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Througout the history of language, there has always been a confusion between the representation of an idea (the ideal) and the actuality that we live in (the real). While certainly many people have written about this at length, it deserves a discussion here in the context of that oxymoron, VirtualReality--the leaky dichotomy between "CyberSpace" and the "RealWorld".

First, let us point out that in every form of literature, people have expressed fears that people take the fantasy too closely for reality. This happens so often and so regularly, that it's predictable that any new medium will quickly have such a work. The classical example from the novel was Don Quixote, where the novel expresses the danger of mistaking literature (actually, other novels) as reality. In fact, around that time, there were even people outspoken against the corrupting influence of novels on the minds of women. In the modern age, we similarly have arguments about how movies and TV can be misperceived for reality. One doesn't have to look further than the "violence on TV" argument to see this.

It shouldn't need to be said that there is some truth in this. People certainly do mistake fantasy for reality, at varying degrees of concern. Children often do act out scenes from television. (who hasn't imagined themselves as a superhero?) Some adolescents certainly take their RolePlayingGames far too seriously. Violence on television really does affect people. Even if you're one to believe the rather idealistic notion that "people understand that it's just fiction", our minds are not designed to continuously separate imagination from perception.

Representation as magic

Much more intensely, representation has often been imagined or perceived as magical. Much of the mythology of magic is simply the fictional bleeding of some representation into that which is represented.

Not long after spoken language was first invented, spoken language was thought to possess iminent power on the world in the form of incantations. Even today we still have many myths of wizards reciting Latin or some other language to invoke power. Every other form of language has also been confused as magical in its own way. Japanese culture is infused with the myths of written language invoking magic. For an accessible example to Western culture, see Spirited Away, where the written form of the main character's name is held hostage, thereby holding her hostage as well. The BookShelved:TheEarthseaTrilogy and other fantasy books borrow the idea of naming as power. AliceInWonderland is also replete with confusions between what is written and what happens as part of its exploration of illogic.

Paintings and images have also frequently been given confused as magical. Magical symbols, such as the pentagram, the Cross, etc. are frequently confused for the idea they represent. Paintings are windows on fantastical lands, and mirrors are crossable into "mirrorworlds". The movies Videodrome and The Ring both confuse the boundary between video and reality. Similarly the movies Lawnmowerman and Serial Experiment: Lain confuse VirtualReality and CyberSpace with reality.

Recently, PostModernists have broken down the barrier between the medium and both the representation and reality. From the art experiments during the 60s where the canvas, frame, and easel themselves were made the art, to the technique of exploding the painting outside the bounds of the canvas, to the hypertext experiments of resorting the order of the pages in a book have all demonstrated that the medium can also be confused with the message.

From a literary perspective, this technique is very powerful as a metaphorical shortcut. Although in actuality, the representation is not reality, as described above, the human mind doesn't need to maintain this distinction. Thus, to convey a complex idea, it's legitimate and often more efficient to confuse representation and reality. Many religions often employ this technique by providing iconic talismans (e.g. the Cross). Contrast this with Jainism, for instance, where the practioners are meant to worship the icons as reminders of the values, fully believing the person iconified will not and could not help them (full separation of representation from reality).

A recent technique that builds upon this concept is WikiPedia:Magic_realism. Although the characters are set in a seemingly realistic world, they possess magical powers that don't exist in the real world. The reader is usually given one of two interpretative options. Either they just take it as a given that the characters in fact have magical powers for the duration of the story, or they assume (or decide) that the narrator is lying in order to embellish the story (e.g. BookShelved:TheLifeOfPi), thus revealing deeper layers about the character. Magic realism often fills the gap between (post-)colonial cultures that have come quickly to a head with modernist or futurist Western cultures. In that case, the author seeks to reconcile the historical myths of the host culture with the current tropes of contemporary progressive society by combining the two. (cf. Midnight's Children) Often what is constructed is a duality of fictional worlds; as described, we believe the narrator is not only fictionalizing the magic, but by extension, fictionalizing his recount, and thus the reader is invited to read between the lines to ask why the narrator is lying.

Representation as interface

One of the basic fundamental patterns of graphical UserInterface design is the enlivening of metaphors for their promise; i.e. MetaphorInversion. For instance, the graphical metaphor of a 3-D button is actually made to appear to do something. Programs are represented by icons that when clicked actually load the program. By expanding the symbol for the symbolized, or by creating a consistent universe of metaphors, users are often tricked into believing that the metaphors are directly tied to their "realities". However, it's trivial to demonstrate the falseness of this, simply by subverting the normal associations. Consider how a layperson would respond if when clicking on an Ok button to clear an alert box, a picture of a horse were printed on her printer.

