Because I have expressed reservations about the application of psychoanalysis to film studies in general (Carroll 1988) and to the horror film in particular (Carroll 1990), I have been invited to contribute a comment to this volume on the relevance of psychoanalysis to the horror film. The editor's intention to include dissenting voices in this anthology is as laudable as it is generous and frankly unexpected. But I don't know for whom this opportunity is scarier: me or the psychoanalysts. For I must enter the lair of the Other, while they must suffer the presence of a wolf in philosopher's clothing. I guess it all depends on who you think the monster really is.
Is psychoanalysis relevant to the analysis of the horror film? I think that the simple answer to this question is “Of course.” It is certainly relevant, even apposite, to the analysis of many horror films, because many horror films presuppose, implicitly or explicitly, psychoanalytic concepts and imagery. Forbidden Planet (1956), for example, is frankly Freudian. Its monster is called the Id, a phenomenon explained in explicitly psychoanalytic terms within the world of the fiction. Anyone interpreting Forbidden Planet is thereby licensed to explicate the film psychoanalytically for the same reason that an exegete of Eisenstein's The General Line (1929) would be correct in adverting to Marxist ideology. In both cases, the hermeneutical warrant is historicist.
Perhaps on your way to some academic conference, if you had no papers to grade, you stopped in the airport gift shop for something to read on the plane. You saw racks of novels authored by the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon, Stephen King, Sue Grafton, Elmore Leonard, Sara Paretsky, Tom Clancy, and so on. These are the kinds of novels that, when you lend them to friends, you don't care, unless you live in Bowling Green, Ohio, whether you ever get them back. They are mass, popular fictions. In another era, they would have been called pulp fictions. Following Thomas Roberts, I will call them junk fictions, under which rubric I will also include things like Harlequin romances; sci-fi, horror, and mystery magazines; comic books; and broadcast narratives on either the radio or TV, as well as commercial movies.
There are a number of interesting philosophical questions that we may ask about junk fiction. We could, for example, attempt to characterize its essential features. However, for the present, I will assume that the preceding examples are enough to provide you with a rough-and-ready notion of what I am calling junk fiction, and I will attempt to explore another feature of the phenomenon, namely, what I call the paradox of junk fiction.
The junk fictions that I have in mind are all narratives. Indeed, their story dimension is the most important thing about them. Stephen King, for instance, makes this point by saying that he is primarily a storyteller rather than a writer.
Regarded for decades as a fallacy, intentionalist interpretation is beginning to attract a following among philosophers of art. Broadly speaking, intentionalism is the doctrine that the actual intentions of artists are relevant to the interpretation of the artworks they create. For intentionalists, interpretation is a matter of explaining why artworks have the features, including meanings, that they possess. Since artworks possess these features as a result of the actions of artists, it seems natural to explain them, as we explain the results of actions in general, with an eye to the intentions of the pertinent agents, who are, in this case, artists.
Actual intentionalism holds to the conviction that interpretation with respect to artworks is on a continuum with interpretation of intentional action in daily life. Just as in ordinary affairs we interpret with the goal of identifying the actual intentions of the words and deeds of others, so with respect to art the actual intentions of artists are relevant to our interpretations of their productions.
Actual intentionalism, however, comes in different forms. The most extreme form maintains that the meaning of an artwork is fully determined by the actual intentions of the artist (or artists) who created it. It is this extreme form of actual intentionalism that one suspects has encouraged the view that actual intentionalism is a fallacy. For this view leads to the unpalatable conclusion that the meaning of an artwork is whatever the author intends it to mean, irrespective, if we are talking about literary texts, of the word-sequence meaning of the text (the meaning of the text derivable solely by consulting dictionaries, the rules of grammar, and the conventions of literature).
For the last two and a half decades – perhaps spurred onward by R. W. Hepburn's seminal, wonderfully sensitive and astute essay “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” – philosophical interest in the aesthetic appreciation of nature has been gaining momentum. One of the most coherent, powerfully argued, thorough, and philosophically compelling theories to emerge from this evolving arena of debate has been developed over a series of articles by Allen Carlson. The sophistication of Carlson's approach – especially in terms of his careful style of argumentation – has raised the level of philosophical discussion concerning the aesthetic appreciation of nature immensely and it has taught us all what is at stake, logically and epistemologically, in advancing a theory of nature appreciation. Carlson has not only presented a bold theory of the aesthetic appreciation of nature; he has also refined a methodological framework and a set of constraints that every researcher in the field must address.
