Navigating the Virtual: Affect, Epistemology and the Paradox of Fiction

Since its inception, cinema has been a medium focused on transporting spectators to new worlds. Whether inviting viewers to investigate exotic locales through travelogues or ferrying them to the moon via rocket, cinema has historically functioned not simply as a means of naïve entertainment but additionally as a mode of access to alternate realities. The very notion of spectatorial engagement with a cinematic text suggests a complex relationship between viewer and content that extends beyond the basic dichotomist understanding of audience and text as separate and fixed entities. The frightened cries of an audience as a monster looms on screen, the real tears shed as the protagonist dies unjustly, and the quickening heart rate of a viewer confronting the image of a character hanging helplessly from a cliff, all suggest an enigmatic bridge from screen to viewer allowing for the intermingling of reality and fiction, audience and text. That audiences can, and do, react to wholly fictitious cinematic elements is not up for debate, but, the ontology of fiction film should indeed be questioned in order to answer a specifically vexing question: how is it that audiences can become genuinely emotionally entangled in a wholly fictional text? This “paradox of fiction” is certainly not a new point of discussion but by positioning it within both a Spinozist philosophical framework in conjunction with contemporary neuroscientific understandings of emotion, I hope to challenge and/or clarify previous attempts at solving this illogicality.


To aid in this task, it is perhaps beneficial to draw on specific works of fiction that simultaneously address the paradox in both spectatorial and narratalogical terms. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) and Chris Marker’s Level Five (1997) not only allow one to examine the audience/text link in question, but in a layered approach, these films fundamentally question or elucidate this link within their respective narrative discourses (albeit in different ways). In effect, the close analysis of these texts themselves should allow for an enlightening yet complex understanding of how we engage with, and understand, works of fiction. In addition, this hermeneutical approach offers a reprieve from wholly subjective and solipsistic understandings of cinematic engagement and affect that risk turning every film theorist into “a mere omphaloskeptic” (Brinkema 33). Expanding the paradigm of affect and cinema beyond the confines of pure phenomenological inquiry should conceivably serve to broaden previous discussions of the affective relationship between cinema and viewer from an individual and subjective understanding to a larger study of what is, after all, a fairly universal experience. To properly challenge previous “solutions” to the paradox in question, it is of course necessary to very briefly examine some of the more, well received of these explanations for our “irrational” engagement with fiction. The extent to which these claims can be refuted or supported lies also in how one understands the complex processes behind emotion and, as such, a theory of emotion more generally will (must) emerge throughout this examination.

First, and most simplistically, one can argue that we can (and do) respond emotionally to films quite simply because we believe, at the moment of viewing, that the images flickering on the screen are in fact real. Such an argument relies on a sort of heightened Bazinian conception of cinematic realism, more specifically it suggests that the movie screen is merely a window and film’s verisimilitude fools the mind into believing the fiction behind or within the frame does in fact exist. Such an argument ignores a rather significant detail. If cinematic verisimilitude allows us to engage emotionally, then why is it that one can respond with equal emotionality to an animated work, or even a work of literature? It is additionally possible to assert, as Noel Carroll does, that if we are indeed fooled into believing that the images on the screen are reality, why do we not run away from threatening moments in film (Carroll 63)?

An alternate response to this paradox is simply the suggestion that audience emotions are not genuine emotions at all. This “pretend theory” is grounded in a purely cognitive approach to spectatorship by essentially asserting that an informed audience could not conceivably respond emotionally to a work of fiction, as this emotional response would be entirely irrational due to the absence of a genuine intentional object of the resulting emotion. Therefore, the emotions exhibited in response to a work of fiction must themselves be fictive. In other words, the audience is merely “playing along.” However, if one is to accept this as a solution to the paradox, the question of inverse or contradictory readings arises. If, for example, it is clear that the emotion a text solicits is contrary to the emotional response the audience displays, are we to suspect that the audience is simply not willing to play along or, rather, are not trying hard enough? Furthermore, how can we adequately account for the very real physiological and autonomic responses accompanying such emotions if these emotions are simply faux or quasi-emotions? Accepting this argument would necessitate the assumption that viewers explaining their response to fiction as “terrifying” or “joyous” would either not be truly familiar with the physiological accompaniments to these emotional states, or, and more problematically, are simply lying outright.

