Human Studies

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 519–537

Suspending Belief and Suspending Doubt: The Everyday and the Virtual in Practices of Factuality


Theoretical / Philosophical Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10746-012-9244-y

Cite this article as:
Zaunbrecher, N.J. Hum Stud (2012) 35: 519. doi:10.1007/s10746-012-9244-y


From an ethnomethodological perspective, this article describes social actors’ everyday and virtual stances in terms of their practices of provisional doubt and belief for the purpose of fact-establishment. Facts are iterated, reinforced, elaborated, and transformed via phenomenal practices configuring relations of equipment, interpretation, and method organized as “other” than, but relevant to, the everyday. Such practices in scientific research involve forms of suspended belief; in other areas they can instead involve forms of suspended doubt. As an illuminating example of this latter class of virtual fact-establishment practices, I offer an extended analysis of the “yes; and…” principle of information-establishment used in improvisational theatre to progressively develop the content of a performance.


EthnomethodologyFact-establishmentMundaneityPractices of virtualityImprovisational theatre (improv)

One way we can understand the “everyday” stance of a social actor or body is as a baseline from which social beings depart through forms of virtual activity. These virtual activities serve to iterate and reinforce the character of this baseline by enacting deliberate breaches of its methods and common relational and interpretive stances. Such virtual activities can also elaborate and inform actors’ everyday methods and interpretive practices. One important way the interplay of everyday and virtual stances is utilized is in practices of factuality. In the following, I examine the character of fact-establishment and fact-utilization practices as phenomena describable to some extent in terms of dynamic interplay among everyday and virtual stances. To facilitate this examination, I consider the characters of two modes of virtual activity involving fact-establishment. I call these modes the “scientific” and the “hypothetical,” and locate them as two sides of a continuum of virtuality with respect to “everyday” modes of practice and engagement, the first aligned with suspension of everyday belief and the second with the suspension of everyday doubt. I argue that while virtual scientific modes have received much attention in discussions of factuality practice, modes I call hypothetical have received far less coverage. I offer attention to this area by assessing one such “hypothetical” fact-establishment practice, the “yes; and…” principle of improvisational theatre. “Yes; and…” is one valuable illustration of the “hypothetical” class of virtual methods, with its own relevance to factuality in everyday practice.

The Everyday and the Virtual in Practices of Factuality

Establishing and Sustaining Mundaneity

Langsdorf (1995) argues that in phenomenological theory, “the orientation of social actors is one of straightforward involvement in the surrounding lifeworld and that our interests are pragmatic. In this ‘natural attitude’ we function without doubting the facts—the ‘givens’—of our subject matter”. From this stance, actors “neglect a lot that is irrelevant to immediate pragmatic needs, and accomplish a lot that is relative to those needs. In short, lifeworld practice takes a good deal for granted”. I take this stance, the taking-for-granted of appearances, as a central feature of what I call the “everyday” practice of factuality. In the everyday stance, facts are something of an unnoticed background until called into question as a matter of practical concern. People don’t go verifying or questioning facts unless they must, or want to, “know something” as a matter of orientation to some projected accomplishment. Garfinkel (1967) calls this sense of factuality the “warranted grounds of further inferences and action”. Fact in the everyday stance is the accomplishment of this warranting in such a way that certain inferences and actions may be taken-for-granted by actors as “appropriate” in certain recognized contexts. When these taken-for-granted “background expectancies” are “breached,” actors experience “bewilderment”. At these times the-facts-of-the-matter relative to some practical concern of an actor or community come into question and must be determined (or at least in some way dealt with, such as being marked as unknowable).

At such times actors turn to what Pollner (1987) calls “mundane inquiry,” “inquiry into a world (a domain, a field, a region) which is presumed to be independent of the manner in which it is explicated”. The particular features of said “real world” may be treated quite differently in various practical social contexts; the common feature of mundane inquiry is that there is some “reality” to which inquiry is directed: “Specifically the mundane prejudice consists of the assumption that there is but ‘one single world’. Its incorrigibility consists of the use of an idiom of accounts, which locates the source of the conflict not in the world but in the ways the world is observed or described”. For practical actors, mundaneity operates as a “cultural belief system” which “stands as a background scheme of interpretation… [providing] members with resources for the formulation and grasp of a range of claims, comments, and concerns”. Assumptions of mundaneity warrant practices of factuality from everyday stances; if the world is some certain way (we may be wrong about the particular way it is, but it has some sort of stable, independent character), then it is reasonable to take for granted what appears to be so, unless some practical impetus exists to doubt it.

Pollner identifies a variety of cultural practices by which we sustain mundane realities—facts that can be taken for granted—despite everyday experiences of contradiction. Such contradiction can take the form of the opposing testimony of different actors, or of new experience which breaches taken-for-granted methods of past interpretation, and so on. But almost invariably, we appeal to mundane practices and interpretive methods in the face of contradiction. When testimonies are contrary, one, more, or all of the parties are “mistaken,” “lying,” “do not understand the matter,” and so on; we have a variety of contextual practices to determine these issues. We also have strategies to resolve new experience that violates the taken-for-granted assumptions of the past with a persisting mundane reality. We might be mistaken about whether our experience is “actually” factual; maybe our sensory experience or our interpretation of it is “incorrect”. Or perhaps some feature of the world has changed and we must go looking for new particular facts to warrant sorts of action and inference once taken for granted. Or we may be having new sorts of experiences because our interpretive frames of reference—the way a person interprets their own particular “mundane reality”—have changed, and in turn our practices of relating to experience become oriented differently.

