Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 11, April 2001



Mirko Petric

Both Semiotics and Cognitivism?




Warren Buckland

_The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

ISBN: 0-521-78005-5 (hb)

xi +174 pp.


A specific collocation of the words 'cognitive' and 'semiotics' in the

title phrase of Warren Buckland's book is likely to call into the mind of

an informed reader the proverbial phrase according to which 'water and oil

don't mix'. To the methodologically initiated, Buckland's title sounds

almost like an oxymoron, permissible perhaps as a figure of speech in a

poem, but unlikely to convince in the context of the scholarly field, a

facet of which the book sets out to explore. Due to their different

premises and disciplinary traditions, semiotics and cognitive studies are

widely and on the whole justifiably perceived as strange bedfellows.


In the opening pages of his book, the author himself acknowledges this

state of affairs by pointing out the differences between what he calls the

twentieth-century Language Analysis tradition and the philosophies of

subject and consciousness that dominated the Western thought from the 17th

century up to the end of the 19th century, and of which the contemporary

cognitive science can be seen as the continuation. In the area of film

studies, the present-day conflict between linguistics and non-linguistic

areas of cognitive science has been restaged in the confrontation between

the cognitive film theorists and those theorists whose film theory is based

on linguistics and semiotics. What's more, and as Buckland is well-aware,

cognitive film theory has partly derived its academic legitimacy from an

explicit rejection of tenets central to any semiotic approach inspired by

structural linguistics. The work of North American cognitivists (David

Bordwell, Noel Carroll, Edward Branigan, Joseph Anderson) is simply, in

Buckland's words, 'untainted by semiotics' (2).


Where semiotics has postulated an all-embracing theory of human culture and

posited humans as having an indirect relation to their environment,

mediated by language and other sign systems, cognitive science has

emphasized the language user's capacity to independently and creatively

manipulate the signs as a context-free entity. While structurally inspired

film semiotics positions the viewer conceived of as an ideological subject

into filmic meaning that is a result of a system of codes, cognitivists

conceive of film viewing as a purely rational activity in which film simply

cues the spectator to perform a variety of operations. Finally, while the

role of theory in semiotics is to make visible the underlying systems that

constitute the specificity of a given phenomenon, film cognitivists such as

Bordwell and Carroll argue for a localized 'theorizing' that should be

'problem-driven rather than doctrine-driven' (142). Can there be any common

ground between, or any way to reconcile, such fundamentally opposed



Warren Buckland not only argues that the conflict between cognitive film

theory and what he calls 'modern' film theory (early Metz's film semiology

and post-structural film theory) is unproductive, but points out that there

exists a group of European scholars virtually unknown to their

Anglo-American colleagues which has already developed at least the premises

for a research program he labels as 'the cognitive semiotics of film'.

Common to these authors is their critical re-elaboration of Metz's film

semiology and an interest in issues of film comprehension that cannot be

accounted for from the perspective of his initial, structural-linguistic

based work. These issues, that can be taken to be more or less directly

linked to one or another of the various guises of cognitivism, are then

integrated into an expanded framework of contemporary film semiotics. In

Buckland's opinion, the resulting theories 'develop a more informed

understanding -- than either semiotics or cognitive science alone -- of

film's underlying structure, together with the way spectators comprehend

films' (3).


The aim of _The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_ is twofold. Buckland's first

goal is to present to the Anglo-American community of film scholars a

comprehensive account of the individual works of European 'cognitive film

semioticians', thus continuing the project he embarked on when he edited an

anthology of English translations of their selected essays. [1] Secondly,

he hopes to counter the current marginalization and repression of semiotics

in the Anglo-American context and to open up an intra-disciplinary dialogue

with the tenets and insights of the French and Italian film semioticians,

whose research in the field continued unabated since the late seventies.