Finally, we can turn to perhaps the most accepted of these approaches to resolving the paradox: the thought theory. This theory quite simply argues that rather than believe assertively in the existence of a threat on screen thus causing an emotional response, entertaining a thought or “nonassertive belief” (Carroll) is enough to elicit the proper emotion. This argument is convincing in the way it crosses media boundaries—one of the problems not addressed within the other theories. In effect, literature and film can both be understood as evoking emotions by way of these nonassertive beliefs or thoughts. Conversely though, this lack of medium specificity becomes one of the arguments that can indeed be raised against this theory itself and one I will explore in greater depth shortly. Furthermore, if we are arguing, as Carroll and many other cognitive theorists do, that intentional objects, beliefs and evaluative judgments are central to emotions, and we can’t rationally make an evaluative judgment based on what we know to be false, then the very claim that we can use a “nonassertive belief” as the grounds for a genuine emotional response is guilty of breaking its own rule. This argument simply redoubles the question: why do we respond emotionally to elements we know to be fictive (this argument applies to fictive thoughts and texts equally). And if we are to accept this theory, then, prima facie, the only logical conclusion to this paradox is that we simply do respond to fictions emotionally, however unbelievable those fictions may be. Thus, all the thought theory achieves is quite simply the transposition of the paradox from screen to brain.

An interesting point of diversion and one that will serve as a gateway into the development of a new approach to the paradox can be found in Vivian Sobchack’s “What My Fingers Knew.” In this article, Sobchack lays out an alternative epistemology in contrast to the more cognitivist approach to understanding and engaging with cinematic texts. She suggests not only a synesthetic link as a major factor of our experience with film, but additionally, that the body (not limited to ocular and auditory channels) itself can be considered as an epistemological tool aiding in our understanding of film narratives. This haptic engagement with cinema may seem problematic as film itself is such an aural and ocularcentric medium, but, it is arguably the way in which the body itself, “in experience, lives vision always in cooperation and significant exchange with other sensorial means of access to the world” (Sobchack 59). The body becomes a site of excitation when experiencing a film that opens the possibilities to new understandings of how we engage emotionally and cognitively with works of fiction. Sobchack’s article addresses this issue through her suggestion that the obscure image in the opening scenes of Jane Campion’s pianoThe Piano became known through the sensations felt in her fingers. Admittedly, this assertion falls victim to the shortfalls of phenomenological approaches to film. Namely one is hard pressed to prove the truth of wholly subjective states and how these feelings can be applied to broader studies on the cinematic medium. What can be extracted from Sobchack’s article though is precisely this idea of the embodied viewer. Contrary to neo-stoic and cognitive theories of emotion and film reception foregrounding cognition—belief and evaluative judgments in this case—as the head of a causal chain leading to a physiological response, we can use Sobchack’s reading as a launching point into a discussion of film and emotion that recognizes the simultaneity and seamlessness of a cinematic text’s transference across the mind/body barrier in a way that allows for the inclusion of bodily sensations in discussions of film, removed from the shortcomings of phenomenological recounting.

What I would like to propose is a way to ground Sobchack’s argument by way of merging Baruch Spinoza’s approach to affect in Ethics with contemporary neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux’s Rethinking the Emotional Brain. By merging these two seemingly disparate approaches to emotion the paradox of fiction itself can be challenged from a new angle. We can begin with Spinoza’s pantheistic God/Nature unity as a way of approaching the mind/body dichotomy. For the purposes of this paper, we can proceed perhaps metaphorically through this pantheistic lens and simply suggest, as Spinoza does, that if we are all the unified substance of God/Nature, then the mind and body are simply modes of this singular substance. Because of this singularity, affect, according to Spinoza, can be understood “as states of the body in which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these states” (qtd. in Bennett 254). Interestingly, the unitary substance of mind/body diminishes or reverses hierarchical understandings of cognition preceding physiological response for a more generalized argument concerning the diminished or increased “power of acting” and the “idea” of this fluctuation between “greater and lesser levels of perfection” (qtd. in Bennett 254). We are presented then with an interesting argument of the body and mind being simultaneously affected yet functioning in different capacities determined by changing levels of the body’s power “to act.”

