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edited by


Research Center for the Language Sciences

Indiana University



Translated by
Donna Jean Umiker-Sebeok
Indiana University

Copyright 1974 in The Netherlands.
Mouton & Co. N.V., Publishers, The Hague.

No part of this book may be translated or reproduced in any form, by print,

photoprint, microfilm, or any other means, without written permission from the


Printed in Belgium by NICI, Ghent.


1. Within the Cinema : The Filmic Fact 9

2. Within the Filmic Fact: The Cinema 22

2.1. 'Cinema' in another sense 22
2.2.From material to codical homogeneity: a premature
conclusion 24
2.3. The same code in several 'language systems'; several
codes in the same 'language system' 28
2.4. Cinematic specificity, cinematic language system (I) . 39
2.5. Cinematic-filmic, cinematic-non-filmic, filmic-non-
cinematic 46

3. Film in an Absolute Sense 50

3.1. 'The Film'/'The Cinema' 50
3.2. The zone common to the film and cinema. Its limits . 55

4. Plurality of Cinematic Codes 61

4.1. General and particular codes 61
4.2. Plurality along two axes 64
4.3. 'Cinematic language system' () 67

5. From Code to System; Message to Text 70

5.1. 'The study of films': two different approaches . . . . 70
5.2. Code/singular system 74
5.3. General and particular codes (II) 79
5.4. Terminological points 83
5.5. 'Structure of the message' or structure of the text ? . . 87

6. Textual Systems 91
6.1. The film as a unique totality 91
6.2. The system of the film as displacement 99

6.3. Cinematic and extra-cinematic: from duality to

mixture 105
6.4. Readings: several textual systems for a single text . . 118
7. Textuality and 'Singularity' 121
7.1. Filmic texts smaller or larger than a film 121
7.2. Group of films and class of films 126
7.3. From 'particular code' to sub-code (III) 129
7.4. The pansemic tendency of certain figures 131
7.5. Code/sub-code (IV) 137
7.6. The systemic and the textual 143
7.7. Textuality and generality 150
7.8. 'Film' in the absolute sense (II) 156
8. Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic 161
8.1. The syntagmatic and the textual 161
8.2. The syntagmatic and the paradigmatic; syntagmatics
and paradigmatics 163
8.3. Degrees of preexistence of the 'object studied' 168
8.4. Circularity of paradigmatics and syntagmatics 170
8.5. Syntagmatic and consecutive 173
8.6. Paradigmatic and syntagmatic in textual systems . . . 175
9. The Problem of Distinctive Units 184
9.1. Several types of minimal units in the same t e x t . . . . 184
9.2. Several types of cinematic units in the film 187
9.3. The determination of minimal units and the overall
study of grammar 193
9.4. Several types of extra-cinematic units in the film . . . 196
9.5. Distinctive units : diversity of size 199
9.6. Distinctive units : diversity of form 200
9.7. Critique of the notion 'cinematic sign' 204
10. 'Specific/Non-Specific': Relativity of the Classification
Used 208
10.1. 'Form/material/substance' according to Hjelmslev . 208
10.2. Semiotic interference between language systems . . . 212
10.3. Distinctive features of the material of the signifier . 219
10.4. The intermixing of specificities : Multiple specificity,
degrees of specificity, modes of specificity 224
10.5 Cinema and television 235
10.6. Language system as a combination of codes 240

10.7. Non-specific codes. Codes of content and codes of

expression 245
10.8. Hjelmslev reconsidered : 'substance' 251
11. Cinema and writing 254
11.1. Cinema and writing as recordings 254
11.2. Cinema and writing as transmissions 257
11.3. Cinema and writing as'printings' 262
11.4. Cinema and writing as 'compositions' 266
11.5. The cinema in relation to the 'writings' of Writing
Degree Zero 267
11.6. Cinema and ideography 271
Conclusion: Cinematic Language System and Filmic Writing . 285
References 289
Subject index 295
Index of Names 302
Index of Films 304


What is referred to globally as 'cinema' (and to a lesser degree as

'film') is, in reality, a vast and complex socio-cultural phenomenon, a
sort of total social fact (in the sense of Marcel Mauss) which includes,
as is well known, important economic and financial elements. It is,
rather, a 'multi-dimensional' phenomenon which, if taken as a whole,
does not lend itself to any rigorous and unified study, but only to a
heteroclite collection of observations involving multiple and diverse
points of view (plurality of criteria of relevancy). 'Cinema' (or 'film')
as such is not a knowable object, an object of scientific understanding;
what Saussure has said about 'language system' (langage) in its broadest
sense, and which led him to distinguish it from a language (langue) as
a system of signification (as a particular system of signification), could,
mutatis mutandis, also be applied to it. Linguistics has progressed only
by making such a distinction. It is due to this progress that we see it,
today, rediscovering language in its broadest sense, contributing to the
study of diverse linguistic phenomena other than natural languages
themselves (literary analyses, the 'secondary modeling systems' of the
Soviet school, the 'performance models' of Chomskyans, socio-, psycho-,
ethno-, and neurolinguistics, etc.). But insofar as the study of the
cinema is concerned, things have not progressed this far.
Cinema is a very recent phenomenon: the year 1895 (date of the
first public showing, organized by the Lumiere brothers) represents, in
the anthropological perspective we are adopting here, a very late date
in human development. To forget this fact is to run the risk of falling
into a fairly widespread sort of 'audio-visual' fanaticism or pro-
pheticism which, in order to establish for itself a new social fact worthy
of interest, must, at the very least, make it extremely difficult to reflect
calmly on the problems of film.
Inversely, it is because the cinema is a recent development that it
is possible to judge as normal, up to a certain point, the present, rather

deceptive state of research on the subject. What one most often calls
a 'theoretician of the cinema' is a sort of Renaissance man, ideally
possessing an encyclopedic knowledge and a quasi-universal method-
ological formation. He is expected to be familiar with the principal
films produced in the entire world since 1895, as well as their main
filiations (he is thus a historian); he must also, evidently, set himself
the task of revealing a certain number of insights into the economic
circumstances of their production (so that he is also, in this case, an
economist); he must force himself as well to specify in what way and
why a film is a work of art (here he is an aesthetician), without
neglecting to consider it as a sort of discourse (in this case he is a
semiotician); quite frequently, he also feels obliged to make copious
observations about the psychological, psychoanalytical, social, political,
and ideological phenomena to which particular films allude and around
which their content revolves; in sum, virtually nothing less than a
universal anthropological understanding is required.
Under these conditions, what is surprising is not the still embryonic
attraction of cinematic studies, but rather the existence of a certain
number of precise contributions to the understanding of film. Method-
ological procedures have been such, until now, that it would have
seemed more reasonable to expect practically no progress at all.
This is not, however, the case; in the theoretical texts of Balzs,
Arnheim, Bazin, Laffay, and others, as well as in the writings of
Eisenstein and the Russian formalists, or even of Morin and Cohen-
Seat (where the selection of relevant analytic criteria is already more
deliberate), we find a number of observations and very keen analyses
to which we have referred more than once in the past and which we
cannot afford to ignore in constructing a rigorous theory of the cinema.
These materials constitute an entire period of reflection on the film, a
period whose culmination and synthesis is found in the impressive
Esthetique et Psychologie du cinima (1963-1965) of Jean Mitry.
It would be impossible to prolong this period without doing it
damage. Its justification and raison d'etre (as well as its relative and
absolute fruitfulness) stem from the fact that the cinema was a com-
pletely new and still astonishing phenomenon: entire books were
devoted to commenting upon its very existence, without any further
refinement of an analytic point of view. But today the cinema, although
a recent development as noted above, has become an established
cultural fact. We can no longer content ourselves with remarking
upon it as a newly created marvel, but rather must begin to under-
WITHIN THE cinema: t h e filmic f a c t 11

