Authors and Intersubjectivity

Authors and Intersubjectivity

There is nothing quite like taking up a favourite book again, and entering the subjective world of the characters. Once we open the book, we accept the conventions of language, and then picture to ourselves, from page to page, the unfolding drama, which the author conveys in descriptive passages, dialogue, dreams, contextualizing in Nature, actions, consequences, unexpected plot twists and the final outcome.

Reading a great book (whether fiction or non-fiction) takes us out of ourselves, and into another world. I can say the same for any great work of art, no matter what the medium.

Lately, I have been tossing around in my mind the principle of intersubjectivity, which goes to the heart of artistic creation.

But what exactly is intersubjectivity, and why should we care? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, intersubjectivity is “the process and product of sharing experiences, knowledge, understandings, and expectations with others.” A better definition can be found on the French web resource, according to which (my translation) it is a “person-to-person relationship, each person being considered from the point of view of his or her own subjectivity.”

I took this photo of Nina Akamu’s statue in Tuscany showing Leonardo da Vinci’s vision of a horse’s majesty and irrepressible energy

In my view, intersubjectivity is the foundation of authorship. We should care about the ability of humans to relate to one another, and to other species, because it is one of our defining characteristics. It is also something machines cannot do.

During two decades of journalism, I interviewed 15,000 people, including 10 Nobel prize-winners. I often checked up after publication or broadcast with people I interviewed, so I am confident I caught the gist of what they were saying, and did not misrepresent them. I also noticed they left a lot unsaid.

In 2007 I brought out an unauthorized biography of the fallen Canadian-born newspaper magnate Conrad Black, under the title Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour. … And in 2020, I completed a biographical film about the Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen, under the title The Blinding Sea.

These are completely different works, one about a living person facing the prospect of a criminal trial in Chicago, the other about a person long dead who had met with great success as a polar explorer! Both works involved my entering as much as possible into the main characters’ subjective world, painstakingly reconstituting context, events, decisions and actions in their lifetimes, piecing together the puzzles of their personalities, as an outside observer.

Writing biography is not straight-forward. Last October, I wrote a blog called Straw Man Slaughter, in which I ask: “Is biography an art form, that consists in portraying character with broad brush strokes? Is it a projection of the author’s own pride and prejudice, struggles, successes and failures? Does the author, in writing a biography, create a forum to publicly vent powerful emotions, to settle scores? … How should I avoid two-dimensional caricatures?”

In that blog from last October, I go on to say that I decided to use the principle of intersubjectivity, keeping each character in his/her own context, and portraying that character not in terms of what he/she ought to have done, based on hindsight, but rather in terms of that character’s own internal logic, world view, perceptions, intentions, experience, abilities and access to knowledge.

We leave a lot of things unsaid. This is something authors are good at decoding

I would like to pause a moment and come back to what we choose not to share. In everyday life, we keep many things to ourselves. Things we do not even know how to share, since we lack the vocabulary, or fear trivializing our experiences, or prefer drawing a veil over what is most important to us.

Authors know how to decode the unspoken, to say the unsayable, to convey (often indirectly) what lies below the surface in human nature, drawing on research, dreams, insight and intuition, experience and craft. Authors invite us to enter into new subjective worlds, to share, even if at one remove from the characters portrayed. Authors provide us with meaning.

Well, you may object, chatbots are all the rage these days. Why? Because they manipulate language that seems plausible and efficient. But chatbots can never truly be authors, nor can they be intersubjective. Being inert virtual objects, like micro-flashes of light flickering inside a machine, they experience nothing. Chatbots are pseudo-subjects programmed to mimic human language: they treat people as decontextualized abstractions shorn from reality. In any case, chatbots only base themselves on the lightning-quick scanning of millions of web pages, drawing on what the good, the bad and the ugly have already posted on the web. This means chatbots are neither original nor capable of “reading” a person and what that person chooses to share and not to share.

OK, a dystopian fantasy now: There may come a point where chatbots will be so sophisticated they could simply drive authors out to pasture, the way motor cars displaced horses at the beginning of the twentieth century. Publishers could then say to their chatbot, “listen, I don’t want to pay Margaret Atwood any more royalties, so take everything she wrote between The Edible Woman (1969) and The Testaments (2019), and spend a minute or two scanning and digesting all of that, then churn out something similar. I will get an editor to tidy things up once you have produced the manuscript.”

Actually, I don’t mind if the world imagines I will soon be redundant. I don’t mind having limitations as a human being, nor does it bother me that I can’t scan millions of web pages in the twinkling of an eye, the way a chatbot does. There will always be a place for what I write, as long as I can find a public!

In any case, if you know horses, I am sure you will agree with me that nothing can detract from their majesty and energy! Which is why we are still fascinated by the creative representations of horses by Leonardo da Vinci.

I doubt there will come a point when chatbots drive authors out to pasture….

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