Feeling Good, or Anything, Again: On Poetry and the Affective Turn by Virginia Konchan

“Attention without feeling . . . is only a report.”
—Mary Oliver

“You have a head and a heart? Reveal only one of them, I say.”
― Friedrich Hölderlin


Poetry is the art of sense-making, not just sentiment-making: John Keats isn’t alone in arguing for the ne plus ultra of poetry above other art forms. What texts, today, speak to us? Or does any mention of sentiment and sentience conjure a flock of Hegel’s beautiful souls, chasing the next emotion, as sensation-junkies addicted to the poetic affects of wonder, excitement, novelty, joy, or even the more brutalist affects of, as T.S. Eliot said, boredom, horror, and glory?

Perhaps the better question may be: who wouldn’t chase what Spinoza called the joyful affects, if there were the chance of fossilizing or at least memorializing them, in language? To quote poet Lee Ann Brown: “We are the daughters of enthusiasm”; “Where are my excitement sisters.”

Poetry can be an affectual, rhetorical, as well as metaphysical appeal. A poem such as Lynn Xu’s “Say You Will Die For Me” creates a relationship between prayer, heart-logic, sound, and sacrifice that, read over and over again, is fresh in its life-or-death immediacy, and its dependence on the human interlocutor, and reader.

          “ . . . The prayer exists

          because it is positioned. In that presence
          wherein the heart is expressed. Wherein sound is incident to the heart
          exists. I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me.”

If one of our abiding definitions of poetry is that which, when encountered, makes you feel the top of your head is coming off, what does that say about the relationship between verse and the ever-unfolding field of cognitive neuroscience? And what part of the brain is responsible for regulating emotion, from passing whims to metaphysical exigency, anyway?

The amygdala are two almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep and medially within the temporal lobes of the brain in complex vertebrates, including humans: playing a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions, the amygdalae are part of the limbic system. The right hemisphere of the amygdala is associated with negative emotion, specifically fear, and also declarative memory, which consists of information that can be consciously recalled. It also plays a significant role in the autobiographical aspects of memory. The amygdala prompts an instantaneous survival response. “This may save our lives,” says Daniel Gilbert, “or it can cause us to do things we later regret deeply.” The amygdalae’s responsibility for regulating emotion is as much of a “fact,” as the role serotonin plays in regulating mood, and impaired amygdala function can result in impaired inhibition—emotional states created without consciousness, and acted on without awareness.

Emotional states created without consciousness defines an artistic process for some, it’s true, but writing itself is a mediated act, thus slowing whatever impulse one has to merely react, or emote, without reflection. There are certain disorders associated with amygdala impairment. For one, amygdala cortical conductivity doesn’t function in autistics as it normally does. In autism, the amygdala is not sending signals to the higher brain centers in the same way it does in people who don’t have autism; it could not be sending any signals, or it may be sending threat signals when none exist.

The feeling one has when encountering the timeless or real in poetry isn’t just a circuit of sensations; it can be the desire to still time, according to Michael Clune, in Writing Against Time. Clune argues that some of the greats— Keats, Proust, Nabokov, Ashbery—have been obsessed with preserving the same sensory intensity of the first encounter with image, song, or object, undiminished by repeated exposure. And if neurobiological time—the tendency of the brain to reduce sensory engagement with repeated exposure—can be experienced on the same plane as organic or geological time, so can art and life. It’s the mind, not the brain, that distinguishes between art and life, as seen in studies wherein a fictional scene registers the same physiological effects on an audience as a lived one. Neurologically speaking, in other words, reading a book is the equivalent of having the experience. And thus, neurobiological research will make virtual reality addicts—or armchair philosophers—of us all?

Neurobiological time finds expression in two conceptually distinct states, Clune explains. “The first is the felt slowing or stopping of time that accompanies an intensely vivid perception. The second is the persistence of this perceptual intensity across chronological time.” Is poetry unique in its ability to preserve the feeling-state of a first impression? According to Clune, Romantic poets Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge all found this charmed quality in verse: “poetry makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar,” said Shelley. Thus, the “successful arrest” of neurobiological time is dependent on aesthetic techniques that defamiliarize, and restore our perception of things to the vitality of the first sight.
It was David Shields who first coined the phrase “reality hunger,” to interrogate a crucial aesthetic and political question of our times: Who owns ideas? Has the velocity of digital culture rendered traditional modes of music, literature, and media, obsolete?

