Blake's Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions
by Steven Goldsmith

Reviewed by Jeffrey Blevins


Published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013   |   416 pages

What is the relation between a feeling and a foot? Specifically the tarsus of a left foot. In William Blake’s epic poem Milton, 17th-century poet John Milton famously enters Blake’s body through the left tarsus. The entry is Blake’s way of dramatizing, in literal fashion, his inheritance of Milton’s poetic legacy. But why a foot? In Blake’s Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions, Steven Goldsmith confronts this and other questions. Foot is, of course, a pun for metrical foot. Such a reading, by figuring foot as a kind of metonym for poetic vitality, complements the strong coupling of prophetic seeing with imagination in the next lines: “I saw in the nether regions / Regions of the Imagination.” The foot becomes, in this reading, not simply the medium through which Milton enters Blake’s body, but rather the stuff of poetry itself, the reconciliation of imagination and prophetic vision.

But why, we may ask again, specifically the tarsus (“a cluster of seven articulating bones in each foot situated between the lower end of tibia and fibula of the lower leg and the metatarsus,” according to Wikipedia)? “Rather than seeking to transcend biology,” Goldsmith argues, by emphasizing the “base corporeality” of the foot “Blake is refiguring human being from the bottom up.” According to such a reading, Milton could only have entered by the foot: nothing else would have been quite low enough. The keyword, then, in the lines quoted above (“I saw in the nether regions / Regions of the Imagination.”), becomes not imagination but “nether”: a revaluation of lowness and baseness that is reminiscent of his grander inversions, elsewhere, of Heaven and Hell.

We encounter, in this account of Goldsmith’s biological reading of Milton’s entry into Blake’s foot, the larger agenda of Blake’s Agitation itself, which, on the one hand, steadfastly refuses to elevate Blake into something like “the mystical, occult, or purely visionary” figure that “classic” criticism took him to be, yet that, on the other hand, also objects to the “historicist excesses” of recent Blake criticism, whereby Blake’s corpus, as it were, has been skirted around in favor of its surrounding historical contexts. Goldsmith, in contradistinction to both traditions, attends to Blake’s bodies: both his literal, fleshly body and to his body of work, through a renewed formalist concern with what his poems, eo ipso, have to tell us – their enthusiastic feeling of committing to the “bodily complexity,” tangles of mythological arteries, their strange signatures of his “five vitiated senses.” Whence feeling in all of this? For Goldsmith, feeling is a property of experience and of art that is inherently enmeshed with the body. Of the tarsal scene in Milton he writes: “Blake is presenting literary history as an affective transmission that works through … Mutual incorporation.” The bodily incorporation of Milton in Blake, and of selves into bodies more generally, is the stage upon which emotion engenders the world.

Feeling, affect, emotion. A responsible reviewer of Goldsmith’s book must spend some time speaking to the differences between these terms. Affect is the trendiest of the bunch, with its connections to Affect Theory, a now two-decades-old critical agenda that had sought, originally, to subvert reason-based epistemologies through a focus on aspects of consciousness that they are argued to be unable to account for; emotion, the timeless foe of reason, suggests itself as an obvious choice. More recently, some post-humanist affect theorists, like Rei Terada and Brian Massumi, have pushed affect theory in a different direction, toward a reading of affect as a feature of one’s loss of self, rather than as a ratification of one’s humanity. Goldsmith thinks highly of Terada’s work, and a large part of his project turns on a demonstration of how feelings can arise and reverberate throughout even the most anonymous features of Blake’s poetry: features that have “the feel of not to feel it”—a quote Goldsmith borrows from Kant in his analysis of Milton’s and Blake’s becoming anonymous through their merger into one body. Elsewhere Goldsmith writes that “Anonymity needs the reassuring measure of emotion’s self-evidence, ratified not conceptually but in body.”

This does little, however, to explain why Goldsmith chose the word “emotions” instead of “affects” for his book’s title. Sianne Ngai, another important theorist for Goldsmith, succinctly spells out the difference in her book Ugly Feelings:

The affect/emotion split originated in psychoanalysis for the practical purpose of distinguishing third-person from first-person representations of feeling, with “affect” designating feeling described from an observer’s (analyst’s) perspective, and “emotion” designating feeling that ‘belongs’ to the speaker or anlysand’s “I.”

The problem with emotion, for Ngai and others, is that it is messy. As a first-person, private type of feeling, it remains deeply mysterious in the face of analysis. Affects, on the other hand, easily open themselves up to study, because they are, by definition, already public. Take, for example, the affect of confidence and alertness one might put on when leaving the house for work in the morning: possibly ironic, most certainly affected. A face made for the world, performed to be noticed, interpreted. William Blake would have hated affects. His mythology turned on the deep division between the sensible and the insensible worlds; its deities and other beings who crossed these worlds metamorphosed, shifting mortal and immortal bodies, changing even their names. And yet his mythology was not without its invariants, in particulars the proto-Relativistic combination of one’s immortal essence and mortal substance. Just the same, there is no place in such a mythos for affective dissimulation: for the erection of a simulacra of affective distance, or the projection of a possibly false emotive display. An interesting analogy for this is Blake’s disgust with chiaroscuro – the blending and shading of shadows in the visual arts – a practice that he once called “that infernal machine.” Machine means here, specifically, machination: Blake much preferred what Joshua Reynolds called the “firm and determined outline,” which communicated instantly “the exact form which every part of nature ought to have.” (Blake’s passion for the line is, of course, bound up in his work as a printer.) Like the line between what is immortal and what is not, or what is inside and what is out, the printed line manifests the precise opposition of what occurs on either side of it.

