their beliefs about the world. Instead of relegating identification to the realm of the unsophisticated lay reader, Felski calls for a sharpening of the terms we use to discuss identification; proffering ‘alignment’ and ‘allegiance’ as starting points. One of the key implications of this shift, she argues, is to accept that scholarly identification drives much of the day-to-day work of literary studies.

In the next chapter, Felski turns her attention to interpretation. This is where her argument connects back with her well-known feelings about critique’s institutionalised status within the humanities. It is, she writes, ‘vividly clear to anyone who glances at the history of criticism [that] scholars feel strongly, even passionately, about their methods. Interpretation is not just a mechanism of attachment; it is an object of attachment’. In positing interpretation – an ‘umbrella term for the various genres of academic commentary that characterize the humanities’ — as just one category of aesthetic attachment among others, Felski severely undercuts traditional hierarchies of value. Indeed, by plotting aesthetic experience against the effects of ideology, she suggests, contemporary discussions about attachment often imagine the scholar’s task as one of sorting and ranking, with little capacity or impetus to reckon with their own institutional and affective attachments. Hooked warns against the affective allure and institutional rewards built into theory-as-method. As she writes:

An early love of Jane Eyre or Great Expectations leads a student to graduate school and identification as a Victorianist; at which point it turns out — mirabile dictu! — that these same works, when read in the correct manner, will yield up the signs of dissidence or subversion that justify their study.

Felski has a predilection for making the literary critic into the object of her own harshest critique. She undertakes a persistent, diffuse ridicule of a certain type of (ego-ideal of) grandiose, aloof, intellectualising academic. This admonishment of scholars, at this political juncture, can feel unwelcome, cruel even – after all, many universities are currently attempting to abolish their own humanities departments. Certain British parliamentary politicians recently identified Critical Race Theory as a morally dangerous (possibly criminal) pedagogical method. Felski’s vision of institutional attachment lends itself to characterisations of literature academics as repressed, inward-looking Coetzee superfans, clinging to some fragile sense of cultural superiority. Anticipating this charge, Hooked offers up a renewed, albeit conciliatory, ethical defence of the discipline: interpretation equips readers with new and usefully different ways of making aesthetic attachments.

In a severely critical review of Hooked for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sheila Liming suggests that the ‘problems that plague humanities scholars today are not attitudinal but, in fact, grossly material’. Liming's criticism carries weight — the disparities in experience, status, workload, renumeration and job security between heavy weight academics and almost everyone else working in university are now so wide as to be almost incomparable. What Hooked fails to consider in any depth is how the university’s machinery relies upon the durability and intensity of these same institutional attachments to exploit precariously employed and overworked academics. However, Felski’s larger point, which I find convincing, is that Literary Studies trains and rewards students for developing certain kinds of methodological attachment, whilst it also serves to re-affirm a categorical distinction between scholars and lay readers, scholarly response and lay response.

Finally, Felski suggests that interpretation should be re-imagined as relating. Hooked ends with a discussion of how ANT-ish pedagogical approaches might function in the classroom. Students would be encouraged to consider their own attachments with the texts. She models an example in which a student reckons with her dislike of the song “Take Me Home, Country road.” Both her parents, the student reasons, are classically trained musicians (Reader, I winced). This discussion is interesting because the concrete suggestions it proffers are defiantly modest, prosaic. We are nonetheless reminded, indirectly, of the social and economic barriers that always already precede entry into the university classroom. Felski admits that her argument was not built around large-scale historical or sociological analysis (though she discloses that her next book will return to these themes via the contemporary Frankfurt School). In Hooked, questions about the ‘very big’ remains in the background. Nonetheless, Felski’s decision to turn discussion towards applied pedagogy at a juncture in the book where the author might normally be expected to consolidate the importance of her own voice among the clamour, feels equally pointed. It works to deflate the text’s sense of its own control, as it literally inserts the names and ideas of more junior academics and students into the text.

I’m sure Felski would be the first to acknowledge that this book is the product of her own enmeshment in certain relations: that she is able to write a book like this because, in part, she is institutionally safe enough to do so. Felski's expansive but meandering train of thought is guided by a sense of her curiosity. She draws on a number of unexpected scholarly touchstones, often from outside of Literary Studies. Her discussion tends to circumvent the influence of a number of prominent scholars working on attachment. Hooked therefore stands at something of an idiosyncratic remove from queer theoretical work: José Esteban Muñoz’s term ‘disidentification’ appears in the chapter on identification but only in the chapter’s conclusion. This seems to be part of Felski’s attempt to approach questions of attachment obliquely, as well as a generalised reluctance to valorise attachment. Felski strongly refutes the idea that attachments are only important when they affirm, or thwart, politicised identities. In her review, Liming accuses Felski of refusing ‘to turn and face her opponents squarely’. By ‘musing’ on themes of attachment rather than engaging in close textual analysis, Liming suggests that Felski is refusing to fight ‘fair’. This metaphor seems especially odd considering the lineage of Felski’s research: are we to assume there is no useful post-critique turn?

Indeed, it is precisely in this gesture, the oblique turn, that Hooked attempts to lead by example; to demonstrate the ‘new languages of analysis and habits of attention’ and to avoid playing the game of scholarly “one-upmanship” that Felski identifies as part of the problem of critique. Here Felski invokes Stuart Hall, founder of British Cultural Studies, as a practitioner of the model of receptive attention that the humanities need to cultivate. Hooked does suffer, I think, from a smidge of nostalgia for better institutional times — the spectre of Stuart Hall doing, perhaps, some unexamined work. Elsewhere, Felski claims ironic identification ‘has received virtually no attention,’ overlooking Denise Riley's influential work in this area. However, Liming's charge that Hooked constitutes ‘an inventory of abuse’ seems to me incorrect.

Ultimately, Felski’s argument — art isn’t a ‘microcosm of the world’, but part of the ordinary fabric of sociality itself — is useful and rewarding, as is her particular interest in ‘diversifying the scales of criticism’. Attachment is fundamental to all processes of meaning-making, in art as elsewhere. Aesthetics matter because they ‘create, or cocreate, enduring ties’ but we need methods capacious enough to reflect the messiness of this reality. ‘My conviction that the social meanings of artworks are not encrypted in their depths — perceptible only to those trained in professional techniques of interpretation,’ writes Felski, is the ‘hill on which I’m prepared to die’.
Nell Osborne lives in Manchester. Her writing has appeared in MAP and Tank Magazine, among other publications. She is completing a PhD on experimental British women’s fiction from the 1960s and 70s, and co-runs the reading series No Matter.