June 26, 2011

Sedimentation of unreality

Dreams sometimes come true. So do prophecies (sometimes). Jealous fantasies can become so destructive that they actually create what they were about (albeit wrongly) in the first place. Visionary leaders know that they first have to draw a picture before people can start acting towards making it a reality.

A while ago I wrote about some even more complex examples in Hitchcock's movies (Vertigo and North by Northwest), where an elaborate deception creates a dynamic in the world (the world of the movie, that is) which in effect makes it seem as if the deception has become reality.

Even in the real world there are some rare cases of an instance of unreality causing far-reaching developments. The first airing of Orson Welles' radio show War of the worlds (based on H.G. Wells' novel) was so convincing that it caused confusion and panic with some in the show's audience who mistook it for a real report.

Such effects are normally short-lived in the real world — reflection kicks in, people communicate and cross-check, and closeness to reality is restored all the faster the higher the number of people who are affected directly. On the other hand, as long as the feasibility of reality checks is kept low and the subject remains fascinating enough to hold a grip on the imagination, even foggy rumors can be sustained for quite some time. In his 1993 Norton Lectures, Umberto Eco cites the case of the Superb, a British submarine which was rumored to be deployed during the build-up of the Falklands crisis. It wasn't, but a combination of public imagination, media speculation and official secrecy quickly made it into a quasi-fact. "[T]he whole story grew out of vague gossip, through the collaboration of all parties. Everybody cooperated in the creation of the Yellow Submarine because it was a fascinating fictional character and its story was narratively exciting."[1]

What all these examples have in common is that some instance of unreality brings about changes in the real world, gets people to act in a different way than they'd have acted without that instance of unreality. Unreality (sometimes) settles into reality: though unreality is unreality, and reality is reality, part of reality consists of sedimented unreality.

Let's look closer at this. When we say that a dream comes true, it's not that literally the dream events come to have happened. It's still only a dream. What does happen is that I start acting in a way that makes some future situation resemble the situation from the dream. (This future situation can be a desirable state, if the dream expresses some wishes or goals I have; it could be an undesirable state, if it is a nightmare and expresses some of my fears. In either case, the way I act towards the situation I experienced in the dream can be conscious, or unconscious, or both.) If that happens and my actions are successful in bringing that situation about, we have now two different situations: an unreal dream situation and a real situation, which I made happen partly because of my dream experience.

When unreality sediments into reality, that instance of unreality remains what it is (it's not, so to speak, transformed into something real). In the example, there's still that dream, and that is an instance of unreality. It becomes, however, the cause (at least, a partial cause) and reason (possibly one reason among others) why some further, real situation, happens the way it does.

To conclude, here are some random reflections about sedimentation. First, in the case of dreams or visions what the unreal situation (the one that's dreamt or envisioned) and the real situation have in common is some experience you have in it, or a description that applies to it. It's an experience or description that was originally a 'what-if' experience or description. In other cases, such as the panic following a fictional invasion from Mars, there's no experience in common, but rather the real situation contains an 'as-if' perception or even action. (People start evacuating as if there really was an invasion.) In the most intricate cases, a constellation might involve both a 'what-if' experience and an 'as-if' action, leading to a very potent confusion of reality and unreality: this is what Vertigo uses to great and disturbing effect.(Again: read more about it in my previous post about sedimentation of unreality in those Hitchcock movies.)

Second, people who act on the basis of some instance of unreality are sometimes aware of this (when they try to fulfill a dream or achieve a vision, or when they have deliberately assumed a scenario, e.g. as a working hypothesis); sometimes they're not (when they act under a deception or illusion). But since people invest by acting and forming views about the world that contains this sedimented unreality, it's unlikely to be reversed once it's found unreal. (There's only a limited possibility to revert your actions in the world anyway, in particular if they have caused more development already.) I've called this the irreversibility of sedimentation in the previous posts I've already linked.

And finally, not everything in reality is sedimented unreality. (Although many facts about the real world have some sedimented unreality somewhere in the chain of causes that lead up to them.) Neither does all unreality sediment into reality of some form. (Some instances of unreality will remain largely without effect in the real world.)[2]

[1] Umberto Eco, Six walks in the fictional woods. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1993, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1994, 97–99, the quote is from 99.

[2] Technical side note: I'm using a sketchy notion of cause and effect here that leaves many unclarities and is not (yet) connected to the contemporary philosophical discussion of causation. But note that the idea of sedimented unreality as a cause is no more problematic than any notion of mental causation of events in the world. Sedimentation can unproblematically be analyzed in terms of people's views and actions. It singles out views and actions that are based on an exercise of the imagination, but that's a phenomenon that every account of human action has to deal with anyway.

