Guide to Week 5: Thursday
In the web page hyperlinked to today's reading in Wimsatt and Beardsley's "Affective Fallacy," I have abstracted key terms and theoretical principles that motivate this critical theory and its interpretive methods. After you have read the article, review the terms and principles, and make sure you understand them. The first portion of our discussion will be a review of the article, and then we will look at some broader issues like those below.
In "The Affective Fallacy," New Critics William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley specifically targeted the then common notion that readers' emotional experiences were not only relevant, but also supremely important as evidence of a literary work's significance and importance. Human emotions are notorious for their unpredictability, and for their role in starting quarrels. We think with minds which simultaneously produce emotional as well as rational responses, and the attempt to separate the former from the latter in pursuit of "clear thinking" dates back to Plato and the Roman Stoic philosophers. Your own experience doubtless has shown you countless instances in which you had powerful emotional responses to texts which left close friends unmoved or even hostile, or other texts which left you angry or baffled but were presented to you by your teachers as "masterpieces of literature." Clearly something lurks in literature's emotional effects that would be dangerous to any claim that literary analysis can be taught as a skill, or that literary studies have a predictably positive socio-intellectual value. What specific arguments do Wimsatt and Beardsley use to eject affect from consideration of literary significance? Can we agree that, at least for professional scholars of literature, affect is irrelevant to their methods of analysis? This does not mean that those critical methods cannot discuss how literature produces affect, but can we let affective response, itself, "having a strong feeling about a work," be "a critical method"?
As usual in English 215, you will have to hold on to your thoughts about what Wimsatt and Beardsley got right about emotion while considering some serious opposing evidence and argument. Researchers in fields as different as composition studies and brain physiology have found evidence that emotions are inextricably combined with our reasoning processes, and that our use of language to read and to write involves both emotion and reason. Alice Brand argued forcefully that "cognitive process" models of the composing process must not ignore what she called "the 'why' of cognition," anticipating later physiological research which would demonstrate that our motives for action are intimately connected with our emotions ("The Why of Cognition: Emotion and the Writing Process" (available via JSTOR, from CCC, 1987). Antonio Damasio reported that human subjects who had been rendered "affectless" (without emotion) by brain damage were unable to make wise moral and ethical decisions, and indulged in sociopathic behavior (Descartes' error : emotion, reason, and the human brain [NY: Bard/Avon, 1994, rev. 1998] 153.43 D155d 1998) . In a famous nineteenth-century case, Damasio recounts how a formerly sober, sensible, family man who lost a crucial portion of his brain in a construction accident turned into a dangerously unpredictable, drunken, profane and solitary man who was incapable of forming successful future plans. What does this suggest might be a consequence of rejecting all consideration of readers' "affect" or emotion in literary analysis? The difference between doing that and doing what Wimsatt and Beardsley attack in "Affective Fallacy" is the difference between analyzing poetic affect as objectively observable evidence and using poetic affect as a critical method.
Click here for some dates and events relevant to the emergence of New Criticism in American colleges and universities.
Click here for some interpretive problems raised by Wimsatt and Beardsley's arguments against considering readers' affect when interpreting literature. Later in the semester, we will return to the reader's experience as a source of data for literary analysis in Reader-Response criticism.
Brand, Alice. "The Why of Cognition." College Composition and Communication. 38:4 (December 1987) 436-43. (Available from JSTOR.)
Damasio, Antonio. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Brain. N.Y.: G.P. Putnam, 1994.