MLA 2017 Session: “#AllTheFeels: Sentimentalism Then and Now”

When: Saturday, 7 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m. Where: Franklin 8, Philadelphia Marriott

Since the rise of feminist criticism in the 1970s, “the sentimental” has become an important category of historical investigation and literary critique. Cultural historians have noted the immense influence of sentimental literature on eighteenth-century Britain and nineteenth-century America, while literary critics have debated whether sentimentalism indulged readers or informed them, eviscerated intellect or enabled it. June Howard notes that calling a text, film, utterance, or image sentimental “mark[s] a moment when the discursive processes that construct emotion become visible” (Howard 76). While theorists including Lauren Berlant have examined the “unfinished business” of sentimentalism—the way sentimental rhetoric continues to inform American political, social, and artistic life—little has been written about the sentimentalism of internet culture. And yet students and other media consumers participate daily in sentimental exchanges facilitated by the rapid movement of texts and images across the internet. This panel seeks to extend the study of sentimentalism into the twenty-first century by examining how genres of text, image, and video made possible and easily reproducible by the rise of the world wide web—Tumblr posts, viral memes, and fanfiction—continue the cultural work performed by the sentimental, including the work of connection and cultural cohesion.

Ashley Reed begins the panel by examining the unique (but not unprecedented) affective modes that characterize online communication. Her paper “Tumblr Sentimentalism: Affect and Ironic Distance in Internet Culture” explores the emotional exchanges that take place on the blogging site Tumblr, in which bloggers comment on images and videos using short, textual posts that then travel across various platforms, including Facebook pages and Buzzfeed listicles. The media are freighted with nostalgic weight: Tumblr users remediate screen shots and video clips of the Harry Potter movies, Nickelodeon television shows, and Justin Bieber videos. Meanwhile, the texts that accompany these media perform sentimental attachment while also proclaiming ironic distance: the hashtag #AllTheFeels that forms the title of our panel proclaims that the poster is overwhelmed with emotion while simultaneously detached from it. Reed argues that the “emo kids” of Tumblr and other internet sharing sites have developed a new mode of sentimentalism that is the default affective stance of internet culture: a sentimentalism that enfolds irony by acknowledging the “uncoolness” of strong emotion while succumbing to those emotions’ undeniable power.

Sentimentalism is not merely about the expression of emotion but about its circulation; sentimental texts and images seek connection with the reader or viewer through mutual emotional identification. The term “going viral” that describes the rapid movement of particular memes and videos across internet platforms diagnoses the sometimes unwilling or even unconscious affects of internet culture. Ryan Cordell’s “The Sentiment of Circulation” examines sentimental virality in both the nineteenth century and today. While twenty-first-century readers might look back in bemusement at nineteenth-century readers weeping over the trials of Ellen Montgomery or the death of Little Eva, they like, retweet, and weep over videos of deployed soldiers returning home to surprise their families, elaborately staged wedding proposals, or even advertisements that dramatize moments of family intimacy or human generosity. A project like Humans of New York (HONY)—which rose to international prominence largely through viral engagement—echoes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental appeal to the readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to “see to it that they feel right.” Cordell draws from both nineteenth-century newspapers and twenty-first-century internet memes to explore the essential link between affect and circulation, arguing that shared emotional responses constitute communities through which cultural artifacts can circulate, and that those communities reconstitute (or subvert) other social or political communities.

The acts of viral identification that undergird sentimental engagement can prompt readers and viewers not only to feel with fictional characters and faraway individuals but to participate imaginatively in their lives. This impulse finds its online outlet in the phenomenon of fanfiction, in which readers or viewers rewrite, revise, or extend the diegetic details of beloved films or books. While fanfiction is often considered to be a uniquely postmodern genre brought into being by the internet, Candace Cunard’s “Rewriting Richardson’s Clarissa: Sentimentalism and the AU Impulse” demonstrates that sentimental texts have long inspired readers to reimagine them. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady (1747-8) was one of the first sentimental novels of the eighteenth century and also, Cunard argues, one of the first to generate substantial rewritings of the type labeled by contemporary fanfiction authors as “alternate universe” (AU). Cunard examines Lady Elizabeth Echlin’s rewriting of the third installment of Clarissa and argues that it is “alternate universe” in more ways than one: Echlin imagines, not just an alternate ending to the novel, but fundamental changes to the novel’s patriarchal universe that must occur if women like Clarissa are to be protected from misogynist violence. Such “alternate universe thinking” is embedded in sentimentalism across the centuries and is akin to the practices Eve Sedgwick identifies as “reparative reading,” in which detailed visions of a better world help readers cope with the insufficiencies of this one.

Rather than a relic of an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century past, then, sentimentalism continues to undergird cultural interactions—interactions now facilitated by quick and constant online communication. During the discussion portion of the session, audience members will be invited to supplement, complement, or complicate the examples set forth by Reed, Cordell, and Cunard, and also to consider sentimental insufficiences: virtual sites where identification and circulation break down. Participants might consider, for instance, the relationship between the ironic sentimentalism posited by Reed and the internet’s other dominant affective stance: rage. Audience members might also discuss the gender of internet culture: since sentimentalism is a category historically associated with women and with the private sphere, how does a public, male-authored project like HONY challenge our understanding of sentimentalism? Our three-person panel leaves plenty of time for approaching these and other questions.

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008 Howard, June. “What Is Sentimentality?” American Literary History 11.1 (1999): 63-81.