stand it in its diverse aspects, and for this we must have some idea of
the different perspectives from which it may be studied.
There is another sort of 'theory of the cinema' which, because it is
foreign to the principles followed in the present book, will not be
discussed here. In the present jargon of professionals (film producers,
critics, historians of film), the term 'theoretician' frequently designates
an author whose writings are primarily normative and the principal
aim of which is to exercise an influence on future films, even to pre-
scribe for these films the choice of certain subjects (subjects of social
significance, for example). In this sense of the term, there exist some
great theoreticians of the cinema, many of whom are Italians and
avowedly Marxists and whose conviction and inspiration are estimable.
In some cases their influence on the production of films has been greater
than would have been imagined possible (one has only to think of the
rise of certain schools and of certain trends in the cinema, for example,
Italian neorealism, the English documentary school, expressionism and
'KammerspieF in Germany, and various present day groups of the
'new cinema'); during the great era of the Soviet cinema, the Marxist
inspiration was deepened and an attempt was made to refrain from
opposing 'content' and 'form', and from relegating the latter to an
ahistoric futility.
Although there are numerous marginal cases here, as elsewhere, it
is not the directly prescriptive theoreticians we are thinking of when
we speak of a 'first epoch' in the theory of film, but rather those authors
who, like those specifically mentioned above, have devoted all or a
significant part of their cinematic efforts to the analysis of films such
as they are, and who appear, as such, as the precursors of a descrip-
tion of the film, in the sense that this word has in the sciences of
man, particularly in linguistics. This choice does not entail a judge-
ment of the principle of a normative theory - since the semiotician,
like any member of an audience, finds himself confronted with films
that he likes and others that he does not like - but simply the necessary
distinction between two types of 'theories'. On the one hand, there
is that type of theory which is concerned with films to come, which
sees things in terms of influence, which does not hesitate to counsel
and prescribe, which seeks to respond directly to the technical prob-
lems of the 'creative artist' and is significant only from this per-
spective. On the other hand, there is that type of theory which is
concerned with discourses which already exist and which seeks to
analyze them as givens. Aestheticians encounter a similar problem:

there are the aesthetics of authors (aesthetic theories whose authors

are occasionally not the authors of 'works of art', but this is irrelevant
to the classification) and the aesthetic theories of analysts. It is not in
the same sense of the word that the Preface to Cromwell and the
writings of Francastel deal with 'aesthetics'.
It is the descriptive theory of the cinema which is at present coming
to the end of the first stage of its development, a stage marked by the
absence of any principle of analytic criteria, and which must from
now on begin to make explicit the point of view from which a given
description is made.
In this regard, the first distinction to present itself is the one which
was made by Gilbert Cohen-Seat in 1946 and which remains pertinent
today: the distinction between cinematic fact and filmic fact.1 This
distinction may be summarized in the following manner: film is only
a small part of the cinema, for the latter represents a vast ensemble of
phenomena some of which intervene before the film (the economic
infrastructure of production, studios, bank or other financing, national
laws, sociology of the contexts of decision making, technological
equipment and emulsions, biography of film producers, etc.), others
after the film (the social, political, and ideological impact of the film
on different publics, 'patterns' of behavior or of sentiments induced by
the viewing of films, audience responses, audience surveys, mythology
of stars, etc.), and, finally, others during the film but aside from and
outside of it (the social ritual of the projection of the film - less formal
than in the classic theater, but retaining its sobriety even in everyday
sociocultural situations - the furnishing and decoration of the theater,
the technical methods of operation of the projectionist, the role of the
theater attendants - that is to say their function in various economic or
symbolic systems, which does not detract from their practical in-
utility - etc.).
The importance of making this distinction between the cinematic
and the filmic fact lies in the fact that it allows us to restrict the mean-
ing of the term 'film' to a more manageable, specifiable signifying
discourse, in contrast with 'cinema' which, as defined here, constitutes
a larger complex (at whose center, however, three predominant dimen-
sions may be distinguished : the technological, the economic, and the

Essai sur les principes d'une philosophic du cinema (Paris : P.U.F., 1946; new
edition, 1958), 53 ff.

It is clear that the so-called semiotics of the cinema is primarily

concerned with the 'filmic fact'. In spite of inevitable areas of overlap,
the semiotics of the cinema cannot usefully contribute to the under-
standing of the 'cinematic fact', at least not in any direct manner, and
not at the present stage of research. Semiotics, whether of the film or
anything else, is the study of discourses and 'texts'. (Note, however, that
the sociological dimension of the cinematic fact is, by definition, closer
to the study of film as language than are the economic or technological
There is yet another terminological problem here, although in this
case more apparent than real. In certain, easily testifiable uses of the
word 'film', it designates something other than a signifying discourse. It
may refer, for example, to a physical object (the roll of film in its
metallic case); in this sense, it is a technological item. In other contexts,
it might designate an economic fact, the total income from the succes-
sive and/or simultaneous distribution of several copies of a particular
film (as illustrated by such sentences as "This film has grossed four
million in the New York area alone").
Semiotic analysis is obviously not directly concerned with film in
these two senses of the term, nor in various other (rather numerous)
ones of the same sort which we shall not discuss here. If this difficulty
seems negligible to us, it is because it is a confusion of words, and not of
things themselves - to be precise, the ambiguity resides in the ordinary
metalanguage and not in the language-object. Our intention here is
not to study the lexicon of the cinematographer, which itself constitutes
a signifying-set, but rather to show (see the works of Jean Giraud and
Ginette Jacquinot) that the aspects of social experience focused upon
by the various meanings of the word 'film' stem from what Cohen-Seat
calls the 'cinematic fact' and not what he calls the 'filmic fact'; it is that
everyday language is capricious, not that the conceptualization is
obscure. Suffice it to say that what we shall call 'film', except where
otherwise indicated, is film as a signifying discourse (text), or as a
linguistic object: Cohen-Seat's filmic fact.
'Filmology', under the influence of Etienne Souriau, had already
undertaken the task of isolating and circumscribing that aspect of film
which is pertinent for us here, and had coined the term filmophanie2
(or 'filmophanie level') to designate the film functioning as an object
perceived by the audience for the duration of its projection. It is the
'filmophanie' film, and it alone, that we shall call 'film'.
L'Univers filmique, ed. Etienne Souriau (Paris: Flammarion, 1953), 8.

The notion of filmic fact, in the sense just specified, is, however,
still too vast to attribute to it the principle of analytic distinctiveness
suitable to a semiotics of the film, for the film itself is a 'multi-dimen-
sional' phenomenon. Some of its elements are of interest to psychology :
the psychology of perception (the film as a perceptual and spatio-
temporal 'Gestalt', monocular or binocular relief - three-dimensional-
ity - the projection of color by the mind in black and white films, retinal
after-image, the 'phi effect', 'intermittent light stimulation', the role of
maskings and movements, filmological studies with electroencephalo-
grams, 'screen effect', etc.); cognitive psychology (experiments on the
comprehension of film by children, peoples unacculturated to the
cinema, variously pathological subjects; the film as a test of level of
intelligence; the role of short-term memory and rapid restructuring of
the field of perception in the comprehension of a chained sequence,
etc.); psychology of emotion (the film as projective test, projection and
identification, affective participation in the unfolding of the film, etc.);
psychology of memory (how are films remembered, and for how long);
and of course psychology of the imagination (the film between the real
and the imaginary, between the dream and the spectacle, between the
nocturnal dream and the daydream, the problem of the 'impression of
reality' in the cinema and more generally of the 'imagination', in a
Sartrian sense), etc. It should be borne in mind that there have been
studies (and sometimes in great quantity) devoted to all of these topics
and more, and that the discipline known as filmology has, for the most
part, concerned itself with the study of the film with methods proper to
psychology, experimental and social psychology in particular. It is
precisely in this area that it has achieved the most precise results.3
On the other hand, some of the most outstanding characteristics of
the film are of direct concern to sociological investigation. If studies of
audience influence or reception (and, at the other end of the chain of
events, the sociological description of decision-making contexts) belong
to the cinematic rather than the filmic fact, sociology has nonetheless
to concern itself with the latter in other respects. In the present state
of research it is interested, for example, in the content of films, the
social elements of which (collective representations, diverse types of
stereotypes, ideologies, propaganda, 'images' and 'roles' put forth, etc.)
are more immediately apparent than what is called its form. Content
analysis is one of the tasks of communication research, especially

* See in particular the first volumes of Revue Internationale de Filmologie

(Paris), founded in 1947.

