Monday, 19 April 2010

Contexts of Reception

The audience's act of reception of a text is always situated within a socio-cultural context the nature of which provides the frameworks on/from which the meaning (or meanings) of the text is constructed. The text does not posses meaning in & of itself. Rather it's meaning lies in it's use within a given set of rules of use in a given setting. The text will be encoded with meaning by the producers and medium of the text but the acceptance (or otherwise) of that preferred reading is an act of the audience not of the text producers or its medium (although it must not be forgotten that the creators of the text and its medium are a part of and or have an effect on the socio-cultural context of reception and so are more involved in the act of reception than in just the provision of an encoded text to be worked on by the audience; see below).

This Wittgensteinian point has been made by Stuart Hall (Encoding/Decoding), David Morely (Family Television & Nationwide), Roland Barthes (Denotation-Connotation), and other proponents of Reception Theory.

The heart of the matter lies not with the text (although it's 'encoding' is a part of the act of reception it is not necessarily essential) but with the socio-cultural context. It is that context that provides the arena in which the text is used and it is in that use that its meaning lies.

This meaning need not be just of the text and its elements (i.e. of plot etc) but of the text in context. The meaning of a TV drama (for instance) can be constructed to show a range of ideological, narrative, representational messages but its meanings also involve its quality as entertainment or as group interaction (family time or as part of a friendship) or indeed as interpersonal communion (a date). The range of meaning of the text within its socio-cultural context also involves distinction (from Bourdieu), social-status, phatic communication (what the USA calls the 'water-cooler moment'; it gives something to talk about), the establishment of social solidarity (i.e. from Durkheim) in that it can create a connection between people, finally we could consider the range of communities that could be formed around the text ('fandom').


Michael Moore - 2002

Whenever we 'read' a documentary we are concerned with 4 principle issues.
1. What argument is the documentary making?
2. What is the role of the documentarian in this text?
3. What techniques does the documentary use to make its argument?
4. What techniques does the documentary use to establish itself as realistic?

The latter is a key concern of documentaries if they are not acceptable as realistic then they are not documentaries. To achieve a level of realism such that the text is accepted as realistic is the minimum goal of a documentary. So when ever you 'read' a documentary you must consider what its discourse of realism is.

1. Polemic - In many ways Moore is more a polemicist than a documentarian in that making an argument is his most important goal. This is not necessarily a bad thing as all documentaries contain ideological content and Moore foregrounds his own ideology so that we can engage with it; a form of polemical honesty. Documentaries that claim to be just showing 'x' as it really is are constructing a claim to truth and are in many ways more suspicious than documentaries with very strong arguments because they don't wont to engage with the audience in regard of their ideology.
2. 'Facticity' - As this text is a polemic with a very specific ideological message it has been attacked, attacked and attacked again on the basis that it misleads, lies, and distorts 'the truth' (a quick google will throw up plenty of examples of this). Such criticism rather fundamentally misses the point; there is no truth to distort only representations to be constructed and contested. Moore has initiated a representational struggle over guns and fear within the USA and the many responses denigrating Moore and Bowling for Columbine represent participation in this representational struggle. Of course pro-Moore participation also occurs and he and his films have many defenders. For the moment its worth noting that many of the editing techniques used by Moore to construct his representation are common to all documentarians and that anything other than the replay of raw footage (such as Andy Warhol's Empire - his 1964 8 hour long real time film of the Empire State building) would be unacceptable as documentary if Moore's critics had their way.
3. Techniques - The techniques of documentary must always be part of our consideration when reading such a text. Consider the role of each of the following in the construction of the text.
The selection and compression of filmed material - Interviews and other film sequences are always edited often with the intention of creating a specific effect.
relation of sound to image - the sound being heard and the images being seen need not have been captured simultaneously and could have been edited together later.
editing - the process of cutting from one scene to another structures the meaning of the documentary and cannot help but have an effect on our understanding of the text.
use of narrative - narrative is a key concept in media studies and so the use of narratives in documentaries ought to warn us that more is at stake in even the simplest seemingly non-ideological documentary then the simple depiction of the real. For the moment consider;
what does the narrative include and exclude?
what is the relationship of plot to description?
around who or what is the narrative focused?
does the narrative follow Todorov's schema?
what is the mode of address of the text?
function of narrator - A narrator is present in most documentaries and is the central instrument for the presentation of the preferred reading of the text.
set-ups - It is not always possible to tell how much preparation went into each filmed section of a documentary. Some sequences of all documentaries take huge amounts of preparation and therefore need to be approached carefully.
Filmed Vs Found - There is in every documentary always a tension between material freshly filmed for the documentary and found material that is used for illustrative and/or informative (comparison/contrast, etc.) reasons. The editing process can make it hard to distinguish the two types of material.
effect of camera and crew - the presence of the camera changes peoples actions and re-actions and so it must always be remembered that every situation depicted in a documentary is artificial in that the camera would not normally be present.
entertainment functions - documentaries do not exist solely to inform and educate it is also a part of their purpose to entertain. The balance of inform, educate, and entertain is very hard to maintain and most documentaries favour one over the others.


