Before I enrolled in the University of London International Program [opens new window/tab] I completed an Advanced Screenwriting class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. We learned how conventions contribute to meaning and audience experience. For example the premise for a joke should be repeated three times; the laugh and greatest audience response comes the third time after understanding has been established and expectations have been met. This repetition and structure create the greatest effect on an audience. It allows them to understand what is being articulated; both the punch line and the non-verbal, implied meaning. For me, this means we interact with text or film in specific ways based on our sensitivity to conventions, our needs and expectations. This week I wanted to read a book or watch a movie that met specific expectations and I had this epiphany; what we find in art and literature meets our needs and builds personal or social meaning.
For me, the personal and social meaning extracted from texts is influenced by an understanding of conventions like genre. It’s surprising how much understanding we accumulate even without studying literature formally. The expectations created this way are not just associated with structure, rhetoric or repetition; they are associated with the emotional effect expected from our reading experience.
While looking for something to read or a film to watch I started thinking about my needs and expectations. I was quite sensitive to them and realized I wanted a particular effect. An audience or reader has expectations because of things like genre; we know we will engage with material constructed in a particular way, with certain attributes and even familiar references. This was very interesting for me this week because I was particularly sensitive to effects upon the reader when I selected material.
Do effects upon me as a reader, my expectations, genre and other aspects of text combine to produce meaning? What does meaning actually ‘mean?’ The ‘Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language’ [opens new window/tab] cites a source giving sixteen definitions of the words ‘mean or meaning.’ It states in linguistics ‘meaning’ is what a word refers to in the world; that’s a charged and much debated topic. The insight I had this week has more to do with implied rather than expressed meaning. It refers to assumptions about the world, about the text, emotional and intellectual satisfaction, and the idea that literature and art can fulfill very specific human needs.
Fulfilling our emotional and intellectual needs is another way of saying ‘effect on the reader;’ for me this is another way of saying meaning. The ‘meaning’ I wanted this week has to do with expressing the inexpressible. As I chose my material I felt a little like Polonius, ‘tragedy, comedy, history…’ [Hamlet’ Act II scene ii]. I finally chose Richard Attenborough’s film ‘Shadowlands’ because drama worked best for me; I wanted Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger to do all the talking about the bonds of love and experience. For me, R.S. Crane, Aristotle, and the Structuralists discuss genre beautifully; this week it allowed a profound and very comforting intersection of art and life.