Interpretation - scribble I


For M, interpretation is a container of grand theories. Focusing on this issue situates himself at a central and fundamental position in the film studies, or even in the humanities.

What is film studies? I imagine everyone on boat have been asked this question at least once, and with good cause. One of my instinctual response is to distinguish it from film criticism, which everybody knows what it is. But is film study really distinguishable from film criticism? Are there any real distinction between their object of study, methodology and ultimate purpose?

If we take “film is meaningful”, or “film means” as an essential claim for the discipline, we can see that film criticism shares the same claim.

What are the things we do in film studies but not in film criticism?

We can name historical and institutional studies. But ultimately, isn’t history meaningful relationship between so-called “facts”? Aren’t such studies serve the meaningfulness of cinema?

Take the example from Young Mr. Lincoln. The dark cloud is interpreted as the impending civil war, not as a cause for storm. Why we are able to do so? Because we have already done so. In the primitive time, it is not unnatural to associate natural phenomena to human causes. We stopped doing so, since we are now convinced that these are superstitions. In other words, we still have the need to interpret the cloud, but science has taken the role of religion. In art, nevertheless, metaphor still reigns. A painting, for example, is extremely open to interpretation—or we say it has a high interpretability—so that without which, the painting is pointless. By comparison, photography is perceived by many as less interpretable. But this of course excludes what the modern art has injected into photography and made it a contrived art as much as the painting. Many photographers do not capture what they see—like painters, they manipulate, arrange, all unabashedly. Yet in photography, there still is this strange cult of “Thou shall not temper the image”, a most peculiar worship to facial realism. But this is something else.

Again, it could be said that interpretation represents what we normally define art as an scholarly object. A work of art is not necessarily interpreted. An artist does not necessarily think of such things when creating the work of art. But for the work of art to become an institutional object, it has to be “lifted out of the real world.” (Arthur Danto) It has to be identified as a work of art first, before interpretation can commence. That is why, although modern art appears to be rebellious, it still has the need to occupy a space in museums and galleries. A behavior art has to be recorded and reported on art magazines, or leaflets circulated underground, to obtain this cause of interpretation.

As for films, the early Lumière films for instance, they were not interpreted when they were first shown. The Gorky piece focuses on the viewer’s experience on the screening, but not on what the film is about. Is it only because this experience is still too overwhelming? What will happen if Gorky was shown not some Lumière films, which are about Paris street sights and so on, but a narrative fiction?

In hindsight, we may explain that what Gorky was watching is what we now call documentary, which is the least interpretable of all films. They are just too concrete to let interpretation to break their glass armor. On the other end of the spectrum, the experimental films, are in a sense too abstract, which does not deny interpretation, but discourage any specific interpretation.

Interpretability depends on the very act of interpretation. Consequently, being able to commence an interpretation of a particular subject, is a power, and implies authority.

Biblical exegesis is the best example for this.

There is, obviously, another very different kind of interpretation. When a musician plays a piece, or when a jazz singer sings an old tune (e.g., Holly Cole performs Tom Waits), the point is, what does their performance bring INTO our understanding of the original piece or composition? A musician’s talent is all about interpretation. But how to account for the difference of quality there? Does it require trained ears? Why the judgment is often indisputable (everyone will agree, Rubinstein is a very good interpreter of Chopin)? How this talent is acquired, and why can it be recognized?

I don’t think all these questions can be adequately answered by examining the following two essays, but let us regard it as a good start. It shows us at least one interesting thing: film interpretation (actually a form of literary interpretation) is often not about the film.

Erwin Panofsky: Studies in Iconology. Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance

In the introduction of this book, Panofsky explains, in a very succinct form, what is his approach to the issue of subject matter, meaning and form.

It seems that Panofsky divides the mental process involved in an aesthetic process into several stages. The first one is purely formal perception, dealing with “the general pattern of color, lines and volumes.” (Panofsky 3) Arguably, computer vision can do the same thing. The second stage would be to recognize the factual meaning of this particular vision, that is, what are these colors, lines, volumes represent as in our real world. For this we need the same practical experiences which a baby or a computer program will try to learn in order to understand its vision. What goes beyond this stage is what Panofsky calls “expressional meaning,” which differs from the practical one by its “empathy.” He writes,

To understand it, I need a certain sensitivity, but this sensitivity is still part of my practical experience, that is, of my every-day familiarity with objects and events. Therefore both the factual and the expressional meaning may be classified together: they constitute the class of primary or natural meanings (Panofsky 4).

