Mimesis as Make-Believe (2): Props
April 22, 2010
What constitutes a prop? Any and all representations count as props in Walton's system, and as a result the boundaries of the term are relatively soft. For instance, when watching a play, one views many different props – including the furniture and objects on stage (things already termed 'a prop'), the backdrop painting, and even the actors and actresses themselves. When one watches a movie, one could consider the film to be a prop, or comprised of many props. It is unnecessary to distinguish between these states of affairs in order to use the make-believe theory.
What is important is not which objects are ascribed the role of prop, but that props are generators of fictional truths – things that by their very nature render certain propositions fictional. A child's doll of an infant makes it fictional that there is a baby present, so if a loutish child kicks such a doll it is fictional that they have kicked a baby, which is to say that it is prescribed that any observer imagines that a baby has been kicked. Props generate their fictional truths irrespective of what is or isn't imagined, but they cannot do so on their own: there must be a person or people to imagine, and thus props function primarily in a social context.
If we can imagine more or less anything, how can it be that representations must be understood at a social level? It is for precisely the same reason that Wittgenstein advocates understanding language as socially embedded, and consequently denies the meaningfulness of a 'private language'. We learn to interpret certain kinds of representations just as we learn to speak a language – and we learn both these skills from the people around us, although this is not to say that all interpretation of representations is learned. This seems surprising, and intuitively we might suspect that we would always be able to interpret a picture of a mouse as representing a mouse. In fact, anthropologists have found tribes who lack this form of representation in their culture, and they are incapable of interpreting such a drawing without some instruction.
Furthermore, social elements are involved in the authorisation of the games that are played with particular props. Walton notes:
…dolls and toy trucks are meant to be not just props but props in games of certain kinds, ones in which they generate certain sorts of fictional truths: dolls are intended to “count as” babies and toy trucks as trucks. I will call games of the kind a given prop has the function of serving in authorized ones for it.
Thus, for instance, nothing stops us imagining that a baby doll is a murderous robot but the fictional world of the game where we make-believe this is so is not authorised for the doll: the only (socially) authorised games for dolls of this kind are those in which it is fictional that the doll stands for a baby. (We will return to this notion of an authorised game in a few weeks).
Among the philosophers who have attempted to tackle the problems of fiction, a common approach has been that fiction should be considered an aspect of our actions; that when we make a fictional utterance this is the root of the fiction. Walton sees this issue differently, and contends that the notion of fiction (and indeed of a story) is better associated with objects – props – rather than actions. This may seem odd: if I tell a short story that begins “There once was a little red train” it may seem that there is no object here to draw upon, and we must turn to my illocutionary act of speaking the words. But the prop in this case is the sentence. The words constitute a prop which prescribes we imagine a little red train.
Note that any given person will imagine a different train in response to this sentence – which doesn't, after all, specify whether it's a steam train, an electric train, a subway train or indeed a wedding train. This may seem to give problems in respect of the idea that a prop can be associated with a particular fictional world, as what is imagined in each of the games people play in respect of this sentence could be wildly different. Walton proposes that we view what is fictional about any given prop to be solely that which would be fictional in any (authorised) game in which the prop was used to prescribe imaginings. We can say that the above sentence is associated with a work world in which it is fictional that there is a train, and the train is both red and little.
An example concerning a visual representation may serve to clarify this idea. Van Gogh's painting Starry Night (pictured above) can be seen to comprise a night sky with stars and a crescent moon, a small town, and a dark object that partially occludes both. It is fictional in the work world of this painting that there is a town, and that it is night, and the moon is crescent. Other features are more ambiguous. A particular appreciator of the painting may interpret the dark object to the left as a tree, in which case it is fictional in the game they play using this painting as a prop that there is a tree. But it is not fictional in the work world of the painting that there is a tree – it could also be interpreted as a crag, for instance. The same objection does not validly hold for the town: one could imagine in one's own game that there was no town, perhaps there is just a series of cardboard cutouts in the shape of a town. But this is not an authorised game for this painting, for few if anyone would doubt that Van Gogh was painting a town, whatever their interpretation of the dark object.
However, not all props have their own fictional worlds. It is possible to create ad hoc props, by playing a game of make-believe that follows a particular rule, for instance. Walton frequently draws upon the example of two children, Gregory and Eric, who have decided to imagine that all tree stumps they encounter are bears. In their game, tree stumps are ad hoc props – the stumps do not prescribe any imaginings in and of themselves, they are merely wooden stumps. It is only in the game that Gregory and Eric play that the stumps are props which make it fictional in their game that there is a bear present. Gregory and Eric may act startled when they suddenly notice that there is a bear right there that they didn't see before, but this prescription to imagine belongs to their game, and not to the stump they encounter.
Representations, however, always generate some fictional truths, and thus have a fictional world (a work world) associated with them. The tree stumps in the previous example, while certainly props in the relevant sense, are not representations. Walton writes:
Representations generate fictional truths by virtue of their features – the marks on the surface of a painting, the words of a novel, occurrences on stage during the performance of a play – in accordance with principles of generation… There is uncertainty and disagreement, in many cases, about what principles of generation are applicable to a given work.
These principles, by which the fictional truths are implied or generated, are the subject of next week's instalment.
Next week: Principles of Generation
Chris: "Representations, however, always generate some fictional truths, and thus have a fictional world (a work world) associated with them.... These principles, by which the fictional truths are implied or generated, are the subject of next week's instalment."
The "principle of generation" are in fact the part of your presentation that seem least obvious to me - in other words: in my understanding it remains quite unclear if the "fictional truths" should be seen as properties (or maybe mental constructs/models) associated with "representations" are rather properties associated with the minds of individual persons (always limited by a certain social context). Could you add a comment on what is the relation between a representation and a player/observer/person? Does the person observe the representation or does she "generate" it?