within the current organization of scientific disciplines, of 'mass' com-

munication research (at least when the content to be analyzed is that
of a film).
It is equally clear that the study of film is of interest to aesthetics;
the film is always a 'work of art', whether by its quality and its success
('box-office hits'), or simply by its nature : a film can only be declared
'bad' if one assumes on the part of its author an aesthetic and creative
intention, whether it is an unconscious one obscured by the artifactual
process of fabrication or the commercial 'formula'. Moreover, it can
only appear to be bad in relation to the aesthetic criteria more or less
clearly present in the mind of the person who judges it to be such. In
this sense, everything that can be said of the officially recognized arts
may also be said of cinema. The discipline known as the 'history of
the cinema' (which is usually only the history of the succession oi major
films) is a branch of art history, or at least should be, and is sometimes
prevented from being considered as such only by the irrational pre-
judices of cultural legitimacy, which are concerned with the unequal
'nobility' of different means of expression and which have been ana-
lyzed by educational sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-
Claude Passeron. To speak of an aesthetic dimension in relation to the
cinema is not to assert that the concepts of a particular aesthetic theory
like 'work of art', 'creation', or 'author' (at least if these terms are taken
in their sacrosanct sense) must be relevant to the study of film; they
have also not been found to be such in the analysis of other arts. What
can be said is that, in relation to aesthetics - and in no matter what
manner this is conceived - the position of a film is identical to that of a
book, a piece of music, or a painting. (It is true that social pressures,
intrinsic constraints, are felt to be greater and more direct in the film
than in any other art,4 but this is a difference of degree, and only of
degree, and of degree of immediacy; and then, one always forgets to
mention dime novels, military marches, popular paintings....)
The film also offers rich material for studies inspired directly or
indirectly by psychoanalytic methods. In this regard, as in others,
partial studies based on clearly enunciated analytic criteria are already
available or are in the process of being made.6

* We have examined this point in particular in an article in 1968 ("Le dire et

le dit au cinema: vers le declin d'un Vraisemblable ?", Communications 11),
reprinted in our Essais sur la signification au cinema (Paris: Klincksieck, 1968).
For example: Nathan Leites and Martha Wolfenstein, Movies, A Psychologi
cal Study (Glencoe, Illinois : The Free Press, 1950).

It would be tempting to say, by way of a sort of analogy with what

was said earlier about the distinction between cinema and film, that,
within the filmic fact itself, two or three types of phenomena may be
isolated - for example, the psychological, sociological, and aesthetic -
which are not of direct concern to semiotics, and which should therefore
be restricted to the study of film considered as a language system.
Such an assertion would be meaningless, despite its apparent ob-
viousness, for the film 'as language' is, in fact, the film in its entirety.
It would be impossible to envisage a semiotics of film indifferent to
the nature of the material means of expression involved (in the
Hjelmslevian sense).6 Cinematic discourse depends on five different
sensory orders : the visual image, the musical sound, the verbal sounds
of speech, sound effects, and the graphic form of credits. Structural
analysis, it is true, is concerned with form and not its material support;
but the former owes some of its properties to the latter and both remain
distinct only up to a certain point. (Linguistics encounters similar dif-
ficulties; this is the problem of the relationship between phonetics and
phonology.) It would in any case be impossible to define the film as a
linguistic phenomenon without taking into account the fact that it
makes use of five signifying codes, namely the five mentioned above. To
this extent the semiotics of film is inextricably tied to 'psychological'
considerations (perceptual mechanisms, inherent properties of the visual
image, etc.), utilized in a different perspective.
It is also difficult to see how a semiotic approach could afford to
ignore the form of the content (this term is also used in the sense of
Louis Hjelmslev) of different films, i.e., the organization of what is
called the 'themes' of the film (and which, even with another type of
analysis, remains 'thematic'7 in nature), the internal organization of
meaning underlying a given film, etc. In this way, a semiotic analysis
inevitably encounters sociology, cultural history, aesthetics, psycho-
analysis, etc.
Finally, how could a study of signification ignore the fact that film,
unlike a natural language, is a mode of expression in which language
and art maintain a quasi-consubstantial relation to one another and

Louis Hjelmslev, Prolegomenes une theorie du langage. Danish original 1943,

French translation 1968 (Paris: d. de Minuit). For more precise references to
this problem, see Chapter 10.1.
On this particular point, see our article "Propositions methodologiques pour
l'analyse du film", Information sur les Sciences Sociales V I I : 4, 1968, 107-19,
especially 108-9 with note 1.

where language itself is a product or an aspect of artistic invention ? 8

Cinematic codes do exist, but they do not have the constancy and
stability of natural languages. The student of film, like the speaker of a
natural language, is faced with pre-existent forms which are anterior to
his own activity, hut not to the same degree, nor in the same way. A
semiotic analysis is thus closely associated with the aesthetics of film.
These are only three examples - the principal ones, perhaps, but
certainly not the only ones. They all suggest the same conclusion:
film, because it constitutes (contrary to the cinema) a delimitable
space - an object devoted from beginning to end to signification, a
closed discourse - can only be envisaged 'as a language system' in its
It would certainly not be wise to accord too absolute a value to the
distinction which is often proposed between divisions of a discipline
according to the objects studied and the methods employed to study
them. The relationship between subject and method is always a two-
way affair. What is referred to as a domain of research is an area whose
principle of delimitation, in the last analysis, would always appear to
be an indissoluble combination of 'object' and 'method'.
But it remains to be said that the relative importance of these two
classificatory criteria is liable to vary considerably from one case to
another, and that, within a single 'stage' in the history of research (as
well as in its geography, which springs from the history), certain
divisions make themselves felt with more force than others. The
distinction between 'cinema' and 'film' was a relatively easy one to
make, since it referred, in large part, to objects or, more precisely, to
what, today, would seem to be from the point of view of the
object. The cinematic object is, in fact, immense and heteroclite, and
sufficiently large so that some of its dimensions - for example the
economic and technological - are excluded from the domain of a
semiotic analysis. It is not unlikely, however, that this apparently
intrinsic nature of the object is in turn, if looked at a little more closely,
in the long run a characteristic rather of the methodological domain. It
would be ridiculous to attempt to isolate, within the cinema, a sort of
absolute object such as the cinema-as-economic-fact, since economists
are themselves uncertain about the intrinsically separate existence of
economic facts. But the economist is much less uncertain when it comes
to the methods to be employed in an economic study; thus a situation

" On this point, see Essais sur la signification au cinema, text 3, especially 64-65.

is created in which the economic study of the cinema may be usefully

made the 'object' of an autonomous discipline (see, for example, the
work of Henri Mercillon). Even if we assume, as we are doing here,
that the name 'object' is given to what is always only a more profound
avatar of method, the consequences for a rational division of labor
remain unchanged, since it is the nature of the most coherent and most
positive methods to create by their very existence the most clearly
delimitable 'objects'.
Viewed in this way, the phenomenon which is the cinema, with its
vast scope, covers afieldof which certain areas coincide with the objects
of diverse, fairly well-established, and fairly unrelated disciplines (tech-
nology, sociology of audiences, economics, etc.). It is in this sense
- completely relative in the eyes of an historian of epistemologies, but
provisionally absolute for the 'fieldworker' - that the cinema is not a
unitary object. It is also in this sense that semiotics could not, at
present, and without some degree of immoderation, adopt as its goal
the complete study of the cinematic fact.
But these very criteria, at once relative and absolute, yield com-
pletely different results when applied to the notion of film. This is
so not only because psychology, sociology, aesthetics, semiotics, etc.,
considered in themselves and outside of any study of film, represent
enterprises which are imperfectly distinct and perpetually confused at
their borders (witness social psychology, experimental aesthetics, the
sociology of art, etc.), but even more because the study of closed texts
(of which the film is one) represents the place par excellence where
the mutual implication of these disciplines is greatest. A closed text
- a tale, a myth, a play, a novel, etc. - is always, and always at the
same time, a total cultural object and an object in some way exiguous
in relation to the general production of a society. For both of these
reasons, it delineates the type of space in which, more than in any
other, the different social sciences and humanities come into close
contact, and very close contact since it is on such a tiny surface.
There is reason to predict that this situation will not last, and that
the present geography of the social sciences - so manifestly uncertain
and provisional - will be modified. But while waiting for some great,
new clarity of vision to come to our aid, it is difficult to see how it
would be possible today to distinguish, within thefilm,several 'objects'
possessing a minimum of reality, no matter how this reality is defined.
The parallel with literary phenomena (justified in other respects, as we
have said) could be deceptive here; it is no longer a question of what
WITHIN THE c i n e m a : t h e f i l m i c f a c t 19

