Saturday, April 25, 2009

Most actors find it difficult to see anything

The other night, while watching the movie 'Pride and Glory', I found myself captivated by the performance of Edward Norton. It was riveting. The other actors were pretty good, especially John Voight, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Ehle, but - without upstaging them or apprently drawing attention to himself in any obvious manner - Norton seemed to steal every scene he was in (and he was in a lot). This began to puzzle me. He was not making any of the usual actorish efforts to impress. But, neither was he sucking the audience in, making them move towards him, by withdrawing or enigmatically holding things back in some way. He was just there. Whether walking in the street or simply standing in the room, there he was. But, again, this wasn't about either 'presence' or absence of it. "What is going on?" I kept asking myself. And, then I cracked it.

I noticed him looking at the other characters and his surroundings and I became aware that he was really seeing them, and that his face was reacting accordingly. Not in a crude way - not in a "here is my 'looking at someone/something intensely' face" way - but with great subtlety. It highlighted the huge behavioural difference between seeing something and pretending to see it, and showed quite clearly that most actors fail to cater for this.

Norton's 'performance' also illustrated a philosophical view. I call it "people holism".

Platonists and Cartesians foster a picture of humans as isolated egos shacked up in bodies, and separated forever from the world around them. In technical terms, this means that an important human characteristic, concern for others, is an extrinsic part of our identity: it needs (self-interested) reasons to activate it.

This picture has been taken up with enthusiasm by many financial economists, and on another occasion perhaps we will discuss how their doing so has played a causal role in the current financial crisis. Meanwhile, let us consider an alternative view, one that Norton's acting brings to mind.

Pragmatists, taking their cue from William James and John Dewey, view humans as creatures that are initimately connected to everything else. Even their consciousness is best described as saturated with the world rather than separate from it.

We are, in short, embedded beings. And for us, seeing embraces our world. It is so much more than just a visual experience

Okay, but let's get back to movies. Maybe I should issue a warning. This has now probably ruined a lot of performances for me. It is much more obvious that many actors are not seeing what they are looking at, and that this is distorting their whole relationship to the objects/people in question. They stumble around, so out of synch with everything that they might as well be blind. The worst cases, as to be expected, are the high tech movies where the actors are not even confronted in the studio by anything like what they are supposed to be seeing (typically a monster, explosion, alien, and so on).

Perhaps we should be a bit concerned about this. Perhaps by watching so many people who are unable to see, we will eventually become blind and out of synch ourselves.


  1. Your comment about Platonists, pragmatists and economists reminded me of something I heard recently. I remarked in some religious studies paper I had written as an undergrad some years ago that, just as Newton treated objects as point-masses to get better predictive results, so did economists treat people as greedy consumers to get better predictive results. We just needed to remember that only reductionists would think we are only point-masses or greedy consumers.

    It turns out, however, that economists aren't very good at prediction, and roughly, I think, for the pragmatist reason you point out. I heard (though I can't cite) that a study was once done on who makes decisions as economists presume people make them (i.e., as greedy consumers)--Randian, Chicago-school economists (pretty much all economists, sadly) and sociopaths. They were the only classes of people who did.

    As my younger self's comment reveals, I had always assumed that the economists had a functioning discipline and were doing something useful and predictive. I thought there was a point to reducing individuals to greedy-masses. Turns out, we individuals are pragmatically embedded, and make decisions based on all kinds of (sometimes idiosyncratic) bases.

  2. Thanks again for your very interesting comments Mark. I think one of the problems with 'people holism' is that it can sound so wishy-washy, as if it slides over important distinctions, giving wishful thinking priority over hard-headed realism. But when pressed, it is the realist who lives in fantasy land - for he or she can give no informative account of what contact with unmediated reality involves. Explanations are reduced to banal truisms or question-begging ploys. Besides, the distinctions in question (e.g. between appearance and reality)can be made within the holisitic picture. The thought that "within" here signals some kind of idealism, with us all be trapped inside our holistic webs of belief, is one that gets a grip on pragmatism's critics even though it has no substance (the alternative to the holist picture is any empty conceptual space filled by philosophers'dreams). We owe a debt to Rorty for helping break the spell of that thought.

    As for economists, etc., I think one of the problems with the discipline is that there as been a lack of internal criticism - the prevailing methodology has become too dominant for its own health (and that of the world's finances).