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Jenaro Talens


Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text opens with a reference to that strange character that, when dealing with a text, is neither afraid of mixing contradictory discourses nor of dissolving in the vertigo of such contradiction. This character, which the institutional apparatus would condemn as an outcast in the name of the supreme law of critical analysis, is the reader, this "anti-hero" that "takes his pleasure" at the moment of reading. In a different text, referring to some photograms from S. M. Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Barthes alludes to the existence of a "third sense." He defines it as "obtuse sense," opposed to the "obvious sense." It originates, as a signifier without a specific meaning, from the very materiality of the text; it questions the norms and evaluations of criticism as metatextual discourse, thanks to its inherent incapacity to submit itself to, or be articulated by them.

I shall not engage for the moment in an analysis of such statements. Their meaning will become clear as soon as we start dealing with our own experience as readers/spectators. What I want to underscore here is the appearance, for the first time in theoretical discourse and radically proposed, of a new element - the reader - understood as a strategy to approach the textual apparatus.

The undeniable steps forward made by formalist and structuralist thought in stressing the necessity to focus on the object itself, on the one hand, and on its articulated character, on the other, brought about both a methodological opening and an epistemological closure. In the attempt to avoid both psychologistic superficiality and sociological reductionism, formalism and structuralism turned the critic or reader into a sort of discoverer of hidden treasures - meanings - that are supposed to be somewhere, implicit, waiting for someone to bring them to light through the possession and control of specific codes. The procedures' exhaustive power of explication would thus substitute the process of sense production.

Lévi Strauss' and Jakobson's analysis of Baudelaire's Les chats is a paradigmatic example of this. In a way, both forms of analytical approximations can be incorporated into the definition given of formalism by Dana B. Polan: a kind of empiricism in search for a theory to justify it. The divisions and structures that one seems to encounter in a text are nothing but the inevitable consequence of the act of theorizing about that very text. The work on a text is never inscribed objectively in it, neither can it be approached, consequently, as one of the text's attributes. The hypothesis of theoreticians such as Stephen Heath and Gillian Skirrow, according to whom "there is a generality of ideology in the institution 'before' the production of a particular ideological position" does nothing but grant the text - as inscribed in a specific institution - a power that the text has only at the moment of the reading.

The direction that New Criticism moved into, on the other hand, was not all too different. Almost following what T. S. Eliot had said explicitly, when he stated that the critic's task was "to find bad reasons for what we believe instinctively, even though the finding of such reasons is also an instinct," the perfect critic was considered the one that showed intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition. In this line, theory could be understood as a way to superimpose certain constructive principles onto the immediate perceptual data in an orderly way.

Like the theoretical positions of some contemporary American theoreticians who are dazzled by Derrida's thought but are unable or unwilling to share in the radicality of his views, Barthes' proposals tend, on the contrary, to turn the resources of interpretative work against the rigidity of methodological or linguistic conventions by attempting to erase the borders between literature and theory. In this way, semiotics - or, more exactly, a certain way to understand semiotics - and deconstruction are constituted as juxtaposed approaches to discourse analysis, as irreducible to one another. Only the alternation and/or substitution of a closure with what could be defined as arbitrariness of opening could resolve a problem posited in these terms.

There is, however, another way to conceive of semiotics. According to this different notion, the point is no longer "to merely apply a theory of signs, but to understand signification as a process that takes place in texts where subjects emerge and interact". Therefore, if a text - any text - is always a failed act of writing" and if "we carry it through ultimately only because of the absence of what we really want to talk about, it may be pertinent to investigate in what way the critic's desire can inscribe itself in the object of the critic's work and produce sense through this work without turning the object into a mere "pre-text." It is important, that is, to see how this can be accomplished without trespassing certain limits of pertinence while at the same time accepting, on the one hand, the existence of an external object, historically produced and inscribed as such in a dialogical-discursive and also historical network and, on the other, the ineludible subjectivity of the gaze that confronts it.

