Reading for Feelings 

written by Carlijn Cober

I have to admit that I rarely read works of literary fiction in order to obtain knowledge about a fictional world, or plot, or historical time period, or even to appreciate the skill that goes into producing a text. Similarly, in the case of theoretical works, I often find that my interpretative work coincides with a desire to experience a sense of connection or kinship. My confession is this: I read for feelings. I want texts to move me, hit a nerve, or touch upon something that makes me feel like myself and, temporarily, not exactly like myself. 

The title of this piece has the same title of my PhD-project: Reading for feelings. This title has a twofold meaning. Firstly, it refers to a method of reading affects and emotions in a text. After reading Toril Moi’s work I feel inclined to say ‘focus’ (perhaps we should settle on the phrase ‘the question of how to?’). Secondly, my title describes the act of reading literature in order to feel. It is these two forms of affective reading experiences I am exploring in the work of Roland Barthes at the moment. Although reading for feelings is intuitive in daily life, difficulties arise once I ask myself: How to? How do you read a text for feelings? 

Affective Ties

In Hooked: On Art and Attachment (2021), Rita Felski writes: “In its most obvious sense, attachment denotes an emotional tie”. These affective ties, she argues: “are often stronger in academia than elsewhere” yet “rarely acknowledged in critical writing”.i I have been working on the French literary theorist Roland Barthes for the last couple of years, and have found that he displays strong affective attachments to literature and theory in his academic writings from the last years of his life. In her chapter for Critique and Postcritique (2017), Namwali Serpell has pointed to Barthes’s development from “a paragon […] of critical distance from the text” towards a scholar “whose personal experiences started to invade his analyses of the text”, thereby offering us a “model for […] phenomenological reading”. Serpell stresses the performativity of Roland Barthes’s use of language, as his work on cliché allows the reader to feel the redundancy of cliché. This notion of performativity draws attention to the effect of the text on its readers. The emotions that the text describes on the one hand and the emotional effects the text has on its readers on the other are intertwined in the case of works such as A Lover’s Discourse and Camera Lucida, due to the fact that the text not only describes emotions, but transacts them. This close connection between textual structures and its effect on readers raises even more questions: How does Barthes manage to make us feel and think, and moreover make us feel and think with him? What are the particular “attachment devices” that encourage readers to relate to these texts emotionally? How can theoretical texts pierce through a distant, rational, symptomatic approach?

Emerging attachment

I will now turn to the late works of Barthes for an emerging theory of literary attachment, before analyzing Camera Lucida as a case study. It is particularly in these late works, written after the death of his mother, that he explored a style of writing that could reinvigorate personal, affective experiences as a source of theoretical knowledge.ii In the midst of his bereavement process, he realizes that emotion pervades both everyday experience and artistic experience. He says: “like love, mourning affects the world” – echoing Sartre’s theory of the emotions.iii I want to argue that Barthes’s affective state of mourning had far-reaching theoretical and methodological consequences, as it set him on a path to take affect as the heart of his approach. 

In his Mourning Diary he observes that that to him, literature is an emotional catalyst, and as a locus of identification. He writes: 

Which is what literature is: that I cannot read without painwithout choking on truth, everything Proust writes in his letters about sickness, courage, the death of his mother, his suffering, etc..iv

“For me, at this point in my life (when maman is dead) I was recognized (by books).”v

Frustrated by his experience of “hard-heartedness” while grieving, he turns to reading Proust as a “tutor-text”, asking Proust “How to love?”.vi His engagement with Proust in Mourning Diary attests to a readerly attachment that is not concerned with aesthetics or hermeneutics, but with an affective-didactic dimension, as Lucy O’Meara has also described in her book on Barthes’s teaching practices at the Collège de France.vii This affective experience leads him to theorize that this is the function of the Novel, as he notes in one of his lectures months later: “Novel: a means of combating the hardness of heart, acedy. This last figure of ‘acedia’ is interesting here, deriving from the Greek ἀκηδία: lack of careviii Exploring his affective reading experience further, he argues that in novels “there are zones of love that magnetize” – perhaps Barthes also described an attachment device here in articulating how certain parts of the text drew him closer.ix

Pathetic Criticism

Ultimately for Barthes, what was at stake in his later works was the language of critique, which he aimed to change radically by countering what he referred to as the hardness of scientific language with, I quote: “emotion, sensitivity, generosity, ‘heart’”.x In his lecture notes on Proust and Joyce from March 10, 1979, Barthes briefly sketches the possibility of a type of literary criticism that would analyze texts for their ‘pathos’ or emotional impact, which he proposes to name, tongue-in-cheek: “Pathetic-criticism”, or “critique pathétique”.xi I will read the entire fragment for you here:

