April 21, 2012

Conceptual blending, imagination, and other people

This nice, short talk about the power of imagination includes a number of concrete examples for what I have termed sedimentation of unreality into reality. Conceptual blending is the operative term; this means that some perception of physical reality blends with an abstract idea to generate something imaginary, which is then treated as real. (In addition to what I have called sedimentation, this notion is also related to Colin McGinn's discussion of imaginative seeing in the third chapter of Mindsight.[1])

In the second part of the talk, he gives a number of examples for how our imagination shapes (and often generates) our idea of other people. (This is what I have also identified in my book as one of he main functions of imagination.) Again, some good illustrations of how such ideas sediment into reality subsequently.
[1] Colin McGinn, Mindsight. Image, Dream, Meaning. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2004, 48–55.

April 10, 2012

Improbable fiction, continuity, and personal identity

I have written about continuity of personality in fictional characters involved in passage into the unreal. Here's a little sidetrack investigation, namely: does this discussion carry us into the philosophical topic that is typically headlined 'personal identity'? Can we learn anything interesting about the idea of personal identity from fictional settings that involve passage into an instance of unreality? I don't think so — there isn't much of special interest here as far as I can see. Here's why.

Much of what is discussed by philosophers of personal identity focuses on cases where it isn't clear (at least not on the face of it) whether someone is still the same person under some hypothetical change of circumstances. So for instance, if Fred wakes up one morning and has lost all his memories of the past, we might ask whether he's still the same person or whether his personality has been somewhat reduced by such a loss of recall. We might then go further and ask what we would think if it turns out that instead of his own memories, Fred now has the memories of someone else — is he still, in this changed scenario, the same person as yesterday, or should we say that he's now someone else, transferred into Fred's body? At which point would we have to conclude that we're no longer talking about one and the same person? Does it depend on how we lay out the scenario, that is, do our intuitions here depend on the kind and order of changes we gradually introduced? There is a stream of literature on these and related questions about personal identity. But it's mostly, as I said, about constructing borderline cases, scenarios in which we can test our intuitions and assumptions.

In our discussion here it's the other way round. It's not a scenario in which we are uncertain about the identity of a character at all. When I wrote that Arnold is the same person in act I as he is in act II (when he is thrown into a fictional world), that claim is a simple assumption, or stipulation.[1] He's the same person because we take him to be the same person. The playwright supports that assumption by arranging the first switch to a fictional world so that it almost suggests itself. At the end of act I, Arnold stands in the middle of the room, when there are suddenly a thunderstroke and a few seconds of darkness — after that, the scene has changed (the telephone, as the primary passage marker, has disappeared), the other actors have suddenly appeared in different costumes. Arnold is standing at exactly the same place, in the same clothes, and gives a surprise interjection. Thus it's a very natural assumption that, while much around him has changed, he's still the same. But when we make that assumption, it's exactly that: an assumption. Arnold is still Arnold because we take him to be still Arnold.

Contrast this with the cases that are interesting to the philosophy of personal identity. There, we have some reason to ask ourselves whether someone's identity has changed, and from that we can start a philosophical reflection on the notion of (and our intuitions about) that sort of identity. In our case, however, most of the interpretation of the rest of the play is based on taking the character of Arnold as continuous. So our imagination is clearly directed to taking him as the same person throughout. It is stipulated that Arnold is still Arnold (even as he has been transferred into the world of a fiction).

So personal identity, instead of being questioned and explored in a borderline setting, is taken for granted here, and there is some effort to construct the scenario precisely in a way so that there is no question about it. In the case of Improbable Fiction, this is competently done, and it simply works. Obviously, there might be a limit to such a construction. If, let's say, the play wasn't a play, but a novel, and instead of simply being transferred to somewhere else, Arnold would also find himself in a completely different body, perhaps even the body of an animal, say, a crocodile, plus fully unable to remember anything from earlier times, and incapable of speaking and thinking at all ... well, you get the picture — at some point the stipulation that this is still the same character, Arnold, would become unintelligible. And now we might ask ourselves where exactly that point is. Is it when Arnold has become an animal? (But then, Kafka's Metamorphosis seems intelligible.) Is it when he cannot remember anything anymore? (But would we say that someone ceases to be a person just because they suffer amnesia?) And so on. We might explore our intuitions about such cases. We might do some 'experimental philosophy' to find out empirically how widely exactly which intuitions are shared. And so we might learn something interesting about our concept of personal identity.

