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Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity

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A pioneer in queer theory and literary studies, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick brings together for the first time in Touching Feeling her most powerful explorations of emotion and expression. In essays that show how her groundbreaking work in queer theory has developed into a deep interest in affect, Sedgwick offers what she calls "tools and techniques for nondualistic thought," in the process touching and transforming such theoretical discourses as psychoanalysis, speech-act theory, Western Buddhism, and the Foucauldian "hermeneutics of suspicion." In prose sometimes somber, often high-spirited, and always accessible and moving, Touching Feeling interrogates—through virtuoso readings of works by Henry James, J. L. Austin, Judith Butler, the psychologist Silvan Tomkins and others—emotion in many forms. What links the work of teaching to the experience of illness? How can shame become an engine for queer politics, performance, and pleasure? Is sexuality more like an affect or a drive? Is paranoia the only realistic epistemology for modern intellectuals? Ultimately, Sedgwick's unfashionable commitment to the truth of happiness propels a book as open-hearted as it is intellectually daring.

208 pages, Paperback

First published December 27, 2002

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About the author

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

37 books237 followers
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was an American academician specializing in literary criticism and feminist analysis; she is known as one of the architects of queer theory. Her works reflect an interest in queer performativity, experimental critical writing, non-Lacanian psychoanalysis, Buddhism and pedagogy, the affective theories of Silvan Tomkins and Melanie Klein, and material culture, especially textiles and texture. Drawing on feminist scholarship and the work of Michel Foucault, Sedgwick uncovered purportedly hidden homoerotic subplots in writers like Charles Dickens, Henry James and Marcel Proust. Sedgwick argued that an understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture would be incomplete or damaged if it failed to incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition, coining the terms "antihomophobic" and "homosocial."

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5 stars
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224 (35%)
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105 (16%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews
Profile Image for C. B..
389 reviews53 followers
April 26, 2022
These essays concern affect — that is (as far as I understand) a criticism centred on emotions and feeling. They are all of the highest quality. If one gives them the time and attention they deserve, one will be richly rewarded. They gave me perspectives I'd never quite realised before. Sedgwick looks at Henry James's fixation with his bowel movements, using this as a way of thinking about eroticism in his novels; at performative statements — that is, those that do not refer to an action, but are actions in themselves (such as 'I promise' and 'I dare you'); at the work of Silvan Tompkins, and about falling in love with him; and at what she calls 'paranoid reading'. This last one is perhaps what the book is most well known for. It's a powerful argument that a great deal of the canon of Western philosophy is written in a paranoid mode, seeing one formula everywhere and foreclosing surprise before it can even rear its head. I shall be thinking over this deeply stimulating collection for some time. Her solution to this mire of 'negative affect' is what she calls the reparative mode, which is more open to seeking pleasure:

to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates.

I now challenge myself [performative statement] to explore how other theorists have used reparative reading since Sedgwick outlined it here.
Profile Image for Ben.
15 reviews6 followers
June 25, 2012
Her best, in my humblest opinion. Reparative reading = my life.
Profile Image for Caspar Bryant.
812 reviews32 followers
August 11, 2023
i've read a bunch of EKS in drips and so on but this ! is the first deep end. Slightly mishmashy selection of essays, but delightfully so. Absolutely a bunch are beyond me for the foreseeable. I promise I really set out to try with the Buddhist pedagogy piece, but it wasn't happening (did! love the way Eve was using her cat to lead this one out!!)

the big stand-out here is the henry james essay, which begins with 9/11 & leads us quite sharply thru fisting metaphors into the (murky) extravagant world of Mr james' bowel movements. v v v nice & an education in the narrative of an essay , with the bottoming twin of james' younger self amid the towers
Profile Image for Mike.
513 reviews114 followers
November 24, 2017
Reviewing queer theory by summarizing the merits of each argument is inordinately challenging for me; I think the issue when attempting to do so is how academic close reads like Sedgwick's are such that the impeccable logic - while fluid and comprehensible - tends to click into focus in a way that allows the reader to understand the "music" of the argument, or the contours and major themes thereof, but becomes hard to recapture or share in a way that does them any remote sense of justice.