First, this: it wouldn’t be impossible to theorize a reading—and therefore an analysis, a method, a mode of criticism—that would be concerned with or start out from the moments of a work: powerful moments, moments of truth or, if the word doesn’t frighten us, moments of pathos. […]

→ Pathetic criticism: rather than logical units (structural analysis), would start out from affective elements → one could go so far as to judge the values (the value) of a work on the basis of the power of its moments—or of a moment. […]

For me, I know that there are pathetic elements in Monte Cristo from which I could reconstruct the whole work (I’ve thought of doing a course on that novel) → Presuming we’d be willing to devalue the work, to not respect the Whole, to do away with parts of that work, to ruin it → in order to make it live.xii

Barthes’s suggestion is to re-construct the text based on moments of affective force – moments that bring me to tears, that “I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth”. What we see here is that an affective, personal experience is mobilized as a theoretical intervention, similar to how contemporary scholars within queer studies, affect studies, and not to forget postcritique have done these last couple of years. From the method Barthes sketches here and that I would like to develop further, the intervention is also methodological: to conjoin theory and affect, method and feeling from the framework of postcritique. 

How to?

The question, still, is how to read a text for emotion? Here Felski’s Hooked offers one of the most concrete answers to the question of how to do research into literature and feeling, when she suggests that a postcritical interpretation could examine three possible lines of inquiry: 1) Representations of affect (“emotional states of characters, how musical lyrics conveys melancholy, how a painting captures intimacy); 2) solicitations of affect (how an artwork encourages certain kinds of emotional response); 3) how we feel towards works of art–specifically those we care for, as distinct from those that irritate us, bore us, leave us cold.xiii

I decided to take these three questions as the structural grid for my investigation into emotion, using them as a model in reading Barthes’s final published work: Camera Lucida (1980). In what follows, I will take you through my version of reading for feelings based on Felski’s suggestions in Hooked, starting with a personal reading of how I feel towards this work of art and working my way up to the narrative devices that solicit this response.

Reading for Feelings

It took a while for me to come to care for this book. Somehow it is only now, while dealing with a loss of my own, that I feel the emotional pull that other scholars and readers have noted for years.xiv The first thing I notice this time is that the text feels personal. There is something in this text that reaches out to me like a punctum, and invites me to feel alongwith this melancholic, grieving figure.xv This time, the text has attached itself to me before I grew attached to it. Reading Camera Lucida feels like a child has clung to my leg, pleads with me not to leave, immobilizes me with its weight. It has an arresting quality, as though it is asking me to stop whatever intellectual work I am doing and to mother it, care for it. As with the punctum, it has reached out to me, and I am made defenseless.  

Arguably, the text feels personal because it depicts exceptionally private feelings. Barthes’s book on photography is simply saturated with grief. Written just after his mother’s death on October 27th, 1977, Camera Lucida is as much an investigation into photography as it a reflection on what film theoretician Eugenie Brinkema has described as “the peculiar unending pain of loss”.xvi But the way it depicts this grief is subtle, it is scattered through the book (like ashes) through references to loneliness, sadness, nostalgia, the “funereal” quality of photograph, the conclusion that the essence of Photography is “that-has-been”, and by the desire to make his mother feel present again by shuffling through photographs, trying to recognize her ‘true’ likeness.xvii

I try to find out how it has this effect on me, and find three textual mechanisms that solicit this effect: the rhetorical figure of the noema (a rhetorical figure), affective citation (an intertextual device), and lastly what I would like to call the affective structure (a narratological feature) of the text. Given the time, I will only describe this last figure of affective structure. By affective structure, I mean that the structural properties of the text carry an emotional quality that is able to affect its reader. In the case of Camera Lucida, the text consists of 48 interlocking notes that range from 1 to 4 pages in length. It is not a linear, progressive literary work. Instead, every chapter feels like a re-visitation, like a musical piece is moves along variations on a theme. It is precisely in this structure of the text that I see a parallel with how the experience of mourning is structured, namely as the reliving of a particular moment of loss, replaying the difficult moments over and over again, ‘ruminating’ on shared experiences. At the core, this is a narratological approach into affect, but theoretically informed by trauma and memory studies, illness narratives, narrative medicine and romance studies This affective structure might explain why readers feel they are made part of this grieving figure’s mourning process, as they too are caught in a textual structure of mourning work – revisiting the same painful idea over and over again (“the photograph as that-has-been”), and dwelling on mortality (“my own future death”).

