Written by Olivia Ramos
Fiction, as an art form, allows the reader to experience a world – however similar or foreign to their own – through the point of view of the novel’s subject. The beauty and elegance of fiction lie in the realism with which this world is delivered. The reader does not merely receive a descriptive portrait of the character’s life; they are able to delve into it first-hand and inhabit the character’s lifeworld. Fiction renders the bounds of subjectivity and temporality precarious; fiction destabilizes the conventional experiences of the self and time in order to alter the reader’s own subjectivity by virtue of so intimately entering another’s. First-person narratives especially have a transformative quality that transports the reader outside of their own spatiotemporal dimension into one that is entirely other. This alteration of the reader’s experience suggests both the potentiality that fiction possesses as an escape from and a rupture of the reader’s inherited and instilled orientations and the manner by which fiction operates as an apparatus of its own, offering a new and alternative frame. In this essay, I will explore fiction through theories of time, affect, desire, and photography in order to demonstrate the epistemic ruptures that fiction creates while simultaneously investigating its own operation as a dispositif.
In Matter and Memory (1991), Henri Bergson studies the relationship between the body, consciousness, and memory. Crucial to his investigation is temporality and the realms of the actual and the virtual. He argues that perception, while stemming from a base of contact between the mind and the object present, is never solely this. Instead, perception is “impregnated with memory-images which complete it as they interpret it” (Bergson 1991, 133). Here, fiction’s complicated position begins to surface. The novel itself is an inscription of the character’s memory-images – all past events of a character’s life preserved in “their outline, their color and their place in time” (88) – which the reader may enter, experience, and interpret. Similarly, the reader is mutually engaging with the narrative through their own catalogue of memory-images, interpreting the event of the novel via their own screens. Fiction here immediately creates layers of arrival; the reader’s memory coalesces with the character’s memory, which the reader, in turn, inhabits, creating both a shift in the reader’s perception and a hyper-mediated reading of the narrative. This notion of a layered arrival is central to understanding the (trans)formative aspects of reading a work of fiction and inhabiting the point-of-view character’s perspective while still maintaining one’s own. By actively inhabiting a distinct subjectivity through reading, the orientations of this adopted subjectivity inevitably constitute and interact with one’s own archive of experiences.
Bergson’s conception of the present is fundamental when considering the role of fiction in determining and altering the reader’s subjectivity. The present for Bergson is “the actual state of my becoming” in which reality itself is played out (138). The present slips through humans’ cognitive grasp, passing so quickly that it becomes intangible. It consists of a “system of sensations and movements and nothing else,” resulting in the immediate past being what we actually perceive (139). In everyday life, our bodies are the only entities capable of residing in this flow of becoming, called the “flux” (139). As the present passes instantaneously, it is never truly perceptible while we are living it, but only as a memory. However, fiction alters such perception. Through reading, one is able to inhabit the consciousness of the point-of-view character. The reader becomes the “I” of the narrative, resulting in the reader experiencing the character’s present through the character’s eyes. With the novel being an inscription of a narrative, a physical artifact of a character’s moments, the present becomes re-inhabitable by the reader. The reader is able to continually reside in a state of becoming via their privileged position within the character’s point of view. Time is distorted as multiple temporalities conjoin and interact with each other, further complicating the overall experience of the reader. The reader simultaneously lives the character’s present in their own present act of reading. Such disruption is what allows the reader to escape their own temporal boundaries: through reading and inhabiting the character’s point of view, the reader is able not only to embody a different world but also to experience the ebbs and flows of the present.
Affects are essential to an individual’s experience of the present. According to Gregory Seigworth, affects are forces that impinge upon the body with varying intensities depending on the “rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility” (Seigworth 2010, 2). Affects arise from “those intensities that pass body to body” and that “circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds” (Seigworth 2010, 1). If an affect is that raw, bodily experience that punches and pierces you, then the reader experiences an affect only via the character whose perspective they are inhabiting. Here, the reader undergoes a refracted affect, or a shared affect, one that is only possible through sharing a subjectivity with the character. By seeing through the eyes of the “I” character, the reader embodies their skin, feels the impingement, and is affected. In this way, the reader and the character are not only sharing a subjectivity but are also creating an affective atmosphere. Such spaces are “generated by bodies” and involve “some form of ‘envelopment’” between them (Anderson 2009, 80). Both the character and the reader infold the affect they mutually encounter, sharing an affective experience that occurs “beyond, around, and alongside the formation of subjectivity” (Anderson 2009, 78). The reader, then, is constituted through their engagement in an affective atmosphere with the perspectival character. Moreover, their shared subjectivity impacts the way the reader is affected. Thinking with Bergson and Ahmed (2006), our conditions of arrival impact the intensities with which our encounters affect us. Thus, as the subjectivities of the reader and the “I” character merge, the reader becomes more and more attuned to the sensibilities and orientations of the character, and in turn, enters an affective atmosphere with them. As the reader is affected while inhabiting the body of the character and sharing a consciousness – or a point of view – with them, this has the capacity to shift the way the reader may have normally been affected to instead be affected in the way that is consistent with the character’s sensibility.
