Audience studies, through cultural studies

November 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

As usual, David Bordwell’s post on the psychology of movie-watching is essential reading as it surveys a whole century of theories trying to explain what happens in audiences’ minds as they watch movies, engage with them or (as some theories have it), submit to them. It ends, unsurprisingly, with a plea for a naturalistic, cognitivism-based explanation of movie-watching: basically, we make sense of movies because of thousands of years of visual cognition that have allowed us to read visual clues, make inferences, test visual hypothesis about movement, danger, and so on. Films (of the Hollywood narrative kind) are popular because they are easy to follow because they ask for cognitive skills that we are born with.

True as this certainly is, I cannot help but think that there is one aspect of film studies that is conspicuously missing from this account: cultural studies. Yet (especially British) cultural studies have been quite vocal, since the 1980s (30 years ago!), that audience activity in making sense of what they watch had to take into account viewing contexts, local cultures, family habits, and so on. See David Morley’s pioneering work on British TV audiences, or more recently Martin Barker’s work on young audiences to action movies. But none of this makes it into Bordwell’s account, where the drift in explaining movie-watching is universalising, all-encompassing, and in the end so general as to fail to truly explain anything. It’s almost as if Bordwell is looking for the killer-app here: groomed into the fight against Grand Theory, which he has masterfully waged and, in my view, won, he seemed to still be looking for the one theory that will make all theories moot–and that this theory is cognitivism, supported by the non-humanistic (ergo vague?) science of the brain. End of history, end of quest: humanities resting on the firm ground of experimental medical science.

But meaning-making is what we still need to explain: every act of movie-watching is particular. Our eyes may, indeed, spend more time on average looking at the center of the frame — but they do wander to the edges, too. What does a close-up of a tropical plant mean for an audience in Sumatra? In London? to an audience of Polish immigrants in London? How do we account for dreaming at and with the movies? What of the processes of remembering a film to account for the pleasures of cinema? And so on and so forth. Cinema, as proliferating ethnographic studies of audiences establish, still today, in our so globalised world, does not mean at all the same to different audiences around the world… And its circulation, in cultures, memories, expanding media, continues to force us to confront movie-watching as a rich phenomenon.

It seems to me, to simplify, that cognitivism explains why audiences, when confronted to a film, are able to see a coherent object rather than an unrelated hodgepodge of visual stimuli. Just as cognitivism may explain how we are able, when confronted with the multiple stimuli of everyday life, to make make sense of the world around us — as opposed to perceiving a mess of visual impulses. But it does not address the question of meaning. And it certainly does not do justice to the richness of the processes, strategies, imaginaries deployed by audiences when watching a film.

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