John Plotz headshot

John Plotz, Professor and Chair of English Department

Office of the Vice Provost for Research: Congratulations on your book! How did this project start?

John Plotz: It began about a decade ago as a book which was going to be called The Antisocial Imagination. What I noticed was that everybody talks about the 19th century novel as an art form that values connections, and social conversations—people think of parlor conversations in Jane Austen and the back and forth—but there's also a big strand of novel writing that's about the desire for solitude. To push all of that social life away. Then the more that I started looking at the books and movies I liked, I thought that wasn't exactly right. What I wanted to look at was people having it both ways. Being around other people but nonetheless set apart: experiencing the world in their own distinctive way.

OVPR: You think that's particularly relevant when you're experiencing works of art?

JP: Yes, but it's also something that happens all the time. We live in this kind of ‘doubleness': inside our own subjective experience but also living in public, in a social world. Anthropologists write about this, psychotherapists write about this: Donald Winnicott writes about a "third area," and Huizinga's Homo Ludens writes about a set-apart zone of "serious play."

But there is something distinctive when it happens in the art world. What's distinctive is that there's a whole broad category of artwork that's interested in capturing that doubleness, being both here and there. In other words, certain artists—Henry James, George Eliot, the movie maker Buster Keaton—their works are about that experience of being here and there at one time. When you're watching a Buster Keaton movie and the character literally jumps out of his projection booth and into the movie, that's an allegory for what's going on with his audience. In front of a work of art you're able to feel that semi-detachment happening to you and able to think about what that means.

OVPR: Is this a pattern you see emerging now in art?

JP: It's the poet Coleridge's idea of the suspension of disbelief. People who made spectacular paintings in the 19th century were already imagining that their viewers were going to be drawn into the world. So yes, it's an old idea, however, in all these digital age theories about reality, we're thinking about the "virtual" in exciting ways. The concept of being inside a virtual world has a new relevance to us, because we have devices that allow us to create a sensation of virtual reality in totally unexpected ways. Still, when we tell the story about what's new about our new technology we have to bear in mind that there's a longer genealogy.

OVPR: How can the history of these ideas add to our experience of technology?

JP: By understanding how real and vivid fiction was for 19th century readers, we can figure out which parts of the new technologies are genuinely new—and which are the same effect that every new technology creates. Here's an example: You know the story about when early movies came along, when there were audience members who would jump out of their seats when they saw a train coming at the screen. Turns out that's not true. It has never been true, no one has found an example of someone actually doing that. But it's a story that people like to tell around new technology. Not the story of me jumping out of my seat, but those country bumpkins. Part of the point of my book is to explain that we've always had this excitement around new technologies. Aristotle says that theater can create both terror and pity: but there is a wrinkle to how theater works: you feel terror because what is happening on stage seems real but you can only feel pity because you know it's not actually happening. Semi-Detached is about what it is that allows audiences to feel pity and terror simultaneously.

OVPR: What makes this book new?

JP: Well, one new thing is that I try to write about fiction, painting, and the early movies together and say that although they're really different art forms, if you look at the underlying ideas about the story they're each telling and what they think happens to their audiences, I think it's the same.

The other new thing is that Semi-Detached tells the story of the different ways in which people have imagined getting lost in a piece of art. Getting immersed, getting enchanted, and suspending your disbelief, entering a second world, that's really crucial to what the aesthetic experience is about.

OVPR: How does the immersiveness of current technology change the story that gets passed?

JP: It's clear to me that the sorts of stories that our culture values is changing right now, not in totally predictable ways. When English professors talk about what's going on in contemporary popular culture, they talk about short attention spans, and that no one will sit down to read a long novel anymore. But actually, I don't think that's true, because look at Game of Thrones, it is years long. And these fantasy series that people are willing to read are so immersive, the investment is huge.

I think that as technologies make quick delivery of certain sensations available, they also make these deeper worlds more readily available too. What we're in the middle of now is a revolution that goes in a couple of different directions, towards immediate gratification—short vignettes, sketch culture—but also towards these deeper world. I'm really interested in gaming culture. For instance, the students in my fantasy class, their relationships to the games that draw them in and keep them engaged, keep them playing a character, sounds a lot to me like what 19th century audiences did in response to novels.