on Disaffected

February 2022

Xine Yao is Lecturer in American Literature at University College London. She recently talked with Hyunjoo Yu (PhD at Texas A&M), Brianna Thompson (Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon), and Rachael DeWitt (PhD at UC Davis) about her first book, her take on the field, and her teaching practice. Her monograph, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America (November 2021, Duke University Press), offers feeling otherwise as an alternative to sentiment in Americanist criticism.

Disaffected issues a call to decolonize affect studies by reading against the grain of the white heteropatriarchal understanding of affect. Yao examines the unrecognized, pathologized feelings of racialized and gendered subjects, offering disaffection as a strategic, calculated “break from affectability.” Yao’s work contemplates what power and risks minoritized subjects take by disobeying the universalized idea of sentiment. In Disaffected, Yao collects instances of pointed disaffection–from the works of canonical white writers like Melville, to lesser-known woman doctor narratives. Yao critiques whiteness without centering it, paying extended attention to the works of Black and Asian authors. With this diverse archive, her work puts forward disaffection as a tool for imagining cross-racial solidarity against white-oriented liberalism.

In this interview, Yao spoke about the shift from dissertation to book, about disaffection as a theoretical, pedagogical, and political practice in and beyond nineteenth-century American studies, and about mutual care as a mode for expressing solidarity against colonial white supremacy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachael DeWitt (RD): What didn't make it into the book and how much did it change from your dissertation?

Xine Yao (XY): There were major changes from my dissertation. My postdoc gave me the scope to reconceptualize what my work was. I think this was really helped by the fact that I was doing my postdoc at University of British Columbia, which, I'd say, is one of the foremost places on Turtle Island for Indigenous Studies right now. And of course, Denise Ferreira da Silva is heading the Social Justice Institute there. I feel like that helped to completely reconfigure how I was thinking about my work. In particular, I was having a lot of health problems at the time and was doing the work of shifting from the PhD. This work included a very real sense of heartbreak over leaving Cornell and all the friendships and all the work that I’d been doing institutionally to build solidarity with other peoples of color and other queer people in particular. This helped me really think about how unfeeling is not necessarily antithetical to feeling, but can be so drastically otherwise to the point that it can't be recognized.

Hyunjoo Yu (HY): Prior to this interview, we talked about how the book criticizes whiteness and white patriarchy, but at the same time it doesn't really reify whiteness. How did you come up with this diverse selection of authors?

XY: It was really important to me to have that diversity, because I think that is what is truly representative of work in our period. But also I wanted to avoid the usual move that you tend to see in books: “this is the ‘African American chapter.’” This is usually the sort of bone that gets thrown to any form of racialization, but the siloing that tends to happen from chapter to chapter seems like an unavoidable necessity of the book form. Instead, I really wanted to stress the way that I saw my chapters as being in conversation with each other and trying to trace different genealogical threads of interlocking biopolitical hierarchies.

And yet in that distinctness, as you say, not reifying race or not essentializing it. For me, I was trying to explore different aspects of the gendering of whiteness which is why Chapter 4 is on white women doctors and their queerness, but also on the hegemonic aspect, even to white queer femininity, that can still be complicit in national eugenicist projects. I guess part of the point that I'm trying to make in the book has to do with the difficult work of solidarity that is structurally made to be so difficult to imagine and to think. At the same time, to think of solidarity as impossible in and of itself is part of the ruse of colonial white supremacy.

RD: Did you write book chapters according to a different logic than you did your dissertation chapters?

XY: The logic of the dissertation was that which enabled me to finish the project. I've been hearing a lot of people who are still doing their PhD ask, “what thing do you wish you had known while doing your dissertation?” And I was like, “actually, it wouldn't have made a difference,” because I think you can't really second guess the work that you're doing at the time, and that is actually what you have to go through to become a different person. And so I think that as uneven as the dissertation writing is and how unsatisfactory it might feel, that is still necessary.

