Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Where 'Metonymic Category Jamming' Falls Short

The core of this problem surrounds the question of diegesis as it relates to metonymy. But I start, though, I should like to note two things.

First off, the definition of the word "metonymy" I'm using sticks to a pretty literal reading of the definition Carroll gave in his book. That said, I'm not here to squabble over petty BS about what "metonymy" means in some completely unrelated context. For example, unless we're talking about one of his mystery/suspense films that as such has some actual aesthetic connection to the horror genre, I don't really care about whatever Antonioni's films may or may not prove about the concept of metonymy as it relates to aesthetics, because, with reference to this topic in particular, well...Antonioni didn't make monster movies, and we're talking about the process of creating horrific monsters. The only way that example would ever come is by way of me needing a (mostly likely only briefly discussed) counterexample. Moreover, since Carroll's concept of metonymy is not meant to be tied to any kind of rhetorical analogy, we will proceed here (at least until we get to criticism #5 listed above(in another blog post)) in a way that avoids defining metonym as a type of allegorical structure.

The other potentially confusing issue could stem from the fact that here,  the term "diegesis" is always used as it would be in a discourse on film theory, no matter what medium I'm speaking about; that is, whether I'm talking about literature, film, or anything else, if I use the term "non-diegetic" or "extra-diegetic" (and the two are interchangable), what I mean is, "the concepts phenomenologically, empirically or in any other way perceptible to the characters existing in the world of the story."

For example, most narrative forms that use leit-motifs as musical devices (be they film/television scores, operas, musicals, art rock concept albums, or anything else) tend to be set up in a way that necessarily renders the musical content* of said leit-motifs as being definitively non-diegetic. This is even true of most operas by Wagner (who is widely regarded to have set the standard for the use of this concept). 

The most obvious canditate for the definitively cinematic visual non-diegetic is, of course, editing. Moreover, montage is the one aspect of cinema uniquely its own in that it doesn't borrow it's aesthetic from some previously extant art.

As previously stated, many of the structural techniques used in modern film scores tend to be derived from Wagnerian "Music Dramas". Or, as you might suggest cinematography be the starting point, but it borrows compositional structures not only from still photography, but, logically, then, the whole history of Western, 2-D visual design going back to da Vinci at least.

On the other hand, most of the techniques used by modern film and television editors were invented by individuals who, at least for the first fifty years or so, only had the brand-new concept of cinema and trial and error as reference points. This, taken together with the fact that most of the characters in the large percentage of film(s) are usually unaware of the edits makes montage the perfect place to start.

To that end, one could compare the notion of Category Jamming to the philosophical groundwork behind theories of (to use a very obvious example) Soviet Montage. After all, the notion that film is a kind of "Artistic Frankenstein" is so cliche it's boring, and, anyway, Eisenstein himself declared the true essence of cinema to be in the editing and not the story. 

These observations notwithstanding, however, the comparison between Category Jamming and dialectical montage falls flat, since Soviet cinema rarely, if ever, sought to create the affect(s) associated with the modern horror genre. Furthermore, as stated above, we are trying to avoid allegory, and soviet montage is basically to cinematic metaphorical allegory what the above mentioned Antonioni's films are to cinematic metonymic allegory. Even so, I feel it was important to clarify this idea now, because montage/editing (for our purposes here, the two are used interchangeably) and it's status as the 'uniquely cinematic art' still play a huge part in problematizing this issue, and though I will not get to that until the post following this one, I thought it would be helpful to clarify this concept early on.  That said...what are some examples of the visual non-diegetic in horror cinema?

If we wanted examples of non-diegesis in cinematic works of horror, it seems we actually have to avoid talking about montage for a moment and point to things like, for example, the color schemes in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or Suspiria, Kubrick's eerie use of radical symmetry in The Shining, or any of Hitchock's pioneering ideas about the nature of cinematic suspense. All of these notions are unknown to the characters in each of these respective films, therefore they are termed non-diegetic. But, these eerie/revolting/surreal/etc. visual devices still surround the character a la the way Carroll describes in his definition of metonyny. 

It is in this fact that we see the first of Carroll's short-comings: do non-diegetic surroundings count as metonymic in the way diegetic ones (like fog or vermin) surrounding the monster do? Carroll never even attempts to answer this question.    

