< Back to Events

Lunchtime Seminar: Xine Yao, ‘The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling’

Wednesday 5th February, 2020

13:00-14:30, Law 1.02

Xine Yao (UCL) will give a paper titled ‘The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling’ at 1pm on Wednesday 5 February at QMUL Mile End Campus (Law 1.02). All are welcome and lunch will be provided.


What does it mean to be unfeeling despite the biopolitics of feeling, to withhold from the intimacies of four continents, no longer buy into the unfinished business of sentimentalism? According to Denise Ferreira da Silva, “affectability” is constructed as the intrinsic property of non-white others. In my book Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth Century America (under contract with Duke University Press)I take an antisocial approach to affect theory. Drawing from queer of colour critique, I suggest that reclaiming unfeeling demonstrates disaffection in the political, causal, and affective senses. To begin, I question why we fixate on Bartleby, not Babo, as a universal figure of dissent. To be unsympathetic, as Babo and the other Africans were, is forfeit sympathy. Following Sylvia Wynter’s critique of the supposedly universal category of the human, what are the implications for universal sympathy and the insistence on affect’s unavoidable attachments?

Affect studies has a race problem. Reading Benito Cereno, I trace how vilified “unfeeling” can act as an index of dissatisfaction and resistance, masking other forms of feeling that fail the politics of recognition. I consider unsympathetic Blackness as a foundational racialized mode of unfeeling that owes to Frank Wilderson’s unthought. Melville’s retelling of the historical slave revolt erases Babo’s Black sociality and downplays the presence of Black women, demonstrating how the white sentimental politics of recognition cannot represent or even imagine how unsympathetic Blackness opens up the transformative possibilities for centering liberatory structures of feeling otherwise. Ultimately, by foregrounding unfeeling this talk challenges ongoing cultural fantasies about justice that appeals to dominant feelings can operate as a catalyst of social change and that unfeeling stands as the structural barrier that must be overcome.


Christine “Xine” Yao hails from Toronto, Canada. She joined UCL in 2018 as Lecturer in American Literature in English to 1900. She held a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia (2016-2018). In 2016 Xine acted as PhD Marshal for her graduation from Cornell University where she completed her PhD in English with minors in American Studies and Feminism, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her MA is from Dalhousie University and her BA Honours is from the University of Toronto, Trinity College where she earned the Chancellor’s Gold Medal in the Arts. Her PhD and MA research received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is the co-host of PhDivas, a podcast about academia, culture, and social justice across the STEM/humanities divide. Xine is the founding chair of the podcast initiative for C19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. You can find these podcasts on iTunes.

The talk will take place in Law 1.02, Mile End Campus, London E1 4NS. For directions to Mile End and a campus map, see bit.ly/QMcampusmap. On this map, Scape is the building numbered 36 and is located on Mile End Road, opposite to the main university campus.