27 November 2012

Voigt-Kampff Fail

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

A few days ago I wrote a post illustrating how filmmakers capture the perceptual attention of viewers. Fiction-makers also draw readers and viewers’ emotional attention by triggering their empathic connections with fictional characters. It’s possible to experiment with the manipulation of viewers’ visual perception by, for example, hiding the important thing in plain sight and distracting the viewer’s attention onto more visually compelling cues — a phenomenon called inattentional blindness. It’s also possible to experiment with empathic manipulation. In one sort of experiment the writer seduces the reader into identifying with despicable characters: it’s curious that both Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley were introduced to the reading public in the same year, 1955. Another sort of experiment is to eschew empathic connection altogether. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard: is he enigmatic and deep, or is he a shallow and hollow cipher no different from the replicants he kills without remorse in PK Dick’s novel?

People can recognize specific emotions based on facial expressions, even if those expressions are on the faces of professional actors who aren’t actually experiencing the emotions they’re depicting. Can people detect empathy in others? Can they distinguish between authentic and simulated empathy? That was the purpose of the Voigt-Kampff Test that Deckard administered to suspected replicants: to evaluate whether the suspect was really empathic, and thus really human, or just faking it. Human evaluators of empathy are too easily deceived: that’s how Humbert Humbert and Tom Ripley got away with it. The Voigt-Kampff Test relied on less easily controlled responses like pupil dilation and EKG patterns — machines measuring the machinery under the hood. By the end Deckard wasn’t sure whether he himself could pass the Voigt-Kampff he administered to others. I wondered the same thing in a post from last year when I was on an empathy kick.

I find it difficult to know what someone is thinking or feeling and why. I don’t score very high on empathy tests — kind of like an early-generation replicant, or like Rick Deckard. But I’m also skeptical of these empathy tests: do they test real emotions, or conformity to general agreement as to what emotions ought to look like? I can, on the other hand, imagine all sorts of things going on under the hood in other people’s inner lives. If I’m wrong, is it because I lack insight, or because people are deceptive? Or are people more often than not being shallow and hollow, undeserving of the imagined depths of character I ascribe to them?

Fictions are simulated worlds populated by disembodied replicants. I can make a variety of psychological attributions about fictional characters, treating them as if they were real people. But the characters aren’t real, and neither are the emotions and motivations I attribute to them. If I were to assign some of my wanton psychological imaginings to my own fictional characters, then I might be mistaken for someone with deep insight into human nature. I would also be contributing to the popular but possibly erroneous presumption that people are deep rather than shallow and hollow. Consequently I tend to write enigmatic characters opaquely drawn, whose physical features are not described and who reveal little about themselves in dialogue with each other. I also deny my narrators access to the characters’ inner lives. In brief, I don’t dangle many hooks in the water attempting to snag readers’ empathy — if there really is such a thing as empathy. If readers want to attribute psychological depth to my characters then it’s on their own heads.



  1. Y’know I have never shared people’s fascination with Blade Runner because it’s gosh darn sentimental behind its facade of cyberpunk bad-assedness. (The remark does NOT extend to the marvelous production design) Emotions are defined in ego psychology fashion as ‘parts’ of the ‘personality’, so they make the difference between androids and humans. Trite, sentimental, stupid. And then the whole thing is permeated with a cosy ”film noir” melancholy affect that cloyingly makes all the grunge and drabness appear seductive & Romantic. Philip Dick is in a completely different register, and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is sooooo much better. In fact the only Philip K. Dick adaptation I really liked in the past decade is the remake of TOTAL RECALL, which finally honors Dick’s relentlessness and seriousness.

    Language speaks you, and so your statement that you don’t have empathy clearly shows that you do have it, in abundance. Otherwise you wouldn’t even be asking the question. The issue is: why do you have this neurotic self-alienating perception that there’s a part of you that doesn’t belong to you? That you’re ”out of touch”, as it were?

    As for writing, I think every HERO in a narrative must by definition be a kind of a blank slate, how else would the audience identify with him?


    Comment by cpc — 27 November 2012 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Dick is serious and also kind of goofy, but both get sacrificed for drama in the movie, which I liked anyway for its sentimentality as well its design. But we don’t get the pet sheep as status symbols, and especially we don’t get the Mercerism empathy cult, that weird blend of Jesus and Sisyphus and collective orgone devices.

