The process of transformation of the observable reality setts off not only an already elaborated linguistic material but also new intermediary structures
that somehow are capable of displacing signs and homogenizing them within
an identical code, named “Transformational Code” by Edmond Cros. This
article ilustrates such process with the analysis of the first sequence of
“Citizen Kane” (Welles, 1941), “La vida del buscón” (F. de Quevedo, 1626)
and, more briefly, “La Región más transparente” (Carlos Fuentes, 1958), the Litin’s film “Viva el Presidente” (from Alejo Carpentier’s "El Recurso del
método“1975) a Velazquez’s painting,”La Túnica".
Processes of Transformation and Codes of Mediation
Textual production itself is not reducible to phenomena of consciousness. Indeed, it sets off complex processes of semantic transformation: in the first place, an already elaborated linguistic material, an “already said” that supports meaning, in which it simultaneously deconstructs itself, at every level:
(1) First at the discursive level (which refers us back to the preceding point) of the pre-asserted, set syntagmatic groups and lexies in which every human community mate-rializes the particular modalities of its historic, spatial, and social insertion.
(2) Then at the textual level, as in the well-known thesis of intertextuality1 Contrary to other critics, such as R. Barthes2 or Michael Riffaterre, who conceive of the in-tertext from the reader’s point of view,3 we place it within the context of the work of writing. Taking up, though from a different point of view, a suggestion of Riffaterre’s –who himself borrows the term from Charles S. Peirce4– I emphasize that it is not the intertext that is deconstructed, but more precisely its interpretant, that is, a certain idea of this intertext; it is not a previous textuality that is deconstructed within the new one, but in some way a certain manner of reading this earlier text. This decoding is provided, in the context of a grammar of reception, by the same semiotic apparatus that informs interdiscourse in another sense, unless one assumes –which would probably be more precise– that this decoding, none other than the interpretant, is but an effect of meaning produced by the genotext.
(3) At the level of myth (see in Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism the analysis of a text from Guzmán de Alfarache that rewrites the different components of the Golden Age myth), traditions of gesture and language in folklore (see inTheory and Practice of Sociocriticism the studies on the La Vida delBuscón and La hora de todos), that is, a broader domain of “social imagery.”
(4) At the level of archaic schemas deeply embedded within a cultural context and re-distributed under the effect of particular historical circumstances (see Ibid., pp. 225-230).
With respect to interdiscourse (speech), in which we see a primary modeling system, we see that these preconstructeds –or rather preconstraints– represent a number of secondary modeling systems.
However, it is not only the media that intervene in the process of transforming observable reality, and it is necessary to conceive, on another level, of the existence of new intermediary structures that somehow are capable of displacing signs and homogenizing them within an identical code.
Let us take the case of the first sequence of Citizen Kane, the representation of the character’s death. The camera, after showing the sign forbidding entrance to the palace, travels the length of the gate and enters a garden of exotic plants; the silhouette of the castle stands out in the background; a light in a window –the only one that is lit– suddenly goes out, at the same time that the musical accompaniment falls silent. Now inside the house, we perceive a recumbent body, then a snow-covered house inside a glass globe, held in a hand that drops the object; it rolls down some steps and breaks. In a closeup, two lips pronounce the word Rosebud; in a distorted vision, a nurse coming to cover the face of the dead man is seen walking through a doorway.
If we try to go beyond the anecdotal level, we observe, throughout this series of frames, the functioning of the concept of passage, crossing, or transgression: first, in the crossing of the surrounding enclosure, followed by the invasive entry into the room in which Kane has just died, but also, in a subtler, more meaningful way. as our gaze, at first fixed upon this microcosm of the glass ball, leaves it and then gives us an external view of it; finally, in the discourse on time, punctuated by two flashbacks, so that the precise mo-ment of the character’s death is signified three times (interruption of light and music –shattering of glass– veiling of the face). The image of death is thus linked to the reversal of the flow of time, which is linear during the camera’s progress toward the castle and is then, as it were, refracted and regresses to the precise instant when consciousness expires. Insofar as this recurrence is perceived within the context of an analogical series, the flash-back hides its syntactic function (which is to coordinate frames) to its own advantage. No doubt it reverses the events, but it tells us above all that it is reversing them; it draws atten-tion to its nature from a double point of view, both metalinguistic and poetic. Here the concept of crossing is effected by the evocation of a sort of barrier against which temporal linearity stumbles and breaks, and can now only bend back toward the past. In this sense, the flashback is integrated into a semiotic text that, apparently semanticized by the anecdotal, represents death as a transitus mortis.
