The Paradox of Suspense VII – Further Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In response to these two criticisms Carroll highlights a difference between our everyday moral assessment and fictional morality. Carroll starts by explaining that we often alter our notions of right and wrong in regard to the imagined or presented fictional world. Carroll illustrates this point by arguing:

For example, caper films represent persons involved in perpetrating crimes that we do not customarily consider to be upstanding ethically. However, the characters in such fictions are standardly possessed of certain striking virtues such that… we are encouraged to ally ourselves morally with the caper.[1]

To Carroll, we alter our notions of moral and immoral to match the central protagonists’ world-view. We do this because the central protagonists are shown to be virtuous. The virtues Carroll has in mind are ‘strength, fortitude, ingenuity, bravery, competence, beauty, generosity, and so on’.[2] In certain cases then, in which the central protagonist’s commit immoral acts, it is their overriding virtues in contrast to the fiction’s antagonists that make us ‘cast our moral allegiance with them’.[3] To illustrate this point Carroll highlights Zulu (Dir., Cy Endfield, 1964) as a prime example of a film in which ‘we are drawn into the film’s system of moral evaluation by its portrayal – or lack thereof – of characters with respect to virtues’.[4] According to Carroll, we align ourselves towards the British soldiers because, even if we are staunchly anti-imperialist, they are shown to be courageous, brave and ingenious[5]. In regard to Goodfellas, Carroll would argue that though Henry Hill is a criminal he displays more virtues, or less vice, than the other characters which motivates us to support his actions. Carroll would also argue, in relation to the particular scene I brought attention to, that within the fictional world and in regard to Henry’s character hitting the neighbour is the moral action (with hitting the wife and neighbour being the logically opposed outcome). Carroll would also use a similar explanation for The Godfather. That is, within the context of the film, and the context of the film’s moral context, Michael assassinating the two rival gangsters is the moral option. However, though Carroll’s replies appear to answer the first two criticisms there are significant problems with his response. The first is that Henry does not display any virtuous characteristics. Henry steals, lies, murders in cold blood and for little reason, he abuses his wife emotionally, cheats on her, is jealous, self-centred, deals and takes drugs, back stabs his friends and betrays those who help him and the Mafia honour code he swears to live by and is, for the want of a better phrase, a viscous scum-bag. We do not side morally with Henry because he shows some virtues that other character’s do not, we feel suspense and care about Henry because we witness and become seduced by his glamorous lifestyle and uninhibited attitude[6]. In regard to The Godfather, even if we accept that within the film’s moral context killing the two gangsters is a permissible course of action; this does not mean that not killing the two gangsters is also seen as immoral. That is, if killing is morally acceptable in the context of the film and calling for a truce is also morally acceptable (though may be disappointing) then there is still a problem for Carroll in that there isn’t two logically opposed possible outcomes[7].  The problem with Carroll’s characterisation is that suspense derives from two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) is that it seems more than possible to experience suspense without there being just two possible logically opposed moral outcomes. There is also a further issue with Carroll’s position in that it also seems possible to experience suspense in response to fictions that do not feature any moral dimension. A striking example of this can be found in L’Avventura. In the scene where Sandro thinks he has seen Anna again we experience some suspense. However, nothing about this scene has a moral dimension. That is, this scene is not suspenseful because it is morally correct that Sandro find Anna. We do not even know if Anna wants to be found. Our suspense in this scene is also nothing to do with Sandro’s virtuous nature as he is not shown to be likeable and after a few days he starts a sexual relationship with Anna’s best friend Claudia (and up until this scene Claudia and Sandro have all but forgotten about Anna and their “search” for her). Another example of a film that creates suspense without a moral dimension could be one that depicts a divorce in a realistic and objective manner. The film follows both sides in the preceding court case showing that the mother and father both have legitimate grievances and claims for the sole custody of the children. As the final verdict draws close we experience suspense regarding which outcome will materialise. In the case of this hypothetical film it would not be immoral for the mother to win; neither would it be immoral if the father won. Our feelings of suspense in response to this film would not be based on there being two possible logically opposed moral possibilities but rather on subjective personal opinion and past experience.[8] That is, our desire that the mother or father win would be based on if we could identity with them, understand their position or like them. Therefore, Carroll’s argument that suspense is created by a conflict between two logically opposed moral outcomes is flawed because it is possible to experience suspense in response to non-moral situations and instances where there is no conflict between two moral outcomes.