should be, but of what is, and literary studies have a considerable
headstart, in spite of their own aporias.
Under these conditions, the sole division of labor within the study
of film that can be envisaged, for the time being, is one of those
divisions said to be 'based on methods', but which is based, in fact, on
the insufficiencies of these methods. This sort of classification, as we
have just seen, is always founded on method, and it is simply when
method is further extended that an object is created. This, again, does
not at all modify the problems of analysis.
It is necessary, then, to consider it as normal that the 'semiotics' of
film depends on data (but not on methods) borrowed from the psy-
chology, sociology, aesthetics, history, etc. of film. The amount of
interference will necessarily be great, but it is not necessary to try to be
clearer than the facts themselves, that is to say than our knowledge of
the facts.
The fact clearly remains that none of the disciplines just mentioned
have been able up to now to master the film as a total signifying-
object, and this objective is precisely the one that a 'semiotic' analysis
of the film could and should adopt. Moreover, semiotics, as has some-
times been pointed out,9 is meaningful only as a general study of
cultural configurations and logic, rather than as a mechanical extension
of linguistic methods applied to more and more diverse 'objects' (such
as the film) taken individually. By its very nature, the semiotic
enterprise must expand or disappear, while other disciplines (such as
certain behavioristic or experimental studies) lend themselves to a
procedure more certain to survive, since they at least achieve partial
results which are never completely useless.
To this extent one can - and ought to - assign to the semiotics of the
film the goal of the complete study of the filmic discourse considered as
an integrated signifying event (form and substance of content, form and
substance of expression). On the level of long-term objectives (which
one must have), this is the only definition that appears to us to be
possible for this growing discipline. It will someday no longer be a
question, then, of 'semiotics' in the somewhat restricted and provisional
sense that the term sometimes has today (on the margins of linguistics),
but rather of the structural analysis of the film and films (with linguistic
models, in this broader perspective, still playing an important role).
Nevertheless, we should not confuse distant objectives with more or
' For example, Tzvetan Todorov in "Perspectives semiologiques", Communi-
cations 7, 1966, 139-45.

less quickly realizable tasks. At the present, semiotics has not mastered
the film as a total structure any more than has sociology, psychology,
or aesthetics. We may be convinced that it is better suited to do
this (with the aid of these other disciplines) than they are themselves,
but such convictions cannot be spread simply by multiplying the
number of programmatic statements; what is important is to provide
analyses, which are always incomplete.
This book would never have been undertaken without the idea that
a semiotic type of analysis is alone capable of providing in advance
the framework for a coherent and unified understanding of the filmic
object. The day when the realization of this goal is in view the
semiotics of the film will have only to conserve this name; it will be
in reality (or more in reality) what it is today programmatically, i.e., a
theory of the filmic fact, and not an application of linguistic methods,
even if it must pass through such a stage in order to reach its goal.
In parallel fashion, and for the same reasons, disciplines like the
psychology of film, the sociology of film (not to be confused with the
psychology and sociology of the cinema, i.e., of publics), etc. will
preserve a sort of de facto autonomy - an autonomy also founded
on method, in the sense defined above - as long as the unitary theory
of film has not been achieved. We might even add that it is precisely
at the moment when one hopes to surpass this too highly fragmented
situation (which teems with psychodramas, regardless of whether they
are disguised as interdisciplinary discussions or not) that one should pay
greatest attention to its provisional yet real existence. Methods are
things which cannot be interchanged (and which cannot be 'combined'
without great danger of giving rise to monstrosities), but data and
insights, bits of experience attained, can and ought to circulate freely.
Anyone unfamiliar with the cinema will never develop a semiotic
theory of it.
The first era of general reflection on the film is, as we have said,
coming to a close, and every filmic study must clearly and consciously
select its principle of relevancy. During this first phase, what was called
the theory of the film (or the theory of the cinema, for they were scarce-
ly ever distinguished) consisted of a global, on occasion sustained and
precise, focusing of attention on the filmic or cinematic fact: an
eclectic and syncretic, and in some cases very enlightening study which
made use of several methods without applying any of them in a con-
sistent manner, and sometimes without being aware of doing so. In a
third phase, which we can look forward to entering some day, these

diverse methods should be profoundly reconciled (which may imply

the mutual disappearance of their present forms), and the theory of
film will then be a true, not syncretic, synthesis capable of precisely
determining the domain of validity of the different approaches and the
articulation of different levels. It would appear that we are today
entering the second phase, in which a tentative but necessary method-
ological pluralism may be defined. The psychology of film, the semiotics
of film, etc., did not exist yesterday, and may no longer exist tomorrow,
but must be allowed to live today, true unifications never being brought
about by dictate but only at the end of a long series of studies.
For all of these reasons, the only principle of relevancy capable of
defining, at present, the semiotics of the film is - in addition to its
application to the filmic rather than to the cinematic fact - the desire
to treat films as texts, as units of discourse, consequently forcing itself
to study the different systems (whether they are or are not codes) which
give form to these texts and are implicit in them. If one asserts that
semiotics studies the form of films, this should be without forgetting
that form is not that which is opposed to content, and that there exists
a form of the signified which is just as important as the form of the



It remains to be explained why we have spoken more than once o a

'semiotics of cinema' - as often, perhaps, as of the 'semiotics of film' -
while at the same time restricting this study to the filmic rather than
the cinematic fact.
This is because the terminological pair cinema/film remains a use-
ful one even within our 'filmic' perspective, on condition, of course,
that these terms are given a new definition. 'Cinema', in fact, is not
always (as it is for Cohen-Seat) the sum of that which is related to the
film but external to it; even at the heart of a filmic analysis cinema
continues to be a notion which intrudes itself at every turn, and which
is hard to imagine doing without. What is called 'cinema', in all its
uses (including the most popular), is not solely this notion of the sum
of phenomena surrounding the m, which is the core of Cohen-Seat's
definition, but also the sum of films themselves, or rather the sum of
traits which, in the films themselves, are taken to be characteristic of
what is sensed to be a certain 'language system'. There is also the same
relationship between cinema and films as between literature and books,
painting and paintings, sculpture and sculptures, etc. Thus one can say
of a certain configuration of montage that it is properly cinematic, or
that it belongs to the language of the cinema. And it is clear, although
paradoxical, that the cinema thus conceived is situated within what
Cohen-Seat calls the filmic fact.
From a semiotic point of view, it is in one's own interest to deal
with these two (both simple and manageable) terms in such a way as
to differentiate those concrete units of discourse, each of which is a
'film' and a particular totality capable of being directly attested, from
that ideal set which is known as 'cinema' and which is the virtual sum
of all films and, as such, the place where different structures of signi-
fication ('processes', 'expressive resources', 'figures', etc.) are felt to

