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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tears and Laughter

Posted by Bill Benzon on 09/07/06 at 11:46 AM

A few weeks ago Laura Carroll posted a book meme to The Valve. It consisted of nine prompts asking for books in response. I’m interested in three and four:

3. One book that made you laugh
4. One book that made you cry

Laura had no trouble supplying responses to these prompts - and she’d austerely restricted herself to Austenalia - nor did anyone else. These seemed like perfectly reasonable requests to make.

But how much do we, in our collective professional capacity as literary scholars and critics, know about laughter and crying as responses to literature, or about other emotional responses? As far as I can tell, not much. We know that these things happen, we may even believe them to be important, surely we know that literary response is emotional as well as conceptual - we all know about catharsis, right? But when it comes to more specific consideration, we know little to nothing. Nor, as far as I can tell, is it on the professional agenda - though for all I know, there may be some interest in reader-response land.

The situation is a bit different in the study of music. In 1956* Leonard Meyer published Emotion and Meaning in Music, which has since become a touchstone text. To be sure, Meyer does not discuss crying or laughing or anger and so forth. Rather, he’s interested in how music sets up expectations and then plays with them. That, in his view, is how music creates meaning and emotion. It’s not tears and laughter, but at least Meyers put emotion on the conceptual agenda for musicologists and music psychologists, where it has remained.

For example, in May 2000 the New York Academy of Sciences sponsored a conference on the Biological Foundations of Music. While emotion doesn’t loom large in the published proceedings (Vol. 930 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences), it is there more. More importantly, it was very much there in the program. On the last day of the conference there was a panel discussion on emotion in music. Nine people were crowded behind the table - presenters who hadn’t originally been listed for the panel wanted in on the action. No two people presented the same type of material, but all seemed to agree that, in the words of Harvard’s Mark Tramo, that understanding music and emotion was the “Holy Grail” of their discipline.

There is more going on there than earnest aspiration. Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (Juslin and Sloboda, Oxford 2001), a recent anthology, has a wide variety of studies. Manfred Clynes has conducted a remarkable, though insufficiently appreciated, line of research for several decades. The bibliography for this course at Ohio State is worth looking at, as are the Course Notes. And then there is work like Crafts, Cavicchi, and Keil, My Music (Wesleyan 1993), which reports interviews with forty people in which they talk about the role of music in their lives, some of them talk about their emotional responses.

So, musicologists and music psychologists are on the case, but literary critics are not. We could inquire as to just why that difference exists - it’s something I’ve thought about - but I want to skip over that. Nor do I much want to worry about whether or not we should be more explicit in our thinking about emotion in literature. Let us assume that we should be. How would we go about it?

That’s what I’d like to discuss. Ideally, in comments to this post. But if that doesn’t happen, then I’ll make another post in which I offer some suggestions.

Before any of that, however, I want to raise one more issue. It is common enough for literary critics to assert that the act of criticism is, in some non-trivial way, continuous with the act of reading the work, that it is simply another mode of engagement with the text. While I tend to think of this as a rhetorical gesture - and have said as much elsewhere (here, in the section “Paradise Lost," and here) - it may not be merely a rhetorical gesture. Just as one may have an emotional response to a literary text, one may also have an emotional response to a critical essay, and that certainly includes an essay one writes oneself.

Do (some) critics write in order to evoke, through their writing, an emotional response similar to that they had to the text about which they are writing?

I don’t know. That’s certainly not why I write about literature. I write to scratch an intellectual itch.

But I have, from time to time, been prompted to an emotional response - tears more often than laughter - by an essay I have been writing. Thus I can imagine that some critics might think of such experiences as ground for asserting continuity with the literary text itself. I’m not sure it’s adequate ground, but I can understand why someone would want to walk on it. I also think an intellectual discipline devoted to literature needs something more, much more, than that to support its inquiries.

*Thus a year before The Anatomy of Criticism and Syntactic Structures.


Comments

It is possible that this question comes up more often for eighteenth-century scholars than for some other periods of interest. At least, for me, one of the reasons that I got interested in the eighteenth-century novel is its explicit appeal to emotions, both tears and laughter, as a fundamental part of its moral rhetoric.