Central to Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is the ability of “mere thoughts” to motivate emotional responses. However, there seems to be many instances where merely entertaining in thought a proposition does not cause us to respond emotionally. A common instance of this, at least to philosophy students and tutors, is the philosophical thought experiment. Many philosophical thought experiments often include horrific, bizarre and disturbing premises that, if we believed them, we would react in distinct ways. Thankfully however, we do not respond to thought experiments as if we believe them because we are able, in Carroll’s terms, entertain them nonassertedly (that is, without having to hold that x is true). Shaun Nichols highlights one particular thought experiment as a paradigm example of a thought experiment that would be disturbing if we responded emotionally to: ‘Imagine that you’re red-green colour blind and that all sentient life in the universe except for you is destroyed. In that case, does the colour red still exist?’.[9] This thought experiment asks us to entertain the possibility that all sentient life in the universe is destroyed bar us. However, when imagining this possibility within the framework of the thought experiment we don’t respond to it how we would if we believed all sentient life in the universe was destroyed nor do we respond to it with any emotional response. There appears then to be mere thoughts have the power to motivate us to respond emotionally and those that do not. This is an issue for Carroll insofar as it appears that there is more to explain behind the ability of thoughts to motivate emotional responses – especially if Carroll wants to avoid falling back on beliefs to explain the difference. I do however, believe that there is a possible explanation and solution and that is to introduce desire as the difference between instances where thoughts do provoke an emotional response and instances where thoughts do not provoke an emotional response. That is, in the case of entertaining the thought that my footing is loose on a high building I have an active desire (because I’m on an observation deck on a tall building) not to see that outcome realised. If I was in an office building behind a desk and imagined that my footing or the floor wasn’t secure it is unlikely that I would experience any pang of vertigo. This is because I do not have an active desire to avoid falling as I am in a secure building. Likewise, in the case of the thought experiment I do not have an active desire to avoid see the whole universe being destroyed. In regard to fiction then, we are drawn (through several techniques) into desiring that McClain survive and thrive in Die Hard with the consequence that when we are confronted with a scene in which we entertain the thought that he may be in mortal danger we respond emotionally. Therefore, whether a fiction is successful in engendering an emotional response is contingent on us experiencing a corresponding desire and, as Nichols explains, whether we have the right desire to respond emotionally depends on ‘the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on’.[10] To conclude then it is not enough just to entertain the thought that McClain is in danger, we must also have the relevant desire to see him come to no harm.

A second and more significant criticism of Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense concerns his accounts inability to convincingly explain “diminishing returns”. As I noted in section 1.2 diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction) to fiction.  According to Carroll when we watch Die Hard for the third or fourth time and entertain the possibility that John McClain will be discovered eaves-dropping on the terrorists and killed we will still experience suspense. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain that an outcome is uncertain then it seems strange that our suspense diminishes at all. Carroll cannot reply that it is due to the audience not entertaining the possibility because they still experience some suspense in response to Die Hard’s narrative. This is a serious issue for Carroll because diminishing returns is a common feature of our interaction with narrative fiction and his account’s failure to provide a possible explanation provides us with good reason to be sceptical about his account.

A further criticism of Carroll’s account also concerns his solution to the paradox of suspense. Carroll account holds that all that is required to engender suspense is entertained uncertainty. However, if we accept this then it raises the question why any viewers fail to feel suspense on repeated viewings. That is, Carroll’s account struggles to explain “absent suspense”. In many repeat viewings of action genre films we may still be gripped by a sense of thrill and excitement. On our seventh or eighth viewing of Commando (Dir., Mark L Lester, 1985) we still enjoy the scene in which the protagonist John Matrix dangles the antagonist Sully off a cliff while interrogating him about the location of his kidnapped daughter. One particular element of this scene we routinely enjoy concerns when Sully reminds John that John had promised to kill him last to which John relies “I lied” before dropping him to his death. We enjoy this scene repeatedly because we can, in Carroll’s terminology, entertain nonassertedly that Sully is an evil man embroiled in a plot to install an evil dictator in a peaceful South American country and that he deserves (in the fiction’s moral system) his gruesome death served with a pun. However, we do not experience suspense in response to any scene in Commando on repeat viewings. Though we still entertain that John’s daughter is in mortal danger and unlikely to survive any rescue attempt we do not experience suspense in response to this film. Carroll’s reply to this would obviously be that we have just failed to entertain that the outcome is uncertain and this is why we do not experience any suspense. However, this reply appears disingenuous in that it seems odd that we have successfully entertained every other element essential to re-experience the joy, thrill, excitement of viewing Commando but failed to entertain that the outcome of the narrative is uncertain (which would seemingly diminish our enjoyment?). Though this criticism is far from conclusive in defeating Carroll’s account of suspense it gives us further reason to be dissatisfied about its ability to explain even the most common features of our engagement with narrative fiction.

Another related issue for Carroll’s account concerns its inability to explain why we do not experience suspense in repeat viewings of sports matches. On an original viewing of a Manchester United-City derby match both sets of supports will experience immense suspense in response to pressured, tense situations such as the last ten minutes or a penalty kick. However, on subsequent viewings of this match supports will not experience suspense. The supporters will experience the same joy, delight or sorrow at a refused penalty, missed goal or booking but they will not, however hard they try, re-experience suspense. This inability to re-experience suspense appears to be a natural feature of sports spectatorship. However, if all that is required to experience suspense is to entertain the possibility that we are uncertain how a corner, penalty turns out then we should be able to experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events like football matches. The problem cannot be that we do not have the sufficient desire that our favourite team not concede or score a goal. There is obviously an answer to why we do not experience suspense in response to repeated live sports events however; Carroll’s account appears unqualified in offering us a clear and comprehensive answer.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘Paradox of Suspense’, p. 79.