Posted by: translucy | April 23, 2010 at 09:27 PM
translucy: good question, although one that might become clearer with this Thursday's post.
The way Walton paints this is that the appreciator of an artwork enters into a fictional world (in their imagination), in which the work acts as a prop prescribing specific imaginings. Each individual appreciator enters their own fictional world, because each appreciator imagines different things, or at least could do so.
However, Walton asserts that there are some fictional truths which it is essentially impossible to avoid imagining with any given work without being wilfully obfuscatory (see the paragraph above with respect to what is imagined with Starry Night). This subset of the fictional truths in *all* the fictional worlds of the games of appreciators played with any given prop is the fictional world of the prop itself, the work world.
So in answer to your question, all the fictional truths are in effect properties or constructs of the minds of appreciators, but whatever subset of these can be reasonably construed to be universal (without stepping into clearly unauthorised territory) are considered to belong to the work world.
But the work world is still, in effect, a property of the minds of the appreciators when you think about it. For instance, critics of art may discuss the work world (rather than the fictional world of games they play with a prop) - which is to say, part of the role of the art critic is to determine which fictional truths are inherent to a particular work and explore
how they are generated.
So the appreciator, by engaging or observing the artwork, enters into a fictional world (in their imagination) using the representation as a prop. They do not generate the representation as such. This is assumed to have an objective existence of its own, as the art object. But one does not objectively interact with the representation - we cannot - we can only do so in our imagination, when that representation serves as a prop prescribing specific imaginings.
Did that clarify, or further obfuscate the issue? :)
Posted by: Chris | April 26, 2010 at 10:55 AM
"...the appreciator of an artwork enters into a fictional world (in their imagination)...But one does not objectively interact with the representation - we cannot - we can only do so in our imagination, when that representation serves as a prop prescribing specific imaginings."
The concept of "entering a world" as well as the general approach of trying to detail the modes of interaction rather than speculating about "minds and objects" in an absolute sense sound quite familiar to me - I still need to think about this but it seems to me that there a parallels to the concepts of "autopoiesis" and "structural coupling" in systems theory.
Posted by: translucy | April 26, 2010 at 07:31 PM
translucy: very much interested in how your investigations turn out! The two subjects seem quite remote on the surface, but as is so often the case an enquiring mind can find new perspectives by taking advantage of the intersections between diverse sources.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | April 29, 2010 at 07:13 AM
Hi Chris, lots of interesting concepts here, and I think your basic principle is sound, but I have a couple of issues with this piece.
First, on a relatively trivial factual basis, Sid Meier has said that the first Civilization game was not inspired by the board game of the same name. Meier says he hadn't played the board game when he made it, and was instead inspired by SimCity, Railroad Tycoon and Risk. Having played both myself, this is consistent with the actual game mechanics of the video game bearing no real relation to those of the board game, and any similarities in game concepts being superficial at best.
Secondly, suggesting that counter-based hobby boardgames get away with using only counters because the "audience can be expected to be more imaginative" is perhaps a little glib. There are many other reasons for this, including the cost of manufacturing relative to the size of the market. This wouldn't be worth noting if it weren't related to part of the basis of the conclusion, that "gamer hobbyists... are generally imaginative enough to put themselves in anyone's shoes". Were I to look at the market, I might suggest gamer hobbyists are generally imaginative enough to indulge in adolescent power fantasies, often involving bald space marines.
This brings me to the biggest issue I see: the concept of a prop is uncritically applied to game avatars without any discussion of the difference between an on-screen element in a video game and a physical game piece or stage prop. I would have no issues applying the concept to, say, a Guitar Hero controller, which is obviously a prop in the same sense. But if you want to apply it to an avatar, there needs to be some discussion and handling of the differences, most prominently the vastly reduced tactile interaction with the avatar.
Posted by: Adrian Forest | May 07, 2010 at 12:46 AM
Adrian: You say,
"Sid Meier has said that the first Civilization game was not inspired by the board game of the same name. Meier says he hadn't played the board game when he made it, and was instead inspired by SimCity, Railroad Tycoon and Risk."
Can you attribute this to a tangible source? I'm interested, because other sources (including the Trivipedia er... Wikipedia) state that Meier admitted "borrowing" many of the technology tree ideas from the board game. Furthermore, the original version of the computer game included a flyer for ordering the boardgame, strongly suggesting a lineage.
On the subject of counters, yes, they are wildly cheaper to print (something I have discovered myself in my ongoing attempt to get my own boardgames in print) but this doesn't change the fact that they work because the boardgame hobbyists will tolerate them.
"Were I to look at the market, I might suggest gamer hobbyists are generally imaginative enough to indulge in adolescent power fantasies, often involving bald space marines."
*grins* Sure, it can seem this way at times, especially if you look at Games Workshop's output or focus solely on the videogames industry without taking into account actual sales figures (look at how few space marine games clear 5 million units, for instance). This says more about the people who make such games and the process they are embedded within than it does about the players, though.
On the specific subject of boardgames, Games Workshop are far from the leading publisher of hobbygames, and although sales figures in this marketplace are harder to come by, the two biggest winners in hobbygame market terms - D&D and M:TG - all get by with a minimum of props. In M:TG it's not a counter, per se, but a card, but the principle surely is the same (as is your point about cost!)
As for the difference in tactile interaction - why make this an issue? I'm not disputing that tactility can be an importance aspect of some props (it certainly is in the case of the guitar controller) but in Walton's system every painting, every movie, every novel is a prop - the question of tactility is left behind almost immediately in this model. Sculpture is not necessarily a more compelling prop than a painting, despite the affordance for tactility.... in fact, I suspect many people find the painting easier to use as a prop.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comment!
Posted by: Chris | May 07, 2010 at 08:09 AM