Effect Ideas and Close Encounters

Gabriel Duquette of Liposuction has raised a number of objections to my insertion of effect-ideas into his maps/chords dualism. Either effect-ideas are not real, he argues, or they are not significant. They are trivial in that they are wildly personal, unpredictable, and unengineerable. Read rather than written into texts, they are the creations of readers and audiences instead of artists and authors. It is akin to ruminating on a rock for hours at end, and then pretending the rock had instigated the conversation.

I want to address these objections here. First though, David Lopez has argued that I am falling prey to a Theory of Mind problem. That is, the category of effects I claim are built into art works and experienced widely by audiences are actually only experienced by myself, a product of either cognitive makeup or too much free time. "Do people actually reflect at length, after an encounter with a work, on the nature of that encounter?" I think he's right in diagnosing that all too often it is assumed that lengthy analysis, akin to what happens in a university setting, is a central part of most or even many art experiences. It is not. Only a select few particularly moving or provocative works stay with us after we leave a gallery or close a book. Are the rest, the unchosen many, then rendered impotent?

I think the root of misunderstanding here is over the kind of thinking the effect-idea flourishes as, and when effect-ideas usually occurs. Specifically, they happen during, not after, the encounter with a work. They are the result of thoughtful self-watching during an art-viewer interaction. Hermeneutic and predictive self-watching, like "Why did I make this prediction (about the future) or interpretation (of the whole) from what I've just been shown?" "How much dissonance is there between predictions and narrative outcomes?" "What assumptions did I bring into the encounter, about both art and the outside world?" Or else it might be affective self-watching — "What about this scene made me feel this way?" And many more.

Others have contested this mechanism's name. I admit "effect-idea" is clunky. It is not merely an "effect," as John Nerst has proposed at Everything Studies (in an otherwise clarifying post). It is a subset of effects, which carry in them ideas, much as speech acts are a subset of speech which carry in them actions. Chords also create effects in the viewer, primarily but not merely emotional and sensory. But they typically do not carry in them ideas.

To respond to Gabriel Duquette's objections, and clarify what an effect-idea does, I am putting down examples:

Near the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a group of scientists and military personnel gathers around the mothership as its extraterrestrials slowly disembark. The camera focuses on their faces reacting to the scene (much has been said elsewhere about this technique).

The way the scene has been set up — the military earlier trying to gas Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary and now handling diplomacy, coupled with existing genre tropes and the Cold War/post-Vietnam cultural context of the film — there is an indeterminacy and fragility to what happens next. The E.T.s are enormously vulnerable, walking out of the spaceship naked and unarmed and trusting. Even the way they're physically molded channels it, their limbs looking eminently snappable. There are films and real-life timelines where assault weapons and tanks would be armed and loaded right about this point. We are at a crossroads for human response, with extreme demonstrated vulnerability on the part of one party. Will we sink to fear or rise into becoming the better angels of our nature?

As a viewer I have been cued into this vulnerability and am looking for signs as to which timeline will play out. Aggressively or amicably? Gracefully or crudely? (Close Encounters is all about human response in the face of the unknown — their fear and wonder and excitement and insanity.) And I am looking for these signs precisely at the moment the camera passes among the faces of the crowd. If there is an answer, it can only be found here.

I find myself least hopeful, and the thought that things might take a turn for the worst — away from diplomacy — first consciously enters my mind, when it sits on a particular model of American man. He is white, he is beginning to gray. He wears aviators. There are echoes in the lines on his face of Eastwood and infantry. Or else he is the boorish, a slightly overweight pencil-pusher, also distinctly American, an unhelpful arm of an uncaring bureaucracy. These are in contrast with the lovable French sociologist and linguist Lacombe. How appropriate that these naked extraterrestrials would be imprisoned, poked and prodded as if hostile forces, in the face of the naïve and trusting Lacombe. We know Lacombe and ourselves trust him, but the rest in the crowd are unknown variables, potential threats which could turn precariousness into unfolding tragedy with a whistled order. (And why is it that the only other known and trustworthy official in the scene, a softspoken mathematician/translator with glasses, also speaks French?)

This tells me quite a bit about myself and the world. I would not have thought the same about an anonymous suited Frenchman, but a cowboy-looking American? In an instant, off a certain expression of cheekbone and brow. I would not have thought the same about an unknown suited black man, primarily because of how certain demographics are often cast (in inoffensive but background roles), and this also tells me something.

Moreover, I have seen in myself a certain cynicism concerning human nature and state bureaucracy alike — how could a government effort not, I reason, mess something so miraculous as this up? And yet there are recent administrations I would have trusted with handling such a task. Is my cynicism a cinematic priming from other films? How well does it map onto reality?

There are shortcomings which Duquette has accused these effects of:

1) Effect ideas do not widely apply, are merely personal in effect. Therefore they cannot be engineered or scaled or evaluated:

I think many people carry the same prejudices I do. I think the vulnerability cuing was strong and intended. Might they feel the effect — the way their reading of a scene and its possibility is distorted by a face — but never reflect on it, never derive an idea? Certainly. But thoughtful audiences self-watch when interacting with art objects. They notice the changes in their inner state and in their interpretations of a narrative as it progresses. This is a specific mode of reading, which art is often made for and experienced through. (Especially specific traditions like literary fiction; because authors can count on self-watching, it can be reliably written into the text.)

Many might not come away with the same thoughts or realizations from the effect which I've described. But I think we can agree that an avenue of inquiry is opened which has a defined distribution of effect.

