February 27, 2011

Projection, interception, and Inception

Dreamscape is probably best described as a typical horror movie, where the motive of dream manipulation is simply a dramatical device that provides a frame for portraying horribly-looking monsters, murder and bloodshed, a fairly steamy sex scene, and nuclear-devastation scenarios. The story is straightforward enough, but the characters are not too well developed and border on the inconsistent.[1] The movie is, however, a remarkably early forerunner of Inception in the way it explains how the characters get into each other's dreams.

The process of getting into the other person's dream ('psychically projecting oneself into the dream', as it is referred to in the movie), complete with hypnagogic images and a feeling as if entering through a tunnel, is at first supported by some nondescript machinery, but later on both the positive and the negative hero are shown to be able to do it without any technical help, presumably by pure psychic ability. (Both the machine and the psychic stuff place the story firmly in the real of science-fiction; the former returns in Inception, the latter doesn't, which may be taken as a sign that even in the popular imagination there isn't so much room any more for mediums and the like, at least not where the story tries to establish the illusion to be based on sound science. Audiences, it seems, are more advanced nowadays in their views on what would count as a good candidate for plausible science and what wouldn't.)

But that process is based on the same idea in both movies: that the world of a dream can be shared between two or more dreamers (in Inception, the term is 'shared dreaming'), in a manner quite similar to that of a multi-player video game. One of the dreamers hosts the world, in that his sleeping mind creates the landscape and architecture, the interior, props and extras (people who don't really have a role, but just stand around to populate the scene). The other dreamers are guests in that world, but they interact with the host and his world quite as they would do in the real world. Let's speculate a little on what is involved in this.

In order to interact with another person's dream, the visitor to the host's dream world has at first to be able to perceive what's going on in that world. Let's call this intercepting the dream. In Dreamscape, the scientists who set up the shared dream scenarios indeed start out with experiments in which they instruct the subject to 'just observe' the dream. (Being a proper story hero, of course Dennis Quaid's character ignores these instructions at the first possible occasion.) Before any interaction takes place, the primary step is just to be able to see, hear, smell and feel what's going on, to get oriented in the dream world based on the sensory inputs it generates. It's that sensory input that is intercepted and interpreted, so that an additional perceiver can see, hear etc. exactly what the dreamer himself sees, hears etc. (Never mind the complications generated by different spatial locations and thus differences in perspective, distance, visual and acoustic obstacles and so on. Let's just assume the dream interception technology can handle these.)

There is a bit of a problem here already already with this idea. When you're dreaming, say, that you are in your house, your dream world is centered around what you see in your dream. You dream that you enter through the front door, and go up the stairs — fine, so the dream world comprises the front of the house, the front door, the hall, and the stairs. Since it is your house, it may also contain all the other rooms, the back of the house, the garden and so on. But then, it may as well not contain those. It's a dream, right? In a dream, all sorts of strange things may happen, and if you go round the house, you'll quite probably not be in the garden, but somewhere else entirely, perhaps on a mountain cliff, or in a tech museum. There's no way to know until you go there in your dream. But so far, the dreamer hasn't, and nobody knows what it looks like at the back of the house in that particular dream. And yet, in Dreamscape, the dreamer and the hero (Dennis Quaid) approach the dreamer's house and separate, the dreamer walking through the front door and the hero going round the house and entering through the back door. This scene already goes beyond mere interception of the dream: it's not just that the hero perceives the host's dream world. He also perceives aspects of that dream world he cannot possibly perceive, because they haven't been dreamed yet! In Inception, that problem is addressed by making it a rule that the dream's host is always one of the gang, and the dream world is designed in advance (by the architect) and taught to the dreamer. This little trick guarantees that the world in which all the participants in the dream move around is defined in advance, and properly dreamt.

[1] For instance in the positive hero (played by Dennis Quaid) who seems to be a player person in the beginning, driven by pure morality in the middle when he takes on the task of freeing a young boy and the president of the United States from their nightmares, and again not thinking too much about murdering a villain in his dreams simply because he might be dangerous in the future — all those different motives simply don't integrate into a plausible personality.

February 20, 2011

Unreal Vertigo

There's some reason behind my choosing the still from Vertigo (incidentally one of my favorite movies) as the visual motto for this blog: it embodies so many forms of unreality all at once.

