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unequivocably know the relevant outcomes, was advanced by Gerrig. He wrote:
What I wish to suggest, in fact, is that anomalous suspense arises not
because of some special strategic activity but rather as a natural conse-
quence of the structure of cognitive processing. Specifically, I propose that
readers experience anomalous suspense because an expectation of unique-
ness is incorporated within the cognitive processes that guide the expecta-
tions of narratives. ¦ My suggestion is that anomalous suspense arises
because our experience of narratives incorporates the strong likelihood
that we never repeat a game. Note that this expectation of uniqueness
need not be conscious. My claim is that our moment-by-moment
processes evolve in response to the brute fact of nonrepetition.23
For Gerrig, we are possessed of a uniqueness heuristic, which evolved under the
pressure to secure fast, optimal strategies rather than massively time-consuming,
rational strategies of information processing; the fact that we can undergo the
experience of anomalous suspense is simply a surprising consequence or a kind of
peripheral fallout from one of the optimizing heuristics that we have evolved.
Gerrig sees this heuristic as an expectation of uniqueness that resides in the cog-
nitive architecture linking inputs to outputs.
In some ways, Gerrig™s resolution of the problem of anomalous or recidivist
suspense is more palatable than what the disavowal model promises. However, it
must be noted that Gerrig™s approach still does render recidivists irrational, even if
in the long run they are victims of a higher rationality (a.k.a. optimality).And this
seems to me to be a problem.
Recidivist readers, listeners, and viewers of suspense fictions very frequently
reencounter fictions with the express expectation of reexperiencing the thrill they
experienced on earlier encounters.They remember the thrill, and they remember
the story, too. Gerrig seems to argue that their cognitive processing of the story
the second or sixtieth time around is insulated from that knowledge.This seems to
me to be highly unlikely.
Think of a relatively simple version of the game show Concentration in which
there are so few squares that it is very easy to hold all the matching pairs and the
image fragments and the saying that solves the rebus in mind after the game is over.
270 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
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Run the game several more times. Quickly, I predict, it will become boring. But
how can it become boring if we have this uniqueness heuristic? On the other hand,
one can sit through several showings of a suspense film like The Terminator and never
become bored before one is thrown out of the theater. But if it is a uniqueness
heuristic that explains anomalous suspense, shouldn™t it also predict equal staying
power in the Concentration example? But that seems hardly compelling.
Suspense recidivists are perfectly normal, and not for the reason that they, like
everyone else with the same cognitive architecture, diverge from the canons of
strict rationality for the sake of optimality. Rather, it is because it is perfectly intel-
ligible that people respond to suspenseful situations in fictions with consternation,
because not only beliefs, but also thoughts can give rise to emotions. Indeed,
thoughts that are at variance with a person™s beliefs can give rise to emotions.
Thus, effectively asked to imagine “ that is, to entertain the thought “ that the
good is at risk by the author of a fiction, the reader appropriately and intelligibly
feels concern and suspense.
In this case, we focus our attention on the relevant, available information in
the story up to and for the duration of the interlude in which suspense dominates.
That we may not use our knowledge of earlier encounters with the fiction to
drive away our feelings of suspense here is no more irrational than the fact that
our knowledge of entertainment conventions or regularities, such as that the hero
almost always prevails, does not compromise our feelings of suspense on a first
encounter with a fiction, because our attention is riveted, within the scope of the
fiction operator, to the unfolding of the story on a moment-to-moment basis.
And so focused, our mind fills with the thought that the good is in peril, a
prospect always in principle rationally worthy of emotional exercise.24




A RT, NARRATIVE,
MORAL UNDERSTANDING
AND

With much art, we are naturally inclined to speak of it in moral terms. Especially
when considering things like novels, short stories, epic poems, plays, and movies,
we seem to fall effortlessly into talking about them in terms of ethical significance
“ in terms of whether or which characters are virtuous or vicious, and about
whether the work itself is moral or immoral, and perhaps whether it is sexist or
racist. Undoubtedly, poststructuralists will choke on my use of the phrase “natu-
rally inclined,” just because they do not believe that humans are naturally inclined
toward anything. But that general premise is as needlessly strong a presupposition

From: Aesthetics and Ethics, ed. by Jerrold Levinson (New York: Cambridge University Press,
1998), 126“60.
ART, NARRATIVE, MORAL UNDERSTANDING 271
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as it is patently false. And, furthermore, I hope to show that my talk of natural
inclinations is hardly misplaced here, for we are prone to respond to the types of
works in question in the language of moral assessment exactly because of the
kinds of things they are.
Moreover, we do not merely make moral assessments of artworks as a whole
and characters in particular; it is also the case that these moral assessments are vari-
able. That is, we find some artworks to be morally good, while some others are
not; some are exemplary, while some others are vicious and perhaps even perni-
cious; and finally other works may not appear to call for either moral approbation
or opprobrium. So, though we very frequently do advance moral assessments of
artworks, it is important to stress that we have a gamut of possible evaluative judg-
ments at our disposal: from the morally good to the bad to the ugly, to the morally
indifferent and the irrelevant. And it is this availability of different judgments that
I am referring to as the variability of our moral assessments of artworks.