The discourse that has been established between narrative prose and neuroscience encourages an integrated, non-Cartesian view of the mind and body, cogito and emotion, constructed not at the whim of advertising moguls, branding, or the establishment of social media platforms, but in the interest of human evolution. The digital humanities seem to be leading us further in this direction, and it’s unquestionable that social media can provide necessary social links within population-dense as well as less populated areas of the world. Still, would our emotions and human freedom be more “authentic” if our life experiences weren’t constantly narrated back to us in social media as a compilation of our own trending popularity and relevance?

Maybe the point isn’t so much to assert our difference from animals, based on ever-changing, and now digitally mediated theories of cognition, consciousness, and empathy, but accept both creationism and Darwinism as mutually compatible stories. In this way, the power of narrative and lyric are connected in memorializing the human experience, as well as fostering connections and empathy. Dorothea Lasky, from her poem “Ars Poetica”:

          There is a romantic abandon in me always
          I want to feel the dread for others
          I can feel it through song

In some contexts, emotions themselves are considered “unnatural”: signs of the anthropocene to be discarded in a Darwinian natural selection of capitalist adaptation. We don’t need to feel in order to perform, of course, and jobs where emotional intelligence or care work makes us more effective doesn’t necessarily make us more valued, at least monetarily.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” opines Antoine St. Exupery, in Le Petite Prince. And for adults, not just children, stranded not on a mythical planet but the besieged planet Earth? Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous images depicting the relationship of the mind to the emotions are Plato’s charioteers. In this figuration, the mind leads the body by the reins, not vice versa. In the event the opposite happens, the mind isn’t so much driven by the emotions, but obviated: otherwise known as mindlessness, or nirvana.

Our immersion in new media is still a recent enough phenomenon so as to make longitudinal studies about the effect of technology on the developing brain, and the movement of hive mind or collective forms of affect on the internet difficult. If both medical science and psychology suggest that we learn through neuronal mirroring and social modeling, what does that bode for the evolution of the brain, and expanded consciousness, if the medium of interfacing isn’t a human being, but a screen? To delineate the difference might require a period of tech-free (to the extent possible) living, or a negotiation with the slippery social contracts of new media. Anne Boyer, speaking about her book Garments Against Women: “And yeah, social media lends certain structures to the thoughts and feelings of everyone who uses it, but much of this book was written during periods of refusal—refusal of the blogs, times I’d turn off the internet, refusal of poetry’s available socialites and structures. I wanted to figure out some way to live as something more than information. I wanted to figure out some way to write what we need that wasn’t going to turn it into a pornography of particularization.”

In order to practice mindfulness, we need different ways of envisioning public space, and different means of expression and reception that are haptic, optic, and embodied, not just virtual or digitally mediated.

Elisa Gabbert speaks to the difference between a language choice and an emoji choice, arguing that emoji lie outside of language, as a language of pictographs, and are therefore “palpably ‘lossy,’ like bad MP3s.” “Emoji have an inexact relationship to language—I don’t think of the eyes emoji as ‘side-eye’ or ‘surprise’ or ‘wow,’ though it’s somewhere near that semantically; I think of it as ‘the eyes of emoji.’ As such, it’s closer to a reaction gif than a word . . . emoji are merely additive, like multiple exclamation points.” Gabbert goes on to argue that emoji both reduces language complexity—and, if one believes emoji to be an oversimplification of the nuances of semantic and semiotic expression—emotional complexity. “Emoji are useful when you have nothing much to say. They can be used tactically to end a text conversation in much the same way as favoriting a tweet . . . but they’re a cop-out, a cheat, an avoidance of the hard work of precise communication, due to the impoverished lexicon. Over 800 emoji are supported across most platforms, more on iOS 9, but many, like stock photos, are largely unusable . . . English, on the other hand, gives us access to over one million words.”
The relationship of thought to language has been theorized by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but what of the relationship between emotion and language, or emotion and thought? If emoji represent the case-limit of affectual communication on the internet, how could the concept of revolutionary affects intervene, and what would they look like? Formal experiment, genre-bending, vulgarity, iconoclastic tradition-breaking, or simply a compelling new voice?
Social change can be initiated in cultural networks, but also within, in the neural networks of the human brain. Neuropsychiatry is one science, among many, that attempts to restructure our thinking about human possibility, not in the Renaissance sense, but the actual makeup of the brain beyond just hemispheric activity: how it learns, processes, and engages in acts of creativity, empathy, identification, and, on the negative side, antisocial or violent behavior.

