American Graphic
Disgust and Data in Contemporary Literature
Rebecca B. Clark



The Graphic and the Graph-ick

graphic, adj.

1. a. of or relating to the pictorial arts

c. of or relating to the art of printing

2. formed by writing, drawing, or engraving

3. a. vividly or plainly shown or described // a graphic sex scene

b. using offensive or obscene words: including swear words

c. marked by clear lifelike or vividly realistic description

4. of, relating to, or represented by a graph

graphic, n.

2. a. a graphic representation (such as a picture, map, or graph) used especially for illustration

b. a pictorial image displayed on a computer screen

c. graphics plural in form but singular or plural in construction: the art or science of drawing a representation of an object on a two-dimensional surface according to mathematical rules of projection

4. a printed message superimposed on a television picture1

WE LIVE IN A GRAPHIC WORLD. Heedless of warning labels on discs, pics, and screens, we increasingly see, read, feel, and render ourselves and each other through, in, and as the “graphic.” Recombinant iterations of this promiscuous word seem to pop up everywhere in post-45 art, literature, and life: graphic design, infographics, graphic novels, graphic user interfaces, graphic sex, graphic violence, in graphic detail. As contemporary culture becomes a warren of the graphic, how can we make sense of its contradictory and rapidly accumulating meanings?

Branching upward and outward from the Greek graphikos, the graphic family tree is a vivid, knotted, obscenely organic body; it is also a flatly inorganic diagram, helping us visualize probability structures, mathematical sets, programming codes, and syntactical schema. At the end of each of its limbs, skin is pulled taut across or peeled painstakingly away from the tasty and/or tortured bodies of strange fruit; but at the same time, these are apples of a different stripe, pixelated icons, flesh not fermenting into rot but abstracted into near immateriality.

This book presents a theory of this increasingly ubiquitous, yet critically underexamined word. “Graphic” can be both an aesthetic and an affective description. It can be a noun or an adjective—a thing or a set of sensations, feelings, or formal attributes that modify it. It can be a suffix, a linguistic appendage that refers back to a body of knowledge production. It can signal an uncensored account of things done with and to appendages of flesh and blood bodies. While the graphic has its roots, etymologically, in form (a product of drawing or writing), it yields its ripest contemporary colloquial harvest in feeling (productive of disgust, recoil, arousal). Except when it doesn’t.

The graphic is about both epistemology and display. But it is also a term that is, itself, splayed—drawn (if you will, and quartered, if you must) in seemingly contradictory directions. “Graphic” as a word is tellingly at odds with itself. On one hand, it seems to evoke the grotesque. It warns us away from the upsetting excesses of texts and images that inadequately temper their taboo-violating content. It guards content creators against liability from the easily offended and litigiously inclined. This graphic is about innards, in all of their three-dimensionality. It is gross, sticky, shocking. On the other hand, “graphic” seems to revoke all of that. Instead of oversharing, this graphic is about paring. It promises the geometrically streamlined—graphs, diagrams, computer screens, user interfaces. This graphic is about two-dimensional surfaces. It is calculated, detached, clinical. It is the look and feel of data, abstraction, and management: the way in which we make sense of information-age overload.

American Graphic explores moments in twentieth-century American literature when these two senses of the graphic—what I call the grotesque and the geometric graphics—come into contact: when affectively and aesthetically disparate branches of the graphic tree are grafted onto each other. What happens when the same moment in a piece of media—be it literary, visual, or performance art—is somehow graphic in both ways at once? When it vibrates with both excess and exactitude? When the pulsatingly gross meets the diagrammatically abstract? When flesh meets data? These literary, visual, and performance works are at once viscerally gross and coolly clinical. In them, readers are forced into the affective bind of a mode of engagement that is simultaneously empathic and classificatory, demanding identification and, at the same time, denying it. I posit that we see a marked turn in contemporary American literature away from the well-theorized gross aesthetic of the grotesque towards the ambivalent feeling of this “double graphic”—simultaneously disgusting and disinterested. I argue that this graphic turn indexes a newly prominent way of approaching the desire to know other people. It reveals the unseemliness of a lust, in our contemporary culture of information, for cool epistemological mastery over the bodies, and feelings, of others.

Toggling between emotional saturation and affective evacuation, the double graphic creates a crisis within the politics of affect and identification. As the sentimental tradition weeps and keens and flays its way into the era of database aesthetics and information overload, the double graphic reworks how sympathy operates in texts that do upsetting things with bodies. It forces us to face how closely and discomfitingly yoked together disgust and data—identification with and identification of the other—have become in our increasingly graph-ick world.

