Chara Vlachaki: Relevance Theory, Ineffability and the Parthenon Marbles


Words are incredibly useful communicative tools, and yet they fail us every day. When we try to communicate thoughts mixed with feelings and emotions or when we try to explain what poems or artworks mean to us, they are simply not enough. The linguistic term for this phenomenon, when something cannot be adequately paraphrased using words, is ‘descriptive ineffability’. How we deal with ineffability within a theory of utterance interpretation is a challenge. According to relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986/1995), since inference operates over propositions what is conveyed in ineffable cases is regarded as arrays of propositions. However, I argue that there is evidence to suggest that the ineffable aspects of what we broadly call meaning might be non-propositional (Fabb, 2021; Kolaiti, 2015; 2019; McCallum and Mitchell, 2021). A recent affective turn in relevance-theoretic pragmatics attempts to bridge the gap between propositionality and non-propositionality, between communication, cognition and affect by introducing two new types of effects: affective effects (de Saussure and Wharton, 2020; [forthcoming]; Wharton, 2021; Wharton et al., 2021) and perceptual effects (Kolaiti, 2020). These are intended to accompany the notion of cognitive effects. However, on certain occasions, experiencing art might lead to something else which cannot be solely and fully explained by any of these three notions. Therefore, I propose a new theoretical tool, ineffable effects, which occur only when the viewer recognises the ineffable resonating with the artwork and becomes fully immersed in what I call an ‘ineffable experience’. To demonstrate my claim, I show how the ineffable is communicated through sculptures and ekphrastic poetry, i.e. poems about works of art. The sculptures in question are the Parthenon Marbles, which triggered Keats into writing On Seeing the Elgin Marbles. Keats’s experience as portrayed in the sonnet seems to have yielded ineffable effects triggered by the Parthenon Marbles.

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