About The Third Meaning

As an introduction to this blog, I feel obligated to say a few things about where the name comes from.

Back in grad school, in Lea Jacobs’ Contemporary Film Theory class, we read “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills” by Roland Barthes, written in 1970, and republished in The Responsibility of Forms (Berkeley: UC Press, 1991) (you can find it online here).  An examination of a series of stills from Eisenstein films, principally Ivan the Terrible and Battleship Potemkin, the essay concerns what he finds beyond the first and second orders of meaning, the informational (the purely denotative level of the shot) and the symbolic. Where symbolic meaning is intentional and “obvious,” the third meaning is “obtuse.” If first and second meanings are those of communication and signification, the third meaning is that which exceeds signification: Barthes calls this signifiance. In a given still, all three meanings are always present, layered as in geologic sediment, but in the third meaning the play of meaning escapes language and opens up to infinity. Yet the third meaning is rooted in the materiality of cinema as a medium: its sheer significatory excess, impossible to exhaust. He finds it in minute details of the image, in the way that Eisenstein and his players’ artifice is at once legible informationally and symbolically, while recognizable as artifice. The corporeal reality of the players persists despite, and is always co-present with, the artifice of costume and gesture.

The shape of a false beard as it is attached to a chin; a precise shape of a bun of hair; the graphic play between a headscarf and a convex mouth; the stubbornly physical masses of hands and faces; all these have a concrete presence which exceeds communication and signification (which nonetheless remain). The third meaning is “a signifier without a signified,” one that “cannot be described” because “it does not copy anything- how do you describe something that does not represent anything?” The signifier of this third meaning maintains a state of “perpetual erethism” within the image where it exists as an accent, “the very form of an emergence, of a fold (a crease even) marking the heavy layer of informations and significations.”It “structures the film differently without… subverting the story,” and is thus where “the filmic” begins because it is “where language and metalanguage end,” it is “the representation which cannot be represented.”

For Barthes, the third meaning has fruitful implications for his interest in semiotic liberation and open textuality. For one, “it outplays meaning- subverts not the content but the whole practice of meaning.” For another, because it points to the filmic, properties of the image specific to cinema’s basis in photography, and yet can best be grasped within film stills, he can argue that studying the film still breaks with the tyranny of 24-frames-per-second. This aligns nicely with his attacks on the authority of the text elsewhere (“The Death of the Author” for one); to study the film still becomes a kind of resistant act.

While I remain a fan of Barthes, his larger intellectual project doesn’t really engage me, not that deeply. What does is that this interplay and co-presence of meanings in the cinema points to one of the many enduring fascinations of the medium: its excessiveness. The sheer inexhaustibility of the film text, the richness of the object- and not, I would argue, only Eisenstein’s, but every film. We can study film in general or a film in particular from any number of vantage points, and we will never reach a point of depletion (diminishing returns, perhaps, but never depletion). Some of my students worry that studying film in class will kill their enthusiasm for it, as I worried when I started. But the longer I go, the richer film seems to me, the more I am fascinated not just with the possibilities of the medium (which are so far from being exhausted), but with understanding all the (innumerable) ways films can work. In part, this blog will be a chance to explore not just films but all sorts of media objects and texts from all sorts of vantage points, in an exploratory way that can be open and speculative without needing to reach the same rigorous standards or completed state of a piece to be published.

In the mid-1990s, Barthes’ essay on the aleatory charms of the cinema inspired a summer screening series, The Third Meaning Film Society, which was essentially an occasion for Michael Pogorzelski to project departmental prints suffering from vinegar syndrome and needing airing out, and for a few friends in the department, myself among them, to enjoy the prints with him. It remains for me not only one of many fond memories of my grad school experience, but indicative of the kind of thing I’ve always loved about academia: sitting around with people sharing interests and passions, sharing in fact passionate interest (which ought to be why you go into academia- it ought to be a vocation, and maybe an avocation at the same time). That’s not to say you have to be an academic to have those passions and interests, far from it (and god knows not all academics have anything like a passionate interest in what they do). But it’s why I’m an academic, and why I want to write this blog.

So this blog is called The Third Meaning because of these long-ago memories, and the enduring, ineffable appeal of the cinematic image, which Barthes tries to get at. The blog won’t be about Barthes by any means, and I’d rather it not be tied down to any one theoretical foundation. If it does end up drawing on any single methodology, it will be a relatively open one: historical poetics, drawing on historical analysis to examine causality and functionality in the formal properties of texts (best embodied in the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson; David was my advisor at UW, and has had an enduring impact on my thinking, though my interests, concerns, and convictions frequently depart from his). My work as a scholar and a teacher is heavily informed by historical poetics, so I can’t imagine avoiding it here. After all, in part this blog is supposed to provide a forum for academic work in progress, to open projects up to discussion, feedback, argument, and open-ended conversation. But it’s also meant to provide an outlet for ways of thinking, and objects of study, that fall outside of my day job. It’s to give me a place to speculate about hypotheses, to borrow a phrase from Chief O’Doole in Miller’s Crossing. Mostly these will concern cinema, sure, but the blog is also intended to provide a relief valve for thoughts on television, comics, music, literature, and other cultural artifacts that have no other, immediate outlet in my professional life as a film scholar.

So, as a man once said: Are you sitting comftybold two-square on your botty? Then I’ll begin.

Coming up next: Drive and “retromania”

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