Stated summarily, Carlson's view of the appreciation of nature is that it is a matter of scientific understanding; that is, the correct or appropriate form that the appreciation of nature – properly so called – should take is a species of natural history; appreciating nature is a matter of understanding nature under the suitable scientific categories. In appreciating an expanse of modern farm land, for example, we appreciate it by coming to understand the way in which the shaping of such a landscape is a function of the purposes of large-scale agriculture. Likewise, the appreciation of flora and fauna is said to require an understanding of evolutionary theory.
SETTING THE STAGE
If one surveys the canonical history of the philosophy of art in the English-speaking world – as it is enshrined in numerous textbooks and anthologies – it is difficult to resist the conjecture that it has been driven by the development of the avant-garde. This may appear to be a controversial hypothesis because it does not seem to square with the field's explicit understanding of itself. For on that understanding, the dominant view is that the philosophy of art has been concerned with successive attempts to characterize the nature of art from an ahistorical point of view. However, a close look at the way in which later philosophers have dialectically constructed their views against the backdrop of earlier, rival philosophies of art reveals an unmistakable trend – namely, later philosophers in the historical series are attempting to come to terms with certain recent mutations in the practice of art that were not accommodated by the proposals of earlier philosophers of art.
For example, as is well known, Clive Bell's dismissal of imitation theories of art and his defense of formalism were motivated by his perception of the conceptual failure of earlier approaches to art to accommodate neo-impressionism. R. G. Collingwood's philosophy of art attempts to create a space for the modernist poetics of Eliot, Joyce, Pound, and Stein; while the theories of George Dickie and Arthur Danto emerge in the process of taking Dada seriously.
In his recent book, Definitions of Art, Stephen Davies draws a distinction between functional and procedural definitions of art.
In “The Intentional Fallacy: Defending Beardsley,” George Dickie and Kent Wilson raise certain objections to my essay “Art, Intention, and Conversation.” In my essay, I attempted to defend the intentionalist interpretation of artworks. I offered a number of arguments against anti-intentionalism, a view that I take to hold that reference to artistic intentions and the biography of the artist are never relevant to the interpretation of the meaning of artworks. In a more positive vein, I also argued that interpretations of artworks should be constrained by our knowledge of the biography of the historical artist and our best hypotheses about the artist's actual intentions concerning the artworks in question. Thus, I maintain that authorial intentions and biographies are relevant to the interpretation of artworks.
A number of my arguments, both positive and negative, depend upon a rough analogy with ordinary conversations. I rely on the claim that in such conversations we typically aim at understanding the intentions of our interlocutors. I further argue that I see no principled reasons to suppose that things stand differently with our “conversations” with artworks. Dickie and Wilson challenge this supposition by arguing that I have misconstrued the nature of ordinary conversations. Specifically, in their terminology, they maintain that typically in conversations we are concerned with understanding the meaning of the speaker's utterance and not the speaker's intended meaning. On their view, we are only concerned with the speaker's intended meaning in extraordinary cases where some puzzle arises about the speaker's intended meaning. But, in the main, we are not involved in making conjectures about the speaker's intended meaning.
Recently, a new theory of the way in which narrative fictions engage the emotions and the moral understanding has come to the fore in Anglo-American philosophy. Advanced by Gregory Currie and others, it attempts to exploit a theory developed in the context of the philosophy of mind in order to characterize our emotional and moral encounters with fictions. This view may be called simulation theory. Stated roughly, simulation theory in the philosophy of mind is the hypothesis that we predict, understand, and interpret others by putting ourselves in their place, that is to say, by adopting their point of view. Philosophers of art like Currie suggest that the apparatus of simulation is also what we use when we read, view, or listen to narratives. The grain of truth in what is informally called “identification” is, ex hypothesi, the process of simulation. Currie writes: “What is so often called audience identification with a character is best described as mental simulation of the character's situation by the audience who are then better able to imagine the character's experience.”
By simulating the mental states of fictional characters, we come to experience what it would be like – that is, for example, what it would feel like – to be in situations such as those in which the characters find themselves. This is relevant to morality, inasmuch as we learn, by acquaintance, what it would feel like to undertake certain courses of action – what it would be like to murder someone, for instance.
This volume is a selection of my essays on the philosophy of art and aesthetics written between 1985 and 1999. The earliest essays in the volume coincide with the beginning of my career as a professional philosopher while working at Wesleyan University; the more recent articles, composed at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, seem as though they were written yesterday – undoubtedly a flaw of memory attributable to advancing age. When I look back at these essays, however diverse they may appear to the reader, they strike me as being united by several recurring threads.
