Friday, September 1, 2017

Taking Fictions Seriously: Why the Late-Modern Show Goes On

The suspension of disbelief in fictions has become paradoxical. We find we must ignore our doubts to entertain ourselves not just when we’re reading novels or watching movies, but when we engage with ideology or adhere to the narrative we’re constantly telling ourselves to dignify our life with purpose. In prehistoric times, there was no need to suspend disbelief in the telling of myths, because facts weren’t divorced from values and so there was no such thing generally as the kind of hyper-rational skepticism that can spoil a narrative. For the opposite reason, in what we call the modern Age of Reason, taking fiction seriously is likewise almost impossible: the science-centered doubts become overbearing, we become cynical and nihilistic, and yet most of us choose to act as though the myths still matter.

Fact, Value, and the Mythopoeic Dreamworld

The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” when he defended his reference to supernatural elements in his poetry even in the nineteenth century at which time educated readers were taken with the science-centered, naturalistic view of the world. Coleridge said that not only could an author “transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” but the reverse could be achieved, “to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us” (Biographia Literaria). In other words, if a reader can be led to identify with the story’s characters and offered enough verisimilitude in the details, the reader could overlook the story’s unreality for the sake of enjoying the experience of reading the narrative. Moreover, in the case of Romanticism, magical realism or some such genre, a reader can be shown that the so-called mundane, material reality of everyday objects belies a strangeness which we’re no longer predisposed to perceive. For Coleridge and Wordsworth, who co-wrote the poems that prompted Coleridge’s coining of the phrase, poetry thus could address science’s disenchantment of the world, that is, the rise of skepticism and objectivity which had severed fact from value in our understanding of our experience. Either the supernatural could be portrayed as normal and realistic or nature could be presented as bizarre and magical. Either way, poetry and art in general could rejoin fact and value.

The quality of life for humans in the Paleolithic Age was likely mythopoeic, meaning that the prehistoric hunter-gatherers didn’t perceive facts as being separable from values. This isn’t to say they had no accurate beliefs, since they could hardly have survived a day in the teeming wilderness if none of their concepts had been practical or attuned to nature. Indeed, if they personified natural processes in their animistic dramatizations, that supernaturalism may itself have been crucial to their survival. An objective understanding of nature’s impersonality had better wait for an epoch in which the population has the technoscientific control to reassure itself with luxuries, just as an adult’s jadedness isn’t fit for a child. Had the hunter-gatherers been forced to conceive of nature as having no redemptive purpose or moral value, the savagery and carnage all around them in the wild would likely have overwhelmed them and driven them to suicide or madness. Only a society that’s equipped itself with a buffer of protective artificiality could indulge in skeptical meditations on the world’s godlessness and on its ultimate indifference to all creatures. Without cities and civilizations, and supported only by small bands of kith and kin who stood against predators, diseases, and natural disasters, Paleolithic humans could at least fall back on their mental armor, as it were, on their naïve, comforting humanization of alien reality, that is, on their projecting of social categories onto inhuman forces and mechanisms. 

In any case, the animists would have conceived of natural facts as having implicit value. “Perhaps the rock or the wind is possessed by a spirit,” they surmised. And conversely, values were conceived of as having objective reality, as opposed to being illusory or epiphenomenal. You could cast a spell and your intentions would infuse with a magical procedure, which would result in some objectively meaningful, real event. If the spell didn’t work as expected, that was no cause for alarm, because a natural state of affairs was as ambiguous as a person’s mental state, given the comingling of facts and values. You could interpret someone’s apparent anger differently, depending on the background concepts you brought to bear, taking into account more or less of the person’s recent history. Likewise, if all physical events have personal meanings due to their relation to a supernatural society of spirits, you could evaluate them in many ways, depending on how well you understand the spirits’ intentions.

The fusion of fact and value has a basis in cognitive science, in the evidence for something like a Kantian view of perception as opposed to a strictly empirical, stimulus-driven one. See, for example, Helmholtz’s theory of how sensations aren’t copied onto nerve endings, but are encoded as signs which themselves have learned properties which figure in the “unconscious inferences” we employ in making sense of what we perceive. Cognitive scientist Anil Seth explains that for Helmholtz, perception is “a process of inference, in which indeterminate sensory signals are combined with prior expectations or ‘beliefs’ about the way the world is, to form the brain’s optimal hypotheses of the causes of these sensory signals—of coffee cups, computers and clouds. What we see is the brain’s ‘best guess’ of what’s out there.” The brain is a “prediction machine,” and the a priori element is the creativity of conceiving of hypotheses to test against the empirical data. According to this view of “predictive processing,” writes Seth, “perception is a controlled hallucination, in which the brain’s hypotheses are continually reined in by sensory signals arriving from the world and the body.” The reason perception is hallucinatory or partly subjective is that it’s full of meaning, as informed by the organizing “signs” (concepts) that embody our a priori guesses or expectations, and that meaning doesn’t exist in the stimulus (the external cause of experience).

