The question in the Context's title is deliberate: it recognises
the existence and validity of multiple perspectives regarding what
is considered “real”. The wording of the title also clearly
suggests that we should be prepared to accept the existence of alternative
versions of reality to our own, whether we share these perceptions
or not. Reality is defined as the state or fact of being real, but
as humans we have the capacity to perceive and interpret our own
realities in many different ways. This Context, therefore, is chiefly
concerned with the subjectivity of human experience and emotion,
and how differences in individuals and in their personal circumstances
lead to alternative perceptions of what reality is. Furthermore,
understanding other perceptions of reality can help clarify our
own version of what is real, in addition to enlightening us about
our understanding of our place in the world and thereby further
enriching our experience of life.
Who or what shapes our sense of reality?
The notion of "reality" is inextricably linked to the
subjectivity of individual human existence. As such, "reality"
is viewed differently by each individual, through the filter of
his/her personal circumstances, values and emotions. In addition
to this, "reality" is determined through a combination
of other factors and perspectives.
Our sense of reality is shaped from a multitude of sources. The
media is one entity that plays a significant role in shaping reality.
How? Other realms include:
Science — where reality is perceived according to what is
factual or demonstrable
Religion — where reality is considered according to "dogma"
History — where reality is considered according to human
development – this also applies on a personal level in terms of
an individual's history
Psychology — where reality is viewed in relation to theory
The notion of one, single and definitive version of "reality"
is extremely hard to justify in the face of so many subjective and
variable perspectives. What are the broader ideas and arguments
that emerge from this Context? Consider ways of grouping concepts
about "Whose Reality?":
perceptions of reality
judging versions of reality
imagining other realities
perceiving reality differently
representations of reality
fantasy, reality and surrealism
multiple versions of reality
reality and the truth
the nature of reality
the subjectivity of human experience
subjectivity and perceptions of reality
memory, reflection and perspectives
the relationship between memory and reality
reasons for constructing an alternative reality
delusion and fantasy
illusion and reality
power, control and reality
language and reality
different realities of gender and class
different places representing different realities
perceptions of reality and conflict
Our perception is determined, and skewed, by a range of personal
and environmental variables that refract events and people according
to what kind of people we are, where we come from, and the events
that have shaped us. An individual's past experiences help to determine
the way he or she behaves and develops understandings, and gender,
race, social position, family ethos, culture, religion, inherited
dispositions, and other variables, all contribute to the way he
or she reads the world and its people.
The combination of these and other factors forms a person's subjectivity.
People may perceive the same situation, event or information in
different ways because their perceptions are filtered by their different
ideals, values and past experience. This notion of subjective
realities is in contrast to the idea that there is a version
of reality that is factual, the truth, objectively and impartially
A prime example of this is when a group of people witness an accident,
yet report very different facts to the police. There are many factors
that will determine the version of events that is told, such as
the age, gender, background, experience and position of the witness
at the time. It is difficult, therefore, to argue that one account
is more valid or true than the other, because each person will bring
to their description of the accident their own reality.
Of course, this is not to say that we can doubt the reality of
the actual accident itself, but we need to be aware that the details
can and will be quite different, depending on who is telling the
story, when the story is being told and to whom the story is being
People's interaction with others involves deciding between various
ways of perceiving the world. Some representations of reality are
preferred over others in a community, so that another concern of
this Context has to do with what factors lead to one person's representation
of reality being accepted, while another's is dismissed or rejected.
The question of what is 'real', what is reality, is one that philosophers
have debated for hundreds of years. Is there a real and factual
reality, or is the world only how we perceive it through our senses,
our experiences? Some philosophers have argued that we can only
indirectly know the effect that reality has on our minds. In this
sense, reality is a mental construct and a creation of the individual.
The discussion may have a religious element too; many religions
attempt to explain the origin of 'reality' and speak of another
reality after this life. When tribal societies in New Guinea encountered
western civilisation for the first time, some began new quasi-religious
movements, worshipping the westerners or the goods they brought.
Overnight, their reality changed. In a different way, some Buddhists
believe that what we see as reality is literally unreal or a kind
of dream. It is a discussion that was later taken up by psychiatrists
as it became common to categorise patients who 'lost touch' with
reality as being psychologically ill, even insane.
As you study the Context, you should concentrate on the varied
ways that experience can be recorded and interpreted, and be aware
that people read the world in a plethora of ways, and these readings
are coloured by their own experiences and the time and place in
which they occur. You should consider how some people in the community
have more power to influence which version of reality that is accepted
as the 'prevailing wisdom'.
The set texts, and supplementary texts, provide opportunities for
you to analyse the ways that different people perceive and respond
to the world. Each of the texts promotes subjectivity as a contingent
and powerful force that forms and, or, alters people's views of
their world, its people and events that occur. The stories we tell ourselves as individuals, in families and as communities, build our personal identities and our values. It is important to
remember that all the texts set for the Context are provided to
support students as they develop ideas and arguments associated
with 'Whose reality?' The assessment tasks do not require you to
respond to any of the selected texts per se but to use them as resources
for ideas, arguments and approaches.
Each of the two texts set for study present a conflict of ideas in different characters’ responses to interpretation of events and/or the author/director’s interpretation of events.
Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog invites viewers to explore the relationship between the American political world and entertainment world. An imaginary stage-managed war, complete with digitally-altered atrocity scene, emotive soundtrack and manufactured ‘hero’, is created by a canny media production team in order to manipulate the voters in a presidential election. The political fixer and the presidential advisor work with the Hollywood producer to create their own unreal diversionary world in the two weeks prior to Election Day. It is a realm that manipulates not only the audience, in this case the American people, but also themselves. Ideas explored by this film include the compromises people make in the two professional worlds, the gullibility of the voting public, and the possibility that because technology changes our perception of what is real we can be fooled by politicians and others who have the money to ‘recreate’ reality
J.M Coetzee’s novel Foe is a retelling of the classic castaway tale Robinson Crusoe. In Coetzee’s version we follow the path of Susan, a female who washed up on Cruso’s island and took, both Cruso’s and, her own tales of adventure on the remote island to the ‘distinguished man of letters’, Daniel Foe (Daniel Defoe). This challenging historical retelling asks questions about the truth within storytelling and the role memory, both selective and not, plays in our experience of the past. This layered text presents the idea that experience,
or reality, is open for interpretation and ultimately owned by no one.
Reading widely will help you explore and think about the varied ways that experience can be represented, recorded and interpreted, and become aware of how people read the world in a plethora of ways, and how these ‘readings’ are coloured by their own experiences, self-interest, the time and place in which they occur and the prevailing social and political values. Students should consider how some people in the community acquire the power to influence other people, and whether the accepted ‘prevailing wisdom’ can be or ought to be challenged. Two other texts on the course this year include Death of a Salesman and The Lot.
in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller confronts the audience with a salesman, Willy Loman, who has sold himself a version of reality. The economic pressure to make a living, and the social pressure to conform to the values of a materialist society, have demanded that Willy Loman make himself into a man of his times. Miller’s salesman represent the fundamental character type of mid-twentieth century materialism, someone who truly tries to believe in the virtues of superficial appearances, persuasion based on flattery and cronyism. But Loman is a poor salesman, selling himself a poor product. His reality is terribly unstable. The play presents his lasts days, as his frail and unsuccessful identity and reality unravel.
Michael Leunig’s The Lot: In Words is written from the heart. Leunig writes frankly in his own voice about his take on life. He is an older, middle class, left leaning, white, male cartoonist who presents an offbeat view. Leunig moves through a broad range of topics and poses questions about the values underpinning commonly accepted policies and beliefs. He makes a point of disputing the accepted wisdom and challenging some cornerstone beliefs and icons of Australian life.
There are numerous links with the Context in Spies by Michael Frayn. These include how people cast a different light on events from their past, in turn showing how people's perception of events change over time. Spies also shows how pre-existing ideas cloud our understanding of the world. The allure of certain realities or worlds is looked at through Keith and the narrator's make-believe world. This pretend world may have dangers, but these are not as fraught with anxieties and problems as the real world. More importantly the novel shows how people are able to hold two separate worlds in their heads, even though they may be in direct conflict with each other. The psycho-geography of the world we live in is also questioned. There are layers of history under the environment we live in, layers that can be seen if we choose to look hard enough. The novel is also useful in showing how writers manipulate readers through the narrator, making them by turns reliable and unreliable. This unreliability is used to undermine the world the reader has entered into, which in turn makes the reader question his or her own understanding of the world.
Several films you could explore for your supplementary reading
include Peter Weir's The Truman Show which portrays a central
character who does not realise that his whole life is an artificial
reality that has been constructed for the purposes of a television
show and where all the people he meets every day are actors. Kaufman
and Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, argues
that a person's emotions and dispositions will remain a potent force
in the way he or she perceives their reality and the reality of
others, whatever technological interventions are made in an effort
to change people's memories and influence their perceptions of experience. Robert Altman's The Player helps us explore questions about the ways that
people make sense of other people's statements about reality and
judge whether or not what they are being told, or led to believe,
is the truth. At its most basic level, the film assists us explore
issues and arguments relevant to the Context because the film's
protagonist, Griffin Mill, seeks to understand and overcome various
situations that he feels threaten him. However, he is worried that
his perception of these things might be different from that of other
people and he wishes to deceive others to forward his own self-interest.
Viewers watch Griffin Mill 'read' and interpret particular situations
while duping other people, successfully representing false realities
as being the truth.
During your study of the Context, you should explore the idea that
one's sense of reality is personal and particular, and therefore
not always the same for everyone. Understanding the factors that
make people view the world differently assists in promoting empathy
for others' situations and should prompt us to question judgements
that are based on singular, narrow interpretations about people
and their behaviour, or events. The Context also invites you to
explore how our perceptions of reality can be shaped by others,
especially those whose voices are dominant, in ways that are not
always healthy. This might apply to the extent that an individual
might sometimes be forced to accept, and even adopt, a version of
reality advocated by powerful people with whom one does not necessarily
You are encouraged to identify and critique the forces that influence
people's beliefs and ideas. Undoubtedly, you will also interrogate
the ways that you personally make sense of the world, and begin
to identify forces in your own backgrounds that led to those perspectives.
The Context might be approached in a variety of ways: from appreciation
and understanding of how versions of what's 'reality' might vary
from individual to individual, or culture to culture, as well as
the possibility of creating new realities in your imaginative and
creative writing. How can people see the world differently from
us you might ask? How can different people see the same thing, and
explain it in different ways? Why do people think differently from
each other? Your study of this context might help you come to answers
to many of these tricky questions.
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