This last possibility brings us to practices that can reinforce, elaborate, or transform mundane reality. While the practical assumption of some unifying reality independent of our inquiries is pervasive to inquiry, particular practices which sustain mundaneity demand the iteration of its particular forms in different contexts—what Pollner calls the “ingeniousness” of mundane reasoners in sustaining a mundane discourse. From the “everyday” stance toward factuality of experience, mundane reasoners engage in such iterative practices, which reinforce existing forms of mundane reality. Mundane reality is also subject to elaboration and transformation, though; Raz (1999), for example, argues at length that “the historical instantiation of principles of reasoning is a matter of contingent fact…[and] the principles themselves are historical products emerging at particular points in time” The character of mundaneity changes as social actors learn more about the world, including their own practices of relating to that world. Kuhn (1996) argues that scientists in fields that undergo a revolution literally thereafter “are responding to a different world,” and other social actors also have practices to enact and negotiate1 recharacterizations of mundaneity. Such practices call for specifically not taking certain features of everyday reality for granted, and so are in this sense forms of “non-practical,” “non-everyday” inquiry and activity.

Configuring the Virtual Apparatus

Noting the relevance of such practices, Pollner (1987) writes that “practical inquiry’s recognition of itself as practical depends on the availability of contrasting alternatives, one of which is scientific inquiry”. I refer to practices which purposefully make use of such “contrasting alternatives” as forms of “virtual” activity. Case (2007) traces the development of the term “virtual” from an origin in the sense of “possessing virtue or power” to later uses “so in essence or effect although not formally or actually,” or a “capacity [or] potentiality”. While today’s best-known use of this term has revolved around the virtual in some dichotomous relationship with the actual (as in “virtual reality” media), Case notes that many practices join together these various meanings.

Far afield from what would normally be considered “scientific inquiry,” consider the example of a séance. A channeler working with a family to seek contact with the spirits of dead loved ones may need to take a variety of steps—perhaps ritualistic actions; preparation of the séance’s location with signs or special objects; careful arrangement of the participants; mental exercises to prepare oneself for this exotic form of communication. To succeed in this undertaking, they need to take the right actions and also to carefully organize the space of the event, the relationships of the participants, and the channeler’s own experiential stance—to create “virtual” selves and “virtual” spaces, and make use of “virtual” methods. If they succeed, the group will speak with the spirits of the dead, hopefully gaining access to special knowledge, unavailable through everyday communicative activities. In this practice, we see the various dimensions of “virtual” united; the senses of power and potentiality seem clear enough, but the sense in which these methods, selves, and spaces are other than “actual” is also important. These practices attempt to get at “true” but esoteric knowledge, but are accomplished by marked departures from one’s “actual” self, space, and methods, where the “actual” is that which can be taken-for-granted in everyday doings. One can take little for granted in a successful séance; everything must be just so or attempts to access knowledge will fail.

Such virtual practices seek to experientially transcend from mundane reality to some form of higher-level reality through radical departures from the former—departures of action (method), self (interpretation), and space (relation). This “higher-level reality” includes mundane reality, but encompasses it and explains features of that mundane reality in ways that are not available when we take things for granted. Such practices may be dismissed as charlatanry or delusion. But if we assume the sincerity of all involved in the séance, they are conducting an experiment, the result of which they hope will offer knowledge that cannot be accessed without drastic departure from everyday ways of acting in and relating to reality. The space where the séance occurs is a form of laboratory. If the séance does not succeed, the group may need to change the setup of the space, their own perceptual attitudes, or the actions they take. Experimentation with these dimensions may yield the sought result. Or after enough failure, the group may begin to question if this virtual method can yield practical results at all—perhaps they even begin to question their basis for seeking to speak to spirits in the first place. Employing quite different practices, the scientific laboratory also operates as a virtual space, seeking to make access to special knowledge possible through reconfigurations of self, action, and experiential relationship.

In both cases, this virtual space can be understood holistically as a phenomenal “apparatus”. Karen Barad offers a useful analysis in her relational ontology:

…apparatuses are not mere static arrangements in the world, but rather apparatuses are dynamic (re)configurations of the world, specific agential practices/intra-actions/performances through which specific exclusionary boundaries are enacted…apparatuses are themselves phenomena…constituted through particular practices that are perpetually open to rearrangements, rearticulations, and other reworkings. This is part of the creativity and difficulty of doing science: getting the instrumentation to work in a particular way for a particular purpose….(2003)

An apparatus is not just technological, a set of tools used to assess or accomplish something. Barad reminds us that the phenomena emerging from such interactions are as dependent on the relational configurations of any actors involved, and the endless scope of context, as they are on material technology and procedure. Any attempt to circumscribe the scope of these dimensions itself instantiates as an elaboration of the apparatus it considers. Stock ideas of rigorous laboratory practice may turn to the esoteric technology of highly controlled experiments with highly manipulated material elements, as in advanced physics and chemistry research. But a number of other scientific disciplines, from ethnography to evolutionary biology, get at their special knowledges not by manipulating matter, but by taking certain attitudinal and interpretive stances to phenomena which typically are ideally as un-controlled and un-manipulated as possible. Of course these sciences have their own manipulative and measurement technology, from questionnaires to calipers—but their fact-generating success is far more dependent upon their practitioners’ abilities to take stances to data than to manipulate sources of data.

