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What Does Literature Feel Like?

“Feeling and Knowing”: An Interview with Erica Fretwell

Thomas Constantinesco, Peter Lurie et Erica Fretwell

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Erica Fretwell is Associate Professor of English at the University at Albany, SUNY. Her research interests and teaching areas include nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US literature, affect theory, feminist science studies, and critical phenomenology. She is the author of Sensory Experiments: Race, Psychophysics, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (Duke, 2020). She is currently developing a project on anaesthetics and the art of “slight living,” and another on haptic literacies and handicraft.


Thomas Constantinesco & Peter Lurie: In Sensory Experiments: Psychophysics, Race, and the Aesthetics of Feeling (2020), you argue that “literature is a sensitizing mechanism, not merely a representation but an amplification of experience,” positing literature as “a technology […] that has the potential to reproduce—not copy but produce more—feeling and […] to create more connections to the world by registering more differences in it” (28-29). Could you expand on the difference between simulation and stimulation that you discern at the core of the literary experience, and on the ways in which literary writing produces feelings?

Erica Fretwell: My impulse is simultaneously to affirm and reject my own thinking! I want to qualify that I’m thinking of literary experience here specifically as it relates to concepts from the sciences and social sciences. Because—and I think this is a holdover from the New Historicism—when situating literary imagining within broader historical and conceptual milieux, it is easy for literary texts to be flattened, that is, to appear little more than “reflections” of a particular issue or concept at a particular time and place, rather than as agents actively shaping and contributing to knowledge production. So, the distinction between “simulation” and “stimulation” that I want to underscore registers the literary (texts, imagination, readerly experience) as a representational mode that meditates or reflects upon the world (a world there was, the world that is, the world to come, a world that might be) but is not merely a mirror-like reflection of the world.

Which leads me to undercut what I’ve just established, to say that the simulation/stimulation distinction is a false binary steeped in the shadows of Plato’s cave. The representation is real! It is less about the literary being a matter of “passive” reflection or “active” production than that literary experience—what differentiates it from other forms of experience—necessarily amalgamates simulation and stimulation. The attentiveness (but also boredom! Who amongst us does not scan?) and various affects literature generates are an objective reality in their own right, just as the word “whisper,” while onomatopoetic, is as real as the softly sonic and intimately tactile feel of breath words that it describes. Going back to Latour’s study of smell kits for perfumers, language itself creates new realities by creating more distinctions and differences in our experience of the world.

Another way to respond to this question would be to inquire into the indebtedness of C.S. Peirce’s semiotics to psychophysics. As the New Psychology of the late nineteenth century seeks to empirically measure out sensory stimulus-response patterns, how does semiotics take shape as an effort to systematize or map out the gaps between world (one kind of stimulus) and word (one kind of response)? The literary inhabits that gap. Yet I don’t want this account to feel triumphalist. What, precisely, is being stimulated here? Can literature reorient the sensorium in socially productive ways? Perhaps! Can it sensitize bourgeois readers to lived experiences of precarity? Sentimentality, which has a long history of harnessing sensation to the transmission of affect, clearly tells us no. Literature does refine and change how we perceive differences in and of the world, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently redemptive about that.

T.C. & P.L.: In Sensory Experiments, you also foreground literature’s “capacious materiality” (28), its power to shape and transform our experience of the world, and the importance to train readers to what Emily Dickinson might call “formal feeling”—the form of feeling, as well as the feeling of form (F372). This is an idea that you take up in your 2023 PMLA essay, “Sensitivity Training,” where you draw attention on the pedagogical innovations of the Progressive Era Montessori classroom and its emphasis on touch as the foundation of literacy training. “Literacy,” you write, “is not simply a skill but a sensitivity to form” (148). How can we recover such a sensitivity and what does the materiality of literary forms consist in? This is also, perhaps, a question of technology, as the book object is increasingly being virtualized through the operations of digitization. To what extent does our haptic experience of texts change when we move from page to screen?

