Analysis of the Western: Ideology (Myth), Structure, and Spectatorship

Few would disagree that popular narrative formulas (popular genres in literature and cinema such as crime and detective story, the Western, melodrama, horror film) and popular icons form a large part of the cultural diet of the majority of readers, television viewers, and film audiences. Still, we are in demand of more satisfying answers as to some major analytical problems we are to face when inquiring into the nature and significance of popular cultural productions and their formulaic structures.

Roughly put, since the 1970s, the structural analysis has been a major strand in debates on mass cultural production including, above all, popular literary and film genres. Drawing upon studies of structuralism (Saussure, Lévi-Strauss and Barthes), ideology theories (Althusser), and psychoanalysis (Lacan), it emerged as a corrective to old essentialist, positivist, and reductionist approaches to cultural phenomena: e.g., the reflectionist view on the base/superstructure distinction and the ideology as a false consciousness in opposition to scientific truth. Despite its contributions to enriching our understanding of the complex relationship between culture and society, however, it has not been immune from dispute. Particularly controversial in recent decades has been the privileged status granted on the text itself in the the formal (structural) analysis of mass cultural texts such as myth and popular literary/film genres. The debatable nature of the textual analysis animated by structuralism and ideology critique became more tangible in the face of the terrain that structural studies had left largely untouched, but that now came to be considered integral and vital to the structural evolution of popular cultural productions: spectatorship and related issues such as translation, pastiche, and hybridization.

Indeed, analyses of film genres including the Western have tried to integrate the question of spectatorship into the structural study of the text, underlying which was the shared sense that genre traditions are always in negotiation with the audience: for instance, John G. Cawelti, Will Wright, Jim Kitses, Robert Ray, and so on. It seems, however, that they have oscillated between the notion of possible variations of the fundamental structural elements in the text (more accurately, locating the possibility of the reader’s sovereign intervention in something fissures in narrative or failures of textual closure, that is, the moments of the text turning against itself) and the idea of reconfiguring the established meanings of the textual structure through new extra-/con-textual discoveries (e.g., drawing attention to tendencies of public reception inconsistent with structural conjectures). However, we are still left uncertain how much those efforts to account for the interaction between text and society have been successful. The former is problematic in that no matter how rigorously it is done, there would still remain an unbridgeable gap between the textually conjectured spectatorship and the spectator’s actual response; the latter is also unsatisfactory in that such data as box-office records, surveys, and interviews can only provide limited information regarding what appeal a popular formula film has for the audience in a specific historical conjuncture in that the masses can hardly represent themselves in an articulate manner and even in an intimate form of investigation such as interview their responses can rarely become substantially more than those already framed by analyzers. Everybody is a philosopher, but not everybody is a professional philosopher. In the institutional sphere of discourse, therefore, popular philosophy and aesthetic necessarily remain obscure and latent. They are only confirmed through action, more precisely, the act of choice. We should know better than allowing a passion for mass culture to shove away the question, Can the subaltern speak?

Perhaps, Benjamin’s notion of history of the text deserves close attention here: that is, the text that, like a living organism, goes through the cycle of birth, maturation, decay, and death.

Robert Ray’s notion of disguised Westerns: while designed to articulate certain ideological-structural tendencies in the Western and prove their centrality in the mass imagination in the U.S. as is evidenced in their persistence in different generic garments, the notion tells little about the Western itself and its evolution. To reverse his notion of disguised Westerns, one can argue rightly that what he identifies as certain tendencies in the Western can apply to any other popular genre and they tell little about specific appeals the Western genre has for the audience. If the certain tendencies can be effectively expressed in other genre forms than the Western, why the Western? If what the Western can give the audience can be given by other genres as well, why not other genres instead of the Western? In other words, his emphasis on certain ideological-structural tendencies fails to provide a convincing account for why the Western becomes a big deal to filmmakers and audiences at a specific historical conjuncture?

