Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Affective Fallacy

The Affective Fallacy, a concept described by W.K. Wimsatt and M.C. Beardsley in an article by the same name, is the error of judging a work of art solely in terms of it’s emotional impact. Wimsatt and Beardsley acknowledge that poetry has an emotional impact on it’s readers, but they want to understand why a poem has an emotional impact and how this emotion is conveyed (or transcribed) to the reader. It’s easy to say, “I like it because it moves me, I can’t describe it, it’s just too beautiful for words!” because this is vague and doesn’t adequately explain any of the causes which contribute to the effect of the poem. Instead, readers should lean towards specificity, cognition, and objectivity when critically examining a text because this creates useful and reliable information about the text that other readers can refer to. According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, “poetry is both individual and universal—a concrete universal” (48).

My artistic contribution is a photograph of an inflatable alligator. I made this image last fall, but I’m sharing it now because I think it correlates to our topic. According to Wimsatt and Beardsley, there is no necessary connection between a word and an emotional response. For example, if a snake is placed on a table in a crowded room then every person will have a different reaction. It’s not the physical snake that causes a reaction, but an individual’s personal association with the snake. Similarly, people who look at this inflatable alligator might react differently: shock, confusion, humor, disgust; but in the end, it’s just an inflatable alligator, simple and unassuming.

Later, Wimsatt and Beardsley explain that an object can literally equate to an emotion: an alligator can kill and eat you, which makes it dangerous and frightening. An inflatable alligator suggests emotion by association because it is now “scary”, but it’s also funny because it’s not actually scary—it’s ironic. Likewise, poetry is a relationship between emotions and objects; the emotive quality of objects is presented to the reader through figurative language. How does a reader detach her subjective feelings from an object? Realistically, is it even possible for a reader to completely separate herself from a text?

1 comment:

  1. I might prefer art you made for the course, but I really do like your snake metaphor a lot! It works beautifully. And the end of this post is positively MIND-BLOWING when we think of how the symbolic and figurative world of language operates. How does the symbolic quality of language make objectivity an impossibility right from the start? Does the difference between a word and an object open up a subjective gap that is literally (ha ha) impossible to close?