So the fact-generating apparatuses of the scientific lab are, if we follow Barad, phenomena in which such correlative phenomena as observers, data, and methods emerge from their ongoing relational dynamics—“it is through specific intra-actions that phenomena come to matter—in both senses of the word” (See also Benson and Hughes 1991). These two senses are “matter” as concretion and “matter” as significance; both are relevant to our understanding of fact. In the first case, matter is aligned with “nature” or some independent object we apprehend through observational and representational practices; matter is an independent “reality” our attempts at generating fact seek to access, as mundaneity presumes. In the second case, “to matter” is to be of some significance or relevance or at least to stand as a potential location of meaning.

We do not establish facts randomly; typically, we have reasons for seeking to determine facts, and in any case no “fact” makes sense as such without reference to contexts of valuation, and to standards of practice and interpretation wherein the fact is established. Facts are rooted in recognizable configurations of phenomena, and are also negotiated and established through the intra-action of actors and normative systems. “Factual” data is necessarily positioned in relation with normative structures, thus Scott’s (1999) argument that “truth is not prior and immutable but is contingent…[and] rhetoric may be viewed not as a matter of giving effectiveness to truth but of creating truth”. Such fact-positioning rhetorical structures can include a rhetorical situation, the “exigence” by which the establishment of a fact is made relevant (Bitzer 1968); 2nd personae, the “implied auditor[s]” who can share in the acceptance of a fact (Black 1970); 3rd personae, “audiences rejected or negated,” those whose configuration or positionality is posited as preventing their acceptance of a fact (Wander 1999); and the deployment of ideographs, terms invoking vaguely-defined but value-laden concepts, in this case invoked as bases for the legitimacy and relevance of fact-claims (McGee 1980).

Relevance of the Virtual to the Everyday

By this account, we establish scientific “fact” through engagement with phenomenal apparatuses in such a way that, if we take the right virtual steps, we can access special knowledges which are then treated as “fact” with respect to certain interpretive practices. However, fact works no differently in everyday contexts! Only the degree of complexity and precision of standards for fact-establishment differs. Lynch (1991) reminds us that “folk” methods of measurement are generally adequate without any reference to explicit theory; indeed, theory tends to be developed and deployed only when such measurements become inadequate in practice. The success of such everyday practices is in part rooted in their limited scope of practical consideration; but then, successful scientific investigations are themselves based in “vulgar competencies” linked to local histories of practice (Lynch 1991; see also Collins 2001). So what exactly is the “virtue” of the establishment of facts in a virtual setting?

Excursions into the virtual offer the opportunity to elaborate or refine the mundane realities of the everyday. The virtual is marked by its simultaneous otherness from and relevance to the everyday. Certain effective departures from everyday modes of relational action and belief offer actors access to knowledges which, brought back to the everyday world, may instantiate in relevant practices as “fact”—i.e., as a component of everyday reality that may be taken-for-granted if no compelling reason exists to consider otherwise. In this way, mundane reality is iterated, elaborated, and transformed, and social practices are likewise facilitated or problematized, based on the dynamic development of both accepted and disputed facts. People enact virtual practices seeking to return with knowledge or powers that can in- or trans-form the everyday. This may take caricatured forms like seeking to speak with the spirits of the dead. But it is equally true of scientific experimentation; researchers make a “virtual” departure from everyday relations and actions, hoping to return to the everyday with new facts that can iterate and elaborate practices through their introduction into relevant communities.

One way this plays out is in everyday frames of understanding and practical action. For example, when in everyday contexts we refer to facts about the importance of certain minerals in nutrition, we are invoking social practices of trust, verification, and reliability regarding virtual excursions by “experts” in certain fields of fact-establishment (anatomy, biology, dietetics, etc.). We are also invoking “facts” about the workings of certain “molecules” and “cells” and their material interactions, and asserting that these have consequences for our own practical well-being, depending on how we stand in relation to these facts (i.e., what we choose to eat). Far more historically visible, perhaps, we find the elaboration and iteration of abstract scientific fact promulgated through the development of “applied” technology. And the actual action of scientific research is oriented by projected practical accomplishments in the everyday world: scientists doing research hope that by doing so they will accomplish such ordinary things as “making a living,” “gaining respect with peers,” “contributing to future generations,” etc. While scientific practice includes a framing of itself as differentiated from mundane considerations, and referring to other scientific practices rather than everyday life, scientific research that does not seem able to accomplish the everyday goals of scientists themselves is likely to be abandoned or never initiated. The practices of science take place in a broader world of consideration, and we cannot compartmentalize the practices from those who do them—few if any are those who seek knowledge only for its own sake.

Virtual Methods in the Hypothetical Mode

While we often privilege the technological and methodological dimensions of fact-establishment practices, we must remember the equal importance of interpretive configuration and positioning to the success of these practices. Indeed, some fact-establishment practices consist entirely of recursive stances of interpretation, with no “actual” material referent at all, as in the thought experiments of analytic philosophy. “Fact” in such practices is established without reference to any “independent” reality grounding a relationship between actor and data, though these practices certainly make abundant use of such facts established through other practices for such purposes as formulating questions and evaluating assumptions. Facts in a thought experiment work in two ways: they are either provisional data, or implications drawn from interpretive engagement with sets of provisional data.