Structural Studies: John Cawelti, Will Wright, and Jim Kitses

Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society and John G. Cawelti’s Six-Gun Mystique Sequel: According to Fredric Jameson in “Ideology, Narrative Analysis and Popular Culture” (Theory and Society [Winter 1977]), the two critics offered “materials for a new theory of ideology–surely the key link or mediatory concept in any attempt to link cultural objects and social phenomena” and demonstrate that “a new concept of the ideological, if it is to draw on the findings of the study of myth, of psychoanalysis and of structural anthropology, must take as its privileged object of investigation narrative itself” (543).

John G. CaweltiThe Six-Gun Mystique Sequel (Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1999)

An outcome of a mix of New Criticism, the neo-Aristotelianism of the University of Chicago, and structural analysis which, inspired by the first two, involved an insistence on the relative artistic and cultural autonomy of artworks and a radical decontextualization of the text in opposition to various reflectionist approaches (4).

In the 1960s and 1970s, the American version of structuralism began to pay attention to popular genres: “The new scholars of popular culture [at that time] insisted on the validity of popular forms as artistic expression and attempted to formulate the concept of a popular aesthetic which would validate the artistic significance of popular works in their own right. As I put it in 1970 in The Six-Gun Mystique ‘works of art, whether popular or elite, highbrow or lowbrow…are governed first by their own laws and secondarily and indirectly by social and psychological dynamics.’ This orientation led to the development of a variety of new and more complex techniques for analyzing the distinctive structures, symbolism and narrative methods of popular works and a de-emphasis on the relationship between these works and the societies and cultures which produced them” (4).

The structural turn of New Criticism → structural forms (or formal elements) of popular genres, which are distinctive not only from contexts but from authors as well: “In analyzing a popular genre, we are not concerned with individual works, such as a single episode of Gunsmoke or a particular novel by Zane Grey, but with the genre, itself…[T]he culturally significant phenomenon is not the individual work but the generic set of formulas or recipes which writers, producers, and directors follow in turning out individual novels, films, or television programs…[In genre studies,] the individual works are ephemeral” (13).

As for the question of history of genre formula, Cawelti resorts to the notion of the capacity of readjustment: “It is the formula or genre that lingers on, evolving and changing with time, yet still basically recognizable…Indeed, one important reason for the continued development of a genre is its very ability to change in response to the changing interests of audiences. A genre that cannot be adapted and transformed will finally disappear, as the Western, after its long history, seems finally to be disappearing into its own sunset” (13).

Will WrightSixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: U of California P, 1975).

An attempt to find a balance between structural analysis and reception (communication)

“Neither the falling apple nor the Western can be analyzed as they are experienced; both events must first be conceptually simplified and thus generalized. Seeing a Western is an experience that does not occur in this book. On the other hand, an understanding of the Western which is not possible simply from watching a movie, does not occur. For understanding to take place, the experience must be interpreted from within an analytic framework that neither contradicts the experience nor exhausts it. This framework is not simply imposed on the experience by the scholarly mind but is inherent in the experience itself, and it is conceptually revealed by the scholarly mind” (195).

“Seeing a Western is not simply an experience, it is a meaningful experience… What we want to understand is what makes the experience of the Western meaningful–why do we enjoy it?…Locating the source of meaning is not as simple as [detecting and] validating the existence of structure…[or certain distinctive features]. Meaning is not something that can be pointed to or hit with a hammer; it must be communicated–that it, meaning does not exist in the world, it exists in a relationship between things in the world and a person or group of people. Meaning cannot be observed; it can only be interpreted…[L]ocating the source of meaning in a Western, or in any phenomenon, is not an empirical problem. After agreeing on all the empirical properties of the phenomenon, if people still disagree on its meaning, there are not further empirical standards by which to settle the dispute. Meaning only exists through an interpretation….[and] no amount of tests and data can ‘prove’ which interpretation is correct” (196-97).

The real basis for any claim of knowledge is not scientific but political (199). In this respect, myths are not antithetical to rational analysis. As other politically motivated cultural phenomena including scientific knowledge, myths are also an interpretation of social reality. In other words, myths constitute a specific dimension of social life where one finds a way of understanding and reacting to hie/her surrounding milieu and provide a form of reasoning which serves as a meaningful ground for certain social actions (199-200).

