At Anime USA last week, I mentioned in one of my panels–might have been Analyzing Anime 101, might have been Postmodern Anime, I don’t remember which and haven’t gone through the video yet–that “the concept of suspension of disbelief needs to die in a fire.” This, of course, led to some people coming up to ask me about it after the panel (because for some reason when I ask for questions at the end of a panel, nobody raises a hand, but the minute I start packing up, I’m swarmed with people wanting to ask questions).
Here is the problem with suspension of disbelief: it makes you less literate. I mean, it’s also fundamentally impossible, but even attempting it makes you less literate, because what suspending disbelief means is trying to forget that a story isn’t real. Which means, in turn, giving up the ability to recognize it as a deliberately constructed artifice, created by actual human hands for an audience of actual people, within the context of a culture.
That is a huge thing to ignore. It means losing all ability to examine technique, to think about the difference between portrayal and endorsement, to question a work’s positionality. By pretending that a work is a window to another world, you erase the distinction between author and historian. Everything that happens in a story is a choice by its storyteller; there is no otherworld where events proceed independently, and of which the storyteller is an objective, uninvolved observer dutifully recording the deeds of others.
Consider, since it is the main subject of this blog, a cartoon. To suspend disbelief is to pretend that its characters are real people within a real world that obeys consistent rules, which is anathema to a cartoon like, say, Ren and Stimpy or Adventure Time, which depend on constantly twisting and warping settings, situations, and characters to surprise and entertain. To suspend disbelief is to ignore the animation itself, to refuse to examine how art styles, distortions of characters’ bodies, framing and camera angle shape the story and convey the priorities and interests of its creators.
This is not to say that we should never consider the diegetic; that’s as absurd as only considering it, as “suspension of disbelief” demands. It is possible to talk about a character, to discuss their motivations and experiences, to have an emotional reaction to them, without pretending that they’re real. People have emotional reactions to the imaginary all the time, from anxiety about imagined scenarios for an upcoming task to sexual fantasies to happy daydreams. I can say, “Batman is driven by survivor guilt over his parents’ death,” or “Twilight Sparkle is prone to anxious overreaction,” and it remains true, even though the characters in question do not exist. Indeed, it is because they are characters, and thus far less complex and self-contradictory than real people, that I can make such straightforward claims about their behavior with little expectation of contradiction.
There is thus nothing at all to be gained from the suspension of disbelief. It does not add anything to the appreciation or exploration of narrative, and cuts off access to much. It is yet another example of how badly the emphasis in general education on basic literacy gets in the way of full literacy.