Feeling in Theory: Emotion after the "Death of the Subject"

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Because emotion is assumed to depend on subjectivity, the "death of the subject" described in recent years by theorists such as Derrida, de Man, and Deleuze would also seem to mean the death of feeling. This revolutionary work transforms the burgeoning interdisciplinary debate on emotion by suggesting, instead, a positive relation between the "death of the subject" and the very existence of emotion.

Reading the writings of Derrida and de Man--theorists often seen as emotionally contradictory and cold--Terada finds grounds for construing emotion as nonsubjective. This project offers fresh interpretations of deconstruction's most important texts, and of Continental and Anglo-American philosophers from Descartes to Deleuze and Dennett. At the same time, it revitalizes poststructuralist theory by deploying its methodologies in a new field, the philosophy of emotion, to reach a startling conclusion: if we really were subjects, we would have no emotions at all.

Engaging debates in philosophy, literary criticism, psychology, and cognitive science from a poststructuralist and deconstructive perspective, Terada's work is essential for the renewal of critical thought in our day.

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About the Author:

Rei Terada is Professor of Comparative Literature and Director of the Critical Theory Emphasis at the University of California, Irvine.


What starts from a shrewd review of contemporary polemics goes on to take the shape of a theory of emotion of Terada’s own, drawn from her analytical reading of post-structuralist writing and of earlier and present-day philosophies of emotion. With Feeling in Theory Terada has produced something excellent and major, both a contribution to post-structuralist theory and its interpretation, and a placing of it in a wider surround. (Cynthia Chase, author of Decomposing Figures)

Feeling in Theory takes issue with the often-expressed view that postmodern culture in general, and post-structuralist theory in particular, is hostile to the idea―and even to the very existence―of emotion. Terada argues that what is at stake in these debates isn’t really emotion per se, so much as it is the fate of the unified subject. An anxiety over postmodern notions of a foundering subjectivity is what actually underlies all these calls for a return to more conservative aesthetic positions. Emotion is invoked in polemics only because it is thought to be the ultimate guarantor of the subject’s integrity; if there are feelings, the argument goes, then there must be a Self present to experience them. Terada shows, however, that this line of argument is deeply problematic, arguing startlingly but quite cogently that there is a fundamental contradiction between emotion or ‘experience’ on the one hand, and the notion of a unified subjectivity on the other. It is not merely that emotion does not need to be grounded in a subject; but more strongly, that emotion requires the nonexistence of the subject, and that a subject as traditionally conceived could not possibly experience emotion. Terada therefore proposes to develop a post-structuralist theory of emotion. (Steven Shaviro, author of Doom Patrols)

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