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.


No comments:

Post a Comment