Perhaps we could try to clear up some things by looking at examples from horror literature rather than horror film. In the interest of keeping everyone one the same page (rather than constantly referencing this or that text many will not have read or even heard of), let's make up a little story that borrows some easily understandable tropes from a well know horror author, and then use said story as the basis for a thought experiment:

Let's pretend there's a guy named 'Bob'. Bob is new to the horror genre, but he likes it a lot so far. In particular, he has recently become familiar with the works Algernon Blackwood, and is now inspired to write a prose story that, as Mike Ashely put it, seeks to emulate Blackwood's "...explor[ations of] the unseen powers of Nature." (Ashely, Mike The Mammoth Book of Short Horror Novels,  Carroll & Graf Publishers, New York, NY, 1988. Pg.103)

In Bob's story, Character 'A', a city-slicker, joins an expedition team on its way to northern Canada. Late one night, deep in the woods, he sees Character 'B', an American Indian he has yet to realize is actually some kind of malignant, supernatural forrest-geist incognito, carrying not only a tomahawk, but what also appears to be a dead body that looks identical to himself,  Character 'A'.

He runs back to base camp, where he confronts Character 'C', the expedition's leader. But, because 'A' is so sheltered from having lived in the city his whole life, he doesn't know the word 'tomahawk' and instead describes the small ax carried by 'B' as being a, 'hatchet', screaming, "I saw a man walking through the woods, carrying a hatchet!" as soon as 'C' is within ear shot.

Now, seeing anyone carrying an ax in the forrest is pretty mundane, so 'C' stops listening to 'A', because he assumes 'A' is a fucking lunatic. Thus, 'A' can't finish filling 'C' in with the other details. The end result of all of this is that the whole expedition team is massacred in a torture-porn-esque finale conducted by some kind of evil, anthropomorphized 'Will-of-the-forrest' who,  after  having shed his suit made from the flesh of dead Indian braves, then precedes to vanish into an invisible miasma of gong-like humming (or something). 

So, what we glean from the preceding example is a point about the difference between artistic forms that is actually very important here: first of all, though it may seem so obvious as to render the point unnecessary to state, it still makes a huge amount of difference that this is prose writing and not a movie, as in my earlier examples.

For example, movies are typically described as being made via a 'double-system' - that is, they are record by virtue of the fact that separate visual (the camera) and audio (the recorder) devices are made to operate together via a system like SMPTE Time Code. Comparatively speaking, then, prose fiction operates in a 'single-system' mode (that single system being written language)**. Thinking of it this way simplifies the whole-to-part relation implicit in the concept of 'metonymy' in a way that is much more conducive to Carroll's original definition of the term than otherwise might be the case, since it, for reasons to involved to explain here, allows us to compare works in different artistic mediums with relative ease. Getting back to our story,  though:

we see that Bob, who is obviously outside the world of the story, is able to describe Character 'B's ax as being both a tomahawk and a hatchet, even while Character 'A' (inside the world of the story) is completely ignorant to the existence of the concept denoted by the former of the two synonyms.

Here, we are referring to the literary element your high-school English-Lit teacher called 'tone'. To borrow a slang term used by members of my parents' generation, the tone of a piece of literature is sort of like the "vibe" the text puts out; it is the affect produced by the entirety of possible semiotic connotations, psycho-phonetic signals, etc. contained within the words and phrases used to compose the concrete visage of the text.

The "hatchet" vs. "tomahawk" discussion is a good example of this, because while the two words denote what is basically the exact same tool, a tomahawk is something that is designed specifically as a weapon of war used to scalp people. A 'hatchet', on the other hand, is, for most people, probably just a tool they'd be likely to see sitting around their garage. Thus, it can be said that a sentence that uses the word 'tomahawk' is already leaning toward a much more menacing tone than the exact same sentence written using the synonym 'hatchet'.

If Bob, as a writer, were to make use of all the conations implied by the word "tomahawk" and attempt to get them to operate with other elements of the text, he might also choose to use many other loanwords taken from American Indian languages as opposed to their English language synonyms. Thus, he would create a tone that, for example, might be described as making the already desolate image of the northern Canadian wilderness conveyed by the text feel even more 'foreign' or 'alien' to the English language reader who is probably more familiar with terms from Anglophile and Romance languages that s/he is with ones from, say, Eskimo–Aleut languages***.

