Friday 22 May 2009

The Actor Problem

In a comment on 18 May to a post in OnFiction, Blog Nerd gave a link to a very interesting 2004 article entitled "The actor problem" (click here to read it). This article is by Jennifer Ewing Pierce, who may bear a relationship to Blog Nerd. In the article, to be republished in a collection next year, Pierce poses a challenge. She says:
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.


blog nerd said...

ha ha, yes--Blog Nerd = Jennifer Ewing Pierce.

Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. That Luria study was really interesting.

Bill Benzon said...

Interesting post, Keith.

FWIW, my teacher and mentor, the late David Hays proposed that stories are a fundamental means of abstraction (as fundamental as Lakoff's notion of cognitive metaphor). He first published the idea in 1973 and Brian Phillips, a student of his, completed a computational dissertation on that subject in 1975 (using short news stories of drowning men). Another student, Mary White, employed the idea in investigating the beliefs of a millenarian community. I employed the idea in the analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129.

Hays, David G. (1973). The Meaning of a Term is a Function of the Theory in Which It Occurs. SIGLASH Newsletter 6, 8-11.

Phillips, Brian, Topic Analysis. Ph. D. Diss. State University of New York at Buffalo, 1975.

Phillips, Brian, "Judging the Coherency of Discourse," American Journal of Computational Linguistics, Microfiche 35, frames 36-49, 1975.

White, Mary, Cognitive Networks and World View: The Metaphysical Terminology of a Millenarian Community. Ph. D. Diss. State University of New York at Buffalo, 1975.

Benzon, William L., Cognitive Networks and Literary Semantics. MLN 91: 952-982, 1976.

Bill Benzon said...

Keith, It occurs to me that the Indic concept of rasa, as Patrick Hogan has explicated it in The Mind and Its Stories, is relevant here, especially as it is, "akin to emotion, but not identical to it" (p. 47).

I note also that the question of sadness seems to be of particular interest in philosophical discussions of music: Why does sad music make us feel so good?

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Bill, for these two comments. I did not know of the work of Hays, Phillips, and White, but I will follow this line up, and I look forward, too, to reading your analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129.

And I think you are quite right: the idea of rasa is totally relevant here. The Indic literary theorists thought in a quite different way than Walton. They thought that an emotion experienced in fiction, a rasa, was more real than an emotion in ordinary life, because we can understand it more deeply. In fiction, as these theorists say, we are less likely than in ordinary life to be blinded by what they call the thick crust of egotism.

And as to sadness in art, the best piece I know on this is by Ed Tan and Nico Frijda. They say we are brought to tears when we feel ourselves in the presence of something greater than ourselves.

Tan, E., & Frijda, N. H. (1999). Sentiment in film viewing. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (Eds.), Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion (pp. 48-64). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bill Benzon said...

Thanks, Keith. You might also want to consult Norm Holland's neuro-psychoanalytic account of the willing suspension of disbelief, where he says:

When we say we do not act in reaction to works of art, when we demonstrate Kant's Interesselosigkeit, it is our prefrontal cortex that is shutting down our propensity to act and with it our awareness of body and environment and our testing of reality.

But what is not shut down are those earlier reptilian and mammalian brains, that limbic system, which is generating emotions. In short, we can feel real emotions toward unreal fictions, because two different brain systems are at work. One, the prefrontal cortex's inhibiting system is at work because we know we are not supposed to act in response to the fiction we are reading or the drama we are watching. We therefore cease to test reality and we do not disbelieve the fiction. But our corticolimbic system remains at work, and through it we feel the emotions we would ordinarily feel at the human situations we are watching, at, say, Jenny Cavalieri's love and death. "Fictional worlds," write Tooby and Cosmides (p. 8), "engage emotion systems while disengaging action systems." We experience this astonishing phenomenon of real emotions toward fictional people and situations.
You can find Hays on abstraction here, though the connection to story is a bit obscured. The idea is that abstract concepts are defined over pattens in semantic nets, with stories being a major source of patterns.

The Tan and Frijda sounds interesting. If we think of crying as being recruited to the attachment system (among others), well, MOTHER is the most important bigger-than-oneself that the infant knows.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Bill, for this comment. I think there is much to be said for the idea that in fiction the action systems are, as Tooby and Cosmides say, "disengaged." My view is that, in identification, disengagement from our own concerns and action systems allows us to enter the goals and plans of a fictional protagonist into our own planning processors. This is the centre of my hypothesis of fiction-as-mental-simulation.