The latest findings in neuropsychology concern neuronal plasticity: the adaptation of the mind to its environment, and the mutations and erosion of memory (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s). The term “plasticity” was first applied to behavior in 1890 by William James in The Principles of Psychology; the first person to use the term neural plasticity was Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski. A mutually-agreed upon framework for neuroplasticity doesn’t exist: broadly speaking, neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term describing lasting change to the brain throughout one’s life course. The term gained prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, when new research showed many aspects of the brain remain changeable even into adulthood, rather than static (similar arguments have been made within cults of personality), after a formative stage in early childhood. Neuroplastic change can occur on small scales, such as physical changes to individual neurons, or at whole-brain scales, such as cortical remapping in response to injury.

New behaviors, environments, thoughts, and emotions may also cause neuroplastic change. For example, your brain’s plasticity is also controlled by your diet and lifestyle choices, including exercise—your brain is not “programmed” to shrink and fail as you age. Many of the lessons learned from neuroplasticity research are practical, as well as restatements of common wisdom. Too much stress can be harmful, not just to the cardiovascular system, but also to your brain. Recent studies are showing that when corticosteroids (the stress hormone) were increased, neurogenesis (brain growth) decreased. Neuroplasticity also has a sweet spot, or optimal zone. New learning is most likely to take place when the brain has an optimal amount of arousal. Too much arousal and the brain shuts down; not enough, and it gets lazy. There is a brain-belly connection, encouraging a metabolic approach to brain performance. And lastly, aerobic exercise increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which when released into the system, enhances brain growth and neural connections, and overall function of the brain. Along with neuroplasticity, neuroscientists have also discovered neurogenesis: the brain’s ability to grow new neural networks.

What would happen if we considered hive mind not just on the physiological and neurological, but also the formal, aesthetic, and geological levels? Poet Christian Bök did in Crystallography, “a pataphysical encyclopedia” and concrete poetics patterning language formations after mirrors, fractals, stones, and ice.

The transmission of affects may be a surface reflection of how our bodies are constantly syncing and un-syncing from each other—on the level of DNA, itself a code that scientists are learning how to “re-write,” on the level of bacteria, on up. “We now have a way of easily making changes directly to the genome,” says Anja Smith, the research and development director at Dharmacon, a unit of GE Healthcare Life Sciences developing technologies for gene expression and editing, including CRISPR-Cas9. “You can now go directly into the cell itself and make changes to genes.”

Deconstructionism, Language poetry, Oulipo and exquisite corpse, the butterfly effect—our individual bodies and their connection to other bodies, from organs to tissues comprised of trillions of cells, are as complex as the transmission of affectual intensities.
William Wordsworth was not alone among his contemporaries in the Romantic era in defining “good poetry” as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” For Wordsworth, and many other Romantic artists, thinking and feeling were inextricable, and art based in emotional truth or expressionist power, the “total form” to which an artist could aspire. The “feeling of what happens,” to quote Antonio Damasio, is in fact an epistemological inquiry intersecting many fields, from neurocognitive science, to the disciplines of sociology, poetics, music, and, more recently, affect studies. In affect studies, a posthumanist inquiry into human and animal bodies, sensation, and potentiality, affect is distinguished from “feeling” to mean those visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing that can serve to drive us toward movement, thought, and ever-changing forms of relation.
In affect theory, “feelings” are generally separated from “affects” as mood is from energy, yet interdependent, the latter also being volitional (Lawrence Grossberg’s “affective investments”).

Affect studies, a burgeoning field for two decades, is complex, not just because of the affect/cognition duality, but because affect itself constellates the fields of ontology, ethics, aesthetics, politics, anthropology, cultural studies, geography, psychology, philosophy, queer studies, and sociology. The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Greg Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, features contemporary theorists who pair affect with dimensions of philosophy, psychoanalysis, art history, and aesthetics, fields of research that credit affect pioneers Spinoza, Bacon, Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze. The critical geneaologies of affect theory include affect and representation, drives and affect, affect and political thought in Michael Hardt, affect and the feminine avant-garde by Sue Best, who takes up psychoanalysis and the work of Silvan Tomkins on affect (Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity), Eve Meltzer on conceptual art, affect and the antihumanist turn, Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism,” Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Brian Massumi’s affective logic of public threat, and Elspeth Probyn’s writings on shame. Ruth Leys, a scholar of critical theory, psychoanalysis, and neuroscience is a well-known critic of the affective turn, suggesting that it can overwrite human intentionality, thus ignoring political and class-based concerns. These authors demonstrate how affects disperse in the realms of the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political as they play out across bodies (human and non-human), in moral decisions, consumption patterns, public morale, glamor, snark in the workplace, and mental health regimes.