This first observation is an index of a key to the decoding of the text and with re-spect to which other facts emerge. Thus, the entrance to Xanadu is shown as a sudden irruption into a haunted universe, devoid of any human presence, inhabited only by a light, which will soon go out. Emphasizing the temporal closure I have just described, the nesting of these closed spaces (property lines, high walls of the castle, the bedroom of the dying man, the crystal globe) betrays, at the same time, their emptiness and represents a theater abandoned by its actors, a shell definitively emptied of all content since the reign of darkness. It is in this context of emptiness that we perceive the central image of the rosebud, a dense focus of abundance rich with promise. We readily recognize in these phenomena a religious symbolism all the more clear since, at another level, Rosebud inscribes the theme of transience, fragility, and ephemerality, a message reinforced by the silhouette of the unfinished and ridiculous palace, signifying that, perceived from this point of closure, all is vanity. The shattering of the glass ball after a brief run down the stairs says it also, an evident symbol of the rapidity with which we reach the end of our existence, evoking the classical metaphor of the road of life. This first sequence is thus a meditation on death governed completely by Christian topoi. They will be noted in later frames that evoke a demiurge whose proud accomplishments (economic and journalistic empires, residences, etc.) are threatened by destruction. In the second sequence, The News on the March, this topos is expressed especially through the myths of Genesis and the Tower of Babel, which are there only to be deconstructed. These myths are not precisely what is in question in the first sequence, where, indeed, an entire cultural stratum seems to be filtering, generating, or displacing the images. This topos filters down into the hollows of the anecdotal pretext whose logic and programming it rejects for its own benefit. Thus emerges what will be one of the cinematic text’s major codes of transformation.
What is at issue will appear more clearly if I reduce the global signified of the set of images we have studied to the following schematic formulation: “Death came to X at home.” I have not been specific about the nature of this residence on purpose; indeed, I would be led, in the contrary case, to consider the narrative in terms of a puzzle and to mortgage, as it were, my analysis by introducing circumstantial aspects that relate either to the narrative or to the text, I am not sure which (X apparently dies alone, in a sumptuous castle: is this solitude connected with the religious text informing the film, or does it correspond, in the fictional context, to the authenticity of the character’s experience?). Reducing the first sequence to this formula, I bring out the arrangement of the visual material used to signify death: thus, on the first point, a series of symbols (interrupted light and music, shattering of the globe, veiling of the corpse’s face), but these first symbols themselves, whose neutral, banal, and somehow “secular” character is obvious, describe two points of view, by evoking not only contemplated death (recumbent body, dead man’s face covered by a sheet) but also experienced death, as the invasion of consciousness by silence and darkness. By this evident appeal to a process of identification, the text, going beyond the mere anecdotal pretext, interpellates me, insofar as this first signifier (the series of symbols mentioned above) acquires its autonomy: this death is henceforth no longer that of X but mine, ours. Textuality opens onto another dimension. The imaginary element brought into play to lend support to the narrative calls attention to itself and afterward develops, through an effect of contiguity, its own universe and its own text. The images chosen to signify the death of Kane are transformed by signifying a philosophical and religious conception of life, which is exteriorized in the iconic forms of the rose and the racing of the globe, a functioning that can be schematically represented as in the accompanying diagram. [Note that Se denotes Signifié (signified) and Sa denotes Signifiant (signifier).]
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX cuadro que insertar
Between Se1 and Se2 an ideological function is operating for which the fact of death is the occasion for a meditation on human existence and for setting rules for living. The trans-formational code I mentioned earlier corresponds to the ways this ideological instance in-tervenes in the production of meaning.
This ideological instance is expressed not only at elementary linguistic and visual levels. It also commands the syntagmatic ordering of signs and controls the narrative’s points of focalization, that is, the points of reference with which writing provides itself in order to organize the architecture of its signs. Thus, as we have also seen, the approach to Xanadu. exactly like the functioning of insert and flashback, concretizes at the phenotextual level the concept of crossing, which is semanticized in turn by the point of anecdotal focalization, as a modulation of the thematics of transitus mortis.
