Monday, 19 January 2009

Beyond 'first-order' reading

In an exchange we've been having about ‘literacies’ in language and other media/modes, Mark Reid, who works in film education, writes

I think you can similarly go beyond basic, automatic decoding of moving image, into higher, more sophisticated shapings in film. We see it so rarely though - it's to do with style, - i think style in film is as intrinsically important as it is in prose, but just as hard to capture - and making the 'film sentence' (the phrase is Anthony Minghella's) speak with the voices of other films, heteroglossia-style. I watched a film called Birth over xmas, twice (this is rare for me!). Every frame is freighted with resonances from other films, and way beyond a crude 'postmodern collage' sense; it speaks with the voices snatched from other films. 'Reading' Birth is richer if one has seen films like Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, not arcane stuff, just cineliterate work. (And also richer if you've read Henry James and Edith Wharton - or seen the two or three very good film 'versions'.)

Right, I'm sure – I don’t have the cineliteracy to check it for myself. And it offers another way into one of my interests, what’s involved in education in literature.

Up to a point, people who can read (in the usual sense etc) can follow a story, just as at one level we can all follow a film (we can see what this frame is an image of, we know without working it out that there’s a lapse of time between these two). So what is there beyond that point? what is education in these things at a more advanced level? Mark indicates two things (they overlap but I think they’re separable in theory): style and intertextual allusion (frames that are already partly familiar from other works).

In written prose and poetry, the style is working on us, presumably, whether we’re aware of it or not, and intertextual allusion probably the same if we’ve read the other works (or examples of the other genres). Literary education – as opposed to just reading -- works to make us consciously aware: not for its own sake – because analysis is good, or because that sort of exercise is scholarly or rigorous or ‘proper academic study’; but to enhance our experience of the work. Admittedly some sorts of analysis can ‘kill a work’, as they say, but the idea is that the student notices more of what’s there.

What’s happening is that an aspect of the novel or poem (say) starts to present itself to us even though it isn’t there: no amount of looking at what is there -- this sentence or scene – will find the similar sentence or scene from Pride and Prejudice. Only the recall of Austen will do that, the bringing to mind of something that isn’t there, another book that’s not on the desk in front of me but is still on the shelf or in the library or given to Oxfam years ago.

When we start being aware of texts as the visible parts of vast webs, our experience stops being simply of the immediate words and sentence, and starts to be something abstract, a set of relations that aren’t available to direct inspection. The concrete presence of what’s before us gets less substantial and takes on the character of a shadow or echo or the presented front of something big behind it that’s not visible. What immediately presents itself ceases to be all the reality there is.

But then, if the process is going well, the opposite phase of the oscillation kicks in and we snap back to what’s in front us, which now appears both more concrete or tangible and ‘freighted’ with a sense of the abstract network of relations it’s enmeshed in. And then back again, and so on.

Style of course is partly a matter of which resonances get activated. But it’s also characteristic lexical choices, sentence shapes, types of transition from sentence to sentence and prosodic patterns (sound and rhythm). Again, the patterns those things form aren’t there in the immediate way that a particular sentence is in a spontaneous reading; we construct them unconsciously and, if education is doing its stuff, perhaps consciously as well.

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