On Jonathan Flatley’s “Affective Mapping”

by vinnyhaddad

It is high time I write an entry on Affective Mapping, a text whose vocabulary I have invoked a number of times in these blogs. The conceptual framework of this text illustrates the complex ways in which a work of art can produce for its readers an affective map, an aesthetic practice that transforms our depressive relation to loss “into one in which loss itself becomes the mechanism of interest in the world” (91). I will offer here a short explanation of the concept of “affective mapping” and its function in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I will then offer a short analysis of my own depressing “coming to terms” that this conceptual framework cannot be applied tout suite to every work of art, as I often deeply wish it could.

Flatley appropriates and modifies the term from its use in geography and environmental psychology as a psychic, emotional process conjunctive with cognitive mapping. Our affective maps are constantly in flux, “reversible, rhizomatic:”

Such maps must be able to incorporate new information as one has new experiences in new environments; but this does not mean they are entirely self-invented. Rather the maps are cobbled together in processes of accretion and palimpsestic rewriting from other persons’ maps, first of all those defined in infancy by one’s parents, and later the maps that come to one by way of one’s historical context and the social formations one lives in. (78)

Flatley’s focus illuminates not the existence of affective maps in general, but “the ways an aesthetic practice might help with this process of affective mapping.” In other words, he is interested in moments when a work of art makes one’s affective map an object of analysis for the reader through a process of self-estrangement analogous to transference in psychoanalysis. The author, like the analyst in psychoanalysis, facilitates our conjuring up ghosts from the past into the present, to see, behold, feel and recognize. The most intoxicating turn that Flately’s argument makes is the political potential that becomes available for use when our relations to loss become antidepressive, when history floods into the present in our affective life in all of its material actuality: “by creating a kind of mood atmosphere with its own objects, artworks bring affects into existence in forms and in relation to objects that otherwise might not exist” (81). The political potential of these aesthetic practices is contingent on its ability to create “a meeting place for an affective collectivity.” While Flatley is careful to point out that this space for political feeling is not “always good,”[1] but in a very specific sense I think Flatley departs from, for example, Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of the violence of the image. Whereas for Nancy the violence of the aesthetic opens up a space that, in its very force, we cannot predict a political outcome, Flatley’s argumentation shows texts that not only quite clearly create opportunities for self-estrangement, but “also have something to say about the very subjective experience from which a reader has been estranged. This allegorization of the experience that the aesthetic practice is itself promoting, the narration of the production of their own readers—this is the moment in which the text functions as an affective map for its readers” (83). Like when the analyst intervenes with an observation during psychoanalysis, the work of art, in its very act of articulation, makes the affective map a thing that “can no longer be ignored, and the analysis of the emotions in question can begin” (83). Therefore, a considerable level of planning, of investment in the objects of the work of art, of intentionality on the part of the artist both “allow[s] readers to input different experience” and encounter an affective collectivity.

The publication of The Turn of the Screw follows Henry James’s debacle with theater, which “reverberated with special emotional force because his foray into playwriting had been an attempt to redress an earlier failure to keep that audience that had existed for novels and stories” (85). In the context of The Turn of the Screw, this occurs both within the narrative and, mimetically, for the reader herself. Affective Mapping shows off a machine-like ability to concisely, clearly, efficiently summarize texts and otherwise incredibly complex philosophical arguments, so I will offer Flatley’s summary of Turn of the Screw rather than my own as a footnote for those unfamiliar with the text, and as a lesson to those out there like myself who need one in word economy.[2] Significantly, the aesthetic practice of The Turn of the Screw, produces, Flatley argues, a ‘reading into’ for the reader that mimes that of the governess: “Crucial to the story’s effect is the fact that this is all narrated in a highly ambiguous style that makes it impossible to tell whether or not the ghosts are real or the governess is crazy. Like the governess, the reader is put in a position where s/he has to read into an unclear text. Gradually her pursuit becomes more aggressive and less rewarding” (87). Reading into, briefly, is a process that is necessitated by a failure of direct communication: “Reading into a text is a matter of making the dead speak, of creating a specter who can provide the sense of communication the silent text lacks” (89). The mechanism by which this is put into practice is prosopopoiea, or reading as “[imagining] a person having thoughts and feelings that the text itself leaves undecidable, that is, that you author-ize your reading” (88). In other words, Henry James creates in his ambiguous style a ghost who the reader herself is left chasing, paying heightened attention to. Ultimately, this mimetic practice comes under fire both by its own undecidability for the reader, as well as the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of the story,” both which uncover of its tension with our will to knowledge, as Foucault understood it:

The final movements of the story can be read as a severe cautionary against taking reading in too seriously, for when reading gets caught up in institutional modes of the will to knowledge, the flirtatious, mimetic moments can be steamrolled by the imperative to uncover secrets and produce knowledge…The story strongly—and very critically—allegorizes the very experience it promotes, drawing the reader into the circle of complicity. (102-103)

The payoff, here, comes in the form of an affective map and what the recognition about ourselves, our own emotional history, that text makes unavoidably present (I will come back to this unavoidability):

In catching the readers in this way the story creates a nugget of affective experience for them, one that draws on and repeats their earlier experiences, and then tells them something about those experiences. It tells them: do no trust the will to knowledge; it does not deliver what it promises. James maps the affective territory created by the new discourse of sexual identities. He shows us whence the emotional attraction of reading into the secrets lingering especially around children’s bodies and behaviors, and what happens when one gets caught up in the desire to find a fix a truth there. James also provides a map for finding pleasures within the new regime. That is, the existence of a new will to knowledge, of a new proliferation of secrets everywhere, can in fact allow for and indeed provide cover for a flirtatious reading in…But this is a reading in that does not need to—indeed, that needs not to—turn into a will to actually find knowledge there…Ghost relationality is itself the cure. For James, we might even say that it is only as ghosts (when we are possessed by an emotion from our past) and with ghosts (the people who are stand-ins for lost objects from our past) that one can be affectively attached to the world and the people around us. (103-104)

