The Destabilizing Affects of Writing: Sedgwick, Derrida, and the Critique of Cognitive Literary Studies Restricted; Files & ToC

Ritchie, David (Spring 2019)

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This project proposes an evaluation of the literary reading practices and critical habits grouped under the heading of Cognitive Literary Studies (CLS) by outlining the broad assumptions necessary for their interpretive strategies to operate. Addressing the use of “Theory of Mind” by scholars of CLS, I suggest that the application of this cognitive ‘mechanism’ to literary reading and analysis proceeds according to a binary consolidation of cognitive relations that produces a limited interpretive range. Taking the novels of Jane Austen as a test case, these limitations are demonstrated through a close reading of Eve Sedgwick’s work on Affect Theory, and her analysis of alloerotic/autoerotic pleasure in literary writing, which challenge the structures of literature outlined by cognitive readings practices. According to an alternative theory of literary narrative developed from Genette’s structural analysis of vraisemblance, I argue that the ‘cognitive’ articulation of behavior is an effect of literary writing and as such is exposed to the destabilizing effects of writing outlined in Derrida’s analysis of “writing in the general sense.” In this light, I critically examine Jerry Fodor’s apparently rigorous elaboration of “cognitive architecture” in his account of the linguistic model of representation that grounds the computational theory of mind in cognitive psychology. Turning in conclusion to Derrida’s reading of Robinson Crusoe, I show how Derrida’s and Sedgwick’s work offers an interpretation of literary affect in relation to death that is simply unavailable to Cognitive Literary Studies. Read together, Derrida’s theory of ‘survival’ and Sedgwick model of ‘reading otherwise’ indicate how literary affect articulates the destabilizing effects of literary writing not legible according to cognitive analysis. Derrida’s elaboration of how the structure of survival governs fictional writing and “writing in the general sense” can be read alongside Sedgwick’s critical reading strategies informed by the affect theory of Silvan Tomkins, suggesting that new structures of affect can be productively combined with deconstructive analysis of literary writing.

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