Mimesis as Make-Believe (5): Participation
May 13, 2010
In 1978, Walton published his paper “Fearing Fictions”, in which he first explored the groundwork for the make-believe theory of representations. An expanded version of the paper appears in Mimesis as Make-Believe, but the core of his argument remains unchanged. This week, we look at participation in games of make-believe through Walton's eyes and sift through some of the responses to his ideas from the philosophical community, which remains for the most part strangely resolute in its resistance to the idea of fiction and art as founded upon the power of imagination.
Walton's paper was the first significant attempt to address what has been called the Paradox of Fiction, following an argument presented in a paper by Colin Radford that had been published three years earlier. In “How Can We Be Moved by the Fate of Anna Karenina?” Radford addressed the question of how we are able to feel genuine emotions for characters that are not real, and concluded that our behaviour in this regard is essentially irrational. Walton had not seen Radford's paper, since it was published by the London-based Aristotelian Society and not widely distributed until many years later, but between these two papers a rich seam of philosophical debate was set in motion.
Radford lays down the problem succinctly: if we hear a story that moves us to tears, and then discover it is a falsehood we are offended, angered. This implies that existence beliefs are required to be emotionally moved. Yet if we watch a play or read a book, we can be moved to tears despite the absence of existence beliefs. Radford says this is a contradiction, and one that is not easily eliminated, claiming that we are clearly irrational in respect of fictions. Walton's solution to the Paradox of Fiction attacks the claim that the emotions we feel in respect of fiction are genuine, arguing that they are better understood as quasi-emotions (a term we will explore shortly). It is worth noting, however, that Walton does not answer Radford's challenge directly since he does not dispute the irrationality involved: as he noted to me recently: “People are irrational in all kinds of ways, so it is hardly surprising if their responses to fiction are irrational.”
Walton's paper “Fearing Fictions” begins as follows, with what must surely be an allusion to the 1958 movie The Blob (pictured above):
Walton denies the validity of considering the emotions experienced in respect of fiction as genuine, admitting that we become “caught up” and “emotionally involved” but claiming that “to construe this involvement as consisting of our having psychological attitudes toward fictional entities is to tolerate mystery and court confusion.” He notes that if Charles were genuinely afraid of the slime we would expect him to flee the cinema, to call the police, or behave in other ways displaying clear evidence of his terror. But of course, he does not. He continues to watch the film. Walton states: “Fear emasculated by subtracting its distinctive motivational force is not fear at all.” He proposes to consider it instead quasi-fear – a biological analogue of genuine terror, to be sure, but psychologically distinct.
The concept of quasi-emotions extends to any feelings we may have in respect of fiction. Walton suggests that rather than speaking of actually experiencing the emotions evoked by a representation, we can claim that it is fictional that we experience the emotion in question. Charles actually experiences “fictional fear”, although Walton cautions we should not mistake this quasi-fear (i.e. fictional fear) for a special kind of fear, noting that Charles “does actually experience something that, fictionally, is an experience of fear.” The relationship between an emotion and a quasi-emotion is much like the link between our common notion of truth and fictional truth in Walton's system.
There are essentially two ways that one can relate to a representation. On the one hand, one can be a mere onlooker to a game of make-believe – as with an usher at a cinema who watches the audience and not the movie, say, or a person looking at someone admiring a painting, or watching the players of a tabletop role-playing game. Onlookers “do not think of themselves as subject to [a game's] rules; the fictionality of a proposition is not taken to be a reason for them to imagine it.” Conversely, the participants in a game of make-believe must be considered “constrained to imagine the propositions that are fictional in it.” The rules of the game of make-believe are tacitly consented to by any participant, such that they apply principles of generation that prescribe what they must imagine.
Walton asserts that the appreciation of works of art is “primarily a matter of participation,” and participants are “reflexive props in these games.” Participants do more than imagine representations objectively – they themselves imagine that they see or experience the fictional content a given prop implies in a first-person manner: “they imagine, from the inside, doing things and undergoing experiences.” The participants are “props, objects and imaginers all three...” who prescribe imaginings to themselves and about themselves, and they do so (for the most part) alone. Even when participants enjoy a representation together, as in a cinema, “it is usually best to understand each individual spectator of a movie as engaging in his own private game.” Walton notes that the darkness of the cinema helps encourages this sense of privacy.
