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Journal of Narrative Theory 34.3 (2004) 335-372

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A Philosophy of Emoting

This study examines the experience of stirring up emotion in reaction to fiction. Contemporary theoreticians call this experience narrative emotion, while philosophers traditionally use the expression aesthetic emotion.1 Unlike most of the existing literature on the topic, my research takes a phenomenological approach to studying narrative/aesthetic emotion. The purpose of my investigation is to target the essence of narrative emotion, to list its components so as to develop a functional understanding of what philosophers refer to as 'aesthetic emotion'. This may lead us to a better understanding of the cultural and psychological need for fiction.

In the field of philosophy, the interest in aesthetic emotion arose very recently. It is only with the advent of modern aesthetics that emotion could be valued as a proper object of study. In the first part of this analysis I expose how the empiricists' influence in the seventeenth century has lead to a viable study of aesthetics. Still, studying aesthetics and studying aesthetic emotions are two different things. Philosophy has a strong tradition of rational approaches, which does not leave much room for emotion. It is only since the 1970s that contemporary philosophers have started to address aesthetic emotion. And, since the late 1980s, philosophers who have had interest in aesthetic emotion actually focused obtusely on logic. In fact, currently the little written on the topic of aesthetic emotion relates to a logical conundrum, the paradox that fictional stimuli produce "real" [End Page 335] emotions. Contemporary philosophers keep approaching emotion with logic and this very stance leads to the paradox.

In the second part, I flash-back in philosophical time to the 1970s, in order to debate Kendall Walton's notion of 'quasi-emotion' and dispute his arguments in regard to the necessity for motor reaction. This detour will be useful for two reasons: because Walton's theory has the intrinsic merit of probing the specificity of narrative emotion and, more especially, because Walton addresses one major specific trait: the non-voluntary reaction

In the third part, I target a few more specific traits of narrative emotion. I observe that the chief characteristic of narrative emotion pertains to the fact that it is an emotion felt for the sake of someone, or something, else: a virtual other. Narrative emotion is an emotion by proxy. Another trait of narrative emotion is that it leads to a voluntary passivity. I explain this voluntary passivity with the concepts of pathivity and symbolic embodiment.

In the field of philosophy, the literature on emotion per se is actually more interesting than its counterpart on aesthetic emotion. Consequently, most of the contemporary theory that becomes influential in my analysis is derived from that of the general concept of emotion. I will refer to the work of Ronald de Sousa, whose book The Rationality of Emotion strives to reconcile rational thought with emotion in a way that is not obtusively logical. I will also refer to a few more philosophers—Heidegger, Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Ronell—for their contributions to phenomenology, Lingis on embodiment and Ricoeur on identity.

My research considers fiction in a very broad perspective. It embraces any representational art that uses mimesis to narrate a story. In this manner, I use the term virtual world interchangeably with fiction, perhaps because this expression evokes new means of conveying fiction-like virtual reality.

My approach consciously rejects fiction as a material object. I am not interested in the format itself. From this perspective, fiction can be conveyed in the form of books, plays, screenplays, films, operas, interactive media, art installations, etc. It is a construction of an author or authors that takes form through the workings of the spectator's imagination.

My analysis concentrates on fiction as a practice. I am solely concerned with the virtual world as a cognitive and affective phenomenon. [End Page 336] Taken in its functional sense and seen as a performance, fiction consists in the practice of viewing a drama, a film, a puppet show, an opera, reading a book or interacting...


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