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June 2004, Week 1


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Langford B <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 3 Jun 2004 11:24:43 +0100
text/plain (243 lines)
I'd be inclined to say - and these are really just random reflections - that
the appearance of "non-signifying signs" is much more a question of
convention, i.e. the convention of "agreeing not to notice", or perhaps
rather to minimise the significance of, such subordinate registers of
textual signification to avoid, as it were, a supersaturation of semiosis.
When necessary or required,  the signifying capacity of such textual, let's
call them "elements", can readily be recovered. In the case of trade
publishing, for instance (in the USA, tho not in the UK), a note on the
typeface is usually appended to the back matter of the book. Many of us will
have requested students to submit essays in Times Roman 12 point and
possibly even penalised them for not doing so (if the essay arrives in say
Arial 9 with footnotes in 8).

Certain theoretical texts invite - though they do not necessarily themselves
include - consideration of textual (in the strictest, i.e. material, sense
of the term) properties: a good example might be Derrida's Glas. I think
though I can't provide chapter and verse that David Damrosch in his work on
the hermeneutical tradition may have included some discussion of the "look"
of the Talmudic text, with scripture surrounded on three sides by commentary
(partly mimicked by other "sacred" texts e.g. the Arden Shakespeare).
Fredric Jameson briefly discusses the footnote as a "small but autonomous
form" in (naturally) a footnote to his essay on Adorno in Marxism and Form.

With specific reference to film, again it seems to me that may of these
elements can and do receive consideration in particular critical and
theoretical contexts. Not only Baudry-esque apparatus theory (in a general
way) but any history of film style and technology (in the particular, e.g.
Barry Salt) explicitly addresses issues such as color stock and printing.
David Fincher's Fight Club reflexively acknowledges typically deregistered
(in signifying terms) exhibition conventions like the reel-change "bubble",
here as part of its transgressive thrust. The "inclusion" (that is,
simulation) of leader reel is something of a cliché of modernist/artfilm
practice, most obviously Persona. Even the nose on someone's face might
legitimately receive consideration in a star studies context in relation to
questions of star appeal etc., while the physiognomy of featured players is
often very important, e.g. Una O'Connor. This may be less true of the noses
of extras, but these too will in most cases have been chosen by casting
agents for their demeanour, appearance, etc., and in all cases costumed to
suit the production.

I think what I'm suggesting is that (a) the nature of cinema as a
collaborative and industrial medium means that there are in fact very few
actually "non-signifying signifiers", in the sense that most elements of the
artefact and of the process of its manufacture can and do receive critical
attention in specific contexts, and (b) the indiscriminately indexical
aspect of the photographic process - I guess I'm bracketing the digital here
- actually necessitates a more ruthless selective blindness to its manifold
minor (not non-) significations than is the case with literature, where
nothing is included "accidentally".

It surely is as Don Larsson suggests a question of spectatorial positioning
(both the positions proffered by the text and those adopted autonomously by
the spectator), and as he also says of the appropriations made by the
spectator of such signifying practices as s/he perceives in/receives from
the text. Richard Williams famously reviewed John & Yoko's "Wedding Album"
as a double album, sides 2 and 4 of which comprising merely minute
differentiations of almost subsonic toanlity: in fact, he had been sent a
test pressing with the "real" sides 1 and 2 on separate discs, each backed
by a set of blank grooves... His review doesn't help any listener of the
album in its commercially released form: but it does say quite a lot about
the popular/journalistic reception of conceptual art in the late 1960s!



Dr Barry Langford
Lecturer in Film Studies
Department of Media Arts
Royal Holloway, University of London

-----Original Message-----
From: Larsson, Donald F
To: [log in to unmask]
Sent: 02/06/2004 14:50
Subject: Re: query:  non signifying 'signs'

An interesting set of questions!  I'm not sure about specific sources,
but I'd guess that Umberto Eco has had something to say on the matters
of how the mode of presentation (typeface, etc.) "signifies"--or not.
There are some parallels here too with Bordwell's incorporation of
non-diegetic material (such as credits) as part of "plot/syuzhet" (vs.
"story/fabula") in film.  But there are also issues here for various
kinds of reader-response criticism.  (Is it in the cartoon THE CRITIC
that voice of Mel Brooks muses on the "meaning" of what turns out to be
a hair caught in the projector--except of course that hair has been
placed into the "film" that the invisible Brooks is watching?  Or is my
memory at fault here?--another matter of concern, and not just for my
aging brain!)

