Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Emotional Identification in Film: The Floating I

The floating I.   Here's a hypothesis.  A question is constantly raised as to how we engage in films emotionally.  Some speak of identification with the characters, some of empathy, some of sympathy, and so forth.  But the question I want to ask is: Where am I when I am looking at a film?  The giant shark attacks and I jump in my seat, but I do not run from the theater.  It seems that I am there in the fictional world but also not there.  My hypothesis is that the I (my I) floats, attaches, and then floats again.  Momentarily the two worlds collapse and I, in my seat, jump with fear, but then quickly I enter back into the world, and feel no need to escape the theater. 

What about empathy?  The giant shark is about to attack a swimmer.  I do not feel empathy for the girl since she is still having a good time.  I am as if an observer in that fictional world, although in a protected space since I do not fear for myself.  I am fictionally there as Walton would put it.  But sometimes, as with other humans in the real world, I feel deep empathy with a character:  I am fictionally identifying with the character.  

I am also interested in a certain conflict between Carroll and Walton.  Carroll believes that the director uses "criterial prefocusing" to lead us to the water of emotional response.  The viewer is supposed to "cognize the film" in the way the director wants.  A problem with this is that there is no particular reason for me to emotionally respond to events in the film if I am just cognizing and categorizing.  

Walton in "Fearing Fictions" (originally published in 1978:  I am looking at the version in the Carroll and Choi anthology) offers something very different.  I think the signal interesting thing about Walton's theory is that in viewing a film we enter into the fictional world.  Of course this is a phenomenological point.  "We and Charles feel ourselves to be part of fictional worlds, to be intimately involved with the slime....or with whatever constituents of fictional worlds are, make-believedly, objects of our feelings and attitudes."  Carroll has us outside the fictional world but busy cognizing it and categorizing things within it.   We just have feelings because we are engineered to do so in the context of this cognizing activity.  Walton has us inside the fictional world in the sense that we feel ourselves to be part of such a world.  This seems much more plausible to me.

There is one problem with Walton's account.  When I think of make-believe I think of something active.  But we do not actively make-believe that we are in the fictional world in the way someone might actively pretend that she is a movie star while walking down a street in Hollywood or in a way that a child can actively pretend that a mud paddy is a pie.   We go to a movie and we are automatically entered into a fictional world (or alternatively into a non-fictional rendering of the world in a documentary). 

Combining Carroll and Walton  might help.  One could say that the director sets it up (Carroll) but that the world is entered into (Walton.)  I do not have to make-believe that Huck floated down the Mississippi:  I see that he did and know that he did insofar as I am immersed in the movie.  But I have no big problem with Walton's overall use of the term "make-believe" which I think is just, for him, a technical term that helps him make a point that is basically right.

Again, what is interesting about Walton, is that "we end up 'on the same level' with fictions."  Further "this enables us to comprehend our sense of closeness to fictions, without attributing to ourselves patently false beliefs."  (243)  

Moreover, this is not just a minor point, for example a point about fearing fictions.  It has to do with the function of film and literature.  As Walton puts it "we are now in a position to expect progress on the fundamental question of why and how fiction is important" and why it is not "mere fiction."  (243)  

It also connects up with the much maligned theories of Suzanne Langer and F. E. Sparshott (and yes Nietzsche too) that there is an important similarity between our experience of film and our experience of dreams.  See especially "A Note on the Film" by Langer (I posted on this previously.)

The I floats as well in dreams.  Walton says "people are usually, perhaps always, characters in their dreams and daydreams."  Sometimes we only observe, but even then, we belong to the fictional world of the dream.

Further:  "much of the value of dreaming, fantasizing, and making-believe depends crucially on one's thinking of oneself as belonging to a fictional world.  It is chiefly by fictionally facing certain situations, engaging in certain activities, and having or expressing certain feelings...that a dream, fantasizer, or game-player comes to terms with his actual feelings..."  (243)  and people derive something similar from novels and films.  Again:  "it is fictional that they themselves exist and participate (if only as observers) in the events portrayed in the works..."  (244)  The important point is that we do not "merely stand outside fictional worlds and look in" (244).  

It is not required that the I be in a specific place in the fictional world.  It is only required that the I be somewhere capable of observing what we actually see on the screen and hear in the theater as coming from the movie.  The I here is relatively empty.  Of course, ultimately, it is identical with myself who is sitting there in the theater.  

Walton speaks of a girl hearing Jack in the Beanstock for the umpteenth time:  "she is engaged in our own game of make-believe during the reading, a game in which make-believedly she learns for the first time about Jack and the giant as she hears about them."
Further, "it is her make-believed uncertainty (the fact that make-believedly she is uncertain), not any actual uncertainty, that is responsible for the excitement and suspense that she feels."  (245)  She does not have to actively pretend anything.  But what is important is that she is once again an observer in the world with a certain degree of knowledge.  Of course, over time, the knowledge that she really has will make this process less enjoyable, and adults, notably, seldom enjoy reading mystery novels a second time.  We carry something with us into the fictional world.

This idea of entering the world might be seen as related in a strange way with Danto's idea that an artwork is something that leaves the world and enters into the artworld.  It is as though Danto were right but that in order to experience the artwork we had to enter its fictional world as well.  "Something becomes art when we enter with it into the artworld."  That's an interesting hypothesis.


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