A conversation between Douglas Dowland, author of Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), and ASAP/J contributing editor Anna Ioanes
Following the success of our Thinking With series, we’re thrilled to release our Summer edition of “Books in Conversation”. This collection features conversations that scholars Douglas Dowland (Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America), Jessica Pressman (Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age), and Caetlin Benson-Allott (The Stuff of Spectatorship: Material Cultures of Film and Television) each have with their “ideal interlocutors” about their recent books.
— Jerrine Tan, Reviews Editor
Anna Ioanes (AI): Doug, I’m very excited to talk about Weak Nationalisms with you. First off, can you give an overview of the book for those who haven’t read it?
Douglas Dowland (DD): Weak Nationalisms charts a way in which some authors have tried to answer the question “What is America?” It is not interested in strong, divisive answers to that question—I’m exploring those in my next book—but is instead interested in plural, diffuse responses that are synecdochical in nature. The rhetorical move the authors I study assumes that by elaborating on the Americanness of a part that they will capture the whole of the nation. There is something “weak” about this—that language comes from Silvan Tomkins’ distinction between weak and strong affects—in that the authors do not feel that their reading is the sole definitive reading but a more probative one. These are readings—moody, curious, hopeful, incredulous—that don’t feel the need to go on the defensive. All in all, I want to suggest that there are other ways of nationalist feeling that are not necessarily exclusive or aggressive. And that says something about nationalism that critics have for the most part ignored.
AI: Weak Nationalisms analyzes a unique collection of texts. Your archive is composed of nonfictional postwar texts created by philosophers, novelists, and journalists. All of the texts have received little critical attention, partly due to our field’s tendency to overlook nonfiction. I also noticed that these texts all share at least some genre conventions of the travelogue, a term which appears throughout the book but is not a central category for the argument. What drove the selection of texts: was it that they overtly sought to answer the question, “What is America?” That they are all forms of travelogue? That they occupy an ambivalent relationship to the literary canon? Something else?
DD: The problem I had at the time I was writing the book was that the scholarship on the travelogue—at least the American travelogue–seemed to work more on a level of confirmation, either agreeing or disagreeing with the assessments of the traveler. There were some texts like Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes which offered an alternative to this in literary criticism, but work like that was few and far between. So instead, I went to the unspoken premise that the travelogue is a mundane genre not worthy of our scholarly attention. Theorists of the mundane, from Michael Billig to Lauren Berlant to Rita Felski, and ultimately theorists of affect like Sianne Ngai and Sara Ahmed, ultimately had more to give me in terms of a position.
I had these texts that performed moments of defining the nation. And they seemed to have the same rhetorical tactic. Yet what they suggested through their defining wasn’t the sort of stomping, slashing vision of the nation that I had normally associated with nationalism. These texts ask readers to see something, but the stakes of their seeing or not (for the most part) isn’t that high. That’s difficult to articulate—and transversely, that’s difficult for academics, who are so prone to high-stakes (or at least making high-stakes) arguments, to appreciate. In fact, what these texts were doing—you see it or you don’t, no harm to me—is antithetical to how criticism works. And I feel that antithesis sharply in the peer review I get back on my work. When you don’t make an argument with the stakes critics have been trained to make, you get, shall we say, intense responses.
AI: I’d like to think more about the role of nonfiction in contemporary culture broadly and in literary culture specifically. With the rise of autotheory, I’m wondering whether we might see greater attention given to nonfiction. I was also thinking about the online personal essay boom of the 2010s. This might seem a bit far afield of the kind of professional nonfiction taken up in your book, but I’m wondering whether you see your work as part of a renewed interest in the literary qualities of nonfiction. What’s the critical conversation around nonfiction looking like these days, and what do you think it might look like in, say, five years?
DD: I don’t think that’s far afield. The problem with nonfiction is that it has never been privileged in the same way poetry and fiction has in literary study. The New Critics, for instance, saw nonfiction either as the statement of fact or as propaganda: either/or. And it has never seemed that the critical interest in realism as a genre ever glommed onto techniques of nonfiction. I suppose too that there may be a hidden anxiety of exploring nonfiction too deeply: after all, criticism is nonfiction of a sort. Do we really want to apply the critical energy we put onto texts to our own writing? I think some of us would stop writing if we subjected ourselves to such critique.
Autotheory is one way—the discourse on that is becoming rich, fast. I think too a critical conversation might develop as we become more interdisciplinary: the rhetoric and tactics of environmental writing or the illness narrative, for instance. The test will be if we can give nonfiction the ardent attention it deserves as its own genre. Some of the discussions I’ve seen on autotheory, for instance, seem to want to relitigate the New Sincerity wars in fiction of thirty years ago.
AI: Weak Nationalisms draws on affect theory to show how weak nationalism is expressed in nonfiction. One thing this book does, which strikes me as a departure from earlier affect theory, is to focus critical attention on being affected: you focus your introduction, for example, on “affected readers in an imagined community” (1). What does attention to the experience of being affected–the reading experience of being affected–offer us as theorists of affect more broadly?