The first role of facts is as the “raw data” of a thought experiment, and any possible configuration of data is in principle a possible subject for such an investigation. The second use is the product of the intra-action of interpretive and attitudinal methods with a given set of data. Such factual products are studied as implications of applied interpretation, taking the form of “If➜Then” (conditional) types of facts. Since there is no material referent of such investigations, data are chosen and deliberately deployed to establish as “fact” that if we apply some interpretive method X to given data, we are compelled or suggested toward some interpretive stance or attitude. This conclusion may call for treating certain claims about or features of the “real” (i.e., everyday) world as factual.

Significantly, the facts established through such processes can imply “ought” or “can” claims as well as “is” claims. While “is” claims are exemplified in logical and rationalistic thought-experiments, a variety of other approaches to establishing everyday fact through virtual thought experiments can be identified: the empathetic, the emotional, or the aesthetic, for example. When we ask, “How would you feel if somebody did that to you?” we are asking our interlocutor to perform an analogical thought experiment, hoping they will come to conclusions about things like moral significance, the experiential stances of others, or possibilities for appropriate action. These conclusions, about obligation and possibility, gain their factual relevance in relation with the hypothetical data from which the conclusions are formulated: “Well, nobody did, in an ‘is’-mode factual stance, actually do that to me. However, in a virtual stance, relating with hypotheticals, I can reasonably conclude as factual that if somebody were to have done that to me, I would feel such-and-such. By analogically elaborating this if➜then conclusion to relevantly similar states of affairs treated as factual in an ‘is’-mode, I can determine appropriate interpretive and relational stances, and effective action in relation with this actual state of affairs”. Or, in short, “If I hurt your feelings, then [given certain histories of social custom, valuation modes, range of possibilities for action, and so on] I ought to apologize”. Both achieved by departure from everyday modes of relation and interpretation, and treated as relevant to the everyday stance, such virtual thought-experiment processes form the basis of our ability to establish positive facts about the world from “that which is not the case” (see Graham 1985 on the centrality of analogy to reasoning and interpretive practices generally).

Such fact-establishment practices share a significant difference from the “scientific” practices employed to establish facts in an is-mode: whereas scientific practices operate through virtual forms of the suspension of everyday belief, “hypothetical” practices of thought-experiment seek to establish facts through the virtual suspension of everyday doubt. With respect to belief and doubt in everyday and scientific practices, Garfinkel (1967) writes:

…activities of scientific theorizing… [provide] that interpretation be conducted while holding a position of “official neutrality” toward the belief that the objects of the world are as they appear. The activities of everyday life, of course, permit the actor’s doubt that the objects are as they appear; but this doubt is in principle a doubt that is limited by the theorist’s “practical considerations”. Doubt for the practical theorist is limited by his [sic] respect for certain valued, more or less routine features of the social order as “seen from within” that he specifically does not and will not call into question. By contrast, the activities of scientific theorizing are governed by the strange ideal of doubt that is in principle unlimited and that specifically does not recognize the normative social structures as constraining conditions.

Scientific methods, as Garfinkel describes them, involve various methods of provisional doubt, by which the factuality of mundane assumptions are called into question. In practical modes, actors do not have the luxury of nor any need for such methods. However, mundane assumptions can likewise be called into question through methods of provisional belief, as in thought experiments, which we might well describe as “governed by the strange ideal of belief that is in principle unlimited and that specifically does not recognize the normative social structures as constraining conditions”. From the virtual perspective of a thought-experiment, working with the data of hypothetical facts, an actor is freed from such “practical considerations” as needing to be discriminating in what one considers factual, or needing to treat certain facts as relevant for certain reasons.

These “thought-experiments” though, as I have described them so far, are strictly “cognitive” affairs. In the above account, time is in a sense “standing still” while an actor ponders, empathizes, or possibilizes in preparation for some relation with practical action. The virtual methods of thought experiment allow for (in principle) unlimited configurations of data and interpretive relationship to establish provisional fact, but such facts must be in the end “brought back down to earth”; they must be used to warrant implication or action in a mundane world that can be treated from an everyday stance. As Couclelis (1995) puts it, “Truth is defined not in essence but in use”. In any case, virtual thought-experiments still occur in real time; they instantiate as particular enacted forms of social practice.

Even the most still and “cognitive” activities are embodied actions. And any attempt to limit the virtual activities of effective thought-experiment to some cognitive realm seems inadequate. Consider the case of a performer “getting into character,” a virtual empathetic activity, but also one that almost surely involves changes in everyday practices of movement, body language, and patterns of verbal expression. The embodied components in such cases are not simply additive enhancers to some cognitive virtual practice. They are integral to this practice as an effective virtual method (see Ben-Ze’ev 1995; Coulter 1991; Schatzki 2001 for more on cognition and mind as practices).

Such virtual methods, involving the suspension of doubt, are embodied practices that enact the same sort of phenomenal configurations described above as “apparatuses”. These practices are hardly limited to “individual” actors. Indeed, as with all forms of virtual activity, suspension-of-doubt methods only make sense with reference to some everyday community of practice. Virtual methods for establishing conditional facts are social practices, and can be enacted between and among actors, as well as “within” them—what else is two friends “talking out the possibilities of a situation”?