Every time I’ve been in, observed, or taught a class discussing eighteenth-century fiction, there is a sharp split between those who were personally, deeply moved or entertained by the text and those who weren’t, and the former group is almost always more empowered to interpret, understand, and analyze the text than the latter. It’s not that we analyze in order to move others, emotionally. We analyze to figure out how and why a text moves us emotionally.

When I write criticism about other periods, I do it because the texts inspire me intellectually. I don’t necessarily have to laugh or cry to “get” where the author is going and respond to it. There is a special something, though, about eighteenth-century fiction, and even non-fiction prose, that requires those tears and laughter in order to do work on them. I can’t even number all the times I’ve been at talks on the period when the speaker has interrupted him- or herself to add something like, “I should note that these texts have also given me an almost embarrassing amount of pleasure to read.”

By Carrie Shanafelt on 09/07/06 at 12:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In response to Carrie: among the experiences that shaped my decision to become a teacher of literature, an important one came during my junior year of college, when my favorite professor tried to read for the class a passage from Tristram Shandy but kept collapsing with laughter and then resting his head on the podium, trying to regain his composure.

But I don’t see that 18th-century fiction differs from Victorian fiction in this respect.

I find myself thinking much more about the pedagogical function of tears and laughter, the work (or, better the play) they do in the classroom, than about their role in reading or writing criticism. In those contexts my laughter tends to be bitter and my weeping a function of frustration.

By on 09/07/06 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’d love to see you tie this post to your deeply informed interest in cognitive science.  Right now, the question of artistic affect is becoming very popular in literary studies, especially among queer theorists (probably because an emotional response to literature became marked as ‘queer’ in a masculine, quasi-scientistic New Critical atmosphere).  Sianne Ngai’s *Ugly Feelings* has picked up a lot of attention—even if the book is ultimately flawed.  Ngai focuses on the representation—and transmission—of “ugly feelings,” like those of Bartleby the Scrivener. 

Carrie’s point that this is deeply important in 18th century studies is, as far as I can tell, right on.  There too we find a renewed interest in Adam Smith’s *Theory of Moral Sentiments* and Smith’s idea that the creation of certain feelings is at the heart of any political or national project.  Martha Nussbaum, I believe, has written about this turn to affect as well.  Affect has emerged as a powerful way of tying the distinctly literary qualities of a text to wider social and historical trends.

Finally, I’m glad Bill raised the issue of the critic’s relationship to affect.  I entered grad school with a belief I cribbed from Charles Olson.  In Olson’s “Projective Verse,” he writes that the critic’s job is to transmit the affect of the poem to the reader—to perform in a new language what the poem itself performs.  Olson breaks down the critic/poet line, insofar as the poet too transfers the energy of experience to the reader.  (Olson was interested in cybernetics and feedback loops, in systems that transfer information and energy and affect from source to receiver and back again.)

Some of the Valve folks will remember that I picked a lot of fights when I first showed up on these shores over the issue of the critic-as-artist.  I’m still torn between the desire to write criticism like Pater’s *The Renaissance* and the desire to write more academic, knowledge-producing work.  This comes down to the central issue of Benn Michaels’ *The Shape of the Signifier* (the cause of so many Valve fights!): the difference between experience and knowledge.  In my (nearly-complete?) dissertation, I’ve tried at times to balance these two drives.  In writing about Toni Morrison’s *Paradise* especially, I tried to work dialectically between the affect of the novel and its discursive ideas, between Morrison’s perverse images and style and the often softened version of them we read in her critics (such as Cornel West’s idea of Morrison’s “love ethic,” so ably demolished by Kenneth Warren). 

In fact, I’d be willing to argue that one of the constituitive aspects of contemporary American fiction is its internalized schizoid relationship to sentiment and perversity, to happy PC or American Creed style ideas and to sick, ugly, grostesque forms and styles.  In creative writing classes this is often called “earning one’s sentiment”—that is, you drag your character into the gutter so that the final, ambiguous image of the stars is that much stronger.  But it goes the other way: the earned sentiment is totally degraded by the degradation of the character. 

