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Xine Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America

Édouard Marsoin
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Xine Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021, ISBN : 978-1-4780-1483-6, $27.95.

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1Disaffected’s central question has the feel, wonder, and appeal of great theses. What if, Xine Yao asks, instead of trying to show how, in US literary texts of the long nineteenth century, minoritized subjects feel—thus (maybe) involuntarily participating in the perverse logic of (white) American sympathy—we examined how they don’t, or refuse to feel, i.e., unfeel? Yao’s line of enquiry is clear in its formulation (3), capital in its implications, and quite frankly: illuminating.

2There is much to admire in Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America. Over the course of five chapters, the texts primarily under study—Melville’s “Benito Cereno” (1855), Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or the Huts of America (1861), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s Doctor Zay (1882), Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892), and Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912)—stage, each in their own way, a battle against dominant nineteenth-century white feelings and the problematic demands of sympathy. Yao thus performs a strategic move that invites us to a crucial reversal of critical focus: in the context of the (white) conception of affectability and impressibility as a measure of the human, tactics of disaffection illuminate the affective condition of marginalized people. Disaffection entails dissonance and dissent (6), and unfeeling, as a “tactic from below” (3), threatens the biopolitical paradigm of compulsory participation in “right” and “white” feelings (16). What Yao calls “disaffected” or “antisocial” reactions are, in fact, forms of affective resistance with insurgent potential against the injunctions to (white) sympathy and the demands of “sympathetic recognition” (6).

3The starting point and a central framework throughout the book is indeed the (bio)politics of sympathy in the nineteenth-century United States. As Yao writes, she “hope[s] to offer a way out of the bind between the poles of critique and defense that have dominated our understanding of sympathy, while also eschewing a primarily descriptive approach of tracing the workings and effects of feeling and unfeeling” (28). As such, her book is not just yet another critique of sympathy. She is not concerned with the possibility of sympathy, but with the apparatuses in which the injunctions to sympathy are inscribed, not with what sympathy is or is not, but with what the expectations of sympathy do to marginalized people, especially people of color, and the reactions triggered from them. In that regard, Yao’s introductory discussion of the racial/racist implications of Adam Smith’s theorization of sympathy as “fellow feeling” (13-14) perfectly lays the ground for the discussions and readings to come. It is no wonder either that, in such a framework, the critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and white abolitionist sentimentalism should be central and recurring throughout the book.

4Yao’s work is inscribed in the growing scholarly interest in the politics and politicization of affect in the nineteenth-century United States. In Yao’s words, “Feeling is never simply the private affective capacity of the individual but is also constitutive of public national sentiments and their political projects of belonging” (32). This entails an exciting reworking of Raymond Williams’s notion of “structure of feeling” via Kyla Schuller’s “biopolitics of feeling,” and a focus on the instrumentalization and strategization of affects (or the lack thereof). As a result, what primarily and most importantly emerges from Yao’s study is a sense of the agency of unfeeling, that capability to not feel or unfeel. The focus on modes of “affective agency” is noticeable in Yao’s definition of “affectability”—which follows Denise Ferreira da Silva’s—as “the principle and process of […] differentiation between the affective (people who have agency over feeling and can act upon others) and the affectable (those whose feelings are reactive and are susceptible to the affective)” (38). What Yao thus aims to describe is an idiosyncratic (re)distribution of the sensible/affective in the works of her corpus, against hegemonic structures of feeling. In her readings, fictional characters can be, like Prince in Sarah Orne Jewett’s A Country Doctor (1884), “strategically frigid: unfeelingly indifferent to the idea of matrimony and the limitations it poses to her professional ambitions” (124; my emphasis).