Very frequently, then, we make variable moral assessments of artworks. I take
this comment to be no more than a pedestrian observation about our common
practices of talking about art or, at least, certain kinds of art. But even if the obser-
vation is pedestrian, it is, oddly enough, hard to square with some of our major
traditions in the philosophy of art. For the ideas (1) that we make moral assess-
ments of art and (2) that these moral assessments are variable each offend certain
well-known and deeply entrenched viewpoints in the philosophy of art, albeit in
different ways.
First, there is the position in the philosophy of art “ which may be called
autonomism “ that has exerted a great deal of influence on thinking about art since
the eighteenth century and that continues to muddy our intuitions about art even
today. Speaking very broadly, according to the autonomist, the artistic and the
moral realms are separate. Art has nothing to do with moral goodness, or with
badness, for that matter, and moral value neither contributes anything to nor sub-
tracts anything from the overall value of the artwork. From the perspective of the
autonomist, the fact, if it is a fact, that we spend so much time talking about
morality with regard to so many artworks appears to be virtually unintelligible “
perhaps it can be explained only by attributing deep and vast confusions to those
who indulge in such talk.
For the autonomist, an essential differentiating feature of art is that it is sep-
arate from morality; this is the autonomist™s underlying philosophical convic-
tion. Thus, from the autonomist™s point of view, that we make moral
assessments of certain artworks is a mystery that must signal either our lack of
taste or lack of understanding. For the autonomist, the problem is that we make
moral assessments of artworks at all, since, philosophically, the autonomist is
committed to the view that all artworks are separate from or exempted from
considerations of morality.
On the other hand “ to make matters more complex “ we are also the bene-
ficiaries of other philosophical traditions that, although they, contra autonomism,
find no special problem in our making moral assessments of art, nevertheless con-
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sider it mysterious that our moral assessments should be variable. For one of these
strands in the philosophy of art “ call it utopianism “ leads us to presume that, in
virtue of its very nature, art, properly so called, is always morally uplifting, while
yet another strand “ call it Platonism “ regards all art as morally suspect, once again
due to its essential features. Both tendencies are clearly philosophical in the strong
sense, inasmuch as their overall assessments of the morality of art are entailed by or
rest on conjectures about the essential nature of art. And, though the utopian and
Platonic traditions espouse opposite conclusions in this matter, they do at least
appear to agree in precluding the possibility of variable moral assessments of art-
works, since for the utopian all art is morally good, while for the Platonist all art is
morally bad.
Undoubtedly, the Platonic tradition is the oldest and best known of the two.1
This tradition situates art in ever-expanding circles of guilt. First, Plato himself
chides art for proposing characters who are bad moral role models. But then “
perhaps due to the recognition that there may be good moral role models in art “
Plato argues that the problem is with the way in which art “ mimetic art “ is
engaged and consumed. For that involves identification, and, for Plato, identifying
with others is immediately morally suspicious. Here, of course, Plato was not sim-
ply thinking of designated actors taking on roles; he also believed that ordinary
readers of dramas would become involved in a species of identification with oth-
ers as well, inasmuch as they spoke the lines of characters. That is, in Athenian
households, people would read plays aloud; thus, as they read the dialogue, Plato
worried that they would somehow “become” someone else (namely, the character
whose lines they recited).
This was putatively grounds for moral alarm, not only because the characters
in question might be ethically vicious and because it would threaten Plato™s ideal
of the social division of labor, but also because it would destabilize the personality.
Moreover, were one to challenge the generality of Plato™s condemnation of art on
the grounds that not all art is what Plato calls mimetic and, therefore, not mired in
identification, Plato would respond with another argument, claiming that all art is
by its nature aimed, in one way or another, at the emotions and, thereby, under-
mines the righteous reign of reason in the soul.
Nor is the Platonic spirit dead today. It thrives in our humanities departments,
where all artworks have become the subject of systematic interrogation either for
sins of commission “ often in terms of their embodiment of bad role models or
stereotypes “ or for sins of omission “ often in terms of people and viewpoints that
have been left out. Furthermore, if none of these strategies succeeds in nailing the
artwork, then it is always possible to excoriate it for “ as followers of Lacan and
Althusser like to say “ positioning subjects, that is, for encouraging audiences to
take themselves to be free, coherently unified subjects, a self-conception that is
always thought to be a piece of ideologically engineered misrecognition and that is
instilled by the formal structures of address of the mass communication media.2
(Ironically enough, whereas Plato thought that the problem with art was that it
destabilizes personalities, the contemporary Platonists of the Althusserian“Lacanian
ART, NARRATIVE, MORAL UNDERSTANDING 273
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dispensation complain that art in fact stabilizes subjects, though for nefarious ide-
ological purposes.)