Such an atmosphere troubles ontological, temporal, and spatial structures by virtue of it involving a fictive affect that becomes actualized in the reader who experiences the affect and its reverberations viscerally. Moreover, the fictive affect can be re-experienced. Similarly to the notion of the re-inhabitable present discussed previously, the moment of impingement can be revisited. The reader, as Massumi states, conserves “the impingement” (2002, 31-32), but rather than losing the “impinging thing” (32), it remains on the page, the language affectively “doubl[ing] the flow of images” and sensation (26). The “conscious reflection” on and “doubling over” of the affect can still involve recollection, but more importantly, the “doubling over” can also entail an indefinite number of subsequent encounters with the impinging thing (31; 32). The affective moment is captured within the narrative frame, enshrined and made perpetually available, allowing the reader to reside within this affective moment, submerged within this shared, affective atmosphere with their hyphenated subjectivity – the perspectival character. Through a shared perspective, memory, experiences, and atmosphere, the contours that distinguish the reader from the “I” character are slowly disintegrating. Through entering the intimate relation of a shared subjectivity, the reader can encounter the world through another’s eyes and have their experiences be informed by another’s perspective and orientations. This fictive embodiment is seductive, as it fosters an escape from the normative frame the reader has come to know. This dynamic between reader and character, one that comes to intensely influence the former’s consciousness, resembles that of identification.
In Group Psychology, Sigmund Freud analyses the forces that drive human desire and how they come to shape one’s ego. Freud establishes the importance of identification as the “earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person,” rendering it the base of all relationships (Freud 2010, 60). The subject is created through ties of identification and comes to be shaped and determined by these dynamics. Identification may arise with “every new perception of a common quality shared with some other person” (65). Applying this process to the relationship between the reader and the perspectival character reveals the manner by which the reader merges their subjectivity with that of the “I” character. Through the process of reading the character’s world from the character’s point of view, the reader, in turn, identifies with the character. This bond possesses an intensity that promulgates by virtue of a shared perspective and experiences. As the reader identifies with the character, they introject the same superego, thus transforming and evolving their own values, moralities, and identity. Introjection allows the reader to internalize and adopt the character’s desires as their own. As the reader identifies with the first-person character, who acts as a quasi-leader in this regard, they “mould [their] ego after the fashion” of that character, who they have taken “as a ‘model’” (63). In this way, desire becomes mimetic. The reader wants the same things the character wants, simply because the character wants them. However, the complexity of the reader-character relationship results in the desires of the reader not simply being shaped by those of the character, but rather, that the reader enters the subjectivity of the character and embodies this consciousness and the desires that come with it. For example, the character’s love interest becomes the reader’s love interest; the character’s career goal is mutually desired by the reader. The reader does not merely desire the objects that the character desires. The reader becomes the character; they associate and identify so closely with the “I” through the act of reading and embodiment that these desires simply are theirs.
A useful way to imagine this relationship that develops between the reader and the “I” character is through the hypnotic relation outlined by Freud. Early in his work, he begins to ponder and question the drive that “exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of an emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion” (35). Eventually, upon examining group formations and libidinal ties, Freud addresses this question in conjunction with hypnosis. In this hypnotic relation, an individual is devoted to another “to an unlimited degree” but is completely absent of “directly sexual tendencies” (77; 78). The hypnotic relation “isolates” the “behaviour of the individual to the leader” and highlights the power of identification in determining the desires and actions of the identifier (78). Here, the reader – through the physical act of reading – becomes hypnotized by their emergence into a different world and a different mind, that of the character whom they have not only identified with but also into whom they have devoted exclusive attention and time. The hypnosis holds great magnitude because the identification is mutually intense. As Freud outlines, the “more important this common quality is, the more successful may this partial identification become” (65-66). This shared quality is the pinnacle of all other possibilities: a shared consciousness. The reader and character are so closely intertwined through this process that in many ways the reader, while hypnotized through reading, can become the character, and are the character.