It is in this spirit that I consider certain practices of improvisational theatre (“improv”) as virtual methods of factuality enacted through the shared, negotiated intra-action of social actors. I choose improv as a productive site to examine these methods because it offers an additional “layer” of virtuality within which its factuality methods are situated—in this case, what Turner and Turner (1988) call a “play frame”. Action occurring in the context of a play frame is “in a certain sense untrue or not meant; and…that which is denoted by these signals is non-existent. The formula is: let us make believe”. Thus, the “facts” in an improv performance are established with reference not to some concrete reality but to another virtual frame. This virtual frame is enacted through codes and communicative acts which do partake of everyday practices of understanding shared by the community enacting the improv. The play frame organizes meaning such that, unless it is itself breached, the facts established by the performers will not be called-to-account from everyday perspectives; they warrant action and inference only in the virtual frame of the performance. As a result of this, the freedom of improv performers to enact virtual facts provides for a far greater range of possibilities and acceptable stances than virtual methods which are directly responsive to practical concerns. In addition, the play frame negates any mundane referent prefiguring the establishment of facts in the virtual mode of the performance. For practical purposes of action in this mode, the particular character of mundane reality is limited only by imagination and by the character of the communicative practices through which this “virtual mundane reality” is enacted. Rather than serving to prefigure the character of facts which emerge from practices of everyday and virtual inquiry, such “virtual” mundane realities in improv are themselves emergent from methods of factuality initiated through the improv process. Examining these aspects of improv allows us a glimpse of the establishment and elaboration of mundane realities from a stark state of tabula rasa.

“Yes; and…” as a Practice and the Establishment of Fact in Improvisation

Initiation and Accretion of Fact in the Play Frame

There is no real tabula rasa. From the moment the curtain opens (so to speak) a great deal is already implicitly established in an improv scene. The play frame, a range of conventional communicative methods, certain relevant cultural relationships among and between performers and audience, an organization of space, etc., are already tacitly or explicitly implicated in the forthcoming practical performance act. More specifically, the action of the scene may be directed by formal conventions: improv “games” or other sets of rules deployed as part of the framing of a particular performance. Or the substantial content may be constrained through some deliberate framing, or using audience suggestions or some other convention. Even the events that mark the transition in time from an everyday to a virtual improvisational frame of reference are organized cultural practices. But these matters are all procedural. They are a matter of configuring the socio-material apparatus of the improv performance to work in certain ways in certain contexts. They organize what may be taken as fact for the performance’s practical purposes, but these matters do not themselves establish substantive fact in the virtual space. Finally though, the practices of situating are complete; the “curtain opens” and the show starts and, for a brief moment, we have our virtual reality in a sort of tabula rasa state. Then something happens. One or more performers may enter the performance space, moving or speaking in some way. Or a performer makes a sound from offstage. Or perhaps silence simply lingers on an empty stage for a moment or more. It is the first datum of a virtual world.

The factual character of this datum can, from here, be elaborated in a variety of ways; even the broadest initial utterance by a character does a great deal to concretize the “world” of the scene’s action. The mere recognition of the datum is enough to establish it as relevant: even as raw “contextless” data, it “warrants action and inference” by the performers. The mere experiential presence of data is in this sense to be treated as fact for the purpose of virtual practice. While, later in a scene, facts established earlier may or may not remain relevant for virtual practical actors, in this initial moment we first establish what might be called “substantive” factual content in the virtual space. It is at this moment, with some concretion of virtual data, that the improvisational methodological practice of “Yes; and…” is engaged.

Halpern et al. (1994) identify and explain “Yes; and…” as a practical improv principle. It calls for “agreement” between the performers; whatever is established informationally by any player is to be treated as a component of a shared virtual reality. This reality may contain differences in viewpoint among the characters; virtual actors may orient differently to the information of the scene. Halpern (2006) elaborates that the principle doesn’t imply a facile literalness, but that agreement is reached intersubjectively, negotiated through communication from performers’ and characters’ perspectives. Nonetheless, the characters share a virtual “mundane reality,” a shared configuration of taken-for-granted facts developed about the characters and their world through the progressive process of “accept and build (Halpern et al. 1994)”. Processes of sharing virtual reality move an improv scene forward through practices of “accepting” the established data of the scene at face value (what we might call assimilating the data into a virtual everyday stance), and then treating that data as relevantly factual—“building” by taking established data and using it to warrant further inference and action, which in turn are assimilated into the constructed reality of the scene, and so on. The “building” on an accepted reality may take the form of expanding the field of substantive fact, or it may implicate new frames of interpretation for facts established, or it may refine the ongoing particular processes of fact establishment in a scene by orienting the performers toward certain stances or courses of action (what Halpern, Close, and Johnson call “game moves”). Through this process, the factual reality of a scene is established from an initial configuration and an initial impetus by this virtual interpretation-action process of “Yes (acceptance of reality); and (elaboration of reality) … (ellipsis; progressive development of this process)”.

Stochastic and Emergent Processes in Improvisational Fact-Establishment

Pietropaolo (1989) and Sawyer (1999) come to curiously opposing views of the establishment of fact in their conceptual analyses of improv processes, the former emphasizing the “stochastic” (variable-and probability-based) nature of information-establishment, the latter its “emergent” (novel and unpredictable) properties. The two consider dramatically different approaches to improv. Pietropaolo’s focus is on the commedia dell’arte tradition; he attempts to “describe its distinctive features without making substantive references to the factual content of specific realisations in practice”. This tradition was an early improv form in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, especially Italy, using conventionally-recognized “stock” characters. Travelling ensembles would perform “scenarios,” prefigured plotlines without specific dialogue. A show might be prepared with a plan for the lovers to elope, their fathers to oppose each other in city politics, and colorful servants to mediate them all, but no script defines verbalizations or actions, though the performers know in general what they will do. “Lazzi”—prepared comic tropes and bits of stage business, like cowering in fear from a small animal or chasing a fly around a room—could be dropped into many scenarios in a variety of ways, planned or inspired on the spot (Brockett 1995; see also, e.g., Anderson 1988; McGill 1990, 1991; Tylus 1997 for examples of practices).

