Book Review

Embodied Self: The New Causal History, Part II

Lynn Hunt. Writing History in the Global Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2014) 208 pages.

Review by Gregory Jones-Katz

Despite Hunt’s sensible intervention, several issues trouble Writing History. Though she offers a series of significant insights into the content of globalization talk, Hunt does not address its form. If Hunt wants historians to pay more attention to how they write history in the global era, then they must attend to how they write history on the page. Linguistic turns of the historian should thus be incorporated into Hunt’s notion of the causal spiral between individual and society, local and global—her exploration of the embodied self however sidelines questions about language.[i] Hunt is also given to occasionally making sweeping statements regarding the state of fields of historical research. Some of her statements are forgivable considering the compactness of her text and her training as a European historian. Hunt for example claims that “the story of the rise of democratic forms of political participation has been told countless times, but missing from those accounts is any attention to the emotions that generated the process and increased in response” (142). Nicole Eustace’s Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (2008) is a conspicuous counterexample.[ii] Lastly, Hunt appears to draw aspects of her argument about the ideology of globalization talk from other historians, some of whom she cites, but only in reference to their empirical findings. Hunt for instance cites (45) Michael Lang, but fails to mention his argument that globalization talk is able to exaggerate “contemporary global integration” via an “ahistorical abstract[ion]” that separates “political and economic affairs.”[iii] In other words, Lang maintains, like Hunt after him, that globalization discourse legitimizes the present-day political regimes by ignoring the links between politics and economics.

To many, Hunts’ notion of the embodied self likely sounds similar to “affect theory.” Though she neither cites any work of affect theorists nor any texts in the area of affect studies, a parsing of the differences between feelings, emotions, and affect would have benefited readers.[iv] If Hunt had touched on affect theory and affect studies more historyintheglobaleragenerally, she could have squarely confronted the challenge this scholarship poses to intellectual historians. Ruth Leys for instance observes that for “the new affect theorists…the important point to recognize is that they all share a single belief: the belief that affect is independent of signification and meaning.” Part of this belief, Leys notes, is that “cognition or thinking comes ‘too late’ for reasons, beliefs, intentions, and meanings to play the role in action and behavior usually accorded to them. The result is that action and behavior are held to be determined by affective dispositions that are independent of consciousness and the mind’s control.”[v] For these theorists, according to Leys, affect governs cognition. At the very least, such a position overturns the primacy that intellectual historians usually accord to ideas. At most, this position separates emotion from thought.

It is a credit to Hunt that she opts out of this thorny debate. She nevertheless could have intervened into these discussions by linking her reasoned cases against the “’iron curtain’ between historians and psychology” (107) to what Leys describes as affect theorists’ rejection of the insights of psychoanalysts, who “have always posited a close link between emotion and cognition or belief.”[vi] Hunt however simply give us a (too brief) discussion of several scholarly discussions of emotions—she for example briskly covers the work of Neurologists Hanna and Antonio Damasio (109-110), the historical scholarship of William Reddy (110), and the philosophical insights of Shaun Gallagher (114). Hunt thus might leave some readers either justifiably viewing her notion of the embodied self as an extension of affect theory or simply wanting more clarity and distinction. In what could have been a powerful analysis of the increasing visibility of affect theory in historical studies and the humanities more broadly, Hunt could have married her demystification of the discourse of globalization to a demystification of affect theory.[vii]

Notwithstanding these issues with Writing History in the Global Era, Hunt effectively unmasks the presuppositions of globalization talk to raise awareness of the potentially violent ideas that often sneak into discussions of globalization, above all the reduction of cultural and political expressions to economics. This awareness helps to explain how the expansion of self and society produced globalization as well as democracy as a way of life (151). Hunt thus offers more than an ideology-critique. Writing History in the Global Era’s greatest contribution is Hunt’s call to again investigate the self and society and the relationship between the local and global without yielding to economics yet still valuing causality through the concept of the embodied self.

[i] See, for example, Eelco Runia, Moved by the Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[ii] Nicole Eustace, Passion Is the Gale: Emotion, Power, and the Coming of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

[iii] Michael Lang, “Globalization and Its History,” Journal of Modern History 78/4 (2006): 901.

[iv] See, for instance, the “field-defining collection,” The Affect Theory Reader, eds. Melissa Greg, Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2010). In regards to parsing the differences, see Brian Massumi’s definition in his foreword to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), xvi.