[2] Ibid, p. 79.

[3]Ibid, p. 79.

[4]Ibid,  p. 79.

[5]  This characterisation appears to be unfair in regard to the representation of the AnZulu warriors. Though they are not given much of a role in the film’s narrative other than as antagonists they are shown to be resourceful, brave and fierce warriors. If they were not shown to have these warrior virtues their song at the end of the film would have little meaning. That is, if they weren’t shown to have every virtue required of a great warrior nation or people (including honour and respect) then their singing tribute towards the Welsh regiment wouldn’t be such a touching and striking symbol of respect. It could also be argued that the Welsh regiment – essentially a lazy, incompetent, argumentative rabble with a few good men chucked in – are shown to have many more vices than the AnZulu warriors.

[6]Our seduction towards accepting (at least provincially) the Goodfellas’ lifestyle and attitude is mirrored simultaneously in the film through the scenes featuring Henry’s wife.

[7] On moral grounds at least. The difference between the two options appears to be that one is desired (the killings) and the other undesired (the truce).

[8] Another example may be a film a young aspiring West Indian cricketer. In this film we are given a glimpse of a likeable character who dreams of playing one day for the West Indies. The film features young lad, from a rough background, shows significant determination and as reward is given a chance of impressing in a T20 game for his home side the Leeward Islands. In a dramatic scene, with the national selectors watching, he is given the task of bowling the last over with only seven runs to spare. Though there is no moral dimension to this scene – he is a likeable lad but he doesn’t deserve to succeed any more than the other players in contention for a spot in the team – we would still feel suspense in response to every ball, every moment, not because it is morally right that he succeed, but because we want him to succeed and there is a significant possibility that he won’t. That is, there is no conflict between a moral or immoral outcome, but rather a conflict between desired and undesired outcomes.

[9] Shaun Nichols, ‘Just the Imagination’, Mind & Language, Vol. 21, No. 4, September 2006, pp. 459–474,  p. 465.

[10] Ibid, p. 472.

The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

The Paradox of Suspense III – The Problem Cont.

As well as providing a convincing reply to the paradox of suspense, any account of suspense must be able to coherently explain several other common features of our common experience of suspense. The first feature is called “diminishing returns”. Diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction to fiction). On repeat viewings or readings of narrative fiction we often experience less vivid emotional responses. On our first viewing of the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (Dir., Nora Ephron, 1993) we may experience a strong emotional reaction to the plight of  Annie Reed and her attempt to meet (and start a relationship with) the widower Sam Baldwin. However, on future viewings the emotional experience we feel may suffer from diminishing returns. That is, we experience a less vivid or powerful emotion response to the narrative of Sleepless in Seattle. Though we may still pull for Annie and Sam to finally get together, the emotional impact of the film is diminished and may diminish even further on future viewings. In regard to suspense this also appears to happen. On our first viewing of Patriot Games (Dir., Phillip Noyce, 1992) we may be gripped on the edge of our seats but on subsequent viewings we may still feel some suspense but not so intensely. Any adequate account must therefore also be able to satisfactorily explain diminishing returns of suspense.

            The final two features any satisfactory account of suspense must explain are “absent suspense” and “second-instance suspense”. Absent suspense is the simple phenomenon where we experience no suspense at all. In the haste to solve the paradox of suspense an account must not preclude the possibility that we may just fail to experience suspense even though most of the conditions of suspense are met. That is, on our second viewing of Patriot Games we may just fail to feel suspense. Second-instance suspense is the irregular cases in which we feel suspense on second viewings (or viewings after our first) but not on the first instance or encounter of suspense. On our first instance of viewing a film like L’Avventura we may feel lost, confused and perplexed. As the film differs so radically from conventional narrative fiction this reaction is normal. On our second viewing of the film we may however experience some suspense – especially in response to the scene in which Sandro believes he has just seen the missing Anna in a crowded room. Therefore, another feature any good account of suspense must explain is our ability to experience suspense on secondary viewings when we haven’t on our first.

In the next post I will explore Noel Carroll’s account of suspense.