What's more – unlike the child whose game of make-believe is closely related – the participant avoids “blatantly displaying the fact that they are just pretending”. Nonetheless, the games involved in appreciating representations are “truncated variants of children’s games of make-believe”. The child's game is effectively limitless, while the appreciator is more constrained, but these limitations provide certain benefits. Where the child's game tends to be physical, with art we are “more reflective, more contemplative.” Furthermore, the artist is permitted a far bigger role than, say, the toy designer, in the games we play with an artwork. There is communication between the creator of a representation and its appreciator, albeit only in one direction, and we count on the artist to help us imagine – which is perhaps why so many people feel cheated when a movie deploys what they judge to be substandard special effects.
One final observation in respect of participation: although the prescribed imagining associated with a prop are experienced in first-person, it is not normally an authorised game that the fictional truths generated are about the appreciator. Walton gives the following example:
This brings us back to Radford's Paradox of Fiction. Radford, you recall, suggests (following a line that dates back at least as far as Aristotle) that existence beliefs are a necessary condition for genuine emotional responses. Many of the attempts to solve the fiction paradox rely upon attempts to show independence between emotions and beliefs; Walton criticises these as all too often being “distressingly question begging.” In the context of Charles, he reconstructs the form of such arguments as follows:
Peter Lamarque offers one of the more famous approaches to the fiction paradox in this style, and one that was specifically written contra Walton's theory. Lamarque suggests that Charles does not fear the slime, as such, but rather the thought of the slime. This is an attempt to shift the interpretation away from make-believe and into a more conventionally causal space. Walton notes in Mimesis as Make-Believe that Lamarque is abandoning the original intuition that the slime is the object of Charles' fear, but does not recognise the reasons (Walton states) we should deny it, namely that it is not fear, per se, Charles experience at all, but rather quasi-fear, for reasons we have already seen. Whether one follows Lamarque or Walton on this becomes something of a question of interpretation, but it's not immediately clear that shifting the focus to thoughts adds any clarity to the issue.
Glenn Hartz takes this kind of objection even further, arguing that our emotional responses to fiction are pre-conscious, and that real but subconscious beliefs are automatically generated by our cognitive apparatus in the cases of certain stimuli. Hartz denies the make-believe theory, claiming “how could anything as cerebral and out-of-the-loop as ‘make believe’ make adrenaline and cortisol flow?” But this kind of explanation has the same kind of problem as Lamarque's: Hartz is suggesting that a biological description of make-believe has superior explanatory power. He is not cogently arguing against Walton's theory at all, but rather falling into the common mistake of affording primacy to scientific explanations. As someone who has studied neurobiology very closely in the context of games, I can confidently report that Hartz's objection that make-believe cannot make adrenaline flow is wildly mistaken. Anyone who has become excited by the fictional events of a novel knows this all too well.
In fact, the philosophical community has been almost entirely united in opposing the make-believe theory of representation – although far from of one mind as to how to construct a coherent alternative. Noel Carroll strenuously objects to the idea that we could be both unaware of the rules of the game we are playing but also “completely unaware of playing a game,” claiming that to play such a game must require the intention to pretend. On this point Alex Neill offers a rare (partial) defence of Walton's theory, claiming that opponents such as Harz and Carroll are failing to recognise a key point: “the fact that Charles is genuinely moved by the horror movie is precisely what motivates Walton’s account.” Walton accedes that we are genuinely moved by fiction, what he denies is the claim that the emotions we are moved to are the same as those we experience in normal life. It is not make-believe that our feelings are stirred, this is factual, it is simply fictional that the emotion Charles is moved to is fear.
The debate on this issue among philosophers remains, unsurprisingly, far from settled. Nonetheless, I can find no reason to reject Walton's model on any of the grounds that have been raised so far. Neurobiology may describe what goes on in the brain during make-believe, but nonetheless no-one can deny that imagination is the faculty in play in the context of fiction. Objections thus far have focussed excessively upon movies, and rarely considered novels or games, all of which hold an important part of the puzzle. Philosophy, as both Wittgenstein and Heidegger believed, should not be unduly distracted by scientific descriptions of our experiences, but can and should explore those experiences on its own terms. Walton's theory does precisely this.
Next week: Depiction vs Narration
Fascinating, as ever.
Posted by: Mory Buckman | May 13, 2010 at 02:22 PM
I propose that the philosophical model you presented so far would benefit vastly if one were to drop the underlying binary ontology (real - fictional) and introduced degrees of belief as well as degrees of imagination. Wouldn't such an extension enhance the explanatory power and descriptive accuracy of the examples/cases you gave so far?
To me it is quite clear that in any given "Real world" situation some amount of imagination is always there "in existence" in the back of one's mind (e.g. the ideas/expectations about the person you are about to meet for the first time) - what is part of existence and what is imagination in itself depends on the set of beliefs the observer accepts as her "mental fir.st pronciples".