5This is one of the central differences between Yao’s approach to affect and the two main original traditions of “affect theory” that she alludes to in her introduction (Deleuze/Massumi, Tomkins/Sedgwick, 9-10): not considering “affect” through the lens of its pre-linguistic and instinctual quality, but at the level of its socialization, politicization, and racialization, as well as its strategization in various frameworks: in Babo’s masquerade, Blake’s revolutionary project, or Prince’s professional posture, among others. As a result, Yao’s analysis is primarily located at the level of discourse—discursive formations as well as textual problematizations of affectsand its impact on affect, rather than on affect qua affect. This explains why Yao is admittedly uninterested in quibbles over difficult definitional distinctions between affect, feeling, and emotion (7)—a move that is productive and entirely legitimate considering her project. Rather, she is focused on “the operations of unfeeling” (my emphasis), as dramatized in literary and non-literary texts, “as a form of antisocial discontent about […] the compulsory norms for expressing feeling along with susceptibility to the feelings of others” (7). As such, Xine Yao is Foucaldian rather than Deleuzian. But still, interestingly, “discontent” is also a feeling, and unfeeling thus the strategic expressive form of… a feeling.

6A question arises when reading Yao’s thought-provoking descriptions of disaffection. In light of her focus on performances of unfeeling, carefully detected in a selected corpus, I wonder how Yao would read some more “traditional” strategic expressions of feelings in other staple African-American texts, such as narratives of enslavement. Harriet Jacobs’s exclamation is well-known: “O reader, can you imagine my joy? No, you cannot, unless you have been a slave mother” (918). Would Yao consider such a direct assertion of idiosyncratic affect (to a primarily white audience) as a naive alternative to white feelings, less strategically effective than performances of disaffection? In other words, is there any possibility for slave narrative authors, and nineteenth-century authors of color more generally, to actively and directly express feelings without them being complicit, vain, or counterproductive in the face of the white sentimental biopolitical structures of feeling? By contrast with such direct assertions, are disaffection and unfeeling a necessary step or just a strategy among others for “new structures of feeling to arise” (12)? For it appears in Yao’s readings that strategies of unfeeling are a prequel, even a requirement, to the expression and valuation of unoppressed, alternative feelings. In her words, Delany’s Blake demonstrates “the necessity of being disaffected from white sympathies as a starting point for new structures of feeling” (23). In Iola Leroy, Iola’s disaffection is a tactical step in her progress, a means to an end, before “the flourishing of her love in her ideal egalitarian partnership” with Dr. Latimer, as Yao concludes (169). Yao’s introduction opens with a quote by Son of Baldwin, who describes “black apathy as radical opposition to [a] toxic ecology” (3), but tellingly, Son of Baldwin, under his real name Robert Johns Jr., is also the author of The Prophets (2021), a magnificent novel that imagines a world full of queer Black feelings in the very midst of the biopolitical apparatus of an antebellum Southern plantation.

7As can readily be perceived, Yao’s masterful delineation of forms of unfeeling in nineteenth-century texts borrows concepts from a multitude of fields: gender studies, queer theory, feminist critique, queer of color critique, scientific humanities, legal humanities, environmental humanities, decolonial studies, medical humanities, and of course: affect theory. Her engagement is also militant and somewhat polemical: in the wake of Schuller, who laments the lack of scholarship on affect and racialization (212), Yao seeks to confront what she calls the “race problem” of affect studies and the undervaluation of race in conceptualizations and figurations of affect. Her ambition is thus “to decolonize affect studies” (15).