    Why the neurotic self-alienation? Because it’s “part of my personality,” plus it offers some fictional possibilities that I can cultivate. And it’s not just self-alienation; it’s also alienation from others, which I attribute largely to flaws in the others ;)

    I remember now your contention that figures in TV commercials have to be kind of generic so potential customers can identify with them. In the JJ Gibson excerpt from a few posts ago he proposed that Rorschach blots aren’t blank slates onto which people project an image, but rather that the blots offer “affordances” suggesting multiple images at once. This might be the case for the blank hero: not fully defined, but with enough hooks hanging off of him to allow a variety of people to identify with him. If the hero was too generic he might fall into the uncanny valley, not quite human enough to trigger empathic connection. Did you ever read the Philip Dick where the bored Martian colonists play with Barbie doll layouts while on drugs, identifying with the generic Barbies and transporting themselves psychically into the more entertaining Barbie reality? The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Dick is always metafictional.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 November 2012 @ 7:49 pm

  3. To name just one of Blade Runner’s numerous dire crimes against the novel – ANTHROPOCENTRISM. In the Dick novel, the most poignant and memorable thing is the extinction of animals, who are apparently more human than the humans. That’s what holds the story together. In the movie, it is only given in brief visual suggestions – an owl with an android eye, that type of a thing. But thematically it has nothing to do with the central (false) preoccupation with ”emotions” and ”emoting”. And although both Harrison and Sean Young are handsome, that scene where he seduces her reveals most clearly that this is basically a whiskey advertisement with ”existential design”.

    As Scottie told Madeleine, ”You shouldna been that SEN’MEN’L!”

    It doesn’t only have to concern commercials, or commercial film. Look at the hero of HOLY MOTORS. He is radically impenetrable because he doesn’t really have a personality – a Chameleon. Whether by affordances or by sheer projection, I do believe the ‘Rorschach principle’ is at play. Same as I notice about people’s drawings. I haven’t yet met a designer or painter who didn’t paint himself into his works. They usually deny this vehemently – ”No! It’s an original world, a vision of otherness!” – but alas. I’m afraid we’re severely restricted as humans by seeing not further than our nose.


    Comment by cpc — 28 November 2012 @ 2:37 am

  4. I agree that the virtues of Dick’s novel are more distinctive than those of Scott’s film. Dick never bothers with depth of character development, which for literary types consigns him to the netherworld of genre. But his characters function more like individual neurons firing in a brain that is the overall architecture of his world and story. Dick is very self-consciously psychological, but the psychologies he explores vary radically from those that frame a Henry James novel. It’s not that Deckard is shallow in the novel; it’s that the novel is *about* shallowness. It’s *post* human in the sense that there’s a nostalgia for the real animal and the empathic human in a world of cold artificiality. As you say, Scott just wants to rehumanize the humans and the replicants, embedding them in a traditional adventure yarn and love story. But you know that in the novel Deckard does ride off into the sunset with the robot girl, going back into retirement from being a blade runner, providing her with companionship in the years remaining to her before her clockwork winds down. I think Deckard too is sentimental, regarding the robot girl as more human than the humans. Maybe for Deckard post-human entails achieving the kinds of emotional attachments with others, be they animals or machines, that among real humans can only be found in Henry James novels.

    One presumed advantage of text over film is that film can never do anything but show the outside of a character, the image, whereas text can delve the inner self. A lot of contemporary fiction reads like it wants to be discovered by Hollywood and turned into a movie, and so the characters are written with an imaginary camera and microphone trained on them. But Hollywood has become so adept at manipulating audience affect through image that the 2D screen personas seem more real than people, acted facial expressions of feelings more arousing of empathy than real people who keep their feelings to themselves. Presumably a true posthumanism accepts as fait accompli that humans have already devolved. Dick is still nostalgic and sentimental about it; Scott either never accepted it or was so immersed in Hollywood image that he couldn’t see it.

    I’m not sure where I stand. I tend to think that James and his descendants in “literary fiction” create fictional characters who are more real than real by assigning all sorts of imaginary intricacies to their inner workings. Or maybe it’s just me being shallow, regarding as the work of a hyperactive imagination what the ultrasensitive author perceives through more perspicuous attention and, yes, empathy with real people. I’m sure the detailed literary descriptions of outer reality are accurate too, but the tendency to describe via metaphor embeds the material world inside some kind of more meaningful anthropocentric reality. If James described the world like an empiricist, sticking strictly to the observed facts of the world, readers would be bored to sleep. I guess I’m more drawn to alternative psychologies than to depth psychology. But I do appreciate what James does too, especially if I regard him as an experimentalist who builds depth in artifice through the sheer force of imagination and language, creating characters as intricate as his syntax.