The question is therefore how to combine the necessity for analytical rigor with the real - and arbitrary - position of the critic. Emilio Garroni [1974] provides a first working hypothesis when he talks about the aesthetic object as a inherently heterogeneous one. According to Garroni, the presence in the aesthetic object of different codes that operate simultaneously denies the discursive specificity of such object, while allowing the critic to elaborate sense through a contextualization at an implicit level of what is presented in the text as explicit context [Garroni, 1979]. His thesis, however, outlines the question without answering it, since he leaves as unquestioned given not only the undeniable existence of objective codes, but also, fundamentally, their operative functionality, together with the whole problematic such concept implies.

If the production of sense is based in fact on the acceptance - implicitation - of explicit codes, such process is, in itself, codifiable - that is, formalizable - and the difference between meaning and sense, even though signaled, is reduced to the question of the place - explicit and implicit, respectively - in which each of them is located. The vertigo of pleasure Barthes referred to, which is neither rationalizable nor reducible to any normative whatsoever - and evident to any reader/spectator not compulsively convinced of the need for a scientific alibi - remains eluded.

It would perhaps be useful at this point to redefine the notion that grounds the polemic to which we have been referring, and around which both theoretical position have been articulated, namely the notion of text.

Since the first activities of the opoiaz and of the Moscow linguistic circle, literary theory in particular and theory of discourse in general have functioned with a triple semiotic model. The first two of these models are based as much on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure as on the mathematical model elaborated by Shannon and Weaber in 1949. In both models the text is conceived of as an autonomous system of signification, either in terms of writing (the former model), or in terms of message (the latter model). The third model derives from the writings of Charles Sanders Peirce; it does not define the sign as an entity and does not consider it within a system of relationships; it deals with the problem from a quite different point of view: the analysis and description of the necessary conditions for acts, facts and objects to function as signs. The first two models are inserted into what we could define in terms of semiotics of communication; they study meanings and procedures used by the producers of signs not only to act on other meanings and producers of signs, but also to be acknowledged and accepted among them. The third model opens up a new space: the semiotics of signification, which studies all the uses and patterns of behavior that turn into signifiers for the fact that they occur in a socialized context.

Since the late '60s semiotics is no longer considered, at least by the majority of those that practice it, as the science of signs, but has functioned as a critical practice. Insofar as its critical objectives can defined as a) communication, b) the structures of communication and c) the discourses implied in the communicative act, semiotics seems to be bent less towards the study of signifieds than to the very process of signification. Two different positions are articulated in such process which are irreducible to one another:the position of the speaker and that of the listener. Both positions are implicated in the process and their dialectical confrontation produces both the transformation of the (objective) meaning into (subjective) sense, and the symbolic or symptomatic inscription of both. With the term symbolic inscription I mean that which derives from an intentional act of discursive explicitation, and which is therefore analyzable by means of a rational structure that can be formalized; with the expression symptomatic inscription I mean the production of a language effect in the speaker. The symptom is a metaphor, the cyphered message of a jouissance that the subject can no longer repress and in which he cannot recognize himself either.

Every human science always implicates the person that practices it (and semiotics is no exception to this) since every single scientific endeavor necessarily places those that carry it out in a determined area of knowledge, forcing them to choose between cultural options which, in turn, effect their process of investigation. This is how dominant ideology determines not only the models of communication but also the instruments used to analyze their structure and function. There are no neutral sciences; the myth of scientific neutrality is an ideological illusion that emerged with Renaissance "scientific man." If not even the so-called exact sciences can ignore this principle, it is even more so with those disciplines defined as "human sciences," since their ideological determinations are even more evident. The position of the critic/reader/spectator is not, therefore, one of extraneity to the object; on the contrary, it constructs the object as such to a great extent. This compels us to acknowledge the fact that two distinct notions have been subsumed simultaneously and ambiguously under the same notion of "text," each one referring back to a specific reality and position: the first one refers back to the given object; the second one makes of the object the result of the critic/reader/spectator's work in his/her effort to appropriate the object in order to reconstruct the presence of the Other in the object's interstices. We shall define the former as textual space, and use the term text for the latter.