E.F.: There’s a great anecdote in William Wells Brown’s autobiography about how as a self-emancipated person, designated a fugitive in Ohio, traded barley sugar for alphabet lessons from some white boys. He lingers on the moment when he traces the packet of sugar over the tongue of one boy, and it mimics the way he learned to read: by tracing the form of the letters with his fingers. These minor moments invite us to rethink literacy as a form of sensitivity and a sensitivity to form—alphabetic reading and writing not a means to an end but an experience of discernment in its own right—hence the way Brown’s anecdote frames literacy as a site of not only gustatory taste but also aesthetic taste or discernment. For my own interests, the identification of haptic perception is key to this revaluation. We typically think of the nineteenth century as marked by new visual technologies, and what Ian Finseth called the “visual epistemology of modernity” (89), when the eye consolidated its power as an epistemological tool. But there’s a countervailing epistemology catalyzed by haptic perception, which denotes the tactile and kinesethetic feel of objects. In the decades between E.H. Weber’s investigations of tactile experience in the 1830s and textile museum curator Alöis Riegl’s study of the haptic “grain” of art objects in the 1900s, sensitivity flourished as a way of knowing: not abstract knowledge gleaned through distanced observation, but practical know-how forged by handling and holding the object world. This “haptic episteme,” as it were, reorganizes literary and literacy practices around an aesthetics of encounter—or what Henry James (in a letter to U.S. educator Charles Eliot Norton) called a “grasping imagination” (James 31).

One way to think about the materiality of literary form is literally: as a fabrication. Of course, etymologically, “text” denotes “that which is woven, weaved.” Rather than conflate literature with visual ink-print, which elides the literary imaginings and literacies developed off the ink-print page, we might consider how literary form relates to the “handmade” (itself an aesthetic valuation in the nineteenth century)—which is necessarily to consider how literary form relates to (handi)craft. Does it matter that Frances E.W. Harper was a seamstress? Or that, frankly, pretty much every woman writer in the nineteenth century had some ability in needlework? Most girls learned to sew by stitching lyric poems onto samplers. Dickinson’s fascicles were hand-sewn. How do these practices reorganize distinctions between feeling and knowing, thinking and making, art and craft? How does the patchwork quilt, which many enslaved women stitched from clothing scraps, inform a novel like Clotel, famous for its patchwork aesthetic? We might think of how “sub-literary” materials underwrite a community of taste or “sensus communis” that ink has papered over but that sketches out yet unrealized possibilities for what literature can do in the world. And I think this holds with digitization as well, but there are others better positioned than I to speak to that!

T.C. & P.L.: If you can indulge us a little longer on this very question of digitization: How salutary, indeed necessary is an attention to literature and/as affective in the context of digital culture? By which we mean, the ever-increasing reliance on social media, podcasts, internet communication and other non-literary modes and experience? Are we not in danger of losing all touch (pun intended, apologies…) with our capacity to feel or engage the world as well as other people somatically? And is there conceptual help to be found in the nineteenth century to orient ourselves in our current moment? (Apologies again; this is obviously a leading or rhetorical question.)

E.F.: I’m far from the first to say that to position literature in contradistinction to digital culture obscures more than it clarifies the issue of affective materiality. As flat footed as it may sound, even etymologically the binary does not hold up: digits are fingers or finger-like structures. So, while “digital” designates technologies that use signals and data represented by binary code, the digital has always been haptic. Analog, manual, digital: these are crucial distinctions in how information is produced and circulated, but they all, fundamentally, are grounded in a haptic sense of relation and mediation. Further, the literature/digital binary risks fetishizing literature as a site of sensory immediacy­­—as if literature is not or cannot be a digitally-mediated experience. To be more precise, the problem with that particular binary is that literature—at least one way to define it­—is a set of representational strategies and forms, whereas the digital names a format. Which is why electronic literature, as studied by e.g., Kate Hayles, is no less immersive or engaging than reading a poem in a print magazine or listening to an audiobook. The shape of that encounter is necessarily different, but to value that experience as somehow non-literary or less than literary is to overlook the phenomenological components of digital mediation. Social media absolutely has had ill effects on our attentiveness, but as Jessica Pressman has shown in her book Bookishness, that has produced different, not lesser, kinds of affective relations to (print and non-print) literature.