Panofsky goes on however to emphasize how this sensitivity is a culturally cultivated product, which is secondary and conventional. Interestingly, the twist of the argument comes when Panofsky asserts that both these two meanings are only phenomenal, whereas another meaning, or content, is intrinsic. It seems that, according to Panofsky, only this last stage is what an aesthetic experience is all about. So what is this intrinsic meaning and how does it acquire its prominent status? To illustrate my understanding of the process, see the flowchart below:


As Panofsky notes, using the example of the Last Supper, what we call the intrinsic meaning of a work of art makes it “particularized evidence of something else.” What is important in “iconography in a deeper sense” is symbolic values “which are generally unknown to the artist himself and may even emphatically differ from what he consciously intended to express.” (8) The task of making the right associations, or interpretations, then, lies completely in the hand of the interpreter, scholar, art historian, critic and so on.

Now, any keen eye would see immediately here lies a potential danger, one that might jeopardize not the credibility of the interpretation, but its lasting appeal. I would discuss here briefly the example given by Panofsky himself, the painting by Francesco Maffei.

judith Panofsky made it a convincing case that it represents Judith and the Head of Holofernes. But what then? Does this give any particular reason why Maffei chose to make this painting, or in which way this variant of Judith is stylistically different from the others? Stephen Melville, in Attachments of Art History, argues,

Panofsky is–this will not be news–considerably more interested in the meaning of paintings than in their painting, and is particularly closed against the thought that the painting might itself override its meaning. Second, and more interesting, Panofsky's example here is clearly and grossly overdetermined: it is, like so many of his early objects, a concealed but active allegory of what he proposes as method–and what it shows is a violence at its heart.

Panofsky knows this–or perhaps its better to say that he knew it once, in 1932 when he wrote, in a text that did not make the passage to English but was instead supplanted by "Iconography and Iconology:"

In his book on Kant, Heidegger has some remarkable sentences about the nature of interpretation, sentences that on their face refer only to the interpretation of philosophical texts but at bottom characterize the problem of any interpretation. "Nevertheless, an interpretation limited to a recapitulation of what Kant explicitly said can never be a real explication, if the business of the latter is to bring to light what Kant, over and above his express formulation, uncovered in the course of his laying of the foundation. To be sure, Kant himself is no longer able to say anything concerning this, but what is essential in all philosophical discourse is not found in the specific propositions of which it is composed but in that which, although unstated as such, is made evident through these propositions . . . . It is true that in order to wrest from the actual words that which these words 'intend to say,' every interpretation must necessarily resort to violence." We do well to recognize that these sentences concern also our modest descriptions of painting and the interpretations we give of their contents to the extent that they do not rest at the level of simple statement but are already interpretations.

"Iconography and Iconology" is the developed forgetting or repression of this position, and its invocation of Salomé or Judith is, one might say, the symptomatic return of a violence that remains both integral to and invisible within the theory and practice of interpretation advanced to art historical centrality by that essay.

Melville’s core point is “to conceive meaning always as an effect rather than a precondition of a practice or structure.” To discuss the preference between such a “structure” (a seventeen century painting) and its meaning is way beyond my scholarly depth, but, should we apply Schusterman’s classification system to Panofsky, we might say he sits in the strong descriptivism category. What Panofsky uses as evidence to support his interpretation of the artwork, however, is not the authorial intention, but his notion of the history of style, and the history of types, which is actually in my personal opinion, “the history of symbolic meanings.” In the latter part of the essay, Panofsky then goes on elaborating these conceptions and explaining how the latter can inform the task of interpretation.

Richard Shusterman, “Logics of Interpretation”, in Surface and Depth.

What Panofsky offers might be convincing, as every great art historian is in their specific field. What is not treated, however, is the different ways in which an interpreter can perform an interpretation. For this reason the Schusterman essay treats, as the title indicates, the pluralism nature of the logic of interpretation. These logics are practiced by their proponents in a quite unconscious manner, and thus demand a proper classification, before their respective virtues and vices can be evaluated.

