Quotes of quotes of quotes of quotes, 9/9

Apropos of a lecture I attended this morning on Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols”, I’ve been thinking a little bit about signification in general. My grasp of structuralist/post-structuralist semiology is thoroughly amateurish, so I won’t bother breaking down some of the things that French philosophers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s had to say about the sign, as I’d almost certainly do a very poor job explaining the theories. But as someone whose two primary interests are cinema and literature, I’ve obviously spent a fair amount of mental capital trying to arrive at an explanation for why anything strikes me as meaningful or significant.

At one point in Godard’s For Ever Mozart (1996) the elderly director character quietly declares “[that’s] what I like in cinema: a saturation of glorious signs, bathing in the light of their absent explanation.” After hearing this line for the first time I was convinced that a film, like a novel, is nothing more than a tapestry of cold signs, a cluster of limp significations brought to life by the marriage of the technological apparatus (the camera, the audio recording equipment, the projection system, etc.) of the film’s maker and the perceptual apparatus (eyes, ears and mind) of the film’s viewer. (Now I’m not so sure that this is true, but at the moment that’s neither here nor there.)

In his essay “The Rhetoric of the Image” (which can be found in Image-Music-Text) Roland Barthes offers one of the most interesting attempts at explaining the type of sign represented by the cinematic image (the shot). Barthes describes the shot as “a message without a code”, a sign that is neither encrypted nor loaded with significance a priori; for Barthes, the shot is a natural development following his self-proclaimed “Death of the Author”, that is to say, the shot is a sign whose significance openly resides outside of itself in the realm of freely circulating meanings. Whether this is true or even capable of being validated isn’t so important; what is more important, at least for me, is that Barthes’ theory of the shot implies a certain limit to how much control a filmmaker can wield over the interpretation of her film. Yes, this effectively refutes the basic tenets of auteurism. No, this doesn’t restrict cinema’s potential as an artistic medium. If anything, this line of thought validates cinema’s status as the art of our age.

[…] all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction, even if this dysfunction is recuperated by society as a tragic (silent, God provides no possibility of choosing between signs) or a poetic (the panic ‘shudder of meaning’ of the Ancient Greeks) game; in the cinema itself, traumatic images are bound up with an uncertainty (an anxiety) concerning the meaning of objects or attitudes. Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of these techniques… While rare in the fixed image, this relay-text becomes very important in film, where dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meanings that are not to be found in the image itself.

[…] the photograph must be related to a pure spectatorial consciousness and not to the more projective, more ‘magical’ fictional consciousness on which film by and large depends. This would lend authority to the view that the distinction between film and photograph is not a simple difference of degree but a radical opposition. Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs: the having-been-there gives way before a being-there of the thing; which omission would explain how there can be a history of the cinema, without any real break with the previous arts of fiction, whereas the photograph can in some sense elude history (despite the evolution of the techniques and ambitions of the photographic art) and represent a ‘flat’ anthropological fact, at once absolutely new and definitively unsurpassable, humanity encountering for the first time in its history messages without a code.


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