Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sarah Kareem reviews Hooked

Rita FelskiHooked: Art and Attachment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 200 pp.

Review by Sarah Kareem

3 May 2022

Hooked: Art and Attachment, Rita Felski’s follow up to The Limits of Critique (2015), “looks closely at how people connect to novels and paintings and films and music” (p. xi). Hooked’s premise is that understanding how art works requires attending to the dispositions artworks foster in us. “How does a text solicit certain forms of identifications? Or stimulate new sensations, perception, and thought?” (p. 154). Felski addresses these questions in central chapters that characterize three forms of attachment—attunement, identification, and interpretation—by drawing “mainly on essays, memoirs, and works of fiction that capture the phenomenological thickness of aesthetic response” (p. 25). Foregrounding first-person accounts of aesthetic experience imbues Hooked with a particular ambient quality evocative of those environments—theater bars, the sidewalks onto which viewers spill after a movie—that thrum with the sound of people talking about their aesthetic responses.

This quality can be inviting and forbidding in turn. On the one hand, the way the book is written beautifully embodies chapter 3’s assertion that “commentary, first of all, is connection” and exemplifies the generous ethos it describes of “allowing oneself to be reoriented by others” (pp. 122, 149). This is a quality I love about Felski’s scholarship: her interlocutors range well beyond the usual suspects of the Anglo-American academy and include young and old, humanists and social scientists, novelists and memoirists. At the same time, inspired by actor-network theory, Hooked conjures the presence of nonhuman actants: artworks exhibit “features that beg to be described, detailed, captured,” and respondents oblige in first-person accounts of “affective shimmerings or nascent stirrings” (pp. 6, 39). This quality can be overwhelming—as if one is surrounded by unnumber'd throngs on every side, to use Alexander Pope’s characterization of the Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock. In Pope’s underworld, “Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pie talks”; in Felski’s, here, a “poem intervenes” and there, a “painting arrests a nonchalant viewer” (p. 6). Hooked’s invocations of aesthetic connectedness—a steady stream of subjects “captivated,” “magnetically drawn,” or “summoned into an excited blur of fear, love, and disgust” can be estranging; bearing witness to others in the throes of aesthetic experiences is not the same as sharing them (pp. 43, 49, 8).

Hooked’s methods intensify this feeling of missing out. As chapter 4 on interpretation explains, Felski eschews extended close reading, a practice that, as she rightly observes, “remains . . . an object of intense cathexis” among humanists (p. 137). Instead, Hooked hovers “at the level of the work-net,” adopting a “midlevel perspective” that attends to the various contingencies, from a work’s internal attributes to its conditions of reception, which contribute to the nature of an encounter with it (p. 144). The result of this decision is a book that aims less to reel in its reader with virtuosic readings and more to gather up a heterogeneous shoal of coactors in illustration of “those ties that form around works of art” (pp. 143–44). If my impressions thus far seem to describe an atmosphere rather than an argument, then I don’t think this is out of step with Felski’s aims in Hooked. Felski’s preface suggests that the book’s modus operandi is to “build an aesthetic” (p. viii). I’m receptive to a mode of criticism that models a disposition rather than making an argument—indeed, I sometimes wished that Hooked dispatched the imperative to argue more emphatically because its occasional martialing of argumentative rhetoric jars with a method otherwise characterized by parataxis.

Hooked’s midlevel perspective is most effective in chapter 3, on identification. Felski conceives identification in terms broad enough not to have to be distinguished from the ordinary ways we talk about identifying with characters while fine-grained enough to discriminate between the “allegiance” elicited by the protagonists in Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and the “recognition” produced by the novelist Thomas Bernhard’s “nested sentences” (p. 102). Enumerating these distinct modes of identification helpfully fills out a lexicon of aesthetic attachment that, as Felski notes, often falls back on the language of love, which can “feel descriptively thin” (p. 31). The accumulative approach is less successful in chapter 2, on attunement, in which the effect is not to thicken but rather to dilute the concept of attunement until it feels almost imperceptible. When defined loosely as the phenomenon of being “drawn into a responsive relation,” attunement doesn’t offer a “fresh slant” on aesthetic attachment so much as exemplify the problem Felski herself identifies elsewhere, when a proposed new term “covers an even broader and more diffuse range of reactions” than the old one (pp. 41, 81). Here I found myself wishing that Hooked itself was focalized more closely through Felski’s own sharp-eyed point of view and that she lingered longer in describing the quality of particular aesthetic encounters.

I wanted more of Felski’s firsthand observations in part because her spare reflections on her own aesthetic experience struck me as far more expressive than actor-network theory’s blandly fecund language, with its “ever-greater entanglements . . . proliferating ties and multiplying dependencies” (p. 10). In closing, then, consider an example of Felski’s eloquent restraint that also illustrates her assertion that “responses cannot be corralled into tidy boxes; actors do not always hook up in expected ways” (p. 25). One of Hooked’s premises is that aesthetic experiences facilitate interpersonal connections. And yet, in the chapter on identification, Felski suggests that “obsessive book reading might conceivably go along with a lack of sociability or social intelligence” (p. 86). In an end note, she adds, “Or perhaps I am speaking only of myself here” (p. 180). Reading that note, I felt a pang of identification (recognition with undertones of empathy and top notes of allegiance)—and not only because there’s something relatable about the impulse to second-guess oneself. It’s also because the note’s proviso felicitously expresses the feeling of being out of sync with others described in the sentence it glosses. Earlier in the book, Felski brushes aside the idea that “treating artworks as transitional objects that, like the toddler’s blanket, help us to negotiate the relationship between self and other” might be illuminating (p. 19). But that endnote made me wonder if, like the toddler’s blanket, reading and writing are what adults use to test the extent and limits of what we can share. If part of being a critic is asking, “What is this work forcing me to notice?” (p. 153), then Hooked made me notice not only the registers of aesthetic attachment of which it speaks but also the registers of aesthetic aloneness that it leaves largely unspoken.