Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Arguments Against Identification

In my previous post, I attempted my own definition/characterization of identification. To sum up, empathetic identification with a fictional character is (1) achieving a reasonable approximation of the beliefs, desires, and situation of the character to take them as the input to one's further mental processes, and (2) confirming that one's own cognitive and emotional responses and those of the character are reasonably similar to each other.

That this happens while we read novels and watch movies sounds reasonable enough. Recognizing potential similarities between our own experience and the character's can be one of the paths to finding truth about the human condition in fiction. On the other hand, I feel the role and prevalence of identification in reader/viewer experience is often overestimated. Identification is often accepted, even assumed, as the driving force for reader/viewer emotion by many academics, writing teachers, and laymen alike.

However, there are some compelling arguments against identification as the major source of reader/viewer emotion. Here are a few arguments by Carroll (2008) and Zillman (1994):
  • There often are disparities between what the character is supposed be feeling and what the reader/viewer is feeling. Scenes of suspense offer prime examples. It is often the case that the reader/viewer feels the tension as he observes the sneaking danger to the character, who is completely oblivious to the fact.
  • The reader/viewer's emotion and character's emotion often have different causes and objects. For example, we're typically not in love with Romeo or Juliet, even when the general romantic feeling is evoked through the poetry.
  • Even the subjective camera, which is often presumed to be the source of most basic form of identification, does not appear to be very effective in promoting identification. For example, Sapolsky (1979) reported that first-person POV shots of sexual scenes (which should theoretically induce identification with the person who is engaged in the sexual act) induces less physical arousal than the same scene shot from a third-person POV.

Therefore, Noel Carroll (2008) proposes that what I and calling empathic identification in this blog can happen but does not happen not very often. He contends that sympathy (concerns for a third person), not identification, is "the major emotive cement between audiences and the pertinent movie characters." Such sympathy may be supplemented by solidarity as well as automatic processes such as mirror reflexes according to him. Similarly, Ed Tan (1997) has argued that the viewer's emotional experience is largely that of a passive observer. Keith Oatley (Oatley, 1994;Oatley & Gholamain, 1997), a great proponent of simulation view of fiction, lists a variety of processes , including but not limited to identification, that may contribute to the reader/viewer experience. They are: identification, sympathy, activation of autobiographical memory, reactions to aesthetic object, and reactions to the discourse (rather than the narrative) of the fictional work.

Note that the last three processes in Oately and Gholamain's list are not even character-oriented processes. My own suspicion is that such non-character-oriented processes contribute to enhancing the experience of character-oriented emotions, and even to creating illusions of them without the reader/viewer's conscious awareness. This point will be explored further in a future blog post.

Works cited

Carroll, N. (2008). Affect and the moving image. In N. Carroll, The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Oatley, K. (1994). A taxonomy of the emotions of literary response and a theory of identification in fictional narrative. Poetics, 23, 53-74.

Oatley, K., & Gholamain, M. (1997). Emotions and identification: Connections between readers and fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the arts (pp. 163–281). New York: Oxford University Press.

Tan, E. S. (1996). Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film: Film as an Emotion Machine. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Zillman, D. (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33-51.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Identifying Identification

It is often said that, when we read a novel or watch a movie, we "identify" with the protagonist. This often is accepted as truism. One of the reasons for this, I believe, is the broad coverage of the term. The word, identification, is applied to a wide range of (alleged) experiences, including:

  • having an illusion of being the person with whom one "identifies" (psychodynamic theory)
  • going off-line from one's own reality and simulating the other person's experience by adopting his beliefs and desires, and his goals and plans (Oatley, Walton, Feagin among others)
  • imagining oneself sharing a subset of the target person's situation (Gaut)
  • understanding, relating to, or caring about the character.

One of the major questions I have been trying to answer is how much of the reader/viewer emotion come from "identifying" with a fictional character. In order to tackle question, I first need to establish what "identification" is.

Here are some parameters I would start with: The term "identification" calls for the act of 'putting oneself in the situation of' the target person.' Simply caring about the character would not suffice. ("Understanding" or "relating to" the character however are different matters and much more complicated ones.) I also think that I'd be better off not committing myself to the most extreme, psychodynamic theory view.

What about the simulation account then? Simulation is a powerful concept with a strong metaphoric grip. It is also a construct loaded with ideas and language that are hard to test or operationalize. It is also a concept construed in many different ways by different individuals. Consider Susan Feagin's take on mental simulation for example: "I make my own mind into a model of the other person's, shifting psychological 'gears' so that ideas and thoughts are processed in a different way from the way I would process them under my own current circumstances" (Feagin, 1996, p. 92). She emphasizes that simulation is distinguished from surface imitation in that the former "has the same basic relationship among the subprocesses as what it simulates" (Feagin, 1996, p.85). For her, simulation would require adopting the thought patterns and temperaments that are isomorphic to those of the target person, as well as adopting his beliefs and desires. My question is, how often do we succeed in this, if such a thing is even possible?

Gaut's account of identification sounds like a more moderate variation of a simulation theory. Gaut admits that one cannot possibly understand the whole experience and situation of another person, but that we may adopt certain parts of his experience. He also accepts that in simulating, we respond to the given situation, at least in part, with our own dispositions. This is a much more realistic view on simulation in my opinion. However, the question remains: Adopting how many aspects of the target person's situation qualifies as identification? Would simply sharing the other person's perceptual point of view (as in Metz's "primary identification") be enough? (I can't say yes.) Does imagining oneself to know exactly what the other person knows (but no more than that) qualify as "identification"? (Somehow, I don't feel that's quite enough.) My sense of the word "identification" incorporates both cognitive and emotional processes.

In the end, the following is my current stance on the term "empathetic identification" in the context of reader/viewer experience of fictional works:

  • "Empathetic identification" involves being able to adopt an approximation of the beliefs and desires of the target person, and to take them as input for further mental processes. (Our knowledge of others' beliefs and desires can only be imperfect, and our own beliefs/desires often influence ("contaminate"?) our representation of another person's beliefs/desires. Thus, we can only assume an approximation of the target person's belief/desire, not duplication of them. At times, we may find it difficult to take the character's belief and desire as input for our own mental processing because they are too radically different from our own. )
  • "Empathetic identification" involves both cognitive and emotional components.
  • The emotional responses should be the results of mentally processing an approximation of the person's beliefs/desires, and other relevant situational information, as if they are our own, not emotional responses as a third party observer.
  • Such emotional responses would largely be the products of our own dispositions and tendencies, not necessarily those of the target person's personality.
  • "Empathetic identification" with a fictional character involves not only simulating but also validating. The expression "I can identify with the character" entails that the character's reaction to the situation is similar to mine when I tried to simulate him.
  • More thoughts need to be put into what is often described as blurring personal boundaries. At the moment, I am using the term "empathetic identification" to exclude such automatic variety of "identification."

This , I am sure, is an imperfect conception of identification, but I feel this is a good start and way better than the chaos in which I struggled last a few months. But does "identification" as I outlined here actually happen when we weep for our heroes or become furious with them? That is a whole different question.

Works cited:

Feagin, S. (1997). Imagining emotions and appreciating fiction. In M. Hjort & S. Laver (Eds.), Emotion and the Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feagin, S. (1996). Reading with feeling: the aesthetics of appreciation. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Gaut, B. (1999). Identification and emotion in narrative film. In C. Plantinga & G. M. Smith (eds.). Passionate views: Film, cognition, and emotion. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press