The attempt to understand the world begins, then, with play, when the child freely associates this with that, including subjects with objects, extending what the philosopher Dan Dennett calls the intentional stance (our expectation that creatures like us have minds whose beliefs and desires we can interpret so we can better predict their behaviour). Prior to its accumulation of much experience, the brain’s initial thinking proceeds along the lines of a dream so that the person’s waking state resembles her unconscious processing. That is, the conscious ego, distinct from everything else, hasn’t yet emerged in the child’s mind. Only after sufficient testing of hypotheses against patterns of sensations, after the child forms a reliable mental model, capable of explaining a wide range of phenomena will the child realize she can examine her model at a meta level and engage in detached, philosophical reflections or even experiments. The historical analogue of child’s play is our distant animistic past, at which time there had not yet been many deep discoveries of how the real world works. Only after the intellectual and technological progress that we associate with history, beginning around 12,000 years ago, could we have arrived at a culture that takes for granted the unreality or illusoriness of play and subjectivity, of magic and the supernatural. Only after sufficient historical, collective testing of expectations could we have built up a collective mental map that allows parents to pass onto their children insights and discoveries that were millennia in the making.

The formation of concepts that organize our perception of the world can be likened to the painting of a picture that begins with the portrayal of chaos, chaos being like the unconscious, dreamlike play with cognitive possibilities. A digital artist, for example, can combine photographic references, randomly or intuitively turning and distorting them, playing with the transparencies to challenge her unconscious faculties to detect patterns. She may have no idea what she wants to paint until she’s inspired by some shape or colour she happens to see in the jumble on her canvas. That moment of conceptual clarity is like the act of unconscious hypothesizing. “I know what this chaos wants to be,” she may say to herself. “I can paint a tiger out of these suggestive blobs.” She then accentuates and develops the tiger-like parts of the image. It’s the same with sculpture, when the sculptor examines a large block of stone or wood, imagining what organized whole could be carved from the inchoate forms. A musician such as Trent Reznor can likewise begin by recording noises and listening for hints of sonic order, which he then focuses on and refines (or which he sends to Atticus Ross to handle the refinement). A novelist may seek inspiration for story ideas by randomly combining words drawn from the dictionary or from other texts.

The point is that both the individual brain and the early stage of our collective mental development likewise begin with overflowing unconscious energy, with a flurry of creative hypotheses to prevent us from prejudging the environment or dooming us to be wholly unprepared to survive. If a bird finds itself underwater, it will have no way to adapt because its body-type specializes in flying not swimming. The bird is locked into that way of life and is helpless in other environments. Our greatest advantage is our mental flexibility, which begins with that childlike wonder for possibilities in an unconscious dream world. If a creature with our relatively defenseless phenotype came with hardwired prejudices or preferences for dealing with only a narrow range of situations, we wouldn’t have learned the weaknesses or our competitors or been able to adapt to life on the land or in the air or sea, and in hot and cold climates. Only because our mental growth begins with the free association of ideas—which occurs not just in our individual childhood but in psychedelic experience and in our nightly dreams—have we been able to infer reliable models of natural patterns, after disposing of so many duds throughout history.

The Paradox of Modern Faith in Myths

Notice, then, that the animists wouldn’t have been able to suspend their realistic doubts, because they had no such doubts in the first place or at least none that were culturally established (since of course there were ancient skeptics here and there). Likewise, to say that, on average, children in any historical period suspend their disbelief, to allow themselves to be entertained by a fictional story, would involve a misuse of the phrase. You don’t have to ask a child twice for her to entertain even the most ludicrous fantasy. Eventually, at around six years of age, a child may begin to suspect that you’re only joking if you tell her one whopper after another. Moreover, modern children aren’t exactly animists, because the prevailing pragmatic and materialistic notions creep into all levels of our discourse. But children are generally eager to play and to “make-believe,” because children are imaginative as well as credulous. Children are trusting for evolutionary reasons, so they can absorb their parents’ lessons to fuel their mighty brain and to overcome the relative helplessness of the rest of their body. Their rudimentary notion of how the facts diverge from the world they imagine or prefer will still be laden with value, since teaching a child the true cosmicist horror of nature’s absolute indifference to life would amount to abuse. When Mother tells her daughter that nothing can be done about the rain that falls on her birthday, the child may harbor resentment as if someone somewhere were still to blame, because she doesn’t understand the brute physicality of natural cause and effect. In any case, children express their free-flowing imagination to maximize the situations to which they can adapt as they mature, and the same was true for our prehistoric period of collective mental development.