Reading becomes the mechanism through which a different subjectivity can be formed. Robert Desjarlais explores this same potential through the art of photography in his work, The Blind Man. Both reading and photography offer the subject an opportunity to “step into the frame of that moment” and immerse themselves in the alternate reality and world that the photograph or fiction encapsulates (Desjarlais 2018, 23). For Desjarlais, the viewer of the photograph can become subsumed in the “flows and currents of fantasy and fabulation” in a way that is akin to the reader’s immersion and habitation in the fictive world of the perspectival character (6). Both art forms tear “the perceiver from itself,” become so destabilizing that the perceiver is “no longer a stable, coherent, integrated seer” (30). The viewer of a photograph sees not only the product but also the captured reality through the camera lens. Likewise, the reader experiences the fiction on the page but simultaneously embodies the I/eye of the character whose life the pages depict. In this way, “conventional notions of experience” are disrupted; these encounters of fabulation “upend set ideas of selfhood, temporal clarity, and steady, continuous streams of experience” for the reader/viewer (31). These alternate modes of experience enable the embodiment and fashioning of “different subject positions” that are entangled and “suspended in a vertigo stretch of past, present, and future times” (31).
In many ways, Desjarlais’ work abridges the argument of this paper. The reader undergoes a similar experience as the viewer of the photograph. Both engage in forms of fantasy and fabulation that allow them to escape their own spatial and temporal dimensions. They are mutually transported into different frames through deep engagements with their respective art forms, in which they transcend the boundaries presented by their own world – namely, the intangibility of the present, the limiting of imagination, and the restricted access to the virtual. Thus, fiction – and the accompanied immersion into the subjectivity of the perspectival character that it entails – can become a project of escapism from the frames or screens that we have developed. And in many ways, the art of reading does offer a suspension of our spatiotemporal ontologies, in favour of an embodiment that involves “complex foldings of past, present, and future, self and other, the actual and the imagined” (Desjarlais 2018, 31) that are only made available through the process of intertwining and adopting a distinct subject position. However, although reading fiction and merging one’s subjectivity with that of the “I” character holds this immensely productive potential, the notion of escape imperatively implies and necessitates a freedom. A major allure inherent in this project is the escape from one’s own orientations and screens through which experiences and encounters are mediated in order to live unencumbered. Yet, the escape that fiction provides is itself limited. Fiction itself is a dispositif: that is, it is a “disposing or structuring device” (Berardi 2013, 64). The reader momentarily escapes their own frame simply to inhabit and inherit the frame of the character that in turn works to structure the reader’s experience of the character’s reality. Narratives here subtly engulf the reader in their apparatus, modifying “the projection of the body in space” and “metamorphosing the meaning we attribute to our experience” so that the reader assumes the intended, structured consciousness of the character (Berardi 2013, 64). The reader assumes they have reached a freedom, have created an escape through fiction, yet in actuality, they are partaking in an exercise of unbeknownst framing. Mediation here is inescapable and self-fulfilling, as even the entity that epitomizes escape – that is, fiction – functions to determine the ways in which the reader encounters and engages with the world.
Fiction operates as a device through which the reader may escape their own personal mediations and screens in order to encounter other worlds, times, minds, and experiences. This transcendence is made possible through the intimacy created by the reader’s relationship with the perspectival character. By inhabiting the eye/I of the character and embodying the character’s lifeworld, the reader becomes attuned to and entangled with the character’s subjectivity. This connection becomes formative for the reader’s own subjectivity. Here, the limiting aspects of the reader’s escape become clear. The reader momentarily sheds their own frame when entering the realm of fiction. Through their suspension of disbelief – that is, the submission required of the reader – when reading, the orientations and memories of the character seep into those of the reader. Effectively, they exit – or at least alleviate the influence of – one frame in order to delve into another. Framing, though not sinister, emerges as inescapable. The reader is granted the experience of being suspended in the intangible instants of the present, is able to (re)experience affect, can embody a different skin, history, and lifeworld; yet, these escapes are fundamentally part of the character’s dispositif. Apparatuses “manage, govern, control, and orient” humans’ desires and, in turn, shape subjectivity; they are ever-present and inevitable (Agamben 2009, 12). Fiction provides a (limited) loophole: through reading and inhabiting the subjectivity of the “I” character, the reader can elude their own subjective frames by adopting those of the character with whom they are merged.
Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenogy: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Anderson, Ben. 2009. “Affective atmospheres.” Emotion, Space, and Society, 2: 77-81.
Berardi, Franco. 2013. “The Image Dispositif.” Cultural Studies Review, 11 (2): 64-68.
Bergson, Henri. 1991. Matter and Memory. Translated by Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer. New York: Zone Books.
Desjarlais, Robert. 2018. The Blind Man: A Phantasmography. New York: Fordham University Press.
Freud, Sigmund, ed. 2010. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. London: The Hogarth Press Ltd.
Massumi, Brian. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Seigworth, Gregory, and Melissa Gregg. 2010. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.