Thursday, 25 February 2010

Wonder and Floating Signifiers

"We do not find [something] marvelous … [ that] forms part of our everyday experience, but if we were told that [something in an unfamiliar context] behaved in exactly the same way, we would either dismiss the story as incredible or be ‘stupefied with wonder.’"
Wonder (and, more specifically the wonders in the face of which people experience wonder) is the topic of Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park's 1998 treatise Wonders and the Order of Nature. Examining the uses of wonders in the period 1150-1750, Daston and Park demonstrate a fascinating trajectory of a crisis of credibility, as the politics of wonder collide with the politics of reason. Such an exploration of wonder is perhaps particularly salient in an era of conflicts over legitimacy determined by whether something feels right in the gut or resonates with the intellect.

Daston and Park describe wonder in a way that continually reminds me of the way that my environmental science and activism colleagues often promote normative perspectives via the invocation of particularly cool features of the natural world. "Have you ever seen," one of them will begin, "that amazing phenomenon when..." and proceed to outline a wonder of nature that is so complex and so compelling as to command respect and compliance with whatever the management regime may be that they have devised to respect and comply with the wonder of nature in question.

And this wonder is powerful, indeed. For one thing, such wonder appears to be a significant motivator of the careers of many scientists -- not to mention the system and symbolisms of cultures and arts and religions. Wonder, however, plays a fascinatingly slippery role in rhetoric. In significant ways, wonder is a response to that which is unknown, or inadequately knowable. In the passage above -- Daston and Park (p.23) talking about Gervase of Tilbury talking about Augustine -- we can read two tensions: one between the everyday and the unfamiliar, and another between being captivated or attracted by the marvelous and being stupefied with wonder.

I bring in the idea of 'floating signifiers' here -- the category of things for which the 'there, there' is not pinned down by agreed upon meaning -- because I am interested in the bivalent possibility in this tension in wonder. Wonder is so often used to attract, to enchant -- but, for example, from a pedagogical perspective, when is this enchantment an attraction into exploration and when is it an obscuring bewilderment? Wonder may be a tonic response to things we can not know with certainty, but are there indicators of a wonder -- or a wonder-inducement -- more open to exploration (one can see here how reason spelled the doom of wonder, for a time) or more ready to simply let wonder itself stand in for the unknown explanations of the signified.

Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park (1998). Wonders and the Order of Nature. New York: Zone Books

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Monday, 22 February 2010

Painful Emotions as Pleasurable: A New Theory, by Tom Scheff

In Keith Oatley’s post of last week on negative emotions (click here) he quotes Norman Holland’s explanation of enjoying horror films: that we get pleasure from the fear we experience in the theatre because we think about it rather than acting on it. This is step in the right direction, but is incomplete because it leaves out the bodily side.

Aristotle originated a theory of catharsis in the theatre. The purpose of tragedy, he wrote, was to “to purge us of pity and terror.” This idea is currently in disrepute because Freud rejected it, even though his first book reported its success. Experimental psychologists also think they have disproved it, because they have shown that acting out anger usually doesn’t get rid of it. Currently it is the fashion to refer to catharsis as a simplistic hydraulic theory, as if there were only one theory rather than many (Scheff, 1979).

However, Aristotle didn’t propose that audiences shout in anger or run away in fear. He was referring to the effect of simply watching a tragedy, somewhat like Wordsworth’s idea that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility.

The crucial thing, according to theories of aesthetic distance, is that the audience identifies with the players, and feel their emotions, but at the same time realize that they are safe in the theatre (Goddard, 1951; Evans, 1960). At this distance, being both in and out of their own feelings, emotions that might be painful if one were completely lost in them become pleasurable. In a tragedy, one can have a “good” rather than a bad cry, and experience good fear rather than the painful kind.

My students experience roller coasters as pleasurable, but only if they are sure that the ride is safe. They allow themselves to feel fear because they are able, at the same time, to watch themselves doing it, rather than becoming completely caught up in it. Levine (1997) refers to this process as pendulating, moving very rapidly in and out of emotions that would otherwise be painful. We move so fast that we usually don’t realize it. These states can occur not only in the theatre but whenever we feel safe enough to replay intense emotional experiences, such as describing them to another person we trust, or, occasionally, reliving them alone.

Emotions are at their core only bodily states of arousal, of readiness for fight or flight, etc. In humans, at least, we have many ways of managing these states, not only fight or flight. Feeling safe enough to experience them with some detachment makes them pleasurable, rather than painful. The ability to stop our reactions is reassuring, giving us a feeling of safety in the face of intense fear, grief, anger or shame (Scheff, 2007).

The most controversial issue in catharsis theory is the attempt to answer the question of what to do with the energy and adrenaline that is aroused if you don’t fight or flee. When I was a young man, I knew that running six miles when angry would burn off some of the adrenaline so that I might be able to sleep at night.