During my postdoc, when I was thinking about making my dissertation into a book, I actually felt this real sense of despair looking at it–it was not a draft towards a book at that point. I felt it was far less. But then I was talking to a friend who was also going through the process and what they said really helped me, which was, “don't think about the dissertation as a draft towards a book, think of it as notes towards a book.” And that, I think, was very freeing to me. So, for instance, I wrote Chapter 4 on Black women doctors; it was completely new. I also completely reworked every word of all the other chapters.

Brianna Thompson (BT): Is disaffection always in relation to white hegemonic structures of sentimental governmentality? Or does disaffection ever operate removed from a hegemonic power structure in the terms of your text?

XY: Part of the reason I chose to think about disaffection is precisely that it's typically only seen from hegemonic standpoints. This is the usual stance and the critique we have of sympathy and sentimentalism. It’s always those in power who are unfeeling and those who are minoritized who need to force the unfeeling powerful to feel. I also saw that resonance in popular culture post-PhD with the election of Trump and the triumph of Brexit. We kept on seeing disaffection as something that's being applied to “disaffected” Trump voters, “disaffected” Brexit voters. And yet we don't see anyone who's minoritized getting or having the right to disaffection. I really stress thinking from unfeeling not as oppression from above, but as a tactic from below, as a way to disrupt the sort of conventional logic of how we think about the relationship between feeling and power.

BT: Will you tell me if my paraphrase is incorrect: there's a way where disaffection is a tactic within a hegemonic system, and there's no way it could necessarily be disentangled from that system because it's a tactic for navigating that system, receiving power, when you're not supposed to have power, right?

XY: Not necessarily, because I’d still say that disaffection is seen as being unfeeling in expressive and demonstrative senses because it’s deemed illegitimate within the hegemonic terms. The inspiration that I'm drawing from is the anti-social turn alongside José Muñoz’s queer of color critique–that the anti-social rupture is also an opening to a new horizon. The point that I was trying to make in Chapter 2 is that disaffection from whiteness means that certain conversations that are difficult must happen in order to make possible the building of a new world–literally shutting [whiteness] out of the room as Blake does in the meeting with the Choctaw chiefs in Delany’s Blake. The sense of being bound in hegemony is perhaps more the slight fatalism that I see in Sui Sin Far’s work that I explore in the fifth chapter. I think there are so many images of death and failed reproductive futurity throughout her short stories precisely because even though she wants to have a radical break, it's much harder for her to conceptualize it than, say, Harper does in Iola Leroy.

HY: Can disaffection serve as a hermeneutics for a more ethical form of literary scholarship in general? How should we approach disaffection as a lens?

XY: It’s been very encouraging to hear from people that Disaffected has been useful even though they're not in our field–they're doing contemporary or medieval literature and so forth. I think it's the break from the implicit universalism in the way affect tends to be posed. It points out that viewing affect as attachment and porousness and pre-discursiveness is itself part of a strategy of colonial universalism.

I'd also say that it's not just about a methodology, but particularly a pedagogy. For example, when you're teaching queer writers and writers of color, often the way that students, even enthusiastic students, approach these texts is by saying, “yes, we need diverse books! We need this sort of representation!” But that standpoint still tends to be very ethnographic. Their enthusiasm still tends to operate according to recognition–of the sympathetic receiving sympathy. So when my students were incredibly excited to read all these women of color authors because they hadn't ever had a chance to, I had to pause. I realized I was pushing them in terms of their critical thinking and the ethics of how they're approaching them. How, actually, might the text not be for them in certain ways? How might it be resistant to them?

Allyship is so important, but, at the same time, there's a way that outsider allies tend to center themselves because they're saying, “I feel so bad about anti-Black police brutality,” “I feel so bad about transphobia,” et cetera. You need to then ask yourself, “which spaces am I taking up? Whose space is it this time?” I think it's also about training allies to expect a certain form of alienation because of the structural alienation experienced by those they want to help.