    Holy Motors opens Friday at the Denver art cinema, so maybe I’ll put up screengrabs on Saturday. While the lead is a chameleon as you say, and while the story is thoroughly meta, the film has a sentimental heart, a nostalgic throwback to the days of real human performers unenhanced by the the hidden CGI machines.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 November 2012 @ 6:01 am

  5. Yesterday afternoon I read a 1936 short story by Nabokov, a portion of which I intend to post either in this thread or in a separate post. Apparently Nabokov thought that James had “talent,” but didn’t care for his writing. I googled “Nabokov influences” and came upon a Paris Review interview of Nabokov that bears on this discussion of the interiority of fictional characters.

    INTERVIEWER. A third critic has said that you “diminish” your characters “to the point where they become ciphers in a cosmic farce.” I disagree; Humbert, while comic, retains a touching and insistent quality—that of the spoiled artist.

    NABOKOV. I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.” That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl. Besides, how can I “diminish” to the level of ciphers, et cetera, characters that I have invented myself? One can “diminish” a biographee, but not an eidolon.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 November 2012 @ 9:30 am

  6. think Deckard too is sentimental, regarding the robot girl as more human than the humans.

    I understand it was always Scott’s ‘director cut’ that he should turn out to be an android himself – which explains why he feels ’empathy’ with the girl. HOWEVER you must remember that nostalgia is always for the Real, which remains forever beyond grasp, and so nostalgia remains – a fantasy. The really radical/science fictional turn would have been for Deckard to realize that there NEVER WAS ANY HUMANITY TO BEGIN WITH, but I’ll get back to you on that when you finally publish screen grabs from HOLY MOTORS, honoring some obscure Denver premiere deadline when you know how impatient I am for NEW FODDER.

    But Hollywood has become so adept at manipulating audience affect through image that the 2D screen personas seem more real than people, acted facial expressions of feelings more arousing of empathy than real people who keep their feelings to themselves

    Now one of the things in HOLY MOTORS is that the 2D screen personas ARE more real than people, otherwise Oscar would never be able to experience his roles as intensely as he does. I think here we are threading in the arena of the New Flesh, where the virtual and the flesh have melded.

    create fictional characters who are more real than real by assigning all sorts of imaginary intricacies to their inner workings.

    I haven’t really read much Henry James. From what little I read he struck me as an uptight Anglo-Saxon moralist.


    Comment by cpc — 28 November 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  7. “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch” — I guess that makes Nabokov an uptight Slavic moralist. For James, morality is as intricate and nuanced and deep as personality and syntax.

    According to the WordPress stat counter, yesterday was the busiest day ever at Ktismatics, while the day before yesterday was the 3rd-busiest ever.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 November 2012 @ 7:44 am

  8. I saw Blade Runner on a wet night when I just wandered in not knowing anything about it or even that it was on. I still haven’t read the book. It was just starting as I went to my seat in a tiny room, 20 rows or so. I’m low on superlatives at the moment, would you accept a slightly used awesome? Suppose one were to accept fully, physicalism and determinism, wouldn’t that mean that we are all replicants of a kind, some more advanced than others along with a few Betas. “I teach you the Superman” and no need for a ‘wallet legend’.

    The restricted affects of stars in the movies because we are ‘attached’ to them by our familiarity. A direct path to empathy or dyspathy . I confess I had to stop watching Melancholia because of Dunst and the strange mixture of Hollywood-Sur-Bergman. Stalker as a near weird future is real shamanistic elements, auteur longueurs and all.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 29 November 2012 @ 10:24 am

  9. Dick subscribes to an intriguing mix of techno-futurism and gnosticism which puts the individual human subject between a rock and a hard place. And that’s not even factoring in his schizophrenia and heavy drug use. Harrison Ford grew up in my home town. Though I never met him, his being “the boy next door” probably enhances Ford’s unconscious onscreen familiarity for me. Plus, as cpc suggests about cinematic heroes, Ford is good at being a kind of blank projection screen.

    I’m surprised I never put up screengrabs from Stalker, or Anrei Rublev either — only Solaris of the Tarkovsky films did I post. All three excellent.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 November 2012 @ 3:17 pm

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