However, upon reading his book, one discovers yet another dimension to

Buckland's 'sympathetic, but not entirely uncritical' (25) reading of

Francesco Casetti's and later Metz's contributions to the enunciation

theory of film, Roger Odin's 'semio-pragmatics', and Michel Colin's and

Dominique Chateau's transformational generative grammar-based theories of

film. Far from being merely an attempt to present somebody's work, or even

to more ambitiously 'outline the common theoretical assumptions held by

cognitive film semioticians and clarify their relation to the broader

traditions of twentieth century intellectual thought' (2-3), Buckland's

book testifies to the author's 'need to develop [his] own elaboration of a

(necessarily) fragmentary and incomplete project' (25). In other words,

what Buckland is actually doing in this book amounts to a single-handed

delineation of a separate school of thought in film studies, capable of

being put on an equal footing next to the established classical, 'modern',

and cognitive film theories.


In spite of the inspirational material furnished by the authors whose work

he comments on, it is Buckland's vision and theoretical expertise that

leads to a reclassification of their theoretical orientation from the 'new

film semiologists', as he called them in the 1995 anthology of their essays

he edited, to the 'cognitive film semioticians' of the present book.

Although not made explicit by the (overly and needlessly) modest author,

Buckland's hard work is visible in the very architecture of his book. It is

the sequence and internal organization of its chapters, the author's

slightly slanted reading of the contributions of individual theorists

discussed, as well as intricate combinations of the selected aspects of

their arguments, that highlight and advance the alleged common cognitive

preoccupation implicit in their work.


For instance, in Chapter 2 Buckland 'consider[s] the potential for

developing a cognitive semantics of film from Michel Colin's essay 'Film

Semiology as a Cognitive Science', in which Colin perceives a close

affinity between semiotics and cognitive science, since both paradigms

address similar issues -- language, vision and problem solving' (22). Colin

is one theorist represented in the book who has explicitly tackled the

problems of interrelation of film semiotics and cognitive science as we

understand it today. However, it is Buckland's discussion of the

limitations of Bordwell's theory of film perception, developed within the

Constructivist school of cognitive psychology, as well as his detailed

account of Lakoff and Johnson's image-based, inherently meaningful and

dynamic schemata, that decisively contribute to the development of what he

actually admits is '[his] own theory of cinematic perception, one that

grounds perception in the physicality of the body' (27).


Likewise, it would be extremely difficult to classify Francesco Casetti's

1986 book _Dentro lo sguardo_ (recently translated into English as _Inside

the Gaze: The Fiction Film and its Spectator_), [2] as a work of 'cognitive

film semiotics'. The original 'new semiological' label, or still better a

plainly 'semiotic' one, would certainly befit Casetti's book more than its

implicit present 'cognitive-semiotic' designation. The work presented in

that book came in the wake of textual semiotics and reader-response studies

that preceded it and employed enunciation theory in a manner that merely

brought the argument closer to cognitive issues in film studies. Again, it

is Buckland's elaborate discussion of Emile Benveniste's distinction

between *histoire* and *discours*, and of the way it was reflected in

Metz's book _L'Enonciation impersonnelle, ou le site du film_, [3] as well

as the discussion of Metz's previous essays and the influence Casetti's

book had on his 1991 enunciation theory, that places Casetti in the wide

framework of Buckland's envisioned 'cognitive semiotics of film'.


However, nowhere is Buckland's guiding hand more visible than in the final

chapter of the book, in which -- based on Colin's and Chateau's

elaborations of Chomsky's theories -- he discusses the possibilities for

the development of a generative theory of film grammar. For instance, in

the section of this chapter discussing the usefulness and limitations of

the theory of film outlined in Chateau's _Le Cinema comme language_ [4] in

accounting for stylistic variations of cinematic language that fall outside

of the logic of strictly coded classical narrative cinema, Buckland expands

and partly overturns the author's original argument by making reference to

and creatively interpreting the work of several other theorists.


First, he decides that -- notwithstanding Metz's conflation of classical

narrative film with cinematic language and in clear opposition to views

exposed by Chateau -- he 'still want[s] to privilege the eight syntagmatic

types identified by [Metz's *grande syntagmatique*] as representing

standard cinematic language (and its grammar) because of the[ir] refied

status'. (121) Then, he moves on to discuss Katz's expansion of Chomsky's

1964 study on the degrees of gramaticalness, comments on Chateau's

re-reading of Metz's interpretation of a sequence from Godard's _Pierrot le

fou_ making a reference to Chomsky's trace theory, introduces into

discussion Sperber and Wilson's cognitive principle of relevance, briefly

refers to Bordwell's explanations of narration in the fiction film, and

finally employs Lerdhal and Jackendoff's concept of preference rules,

developed within their generative theory of tonal music.