Graphic Affect

“Affect” has been a tasty term du jour in literary studies for more than a few days now. There are now not only theories of affect, but theories of theories of affect. Affect, emotion, feeling, and sensation, as they swap or share places, have now been defined in a panoply of ways, with more or less precision, often wafting ever atmospherically higher on gusts of increasingly mixed metaphor, by esteemed thinkers across multiple fields.

One of the contributions to the field of affect studies that is the most useful for this book is Sianne Ngai’s expansion, begun in her germinal work Ugly Feelings, of the category of “aesthetic emotions . . . or feelings unique to our encounters with artworks.”2 Anchoring affect in artworks, too, Eugenie Brinkema argues in The Forms of the Affects that

it is only because one must read for it that affect has any force at all. The intensity of that force derives from the textual specificity and particularity made available uniquely through reading, the vitality of all that is not known in advance of close reading, the surprising enchantments of the new that are not uncovered by interpretation but produced and brought into being as its activity.3

The feelings associated with and complicated by the double graphic are summoned by the specifics of the texts I closely read in the chapters that follow. While one of the most generative and frustrating aspects of the double graphic is the way in which it forces the question of how it is we (can) read (for) affect at all, I follow Ngai and Brinkema in averring that actively read for it must be.

In literary studies, the turn to affect is generally considered an effort to recenter the corporeal in discussions of literary texts and their effects, while at the same time decentering the private individual as the privileged site of feeling and emotion. The affective turn has often dismissed the word “emotion” itself as inadequate for reorienting discussions of feeling away from some mythic self-contained subject out of whom feelings exclusively spring and in whom they proprietarily reside.4

Central, then, to theories of affect (and theories about those theories) is the question of the relationship between affect, the body, and particular individuated bodies. For many, affect is of and about the body, but it neither lives within nor emerges sui generis from it. Affect is about “impersonal intensities,”5 potentiality, and what bodies can or might do—“a body’s capacity to affect and to be affected.”6 For a rarer few, affect not only fully sheds the subject but completely dissociates from the body or bodies altogether. Brinkema regards “any individual affect as a self-folding exteriority that manifests in, as, and with textual form.”7 I don’t quite go as far as her on that count. It is to the question of the body and bodies, rather than debates about the separation between affect and emotion,8 that my concept of the double graphic might have the most to contribute. In many ways, the crux of the affective discomfort of doubly graphic moments is that they explicitly and invasively display vulnerable characters as both the abstracted body—often through the figures of the silhouette, the sex doll, and the data point—and as intimately particular fleshy bodies at the same time.

This book enters into this conversation with the affect theorists Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, and Eugenie Brinkema. That these scholars aren’t always in direct agreement or dialogue with one another is a source of productive friction. Where Sedgwick, Ahmed, and Brinkema’s theories of affect vibrate most temptingly with and against one another is in their respective emphases on texture. Each, in her own way, insists that affect exists in and as texture, and must be closely read for it.

Texture is a touchstone in Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling. To read for affect, Sedgwick asserts, is to read for texture and all the questions—narrative, temporal, and agentive—that it begs:

To perceive texture is never only to ask or know: What is it like? nor even just How does it impinge on me? Textural perception always explores two other questions as well: How did it get that way? and What could I do with it?9

Texture is “intrinsically interactive” and even encourages an approach to perception that Sedgwick evocatively avers is resonant with “the postwar moment of cybernetics and systems theory.”10 Going even farther, Sedgwick cites Renu Bora’s distinction11 between two types of texture, “texture” and “texxture”:

Texxture is the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being. A brick or a metalwork pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture in this sense. But there is also the texture—one x this time—that defiantly or even invisibly blocks or refuses such information; there is texture, usually glossy if not positively tacky, that insists instead on the polarity between substance and surface, texture that signifies the willed erasure of its history.12

If feeling is about touching, then, it is about relationality, surface, pattern, and material particularity, even as the word “affect” has been made to waft stratospherically away from the individual.

Ahmed also uses the figure of texture, particularly the opposition between the sticky and the smooth, to theorize emotion as a networked, relational thing. Emphasizing that “emotions are not simply located in the individual, but move between bodies,”13 Ahmed eschews “affect,” which she says is often used “to explain how emotions move beyond subjects,”14 in part because “when the affective turn becomes a turn to affect, feminist and queer work are no longer positioned as part of that turn. Even if they are acknowledged as precursors, a shift to affect signals a shift from this body of work.”15 Ahmed argues that this work has already shown that emotions “involve bodily processes of affecting and being affected.”16 Emotions circulate. Not of their own amorphous accord, however, but rather via their attachment to, or association with, particular objects—“it is the objects of emotion that circulate, rather than emotion as such.”17 Not all objects are equally texturally prone to emotional glomming, however. “Feelings may stick to some objects, and slide over others.”18 As they stick (texxturally) and slide (texturally) onto and over them, “emotions shape the very surfaces of bodies.”19 In other words, emotions tex(x) ture. Bodies thus emotionally accoutered become particular sorts of objects. “The circulation of objects of emotion involves the transformation of others into objects of feeling.”20 For both Sedgwick and Ahmed, then, affect/emotion is relational in an emphatically tactile way. Feeling is about contact, touch, and texture. Surface matters, not because of its promises of depths to be plumbed, but because of its potential to contact and be contacted with.