Pietropaolo describes the process of creation in improv as involving “stimulus–response composite units of communication”. The potential particular content of these successive units is, in principle, constrained only by the competence of the group and its individual members. In practice, choices are constrained by considerations of coherence in communicating with audience and other performers. Such choices are made with respect to a “continuum” of “repertory [culturally-understandable] options” found

between the two extremes of, on the one hand, predictability—which is perceivable only as structural regularity in accordance with the standards of tradition—and, on the other hand, unpredictability—which instead consists in the recognition of a disruptive random element in the predicted configuration of composite units.

This negotiation of paths more- and less-travelled is an ultimately ends-oriented and deterministic process in Pietropaolo’s account, which moves “toward cumulative redundancy, since from a high entropic situation at the beginning of the action… we come to the final resolution of the action in a scene that has very few surprises to offer”. Fact in a particular scene, then, is established as a matter of concretizing the possible implications successively drawn from each choice, with this range becoming progressively narrower until the “end” of a scene marks that scene as a body of stabilized fact.

Sawyer (1999), on the other hand, argues against this sort of actor-choice based model. He provides as an example the first 19 “beats” (probably less than a minute) in the beginning of a “longform” improv performance. We see a tired looking man miming the reading of a book. A man and a woman each bring him a pile of papers. He thanks them for their help. The second man and the woman hold hands as the second man says they are glad to help, and they leave to collect more papers. None of this has been planned or coordinated by the performers. One takes an action, others respond to it, the first finds an appropriate response to the others, etc.; together they progressively establish what is happening by interpreting and responding to what has already been established. In this very beginning of a scene, we already have some strong suggestions about these characters, their relationships, and what they are doing. But a great deal remains mysterious, because we have no context for anything that has happened—we have no information about the world of the performance beyond what we have just seen.

Sawyer points out that, in this approach to performing improv, “an actor can’t even know the real meaning of his [sic] own utterance until the other actors have responded”. Instead, the action of the scene progressively establishes the explanatory meaning or relevance of information established in the scene, while at the same time continuing to add further information. While Pietropaolo’s model also features emergence, its process is almost subtractive—fact emerges from the focusing of a field of possibility into a concrete reality in the virtual world of the scene. In contrast, Sawyer’s model is recursive: the character of the virtual world is itself under progressive establishment and negotiation, and the status of any piece of information composing a scene is just as dependent on how it is treated after establishment as on how it comes to be established in the first place. Fact in such a recursive system is not concretized from a range of recognized possible contexts; rather, a range of possible contexts is itself emergent from the process of information establishment, and subject to both narrowing and expansion as this process unfolds. Further, recognition of the flux of this field of possibilities is itself part of the meaning-making schema and fact establishment process. The status of virtual facts established within this field can shift rapidly as the scope of the field itself shifts.

Arguably, in such a system we can never get fact at all, since all information is constantly subject to a radical shift of context; we do not have the (relative) stabilities of materiality that sustain the contexts allowing for factuality in everyday and scientific modes. After all, at any moment in an improv performance, the character of facts may be changed wholesale: everything established thus far may be virtually reconfigured as a dream, or a hallucination, or as taking place in a fictional story. But as Pietropaolo limits the variable range of actions at any moment in actual practice based on a range of recognizable options, Sawyer limits this range based on criteria of “appropriateness”. It is with respect to frames of appropriateness that the emergent pro-cess/duct (Sawyer calls the two indistinguishable in improv) makes the jump to true “creativity” from mere “novelty”; the emergent creative act “must somehow be viewed as useful, appropriate, or valuable in some (higher level) system”. It is with respect to these various “higher level” systems that the phenomenal apparatus of an improv performance is configured to orient the virtual activity toward some everyday accomplishment (education, entertainment, play, etc.). While in principle the fact-generative improvisational processes are unlimited in the scope of the mundane reality they may establish, the various configuring frames for the social event serve as generally-effective practices for orienting the action within the virtual frames toward desired ends. While radical reframing of virtual facts in improv is always possible, writings on practical improv methodology agree that in most contexts this sort of move is considered “bad practice”. One reason it might be considered bad practice is precisely because if these sorts of radical fact-reconfiguration were to become too much a factor in these virtual settings, they would water down the relevance of all facts established through processual, elaborative processes like “yes; and…,” undermining their ability to effect the kinds of warrants we look to establish facts for in the first place.