The Paradox of Suspense II – The Problem

From out and out thrillers such as The Fugitive (Dir., Andrew Davis, 1993) and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to European art-house films like L’Avventura (Dir., Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), suspense is an integral element in our experience of fiction. Suspense is so important in certain genres (thrillers) that the financial and artistic success or failure of a film or novel depends entirely on creating constant and repeated instances of suspense as well as suspense on repeated viewings (motivating repeat sales of cinema tickets and DVDs). Not only do people re-read or re-experience suspense fiction routinely, they do so with the understanding that they will experience the same, or similar, grip of suspense. Carroll claims that he feels suspense even on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong (Dir., Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).[1] However, this regular and common repeat consumption of suspense fiction (and fiction that creates suspense) sits at odds with common-sense and psychological notions of suspense. As Peter Vorderer notes, a large majority of theorists support the hypothesis that uncertainty regarding a scene or events outcome is essential to suspense.[2]But if suspense requires uncertaint,y why is it that Carroll testifies to still feel suspense on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong?. Obviously there will be frequent forgetting and misremembering of scenes to naturally explain a decent quantity of repeat suspense. Just how exactly John McClain, in Die Hard (Dir., John McTiernan, 1988), escapes from some terrorists after accidentally alerting them by bumping his head on a table is not something we will pay much attention to remembering. Carroll agrees noting that ‘our propensity to be recaptivated by an already encountered suspense fiction may be explained by the fact that we have forgotten how it ends. This happens often’.[3]  However, though it is conceivable that many instances of repeated suspense may be due, at least in part, to fallible memory, it cannot explain a large amount of repeated suspense. That is, it would be surprising if after the seventy-fifth viewing of King Kong there is any scene that Carroll would experience uncertainty over. So, beyond Carroll’s obsession with giant gorillas, there does seem to be frequent cases of repeated suspense not being caused by forgetting. The problem for accounts of suspense then is that familiarity with a fiction seems to preclude uncertainty yet, we still seem able to experience suspense. This issue is called the paradox of suspense. The paradox of suspense can stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for the traditional account of suspense requiring uncertainty.  To escape the paradox of suspense, an account of suspense must reject one of the three elements. Carroll and Smuts both deny that (1) suspense requires uncertainty. I offer an alternative solution by denying that (2) knowledge of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty (Richard J. Gerrig also produces this type of account). Another solution is to deny that (3) we can feel suspense on repeated viewings (Robert J. Yanal).


[1]Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 71.

[2] Peter Vorderer, ‘Toward a Psychological Theory of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 233-254, p. 234.

[3]Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, p. 73.

The Paradox of Suspense I – Introduction

In this new series of research papers I will attempt to produce a philosophically and psychologically plausible account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will start by explaining what the paradox of suspense is and several features any plausible solution must account for. I will then consider Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will note that he holds that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is therefore that rather than actual uncertainty all we required to experience suspense was entertained uncertainty. I will then argue that Carroll fails to adequately explain several features of our common experience of suspense and that his account should therefore be rejected. I will then put forward my account of suspense. I will argue that suspense is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I will then put forward my solution to the paradox of suspense. I will argue that we are able to prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. The consequence being that when we reencounter suspense narratives we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out. I will argue that this ability allows us re-experience suspense. I will then consider some possible criticisms of my account in section but I will conclude that my account can explain the relevant features of our experience of suspense. I will conclude that my account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense is both psychologically and philosophically plausible and should be adopted.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VII – Variablism

4.1 Variablism

 

In the previous section I highlighted a criticism of Moralism which centred on the claim of Immoralists that sometimes a moral blemish may contribute positively to an artwork’s value as art. I explored the cognitive argument for Immoralism. This argument holds that immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs and worlds, often radically different to ours, produces a more vivid aesthetic experience. I concluded that the Immoralist’s argument appears to give us good reason to accept that moral blemishes can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art (and therefore reject Moralism). However, rather than adopt the Immoralist account completely I will argue for a Variablist account. In the context of the ethical criticism of art Variablism is the position that moral value can vary in its influence on an artwork’s value qua art. Variablism holds that in some instances an artwork’s moral blemish is also an aesthetic blemish. The Variablism account also holds that sometimes a moral virtue can positively influence an artwork’s value qua art. However, like the Immoralist, Variablism holds an artwork’s moral blemish may positively contribute to an artwork’s value as art. What distinguishes my account (Variablism) from Immoralism is that I also assert that sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. In this section I will provide another argument for accepting the possibility of a moral flaw improving an artwork’s value as an artwork. I will then illustrate that sometimes a moral virtue can cause an aesthetic defect in an artwork. I will therefore conclude that a Variablist account should be accepted.

            As well as the cognitive argument for Immoralism another reason to accept that moral blemishes may positively influence an artwork’s value is the “increased entertainment” argument. This argument holds that many morally dubious artworks are so successful because they dispense of moral norms and allow us to revel in immoral actions. Speeding down a motorway at twice the limit would undoubtedly be exciting but it would also be highly dangerous and potentially harmful. Although imagining it, or playing a computer game, will not have the same thrill there is something attractive about these activities because they allow us to simulate activities (such as speeding down a motorway) we wouldn’t do in the real world. Narrative fictions allow us, in our imagination, to live lives that we would not really want to live (but wouldn’t mind role-playing occasionally). In the same way that couples role-play to “spice up” their love life, we read fictions and watch films that let us imagine and engage with other worlds and moral possibilities. Many Hollywood films are successful and engaging because of, rather than despite, their immoral characters and actions. These films can let us experience, in limited fashion, a world without constricting morals, red tape and many consequences of action. One such film is Ocean’s Eleven (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001) which features a group of thieves, confidence tricksters and criminals who con a group of casinos out of $150 million. The film’s charismatic crew draws us into revelling in their immoral actions and the film is much more exciting because we pull for the protagonist’s to get away with robbery. The aesthetic experience provided by this film is enhanced by its immoral characters.