The double graphic arises at moments of the emphatic “transformation of others into objects of feeling,” to borrow Ahmed’s phrase.21 But, in the graphic moment, the feelings, perplexingly, seem at once to stick to and slide off of these human objects. The bodies that are identified by and with ethnographic, pornographic, or infographic attention become, in Ahmed’s words “sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension,”22 but they are also presented perplexingly in ways that formally shrug off, even zero out emotional attachment. They are disgusting, sympathetic, appalling emotional voids. Stickily smooth. Smoothly sticky. Geometrically grotesque. Doubly graphic. The second “x” of Sedgwick’s texxture winks, à la Schrödinger’s cat, in and out of existence before our eyes (maybe even under our fingers).

Both Sedgwick and Ahmed briefly ponder what it means for an object of feeling to be ostensibly texture-less. In doing so, they each make gestures towards the relationship between texture and history. In Sedgwick’s interpretation of Bora, texxture displays its material history, while texture denies history itself (though the very adamancy of the denial makes it counterproductive: “[H]owever high the gloss, there is no such thing as textural lack.”23) Ahmed seems to argue nearly the opposite, that “once an affective quality has come to reside in something, it is often assumed as without history.”24 Once feeling stickily adheres to an object (be it inanimate or human), the processes by which it stuck there in the first place seem to drop away. Or, to return to Brinkema’s provocation about affect and form, those processes need to actively be read for, lest they be considered innate and divorced from history. Particular histories saturate certain bodies qua objects unequally with emotion.

It is far from a coincidence that the most powerfully sticky objects of feeling are also often those with the least amount of power otherwise: racialized and/or feminized people. These are the figures throughout American literature, particularly American literary genres of feeling, that have oscillated most violently between being saturated with and evacuated of emotion. Calling this unequal distribution a key operation of biopower, Kyla Schuller argues that “racialization and sex difference do the work of unevenly assigning affective capacity throughout a population.”25 An increasing number of thinkers have pushed back against the proliferation of theories that define affect as disembodied potentiality, shimmering “passional suspension”26 freed from the subject, an unmediated and unmotivated motive force. Scholars like Clare Hemmings, Claudia Garcia-Rojas, and Tyrone S. Palmer critique the whiteness, both conceptually and demographically, of affect theory, which they argue results in privileging the quirky and particular at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, discussions of systems of power and histories that actively inflect and constrict the ostensible freedom from the constraints of the subject that affect promises.27 In short, as they see affect theory pushed as a “panacea,” oversold as the only way to “break free of our paranoid attachment to unfreedom and turn towards the possibilities offered by feeling,”28 Hemmings and others advocate for the study of affect “in context.”29

Others, from Lauren Berlant to, most recently, Xine Yao, call attention to the ways in which unfeeling and disaffection have come to be associated with—or mobilized as a form of resistance by—particular sorts of racialized subjects.30 Yao argues that in nineteenth-century American literature in particular, “sympathy is the fundamental mode of apprehending affects, feelings, and emotions—and deeming them legitimate.”31 And sympathy has been anything but equally distributed by its white arbiters.

One must be recognized as sympathetic to be deserving of sympathy from those with the agency to sympathize. Thus, the marginalized do not have the luxury of being unsympathetic without forfeiting the provisional acceptance of their capacity for affective expressions and, therefore, the conditional acceptance of their humanity.32

In American letters and culture, fellow feeling—the bedrock of affective apprehension—has historically been unevenly and conditionally allocated, perpetually precarious for some and inviolable for others. Belying its prefix, then, sympathy has always in practice smacked of parasitism.

