6 March 2012

Engaging with On-Screen Fictional Characters

Filed under: Fiction, Language, Movies, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:15 am

I’ve been giving some thought as to whether engagement with fiction isn’t more easily triggered by movies and TV shows than by texts.

People are embodied: they confront the world from a particular physical locus within the world. Each of us sees the world literally from a particular point of view; i.e., from the vantage point afforded by our eyes, which swivel and focus on the world from atop a moving platform. So too with sound: we hear the world via the sounds that our ears pick up. Cameras and microphones provide a much closer simulation to the subjective experience of being-in-the-world than do written words describing sights and sounds.

Empathy, perspective-taking, simulation: these are some of the means by which humans understand one another’s points of view. Humans encounter other humans not as disembodied minds or emotions but through embodied physical encounters with other embodied beings more or less like themselves, through touching their bodies, looking at their faces, watching their actions, jointly participating with them in the world.

And through hearing what they have to say. The species continued to evolve genetically even after spoken/aural language began to emerge as a human capability, so the nearly irresistible aptitude for becoming adept users of the cultural artifact that is spoken language is built into the genes. Young children acquire language competence in the context of interpersonal encounters, specifically those types of encounters characterized by joint attention to and engagement with some aspect of the world. Being able to understand what someone else has to say requires the ability to infer the speaker’s intent to communicate, as well as the ability to adopt the speaker’s point of view. Language acquisition thus depends on an already-developed capacity for interpreting others’ facial expressions, gestures and intentions, as well as on the intrinsic motivation and capacity for imitating them. Empirical research demonstrates that these proto-linguistic human capabilities rely on innate neural capabilities that gradually become honed through repeated direct experiences with other language-users as together they explore the shared physical environment. This fine-tuning of a child’s innate ability to participate in a linguistic interpersonal environment develops instinctively, unconsciously, outside of self-awareness.  Again, the characters who walk and talk in the world projected onto the movie or television screen present a reasonable simulation of this real-world linguistic environment. So it seems likely that on-screen dialogue spontaneously triggers in the listener those same unconscious empathic and role-taking connections with the speakers that occur in real-world conversation.

Written language is a cultural artifact that appeared very late on the prehistorical scene — too recently to have affected the human genome. It’s not universal: many cultures never developed a written form of their language, even though people born and raised in those cultures possess the intellectual capabilities required for developing competence in reading and writing. Even in cultures with rich and deep textual traditions, kids always become quite fluent with spoken language before they acquire even the rudiments of written language. Reading and writing are skills more like riding a bike than like understanding spoken language. These skills are built on a scaffolding that’s innate, and once honed through repeated practice the skills become second nature. However, learning them in the first place demands conscious attention.

Back to fiction. On screen we watch people doing things in an environment, formulating and pursuing intentions in a world, scheming and fighting and fucking and talking with each other. Let’s presume that our engagement with fiction depends on triggering our abilities, genetically transmitted and honed through interpersonal experience, to empathize with and to simulate other people as they engage intentionally in the physical and interpersonal environment. The on-screen bodies and faces and actions and voices aren’t physically there in a material world you share with these characters, but you do watch them with your eyes and hear them with your ears. They are closer to embodied beings than are characters who appear in fictional texts, characters whose physical appearances are not seen but described, whose actions are not watched but recounted, whose dialogue is not heard but read.

Since texts did not comprise part of the evolutionary environment, and since the ability to read depends on conscious attention, it seems likely the reader’s engagement with fictional characters rendered in textual form is less instinctive than it is with characters in movies and TV shows. As a simulation, on-screen activity certainly lacks the physical tangibility of our real-life engagements with people in the world. Still, on-screen fiction offers a much closer approximation to material reality than does written fiction — a visual and aural simulation that is arguably more likely to trigger our unconscious visceral engagement with unreal other people in an unreal world.



  1. In the news I read that Whitney Huston did die of a pill & alcohol overdose. She didn’t DROWN IN HER GODDAMN TEARS. But in the endlessly sentimental-weepy global culture that we live in today, people would like to believe that she died for love, that she was disappointed in life, any number of Romantic cliches in her songs. The reality of her banal and relentless pill addiction (one of the stupidest responses I can imagine to being rich) is too harsh for such people. Yes, people, how about if WHITNEY DIED FOR A STUPID REASON, such as mixing too many pills with alcohol???

