A post by Samuel Kampa.
“Andy came back to make his movie. And Andy did what Andy does. And Andy turned it upside-down. And it still got made.” – Jim Carrey
The movie that “still got made” was Man on the Moon (1999), an Andy Kaufman biopic starring Jim Carrey. Fans of comedy fondly remember Kaufman: an idiosyncratic “song-and-dance man” who deconstructed the art of stand-up with his Mighty Mouse lip-synching, his wrestling matches, his bizarre interactions with fans (milk and cookies, anyone?), and of course, his performance as Tony Clifton, a boorish lounge singer who both hated Kaufman and routinely opened for him.
Whether Kaufman himself made Man on the Moon is a matter of controversy. Jim Carrey vacillates on the question, referring to Kaufman as “Andy, me, whoever.” The way Carrey sees it, he didn’t simply play Kaufman in Man on the Moon. He was Kaufman. Carrey’s behavior on set, discussed at length in the recent Netflix documentary Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), is the stuff of Stanislavskian legend. Carrey remained in the character of Kaufman (or, more often, in the character of a character of Kaufman) throughout the production of Man on the Moon—much to the chagrin of, well, everyone. Indeed, Universal Studios delayed the release of behind-the-scenes footage from Man on the Moon out of concern that it would “make [Carrey] look like an asshole.” Having seen the documentary, I think Universal made the prudent decision.
Carrey is a method actor—and an extreme one at that. Method actors tout the ability to “lose themselves” in the characters they “inhabit” and to “take on the identities” of other people. Are their quasi-mystical mind-melding claims overblown? Probably. But behind the apparent posturing is, I think, a very real phenomenon—a phenomenon both strange and familiar. I call it imaginative transportation.
To engage in imaginative transportation is to virtually assume another person’s noetic structure. For our purposes, a noetic structure is a person’s network of beliefs, thoughts, and desires. It includes propositional attitudes, their contents, and the inferential and justificatory relations that bind them. In short, a noetic structure is a mental web of propositionally structured stuff.
To virtually assume another person’s noetic structure is to pay exclusive cognitive attention to another’s noetic structure. We can flesh this out by exploiting Nichols and Stich’s (2000) cognitive model of imaginative pretense. Imagine that your mind is a storehouse of boxes. Each box contains token representations of propositions, and boxes are distinguished one from another by your attitudinal relationships to their contents. Thus, you have a Belief Box that contains things you believe, a Desire Box that contains things you desire, and so on. To this mundane collection of boxes, Nichols and Stich add a mysterious-sounding box: the Possible World Box. Open it up and you find…more representation tokens. The Possible World Box contains the content of propositional imagination—the stuff you neither believe nor desire, but simply think. The Possible World Box is—you guessed it—the junkyard of the mind.
Sticking with the boxological model, here’s what happens when you engage in imaginative transportation. You modulate your cognitive attention away from the contents of your Belief and Desire Boxes and toward the contents of your Possible World Box (or some proper subset thereof). In other words, you attend exclusively to an imagined noetic structure—namely, that of the character you’ve taken on.
The model on offer helps distinguish imaginative transportation from other mental activities. For instance, transportation differs from imaginative pretense in that, while the latter is compatible with divided attention (between one’s Belief/Desire Boxes and one’s Possible World Box), the former is not. Moreover, the current model explains the belief-like quality of transportation. Because your cognitive attention is fixed exclusively on another’s noetic structure, your Possible World Box temporarily plays the functional roles typically played by your Belief and Desire Boxes. That’s not to say transportation is pathological. During a transportation episode, you can still be aware that you’re you without consciously attending to the fact that you’re you. A stage actor who instinctively “cheats out” without breaking character is aware of her identity as an actor, but is not consciously attending to facts about her identity. That explains, in part, how an actor can “lose herself” in a role without really losing herself.
I could say more about the technical details, but I won’t bore you here. (There’s a paper that scratches that itch.) Instead, let’s consider a more fundamental question: why engage in imaginative transportation as opposed to, say, garden-variety imaginative pretense?
In recent years, some philosophers and social psychologists have discussed the epistemic benefits of imaginative transportation and experience taking—how immersing oneself in a character helps one understand different perspectives and opens up different ways of viewing the world (Green and Donahue 2009; Kaufman and Libby 2012; Schellenberg 2013). I believe they’re exactly right about the epistemic benefits, and I think that, insofar as transported individuals are motivated by the epistemic benefits, they’re an uncommonly noble bunch. I have my doubts, however, as to whether imaginatively transported individuals really are so motivated. After all, many fine method actors are sorely lacking in empathy. So why do we seek transportation? What’s in it for us?
