Noel Carroll The Philosophy of Objects

The foremost figure in the philosophy of filmic emotions is Noel Carroll. He has applied insights from cognitive philosophy to a broad range of film topics, including point of view, the power of movies, music, suspense, humor, and horror (the topic he has examined most closely). Although Carroll clearly is proceeding in a "piecemeal" fashion that eschews grand overarching theories explaining everything about film,1 he returns again and again to central questions of how films evoke emotions across broad audiences.

Much of this effort has been centered on Hollywood genres. Because genres such as suspense and horror are defined in terms of the emotional appeals they make, Carroll has concentrated on how these genres are constructed. In The Philosophy of Horror,2 his largest work on genre, Carroll says that narrative horror forms depend on the presence of the monster in the diege-sis. The monster blurs the distinctions between social categories: between human and insect in The Fly, between living and dead in zombie films. The monster evokes a mixture of fear and disgust at its unknowable and incredible concept-blurring formal properties. Our desire to know the unknown and the unbelievable makes us willing to endure the disgust the monster evokes. The Philosophy of Horror not only provides a definition of a film genre but also discusses the nature of this genre's emotional appeal.

Carroll and I agree that "prototypical emotions" have objects. That is, they are directed toward something in the external world. Carroll's approach and my own differ in what we make of the prototypical concept of emotional objects. The mood-cue approach says that non-object-oriented emotional states exist and that they are nonprototypical emotional states. For Carroll, however, a state that is not directed toward an object is not only nonprototypical but also is not an emotion, and this distinction is crucial. By definition Carroll says that such "sheer bodily states" cannot be emotions; they must necessarily involve a cognition of some object: "You can't be angry, unless there is someone or something that serves as the object of your anger."3 Carroll tends to think of nonprototypical emotional states as localized phenomena with little long-term ramification on our emotion system. For instance, he admits that "[u]ndeniably, there are some occasions where a loud noise, say a firecracker, makes us frightened and where upon reflection we say 'I guess that really frightened me.' But this is not paradigmatic of garden variety emotional states."4Although acknowledging the contributions of such factors, he also minimizes them in relation to more prototypical emotion states.

Whether one considers non-object-oriented states to be "sheer bodily states" and therefore not "emotion proper" or whether one considers them to be "nonprototypical emotion states" is a matter of definition. Definitions cannot be proved or disproved, but they can be compared in terms of rightness of fit. I believe that it makes more sense to include non-object-oriented emotional states in the category "emotion" because both non-object-oriented and object-oriented data are processed by the amygdala, the emotion center of the brain. This encourages me to consider them both to be emotional states and not entirely separate phenomena.

The distinction between Carroll's and my definitions comes from the faith we have in different kinds of evidence. Instead of empirical experiments, a philosopher like Carroll is prone to use "thought experiments." For example, in one of his discussions Carroll engages in a bit of what he calls "science fiction," imagining a drug that can simulate the physiological effects of an emotional state. What might the experience of this drug be like, Carroll ponders, given that someone who took it would have no object for an emotion and no cognitions related to emotion? For the philosopher, this "experiment" is a mental exercise that can lead the reader to thinking more clearly about the nature of emotions. I base my definition on continuities discovered through psychological and neurological research. Carroll relies on the philosophical tradition of the thought experiment to test his definitional distinctions.5

Choosing one definition over another has consequences for conceptualizing emotions. Bracketing off non-object-oriented states as being not "emotions proper" allows Carroll to reduce his attentions primarily to what he considers to be the most important component: cognition. If emotions differ from each other primarily through their cognitive components, then a critic wishing to explain distinctions among emotions can deal primarily with cognitions about the emotional object. If emotions by definition require an object, then one can concentrate on that object and how it is perceived.

Horror, then, is a matter of determining that an object is "monstrous," that is, it violates our conceptual categories. This experience triggers certain physical responses, certainly, but the key to understanding horror is to understand our cognitions about the emotion-causing object: the monster. "Sheer bodily states" are an important part of emotional experience, but they are not causally significant. According to Carroll, "[e]motions require cognitions as causes and bodily states as effects."6 Such a belief further orients the philosopher Carroll toward our cognitions of the diegetic object that cues emotion.

This necessarily leads Carroll to an emphasis on the diegesis, particularly on dramatic characters and their characteristics. He defines horror not in terms of the text's narrational strategies but according to the characteristics of a diegetic entity: the monster. Nonmonstrous characters are also crucial to horror. They model how we should respond to the monster, encouraging us also to be terrified and disgusted. Similarly, he defines suspense in terms of characters and our allegiances with them. Suspense depends on the probability of a negative action happening to a character we favor. Without this assumption of allegiances with characters, his concept of suspense loses its primary explanatory value. Suspense and horror depend on our formal appraisals of and emotional alliances with diegetic characters.