Structuralism is an area of social & cultural theory that focused on and analysed the structures found in human society. It was very important in the early & middle C.20th and is still a very useful perspective even though there have been several more recent developments (such as Post-Structuralism & Deconstruction).

Structuralism emerged from the realisation of certain linguistic & literary theorist and anthropologist that all human societies and cultures possessed shared elements. Claude Levi-Strauss, for instance, noticed the universal prevalence of incest-taboos and binary oppositions in narratives (e.g. good/bad, man/women, young/old).

Most structural theory of narrative isn’t that immediately useful to us but three things certainly are;

The Death of the Author

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov

The ‘narrative codes’ of Roland Barthes

The Death of the Author - This is the title of an essay by Barthes on why authors are unimportant in the understanding of a text and which draws its inspiration from the remarkable finding of structuralist anthropology and literary theory that all stories contained the same or similar elements regardless of the society and/or culture they originated from. All human stories were made up from the same narrative elements (see Propp, The Brothers Grimm, the aforementioned Levi-Strauss, Todorov & Barthes (see below) and so all an ‘author’ really does it reform those existing elements into a specific (not even necessarily new) pattern. If the creators of texts are not their ‘authors’, in the sense of the originating force, then we should only think of them as writers and relegate them to the background of analysis.

The ‘equilibrium’ theory of Todorov - Todorov established that most narratives could be shown to conform to one narrative pattern and that this pattern was indicative of a conservative ideology. Equilibrium - Todorov suggests that a narrative pattern based on equilibrium - disruption - return to equilibrium - new (or re-established) equilibrium. By which we mean that this narrative pattern would present itself in a text as some form of social stability (family life, a peaceful setting, daily life, political stability) which is disrupted (murder, revolution, the return of a prodigal family member, the appearance of a super villain) this disruption needs to be worked through (by investigating the crime, the superhero struggling for good, the family mending itself, society repairing itself or being repaired) so that a new or re-establish social stability is in place for the conclusion of the text (the hero defeats the villain and his evil plan, the murderer is apprehended, the family is at peace with itself, the safety of the old order is repaired). Todorov did not contend that all narratives conformed to this pattern but that a majority of them did and that they did so for ideological reasons. Todorov shows this pattern to be an ideological tool that acts against change and in favour of the status quo.

The ‘narrative codes’ of Barthes - Barthes extended the structural analysis of narrative by suggesting that all narratives where built up from five interweaving codes. These codes, the hermeneutic (based on enigma), the proairetic (based on action), the ‘semantic’ (based on connotation), the ‘symbolic’ code (based on antithesis), and the ‘cultural’ code (based on shared knowledge & intertextuality), are mixed in different ways throughout different texts. For our purposes (A-level media studies) the first two codes, the hermeneutic (enigma) and the proairetic (action) are the most important because they are the most obvious. We can see them at work whenever there is a mystery to be solved or when action is needed to resolve a situation (they are very commonly seen in crime & thriller fiction) and they both have a strong interpellative effect in that they draw us in to the text. This is useful because we can see how narrative elements are used ideologically.

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