Blake may prefer that the truth be unmessily told, but he in no way attempts to impose order, simplicity, on that truth which is in reality disordered. Goldsmith’s book makes a strong case for affect theory’s return to embodied emotion by embracing the subjective messiness of what it means to feel. He takes this messiness as the foundation for a vigorous type of critical activity: a criticism of unaffected being, of simply living and experiencing. In this sense, Goldsmith shows that to be conscious is, in one sense, to be critical, emotionally, messily. Celebrating this connection between criticism and consciousness is, perhaps, the primary principle behind critical emotionality—the fieriness that drives emotional life into states of agitation that ultimately underwrite our most essential political systems, even as they project our more fundamental aesthetic joys. So in a way, Goldsmith is working at once with and against critics such as Ngai. Ngai famously structured Ugly Feelings around a set of terms for affects that were supposedly central to contemporary life, but which had been undertheorized by the philosophical establishment: animatedness, anxiety, irritation, etc. Goldsmith clearly has Ngai in mind when he, too, lines up his critical cavalry behind the banner of a single word: agitation. But agitation, it turns out, is not like any affect Ngai would consider. It is an unavoidable emotion that undoes the self’s control. It inexorably sweeps a critic, or a poet, off her feet, leaving her ineluctably unmoored in a sea of enthusiasm or “fieriness.” In such a state, there is no time or place to stage a dissimulated disinterest, or to make a sham of critical distance. One’s heart is already on one’s sleeve.

For Goldsmith agitation connects with critical enthusiasm. He investigates the ways in which emotions, especially feelings of enthusiasm and “critical fieriness,” get smuggled into otherwise objective critical practices. Blake is an emotional poet, and he inspires emotion. Thus, Goldsmith argues, he anticipates the enthusiastic critical tradition for his works that was to come. A large part of Goldsmith’s project is spent sniffing out iotas of emotion lurking in even the stodgiest books on Blake, from Saree Makdisi’s William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s (2003) all the way back to Kathleen Raine’s Blake and the Tradition (1968). This is not done just for fun or curiosity’s sake. Emotions, unlike affect, “are closely connected with action,” to quote Martha Nussbaum. To find critics in an agitated state is, then, to find them activated: brought into a plane of energetic movement and potential accomplishment. That Blake’s agitation so strongly moves his readers and critics to a similarly agitated state—their agitation miming his, an occurrence that Goldsmith calls “affective mimesis”—is precisely the reason why Goldsmith chose Blake as the exemplar for a theoretical enterprise concerning the emotions and embodiment.

This penchant to move and shake his interlocutors is also the spine of Blake’s agitative politics. David Baulch, in his review of Goldsmith’s book, nicely speaks to this connection between agitation as “a state of dysphoria” and as “a program of political disruption.” Baulch rightly does not overplay the link, as neither Goldsmith nor Blake make it central to their definition and enactment of agitation, but the issue remains salient; Nussbaum’s association of emotion and action is not, for instance, without a political valence. To return to the foot: this is an appendage that is ready to move, to run, to orient toward protest and change. The connection between emotion and physicality, especially the base physicality represented by the foot, is strongly adumbrated in agitation’s light. Goldsmith writes, for example, of emotion’s life through a body’s ever-startled “composure,” or through “the nervous system mobilized, readied for action.” (The vocabulary of the “nervous system” embodies this affective-physical connection; Jean-Paul Sartre, as a counter, calls emotion “magical action.”)

It bears noting, on this score, that the correlation Goldsmith sees between criticism, emotion, and action, all wrapped up in a concept of agitation, cannot help but remind us of the political landscape in which Blake’s Agitation was devised and written. The University of California, Berkeley, where Goldsmith has long taught – and where I study – has been engaged in an ongoing process of utilizing agitation in the defense of humanistic inquiry, as its student and faculty bodies have protested against seemingly endless threats of budget cuts. The greater Bay Area also hosted a number of long-running and particularly agitated outposts of the Occupy movement, in which Berkeley students and faculty avidly participated. In relation to these events, Goldsmith’s defense of literary criticism’s place in the discourses, and activities, of political agitation cannot be without strong purpose and intent.

BIO:  Jeffrey Blevins is a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley and a Dolores Zohrab Liebmann Fellow. He works on American and British poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries. His dissertation explores relations between early (proto)modernist experimentalism and the ascendance of set theory, mereology, and philosophical logic in philosophical discourse at the turn of the century. He has essays forthcoming in ELH, Victorian Poetry, and Paideuma. He most recently published two pieces in The Wallace Stevens Journal, one a refereed article and the other an invited review. He will edit a special issue of The Wallace Stevens Journal in 2015.

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