Later I stumbled on to a better way. Sometimes, instead of blowing my top, I said to the person who had angered me, “I am angry at you because….” Usually I had to repeat my reasons several times before they understood that although courteous, I was also angry. During my explanation, I often experienced the room as warmer. However, after several episodes, I realized that it was me that was hot. Body heat, I think rapidly (less than a minute) metabolizes the adrenaline touched off by anger.

What about fear? I have had some extraordinary experiences of responding to fear with what might look to an unknowing observer as an epileptic fit of shaking and sweating. The experiences were enjoyable both during and after their occurrence. It may be too soon to write off the ancient idea of catharsis.

Bertrand Evans (1969) Shakespeare’s comedies. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Harold Goddard (1951). The meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peter A. Levine (1997). Waking the tiger. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Thomas Scheff (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas Scheff (2007). Catharsis and other heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 1, 98-113.

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Friday, 19 February 2010

Literary Science

[Readers: My apologies for the lateness of this post. RM]

Although we take it somewhat for granted that our readers are interested in the science of fiction, this enterprise should probably not escape question. Why should we study literature and film with a method of observation borrowed from physics and chemistry? Can a science of fiction be anything but reductive? Do we cheapen our experience of art by placing it under a microscope? Or, more accurately, by placing tiny parts of it under a microscope and attempting to generalize to the whole. These are not trivial questions, and a number of valid, and even opposing, perspectives on this issue can be easily defended.

For myself, I believe in the scientific study of fiction because I believe in science. Basic science, specifically, or science for science's sake, with no necessary reference to some predicted application. In other words, I believe that we should be making careful observations of our world in order to better understand it, and that scientists have long ignored many aspects of our world that seem important: such as fiction.

Another reason why I believe in the science of fiction is that I believe in fiction. I believe it is a powerful force in the lives of many, if not all, of us. Moreover, I detect a troubling trend in our culture whereby science is becoming over-valued relative to art. Both are ways of shedding light on truth and neither should be privileged over the other. One way to restore a balance, I believe, is the scientific study of art. If fiction, as art, can be demonstrated to have important consequences that are measurable and reliable, our culture will begin to pay more attention to art and its role in our lives. This, at least, is my hope.

Jonathan Gottschall wrote a very interesting article on the necessity of a science of literary fiction for the Boston Globe, which appeared on the front page of the 'Ideas' section. It is a concise and compelling argument, but only one side of this debate. I would be interested to hear our readers' thoughts on this issue, including the many possible counterpoints to the points raised by myself and Dr. Gottschall.

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Monday, 15 February 2010

Negative Emotions

Why—it's a question that seems not to go away—do people pay money to watch films in which they know they will experience emotions that they avoid in ordinary life? Two recent papers reflect on the question.

Paul Silvia says aesthetics are usually about taking pleasure in things, for instance because they are beautiful. He offers what he calls a tour of unusual emotions that can't be grouped with pleasure. He describes three families of such emotions: knowledge emotions (interest, confusion, and surprise), hostile emotions (anger disgust and contempt), and self conscious emotions (pride, shame and embarrassment) which occur in fiction. About the self conscious emotions Sylvia says:
Understanding personal and collective feelings of pride, shame, guilt, regret, and embarrassment is central to a mature science of aesthetics, but our field knows so little about these emotions. Of the emotion families, self-consciousness emotions afford the most to researchers looking for untrod terrain (p. 50).
Silvia says the the field of aesthetics should have more to say about why people have these emotions in their encounters with the arts but, in this article, he does not offer an explanation of the paradox of people seeking the seemingly unpleasurable.

Norman Holland (2010) starts a brief piece in Psychology Today by discussing a horror film he saw recently. The film seemed designed to make him feel fear. He does come up with an explanation.
I think that fictionality (= non-acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads to pleasure. Actuality (= having to decide about acting in response to an emotional stimulus) leads, not to pleasure, but to planning motor activity … I think that … knowing that we won't have to do anything [in fiction] … is in and of itself pleasurable.
It seems possible that being in an emotional state has enjoyable aspects to it. What is unpleasurable, according to Holland, are the possible consequences for our own life, and here emotions signal that we have to do something about them.

Film, in particular, is designed to lead us through sequences of emotional states. Murray Smith (1995) argues that the basis of these emotions is identification with characters. It is the characters who absorb our interest. It is with them that we become emotionally involved. Perhaps the root reason for our engagement with emotion is that because we are inherently social creatures we are fascinated by what can go on in the social world, for ourselves and others, be it positive or negative.

Norman Holland (2010). Why are there horror movies? Psychology Today, January 4.

