Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A Thought Experiment

This is a followon to the previous remarks on meaning outside-in versus inside-out.

Imagine a film. Some ordinary piece of cinema, an action adventure, a rom-com, whatever. When you watch it there are words, sentences, speeches, dialog. There is meaning in each word, built into meaning in sentences, built up, up, up into dialog and speeches. These build up into scenes, which flow one to the next and build upward into the narrative arc of the film. The sense of one scene is clarified, or reversed, by the next, that sort of thing.

I visualize this as a stack of nesting pyramids. Each sentence a little pyramid, built on the words. Each pyramid of each sentence is fitted into the base of a scene, which fills itself in from that base to the peak with scene-level meaning derived from the way the sentences of the dialog interact. The scenes form the base of a narrative arc, which then builds the pyramid up on them to an apex which, somehow, encapsulates the "total meaning" of the film.

So, most of the pyramid is very meta. Only at the very bottom do we have words, gestures, facial expression, reactions.

Edit the film down to a single scene.

Most of the pyramid vanishes. But the scene still means something. It still conveys maybe a section of the action, a slice of character development, a key moment, a sense of who is good and who is bad. There is a pyramid, but it's smaller.

Edit it down further, to a single shot. Again, we reduce to a smaller subpyramid of meaning. Maybe there's a sentence of dialog, or a complete gesture, or a reaction. We see that someone is horrified, or angry. We learn that someone loves someone else. Still the structure of the medium, the way one frame follows another, the way one word follows another, informs the way we understand what we're looking at.

Finally reduce it to a single frame, a still. A photograph.

The entire structure of the film's meaning is gone. We're down to a single point somewhere in the base of the original pyramid.

This doesn't mean there isn't some social or cultural meaning we can make of this thing. The actor is wearing clothing that indicates class, maybe. The background is a bar with all that baggage, and so on.

The point is not that the photograph has no meaning, or even no cultural meaning. The point is that the medium is bringing little to nothing to the table. We react to the photo of the actor in much the same way as we would if we were present.

The actor's clothing indicates social status, exactly as it would if we were physically present. The cultural baggage of the barroom is essentially the same whether we see it in a photo, or whether we're standing in the room.

I am pretty sure this is what Barthes is banging on about when he says that a photograph is "a message without a code." The media contains no media-specific coding that directs our attention toward meaning, it's just us with the contents of the frame. Pretty much as if we were actually there.

He then goes on to describe in some detail how one puts the meaning back, including things like lighting and posing (so, actually, the medium is kind of still at work with codes) but more importantly the surrounding material of captions, other text, other photos, and so on.

The photograph may be in some way a message without a code, but that doesn't mean we don't instantly bounce off it and start busily applying codes. As I may have mentioned, we imagine a world to contain the photograph, and read off a ton of shit from that world.

It is the fact that we are applying codes, rather than the medium supplying codes, which is the distinction I want to draw here.

1 comment:

  1. Magnum, yeah evildoer Magnum, has a new web feature called "Truth in Photography" of all things. For extra bile, though, it also has a new Bruce Gilden feature, featuring "sandwiches made of spleens." Mercy! Mercy!

    Photoland peeps: best double up on the statins and have your defib handy.