2) That the effect idea is inefficient from the perspective of material and audience time:

It took seconds for this effect to occur. A half-dozen short cuts. Displaying this same phenomenon through the "map" mechanism — perhaps depicting a character who reads violence into certain categories of face — is certainly possible but ostensibly more efficient. Moreover, such a depiction takes reality as fixed, and shows only one response to the face type, whereas the effect idea allows multiple reactions and ideas (within the aforementioned thematic and conceptual bounds). The artist does not sermonize or lecture or make claims to truth so much as as submit the viewer to an experience which may lead him toward valuable discoveries.

3) That the learning caused by effect ideas isn't actually learning because it can't be summed up pithily:

We learn things from undergoing experiences which can't be neatly summed up. Sometimes it is a matter of calibration and recalibration. Sometimes reminders are learning. Sometimes you "know" something intellectually, so that it appears trite if articulated, but don't actually know it, need to experience it firsthand, or from the inside. Much of learning is less an accumulation of data points or compressions about how the world works, and more an accumulation of insights into how the self interacts with the world: one learns a craft as much by learning personal tendencies as physical facts.

4) That effect ideas are not intended and happen almost accidentally. They are "read in" to the text by the reader, as opposed to being written in by an author or existing "autonomously":

It is true effect ideas do not exist independently of their effect on human beings, but neither do chords. (CloseEncounters offers a reminder; the musical sequence used to communicated with the Third Kind would not be beautiful to their ears, since our scales rely on human anatomy.) This makes the effects no less "real" or relevant as artistic mechanisms, art being a human-oriented practice.

I imagine Spielberg did not intend to include certain types of face to show at this moment to convey the above ideas. The vulnerability and at-a-crossroads feeling of the scene, however, is certainly deliberate. And Spielberg may very well have included actors and costumes with profile designed to further this vulnerability or sense of portending danger.

Were accidental or indirect inclusion the nature of all effect ideas it might prove an obstacle to their being engineerable. But it is important to note that in the evolutionary pool and economic market that is culture, successful things surface to the top, author intent irrelevant. The value of these works is bolstered by the presence of such effects however they originated.

Second, there are countless examples, primarily concentrated in literary and "high" visual arts of artists putting audiences/readers through experiences which yield insight upon reflection. In Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea, a protagonist-narrator alternates between living alone by the sea and being visited by friends. This narrator is scheming to win back an old love from a purportedly violent husband, and the lengths this narrator is willing to go to seem initially, if drastic, within ethics and reason. The clues which he uses to justify his efforts he interprets to mean that she is bitterly unhappy in her marriage. From inside his subjectivity the is inclined to agree. The given interpretation makes sense.

But when the narrator is joined by friends, with whom he talks events over, the illusion falls apart. Not to him — he remains convinced as ever, essentially up to the end. But to readers, other ways of interpreting her marriage open up, and seem equally plausible. The narrator's behavior seems mad, erratic and irrational and deeply unethical. But it is only in the presence of others that we see things from outside his view. This argues all sorts of things about interpretation in general, both literary and everyday. It warns against epistemic and inductive hubris, against confidence in one's interpretation of reality. (Something which we may all already "know," but still constantly fall prey to.) And it is incredibly effective-affective because we as readers undergo it. We are shown and believe one thing only to watch it evaporate. "Seeing is believing"; no, readers know events are fictional and discount them as such, relying on unproductive resonance as a guide (and resonance will not change our minds). Experiencing is believing, and the effect idea is the only way which this can happen. It is limited in scope as to what it can show us — an insight such as The Wire's, that all organizations eventually end up prioritizing self-preservation cannot be shown. But the didactic ground it covers is vitally important, enough on its own to justify art's existence.

I am confident Murdoch intended this effect. It undergirds the entire book and is one of its most important functions. Many books are like this — they inject the reader into a situation from which one might learn. Effect-ideas include but are not limited to: provocations, trips, twists, mirrors, undergone experiences, complex ethical dilemmas, and deliberate rug-pulling.

Perhaps the best solution is to separate the effect-idea mechanism from maps as chords, and to treat it distinctly instead.

1 Comment

  1. This didn’t seem to go through before…

    I’m not so sure the distinction between what you call “effect-ideas” and what I call just “effects” is as clear as you want to make it. What does it mean that an effect contains an idea? Is it enough that the effect has idea-content? (Whatever that is, the definition of “idea” isn’t exactly super-clear.) In that case it means pretty much the same thing I meant by “effects”, defined as an idea or insight arising as the effect of a work of art.

    Or does it require reliable transmission of an idea from artist to audience? That would rule out any idea that comes about not by artist intention (i.e. created rather than transmitted, which appears to be one of Duquette’s objections), and it doesn’t seem like you want to go that far. I made no big deal of the difference between the two in my article, because I don’t think it makes a practical difference when it comes to how a work of art is received.

    I think Duquette might mean that the mechanism is inefficient partly because the scene in Close Encounters requires the whole movie as build up to induce this fairly simple idea. It’s also “inefficient” in a different way in that it is, because of individual psychological differences and the difficulty of articulating the actual idea, a highly unreliable way to transmit ideas. And unreliability stacks up. If you may or may not communicate a single idea with fidelity, communicating two that depend on one another is going to be even more difficult, and forget about highly complex structures of ideas.

    I do agree with you on point 3, even though in practice I tend to find such things underwhelming (for reasons mentioned in the second part of my article).

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