In this sense the arts in their modus operandi you described quite vividly are precisely those human techniques that are used to move back and forth in a continuum between the opposing poles of "real" and "fictional". The fascinating and at the same time complicating aspect is that each individual moves and is moved (emotionally) differently - "movements" that are hard to describe and even harder to explain ;-)
Posted by: translucy | May 14, 2010 at 09:48 PM
Very interesting read. Recently I came across an article on gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/YungSingLim/20100512/5132/What_Is_The_Game.php) of note which brings another variable argument into the scene. In it, the author seems to suggest that perhaps the when viewing the excesses of what it is to be playing a game, there exists a deeper metaphysical connection between the actors and the props. Perhaps all our observations are limited to our knowledge of what exists, and yet there are things beyond that thinkers do not yet identify with because it has not been discovered yet, much like how people once thought the world to be flat. What do you think?
Posted by: alexander | May 20, 2010 at 07:27 AM
Mory: thanks for letting me know you enjoyed this piece; I do appreciate it when people take the time to do so. I tortured myself on whether or not to cut the discussion of other philosophers views on Walton's model, but decided in the end that it was, in fact, quite an interesting aspect of his philosophy to address.
translucy: "I propose that the philosophical model you presented so far would benefit vastly if one were to drop the underlying binary ontology (real - fictional)"
Please be clear - Walton is quite shy of making this specific ontological distinction, and admits quite early in the book that he will be trying to avoid making this distinction at all. He is talking about what is fictional *without* intending that it be contrasted to *what is real*. This will become quite clear when we get to the final part (Part 7), in which all the ontological elements of Walton's theory are finally addressed.
But as a consequence we may have to hold this discussion back until after the final part runs. :)
"To me it is quite clear that in any given 'Real world' situation some amount of imagination is always there 'in existence' in the back of one's mind..."
Yes, I believe imagination is involved in a lot more than fiction. But Walton's theory is expressly concerned with fiction. He hints at applications of it outside of this context, but constrains his discussions to fiction for clarity. Places where he "let his hair down" and discusses the wider ontological issues will be covered in Part 7.
"The fascinating and at the same time complicating aspect is that each individual moves and is moved (emotionally) differently - 'movements' that are hard to describe and even harder to explain ;-)"
Well while there are certainly cases - such as music and abstract art - where the individual's experience can be quite distinct and unique, I'm not so sure there isn't a common thread at work here. Certainly in the case of, say, a play or a novel, we have some expectation of how one is expected to feel at any given set of events - what the experience of the authorised game is expected to be. There may be nuances that vary this, but I think perhaps there might be more commonality than you expect. :)
(Regarding music, see the part that went up today).
Apologies for having to defer some of this discussion, but a week today and we shall be at the end! :)
alexander: thanks for your comment, and the link to the Gamasutra article.
"Perhaps all our observations are limited to our knowledge of what exists"
...David Hume certainly believed something like this...
"and yet there are things beyond that thinkers do not yet identify with because it has not been discovered yet"
...which is part of the reason Hume was in error. :) There are also cases of things we talk about that just can't be decomposed into specific existence concepts. Just what is "sake" (as in interest or benefit, not the Japanese rice wine!) to be construed as being composed of?
The bigger question for me is whether thinking in this Plato-inspired way - of things that "really exist" - isn't a confusion about how we relate to the world in practice.
I personally don't think our observations are limited to our "knowledge of what exists" so much as they are limited to our "model of the world". Now you could easily say these are the same thing, I suppose, but I think perhaps that our models of the world always contain entities which it would be a confusion to claim "existed".
Confusion between our models and "existence" is deeply human, at least in the Western cultures, and although most people would point a finger at religion in this regard I would be just as inclined to point a finger at science, history, politics... pretty much every human endeavour really! :)
As with translucy's comment, perhaps we'll pick up these themes again next week when the final part of this serial runs.
Thanks for the comments everyone!
Posted by: Chris | May 20, 2010 at 10:35 AM
I apologize for this question in advance. :D
If the characters in a story tell a fictional story to each other, then I suppose it would be fictionally true that those characters are experiencing quasi-emotions. So in identifying with them, is the viewer experiencing quasi-quasi-emotions?
Posted by: Mory Buckman | May 21, 2010 at 04:44 PM
Really interesting reading. I'm a bit behind in my reading due to going to a conference when this was posted, so forgive my very tardy posting.
