Monday, October 4, 2010

Creating Meaning in the Search

Original Posting

I just finished watching a film I like a few hours ago, and throughout the film I remember constantly asking myself: "what does this mean? How does this reveal the character's worldview. How does this reflect how he sees the world?" And after asking the question, I would try to provide an answer, "this reflects his inherent egotism, and this shows how he feels his masculinity is threatened, and this is a result of his class consciousness." My explanation always felt like it was a bit of a stretch, like it was something you would not think of if you were not watching a movie.

Because when you are consuming fiction, you expect everything to be significant. The idea that something was just inserted arbitrarily seems like lazy viewing (or lazy reading), so we want to find out the significance of every line and every scene.

It then occurred to me, that since we're expecting to find all kinds of significance and meaning in the work we're viewing/reading, we begin creating significance for the events. You feel like an idiot if you can't find the significance in a scene, because that means that the scene was lost on you. If you've got an ego to protect (as I do), then the idea that there is no deeper meaning in what you're watching becomes hard to swallow. So you have to make something. You have to fit the scenes together and find the pattern that was placed there by the director or the author.

And most of the time, this seems appropriate. The human mind derives pleasure from finding patterns, and movies are made by human minds and with the goal of pleasuring other human minds being a goal. But then, I have to wonder, how difficult would it be to write something with no greater significance in mind? If you made it sound as though there were important insights to uncover in the text, then people would go searching for subtext, symbolism, meaning, and philosophy where there is none.

And they won't be content, so they'll make some up. They'll create all the depth for you.

And as I write this, I realize, that books and movies that take advantage of this would be the most effective books. It allows the reader/viewer to take whatever they care about and project it onto the art. That way a single story can be about gender studies to a feminist, economic imbalance to a communist, the importance of faith to a theist, and so on. It does not comment, it just provides a vessel for people to dump their own preoccupations.

Is this desirable? Well, it provides wonderful opportunities for mental masturbation. It would make it difficult for an artist to effect social change, but if the work is successful enough, then the critics will provide the interpretations necessary to turn it into social commentary. Besides, coming to a conclusion is always more fun than having a conclusion thrust upon you; needless vagueness and obscurity ensures that people can interpret you a way that tickles their confirmation bias. That leads to more popularity and more money.

Next time you're talking about the significance and depth of a work, perhaps you should stop and wonder if you're discovering the significance, or creating it. Then, just keep right on ahead, because there is no reason that should get in the way of the fun.

P.S. The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs from South Park says this same thing in a funnier way. Or maybe I just created that interpretation because I didn't want to believe I was just watching a cartoon about Sarah Jessica Parker's appearance.

1 comment:

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