Two further questions arise about the suspension of disbelief. First, how do we modern ideologues, including monotheists, nationalists, and humanistic fans of technoscientific progress maintain our faith in our mass fictions? Now that history has reached what Nietzsche called the twilight of the idols, after the Scientific Revolution has established the world’s fundamental amorality and pointlessness, and the Industrial Revolution has even adjusted us to the metaphysics of materialism by training the masses to act like robots (functionaries), what mechanisms must be in place to preserve the imagination and the myths needed for civilized cooperation? The dystopian film Brazil explored this problem by contrasting an inhuman bureaucracy with an individual’s quests for personal freedom and romantic love. The protagonist Sam Lowry’s dreams erupt with fantasies of his heroism in finding the perfect woman and in joining a rebellion against the oppressive regime. Unlike the functionaries who busy themselves with drudgework, Sam not only suspends his disbelief in those dreams, but overcompensates by obsessing over his unconscious musings. He effectively joins the “terroristic” resistance and abuses his power to protect his newfound romantic partner, but the totalitarian system triumphs, capturing and torturing Sam until he takes refuge in a blissful coma. He divorces himself from harsh reality, preferring his humanitarian fantasy.

This film deals with extremes to clarify our situation, which is that the world of facts is absurd in itself, and adding values to that world makes for a double absurdity. Of course, we add moral and aesthetic values precisely to overcome absurdity, especially when we imagine that the world can be made meaningful if only we apply our ideals by technologically undoing the natural wilderness. But the underlying existential absurdity persists in the paradox of our having to sustain faith in our myths even when we know or ought to know that myths are only subjectively meaningful and that the objective world has no purpose or redeeming qualities. The real universe will of course eventually swallow up all living things, and it will be as if no spellbinding tales had ever been told or heroic deeds been performed. Some of the cognitive and social mechanisms of suspending disbelief in fictions are readily understood, as I’ve explained elsewhere. For example, we need a unifying fiction to overlook our natural differences and to allow us to cooperate for the collective good. Thus we have not just theological, but political, economic, and infotainment myths which keep us on the same page, as it were; we identify with our culturally-established roles instead of all behaving like boorish egotists. The more we dwell on the existential facts, the more we’re inclined to see through ideologies as the utilitarian fictions they are, which enlightenment turns us into criminals or outcasts. (This is the sort of problem Dostoevsky took up in some of his novels, for example.) So if only to remain secure within civilized society, we must defer to conventional wisdom. At the same time, the more firmly scientific naturalism establishes itself, the greater the cognitive dissonance for anyone seeking comfort from a myth.

For example, how do modern Christians believe that a man two thousand years ago rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven so that the rest of us could join him forever with the personal creator of the universe? Liberal Christians who respect the power of science are inclined to treat the Christian creed as entirely metaphorical, in which case their religion is effectively the same as organized enthusiasm for the aesthetic merit of any other great work of fiction. However, this sort of Christian is unlikely to be as zealous as, say, a fan at Comic-Con, because the Christian myth doesn’t speak to real-world concerns in our century; crucially, the Christian fiction isn’t science-fictional, so its metaphors won’t resonate compared to the secular myths. Thus, liberal Christians can’t dedicate their life to obsessing over the minutia of Christian theology the way Star Wars inspires a grown man to dress up as Chewbacca while waiting in line for a movie ticket or the way Sam Lowry’s fantasies overwhelm his mundane obligations.

By contrast, conservative Christians will trust in their myth’s literal truth, at the cost of failing to understand the mountains of literal truth supplied by science and philosophy; alternatively, the myth’s epistemic status will be bastardized by the science-centered notion of mere literal truth, and so the conservative will be left with neither rationality nor faith. Either way, cognitive dissonance is minimized, because in the liberal case the myth’s power to enchant is undone by a prior commitment to rationality, and in the conservative case the myth possesses the believer, making her an anachronism or else her faith becomes vulgar, thanks to her failure to appreciate that profane myths rule modern societies. In neither case is disbelief suspended with much benefit, and so nature’s absurdity bubbles up through the floorboards. Kierkegaard tried to drive home the point that Christian faith should be absurd rather than rationalized, but he’s an exception to the kind of “Christian” who prevails in Christendom.