BT: This isn't necessarily related to Disaffected, but just as a C19 scholar, what do you see as benefits and drawbacks of comparing our current moment to the 19th century?

XY: I think it's always a dilemma because one doesn't want to fall into a trap of presentism, but at the same time, as people have pointed out with the injunction “always historicize,” is “always” itself not a type of ahistoricization? For me, there's a productive critical anachronism about deploying these historicizations at different times. Part of what I'm doing is to trace an arc that goes through to our present, but also beyond the US.

I'm studying 19th-century American literature, not because my response to it is, “Ooh, this is so cool.” Well, there are things that are cool in it, but honestly, it's also this frustration and resentment of the way that sentimental ethos becomes a logic writ large on the global scale, which continues in any sort of global humanitarian crisis up through the present. It's a sort of sentimental logic that gets continually amplified and refracted over and over again. And in acknowledging my own situatedness as someone who's trying to make a little contribution in my own little way to our field and the form of scholarly knowledge, I can’t pretend we're still in the 19th century. Indeed I wouldn't want to. The impulses and questions that bring us to the archive and bring the archive to us do not have to be disavowed but actually make for more heightened forms of analysis.

RD: How does disaffection show up for you in the classroom? How do your students grapple with the concept? What affects do you feel obliged to perform when you're teaching and how does that feed back into your research?

XY: I've found that I need to double down on disaffection, because I am often forced to teach and think and research and present in a way that still accedes to that very narrow politics of recognition. So for instance, I did a program for BBC Radio Three on Sui Sin Far and inscrutability. I knew that the usual way to do this thing would be to say “here's this person you never heard of, and this is why you should care, and this is why this is a good representation.” But I decided to disrupt that by talking about withholding, trying to force listeners to realize how limiting it is to read someone in the bind of “good” versus “bad” representations, and instead to read for the forms of withholding and refusal and frustration that are able to come through that type of story.

I think that there's very little understanding of how emotional labor is essential for pedagogical work as well as administrative and service work. But actually I think emotional labor makes me a much better teacher and administrator because I'm able to manage a space and people's emotions and expectations. And, especially during COVID, I got my first major administrative role where I had to convene our MA program. We only had a week to go online and we managed to enroll a third more students than we would normally do so we had to triple teach sections remotely. In the end, our student satisfaction scores skyrocketed.

I think also stressing reciprocity and receiving and giving care is important. And it's sort of funny because I was giving care to my students, but then I also had a lot of my undergrads who'd be like “Xine, are you okay?” And I would say “oh dear, I must look really distressed.” I just found that very touching. Or during teaching remotely in the week that there were the anti-Asian killings in Atlanta, I felt particularly alone. I was about to teach Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and then I just felt acutely lonely because any sort of Asian diasporic studies barely exists in the UK. I felt alone not just as a person demographically but also because this scholarly field is not even recognized. And I ended up just having a breakdown in front of my MA students on camera which I found very mortifying. But then afterwards I got so many lovely emails from the MA students checking in on me and making sure that I was okay.

Maybe that's also a thing–perhaps the pedagogical work of care isn't just about giving care. It's about teaching how care is reciprocal work. They have to learn how to care for themselves and to care for others and think about care not in terms of something that you're trying to suckle from the teat of the hostile institution, but as a web of relations, and one that's sustainable. I owe much to Indigenous feminism in particular, for showing me how to think about that form of relationality.

BT: Can I ask about the beautiful idea that emotional labor ought to be a pedagogy of reciprocal care? Are there any particular strategies you use or is it simply affect, like showing when you are upset and allowing people to ask?