Indeed, it’s worth considering how present fears surrounding the death of print, and with it fears about the death of a certain kind of literary or aesthetic experience, reverberates with the concerns T.J. Jackson Lears identified in the nineteenth century about industrialization, urbanization, and modernity. Those fears have the effect of installing literature in a kind of pastoral, preindustrial scene of aesthetic experience­—much as Ruskin, Morris, and other “anti-moderns” of the nineteenth century saw handicraft as a return to authentic, natural, and essential experience by way of unalienated labor, a way to align aesthetics with production (with actively making things) rather than (crass, excess) consumption. But of course, that was a countercultural program that carried within a reactionary agenda: Marie Lo, Lisa Nakamura, and other scholars have shown how craft became in the nineteenth and twentieth century a site of racial subject formation, not simply institutionally (e.g., Tuskegee) but discursively through racialized assumptions about who does and does not constitute a “maker” and a “creative.”

To return to the twenty-first century by way of the nineteenth: This critique of digitization as a less- or dis-embodied literary experience assumes print media as an ideal return to “form,” as it were. To be sure, the reading we do today—the bulk of it on our phones, from text messages and news articles to the IG “Live” chats that scroll upwards and float away in real time—is rhythmically staccato. And in keeping with Shane Denson’s argument about the imbrication of computation and contemporary cinema, various formats of digital reading do scramble our sensory ratios and push our perceptual faculties into new temporal and spatial scales. So, there are new perceptual contingencies at the heart of digital mediation that those working in the book history and the history of reading branches of literary studies need to take into account. Rather than value those contingencies as good or bad for literature, or as more or less literary, it might be more productive to track the new kinds of affects and subjectivities that emerge from the digital milieux in which reading (of all texts, including literary texts) increasingly happens. The transmission of affect that happens in literary experiences involves digital, not simply paper, materiality.

T.C. & P.L.: You recently guest edited, with Hsuan L. Hsu, a special issue of American Literature titled “Senses with/out Subjects.” Could you tell us about the impetus behind this project? More pointedly, in the introduction to this issue, you ask “how […] attuning to literature’s sensory pleasures [might] shift our methods of reading and contextualizing texts, as well as how we teach and write about literature” (448), which is also one of the key questions that animates this edited dosssier of Transatlantica. What would be your own response, based specifically perhaps on your experience of reading, teaching, and writing about nineteenth-century literary texts? And does this mean that literature produces sensory pleasures exclusively? Conversely, what might be the affordance of the sensory displeasures that literature also at times generates?

E.F.: Hsuan and I both felt that sensory studies—an interdisciplinary field originating in cultural anthropology that aimed to wrest the study of sense perception from the ahistoricist grip of neuroscience—has underwritten the affective and new materialist “turns” (phrased differently: a preoccupation with questions of ontology) in literary studies, and yet literary scholars themselves have not engaged in any thoroughgoing way with that field. For example, there is great scholarship about touch in Henry James’s novels, but those analyses typically treat the tactile sense thematically rather than as a heuristic—that is, the senses as a representational object (e.g., How does Y author represent X sensation?) but not as an entry point into literary worlding (e.g., How does X sense frame climate justice as an affective politics in Y poem?). And that’s because literary criticism, for all its historicist methods, has assumed sensation to be universal, self-evident, and unchanging—as if musk is the same olfactory experience in seventeenth-century Paris as it was in 1920s New York. What both my work and Hsuan’s brilliant analysis of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature in The Smell of Risk have aimed to do is both integrate the key insights of sensory studies (that the senses are cultural, contingent, and value-laden) into literary analysis and, conversely, to make a case for why literary criticism has a key role to play in sensory studies. After all, sensation is not simply a social construct but a matter of (aesthetic) form. And to circle back to the first question, the representation of sense and the sense itself are coextensive, not oppositional. Describing the world is itself a world-making endeavor. The special issue was an assay, an attempt to extend the critical possibilities that sensory studies and literary criticism offer one another, and especially as these fields constellate around the problem of the human subject in a more-than-human world. Sensation—as a concept and an experience—is a switch point between subject and object worlds: How does the necessarily intersubjective and irreducibly aesthetic nature of sensation decenter liberal theories of human agency?