The answer that immediately presents itself to me is escape. When I teach Kant’s Groundwork, for example, my students undoubtedly desire escape; and so, they entertain decidedly un-Kantian daydreams. Their imaginary escape is only partial, however; they can daydream and take notes simultaneously (though perhaps my students overestimate their ability to multitask). Imaginative transportation is unique, however, in that it promises near-complete imaginative escape and requires committed self-abandonment—if only for a time. When my students daydream about being elsewhere, they’re still squarely in their own heads, as it were. But when someone engages in imaginative transportation, she has—in a sense that no boxology can fully demystify—set aside her own thoughts, feelings, and desires and thrown herself headlong into another’s interior life. It is imaginative escape of the most radical sort, at once exhilarating and terrifying, gripping and elusive.
Transportation alone promises non-pathological imaginative detachment from oneself. In moments where we find ourselves most insufferable, transportation is a welcome release. Jim Carrey aptly expresses the desire for transportation:
I thought to myself, you felt so good when you were being Andy. Because you were free from yourself. You were on vacation from Jim Carrey.
At the same time, it’s a vacation only for the intrepid—one that leaves the transported individual without a doxastic paddle, as it were. It’s the thrill of self-abandonment, coupled with the anxiety it engenders, that makes imaginative transportation desirable, uneasy, and difficult to achieve.
In closing, allow me to indulge in a bit of personal nostalgia. Throughout college, I acted in plays and musicals. If I’ve ever achieved anything more than half-way transportation, it was during a dress rehearsal for Helen Edmundson’s wonderful period piece The Clearing. I played an Englishman who evolves from doting husband to vindictive killer. Sadly, it wasn’t my best work. I was a bit immature for the role, not fully at home in the accent, and painfully aware of the way my costume wig accentuated my already “distinguished” nose. Yet one night, after weeks of struggling to transport myself, I succeeded. This time, I wasn’t just putting it on. I truly felt the weight of my character’s decisions, my simultaneous love and loathing for my estranged wife, my agony upon discovering the death of my son. It was both physically wrenching and strangely satisfying. It’s the only time before or since that I’ve cried on stage.
“Transport yourself and cry” may not be the resounding endorsement you expected. But if you get the chance to transport yourself, I highly recommend it.
This post was updated on February 7, 2019 to add an additional reference (Harman 2010) and citations to it.
 I first learned about Carrey’s antics in Doggett and Liao (2014).
 I borrow the term from Green and Donahue (2009). Imaginative transportation differs from immersion simpliciter for reasons I discuss in the paper.
 Harman (2010) and Liao (unpublishable 2017) also offer attentional accounts of imaginative immersion.
 Compare with Harman (2010: 41): “The actor may be aware of the audience, but he leaves it outside his circle of attention. . . . The audience remains within the actor’s Fringe Consciousness, causing a real if almost indiscernible effect on the actor’s performance.” Liao and Doggett (2014: 269) are also wise to this feature of transportation: “Carrey remembered there were cameras filming him and remembered to act so that the cameras could film him. What explains these behavioral patterns is that pretenders keep track of their own mental states—their beliefs about who they are and what they are doing—even when they are immersed” (emphasis added). In keeping with Harman's account, I suggest that we reduce “keeping track” to “maintaining unconscious awareness.”
Green, M. C., & Donahue, J. K. 2009. “Simulated Worlds: Transportation Into Narratives.” In Handbook of Imagination and Mental Stimulation, eds. K. D. Markman, W. M. P. Klein, & J. A. Suhr, New York: Psychology Press: 241-54.
Harman, S. A. 2010. “Attention, Absorption and Habit: The Stanislavski System Reexamined as a Cognitive Process Using the ‘Theatre of Consciousness’ Model of Bernard Baars.” Master’s Thesis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. http://hdl.handle.net/2142/16186.
Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. 2012. “Changing Belies and Behavior through Experience-Taking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 103.1: 1-19.
Liao, S., & Doggett, T. 2014. “The Imagination Box.” The Journal of Philosophy 111.5: 259-75.
Liao, S. Unpublishable 2017. “Immersion is Attention / Becoming Immersed.” https://philpapers.org/rec/LIAIIA.
Nichols, S., & Stich, S. 2000. “A Cognitive Theory of Pretense.” Cognition 74.2: 115-47.
Schellenberg, S. 2013. “Belief and Desire in Imagination and Immersion.” The Journal of Philosophy 110.9: 497-517.