            In section 2.3 I explored Carroll’s argument that a moral defect is an aesthetic defect if that moral blemish causes an artwork to fail to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. I agreed with Carroll that it seems possible that moral defects that inhibit an audience’s ability to engage emotionally and morally with an artwork are also aesthetic defects. Something that Carroll, and Immoralists, do not consider is that a moral virtue may function in a similar way. That is, sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. These artworks may also inhibit our ability to engage with the artwork. One instance of this could be George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1.). The fussy, moral correctness of the novel’s narrator, who colours the whole novel with their opinions, clouds the readers’ ability to engage fully with the characters. Rather than allowing the characters personality and depth emerge naturally, Middlemarch’s morally correct narrator continuously informs the reader what emotional and moral responses they should have towards the characters and situations. The narrator is correct in many of their estimations however; the moral correctness of their observations inhibits the readers from being able to engage with the intended emotional and moral responses. Therefore, Middlemarch inhibits its readers from having the intended emotional and moral responses: Middlemarch’s moral correctness is an aesthetic flaw. The moral correctness of an artwork may also inhibit the range of perceived potential actions for a protagonist. If the audience believes that the morally virtuous protagonist won’t act in certain ways – certain ways that the artwork claims are viable options of action – then the artwork will be less interesting and offer a lessened aesthetic experience. This is because the audience may not believe that a certain character will act in a morally dubious way and will therefore not feel any suspense when they are told, in the artwork, that the character is under suspicion of acting immorally. Therefore the moral correctness of some artworks, their characters and narrators, inhibit us from responding how the artwork intends us to. Sometimes an artwork’s moral virtue can be an aesthetic flaw.

(1.) If you didn’t find this to be the case in your reading of Middlemarch then imagine a similar novel but one in which the extreme moral correctness inhibits our ability to engage with the narrative.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part V – Moralism Cont.

3.2 Criticisms of Moralism

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s claim that moral virtues and flaws are sometimes aesthetic virtues and flaws. In this section I will explore some criticisms of Moralism. One of Carroll’s central claims was that his account allowed there to be artworks with moral flaws to remain artistically unblemished. In support of this claim I noted that we seem able to enjoy artworks such as Rebecca and Red Heat regardless of their morally questionable nature (sexism, racist stereotypes). As Schellekens notes, Carroll’s claim is therefore that ‘moral character only takes on importance in relation to our overall assessment when it somehow impedes our capacity to engage with the artwork or to respond to it appropriately’.(1.) According to Carroll if a moral flaw doesn’t impede the audiences’ capacity to engage with the artwork then it isn’t an artistic one too. However, if as I noted in section 2.3 the theoretical Milošević film is shown to the right audience – one which does admire Milošević – they will have the intended emotional responses. If all that is required for a moral blemish to escape being an aesthetic one is that an audience experience the intended emotional and moral responses then the Autonomist could easily conjure up a potential intended audience for every immoral artwork.(2.) In reply to this Carroll holds that even if an actual audience (the pro-Milošević lobby) is not impeded from engaging with an immoral artwork the artwork may still be aesthetically flawed. Carroll asserts that a moral blemish:

will also count as an [aesthetic] blemish even if it is not detected – so long as it is there to be detected by morally sensitive audiences whose response to the work’s agenda will be spoilt by it. A blemish is still a blemish even if it goes unnoticed for the longest time.(3.)

Carroll attempts to sidestep the criticism by holding that it is not whether a particular audience is impeded (or not) from engaging with the Milošević film. The film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one if an ideal morally sensitive audience is unable to respond with the intended emotional and moral responses. Responding with sympathy and admiration to the Milošević film is not something a morally sensitive audience would do – as it entails advocating genocide. Therefore the Milošević film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one.

            Carroll’s use of an idealized morally sensitive audience allows Moralism to sidestep issues arising from morally insensitive or unaware audiences. However, if Moralism relies on an idealized audience then there needs to be further clarification on how idealized and morally sensitive that audience should be. Many films feature minor defects in a film’s representation of race, gender or sexuality. Therefore if Carroll’s notion of a morally sensitive audience is too idealized them it appears unlikely that they would forgive the sexism of Rebecca, the racist stereotypes in Red Heat or the explicit rape scenes in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir., Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) or Deliverance (Dir., John Boorman, 1972). The consequence being that many good and great artworks would be found to be aesthetically flawed. If the notion of a morally sensitive audience is hardly idealized at all then it remains to be seen why the audience could not be conceived of easily enjoying many immoral films without issue. If the idealized audience is an average one then artworks like the hypothetical Milošević film will fail to produce the intended emotional and moral responses but morally questionable films such as Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990) will be successful in their intention to produce sympathy and admiration for gangsters who commit murder and other hideous crimes. The issue for Carroll is that any account which calls itself Moralism and doesn’t find artworks like Goodfellas morally and aesthetically defective is in serious danger of losing its Moralist credentials.


