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Peirce's Semiotics and Theory of Film

Peirce's Semiotics and Theory of Film



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Published by: Medway08 on Jan 22, 2008
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Peircean Semiotics and Theory of Film
  by Werner BURZLAFF (Université Avignon, IRSCE Perpignan)(Lecture given at: University of California, Berkeley, USA 1994) What I will try here is a rare attempt at a Peircean approach to film theory if we exceptthe outstanding thoughts Peter Wollen dedicated years ago to Peirce and the recent usethe French philosopher Gilles Deleuze tried to make of Peirce's categories.In a first part we will have an overlook over the triadic principle, in a second chapter wewill apply it to film-theory and finally we will show a practical outcome by giving a shot-typology. 
1. Triadic method.
 The reduction of the categories of Kant to three, termed firstness, secondness andthirdness is one of the starting points of Peirce's investigations. Our subject, the film, isnevertheless a very complex one and it is not unreasonable to consider that threeelements, however fundamental the distinctions they might imply, would not lead very far in an inquiry. Beyond the syncategorematic use of the categories they are possessed of aformal property the only one Peirce is really interested in: namely, the relation of  presupposition. Thirdness presupposes secondness and secondness presupposes firstness,so thirdness also presupposes firstness. Peirce did much research in this field; he looked principally for a logical possibility of division of the categories and used various devices.From biological classification he took the notion of "genus" and looked for "degenerated"categorical determinations. He also used the tree-structure of Caylay whom he met in hisfather's house. On other occasions he made a comparison with chemical valencies as anillustration of his thought.For the present purpose we will choose the more "genetic" view of the capacities for categorical division. Thus thirdness is termed "triogenous", this means: is capable of three new divisions; then secondness is "dyogenous" showing two divisions, whilefirstness is "monogenous", it is going on by iteration. The first generation of three
categories generates a second of six categorically determined elements. The next divisionshows ten elements. Usually, they are represented by numbers, so that 1.11 is the thirdgeneration of a pure monogenous element and 3.33 the purely triogenous factor of thedivision; the numbering also underlines the formal character of the procedure. A tree-structure will clearly show the branching by trichotomy, dichotomy and simple iteration.Peirce himself was very conscious that the formal proof for this logical insight had not been provided. In particular, the relation of presupposition between the categories wasdifficult to verify in his time. Modern mathematics provides the instruments to show thathis insight was formally justified and it has been demonstrated that the structureunderlying this division into six and ten categorically differentiated elements is a lattice.This figure corresponds to operations of the recent mathematical theory of categories, akind of advanced theory of quantities.The six divisions can be regarded as an ordered structure showing all possible,categorically generated elements and their necessary relations: it is a lattice.The next step consists in dividing this elements once more according to their categorical properties and we obtain ten elements distributed again in a lattice-structure.The last step would lead to 28 elements. This structure turns out to be very useful, too, but the danger of pure and empty formalisation is obvious. 
2. Formal film theory
Film is considered as an entity submitted to a categorical analysis. The procedure willshow successively three, six and ten elements which present themselves in a determinedorder and possess necessary relations of three kinds. We will use decimal numbering toexpress the order of elements.What we obtain is not strict definitions but approximations to the categorical contents of each element. Discussion may start from this point on. There is just one thing that cannot be brought into question: the triadic principle.The most stringent quality in the sense of a scientific law attached to film is itstemporality (3.). This feature distinguishes it from other kinds of pictures like photographs or paintings. The second quality with reference to the category of existenceis the fact that film exists in two dimensions (2.). This distinguishes it from theatre. Themain quality of feeling of the film is its aesthetic implication, aesthetics (1.) not in thecontext of a theory but stressing visual and auditive qualities.A further analysis outlines six elements. They consist in rather general terms and demanda more detailed explanation.
3.3 Time is the most salient trait of cinetic images. Peirce devoted many studies totemporal phenomena and he considered time as a scaffolding for the building of logicalconstructions. We largely follow these plans.3.2 Fusion is as well a mathematical as a chemical term fitting the formal side of the process and the comparison to valencies. Here we fix the capacity of film to bringtogether temporal segments and to blend them into a new object.3.1 The quality of feeling of the forceful temporality is movement.2.2 Film exists in two dimensions, it represents real existing, three-dimensional objects by creating the illusion of volume. The main device is the technics of perspective.2.1 The quality of cinematic existence is the frame. It differentiates film viewing fromnormal ocular vision and helps film to accede to the statute of art.1.1 The aesthetic element is just iterated.Three of these six elements can be analyzed into their dyogenous or triogenouscharacteristics in order to obtain ten elements. The numeration shows the third level of categorical analysis.3.33 By following the indications Peirce gave we fill this first blank indicated in our taxonomical procedure by the notion of logic. Now, as far as I can see, a logic of the filmdoes not exist. First of all it is clear that there is only one logic, so the logic of a filmmeans that logical thinking can be applied to cinematic facts and that motion picturesmay be a support for logic. Gilles Deleuze went in this direction with his two volumes onthe "cinema", but the reader gets the impression that the author's aim is a philosophy of time.3.32 The existential quality of the law of time is continuity. Of course, continuity is avery important concern on every shooting set, but it is mainly limited to its visual aspectand less to the temporal one.3.31 The quality of temporal feeling is time. It is not specifically cinematic, but a lot of general terms are also used for films, mainly for script writing, and part of itsterminology, for example "state", event or interval.3.22 The essentially dyadic aspect of fusion can be covered by the grand syntagmaticsdeveloped by Christian Metz. It is based on thorough observation and can be trusted in itsmain definitions. The method used by Metz is mostly dichotomy; as we also needtrichotomy, the order of the elements proposed here is slightly different from the original.Further, a tenth element is lacking and should be found, after close inquiry. Metz limitshis system to "narrative" films, a position to be discussed, too, because our starting pointseems to be more general.

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