The notion of textual space takes different connotations depending on whether a) it is organized structurally within a beginning and an end (TS); b) it is a mere proposal, open to various possibilities of organization and fixation (TS 1); c) it presents no organization and fixation (TS2), even though it can be transformed into any of the previous two. In the first case we have, for example, the TS "film," "novel," "short story," etc. In the second case, TS1 "drama," "musical score," etc. In the third case the TS2 "nature" (readable as landscape through its transformation into "painting"), "conversation" (readable as dialogue through its inclusion as part of a "drama"), "love relationship" (readable as performance of a ritual), etc. Textual space as a concept can therefore account for any activity or situation in terms of textuality. From this perspective, text would be the transformation of the two notions, meaningful or not, of one given textual space into a specific sense for a specific reader in a specific situation. It is clear therefore that there are as many texts as there are readings.

This distinction allows both to distinguish methodologically between two positions which are indeed spatially and temporarily different and allows to describe their differences as articulated ones. This allows in turn to approach the notion of reading not as an act of decoding, but as an uninterrupted process of production/transformation. The problems deriving from the existence of evaluative hierarchies of interpretation do not send back therefore to the real, but to the discursive field of ideology. Paraphrasing L. Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, we could say that the question of meaning-the goal of those practices based on the act of decoding - is not resolved in the establishment of the opposition possible/not possible, but depends on where and how power is located. Sense, on the contrary, because of its own gratuitous and chance character, escapes this logic. The risk of arbitrariness to which each deconstructive endeavor is exposed can be avoided if we keep in mind that the fact that the space where the reader's work is articulated is, if not fixed, at least staked out. The limits to the production of the object text are imposed by the textual space.

The act of reading is not then so much to discover the meanings that the object presents us with as manifestation of the supposed intention of a supposed author, but the amount of work required for the production of sense within the framework in which such meanings are inscribed. In short, the question is not to transcribe the monologue that the subject (author) carries through them, but to establish a dialogue with the object itself (understood not as a closed universe, but as a moment in the processual becoming of the discursive network in which it inserts itself) insofar as the object is what speaks to us and speaks us in answering our questions. The position of the subject responsible for the answer can therefore be conceived of as an empty space, a place constructed by the confrontation between the object and the reader.

A theoretical layout as the one outlined here implies necessarily the questioning of many key-notions of a theory of interpretation, since, from the point of view of textual analysis, terms like author, recipient or referent do not send back to entities that exist independently outside discourse. They are, rather, simply textual inscriptions of a discursive operation or strategy. This is what allows one to see the interconnectedness between, for example, literature, criticism and translation - three fields of knowledge that belong to one single space, that of the so-called verbal art, and yet seem to be substantially different: the borders between them are erased, since they are three differentiated stages of one common process.

Let us think for example of the way a poet operates when writing a poem. Within a textual space of the third kind (TS2), formed by a conglomerate of various material - lived experiences, experiences of which one has read or has come to know culturally or through every day life occupations, unconscious memory, that is, what we call imagination or inventiveness, etc. - the poet organizes a preliminary text, T. Split between his/her functions as writer and reader, the poet approaches T (which now becomes for him/her TS), and produces a certain sense. This sense is thus inscribed as meaning - through what we call the process of correction - in what for a new reader - or in a new reading by the same reader - would work in turn as TS, and so successively. In such process it is the reader,not the author s/he who corrects, i.e., produces sense. Author and reader are different discursive operations located in different spaces, even though they disguise themselves under the same name. The difference between the author/reader's reading and that of any other reader-this is the role played by the critic - does not reside in a different structuring of the reading itself but in its pragmatic execution: in the second case, the sense of a text is not incorporated as meaning to the poem's textual space. In the case of translation, on the contrary, the sense of a text produces a new textual space. The notions of author, recipient and referent are defined in this case, more explicitly if possible, in terms of an operation, since they are constituted as discursive articulations and not as reflections of supposedly real entities within the process of textualization.