8Yao’s command of recent scholarship is impressive, ranging from Lauren Berlant, Kyla Schuller, Denise Ferreira da Silva, José Esteban Muñoz and Jane Bennett, to Sara Ahmed and Sianne Ngai, who are paid special tribute (21). Erica Fretwell’s Sensory Experiments (2020) is referenced only once (75), but Fretwell is thanked in the acknowledgements, and one can sense the many common interests (including, for instance, hapticality), concepts (impressibility), and even quotations (Du Bois’s “How does it feel to be a problem?”) between Yao and Fretwell. I suspect the only reason Sensory Experiments is not discussed more extensively is that it was published too late in the course of Yao writing her own book. Considering Yao’s thorough knowledge of the most recent theoretical debates, it may appear slightly odd that two foundational figures should barely be mentioned, if at all. Foucault is, as expected, everywhere present (and in the bibliography), but simultaneously nowhere, directly quoted only once, as an adjective (36), even though so many of Yao’s concepts are originally Foucaldian: “biopolitics,” of course, but also “technology,” “episteme,” “apparatus,” and “genealogy.” Similarly, the imprint of de Certeau seems clear (through my French eyes, at least) in concepts such as “tactics,” “strategies,” “quotidian,” and “everyday life,” even though he is not directly quoted nor included in the bibliography. His underlying presence might be inherited from Saidiya Hartman’s critical vocabulary in Scenes of Subjection (1997), which explicitly borrows from de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life (1980). As a result, Foucault and de Certeau often haunt Yao’s language. I do not mean this as a criticism, but rather as a sign of the way some concepts and authors are now invisibly part of our conceptual toolkit, a shared critical language. With Yao, Foucault’s and de Certeau’s main concepts receive an updated and deft use in fields both authors were not originally concerned with, such as affect, race, and literature. Critique is not quite out of steam yet.

9As its subtitle indicates, Disaffected addresses “the cultural politics of unfeeling.” Yao thus positions herself as a cultural, and not only literary, critic, which explains the book’s “two organizing logics […]: one historicist and the other comparative” (21). One of its merits, and not the least, is its archival work and use of little known sources, fictional and non-fictional. This precise attention to historical context and contemporary discursive formations allows Yao to frame her readings in very carefully delineated ways, the better to highlight the cultural relevance of the texts under study. For instance, Yao uses an anecdote recounted by Delany—“an old American story about an Indian and a white man” (Delany quoted by Yao, 72)—after which Delany concludes “feel[ing] somewhat as this Indian did,” to problematize the “feeling somewhat as” that guides Blake’s figuration of cross-racial counterintimacies. Similarly, her reading of how women doctor novels stage strategies of professional frigidity as “affective protest” (136) follows a comment made by woman doctor Mary Putnam Jacobi, who noted that efforts to bar women from medicine have “always been purely sentimental” (108; my emphasis).

10Yao’s commitment to always historicize powerfully serves her close readings. For example, it leads her to point out that Delany’s choice of the Choctaw Nation, instead of the Seminoles, to dramatize the potential of cross-racial alliance makes added sense when considered against the backdrop of the Choctaws’ historical practice of Black enslavement (93). Delany’s move thus appears both more radical and more speculative. Similarly, in the course of Yao’s readings, certain key terms acquire capital and illuminating resonance when they are inserted into broader discursive formations. In the final sentence of “Benito Cereno,” the description of Babo’s skull meeting, “unabashed, the gaze of the whites” gains striking power when read as a final performance of unfeeling against the demands of white sentimentalism (68). In Iola Leroy, Gresham’s urging mixed-race Black Iola to “consent” is met by Iola’s tactical reframing of the term and heard against the backdrop of chattel slavery, which made consent impossible for enslaved Black women (138), while Iola’s later description of slavery as cancer is glossed by Yao in relation to contemporary advancements in the understanding of the disease: “‘Slavery,’ said Iola, ‘was a fearful cancer eating into the nation’s heart, sapping its vitality, and undermining its life.” For Yao, Iola’s statement evinces “the impact of the disease on the sentimental American way of feeling” (167) and its metastasis into anti-Black racism at the heart of the nation’s “life” and “vitality”—that is, one is tempted to add, its biopolitics.

