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

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