But none of this really plays a role in our understanding the plot of Improbable Fiction (and similar plays, movies, or novels), and the continuity of a character in it. And that's because that continuity is essential to the device of passage into an instance of unreality. So an author has to simply stipulate such continuity, to make us naturally assume it. He'd only ask for trouble if he would stage it as problematic. These plots are not designed to discuss the question of personal identity (as the scenarios in the philosophical literature are). Rather, they're designed to avoid or preempt that question. Thus it doesn't seem to me that we can learn anything interesting about the philosophy of personal identity from them.
[1] The notion of stipulating identity, rather than discovering it, is the same here as that on which Saul Kripke insists when he criticizes the idea, vented by some, of 'trans-world identification' in the first lecture of his Naming and Necessity. (I'm as much an antirealist about possible worlds and fictional worlds as Kripke, just in case there was any doubt.)

April 9, 2012

Improbable fiction and character continuity

I have written about the concept of passage markers and used the example of Alan Ayckbourn's play Improbable Fiction to illustrate that notion. There is another interesting aspect we can explore by means of that example.

I have called the characteristic that characters travel into fictional worlds a passage into unreality: passage, that is, into the world of an instance of unreality. The stories and novels that provide the fictional worlds in act II of Improbable Fiction are such instances. Passage means here that someone, namely Arnold, travels into the worlds of these fictions, instances of unreality. (Obviously, the notion of traveling itself is a metaphorical notion, just as 'passage' is; but let's ignore that issue at this point.)

No such thing can happen in the real world, of course. You and I, real people, cannot travel into the world of a story. (Except in the trivial sense that we can read a story and then imagine the world of that story. But we won't simply find ourselves, physically, in a Victorian house in the middle of the 19th century, as Arnold does in the play.) So passage into the unreal is something that only fiction allows: a fictional character can travel from within his own fictional world into the world of a fiction-within-fiction. So does Arnold, only that he visits not just one, but actually three different fictional worlds, all of them constructed out of materials from his friends' works.

I mentioned that the characters in the play are not all on a par when it comes to traveling into fiction. More precisely, the only character who does travel into the fictional worlds of the writers' works is Arnold. In order to travel, you have to first be in one place, then in another place, and you have to remain one and the same person in both places. And only Arnold is in fact still the same person in act II (through all those fiction-within-fiction settings) as in act I (when the writing group met and discussed their works). The other characters are not. True, they are played by the same actors, and they retain some characteristics. Much of the comical effect is based on this (such as the Brevis gag I mentioned in my previous post). But that kind of continuity is comparatively weak. It's just a similarity in appearance and behavior. Mostly, they are simply the characters in those nested fictions, nothing else. They don't have any memories or experiences from the surrounding world, the world of the play proper. So for instance, Brevis, who is in act I a retired schoolteacher who writes musicals (that is, he's a composer of music) transforms into a solid doctor in the Victorian setting and then into a senior agent of some kind in the science fiction setting. In none of those he seems to have any memory of his schoolteacher personality. He's just reduced to being these fictional characters. In other words, he's not really Brevis at all. The most we can say is that he appears in various roles with Brevis' appearance and some (not all) of his personality attributes.

Arnold, on the other hand, remains the same person. Not only does he keep his memories and basic personality (and also his name) in all the fictional settings, he also considerably struggles to recognize that he is now within those fictional worlds at the beginning of act II. He is a person from the 'real' world (the world of the play) who has just traveled, inadvertently, into a fictional world, and he has to find out about that new situation first. He is, in that respect, in a similar situation as we, the audience, are. Of course, in contrast to us, the audience, Arnold doesn't just watch, he is involved in all kinds of interaction, and he's even suspected of murder at one point. Arnold, in a word, maintains a continuity of personality; none of the other characters does that. Even though he has traveled into fictional worlds, he still has the memories of the originating world, and he has to unlearn some behaviors from there. For instance, he needs to learn the names of the other characters inside their respective worlds. When he encounters Clem for the first time in the early twentieth century murder mystery, he learns that Clem is by no means Clem, but 'Jim'. (Clem has taken on the role of a detective inspector in the crime fiction world of one of the writers' works, and in that role he goes by the name 'Jim'.) So Arnold calls him 'Clem', is corrected, and henceforth calls him 'Jim'. No such adjustment goes on with any of the other characters. They appear to have never been anywhere else but in that world in which they currently are. They haven't come from the surrounding world (the world of the play).