Carroll carefully distances his theory from the concept of identification. According to him, we do not necessarily have to "identify" with the protagonist in any strong sense to experience emotion at the cinema. Just because we and the protagonist are screaming at the same monster does not mean that we are identifying with the protagonist. We can both evaluate the villain as "monstrous" and experience parallel emotions. Although Carroll does not embrace the notion of identification,7 his system still remains quite character centered, depending on our alliances with protagonists and on the protagonists' reactions to guide our own responses.

Because Carroll emphasizes emotional objects, he does not pay enough attention to the contributions of non-object-oriented cues. Thus, he tends to reduce the key factors in horror or suspense to character actions, goals, motivations, and characteristics. Although Carroll acknowledges that such subtler non-object-oriented cuing is possible, his basic definition of what constitutes an emotion proper leads him away from such matters.8 What counts most, according to Carroll, is evaluating the emotional object using formal criteria.

However, it is not consistently clear where these "formal criteria" reside. Are these criteria, for Carroll, located within viewers, or are they criteria for critics to use to classify films? At times Carroll refers to the criteria that viewers use to make sense out of the film and to experience emotion in response to the film. Horror viewers respond with fear and disgust because they recognize the monster's category violations. At other times, however, Carroll's use of formal criteria slides into genre criticism, in which he uses these criteria to define a genre corpus. The monstrous becomes the defining characteristic of art-horror, and so Carroll the genre critic can construct a body of films that fit that criterion. He compares films to that standard and determines if they fall within the category he has just defined. Therefore, The Blob's indeterminate monster makes it a horror film, but Psychos psychologically determined villain is not a monster, excluding Psycho from the horror film.

The fact that Carroll can excise what many people consider to be a pivotal horror film recognizes that Carroll's formal criteria act primarily as genre constructs, not descriptions of viewer processes. The two are not unrelated, of course,9 but the critic's process of creating an internally consistent genre corpus and the viewer's process of labeling emotion cues are very different. Carroll desires to create a category with clear rules for including and excluding films from the horror genre, a perfectly appropriate activity for a genre critic. Viewers proceed using fuzzier logic. Based on the cues they perceive, viewers make a rough fit between the film they are watching and their own formal criteria for a horror film. Many viewers classify Psycho as a horror film because it matches much of their prototype for what a horror film is. They do not make the same careful logical comparison to the monstrous that Carroll does.

Carroll acknowledges that there are many features that lead viewers to classify Psycho as a horror film. He mentions the imagery of the dark house and the skeleton, the shock tactics (particularly sudden movements and Bernard Herrmann's score), and the narrative buildup to a final appearance of the creature. For Carroll, however, the primary question about Psycho is whether Norman Bates is a monster. Carroll argues that Bates cannot be a monster because Bates has schizophrenia, a personality aberration that is accepted within the categorizing scheme ofmodern scientific psychology. The concept of a person with schizophrenia does not destabilize our categories in the way that a vampire's combination of dead and undead does. Carroll's horror classification does not on the viewer's process of identifying horror characteristics in the narration, soundtrack, and visual style of the film, but these are just the factors that would be crucial to the mood-cue approach to reading Psycho (along with Bates's characteristics). An important advantage of the mood-cue approach over Carroll's is that it can provide explanations of filmic emotion without relying solely on character-oriented cues.

As genre criticism, Carroll's work on horror is admirable (one has to admire the chutzpah of anyone who argues that Psycho is not a horror film). As a description of the overall shape of viewer processes, it has much to commend it. Viewers do make "formal" comparisons based on their generic prototypes. However, the messier process of comparing films to prototypes has little to do with the careful logical consideration that Carroll demonstrates.

The cognitive philosophy of filmic emotions can be the source of striking insights. (For example, Carroll's work gives a sharp picture of what the prototype for "horror" or "suspense" might look like.) However, I believe that the nonempirical nature of the philosopher's investigations makes it difficult for the philosophy of emotions to consider the possibility of non-prototypical emotions. If investigators are limited to thought experiments about emotion, they tend to explore commonly held understandings (prototypes) of emotion rather than actual emotional data. This is not to say that philosophical methodologies cannot produce original reconceptions. Instead, I argue that the primary value of the philosophy of the emotions (and it is a considerable one) to the mood-cue approach is to articulate further the prototypes ofemotion.

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  • Niall
    How does Noel Carroll define "horror"?
    8 years ago

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