Let's begin with the directly visible elements in the image: we're in an art gallery, looking directly at a portrait, that's already one form of unreality; clearly, the woman sitting in front of the picture has drawn up some parallel between her and the portrayed lady (never mind Henry), as we can see from the bouquet of flowers which is identical in style. Of course we know that in the movie, Kim Novak's character has modeled herself after the depicted woman. This game of imitation (another form) leads to the complicated deception that's going on (yet another one): the murder plot, devised by a businessman who wants to kill his wife and needs a reliable and believable witness who would affirm the death to have been a terrible accident. To trick that witness (James Stewart) into believing in the accident version, the murderer and his accomplice go a long way with their deception, building up a fake personality. The scene we're witnessing in the art gallery is part of that construction. Moreover, it's in particular the idea of a person haunted by a ghost from the past (more forms of unreality: ghosts and the past) that is planted in Stewart's character. (Among other things supported from a story told by an old bookseller, mixing gossip, history- and storytelling into one.) One of the most extraordinary passages is a surreal dream sequence (one more).

Of course, all these are kinds of unreality internal to the film. The movie itself, as such, is another form, as is the novel (D'entre les morts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac) on which it is based. It has itself served as inspiration for further films: Chris Marker's La Jetee, which then was in turn the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, both of them exploring the idea of the accessibility of the past and the future, which are again forms of unreality. And finally, I think at least part of the dramatic conception relies on the fact that unreality can sediment into something that is no less a potent force in the world than whatever reality there might have been antecedently (as I have pointed out in my interpretation sketch in my previous post): the movie also reflects on unreality.

None of all these forms of unreality are accidentally there; they're all deliberately chosen and used with excellent skill. I think this contributes immensely to the density and beauty of Vertigo: it's at least as much about unreality as it is about the depths of the human psyche (if indeed that is a distinction that has a real difference behind it).

February 17, 2011

The irreversible sedimentation of unreality

In Hitchcock's North by Northwest the main character (played by Cary Grant) is an advertising man who gets thrown out of his dull life by first being kidnapped and almost killed and then wrongly accused of a murder, all this putting him on the run from both his kidnappers and the police. Each of his attempts to bring some light into what's going on only gets him entangled more deeply in the strange affair that he stumbled into by accident.

Well, what is going on is that Grant's character is mistaken for an intelligence agent; an agent, however, who doesn't exist, but whose identity was set up as a decoy to divert the attention of a spy ring from a second agent (this time a real one). We're told exactly that in a scene right after the first act (the first act containing pretty much what I've summarized in the paragraph above). A group of US Intelligence people around their mastermind, the 'Professor', discusses the situation, and we get the feeling that the whole scene's only function is to brief us, the audience, about every single bit of the background (with the exception of the identity of the other agent; to establish that is the main theme of act two).

What is the purpose of this comparatively undramatic revelation? Why tell us these things, instead of keeping them secret for as long as possible? The script could have been silent about them for much longer: they might have been revealed only at the time when the main character learns about them, preserving much more of the mystery.

Yet that's not Hitchcock's strategy. North by Northwest has this in common with Vertigo, another film where the main character gets drawn into an elaborate game of deception. And once more, there is a dedicated scene that simply reveals the plot of the mastermind behind that deception, in detail, and without inner necessity that would enforce the disclosure at the moment at which Hitchcock puts it in the movie. This time, it's the female lead (Kim Novak) who explains the background of what has happened so far by writing a letter to the main character and target of the deception (James Stewart), revealing the motive and method of the crime as well as the manipulative means she and the mastermind have employed. The letter never reaches the intended receiver, of course: it's just a plot device that provides a pretext for explaining something outright to the audience, without using any dramatic or cinematic means.

What this suggests, of course, is that unraveling the elaborate deception is not the main game the director had in mind for us as the audience. These movies are not about gradually getting behind the devious plotting of some mastermind; they're about something else, and therefore the mystery is quickly and thoroughly disposed of before it can get into the way too much. On the other hand, however, there is an elaborate deception going on in these films, so there must be some function to it. Otherwise, Hitchcock could just have left it out. But he does take some care to build it up. We're thus faced with the double question: what, if not the unraveling of the mystery, is the main way in which the director wants to engage us? And what, if it is not the riddle he wants us to solve, is the function of the complicated deception the main character undergoes and gets only gradually behind? (In contrast to the audience, the main character doesn't learn about the background all at once, and early on; the main character has to get behind everything painfully and slowly, and in the case of Vertigo he's in a tragic predicament which doesn't have any possible happy solution, so that he doesn't even get behind it completely.)

