Book Review: Affective Materialities

29 April 2021

Isabelle Jenkinson, University of Leeds

Affective Materialities opens with an invitation for its contributors. Kara Watts and Molly Volanth Hall describe how the body in modernist literature has been claimed differently within recent critical theory by ecocriticism and affect theory. Their invitation is to consider the modernist body as it appears at the intersection of these two schools of thought. In other words, the collection asks how we might consider the body in its material relation to ecologies and as a subject experiencing affect. 

The following ten responses are diverse, despite the specific critical framework sketched in the introductory essay. Karen Guendel examines how William Carlos Williams’ poem ‘History’ stages a debate between a Whitmanian aesthetics of the immortal vitality of the art object, and the affective, living body who views the art object. Ultimately Guendel argues that Williams privileges the latter, emphasising how the artwork’s timeless quality only exists so long as it continues to be experienced by human bodies. We leave Williams’ poetic encounter with an Egyptian sarcophagus in the New York Met for Egypt itself as Stuart Christie explores E.M. Forster’s ‘embodied place’ among the ruins of Alexandria.

While the collection was published in 2019, Cheryl Hindrichs’ essay resonates with our own pandemic moment as she analyses the place occupied by the body that is ill as opposed to the body that is injured in John Dos Passos and Hemingway, in the wake of the Spanish Flu pandemic and the First World War. Hindrichs discusses the societal gender politics of the modernist male body, which is masculinized by war injury while emasculated by illness. She implies that there is a potential for transgressing masculinity during illness for Dos Passos and Hemingway, but also describes the lament both writers make that the return to health inevitably means a return to the banal duties of conventional masculinity. Reading this essay post 2020, one cannot help but wonder what lessons we might learn from a period of global illness while worrying lest these lessons go ignored once more.

From an interrogation of masculinity, we move to an exploration of frustrated female experience in Nella Larsen, Jean Rhys and Virginia Woolf. Judith Paltin examines Quicksand (1928), Voyage in the Dark (1934) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939), and Orlando (1928), and suggests that the experience of their female protagonists is one of embodied frustration. Again, current events amplify the resonance of this chapter – namely the murder of a woman walking home by a police officer in London, and the forceful police intervention at a vigil held in her honour by women protesting their right to feel free to move outside in safety. Paltin argues that the embodied frustration of female experience in modernism is produced by society’s oppression of women. However, she also identifies how female bodies, while being frustrated, are capable of frustrating those power structures that restrict them by choosing ‘to end differently, to speak differently, to love in doorways, and to remember that she was not meant to survive’ (p. 118).

The next two papers are more overtly ecocritical in their approach. Kim Segouin analyses how H.D.’s writing posits a model of the subject as a body in dynamic relation to the non-human world.  Opposing science’s approach of classifying and standardizing environments and the bodies which inhabit them, Sigouin notes the ‘intra-action’ (p. 125) of human bodies and non-human others that H.D. ’s work highlights. William Kupinse discusses the ‘ecology of affect’ (p. 147) in Hebert Read’s novel The Green Child (1935). Kupinse’s close reading of the text shows how Read creates an affect that is both humanoid and vegetal. He offers a counterintuitive reading of the novel’s ending, where the Green people desire to become crystalline.  He references how modernist scientists worked with crystals and crystallography to understand how life on earth organises itself.  The crystalline thrust of The Green Child’s ending, for Kupinse, does not present ‘an image of matter’s inertness’, but suggests ‘a dynamic metaphor for life’s self-arranging’ (p. 165).

Anna Christine, drawing on critical work on the Cute by Sianne Ngai, and Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, explores the use of a queer, cute aesthetic in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936).  She argues that cuteness manifests itself in Nightwood in various moments which blur boundaries between human and animal, adult and child, and human and doll. For Christine, Barnes creates a space for queer, non-normative identities through these blurrings by characterising them as cute.

The final three essays consciously draw attention to the enduring relevance of modernism’s understanding and positioning of human bodies in the world.  Mary Elene Wood analyses Janet Frame’s novel Faces in the Water. The story follows Istina, a schizophrenia patient who is kept at an asylum and threatened with a lobotomy. Frame’s novel was published in 1961, yet Wood’s contextual research – into the ways modernist science simultaneously privileged the brain as the seat of human life and consciousness while also constructing social-Darwinist hierarchies about whose brain had value, and whose was ripe for lobotomy – highlights the enduring influence 1930s neuroscience held over medical thought for decades. Kathryn Van Wert identifies a link between current new materialism and Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1923 poems Duino Elegies. In particular, she examines how both new materialists and Rilke write on the impossible yet urgent need for the subject to become depersonalised.  ‘The materialist doctrine of impersonality’ (p. 215), Van Wert observes, is one that seeks to do away with notions of personal mastery over the self, especially over our negative affects and suffering. ‘For Rilke’, she asserts, ‘endurance as the affirmation rather than as the mastery of suffering is an ethical project’ (p. 220). Van Wert then shifts her focus beyond the literary and theoretical as she questions the productivity and possibility of this quest for the depersonalised subject is when applied to real bodies – those belonging to the victims of South African apartheid.  The final essay, by Robin Hackett, acts as epilogue to the book. Hackett does not address any modernist texts, but considers instead how emotions, in contrast to affects, are weapons of white supremacy which perpetuate racism within gendered spaces in America today.  She posits a solution of ‘blank affect’ that would curtail the violence of white emotion which continues to exclude black people.

Affective Materialities is a fantastic contribution to critical discourse on the modernist body. By situating the body at this affective-ecocritical juncture, the essays in the collection suggest innovative ways in which the body is navigated by modernist writers. Affective Materialities demonstrates how modernist imaginings of bodies remain relevant to our world today. What I really enjoy about this book, though, is that the invitation to contribute to this discourse offered in the introduction still feels open at the end. Each paper, in answering the invitation, asks further questions of how we might consider the modernist body as an affective materiality. The essays are not conclusive, but powerfully suggestive. I would recommend it to any scholars of the body and modernism.


(eds) Watts, Kara, Volanth Hall, Molly and Hackett, Robin, Affective Materialities: Reorienting the Body in Modernist Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019)

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