(1.) Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 69

(2.) This criticism doesn’t come close to saving the Autonomist position – as moral elements may still positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork – but it is an important query that the Autonomist can raise in regard to the success of Moralism as an account.

(3.) Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, p. 234.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part IV – Moralism

3.1 Moralism

In the previous two sections I explored some criticisms of Autonomism. I highlighted that with certain art forms (such as representative art) it appears that the moral stance directly influences the quality of an artwork’s representation. In this section I will explore an account advanced by Carroll called (Moderate) Moralism (1.). Moralists hold that moral character is central to our appreciation and assessment of artwork. (2.) They also hold that a moral flaw (or virtue) can be an aesthetic flaw (or virtue). An immediate criticism that is levelled against Moralism is that there are many artworks that are morally questionable that we seem able to appreciate without issue. If moral defects are always aesthetic defects then why is it that we can appreciate sexist films such as Rebecca (Dir., Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). However, Carroll asserts that his form of Moralism escapes this criticism because he does not hold that every moral flaw is an aesthetic one. Carroll asserts that:

Moderate Moralism does not claim that every moral defect in an artwork is an aesthetic defect. Artworks can be immensely subtle in terms of their moral commitments. Morally defective portrayals may elude even morally sensitive audiences and may require careful interpretation in order to be unearthed. (3.)

There are many artworks that feature unflattering stereotypes. Artworks that portray morally insensitive stereotypes are often also aesthetically flawed (such as Tintin au Congo) but there are many Hollywood films which contain stereotypes which are not diminished aesthetically. One such film is Red Heat (Dir., Walter Hill, 1988) which features a stereotypical Soviet character Capt. Ivan Danko who joins up with smart-ass American cop Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić to thwart a drug smuggling enterprise. The film achieves a good level of drama, action and comedy despite Danko being a classic cold-war Soviet stereotype. Therefore, there are certain artworks that feature morally questionable elements which do not influence artistic value. According to Carroll this is because the audiences’ intended emotional and moral responses are not inhibited by the depiction of stereotypes in these cases. So in cases such as Rebecca and Red Heat the Moralist can argue that the audience is able to have the intended emotion and moral responses despite the morally questionable elements of these artworks.

            As I noted in section 2.3 Carroll asserted that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. If a thriller doesn’t thrill its audience then it would be seen as aesthetically defective or inferior.  If the reason for the thrillers lack of success is because of some moral feature of the work – the audience just can’t engage with such a racist depiction – then that moral feature (defect) can be said to be an aesthetic defect. Similarly, if an artwork is more vividly dramatic due to the artwork’s moral elements then that moral element (virtue) can be said to be an aesthetic virtue. One particular instance of this is Casablanca (Dir., Michael Curtiz, 1942) which explores the issue of self-sacrifice over personal profit. In Vichy-controlled French Morocco Casablanca’s central protagonist Rick Blaine struggles to choose between staying neutral and reigniting a past relationship or getting involved on the side of the Allies and sacrificing both his successful nightclub and any chance of a relationship with his former love. Through the film’s development of this issue the audience responds by desiring that Blaine reignite his relationship with his former love whilst also accepting that he must sacrifice that relationship for the greater good. Therefore, the film’s central moral element not only provides impetus to the film’s narrative but it also produces complex contradictory desires in its audience enabling a more powerful aesthetic experience. That is, the moral element of Casablanca contributes considerably to how much tension and drama the audience experiences. Therefore, moral virtues and flaws can sometimes be aesthetic virtues and flaws.


(1.) Although Carroll calls his position Moderate Moralism I will only call it Moralism. The forms of Moralism that assert that artwork’s moral defects are always aesthetic defects are so strong that they are better known as Extreme Moralism or Severe Moralism.

(2.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 68.

(3.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, p. 378

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part III – Autonomism Cont.

