December 31, 2011

Nested unreality is not always fiction-within-fiction

Fiction, deception, and illusion are different forms of unreality; carefully distinguishing between them helps in not being led astray in interpreting fiction that includes nested forms of unreality. In Shakespeare's philosophy[1], Colin McGinn writes about The Tempest that here "the impression of allegory is strong: the characters 'stand' for something." (143) He then goes on to interpret Prospero as standing "for the idea of the artist", intended to be "Shakespeare's representative" (ibd.).

Prospero, according to McGinn, arranges for the tempest, the romance between Miranda and Ferdinand, and generally everything that happens to all the other characters as a piece of dramatic art, as a fiction. (To use the terminology of this blog, these episodes are instance of unreality; among the various forms of unreality, they would be classified as fictional.) The storm that wrecks the ship in the beginning of the play, then, "was just a performance, giving only the impression of catastrophe, from which all the actors emerged unscathed. [...] The actors didn't know the storm was essentially fictitious, and so performed their roles with authenticity, but all along it was just a piece of make-believe." (Ibd.)

I think this interpretation confuses the way the different forms of unreality work. It's true that fiction is a game of make-believe, but it's a game that is played with asymmetric roles: there are the author, director, and actors in one kind of role (pretending to do something, performing), and the audience in another one (pretending to believe — suspending disbelief). If you and I, for example, perform a scene with a car crash on stage which we both survive, and an audience watches that performance, it's our job (yours and mine) to pretend being shaken and thrown around and the job of the audience to pretend to witness a car crash.

But note a couple of things: first, it makes sense to ask whether the characters survive the car crash in the fictional world of that scene, but it doesn't make sense to ask whether the audience gets hurt. The audience is not in that fictional world. They're only pretending to watch it. The audience, to put it somewhat differently, is apart from that fictional world. Second, in order to suspend disbelief, the audience must be aware that it's a performance that is going on, that they are presented with fiction. Fiction as a game of make-belief works only if you know that it is a game and yet play along. If you're not aware that this is what happens, it's no longer fiction, but deception (or perhaps, in some cases, illusion).

Now ask yourself who Prospero's audience is when he stages his fake storm. Is it Shakespeare's audience (the people who sit in the theatre and watch the play), or is it the group of travelers on the ship? I think it should be clear that the other characters in the play, though subject to deception and manipulation, are not the audience of a fiction. They are confronted with what is, in their world, an instance of unreality, but they're not suspending disbelief with respect to it, they actually believe in it. The travelers on the ship believe that they are caught in a storm, they're not pretending to witness a storm as if they were an audience watching it on television. In other words, the travelers on the ship are in the same situation as the characters are that you and I play in our car crash scene. In their world, what happens is a storm (or a car crash), and they have good reason to think of themselves as being in that situation. Their world is more complicated than the world of the car crash scene, of course: the storm isn't real, but a deception. (Thus it's a case of nested unreality: a deception within a fiction.) But that doesn't put them in the position of a fiction's audience. It puts them in the position of a deception's target.

It seems, then, that the audience in Prospero's drama cannot be the other characters, but it must be the audience of Shakespeare's play. But then it isn't correct that, as McGinn writes, "Shakespeare is introducing theatricality into the lives of his characters" (144). Prospero's words may be reflections of the playwright put into the mouth of one of his characters (and McGinn quotes some lines which make this plausible), but it doesn't follow that Prospero's machinations make the world of the other characters into a stage. Miranda and Ferdinand don't experience their own romance as if it was a fiction (compare with Theseus and Hippolyta watching the romance of Pyramus and Thisbe); the travelers on the ship don't experience the storm as if it was a show (compare the staged murder Claudius and his court watch). They're subject to deception, not audience to a performance.

(As a side-note: if the audience of the spectacle of the tempest is not the cast of characters, but the theatre audience, then it's also a little imprecise to speak of the tempest as "just a performance, giving only the impression of catastrophe, from which all the actors emerged unscathed." If you're sitting in a theatre audience, it's of course just a performance, and you don't expect the actors to be hurt. On the other hand, you can still ask whether the characters in the world of the play were hurt or not: did Alonzo and friends survive the storm, did your character and mine survive the car crash? And that it is just a play doesn't determine the answer to this question. It simply depends on the plot. The plot might be so that they survive; the plot might be so that they get killed. Both outcomes are consistent with the whole thing being a drama.)

[1] Colin McGinn, Shakespeare's Philosophy. Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays. New York: Harper 2006.

