These strong ties that unite us

1Por Rita Felski, the phenomenon of attachment goes beyond the sphere of affect to also play out in the field of “intellectual, ethical and institutional ties” (p. x). At the same time, it is partly linked “to the aesthetic experience, to the theories of interpretation, to the status of exemplary works in the field of the humanities, as well as to the divisions between the opinions of experts and the reactions of lay readers” (p. .xii). His culturalist perception of theories of the reception of fiction, which is largely based on the sociology of the actor-network (Actor-Network Theory), has the merit of broadening the reflection on the mechanisms of attachment, of identification, confidence (relatability) and harmonization (attunement) to many artistic fields: song, cinema, literature and the visual arts.

2In the first chapter, R. Felski takes stock of the phenomenon of attachment to works of art, arguing that academic criticism, a great adept at detachment, holds it in low esteem. The author also notes the tendency to promote a Manichean vision of the readership, a vision that oscillates between interpreter-scholars and reader-hedonists. Following Wayne Koestenbaum, she wishes to offer a refined reading of attachment by identifying multifactorial influences, even if they are difficult to circumscribe in certain cases. She returns to the definition of aesthetic pleasure which – although correlated with subjective and normative judgment of taste – is part of the tradition of detachment, a position favored by a certain number of schools such as formalism. It follows that detachment would give privileged access to knowledge. She then reviews a few thinkers and theoreticians (Susan Sontag, Richard Shusterman), who have pleaded in favor of a sensual approach to art or text that would run counter to a hermeneutic tradition deemed to be arid. She therefore pays homage to the emotional force of aesthetic objects which “have the potential to stir up moral and political emotions – empathy, anger, indignation, solidarity – by virtue of their aesthetic qualities” (p. 14 ). Felski claims to want to explore the question of “attachment to attachment” (p. 35) and give added value to cultural productions. In doing so, it also addresses, if only in passing, the opposite effect: detachment, perplexity in the face of a text, the antipathy felt towards the characters, if not the boredom or misunderstanding that can arise reading.

3Chapter 2 focuses on the mechanisms of harmonization (attunement):

To seek harmony is to be involved in a responsive relationship – to experience an affinity that is impossible to ignore and yet difficult to classify. Being in harmony is not primarily a problem of representation, related to the subject of the work of art, but it refers to its presence, in a way that would invite explanation (p. 41).

4It is about its ineffable force, its gripping character, which is difficult to translate into words but which transmits a perceptible energy whose effects on the public are clearly identifiable. Harmonization is therefore the ability to resonate with an aesthetic object, without necessarily being moved by it. However, this ability can be influenced by the cultural background of the individual. Felski introduces here the sociology of the actor-network, derived from the concept of actant of structural semiotics developed by AJ Greimas, by questioning the agency of works of art, their capacity to hold people’s attention, to to interest, to involve them in the process of updating creation (an idea that seems inspired by the aesthetics of the reception of Hans Robert Jauss and Wolgang Iser), and therefore to have an impact on the lives of the latter. Back to the famous powers of fiction. Being in harmony is situated close to notions such as “stimmung” “atmosphere” or “affinity” which refers to medieval alchemy and “denotes the chemical links between substances. By extension, “its meaning includes interpersonal alchemy (whether emotional, erotic, or spiritual) that would defy explanation or rational thought” (p. 74). The German term stimmung can be translated as “ambience” and “harmonization”, having a connection with cosmic harmony. Felski intends to defend the thesis according to which this agency is in fact co-agentivity between the work of art and its interlocutor.

5The penultimate chapter focuses on identification mechanisms. It is important for this that the characters are seen as animated, able “to act and react, to want and to have the intention” (p. 80). Identification therefore implies a sharing and a relationship with others in which various phenomena already identified by Murray Smith come into play, which Felski takes up on his own with a few variations. First, there is “alignment” which corresponds to “the formal means with which the text channels readers’/viewers’ access to the character” (p. 94); then “allegiance” (allegiance) which refers to “the way in which political or ethical values ​​bring the public closer to certain literary figures more than others” (p. 96). As surprising as it may seem, the gender of the readers does not really come into play in this mechanism, which is both cognitive (in other words, thoughtful) and emotional. By taking the example of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, Felski demonstrates that identification is a form of recognition that is not necessarily based on the content of the texts which, in certain cases, could even be an obstacle to this rapprochement (to like the misanthropic writings of Thomas Bernhard). Despite everything, a sharing does take place: the reader, whether amateur or professional3, comes to espouse the same feeling of revolt as the author, or his philosophical, even political ideas, without however being associated with his aversion to the human race. The last mechanism of identification is “empathy” (empathy) which the author of Hooked: Art and attachment treats cum grano salis before tackling the question of “ironical/irony-based identification” ( ironic identification).

6In the final chapter, Felski returns to actor-network theory by exploring the trust (relatability) that is established in the process of interpretation. Resulting from an intention or a will, any commentary embodies the proof of a link that one ties with the text. The author returns to the antagonism created by the university between the seduction of fiction (focused on emotion) and academic criticism (which aims at “the axiological neutrality of scientific inquiry, the intellectualization, or the detachment “)4. Admittedly, criticism presents itself as a cloudy form, if not an aggregate of protean methods that range from macro to micro-analysis, from overhead reading to a narrow or attentive reading, from the contextualization of works to the construction of the meaning of the text understood as locus clausus, with description, decryption, didactization and documentation at the key. But interpretation, according to Felski, is not so much “a mechanism of attachment” as “an object of attachment” (p. 132); which leads him to conclude that “the difference between the university public and the neophyte public is not detachment versus attachment; but rather the difference between attachment to an object and attachment to a method” (p. 133).


7By side roads, making both use of the sociology of the actor-network and reference to the work of Bruno Latour and Antoine Hennion, Rita Felski sees in the inanimate – any lambda work – an animated entity co- responsible for the force that nourishes the aesthetic relationship and the perennial links at the heart of the contingent phenomenon of attachment. This new perspective could well bridge the gap between the academic seraglio and the general public. Their antagonistic conceptions of literature and, more broadly, of cultural productions, could find themselves dissolved, guided by this stubborn conviction that by abandoning our attachment to objects too much, we end up giving in to the repression of what constitutes our humanity.

These strong ties that unite us