flow together and to be organized in a coherent manner. Even if each

film introduces and reorders these structures in its own way, even if
each film makes use of only a small proportion of them, these structures
continue to be by their very nature potentially common to all films to
the extent that they constitute a general pool upon which each film
will draw and the selection of which is closely related to the very
selection of the cinematic vehicle itself.
Even in everyday language, that is without any attempt at termino-
logical standardization, cinema and film are not synonymous; and this
is not solely because the opposition of the two words is located on the
semantic axis discussed in Chapter 1. We have seen, of course, that
film is often opposed to cinema as a referent language (a signifying
discourse) to a set of phenomena of a technological, economic, socio-
logical, and industrial order. Thus, one could say that Film exercises a
powerful emotional control and that The cinema is a powerful industry;
in all cases of this sort (and they are numerous) we find the opposition
between cinematic and filmic as defined by Gilbert Cohen-Seat. But it
is also not uncommon to find the two words in opposition in other
sorts of contexts as well, where both refer to sets of phenomena which,
according to Cohen-Seat, should be classified as 'filmic'. In a sentence
like Television and cinema share certain expressive resources, cinema
cannot be replaced by film. Inversely, in Televised broadcasts and ms
share certain expressive resources, films may not be replaced by cinema.
Both of these sentences, however, refer to eminently filmic phenomena,
such as the existence of supposedly specific 'expressive resources'.
In this example, which could be reinforced by many others of the
same sort, film is what corresponds to television itself. More
generally, it is clear that common intuition situates the film in the same
series as 'book', 'statue', etc. - and cinema in the same series as
'literature', 'sculpture', etc. In music, one speaks of different musical
'pieces'; in the same way, each film is in some sort a cinematic 'piece'.
We see, then, that the lexical pair film/cinema, such at it is often found
in common speech and in writings on the screen, corresponds rather
precisely (even within the 'filmic' domain) to the distinction which is
made, in classical aesthetics, between a work of art and the art itself
- in sociology between the product (or programming) of a certain
'media' and the media itself - and, finally, in semiotics, between the
message typical of a certain medium of expression and this medium
itself, no matter what the exact definition the latter receives, in turn,
in the process.

If the film - the message - is a 'concrete' object, it is because its

borders coincide with those of a discourse which has been effectively
sustained, a unit which preceded the intervention of the analyst.
The cinema, on the contrary, is more problematic for semiotics. It is
a more difficult notion : an abstract unit, a purely ideal whole on which
the analysis concentrates - upon which it would like to establish - a
certain unity which has yet to be determined. The film is an object in
the real world, the cinema is not.
To say that that which is the basis of the unity of a film is of the order
of a 'given' is not (ought not) to succumb to the sort of simplistic
'realism' which ignores the fact that things exist only through discourses
which are woven into, between, and around them. The fundamental
unity of a film, like any social phenomenon, is, in the last analysis, a
sort of systemic web, and the semiotics of filmic facts, as we shall see
below, ought to study individual films as well as the cinema. The film
is a 'given' in only one sense, but one which is important: its external
contours, its material extension, are not a problem for the analyst, for
they have been determined by the film-producer and were his problem.
Concerning the cinema, on the other hand, merely to want to draw up
a first rough list of what will be considered to be cinema and what will
not is already to pose the theoretical problem in its fullest extent, and
to raise the question of distinctiveness,1 In this sense, film and cinema
are opposed as a real object to an ideal one, as an utterance to a
language system.



There exists in popular opinion and in certain writings ingenuinely

devoted to the 'seventh art' a sort of implicit theory which attributes to
the thing called 'cinema' a unity which remains sensible and concrete,
a unity which is of the same order as that of the film. Not infrequently
the cinema is pictured as something which, on the one hand, is of a
systemic nature - as a group of codified facts - but which, on the other,
could be classified according to the physical nature of the means of
expression which it employs, i.e., by its (or by their) material(s) oj
expression, in the terminology of Louis Hjelmslev.2 In this bizarre view
The principle of distinctiveness dominates all linguistic research; it was for-
mulated very clearly by Andre Martinet, Elements de linguistique generale
(Paris: Armand Colin, 19638) Chapters 2-5, 37-8.

of things - which, in spite of its internal contradictions, is considered

self-evident by many - the 'cinema' is the language made up of a
combination of moving photographic images, sounds, words, and
music; and 'silent pictures' is the language which utilizes only the first
of these four elements.
We shall leave aside a particularly dubious variant of this conception
according to which the talking cinema itself would have the greatest
aesthetic interest in being - and nearly the obligation to be - organized,
to the exclusion of all else, into a system founded solely on the play of
moving images, and in which recourse to the other three elements
would be legitimate only by means of their peremptory structural sub-
ordination to forms of the first. Here it is no longer a question of an
implicit attempt to define the cinema, but rather a sort of normative
choice explicitly aimed at influencing future developments. But even
if we ignore this moralizing excrescence, the fact remains that the
definition of the cinema in terms of the materials of expression is rather
widespread. The success of this conception lies in the fact that it
proposes, as the cinematic object, a type of unit which is, so-to-speak,
discretely spectacular, a type of homogeneity founded directly on the
sensorial and on the technical, a material sort of coherence. Thus it is
not surprising that definitions of this type coincide to a rather large
extent with the spontaneous classifications brought about by a layman's
naive perception as well as with everyday social classifications. A
certain number of combinations are distinguished and usually referred
to as so many 'languages' which are imagined to be arranged one after
the other along the length of a single axis and maintaining between
themselves the type of relation that logicians would call exclusion
(absence of any common zone). Thus, there would be the verbal lan-
guage, the musical language, the pictorial language, the language of
flowers, the language of gestures, etc., and each of them, as the
cinematic language, would correspond to a certain material of expres-
sion or to a certain combination of several of them. In the end, there
would be as many languages as there are physical types of signifiers.
In this conception, the unity of the cinema tends to approximate that
of the film. Certainly the film remains a singular object while the cinema
is a combination of different objects, which is to say it is an ideal
object. Nevertheless, the cinema - like the film, and simply on a larger
scale - is still defined by the parallel and simultaneous realization of its

For additional bibliographic information, see Chapter 10.1.

four sensorial series (which are really five, since the written credits are
often forgotten), as well as by the technological processes to which
this quintuple physical chain owes its definitive nature (in the sense
that it may be said that televised images do not all share the same
definition, i.e., the same number of 'lines'). What is characteristic of
the cinema is that the speech events are recorded on a sound tape
(and are not, for example, transmitted by telephone, or overheard
directly), that the images are photographic (and not video-taped, or on
the other hand obtained by hand), etc. Defined in this way, the cinema
is nothing more than the combination of messages which society calls
'cinematic' - or which it calls 'films' - and it so calls any message that
corresponds to a certain technico-sensory determination: technical in
terms of the transmission, sensory in terms of the reception. The
cinema is that which is materially cinema.
Thus it can be explained why the word 'cinema', in ordinary usage,
sometimes serves, among other things, to designate a certain sum of
ms. This is a secondary meaning which is not uncommon and which
appears in sentences or expressions like : English cinema can offer no
film comparable to the latter; the Soviet cinema of the great epoch;
the best film in the entire history of the cinema, etc. In an equal number
of cases the word designates an object which - in addition to what
would belong, according to Cohen-Seat, to the 'filmic' - consists more
precisely of the sum of a certain number of films; this 'cinema' is in
some sense the result of a process of accretion.
In the works of the first theoreticians, it is in regard to the technico-
sensory definition that the art of moving (and at that time silent)
pictures was considered a 'language', or a 'script' - or yet again
(depending on the author) as a means of expression capable, through
progressive refinements, of becoming a language or a script. When
Louis Delluc, Victor Perrot, Jean Damas, and Ricciotto Canudo
developed such themes, they not only intended to assert, with a some-
what militant fanfare, the abundance of an intuited 'expressive richness',
but also the visual specifiicity (the sensorial particularity) of this tool so
full of potential resources. If, for these authors, the cinema - actually or
potentially - merited consideration as a language or a script, it was
because it had a material of expression which belonged exclusively
to it, i.e., animated photography and linear order. Even today some
authors take this same view - for the single sensory series of silent
pictures, they have simply substituted the multiple series appropriate
to talking pictures.
We have to admit that in itself there is nothing wrong with this
definition of the cinema. It rests, in fact, on a commonsensical pro-
position which, on that level, cannot be disputed, and which is not
incorrect. We shall reconsider it from another point of view below
(see the whole of Chapter Ten), in order to try to clarify it. Within
a preliminary delineation - still wholly external, but clearly necessary
it is clear that the 'cinema' could be nothing more than a certain
(putative) signifying system which is distinguished from others by its
material of expression. The cinema, to begin with, is evidently that
which is neither painting, nor sculpture, nor theater, etc.
It is in some of its extended forms too tempting and too often
considered to be self-evident that the technico-sensory definition
may be criticized. From the idea of a material homogeneity, one slips
in many cases into the impression, even into the assertion, that there
ought obviously to exist (at least in principle) a single system - a
single code - capable of accounting for all of the significations found
in the messages whose physical nature corresponds to the definition
given. Thus, from material singularity one slips into systemic singularity,
unless the possibility of distinguishing between the two was never even
considered. Because a combination of physically homogeneous messages
exists, there must exist a single 'language'. What is meant by 'cinema',
in this case, is not only the sum of films, but also the unique and
sovereign code which is assumed to be coextensive with all the semiotic
material provided by these films. It is the sum of the characteristics of
these films, in addition to the sum of the films themselves. It is all the
films, but it is also everything about the films. It is a postulated logical
uniqueness as well as the established physical singularity.
Emilio Garroni has presented a penetrating analysis of this gradual
transition, and has pointed out its dangers.3 The 'cinema' so under-
stood becomes a unique and total code. Of course it is not claimed
that this code is already known, that the analysis has been carried to
its logical conclusion, or that its paradigms and its syntagms (or its
modes of generating) have already been established. But the goal of this
analysis will be that of elucidating the code of the cinema, without
necessarily calling this code a 'language', terminology which betrays
the confused desire, proper to this conception, of renouncing neither
physical nor systemic singularity, whether they are judged inseparable
Semiotica ed estetica (L'eterogeneit del linguaggio e il linguaggio cinemato-
grafico) (Bari : Laterza, 1968). To appear in French in the series "Champ Libre",
and in English in the Approaches to Semiotics series.

