I cannot heave my film into my mouth: Barthes’s obtuse filmic

(In the opening scene of “King Lear,” when Lear asks his daughter Cordelia how much she loves him, she responds, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”)

In “The Third Meaning,” Roland Barthes argues that the obtuse meaning of an image – specifically, a still from a film – can subvert the story’s narrative and give rise to the truly “filmic.” This is based on the assumption that society – note that he doesn’t say individual humans but rather collectives of them, as if to imply the whole species – is impelled by a desire for meaning to create linear, logical stories. “This importance given to the narrative is necessary in order to be understood in a society which, unable to resolve the contradictions of history without a long political transaction, draws support (provisionally?) from mythical (narrative) solutions” (63-4). He then argues that a function of obtuse meaning is to empty this imperative for significance to the point of insignificance, or rather to a multiplicity of significances. Through the obtuse meaning, “the story (the diegesis) is no longer just a strong system (the millennial system of narrative) but also and contradictorily a simple space, a field of permanences and permutations…. the field of displacement, the constitutive negativity” (64).

For many, narratives have been understood as the tools through which we create meaning regarding ourselves as individuals and as groups. A story lies behind the scar on one’s knee just as much as the formation of a political party. This is what Barthes means by “mythical”: narratives as explanations for phenomena, human and otherwise, and regarded as basic truths by which our behavior and attitudes are directed. Given narrative’s such useful purpose and the very human tendency towards storytelling, what then would be the purpose of subverting narrative? Of flouting the advantages of “mythical solutions”? Is this a reformulation of “art for art’s sake”? What is the benefit of the “counter-narrative” (63)? Though Barthes claims that the obtuse meaning gives rise to the filmic, what advantage does this new system of significance pose over the written word and speech?

In fact, how can anything pass beyond language, as Barthes asserts of the filmic? “The filmic begins only where language and metalanguage end…. The third meaning – theoretically locatable but not describable – can now be seen as the passage from language to significance and the founding act of the filmic itself” (64-5). That Barthes elaborates on the filmic through language is ironic, even more so since he was a Structuralist, a figure in the school of literary thought that asserted the inescapability of language. It seems to me that the filmic is just another language, another system of significance/signification/meaning wherein the basic unit is the image instead of the word. What then is the important distinction? How is the filmic unlike language?

Perhaps Barthes means to assert the filmic as a pure sign or a non-sign. Whereas words mean something – signify, allude to, or represent a referent – the filmic presents the referent or signified itself. The filmic has no need for signifiers, for allusions to specific meanings, since it presents the signified as its own signifier, and it is therefore beyond language. What remains is “significance,” the thing itself unmitigated, the film as an open-ended “field of permanences and permutations” wherein the destruction of meaning opens up its unbridled creation. In this way, the filmic seems to achieve what language cannot: a state of expression that is not representation.

Yet Barthes still seems to assert the filmic as meaningful, as obtaining a non-inherent value through a system of differences and juxtapositions – a process akin to language. Furthermore, most recognize film as an art, if at least a medium, and art and media by their very natures are representations. What then is the filmic?

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4 Responses to I cannot heave my film into my mouth: Barthes’s obtuse filmic

  1. amelia daly says:

    I had several questions regarding this reading also. I am not convinced that there is a third meaning as he tries so intensley to argue. As I was looking through film definitions, I came across mise-en-scene which is French for all things within a scene. This includes make-up. The Yale website describes its use saying, “narrative films often manipulate the elements of mise-en-scene such as decor, costumes, and acting to intensify or undermine the ostensible significance of a particular scene.” classes.yale.edu/film-analysis/htmfiles/basic-terms.htm

    This definition brought to mind Barthes descriptions of the stills he uses as examples in the essay. Particularly, image VII, “Ivan’s beard raised to obtuse meaning.” (58) Why is this filmic? Why is this as Barthe suggests, “an actor disguised twice over?” (58) I see these images in the same way as I would read a description of a character in a novel. That beard is necessary, maybe minor but not insignificant, in order to fully realize the personality of the czar. I see his argument as a formalistic approach to mise-en-scene, still I am not sure why the specific distinction of this practice.

    In reference, Marie, to your concern with the definition of filmic, I too struggle there. I see how he is trying to identify filmic as a term or tool which only can apply to film, however, what he describes applies to most other media. This is an attempt to amplify the art of film and separate it from other media.
    In speaking of other media, his argument on stills was a poor attempt to amplify this media distinction. How is a still of a film not similar to a photo in a series, or a photo whose context is widely known? If a still is called a photo is it not possible to consider it in the way we consider photography? I do not agree that it is not “possible to say that one is on top of the other or that one is extracted from the other.” (67) Still shots from films can easily get extracted and transformed from film. Especially with the passage of time and context. I am familiar with the images from classic movies, like Gone with the Wind, yet I do not know what the images represent in the film.

    I am looking forward to discussing this reading further in order to gain more understanding of it.

  2. You brought up a point for me that really helped to understand, I think, perhaps what Barthes is talking about when he tries to describe the obtuse, the filmic. In asking what is beyond narrative and beyond language, I was struck with the memory of watching the film Little Children . During that film, before the viewer told expressly that there is a pedophile living in the family-friendly neighborhood, and that the characters are living lives full of deception and affairs, there is a sort of creeping sensation of something being a bit off that is hard to attribute to anything actually happening onscreen. The relationships between the couples and even between parents and their children seem tense, but there’s something darker beneath the service that you can sense before you even realize it. This all comes to fruition when the aforementioned pedophile (very inexpertly) castrates himself and is found bleeding on a child’s swing set in a public playground. Perhaps this is (part of?) what Barthes is getting at: films can have these sort of inexplicable effects on us without using any tactic that we can put a finger on. Novels and other forms of literature can certainly cause a creeping, sinking feeling, but you can nearly always point to the language used as the reason for that feeling. There’s not such a clear-cut explanation when it comes to film.

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