2.3 Further Criticisms of Autonomism: How Moral Value can affect Artistic Value

A second approach to criticising Autonomism is to show how moral value can effect an artworks value as an artwork. This approach is advocated by Carroll who argues that many fictions explicitly derive their value from producing emotional responses based on moral assessments.(1.) Carroll starts by asserting that ‘Artworks are incomplete structures – at least in the special sense that they need to be filled in by audiences’. (2.) By this Carroll means that fictions often require readers to assume that the characters have the normal biological make-up of a human and infer that they travel between two points by car or walking rather than just transporting through time and space. As well as these physiological inferences, Carroll asserts that ‘Audiences must also fill in the novel with the appropriate emotional responses, if they are to follow it correctly’.(3.) To Carroll, for a romantic comedy to be artistically successful the readers must desire the two protagonists to fall in love and “live happily ever after”. If those protagonists are uninteresting, immoral or dull then the audience will not invest emotionally and the romantic comedy will fail to be a successful artwork. Carroll calls this the intended “emotive uptake” and asserts that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce it in its audience. Carroll asserts that one of the central ways that the audience can fail to have the correct emotional uptake is if the artwork invites its audience to share in an immoral perspective. To understand what Carroll means here imagine a film which intends the audience to sympathize with and admire the former President of Yugoslavia and war criminal Slobodan Milošević. Through interviews with former comrades and dramatic reconstructions the film portrays Milošević as a humanitarian, brilliant tactician and worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. By supporting Milošević this hypothetical film advocates a whole plethora of immoral positions (such as genocide). It is clear that most audiences would fail to adopt the film’s intended emotional uptake (admiration for Milošević). Therefore, as well as being morally defective, Carroll would argue that the film is artistically defective. (4.) This is because it fails in its aim to produce sympathy and admiration for Milošević.

Carroll attempts to establish that to be successful art (1) needs its audience to have certain moral and emotional responses and (2) that it is an artistic defect if the audience does not experience the intended moral and emotional responses. In response to Carroll’s argument the Autonomist could reassert that there is no connection between the moral disgust and the film’s failure as art. The Autonomist could concede that the Milošević film is morally flawed and this moral flaw stops its audience from engaging with the film. However, the Autonomist will bring into question whether Carroll conclusively illustrates why that moral flaw is an artistic one. The Milošević film may be beautifully filmed with masterful control of editing, colour, sound and mise en scene which, when shown to the right audience (one which does admire Milošević), will have the intended emotional responses. That everyday audiences would not have the correct emotional or moral response does not indicate that the film is artistically flawed.  However, if our emotional and moral engagement is central to our ability to appreciate certain artworks (such as narrative fiction) then there does seem to be an issue for Autonomism. If the moral stance of a film influences the form of representation and that form of representation fails to convey the right experience (admiration, suspense) then the moral aspect of a film appears to be aesthetically relevant. As Berys Gaut notes, evaluating George Eliot’s Middlemarch is practically impossible if one attempts to evaluate it aesthetically without taking in to account its moral elements.(5.) Gaut continues ‘One cannot set aside Elliot’s ethical stance while keeping anything remotely resembling her novel before one’s view’.(6.)  If some forms of art explicitly derive their aesthetic qualities from their moral stance then moral value appears to be important to some forms of art. If that moral value adds to, or detracts from, that artwork’s coherence or aesthetic qualities then moral criticism can be said to be artistically relevant. A vivid example of this is Tintin au Congo. Tintin au Congo features a morally reprehensible representation of Congolese “natives” whose characterization and depiction was inspired by an immoral, racist, colonial understanding of Africans. This (naïvely) racist depiction of the Congolese informed the aesthetic nature of the Congolese characters (how they looked) and their blundering actions (how they acted). Every element of Tintin au Congo is informed by the awful depiction of the Congolese and this insensitive representation makes the plot less vivid (Tintin’s victory over a large band of nitwits is hardly awe-inspiring), less interesting (it is harder to engage with the story) and therefore aesthetically worse. In regards to some forms of art, moral flaws also appear to be aesthetic flaws. The single most important criticism of Autonomism regards whether moral criticisms can be shown to be artistic criticisms too. I have argued that the moral component of an artwork appears to enhance (or diminish) an artwork’s value (qua artwork) and therefore Autonomism is false. However, what remains to be seen is to what extent moral value effects artistic value.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism Versus Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol 38, No. 4, October 1998, pp 419-424, p. 420.

(2.) Ibid, p. 419.

(3.) Ibid, p. 420.

(4.) Ibid, p. 421.

(5.) Berys Gaut, ‘Art and Ethics’, in Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (ed), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 341-352, p. 345.

(6.) Ibid, p. 345.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part II – Autonomism Cont.

2.2 Criticising Autonomism

In the previous section I explored Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. In the previous section I highlighted two arguments for their account. The first related to Autonomism’s ability to explain how we evaluate immoral art. I highlighted Schellekens example of Manet’s Olympia as an example of art of which the moral and artistic value are unconnected. The second argument for Autonomism I explored related to whether moral criticism can be an appropriate criterion of aesthetic evaluation. Autonomists assert that moral criticism cannot be a part of the aesthetic evaluation of art because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism (such as orchestral art). Although it seems correct that some forms of art are inappropriate for moral criticism, this does indicate why some forms of art, such as narrative fiction, which explicitly elicit moral responses and readings, are not open for moral evaluation. As Carroll asserts:

it is appropriate to do so with respect to King Lear or Potemkin, since those works of art are expressly designed to elicit moral reactions, and it is part of the form of life to which they belong that audiences respond morally to them on the basis of their recognition that that is what they are intended to do(1.)