One possible interpretation is that Hitchcock's goal is to demonstrate the sort of struggle a character goes through in the face of elaborate unreality. That is what both films roll out before our eyes, in different constellations. Subjected to a complicated deceptive plot, they have to find ways to cope with events that don't fit their world. Getting behind the deception is part of their adventure; but it's not just an uninvolved interest they have: in both cases, their own lives and persons are threatened at a deep level. (And in both cases it's not a choice they've made on their own to embark on the sort of adventure they get in.)

In the process, the unreality (the fake world produced by the deception) gains a certain weight, so the hero's goal is not reversal simple and pure, but something that includes both getting back to reality and keeping something from the unreality. The main character in North by Northwest won't be going back to his "dull life", as he puts it; and above all he has met his future (third) wife in the course of the adventure (Eva Marie Saint). The main character in Vertigo is fully broken by the loss of the fake person he has met and the powerlessness he experienced when he failed to save her (a failure that was of course meticulously arranged for by the deceiving party), and he is unable to get into any meaningful relationship again because he compulsively tries to force the moment of crisis back from the past into the present again. Something has been created that cannot be reversed; even though it was unreality, it has caused real people to take real action, and has produced a new state of affairs (with both good and bad aspects). Unreality, one might, is no less of a 'real' force in the world than reality.

February 12, 2011

Modeling in the Magician's Manual, and some Ways of Worldmaking

In The Structure of Magic,[1] one of the founding books of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), Richard Bandler and John Grinder explain the basic idea behind their approach as follows: people's behavior can be explained (and influenced) by looking at (and changing) the way they represent reality; each person represents reality by building up a model in their mind; people differ in their particular models (because we're all subject to different experiences in the world, and thus the input for our models is unique to each person); and models always differ from reality as well, just in the way a map would differ from the territory it represents (even though there are also similarities between the map and the territory, for otherwise the map would be useless). NLP, then, is a technique for manipulating such models, originally for purposes of therapy and education. Such manipulation results in richer models and enables more choice and control in the patients or students subjected to the technique.

Three ways of model-forming that are explicitly listed and discussed are: Generalization, Deletion, and Distortion (SM 14–16). For each of them, Bandler and Grinder are careful to show that they can be helpful and useful techniques for people when coping with the world, but can also result in limiting choices and thus impoverishing their lives; much depends on the context and the manner in which they are used. Generalization is defined as "the process by which elements or pieces of a person's model become detached from their original experience and come to represent the entire category of which the experience is an example." (SM 14) Next is deletion, "by which we selectively pay attention to certain dimensions of our experience and exclude others." (SM 15) And finally, distortion "allows us to make shifts in our experience of sensory data." (SM 16) Examples of this latter form include fantasy, allowing us to "prepare for experiences which we may have before they occur", such as when we rehearse a speech in private before giving it in front of the actual audience. (This list is not exhaustive, as Bandler and Grinder point out, and of course the borders of these categories can be fuzzy; also, these forms of modeling influence and amplify each other via various sorts of feedback loops.)

Now, this sort of account of what goes on in people's minds in terms of representation (forming models that represent reality) has been severely criticized in recent decades by philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists; but for some practical purposes it may still by a helpful picture, and although I largely agree with the criticism, I'm not going further into it here. Instead, I'd like to draw attention to a certain parallel with Nelson Goodman's list of 'ways of worldmaking'[2]; I think there's something to be learned from both accounts if we're interested in the ways of forming unreality (both out of reality and out of antecedent instances unreality — preexisting 'versions', as Goodman would call them).

In Goodman's view, there are many different worlds, or world-versions, which come about by our uses of symbol systems. Whenever we describe or depict what's going on around us, we produce another version of the world, potentially different from any other version that previously existed. Since versions are created in various ways and in different contexts (a version may well be unique to a particular person's viewpoint at a given place and time), there is a multiplicity here comparable to the one pointed out by Bandler and Grinder in The Structure of Magic. And since every version came into being by a creative process that included a symbol system (such as a scientific description language or a conventional style of artistic expression), there is not really a point in speaking of a world-in-itself, a world that isn't a version — versions, in Goodman's sense, are all there is to the world. Thus talk of multiple versions and talk of many worlds comes down to practically the same thing. (Goodman makes it clear from the outset hat this doesn't imply an arbitrary anything-goes relativism, see WWM 17–21.)

