08 August 2013

Toward a Semiotics of Third Cinema

Third World filmmakers and scholars should not be forced always to think in a sign system that is not theirs. The question is whether the categories that inform Western semiotics are fully relevant to the analysis of non-Western sign systems. Western semiotics has presumed that its categories can travel across cultures and languages. But language is saturated with the values of its own culture. To think in a language other than one's own is to experience a peculiar form of alienation--a kind of self-exile. Besides, Western semiotics has not developed a strategy to explain the specific mode of transformation required by the Third World context where semiotics should be an instrument of political action. This has been largely ignored and underdeveloped. It is now imperative to formulate Third Cinema semiotics in terms of its relation between Third World concepts and its own artistic mode to develop forms of explanation that account for its specificity.

The position of the spectator in the Western cinema is different from the position of the spectator in Third Cinema. The theorisation of the Western spectator within the Althusserian framework views the subject as passive and mystified. This has been the cornerstone of the ideological critique of Western cinema. Western cinema represents and replays these mystified social relations. Third Cinema, by contrast, maintains that the relation between the Third World audience in Third Cinema is one of immediate ideological lucidity. As the exiled Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin states, 'We maintain that a cinema based upon our objectives necessarily implies a different kind of critical evaluation; and we affirm that the greatest critic of a revolutionary film is the people to whom it is directed, who have no need for mediators to defend and interpret for them.' Indeed, the politicised spectator of the Third World film who has an ideological and semiotic grip of the text does not need, as Julianne Burton suggested in 'Marginal Cinemas and Mainstream Critical Theory' (Screen, Vol. 26, Nos. 3-4, May-August 1985, p. 5), 'a mediating agency, an advocate in the guise of a film critic…or other certified "expert,"' because this spectator, as an agent of the historical process, sees in films the concrete realisation of his/her political and material circumstances.

The issue at state here is ideological--it disclaims value-free semiotics. Littin's statement should therefore be read as a call for ideological mediation which is sensitive to the cultural and ideological needs of both the filmmaker and the audience. Third Cinema practices maintain that the Third World audience has an active and essentially constructive relation to the sign systems of Third World cinema. The spectator activates the sense of the text. When Julio Garcia Espinosa quoting Marx intones, 'in the future there will no longer be painters but rather men who, among other things, dedicate themselves to painting' (quoted in Michael Chanan (ed), Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, London: BFI-Channel Four, 1983, p. 29), he is proposing the mission of Third Cinema--to make every spectator/reader ideologically astute.

Why is it that structurally, semiotics underplays history and everyday existence? Because, as Marshall Blonsky observed in On Signs (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985, p. 35):
Semiotics has been a futile gaze at the world's seeming pleasures, its drunken stupidities; and it may all the while have been imaginary, the way in which we, semiotic intellectuals, have wanted to be loved and respected. No, a critic will answer me, semiotics can also be unpolitical, unideological. It can yield up a renewed joy every time we see the functioning of the worlds semantic organisation. Studying poetry, painting, narrative and so on, we learn that the world is an immense message, we enjoy all the intelligence of everything that is intelligible. To which we can respond: but spying out the world's meanings, you have spied out its misery once more. Meaning is an instrument, an conduit of power.
Why is it that a cine-structuralist variant of the Semiotic Inquiry is a calculated affront to common sense? When meaning is readily accessible, it seeks answers elsewhere, and in the process the subject, the lives an struggles of human beings, gets lost in the shuffle. The issue is whether to regard structure or structuring absences as the meaning of a text or to consider the significance of the text by its place in the social context. Western semiotics, as a deciphering operation, not only dismisses the 'obvious' and the 'habitual' as false consciousness but also sets out to marginalise competing ideological interpretation. The question is not whether one can escape semiotics, but rather to understand that all sign systems are implicated in ideology.

What then is Third Cinema semiotics? The following, inasmuch as they can shed more light on this issue, should be regarded as the main concern of Third Cinema semiotics:
1. To explicate and interrogate the kinds of intuitive knowledge spectators bring to the process.
2. To clear the ideological confusion that surrounds semiotic inquiry into cross-cultural studies.
3. To wed political economy of the signifier to the critical theory of the text, and above all,
4. To emphasise the 'ideological' as opposed to the 'psychological' spectator.
Here you have it: semiotics of everyday life, cross-cultural semiotics, the political economy of the social sign and, finally, a semiotics rooted in the dialectics of struggle. Semiotics can no longer afford to overlook these concerns of Third Cinema and alienate, or be alienated by, those who act in it.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the realisation of the semiotics project is those texts of Third Cinema that are resistant to the absorption tendencies of 'mainstream' critical theory. Third Cinema texts exist within both ideology and history and thus need the application of a bonded historiography and semiotics for meaningful explication.

[The foregoing was extracted and slightly edited from Teshome Gabriel's 'Colonialism and "Law and Order" Criticism,' originally published in Screen (Vol. 27, No. 3-4, May-August 1986, pp. 143-44).]

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