DD: Here I was trying to tie Benedict Anderson’s conception of the imagined community to affect theory. It was apparent that something was striking the authors I study as “American”: an object had affected them in some way that propelled them to write it out. What the “Americanness” of the object was, in actuality, wasn’t fully formulated—perhaps it was something different than what the object might do in France (in my chapter on Beauvoir) or perhaps it was the embodiment of a national ideal (Kuralt) or a nation in disintegration (Steinbeck and Vowell). But there was something in articulating the object as American that signaled an affect at work. Here I was really helped by Rita Felski and Susan Fraiman, who aptly describe mood as a type of weather. The object might look differently depending on the frame that was at work at the moment it was read. I think the same principle is at work in any mode of synecdochical representation.
AI: Along these lines, you define affect as “that which provokes the incitement to read” (20). I found this claim totally thrilling, and I’d love to hear you expand on it. I hear in this statement a shift away from an earlier mode of affect theory in which the intervention is, “look, everyone, we’ve got to attend to affect. But affect is this diffuse, aimless thing that we can never get ahold of. But we’ve got to attend to affect!” In contrast to “the capacity to affect and be affected,” a definition like “the incitement to read” insists that we can’t think affect without theorizing its attachments and directions, as well as its sense of being experienced by an individual. Can you expand on the idea that affect provokes the incitement to read?
DD: I think the great frustration of affect theory is its terminology. I recently attended an MLA panel where a very distinguished professor (shall we say a theory-heavy institution such as SUNY Buffalo) hastily described affect theory as “anything I want it to be.” My jaw dropped when I heard that but I also instantly understood the perspective. If we look at Gregg and Seigworth’s Affect Theory Reader, for instance, we find eight different “angles” of the affective turn (see page 6-8). And we don’t yet have labels like Ahmed-ian or Berlant-ite or Massumi-ist to easily define one from the other. So what I was trying to do was boil these eight angles down to one general angle that would be of merit to literary criticism, and the study of nonfiction in particular.
I was also really drawn to a phrase in Toril Moi’s study of Simone de Beauvoir in which Moi studies her “incitement to interpret” the world (267). For Moi, there’s a trigger that encourages Beauvoir to write, and much of Moi’s book very lucidly articulates what those triggers might be throughout her life. It occurred to me that we can’t study the reading without knowing the matrix through which that reading is produced in the first place. We have to understand how something attaches to understand the text that might come from such attachment. Thus affect is something that is central to any reading.
That does not mean—and here again I think mainstream critics may not appreciate this—that you can exactly pin a single affect to a single reading. You are not always going to get “proof” in the same way you might with the hermeneutics of suspicion. The primacy of affect is not always going to reveal a plan. What I find refreshing about affect theory is that we have to articulate and relish that diffusion. We have to critically explore aimlessness for what it is—and defend doing so as valuable as any other type of reading. Sianne Ngai has given us a map of sorts to do this with her depiction of “ugly feeling” but our task is not to just apply Ngai, but to expand the horizon of what constitutes as reading.
AI: I was especially interested in your claim that we all have a nationalism, a theory of America–that nationalism is everywhere (35). While the nation has been a significant category of analysis for American Studies since its founding, I doubt many folks at the ASA meeting would claim that they are nationalists. How might acknowledging our own nationalisms change the critical approaches we take to “the nation” as a framework for interpretation? What else might we gain from more fully acknowledging (and perhaps interrogating) our own theories of America?
DD: I do think that everyone has a theory of America—and I don’t think that you have to be American to have a theory of America, though non-American theories of America are often easily disparaged by Americans themselves. And I do think that Americans have an attachment of a certain type to the nation, even if that attachment is predicated on non-attunement or disidentification. I think it’s important to explore that rather than have it explored for you, which really makes your sense of nationalism even more prone to extremism. It’s okay to be discontent with the nation as it is, but your discontent shows all the more your attachment. Yes, the nation is a cruel optimism.
I think it’s also important for critics to stop assuming that they have no national drive. The work of ASA is really pivotal here, for the association has moved in the past twenty years to a much more inclusive, expansive, and therefore challenging and rigorous conception of what holds itself together, this category we call “America.” What I think they realized is that there are several striated and conflicting conceptions of the nation, all of which are open to inquiry.
I’m not sure how else to explain the sudden and intense melting of the heart I saw on academic Twitter when President-Elect Biden said in his November 8, 2020 speech that “For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.” Of course, that was temporary. But it was apparent.
AI: You write against the assumption that all nationalism is pernicious (11). What does a model of a more positive nationalism look like for you, and what kinds of nationalism might we want to foster in 2021? How can nonfictional depictions of weak nationalism help us answer these questions?
DD: Weak nationalism ultimately reminds us that there is a spectrum of nationalisms. We’ve endured what I think is the worst form of nationalism in Trumpism and there is the justifiable fear that it might come back. But if anything, the book shows how it is possible for us to have a love of country that expands what the historian David Hollinger called “the circle of ‘we.’” That’s got to be a wide circle and I think we need to stop listening to mainstream pundits who trade on stock tropes and narratives, and instead see where the nation can still be lively and unpredictable. I’m more inclined to see that at work in nonfiction narratives of contemporary immigrants or in the nonfiction of foreign travelers in America. I don’t know what will come from that, but I think that’s where we need to look.