The Semiotics of (Critical) Viewership

story © Michael Betancourt, September 30, 2017 all rights reserved.


Historical cinema has a specific concept of its audience as passive, challenged by semiotics and postcinema. The semiotic view of audiences proposes an idealized, hypothetical ‘typical viewer’ who employs established lexical expertise to follow and embrace the established conventions of encoding/decoding. This viewer is precisely the “complicit” or ‘passive audience’ assumed in historical cinema and critiqued by politically engaged theories of media. These “traditional” viewers accept and employ, rather than challenge or interrogate, their use of established conventions. Although these conventions are historically concerned/used for the presentation and elaboration of narrative forms, these ‘typical viewers’ employ them to engage any media work that might invoke or suggest them, either through their formal organization—as in the still photographs of Cindy Sherman, or through the use of a familiar kinetic medium such as video, or the animated GIFs used on webpages.

This conventional spectatorial agency aligns with film historian Richard Maltby’s observations of how everyday or ‘typical audiences’ interpret commercial narratives. His distinction between ‘typical’ and ‘critical’ is what makes a “passive” audience:

This reader’s competence is responsive: imaginatively active, perhaps, but not proactive; it accommodates the reader to the world of the text. [...] Unlike the critic, who inhabits an alternative sphere of analytic liberty in which the fissures of the text are exposed and its sutures unsewn, Eco’s “average reader” is a good bourgeois, never seeking to occupy a position from which it might disrupt the text.

Maltby, R. “A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 1/2 Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema” Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carroll (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996) p. 435.

This “average reader” Maltby describes emerges most obviously in theories of semiotics by Umberto Eco, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. This only superficially “passive” audience engages their interpretations in a standardized fashion, guided by encultured, lexical codes of decipherment (recognition of domains). This is the ‘model reader’ of semiotics whose role in deciphering a text is also a part of its constructive fabrication: in making a statement the one who composes it also employs their own lexical expertise with decipherment to enable its appropriate decoding. The ‘model reader’ is thus a conventional agreement made via and around the interpretation that enables communication as a possible outcome. Standardized viewership, most apparent in commercial media, organizes motion pictures for viewers who understand the semiotics of presentation as being “invisible,” a disappearance of articulation paralleling the “transparency” offered by lexical expertise in language. This process in motion pictures is precisely the focus of semiotic interest because conventional engagements allow a critical identification of the encultured codes productive of meaning; theorization is a process of unmasking. Critical approaches to postcinema develops their engagements from the distinction between the material identifiers of digital imaging and those of analogue imagery that are symptoms of a different understanding of viewership. This proposal of a ‘typical viewer’ or ‘model reader’ is both included in and alterior to the historical conception of cinema and its semiotics. Postcinema demonstrates the contingency of these apparently over-determined and unarticulated axiomatic foundations.

The range and scope of works, and the particular emphasis on cognitive encounter employed in developing a postcinematic, perceptual semiotics has implications for any political economy based on the assumption of a passive, inert audience; it challenges the traditional conceptions of ‘passive audience’ and ‘dominant cinema’ common to these theorizations, ably articulated by filmmaker and theorist Peter Gidal:

In dominant cinema, a film sets up (cardboard) characters (however, deep their melodramas) and through identification and various reversals, climaxes, complications (usually in that order) one aligns oneself unconsciously with one or another or both or more characters. These internal connections between viewer and viewed are based on systems of identification which demand primarily a passive audience, a passive viewer, one who is involved in the meaning that word has taken on in film journalese, i.e. to be not involved, to get swept along through the persuasive emotive devices employed by the film director.

Gidal, P. Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016 (London: The Visible Press, 2016) p. 41.

His description of ‘passive viewership’ is the familiar, moralizing description of audiences as mindless embracers of their own victimization by capitalist media—Gidal’s critique is a Marxist reiteration of the same moralizing arguments for censorship leveled throughout the twentieth century at cinema. His argument denies commercial motion pictures’ value as “mediums of thought” like the theater, the circus, and all other shows and spectacles whose intellectual value and significance were historically denied, while simultaneously considering them “capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition,” as the United States Supreme Court observed in their 1915 decision [236 U.S. 230, 231] to deny an appeal to categorize motion pictures under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as vehicles for ideas and thoughts worthy of protection from censorship. The conception of audiences as inchoate, passively manipulated rubes without intellectual action is essential to this familiar argument and the imposed controls it justifies. The restrictions on viewership are given by this audience’s “enlightened superiors”: the class and social hierarchy affirmed by ‘passive viewer’ is unmistakable. Gidal’s Marxist argument reaffirms this view of audiences as passively deluded, needing a paternal “hand.” His solution differs from that of established social order only in terms of what should be allowed and restricted—the justification for that restriction remains the same. In opposition to this received and traditional conception of ‘passive viewership,’ he explains the activity required for the critical cinema he proposes:

The mental activation of the viewer is necessary for the procedure of the film’s existence. Each film is not only structural but also structuring. This is extremely important as each moment of film reality is not an atomistic, separate entity but rather a moment in a relativistic generative system wherein one can’t simply break down the experience into elements. The viewer is forming an equal and possibly more or less opposite ‘film’ in her/his head, constantly anticipating, corrective, re-correcting ... constantly intervening in the arena of confrontation with the given reality, i.e. the isolated chosen area of each film’s work, or each film’s production.

Gidal, P. Flare Out: Aesthetics 1966-2016 (London: The Visible Press, 2016) p. 41.

Active engagement challenges the political dimensions of traditional models of ‘passive viewers.’ However, the difficulty posed by Gidal’s dialectic is self-evident: this description of “active viewership” is the same experience and process described by semiotics for all perceptual and interpretive encounters, not just those of the politically acceptable (Marxist) cinema he proposes as “constantly intervening in the arena of confrontation with the given reality, i.e. the isolated chosen area of each film’s work, or each film’s production.” Gidal is not alone in conceiving a dialectic of “dominant cinema” countered by a self-evident “critical cinema”; his proposal is typical: recognizing this fallacy unites a disparate variety of applications not concerned with the study of model designs, but the recognition and identification of the morphology and structure of historically marginalized forms bridging the heuristic and the hermeneutic: video art, experimental film, and commercial motion graphics, not to mention the commercial motion picture with its melodrama and spectacle. As these works become postcinema, they reveal the connections between aesthetics, material organization and their role in audience interpretation.

Parsing sensation into significances and insignificances is not an engagement with meaning or signification, but rather attracts, deflects, and organizes attention. Gidal’s description of active viewers, who are “forming an equal and possibly more or less opposite ‘film’ in her/his head, constantly anticipating, corrective, re-correcting” is not exclusively or only the engagement of audiences for ‘approved’ critical media, but for all cinema. Any viewer can engage any work in the critical way Gidal describes, revealing the fallacy in assuming a ‘typical viewer’ is a ‘passive audience’ is a fixed position. The dialectic Gidal sets-up is a false opposition based on traditional, even conservative, misconceptions of audience passivity that justify the imposition of restrictions and controls on motion picture production. Shifting from an inherently passive conception of viewers as acted-upon to one in which the entirety of the work fundamentally depends on their activity and engagement—even at almost unconscious, autonomous “levels”—makes the received understanding of cinema, the movement of imagery, and the medium of “motion pictures” a highly contingent phenomenon with specific socio-political implications for any critical media theory or praxis. Semiotics makes this conceptual schema of an always already active ‘model reader’ foundational.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  September 30, 2017  all rights reserved.

All images, copyrights, and trademarks are owned by their respective owners: any presence here is for purposes of commentary only.