11In Chapter 1, Yao’s study of “Benito Cereno” is performed through the lens of both race science and the law—the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) in particular. For Yao, “Benito Cereno” dramatizes a game of bones: the final spectacle of a skull (Babo’s) offers a counterpoint to the previous exhibit of a skeleton (Aranda’s), which implies the ultimate victory of white feelings over Black agency (63). Babo’s subversive parody of the “right” sympathetic feelings is a genius act, and eventually gives rise to the (white) “fear that, like Babo and his people, underneath the appearance of affectability [racialized people] might be unfeelingly disaffected from the biopolitics of feeling” (52). Babo and Delano are thus engaged in an ironic, sentimental pas de deux: as seen and described through Delano’s vision—informed by the expectations of race science, ongoing legal discourses, and the logic of sentimentalism—Babo’s performance highlights Delano’s own racist, sentimental hypocrisy. The perverse logic of sympathy at work in the novella reaches its climax when Cereno “dies a wasting death, which, according to sentimental genre conventions, was the fate of those poor souls too good for this world” (65). He thus becomes a “sympathetic victim” and Babo an “unsympathetic villain,” despite the actual power dynamics of enslavement (65). As Yao compellingly concludes, the ironic narrative focus on Delano illustrates how his very racism is “justified by contemporary science and law but naturalized by love, not hate” (66; my emphasis).

12While Melville debunks the legacy of white sentimentalism in “Benito Cereno,” Yao argues in the second chapter that Delany goes further in Blake by imagining “the ways in which turning away from white feelings makes possible a Black-led transnational insurgency of disaffected peoples of color” (70), especially Black and Indigenous peoples. She examines how Delany dramatizes the political potential of cross-racial alliance and the promise of revolutionary counterintimacies against whiteness through “the transformative power of unsympathetic Blackness” (83). Yao perceives such potential counterintimacies, for instance, in the “homoerotics of entanglement between Blake and the younger Choctaw chief” (77), in a passage in which the “Indian” and the “black man” are said to “lay down in shade together” and “all marry together” (90), and another in which “Henry [is] rooming with the young warrior Braser” (92)—two moments that Yao reads as entangling political and physical desires, the homoerotic on top of the homosocial. For Yao, building upon Delany’s scientific education and science writings, his project of radical world building and cross-racial feelings also calls for a new science and a new biopolitics predicated upon “a greater ecology of interrelated animate and inanimate beings”—a new cosmology for an “unjust world” (76). Like celestial bodies, Yao argues, “Blackness exerts the powers of attraction through its magnitude, drawing in oppressed non-Black peoples of color” (100).

13In Chapter 3, devoted to (white) women doctor fiction, Yao deftly describes the pressures of affectivity upon women’s professional postures. Her interest lies in a specific case of sympathy: that of doctors towards their patients, and the impact that the invention of anesthesia had on cultural expectations regarding women doctors’ feelings. Indeed, for Yao, cultural anxieties about “the threatening agency of women to be queerly detached” (115) and thus evince “professional frigidity” coalesced around “the figure of the woman doctor, with the marriage plot acting as the literary litmus test for the women’s politics and desires” (120). Examining the intertwined motifs of the law, medicine, and marriage in novels by William D. Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Elizabeth S. Phelps, Yao shows how masculine anxiety about the New Woman could masquerade as well-meaning affection, thereby domesticating the professional woman. In Jewett’s A Country Doctor, Prince’s professional composure, “maligned as frigidity,” signals her “resistance to [the] prerogative of patriarchal desire and its apparatuses” (123). However, Phelps’s Doctor Zay exemplifies how, despite Zay’s resistance, the insistence of her lover eventually breaks down her queer, professional frigidity into the foreclosure of love, thus affirming the “inevitability of the marriage plot” (135). Ultimately, the marriage emplotment of Zay manifests the “maintenance of white patriarchal power” and the “incorporation of deviance” into the male body politic (136).