In between structural analysis and the question of reception, Wright invents a peculiar sense of narrative: the notion of narrative sequence.

“We need an analysis of narrative structure that is not only descriptive but explanatory, that explains how individuals in a society interpret the narrative actions in their myths…an analysis of narrative as communication. [To that end] I will introduce the notion of narrative sequence…[, which] provides an analytic connection between the functions as a description of a myth and the narrative structure as a model and communication of social action…[As Arthur Danto argues] narrative both describes and explains a selection and arrangement of events…[In a way, explaining a narrative sequence] is to account for a change” (124-25); it “explains a change from a beginning situation to an ending situation,” which is done through the interactions and relationships of characters, in other words, social types (128).

However, Wright’s theory of narrative sequence or narrative as communication is largely dependent on the text itself, more specifically, what one can call its inner structure–if not as something fixed and inert, then something flexible and open to change. It still tells little about the communication between the text and its audience and the ways in which the latter is actively involved in the creation of the former’s meanings. The notion of narrative sequence seems to be grounded upon the preposition that what is and can be communicated resides in essence in the text.

Of course, I am not contending here that the question of reception is not so much about the text as about the audience. It is often the case that while some films generate great popular attention, others of the same cycle initiated or popularized by those films, can never get close to them in terms of popular acclaim. Apparently, the audience’s response cannot exist without the text that initiates it into certain direction and it is ‘something’ in the text that incites the audience into an active interaction with the text. It is too hasty and naive, therefore, to put aside textual analysis–an attempt to identify and articulate the ‘something’ in the text–in favor of the pleasure to demystify the text’s authority with contextual or extratextual facts scandalous to the text-centered mode of interpretation.

Jim Kitses (Horizons West)

A critique of auteurism + structural analysis + spectatorship

Cawelti on Wright (“Reflections on the Western Since 1970” in The Six-Gun Mystique, 2nd Ed. 1984, pp. 8-9).

1) Wright’s analysis is based on a too limited range of examples (Westerns of the highest box-office grosses).

2) Popularity can be a result of extra-structural factors such as film stars.

3) It attempts to “apply a quasi-Marxian version of structuralist-functionalist analysis to account for the cultural significance of Western films” and in so doing “makes an extremely dogmatic ideological commitment,” that is, establishing links between structurally distinct patterns and politico-economic developments of capitalist society. By doing so, it “fails to integrate the many factors that shape the development of a popular genre.” The key to the Western’s popularity does not lie outside the text; social and psychological dynamics are not central to the structure of a popular text; the textual structure contains the possibility to accommodate many different kinds of meaning and respond to changing cultural conditions.

Jameson on Cawelt and Wright in “Ideology, Narrative Analysis and Popular Culture,” Theory and Society (Winter 1977).

Written in the heydays of the structural study of the Western, Jameson’s review on the two major theorists in that strand, John G. Cawelti and Will Right, makes a good starting point for discussing the theoretical development of criticism on the Western.

1) Jameson tries to historicize Cawelti’s views, that is, bring all fixed perspectives of his back to the never-stopping flow of history.

First, he detects in Cawelti’s attempt to valorize the critical values of popular texts a tendency to assimilating those popular texts to high culture through the distinction between formula stories (simplistic, less realistic, and more imaginary) and their ‘serious’ counterparts (containing a tendency toward some kind of encounter with reality), an old strategy to include the mass or popular culture in the academic environment. But canonic works like Shakespearean plays were conventional and generic in ways analogous to mass culture today; they did not have some eternal characteristic of high or serious literature from the beginning and their canonization is rather a historical feature of contemporary society. To the practice of dignifying select popular texts as serious artworks does the persistence or return of genre conventions stand in opposition (546).