or whether the possibility of separating them had never been con-

These conceptual tendencies appear in many current uses of the
word 'cinema'. Thus one can hear or read that The cinema excels in
referring to things without naming them (although this is a characteristic
of the visual image which is only one part of the cinema, and which
also exists outside of it) or that The cinema contains nothing which
corresponds to the 'chapter' of the novel (a proposition which is true
of the cinematic narrative, but not of cinema in general), etc. In all
contexts of this sort, the word 'cinema' is evidently charged by those
who use it with the task of designating something which is not only
of the order of a code (i.e., which is not of the order of a message), but
which also constitutes the code which regulates a technico-sensory
sphere as a whole, and this sphere cdone. Note that such a suggestion
is already present in the frequent use of the word 'cinema' in the
singular and with no determinative such as an epithet, a relative clause,
or adnominal complement. There is a sort of absolute usage here, which
appears in the two sentences above, as well as in all those sentences
whose predicate posits such a quality or property in attributing it to
the 'cinema' (and just that), the subject of the statement.



It is appropriate to distinguish, then, much more strictly than does

the average work on the cinema, between two sorts of conceptual
classifications: those which regroup all messages of a certain sensory
modality without necessarily positing a single code, and those whose
unity is of a systemic order (i.e., which are codes, or groups of codes).
The latter are also abstract entities since the only 'concrete' categories
belong to the message. Their unity, moreover, is based even less on
the physical nature of the signifier, which is a 'given'; it is a constructed
rather than an inherent unity, and it does not exist prior to the analysis.
Although codes, in the present stage of semiotic research, are not (as
is necessary) all formal models, in the broad and strong sense this
notion has in modern logic, they are, at least, all units which aim at
formalization. Their homogeneity is not a sensory one, but rather one
of the order of logical coherence, of explanatory power, of classifica-
tion, of generative capacity. If a code is a code, it is because it provides

a unified field of commutations, i.e., a (reconstructed) 'domain' within

which the transformations of the signifier correspond to variations in the
signified, and within which a certain number of elements have meaning
only in relation to each other. A code is homogeneous because it was
meant to be such, never because it was discovered to be such.
This is why the bi-univocal relationship between codes and groups
of physically similar messages does not by any means represent a
necessary or permanent, or even common, state of affairs. Eric
Buyssens has already noted4 that certain codes - which he called
heterogeneous semes - utilize several different materials of expression.
He presented a simple example of this, that of the code ('seme') used
by the audience of a theatrical performance, in our culture, to express
its opinion : a componential commutation puts the signifier /Cat calls/
opposite the signified 'Disapproval', which is physically of a type which
can be described as auditory, non-phonetic, and 'labial' - and, opposite
the signified 'Approval', the signifier /Applause/, which is auditory
and non-phonetic but 'manual' (or again the /Bravo !/, which is
phonetic and even phonemic).
It also happens that a system of differentiations (a code) is trans-
posed in its entirety from one modality to another while its internal
relational structure (jorm according to Hjelmslev) remains to a greater
or lesser extent unchanged. We know, for example, that various
aesthetic systems which, until the nineteenth century, were manifested,
i.e., realized in physical form, only in the material of expression
proper to 'pictorial language system' (the unique and fixed image
rendered by hand) have undergone since then a second manifestation,
more or less isomorphic to the first, in the sensory order of the cinema's
moving photographic image arranged in sequential order. The forms
of classic Flemish painting are revived in Jacques Feyder's Kermesse
Heroique, those of more recent Flemish painting (Magritte, Paul
Delvaux) in L'Homme au crane rase or in Un soir, un train by Andre
Delvaux, those of August Renoir in some of the films of his son Jean
(Une partie de Campagne), etc. But some of the systems of spatial
organization which have most influenced the history of painting have,
in turn, been 'borrowed', as has been shown in a number of scholarly
works, from the use of space in the theater (and what is such a
'borrowing', semiotically speaking, if not the migration of a form

Les langages et le discours (Brussels : Office of Publicity, 1945), Chapter IV.A,

through several modalities of expression ?). We also know the consider-

able role, advantageous or disadvantageous according to different
schools of aesthetics or judgements of taste, that 'literary' or 'dramatic'
schemes play in the construction of films. In all these cases, one is
dealing, after all, with systems which, as systems, are more or less
similar across different groups of physically homogeneous messages,
i.e., with codes more or less common to different 'language systems'.
This phenomenon, which one encounters quite frequently, allows,
moreover, a certain number of rather complex variations, according
to whether the preservation of the form is more or less complete, and
whether the technico-sensory differences between the donor-language
and the object-language are more or less considerable. We will not
dwell any further, at this point, on these problems, which will be
examined elsewhere in this work (see Chapter Ten, especially Part 2).
If it is true that a single code can be manifested in several language
systems, it is equally common - it is even the rule - that within one and
the same language system the influence of several perfectly distinct
organizational systems can be seen. This is only a simpler (but less
exact) way of saying that, without an arbitrary and impoverishing
'reduction(ism)', an analysis cannot adequately treat all of the semiotic
material to be found in the various messages of a given 'language
system' if it insists on recasting them into the framework of a single
constructed model. Thus, what Saussure called 'langue' is in no way
the code which could explain all the features of a natural language,
with all its configurations and variations. Saussure himself emphasized
this point, that a language code (la langue) is only a part of the language
system (langage), and that the latter also includes actual 'speech' (la
parole). Only langage is a concrete reality, langue being a purely
relational system of differences obtained by analysis through the process
of abstraction and which is thus only a part of langage. But if it did not
construct such partial models (of which the homogeneity is intellectual
rather than physical), langage - despite the concrete homogeneity which
is due to its uniformally phonetic manifestation - would remain, as
Saussure has insisted, an immense collection of heteroclite facts, an
amorphous and unmanageable phenomenon about which diverse disci-
plines would confusedly dispute, outside of any clearly assumed criteria
of distinctiveness. This is to say that a physically homogeneous event
may be extremely heterogeneous in the eyes of the analyst, and that its
explication may demand the establishment of several systems, each of
which is logically homogeneous. Emilio Garroni has recently noted this,