Consideration of Pietropaolo’s and Sawyer’s particular phenomena of analysis may shed some light on their very different accounts of improvisational establishment in terms of what Sawyer (1996) elsewhere calls “large and small ready-mades”. One of the reasons Pietropaolo’s stochastic factuality makes sense in his view of improv practice is that so much context is set in advance—not only the social framing discussed above, but also to a large degree the scope of substantive fact for any given commedia performance. With so much substantive context established, virtual fact-establishment is largely procedural; we even have substantive content prefigured about the “end” of a show, and so these practices are largely oriented on getting “from here to there,” with the progressive establishment of virtual fact much more a matter of the journey than the content. More contemporary improv practices with this sort of high given-substantive-content character include “scenario plays”—modern commedia-like forms where a series of scenes and characters are prepared in advance, but dialogue and specific actions are not (Coleman 1990). We also see these practices at work in many examples of Forum Theatre with prefigured scenarios of social power arrangement and permissible (not “magic”) ways of addressing these situations. Workers performing imagined interactions with an oppressive factory boss cannot simply declare that the state now supports their union, or that they no longer care about keeping their jobs—choices of action must maintain a character’s pre-established viewpoint (Boal 1992). To a lesser extent, we see this prefiguring of substantive content in forms such as improv games meant for comedy performance, such as “Questions Only,” where specific content is unknown, but we know in advance that all the performers’ verbalizations must be question sentences (Salinsky and Frances-White 2008).

In contrast, the “longform” style of improv that Sawyer analyzes tends to minimize substantial facts prefigured to the virtual frame, and builds up characters, events, and a world as action successively establishes fact. This can go on for some time; shows an hour long are not unusual, and can potentially go far longer. The factual character of this virtual world emerges through embodied interpretive practices of elaborating data which has, almost arbitrarily, been established as relevant and warranting action. In one example of a longform practice, an ensemble begins the performance by simply free-associating from a word suggested by the audience. They then use their free associations as a recognizable point of reference for the show’s themes, characters, relationships and storyline (Halpern et al. 1994; see also Hazenfield 2002; Kozlowski 2002; Seham 2001 for examples of longform practice; and Napier 2004 for a practitioner’s analysis of this “emergent” methodology on the scenic level).

An important component of this emergence methodology is the convention of “scene breaks” and the interdeterminability of scenes. By conventionally “ending” a scene and starting another one, longform performers can reinstate the momentary tabula rasa out of which a body of factuality emerges. But this new emergent virtual mundane reality is not hermetically sealed off from earlier scenes (or later ones). These new emergent realities are free to draw meaning of their own from what has already been established. They may also implicitly or directly change substantive facts, or their thus-far accepted interpretation, as established in prior scenes. The character of factual relationships between scenes, its clarity or ambiguity, becomes itself a source of meaning and perhaps even an organizing principle for action over the course of the show—the “connections” so delighted in by longform aficionados. Given this recursive interdeterminability of fact across scenes, it might not be appropriate to even think of scenes in a longform as discrete for purposes of factuality. A longform performance, as virtual world, is more like one long scene broken up by conventions that allow us to shift time, space, frames of reference and so forth. These conventions allow us to step back from the concerns of factuality we have been establishing. Not completely; for the possibility of factual connection with established scenes forms part of the background context in which succeeding scenes are established; but such practices allow us to take a step back from ongoing concerns and elaborate the virtual mundane world of the performance from another, mysterious angle.

Both conceptions of improvisational fact-establishment make sense given the particular practices considered by each theorist, and we can see a continuum of improv practices from high to low prefigured substantive content, along which different configurations of these “stochastic” and “emergent” models might be more or less appropriate to analysis. But the differences seem to stem from the amount of data considered. If there is a true difference in kind, it would lie in the presence or absence of a pre-established “end”. A significant reason Pietropaolo can apply his stochastic model is that scenario plots have an “end” based on the establishment of a prefigured body of fact. This difference in kind corresponds to two significantly different sorts of thought-experiment: one, in which some conclusion is prefigured, and we inquire into what sort of conditions might be configured so as to establish the conclusion; and the other, in which we establish premises (both substantive and interpretive) and inquire into what sorts of conclusions might be drawn from these. But even this significant difference in kind acts as more a difference of degree in practice. The least-prefigured longform must still come to an “end,” if not one whose content is prefigured, under the pressures of the mundane space in which the virtual space is situated. This end is prefigured in the framing of the show; everyone knows that everybody has to go home eventually.

Departing the Virtual and Returning to the Everyday

And indeed, the same is true of all virtual space: you have to go home eventually. While virtual practices enact deliberate departures from the everyday, they are ultimately accountable to the everyday for their own warrants as practices. As discussed above, virtual practices of factuality are enacted for the practical purpose of iteration, elaboration, or transformation of the everyday. They must bring the facts they establish from their virtual stances back to the everyday, to be engaged as relevant from stances of practical accomplishment. Virtual methods that fail to do this are likely to be quickly abandoned by practical actors; we have likely all had the experience of determining that a certain way of thinking about how to solve a problem “isn’t working”. But this characteristic of virtual practices is not limited to concerns of their efficacy; it is a formal matter as well, for virtuality, like all practices, occurs through time, in a mundane world that goes on regardless of actors’ stances in relation with it. The “real world” is bound to intrude; sooner or later, one will be confronted with practical forms of the very issues that occasioned a practice of virtuality toward them in the first place. Maintenance of a virtual stance in the face of such everyday intrusions is the sort of thing that effectively takes actors out of the everyday social world that served as a point of departure for their virtual excursions. Those remaining among the everyday may condemn such perpetually-virtual actors as “insane,” or may view them with awe as superhuman, but in any case they are no longer treated as actors among the “everyday” social order. The mundane social world also establishes “facts” about what constitutes socially-accepted methods and degrees of participation in various recognized virtual practices. These norms are enacted not just through formal institutions like cults and asylums, but also in a variety of subtler, ordinary practices like the rhetorical deployment of figures such as the daydreamer, or the “out-of-touch” scientist, artist, or ideologue.

