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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Interconnectedness : affect, media theory, and the subject of emotion in nineteenth century nature poetry (Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Keats) Rubel, William Ilan


My focus in reading William Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson is on the links among sensation, emotion, and subjectivity. I argue that nineteenth century nature poets challenged ideologically bounded agency, as constructed in political and religious discourses, in an experiential turn to affect that shifted the weight of attention from intellect to sensation. This modulation, from discursive to somatic attention, shifted the terms of political agency and the contexts for imagining individual freedom. Though both nineteenth century nature poets and current media theorists share a common source thread in the affective philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, they address opposite sides of the spectrum of the potential of affect. Where the nineteenth century nature poet sees an opportunity to “counteract” the “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation” and “extend the domain of the sensible,” the media theorist forewarns of an infiltration of information into biological life (‘bioinformatics’) by affective rather than discursive strategies, and of the “real subsumption” of biological subjects. In both turns to affect, the bounded agent proves either more inter-relational or more serial than in received conceptions of the liberal enlightened humanist subject. For the Romantic nature poet, bounded agency proves relational in the relaxation of the discursive center into sensation. For the media theorist, bounded agency proves serial (a product of “machinic assemblage” ) in the breakdown of categorical divisions between life and information. Pivotal to my argument is that in the Wordsworthian view, the turn to affect (exposure to the sensory impingements of natural phenomena and bodily emotion) has deconditioning effects, in stark contrast to current media theory, which notes affect’s creative potential but stresses its availability for biomediation and bioinformatics: Foucauldian “biopower.” Reading key texts by Wordsworth, including Preface to Lyrical Ballads (PLB), Tintern Abbey, The Prelude, and The Excursion, I consider the philosophical exploration of affect theory and political agency in Massumi, Sedgwick, Noonan, Braidotti, Agamben, Clough, Deleuze and Latour; the cognitive theories of Verela, Johnson, and Damasio; the radical science of Sheldrake and Bohm; and the commentary of literary critics, notably M.H. Abrams and John Beer, on Wordsworth’s sense of Being and consciousness.

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