The effort to assign artistic values to popular texts has to do with democratic impulse. A structure study (an attempt to identify archetypal elements in a popular genre) often leads to a project of doing justice to its intrinsic values. Underlying this line of reasoning is the penchant for pluralism which tries to liberate a popular genre from all power relations. Cawelti’s book is constantly informed by a sense of the social functionality and the historical situation of its objects (the Westerns). On the other hand, the social and historical sense are equally constantly hedged (circumscribed) by all kinds of ‘pluralistic’ qualifications. “Pluralism had indeed become the strategy and the rallying cry for a contemporary American literary criticism in crisis” and the interest in popular texts “tends to degenerate into sheer eclecticism,” where, as important as high art, popular texts are responsive to something universal like the need of social ritual or psychological demands (547-48).

“The question [to be posed] is…how a type of narrative analysis may be devised which can be both structural and historical…Cawelti’s notion of the formula should have…served as a mediation between the intrinsic structure of a text and its public” (548).

2) Jameson finds a correction to Cawelti in Wright’s study of the Western: “Wright’s work…is at its strongest precisely where Cawelti’s work seems most tentative” (549).

In contrast to Cawelti’s synchronic and static typological approach, Wright’s structural analysis involves an attempt to view narrative diachronically as is evidenced in such notions as social function and permutation scheme, which shifts the focus to the production of narrative. The synchronic perspective in the structural study encourages a primarily typological or classificatory activity. “Wright, however, has used the concept of a sequence of functions to propose four fundamental variants, which he terms the classical, the revenge, the transition and the professional plots respectively. For him, therefore, deviation from a given sequence is meaningful and can only lead to further analytical activity, where for Propp it is simply ‘noise’ and an aberration, something which cannot be accommodated by his system” (551). The combinational or permutation scheme of Wright begins to accommodate history itself and the social situation, and in this kind of analysis, there can no longer be any question of the traditional incompatibility between intrinsic and extrinsic interpretation, between the formal reading of the text and its evaluation in terms of social or historical context for the combinational approach requires both types of interpretation, not in some impossible synthesis but maintaining each in its own methodological rigor (551).

Robert Ray: Ideology + Spectatorship

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980

The history of film theory has consisted almost entirely of a continuous search for a single masterplot.  McLuhan’s and Bazin’s technological determinism, the auteurists’ concentration on filmmakers (whether producers, directors, actors, or scriptwriters), the neo-formalists’ insistence on the aesthetic conventions specific to the movies, Kracauer’s socio-historical explanation of the German cinema, the sociological studies of the film audience—each has concentrated on one of the cinema’s determinants at the expense of the rest.

Despite my own call for diversification, I am not completely immune to the idea of a masterplot.  My own preference is for that synthesis of formalism and materialism fathered by Brecht and taken up by Noël Burch, and the groups surrounding Screen andJump Cut, who have unfortunately transformed that position’s original populism into a thoroughgoing critique of commercial cinema in the name of textual avant-gardism. (7-8)

Even Jacques Derrida, the principal philosophic critic of the longing for masterplots (or “centers,” as he calls them) in Western metaphysics, has asserted their necessity.  We have not yet learned to think without them.  I raise this point as an apologia for my study, whose argument, despite its diversity, inevitably rests on a tacit masterpolt—in this case, the notion of ideology. (10)

Ideology is not a thing that dictates such formation as the cinema, but rather a set of social relationships fought out in different arenas of which film is among the most prominent.  Within the cinematic area, the ringmaster is constantly changing; indeed, as each determinant enters the arena, it is mediated by all the others who are in turn affected by the newcomer…[, which prompts] investigations both of the various “relatively autonomous” determinants of film (e.g., technology, economics, actors and directors, styles of lighting and editing, political circumstances) and of their specific articulations in individual movies or groups of movies. (9-10)

No culture can exist without ideology, for ideology provides a culture with its way of perceiving the world…[Althusser elaborates] “Ideology is indeed a system of representations, but it the majority of cases, these representations have nothing to do with ‘consciousness’: they are usually images and occasionally concepts, but it is above all structures that they impose on the vast majority of men, not via their ‘consciousness’”…Those perceptual structures, the means by which a culture organizes its experience of the world, appear most compellingly in popular myths. (14-5)