Paul Silvia (2009). Looking past pleasure: anger, confusion, disgust, pride, surprise, and other unusual aesthetic emotions. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 48-51.

Murray Smith (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Thursday, 11 February 2010

Daimon's Precious Gifts

“When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me."

So begins “The Last of the Wine”, the novel that had made lay Ancient Greece enthusiasts gasp with pleasure and perpetually prickly scholars scratch their heads. As we turn the pages, Alexias, a baby boy born in wake of the plague of Athens, survives his inauspicious childhood, becomes a youth, and then a man during the Peloponnesian War. On the book’s pages we meet Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Phaedo, Kritias, Alkibiades, we hear of Euripedes, Aristophanes, Perikles, Agis. No longer are they hard-to-pronounce names we have read in small-print volumes pulled from dusty bookshelves. They are fully grown people, living their philosophy, politics, and art, right before our eyes.

Following the publication of the book, the author, Mary Renault, had been welcomed warmly (and erroneously) into the collective bosom of scholars who had thought only a fellow classicist could have written a book that gets all the details of this ancient world just right. Gay men were similarly convinced that hiding under the pseudonym of Mary Renault had to be a man. After all, only a man could write in such an intimate manner about love between men, so common in Ancient Greece. To their disappointment, Renault was neither a classicist nor a man.

Prior to writing “The Last of the Wine,” Renault had written six contemporary novels that were … ok. I had read them all, trying to find the seeds of the genius that would produce “The Last of the Wine” and was perplexed. They were ok and that was all. It appears that between the last page of her last contemporary novel and the beginning page of her first historical novel, she got possessed of the novel-writing genius. And the genius did not only help with “The Last of the Wine”, it kept whispering into her ear secrets that had made possible writing of eight more historical novels, including two trilogies, one following the life of Theseus, the other of Alexander the Great. And none of her historical novels had missed the mark. In each, not only does she bring political events and mores of Ancient Greeks to life, she thinks with their minds, betrays their prejudices, exalts their loves, and worships their gods.

Some have facetiously remarked Renault "channeled" Ancient Greece. Well, no matter which ancient daimon had sang into her ear, we should be grateful she brought the long dead world of Ancient Greece to searing, brilliant, life.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Gateway of Imagination

"Byron … describes what he sees—I describe what I imagine—Mine is the hardest task." So wrote John Keats in a letter to his brother George in September 1819. Keats, I think, is one of the most affecting and unusual poets in English, in part because he was able to depict the movements of the imagination, conscious and unconscious.

The best book I know on imagination is by Paul Harris (2000). It is focused on childhood. In it Harris points out that in pretend play children create whole imaginary worlds. They can for instance, create the world of a tea party in which pretend tea is poured from a toy teapot into toy cups. If an adult knocks over a cup and says, “I’m terribly sorry,” and makes a show of wiping up the pretend spillage, and then says “Can you fill it up again, please,” the child knows to bring the teapot to pour pretend tea into just that cup that was pretend-spilled, and not into any of the other cups, all of which—in the real world—are also empty. It used to be said that children find it difficult to distinguish fantasy and reality, but this is not so. Children at the pretend tea party know that nothing will get actually wet when pretend tea is spilled. They can create a whole self-consistent pretend world, which they know is different from the ordinary world, and they easily maintain the boundaries between the two.

One might think that this kind of imaginative play is mildly interesting but essentially frivolous. Not so. Imagination of the kind that starts in childhood is the gateway not just to literature, as Keats discerned, but to adult thinking. In her experiment-based book on how imagination is necessary for creating mental models (including models of how the world might be but is not), Ruth Byrne (2005) has said that rational thought has turned out to be: “more imaginative than cognitive scientists ... supposed,” and that “imaginative thought is more rational than scientists imagined” (xi).

One of the experimental studies about which Harris has very interesting thoughts is that of Aleksandr Luria (1976) who, in 1931 and 1932 travelled to Uzbekistan to examine the effects of literacy programs that had been instituted in the USSR at that time. In a post entitled "The actor problem" (for which please click here) I described one of Luria's studies. As compared with people who had not taken a literacy program, in this study Luria found that those who had taken one were enabled to move beyond their immediate experience, so that in addition to experienced-based thinking they could start to think in abstract ways. Harris explains that the educational programs were very elementary. It was not that people who took them became widely knowledgeable. The programs inducted them into the possibilities of imagining "what if?" They could do this because they had been able to play as children, and in that play to create imaginary worlds. When we take on reading-based education, we become able to use our child-derived imagination to guide our thoughts by something beyond the immediate, for instance by ideas or by words.

Raymond Mar and I (2008) have argued that abstraction is central to fiction: the literary notions of action, character, emotion are all abstractions. Imagination is not frivolous. It enables one to think. Fiction is one of its gateways.