Citing Denise Ferreira da Silva,33 Yao explains how, in global modernity shaped by Western Enlightenment notions of universality, “affectability defines raciality: the ‘transparent I’ has the agency to know and affect, while the ‘affectable I’ is the susceptible, the ‘scientific construction of non-European minds.’34 (The susceptible opacity of this “affectable I,” as exemplified by the figure of the silhouette, will be the focus of Chapter 2 on the ethnographic). Without attempting any pat reparative readings, Yao examines what happens when racialized people in nineteenth-century American texts, who “are legible only through their affectability,” opt out of feeling altogether.35 Continuing in the vein of what Berlant identifies as “countersentimental texts,” which “withdraw from the contract that presumes consent with the conventionally desired outcomes of identification and compassion” to explore the “democratic pleasures of anonymity and alterity, let alone sovereign individuality,”36 Yao draws attention to authors who abjure “the coloniality of sympathy.”37 Drawing on and expanding from Berlant’s recessive “underperformativity,”38 Yao groups a range of affective modes together under the umbrella of “unfeeling”:

withholding, disregard, growing a thick skin, refusing to care, opacity, numbness, dissociation, inscrutability, frigidity, insensibility, obduracy, flatness, insensitivity, disinterest, coldness, heartlessness, fatigue, desensitization, and emotional unavailability.39

She aligns them with minoritized subjects, engaged in the nineteenth century in the potentially “dangerous gambit” of refusing to be the affectable I, of withdrawing from their slotted place within the culture of sentiment.40

This book shares Berlant and Yao’s concern with what affective absence does when it occurs in scenarios that seem generically sentimentally scripted for emotional excess instead. The double graphic traces these stymied scripts of sympathy forward into our data-saturated information age. It gives us moments impossibly both redolent with and utterly absent of feeling. It cleaves the concept of identification irreconcilably in two, while at the same time homophonically turning back on itself and cleaving identification right back together again. The double graphic is less about the portrayal of unfeeling subjects than the display of affectively saturated scenarios as if they were “merely interesting” interludes, diagrammatic exhibits, abstracted addenda.41 The objects of emotion are not necessarily themselves unfeeling or disaffected. We (their consumers, viewers, and readers) are, at the same time that we—maybe also—are not.


1. “Graphic” entry in Merriam-Webster dictionary. Only selected portions of the entry are shown.

2. Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 6.

3. Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects, 38. Emphasis in original.

4. Brinkema explains that, for her, “the word ‘affect’—far more so than synonyms ‘emotion’ or ‘feeling’ or ‘sensation’—is redolent of a topology that de-privileges interiority, depth, containment, and recovery” (ibid., 23–24). See also Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect.”

5. Cvetkovich, “Affect,” 15.

6. Seigworth and Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 2.

7. Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects, 25.

8. See Sara Ahmed’s exemplary egg analogy (The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 210):

The activity of separating affect from emotion could be understood as rather like breaking an egg in order to separate the yolk from the white. We can separate different parts of a thing even if they are contiguous, even if they are, as it were, in a sticky relation. We might have different methods for performing the action of separation. But we have to separate the yolk from the white because they are not separate. And sometimes we “do do” what we “can do” because separating these elements, not only by treating them as separable but by modifying their existing relation, or how they exist in relation, allows us to do other things that we might not otherwise be able to do. That we can separate them does not mean they are separate.

Or Sianne Ngai’s characterization of the distinction as “a modal difference of intensity or degree, rather than a formal difference of quality or kind” (Ngai, Ugly Feelings, 27).

9. Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, 13.

10. Ibid.

11. Bora, “Outing Texture.”

12. Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 14–15.

13. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 10.

14. Ibid., 209.

15. Ibid., 206.

16. Ibid., 208.

17. Ibid., 10.

18. Ibid., 8.

19. Ibid., 4.

20. Ibid., 11.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 10–11.

23. Sedgwick, Touching Feeling, 15.

24. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 214.

25. Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century, 13.

26. Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” 31.

27. See Hemmings, “Invoking Affect: Cultural Theory and the Ontological Turn”; Garcia-Rojas, “(Un)Disciplined Futures: Women of Color Feminism as a Disruptive to White Affect Studies”; Palmer, “‘What Feels More Than Feeling?’: Theorizing the Unthinkability of Black Affect.” Palmer argues that “affect theory as an academic discourse has yet to substantially account for the problematic of blackness, the particular affective dispositions that emerge in reaction to processes of racialization and racial subjugation, or the ways in which affect serves as an exploitable tool of racial domination and anti-blackness” (35).

28. Hemmings, “Invoking Affect,” 557.

29. Ibid., 551. Emphasis in original.

30. See Berlant, The Female Complaint; Berlant, “Structures of Unfeeling: ‘Mysterious Skin’”; Yao, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America.

31. Yao, Disaffected, 13. Emphasis in original.

32. Ibid., 4.

33. Da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race.

34. Yao, Disaffected, 4.

35. Ibid., 5.

36. Berlant, The Female Complaint, 56.

37. Yao, Disaffected, 22.

38. Berlant, “Structures of Unfeeling.”

39. Yao, Disaffected, 11.

40. Ibid., 16.

41. Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.