It is this ambiguity that attracts me, and affect is at the heart of it.  It’s one of my problems with so much New Historical criticism that translates a work of art into a simple, digestible statement or “discourse.” It’s why, for example, *Our America* strikes me as missing the point at times.  (As one friend recently said to me, all modernism, from the most nativist American to the most cosmopolitan examples, is distinguishable from the literature of previous periods precisely because modernism is always torn between nativism and cosmopolitanism, and to reduce modernism to one of these two poles is to be a tone-deaf reader.) New Historicism often produces brilliant work, and *Our America* has made me re-think my boy-crush on so much modernist literature.  But affect proves difficult to summarize in terms of discourses (although we can analyze the discourses *about* affect in a given period, of course).

By on 09/07/06 at 03:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lots to discuss, but I don’t have the time just now, so a two quick hits in response to LB.

Bill, I’d love to see you tie this post to your deeply informed interest in cognitive science. 

For some idea of how I go about doing that look at the Affective Technology section of my essay on “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison" and Walking the Lizard in my essay on “Kubla Khan."

I’m still torn between the desire to write criticism like Pater’s *The Renaissance* and the desire to write more academic, knowledge-producing work.

I think this is a critical issue for the discipline. It’s not a matter of going one way or the other, but of making (institutional) room for both modes. To do that we must first of all be aware of the need to do so.

More later.

By Bill Benzon on 09/07/06 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laughing and crying are quite different responses, aren’t they?  Usually elicited by quite different kinds of works?  To squash them both into a category called ‘affect’ makes me uncomfortable.  I know that we’re just throwing ideas around, but still.  I work mainly on comedy, and I think its satisfactions are different in kind from those offered by the literature of sensibility or from melodrama, not just in degree.  Wit, and to an extent humour, are cerebral, mechanical, not emotional.  Being amused and being moved are qualitatively different experiences, aren’t they? 

The meme equated them in the standard Hollywood manner - ‘You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! - I wouldn’t read too much into whoever formulated the meme having chosen just those terms.  They’re a signifier for the gamut of shades and degrees of absorption in fiction. 

That said, there is a lot of valuable work on film and emotion - the stuff I like is mostly done by people with philosophical bents, for instance George Toles, Raymond Durgnat, Noel Carroll, Stanley Cavell.

And that also said, I didn’t really think of my meme-answering as an activity so definitively outside my professional interests and capacities as a literary scholar and critic as you’ve implied.  I rather reject the idea that we have a professional reading self and a distinctly different nonprofessional one, actually.

By on 09/07/06 at 09:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Laughing and crying are quite different responses, aren’t they? Sometimes, yes, but not always. Haven’t you ever laughed and cried at the same time, in response to a single sight or event? That has hapened to me often, at certain weddings, for instance, and at the birth of my son. And I can think of several literary scenes which have done this to me. So, in my experience, no, laughter and crying are not necessarily “elicited by quite different kinds of works.”

By on 09/08/06 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Carrie Shanafelt:

Every time I’ve been in, observed, or taught a class discussing eighteenth-century fiction, there is a sharp split between those who were personally, deeply moved or entertained by the text and those who weren’t...

Does the class divide pretty much the same way for all the texts, or are the divisions different from one text to another? In either case it would be useful to know just why that division happens. Is it just a pile of arbitrary personal differences or are there systematic differences at work?

We analyze to figure out how and why a text moves us emotionally.

In what terms? One might say, for example, “this passage moved me to tears, and here’s why...” Or is it simply a matter of using one’s affective response to guide you to certain passages, but you don’t actually explicitly mention that response?

