Alternate Realities: The Phenomenological Experience of Stories

Jamie Rhodes’ paper: Alternate Realities: The Phenomenological Experience of Stories, was written for Royal Holloway University’s PHD conference on Reality.

The reality we experience in our day-to-day lives is a much-theorised topic, one that human beings have troubled over for thousands of years. However, the relatively recent philosophical movement of Phenomenology seeks to strip away this cloud of argument and counter-argument, and return to the pure phenomena itself, before the intervention of over-theorisation. In this paper I will look at three phenomenological principles regarding reality, and consider how a particularly engrossing narrative affects these principles. From a phenomenological standpoint our Being-in-the-World, our Intentional Arc and our Passive Synthesis of Time are three inter-woven concepts that, taken together, achieve a compelling account of the way we experience reality. However, under the influence of a narrative, these key components become grounded in the world that the artist has created. Thus, our lived reality shifts entirely. Most people will experience this, only becoming aware of it upon surfacing from a particularly immersive story. For example, we leave the theatre or put down the book, and for a brief moment we feel distant as the components of our reality re-orientate.

I begin with Being-in-the-World.
This Heideggerian term Being-in-the-World is hyphenated to emphasise the inseparability of a person and her or his World. It refers to our capacity to comprehend and have a relation to things in our surrounding environment. Being There in our world in the way that only we can, with a backpack loaded with cares, experiences, relationships, fears, wants, tastes, all dictating the incredibly unique way we relate to the things we encounter; navigating our reality under the terms of our radical particularity. By this I mean, the individual factors that are a sum total of our circumstantial existence; country of residence, era we live in, social environment, race, education, family, friends, career, hobbies etc.
The Being of any particular person is grounded in the particular World in which that individual is immersed. Thus, where traditional western philosophy and psychology attempt to observe human existence and analyse how we experience reality objectively, by in a sense “lifting” individuals out of their respective Worlds to isolate some independent essence of Being, a phenomenological account of existence returns to the heart of the matter, acknowledging that every individual is fused inseparably with his or her World. In the same way that a tree cannot be fully appreciated or understood once it has been uprooted and detached from its place of growth. Were we to study a tree in a lab, we could find out its age, species, diseases, size, weight, etc. But we could never find out that for a decade of its life local rabbits created a warren amongst its roots. The tree has an existence that lies beyond isolated empirical study. So too, our reality can never be comprehended in isolation from the world we inhabit since this World is the fundamental source of our existence.
In retaining of the essentially inextricable relationship with our world, phenomenology is radically different from that of other schools of philosophy which explore the nature of human reality from the perspective of a detached observer, rather than an individual practically taking part in it.
The world is experienced and made meaningful through practical involvement with reality. Taken as raw phenomena, this practical world is primordial; we live practically before any amount of philosophical or scientific investigation and the practical world is where we spend most of our time. To detach from and objectify the things in one’s surroundings, is to disable contact with the practical world and so distance oneself from the profound nature of our practical relation towards reality.
Through Being-in-the-World, we possess an innate sense of the practical potential of things in our surroundings, thus our experience of objects positioned alongside us in our reality is radically different from one physical object positioned alongside another. For example, a table might be touching a wall in the sense that there is no space between the two entities, but it can never Touch the wall; it does not encounter the wall as a wall. We alone, imbued with our Being-in-the-World, can Touch another object such as a wall, and grasp it as that particular entity “wall”.
However, things can be experienced in different modes of Being at different times by different individuals, for example; the wind is generally given in the mode of Being simply present, perhaps something to contemplate or study; yet it can also be experienced as ready for us to use, in the case of sailing a ship or generating electricity in wind turbines. When confronting an object in our surroundings, we primarily aware of that object’s possibilities for utilisation, however, the terms of an object’s potential is dependent on each individual’s Being-in-the-World; the subjective reality of a particular individual’s experience.
Yet, it is impossible for an entity to exist singularly; the hammer only exists as a hammer when it is understood within a network of other equipment such as nails, wood, and other tools. This network of related entities, reveals where the object belongs and how it fits into the reality of the particular individual. An object can fit into different equipment networks according to the Being-in-the-World of the particular individual confronting it; for example, a knight in the thirteenth century may consider the hammer in an equipment network of war along with maces, axes, an enemy soldier etc., whereas a carpenter would consider a hammer in an equipment network of tools. Our awareness of networks of entities in their equipment totality is generally subliminal, yet the utility of any single entity is always part of an implicit network of interreferential entities. Our everyday reality is characterised by an extensive network of practical relations between everything encountered in our surroundings. However, this network goes unnoticed when we are in practical engagement reality; the things in our surroundings serve their instrumental function invisibly because our focus is on the task in hand, not the equipment that enables the completion of the task. Equipment is generally only brought to light where there is a lack in the chain of utility, and so particular pieces of equipment announce themselves to our consciousness. For example; if a doorknob comes off in my hand as I try to leave a room, its vital place in its network of entities in my reality leaps out at me as I realise I am trapped. Stripped back to a raw phenomenological essence, our reality is experienced as a unified web of practical significance.

However, when immersed in a narrative the practical significance we place on our world, and our individually unique mode of Being-within-the-world, recedes into the background. The network of entities in our empirical environment changes very little whilst we remain in the narrative, yet our Being-in-the-World has re-rooted in a reality beyond the empirical. We instead weave our being into that of the character in the story, experiencing their reality in the mode of their radical particularity. We feel the practical significance and potential utility of objects a character has at his or her disposal. Particularly clear example of this is apparent in the story of The Martian or Robinson Crusoe; when absorbed in either of these narratives, we have shouldered the mode of Being-in-the-World of a resourceful and intelligent man, we are aware of the potential for utilizing objects within this new reality for the purpose of survival. When things go wrong, we feel the characters’ exasperation at his situation, but equally we carry his Being-in-his-World and know that if there are solutions to problems he faces, he is a man who will find them.
When we return from the narrative, having spent so much time with our Being rooted in another reality, we inevitably carry some of this alternate mode of Being-in-the-World with us. Regarding the stories of The Martian or Robinson Crusoe, this may manifest itself in our ordinary everyday reality as a new appreciation for methodical problem solving in the face of strife.

We often see this transfer of Being-in-the-World from one reality to another in the case of children absorbed in a narrative. Who didn’t come out of the cinema after Spiderman and try to shoot a web when they thought nobody was looking? Just in case.

The intentional arc is the phenomenological way of accounting for how we assign meaning to what presents itself in our field of perception…

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