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Cinema and Semiotics - 12th World Congress of Semiotics, Sofia, Bulgaria, 16-20 September 2013
full name / name of organization:
12th World Congress of Semiotics, New Bulgarian University
THE semiotic of cinema does not exist. However, in film science there is large number of studies questioning the nature, genesis, use and reception of various filmic signs. While in 1985, Winfried Nöth had registered nearly 2,500 published titles of studies in film semiotics, in 2003, Rolf Kloepfer affirms: “[Until now] in the world, the science of cinema and film has hardly developed under a semiotic perspective.” The difference between these two statements, both having their source in a different semiotic manual, is striking!
Almost simultaneously Metz, Eco and Pasolini launched a debate on the pedagogical dimensions of cinematic codes. The question was whether the filmic codes merely cover previously existing codes (Eco), or if they have a creative potential to produce new perspectives (Pasolini). The explicit and implicit responses to this important controversy expressed themselves either in line with semio-pragmatic studies of the image (Odin, Wuss, Peters) and semio-philosophical studies of film (Deleuze), or, on the other hand, within the scope of theories wanting themselves to be purely "cognitive" and explicitly demarcating themselves from “semiotics”.
Snce then, the evasive behaviour of film science vis-à- vis “classical semiotics” has become more and more prominent. This doubtlessly is due to a lack of a basic semiotic paradigm in the science of film: what can a semiotic of film be? First of all: do we have to call it semiotics or semiology? Is it a structuralist or a poststructuralist method? Is it a hermeneutic theory, a phenomenological or an epistemological one?
In fact, within all the different studies commonly called "semiotic" that can be found in the world of film theory, one can observe a large part of works dealing with general narratological issues, without however taking into account the specificities of the filmic medium. The problem of these works is, we believe, that their theories or patterns developed are easily transferable and applicable to other narratological mediums such as literature or theatre. They lack, Metz would have agreed, proper cinematic scientificalness. However, it appears that no one aspires anymore to the realization of works dealing with the analysis of the peculiarities of filmic language, so that today the "semiotic" works on cinema only speak of “how the signified is doing” , as Dominique Chateau states. Chateau does not hesitate to call a spade a spade: It is a common feature, he says, that the discussions on the relationship between cinema and thought come across this difficulty to analyze the signifier.
In his "Methodological propositions for the analysis of film" (1967/1981) Metz explains of what should consist, according to him, a scientific analysis of film and what are the difficulties of such an endeavour:
These words, even if highly idealistic, demonstrate also a highly scientific character: although explicitly emphasizing his methodological requirement, which is having to distinguish between the level of significance of the "shot "and that which he simply calls the "filmic", Metz does not hide the quasi-impossibility to logically discern the purely “filmic”. Given the complexity and fleetingness of what is specifically “filmic”, the notion of the "filmic" in Roland Barthes is quite instructive, because through it we have a concept referring to the inability to clearly locate the psychological potential of filmic signification. Metz and Barthes both agree on the fact that the total semantics of a film is never anything but a hermetic actualisation, that is to say a fleeting manifestation. But Metz remained hopeful, unlike Barthes, towards the possibility to analytically capture the specific expressions or meanings of filmic art. In the above cited conclusions of his "Methodological Propositions" Metz affirms that in the context of an adoption of a film by another medium one could preserve the significations of the "shot”. However, Metz argues, signifiers and signified of the "filmic" would be irrevocably lost. But the realization of such a transposition of a film to another artistic medium wouldn’t it rather lead to a considerable aberration also of the significations of what Metz calls the "shot", well beyond what Metz is willing to accept when he shyly admits that the “adaptation should in any case be made very carefully (avec soin)”?
The "virtuality" or “fleetingness” of the properly filmic significations and expressions, their almost completely non-tangible nature, doesn’t it result from an indeterminable semantic-phenomenological correlation between the “filmic” and the “shot” ? A clear discernment between the meanings of “shot” on the one hand and those taking place on the side of the “filmic” on the other hand, as Metz suggests it, may be a false methodological basis, operating a formal separation to which no separation on the perceptual plane corresponds.
But a semiotic approach to filmic images, filmic language and filmic expression can also depart from THE semiotics, namely that of Charles S. Peirce. However, while the reception of Peirce's philosophy is already well advanced in cognitive science, studies on artificial intelligence and game theory, this is not so much the case in art theory. Among the very few approaches that treat Peircean semiotics in an artistic context, Deleuze's attempt to transfer the ten Peircean classes of signs to the cinematic art is the most famous example within the science of cinema. However, Deleuze’s reception of the Peircean work is unfortunately not served by a coherent approach. In the foreword to The Movement-Image (1983) , Deleuze briefly legitimates the application of Peirce's semiotics by the fact, apparently obvious, that Peirce would have established "a general classification of images and signs, which is undoubtedly the most complete and the most varied”. But Deleuze soon encounters the complexity of what Peirce calls "image" and “sign”. The Deleuzian semtiocs of cinema are becoming complicated ….: “We do not yet know, Deleuze says on page 69 of The Movement-Image, what relationship Peirce proposes between the sign and the image. (…) We will have to compare the classification of images and signs that we propose with Peirce’s great classification: why do they not coincide, even at the level of distinct images?”. A good question! In Deleuze’s work, the semiotics and the phenomenology of the image correlate in a very different way than they do in Peirce’s work. Where exactly lie their differences? And in which ways does the Bergsonian philosophy of representation and images contribute to what we could call the Deleuzian semiotic of the cinema?
Semiotics is able to question, analyse and reveal processes of filmic signification. Whereas there are plenty of semiotic studies that are concerned with film themes or film plots, filmic language still requires a deeper understanding of its sign-processes. After Christian Metz and the wide deception of structuralism, or at least after Gilles Deleuze’s rather incoherent adaptation of Peircean semiotics to cinematic images, filmic semiotics should not remain a “hopeless field”. Rather should semioticians continue to analyse the phenomenological power of filmic language. It is the semiotician’s task to reveal the psychology and pedagogics of filmic sign-processes.
This round-table encourages any contribution that questions the logic of properly filmic significations. Possible approaches might be (list is not exhaustive):
- Filmic semantics
Send proposals (500 words) to : firstname.lastname@example.org
Deadline: July 1st 2014