Sincronía Winter 1996

A Semiotics of Film and Literary Fiction:  Classic, Modern, and Postmodern

Lauro Zavala

UAM Xochimilco,  Mexico City

In this paper I propose to study a series of formal elements common to narrative film and literary fiction in order to establish the difference between what is known as classic, modern, and postmodern fiction (in cinema and written fiction).

In this way I intend to discuss elements that belong in common to literary theory and media studies. It has always been granted that classic and modern traditions are opposite to each other, at least in formal terms. Classic tradition is stable and depends on the text. Modern tradition is sustained by the concept of rupture. It is, as Octavio Paz has said, a tradition of rupture.

1. Postmodern life is a way to look at texts

Postmodern culture is a paradoxical juxtaposition of elements that originally belonged to both traditions, and that has only become possible with the coming into play of the political dimension of the interpreter of cultural texts, be it a reader, a spectator, a visitor, a listener or simply a consumer.

Sorne of the contemporary theories about postmodern aesthetics focus on one of its formal dimensions, or just take the consequence as the cause, considering that there just are postmodern objects, whereas I sustain that postmodern culture resides in the glance. Or more exactly, that the superposition of classic and anti-classic elements is the result of the intertextual associations that the reader is able to project on the texts.

This is one of the reasons why there has been a sort of need to speak of paradigmatically postmodern films or stories (or architecture, or music or any other kind of text). This need is part of the modern heritage, that is, our need to believe in texts or in authors, not in our own proceas of interpretation.

So, instead of postmodern texts we should talk of postmodern ways to look at texts. This doesn't eliminate the fact that there are also postmodern "looks" in some objects, or a greater gradient of paradoxical simultaneities in specific objects, which provoke more easily than others a postmodern kind of reading. This happens, for example, in hybrid texts, in meta- fictional texts, or in polyphonic texts. But to think that every metafictional, hybrid or polyphonic text is postmodern is to confuse the effect with the cause, the product with the process

Nevertheless, and in order to follow a very rational way of looking at things, here 1 will do precisely the latter, in order to have a map that enables us to distinguish some characteristics of texts themselves, as cultural artifacts, that would lead us to see specific characteristics that stimulate reactions related to what Omar Calabrese has named a "neobaroque aesthetics"

2. Postmodern texts are produced by intertexts

I think there are some elements for analysis that could be acknowledged in film and literary fiction, in order to state sorne specificity of what might be named classic, modern, and postmodern.

Those formal elements are the following:

a) the role and nature of epiphanies and suspense strategies in the structural organization of narrative

b) the relationship to the codes of realism, antirealism, or representation in general

c) the presence or absence of specific elements studied by the semiotic theory of labyrinths

d) the discursive construction of time and space in relation to diegetic levels of meaning

e) the weight of syntagrnatic, paradigmatic or "wandering" logics in the organization of narration

f) the reproduction, play or dissolution of specific codes, and the role of textual, contextual and intertextual elements in the process of interpretation.

In what follows I will comment on the general characteristics of classic, modern and postmodern textuality in terms of these elements.

a. Suspense. The role and nature of epiphanies and suspense strategies in tfle structural organization of narrative.

Classic narrative -- especially in the case of literary short fiction-- is based in the logics of epiphany, that is, the textual organization oriented towards the final revelation of a social, personal or epistemic truth.  Modern narrative --such as Tchekhov or Godard-- is structured by the notion of successive, neutralized or successive epiphanies. Postmodern narrative encompasses --in a paradoxical way, of course-- both kinds of strategies, and it does so by what we might call the logics of textual or intertextual epiphanies. Here narrative epiphanies --or their absence-- become narratorial epiphanies, inasmuch as they are the responsibility of the reader or spectator, and they depend on his/her competencies, encyalopedia and historical context.

b. Representation. The relationship to the codes of realism, anti-realism, or representation in general.

