2018 November: Casting a Net


For a while I’ve been feeling that my proposed PhD project is foreign to me, like somebody else’s idea. It happens every now and again, with my own work, whether theoretical or practical; I will get spells of alienation from the things I have done and created. This is maybe a facet of Imposter Syndrome, which seems to appear especially in people who specialise in something – the theory is that the more you learn about something, the more you learn how much you don’t know, and that this perhaps overwhelms the ‘specialist’ from time to time, and makes them feel very ill suited to their vocation, as someone who should know a lot about their field.

My field is art practice, and many times over the past five years of my art student life (which is really already the start of professional life, for an artist) have I felt like an imposter; at other times, I’ve felt like art practice is something I’m really good at – that it’s my ‘calling’. It can get confusing, but with the repeated return of Imposter Syndrome, I suppose it is possible this alienation towards one’s own work is something that goes hand in hand with a deep engagement with any subject – you’d assume the result of getting really involved in a subject would be to bring you closer and closer to it, but the learning process can in fact make you feel miles away from the object of study.

I am fortunate to have someone to talk to even when I am unaffiliated with an academic/art institution. My parents act as mentors, colleagues and friends as well as parents. So we scheduled a time when they weren’t busy, and I had a few chats with my dad about the project. This is probably not relatable in most people’s experience, though I am sure some children follow in the footsteps of their parents – which can lead to advantages as well as some clashes. In my case, I think the fact that my own work springs from common interests with my parents is a very beneficial thing.

The talks proved quite rewarding. I can get quite anxious about the social expectations I feel are associated to positions of acclaim like PhD candidature, so we first had a chat simply about focusing on impersonal curiosity – what I mean by ‘impersonal’ is not ‘objective’, but, when thinking about my research question, not to judge my own thoughts in advance. Not to judge the questions I ask, the answers I think I might have, my own worth as a researcher or artist, etc. To take a position of curiosity and just think about the question itself, rather than whether or not I live up to it. This made me relax, and indeed I did start to get curious again. I didn’t panic when I wasn’t sure how to phrase my question or hypotheses, I just tried to think. Aloud. And the main result of this chat with my dad is that I discovered the kinds of things I feel like doing over the next few years.

One thing that surprises me is that over the past year I’ve really wanted to delve into ‘study’, as vague as that sounds, and not so much making things. I don’t want to feel embarrassed that I’m not spouting ideas like I used to, instead I want to think about what I feel like doing. I want to read a lot of books, and ponder this research question, and get other people’s views on the same question, from the different disciplines it concerns. Then, I suspect I will want to make artistic responses to that, though I can’t imagine something, as yet, vastly different to what I’m already doing. In the end we came to conclude three research outcomes for my PhD:

  • A scholarly book on fictional characters whose agency transgresses their supposed confinement in the world of fiction. Considering fictional characters as prototypes of artificial intelligence.
  • A novel which is based on the theories of subjectivity and artistic devices studied in the academic book (Anomaline, I’m already writing it)
  • A series of video performances that respond to this work

The first point there is the most new. It turns my project into a more traditionally scholarly one than it was before. I think I would gain a lot from writing such a book, but feel I have a tremendous amount to learn in order to do it.

The second point is also unexpected, I didn’t think I could include it as part of my PhD, but why not? It’s tied to the topic, and it’s currently my most reflective work on the ideas I have about ‘the line’.

So, to get started with the first point – my mum made a good parallel in that she compared the endeavour to Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a literary journey through the ages to illustrate representation in Western literature) – I posted a question on a ‘Narratology’ mailing list. This is a list I joined a while back comprised of narratologists around the world, and on which I posted a request to members to come up with sources that would be relevant. So I tried to sum up what I was looking for, here’s the post:

Title: Recommendations for Narratives that Thematise the Agency of their Fictional Characters?

I am a PhD candidate (Art) at Goldsmiths University, who is exploring fictional characters as models for artificial intelligence, given their status as made-up persons. As I embark on cataloguing a particular history of metafiction, I would greatly appreciate recommendations from the community for literature, stories, films, visual art – narratives of any kind – that:

  • Thematise the life of fictional characters and their potency as agents in the ‘real’ world
  • Attempt to demonstrably blur the common sense boundaries between fiction and real world metaphysics

I warmly welcome narrative works from a broad range of media as well as historical periods, whether antiquated or contemporary. Borges, Woolf, Cervantes, Sterne, Beckett, Pirandello, Huysmans and Kundera are writers that have occupied my studies so far, along with visual artists more familiar to my education.

Your generous suggestions would be of significant help to me, and much appreciated!

I was surprised to get about twenty very thoughtful responses, often including encouraging remarks that the research sounded interesting. One scholar seemed confused by what I meant, so I tried to sharpen up the description some more:

I’m glad you raise this distinction. Of the two things you mention, I am definitely interested here in the former (‘metaleptic phenomena’ in narrative) – but particularly in cases where the agency of a fictional character is brought into suggestive comparison to the agency of real persons. Such a fictional character would be acting (transgressively, as you say) beyond the confines of the perceived narrative ‘safe space’ of the book or film, etc, and appear to have some reckless agenda of its own.

I wonder, for instance, whether there are existing narratives that take advantage of the mutual context in which both real people and fictional characters are socially constructed, to ‘incubate’ literary persons in text. Or, do some stories demonstrably thematise, and make part of their story, the agential force fictional characters exert on readers (by inspiring attachment, or directly or indirectly influencing decisions we make). Cognitive literary theorists speculate on the comparable social experience of interacting with fictional and real people alike, whereas some theories of subject formation and self-awareness seem to further trouble the boundary between fictional and real persons by arguing that we habitually fictionalise ourselves and others as a standard practice of self conception.

I am searching for fictions that intuit, take advantage of, and thematise those most confusing questions about the distinction between real and fictional persons, to coax characters that exhibit some of the unruly, influential, or unpredictable characteristics associated with conscious agents.

Any reflections, criticisms or recommendations for further reading (literary or scholarly) in relation to these ideas is warmly welcomed.

I’m documenting what may seem like trivial messages on a forum, because they are points where I was forced to articulate what I’m after – and that’s useful. I was encouraged by the responses of members, and wound up with a hefty reading list. Most of the recommendations are literary, and some only superficially touch the subject. I’ll have to keep searching, but it’s a start.

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