(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?