Classic narration is mostly metonymical, it aims at representing reality through generic (genologic, architextual) conventions. Modern narration is more metaphorical, and it tends to point at the codes we use in order to represent reality. It is not a direct questioning of our ability to represent it, but it questions the conventionality of specific codes, when they belong in a former and different context than that of the reader. Postmodern narration encompasses both aims --at once either/or-- and therefore it suspends the suspension of disbelief, it suspends the credibility in any specific code created to represent reality in one particular way. It is a political statement about the conventional limits of representation, and therefore it has a deeply ironical meaning.

c. Labyrinths. The presence or absence of specific elements studied by the semiotic theory of labyrinths, as it belongs in the emerging field of cartosemiotics.

      Classic film and literature is circular; it is organized around the concept of truth. It has one center, and it admits but one right interpretation. Its paradigm is the classic detective story. Modern film and literary fiction is arboreal, like a tree, it admits more that one truth and more than one epistemic center; therefore, it is polysemic by nature, with many semantic branches growing out of a basic scheme. Postmodern fiction in film or literature is rhyzomatic, which is the kind of labyrinth that encompasses at once both circular and arboreal logics. Therefore, in postmodern fiction and film many interpretations are possible, and each one istrue to ite own context.

d. Time and space. The discursive construction of time and space in relation to diegetic levels of meaning

Classic narration issequential, and the logics of narration and the construction of space are both organized according to the point of view of a particular, trustworthy viewer, a sort of knowledgeable witness. Modern narration is organized in terms of what Joseph Frank called a "spatialization of time", that is, a subjective and subjunctive way to reconstruct any human experience. This way to organize time introduces the concept of formal simultaneity in narrative strategies. Postmodern narration is a result of what we might call a "textualization of space",  meaning the multiple possible ways to constitute an imaginary world that can only be created in the context of fiction itself. This is not just having a narration that looks "as it" it were reality (thanks to realism and its conventions), nor posinq metalinguistic statements, but having both contradictory strategies at once.

e. Structure and deconstruction. The weight of syntagmatic, paradigmatic or "wandering" logics in the organization of narration

Classic narration is syntagmatic in rnany ways, its history and its discourse go together; it begins at the beginning in chronological order, and then it follows until the end of the story is reached. Modern narration is delivered in rnany possible ways that alter the syntagmatic order, according to specific needs of each text. Postmodern fiction is both and none, in what might be defined as a wandering kind of fiction, a borderline kind of writing both in literature and film. Its sense wanders from one context to another, depending on the reader's context of reading.

f. Contexts. The reproduction, play or dissolution of specific codes, and the role of textual, contextual and intertextual elements in the process of interpretation.

Classic narration is based on the reproduction of specific codes, which we rníqht call A.   Modern fiction isbased on ite suspension or negation, in an operation that we rnight call "-A" (non-A). Postmodern texts are at once classic and modern, and we might call it the sum of A plus the sum of versions of -A.

3. Every truth is a fiction

The distinctions between classic, modern, and postmodern film and literary fiction are also pertinent to any field of cultural studies, such as ethnoliterature, popular culture, and media theory.

Here I propose to extend the use of "fiction," in a constructivist fashion, to refer to any construction of meaning. Then any truth is a fiction, inasmuch as it is a construction of meaning.

Today it is a priviledge of the reader or spectator to acknowledge or to project the presence of these elements in each reading or screening. That is to say that the interpretation of a text as belonging in a classic, modern, or postmodern context is basically a matter of the reading glasses used by the reader in order to *read*  the text in a specific way.

Therefore, the last border of inquiry when studying contemporary processes of interpretation is related to the discussion of the possibilities and limits of interpretation and overinterpretation of cultural texts.

Some cases in point might be brought into discussicn, belonging to both the canonical Western corpus as well (at least forrnerly) to marginal cultural contexts in literature and cinema, and the criticism they have received, especially in recent years.

This is a field def ined by the permanent production of paradoxes and metaparadoxes.


CLASSIC                                      MODERN                                POSTMODERN
Epiphanic                                       Succesive or  Implicit                  Textual or Intertextual
                                                      Epiphanies                                  Epiphanies

Realism                                          Anti-Realism                                Realities

Circular                                          Arboreal                                      Rhyzomatic

Sequential                                      Spatialization of Time                    Textualization of Space

Metonymical                                  Metaphorical                                 Wandering

A                                                   Non-A                                          Sum of A and Non-A

Representation                              Anti-Representation                         Presentation

Lauro Zavala
UAM Xochimilco
Mexico City

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