1. Descriptivism: the value is not in its literal truth but in the beauty and richness of experience it describes and affords its reader. It is divided further into:

1.1. Subjectivism (impressionism): Oscar Wilde (the critic as artist) & Walter Pater

1.2 Absolutism (strong descriptivism): Mathew Arnold

For this to work, the ultimate truth can only be the authorial intention. And here we have different branches: actual intention (Hirsch), ideal intention (Levinson), or independent intention (Beardsley).

Obviously, for Schusterman, strong descriptivism is a doomed path.

Despite the philosophical skill of its respective advocates, the actual/hypothetical intention distinction strikes me as lacking in real substance, since the author’s actual intention when writing the work can only be adduced, pragmatically speaking, in terms of a hypothesis about that intention (even if the author himself is making this hypothesis). As I explained elsewhere, since intentions are always to some extent indeterminable, corrigible, and variously interpretable, we cannot simply invoke an author’s intention in an artwork without involving an interpretive hypothesis as to what that intention is (in terms of scope, precision, etc.) or even which intention it is, because authors often revise their intentions during (or even after) the process of conceiving and composing their work. Advocates of both actual and hypothetical intentionalism fail to counter such arguments.

While I do find these arguments compelling, I cannot help but to conceive of the authorial intention as a very helpful, but not that authoritative weapon of interpretation. My defense of this line of thoughts is not without self interest; I do believe that for some authors, like Robbe-Grillet, Godard, or any of those who are completely articulate about their intentions, their articulations are very importance sources of information in conducting any interpretation. When Truffaut interviews Hitchcock, he is not necessarily an absolutionist.

1.3. Weak descriptivism: to substitute true/false dichotomy by plausibility (Margolis) and adequacy (Weitz). Also, this plausibility can be graded, albeit vaguely.

2. Prescriptivism: in this situation, the interpreter recommends how to regard an artwork (Stevenson). Schusterman notes that the critic’s decision on how the artwork should be observed is “quasi-imperative”. This decision, or “channeling of his sensibilities” (reminds us of Panofsky) is described as normative or prescriptive since they are “based on and governed by factors that are not merely logical or cognitive.” (39) Here I would like to further postulate that, as in the case of descriptivism, there are strong prescriptivism and weak prescriptivism. What the bible means is obviously prescribed by a few interpreters. They did an excellent job finding stylistic unity and coherency in meanings out of a text that is composed by multiple authors, in different times. And this prescription is rigorously carried out to its end-users. By comparison, when an art critic ventures to interpret an artwork, no matter how normative he can try in this particular field, he cannot persecute me for refusing to accept his interpretation. What differs this to strong descriptivism is that in the former case, the authorial intention is irrelevant.

3. Perfomativism:

Paul Valéry says, “a creator is one who makes other create.” In front of an artwork, what is the most justifiable impulse? Not interpretation, but inspiration. Yet Schusterman’s third category is, in my opinion, difficult to distinguish from the subjectivism that Wilde and Pater practice, or in my preferred case, John Ruskin.

Not entirely parallel to the three categories are three reasons of interpretation.

For the first case, the interpreter provide evidences to complement their impression or description of the artwork.

In the second case, the interpreter has as motive to increase the reader’s enjoyment, or making the work more impressive.

In the last case, the interpreter offers his own perception of the work to induce a similar effect to be produced on the reader.

A perceptualist reasoning, it seems to me, is what one generally finds in film criticism. Yet in scholar work this is not and should not be, entirely absent. A healthy dose of perception will only lighten up the often dry reasoning of such writings. There are people whose major obsession are the absolute obviousness of logical deduction and the completeness of reference. I guess they are simply not aware of the fact that the author is also responsible for the “pleasure of text” when he entices the reader. It is a frustrating experience working with these people in that they always demand anything they can think of be referenced. They also process the text as a machine with no reversal capacity—such a machine cannot accept anything that is not previously defined, that is not previously made clear, even if the definition or clarification are to be found immediately, if they follow the text.

In practice, the various logics of interpretations are often mingled. Interpretation is a game, or be more precise, a family or games, a hotchpotch and a hopscotch of infinite possibilities. Merely knowing the ingredients does not guarantee success for a cook. He needs to know exactly how much percentage of each ingredient is needed, and in which order and occasion to deploy them, according to his purpose. Likewise, for a perfume to work, the percentage has to be just right.


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