Channels of Discourse, Reassembled

[Readings] (02.04.09, 11:35 pm)

Robert Allen: Introduction

The subject of this book is television. The book was published originally in 1982, and then a second edition was published in 1992. The need for the book is seen as the massive cultural penetration of television and a lack of critical discourse surrounding it. To study television, it must be defamiliarized, or, as Alfred Schutz has said, made “anthropologically strange.” A problem, similar to with games, is that television is seen as merely entertainment. As such, it is not taken seriously as a medium. It is interesting to examine the approach to television, as it is substantially more legitimate now, and with the popularization of DVD box sets, the production of quality programs is now motivated by a product-oriented approach in addition to the matter of the constantly streaming television signals. I would also argue that the common use of television is beyond mere entertainment, and has a significant role in cultural communication, establishing a cultural object around which people may engage socially, sharing common values.

All of the approaches in this book use semiotics in one form or another. An implicit question is: how are meanings and pleasures produced in our engagement with television? This question is naturally relevant to other things, games among them. Television is pervasive, and as such it is apparently natural. We seem to have an ability to “read” television, even though the way in which we do so is not natural. The practice of television viewing is intertwined with production, and both have developed the language by which it is read over time, and this has become culturally encoded. Television produces a sense of transparency, since it resembles a window, but this transparency is illusory.

The role of authorship is convoluted in television, especially in programs that are not explicitly fictional. Contemporary criticism is interested in how television constructs representations of the world, rather than asking whether it tells the truth. Allen compares contemporary criticism with the traditional: “Whereas traditional criticism emphasizes the autonomy of the artwork, contemporary criticism foregrounds the relationships between texts and the conventions underlying specific textual practices. Traditional criticism is artist centered; contemporary criticism stresses the contexts within which the production of cultural products occurs and the forces that act upon and channel that production. Traditional criticism conceives of meaning as the property of an artwork; contemporary criticism views meaning as the product of the engagement of a text by a reader or groups of readers.” (p. 11)

Ellen Seiter: Semiotics

Television is made from iconic and indexical signs. Indexical signs rely on a material connection between the signifier and the signified. Icons are signs where the signifier structurally resembles the signified, but there may not be any material connection. A set of tracks in the snow is an indexical sign of the animal who walked through it, and a child’s drawing is an iconic sign of that same animal. Neither of these is free from tampering. Pierce’s model of signs does not require the signs to be intentional, and there does not even necessarily need to be a receiver.

There are two means of extracting meaning from signs: Reading denotation and connotation. Denotation is an actual “picture” that conveys the substance of the sign, but the connotation is about the mood or message. The connotation requires a context to understand, while with the denotation that is not necessarily the case. Reading connotations is strongly guided by conventions. Non representative elements may also have no denotations, but the may have connotative meaning, for instance, the sound of a minor chord in a suspenseful scene.

An active question is what is the smallest unit of television. Film studies uses the shot, following from Metz, who argued that there is no small linguistic unit, but the shot is the largest minimum segment. This sort of question is analogous in games. In games where there are so many elements and factors, identifying a unit is very difficult. Because games are interactive and not passively experiential, the languages from narrative, film, television, and theatre, must be mixed with the languages of architecture, performing arts, board or tabletop games, and sports, among others. To describe television, Seiter poses the unit of the flow, which derives from Raymond Williams. A minimum segment should have paradigmatic and syntagmatic dimensions.

Seiter discusses Robert Hodge and David Tripp’s analysis of children’s television, following the format of structuralism. An extensive analysis is put on 1) single images, 2) narrative (voice overs) and 3) personification. This analysis totally ignores the long traditions of personification in children’s stories. The anthropomorphization of characters comes across as a surprise in the analysis, which seems totally out of place. Meaning is also considered as existing in individual shows, not within the series of shows which the children would presumably watch. It also looks at the show in isolation from the cultural context of the children who would be watching it.

Additionally, the analysis shown here does not examine themes, plots, or the actual content of the shows, just the openings. The shows examined have several themes, the prevailing one being a hybridization of nature and culture, of animals and humans. The question that I have is if the other structures, the mechanics (the means by which things actually happen), also support these nature-culture and human-animal dyads. I also want to ask how these fit with the larger tradition of animal characters in children’s books, folktales, stories, etcetera.

Sarah Kozloff: Narrative Theory

This chapter discusses television as a narrative form, specifically borrowing from Chatman, on story and discourse. The observation here (from Robert Allen) is that interest in television is generally on the paradigmatic axis, rather than the syntagmatic one. Instead of the viewer being concerned with what comes next, which is the syntagmatic question, the viewer is interested in “what could happen instead?” This is especially relevant with the character-oriented focus of the situation comedy, where strong characters are put in many diverse situations, and the pleasure of the audience is in how those characters react. This approach is precisely the opposite of the formalist narrative tradition, which is focused on the syntagmatic axis. In the formalist tradition, characters are weak and reduced to the degree to which they satisfy the functional needs of the story. The emphasis on what could happen is also emblematic of fan culture and fan fiction.

Robert C. Allen: Audience Oriented Criticism

The focus in this section is on the readers (watchers) of television, and how they create meaning. Viewers are generally more addressed in television than they are in other narrative forms. With studio audiences, commercials, and several formats (especially the news), the speakers directly address the viewer. In order to accommodate this sort of focus on the viewer, Allen proposes the use of audience oriented criticism, that places the viewer at the center of the study.

Television is analyzed phenomenologically as a performance. It is concretized when watched (as text is brought to life when read). The novel and the written word are occupied with gap filling, but there are fewer gaps in television. The gap filling is occupied by the way in which the reader constructs the world of the text, supplying missing details and constructing causal relationships where the gaps exist.

However, in the case of television, the gaps do exist, but their location and function has been changed. Gaps exist between the serial occurrences of the shows. Between episodes, as was the case in serial novels (for instance, Dickens), the readers and viewers are left to contemplate what has happened, what is going to happen, and share and reflect in a community about their beliefs and opinions. Dorothy Hobson found that the value of television is not in the watching experience itself, but in the social life apart from the television. This is now commonly understood as the watercooler discussions, where people gather around the watercooler at their workplace to talk about what happened on television. This has been found as useful (I don’t know the sources, but I heard Henry Jenkins talk about it) as a means for discussing ethical beliefs and values through projection of those beliefs onto the characters.

There are watercooler games, or, at least, there are games that intend to capture the dimension of social discussion, but these are primarily news games. These miss the periodic and mystery elements found in the gaps used by serial novels and television. To get the watercooler phenomenon, games must have consecutive gaps.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAllen, Robert
TitleChannels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism
Tagsmedia traditions, media theory, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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