One reason I ask is that I’m curious about whether different people respond strongly to the same passages in whatever fashion is appropriate to a given passage. I’d expect that that is often the case because that’s just how these things are constructed. For example, a few months ago I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. There was one passage in the book that moved me almost to tears and it was near the end of the book. I didn’t mark it or make note of it at the time, so I don’t know exactly where it is, but I’ve just made a quick run through the end of the book and I’d guess the passage was within five pages of p. 271 of a 288 page book. That’s when “things” finally “come together.” I’d guess that anyone who is moved to tears (or close to it) by this book, will be moved at that point. That kind of response is not an ideosyncratic personal response to the book. It’s what the book is “designed” to do. I can imagine some people will also be moved to tears at other points, though, off hand, I can’t hazard a guess as to what those points would be. But if they’re moved at all, that’s where it will happen.

On the one hand, this seems utterly banal to me. Narratives have climaxes, we all know that, don’t we? That’s the climax of this narrative, so that’s where we get the maximum affective response. Why make a big deal of it?

But, that banal truism nestles among uncertainties. Not all people respond the same way and we don’t really know how such responses are generated. Once you start looking into the psychological and neuropsychological literature, you find that laughing and crying are not much understood, nor even investigated. So, those folks have some work to do on that score. But so do we, if only to prod them to get with it.

Laura Carroll:

Laughing and crying are quite different responses, aren’t they?  Usually elicited by quite different kinds of works?  To squash them both into a category called ‘affect’ makes me uncomfortable. 

On the first question, Yes. On the second, it depends, no? Shakespeare can manage both in the same play. But a single category, ‘affect,’ it is just a catch-all. One of the themes in the emotion literature is “the fundamental emotions.” It’s a small list that varies a bit from thinker to thinker, but one version has love, awe, grief, joy, hate, anger, and sex. Just what this is about is not clear to me. But where in that list would we find tears and laughter, grief and joy perhaps?

Wit, and to an extent humour, are cerebral, mechanical, not emotional.  Being amused and being moved are qualitatively different experiences, aren’t they?

Hmmm . . . Yes. But they are experiences, not conclusions or ideas or meanings.

The meme equated them in the standard Hollywood manner - ‘You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! - I wouldn’t read too much into whoever formulated the meme having chosen just those terms.

I’d read a trope that goes back to whomever decided to characterize theater by the happy mask and the sad mask. Why those two for the trope?

By Bill Benzon on 09/08/06 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Laughter and crying aren’t affect, though, right?  They are physical symptoms or indicators of emotions, and as Bill points out, they don’t have a one-to-one relationship with particular emotions. 

I remember reading so popular science article about physical expressions of emotion that suggested that one could produce the emotion by mimicking the physical sign of it.  That is to say, that people who train themselves to maintain a smile actually tend to feel the happiness they are expressing.  I don’t know if that’s wholly true.

In any case, the emotions of which laughter and crying are symptoms are what we classify under the term affect.  And I don’t think comedy is more mechanical than, say, melodrama.  Bergson described humor as a response to the perceived mechanistic determination of the human body.  But what makes us feel the hilarity or joy or whatever it is we laugh at is not itself mechanical, any more than the devices used by long distance providers’ commercials to make us all feel like horrible people who don’t phone our loved ones enough.

In other news: how would describe that amazing mixture of total discomfort and sick pleasure I get from watching *The Office* (esp. the UK version, but more often than also also the US version)?  In terms of affect, it may be the most interesting thing on TV.

By on 09/08/06 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther Blissett:

I entered grad school with a belief I cribbed from Charles Olson.  In Olson’s “Projective Verse,” he writes that the critic’s job is to transmit the affect of the poem to the reader—to perform in a new language what the poem itself performs.  Olson breaks down the critic/poet line, insofar as the poet too transfers the energy of experience to the reader.

I’ve not read Olson so I’ve pretty much got to go with your words. This seems doubtful to me. But if that’s what you want to do, you need writing skills which are quite different from those most critics have. But what’s the point of transmitting “the affect of the poem to the reader . . . in new language”? Why not let the reader get the affect from the poem itself? And, if you’ve got the writing skills, why tether them to someone else’s poems? Why not write your own?

Let me play with an old trope, literature as secular religion. You can adopt a religion or you can study it as an outsider. The critic who adopts this secular religion is playing the role of a priest while the critic who studies this secular religion without adopting it is playing the role of a social scientist. It seems to me both roles are necessary and useful, but their requirements are quite different.