Or take the secular myth that capitalism maximizes welfare, that individual selfishness can be harnessed to everyone’s mutual advantage in that society. Again, the capitalist ideal is never fully actualized because the ideal is counterfactual. Thus, while competition does create innovation, it also creates blowback in the form of the resentful colonized masses that the upper class inevitably exploits to maximize their profits and preserve their ill-gotten wealth. Their wealth is always unearned in practice, because deregulation allows the wealthy to game the system, to capture the watchdogs and the politicians with lobbyists so as to slip through loopholes, externalizing or hiding the costs of their business and effectively defrauding the public. The American financial system, for example, disguises its true nature with obscure language and bogus mathematical models. Nevertheless, the myth of capitalism justifies the amorality of the public sphere and the grotesque economic inequalities between classes and nations, because we manage somehow to at least partially suspend our disbelief. This is proven by the fact that revolts against capitalism are abnormal, at least in North America, whereas private morality or good taste would mandate that we search for a more humane way of doing business. How, then, do we ignore the reality of capitalism? How do we buy into the American promise of liberty and happiness, that is, the liberty to sin and the addicting pleasure of dining on horrific McDonald’s hamburgers which make you sick and obese, eventually depriving you of that same liberty? How do we entertain the secular ideology even when we know it’s just a story?

A large part of the answer—besides the facts that civilization seems better than anarchy, as is any delusion to constant anxiety—is that we’re easily distracted, as is demonstrated by the industry of magic tricks. Just as children are innately trusting, adults evidently have cognitive blind spots which may naturally accommodate the Law of Oligarchy. To help justify the dominance hierarchies that inevitably form in social groups of animals, we must have evolved tendencies to submit to authorities, to adjust our expectations of happiness to our social station, or, if we should win the lottery and find ourselves with oligarchic privileges, to fulfill the archetype of the mad king, unlearning our conscience and spitting on slave morality. Thus, when the mass media present us with scandals, soap operas, and sordid daily news of murders, atrocities, and disasters, we go with the flow instead of detaching from the system to ask the urgent meta-questions. We allow the cultural magic trick to unfold as a price we pay for civilized life. The cost isn’t immediate, because the distractions are always entertaining, but an effect of submitting to such noise is that we become drudges. Existential authenticity and creativity require that we confront absurd reality instead of losing ourselves in the mass media patter. Of course, these distractions also assist the modern megamachine which is responsible for untold ecological damages.

The second question is just how we suspend disbelief in our private fiction which constitutes our spirit or consciousness, that is, the higher-order thoughts of our narrative self. In our introverted moments, we consciously absorb events by interpreting them in light of our overarching story, the one that consists of our thoughts about our memories, character, friends, family, enemies, possessions, hobbies, occupation, and so on. We play starring roles in our master tale, in our private metanarrative which lends subjective meaning to everything we do and everything that happens to us. This private myth acts like a filter, and any experience that isn’t readily assimilated by the myth’s assumptions will either not be understood at all or else it will be excluded as foreign, whereupon the thought of it will fester until the unconscious eventually makes sense of it to maintain our self-esteem and to prevent the pains of further cognitive dissonance.

Again, the question is whether these cognitive mechanisms can endure the twilight of the idols. Can we continue to believe in ourselves, knowing now that we aren’t immaterial substances, but are just characters made up of a series of deep thoughts that comprise our self-serving life’s story? We’re immortal only in so far as our tales can outlive us if our story impacts the tales that others tell. Our immortality thus piggybacks on the external forms of language, especially on the written word which can last for millennia. How, though, can we suspend not just our disbelief but our horror, knowing that the most prized part of our personal self can be nothing more than some such disappointment, some mere tall tale? How can we trust in our character and in our inner narrative, knowing that its author and primary audience are one, that our meaning is aesthetic and thus largely subjective, that most personal stories are dismal and clichéd, and that, quite contrary to the philosopher Derrida, there is indeed something outside the text, namely the real world which ultimately makes a mockery of all our interpretations? 

Perhaps part of the answer is that by believing in ourselves, which means believing in the story we’re constantly telling ourselves, we enjoy the thrill of being actors in starring roles. Actors tend to be narcissists because when they’re on stage or being filmed they’re at the center of many people’s attention. In so far as we act in different roles, depending on which part of our personality is called upon to handle some situation, we act as if we were professional actors. YouTube and celebrity culture only exacerbate the thrill of being stars in our life’s story. Even when no one else is watching or when no one else will know what we’re doing, we always consciously or unconsciously observe our actions. We may be proud or ashamed of ourselves, but as long as we contextualize our choices and behaviour according to our master narrative, we have at least an implicit audience, namely the potential for our meta-thoughts to interpret our first-order experience. Even a starving homeless person can fall back on the feeling that he’s performing his life, that he’s always the center of someone’s attention, and that although he hardly enjoys a movie star’s fame or accolades, he nevertheless succeeds in acting out his assigned role. By occupying this street corner rather than that one, he makes a creative choice as determined by the inner script that provides meaning to his life; without any such meaning, his life would be intolerable. Yet there he endures, day after day, disheveled and piss-stained as he is. Why does even such a lowly figure carry on believing in himself when most people would hurl his inner script into the flames? For most of us, the show must go on and so we perform for the aesthetic glory of acting in the spotlight, if only for the brief time we’re allotted in our episode. 

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