This type of effect, this type of relationality, this type of knowledge, that reading fiction produces resonates so strongly with me that I seek out opportunities to apply this theoretical framework when possible. Unlocking the mysteries of incredibly complex, emotive aesthetic practices, and explaining their ability to alter/shock the shared affective territory of geographically dispersed audiences, I see as one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. However, the project of Affective Mapping offers a cautionary tale that I have only recently, and somewhat depressively, uncovered in its relation to my own work with book history and contemporary fiction.

The loss of audience that Flatley describes Henry James experiences, the very thing that necessitates his creation of an aesthetic practice that converts “one relation of loss with another” is itself something that has evolved and taken on new forms, changing the publishing business (see Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, and John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture), copyright laws (see Paul Saint-Amour’s The Copywrights), and audiences, and the literary imagination itself. The “loss of audience” that Henry James experienced as a “shock” is not exactly the same as the loss of audience that, for example, Jonathan Franzen so powerfully explores in his 1996 essay “Perchance to Dream” When, for example, Affective Mapping reveals W.E.B. Dubois’s insightful recognition that propaganda is effective as an aesthetic practice, the propagandistic effect only functions only insofar as it has eyes on it, which Souls of Black Folk secured in spades. The audience for novels has changed (though they are not as near extinction as we are sometimes led to believe).

However, we might consider that audiences are still the same in their affective attachment to books and their power. In this context, it is key to consider, I think, Amy Blair’s recent book Reading Up, which I wrote about more extensively here, next to Affective Mapping. Blair uncovers is that the ways in which authors were slotted and recommended in Ladies’ Home Journal facilitated a proliferation of mis-readings of “serious fiction” and vacuation of meaning from aesthetic/canonical categories. Many non-professional readers with less sophisticated interpretive frameworks were in fact incapable of seeing when a text, like those examined by Henry James and William Dean Howells, were being critical of the very reading practices they were employing, specifically those targeted at self-improvement and social climbing. Significant questions arise from seeing these two texts side by side. In the same way that “spatial environments are inevitably imbued with the feelings we have about the places we are going,” would not books as commercial objects, particularly those in high esteem like The Turn of the Screw and Souls of Black Folk, be imbued with specific feelings about the books we are about to read? Do these resultant mis-readings (Blair notes these as relatively common occurrences among middle-class readers) necessarily occlude one from encountering affective mapping in these texts? Or, does the aesthetic practice make such avoidance impossible, or, to speak in less hyperbolic terms, unlikely? In other words, when Flatley speaks of the “hard-to-miss ironic-allegorical punctum of The Turn of the Screw, he is referencing Barthes’s notion of the force of the aesthetic to create a specifically powerful, shocking, encounter for the viewer/reader. The effect of prosopopoiea is analogous to the psychoanalytic process of transference, in which the similarity of an object with one in one’s past is facilitated by analysand’s process of imagining the face of the analyst while they remember and articulate their past, the projection of emotions on to the analyst, and finally, in the analyst’s act of articulation, the unavoidable recognition of the origins of their misery. If mis-reading is possible because of a certain affective disposition one has towards books qua books, does that immunize them from recognizing their affective maps as well? Or does the force of the aesthetic practice make the recognition of their affective maps unavoidable? If this is the case, how have reader’s affective relationship with books changed reading practices in the present, as the pre-occupation of, as Kathleen Fitzpatrick calls the self-image, those “entrenched in the outskirts of culture”? I contend that the force of the aesthetic often, in its violence, creates discontinuities and ruptures between the affective territory of our relationship with books/authors/marketing and the work of art itself. However, the webby attachments that we develop and revise on both sides of this rupture co-mingle when we return from the disembodied “meeting place for an affective collectivity,” when we begin to comprehend our prehensions. I like to live in this rupture.

[1] Flatley is riffing on Benjamin’s concept of history and our emotional connection with the historical losers: “ ‘The tiger’s leap into the past’ [is not] necessarily progressive or revolutionary. The process is essentially political, open to contestation from the left or the right…Rather, Benjamin’s theory suggests that motives such as retribution and reparation are ‘fundamentally indifferent to the passage of time,’ and that there are lots of retribution-reparation feelings and images of unachieved happiness floating around in that pile of catastrophes we call history” (75).

[2] “A poor woman is hired by a wealthy and attractive bachelor to take care of his nephew and niece at a luxurious country estate. She is thoroughly charmed by the ‘gorgeous’ children, Miles and Flora, the estate itself, and the general sense of privilege that attaches to the position. However, things almost immediately start to unravel, as Miles is kicked out of school, at which point the governess starts seeing ghosts around the estate. They are ghosts, she gradually comes to realize, of a now deceased servant and erstwhile governess, who, she learns through innuendo, seemed to have had vaguely and unspeakably improprietous, perverse relations with the children. They have come back, it is clear to the governess, to get the children, who, however, refuse to admit to their intercourse with the ghosts. The story becomes a quest for the governess to find out the secret of the ghosts’ relation to the children, to get the children to confess to this relation, and thereby to purge and save them from the ghosts. First, however, the presence of the ghosts allows for a certain pleasurable intimacy with the children, because it forces her to be extra attentive and imaginative in her interactions with them, as she tries to read into the children’s behavior for signs of their knowledge.”