Sianne Ngai and Haley Thurston have done much, I think, for aesthetics by formalizing certain descriptive terms previously used informally: the zany, cute, and merely interesting (Ngai); the baroque, whimsy, and cheesy (Thurston). I want to continue that project here.
“Resonance” is a term used primarily by non-scholarly readers, as Peter Stockwell notes in “The Cognitive Poetics of Resonance,” and the vagueness of the term as used in non-scholarly discourse fields has led to its being avoided in academic discourse. Stockwell attempts to reverse-engineer a formal definition of the term from such informal uses (think Goodreads reviews), eventually settling on “the readerly feeling that certain powerful literary texts leave a long-lasting and ineffable sense of significance.” He models resonance as a reverberating echo after the fact, the sense of something “sticking with” the reader long after a literary encounter.
Wai Chee Dimock, meanwhile, in “A Theory of Resonance,” defines resonance historically, as a text’s ability to reverberate across generations and epochs, imparting new meanings and “causing unexpected vibrations in unexpected places.” These are the “traveling frequencies of literary texts: frequencies received and amplified across time, moving farther and farther from their points of origin.”
Stockwell and Dimock’s carvings are useful, and it’s probably worth keeping them (especially Dimock’s, as a kind of “historical resonance” or “temporal resonance”). To call something “resonant” is inherently vague because the question remains: what is it resonating with, and how? But I believe both of the formalizations of the term covered above miss the way that resonance is used informally, by “non-scholarly” readers. To resonate is to oscillate in such a way that “a sympathetic oscillation occurs in a similar nearby structure,”¹ and for most readers, engaged in a highly personal encounter with a text, the original oscillating structure is the text, and the sympathetic body, in whom resonant vibrations occur, is the reader’s body of personal experience, their worldview or outlook, their existing psychic schemata of the world. We might call this “personal resonance,” the feeling of recognition one gets when an author verbalizes the unverbalized-felt, or notices that which we’ve noticed… but not noticed we’ve noticed. Those authors whose work regularly resonates with us are our “epistemic peers.”
Stockwell does the valuable work of researching the science of resonance in order to elaborate on its metaphor. From him, we learn, resonance 1) is measured in intensity, 2) is reduced by dampening effects, 3) has a decay, the length of time it takes for a reverberation to revert to silence, and 4) can transform into echo when the dampening effect is inadequate, causing a positive feedback loop between the original oscillating body and the resonating body which has picked up its vibrations.
Resonance often gets used in judging the authenticity, honesty, or the cartographic quality of a literary work. But as a heuristic, it is so prone to confirmation bias that it can be dangerous to implement uncritically. “Truthiness” operates off resonance, famously, and is famously misleading. Moreover, the kinds of transformative texts that we look to in literature often work off mental models of the world so distant from our own that they ring alarm bells, but it is precisely these works which are so valuable. From “Ulysses, Wilde, and a Theory of Literary Compression“:
In explanation, let us mobilize Shaw and turn a turn of phrase. If, The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man., so too can we understand art. Only literature which imposes itself on the reader can effect transformation either personal or cultural, and thus those who look to the arts for more than leisure and pastime must seek out only unreasonable works. It is readily apparent why this would be true in matters of content and subject: works which are perfectly agreeable ethically and philosophically, which do not confront and therefore require the reconciliation of the reader, cannot transform — can only reaffirm consensus.