The simultaneity of shift in bodily and mental states present in Spinoza’s approach to affect is interestingly found in the work of contemporary neuroscience. Specifically, Joseph LeDoux illustrates the ways in which a threat stimulus is sensed and precognitively embodied by way of “defensive motivational states” (freezing, avoidance, etc.) while simultaneously interpreted through the slower cognitive systems (attention and working memory). It is the combination of defensive motivational states “along with other factors such as perceptions and memories [that] contribute to conscious feelings” (LeDoux 46). Emotion, for LeDoux, is “a conscious state that emerges when certain kinds of nonconscious ingredients coalesce and are cognitively interpreted” (LeDoux 46). LeDoux’s dual system processing involving nonconscious and cognitive systems functioning concomitantly in many ways serves as the scientific counterpart to Spinoza’s theory of affect and can be used to pose a new resolution to the paradox of fiction. If, as Spinoza and LeDoux both seem to suggest, an environmental stimulus physically sensed (visually, auditorily, etc.) modulates and affects the body by way of nonconscious processes and simultaneously triggers cognitive systems that both reflect on the physiological response to the stimulus, associative memories, and the ontology of the stimulus itself, then the paradox can be challenged quite simply. By recognizing that the process by which we experience emotions is not a unitary chain but a complex, multifaceted system altering the mind/body substance points to the plausibility of “feeling” the emotion, reflecting on the feeling thus making it a “conscious” emotion, and simultaneously locating the stimulus of said emotion in the fictive realm allowing a level of control yet still permitting the genuine emotion to consciously emerge.

Rather than attempt to locate this argument in personal recollections, I intend to illustrate it through closely analyzing a scene from the 1999 film eXistenZ (Cronenberg). The film’s metaphysical conundrum and unuttered reference to the “brain in a vat” question posed by radical skeptics can be understood as a mise-en-abyme reflecting the very paradox in question. The film follows controversial virtual reality game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her accidental bodyguard Ted (Jude Law) as they flee from Allegra’s would-be assassins. Even on the run, however, Geller feels compelled to immerse herself in the virtual realm of her game and, along with Ted, becomes increasingly absorbed within the fiction leading to questions about where the boundaries between the real and the fictional lie.

What is perhaps most interesting is the way in which the protagonists lose themselves within the fiction (game) not through complete visual and auditory immersion but, rather, through physical shocks to the body. A scene illustrating this argument occurs when Geller and Ted are located within what appears to be the first level of their virtual reality experience (which is in fact already a virtual reality within a virtual reality as we will discover later). As they interact with a game character, the two are “physically” present within the virtual environment but continue to converse with each other extra-mimetically (I will refer to the virtual worlds within the film as mimesis and the film text existenz4itself as the diegesis). Geller, disappointed with the falsity of the character says, “He’s not a very well drawn character, his dialogue was just so-so, his accent was….” In essence, there exists a level of distanciation even in light of the seemingly total immersion within the virtual realm. Quite interestingly, what serves as the first point of total immersion begins later in this scene as Geller inserts the game “pod” into Ted’s “bioport” (a hole within the body allowing for the game system to connect directly to the spinal cord). As Geller attempts to connect the pod to Ted, the entire pod is sucked into Ted’s bioport causing Geller to jump and shout, “Oh God!” to which Ted responds frantically, “It’s working its way around my spinal chord?!?” In an attempt to calm Ted, Geller reassures, “Don’t panic it’s just a game.”

