The question pursued in this series is about our experiences with representations. In our experience with representations, from soap series to classic literature, we sometimes find ourselves being absorbed into the (fictional) world presented. How can this be? Why do we feel emotions towards fictional characters we know to be “fake”? We know Emma Bovary is a tragic figure, but also a fictional figure. There was no Emma Bovary, she’s made up by the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. And still we feel sorry for her and hope everything will be fine in the end. Even when we’ve read the story before, know it ends in tragedy and are unable to save her. When reading, it sometimes feels like you are in the world of the novel, not (just) in your armchair reading. Although this everyday experience may seem simple at surface, for an (aesthetic) understanding of this phenomenon it involves rather difficult problems to solve.
The above mentioned phenomenon of transposition into fictional worlds is sometimes called immersion. In contemporary theory, especially theory dealing with new media, the term immersion is used without addressing the, in my opinion, necessary problematic aspects of the concept. Some critics have attempted to define the term, but mostly from perspectives of for instance technology that do not deal with the underlying philosophical or ontological problems. This why this series will address several theories of the philosophy of art to problematize the concept of immersion. We have to ask questions preceding a concept of immersion, for instance about the nature of representations, in order to form a stable basis on which theoretical reflection on the concept of immersion can be built. The goal of this series is therefore not to give a definitive answer to the question of what immersion is or what it means to be immersed, but rather to give a series of perspectives on how one can think about immersion.
The general outline of this series will be first the problematization of the way the term immersion is used in contemporary theory dealing with new media. To do this, the metaphor of “text as world” will be one of the central issues. From this metaphor, we need to address stimuli and perception, which brings us closer to the problems of the relation between real and fictional worlds. Next, the concept of empathy will be discussed as one of the mechanisms for transposing oneself into another world. The concept of empathy draws heavily on imagination, which leads us to the question of what the difference is between being experiencing a representation and experiencing imagination. Is a representation needed for immersion to emerge? The provisional conclusions drawn from the preceding discussions will be problematized on ontological grounds and I will try to use the (postmodern) notions of interface and rhizome to form a possible solution to the proposed problems.
In the second part of the series I will try to use the problematizations and possible solution(s) in a case study of the postmodern genre of cyberpunk, especially because postmodernism and cyberpunk deal with topics relating closely to our problematization of immersion. Where literature and film are, in almost all cases, linear, new (digital) media offer us the possibility to interact with the representation it offers us. Could this mean we would actually be able to save Emma Bovary from her misfortune? Connecting to the ontological problematization of immersion, cyberpunk takes us into the future to test whether our understanding of our (emotional) relation to representations can uphold against the influence of time and new forms of representation. The case study will focus on David Cronenberg’s 1999 movie eXistenZ. We will closely look at a future in which reality and representation are, perception wise, indistinguishable. Does this have implications for an understanding of immersion?
A lot of big questions are inherently linked to the outline of the series given in this post. I’m not pretending to answer them all, or even one, in a definitive way, as I’m am merely searching for a way to understand the concept of immersion myself.