Perhaps utopianism emerged as a response to Platonism. Once the Platonic
prejudice was in the air, it called forth a rival that was its exact opposite number (a
kind of situation that frequently occurs in philosophy).To the charge that all art is
morally suspect, the utopian responds that in certain very deep respects art is by
nature ultimately emancipatory. For Herbert Marcuse, for example, art is always
on the side of the angels, because due to the ontology of fiction and representa-
tion, core artmaking practices, artworks have the capacity to show that the world
can be otherwise, thus entailing the conviction that it is at least possible to change
it “ an obvious precondition for radical praxis.3
In all probability, Marcuse™s idea owes something to Schiller™s thought that
insofar as the aesthetic imagination is free from nature “ in fact, on Schiller™s
account, it gives form to nature through its free play “ the aesthetic imagination is
said to be a precondition for moral and political autonomy.4 But, be that as it may,
Marxists like Marcuse and Ernest Bloch nevertheless tend to think that art is
essentially liberatory by virtue of the ways in which artworks, ontologically, are
distinct from mere real things. In virtue of this contrast, art, so to say, is always on
the side of freedom, as far as they are concerned. Indeed, Sartre thought that prose
fiction writing was so indissolubly linked to freedom that he claimed it would be
impossible to imagine a good novel in favor of any form of enslavement.5
The autonomist position is also often taken to be a response to Platonism, and
there are perhaps even historical grounds for this conjecture. Inasmuch as the
autonomist argues that art is essentially independent of morality and politics, the
autonomist goes on to contend that aesthetic value is independent of the sort of
consequentialist considerations that Plato and his followers raise. Art on the
autonomist view is intrinsically valuable; it should not be subservient to ulterior
or external or extrinsic purposes, such as producing moral consequences or
inducing moral education. For the autonomist, anything devoted to such ulterior
purposes could not be art, properly so called.
Autonomists are also able to bolster their case with supporting arguments. For
example, they argue that moral assessment cannot be an appropriate measure of
artistic value, since not all artworks possess a moral dimension.We can call this the
common-denominator argument, because it presupposes that if any evaluative scale
can be brought to bear on art, then it must be applicable to all art. That is, any
measure of artistic merit must be perfectly general across the arts.
Moreover, the autonomist may challenge the specific notion that art is an
instrument of moral education. For if moral education delivers knowledge and
that knowledge can be distilled into propositional form, then art cannot be a
moral educator, on two counts: first, because much art has few propositions to
preach, thereby raising the common-denominator question again, while, second,
that art that has something to say that can be put in the form of maxims “ like the
punch lines to Aesopian fables or the entries in Captain Kirk™s log at the end of
Star Trek episodes “ usually delivers little more than threadbare truisms. That is,
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where artworks either blatantly and out-rightly express general moral precepts, or
are underwritten by them, those principles or precepts are typically so obvious
and thin that it strains credulity to think that we learn them from artworks.
Instead, very often, it seems more likely that a thoughtful preteenager will have
mastered them already.
Yes, there is an argument against murder in Crime and Punishment, but surely it
is implausible to think that it requires a novel as elaborate as Dostoyevsky™s to
teach it, and even if Dostoyevsky designed the novel as a teaching aid, did anyone
really learn that murder is wrong from it? Who, by the time he is able to read such
a novel with comprehension, needs to be taught such a truism? In fact, it is prob-
ably a precondition of actually comprehending Crime and Punishment that the
readers already grasp the moral precepts that motivate the narrative.
So it seems that art neither teaches nor, for that matter, does it discover any
moral truths on a par with scientific propositions. And if an artwork pretends to
such a role, such truths as it disseminates “ understood as propositions “ could
unquestionably be acquired just as readily by other means, such as sermons, philo-
sophical tracts, catechisms, parental advice, peer gossip, and so on. Art, in other
words, is an unlikely means of moral education, and even where art professes to
have some interesting moral maxims to impart, it is hardly a uniquely indispens-
able vehicle for conveying such messages.
Of course, the autonomist, utopian, and Platonic tendencies each face many
problems. For example, there are scarcely any grounds for Plato™s anxieties about
identification “ neither for the case of the actor, nor for the case of the reader or
the spectator. For as Diderot pointed out long ago with respect to the actor, no
one could become Oedipus and continue the performance.6 If I became as jeal-
ous as Othello, I would surely forget my lines and my blocking, as well as my
rehearsed gestures and grimaces.
Nor do audiences standardly identify cognitively or affectively with charac-
ters; not only do we know more than Oedipus does through much of the play, but
when Oedipus is crushed by feelings of guilt, we do not share these feelings.
Instead, we are overtaken by rather distinctively different feelings of pity for
Oedipus.We do not share Oedipus™s internal experience of self-recrimination, but
have concern for him from an external, observer™s point of view.
Moreover, Plato™s worries that art heightens the rivalry between reason and
the emotions are misplaced because there is no cause to conceive of the emotions
and reason as locked in ineliminable opposition. Reason “ that is, cognition “ is a
constituent of the emotions rather than an alien competitor.Thus, it is possible to
join Aristotle in regarding arts as such and theater in particular as ways of educat-
ing emotions such as pity and fear by means of clarifying them “ to put a Colling-
woodian spin on the notion of catharsis “ by providing spectators with, or, more
accurately, by presenting cognition with, exemplary or maximally fitting objects
for certain emotions such that our capacity to recognize the appropriate objects of

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