Thursday, June 11, 2009

pathetic fallacy vs. anthropomorphism




Somewhere back in 2003, in my mutual interview with Marianne Shaneen, I addressed my predilection for the generally-taboo-in-modernism pathetic fallacy. I wrote:

A world undulating with so many objective correlatives that I can't tell anymore what is "inside" and what is "outside." Yes, this is a kind of pathetic fallacy. But so?


I go on to list a number of examples compiled from science textbooks by an anti-pathetic fallacy science teacher, and characterize the list as a kind of insta-“sought poem.”

Pathetic fallacies are taboo in modernism because they hearken back to primitive mind. If you identify too much with the world and with nature you cannot face it empirically. Pathetic fallacies are a kind of magical thinking (which I tend to oppose in principle, except that I like pathetic fallacies as literary devices, largely because they are taboo). The intellectual problem, I guess, is the way in which pathetic fallacies overlap with anthropomorphism, when animals and objects, instead of just being conceived of as, or fantasized as, emotive or thinking subjects, are attributed specifically with HUMAN emotions, thoughts, values.

I bring this up because last night Gary and I were watching a DVD of an episode of nature focusing on “ugly” animals, including starnose moles, naked mole rats (which, we were interested to learn, are neither moles nor rats), warthogs, monkeys and male sea lions with huge probosces, etc. I had rented it in a search for sensational imagery to use in collage movies.

I found the video disturbing: not for its images, which I really liked, but for the language that infected it. I guess that the audience for such shows is largely children, right? Well, nowhere in the video did the narrator bring up the notion that beauty and ugliness are not universal principles, and especially may not travel across species lines. Instead, the whole thing was rife with a shallow judgmentalism regarding the appearance to (some) humans of these various creatures, and was an exercise in using (inexact) synonyms for ugly: abhorrent, off-putting, disgusting, hideous, etc. Now, I don’t expect a nature show to present all the nuances of a philosophy of aesthetics, but all the same it’s hard for me to believe that the writers couldn’t at least give a NOD to acknowledging the ridiculous and biased anthropomorphism they were perpetuating. This was an opportunity to teach that instead was a shallow kind of anthro-supremacist inculcation: lousy pedagogy.

I’m still steamed up about that, but do intend to use some of the images in my next movie. The adjutant storks! The vultures! And those gorgeous proboscis monkeys! (OK, that’s a value judgment, too, but at least it’s a positive one.)

6 comments:

James said...

So much of modern "beauty" law is about machine-like proportionality. The eyes must be shaped the same, the cheeks rise the same. Remember the colored contact lenses? Fun? Or to make both eyes uniform? The ears are at the same heights. Nothing should stick out. Things should be seamless, if possible. Like a smooth toaster, or a sink flush to the countertop. Note the incision for breast enhancement is not seen. We must not see this. Any imperfections of the smooth must be done away with. Thinness of body is so one can see the frame of the body--the bones.

For me this all relates to an excellent book put out by Princeton Architectural Press called The Bathroom, the Kitchen, and the Aesthetics of Waste. Here's an abebooks link:

http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&tn=the+bathroom%2C+the+kitchen%2C+and+the+aesthetics&x=0&y=0

mark wallace said...

The visuals of that episode were especially great and the discussion especially poor. Nature almost always skirts thorny political questions, but it really falls apart when using metaphors or highlighting alternative social issues/concepts--anything involving language, actually. They go in more for expressing "concern" that I guess they believe will motivate the "ordinary middle class family viewer." Still, I grew up with Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Nature programming has come a long way, actually.

phaneronoemikon said...

This is one of the coolest posts
on any blog, ever! Very nice, like a collector's plate you covet in an old woman's house, something that looks like a metallic Tughra, and makes you think, where did she find a chromed plate from the Ottoman empire?

mark wallace said...

I wanted to add that yes, anthropomorphism can be a real problem. I read a student story last year in which the family dog, out with the family for a July 4th celebration, was characterized at fairly great length as a patriot.

stacey said...

As of course, one of the greatest and longest love stories of my life was with Sappho, my belated pug, my sense of beauty is certainly wonderfully warped. But after hearing 18 years of discourse on whether she was beautiful, ugly, sexy, off-putting, cute or horrible, I think animals are mirrors of our need to anthropomorphize and even infantilize anything living. Look at the success of ET, a gruesome character who would have been totally freaky if not for those huge baby eyes everyone could relate to.

Stan Apps said...

E.T. kind of looked like a walking poop. . . people relate to that right? Or at least kids do.