Monday, November 5, 2007

Socializing the senses (of cinema)

Many would argue that cinema is an experience that simulates a kind of reality. To see a movie and make sense of it depends on the viewer understanding the spatial and temporal relations of the compositional economy of the film, as well as possess an extensive knowledge of language, narrative, and the cultures and behaviors both depicted and reflected in the movies themselves. Since the rise of cinema, television, and videogames in the 20th Century, one could say that we have created multiple realities wherein viewers partake in a sort of co-constructed world by perceiving and interpreting the sights and sounds of movies, television shows, and games. Academia has attempted to grapple with our individual and collective abilities to interpret sensory perceptions, to separate "real" affective responses from "simulated" ones. It's certainly a provocative debate, one that's been dealt with by a number of 20th Century thinkers in a variety of ways.

On his blog, Steven Shaviro (whose book, The Cinematic Body, is a must-read for anyone interested in cultural meaning-making of bodies, sex, and violence in cinema) sounds off on the subject by considering the assumptions of an individual (Satoshi Kanazawa) who claims to know a thing or two about sensory perception and experience from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology. Shaviro strongly refutes Kanazawa's claim that our brains often cannot tell the difference between what's simulated and what's real. Shaviro explains:

"'Pretend' (as my daughters call it) or simulated experience is perfectly real in its own right, of course; and we get scared from movies just as 'authentically' as we get scared when something dangerous or horrible threatens us in 'real life.' But not only does this have nothing to do with not being able to tell the difference, it absolutely depends upon being able to tell the difference. Vicariousness is crucial to aesthetic experience (it is the basis for what Kant called “disinterest”). I eagerly go to watch horror films. I do not eagerly go to places where there is a strong likelihood of feral monsters or chainsaw-wielding psychopaths dismembering me limb from limb. And I cry much more readily at the movies than I do in real life situations.

Probably if I said this to Kanazawa, he wouldn’t disagree with me, exactly, but rather say something about how the fear response evolved in such a way that it operates on its own, on the assumption that what is being seen is real — before some other, more highly conscious, part of our mind can remind us that, after all, 'it’s only a movie.' But I don’t think this gets him off the hook. For the point of the example — and, I’d argue, the point of aesthetics (among other things) overall — is precisely that the brain, or the mind, or 'human nature' in general, is massively underdetermined by the particular biological traits of which the evolutionary psychologists make so much. In the example here, the dismissal of vicariousness, together with the unexamined assumption that the physiological fear-response is meaningful in itself and enough to account for all the varied situations in which human beings can possibly feel afraid, or give meanings to being afraid, exemplifies the extreme naivete to which evolutionary psychology in general is always prone.

I am inclined to think that William James is right in saying that we feel afraid because we have a certain physiological reaction, rather than we have the physiological reaction because we feel afraid. But this is precisely why it is a category error to think that fear can be defined in cognitive terms, which would have to happen in order for the question of whether the experience is real or simulated to even come up. A corollary of this is that, when the cognitive question does come up, it is not constrained by the physiological response in the way that Kanazawa assumes. This is the ground of possibility for the astonishing diversity, between individuals and even more among cultures, of the meanings that are assigned to fear, of the situations that give rise to fear, of the ways that fear is dealt with, and so on and so forth. Evolutionary psychology can dismiss these differences as inconsequential (just as it dismisses the question of vicariousness as inconsequential) only because it has already assumed what it claims to prove. Its cognitivist assumptions (such as the assumption that the physiological fear-response has something to do with a cognitive judgment as to whether something is real or simulated) leave it utterly incapable of dealing with the non-cognitive, affective aspects of human life, as well as (ironically enough) with the ways that 'cognition' itself contains far more than it can account for."

For as much that we know about the brain, perhaps even more expansive is what we don't know about the brain. Ever since I started reading about cognitivism in cinema and media studies, a movement popularized by David Bordwell in the 1980's, it's been difficult to take a stand on the issue of affective response. So much of what cognitivism posits stands in direct contrast to much of my own stance on behavior, one which focuses more on discursive norms of language as constituting that which we refer to "time" and "space", or lived experience. Nonetheless, several theorists have made compelling arguments, including Bordwell himself. (Although much of his work dates back to the 1980's, Bordwell has written an intriguing entry on cognitivism and cinema more recently on his blog entitled This is Your Brain On Movies, Maybe.)

The general problem I have with the cognitivist camp is that it seems to leave very little wiggle room for the social factors entrenched within the biological and physiological experiences of sensory perception and experience. Rather than attributing the interpretation of sensory perception and constitution of self, memory, and culture solely to quantitatively measurable aspects of brain function, communication scholars tends to look at language itself as mediating device from which our infinite webs of discourse flow.

That's not to say that physics or psychology cannot account for behavior in more scientific terms, but rather to suggest that how our social behaviors and institutions are organized according to the principles of language greatly influences what is performed or understood within those practices and institutions. Communication theorists (by and large) don't necesarily reject the notion that a "real world" exists out there, but are instead more focused on how individuals or groups of individuals structure it and contribute to it via their understanding of and participation in the signifying principles of language. Systems of signification, i.e., language, have developed in oral, written, and textual form over thousands of years, and they enable us to differentiate between objects and to categorize sensory perceptions according to the structural makeup that language has constructed.

For these broad reasons, I find it difficult to accept phrases like "human nature" when describing emotions such as fear, jealousy, rage or any other behavior or affective action/reaction. Beyond these conundrums, however, is an even greater concern for the relationship between the self and that which is outside the self. A question as simple as, "How does one interpret sensory perceptions in a ways that makes sense?" becomes quite problematic when considering the ideological assumptions deeply embedded within the methodologies and discursive norms of empirical research. In that sense, I would argue, quantitative data is as much informed by qualitative methods as qualitative data is informed by quantitative components. They are entwined much in the same way that the social and the physiological/biological are inexorably wrapped within one another. To assume that these binary relationships, i.e., real/fake, subject/object, masculine/feminine, quantiative/qualitative, good/evil, are defined by two opposing forces, a yin and a yang, not only speaks more to the categorical properties of language shaping cultural understanding, but also foolishly undercuts the nuances, ambiguities, and vastness of lived experience.

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