It should not surprise therefore that it was film of all art forms to determine the widening of the problematic of the textual space. Who speaks in a film? Compared to the easy metaphorization that literature allows - the speaking subject can be read as the real subject lending its name for the inscription of the object as author - it is difficult to do the same when confronted with a collective work, as is the case of the filmic object. Director, producer, script-writer, editor, actors, light technicians, etc, compete for a privileged position that ultimately belongs to all of them without exception and to no one in particular, since it is the articulation of each of their discourses that ultimately constitutes the speaking subject. Such articulation manifests itself in an explicit textual manner: the editing The fact that the product's final responsibility falls on the one or the other, depending on the power granted to each one within the structure of the film industry, does not change the terms of the question, nor does it grant any one of such entities the status of author. Our working hypothesis can therefore be as follows: that film allows, more than any other traditional art practices a) a definition of the author in terms of textual construction, therefore extraneous to manipulations of a psychologistic type and b)an understanding of editing(in the sense of mise-en-scène as speaking subject. This allows us to explain a pattern common to directors that worked within the constraints of the institutional mode of representation even though they did not endorse them at all (as in the case of Luis Buñuel, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, or of a woman director such as Dorothy Arzner, quite exemplary in this respect): explicitly ideological presuppositions at the level of the script are transgressed, if not totally denied, by the mise-en-scène. Whether what is subverted is the meaning of the film as a whole - as in Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936), All that Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1954) o Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940), the very existence of film as discursive typology (Buñuel's Mexican films, or Lubitsch's films, for example) or the spectator's system of values (as in the case of most of Billy Wilder's work), the operation that constitutes the work of contextualization constructs at the same time a subject/author, a subject/spectator and a referential system from which to read, as function, the symbolic inscriptions of the real.

The rhetorical mechanisms at work in other institutionalized discourses, like literature, for example, are not much different. However, the representational character traditionally granted to such discourses by criticism has not always allowed an approach to literary texts that made possible the acceptance of such principles. From this perspective film analysis has allowed scholars to return to literary texts with new instruments for reading that have made it possible to see those mechanisms under a new light.

If we address the notions of author and reader/spectator as textual products, we shall now deal briefly with the third element: the question of the referent. What does a film speak about? In terms of textual analysis it may be more productive operationally to substitute this question with another: from where does a film speak? A work such as Raiders of the lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1979) can be useful in dealing with this problem. Despite or perhaps because of its extraordinary box-office success, the film has been too quickly condemned to the inferno of the kitsch, due also to the evident importance given by Spielberg to the cinephile quote. I am not going to linger now on a detailed analysis of what, in spite of everything, this film - rather peculiar in the director's trajectory - represents in my opinion; neither shall I linger on the reasons why I believe it at least deserves to be studied as exemplary of a position that is (readable as) critical of the cinephilia that grounds it.

To begin with, a plot narrating Hitler's search for the Ark of the Covenant to strengthen the German army is undoubtedly a historical blunder. Such unreal and unrealistic anecdote - all but gratuitous, on the other hand, within the film's logic - should be related to a whole series of other textual inscriptions meant to underscore the film's tale-like quality.

The film itself opens with the logo of Paramount Pictures. From the logo's mountain another mountain emerges by means of a fade, a real one this time - within the fiction - on whose backdrop the characters move as the credits disappear from the screen. From the very first moment the film presents us with the explicit materialization of the fact that what we shall see originates, in a literal way, from a specific narrative tradition, the one established by Paramount in the course of its history. Such declaration of principles would be nothing but a superficial wink, were it not for the contextualization of the first two sequences - prologue it provides; they in turn contextualize the film as a whole and this is may indeed be their only function, since the story of the "lost Ark" starts only with the third sequence.