Although I very much appreciate Norman Holland's work, I have reservations about his account of disengagement in his adoption of the widely used metaphor—it comes from the pioneering neurologist Hughlings-Jackson in the Nineteenth Century—that a primary function of the "higher" levels of the brain (i.e. the cortex) is to inhibit the "lower" centres. Here is a quotation from Jackson (p. 58).

"The higher nervous arrangements evolved out of the lower, keep down those lower, just as a government evolved out of a nation controls as well as directs that nation. If this be the purpose of evolution then the reverse process of dissolution [in states such as brain damage or drunkenness] is not only a 'taking off' of the higher, but is at the very same time 'letting go' of the lower. If the governing body of this nation were destroyed suddenly we should have two causes for lamentation (1) the loss of services of eminent men; and (2) the anarchy of the now uncontrolled people."

You can almost hear the clanking of Nineteenth-Century machinery, not just in applying the brakes to the steam engine that threatens to run out of control but in locking up the anarchic lower elements.

In a comparable way to my critique of Walton, there is a difference between the idea of a development from earlier forms and the idea of regression to such forms, which presupposes that the earlier structures have been left entirely unmodified the course of development. I know that this is a substantial part of Darwin's position on the expression of emotions, but he was concentrating on making the case for evolution rather than examining development.

A Darwinian account is relevant to your remark about Tan and Fridja. They would be entirely happy with your derivation from the attachment system of crying when engaging with works of art. If I remember correctly, they discuss this derivation in their article.

John Hughlings-Jackson (1959). Selected writings of John Hughlings-Jackson (Ed. J. Taylor). New York: Basic Books.

Bill Benzon said...

Agreed Keith, on the 19th century hydraulics. As know, "regression in service of the ego" is a classic psychoanalytic notion about art, from Ernst Kris, I believe. Whatever it means, it certainly doesn't mean a simple return to older modes of behavior. Rather, it seems to mean some kind of special access to those older modes while still retaining (at least some of) the powers of more developed modes.

It seems to that two things are salient about the attachment system: 1) it's basically a learning system though a rather specialized one, and 2) it's ontogenetically old and has "deep" connections into the system.

blog nerd said...

It's funny that rasa came up--I trained with Richard Schechner in 1998 as a performing artist and we used something he calls the Rasa boxes as a form of actor training, as derived from the Natyasastra. I have written a bit on comparative aesthetics in rasaesthetics and Aristotlean aesthetics.

It's a good bridge from classical philosophy to the embodied cognition models at work in cognitive psychology today.

Rasa comes from a tradition where "acting" is performed body to body--and transmitted through dance-as-text, more than through spoken or written word.

This hooks into the idea of mirror neurons. In training for rasa, one intuitively understands that when the performance works, your body reflects the performers in very subtle ways. Breath patterns in actors are mirrored in the audience. Part of the training is to witness the other performers working through each of the emotional values of rasa--and you begin to note it in yourself.

This is readily apparent when we understand rasa as something to be consumed, eaten, imbibed, rather than analyzed. (Translation of rasa in one sense "juice") it is something taken into the body and experienced, like a meal.

Michelle Minnick has written about this in Schechner's updated version of Performance Theory published by Routledge.

Also--Schechner was influenced by Paul Ekman who has a lot to say about the impact of facial expressions in particular.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Blog Nerd, for your thoughts about rasa. I think this is one of the most interesting concepts in understanding emotions in poetry, drama, and prose fiction. It must have been fascinating to have trained with Schechner. It is interesting too, how Schechner picked up the rasa idea, e.g. 2001. My view is that Indian poetics, with its emphasis on rasa (aesthetic emotion) and dhvani (the suggestive qualities of of literary language) is a very important complement to Aristotelian poetics with its emphasis on mimesis (the relation of the work of art to the world).

Richard Schechner(2001). Rasaesthetics. The Drama Review, 43, 27-50.

Tyler Dodge said...

In his quotation from the Wilshire article, Oatley was careful to defer to Pierce's presentation of the piece, including its citation. Considering the number of responses to Oatley posting, the following correction may be helpful. From the reproduction that I obtained from the University of Notre Dame, the correct citation for the Wilshire article seems to be as follows:

Wilshire, Bruce W. (1978). Enactment, transformation and identity of self. Dialectics and Humanism, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 47-57.

In a personal correspondence, Pierce acknowledged that this correction to her citation may be appropriate.

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