All the Feels: Affect and Writing in Canada / Tous les sens : affect et écriture au Canada. University of Alberta Press , and
Affect theory is, because of its complexities and interdisciplinary reach, hard to define. In the introduction to All the Feels, the editors give a brief overview of the field, the seeds of which were planted in the 1970s. They also explain that affect theory is still gathering momentum as a theoretical field with the help of theorists like Lauren Berlant, Sianne Ngai, and Sara Ahmed. Simply put, affect theory emphasizes the crucial relationship between thought and emotion, two realms traditionally conceptualized as discrete, or at least idealized as separate from one another. Affect theory conceptualizes a strong relationship between thought and feeling, the mind and the body, which then extends to a relational understanding of public and private, personal and political, so that these concepts are no longer siloed, but understood as working together. In this construction, affect theory seems to have an endless reach; affect is integral to many realms including politics, the environment, and gender studies, and this collection focuses on how literary affect is connected to these and other domains.
All the Feels certainly recognizes the many challenges in defining affect theory, but the collection revels in the possibilities of the field by offering a series of diverse essays that consider affect and its implications for a variety of contemporary Canadian texts. This ambitious and wide-ranging bilingual collection contains articles written in English and in French. Contributing authors express themselves with the precision of their preferred language, allowing the particularities of the English or French language to affect the reader’s experience of each piece. The editors of the book acknowledge the limits of its focus on Canada: this volume contains fifteen essays, but is not a comprehensive or definitive guide to affect in Canadian, Indigenous, and Quebec literatures. It is rather a continuation of conversations about affect in Canadian writing, an effort to integrate thought and feeling within academic discourse.
The book situates itself firmly in our present moment; the editors note that the idea for the collection emerged alongside the #MeToo movement and its reverberations in Canadian literary institutions, such as in the UBC Accountable letter and the Hal Niedzviecki “appropriation prize” controversies of 2019. The anger sparked by these events is not just an “ugly feeling,” to use Sianne Ngai’s term. Rather, this anger comes from a sense of injustice and often engenders energy and passion for change. In this cultural moment, the old guard of various institutions is rightfully challenged by new voices who not only merit space in the literary scene, but also demand respect for those who have been marginalized, forgotten, or mistreated by the literary elite. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021 also presents important affective considerations. As a collective, we experience deep uncertainty, anxiety, nostalgia, and grief as the pandemic rages on. Some people are fortunate enough to have care, while others are desperately lacking. The book considers this critical moment and encourages readers to acknowledge strong affective feelings as generative tools for change and resistance. When we look at contemporary Canadian literature, can we see the ways that art challenges us to imagine better outcomes for the world?
The book is divided into five sections; each considers a particular aspect of affect and its relation not only to works of literature but also with regard to its social importance. The first section, “Negative Affects,” contains essays by Matthew Cormier, Ana María Fraile-Marcos, and Eric Schmaltz, who discuss the negative affects associated with disgust in response to apocalyptic threats to the environment and the unrelenting system of capitalism. The next section, “Care and Affect,” features essays that employ feminist discourse in discussing the ethics of care in several Canadian works, both in relation to personal relationships and the larger Canadian health system. “Affects of Memory” plumbs the depths of grief and suffering; the essays resist the normative approach to grief, suggesting that there is no time limit on these feelings. Nicoletta Dolce’s essay posits new ways of thinking through negative affect, including using poetry as a means to reflect upon and commemorate collective and individual memory.
The fourth section, “Affects of Resistance,”, features two essays focusing on Indigenous worldviews, and one essay about resistance in Israeli Canadian writer of Yemeni descent Ayelet Tsabari’s collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth (2013). Jeanette den Toonder’s analysis of Naomi Fontaine’s (Innu) Kuessipan (2011) asserts that within Indigenous cultures, affect is a valuable form of knowing. Margery Fee’s essay echoes these ideas. She advocates for a decolonial approach to affect theory by understanding that the concept of relationality is already built into Indigenous ways of knowing. Her reading of several Indigenous stories reminds readers that geographic space in these stories is crucial in a decolonial approach to affect; each geographic location is home to different communities, whose stories and the affects they produce cannot be assumed to be identical.
The collection closes with a trio of essays on “Writing Through Affect.” Nicole Brossard, Smaro Kamboureli, and Louise Dupré each write about their personal relationships to affect, demonstrating the connection between affect and writerly and academic life. Brossard emphasizes the value of joy and beauty, especially in the busy, overwhelming contemporary world. Kamboureli highlights the connection between geographical location, political considerations, and affect. She writes in the first person about the affective process of writing academic work, rather than producing writing that is strictly academic, professional, and devoid of personal perspective. Dupré’s essay reflects what many of the other contributors also suggest: a crucial part of writing is finding empathy for one’s subjects. Dupré also suggests, however, that to avoid falling into what she calls “emotional ruin,” one must develop a critical distance from which to write. Her empathetic approach to writing emphasizes attention to fragility and attuning one’s senses to emotions that might otherwise go unnoticed, echoing the feminist ethics of care discussed in the book. This final section of the book indicates the value in exploring one’s own affective relationships to aspects of the world and emphasizes affect’s contribution to various forms of writing.
At first glance, the collection may seem overly ambitious, considering that affect theory is an amorphous concept. However, the book allows for an immersion into the possible reaches of affect theory in the context of Canadian literature. The effect of reading this collection in sequence is to experience affect as connected to the reading of the book itself. I found myself engaged and interested in each new exploration of affect. The book left me with questions about the limits and possibilities of affect: How would we approach affect in older works of Canadian literature? What additional affective possibilities in literature written about this country should we consider? What do we miss by ignoring the interconnectedness of thinking and feeling, of public and private?
This book is a great companion to existing affect theory scholarship, including The Affect Theory Reader, the focus of which is broad as it considers the implications of affect theory on a number of topics from food to mental health. All the Feels builds on these concepts, but its main interest lies in affect and literature. Readers with a basic understanding of affect theory, as well as those who are new to the field, will find that this collection opens fascinating avenues for inquiry into the affective possibilities in Canadian literature. It presents an alternative approach to studies in literature—one that considers the integrated nature of thoughts and feelings.
Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth, editors. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke UP, 2011.
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