Deconstruction method

As we point out in Chapter 1, the aim of theory is to provide guidance on how to establish general methodological principles to analyse texts. But this can lead, in Abraham Kaplan's words, to 'trained incapacity' (1964: 29). Our solution is to teach several theories, so that the film student can apply specific theories in appropriate contexts, rather than use the same theory in all contexts. The solution of deconstructionists is more radical. They argue that all general theoretical propositions block the activity of close reading because they create a tunnel vision effect, in which the analyst looks for and finds only what he or she wishes to see. Deconstruction involves 'looking at' the text again, focusing on elements that escaped the initial classification (in this instance, by thematic and auteurist analyses). Jonathan Culler notes:

When one speaks of the structure of a literary work, one does so from a certain vantage point: one starts with notions of the meaning or effects of a poem and tries to identify the structures responsible for those effects. Possible configurations or patterns that make no contribution are rejected as irrelevant. That is to say, an intuitive understanding of the poem functions as the 'centre', governing the play of forms: it is both a starting point - what enables one to identify structures - and a limiting principle.

(Culler 1975: 244)

How, then, can we make the anomalies, reversals, and asymmetries of Polanski as director-auteur enter into our considerations of the structure of Chinatown and the meaning-making inferences we wish to explore? This part of our chapter will suggest two distinct ways of 'deconstructing' auteurism and thematic criticism. The first might be called a 'poetics of production', and analyses the contending claims of authorship. In other words, it takes literally the countervailing forces against which an auteurist-thematic reading pitches itself. The second mode of deconstruction is that of a 'poetics of semiosis', where we shall look closely at certain surface elements and stylistic details of the film, examining them for their meaning-making potential, but without feeling the need to integrate them into a coherent whole. Rather, we shall allow them to disperse and to disseminate, thereby 'contaminating' and rendering unnecessary any pretensions to a single authorial meaning or authoritative interpretation with a claim to closure. In other words, the poetics of semiosis takes literally one of the unstated, implicit premises of auteurism and mise-en-scene criticism, namely its reliance on marginal details or minor stylistic flourishes to buttress the interpretation of an entire film. What was often chastised as an elitist or snobbish form of evaluative connoisseurship, because it reads films according to an additional layer of meaning, consisting of seemingly trivial and inconsequential aspects (leading to those 'delirious' or 'aberrant' reviews of a Michel Mourlet or Fereydoun Hoveda), can in this light be seen as merely the flip-side of the semiotic coin. For once one concentrates on the signifiers (the verbal, visual, and aural surface) of a film, their referentiality will always be multiple, sliding, unstable, excessive. The process of generating meaning (semiosis) from a film is in principle unlimited, unless and until the interpreter decides to terminate it, for instance, by applying the expressivist or commentative heuristics of mise-en-scdne criticism, or by fixing on a set of meanings suggested by one or more of the universal schemata discussed above (section 4.1.3). To choose a 'perverse' reading, as the Cahiers critics did, is therefore simply to 'expose the device' of closure itself.

At the end of the chapter we shall be making reference to a number of film scholars (particularly David Rodowick, Tom Conley, and Kaja Silverman) who advocate, under different names and for different reasons, the return to poetological methods or hermeneutic traditions capable of generating such (unlimited) semiosis. Deconstruction itself, therefore, prevents us from translating 'theory' into 'method', other than by turning it back into a version of 'thematic' criticism - for instance, by identifying a number of moves or tropes, such as the evidence of puns, the strategy of subverted oppositions, the double negative which does not make a positive, or the verbal slippage which does not cancel a proposition so much as put it 'under erasure'. More important than such a list, however, is to grasp the underlying principle: that deconstructivist criticism more than any other mode allows the critic to start virtually anywhere, both within the text and by invoking external facts, beliefs, and myths, as long as the starting point helps to generate difference, in the sense of perceptible variation or discrepancy as well as in the sense of temporal delay or deferral. This we shall try to demonstrate in the subsequent section around the two kinds of poetics.

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