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Becoming Attached: Attachment’s Role in Literary History and Theory

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Organizer: Theo Davis

Co-Organizer: Sarah Kareem

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The idea that cultivating and emphasizing attachment to literature is a central part of the study of literary culture has gained ground in recent years. The turn to attachment is a part of arguments against critique and suspicion as the once dominant mode of critical reading, but it is also a response to the need to defend the humanities and the study of literature in an era of decreasing enrollments in and funding for the discipline. This seminar encourages inquiries into the meaning of the term attachment and how it has been and might be used in relation to literary scholarship. We are interested in genealogies of attachment as a relation to literature and culture; inquiries into how different disciplines have theorized attachment; potential methodologies of attachment; and readings of texts that represent attachment in provocative ways and different historical moments.

Attachment may be taken as a synonym for love, liking, or affiliation. However, in the branch of psychology known as attachment theory, attachment is a more complex form of human relationship involving both psychological development and physical survival. This raises questions about how, and to what extent, it makes sense to think of attachment as a form of aesthetic judgment. Similarly, it raises questions about how attachment—as a form of behavior connected to development and survival—can be translated into a framework for thinking about scholarship and higher education. Thus we encourage discussion into what attachment means in different contexts and how the proposed transition toward attachment in criticism might actually proceed.

We also solicit papers that look into the history of how concepts and experiences of attachment to literature have been represented. What is the genealogy of this idea of attachment to literature, and how does it intersect with other models of scholarly and affective relationship to literature, from critique to phenomenological approaches such as reader-response theory and the affective turn? What metaphors, dispositions, or affects are associated with attachment to literature in different historical moments? How did “love of literature” come to be such a universally disavowed concept in the field, and what historical and cultural conditions in our own day explain the return of this concept? 

Attachment, in the foundational work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, was inextricably connected to the topic of separation and loss. D. W. Winnicott held that aggression was an integral component of the infant’s love for its mother. How does a theory of literary attachment concern itself with detachment and aggression, or with separation and loss? How might the accounts of loss and separation that emerge from the perspective of attachment be productively distinct from the classic literary and psychoanalytic terms for thinking of loss and its relationship to  representation?

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