[In order to analyze ways in which cinema affects and is affected by other instances,] I needed theories of overdetermination and transformation…[through] three schools of thought that have converged in recent film scholarship: Marxism…, myth study…and psychoanalysis…All three are theories of both overdeterminism and transformation [social phenomena as effects from multiple determinations, which in myth study involves rules of transformation, and in psychoanalysis condensations and displacements]…Thus, analysis in all three cases becomes an attempt to trace the path of that message back to its previous site…[the cause of a specific mode of representation in a historical juncture in Marxism, the reason for specific myths’ appeal for a given culture, and the repressed anxiety or wish behind manifest elements]. (11-12)

[Such notions as overdetermination, transformation and (fissures in) structures bring us to the following question.]  Have dissident variations (thematic or stylistic) any change of disrupting or subverting a movie’s intended ideological effect? (18)

While [some] celebrates the capacity of leftist filmmaking to reappropriate continuity forms for subversive purposes, I am interested in describing the converse: the American Cinema’s consistent ability to assimilate formal devices initially conceived as critical departures. (17)

There have been two major theoretical trends in American film history—auteurism and genre study—that have made an enormous effort to deny the obvious homogeneity of the American Cinema and rescue its subversive elements and diversity.  A more radical critic may see in them the ineffective nonconformist liberalism of the 1950s.  By examining some special and typical cases, I hope to provide a necessary complement to both the two principal traditions and the intransigently pessimistic view…For the most part…dissident elements have been contained.  If they had not been, would the movies in which they appeared have been popular?—a devilish question since it points to the great uncharted area of film criticism, the audience. (19-20)

Godard’s famous dictum (an equation of dissidence with quality): “Whenever a great film becomes a commercial success, a mistake has been made.” → a theoretically inspiring but disturbingly dogmatic.

(For more about Godard’s antipathy for popular cinema, see his comments on the spaghetti Western in Christopher Fralying, Spaghetti Westerns (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 61-2.)

Dissidence survives precisely in the realm of fantasy and imagination, in the crevices of conventional modes which never succeed in entirely subduing it → a too-easy nonconformism.

The popularity-conventionality nexus → “popular” is a more verifiable term than “great.”

The ‘mass audience’…has never been completely homogeneous or unchanging, but it has proved more uniform and stable than those perpetual realignments that have constituted the cult and art house audiences…[As such, my concern is to provide a scientific account for] those formulae that ensure a movie’s popularity (20-1).

* One positive effect of ideology study is that it broke down the barrier between high art and popular culture, if not altogether, then to some extent: “For contemporary critics, there is no fundamental difference between the analysis of the ideology of a major writer and an item of popular culture: both are seen as cultural or ideological structures that can be ‘deconstructed'” (John G. Cawelti, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, 148; see also 16). The notion of ideology also incited and allowed critics to analyze a text in conjunction with other ideological areas such as class, race and gender. For structuralist critics, it enabled them to get over the confinement to textual analysis and incorporate contextual and historical perspectives into their structural studies.

Christopher Frayling: Discontents with Structural Analysis Including Ideology Theories

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, revised ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

“The Althusserians’ emphasis on the ‘social knowledge’ inscribed within the text as an object…to adapt John Berger’s comment…cannot incorporate the act of film-making, or the act of looking at films, into their theoretical model…Further, the concept of the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’…has recently been misinterpreted to mean that social knowledge is produced by the ruling class, and transmitted through cultural and educational institutions controlled by the bourgeoisie into the otherwise empty minds of the working class; it thus ignores…that ‘it is not the bourgeois class that produces ideas, but bourgeois society…’ In other words, the dominant ideology may set the limits of ‘popular’ forms of knowledge…but it rests for the most part on the voluntary and spontaneous ‘consent’ of subordinate classes (rather than directly on repressive State Apparatuses)” (xxii).

