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Submit Response is a weblog by Jack Mottram, a journalist who lives in Glasgow, Scotland. There are 1308 posts in the archives. You can subscribe to a feed. This post was made on and belongs in the art and culture category. The previous post was , and the next post is .

Soft Soap

The other day I was eavesdropping-via-weblog on a conversation between Matt Webb and Dan Hill about background media. Dan noted an interesting statistic - that half of all prime time television viewing is background activity, where the telly is not the main focus - and Matt ran with the idea, proposing a new slow-paced format, a sort of plotted equivalent of those interminable live feeds that accompany Big Brother or The Salon.

The interesting bit, I thought, was the idea that such slow-moving, passively-viewed programming would turn on use of the pathetic fallacy, that literary device, now rather hackneyed, that imbues inanimate objects with human emotion, or reflects human emotion in the environment.

I’ve always been a big fan of the pathetic fallacy, unlike Ruskin, who coined the term. In his essay, Of The Pathetic Fallacy, Ruskin rails against the loss of control behind the device, seeing it as the mark of the lesser poet, who loses sight of truth in his rush to spread emotion liberally over the landscape, subjectively colouring the external world. Great poets, Ruskin says, exhibit clarity and restraint, and might use a restricted form of the fallacy, one that allows a reader to jack in to the subjective emotional state of the character the poet is concerned with, but does not skew the world along emotional lines. This all reads a little oddly to those of us weaned on modern and post-modern criticism, queer theory, hardcore Marxist or feminist readings and the like, and Ruskin’s essay is a funny one - it is in part a pop at Coleridge’s criticism, and only really makes sense in the context of Ruskin’s views on truth in art - but his categorisation of literary fallacies is fascinating even if you dismiss his conclusions.

One reason to dismiss them is this passage, my number one top of the pathetic fallacy pops, the opening of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native:

A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment.

It looks fairly innocuous, but in having the heath embrown itself, Hardy drops a precise clue as to the role of the landscape in the coming narrative, signalling the fact that the it is another character in the novel, that the lives of the characters are moulded by their surroundings, that those surroundings are not passive, not one bit. It’s bloody scary, that embrowning. There’s plenty more:

The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.

Jeepers! Ruskin would be frothing indignantly at the mouth by this point, but this is hardcore pathetic fallacy, freebase-strength stuff, not the glucose-cut snortable powder of, say, Wordsworth.

Where was I?

Oh, yes, ambient telly. The quotations above make me wonder about Matt’s imagined slow-burn Eastenders with the pathetic fallacy as plot engine. Instead of being a passive format, where stalled cars on the lot alert the audience to an imminent crisis in the car salesman’s marriage, provoking a flurry of activity in the viewing community in between long drifts of innattention, using the pathetic fallacy to signal action would turn viewers into avid, active watchers. In the first episode of Slowstenders, you see, Albert Square would have to be seen to embrown itself, and the audience would catch on quick. Where Matt hopes the viewers would keep half an eye on the screen, only to be shaken up by the occasional thunderclap, I reckon the format would have the opposite effect. In time, we would all acclimatise to the new form, with viewers turning into seers, with every background event foregrounded, a terrible auger of events to come. That raindrop hanging grimly on to the sign outside the Queen Vic would be impossible to ignore, because the audience would know that, were it to drop, Nana Moon would die. A light shower would have the switchboard ablaze with concerned audience members begging the writers to spare Little Mo the ordeal of yet another rape. Nancy Banks-Smith would be hounded from her post at the Guardian, branded a Cassandra for her faulty interpretation of a blocked drain! Gareth MacLean would be hailed as a latterday Oracle for his effortless exegesis on the appearance of an unexpected rainbow!

I’ll stop before I imagine an imaginary soap format overturning secular society, but this idea of slowness and subtlety replacing quick fix, pre-digested entertainment is an attractive one to me. And if the current fad for interminable, dragging televisual epics - Pop Idol, the aforementioned reality shows - continues, it shouldn’t be too long before we see cable channels devoted to programming as dull as our own lives, but with a preternatural environment seeming to control the fate of the characters.

I believe Matt and Dan both work for the BBC. Perhaps they could corner the Director General at the Beeb’s Christmas party and pitch Pathetic-Fallacy-O-Vision, before a Sky bigwig happens on this post and commissions a series of 40-hour episodes of Footballer’s Wives.

Posted at 5pm on 12/12/03 by Jack Mottram to the art and culture category.
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  1. Gosh, Jack, you are clever, aren’t you? Just was searching the internet on the ‘pathetic fallacy’ to help me with my essay on rural squalor in the contemporary novel, and here you are with your amazing theories. (I’m not being sarcastic here, although I realise it probably sounds like that.)

    Posted by Rowena Macdonald at 10pm on 01.06.04

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