This aesthetic nature of foundation of sensation is helpful in shifting how we read and teach literature in general and nineteenth-century literature more specifically. Counterintuitive though it may appear, sensationalism—an outgrowth of the anglophone novel—typically flattens the affective materiality of sense and sensation. Sensational fiction was a popular subgenre that mixed domestic realism with Gothic romance for entertainment value (e.g., Lippard’s urban mystery The Quaker City)—and was named sensational because it plays on the nerves and thrills the senses with mystery, passion, horror, and surprise. Yet trafficking in the grotesque certainly calls attention to the bodily effects of literature on the reader (e.g., blushing, gasping, goosebumps), but I find the genre more interested in the spectacle of the body than in the phenomenon of sensation itself. Sensation literature would seem an obvious place for a nineteenth-century Americanist to turn to for thinking about the interplay of sensation and representation, in fact I find it a dead end. What opens up phenomenological and epistemological approaches to sensation are literatures that formally and conceptually engage interiority, and as such philosophies of mind, and how sensation organizes lived experiences. This is why when I teach courses on sentiment and sensibility, I always frame these discourses in relation to the contemporaneous science of human physiology. Sentimentality, although it too of course is invested in spectacle, is an art of palpitation: a strategy for quickening the heart. And that physical response contains a whole set of racial and gender politics. This is a perhaps a circuitous way of simply stating that treating the senses as a heuristic means reading the phenomenological and physiological components of aesthetic experience as inextricably tethered to the (bio)politics of embodiment. As a result, “sensation” is not bound to a particular genre—sentimentalism, sensationalism—but instead is a framework for exfoliating the various semiotic layers of any text: a photograph, a recipe, a manifesto, and so forth.

The affordances of reading for the sensory pleasures and displeasures that literature generates, then, circle back to the issue of materiality—whether it’s Maria Montessori’s tactile method of literacy training or a poetry course in the twenty-first century college classroom. When teaching Dickinson, for instance, I had students read F681 (“Don’t put up my thread and needle”), which is about writing as a form of sewing—but really it is about how the work of women’s work is to appear as if it is not work at all: seamless. Taking a cue from Susan Stewart, I asked students to rewrite the poem by using only the symbols “–”and “/” to mark stressed and unstressed syllables but dropping the words (the lexical text) themselves. It looked a lot like stitch work, moving in and out of cloth. The marks recalled Dickinson’s signature punctuation mark, the em-dash—a “stitch” that appears artless and effortless but contains a tensile strength that holds lines and words together. The mutually-sustaining meanings of the dash and the stitch refashioned our earlier analysis of Dickinson’s hand-sewn fascicles; writing as needlework is not simply a conceit (in F681) but a material practice borne out in her poetic project. I then turned to Jen Bervin’s The Dickinson Composite Series (2008), which uses silk thread to embroider Dickinson’s iconic variant marks on enormous cotton sheets. Students, already acquainted with the problems that Dickinson’s writings have posed for conventional print formats, were able to grasp how the retroactive construction of Dickinson as a lyric poet was predicated on hiding her material and “mundane” domestic (handi)craft. Hence, Bervin’s feminist refashioning of the editorial choices that have impacted Dickinson’s poems is a way to show us the poet’s seams. When senses like touch become a textual condition, to invoke Jerome McGann, the conceit inheres in the concrete—and what appear to be material and social constraints reveal themselves to be aesthetic opportunities for thickening the web of meaning.

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Thomas Constantinesco, Peter Lurie et Erica Fretwell, « “Feeling and Knowing”: An Interview with Erica Fretwell »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Thomas Constantinesco

Sorbonne Université

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Peter Lurie

University of Richmond

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Erica Fretwell

University at Albany, SUNY

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