Ideology and the high/low (art/popular or mass) distinction

“Some of these ‘Althusserians’ have not only succeeded in misrepresenting Althusser (by caricaturing his concept of ‘State Apparatuses’), but have also preferred to look out of the library window, rather than at the screen…there is more to a film, even a formula film, than simply a static text for experts in social theory to decipher…[Nor do I] belive that film audiences are so mindless as these experts have had to presuppose…the main trouble with [such labels as ‘mass,’ ‘popular,’ and ‘media’] is that they all imply that formula films are something to be enjoyed by ‘them,’ not ‘us'” (xxiii).

Critical cinema within Ideology?

What implication does it have to detect resistance within ideology or the subversive within formula (popular) cinema?: the question of whether a radical challenge [aesthetic or political] can ever emerge, however tentatively, from within formula cinema (xviv).

1) An Adornian question: the good bad taste as a licensed transgression within the ever-expanding culture industry.

2) Self-reflexivity: the attempt to come to grips with knowledge production and its method rather than with knowledge itself as is implicated in the proliferation of various ‘meta-‘ discourses such as metahistory, metatheory, metaanalysis, etc. (the Foucauldian transition from knowledge of history to history of knowledge).

2-1) A Brechtian verfremdung (estrangement): shocking the spectator into a questioning of what he or she is seeing, laying bare the device, stimulating the audience to question the visual conventions being used, reminding the audience that it is watching a film, and so on (xxv).

2-2) An excessive stylization (the baroque exuberance): being at odds with the (accepted) reproduction of the world in its immediate appearance, or with the everyday experience of the viewer (the melodramatic expressionism in Chabrol, Fassbinder, or Leone as an extension of the formulae of traditional popular genres) (xxv).

Leone “exploits the Hollywood Western, at the same time as ‘deconstructing’ it–an act of demythologization, rather than demythicization [or a radicalization of the mythic nature of the Western beyond the realm of historical reality]…Such an exercise, both a celebration and a denunciation, could only have happened from outside Hollywood, from inside a formula genre, and from an industry which has a lot of confidence in its audience” (xxv).

Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns as fairytales or fables for disillusioned grown-ups in that, with disenchantment certainly as one of fundamental elements at work in his works, Leone radicalized the mythic nature of the Western: “‘He had this childlike way of looking at the world,’ and he wanted to re-create for adult audiences in the mid-1960s the magic of going to the cinema in Trastevere when he was a small boy…The American Western had made its heroes and villains too mundane; now he would re-mythologize them. ‘The West,’ Leone liked to say, ‘was made by violence and uncomplicated men.'” Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 127, 141-42.

John Fiske: Text + Reception

John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

“Reading texts is a complex business; and the complexity of popular texts lies as much in their uses as in their internal structure. The densely woven texture of relationships upon which meaning [or the production of meaning] depends is social rather than textual and is constructed not by the authors in the text, but by the readers; it occurs at the moment of reading when the social relationships of the reader meet the discursive structures of the text” (122).

Wimal Dissanayake’s response to Fiske in Sholay: A Cultural Reading (New Delhi: Wiley Eastern Ltd., 1992), 71-74.

Drawing our attention to the semiotic complexities of meaning production in popular and film culture, this comment invites us to the activities of the social subjects and their reading practices as a way of redressing some of the imbalances in contemporary film scholarship. Some of the most advanced theorizations in modern film studies, notably those with a postmodernist and psychoanalytic persuasion, have tended to emphasize the central role of film texts in the formation of subjectivities of spectators. They maintain that the moviegoer’s subjectivity is produced through his/her identification with characters, moral codes, and aesthetic tastes inscribed in the film text. At the center in the process of meaning production and communication is the text and the text positions the viewer in such a way as to impart forcefully its intended meaning. The privileging of the text, however, fails to pay due respect to the vital distinction between the subject formed by the text and the viewer as the historical subject situated along with all the variables of class, race, gender, age, and so on. Here, the term ‘negotiation’ can be more useful in coming to terms with the actualities of meaning generation in cinema in that it implies an interchange, a reciprocity, between the text and its reader, between the textual subject and the social subject with his or her own unique history. It invites us to the terrain of differences between encoding and decoding as is often evidenced in the difference between expectations of producer, director or critic and actual responses of the public; a text would be decoded through a different set of perspectives than that in operation during the encoding and therefore the practice of decoding situated in a specific historical conjuncture carries far more weight than that of encoding in the determination of meaning.