Goodman enumerates various ways of how world-versions are produced: Composition and Decomposition, Weighting, Ordering, Deletion and Supplementation, and Deformation (WWM 7–17). He makes pretty much the same observation about deletion as Bandler and Grinder, noting that "what we find what we are prepared to find (what we look for or what forcefully affronts our expectations), and that we are likely to be blind to what neither helps nor hinders our pursuits are commonplaces of everyday life [...] And even within what we do perceive and remember, we dismiss as illusory or negligible what cannot be fitted into the architecture of the world we are building." (WWM 14–15) He includes under the heading of deformation a somewhat different sort of phenomenon than distortion in Bandler and Grinder's sense: for him, this includes changes such as a physicist's smoothing out of a diagram curve to emphasize the underlying simple kind of shape, even though the data are actually off that shape a little, or a related distortion in caricatures that have the job of emphasizing a detail in the caricatured person (WWM 16). It's not quite clear to me why Goodman thought this a sufficiently different category from his second one, namely weighting. In any case, while his discussion of deletion and supplementation of details is richer than that in The Structure of Magic, and his discussion of weighting and ordering has no counterpart there, he doesn't explicitly include the process that Bandler and Grinder call distortion. The reason is probably to be found in a difference of perspective which he mentions before giving his list: "Actually, I am more concerned with certain relationships among worlds than with how or whether particular worlds are made from others" (WWM 7). The focus is rather on formal properties and relationships of world-versions than on the psychological or creative processes that bring them about.

This difference in focus is even clearer with respect to the first category in The Structure of Magic: generalization. The term is used there to refer to the formation of a rule of behavior, caused by some experience (possibly repeatedly made). Rules of behavior, although they can be formulated in a linguistic description (in the words and sentences of a natural language) or even in an artificial symbolic form (such as in a logical calculus or a computer programming language), are basically habits of perceiving and acting. Thus, they're not in the focus of Goodman's discussion. Still, the labeling and classification processes he refers to in the section about composition and decomposition cover the process of generalization that Bandler and Grinder describe (see esp. WWM 8–9), and much more.

[1] Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic. A book about language and therapy, Palo Alto: Science and Behavior Books 1975, 5–20. References to The Structure of Magic are given with SM and page numbers.
[2] Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, Indianapolis: Hackett 1978. Quoted as WWM with page numbers.

February 3, 2011


"You're home late." said Jill to John, with just a hint of a question in her voice. "Yeah, I had to work longer today... oh, and then I had a beer with Tom after work." That, however, was a lie. In truth, John had been shopping in a jewelry store. (Though whether he was buying something for a mistress, or rather a surprise wedding day present for Jill, I'm not going to tell you; and so you'll never find out.)

Lying means saying something that you think to be untrue, while assuming at the same time that the people you're talking to take the conversation to be truthful. Everyone, that is, believes that what is said is what the speaker takes to be true (to the best of their knowledge). Lying is a conversational move that breaks the rules of the game, with everyone else still thinking those rules in force.[1]

It only works because we have the ability to claim something although we silently think to ourselves that it is not the case; something else is. In the story fragment above, John gives an account of his activities that evening which he knows is not accurate. He keeps to himself what he knows to be the true version, and makes up another version (plausible enough to be a candidate for the truth, as far as Jill can tell) which he then entertains.

This juggling with two versions is a characteristic that lying shares with other ways of generating unreality. Think of 'what-if' scenarios: "What if they don't have this reference book at the public library?" — "Well, then we'll have to buy a copy at the bookstore." Here the assumption is (presumably) that the book is in fact at the library, but that assumption is suspended for the time being, to discuss the options in the hypothetical case in which it isn't. We pretend, for the sake of that discussion, something to be the case that we think is probably not so; after we're done with sorting out the options, we then switch back to 'realistic' mode.

This connects to the interplay between reflection and imagination I've sketched previously. When making up versions of what we think to be true (or likely to be true) in lying or scenario discussion, we're in imagination mode: we generate unreality. Being truthful or realistic, on the other hand, is reflection mode: we keep as close to reality as possible (we might still be mistaken about what's the case, but that doesn't make us less truthful or less realistic; it just makes us unsuccessful in being epistemically right).

What is special about lying, however, is the one-sided breaking of the rules I've mentioned above. When looking at scenarios, usually everyone involved in the conversation is aware that imagination is in play; when someone is telling a lie, the intent is precisely to create an asymmetry in this regard. From this difference, a difference in moral evaluation might be derived: lying is considered as morally wrong, whereas scenario discussion is not. (Exactly how the moral wrongness of lying is derived is of course another topic for extensive discussion.)

[1] See Don Fallis, "What is Lying?", Journal of Philosophy 106 (2009), 29–56; James Edwin Mahon, "Lying and Deception" at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Thomas Carson, "The definition of lying", in Nous 40 (2006), 284–306.