A review of Ian Douglas, Film and Meaning: An Integrative Theory(edited by Horst Ruthrof (Perth: Continuum Publications and Film & Television Institute, 1988).
The reader who expects a philosophical text to develop a clean, clear line of argument, be non-allusive and non-repetitive, is bound to be disappointed upon a first encounter with lan Douglas's Film and Meaning: An Integrative Theory. Contributing to this impression is a style of philosophical reasoning that too often treats paragraphing in the manner of cinematic 'cuts'; these recurrent discontinuities in the unfolding of the argument being perhaps the chief obstacle to this work's finding (in its present form) a broadly based readership.
Such reservations as I express above all reflect, undoubtedly, the particular genesis of this work. Ian Douglas died in 1983, leaving the manuscript of the PhD he was working on incomplete. His supervisor at Murdoch University, Horst Ruthrof, working from the handwritten manuscript and Douglas's rough notes, undertook the unenviable task of transforming the manuscript into the thesis form. And Douglas was awarded the PhD, as a result of these efforts, posthumously in 1988. Thereafter, the thesis (as stated in the Preface) was "... considerably shortened, edited, reformatted ..." (p.viii), then published under its present title in book form and offered as a memorial to lan Douglas.
The book, thus, represents - at two removes - the impress of its author's unculminated thoughts. I shall address myself directly to the edited text and not pursue the potential of a quest for authenticity which the humour and erudition (borne witness to by many passages in the text) suggests as a possible mode of apprehending the kind of person Douglas must have been.
To turn, then, to the more interesting, substantive issues. Ian Douglas's position emerges (to use his own words), "... in somewhat piecemeal fashion" (p.47), but what emerges is an interesting thesis. He argues that semantics collapses into pragmatics: here the self is not to be understood as an entity, but rather as: "... an intentional process existing in an open-system world of discursive exchange" (p.88) where meaning creation itself is understood as a process whereby the utterer of a statement - for Douglas, this comprises a discursive act - marshals the extensional components of meaning under the domination of the subject's intentionality. Yet paradoxically little space is devoted to elaborating a theoretical account of intentionality. Douglas does distinguish three senses of intentionality - the teleological, teleonomic and directional. But distinctions do not constitute a theory. Brentano is absent, as is any reference to Merleau-Ponty's The Phenomenology of Perception, which is unusual given Douglas's acceptance of the intentionality of perception. The omission of Searle's Intentionality is explained by the fact that it was first published in 1983, the year Douglas died. Husserl's omission is less explicable.
Equally in need of elaboration is another central term of Douglas's tripartite theory of meaning - the notion of 'intensions'. While the concept of self-reflexivity is important to Douglas's thesis, his stress on the diachronic processing of meaning creation requires, I believe, a theory that will explain the relative semantic stability required for intensional sets to maintain their capacity for being individuated. The notion of 'feedback' cannot alone be made to carry the burden of supplying the theoretical account of the necessary semantic constraints. Perhaps here again the tension between terms that occupy a structural frame and accounts that stress post-structural processes manifests itself.
Although, for Douglas, the subject is a self-reflexive system accepting feedback from the world that in turn modifies its process of meaning construction, this in itself requires theorising in order to account for the requirements which I have suggested are necessary. Like Foucault and Derrida (who, given the support the latter's views could lend Douglas's enterprise, is surprisingly omitted from the bibliography: he makes no reference to Derrida's works except as quoted in Culler), Douglas privileges the diachronic over the synchronic and is in this sense clearly a post-structuralist. However, there appears to be an oddly ambivalent theoretical siting of his project which is particularly manifest in his treatment of film criticism. Here he foregrounds narratology in a manner rather more akin to earlier forms of structuralism than seems appropriate for his critical undertaking.
He pits his thesis against a galaxy of twentieth century thinkers, arguing points with Saussure, Davidson, Putnam, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Habermas, Foucault, Eco, Chomsky, Strawson, Peirce, Goodman, Bhaskar, Ricoeur, Pecheux, Hjelmslev and others. Douglas's concern with taking the measure of his thesis against so many disparate thinkers costs the development of his ideas in book form much of the possible support they could have garnered from a more thoroughgoing articulation of the logic of his own position.
This, of course, reflects the fact that the book owes its existence to editorial and not authorial decisions.
Douglas is at his best when he applies his theory of meaning to individual films. Much of the conceptual machinery he develops in the earlier chapters is sensitively deployed in these analyses, though at times his close readings of particular films and genres seem to proceed independently of his theoretical framework. And it is in the theoretical reaches of these latter chapters especially that the reader may feel the lack of a sustained and clear development of Douglas's theses. Promising avenues of thought such as the possible conceptual lines that may hold between the diegesis-generating capacity of discourse and the intentionality of perception are never pursued and his central notion of the fictive status of films fails to come clearly into focus. The Ingardian framework of his narratological undertakings is not, in my opinion, adequately problematised, especially given Douglas's stress upon his commitment to an ontology of processes.
To turn, now, briefly to the stylistic inadequacies I noted above: the repetitions - while distracting in their present state - could easily be edited out in any subsequent edition. We are, for example, told on p.14 that:
... although I agree with Foucault that while meaning attaches to sentences and truth or falsity to propositions, statements have as their correlates the essential discursive formations.
only to be informed of this again on pages 19, 37 and finally on page 155. Moreover, a formal scheme laid on p. 48 is repeated almost exactly on p. 59 and a point made on p. 22:
... to advert to Smith and Wilson's Modern Linguistics, it is unlikely that two speakers ever use precisely identical 'grammars'.
is made, again, on p. 39.
Such distractions as these are more acutely felt when, on p. 55, in the context of a series of explanatory diagrams, two of Peirce's models are represented by identical diagrams. Further, for readers not all that familiar with the intention/intension/extension set of distinctions it does not help to find 'intension' written on p.166 as 'intention': "and in order to provide intentions' [sic] correlate, extension ..."
Finally, to conclude my review of this aspect of the book, Douglas's style is too often cryptic and allusive, diminishing the clarity of expression that is essential for presenting arguments as complicated as those undertaken here. A single quote should suffice to make the point:
What emerges from all of this and this will be crucial to understanding the rest of what I have to say - is a noumenon of expressivity within oneself which is formed by us as reasoning beings and generated as the substantive, which, like the purely formal is of course phenomenal and therefore consciously available to us, but what we intend to express can either work as communication, which, if returned, is morphogenetic though, full of feedback (p. 57).
Film and Meaning is a difficult read made perhaps unnecessarily more difficult by the distracting stylistic errata mentioned above. It remains, however, an ambitious work, rich in insights and multiple intellectual engagements. As a memorial it will succeed in making its readers sorely regret that the conversation with Ian Douglas was so untimely curtailed.
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