Some genres and forms of art explicitly rely on arousing emotional and moral responses for their success. This indicates that, at the very least, genres such as narrative fiction are viable for moral evaluation.

A significant criticism of Autonomism centres on whether we really value art just for its aesthetic qualities. This line of argument has been developed in several ways. One approach is to show that even in the everyday admiration of canonical works we value them for more than their aesthetic qualities.  Imagine that we are faced with two visually identical works, one by Francis Bacon and the other an art student. If we consider which one is artistically superior we will argue for Bacon’s original. One of the reasons why we value Bacon’s artwork over the student’s effort is that Bacon’s shows originality and is historically important in the continued evolution of modern and post-modern art. Beyond an artwork’s formal aesthetic features we value art for its originality and historical value. The early works of Alfred Hitchcock are decent, though often plodding and lumber-some. However, they are admired because they show the emerging style of Hitchcock and often contain innovative, though crude, uses of cinematic techniques. Murder! (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1931) features the first use of voice-over but by modern standards the technique is clumsy and strained. Murder! is valued as art as much for its historical significance as it is for its aesthetic qualities. In response to this criticism the Autonomist could attempt to defend a purely “formalist” approach and re-assert that art’s value is solely an aesthetic affair. However, rather than have to articulate and defend a formalist approach the Autonomist could concede that historical value is an important part of our evaluation of art but that, like moral evaluation, it is separate from how we evaluate art’s value as art.


(1.) Noel Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 36, No. 3, July 1996, p. 223-238, p. 226.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part I – Autonomism

1.1 Introduction

In a series of articles I will explore whether a moral blemish(1.) (or virtue) in an artwork(2.) can also be said to be an aesthetic blemish (or virtue). I will start by exploring Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and aesthetic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. I will note that Autonomist’s believe that their account can explain our fascination with amoral and immoral artworks successfully and should therefore be accepted.

2.1 Autonomism

In this section I will explore the arguments for Autonomism. Autonomists hold that moral value and artistic value are two distinct and unconnected criteria of evaluation. Anderson and Dean explain ‘it is never the moral component of the criticism as such that diminishes or strengthens the value of an artwork qua artwork’.(3.) To the Autonomist only “aesthetic” flaws can be correctly called artistic flaws. The Autonomist asserts that moral value and artistic value are therefore two distinct ways of evaluating an artwork. In support of this position the Autonomist can highlight cases in which there is an easily distinguishable difference between moral and artistic value. Elisabeth Schellekens notes:

it seems completely appropriate with regards to artworks such as the provocative and proud prostitute that Manet depicts in Olympia to pay no attention to the moral content and perspective imposed upon us by these works when we evaluate them.(4.)

Though it may be argued that to a modern audience Olympia is no longer shocking, it seems correct that we ignore the moral stance of Olympia and judge Manet’s painting on the quality of its formal features. Another reason cited for accepting Autonomism is its explanatory power.(5.) The Autonomist argues that holding artistic and moral value to be distinct also explains features of our interaction with and the evaluation of art. The Birth of a Nation (Dir. D W Griffith, 1915) is valued as art because of its innovative formal features and interesting narrative structure. However, The Birth of a Nation is racist in both its depiction of African-Americans and its advocacy of the Klu Klux Klan. Autonomism is able to explain these two different valuations of an artwork because artistic and moral value is independent of each other.

Autonomists also argue for their position by questioning whether ethical criticism is an acceptable criterion of art. There are many forms and genres of art. Some of these forms of art, such as abstract art and orchestral music, appear to have no connection to morality. This claim does seem plausible for there appears to be art-forms and artworks – such as Poltrona Cecilia II by Victor Monserrate – that have no real moral significance or standpoint. The Autonomist believes this indicates that there are some artworks not viable for moral criticism. Noel Carroll explains the Autonomist then moves to argue that ‘whatever we identify as the value of art should be such that every artwork can be assessed in accordance with it’.(6.)As artistic value is a standard of assessment that should be applicable to all artworks then moral criticism cannot be a part of that standard because there are some artworks that are not viable for moral criticism. The Autonomist concludes that, as all artworks aim to produce an aesthetic experience, the sole criterion of an artwork’s value (qua artwork) is their aesthetic qualities.


(1.) In this paper I will use a liberal notion of a moral blemish. I will take an artwork to feature a moral blemish if it promotes a morally reprehensible position without censure or qualification. Whether this notion is acceptable will of course be up to debate and therefore suitible for another article in the future.

(2.) It should be noted that I will be using a non-evaluative notion of art in this paper. I will take it to be that an artwork is an object conferred upon it the title of art by an appropriate institution or cultural body.

(3.) James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 38, No. 2, April 1998, pp. 150-167, p. 152.

(4.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), p. 73.

(5.) Anderson and Dean, ‘Moderate Autonomism’, p. 165.

(6.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2, Jan., 2000, pp. 350-387, p. 352.