June 20, 2011

Aesthetic ascent

This continues my earlier post about literature (and art more generally), approaching the notion of beauty.

2. Ascent. There is something like a natural progression, a sort of development, in the way we attend to fictional works, such as novels, movies, or theatre plays. First, you simply follow the flow, and yield to impressions: this is the stage of immersion. Then follows an activity of comparison: noting characteristics, finding differences and commonalities with other works, understanding patterns and developments. Finally, with the recognition that there is a shaping mind (or several minds) behind all this, someone who has intentionally created it so, there is a stage of appreciation. It's the artist's imaginative performance that comes into focus at this last stage.

Let's take an example: you're reading a novel. The first stage is immersion. You get 'into' the story; you start orienting yourself in this fictional world, you get to know the characters, sometimes from within their own head, sometimes only from without; as the story develops, you're curious why they act as they do; you want to know what happens next. (It's just the same when watching a movie: you're attending closely to what is happening on the screen, you're with the plot, apprehending the events that unfold, listen to the characters' words, watch their actions, empathize with the feelings they express in their body language and tone of voice.)

At this stage, you are not aware of your own position as an observer; you're absorbed — you don't reflect. You're 'dreaming the fictional dream', as writing coach John Gardner has put it.[1]

There may come a point, however, when you step out of this immediate engagement and enter stage two: comparison. This might happen while you're still reading, or perhaps afterwards; it may happen only after you've read many books; and perhaps even then only after prompting from a teacher or a review in a newspaper. Whatever triggers it, you attention is drawn away from what is happening to the characters to what you can observe about this piece of fiction as such. You begin to notice differences and commonalities with other stories; you start categorizing, possibly assign them to genres; you may identify stylistic elements, perceive patterns, developments, and so on.

Once you put a fiction into a comparison class, it speaks to you in a different way. You can't be exclusively absorbed in that single piece any more, because you are now aware of its relationship with many others. It does no longer only exist in the events and emotions it presents to you; it is now also bound into a larger context of ways of presenting such events and emotions. The space of what you're perceiving has widened considerably: from merely something that's going on (for you to raptly enjoy) to goings-on that merely present one lone path through a vast network of connections.

Noting this, of course, you may well ask yourself the question why you are on this particular path now, and not another one. There may be reasons behind it or not, but you'll find that now you realize a shaping will behind the fact that you are going in that particular direction right now. Someone (the author, or artist) has taken choices, has deliberately arranged things in this specific way. And once you're aware that many of those decisions come from a unique, creative mind, the mind of someone who knows about those options, and who has a sense of direction that somehow got transferred upon these fictions — once you notice that, you're on the level of appreciation.

3. I have started above with the claim that there is this development, or aesthetic ascent, in our responses to fictional works. We must get clearer about the status of that ascent.

First, of course we don't go through these stages with every single experience we have of a fictional work. In other words, you might have got to the level of appreciation when watching a movie yesterday, but that doesn't mean that you can't watch another movie today and remain on the level of immersion. (It's not quite so clear that you can watch the same movie today and remain on the level of immersion. I suspect that once you've reached some level of reflection with respect to a particular instance of fiction, it's difficult, perhaps impossible, to again retreat from that level. Compare this to knowing a foreign language: if you can't understand French, say, and you're sitting in a café in Paris, you may perceive all the talking around you, which you can't interpret, as a kind of music, an acoustic background, sounds without any direct meaning to you. Once you've learned the language, however, it is nearly impossible to perceive those same sounds that way. You'll hear the meaning of what is said, whether you want it or not. I think it's similar with perceiving an instance of fiction on the level of comparison or appreciation: once you're there, you can't go back.)

Second, this ascent is not tied to stages of our personal development. It's not that we're merely immersed in all novels, movies etc. for the first twenty years or so of our lives, and then learn something, get up to the next level, and from that point always remain there. Sure enough, with education and personal maturity comes also a greater ability and affinity for reflection and appreciation in these matters. But there is no reason why young people couldn't go through all stages very early in their development. (Even young children start sorting stories they know by how much they like them, and later on they may find they have a favorite author or two whose works they like most.)

