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Juneko J. Robinson
- Published on Amazon.com
Philosopher Jenefer Robinson argues quite convincingly that emotional engagement is necessary for any meaningful understanding of certain genres of art, music, literature, and poetry. According to Robinson, just as individuals who lack emotional understanding display serious social deficits, those who apprehend emotionally charged works from a purely intellectual stance misunderstand the deeper message behind artistic creations. Without that visceral emotional component, we cannot fully apprehend the subtleties of many creative works.
She does a fine job of methodically laying out her argument. Her argument is threefold. From the audience's perspective, Robinson argues that we are naturally inclined to pay attention to things in the environment that may impact our interests, desires, fears, etc. Emotions, then, are bodily responses to the environment, which are either threatening or conducive to these interests.
However, the mechanism is more cyclical than linear in nature. For Robinson, emotions are processes. Non-cognitive appraisals of the environment are caused by "simple perceptions" as well as by complex thoughts and beliefs which, in turn, trigger physiological responses and vice versa.
Moreover, studies indicate that this mental/physiological cycle of responses can occur regardless of the fact that we are cognitively aware that the situation is fictitious. Thus, we can respond emotionally to a work of art because we are capable of vividly imagining emotion in fictitious situations where our interests are at stake. The value of this kind of interaction comes when we reflect upon these experiences and are able learn about the complexities of emotional life that go beyond what our limited vocabulary is capable of articulating.
Secondly, emotion is equally important for the creator of the work. Although Robinson is careful to say that her theory does not apply to certain genres, she nonetheless defends a "new Romantic theory of artistic expression," whereby artists express emotion through their work by way of a persona that experiences the emotion/s depicted in the piece. Building on her theory of emotion, Robinson argues that works of representational works "are able to express an emotion by articulating the way the world appears to a person in that emotional state" (Robinson, 2005, 275).
But this oversimplifies Robinson's argument. She fully recognizes that in many works of art, there are "layers of personae" that allow emotions to be expressed through fiction by way of narrators, via the way that narrators depict the characters, and through the self-expression of the characters themselves, while others--particularly conceptual pieces--resist application of her theory.
Finally, Robinson explores how the very structure of the medium, particularly in literature and music, guides the audience to certain emotional responses to developments in plot and character. The fourth part of the book is devoted entirely to an analysis of the role of emotion in music appreciation and will likely have both lovers of Brahms, as well as new comers to his works, revisiting these pieces, book in hand.
Lovers of Henry James' The Ambassadors, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton's The Reef, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and Ian McEwan's Atonement, will enjoy seeing these works analyzed here and those not familiar with them will likely wish to read these works afterwards. Robinson provides especially vivid examples of literary works that lend credence to her argument. Although one wishes that there were more depictions of the visual arts, the one painting selected, a haunting landscape by Caspar David Friedrich, is an excellent choice.
My criticisms are few and relatively minor. While she is correct that many audience members may have felt angry at being manipulated into finding the shooting of a character "amusing," Robinson's brief assessment of Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction is a bit disappointing. Controversial and often cutting edge pieces, such as Pulp Fiction, frequently arouse ire and attention precisely because they express emotional incongruity in ways that challenge how we traditionally view and make sense out of such depictions. Robinson's quick disposal of the Tarantino example missed an excellent opportunity to discuss further the complexities of emotions that seem diametrically opposed, but that nonetheless exist simultaneously.
One also wishes that the attention paid to each of the arts was a bit more balanced in terms of length (e.g. painting is treated in five pages, sculpture and architecture are conflated into two pages, etc.) and, as such, these sections are less satisfying than the sections on literature and music.
These minor points notwithstanding, it is still a thought-provoking joy to read and would make excellent required reading in a classroom setting. Robinson deftly illustrates the historical landscape of aesthetic theory, and emotion theory from philosophical, psychological, behaviorist, and neuro-physiological perspectives, and the book is surprisingly ambitious in the sheer number of thinkers whose works are discussed over the course of the book. In addition, the book is well-organized with chapter conclusions that bring us back to the previous premises and conclusions and tie everything up to that point together. As a philosopher, free-lance artist, and former paraprofessional psychiatric social worker, I found Deeper Than Reason to be a well-balanced, careful analysis that is appealing on many levels. Robinson has written a fascinating study of the role of emotions in the arts that will be highly attractive to both serious students of philosophy, emotion theory and the arts, as well as educated lay persons. Her style is both economical and engaging and she has managed to articulate what many of us have already felt at an intuitive level; without emotional engagement, some works of art simply cannot be understood. As such, Deeper Than Reason is a welcome arrival on the landscape of the philosophy of art and emotion theory.
- Published on Amazon.com
This may be two books. The first half is a challenging critique of contending views of emotions versus Robinson's own based in psychological and neuro studies. She's persuasive. The second is application of her view to various Arts. Here she's superb in showing that without the appropriate emotional response to a specific piece of music or literature or painting you cannot understand it. These applications demonstrate the value of her theoretical work. The book is invaluable for anyone interested in theories of emotion, and more for their application to the Arts.
Disclosure: I have know Robinson for many years. She is a former president of the American Society of Aesthetics, and a major contributor to theory of emotion and aesthetics.