and with good reason.5

It may be remarked, however, that Saussure seemed to attribute a
greater or lesser lack of organization to that part of language that he
excluded from la langue (viz., 'speech', parole), while more recent
studies have reinterpreted speech variations themselves as resulting
from the action of diverse sub-codes: geographic, stylistic, socio-
professional, idiolectal systems, the 'secondary modeling systems' of
Soviet semioticians, the 'models of performance' of Chomskyans,
diverse intonational codes (Ivan Fonagy),6 scientific or technical
terminologies, etc., in brief, a whole series of codes which, while
distinct from that of langue and grafting themselves onto it, are not
less, as it is, coherent organizations and bearers of meaning, in some
sense, other langues. We also know that Hjelmslev's celebrated distinc-
tion between the 'denoted' and the 'connoted'7 was the consequence,
above all, of his desire to treat the pervasive codical heterogeneity of
discourse, such as it is revealed through analysis. Denotation and con-
notation are not physically distinct; they are not objects. Denotation is
a homogeneous event by the way it is constructed, which is obtained
by abstracting from diverse discourses (like the langue of Saussure);
and these discourses, according to Hjelmslev, can best be analyzed if it
is assumed that the code of denotation underlying them functions
entirely on the side of the signifier, and if one studies the signified which
corresponds to this global signifier. In this way one arrives at the
properly connotated event which is thus also a homogeneous thing be-
cause it is constructed. This hypothesis of a multiplicity of codes in the
same language (the duality of denotation and connotation and the
plurality of codes of connotation themselves) constituted for Hjelmslev
the best way of handling what empirically attested discourse (the dif-
ferent fragments of the 'texts') contribute to the picture of a constant
codical heterogeneity. These texts vary endlessly, to mention only two
examples from Hjelmslev,8 in their 'types of styles' (normal style/
creative style/archaistic style) and in their 'levels of style' (elevated
style/vulgar style/neutral style).
But it is not only in regard to phonetic language that it is important
to distinguish between the physical and systemic elements. Recent
studies, such as those made by Umberto Eco, Jacques Bertin, Emilio
* Semiotica ed estetica.
"L'information de style verbal", Linguistics 4.
Chapter 22 (155-67 in the French edition) of Prolegomenes une thiorie du
Ibid., 156.

Garroni, Julien Greimas, and the present author, have shown that, in
each of the diverse 'language systems' of photography, drawing, graphic
schematization, 'diagramatization', cartography, cinema, etc., different,
perfectly distinct systems intervene in the same message, and that many
of them are not specific to the language system considered, but have a
larger socio-cultural significance and appear as well in other language
systems used by the same civilization at the same time. Thus the photo-
graphic message brings into play - in addition to those systems proper to
it and sometimes even before they intervene (the 'before' being logical
rather than chronological here) - diverse perceptual systems which are
also pertinent in the deciphering of the real (non-photographic) world,
codes of identification which also function in the stylized design or in
the recognition of everyday objects, codes of iconographic systems
comparable to those studied by Erwin Panofsky9 in pictorial works,
systems of connotation and of 'taste' which extend well beyond (but
without excluding it) a properly photographic aesthetics, etc. You will
recall that, in a chapter of La struttura assente,10 Umberto Eco under-
took to draw up a preliminary list of the different codes which can be
found to be operative within the still picture (which constitutes a
physical class of messages). He arrived at the number ten - ten main
categories of codes - and his enumeration does not pretend to be
Jacques Bertin has noted, in the course of his study of Simiologie
graphique,11 that certain conventional symbols frequently found in
geographical maps are nevertheless foreign to a properly cartographic
code, for example when the diagrammatic silhouette of a house repre-
sents the hotel trade, or the abstract design of a fish the fishing
industry. (It is thus a question of modern ideograms, as George Mounin
has remarked in another context.12 It is also a question - the two are
not mutually exclusive - of specific signifying units which give rise
to one or another of the systems of diagrammization studied by

* Essais d'iconologie, French translation by Claude Herbette and Bernard

Tesseydre (Paris: Gallimard, 1966). See especially the Introduction, written in
1939. In this regard, we note a little known article by Panofsky directly con-
cerning the cinema: "Style and medium in the motion pictures", in D. Talbot,
ed., Film : An Anthology (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 15-32.
Milan : Bompiani, 1968. This concerns Chapter B.3.III.5. In French: in Com-
munications 15, 1970, 38-40.
The Hague : Mouton, and Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1967, 51.
In "Les systemes de communication non-linguistiques et leur place dans la
vie du vingtieme siecle," Bulletin de la Societe Linguistique de Paris LIV, 1959,
Abraham Moles. This example shows, in any case, that the cartographic
code does not account for all of the cartographic message.)
Julien Greimas has, for his part, heavily stressed the importance
of the linguistic code in the decipherment of visual objects.13 Sight, it
has often been said, recognizes those things for which language has
provided a name. There is, for Greimas, a large correspondence be-
tween 'visual figures' (optically recognizable objects, each of which is
a class of object-occurrences) and certain sememes of natural languages
(a sememe is a meaning of a lexeme). The optical figure of a train
- a stable, visual unit capable of being recognized among the numerous
sensible variations differentiating between the diverse railroad vehicles
which can be perceived - corresponds to the sememe train, i.e., the
lexeme 'train' where it designates a group of cars drawn by a loco-
In a similar vein, Emilio Garroni14 has shown that the different,
properly visual and representational systems of organization are not the
only ones to intervene in the pictorial and even the 'figurative' work.
The latter also includes, among other things, units which can be
enumerated and identified only in relation to certain diagrams of the
language system, for example 'motifs' such as the cross or the cruci-
fixion in paintings of the Christian tradition. (We could, evidently,
consider, with Panofsky and doubtlessly Garroni himself, that these are
cases of an iconographic rather than a linguistic code; but - besides the
fact that the units of the latter may well correspond to units of the
former and may come to name them - the fact remains that we are in
the presence of an intrinsically non-pictorial system.)
We have previously remarked, in Essais sur la signification au cinema
(67-68), that the comprehension and integration of the total message
of a film presupposes on the part of the viewer a command of at least
five main types of systems. (Once again, this number is only a rough
approximation, and is certainly incomplete.) The first four of these
contain nothing which is specifically cinematic : (1) visual and auditory
perception itself (systems for structuring space, 'figures' and 'back-
grounds', etc.) to the extent that it already constitutes a certain degree
of intelligibility which is acquired and variable according to different
cultures; (2) the recognition, identification, and enumeration of visual

See the beginning of "Conditions d'une semiotique du monde naturel", in
A. J. Greimas, ed., Pratiques et langages gestuels, (== Langages 10) (Paris: Di-
dier-Larousse, 1968), 3-35.
Semiotica ed estetica, 140-41.

or auditory objects which appear on the screen, i.e., the capacity

(which is cultural and acquired) to appropriately manipulate the material
that the film presents; (3) the ensemble of 'symbolisms' and connota-
tions of diverse orders which are associated with objects or with
relations between objects even outside the film (in the culture), but
within films as well; (4) the ensemble of principal narrative structures
(in the sense of Claude Bremond)15 which are present within a given
civilization and which occur in all sorts of filmic or non-filmic narra-
tives; and finally - and only finally - (5) the ensemble of properly
cinematic systems (i.e., proper to films alone and common to all films)
which serve to organize into a special type of discourse the diverse
elements presented to the viewer by means of the preceding four ele-
ments. (The reader will note that it is necessary to add to the list, at the
very least, the command of the language used in the 'dialogues' of the
film, and the comprehension of the musical discourse which often
accompanies the diegesis.)
We shall see, in Chapter Ten (particularly Parts 4 and 5), that cer-
tain codes may be appropriately considered to be specific to the cinema
even if they are not manifested solely in the cinema, but also appear
in one or another adjacent language systems. But in this first approxima-
tion, provisionally acceping the definition of the specific in terms of
an exclusively cinematic manifestation makes it easier to distinguish, in a
still general manner, the different groups of codes which participate in
the total message of the film.
It does not hurt to insist on this pluralism of codes at a time when
a cult of the 'visual' (or of the 'audiovisual') is developing, some-
times bordering upon the irrational. Just because a message is visual
does not mean that all its codes are, and because a code is manifested
in visual messages does not mean that it is not manifested in other
ways. Visual 'language systems' maintain with other language systems
systematic connections which are many and complex, and nothing is
gained by opposing the 'verbal' and the 'visual 'as two large blocks each
of which is homogeneous, massive, and without irregularities, and which
would maintain with each other purely external logical relations (the
absence of any common zone). The visual - if what is understood by this
is the group of properly visual codes - does not reign as uncontested
master over the parts of its alleged kingdom, i.e., over the whole of
physically visual messages. On the contrary, it plays an appreciable role

" See especially "Le message narratif", Communications 4, 1964, 4-32.