Third, at all three levels external elements have an influence on what we experience, in addition to the aesthetic ascent. You may be immersed in a story at first, but your thoughts may drift away after a while. (So you're not reflecting on what goes on in the story, but you're suddenly in the mood to think about your plans for tomorrow, perhaps triggered by a sentence you've read.) Likewise, your concentration may fade because of physical or mental fatigue; or your ability to follow an emotionally disturbing story or film may be exhausted after a while. (You simply can't take any more of those depressing pictures or situations.)

On the level of comparison, personal preferences may guide your perception. For example, if you've just taken up dancing classes or some sport, you might be sensitive to aspects of physical activity or competitiveness and experience a movie which reflects on them much more intensely; this might lead to a preference for that category which is merely rooted in your own current situation. (Note that in this case, there is still much going on on the comparison level between movies within that same category. The preference is for focusing on movies which deal with that particular aspect, but you're still going to compare them with each other for how they do that; and that comparison activity is of course the more interesting one.) Similarly, there are many other influences here from our own personal constellation: we may find certain actors more attractive than others because of their physical appearance, their unique voice, or their intriguing screen persona; we may be fascinated by the novelty and relative strangeness of something we've only just started discovering; or we may even relish a slight quality of indistinctness in styles we're not yet used to. (Try reading Shakespeare in original Old English, or generally something written in a language you can understand reasonably well, but you're not yet quite familiar with. The fact that there are nuances you won't get, and the fact that you know it, will add a special, unique charm to those works; but it will inevitably wear off after some more practice.)

Finally, on the level of appreciation, where we focus on artistic performance, there is another set of external elements that may influence us, such as a personal like or dislike for the artist, or an own personal experience practicing the art in question: you can recognize an achievement much better if you know from first-hand experience what it takes to get there, what labors, patience, and perseverance are required for it. Thus, on all three levels there are external factors interacting with the development we're looking at here, aesthetic ascent.

(I don't think there is a need to 'purify' our reception of fictional works, in a way that minimizes or even eliminates those external influences. It's just important to be aware that aesthetic ascent, in the sense described here, is not the only thing going on in those experiences.)

There's a fourth aspect to aesthetic ascent. Our experience of an instance of art is deepened, its richness and intensity increased on each of those levels (contrary to widespread opinion that a perception that is unspoiled by theory is the most intense). This connects back to my earlier post about appreciation of the craft. I said there that conceptual skills are required, and must be developed, in order to get to a more refined appreciation of art. Aesthetic ascent is a crucial factor in building these conceptual skills. Understanding is enhanced by informed ways of looking at things; and the ability to appreciate fictional works is no exception to that rule.

[1] John Gardner, The Art of Fiction. Notes on craft for young writers. New York: Random House 1984.

June 11, 2011

Naturalizing myths (contd.)

(This continues my earlier posting about Plato's handling of the myth of Boreas and Oreithya in the Phaedrus.)

In the Republic, where the topic is the proper forming of character, Socrates reflects on the influence which bad myths might have, and proposes to reject them.

(This is not necessarily the call for censorship some people have read into it. Note that the Republic isn't a proposal for direct implementation of political measures; many textbooks misleadingly suggest that, by glossing its content as "Plato sketching his vision of an ideal state". But that's a grave oversimplification. The Republic is about the formation of the human psyche; it aims to explain the main excellences of character and their base in the complexities of human psychology; and it does so by demonstrating the internal processes within the psyche using a model: the model of a city-state, which makes the details more tangible in an externalized form and so helps us to discuss and explore them. This model, the sketch of an ideal state, makes up only part of the work; and though it probably lets us see some of Plato's ideas and fantasies about the political and social realm, this doesn't make it into a work of political science yet.)[1]

One criticism he makes is that portraying the gods as vicious, unjustly violent, or deceptive is wrong: both because it doesn't adequately reflect the nature of the divine (gods who'd behave that way could not count as divine, or something higher than humans; on the contrary, they'd be even worse than humans, at least when the latter are at their best), and also because, adequate or not, it plants the wrong examples in the minds of the audience.[2]

This criticism obviously fits the myth of Boreas we've seen Phaedrus and Socrates talk about on their way along the river in the Phaedrus. There is no way the actions of the personalized wind-god might be described as properly divine. One thing to be said, then, by the standards of the Republic, is that this story would be inappropriate for use in education. Still, Socrates in the Phaedrus avoids ethical reflection.