I think that such continuity is a necessary condition for passage into an instance of unreality. What would happen if, in contrast to the actual way the play is written, Arnold would have had no continuity of memory, and personality? What if he, just as all the other characters, had fully transformed into a character of the Victorian story, the murder mystery, and the science fiction romp? In that case, what we would have witnessed in act II would have been much more abstracted from the events in act I. We would have seen a first act that featured some writers talking about their writings, and then a second version of those writings, now acted out by people resembling the actors in act I, but without connection to them. Thus one effect of Arnold's continuity of person is to connect: to bind act I and act II together more strongly, and also to draw us, the audience, deeper into the events. After all, he is in a way in the same situation as we are. Just as we, the audience, remember the content of act I, so does he. By providing a possibility to identify with him, the play makes it easier for us to engage imaginatively. Arnold is, so to speak, 'our man on stage'. He is closer to us than the other characters, because he has the same memories of previous events as we have (and the other characters seem not to have), and he has to make sense of what's going on, just as we have, too.

The continuity of personality in Arnold and our sense of plunging from the world of the play into the worlds of those fictions within that world are two sides of a medal. If there were no traveler such as Arnold, the only thing we could perceive would be a sequence of, first, a play in which stories are talked about, and second, a number of dramatic performances of something resembling those stories — and we would perceive that as an arrangement made by the playwright (or the director). It's rather similar to reading an introduction to a dialogue of Plato, say, where the introduction quotes extensively and summarizes the content of the dialogue, and then continuing to read that very dialogue which comes in the same volume, after the introduction. There is an external editor behind this constellation. Compare this to the scene in Sophie's World in which Plato himself appears in a video recording and gives his spectator introductory questions that lead into his philosophy (which is afterwards explained to Sophie in a written overview article).[1]

Thus there wouldn't be passage at all if none of the characters had any continuity through the different worlds. There's nothing impossible about a play being constructed that way. But it wouldn't feature any sort of passage any more. Passage requires continuity in at least one character, continuity throughout the world of the fiction and the world of the fiction-within-fiction. It must be the same, continuous person in the originating world and the destination world. It's the same thing with passage in other forms. When people enter dream worlds in movies like Inception, they retain a good deal of their personality from the world outside the dream — including their plans, of course, for otherwise the plot of trying to steal something specific (such as vital business information) during the dream would not be feasible. Likewise, no timetravel story really would make sense unless the timetraveler is the same person in the destination world (that is, the world at some past or future time) as in the originating 'present' from which she started.

[1] Jostein Gaarder, Sophie's World. New York: FSG 2007, 77–78. There are more interesting instances of passage in that novel, but those are for another time.

April 8, 2012

Improbable fiction and passage markers

I remember that a few years ago, on a trip to Oxford, I watched a play called Improbable Fiction by Alan Ayckbourne. The cast of characters consists of people who meet for a session of their creative writing circle; the first act introduces both the individuals, their relationships, and their writings (a colorful assortment of genres: crime fiction, science fiction, children's books, and more). In the second act, then, during a thunderstorm, all these fictions are brought to life, and the characters find themselves in a world that has been created out of their writings.

Much of the fun in this comedy comes from the writer characters being in turn characters in their own fictions, sometimes in unlikely positions. For instance, there is Brevis, a retired schoolteacher who angrily corrects Clem (the author of complicated science fiction), whenever he misuses a foreign or technical term. Later on, when the science fiction setting has become real, Brevis is the character from Clem's fiction who utters one of these the wrong terms after the other, totally convinced and with a straight face. There was one laugh after the other from the audience. Part of what this shows, of course, is how cleverly all the fun in act II was prepared in act I.

When I just wrote that the characters find themselves in a world created out of their writings, that's not fully correct — in two ways. First, strictly speaking only one of the characters actually 'finds himself' in the strange setting. That character, Arnold, suddenly notices that his surroundings have somewhat changed, and gradually comes to understand that he is now exactly within those fictions he has heard about earlier in the evening (that is, in act I). The others haven't any noticable consciousness of the change. They just act as the characters of those fictions-within-fiction. Jess, for instance, who was in act I an aspiring writer of historical romances, is now the narrator of a Victorian fortune-hunting mystery tale, and she shows no sign of having ever been anything else than an inhabitant of that story. Arnold, on the other hand, first calls her 'Jess' and only gradually comes to understand that she now has transformed into someone else, namely a person from a fiction. So, the only character who maintains a continuity of consciousness from act I through act II is Arnold (he is, in this respect, rather in the same position as we, the audience).

