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June 2004, Week 1


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"Larsson, Donald F" <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 2 Jun 2004 08:50:05 -0500
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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 significant?

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 [log in to unmask]
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 might
say something about my intelligence or upbringing . . . since all of these
'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 an
endless universe of forensics and divination . . .
        still, all of these potential indexical meanings are  not part of
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 it
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 part
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 messages--like
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 are
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 active
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 machinery'
will attest, talking about these things is very slippery . . . but surely
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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