[v] Ruth Leys, “The Turn to Affect: A Critique,” Critical Inquiry 37:3 (Spring 2011), 443. Leys discusses the new affect theorists in relation to the work of “neuroscientists whose findings they [the affect theorists, theorists] wish to appropriate.”

[vi] Ibid., 469.

[vii] The links between the effects of globalization and the recent affective turn, between “the neoliberal world of globalization” and the desire “to recuperate the human body as a core dimension of individual experience,” are possibly quite strong. See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “A Negative. Anthropology of Globalization,” in Our Broad Present: Time and Contemporary Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 24, but more generally 11-26.

Gregory Jones-Katz is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-MaJones-Katz Photodison. His dissertation is an intellectual biography of “The Hermeneutical Mafia,” or Yale School of Deconstruction, and is by extension an institutional, reception, and cultural history of deconstruction in America. His most recent publication is “Constantly Contingent: An Interview with J. Hillis Miller” (Derrida Today 8:1 [2015]: 41-76). Gregory is currently working on an article titled “The (Fe)Male School of Deconstruction: Epistemology and the Politics of Representation in the United States, 1960-1990,” which explores female theorists’ central role in actualizing deconstruction in America.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Greg excellent analysis. You put your finger on what haunts Hunt’s book; the difference between affect and what Hunt calls the embodied self is never clarified. One recent example of affect theory in history is Victoria Hesford’s Feeling Women’s Liberation. Hesford claims that women’s liberation engaged in the “rhetoric of emotion” and was not ideological. Such a notion dismiss all previous feminist thought in shaping the politics of women’s liberation and in a sense makes the movement irrational. In fact, all radical politics could then be regarded as irrational and reactionary responses to systemic resistance. I think intellectual historians need to pay attention to this move within historiography.

  2. Excellent review, I like that it actively developes a critique, instead of just offering a boring summary of what the book and a mild suggestion of what it should touch on. I specially like how it shines light through Leys on the limits of approaches to affect that reproduce quite stale oppositions between reason and body (many do not, including William Reddy). One thing that is not mentioned and that Leys points out is how the turn towards affect is founded on a particular read of scientific studies on the mind–mostly in cognitive science, with Damasio as perhaps the most quoted thinker. What’s problematic is that the conclusions of these studies are taken as a given, while in scientific discussions there is clearly not a consensus, let alone the formation of a scientific theory around these ideas.

    I did find curious the last endnote: it is not clear to me what kind of “links” there exist “between the effects of globalization and the recent affective turn” (I haven’t read Gumbrecht’s book; his diagnosis about the body here “feels” (pardon the pun) like it could be extended easily to 60s counterculture). Beyond Williams’s musing on “structures of feeling,” I see the roots of the affective turn in theory taking form for the most part in queer studies, going back to work done in the 80s in connection to the AIDS crisis, ACT UP, etc (Eve Sedgwick, Douglas Crimp, Leo Bersani, etc). I am sure one can find links between this theoretical work and the “effects of globalization,” but what are they exactly?

    • Thanks for the kind remarks, Kahlil. I apologize for not responding sooner. And thanks for expanding a bit on Leys for readers.

      Regarding my last endnote: Gumbrecht’s work is fascinating and a bit unconventional. His argument in the cited essay is made from, in his words, “an existentialist perspective” (13) as well as an “epistemological history” (20) that is Heideggarian and as such might not satisfy more empirically-minded historians. I believe Gumbrecht’s work can offer insights into the relationship between “globalization” and the affective turn in theory. Though Gumbrecht doesn’t directly discuss the affective turn in theory, he does in his essay explore how the “dynamics of globalization are no longer in synchrony with very basic human needs and human limits” (25). While the roots of the affective turn surely lie largely in queer studies, the recent explosion of interest in affect theory across the humanities, in my experience particularly in history, suggests à la Gumbrecht that we humanists are perhaps increasingly out-of-synch with essential human needs and limits as a result of undercurrents of globalized information and materials. This situation triggers the desire in us to recover the body in our work.

      • Thanks for the clarification, it is quite convincing. One could also connect the affective turn to the crisis in the humanities, or the crisis of intellectual critique, if we want to be more specific. I am suddenly reminded of a book that can bring lots of nuance to this debate, through the framework of literary criticism and romanticism: Steven Goldsmith’s Blake’s Agitation: Criticism and the Emotions. Even as Goldsmith acknowledges the limitations of the affective turn, pointing to the indeterminacy of affect , he embraces it as a driving force behind the practice of not only critique but historical change: we’re still romantic, romanticists love to say.

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