There are three classics in this collection: the absolutely hilarious close reading of Henry James and his perhaps not-so-latent fixation on butt-stuffs, the brilliant and timeless essay on the toxicity of paranoid reading and how it does little besides (1) prove things to paranoid people that they already claim to know and (2) carve out space for modes of thinking that, in turn, create more space instead of narrowing rhetorical options, and lastly, the cybernetic fold essay. In their different ways, they are emotional, healing, and in a way a very cathartic release into a paradigm of queer recovery.

I was not as personally drawn to the periperformative essay or the Buddhism pedagogy essay because they seem to both reduce pretty easily into a chance to "carve out space for alternate modes of thinking," which the very presence of the essay itself is demonstrating. For the former, I always appreciate George Eliot being cited as a major subversive author for the right reasons, but considering that my intuition resides in treating things a little more "spectrally" than with polarity (rather than a yes/no performativity, there is an active gradient and larger dimensionality to what constitutes nearness or farness from performativity), I wasn't quite as moved. Similarly, the Buddhism pedagogical issues has shimmers of insight that extend a little past what I am familiar with but felt that its denouement of once again "carving out a space of unbeing a self" is something already evident in the Pali canon, in Thich Nhat Hanh, in a survey course on Buddhism, etc. While Sedgwick's closure about how it ties together with her struggle of comprehending mortality, the pathos of it wasn't matched by a great unity of the accompanying, outstanding brilliance from the earlier essays.

The paranoid reading space reminded me a lot of an essay on crypto-currency and the inefficacy of leaks that also appeared in the 36th issue of The Baffler, and for whatever reason, the Buddhism essay reminded me much of the premise of Arrival, where pedagogical methods and various forms of linguistic space allow us to inhabit different ideological paradigms separately. It's as if Western culture and language demands a vector of cause/effect, or a variance of journey and destination whereas Buddhism gently revokes those manifestations of pressure. It's not as fantastical as a language that manifests an ever-presence of all time, of course, but it reaches toward the fruit off the same tree.

Despite an introduction that desperately contrives to unite these essays into one overall thesis statement (and is clunky in its attempt). Touching Feeling is at worst good, at best brilliant.
Profile Image for Julia.
495 reviews
July 31, 2016
good CTA reading, surprisingly—first on a failed trip to devon, then on The Commute. i'd read paranoid reading and reparative reading before (on my postvirgilian epic professor's recommendation, weirdly—he also recommended the book as a whole—) but man is it still so good. pretty much in a more rigorous and also more generous way what lisa ruddick's point essay "when nothing is cool" is about, which no one seemed to recognize at the time (that need to come across as never being surprised, that sort of paranoia, is pretty much what 'cool,' also, is all about)...that cross between open-heartedness and rigor, how rigor requires openness/generosity (fullness, expansiveness, in order to get somewhere particular and fine-tuned), is, i'm sure, what's unique about sedgwick, and it's funny to see to what extent that gets across to other readers, though also a silly futile exercise. also the henry james chapter! almost reads similarly to henry james, that similar belief in dipping into—no, going fully into the deep end of—difficulty to get somewhere good and worthwhile, somewhere unexpectedly welcoming.
Profile Image for simon.
56 reviews37 followers
February 1, 2008
well, this was my first sedgwick book. maybe not the best choice to get to what she's famous for (one of the first person to write Queer Theory), but definitely interesting as hell. affect studies - the study of pleasures, sensations, feelings, emotions, tactile experiences. it's offered as an alternative to the never-ending difficulties of identity politics, and i think it's an excellent way to go. what is the experience of sexism or Orientalism or able-ism and can we work together based on those experiential feelings rather than marking out how we are similar or different based on biological/performative features.

then, near the end, she gets into her introduction to buddhism and i got totally lost and had to stop reading. i couldn't even muster to skip and read the conclusion, which i should have done.