(Martha Nussbaum sees in this more tolerant stance a change of attitude which reflects a deeper change in Plato's thinking. She sees in the Phaedrus a shift towards higher tolerance and appreciation of emotional elements in ethics.[3] Even if this is true, however, it would explain the acceptance of the mythical story as such, i.e. as a story which displays personalized gods and the like; it still doesn't account for the fact that the sort of behavior shown here is unacceptable. The form of the myth would be OK, but not its content.)

[1] More on the reception history of the Republic can be found in Julia Annas', Ancient Philosophy. A very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000, 24–36, and the references given there. A more detailed discussion of the inadequacy of a reading reduced to the political can be found in her Platonic Ethics: Old and New, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1999, 72–95.
[2] Rep. 377d–378e
[3] In her The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, rev. ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001, 225.

June 2, 2011

Appreciation of the craft

In order to get clearer about my concept of beauty, I'm looking first at artistic creation: beauty in literature, music and the arts.[1] I'm focusing on examples from literature for now, but the ideas I'm sketching here should apply more or less the same to all forms of artistic creation. I begin by introducing the notions of appreciation, aesthetic ascent, and performance.

1) Appreciation.[2] Let's start with an obvious and rather truistic point: when we try to understand a work of literature, there is at least one special dimension compared to trying to understand any narrative in everyday life. A work of literature doesn't just tell a story; it does that, but it does it in a special way. For our understanding of something as literature, the way how the story is told is at least as important as its content.

When we read an article in a newspaper (telling us about a political summit, for instance), or a report at work, what we are mostly interested in is what the narrative tells us, not how it is told. Not that the latter aspect doesn't matter: there is a typical style to newspaper articles or work reports, and if a text of that sort fails to comply to our expectations, we're irritated. Imagine a work report using obscure or flowery language, or a newspaper article written in verse. We would be surprised, and because of the unusual format, we would have difficulty reading it as a work report or newspaper article. So the way such a text is written is not immaterial—it must be written in a particular way. But if it is, then we are precisely not interested in the question in what way it is written. The craft aspect, so to speak, is transparent to us. Ideally, we want to be informed, and the best style for a text with that objective is a style that isn't perceived as style, that keeps in the background.

Consider yet another sort of narrative that also is part of daily life. When your friend tells you the amusing (or depressing, depending on where you stand) story how many forms she had to fill in to get her laptop connected to the company network, you're not mostly interested in what exactly happened. If she told you the story to amuse you, then a lot depends on how well she succeeds in making it fun to listen to it. In this case again, the way the story is told is far from unimportant; but again, it should be transparent—it's not necessary for you to notice exactly what makes the story funny, which stylistic elements (choice of words, body language, exploitation of shared opinions) are used, and how well they are employed. On the contrary: the story will probably fail to be amusing if you are made aware of these elements too often and too directly.

In all these examples it is of course possible to reflect on narrative style, and appreciate it. You can come to like a certain newspaper precisely because of its sober and informative style, you can appreciate a colleague's work reports for their matter-of-factness, and of course we can value a friend's talent for amusing storytelling. Such additional reflection and appreciation is not strictly necessary for the functioning of something as a newspaper article, a work report, or an amusing conversation. But it refines your perceptive and social interaction skills if you are capable of doing so (and if you actually do it a lot). It is also a step into the direction of appreciation of art, and literature in particular.

With literature, reflection on and appreciation of the way how things are said in a text are built right into the practice, both on the side of the producers and on the side of the recipients. In other words, authors are aware that it's not just the stories they tell, but also how they are telling them (their particular style, use of language and idioms, the way they construct the story and plot etc.) which is subject to interest and appreciation; and readers know that they must look at these aspects in order to fully 'get' what's going on in the text.

Auguste Toulmouche,
The reading lesson
 Understanding literature, then, must include perceiving and appreciating the 'how' it is made, in addition to the 'what' that it says. This is a skill that requires some development, and naturally it benefits from learning to apply the terms and concepts of technical language. If you are able to distinguish between plot and story, or between the narrator's and the character's perspectives, and if you can use these terms to refer to such differences in discourse with yourself and others, then you have reached a higher level of skill in understanding literature. Note that having a conceptual skill does not necessarily mean that you also have to use some given terminology; many readers have an understanding of the difference between the narrator's perspective and a character's perspective, although they may never have learned the technical use of 'narrator', 'character' and 'perspective' employed here. It's not the particular use of words that matters — what matters is the conceptual capacity.

[1] Further steps must surely include human beauty (including eros and desire) and beauty of nature (in both its main forms: the organism and the wilderness).

[2] This is a slightly reworked version of an earlier post about Reflection and interpretation over at my online journal.