Ruth Byrne (2005). The rational imagination: How people create alternatives to reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Paul Harris (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

Aleksandr Luria (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Raymond Mar & Keith Oatley (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 173-192.

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Thursday, 4 February 2010


“A book must be an ice-ax to break the frozen sea inside us.” said Kafka. It sounds painful – and it is painful. Yet we submit to pain, most happily, when it comes to art. We even anticipate it, this pain of blinders torn by design, of delicately woven untruths rudely ripped apart. We submit to the pain of coming out of the darkness into the unkindly bright sun, from ignorance or self-deception into truth. But let us not assume that any pain is welcome. Art-lovers are not masochists, after all, welcoming pain for its own sake.

This trust, given by the art-lover to the artist as easily as a child gives it to his mother, can be abused. And it is precisely this feeling of abuse and betrayal that I felt while watching A Serious Man. It is clear what its creators, Joel and Ethan Coen, had intended – a dark comedy that disturbs and enlightens, in style of Solondz’s ‘Happiness’. It has been touted as their best work ever. Yet despite wondrous performances by some of the supporting actors, the film didn’t manage to disturb and enlighten in right proportions. It disturbed too much and enlightened too little.

The disturbing parts of the film seemed gratuitous – graphically violent scenes punctuate the flow of the film without being meaningful counterpoints to the rest of the plot. It was as if the Coen brothers tickled us playfully underneath our chins, just before they slapped us viciously on the cheek. This is wrong kind of disturbing for a film that means to awake something truthful inside its viewers.

Most of us come to films both innocent and savvy. We bring our openness and trust, and know, too, that growing requires pains. Artists know they can do with our trust as they wish. They can hurt us, and hurt us needlessly. But just because they can, it doesn’t mean it should be done.

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Monday, 1 February 2010

Fiction and Human Rights

In a scathing article, Jerome Stolnitz (1991) argued that art has only short term effects. Greek drama is regarded as powerful but, says Stolnitz: “There is no evidence that Aristophanes shortened the Peloponnesian War by so much as a day” (p. 200). Stolnitz asserts that effects of art simply do not appear in history.

Except that—as Frank Hakemulder has pointed out to me—they do. They appear in the history of human rights. As historian Lynn Hunt (2007) has shown, the establishment of human rights has been strongly affected by literary art.

We now think of human rights as universal, but Hunt shows that 300 years ago even the idea of human rights was not present in European society. It had to be invented. By the end of the eighteenth century a change was accomplished. Hunt offers three landmarks, which she cites (pp. 215-229). In the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 we read: "all men are created equal … with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." In The French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, the first article is "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." Now, in our present age we have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written in 1948, in the shadow of the Nazi era. Its first article is: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

The full establishment of these principles in society world-wide is still some way off, but important steps have been taken. Slavery is no longer tolerable. Torture is no longer accepted as a legal procedure. Women and people of ethnic minorities, who previously lacked legal rights, are now established in many countries as having full rights of citizenship.

Hunt's finding is that invention of the idea of the equality of rights, declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which really is a human universal. "It depends," says Hunt, "on a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one's own" (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people's immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially. "Reading novels," she says, "created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative" (p. 39). Many novels contributed. One that Hunt discusses is Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) written by a man and inviting empathetic identification with a woman of a humble social class. Hunt quotes from Pamela:
… he kissed me two or three times, as if he would have eaten me.—At last I burst from him, and was getting out of the Summer-house; but he held me back, and shut the Door.

I would have given my Life for a Farthing. And he said, I'll do you no Harm, Pamela; don't be afraid of me. I said I won't stay! You won't, Hussy! Said he. Do you know who you speak to? I lost all Fear, and all Respect, and said Yes, I do Sir, too well!—Well may I forget that I am your Servant, when you forget what belongs to a Master.

I sobb'd and cry'd most sadly. What a foolish Hussy you are! said he: Have I done you any Harm?—Yes, Sir, said I, the greatest Harm in the World: You have taught me to forget myself, and what belongs to me (Richardson, p. 23).
Pamela and other novels of the middle of the eighteenth century were hugely successful and enthusiastically discussed by a rapidly growing reading public. Hunt cites Diderot as writing of Richardson's narrative: "In the space of a few hours I went through a great number of situations which the longest life can hardly offer across its entire duration" (pp. 55-56). Readers learned to enter into the emotions of ordinary people, says Hunt; and then she says: "Human rights grew out of the seedbed sowed by these feelings. Human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion" (p. 58).

Lynn Hunt (2007). Inventing human rights. New York: Norton.

Samuel Richardson (1740). Pamela. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2001).

Jerome Stolnitz (1991). On the historical triviality of art. British Journal of Aesthetics, 31, 195-202.
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