Hooked Art and Attachment
by Rita Felski
University of Chicago Press, 2020
Cloth: 978-0-226-72946-6 | Paper: 978-0-226-72963-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-72977-0
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226729770.001.0001


University of Chicago Press (paper, ebook)


How does a novel entice or enlist us? How does a song surprise or seduce us? Why do we bristle when a friend belittles a book we love, or fall into a funk when a favored TV series comes to an end? What characterizes the aesthetic experiences of feeling captivated by works of art? In Hooked, Rita Felski challenges the ethos of critical aloofness that is a part of modern intellectuals’ self-image. The result is sure to be as widely read as Felski’s book, The Limits of Critique.

Wresting the language of affinity away from accusations of sticky sentiment and manipulative marketing, Felski argues that “being hooked” is as fundamental to the appreciation of high art as to the enjoyment of popular culture. Hooked zeroes in on three attachment devices that connect audiences to works of art: identification, attunement, and interpretation. Drawing on examples from literature, film, music, and painting—from Joni Mitchell to Matisse, from Thomas Bernhard to Thelma and Louise—Felski brings the language of attachment into the academy. Hooked returns us to the fundamentals of aesthetic experience, showing that the social meanings of artworks are generated not just by critics, but also by the responses of captivated audiences.


Rita Felski is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the Niels Bohr Professor at the University of Southern Denmark. She is the author or coauthor of several books, including The Limits of Critique and Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies.


Hooked is the third in a de facto trilogy defending the varied ways in which people like and care about works of art, both inside and outside the academy and its various critical traditions. Felski argues that we write about works of art because we care about them and get pleasure from them— we're hooked!—and that examining them critically is neither the same as, nor opposed to, being hooked in other ways. Hooked provides a way forward, not only a description of what we already do or a reason to stop doing it, but a way to say more and do more."

— Stephanie Burt, Harvard University

Hooked is a marvelous achievement. It is a rousing book that returns to one of the main questions at the heart of Felski’s scholarship—how people become attached to particular works of literature or art. Hooked offers a form of reception studies that invites alliances with different schools and modes of inquiry, from book history and curation theory to biography, ethnography, and practical pedagogy. It will excite and energize readers for years to come.”
— James English, University of Pennsylvania

"Hooked is concerned with the phenomenological and sociological vagaries of aesthetic experience; the seemingly intangible or impenetrable nature of our attachments with art. . . . Felski’s argument—art isn’t a ‘microcosm of the world,’ but part of the ordinary fabric of sociality itself—is useful and rewarding, as is her particular interest in ‘diversifying the scales of criticism.’ Attachment is fundamental to all processes of meaning-making, in art as elsewhere. Aesthetics matter because they ‘create, or cocreate, enduring ties’ but we need methods capacious enough to reflect the messiness of this reality."
— Nell Osborne, Review 31

“Over the past decade, Felski has been a breath of fresh air: working to nudge literary criticism away from an exclusive focus on politics. . . Felski is not against critique, the world being what it is. She is one of the growing number of malcontents who merely want to discuss other ways in which people respond to art. . .  [Hooked] is an exposé aimed at critics who disavow their personal allegiances.”
— Matthew Rubery, Public Books

"The chief virtue of Hooked is that it encourages scholars to be more honest. . . . If accepted, Felski’s proposals would lead to aesthetic engagements which speak openly about why the interaction is happening in the first place. Such honesty can only be welcomed as a step forward in that old philosophical project—namely, knowing ourselves."
— Thomas Millay, Marginalia Review of Books

"Among professors of English and comparative literature, Felski is one of the most influential scholars writing about aesthetics today. . . . Hooked: Art and Attachment picks up where The Limits of Critique leaves off by homing in on a crucial dimension of aesthetic experience discounted by critique: the attachments we form to works of art, the sources of their appeal to us, the personal growth they can excite and sustain. . . . Hooked honors this indispensable attachment to the arts and bolsters our efforts to understand and share what we care about."
— Michael Fischer, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

“The book invites a conversation that ranges widely beyond literature; its arguments span media and its scope is expansive. . . . There are many insights in Hooked that will facilitate a productive interdisciplinary conversation about aesthetics, politics, and the future of critique.”
— Michael Gallope, nonsite.org

"In Hooked Felski examines aesthetic experience in terms of co-creation and enduring ties. . . . Using essays, memoirs, works of fiction, ethnographic research and a variety of examples from high to popular culture, Felski argues that works of art make a difference in the world and matter - they act - because they 'create, or co-create, enduring ties' . . . Hooked offers a plethora of hypotheses and a wealth of ideas to think with and to research empirically. The book will be of interest to sociologists and social theorists interested in cultural objects, emotion and aesthetic experience."
— María Angélica Thumala Olave, Theory, Culture & Society

“Rita Felski’s new book puts in place… a less counterintuitive, secluded, and priggish way of addressing art.”
— Forma de Vida