One issue I considered is how much of our experience with fiction can be influenced by others. The movie theater example really struck me: sure, the darkened theater makes it easier to engage in your own private game, but the motive theater still has a shared component. Your girlfriend shivering next to you while watching a horror movie definitely affects you. Or, the rest of the audience laughing at a silly joke in a comedy an make a mediocre joke seem like high art when you get caught up in it. As an MMO designer, this is particularly interesting to me.
As for the example of Charles fearing the blob, I wonder if part of this might not be a more active experience on the part of the viewer in some cases. Perhaps Charles isn't afraid of the actual image projected on screen, but is afraid of the imaginating of him or his loved ones being put in the same situation (in the path of an all-consuming monster). I guess this might mean I agree with Lamarque that Charles may be afraid of the thought or the concept of the slime. This could also explain why some horror genres, such as zombies, become popular as issues crop up that are related. One person I was talking to recently said that the current revival of interest in zombies might be related to the rise of biotech and the fear of the unknown surrounding it.
At any rate, I haven't put as much rigor into these thoughts as Walton has. But, perhaps they could be interesting points for others to consider.
Off to read the rest of the series when I can. :)
Posted by: Brian 'Psychochild' Green | May 24, 2010 at 03:59 PM
Mory: "If the characters in a story tell a fictional story to each other, then I suppose it would be fictionally true that those characters are experiencing quasi-emotions. So in identifying with them, is the viewer experiencing quasi-quasi-emotions?"
What a mind-melter... :) To anyone who used the term quasi-emotions, I suppose it would be fictionally true that the characters would be experiencing quasi-emotions... But I don't think there can be quasi-quasi-emotions, or rather, I don't think there is a distinction between quasi-emotions and quasi-quasi-emotions, since the affix "quasi" in this context expressly means that the relationship between behaviour and emotion is suspended, and you can't then re-suspend that connection - it's either suspended or it isn't! :)
Brian: Tardy? You can read whenever you like, it's not like I'm taking attendence. :p Seriously, thanks for the kind words, and I'll take comments whenever they come. :)
"...the motive theater still has a shared component."
Yes, absolutely, and I believe Walton is sensitive to this facet of the experience, although I perhaps haven't mentioned it explictly in my abridgement.
The paradigm case for me is "Arachnaphobia!" As someone with no fear of spiders (they are my allies against the accursed mosquitos!) I simply could not have enjoyed this movie had I not seen it in the cinema where I got to enjoy the absurdly over-the-top quasi-fear of others in the audience! :)
Psychologists talk of "emotional contagion" in this context... which is merely a way of noting that we are naturally swept up in the feelings of others. Walton notes that some of the ways we respond to art are unsuprising precisely because we respond to other people so naturally in a similar way.
"Perhaps Charles isn't afraid of the actual image projected on screen, but is afraid of the imaginating of him or his loved ones being put in the same situation (in the path of an all-consuming monster). I guess this might mean I agree with Lamarque that Charles may be afraid of the thought or the concept of the slime."
Yes, this is Lamarque's view. I think it's a fine perspective, but I don't see it as contra Walton, because really this is just focussing on a different part of what is going on, and I don't personally see any great reason to prefer one interpretation over another. And since Walton's approach offers new perspectives on our relationship with art, I'm inclined to see Lamarque's offering as simply a different interpretation of one aspect of Walton's theory.
"This could also explain why some horror genres, such as zombies, become popular as issues crop up that are related. One person I was talking to recently said that the current revival of interest in zombies might be related to the rise of biotech and the fear of the unknown surrounding it."
I think it's definitely the case that horror movies attempt to make use of fears that are already in motion... Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula were very much in this vein with respect to their Victorian audiences! And I think that the sudden popularity of "torture horror" came in the wake of the discussion of torture in the news.
Your zombie-biotech link would seem to be validated by Resident Evil, which makes the connection explictly. The days of curses being the preferred mechanic behind zombies has long since passed. It strikes me that in the 60s, Romero used radioactive contamination as his zombie-cause at the height of nuclear fear, which further lends credence to your claim.
I presume Aristotle would have claimed that this use of horror drama is cathartic i.e. helps purge us of the associated anxiety (although of course, Aristotle never watched a zombie movie!). But I think perhaps this is only part of the story, since science fiction and horror stories also serve to sharpen our awareness of the risks inherent in particular technologies. Would we be so interested in nuclear disarmament if the works of the 50s, 60s and 70s had not driven home the horror implicit in such weapons?
Thanks for the comment!
Posted by: Chris | May 27, 2010 at 08:36 AM