This is why interface designers insist that programmers use the metaphors consistently and repeatedly. In this way, users are trained to make the necessary associations. However, we all know that interfaces are never consistent or even fully functional. Consequently, users have been trained to mistrust representations on a computer, or at the very least they become very surprised and confused whenever the print button suddenly opens a file dialog because the only printer on this machine is "Print to file...".


A much more perplexing case of RepresentationConfusion is just what constitutes cheating? Certainly actually having sex with another partner, or perhaps even going out with someone else, would constitute cheating to many people in this world. However, when the relationship with the other partner is mediated, the issue becomes less clear.

See InfidelityFidelity for more.


Similarly to the immediately above discussion, many people distinguish CyberSpace from MeatSpace as somehow some other place. The CyberPunk novels play on this romantic perception, but it's folly confuse this escapist literature for the actual circumstances. As discussed at CyberSpace#quixote, although there certainly is a digital space, human beings do not exist within it. That's simply a RepresentationConfusion for your avatar and yourself, or your text and yourself.

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard had similar theories of the human condition termed as simulacra and simulation, where the representation of reality becomes so compelling as to be mistaking for relatiy.


Some additional examples of RepresentationConfusion:

Philosophical Caveats

This section is not relevant to most discussions of RepresentationConfusion; it is merely a caveat.

It should be noted that it is not certain that RepresentationConfusion is incorrect in certain cases.

For example, take "Lawnmower man" (spoiler alert). Near the end of the movie, a character develops psychic powers, which might be thought of as a form of (fictional) representation confusion between thoughts in the character's mind and objects in the world which those thoughts reference. The character later uploads his mind into a computer virtual reality and then still manages to psychically influence the outside world to a small extent (representation confusion between virtual reality and the outside world; in this case, a virtual entity is somehow altering objects in the physical world). But upon closer look, we cannot rule out the possibility.

The relationship between mind and reality is still unknown (or at least, no consensus has been reached), so we cannot rule out the possibility that minds could transcend the physical relations between their bodies and other things. For example, it seems silly to imagine the thoughts of a character in a story someone reaching outside the story and influencing the outside world, but we cannot completely rule this out in light of the confusion over the basic nature of mind and reality.

In fact, some theories of consciousness may assert that one's "soul" is essentially a character in a story, rather than a "first-class entity" in the real world. In some theories, perhaps every time we speak to one another about consciousness, this is the physical result of our "soul", a fictional character, transcending its level of representation and reaching into the physical world in order to possess our bodies and cause them to speak.

Also, some theories furthermore assert that "recursiveness"/interaction between levels of representation, is fundamental to consciousness.

These possibilities lead us to be uncertain if levels of representation can be clearly divided at all.

However, for the purposes of most discussions these "edge cases" can be ignored, and we can assume that our basic worldview is correct, that written language is really just an arrangement of text on a page, etc.

-- BayleShanks

I'm not an author of this page, but I'd try to work in Baudrillard's "Simulation and Simulacra." I might also reference "House of Leaves" and "The Matrix." Just an idea- delete after you've considered it.

According to Vico and also Frye, cultures cycle through stages that roughly correspond to: a mythical age of gods, an aristocratic age, and an age of the people--which in turn are reflect linguistically as poetic, heroic, and vulgar (Vico) or hieroglyphic, hieratic, and the demotic (Frye). When Frye says hieroglyphic he means not pictograms, but rather in the sense that words are not just conveyances of meaning, but particular kinds of signs that are active in the world. There is no clear separation between the subject and object in the usage of vocabulary, but rather a sense the words are linked by a common power or energy. Thus, many cultures in the mythical age have words expressing this connection that are untranslatable to our culture which is in the demotic stage; e.g. the Melanesian word mana. The connection between Frye's hieroglyphs and Vico's poetics is simply that mythical writing is most often poetic, and the poems function not only as recounts, but as incantations, spells, or charms (e.g. prayers). And so, there is RepresentationConfusion between the words and their meaning.

Other interesting side effects of this understanding of words as imminent actors in a mythical world include


Frye, Northrop. "Language I" (pp.4-30). In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. Toronto: Academic Press Canada, 1990.



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