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February 1996, Week 4


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Mike Frank <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 26 Feb 1996 11:29:11 -0400
text/plain (84 lines)
in respopnse to my confused specuilations about texts and meanings :
Sean Desilets wrote:
On Thu, 22 Feb 1996, Mike Frank wrote:
> to me, the only immediately available way of resolving this problem is to
> assume that meaning is ENTIRELY contextual, and a function of the viewer's
> [or reader's] preconceptions . . . but that gets us in to lots of trouble and
> makes it impossible to disagree with, object to, or reject the claims
of a text
> . . . for in saying that meaning is entirely contextual we paint ourselves
> into a corner where we have to posit that texts really don't SAY anything at
> all . . . and how can you disagree with silence?
When you say this is a complex question you're not kidding, and it may be
sort of out of proportion for a discussion that people are going to
conduct during the short stretches of the day they have to sit and answer
email. THat being said, let me throw a couple of things out there.
        First off, I KNOW we're not going to get anywhere discussing
truth-values of interpretation. We can, though, note that certain textual
elements produce similar interpretaive moves in certain communities.
Western filmgoers have an incredibly complex network of such shared ways
of reading, and without it film would be meaningless to us. We all know
and understand, for example, what to do with stock images like say the
spinning newpaper headline coming out of nowhere to let us in on the
press' responses to big events. Now we can probably go a step further,
even, and admit in this context another level of shared interpretive
moves. For example, we can probably agree that some kind of hetero-erotic
economy is in play in that Coke add that Mike mentioned. I'm not claiming
that these readings are "right," only that they can be reproduced in a
large population of readers who have a certain set of widely shared
experiences (this is, after all, how language itself works on the
simplest level). So texts don't (can't) be "silent"--they are only texts
by virtue of the fact that they ARE interpreted (whether we like it or
not), and very often they are interpreted very similarly by lots of people.
        I suppose that was a pretty simple observation which most people
would probably assume, but I thought we should start from the beginning.
*** end of desliets message ***
i think this is pretty on target and am grateful to sean for starting at the
beginning and clearing some useful space for speculation . . . i have only one
quibble [and it is a quibble] with his observations:
        if we can safely posit that a certain set of "readings" will in fact
"be reproduced in a large population of readers" why, then, can't we call these
readings "right" - - for after all what else could the word right possibly mean
in this context . . . no one [i pray] wants to claim that these meanings are
transcendental or permanent, merely that they are right given the rules and
practices of a certain discourse or language community . . .
. . . to turn to the coke ad [or, by implication, to the cinematic pietas]: if
we can tease out the ways in which the language of that ad works relative to
the discourses of the community in which it is situated and to which it is
presented, then we should be able to determine what a correct reading of that
ad/text is -which is certainly NOT to say that all people will respond the same
way . . . obviously thre are many local and personal factors that influence
each act of reading, and a text that does one thing to me in the morning might
do something quite different in the afternoon . . . in other words, even a
single reader might be [and often is] capable of divergent and even
contradictory "readings" . . . these are matters for psychologists and
sociologists and they may be more important than the more strictly hermeneutic
issues . . . but for us heremeneuts--why not say that the word "correct" in
discussing meaning is merely shorthand for "the frame of refrence that
contrains the possible acts of making meaning with reference to a specific text
in a given discourse community" . . . doesn't this allow us to use the word
"correct" without invoking a transcendent horizon that we probably want to steer
clear of?
again, my thanks to sean for taking the difficult step of opening this
dangerous door
mike frank
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