Thursday, November 13, 2008

Imagination and Experiencing Fiction

In the interest of maiming two birds with one pebble, here are some thoughts on the term paper that I may write for my Philosophy and Literature class. If, while reading this, you feel like you've missed something, don't worry--this prospectus is meant for my professor.

In "Fearing Fictionality," Kendall Walton explores various arguments for what exactly is going on when Charles purports to be frightened by a movie featuring a monstrous green slime.
"Charles is afraid, it is assumed, and he does not think he is in danger. So fear does not require such a belief. One then cooks up a weaker requirement so as to protect the initial assumption: Fear requires only imagining danger, it is said, or the idea of danger vividly presented" (179).
Walton goes on to argue that the problem with this requirement lies in our initial assumption: that Charles actually is afraid, that what he is feeling really is fear. Pointing out that fear of something that does not exist (such as a malicious green slime) cannot possibly be the same as fear of something that does (airplane rides or rabid dogs), Walton comes up with the concept of "quasi-fear."

However, I don't take this problem of existence to be an issue, because it seems to me that fear requires one to imagine danger always, not just in the case of experiencing fiction.

During a class discussion, a classmate brought up the point that when we recognize danger in real life, it is because we imagine the potential consequences of the situation. What we're actually afraid of is something that has yet to happen. A girl who feel afraid when she sees a dog is not afraid because it is biting her, but rather because she imagines a sequence of events where the dog ends up biting her.

Of course, Walton might argue that this example is different from the example of the green slime, because the actually exists and is right there in front of her. However, I don't think that Walton would want to say that, when the same girl walks down a dim alley alone at night and feels fear, her fear isn't real just because the muggers she imagines may or may not exist. Walton's response to this example would be that even though the muggers may not actually exist, it is realistically possible for them to exist--there is no doubt in Charles' mind that there is no such thing as a green slime. In each of these cases, she believes that the danger she imagines might actually occur.

From my perspective, the requirement of belief is a jump. The student I referred to previously used an example, not of fear, of falling in love with a person you see walking on the opposite side of the street. Just as fear is a result of an imagined sequence of events, so love in this case is the result of you imagining that this person is more than just good looking but also charming and kind, that he or she returns your affections, and that you will be a good couple. None of these things have taken place, and the likelihood of them occurring is slim-to-none (I am only a little more likely to end up marrying this person than I am to marry Mr. Darcy). And yet we wouldn't want to call this feeling "quasi-attraction" instead of real attraction.

That example is not perfect, of course. But the main point is this: the object of our fear is always fictional, because fear necessarily precedes consequences (if it didn't, it wouldn't be a very useful feeling as we'd have little cause to avoid danger). Our capacity for determining and reacting to real life consequences appears to be identical to our capacity to responding to events in fictional works; our imagination seems to be used in the same way in both cases.


Clay said...

With regard to the fear of slime. Some possibilities..

Perhaps it is "fear of fear."

Or perhaps the slime which is portrayed as creating fears in the characters in the film is a catalyst or symbol that allows him to project actual fears onto it.

I do not know if I still have the discussions, but I have read suggestions that one motivation for watching horror movies is as a safe way to experience fear by means of being able to later laugh at the metaphysical absurdity of that fear.

Also, I'm not certain that imagination and fiction are synonymous, or inherently tied to each other. It strikes me that the intention (or one of them) of fiction is to portray something that is NOT true(though it may have the appearance of being so).

Whereas the purpose of imagining the consequences of a dog, or a bus bearing down on you is the projection of something that may be potentially true.

This is just me muddling around.. but there do seem to be some differences here.

Elizabeth said...

My memory of Walton is sketchy, as it's been six months (of not thinking about the philosophy of stories) since I read him. But my memory of his argument is that it is two-fold: first, fear requires us to have a reasonable belief that the event we fear will take place, and second, (and more practically), we can differentiate fear from quasi-fear because we act on fear while we do not act on quasi-fear; in other words, the difference is manifested in two ways: first, a reasonable belief, and second, a motivating force.

I totally agree with your premise, which is to say that I do not believe we experience quasi-emotions upon reading fiction, and your examples are good and to the point (although could one argue that in the case of the "love at first sight" example it is only truly love if you go over and talk to someone, rather than letting them pass you by?). But perhaps you should consider the motivating force as well as the reasonable belief in your essay proper?

Of course, I could be misremembering Walton. Or I could be remembering the wrong essay; I think he has two essays with very similar titles (Fearing Fiction and Fearing Fictionally), one of which presents a much more complete argument for his case than the other, which could also be causing the confusion. Because I specifically remember him talking about why someone who has a phobia (I think he used fear of dogs and fear of flying) not having a reasonable belief that what they fear will take place, but still having a real fear -- and I think that came down to the motivating force.

Ayn said...

You're correct in what you say about Walton. I've really just been using him as a jumping off point, and if I'm going to actually frame my paper as an argument against him, I'm going to have to read the article again carefully. Trouble is, I don't actually want to argue against each of his points...

Blargh. I've sent this stuff to Cohen in an email, so I'll see what he says (he'll probably bring up some of the same things you did). We have the option to do a take-home exam instead of a paper, and I'm fine with doing that, but I thought I'd see where I could get with this stuff first.