Unlike what happens in classical films, which this film seems to imitate, there are no heroes here as such from the very beginning, destined to carry out their tasks, but stands-in that only acquire body and consistency as a result of the tasks they carry out. During Indiana Jones' escape through the forest we only see his figure in back lighting, in the shade or from behind. When he snatches away with his whip the gun from the hand of one of the guides who is about to shoot him from the back, the camera zooms forward, finally revealing and showing us for the first time his face moving toward the light.

This cold, calculating and bold hero is characterized by his external attributes: a hat, a whip, a gun. The second sequence shows him in his role as a shy archeology professor who hides his fear of the tricks of love behind glasses and a formal attire, even though his attractive figure affects equally both males and females: his students look at him with the air of a foreboded swooning; one of them has even written I LOVE YOU on her eyelid; a male student leaves, almost in passing, the apple of temptation on top of his desk on his way out of class.

The two fundamental features for the definition and believability of an adventurer as a "humanized" typology have already been given. They only need be articulated. At the end of the second sequence, once he has been officially put in charge of the search for the "lost Ark," Indiana Jones picks up his gun and whip - in two close-up inserts - and boards the plane to begin his adventure, impeccably dressed with a hat and a necktie. If the first two sequences made believable a character that from that moment on will act in accordance with the model they have outlined, the verisimilitude of the adventure as such will be supported by the three shots we have just pointed out. Since we are watching a movie and since everything is possible in film, it will not surprise us that the main character crosses the Pacific ocean on the deck of a submarine and that he arrives at his destination, even though a bit wet, in a perfectly healthy condition.

This brief analysis of the example shall now allow a thorough discussion of the notion of reading as construction.

As we have just seen, a film's subject matter is not what decides the direction of the sense that the text proposes to the reader. We are therefore authorized to infer from this the necessity to differentiate two levels that superimpose each other but that are to kept distinct: a) that which refers back to the film's subject matter; b) that which corresponds to the system of operations that articulate the film's subject matter as structure.

In the former case, on the basis of a predicative act, the film's subject matter seems to point to an extra-discursive real as its referent; in the latter, each element refers back operationally to other elements within the immanence of the closed system that constitutes the textual space. Both levels offer signifying elements to the spectator: the first level in an immediate and cumulative way; the second one through composition and from the end, by assuming all partials signifiers and signifieds (if there are any) and connoting them retrospectively, without being ever confused with them. Denotations and connotations thus accumulate. The latter structure, amplify and recuperate the former, incorporating them into their own system. What matters therefore is the signifying opening produced in the specific actualization of discourse, since discourse as such is less representative of the world than of itself; it is therefore neither a projection nor a description of the real, and not even a commentary on it (certainly it is not its repetition either). "To read" a textual space, then, means to establish its meaningful borders, elaborating-differentiating - the three levels of the signifying process that constitute its explicit context.

We shall call the first level signification A; it is produced by the basic elements used as raw material; in the case of the film we are discussing, a number of images dialogically connected to a wide spectrum of cultural, iconographic and literary referents to which Raiders of the Lost Ark hints explicitly (Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro, or Emilio Salgari’s novels, for instance).

The second level, signification B, is produced both by the concrete articulation of these elements and by their inscription into a specific discursive typology. In both cases we have a process of coding/decoding, that is, the production of messages that are subjected to codes.

The third level, signification C, corresponds to a noncodifed symbolic signification which, in implicating us as real spectators, allows us to appropriate, that is, experience it, as something we interiorize and identify with. This third level of signification is what allows the production of sense that we mentioned before. If the conditions for discursive production base their verisimilitude or intelligibility on what we have defined as significations A or B, the disappearance or spectatorial lack of control of the corresponding codes necessarily implies for the reader the impossibility to determine a specific sense. If, on the contrary, this happens in the case of signification C, the production of sense will not only be possible, but it will represent the only viable way to construct some kind of intelligibility for the object that embodies such intelligibility.



© Jenaro Talens
© E-magazine LiterNet, 12.02.2000, № 2 (3)