Closely analyzing this scene reveals the complexity of the film and the way in which it not only brings up larger metaphysical questions, but also, and more important to this study, how it challenges the paradox of fiction specifically. Reading the film as a mise-en-abyme allows us to locate the viewer (ourselves) within the characters of the narrative discourse, specifically Ted and Geller. Cronenberg sets up this reflection (as opposed to sympathetic or empathetic identification typical of most films) by reflexively commenting on both the mimesis and the diegesis simultaneously. For example, as Geller criticizes the acting of the game character we cut to a close-up of Geller followed by a close-up of Ted who, after a moment of brief hesitation, agrees with Geller’s criticisms. What is interesting in this exchange is precisely the way in which the protagonists themselves present their dialogue in a stilted and rather flat manner within these close-ups effectively inviting the audience to read these critiques as wholly reflexive. In effect, the factor contributing to the protagonists’ distanciation becomes the same factor contributing to our own distanciation. To be sure, one could charge that this argument is drifting toward the subjective, but, taking into account the drastic shift in character physiognomy and dialogue delivery after we are introduced to these protagonists within the “real” at the end of the film lends credence to the assertion that Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh are imbuing the “Geller” and “Ted” of the mimesis with game like characteristics (stilted acting, etc.) and only truly acting “real” when the virtual is (seemingly) left behind at the close of the film.

Therefore, what the film becomes is a complicated meditation on the relationship between fictive text and viewer where the spectator (the film viewer) is reflecting on the fictive spectator (player within the game and real spectator’s avatar—Ted and Geller) reflecting on the characters of the game (also stand-ins for the “real” characters of the film). Furthering this argument, and closing the gap between all these iterations of audience and fiction is the way in which Geller and Ted become emotionally engaged not due to the realism of the game, but rather through physical shocks to the body. The physical insertion of the pod into Ted’s bioport causes a genuine emotional response of fear by both Ted and Geller predicated on the physicality of the interaction. Similarly, the audience of the film is subjected to comparable “shocks” by way of extreme close-ups on the bioport accompanied by pronounced sound effects and Geller’s own surprised shout. The combined shock of these elements, I would argue, function themselves as stimuli that affectively prime the viewer by triggering a defensive motivational state of surprise and disgust. In effect, and in parallel to the players within the game, the visceral and embodied response to the images/sounds produce a physical response that, in accordance with Spinoza and LeDoux’s theories, becomes a point of cognitive reflection thus allowing for a very real understanding of fear which in turn cyclically feeds upon itself. It is only through the simultaneous understanding that “it’s only a game (film)” that allows for control of the response itself. In essence, the fearful emotion is genuine, but this genuine emotion does not preclude the coinciding understanding that the object of our fear is originating within a work of fiction and thusly cannot truly act against our “level of physical and mental vitality” (Bennett 254). The barrier between fiction and reality is irrelevant in the generation of emotion when genuine stimuli (sounds, images, etc.) are present and activate (nonconsciously) defensive survival circuits, but responding genuinely does not make rational evaluative judgments impossible.

Cronenberg’s positioning of Geller and Ted as mirrors of the film’s audience points to one of the “thought theories’” fundamental flaws. Specifically it’s lack of medium specificity. By trying to offer a cohesive resolution to the paradox of fiction that addresses all forms of media fiction (literature, film, etc.) simultaneously, the thought theory ignores the significance of cinema’s immediacy and physicality. Just as Sobchack’s embodied reading of The Piano allowed for a certain level of understanding that necessarily blurred the viewer/film split, so too can this physicality of the medium be understood as the primary tool in allowing for the viewer to engage emotionally with a fictional film. The fiction, while acknowledged, must exist behind the real visual and auditory stimuli that, through preconscious processing, synesthetically circulate as physiological and autonomic responses.


The ontology of cinematic texts additionally allows for this approach to resolving the paradox to exist across genres. For example, one could dismiss this theory as inadequate in addressing more nuanced works as eXistenZ, admittedly, revels in surprise and disgust thus necessarily offering plenty of shocking sounds and images that can serve as stimuli. However, we can briefly turn to Chris Marker’s equally dizzying 1997 film Level Five for a different view of this resolution to the paradox in action. Rather than following a traditional narrative discourse, Level Five merges fiction and documentary as a means of exploring trauma, memory, and the arguably false promises of the virtual. What is useful about the film in relation to this study is precisely the fact that, on the surface, it appears to be a much more narratively and emotionally complex film. Navigating multiple layers of fiction and reality to locate both social and individual histories and traumas becomes a task very much reflected within the narrative discourse itself as the game programmer searches for answers to largely existential questions within the very game she is programming.

