Genre (the Western in Particular) in Structuralist Perspectives

Will Wright, Sixguns 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.

Kurosawa mentioned that it is meaningless for a Japanese director to shoot a Western and a Japanese Western would hardly be anything but a failure (Fralying’s book). Contrarily to Kurosawa’s position, however, his people showed a great deal of affection for the Japanese Western, the Western made by Japanese directors and played by Japanese actors and actresses.

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).

Jim Kitses’ Horizons West

A critique of auteurism + structural analysis + spectatorship

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

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