And all of this relates back to our discussion of diegesis by virtue of the fact that, just like the edits or shot-compositions that form the basic elements of a film are largely unknown to the characters in that film, the character in the work of fiction cannot possibly have complete epistemological access to the form through which her fictive world is being rendered.

The, for example, 'unsettling', 'revolting', 'eerie', or 'menacing' tone of the words that are the basic building blocks of a prose horror story still "surround" the monster in that work of horror fiction in a way not dissimilar from the way in which the monster is simultaneously surrounded by the type of diegetic elements to which Carroll was referring. Following from that, it can only be said that they have to be read as performing a similar operation to the one Carroll calls "Metonymy".

So, to recap:

"Metonymy" (at least, in terms of the narrowed-down definition Carroll provides with relevance to both his and the present discussion) should be able to work in terms of both the form and the content of a work existing within the horror genre, but the way Carroll defines/problematizes it, it would appear as though this idea only applied to the content of the work exclusively. This fact, while far from showing Carroll's analyses to be bunk, merely shows them to be incomplete.

*'Musical content' being defined in almost any way you can possibly think of, (timbres, rhythms, melodies, harmonic progressions, tragic choruses, Deleuzian Refrains, The Basie Ending, The Tritone Interval, The Amen Break, The Tristan Chord, gay German disco 12"s, overrated guitar riffs, auto-tuned arm-pit fart noises, samples of that 'crashy-buzzy-explody' noise that happens whenever Sarah Palin names a baby, etc., etc.) 

**Because I want to keep all the things I talk about on this blog relevant to mass-media culture, I will tend to start from the vocabulary of film theory (as opposed to the art, theatre and/or literary that forms the basis of most film theory and modern mass media aesthetic discourses by simple virtue of the fact that those in the former category predate those in the latter historically speaking). 

***I would strongly advise against actually applying this sort of operation to a story you're writtng unless you are a part of the culture from whence said loanwords came, or you have spent a lot of time seriously studying and engaging with said culture. Otherwise, you run a real risk of reiterating potentially detrimental stereotypes on minorities too small in numbers, influence, and/or monetary prowess to effectively counteract them or do anything about it.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

What is Category Jamming?

Note: the purpose of this blog entry is not to engage the text I'm explaining dialectically (as I will in subsequent entries), but to give a definition of a concept I feel to be basic to the goals of this blog.

Basic to the theory of horror Noel Carroll puts forth in his landmark 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror: Paradoxes of the Heart is the concept of "Category Jamming". I like this theory, but have several things I'd like to add to it. But, before I do that, I'd like to outline the basic notions of the theory and make a few comments on it.

Carroll says,

“…horror novels, stories, films, plays and so on are marked by the presence of  monsters. For our purposes, the monster can be of either sci fi or supernatural origin. This method of proceeding distinguishes horror from what are sometimes called tales of terror…” (pg. 15) Carroll goes on to sight several examples by Poe, Hitchcock, etc. But, it is not until a few paragraphs that he gets to what, for our purposes, represents the core of the poodle. Carroll says,

“In works of horror…humans regard…monsters…as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order…monsters of horror…breach the norms of ontological propriety assumed by the positive human characters in the story.” (pg.16) 

So Carroll has necessarily linked “horror” to “supernature” and “science fiction technology”  and designated the moral existences of both as evil.  The aspect of supernature or morally malignant sci fi technology that creates the monster is an inherently transformational process he calls Category Jamming. This occurs when (what will finally become) a morally evil entity is composed of or transformed into a body schema and/or conceptual fabric woven from non sequitur, contradictory, arbitrarily juxtaposed, discontinuous, mutually exclusive or mutually corrosive pieces, the intention being to produce the affect of revolution in the audience. Below is a list of the divisions Carroll assigns to Category Jamming:

Metonyny occurs when the monster is associated with some formless and categorically incompatible entity that is innately horrifying. This is usually due to the non-horrific (initial) appearance of said creature. I should like now to take a moment to give some extremely specific examples of this type, because I feel it is the most incompletely defined category in all of Carroll's distinctions regarding his concept of Category Jamming.  