Beyond the framework of this first sequence the same voice is operating through interventions of a perceptibly different nature. The reconstruction furnished by the news-reel (The News on the March) is effectively organized around the growth of Kane’s power (its display, its extent, its origin) through a significant figurative language articulated, as we have said, essentially around two myths –Genesis and the Tower of Babel. The first of these myths, which is explicitly invested in the cinematic text by a landscape in which the boundaries between water and earth appear indistinct, develops as the background of a thematics dealing with the artificial construction of a second universe characterized by the accumulation of resources, economic means, and wealth. This sacred text, originally presented as the basis for a certain type of spirituality, functions here as the index of a point of reference in relation to which we are being invited to form a judgment on Kane’s undertaking. The presence of this text and the modalities of its deconstruction denounce, in the organization of this new Noah’s ark, the absence of any reference to God. The spiritual dimension inscribed in the text of Genesis reveals what is to be condemned in this project of reification; it points up, by a countermovement, precisely what was involved in the con-cept of vacancy in the initial frames. The textualization of the building of Xanadu, reconstructed in three stages (the creation of a mountain in a geographical environment –the flat stretches of Florida– which makes it appear as the work of a madman, the silhouette of a multistoried tower, the castle itself), contributes to a similar condemnation. A new series of indexes reinforces the preceding one: the symbolic nature of the mountain, a sacred site; the systematic use of low-angle shots, which are then semanticized by the whole semiotic text, and which organize its frames; the enumeration of the different titles –in every language– of the newspapers on the planet; the unfinished look of Xanadu, which, however, is already developing cracks; the fact that this castle has twice been likened to a tomb, the first time explicitly, the second time by analogy to the pyramids. The myth of the Tower of Babel is functioning, in that case, as the reverse of the myth of Genesis: contrary to Genesis, which acts as a foil, by analogy, Babel fits Kane’s project perfectly. It reveals the other side of the myth of Genesis, resolving its possible ambiguities. Thus the ideological authority reinforces its message through both of them.
Once these initial phenomena have been clarified, they, in turn, throw light on the role of the newsreel commentator’s voice –the exaggeration in which he cloaks himself, his way of distancing himself from his subject, his critical attitude. We should not attribute any merit to the journalist who presumably presents this obituary, remembering that all Kane’s projects, whether political or sentimental, have fallen into ruin, and that his predictions have proven false (on the Second World War, for example). All of Kane’s creations bear in them, at the same time, the mark of their nonconformist character with respect to ideological criteria and, as a consequence, the premonitory sign of the annihilation toward which they are heading. We see, then, how the ideological instance intervenes in the production of meaning through the mediation of a transformational code.
Thus far we have been grouping together phenomena that do not belong to the same category. The first refer to an obviously figurative language already recognized as such, as in the case of the mythical elements we have recognized, which are bearers of diegesis, according to the accompanying schema:
Clearly, figurative language feeds two strata of textuality, allowing us to clarify the func-tioning of the deconstruction in both cases. At the same time the text is being constructed, it is organizing the ideological reference points permitting it to be read.
However, as we have seen, this figurative language also controls the text in the form of a kind of secondary symbolization especially apparent in the first sequence, and that coincides only with the first level of symbolization by means of an internal focus of semanticization. This is true of the fall of the glass globe or the words spoken by the dying man. It is a question here no longer of the mere reproduction of a symbolic code repeated verbatim in the text but of a new concretization of the same code. This refers us to a textual instance that manipulates this first code but cannot be confused with it. It is this instance that semanticizes the syntactic axis and enters the combinatory genetics it creates, among other things, by systematically reproducing the category of the crossing, the implicit bearer of the vision of the transitus mortis. Consequently, I shall distinguish between the decon-structed symbolic material (Genesis, Tower of Babel) and the active principle of its decon-struction (the textual instance in question). We thus oppose the code of symbolization, understood as a figurative language conveying the signified, to the code of transformation that manipulates it and that is the active center of meaning.
If this distinction is problematic in the case of Citizen Kane, it is because the two codes coincide for the most part, but the reasons for this coincidence must be investigated. It will be clearer if we take the example of Guzmán de Alfarache. The text I study in Part II of Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism employs, in order to signify the Earth’s generosity, the myth of the Golden Age and of a Nature that spontaneously offers Man its products. This classical figurative language, conveying a nostalgic vision of the past, especially condemns com-mercial agitation and activity. After having fragmented the elements of this nostalgic vision, which now claim autonomy, the text of Mateo Alemán, under the probable effect of a code of transformation that remains to be described and defined, perverts this code of symbolization by inscribing in it themes of modernity (the overseas adventure, for example) and by transgressing the interdiction that, in all preceding texts, was imposed against trade; the latter thus comes to occupy the whole textual space.