Does our common conflation of emotion and affect increase our susceptibility to media sources, advertising, and other data streams that rely on the semiotics of communication, rather than solicitation of interpersonal feeling or critical thinking? According to Eric Shouse, “When your body infolds a context and another body (real or virtual) is expressing intensity in that context, one intensity is infolded into another. By resonating with the intensity of the contexts it infolds, the body attempts to ensure that it is prepared to respond appropriately to a given circumstance. Given the ubiquity of affect, it is important to take note that the power of many forms of media lies not so much in their ideological effects, but in their ability to create affective resonances independent of content or meaning.” In other words, because affects are often unconscious, if not automatic, we are much more vulnerable to their transmission, in the slipstream of data and images, than we might be aware.

If affects are pre-personal, what part of the brain is responsible for deeper encodings? At what point does the separate self, complete with biographical memory, emerge? As mentioned, the amygdala is part of the brain connected to emotion: its damage, or lack, is related to the inability to feel, let alone feel remorse, and a generally robotic consciousness. Give me back my amygdala, might be an appropriate battle cry for today’s media saturated culture wherein parts of the brain not essential to survival are phased out as a form of planned obsolescence, data can be privileged over human subjects, information above knowledge, and memes, above memories.

The attrition of empathy and other feelings isn’t related just to internet use, of course. Compassion fatigue was a meme of the 80s, from an oversaturation in media, and much of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) relies on supplanting emotional reactions with conscious thought. The New York Times ran an op-ed article in April 2016, entitled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like,’” arguing that people (and especially voters) are now more likely to say “I feel like . . . ” to express an opinion than “I believe,” or “I think.” “This linguistic hedging is particularly common at universities, where calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces may have eroded students’ inclination to assert or argue. It is safer to merely ‘feel.’” There is a time and place for emotion, the article acknowledges: “Ancient philosophers ranging from Confucius to the Greek Stoics acknowledged the role that emotion plays in human reasoning.” Just not in the classroom, or public spaces, where what’s clearly needed is careful, reasoned articulation, not inexact appeals, “general relativism,” or subjectivity posited as an end in itself.

“F*ck feelings” is the new cognitive behavioral therapy, even, according to Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett, the father-daughter duo who authored the 2015 self-help book F*ck Feelings. However ironically, the authors argue that the world and its flawed people will only let you down; therefore, it’s smarter to set achievable goals rather than seek ideal communication.

Given these prevailing factors, and American post-humanist allegiance to science over awe, competiveness over generosity, and technology over art, is it any wonder that one of the prevailing emotions of our times isn’t an emotion, but the absence of emotion—ennui, anxiety, excitability, or what Jennifer Egan calls “structural dissatisfaction” with life—or our lack of empirical experience thereof?
Life is just a mediated, Instagram-filtered dream of colliding hyperobjects is an easy enough philosophy to adopt, unless one experiences personal or collective trauma. The transition from the hyperreal to the all-too-real has become a painful reality for many who have witnessed or been personally involved in incidents of terrorism, war, the refugee crisis, neo-imperialist occupation, and gun violence. If ever a nation could be said to suffer from collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the US and other Westernized countries take top billing. The main symptoms? Obesity, eating disorders, sex, drug, alcohol, and social media addiction, among other compulsive behaviors. Not just our urban epicenters, but quiet rural areas are now often the target of mass shootings and other violent crimes. The Police state fuels this violence in perpetuity, the editors of The New Inquiry point out, as the border patrol for all the boundaries capitalism and white supremacy generates: it’s the “daily grind on a profit worshipping, antiblack, heteropatriarchal planet that cops are charged with protecting.” The cycles of victimization go both ways: “These systems depend on making its victims believe otherwise for as long as possible. Charged with sorting the ‘good’ from the ‘bad,’ we’re asked to mourn daily injustice as a glitch rather than a feature of an unjust system and forced repeatedly into renewed calls for ‘reform.’ But police violence makes for grief with no catharsis.”

Grief with no catharsis (from Greek katharsis, meaning “cleansing”): the very definition of PTSD.

What do collectivized forms of PTSD look like in aesthetic realms? First, of course, there are collectivized forms of mourning—elegy. We have Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” among others of her poems, as well as genre-defining poems and collections by Walt Whitman, Larry Levis, Dean Young, Marie Howe, and many others.

As Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric elaborated, the destruction of personhood, as well as structural racism, misogyny, and homophobia, begins with the removal of a pronoun: you are no longer a “you,” you are an it, an object to be passed along the hands of purchasing agents or acting authorities. Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is the second of her books bearing the same subtitle. The first, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, came out in 2004, also from Graywolf. In it, Rankine uses a hybrid form of images and prose poems to interrogate violence against black bodies in the United States, prescription drugs, September 11th, and the media—in order to examine how we as Americans process calamity and everyday life.

In contemporary culture, images flood the media of rape and torture victims, abused children and animals, beheaded journalists, natural disasters, and those dying from disease, famine, and fatal accidents. We see these images only passingly, but they reside, if only as a trace, in our emotional brain. Too, the passivity engendered by media consumption can fuel our sense of helplessness. The catharsis so desperately sought by our generation isn’t yet another revenge story or even a comeuppance through media celebrity and riches, or pleasure. “Sex is a real mode of socializing now,” notes Alexandra Molotkow, noting that while not without tenderness, a lifestyle involving casual sexual encounters and pornography is far from ideal, requiring masks of coldness and aggression to upkeep, with the risk of leaving the participant unsatisfied, lonely, or feeling violated. Seeking physical and material gain on a temporal plane, we ultimately know, isn’t a successful means of meeting our intellectual, emotional and spiritual needs.
Of late, the threats to human safety come more from terrorism than the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, though that terror, along with the terror of an eco-catastrophe, still looms. In poetry, the move toward the social, in part as critique of an interiorized lyric, has left the interpersonal element of poeisis—the construction of subjectivity and intersubjectivity, and their dwelling places, more or less alone. If emotion, contrasted with affect, however, is dependent upon reflection, and personal biography, it’s worth asking how emotion relates to the construction of identity. Poet Eleni Sikelianos suggests a more far-reaching genealogy to subjectivity than contemporary capitalism. “Some have noted the possible connection—because they happened very near to each other in time and place—of that abstraction of the one from the many to the abstraction of objects for money. If we take these two inventions to be homologous there are implications. Was incipient self made in the same mill as money? Does the connection leap forward to the environmental mess we’re in today? Even without those implications, we might wonder, How useful is subjectivity to us these days?”

Literature—specifically poetry, as discussed in this essay—has the power to restore us to our senses, along with warding off the final dystopic binary: man v. machine. Allegories and dystopic literature such as Animal Farm, Hunger Games, and The Handmaid’s Tale provide concrete images by which to convey timeless ideas, but they also provide framing devices for contemporary nightmares or neoliberal takeovers too diffuse or horrific to identify and name. Poets, conversely, tend to describe the phenomenon of societal or personal disintegration itself, as in Dickinson’s, “I felt a cleaving in my mind,” wherein the unmoored psyche is represented as a broken sequence of balls (the idiom of “losing one’s marbles”), spilling to the floor. Poetry and the arts help determine the value our hyper-secular culture places on the soul—however chimerical, however dependent on our own witnessing for its constitution.

          “ . . . It must move
          As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
          But there is in that gaze a combination
          Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
          In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
          The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
          Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
          Has no secret, is small, and it fits
          Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moments of attention.”

          —John Ashbery

Just as meter parses individual units of sound in a poem, perception—and emotion—parse the undifferentiated world into a known quanta, to be acted on, and transformed. Emouver: to move physically, as in Ashbery’s poem, but also personally: to be heard, and answered, as in prayer. To be sure of one thing, even if it’s merely the voice of the other, returned, amid the impersonal forces of history. “If we are poisoned, then poems—with their precise and care-full attentiveness to how words are circulated, used and misused, in the world—are part of our purification system,” as Cynthia Hogue puts it. “They distill out the impurities through what H.D. thought of as their linguistic alchemical process. But a poem is not a lecture. A brash poetic observation, report, and judgment are occasions to think, to feel, but there are no sides in poetry.”

After the anesthesia of shock wears off, in global health epidemics or world terrorism, before the state of “comfortably numb” sets in, we have an opportunity to learn to see and act differently. At the intersection of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and aesthetic theory: sense, sensibility, and embodiment of mind. Could another intersection—that of poetry, poetics, and revolutionary affects—along with joy, awe, wonder, satisfaction—return us to a differentiated collective, united not in our discontent, but our striving for a new, or just better world?