  • For instance, in M.John Harrison's Light, Michael Kearney is (outwardly) a mild mannered particle physicist and (secretly) a serial killer. He is also the only one who comes into contact with the horrible, horse-skull-like visage of The Shrander, who he believes to be held at bay by his killing.
  • For another example, a witch who is otherwise just a normal looking, old woman may have a kitchen guarded by hideous familiars and stocked with weird, dangerous or arcane instruments, disgusting, toxic or esoteric ingredients, a library's worth of grimoire all bound in human skin, the rotting bodies of corpses she intends to raise through necromancy,  etc. Speaking of witches, 
  • it's often the case that the Witch/Magician/Oracle/Alchemist archetype will work as an adviser to a character who inhabits the Ruler/Tragic King archetype. A perfect example of this from one the most influential works what be called, 'proto-horror' in the anglophile literary tradition comes from Macbeth. For, while Macbeth is a normal looking man who is inwardly evil, The Weird Sisters, Hecate and the gruesome visages with which they surround him can be read as a metonym of his evil. 

Carroll also notes that,"Horrorific metonymy need not be restricted to cases where the monsters do not look gruesome; a misshapen creature can be associated with entities already antecedently thought of in terms of impurity or filth." He goes on to site the above mentioned examples of Murnau's Count Orloc with rats as an example. Some more of this sort might include:
  • in An American Werewolf in London David Kessler's character is ever more surrounded by the ghoulish phantoms of the victims of his lycanthropic rampages
  • the familiar of witch who is repulsive looking. 
  • the flies supposed to congregate around Belzebub. For a beautiful, subtle rendering of this legend in a modern horror story, I highly recommend Isaac Asimov's short story "Flies". 

Or, it may be some tool the monster uses: 
  • Freddy Kruger had his infamous glove
  • the Dullahan was said to carry his rotting head in one hand and use his severed spinal chord in place of a whip.
Massification happens when there are an improbably large number of objects that form at a most complete hive mind or symbiotic organism that is thus enabled to perform the categorically impossible.
  • Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
  •  the spiders in Jeremias Gotthelf's Die schwarze Spinne  
  • Another example might br the swarms of deadly insects in Kazui Nihonmatsu's Genocide, which is, as film critic Chuck Stephens pointed out, "...[a] forerunner of Frogs, Phase IV, The Swarm, and other seventies ecothrillers..." that also applied the massification trope to insects, vermin, et al. 
  • Even massive hordes of zombies, the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the tomatoes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes exemplify this trope. 
  • To get even more ridiculous than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, one might point to Syfy's recent Twitter hit Sharknado.
  • Much more controversial examples might include cults such as the ones in the original, 1970's versions of films like The Stepford Wives and The Wicker Man.
Fission happens when things that are connected become disconnected. In fission the contradictory elements are divided in terms of spatio-temporal relations. Some examples of this might include the notion that vampires can transform themselves into bats, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Doppelgangers, werewolves, Ash's possessed/severed hand in The Evil Dead franchise, Seth Brundle in The Fly, Gregor Samsa and the "monstrous vermin" into which Franz Kafka has him transform in The Metamorphosis, the central plot point in pretty much any of the more tragic episodes in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Irena in The Cat People

Magnification happens when very small is made impossibly large. This one is fairly intuitive:
  • King Kong is a giant ape
  • Mothra is a giant moth
  • Many schlocky 1950' sci-fi films are about insects growing to enormous sizes.

Fusion happens when categorically distinct things wind up melding together, or a thing occupies a liminal space between categorically distinct things.
  • Ghosts and zombies, for example, are simultaneously living and dead. 
  • Cthulhu is simultaneously composed of : a body that is anthropoid and dinosaur/dragon like, the wings of a bat, and an octopus with an undefined number of tentacles for a head. 
  • Satyrs are fusions of parts from man and goat. 
  • Or, Yetis might be said to be the Himalayan version of an evolutionary backslide between man and ape.

Or, they might be pieces of actual bodies, literally rearranged by some monstrous mad scientist in real time.

  • Frankenstein's monster was sewn together from the part of many different corpses. 
  • In Jen and Sylvia Soska's American Mary, Mary Mason suffers a mental breakdown that coincides with her rise to fame as what one might call the ultimate Category Jamming mad scientist.
  •  Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces also plays with this idea (albeit somewhat less artfully than do the two works prior to it). 
  • One last example might be Nacho Cerda's Aftermath, which is, by far, the most revolting film I've ever seen.

These are the basic issues involved with this concept.