Profile Image for Jo Verbena.
7 reviews9 followers
July 9, 2016
My rating is not a reflection on the quality of writing but on what I got from it - the blurb described the prose as 'always accessible' but I didn't find this at all, skipped chapter after chapter struggling to understand and absorb any of the theories and ideas, despite enjoying the introduction and being interested in the topics that the book touches upon. The language is too convoluted for me and perhaps you need to be at a certain level of philosophical reading to take anything from this work, maybe I will revisit in future years and understand! Maybe a 'Sedgwick for Idiots' translation is necessary!
203 reviews6 followers
June 20, 2023
as always i got maybe like 5% of what was going on here, but the morsels i did pick up were really cool

this book was like? oddly readable; which is interesting for it not being something i understood; it went fast, the words flowed, i got the grammatical structure of the sentence if not the meaning of each word/intention (unlike other theorists i guess). i did struggle to track the actual ideas in each essay 'cause of my lack of background; sometimes i felt like it was a complete subject change between paragraphs instead of a continuation of an argument.

anyway -- my little takeaways:
- i thought this sketching out of shame was really cool; of it being in some way related to pleasure/joy and repressed/inhibited pleasure/joy; and of it being uniquely infectious. her claim that some identities can be uniquely centered more around shame than others (queer ones) was also interesting; and her radical take that movements don't need to interact with this by refuting it (with pride, etc) but instead have other ways of working with it (unclear) definitely felt real to me. kinda reminds me of kink or something, where some practices reify shame intentionally
- i really liked this metaphor? about paranoid reading, which she references but also sketches out; of this perhaps centrist-y take that "uncovering" the hidden evil of gender being a social construct or xyz thing being capitalism is enough or the end goal; and also i guess of reading antagonistically into art to find their hidden evil meanings being only one approach of many to looking at things. her example of butler's take on a drag being just playing/poking fun at heterosexist gender performance instead of a take of drag being a new thing of itself that points to alternate or more interesting possibilities (also unclear) resonated w me, or was at least a fresh and interesting thing to me
- i also liked thinking about whether affect is socially constructed or natural (or obviously both); i liked her pointing out that there is an anti-biological bias in a lot of theory, though i do think this sort of thing is always an ebb and flow, the dialectic or something
- i also really liked thinking about feelings informing knowledge; of this thing where pessimistic reactions to facts make them more "real" than optimistic ones; and how perhaps that's kinda silly. in general the idea of using emotions as a factor in evaluating truth claims was cool.
Profile Image for Ayanna Dozier.
104 reviews19 followers
February 23, 2017
Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity assembles a collection of essays, many of them previously published, by Eve Sedgwick. The essays are loosely connected to one another through the thread of negative affect. That is, the essays navigate questions of shame, paranoia, death, and depression. Sedgwick argues that these affective channels of energy offers a continual negotiation with identity, and thus create conditions of possibility and fluidity for individuals as oppose to ones that close down channels. Sedgwick, a founding queer theorist argues that the constant engagement with such affect is what helps constitute identity amongst queer identities.

The book and its themes take on a special (if not haunting) meaning as it was one of the last books Sedgwick published before her death from Breast Cancer in 2009. The collected essays feel disjointed at times mainly because many of them were previously published in other books. But upon a closer read, the reader can begin to see how this particular set of essays, and the questions that they ask, represents a larger set of negotiations between life and death that Sedgwick desires to draw out in not just Touching Feeling, but in her oeuvre. In her concluding chapter, Sedgwick draws on the pedagogy of Buddhism to map out the affective bonds that flow in epistemology and teaching. Discussing her advanced state of Breast Cancer, Sedgwick speaks to the reader with a full awareness that the book and some of her kinship bonds formed through the academe and cancer treatments will outlive her. In this way, this concluding chapter can be read like a distant sibling to her first book, Epistemology of the Closet.

I think the strongest elements of Touching Feeling reside in its treatment of affect and the actual affective writing that went in to assembling this book. However, for affect theory readers whose interest in affect lies outside of psychoanalysis and Silvan Tomkins, the affect theory of the book may not be of interest. Additionally, the other subtitles of the book---pedagogy and performativity--- are underrepresented in their theory and appear more as broad concepts that tie the essays together to form a book.
Profile Image for matty creen.
47 reviews
April 20, 2021
I don’t know