The second way in which it's not quite correct to say that the characters find themselves in a world created out of their fictions is this: there are actually three alternating fictional worlds in which Arnold (and the audience) is thrown. So not all the fictions from act I are combined into only one world. However, some of them are merged: at the peak of the turbulent action in act II, in the science fiction setting, there is also suddenly an appearance of the Hoblin the Goblin (from an illustrated children's book by one of the writers), and all this happens to music which was composed by a member of the circle for a musical. So the worlds of their fictions are partially merged, partially they are held separate. There is an old Victorian setting, an early twentieth-century setting (a classical murder mystery), and finally a modern setting which has the science fiction and fantasy elements in it.

Since these alternate frequently and rapidly, how do we know in which one of them we are, at any given moment in act II? There is a strike of thunder that often signals a switch between fictional worlds, and normally there is also changed lighting and different costumes. These indicators all subtly hint at a change of setting. In part they belong to the conventions of the theatre stage — so if there is a change in lighting, we normally recognize that as a signal (for instance, it could mean that time has passed by and it's now evening where it was just mid-day, or in a more abstract setting it might mean a change to a different room, or again it might signal a temporary stepping out of the stage plot altogether, into a soliloquy designed to express some character's feelings or plans). But then on the other hand, these signals are only understood by us, the audience. What about Arnold, the character who is also drawn into those fictional worlds? I haven't checked the text of the play yet, but as far as I remember, he doesn't reflect on the change of lighting, or the difference in costume. So we can presume that these signals are meant for the audience, not for him. How does he, as a character who just traveled into a fiction, recognize that this is what happened?

In other words, what we are looking for here are passage markers: details in the world of a fiction-within-fiction which signal to a character that he has just traveled from a fiction (the world of Ayckbourn's play, in our example) to the world of a fiction within that fiction (one of the worlds of those writers circle members' fictions). In the terminology of this blog, I call such a trip a passage into some instance of unreality. Fictions, that is, stories or novels, are instances of unreality; thus, if a character travels into a world of fiction, that's called a passage into an instance of unreality. So we're looking for signals that let such a character recognize he is now within the world of a fiction. (Just to give a few more examples: other ways to travel to an instance of unreality are timetravel, where you travel into the past or the future, or entering the world of someone else's dream, as in movies like Inception. In the first case, how do you know that now you are 'in the past', or 'in the future'? If you think about it for a moment, it's not quite trivial. The same applies to dreams — what are signs that show you you're now 'within someone else's dream'? I'm not going into these other examples here, but stick with fiction. But I wanted to mention the parallel.)

If an author wants to make it clear to his character that he's been traveling into a different world (such as the world of a fiction), he builds passage markers into that world which demonstrate the fact to that character. And so did Ayckbourn. The passage marker in this case is a telephone, which sits on a sideboard throughout act I. At the beginning of act II, when we are suddenly in a Victorian setting, the phone has vanished, and promptly Arnold is perplexed when he wants to use it and notice it's gone. Then we switch to the early twentieth century and its murder mystery, and there's an old-fashioned phone sitting in the right place — but Arnold confusedly notes that this isn't his phone. In the modern science fiction setting, the phone's back where it belongs. By now everyone, including Arnold, has realized that the phone being there or not, and being a modern one or not, indicates in which world we currently are. I remember when watching the play, the first thing I looked at whenever something strange happened was the phone: a quick check to make sure I was oriented about where (in which of the fictional worlds) I was. And of course, so did Arnold on stage.

So the telephone in Improbable Fiction serves as a passage marker: it shows us that a character has been transported from his world (the world of the play) into another world (the world of one of the fictions within that fictional world). In this case, not only does the marker indicate that passage has transpired, but it also shows us in which of the different destination worlds we have arrived now. For passage into the unreal, then, that is for travels of a fictional character into some other world than his or her own world (like worlds of stories, dreams, or the past or the future), passage markers are a central device that helps both the audience and the characters themselves to realize they have successfully reached their destination.