Today’s post was written by and introduces one of Threshold World’s project fellows, Professor Richard Walsh. Below, Richard discusses his interest in dreams and shares a photograph he took which represents some of his ideas on dreaming.

I come to the Threshold Worlds project as a narrative theorist with a strongly rhetorical and pragmatic approach to narrative. Among other things, my theoretical position entails a conception of fiction as a way of meaning, not as an issue of reference; that is to say, fictionality is a mode of communication dissociated from the literal informative relevance of the narrative, rather than an ontological matter of non-reference, or reference to fictional worlds. I also define narrative in broad semiotic terms rather than as a linguistic phenomenon, since narratives may be articulated in various media, as for example in film, comics, mime, dance, etc. This stance leads me to take a view of narrative as most fundamentally an aspect of cognition, more primitive than language, which is our primary resource in making sense of each other’s behaviour and our own temporal experience.

Literary and cultural narratives have often drawn upon dreams – as inspiration, as aesthetic precedent, as subject matter in their own right – and my own interest in dreams in part concerns this link: I think that fictionality, as a rhetorical mode in cultural discourse, can be illuminated by the idea of dreams as fictions. By this I don’t mean the idea that dreams are illusions, or hallucinatory experiences of illusory worlds; I mean the idea that dreams are semiotic articulations of values, of affect and meaning, in the medium of our native cognitive-perceptual capacity for narrative sensemaking. This perspective is neutral as to whether the catalyst for dreaming is random brain activity or itself already meaningful (as consolidation of memories, for example, or affective disturbances). It emphasises the process of dreaming as a sensemaking activity directly engaging the cognitive-perceptual resources available to the sleeping mind in the absence of external stimuli – most prominently, the visual and proprioceptive systems. I am particularly interested in the threshold here between evidently embodied forms of cognitive activity and the semiotic force of mental representation, as a reflexive turn already implicit in the idea of dreams as fictions, and progressively foregrounded through increasing degrees of lucidity all the way to fully lucid dreaming.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany this blog post is a pinhole photograph, one of my own recent efforts. A still image, of course, has limited narrative potential, but I think it does evoke several qualities of dreaming, by virtue both of the formal qualities of pinhole photography and its own specific features. Among the characteristic features of a pinhole photo that it exhibits are the vignetting (the way the exposure falls off towards the edges of the image); the soft focus, combined with maximal depth of field (so that distant and very close details are equally focussed); and long exposure time (resulting in the motion blur on the foreground stalks of wheat). These effects give a slight unreality to the scene and a strong sense of subjective point of view; they hint, I think, at a sense that the scene is only there to the extent that it is imagined, and disappears at the edges of attention. The image also cultivates a brooding quality at odds with its benign subject matter, an indefinite sense of foreboding that is a characteristic form of affective dissonance in dreams. And this, as much as the hint of motion within the image, does after all give the image narrative potential; the anticipation of crossing this pathless field to confront whatever lies in the woods beyond….

Richard Walsh, October 2020