The “proper” use of virtual methods is itself a matter of practice under historical negotiation. Those acting from an everyday perspective may practice ways to suppress, ignore, accept, promote, etc., various recognized ways of thinking, feeling, or acting in deliberate departure from the everyday. These treatment methods are warranted by what is taken-for-granted as fact about the norms for engagement with virtuality. Meanwhile, other actors among the everyday may engage in virtual excursions, using suspension of belief or doubt in search of warrants to reinforce or transform facts about these very norms. In this way both the use of virtual methods and the norms regulating them evolve over time and social interaction. Those virtual methods most prevalent at an historical moment can be based on a variety of social normative practices, but certainly a key factor is often recognition of efficacy—a practice’s apparent capacity to yield substantive practical accomplishment. The virtual practices of suspension-of-belief that characterize the sciences have certainly proven effective, both in terms of their own internal developmental coherence and their contributions to everyday practices. Virtual practices of suspension-of-doubt have received less attention, perhaps in part due to the dominance of scientific methods in influencing practices of fact during our current historical arc. Practices of suspension-of-doubt have often been dismissed as “pure speculation,” or “just pretending when you could be doing something”. But, as I argue above about such everyday thought-experiments as empathizing with another’s viewpoint, such virtual practices are essential components of all sorts of action in the practical world of accomplishments.

I have above outlined certain virtual fact-establishment methods employed by a range of improvisational theatre genres. These examples of virtual practices of suspension-of-doubt in an embodied, collaborative mode are used by practitioners to accomplish a variety of projected ends in the everyday world. Even the most frivolous improv comedy performance enacts a virtual world in the hope of accomplishing such everyday projected ends as personal expression, entertainment, or the development of community among the performers and their audience. In modified forms, these practices are used for education, contributing to a variety of professions that call for empathy, experimental thinking, and the ability to identify and express questions about and connections among information—examples include script-theatre performance (Spolin 1999), counseling (Tromski and Doston 2003), social work (Walter 2003), public administration (Fitzpatrick 2002), trial law (Lubet and Hankinson 2006), and classroom teachers (Coppens 2002; Wright 1985). Practitioners of Boal’s (1985) “theatre of the oppressed” use improv for education in a different way: they establish a virtual performance situation analogous to forms of oppression recognized and experienced by their audience. They then invite audience members to place themselves into these scenes, and try different courses of action, as a way of investigating social practices by which oppression is established and sustained, and to explore possibilities for resistance—the hope is that practice in this virtual situation may help identify effective forms of resistance, and build comfort and confidence with enacting them. Improv is also used in a form of therapy usually called “psychodrama,” in which patients work with a therapist and each other through techniques like watching oneself performed by others, taking on the role of others with whom the patient has a relationship, or performing anticipated situations. The goal is to help patients have experiences that will reduce repetitive ways of acting and increase “spontaneity”—a form of “role flexibility” enabling them to “mindfully generate and direct responses to meet a situation with vitality, creativity, originality, adequacy and flexibility” (McVea and Reekie 2007; see Kipper and Ritchie 2003; Starr and Weisz 1989; Wiener 1999 for some examples of practices).

All these improv practices rely on the same core methods of the progressive establishment of taken-for-granted mundane reality in a virtual frame—in this case, a purposefully configured phenomenal apparatus organized through a relational stance involving the suspension of everyday practices of doubt. Depending on how the phenomenal apparatus is configured, a variety of practical accomplishments are made possible that potentially benefit both those enacting and observing them, once the relevance of these virtual experiences is integrated into their everyday experiences. This is so not only of improv, but of fictional media generally. When we encounter any fictional artwork or speculative philosophy, it too is framed by a layer of virtuality, marking it as both other than and relevant to the everyday, and inviting us to imaginatively enter its virtual world, and see what we can bring back to our mundane reality from that virtual excursion.

Sometimes we come back changed, determined to treat the facts of our everyday world differently, perhaps to act in different ways or value different things. Many other times we have changed little, and return to our “ordinary” reality with only the new knowledge that our most recent virtual experience has not shaken what we take for granted. That transformation of our everyday reality through these methods is relatively rare is no argument against them. Scientific experimentation also rarely results in significant change to its practitioners’ views of reality. All too often it simply reinforces what is already taken for granted; we test assumed facts against alternative possibilities, and the facts hold. The value of virtual practices is not merely the gamble that we might, just might, discover warrant for a dramatic change; the reinforcement of what we already take as fact has value in itself. The firmer the ground we stand on, the more securely we can act on what we take for granted—and the higher we can leap when we seek for a moment to break from it. Methods for virtual suspension of belief and doubt come in variety as vast as imagination, but all testify to the practical value of seeing what we can do with that magic “if”.


I use the term “negotiation” here and throughout the article in a sense more like “to negotiate a path” than “to negotiate a contract”. Actors collectively “make their way” through a developing social reality as they interact. While overall “making way” processes likely include negotiations in the narrower sense, where distinct parties engage in forms of contestation as they each seek to increase their advantage, they also include a variety of non-contestatory interactive processes contributing to the collective “moving forward” of the group as a society.



I am grateful to Nathan Stucky, John T. Warren, Ross Singer, and two anonymous reviewers for valuable discussions and suggestions for revision. Special thanks is also due to Lenore Langsdorf for introducing me to many of the key concepts employed in this article.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012