In the case of La Vida del Buscón, the codes of transformation of semiosis are constituted by two social practices (Carnival/Inquisition) invested in the form of textual practices. From that point on, any element of mental structure that may be related either to interdiscourse or, when materialized in a text, to intertextuality, any linguistic material, any referent will undergo this double work of transformation before it is finally encoded in textual structures. Let us take the reality from which the word originates, namely the existence of an hacedor de paño (cloth maker), who represents an economic power in Castile at the beginning of the seventeenth century and whose sociopolitical integration is being rendered problematic. The object (el hacedor de paño) is apprehended by a mental structure in the framework of an enunciative and interactive context associating him with a community that is outcast because it is linked to a religious heterodoxy (converted Jews or new Christians) and is threatening on both religious and political grounds, since it is perceived as aiming to supplant the hegemony of the dominant group (manifested by interdiscourse). Such, at least, is the interpretant that the rest of our analysis leads us to reconstitute. The disappearance of the interpretant as such is already a problem in itself, and which would deserve further inquiry. (Why this refusal to designate the adversary other than indirectly?) The interpretant itself generates (or is generated by) a series of associated meanings: as a converted Jew, the hacedor de paño is supposed to hide himself and his condemnable religious practices; because he has economic power, he imitates the ostentation of the nobility.
These two elements, the already said (hacedor de paño), and the interpretant, pass. at the intertextual level, through a first medium, which is conceptist rhetoric: a lexicalized phrase is cunningly assimilated by the narrative instance to these enigmatic circumlocutions whose fashion, as Jean Molino remarks, extended at the time to all of Europe under the names of agudeza, wit, concetto.5 Behind this practice, we recognize the norm of the Ciceronian ornatus destined to enrich the noble style and functioning as an index of the locutor’s selection of a certain level of language. It is thus a question of valorizing one signified through the intermediary of translatio verbi, substituting for the first signifier a second that in some way transfigures the referent.
It so happens in this case that, on the one hand, this translatio verbi is applied to an incongruous referent, the object barber, which cannot enter the gravitational field of the elevated style, and, on the other hand, the substitute signifiers (shearer of cheeks and tailor of beards) correspond as well to pejorative signs. Clearly, we are seeing the reverse effect of the use of conceptist circumlocution, which catches the character at his most degraded and ridiculous: his desire to present an appearance and his inability to manipulate a certain type of discourse. The threat to social status inscribed in referential reality (the wool manufacturer aspiring to political hegemony) is out of place in parody, but this displacement presupposes a double encoding: an initial semiotic operation, assuming a will to disguise (Carnival/first code of transformation); a second semiotic operation that implies a demysti-fication (Inquisition/second code of transformation). Thus in this way observable reality undergoes successive mutations that add to it a “semantic surplus value.”
Our sociocritical reading would be incomplete, however, if we did not investigate the nature and origin of these codes of transformation. The reader will have observed that they are the very creations of the text, and that, for this reason, it hardly seems possible to set up their typologies. I have shown elsewhere how these codes, in the text of Quevedo, are part of the immediate context of the object at the source of the production of the text. This was self-evident in the case of descriptions of the Inquisition, which still remained closely linked to the persecution of the new Christians in Spain, but what about festive practice? Research on contemporary documents provides an answer. In early seventeenth-century Segovia the urban bourgeoisie represented by the cloth manufacturers turned the rural folkloric traditions of Carnival to their profit, as was the case elsewhere in Europe. Thus the sociohistorical situation that generated a series of phenomena of consciousness carried in its wake modalities that were destined to preside over its “textual enactment” and determined the foundations of writing. Another question emerges: did these two mediating structures have a relationship between them other than the one linking them directly to la Vida del Buscón as pretexted object? Yes, for the Carnival functions in la Vida del Buscón as the interpretant of the Inquisition, and the Inquisition functions as the interpretant of the Carnival. If these social practices are operating in textual production, the text, in return, gives voice to them, forces them to actualize their latent potentialities in the practice of writing.
These observations have been confirmed by my analysis of Scarface (see Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, Chapter 8), since journalistic writing, which enters the production of meaning in its role as mediating structure, is as much a part of the immediate context of sociohistorical and sociopolitical facts transcribed in the film (namely the questioning of the cultural model characterizing the new wave of immigration to the United States, the struggle of the dominant groups of white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants for what they believe to be their survival) as the background of the economic crisis and the impact of its fluctuations on political life. At the heart of the new culture that is supposed to be menacing the old, the domination of the media, mass communications and especially the great power of journalism are beginning to be felt.
My demonstration and definition of the codes of mediation in the cultural object furnish a response to the irritating question that is endlessly asked by “sociological” literary criticism, yet never resolved, at least if we refuse to accept as satisfactory the hypotheses advanced by Lucien Goldmann (recourse to the notion of world vision and the concept of homology). Indeed, it appears that mediations in the text present themselves through a set of concrete and discernible semiotic traces whose modes of presence vary from the mere transposition of ideosemes to the investment by ideology and interdiscourse of textual semantics and structures.