All of this to prove -- *contrary to Chateau*, who 'seems to argue' (126)

that the analyzed sequence is an ordinary one that has undergone

transformation -- that the analyzed material actually represents 'an

ungrammatical but acceptable filmic sequence' (127), and that it is (in a

wider scheme of things) possible to theoretically account for the role of

such 'semi-[grammatical] sentences' (i.e. 'semi-sequences') in film

comprehension within the framework of a nascent generative theory of film



This does not go to say that Buckland actually opposes Chateau, but only

that in this particular analysis he goes much further than the author under

discussion in pursuing the consequences of some of his original claims.

Save for the somewhat more neutral presentation of 'modes', 'operations',

and 'institutions' of Roger Odin's 'semio-pragmatics' of film, every

chapter of Buckland's book in effect ends with his reformulations or

extensions of the original postulates of the theories presented to the

reader. Also, it is worth noting that his book is organized neither

chronologically, nor as a strict presentation of the work of individual

authors, but thematically, and in a manner that helps develop Buckland's

general 'cognitive semiotic' argument.


Given such a mode of presentation, it is a small wonder that the final

chapter of Buckland's book is devoted to an elaboration of Colin's and

Chateau's transformation generative theories of film. According to

Buckland, 'one defining characteristic of cognitive film semiotics is that

it aims to model the actual mental activities (intuitive knowledge)

involved in the making and understanding of filmic texts, rather than study

filmic texts themselves' (19). After positing his own non-linguistic theory

of enunciation that steers a course between Metz and Casetti, as well as

briefly commenting on a multitude of external constraints of a

predominantly pragmatic filmic competence outlined by Odin, Buckland quite

logically brings his argument to conclusion by resorting to contemporary

re-elaborations of Chomsky's theories in the framework of film studies.


Namely, and as Buckland's final chapter successfully demonstrates, these

theories indeed accommodate both a non-textual focus and a systematic

approach characteristic of semiotics. What's more, Colin's redefinition of

Metz's 'observationaly adequate' *grande syntagmatique* as 'descriptively

adequate' takes film studies to a new -- more complex and more 'cognitive'

-- level of analysis while at the same time paying tribute to early

semiotic theory generated within the Language Analysis tradition. [5] In

addition to this, Buckland's own extension of Colin's work by means of

introduction of the already mentioned concept of 'semi-sentences' indeed

makes a convincing link between 'grammatical structure, cognitive

processing effort, and aesthetics, indicating that structure does at least

have a partial cognitive reality' (140). Viewed in this context, his

assertion of the existence or at least of the potential existence of a

research program called 'cognitive film semiotics' gains in credibility.


Unfortunately, the author stops short of developing a full-fledged

'cognitive semiotic' film theory on his own terms. This causes a number of

problems that go beyond the issues of rhetoric and style and again somewhat

compromise his claim. It is undeniable that the theories under discussion

(or at least those aspects of theories under discussion that Buckland

chooses to highlight and expound on) do combine certain traits and insights

of both semiotics and cognitivism. Also, Buckland has proved beyond doubt

that there exists a future within film studies for the insights and

selected analytical procedures of early film semiotics. However, to hold

that the work of the theorists he in fact discusses, as an introduction to

his analysis of generative film grammar, represent a 'cognitive semiotics

of film' without further qualification is simply not accurate enough.