I read that this was written in plain language (for bimbos like me), however it’s so tough to read. At least for a dummy like me, it was.
Profile Image for samantha.
57 reviews12 followers
January 2, 2023
• to perceive texture is always, immediately, and de facto to be immersed in a field of active narrative hypothesizing, testing, and re- understanding of how physical properties act and are acted upon over time. To perceive texture is never only to ask or know What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it? These are the kind of intrinsically interactive properties that James J. Gibson called ‘‘affordances’’
• As Bora’s essay shows, I haven’t perceived a texture until I’ve instantaneously hypothesized whether the object I’m perceiving was sedimented, extruded, laminated, granulated, polished, distressed, felted, or fluffed up. Similarly, to perceive texture is to know or hypothesize whether a thing will be easy or hard, safe or dangerous to grasp, to stack, to fold, to shred, to climb on, to stretch, to slide, to soak.
• ‘For the most part, I will be using ‘desire’ in a way analogous to the psychoanalytic use of ‘libido’–not for a particular affective state or emotion, but for the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively charged, that shapes an important relationship’’
• Reducing affect to drive in this way permits a diagrammatic sharpness of thought that may, however, be too impoverishing in qualitative terms. Each essay in Touching Feeling tries in some way to offer alternatives to that habitual subordination of affect to drive.
• If texture and affect, touching and feeling seem to belong together, then, it is not because they share a particular delicacy of scale, such as would nec- essarily call for ‘‘close reading’’ or ‘‘thick description.’’ What they have in common is that at whatever scale they are attended to, both are irreducibly phe- nomenological. To describe them primarily in terms of structure is always a qualitative misrepresentation. Attending to psychology and materiality at the level of affect and texture is also to enter a conceptual realm that is not shaped by lack nor by commonsensical dualities of subject versus object or of means versus ends.
• ‘fisting-as-écriture’’ !!!!!!!!!!!! sentences whose "relatively conventional subject-verb-object armature is disrupted, if never quite ruptured, as the sac of the sentence gets distended by the insinuation of one more, qualifying phrase or clause" can best be apprehended as either giving readers the vicarious experience of having their rectums penetrated with a finger or fist, or of their own "probing digit" inserted into a rectum.
• I don’t know yet what claims may be worth making, ontologically, about the queer performativity I have been describing here. Would it be useful to suggest that some of the associations I’ve been making with queer perfor- mativity might actually be features of all performativity?
• the explicit performative is exempli- fied in a cluster of sentences in the first-person singular present indicative active, about which, Austin says, ‘‘it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing [a thing] . . . or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it’’ (6). Examples of the Austinian performative include ‘‘I promise,’’ ‘‘I bet . . . ,’’ ‘‘I bequeath . . . ,’’ ‘‘I christen . . . ,’’ ‘‘I apologize,’’ ‘‘I dare you,’’ and ‘‘I sentence you. . . .
• periperformatives: not themselves performatives, they are about performatives and, more properly, that they cluster around performatives.

Profile Image for Dan.
145 reviews6 followers
May 18, 2019
Sedgwick smuggles so much feeling into her criticism, it’s no wonder she’s become a kind of patron saint of affect theory. Reading her consistently produces the truly thrilling sensation of communing with a mind the depth of whose intelligence places it barely within the limits of personal intelligibility (at least for me). Whether writing about AIDS or Tibetan, she always seems able to rise above the plain of ordinary debate, and inflect/reflect the whole field with a fierce and playful kindness.
Profile Image for Tomás Narvaja.
43 reviews9 followers
July 2, 2017
If my rating were based solely on the chapter on "Shame in the cybernetic fold: reading Silvan Tomkins / written with Adam Frank" and "Paranoid reading and reparative reading, or, You're so paranoid, you probably think this essay is about you" I would give this book 5 stars as I personally found these two chapters, with the nuance of Ruth Leys' critique, to be profoundly thought-provoking and powerful in both my scholarly work and my personal life.
Profile Image for Matt Sautman.
1,306 reviews15 followers
April 17, 2021
Sedgwick’s Touching, Feeling is not the most accessible text. I am not certain, but I feel that a background in TESL may make some of Sedgwick’s claims more understandable. Regardless, her work on paranoia and shame is super fascinating for those of us interested in affect and the performance of queer identities.
Profile Image for Becka .
449 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2016
Always a pleasure to read Sedgwick, such a fluid and engaging writer, even when discussing something abstract or otherwise difficult to describe.
1 review
May 16, 2020
Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading is my favorite essay and an incisive critique of contemporary feminisms increasingly paranoid style.
Profile Image for Eavan Wong.
35 reviews23 followers
January 17, 2021
Five star for the Paranoid Reading piece, I hope Sedgwick had written a whole book about it sigh
Profile Image for athony.
43 reviews2 followers
January 31, 2022
Add "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading" to the list of most mind-blowing things I've ever read
702 reviews7 followers
June 6, 2022
I think reparative reading is 5 stars and I would skip the rest of this very loosely held together essay collection.
Profile Image for Darcel Anastasia.
183 reviews4 followers
August 26, 2023
“paranoia tends to be contagious; more specifically, paranoia is drawn toward and tends to construct symmetrical relations, in particular, symmetrical epistemologies.” (126)
Profile Image for Michael.
214 reviews55 followers
June 2, 2010
In Touching Feeling (2003), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick moves away from a hermeneutics of suspicion or exposure toward an understanding of affect and pedagogy, drawing on the notion of beside instead of beneath or beyond (8). Some key ideas:

Drawing on Renu Bora, Sedgwick understands "texxture" (with two x's) as "the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantially, historically, materially, it came into being" (14).

She understands affect as different from drive because affect is less restricted in regards to time and aim, and can be attached to a multitude of things, "including other affects" (19). 

Sedgwick approaches shame not by arguing against it, but by understanding it as both "deconstituting and foundational" to identity (36). Shame shouldn't be understood as something to be excised from identity or the self, as therapeutic approaches have offered, but rather seen as something integral to identity (62-63). In fact, shame becomes "simply the first, and remains a permanent, structuring fact of identity" for queer people (and may be more useful in understanding camp and identity politics) (64).

In her chapter "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You're So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You," Sedgwick argues that a hermeneutics of suspicion is limited because it doesn't quite answer "What does knowledge do," and what we can do with knowledge, it doesn't "unpack the local" (124), it is often tautological, proving the assumptions it began with (135). Instead, Sedgwick offers a reparative strategy, which "surrender[s:] the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new" (146).
Profile Image for Brenden O'Donnell.
100 reviews2 followers
December 29, 2014
Sedgwick somehow dismantles the master's house using the master's tools. She writes the theory she's attacking better than anyone could, from many different angles, offering, in the space that's left, reparative reading and teaching practices. I'm not sure what to do with them, to be honest—at the end of each chapter I was left asking "so what?" What's at stake here? But in a sense, that response is the purpose of the book. What has been at stake in theory? She certainly is not arguing the answer is nothing: the political stakes in historicizing, criticizing, revolting, are clear and remain important. But they also remain lacking insofar as there always has to be a product: for example, something has to be exposed at the end of each chapter. What these chapters offer is something radically unuseful: an insistence on learning about what's there, what can be added, and what we've been taking for granted in refusing to take anything for granted.
Profile Image for Rachel.
11 reviews1 follower
November 29, 2009
I love that a search for this book on Goodreads brings up children's titles such as Pat the Bunny, Pat the Farm Animal, and Family Pets.
But - review. I have finally found it. The essay on buddhist epistemology and affect that is going to finally grant me a vocabulary for thinking discursively about yoga and other non-discursive practices of "healthy knowing". Perhaps the end to my friends' anxiety about me being a yoga convert also.
The rest I am yet to read, so this review is only about final chapter.

Profile Image for John.
252 reviews27 followers
November 5, 2009
I didn't understand all of this, but it's a genius-level collection of her essays. Interesting ideas about affect, about using it to break away from standard polarities/on-and-off ideas of identity. Also very personal while still academically intense. The first chapter talks way too much about Henry James's poop, though.
Profile Image for Jack Caulfield.
200 reviews13 followers
October 26, 2019
Honest, bold, joyful, original, and above all, kind: Sedgwick frequently dissents from critical commonplaces, but always engages with them in a way that is productive rather than destructive. In her own words, 'reparative reading'. Essays on everything from Buddhism to paranoia to 9/11 to Foucault to AIDS to the author's cat.
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