14After underlining the racial prejudices of white feminist activists Susan B. Anthony et Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the end of Chapter 3, Yao moves on to the consideration of Black women as participants in late nineteenth-century medical science. The condition of Black women doctors, Yao notes, was fundamentally different from that of their white counterparts: “their struggles are not a racialized variation on the white professional women’s navigation of frigidity and sentimentality” (144). Instead, they had to “[adapt] scientific objectivity and passionlessness as tactical disaffections for the cultivation of [their] affective and political priorities” as Black women (144). Yao takes the very absence of novels about Black female doctors as meaningful, and reads Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy as “a suppressed woman doctor novel,” “a tacit counterpoint to the white bourgeois subgenre” (139) that “critique[s] the absence of literature about Black women medical professionals” (154). Building upon duCille’s racialized reworking of Nancy Cott’s “passionlessness,” Yao updates the notion into a “somatic and affective unfeeling” that “enact[s] a strategic withholding of the self to permit the possibility of personal and communal flourishing” (141). Adopting postures of passionlessness and disaffection enables Iola to cultivate her “affective agency,” maintain her professional composure, and resist common stereotypes constraining Black women, such as that of the “tragic mulatta,” thrust upon her by an enamored white doctor. Iola passionlessly rejects his love, tainted with sentimental racism, to eventually marry Dr. Latimer, a Black doctor. “By joyfully choosing Latimer,” Yao writes, “Iola fully cures herself of the pathology of the ‘tragic mulatta’ trope” (146). Through this relationship of “mutual respect” (165), Iola may fulfill her potential as a medical professional. As such, she “represents the hope for a Black feminist scientific praxis” (170).

15Yao’s final chapter on “Oriental inscrutability” starts with the background of late nineteenth-century legal, judicial and political statements—including by famously anti-Chinese justice John Marshall Harlan—that describe the Chinese as “inscrutable” (172) and “unimpressible” (175), the signs of a race perceived as “inhuman,” Yao writes (176). This proverbial inscrutability was enhanced by the challenge posed by the Chinese concept of “face,” which, as Yao explains, was frequently misunderstood in Orientalist ethnography, but which in fact undermines the Western assumption of universal affective expression and true feeling (177). Edith Maud Eaton, under the pen name of Sui Sin Far, made a point to use the alleged inscrutability of the Chinese face in her fiction and turn it into yet another form of agency and condition of survival. Withholding, refusing to be legible according to the standards of white sentimental recognition, is to remain the captain of one’s inscrutable soul, the owner of one’s expression and affective life, against “the universalizing pressures of the sentimental gaze” (187). Far offered a perceptive insight into such issues when she wrote, in two articles published in the Montreal Daily Star, that “the Chinaman does not carry his heart on his sleeve” (189). Yao astutely uses this motif to explore the strategies of not carrying one’s heart on one’s sleeve and the agency of hiding feelings in two archetypical figures, the coolie and the sex worker. In her reading of Far’s “Its Wavering Image,” she also masterfully underlines the discursive strategies at play between mixed-race Pan and her white suitor. When the latter tries to reframe Pan as an “enigma” to her own community, Pan turns the enigma against him: in her final encounter with him, wearing a traditional Chinese dress, she hides her vulnerability “within her sleeves” (196).

16By the end of so many eye-opening, erudite and original readings of well-known and lesser-known texts (readings which, in a show of nuance, systematically conclude upon the specific limitations and blind spots of these texts’ discourses), the only thing one might regret is the lack of a general conclusion, which might have recapitulated and elaborated upon a few of the compelling connections that can be drawn between these texts: the issue of inscrutable faces and silence (in Melville and Far), the drive towards “speculative fiction” (in Blake and Iola), the potential for multiracial counterintimacies (in Blake and Far, who, commenting upon her life in Jamaica, calls herself one of the “‘brown people’ of the Earth,” 206). I would have enjoyed to see all the actors of these excellent reading performances come back on stage together in a grand finale, but perhaps it is only fair that they should withhold themselves one last time, and not satisfy the expectations of my own (white) gaze.

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CERTEAU, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. 1980. Translated from the French by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

FRETWELL, Erica. Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020.

HARTMAN, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

JACOBS, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. In Slave Narratives. Eds. William L. Andrews and Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Library of America, 2000.

JONES, Robert, Jr. The Prophets. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.

SCHULLER, Kyla. The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.

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Édouard Marsoin, « Xine Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Édouard Marsoin

Université de Paris

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