XY: I think it never hurts to be explicit in terms of what we're modeling in spaces because it is useful to signpost. So for instance, the first time I teach, I always say, especially for the MA classes, the quality of participation is not the volume of how much you speak, it's about us creating a discursive community. I don't want them just to respond to me. I want them to be engaging each other. Also that I'm not impressed when people start evoking proper names. I think that helps to cut down a lot of the performative bullshit that you get in seminars. I just wish that that was something that I had in graduate seminars, because you're sitting there like, “I haven't read all of Lacan. I just feel so incompetent.” And I also stress that this is the moment when you first go to graduate school where you start to see how constructed knowledge is and how constructed curriculums are. The artifice of it all reveals that what seemed to be shortfalls are not your shortfalls but structural shortfalls. Going to graduate school exposes the scaffolding of the way that systems and knowledge reproduce themselves. Making people conscious of that makes them realize that it's not in any way an individual deficit. Then trying to instill a sense of collective learning and mutual learning is particularly important.

HY: I liked the shift that you made from Chapter 5 to Coda where you foreground disaffection as a collective practice of not caring together, along with some personal stories about disaffection. I'm wondering how disaffection could change our way of thinking about community itself.

XY: Thank you for recognizing this. It brings together the fuller parts of Audre Lorde's essay, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,” with Raymond Williams’ notion of structures of feeling. If the master’s house is this dominant structure of feeling–standing alone and reviled and yet finding common cause with others, as Lorde says–then it shows the necessity of a type of anti-social rupture that creates different forms of community on different structures of feeling. That's why I see unfeeling and disaffection as having an important role to play. And, as I say in the introduction, this all really came out of my emotional life and the care work that I saw happening in my communities and between friends.

And, also, there’s the exhaustion of always having to be the one that cares all the time, and being desensitized by it, or like a shutdown from the work of strategic vulnerability when you're minoritized. You're expected to parade a particular story about yourself over and over again, in order to gain a formal legitimacy. That scene can be a type of intimate access, but it isn't necessarily always so. It's actually about a calculus of refusals and disclosures. So if we conceive of [disaffection] as part of a broader emotional strategy of deciding when does it make sense to be dormant, it is no longer a lack. It can be suspended and it doesn't have to be instrumentalized at this time, but that doesn't mean there is no possibility and no potential in this strategic dormancy.

BT: In your second chapter on Delany, on page 75, you write, “feeling otherwise enables the conditions for imagining otherwise.” And this is me coyly asking you what your affect theory, your theory of affect is. How do you get from feeling to imagining?

XY: Tacitly it's in conversation with Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise, in the discussion on Black-Indigenous counterintimacies and the possibility of solidarity. What I still do take from affect theory is that affect acts as an inchoate resource and a capacity, and that it can be a wellspring that allows for the possibility of different forms of imagining. I think what we see throughout Delany's Blake is how deliberately it disaffiliates from whiteness. Delany critiques the white savior trope by thinking of social change as well as by showing what things open up otherwise. Even the moment on the slave ship when Henry Blake’s lips pressed and his face toned showing no emotion–it doesn't mean that he didn't care. There's just no point in showing affect in this moment.

My approach to affect is also very much influenced by Lee Edelman’s idea of the need to have a space of not having to instrumentalize potential. I feel that imagination has the potential to be a non-fungible resource in itself. A resource that is non-fungible and doesn't have to be necessarily instrumentalized towards narrative. And I guess that's part of why it only seems too fitting that no one's been able to find the extant chapters of the novel. The missing chapters help to disrupt the narrative teleology. It means that we can't track it onto a normative narrative grammar of culmination. Eventually when someone finds those chapters, it’s going to be really weird because so much of the writing on Blake has hinged on the lack of the chapters.

Dr. Xine Yao is Lecturer in American Literature to 1900 as well as co-director of the queer studies network qUCL at University College London. Their first book, Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America has won Duke University Press’s Scholars of Color First Book Award (Duke UP 2021). Her honours include the American Studies Association’s Yasuo Sakakibara Essay Prize and their research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is a BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinker and the co-host of PhDivas Podcast.