    This proves yet again that the public’s investment in the superstars is primarily narcissistic, as the public continually transforms the celebrities into superhuman entities that fulfill the audience’s wishes. When such a celebrity dies, we don’t cry for them out of EMPATHY, but because we feel scared and sad for our own asses. After all, narcissistic support has been brutally and abruptly withdrawn.

    I may be extra cruel to Whitney because her song ”I will always love you” reminds me of my late aunt’s penchant for general bourgeois kitsch and her annoying sanctimonious dribble about the value of marriage. I fucking hated it, and never really forgave her.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 10 March 2012 @ 2:30 pm

  2. “When such a celebrity dies, we don’t cry for them out of EMPATHY, but because we feel scared and sad for our own asses. After all, narcissistic support has been brutally and abruptly withdrawn.”

    I can’t see how Whitney Huston could provide narcissistic support, which if you accept Kohut’s formulation would be achieved by Whitney serving as the external ego for the viewer, providing direction and acceptance for the narcissist who lacks self-direction and self-acceptance. The viewer serves this ego boost for the celebrity rather than the other way around, no? If a celebrity supports the viewer’s inflated self-image, then it would have to be achieved by the viewer identifying with the celebrity’s projected image, no? Or else there would have to be some sense in which the celebrity puts on a show specifically for the viewer. This would occur by virtue of the video image placing the viewer into a video reality in which the viewer participates in a virtual relationship with the celebrity’s image. Not identification with the celeb, but identification with the camera’s POV as a portal into that projected reality.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 March 2012 @ 3:41 pm

  3. then it would have to be achieved by the viewer identifying with the celebrity’s projected image, no?

    I think in this case it’s a mechanism of self-pity, which WHitney’s sentimental output dramatizes. The opportunity to wallow in self-pity in a glamorized, safe manner. Still what you wrote above resonates (also in relation to the other story about the motoric-vegetative reaction to movies) because I think some superstars – not Whitney, but someone like Amy Winehouse – do allow us to share their experience, and this is a very real, serious connection.

    I’m not saying Whitney is without merit – she was beautiful, and had a beautiful voice. But the dead giveaway was that guttural singing, the attempt at cheap melodrama. She wasn’t coming from a really horrible place, like Amy Winehouse.

    I don’t know if you’ve been following my fandom of the transvestite parodist Charlie Hides, whose popularity grows by the day. He demonstrates this practically, by staging his shows as if they were intimate household events, us sitting with Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, sharing their daily frustrations. Youtube allows for this intimate immersion because of the conversation you also have with Charlie, in the comment boxes, on Twitter. Even the superstars participate (Kylie twits regularly with Charlie and Cher reportedly follows the videos).


    Comment by Center of Parody — 10 March 2012 @ 4:07 pm

  4. Surely someone who is not actually suffering can perform suffering in a way that triggers unconscious affective response in the audience. The performance could be musical, theatrical, textual, even conversational. “Cheap melodrama” deploys tried-and-true gimmicks in an overt and direct attempt to pull heartstrings and tweak the mirror neurons; i.e., porn in all its variants. Presumably there is also a deeper and higher art. To go beyond pity porn, does the performer need to be truly suffering, or perhaps using The Method to relive her own prior sufferings? Or is there a way of projecting out of oneself into the character, into the song, into the melancholia of an imagined alternate reality?


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 March 2012 @ 7:03 am

  5. Yes to the last comment. Have you seen Kate Hepburn’s performance in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night?’ It ranks as probably the greatest female performance I’ve ever seen on film, and seems uncanny because she was the most non-druggie actor in town. I never have understood how well she portrayed the psychology of the true addict, the wishfulness when the ‘pain is gone, Kathleen!’ as she says to her maid. And when she finally announces that yes, she is finally going out, to the surprise of the family ‘To the DRUG. STORE’, it’s a bit funny looking back, but she is saying I HAVE TO GO THERE. And says “And I am SUCH A LIAR” at one point. This was much better than any of those things she won Oscars for, although she nominated for it. That’s the best example I can think of–she was New England upper-class, every inch of her, was a bitch, and a huge talent. I still don’t know how she did this, sometimes she was truly awful.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 11 March 2012 @ 11:50 am

  6. Presumably there is also a deeper and higher art.

    I don’t know if it’s about ”deeper” as in ”high art” but wouldn’t you say that Whitney’s incredible voice gets totally flattened out in those love ballads? It almost sounds like she’s forcing herself to sing them.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 12 March 2012 @ 1:07 am

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