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 except the outstanding thoughts Peter Wollen dedicated years ago to Peirce and the recent use the 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 we will apply it to film-theory and finally we will show a practical outcome by giving a shottypology.

1. Triadic method.

The reduction of the categories of Kant to three, termed firstness, secondness and thirdness is one of the starting points of Peirce's investigations. Our subject, the film, is nevertheless a very complex one and it is not unreasonable to consider that three elements, 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 a formal 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 his father's house. On other occasions he made a comparison with chemical valencies as an illustration 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, while firstness is "monogenous", it is going on by iteration. The first generation of three

categories generates a second of six categorically determined elements. The next division shows ten elements. Usually, they are represented by numbers, so that 1.11 is the third generation of a pure monogenous element and 3.33 the purely triogenous factor of the division; the numbering also underlines the formal character of the procedure. A treestructure 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 was difficult to verify in his time. Modern mathematics provides the instruments to show that his insight was formally justified and it has been demonstrated that the structure underlying this division into six and ten categorically differentiated elements is a lattice. This figure corresponds to operations of the recent mathematical theory of categories, a kind 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 will show successively three, six and ten elements which present themselves in a determined order and possess necessary relations of three kinds. We will use decimal numbering to express 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 its temporality (3.). This feature distinguishes it from other kinds of pictures like photographs or paintings. The second quality with reference to the category of existence is the fact that film exists in two dimensions (2.). This distinguishes it from theatre. The main quality of feeling of the film is its aesthetic implication, aesthetics (1.) not in the context of a theory but stressing visual and auditive qualities. A further analysis outlines six elements. They consist in rather general terms and demand a more detailed explanation.

3.3 Time is the most salient trait of cinetic images. Peirce devoted many studies to temporal phenomena and he considered time as a scaffolding for the building of logical constructions. 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 bring together 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 from normal 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 triogenous characteristics 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 film does not exist. First of all it is clear that there is only one logic, so the logic of a film means that logical thinking can be applied to cinematic facts and that motion pictures may be a support for logic. Gilles Deleuze went in this direction with his two volumes on the "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 a very important concern on every shooting set, but it is mainly limited to its visual aspect and 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 its terminology, for example "state", event or interval. 3.22 The essentially dyadic aspect of fusion can be covered by the grand syntagmatics developed by Christian Metz. It is based on thorough observation and can be trusted in its main definitions. The method used by Metz is mostly dichotomy; as we also need trichotomy, 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 limits his system to "narrative" films, a position to be discussed, too, because our starting point seems to be more general.

3.21 Editing, cutting, "montage" is the keynotion of film activity. This element contains not only the technics of visual "fusion" but also sound mixing and the complete audiovisual relation as far as assembling activity is concerned. 3.11 Movement is an iterated element and can be analyzed into motion of objects and of the camera and all possible combinations of them. It leads to conceptual qualities. 2.22 Composition here means the arrangement of technical factors to be taken into account for the creation (or analysis) of a cinetic image, such as angles and lighting. Its main purpose consists in establishing a visual univers. 2.21 Shot typology deals with one of the fundamental questions in filmology. We will take it as an example for further developments. 2.11 Frame may be analyzed into technical processes concerning the camera diaphragm, the screen conditions or finally the use of electronic effects. 1.11 Aesthetics was chosen as a perceptive value. For an illustration we will use the famous writings of Eisenstein about "montage" seen as conflict. It is finally this conflicting quality that excites our mind to proceed to the construction of the structure of the projected image. Of course, it is not by chance that Eisenstein gives his ten elements of conflict in the appropriate categorical (Peircean) order. The result of the analytical process shows ten main terms which are not really new. This is not astonishing because a theory has to be comprehensive. We also call for the realization of other epistemological criteria: firstly, our proposed theory is wellordered; secondly, it favours the economy of intellectual devices. There is no need for changing methods of definition or investigation, no need for new principle or rules.

Each of the ten conceptions might be developed by the same method. This way we get 10 X 10 = 100 categorically defined terms. They are distributed and ordered in lattices. The whole construction itself forms a lattice.

3. Shot-typology. As one example we choose to discuss the division of shot-typology in a more detailed way. Film theory has often paid attention to shot-typology. André Bazin, one of the fathers of French filmology, considers "re-framing = recadrage" as an essential question in film history and develops an antinomy of realism and expressionism which still influences film literature. The "romantic" orientation of Ch.Metz may be seen in this context. Recently G.Deleuze identified closeup, medium and long shot with the three Peircean categories and interpreted them as feeling, action, thinking.

The essential elements of shot-typology are surface (1.), space (2.) (mainly its illusion created by perspective) and the relation (3.) between them. The next level of division brings out the following items: 1.1 one element 2.1 harmony between two elements 2.2 juxtaposition of 2 elements 3.1 space relation 3.2 geographical relation 3.3 composition of spatial elements

The third level contains ten terms. We refer to the terminological considerations of Jean Mitry. 1.11 Detail or insert. For an insert as for a detail there is no scale of relative size. 2.11 Big close-up ("gros plan"). It distinguishes up or down. 2.21 Close shot ("premier plan"). Indicates right and left. 2.22 Medium shot ("plan américain"). Differentiates front and back. 3.11 Semi close-up, two shot ("plan mi-moyen"). Gives the impression of volume. 3.21 Full person shot ("plan moyen") Shows the position of a person. 3.22 Medium long-shot ("ensemble rapproché") Gives a notion of distances. 3.31 Long-shot ("plan d'ensemble"). Creates the impression of depth. 3.32 Distance shot ("plan général"). Indicates fore, middle and background. 3.33 Wide long-shot ("grand ensemble"). Composes perspective lines. (The lattice-representation of this typology is given in point 4.)

Of course this not very precise approach covers the practical habits of film makers and directors of photography, but here I will stress a different aspect. Inexperienced directors, in particular,worry that they may forget continuity shots. An editor always wants a good stock of this kind of material. Why are these continuity shots so important? There is one major formula in film editing: only cut shots which are significantly different. This is not a rule, but everyone concerned respects this adage as experience shows. Cutting from a close shot to a semi closeup will need of a continuity shot between them. Everybody can imagine the endless theoretical discussion of what is significantly different if somebody started one.

Our theory just needs the lattice structure to show that all cuts changing level are significant modifications. Not recommended are cuts from 2.21 = closeshot to 3.11 = semi closeup, from 2.22 = medium shot to 3.21 = full person shot, from 3.22 = medium longshot to 3.31 = long shot and viceversa. What we call "level" is in fact a degree of semiocity, so the theoretical formulation of the old saying is that only semiotically different shots should be cut. I hope that these considerations may have illustrate the practical side of my theoretical work.

Bibliography Mitry, Jean 1963 Esthétique et psychologie du cinéma. Ed.Universitaires, vol.I et II, Paris. Wollen, Peter 1972 Signs and Meaning in the cinema. Indiana University Press, Bloomington/London Deleuze, Gilles1983 L'image-mouvement. Ed. de Minuit: Paris 1985 L'image-temps. Ed. de Minuit: Paris Marty, Robert 1990 Algèbre des signes. Essai de sémiotique scientifique d'après Charles Sanders Peirce. Benjamins, Amsterdam/ Philadelphia Burzlaff, Werner 1993 "The History of Film as a Search for Symbols." in: Symbolicity, ed. by J Bernard et al., Lanham/ Maryland: University Press of America

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