The structures of mediation that intervene between societal structures and textual structures are thus discursive in nature, whether involving cultural texts (the gestural and linguistic traditions of carnivalesque festivals or the codes of symbolization of social prac-tices, for example) or the specific discourses of transindividual subjects. These structures of mediation always present themselves in the form of semiotic traces, signifying sets and paths of meaning that we may term intratextual microsemiotics. The following analyses, however, as well as the theoretical generalizations we have drawn from them, demonstrate how these microsemiotics function at the different levels of the text. One must, indeed, consider them as essentially dynamic sets generating deconstructions deep inside the cen-ters of textual production. These deconstructions themselves are powerful semantic loci, to the extent that the intratextual microsemiotics reveal themselves and their ideological origin. To illustrate this process I shall group a certain number of phenomena, several of which will be developed further in Part II of Theory and practice of Sociocriticism. I have often cited the case of the deconstructions affecting the conceptist metaphor in Quevedo’s Buscón. The diffraction around which the deconstructions are organized, and which requires me to simultaneously decode, behind the burlesque phrase “shearer of beards,” the traces and the rhetorical mold of noble speech, signifies both the latter’s existence and its misappropriation by a subject incapable of mastering it, that is, by an individual who, in the last analysis, intends to hide his social position by identifying himself with a social group he deems superior to his own; but this misappropriation is visible as such by the discrepancy between referenced reality (barber) and the phrase he uses to describe it. The subject unmasks himself by the very way he tries to hide himself. In this way we grasp the double function (masking vs. -unmasking) of discourse in the whole text. I have attempted to show, above, concerning codes of transformation, how within these phenomena of deconstruction the effects of two social practices (festive practice and repressive practice), themselves understood in the context of their respective cultural texts, coincide.
We shall also see in the reading of a passage from Guzmán de Alfarache how an intratextual microsemiotic, which inscribes in the text the traces of a mercantile discourse, remodels the myth of the Golden Age.
The opening lines of Carlos Fuentes’ s La región más transparente attest a similar functioning. There the Christ-like image of the “crown of thorns” is deconstructed into a “crown of nopales,” in which two iconic traditions connected to different religious cultural texts coincide (Christian religion/Aztec religion). The syncretism emerging from this coincidence appears to be produced by the operation in Fuentes’s novel of a microsemiotic transcribing in the last instance the fundamental lines of force of bourgeois ideology in postrevolutionary Mexico.
We may apply the same methodology of concrete modes of intratextual representa-tion of mediations to cultural objects other than literature. Take the case of Litin’s Viva el presidente , a film version of Alejo Carpentier’s novel El recurso del método. On the transhistorical axis, a number of ideological tracings, among them positivism, are being deconstructed. At the very moment the President, in a train heading for the front, puts on his official uniform, we see behind him what seems to be his motto or his country’s motto: “God, Fatherland, Order,” suggesting in the background Comte’s “Order and Progress.” The gap between the original motto and what it has become is extremely significant in that the new formulation inscribes values absolutely contradictory to those of Comte and Comtism. Indeed, not only was positivism atheist, at least in its initial phase, and preached the love of humanity, but in a certain number of cultural texts God and Fatherland are contra-dictory to the notion of Progress. Thus, in this new figuration, Comtism is being shown in a profoundly disfigured form. This principle of falsification, of inadequacy, of perversion, turns round and round in the text, and we can compare it with the thought of Marti, itself contained within Castroism, which Carpentier claims as his authority and according to which every system of centrist thought is inadequate in Latin America. But Castroist thought is presented in the film, as it is in the novel, through a set of discursive traces and paths of meaning that organize an intratextual microsemiotic producing meaning.
1. See Julia Kristeva, Semeiotiké (Paris: Seuil, 1969), pp. 191, 195, 255.
2. Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973).
3. See Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry (Bloomington-London: Indiana University Press, 1978) and his highly suggestive study “Semiotique intertextuelle: l’Interpretant,” Rhétoriques Sémiotiques, Revue d’esthetique, 1-2 (1979), 128-150.
4. “That for which (a sign) stands is called its object: that which it conveys, its meaning; and the idea to which it gives rise, its interpretant,” C. S. Peirce, Principles of Philosophy, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, vol. 1 of Collected Papers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931), p. 171.
5. J. Molino, F. Soublin, and J. Tamine, “Présentation: problèmes de la métaphore,” La Métaphore, Langages, 54 (June 1979), p. 14.
[From Edmond Cros, Theory and Practice of Sociocriticism, Translation by Jerome Schwartz, Foreword by Jürgen Link and Ursula Link- Heer, University of Minnnesota Press, Minneapolis, Theory and History of Literature, Volume 53, 1987]