Mimesis as Make-Believe (3): Principles of Generation
April 29, 2010
In Walton's make-believe theory of representations, the rules which determine what is to be imagined in any given circumstance are referred to as the principles of generation. However, ascribing the term 'rules' in this context carries a certain risk of confusion. Each possible principle of generation (and there might be no limit in the variety of these) is in force when there is an understanding that a particular set of circumstances prescribes a particular set of imaginings, but this understanding – while understood as socially constituted – need not be explicit or conscious (any more than most people are consciously aware of the rules that determine the meaning of the words they use). Walton cautions that a certain principle “may be so ingrained that we scarcely notice it, so natural that it is hard to envision not having it.”
In the example last week of the two children playing a game in which tree stumps are imagined as bears, the principle in effect was explicit: “Let's say that stumps are bears”. Such stipulations are much rarer in the cases of works of art, where the principles in effect might not only lack an explicit agreement, they may never have been formulated. Walton is keen to deny any assumptions we might have as to whether the principles of generation can be considered in general terms or (in normal cases) conventional, arbitrary or learned. It is unlikely that any human needs to learn how to interpret a life-like sculpture, for instance. It is sufficient for his purposes that we acknowledge that there are principles of generation in effect whenever a representation is involved.
The simplest such principle is what Walton terms the acceptance rule, by which he brings spontaneous imaginings (such as daydreams) into his system. Thus if I daydream that I live on a tropical island, it is fictional (in that particular fantasy) that I do so. The acceptance rule establishes the prescription to imagine. In this case, this may seem odd – surely I was already imagining it? Yes, but that particular spontaneous imagining did not constitute fiction in and of itself; only by something like the acceptance rule does it generate fictional propositions. Furthermore, we can assume that there is a supplementation rule of some kind such that “the body of propositions fictional in the dream is to be filled out in certain natural or obvious ways, preserving the coherence of the whole.” Thus without any change to my daydream, it is fictional that I am a human male in this fantasy – unless I have imagined otherwise. In essence, the model of acceptance and supplementation rules serve as a prototype for principles of generation in other cases, but in practice the principles for representations can be much more complex.
A great many philosophers have pursued issues such as these, including Monroe Beardsley, John Woods, David Lewis and Nicholas Wolterstorff, but prior to Walton the attempts had been largely motivated by an attempt to establish a single, unified theory of the principles of generation in fiction and art. Walton denies this possibility, suggesting that a confusion between the rules of generation and fictional truths has lead to an inflated hope “that there must somehow be, a simple and systematic way of understanding the mechanics of generation.” Nonetheless, by following the work of others in this area, Walton identifies two general approaches that apply in many, but by no means all, situations. These principles of implication are the Reality Principle and the Mutual Belief Principle.
The Reality Principle (RP) is based around the idea that the fictional worlds we imagine are as much like the real one in which we all live as is reasonable, given the nature of the fictional truths concerned. This is intuitively easy to grasp since we all use this kind of principle of generation all the time in dealing with all manner of representations. When we start watching a television programme in which the men are wearing stove-pipe hats and the women crinoline dresses, we imply that it is set in the nineteenth century by something akin to the Reality Principle.
However, philosophers have teased out all manner of problems in applying the Reality Principle in practice, of which the most intriguing is that in logic a contradiction is usually assumed to entail everything – thus any representation which contains a contradiction can generate every conceivable fictional truth. But of course, pragmatically, this is not how we deal with stories. H.G. Wells' The Time Machine contains contradictions, but we do not construe from this that there are goblins on Jupiter or that elephants are microscopic. Walton points out that even if it might be logically the case that “everything is true” when a contradiction can be found, the individual representation still draws attention to certain fictional truths over others. What is in the background can usually be safely ignored, thus whether or not The Time Machine allows us in principle to conclude that there are goblins on Jupiter, it is not important to Wells' book one way or the other.
One significant problem with the Reality Principle is that it is wed to the appreciator's understanding of the world and is thus somewhat divorced from the intentions of the artist. Walton gives the example of stories told in a culture that believes the Earth is flat, whereby adventurous mariners risk falling off the edge of the world. By RP, are we to assume that we must enforce our understanding of the Earth as a sphere into the tale? Walton suggests that this is “contrived and gratuitously uncharitable”. Why ruin a perfectly good adventure story by bringing reality into it? Better to go along with the assumptions in play, and enjoy the ride. This is the strategy of the Mutual Belief Principle.
The Mutual Belief Principle (MBP) takes into consideration the cultural circumstances of those that have created representations , but it can also be used more extravagantly. Every sword and sorcery, science fiction or supernatural horror story requires something like the Mutual Belief Principle in order to hurdle the gap between the nature of the fictional world involved in the narrative and our conventional understanding of the world. In The Colour of Magic, for instance, adventurers do indeed fall off the edge of the world since MBP validates Terry Pratchett's Discworld (pictured above) as flat, whatever the nature of our world. Walton admits that a certain kind of realism can still be in play, citing Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings as an example, but clearly the Reality Principle is an inappropriate mechanic in the face of obvious fantasy.
The two principles represent something of a trade-off: the artist has better control over what is fictional when something like the Mutual Belief Principle is in play, while the Reality Principle affords to the appreciator “richer and more natural participation in his games of make-believe.”Walton is keen to note that reputable critics resort to both mechanisms in their assessment of representational art. The mechanics by which fictional truths are implied are thus quite disorderly, and it seems quite unlikely that there is any general or systematic way of establishing which principle should be considered in effect.
Walton is keen to stress that in many cases, the principles of generation are precisely what are interesting about a particular representation:
The machinery of generation is not just a means of cranking out fictional truths; it and its operation are open to inspection by the appreciator, and are not infrequently more interesting than the fictional truths that result. Much of the artistry of the painter’s or novelist’s work consists in the means he discovers for generating fictional truths.
Thus despite the characterisation of the principles of generation as rules, they are not so much strictures that must be followed so much as assumptions to be exploited. The manipulation of the appreciator by means of these principles is the very essence of what is enjoyed about fiction – whether it fooling the viewer of an action movie into believing that so-and-so has died by the process of implication, or entrancing the appreciator of an impressionist painting by how a few scattered marks can imply so much more.
Next week: Fictional Worlds
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