December 26, 2011

The illusionist effect

Yesterday I went to a magic show, and I found there were some interesting aspects of unreality to observe from that art form. An illusionist would perform numbers such as walking through a mirror or letting a person levitate on stage. What makes these performances so thrilling?

Let's begin by noting that many of the tasks are seemingly impossible and yet they are done right before our eyes. People don't hover some feet above ground (or a table) elsewhere, they don't do so naturally, and even if you try, you won't manage to do it in the real world. What we see is an illusion. Now I'm not interested in exactly how the illusion is produced, but I take it that some combination of clever distraction and technical devices is at work here. But that's not how we perceive it. We perceive a person levitating.

1) That seemingly impossible things happen cannot be in itself the characteristic thing about illusions that we're looking for — we can find that elsewhere as well, namely in fiction.

The world of the illusionist show is not obviously a fictional world, in the way in which novels or movies create fictional worlds that are apart in time and space. Even though the magicians might sport fancy costumes and exotic names, they're not (at least not always) telling a story about someone else, somewhere else, who does magical things. They often pretend to do it in our world, in the real world. (They don't claim to really perform magic, they're open about the fact that they just pretend to do it for their show; but where they pretend to do it is the actual world.)

Compare this with similar situations in movies. If the fictional world of a movie includes the possibility of people levitating (think Harry Potter), we will probably witness some scenes in which they do. Again, the people who produced that movie have used some technical tricks to create that effect. But in the case of a movie, the thrill of such a scene is weaker (of course it depends on how the levitation is introduced and dramatized). We're used to all sorts of strange things that might go on in sufficiently phantastic film worlds. In an illusionist show, it's not quite the same. After all, everything that goes on does go on before our eyes. There are real people on that stage, and real, physical scenes and props. Moreover, time flows exactly as we know it: when people suddenly change their appearance (their costume, say) in a movie, we take it that they have been photographed at some time, then changed, and at a later time photographed in their different outlook. We don't know much about the timing of production, only about the time of the resulting film. On the other hand, when a shapeshifting magician changes into a completely different look in a mere second or two on stage, there is no such intervening time. Whatever it is exactly that happens, it really happens in those one or two seconds.

2) So it seems it's not just that we are presented with a display of something that's impossible or highly improbable — it isn't just pretended that it happens, but also that it happens under circumstances that pretend to certify that it's real (as compared to trickery). An illusionist will go some lengths about reassuring the audience that they're watching the real thing. For example, I saw a number where a woman was shot out of a cannon into a water bowl, and the magician took care to have someone from the audience write her name on the assistant's arm, so that it was very clear that the woman who was presented in the water bowl was the same one, with those unique marks on her arm, as the one who had crawled into the cannon. We might call this 'non-fiction markers', in contrast to those fiction markers (such as the introductory formula 'Once upon a time...') which signal we're entering a fictional world. A non-fiction marker is intended to signal the exact opposite: it admonishes us to situate what we're about to see in the actual world; instead of being asked to suspend disbelief, we're asked to fire up disbelief and actually equip it with all our attention and perceptive capacities. We're encouraged to believe nothing unless we've satisfied us with our own eyes that it's all real. (Even though we know it's not.)

3) If someone asks you to imagine something, you have some leeway to not do it. For example, suppose you're asked to imagine there was no blogging, that the internet hadn't even been invited. You can now wonder what the world would look like if that was the case, but then again, you don't have to. You can simply refuse to imagine such a thing. Likewise, when you're watching a movie or reading a novel, especially if it's a bad one, you may refuse to get immersed in it. You can tell yourself that this is all 'just made up', you can focus your attention on the attempted (though not quite achieved) effect which it is supposed to make but actually doesn't.

With magic, that's more difficult, because illusionist magic projects the imaginary things that go on into the actual world. Magical illusions thus stimulate imagination more thoroughly; they almost force it out. Unless you really see through an illusion (which is something a clever magician will work hard to prevent), you'll have severe difficulties to refuse imagining that things such as levitation are going on here. At the very least, you'll constantly be asking yourself how it is done. But in addition, you'll constantly be encouraged to quickly consider what you're seeing as an option. You will, that is, for a moment ask yourself whether there is really a woman hovering around on stage, or whether you're deceived; but even if you are quick to reject the first option, it has presented itself to your perception for a moment, and so it has at least as a possibility briefly existed in your mind. The space of options that exist in the world widens, even if only for a moment, to include it. And if I'm right, that contributes considerably to the illusionist effect: it widens the space of options, stimulates imagination; and it does so in a manner that's very difficult to escape while you're sitting in the audience.