Whatever it is that literary texts embody, being encultured entails internalizing that stuff. The critic-as-priest is helping people to embody the right stuff. Advocacy is part of the role as is exegisis. It is by no means obvious to me that the critic-as-priest needs to maintain that his writing is somehow continuous with that of the original text, though that is an obvious stance to adopt. You certainly don’t need that stance in order to write prose that is witty or moving or aggravating or soothing, all in service to the texts.

The critic-as-social scientist is not trying to enculture anyone. Rather, he’s trying to understand the enculturation process. You cannot possibly understand this process if you don’t investigate affect aroused in readers through texts. Just how one does this, that’s a different matter.

By Bill Benzon on 09/08/06 at 02:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One useful foray into these waters in an analogous discipline is James Elkins’s “Painting and Tears.” If anything, art history has been more resistant to the study of affect, and Elkins argues that this has crippled its ability fully to understand the works it studies.

By on 09/09/06 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I guess the mask-thing just claims comedy and tragedy are the modes of drama.  Not that people cry at tragedies.

By on 09/09/06 at 07:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d read a trope that goes back to whomever decided to characterize theater by the happy mask and the sad mask. Why those two for the trope?

It would be interesting to know where that particular representation came from. Its distant origin, of course is the practice in ancient Athens of actors actually wearing masks, but I don’t know that we have any substantive information about what those masks looked like.

It’s also interesting to note that Athenian tragedy, being so closely connected to and so immediately descended from the ecstatic worship of Dionysos, allowed far less control over emotional response than modern playgoers (or for that matter readers) are used to. The great classicist Bernard Knox says that during the first performance of Aeschylus’s Oresteia the appearance of the Furies on stage at the beginning of the third play provoked the audience to screams of terror and caused pregnant women in the audience to go into labor.

By on 09/09/06 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill Benzon:

Does the class divide pretty much the same way for all the texts, or are the divisions different from one text to another? In either case it would be useful to know just why that division happens. Is it just a pile of arbitrary personal differences or are there systematic differences at work?

These are good questions. I would say that some readers simply have a more carefully exercised sensitivity to “sentiment” (in a pre-Romantic sense) than others, and to some sentiments more than others. My first experiences in the period led me to fall deeply in love with Tom Jones, but not Clarissa, for which I did not yet have the fineness of affective discernment. Mostly, though, I would say that the greatest divide is between those readers who look to understand without feeling along, and those who do both simultaneously.

I don’t believe it’s completely arbitrary or just a matter of “taste” or personal experience. Even some of readers who have the greatest intellectual capacity for understanding may fail to, as Johnson put it, “dive into the recesses of the human heart.” Johnson’s ethics of reading, anyhow, seem to be based on this ideal union between mind and feeling.

By Carrie Shanafelt on 09/10/06 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just a quick question--is this site for members only (I am a recent renewal)? I sent a post a day ago and it’s not up. Just wondering.--cheers, J.A

By on 09/12/06 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No, it’s not members only. But if you haven’t signed up and logged in your post has to wait approval by whomever. Perhaps your post just fell through the cracks.

By Bill Benzon on 09/12/06 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I happened across the following today in Plato’s <cite>Philebus</cite> (around Steph. 48a):

Soc. And you remember how pleasures mingle with pains in lamentation and bereavement?

Pro. Yes, there is a natural connexion between them.

Soc. And you remember also how at the sight of tragedies the spectators smile through their tears?

Pro. Certainly I do.

Soc. And are you aware that even at a comedy the soul experiences a mixed feeling of pain and pleasure?

This passage follows on Socrates’s having reduced practically all emotions (he names anger, lamentation, love, jealousy, and malice, elsewhere he includes irritation and itching) to mixtures of pain and pleasure; here he uses laughter and tears as stand-ins for pain and pleasure. There seems to be a tradition of using laughter and tears for the whole spectrum of emotion. Democritus’ laughter and Heraclitus’ tears appear to account for the whole world of moods. (For what that’s worth.)

By Patrick Findler on 09/23/06 at 12:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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