Review: National Fictions: Literature, Film and the Construction of Australian Narrative, by Graeme Turner (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986)
Though it has pretensions otherwise this book is a standard work of criticism which sees its task as peeling back the surface of film and literary works to find the true meanings which lurk behind them and which the critic is skilled at revealing; in this case those meanings are the national Australian culture.
What is culture? Culture for Turner is a subject which speaks through film and literary narratives; strip away the narratives and culture stands revealed. Narratives are a kind of garment.
What is the national? The national for Turner is what most people in the nation prefer. It is an electoral concept, quite simply, it is the popular. National culture is the speech of the people.
What is most popular? The most popular for Turner is the most realistic. Australia is dominated by the realistic. Film is more realistic than the novel, he writes, because it is more sensate, more passionate, less cold and intellectual. Film then is more popular than the novel and hence more truly representative of the national. It tells us about our world... best.
Now one of the features of the realistic is that it appears to be highly referential referring to the World, to Life and hereby filled with evident meanings and interpretations, as Turner would say, it articulates our experience. Modern works of film and literature seem in contrast rather obscure. It is difficult to distinguish a single voice, a coherent sense, a unified view. It is as if there is nothing to peel back, nothing behind to be revealed, no "about" to discuss.
Realistic works offer themselves in a different way since they efface their means before the "reality" of the worlds they present; these worlds have subjects; they seem to make sense. It is not that realism is not coded, that it is not "linguistic", but rather that its coding consists in the illusion that its messages come direct, unmediated; while modern works may only present us with signs. realistic works seem to present us with Truth.
Leaving the love of the people aside realism very much suits Turner. He can say on the basis of realistic works what the culture says without at all at- tending to their language and structure and he can authenticate those statements by referring to Life itself, Australian reality (mateship and cringing passivity) and what is more the works are popular, have the character of the nation.
Turner does mention one narrative mechanism which he claims to derive from Levi-Strauss, namely that popular narratives resolve at a fictional level real contradictions on a social level so that by attending to the fiction it is possible to discover the Truth of the social. This- single formal trait of narrative which Turner notices leads him to the Social and from there to Culture and Ideology via the themes of film and the novel.
This aspect of narrative is not at all general and besides the structures of film and the novel cannot be easily made same with the structures of primitive myth. Even if they were the social messages of primitive myth, they are exceedingly complicated and not at all readily clear. Myths call to other myths, fictions to fictions, not myth to reality in the direct fashion that Turner would have things here, now, in Australia. Besides Levi-Strauss never argued in a linear way from myth to the social; he was a structuralist; myth is like a language and language, signs do not function in that way.
In general, fiction and narrative are problems for Turner. He seeks the nationally specific; fiction and narrative are formally too general. It is not possible to argue that realism or the novelistic is Australian; it just might be possible however to argue that mateship is. The national literature or the national film must be realistic not because the people will it, but because Turner requires it since realism affords him a direct apprehension of the thematic which he equates with cultural meaning. He may then, irrespective of language, forms, fiction, or narrative discuss what he takes to be the preferred meanings of the culture, its Ideology.
Turner adds up repeated instances of themes and scattered ideas and takes away anything odd or peripheral. The result is Australian Culture from which the different is eliminated and the Same and the repetitious enshrined. Such culture is then truculently offered for its ubiquity, popularity and easy readability... mate.
Turner only attends to what he calls realistic novels and films; because they are realistic it is not necessary to consider them formally as novels or films but only as envelopes for a content of themes and significance. In this regard any difference between novels and films is irrelevant; such difference is transcended by meaning and the generality of culture.
But film according to Turner is more realistic along the schema of hot film, cold literature, the immediacy of the senses, the distance of the mind, passion and the contemplative. In fact, he asserts, film and literature are opposed and for far too long literary values have devalued film. Literary values are anti-genre, anti-American, modernist, anti-popular. Turner is for the popular and the democratic.
An aspect of the modern is the difficulty it poses for the unravelling of themes and the attention it demands to "linguistic" operations. These Turner condemns on class, social, "radical" political grounds. Besides, themes in popular works, he says, are not matters of value, but of fact, to be described, to be analysed, but not judged. Turner thereby, unlike the modernist critic, is objective and free of value. To be concerned with themes then exclusive of "literary values" is doubly radical: it is on the side of the Truth and on the side of the People.
A word about realism. Much of the work carried on in the last few decades on film and literature, often called post-structuralist, has been concerned with emphasising the representational, sign aspect of narrative, a critical work all the more radical and extreme the more realistic and novelistic these works have been; an exemplary text in this regard was Roland Barthes' S/Z.
What Barthes did in S/Z was not only to point to the coded conventions of Balzac's story, Sarrasine, its composition in already written copies of reality, but the weaving and play of these, of quotes, of feints of language, of prior representations, so that the method of operation in such apparently realist works was not from language to the real, from a sign to a referent as Turner would have things for the realism of Australian works, but rather from code to code, from language to language, from sign to sign, from copy to copy.
The illusion of realism is that denotation is the very first of meanings hence the critical temptation to describe what the work is about, to excise its meanings; what Barthes suggests is that denotation is "no more than the last of the connotations (the one which seems to both establish and to close the reading)". Thus the realistic does not depict the Real, is not a copy of the Real, but copies what is already a copy of a copy, what is already coded, discursive, linguistic and from which there is no way back or forward to essential Truth be it on Society or Literature, or the Author, or the Nation, or even to the Work as a reflection on itself. The Real in literature, in film, is nothing but a shadow that Turner has obsessively pursued as the national Australian substance.
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