Part of the issue that Mike raises returns us to questions of
"intentionality," or at least what's perceived as such.  For example, as
Mike implies, we usually take for granted such things as the decision to
make a film in color or the fact that most films we see derive from a
written screenplay.  However, the 1937 A STAR IS BORN foregrounds that
screenplay by presenting it to the audience right at the beginning (and
again at the end), framing the entire film, self-consciously, as a
fiction in way that most films of its time (and even now) did not.
That, in turn, foregrounds the use of Technicolor (unusual in what is
ostensibly a melodrama or "woman's picture" in 1937) in a way that its
use in NOTHING SACRED (same producer and director) does not.

On the other hand, for years I enjoyed the dappled and textured lighting
effects of Curtiz's THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  It was only after
half-a-dozen or so viewings of the film (including in movie theaters)
that I finally saw a print in color, as it had been filmed.  Same
movie--different effects!  This question has been around in print for a
while--when is an accident of printing or editorial intrusion truly

Don Larsson

"Only connect!"  --E.M. Forster
Donald F. Larsson
Department of English
Minnesota State University
Mankato, MN  56001
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From: Film and TV Studies Discussion List on behalf of
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Sent: Tue 6/1/2004 9:34 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: query: non signifying 'signs'

part one:
some of you reading this message right now are looking
at serif type face, some of you at sans-serif, depending [i
guess] on a combination of your software and settings,
my software and settings, and other cyber matters way too
arcane for my understanding . . . but the typeface in which you
are reading this text, though obvious, probably in no way
shapes what you take this message to 'mean' . . .

there are, additionally, blatant features of this message that are
NOT functions of cyberspace but are clearly 'intended' by me, the
writer or 'author' of the message, that still are likely to be taken
by you, the reader, as irrelevant to the 'meaning' of the inquiry
. . . perhaps the most obvious among these is the absence of upper
case letters

in short, there seem to be features of this message that are not
aspects of its 'meaning' as usually construed . . . for the moment
let me call these 'marks' as opposed to 'signs' for the question is
whether they are signs at all

(admittedly, each of these marks, taken as an index,  does signify
something  . . . the typeface may be read as evidence about the way
computers work, or about software design . . . the lack of capitals
say something about my intelligence or upbringing . . . since all of
'marks' are so over-determined they may be seen as indexes [indices] of
an endless variety of causes . . .  the index, we might say, opens into
endless universe of forensics and divination . . .
        still, all of these potential indexical meanings are  not part
normative reading processes, and my guess is you are paying attention to
the typeface of the message before you [if indeed you are] only because
has been explicitly called to your attention by the meaning of the
words encoded in that typeface)

part two:
the features of a text that the reader/listener/viewer attends to as
of the normative process of apprehension is shaped, at least to some
extent, by the physical characteristics of the medium . . . a crude and
reductive and obvious example:  if i am making a movie and show
a character's face and there is a nose on that face, most readers would
not take the existence of that nose be significant [in the literal sense
of signifying something about this specific movie that you needed to
keep in mind] . . . but if i were writing a novel an i included the
"In the middle of his face there was a nose," almost all readers would
take that as significant . . .  in other words: the presence of the nose
on the face in a conventional film does not signify . . .

now i know that this example is crude and reductive and needs a lot
more explanation and qualification . . . but i think most readers of
this message will understand the larger point . . . specifically, that
[depending on the medium] there are aspects of a message that are
not relevant to normative ways of decoding its meaning   . . . another
real, rather than hypothetical, example . . . in most print
this one--the shape of the text on the page [or screen] does not matter,
you could reformat this message with longer or shorter lines and you
would take it that the message remained the same . . . but in george
herbert's 'iconic' poetry, for example 'the altar' in which the lines
laid out on the page in the shape of an altar,  the shape of text does

the point is merely that texts, understood as material objects, have
qualities or characteristics that are not part of their signifying
 . . .  these characteristics are, we might say, inert rather than
ingredients in the signifying process

the question:
actually two questions . . . first, does anyone know of any conventional
way of talking about this whole issue? . . . as my repeated use of
commas above, and the choice of that bizarre phrase 'signifying
will attest, talking about these things is very slippery . . . but
matters have been addressed, and i'm wondering whether prior
discussions have led to an accepted vocabulary for dealing with these
matters more efficiently . . . second, i would be most grateful for
references to helpful prior discussions

many thanks, in advance, for any comments or suggestions


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