Beware! Construction! A semiotic methodology for approaching avant-garde cinema

Rea Walldén

Punctum, 3(2): 111-136, 2017
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2017.0018


This paper proposes a methodology for approaching avant-garde cinema based on Hjelmslev’s theory of sign-function. Its starting point is the epistemological rupture constituted by Saussure’s introduction of the concept of fundamental semiotic arbitrariness, which radically alters the relation of the semiotic realm to what lies outside it. The paper uses Hjelmslev’s model of semiotic stratification, concentrating on the strata of substance, their inner structure and their articulation with the extra-semiotic realm. It proposes some interpretive hypotheses regarding the lower levels of the strata, notably the incorporation in the model of the situations of production and reception. It goes on to apply the modified model to cinema, a particularly apt choice for studying the theoretical aporias regarding the inner structure of the expression-substance because of the complexity and heterogeneity of its expression-plane, as well as the multiplicity and lack of spatio-temporal simultaneity of its production and reception processes. The paper shows how some traditional ontological and epistemological positions regarding reality and materiality, as well as their aesthetic and ethical implications, underlie the ways cinema has been theorised. These issues are reformulated and resituated with the help of the Hjelmslevian model. The above sets the ground for attempting an inclusive meta-definition of avant-garde art. I argue that avant-garde is an approach to the arts, not a style, and therefore a structural description is needed to comprehend it. The definition I propose relies on the intimate connection between innovative artistic practice and a focus on the expression-plane, modelled on the prototype of revolution, sustained by a materialist ideology and motivated by a political demand: tell the truth, be revolution. In other words, attention to the expression-plane is the result of a political demand for epistemic sincerity; materiality becomes the path to know and, potentially, change reality. In the case of avant-garde cinema, this choice often takes the form of a struggle against ‘realist’ and ‘reductivist’ misconceptions, ie. the beliefs that cinema can give immediate access to reality and that it can be reduced to words. It is expressed as a search for cinema’s specificity and the expansion of the limits of the cinematic medium, as well as the questioning and subversion of cinematic conventions, such as representational and narrative ones. The final part of the paper attempts to identify and interpret specific techniques used by avant-garde cinema and classify them under strategies aiming at the revelation of cinema’s constructed nature through drawing attention to its expression-plane.

KEYWORDS: avant-garde, cinema, Hjelmslev, expression-substance
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