Is creating and enacting emotion essentially cognitive or essentially perceptuomotor? What is the goal of enacted emotion? ... is the desire for creating and watching performance constitutive of our cognitive ability or is it a happy accident? ... A satisfying model of what the actor does and why we desire him to do it lies at the crux of a comprehensive philosophy of the emotions.Pierce takes up her own challenge by confronting Kendall Walton's (1990) book Mimesis as make believe. For Walton, fiction yields only pseudo-emotions. If we go to the cinema to watch a thriller and feel frightened, this is not real fear, says Walton. If it were, we would get up and run out, because real fear has an outcome: a strong urge to escape. Instead we stay in our seats. In general, says Walton, the emotions we feel in fiction are make believe, as in children's games.
Pierce counters Walton's argument with one from Wilshire (1978) whom she quotes as saying:
It is badly misleading, though perfectly ‘natural,’ to say that acting is pretending. To say this connotes that the pretender falsifies himself, though he knows perfectly well who he really is. But the actor-artist is searching for himself through enactment---experimentally finding the other “in” himself, and so finding and developing himself in his freedom. If he is in a production with a pre-established script, the playwright has left a character type to be enacted.Thus the aspect of outcome in emotions, which for Walton is missing in fiction, is present for the actor although in a a different kind of way. I believe Wilshire and Pierce are right, and that Walton has it exactly the wrong way round. Developmentally, as Paul Harris (2000) has shown, imagination and abstract thinking are built on the pretend play of childhood. What Walton offers is an anti-developmental theory so that adult art, instead growing out of play, is regression to a supposed childhood state.
One of the most revealing psychological studies of the development of abstraction was performed by Luria (1976). In 1931 and 1932, he traveled to Uzbekistan to study effects of the USSR’s newly introduced literacy programs. Luria compared people who had taken these programs with people who had not. Among his cognitive tests he asked: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?” The form is that of a syllogism. He tested 15 people who had remained illiterate. Of these only four were able to answer this question. Those who could not answer it replied, for instance, that they could not say because they had never been to Novaya Zemlya. By contrast all 15 of those who had attended a literacy program could answer the question. They were able to escape the literal and immediate, to think in abstractions. Harris argues that Luria's result occurred because those who took the educational programs were inducted into the possibilities of imagining "what if?" Walton seems to have set himself into the opposite state, defining emotion as having a certain kind of behavioral outcome and maintaining a literal stance: "I can't have been frightened by the thriller because I didn't run out of the cinema."
In fiction we visit in imagination places we have never seen, we become people whom we are not, we enter many more situations than a lifetime could contain. In doing so we—like Wilshire's actor—undertake mental enactments. Thereby, we discover aspects of ourselves, a perfectly good outcome for the emotions we experience.
(Walton's and Harris's books are reviewed in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can reach by clicking here.)
Paul Harris (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.
Alexander Luria (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Jennifer Ewing Pierce (2004) “The actor problem: Live and filmed performance and classical cognitivism.” Consciousness and the Arts and Literature, 5, December.
Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruce Wilshire (1978). Enactment, transformation and identity of the self. Dialectics and Humanism 3, 52-68.