The most pronounced thread is a reactive one: an opposition to aesthetic theories of art broadly and to its more distinctive variant, formalism, most particularly. Tutored in its discipline as an undergraduate, I have spent much of my career as a philosopher attempting to combat the limitations that aesthetic theories and formalism impose on the philosophy of art. It is from this reaction formation that the present volume derives its title – Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays. For, in a nutshell, the dominant recurring theme in this book is that we much reach beyond aesthetic theories of art and their various prohibitions.
That is, we must not identify the essence of art with the intended capacity of artworks to afford aesthetic experiences. Nor must we agree with aesthetic theorists of art and formalists that art history, authorial intentions, garden-variety emotions, and morality are alien to proper commerce with artworks. My campaign against aesthetic theories of art, in a manner of speaking, organizes the first four parts of this book.
The fiftieth anniversary of the American Society for Aesthetics comes at a time of ostensible turmoil in academia. Many fields of inquiry – so many, in fact, that it would be cumbersome to enumerate them – claim to be undergoing fundamental identity crises; old paradigms are declared outmoded on every side, and new approaches heralded. In such a context, contemplating the health of Anglo-American-style aesthetics is natural. Indeed, since our colleagues in adjacent fields – including literary theory, film studies, art history, and so on – seem convinced that if aesthetics is not dead, then it should be killed, we might spend some of this anniversary not only celebrating the past, but also worrying about the future.
The charges arrayed against Anglo-American aesthetics at present are legion. One could not hope to identify, let alone to address, them all in such a brief note. Thus, I will focus on just one issue in order to demonstrate that not only is Anglo- American aesthetics not always at loggerheads with contemporary art criticism, but that contemporary criticism may even profit from the insights of aesthetics.
Like the art of the past decade or so, contemporary criticism has become increasingly political in its orientation. One aspect of this is the familiar interpretation of artworks – often indiscriminately called “texts” – for their symptomatic political content, including especially: latent or repressed sexism, racism, classism, imperialism, and so forth.
Moreover, at the same time that contemporary critics have opted for this variety of the hermeneutics of suspicion, a movement reinstating the relevance of the artist's intentions for interpretation has begun to take hold among philosophers of art.
During the last decade or so, the subgenre of the horror-comedy has gained increasing prominence. Movies such as Beetlejuice, a triumph of this tendency, are predicated on either getting us to laugh where we might ordinarily scream, or to scream where we might typically laugh, or to alternate between laughing and screaming throughout the duration of the film. One aim of this genre it would appear, is to shift moods rapidly – to turn from horror to humor, or vice versa, on a dime. Gremlins (both versions), Ghostbusters (both versions), Arachnophobia, The Addams Family (both versions), possibly Death Becomes Her, and certainly Mars Attacks and Men in Black are highly visible, “blockbuster” examples of what I have in mind, but the fusion of horror and comedy also flourishes in the domain of low-budget production, in films like Dead/Alive as well as in the outré work of Frank Henenlotter, Stuart Gordon, and Sam Rami.
Nor is the taste for blending horror and humor restricted to film. The recently discontinued daily comic strip by Gary Larson, The Far Side, consistently recycled horror for laughs, as do the television programs Tales from the Crypt and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And even the usually dour, intentionally deadpan television series The X-Files makes room for comedy in episodes like “Humbug.”
Likewise, Tom Disch's recent novel The Businessman generates humor by sardonically inverting one of the fundamental conventions of the horror genre – representing a ghost who is stricken with disgust by the human she is supposed to haunt, rather than the other way around.
A salient feature of critical practice over the last three decades has been an almost exclusive emphasis on interpretation as the primary mode of the analysis of artworks. Roughly put, the output of such analyses is a message – a set of propositions that the artwork is said to imply or to entertain, or a conceptual schema (e.g., an interpretation may disclose that in the world of a fiction women are all sorted into the categories of madonnas versus whores). These messages, then, are often further evaluated in terms of whether they are progressive or reactionary politically. This approach to criticism, moreover, contrasts with alternative views, such as the notion that what a critic does is to point to features of an artwork in order to elicit a certain kind of experience from the audience.
For instance, the critic points to one part of a painting and then to another, foregrounding similarities, in order to enable the viewer to experience the unity of the painting; or the critic describes the dancer's movement in such a way that on subsequent evenings viewers are able to perceive its qualities of lightness or airiness. Whereas the output of interpretive criticism is a message, the output of what we might call demonstrative criticism is, ideally, the promotion of a certain kind of experience – what is generally called an aesthetic experience – in the audience.
The point of demonstrative criticism is to call attention to the variables that make aesthetic experiences possible. The idea is that by encouraging audiences to dwell on certain features of the work in a certain way, audiences will undergo the relevant experiences.
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