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Russell Smith: On Culture

A mouldy old phrase worth pondering Add to ...

I was taken to task for an error of reasoning in a previous column. The error has a delightfully archaic name, so it's worth admitting to.

It was the well-known Toronto documentary photographer Peter MacCallum who wrote to me to take issue. I was talking about possible new programs for e-readers, that might substitute for perusing bookshelves, and I said, "I know technology can do all this." MacCallum pointed out that this wasn't exactly what I meant: It's the technologists who can do it, not the technology. By ascribing human motivations to dumb machines, I am, said MacCallum, committing the "pathetic fallacy." And by accepting, as so many do, that technology has a will of its own, that we will all eventually submit to, I am lapsing into what he calls technological determinism.

Before we address the ideologies at work here, let's define that delightful archaism. Pathetic fallacy has come to mean a number of things. It was defined by the English art critic John Ruskin, in his 1856 book Modern Painters, as the ascribing of "human capabilities, sensations and emotions" in descriptions of inanimate natural objects. As in angry clouds or cruel winds. Pathetic comes from pathos, feeling, suffering or emotion; it refers here to being capable of feeling - it is not pejorative. So when Coleridge writes, "The one red leaf, the last of its clan/ That dances as often as dance it can," he is committing the pathetic fallacy, because the leaf is taking on human desires and feelings.

Ruskin says that when we are affected by violent emotion, we naturally tend to read that emotion into, or project it onto, the world around us. "All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'Pathetic Fallacy.' " Ruskin believed that it was only the "second order" of poets who rely heavily on such fanciful characterizations.

Ruskin was arguing largely with himself to try to justify his admiration of the later work of the painter J.M.W. Turner, which relied on highly subjective interpretations or impressions (and prefigured the impressions of the French painters of a few years later). The debate is so passé now it has become irrelevant (and Ruskin's ideas on how to evaluate poetry are not shared by any other critic); the phrase, however, has stuck around like the old prof who still teaches Latin. In school, you were probably taught to use the word personification to mean the same thing, or prosopopoeia if you had to learn those lists of Greek rhetorical devices.

You probably heard pathetic fallacy mostly to refer to the use, in fiction and other narratives, of symbolic weather. For example, if storm clouds gather over the castle just as the hero is approaching, the author is sometimes said to be engaging in the pathetic fallacy, although that doesn't quite fit Ruskin's definition. It's a similar idea - the weather is being used to underline a character's emotion or foreshadow disaster, and this is generally considered a weakness in narrative art, like adding heavy music - but a slide in meaning has occurred that makes the phrase even more confusing.

Kingsley Amis, in his amusingly opinionated writing guide The King's English, said of pathetic fallacy, "Anybody who happens not to know this phrase already, as it were, is ludicrously distant from being able to work out what it means, and the thing itself has now been all but silenced by ridicule."

Well, not in these pages it hasn't. What my detractor, Mr. MacCallum, is saying is part of a larger argument. I understand his point to be that we all tend to accept, unconsciously, the promotion of technology by Macintosh and Research in Motion as having a mind of its own. (We also say things like "information wants to be free"; that's classic pathetic fallacy in Ruskin's sense.) If I unconsciously refer to the marketers of computer programs as "technology," I am perhaps endorsing the prevailing religion that sees technological solutions for every human problem as necessary, inevitable and inexorably forward-moving. If I think "technology wants me to do this," I am ignoring the fact that actually it's the marketers of large electronics manufacturers who want me to do it.

I would add to this the interesting fact that the word technology itself has undergone a shift in meaning over the past 100 years: It once meant the study of the mechanical arts, not the machines themselves. My 1989 Oxford still defines it that way. The distinction still exists between methods and methodology (the study of methods), but it too is vanishing.

I suspect MacCallum's point is related to his own artistic practice: He takes gorgeous pictures, mostly of buildings and objects, with a grand old film camera, and develops his film painstakingly himself in a darkroom. This is how he gets such incredibly fine detail and such subtle and luminous variation of black, white and grey. His work is in itself an argument for older technologies, evidence that the newest is not always the best. Just as the rich rhetorical vocabulary of the 19th century - archaic and occasionally circumlocutory as it is - isn't ready to be thrown out with the record player and the eight-track and the book just yet.

 

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