Intention, Convention, and Meaning: A Filing Cabinet’s Worth of Musings

Happy New Year, one and all!  I try to present fully formed arguments here at Maphmatically Yours–Hey, you in the back, STOP SNICKERING!  However, as I have dealt with the mountain of reading that I’ve been doing with regard to my impending thesis proposal and annotated bibliography, I have developed a couple things that I think are worth considering, but which are not yet in place as parts of a cohesive argument relating to the meaning or interpretation of texts.

1) Although it is not a subject that many of us routinely ponder, film–like any other artifact–has a formal vocabulary that has developed over time.  The earliest cinema was a reproduction–on film–of stage theater, so the camera functioned as an ideal audience–but was restricted to that one perfectly positioned observer’s point of view.  The formal convention of camera movement was slow to develop each new evolutionary step was greeted by some with derision.  It is generally accepted that cinema’s first dolly shots–compositions where the camera was moved toward, away, or alongside of their object–appeared in the 1914 Italian feature Cabiria–watch the full film here.  For that reason, such “zooms” toward, away, or lateral tracking shots were originally called “Cabiria movements.”  However, it is reported that some audience members upon viewing these camera movements were unable to make sense of what they were seeing and were greatly disturbed.  For example a shot where the camera dollies in from a medium shot of a seated woman to a closeup of here head and shoulders caused some audience members to gasp as they seemed to witness a woman’s head swell and distort before their very eyes.  This is only one extreme example of what could be called a failure by an audience to correctly interpret the meaning of a particular shot because they lacked the stylistic convention that facilitated the sort of narrative that it was meant to mean.  That is to say, the audience could have understood the shot in three ways:

A) The women remains static–seated in her chair–while the camera moves toward her and tilts down slightly as it approaches her so that she looks up into its lens.

B) The women is somehow moving toward the camera–despite the fact that she is seated–and her face is therefore taking up a larger percentage of the frame.

C) The women’s body is actually changing its form–the head swelling and inclining toward the camera–and her face is obscuring her body and the rest of the background visible earlier in the shot.

Now, many in the audience rejected explanation (A) which demands the least suspension of physical laws, explanation (B) which demands a form of locomotion not commonly seen, and settled on (C) which demands the greatest suspension of disbelief and is the most at odds with ordinary experience.  Why?

It would seem to be the case that the formal conventions of film/ theater exercise such a controlling influence on an audience’s expectations that they are more willing to construe an artifact as bending the laws of time and space than admitting of a new formal technique–at least initially.  Now, the very fact that dolly shots are a staple of modern film making and, indeed, even very young children exposed to such Cabiria movements would not make the same mistake as film audiences in the 1910s demonstrates the fact that conventions–once established–are readily assimilated and require no explanation for future audiences.  However, if such conventions are so important to correct interpretation of an artist’s intentions in the creation of an artifact, and such conventions lie somehow outside the work itself–such that the work does not contain the necessary tools for its correct interpretation–then how can one say that a work must be interpreted exclusively according to its author’s intentions (the intentionalist perspective)?

2) Much like the increase in formal complexity witnessed in the evolution of cinema, relatively young mediums like television and video games have demonstrated a willingness to deploy evermore complex narrative structures to tell their stories.  That is to say despite claims to the contrary, popular culture has grown increasingly complex–where complexity is understood as the amount of cognitive work the audience is asked to perform in order to comprehend the work in question.  An episode of I Love Lucy required little beyond grasping that the protagonist–most often–Lucy or Ricky was confronted by an antagonistic situation–usually of their own making–and manage to either overcome the challenge or are tradgically overcome by it with the resolution being implied in the final moments of the show.  The characters are presented with certain props and costumes that establish their identity and roles relative to one another than the show’s sets and each episode is a self-containted unit–not requiring the audience to remember previous events.   Much more could be said about the way that traditional television spoon-feeds its audiences the necessary facts relative to its own narrative and prevents even the slightest discomfort or confusion.  However, compare an episode of  I Love Lucy with an episode of Lost.

In Lost audiences are routinely shown intentionally deceptive camera angles and hear ambiguos dialogue without fully comprehending the characters in play or the import of their conversations.  The show’s recurring mechanism of flash-backs set at various points before the crash of their plane on the island demands that the audience pay attention to the physical details of each character’s appearance and relationships in order to place the events portrayed in a particular episode within the larder timeline.  As Steven Johnson notes, the mysteries that characterize modern complex television dramas are often fractal in nature, i.e. they show up at every level of discourse. Lost provides mysteries at the levels of biography (“What happened to Jack’s wife?”), geography (“Where did the plane crash?”), history (“Why has the S.O.S. been running for 16 years?”) and ontology (“Are the characters even still alive?”).  Johnson estimates that currently there are between 30 and 45 running mysteries in Lost.

Again, it would be ill-advised to suggest that the “artworld” context into by which or into which a film like Inception (2010) or a television show like Heroes is meant to be interpreted does not play a significant role in the range of plausible interpretations of those films. Indeed it would be ridiculous to suggest–for example–that one might plausibly interpret I Love Lucy in the manner of these later and more complex structures.  Does this mean, then, that the artworld or conventions available for an author or audience to create within determine the range of acceptable meanings that any work might plausibly have?

So, in an entirely unresolved sort of way, I conclude that…

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