by Christina Kallas
So what is “the real world we THINK we inhabit”? What is reality?
To determine that, we might want to look at how the human mind arrives at a sense of understanding the world. Once again, it all goes back to Aristotle. The system of thought expounded by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. is the system of thought we are still using today: it is the order of human mental processing we are familiar with. Says Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics: “In the evolution of the human race and language there was a natural order of evaluation established; namely, the life facts came first and labels (words) next in importance. Today, from childhood up, we inculcate words and language first, and the facts they represent come next in value.” (Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. 1933. Fifth edition. New York: Institute of General Semantics, 1994. p. xlvii.)
The nature of language (an abstract symbol system intended to pass information from one mind to another,) invites us to group and divide objects and phenomena that can’t necessarily be separated in reality. Pay attention and you’ll quickly notice how anxious people are to give everything in the human experience a name or a category. As Alan Watts writes in his popular 1957 book The Way of Zen. “We do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication.” (Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen. 1957)
But what does that mean for our perception of reality? Aristotle’s system of thought (so our system of thought) is based on the effort to be “objective,” it is two-valued (either-or, dualistic, subject-predicate, etc.) and linear. “Perception is selection,” writes Daniel Goleman (Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, 1985), referring to the model set forth by Freud in his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), which may still be our best understanding of the processes of the mind. The basic flow of the model is that a sensory stimulus occurs, then passes through memory sub-levels to the “unconscious” (followed by a censor), the “preconscious” (followed by more censoring), and finally conscious thought, which elicits a response. We say information has been “repressed” if it doesn’t make it to the conscious level.
So, is each of us, as Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson would say, trapped in the reality-tunnel (assumption-consumption) his or her brain has manufactured? Where we do not ‘see’ it or ‘sense’ it as a model our brain has created, but as the objective reality, something we automatically, unconsciously, mechanically ‘see’ and ‘sense’ out there, apart from us?
Inspired by George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, social psychologist Anthony G. Greenwald (The Totalitarian Ego: Fabrication and Revision of Personal History, 1980) writes: “The past is remembered as if it were a drama in which self was the leading player. In part, this observation refers to the autobiographical or episodic character of much of memory…” In Orwell’s story there is a concept called “doublethink” and it involves tricking oneself into thinking a conscious choice was actually an unconscious one. Might it all be a bit more complex than Freud’s model of repression, in which the censoring occurs prior to reaching the conscious level? If yes, there is still hope. Writes Goleman: “My aim is to ponder our collective predicament: if we so easily lull ourselves into subtle sleep, how can we awaken? The first step in that, it seems to me, is to notice how we’re all asleep.”
Says Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” (1984, 1949) In the novel this refers to the Ingsoc government, whose paradoxically named “Ministry of Truth” constantly re-writes history according to the current needs of the totalitarian leadership. In the book, as in real life, the details of the past have a determining effect on what can happen in the future. Does that mean that the self, or ego, controls the past from within the ever-changing present, and, therefore, the self controls what can be predicted or planned for in future? If yes, it is an intriguing thought. Now what does this tell us in relation to the objectivity of reality or to the content of truth in cinema?
The psychology of the group, said Freud, involves ‘the dwindling of the conscious individual personality, the focusing of thoughts and feelings into a common direction.’ That translates to the prepotency of shared schemas over personal ones, concludes Goleman, taking into consideration the group studies of Trotter and LeBon. So what if cinema creates the most potent shared schemas, which we have come to consider our reality? If we take into consideration that cinema is based on conflict and has almost never been independent from commercial interests, it is a daunting thought.
In that context, again: To the good liberal humanists of the West, cinema is a symptom of history, an archive that tells us something about our times. But what if cinema is not the symptom but the cause? What if cinema co-creates our reality? Quoting from Kaufman’s Adaptation: “I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases. You know? Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end”, one might be intrigued to think whether there is indeed a reality out there which has been created by our very own movie culture, especially the wide spread one, that of Hollywood movies. How many of us have learned what love is or should be through movies? How many of us have learned what success is or should be?
And then, there was non-linear.
Non-linear storytelling was not invented by movies. Its predecessors go way back in literature. In the beginning it looked like a trend: towards fiendishly complex plots that demand intense audience focus and analysis just to figure out what is happening on the screen; and mind-benders - films designed specifically to disorient you, to mess with your head, some that challenge the mind by creating a thick network of intersecting plot lines, some that withhold crucial information from the audience or that invent new temporal schemes to invert traditional relationships of cause and effect, some that deliberately blur the line between fact and fiction – indeed through use of all the classic techniques of the old cinematic avant-garde. (Steven Johnson, Everything bad is good for you)
Cinematic complexity also, or perhaps even more so, informed TV series – possibly, among other reasons, because there are only so many threads and subtleties you can introduce into a two hour film.
And then came Web 2.0, the second generation of web services - the ones that didn’t just deliver information or goods or entertainment but invited people to participate. The sharing of stories and characters in trans-media or interactive storytelling, the first-person involvement of online gaming, eventually blurred the line even more, not just between story and play, but also between storyteller and audience, illusion and reality, fact and fiction. (Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion) And characters belonging to apparently separate story lines were randomly or not so randomly linked.
It might be interesting to consider Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of the rhizome – an a-centered structure without a hierarchical organization in which any point can be arbitrarily connected to any other (Deleuze and Guattari 2004) – as the structure that best reflects multi-protagonist, multi-perspective, non-linear storytelling. The two theorists regard the rhizome as the only alternative to traditional tree models and the structures of power and dominance systems that they inevitably bring about. So do the new cinematic storytelling forms also hold the potential to overcome the hierarchical organization reflected in our classic storytelling’s privileging of one character and his/her point of view (and subjective reality) over the rest?
Multi-perspectival, non-linear storytelling is a participatory experience. In telling the story in non-linear fragments and leaving it to the audience to piece them together – or even if the writer has pieced them together allowing for different interpretations as is mostly the case – what is created is essentially a kind of participatory fiction. Charlie Kaufman once described his writing philosophy in the following way: “I guess my mindset about movies is that I feel like film is a dead medium. With theater, you have accidents that can happen, performances that can change. But film is a recording. So what I try to do is infuse my screenplays with enough information that upon repeated viewings you can have a different experience. Rather than the movie going linearly to one thing, and at the end telling you what the movie’s about – I try to create a conversation with the audience. I guess that’s what I try to do – have a conversation with each individual member of the audience”.
Might we be experiencing a shift in cinematic storytelling? And assuming that we accept that cinema co-creates our sense of reality, might we be also experiencing a shift in our perception of reality?