Paul Smith: Textual ‘Intendment’

Paul Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), xv-xvi.

“Current film and cultural criticism and theory appear to want to celebrate an almost limitless freedom of interpretation, use, and pleasure on the part of audiences when faced with a text. Especially prized by many contemporary critics is the process whereby audiences transform or refunction a text in aid if what are assumed to be their own resistant uses and pleasures [the audience sovereignty thesis]…Fundamentally it can be seen as a reaction against some earlier forms of cultural criticism that are understood to posit spectators as helpless dupes in front of texts, or as unknowing victims of the capitalist system, which produces commodities for entertainment and pleasure. [Often] demonized [in this line of criticism] was the Frankfurt School theorists [and particularly Theodor Adorno’s pessimism on the culture industry]”

However, it is too nearsighted to ignore all the weight of the role the text plays in the production of meaning. Primarily, it is the text that calls for an act of interpretation, no matter how different the decoding is from the encoding. Besides, the text itself is as much a complex battleground for negotiation as the terrain of reception; not only the spectator but the text as well is social and historical. “There is never a ‘pure’ textual instance of a genre, and there is never an act of reception that can be said to follow perfectly the outlines of genre” (Paul Smith, 23).

“[The] function of the cultural industry is always dialectically bound up with audience reaction and…even if there is no predictable transcendent moment in that dialectic, a film or any other kind of cultural text directs a certain set of possibilities toward readers. Thus, I often stress what I call the intendment of the text–the semiotic and ideological pressure that it puts on its readers to interpret it in a particular and circumscribed way…[In other words] the text offers some preferred meanings.”

Marcia Landy: Common Sense

Cinematic Uses of the Past (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996), 83.

“In the influential studies of the film western–such as Jim Kitses’s Horizons West and Will Wright’s Sixguns and Society–mythology has not disappeared but the western has been subjected to the rigors of structuralist analysis, which schematizes and codifies elements of the narrative according to the variant expressions of myth and to the concept of genre [identifying prominent and recurrent motifs in both form and narrative, arranging the archetypal properties in a typological manner, and articulating a sense of some deep structure that governs the Western]…Such general descriptions, however, can apply to any Hollywood genre…[Also problematic] is the inert nature of genre classification and the static nature of myth and archetype” (83-5).

Anchored in the conventional binary between real and fictional, the notions of myth and ideology often prove all-encompassing, abstract, dismissive of countermemory, and useless for entertaining the historicity and heterogeneity of popular culture. The notion of genre (here the Western) as a social and cultural imaginary allows us to step beyond the real/fantasmatic opposition toward a more flexible and less monolithic conception of genre (the Western) (83-4).

“Though folklore bears a relationship to Roland Barthes’s conception of myth, there are important differences between Gramscian folklore and Barthesian mythologies. Like Gramsci, Barthes resists the inherently static and biologistic quality of traditional uses of myth in attempting to account for the ‘naturalness with which newspapers, art, and common sense constantly dress up a reality which, even though it is the one we live in, is undoubtedly determined by history.” Barthes is particularly troubled by the confusion of ‘Nature and History.’ Similarly, Gramsci seeks to identify folklore as a form of language and as historically specific. He shares with Barthes the sense that folklore distorts but does not render totally invisible the concepts to which it alludes. The major differences between Barthes’s work on myth and Gramsci’s on common sense and folklore, and the differences that animate my study, are that the Gramscian conception of common sense as folklore is less structured, more attentive to the different and contradictory strands that constitute uses of the past, and less monolithic and binary than Barthesian ideological analysis” (5).

This entry was posted in Film Theory, Genre Theory, The Western and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s