Productive misattachment

Now I want to take a step back from reading for feelings as an academic practice and look at how this type of “pathetic criticism” is already being practiced in everyday life. Needless to say, the practice of reading for feelings is not contained to a scholarly model. Perhaps it even edges closer to ordinary reading practices, the types of reading we do for the love of stories, not theories. One of the forms this reading mode can take is shown by Barthes-translator Kate Briggs (also this year’s recipient of the Windham-Campbell prize), who has tried out Barthes’s pathetic criticism as a method for her creative writing students. The result of the exercise is a reconstruction of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo based on “a transcription of [22] readers [ranging from age 16 to 82] who spoke about the moments that solicited an affective response. Moments when readers smiled, cried, sighed or held their breath, had to look up from the text, re-read, found beauty. Together these fragments create “a map of the zones of affective intensity in the novel.xviii She referred to this as “a process of productive misattachment”, since, she argues: “You have made [the text] address you. And now you love it because it addresses you, because it reads as if it had always been written for you.”.xix It is an act of “loving someone’s work so hard that it is altered in the process”.xx

Pulse points

Another form of pathetic criticism can be found in the practice of Shared Reading, specifically in the principles of The Reader in Liverpool. Their mode of reading focuses on the “pulse points” of literary texts, which they define as moments that make your heartbeat shift. They can be: “words, phrases or moments in the text that provoke a strong response, challenge an assumption or shift your thinking”.xxi They argue that it is by holding these moments of emotional force open for personal connections that reading creates what they refer to as ‘liveness’, and texts begin to take on personal meaning for the individual.xxii A similar sense of ‘liveness’ is described in Rita Charon’s The Principles of Narrative Medicine, when she argues that close reading “revolutionizes the reader’s position in life from being an onlooker […] to becoming a daring participant in the emergence of reality.”xxiii


The common factor between all of these approaches is that the emotional engagement with literature forges strong personal connections to literary works. The main affordance of this reading mode that can be identified from these examples is that is sheds light on how the novel affects contemporary readers, and generates a mode of criticism that explores the value of a text through its ability to affect contemporary readers. Relating to a text on a personal level, through deeply felt affective experiences, gives rise to the possibility to read beyond social, temporal, political, racial, class and gender differences. Concluding, reading for feelings opens up to literary criticism as an attached, affective practice. 

i Felski (2021): 28. 

ii Polanyi (1962): 16. 

iii Barthes (2012): 126. 

iv Barthes (2012): 177.

v Barthes (2012):133. Similarly in The Pleasure of the Text, he describes that “The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles: vocabulary, references, readability, etc.; and lost in the midst of a text (not behind it, like a deus ex machina) there is always the other, the author.” Barthes (1975): 27. 

vi Roland Barthes (2012): 178. 

vii O’Meara (2012): 74.

viii Barthes (2011): 14. 

ix Barthes (2011): 14. 

x Barthes (2011): 163. 

xi Barthes (2011): 63.

xii Barthes (2011): 108

xiii Felski (2021): 29. 

xiv Elkins (2007): 23-24.  

xv Elkins (2007): 23. I am inclined to call him Barthes, but it would be safer to say ‘Barthes’, in line with the discussions on whether or not to trust the authenticity of the narrating ‘I’ in Camera Lucida. At the same time, since I am dealing with ‘the personal’ as a concept, it feels mistrusting and suspicious to separate ‘Barthes’ from Barthes – especially given his suggestion that the subject of writing arises especially in écriture, which would tighten the bonds between the voice that arises from this text and the subject I identify as Barthes. I also have to add that during my reading, I proceed ‘as if’ I am unhindered by any theoretical knowledge about the death of the author. While reading, this ‘I’ who speaks to me emerges as Barthes. It is the only Barthes or ‘Barthes’ I know.

xvi Brinkema (2014): 76. 

xvii Barthes (2000): 5-23. 

xviii Briggs (2015): 126. 

xix Briggs (2015): 126. 

xx Briggs (2015): 118. 

xxi Read to lead handbook, p.22. 

xxii Read to lead handbook, p.22, 36.  

xxiii Charon (2016): 166. 

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (2000) Camera Lucida: Notes on Photography. London: Vintage Books.

Barthes, R. (2011) The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Course Notes at the   

Collège de France, 1978-79 and 1979-1980. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barthes, R. (2012) Mourning Diary. New York: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R. (2018) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. London: Vintage Books. 

Briggs, K. (2015) ‘Practising with Roland Barthes’, in: L’esprit créateur, 55(4), pp.118-130. 

Brinkema, E. (2014) The forms of the affects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Charon, R. et al (2016) The Principles and Practice of Narrative Medicine. Oxford: Oxford 

University Press. 

Elkins, J. (2007) ‘Camera Dolorosa’, in: History of Photography, 31(1), pp.22-30. 

Felski, R. (2021) Hooked: Art and Attachment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

O’Meara, L. (2012) Barthes at the Collège de France. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1962) Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. Chicago: 

University of Chicago Press. 

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