Even in the case of generative film theories, which by their nature show

the most promise of developing into a genuine 'cognitive semiotics of

film', the initial claim that the analyzed material combines 'the insights

of cognitive film theory and modern film theory' (x) is slightly

misleading. Although the cognitive content of Chomsky's theories is

indisputable, they are in themselves still firmly language-centered and not

quite compatible with the postulates and analytical procedures of what we

have associated with the term 'cognitive film studies' over the past two



Chomsky's study of linguistic competence was indeed, as Buckland says, 'one

of the main research programs that led to the development of cognitive

science in the fifties' (20), but is also related in a number of ways to

the Language Analysis tradition. As a synthesis of the two approaches it is

indeed a stimulating starting point for the development of an independent

'cognitive semiotics of film'. Since, however, such a theory has not been

independently outlined in Buckland's book, it would have been more accurate

to simply label the ingenious analyses of its final chapter with the name

of a well-know research tradition they belong to, namely as contributions

to a 'generative film grammar'.


Had Buckland's book been written in a top-down manner as an attempt to

outline a coherent theory in which the claims of the author are merely

propped by referring to the arguments developed in the works of theorists

preceding him, it would have been much easier to read. To begin with,

within such a framework of presentation it would be possible to reflect on,

and then accept or reject Buckland's claims of the possibility of existence

of a unified 'cognitive semiotic' program with more clarity. Furthermore,

it would be much easier to immediately separate Buckland's own elaborations

from the hypotheses of the authors under discussion, which is -- as things

stand now -- not always an easy thing to do during at least the first

reading of the book. [6] On the other hand, the current bottom-up format of

the book leaves the process of author's elaborations exposed to view and

presents a wealth of very valuable material, potentially opening up

discussion on related issues in other fields involving the use of the

moving sound image, most notably in new media studies.


In conclusion, it should be said that -- regardless of how one evaluates

its style of presentation or the viability of its central concept --

Buckland's challenge to post-theory proves to be highly successful. He has

written a book that very convincingly argues the case for the role of

systematic thought in film studies.


Whether the designation 'cognitive film semioticians' will be applied in

the future to describe the work of the authors Buckland discusses remains

to be seen, but a careful reading of his book suggests that it would

perhaps be more adequate to view merely the aspects of their work as a sort

of cognitive complementation to the insights, methodologies, and

deficiencies of early film semiotics. In a wider framework of the current

field of tension between semiotics and cognitivism, however, Buckland's

book represents a strong argument for rapprochement, certainly more

systematically and convincingly argued than, for instance, Umberto Eco's

recent _Kant and the Platypus_. [7] This in itself is no small achievement.


University of Split, Croatia





1. Warren Buckland, ed., _The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind_

(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995).


2. Francesco Casetti, _Inside the Gaze: The Fiction Film and its Spectator_

(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998).


3. Christian Metz, _L'Enonciation impersonnelle, ou le site du film_

(Paris: Meridiens Klincksieck, 1991).


4. Dominique Chateau, _Le Cinema comme language_ (Brussels: AISS --

Publications de la Sorbonne, 1987).


5. The terms 'observational adequacy' and 'descriptive adequacy' are used

in Chomsky's sense to refer to 'the segmentation and classification of a

corpus of texts into its ultimate paradigmatic constituents' and 'the

analysis of rules and institutions that generate texts, rules and

institutions that are defined in cognitive terms' (x). Colin's suggestion

that Metz's *grande syntagmatique* is a descriptively adequate theory

confers on it a cognitive reality, making it 'a theory of the film

spectator's underlying competence' (136). Yet at the same time it also

acknowledges the value of Metz's early work which is Language Analysis



6. To be sure, in Buckland's case this is by no means a sign of

intellectual dishonesty. It is the author's rather convoluted manner of

presentation, as well as his intense interest in the topic and outstanding

mastery in the field that sometimes lead him to forget that there are less

expert readers to whom he is presenting his claims.


7. Umberto Eco, _Kant and the Platypus_, trans. Alastair McEwen (London:

Secker and Warburg, 2000); translation of _Kant e l'ornitorinco_ (Milano:

Bompiani, 1997). A discussion of the achievements and shortcomings of Eco's

treatment of the subject can be found in David E. Cooper, 'Going with the

Grain', _Times Literary Supplement_, no. 5056, February 2000.




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Mirko Petric, 'Both Semiotics and Cognitivism?', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5

no. 11, April 2001 <>.




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