"The sensual stuff of culture gets under our skin, draws us in, expands our world, fashions our consciousness, sets the tone and tempo of our responsiveness to the world around us. The ‘tuning of sentiments’ is precisely the sort of phenomenal work that Rita Felski’s Hooked: Art and Attachment is suggesting that humanities scholars could and should pay attention to. . . . [Felski is] concerned with proposing the vocabularies and protocols for an approach to cultural works that are open to their immediacy, to their ability to connect us to the world, and to their intimate sociality. The project, then, is to imagine a postcritical attention to art (broadly conceived) that can hang on to our first-person response to works (which might be visceral, indifferent, traumatic, melancholic, consoling, and so on), while ensuring that such attention isn’t a flight from the social but a more capacious form of contact with it."
— Ben Highmore, New Formations

"In Hooked, [Felski] examines the way we connect to novels, films, paintings and music, and argues that our enthusiasms should be an integral part of conversations about art. Only this can deliver the ‘course correction’ the humanities need, and dissolve the boundary between academic interpretation and ordinary appreciation."
— Helen Thaventhiran, London Review of Books

"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."
— Critical Inquiry

"Taken on its merits, and treated in the generous, open way that it advocates, Hooked is a satisfying, thought-provoking read for anyone concerned with questions about the natures of our relations to artworks and why we bother forming them."
— British Journal of Aesthetics


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226729770.003.0001
[attachment theory;ANT;detachment;Yasmina Reza;strong values;Charles Taylor]
Attachment is often treated as something to be interrogated, while its antithesis gets off scot free. This chapterflips things around; looking quizzically at the widespread deference to detachment as the quintessential philosophical ideal and the definitive diagnosis of late modernity. Turning to Yasmina Reza’s play “Art,” it points out the existence of status distinctions that would interest Pierre Bourdieu while insisting that aesthetic relations involve more than power relations. The attachment theory of psychologists Bowlby and Winnicott might seem to offer a more positive resource for thinking about aesthetic relations. Yet, here again, the specter of reductionism threatens—we cannot do justice to aesthetic attachments as long as we explain them in terms of something else. Art hooks up to many other things; but ANT, in its questioning of orthodox pictures of context, allows us to see that it is not based on them or encased by them. Meanwhile, caring for art involves more than pleasure or feeling; affect cannot be severed from interpretation or from ethical or political commitments. And here Charles Taylor's distinction between weak and strong values can be helpful in clarifying why art matters.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226729770.003.0002
[attunement;Zadie Smith;Joni Mitchell;presence;phenomenology;sociology of art;Alfred Gell]
This chapter draws on the idea of attunement to explain forms of affinity that are often hard to describe or understand. Why, for example, are we drawn to a painting or piece of music in ways we struggle to explain, while being left cold by others whose merits we duly acknowledge? In recent decades, talk of the ineffability of art has been taboo—seen as evidence of romanticism, elitism, mysticism, or other thought crimes. Yet most people can point to novels or movies or music—whether Mozart or Mötley Crüe—that affect them strongly in ways they find hard to articulate. Doing justice to such experience will mean moving beyond standard forms of phenomenological or sociological explanation; attending to the surprising as well as the scripted, the sensuous as well as the sense-full, yet without pitching aesthetic experience outside the social world.Ranging across diverse examples of attunement, with a focus on Zadie Smith’s conversion to the music of Joni Mitchell, the chapter addresses three distinct issues: the agency of art works (Alfred Gell); the temporality of becoming attuned (duration; time lag), and how we might talk about art’s "presence" without denying its social shaping.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226729770.003.0003
This chapter turns to identification—a widespread response to fiction that is often invoked by critics but rarely fully seen. And here arguments are commonly derailed by treating identification as synonymous with empathy, on the one hand, and with identity, on the other. Yet identifying has no neat fit with identity categories; meanwhile, it can trigger ethical, political, or intellectual affinities that have little to do with co-feeling.The chapter seeks to disentangle several strands of identification: alignment, allegiance, recognition, and empathy. What people most commonly identify with are fictional characters—who are alluring, arresting, alive, not in spite of their aesthetic qualities but because of them.Yet fictional and real persons also overlap: the confusion of character and author in certain genres of fiction; the merging of character and star when watching a film. Characters are hybrids patched together out of fiction and life. Reflecting on the allure of Camus’s anti-hero Meursault, the chapter coins the idea of "ironic identification": a style of attachment-via-shared-disassociation that also permeates the culture of the contemporary humanities. Rather than being limited to naïve readers or over-invested viewers, identifying turns out to be a defining aspect of what scholars do.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226729770.003.0004
[interpretation;relating;David Scott;Toril Moi;scale;stance;pedagogy]
This chapter considers academic interpretation as another circuit of connection: critics forge ties to the works they explicate, the methods they use, the disciplinary identities they inhabit. Yet an explicit concern with attachment can also alter how we interpret. And here the chapter focuseson the salience of scale and stance. It elaborates on how an ANT-ish approach is compatible with differences in scale—we can trace works within networks as well as networks within works—while justifying the focus on mid-level ties between works and audiences as fundamental to clarifying what art does and why it matters. Drawing on the recent work of David Scott and Toril Moi, the chapter asks what it might mean to be receptive or generous, and how knowledge is related to acknowledgment. How, finally, might such questions be relevant to pedagogy and the classroom? Being exposed to unfamiliar works or being exposed differently to familiar ones; learning new techniques of analysis and habits of attention—such practice of analytical engagement can alter the vector of our attachments.