To illustrate how a film that seems more geared toward resolving this paradox by way of the thought theory can, indeed, be better understood through the approach I have posited, we can turn, surprisingly, to Munsterberg’s “Why We Go to the Movies” and Eisenstein’s “The Dramaturgy of Film Form.” Specifically, both of these texts address a particularly important aspect of the cinematic medium, namely montage. Munsterberg suggests that the cinema is unique in that it can adequately represent psychological states and should not be limited to simple attempts at realism. Film, in Munsterberg’s conception, is uniquely suited to render subjective states and, one way in which the cinematic medium can achieve this is by imitating the “excited mind” in which the “smooth flow of impressions is interrupted” (Munsterberg 15). This interruption is essentially Munsterberg’s call for a montage not favoring “real” ways of smoothly visualizing the world but rather a wholly subjective view favoring cuts and close-ups to make visible mental perturbations. Working from the opposite side of the same point, Eisenstein calls for a dialectical montage, essentially a specific editing technique in which opposing and conflicting montage cells (frames/shots) collide to create a new meaning or feeling within the viewer. Both of these seemingly disparate arguments point to the significance of montage as a creator of meaning/emotion within the viewer, and a way to represent subjective mental (emotional) states.

In essence, if we are to take these approaches to montage as intended, then these collisions themselves offer a consistent stream of stimuli beyond mere images. Each shot operating outside of traditional modes of interacting with and understanding reality can be interpreted as posing a shock ripe for triggering defensive survival circuits. For example, cutting rapidly from a wide shot to a close-up, although common within film history, is fundamentally at odds with our lived perception of reality and thus functions itself as a sort of existential threat. Therefore, even as Marker’s Level Five does not rely on graphic images or jump scares as does a body horror film like eXistenZ, it does utilize a sophisticated structure of montage relying on unnatural images (computer screens, monkey faces, etc.) in conjunction with unnatural sounds (digital beeps, etc.). Triggering defensive motivational states in this instance can be understood as a sort of emotional and cognitive priming allowing for a heightened and sustained interest and grief to be continuously reinforced throughout the text. This short analysis of course barely scratches the surface of a highly complex film but it does illustrate the ways in which drastically different texts can still fundamentally evoke genuine emotions within the viewer regardless of genre.

In conclusion, I would propose that we address this paradox of fiction by reevaluating the assumed chain of emotional response that prioritizes brain over body. By utilizing Spinoza and LeDoux we can solve the paradox quite simply by illustrating that it is not a contradiction that one can indeed have a genuine emotional response to a work of fiction while acknowledging the falsity of the work itself. That said, I would also argue that attempting to solve the paradox of fiction necessitates different approaches for different mediums. Film, and by this I include the moving image as a broad category, has a very particular immediacy and physicality that should not be equated with the written word. The thought theory, though I would argue still inadequately, could therefore, serve as a starting point for an analysis of how one responds to works of fiction in literature but it is ill equipped to handle the complexity of the moving image or at the very least ignores what makes cinema so unique. As Munsterberg, Eisenstein, and Sobchack all address in varying ways, film is uniquely suited to express, direct, and insight genuine emotional responses regardless of the narrative discourse and/or genre of the specific film text in question.

Works Cited

Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1984. Print.

Brinkema, Eugenie. The Forms of the Affects. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. Print.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form (The Dialectical Approach to Film Form).” Critical Visions in Film Theory. Eds. Corrigan, White, & Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 262–278. Print.

eXistenZ. Dir. David Cronenberg. 1999.

LeDoux, Joseph. Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. New York: Viking, 2015. Print.

Level Five. Dir. Chris Marker. 1997.

Münsterberg, Hugo. “Why We Go to the Movies.” Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Eds. Corigan, White, & Mazaj. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 9-16. Print.

Sobchack, Vivian. “What My Fingers Knew: The Cinesthetic Subject, or Vision in the Flesh.” Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkely: University of California Press, 2004. 54-84. Print.

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