in non-visual messages. And the semantic organization of natural lan-
guages, in certain of their lexical domains, succeeds in masking, with a
variable margin of overlap, the configurations and the divisions of sight.
The visible world and language are not strangers to one another.
Although the interaction of their codes has not been studied in all its
detail, and although one could hardly reduce the relationship between
them to an integral and servile 'copy' of one by the other, it remains no
less certain that one function (among others) of spoken language is to
name the units articulated by sight (but also to help it to articulate
them), and that one function (among others) of sight is to influence the
semantic configurations of language (but also to be influenced by it).
It is not only from without that the visual message is partially in-
vaded by language (the role of the caption which accompanies the
newspaper photograph, dialogues in the cinema, television com-
mentaries, etc.), but also from within and even in its very visuality,
which is intelligible only because its structures are partially non-visual.
In truth, the notion of 'visual', in the totalitarian and monolithic
sense that it has taken on in certain recent discussions, is a fantasy or
an ideology, and the image (at least in this sense) is something which
does not exist.
Thus, just as a single code may be manifested in several language
systems, a single language system may manifest several codes, some of
which may not be specific to it. This discrepancy between codes (system-
atically homogeneous units) and 'language systems (physically homo-
geneous units) is widespread, and cannot help but be accentuated when
one is dealing with a 'rich' language system, i.e., one which is open to
all social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, etc. influences and initiatives;
a language system, in sum, which is open to numerous and diverse
codes. The cinema is, among others, just such a 'rich' language system,
and there is no need to wait for numerous analyses of the corpus of
films to predict that it would be fruitless to want to organize into a
single code the ensemble of traits of signification found in films.
The 'domain' which is constituted by the cinema - insofar as there
is a domain - distinguishes itself first by its vast scope. There are a
great number of messages (films), many of which are long messages,
each of which contains many images, many sounds, and many words
(and thus many mixed configurations). The very surface of the field
can only increase a priori the likelihood of a multiplicity of codes.
There is another circumstance which reinforces those just mentioned.
The cinema is already a 'composite' language system on the level of the

material of expression. Not only does it have the opportunity of in-

cluding several codes, but even several language systems which, in a
certain manner, it contains within itself, language systems which may
be distinguished from one another by their physical nature alone, e.g.,
its continuous moving photographs, its speech, its music, its sound
effects. In this the cinema differs from other means of expression which,
even with different codes, are not physically composite. Thus, for
example, we have classical music, where the material substance of the
signifier consists uniformally of 'musical sound', the spoken language
where it is limited to phonetic sound, writing where it is restricted to
graphic lines, etc. Even if the cinema is defined in technico-sensory
terms, one has to speak of a specific combination of several materials of
expression, and not of one particular one. (We should guard against
confusing the heterogeneity of codes, which is common to all 'language
systems' of any importance, with the composite sensory order, which
characterizes only some of them.)
Finally (and most importantly), the cinema is one of the language
systems endowed with some socio-cultural depth. It is not the only one
in this case, and it is not necessarily the 'richest' of its kind. It is not a
question here of drawing up a list of merits - always a pointless activi-
ty - but simply of remarking that the cinema, with other languages, does
not belong to that group of systems of signification which might be
called specialized, such as road signs, card games, the game of chess,
telephone or Social Security numbers, trumpet or bugle calls, techno-
logical diagrams, markings of bus routes, Marine signal flags and
semaphore, railroad signals, etc.
Linguists and semioticians often draw their examples from such
specialized systems (see Bhler, Cantineau, Martinet, Prieto, Hjelmslev,
Mounin, Buyssens, Peirce, Morris, Eco, the present author, etc.). If
they do this it is because of the illustrative capacity these restricted
systems afford the elaboration of concepts of general semiotics, rather
than because of some conviction as to a real anthropological importance
these things might have in social life. Some of the important advances
which have been made in semiotic theory, notably in the work of Luis
J. Prieto, have been historically connected to the analysis of these
'specialized' modes of communication. The fact remains, however, that
the study of these systems cannot serve, in itself, as a satisfactory
objective of semiotics (it constitutes, rather, a means; it permits scholas-
tic exercises and trial runs) - and that the semiotic enterprise would
have little value if its real goal were not to shed some light upon the

nature and function of the socially and humanly most important 'lan-
guage systems'.
In the case of specialized systems, the distinction between language
and code frequently tends to disappear. The messages which constitute
such a restricted signifying ensemble are entirely regulated by the action
of a single code (or - but the final result is about the same - the diverse
secondary codes which are linked to the principal code have an
anthropological significance which is even more restricted than that of
the principal code, and thus are rather weak in absolute terms). To be
precise, it cannot be denied that the code of road signs is found together
with a certain number of appended systems of a connotative or stylistic
order. The different occurrences of the same sign - if the distinctive
unit, Hjelmslev's 'invariant', is called 'sign' - differ among themselves
in a number of ways, and these traits, which are not relevant to the
study of the principal system, become distinctive again in relation to
diverse expressive codes. The situation, at least in principle, is thus the
same as for the richest language systems, like natural language. Thus,
the base of the traffic sign will be more or less high, the triangle of
metal more or less large, the arrow which is represented more or less
wide, etc. But these variations are of sufficiently minor interest that the
principal code, in practice, becomes coextensive with the whole of the
'language system'.
We find, then, as is normal, that the number of codes which are
involved in a language system increase with the 'richness' of the
system as a whole. Specialized systems, which are in use only in
certain very restricted contexts of social life, are thus protected against
the large amount of complex and constant fluctuations of meaning in
The cinema, on the other hand, like all rich languages, is largely
open to all symbolisms, collective representations, and ideologies,
to the influence of diverse aesthetic theories, to the infinite play of
influences and filiations between different arts and different schools,
to all the individual initiatives of film-makers ('revivals'), etc. In this
way it is possible to treat the total ensemble of films as if they were
the diverse messages of a single code.
This complexity of films is also the result of the fact that the cinema
is what we call an art. To say this is not to render a value judgement,
nor to wish to rediscover some classical 'hierarchy of fine arts' (itself
normative and arbitrary). Certainly one can, against some academic,
reactionary, and basically ignorant 'taste', choose to assert that certain

films are very beautiful, and, against some other taste (fanatical, vision-
ary, and equally ignorant, although these are not the same things)
that the cinema has, until now, offered us only a rather limited number
of films of a depth and richness comparable to those of the great
literary, musical, or pictorial texts. But these would be considerations
of another sort. Within the perspective which we have adopted here,
the inclusion of the cinema in the arts does not oblige us to say that the
film is always (or frequently) a work of art by its success, nor that
many films are 'beautiful', nor that a beautiful film is more beautiful
than a beautiful book, etc. We will maintain only that the film - and
even the ugliest, dullest, and most absurd one - is always a work of
art by virtue of its social status. We should guard against confusing
'work of art' with 'aesthetic object'. Mikel Dufrenne has aptly said16
that many aesthetic objects (like the sea, the forest, or the greyhound)
are not works of art, and that many works of art (weak or unsuccess-
ful ones) are not aesthetic objects.
The film is a work of art by its intention. It is an object which is
composed, willed, concerted in its total organization, destined to please
(or to touch, to disturb, to revolt, etc.), lacking any immediate practical
utility. It is also a work of art by its consumption. The viewer rates it
as 'success' or 'failure', 'original' or 'banal', 'interesting' or 'boring', etc.
The cinema is an art because it functions socially as such, even if our
culture does not accord it the same dignity or the same legitimacy as
the traditional 'fine arts'. It is necessary to note, in addition, that in
certain cultures - as those of contemporary Egypt or India, great
producers and consumers of films - where the social image of the
cinema is very different from the image it has in our country, it is the
entire group of arts, and not the cinema in particular, whose mode of
cultural function is rather far from what we know.
Through its affinity with the arts the cinema is comparable, rather
than to specialized systems of communication, to those vast, complex,
and, so-to-speak, fundamentally socio-cultural 'language systems' which
cannot be reduced to a single code, namely, the oldest arts such as
myths, social rituals, beliefs, collective representations, tales, symbolic
behavior, ideologies, etc.
To this it may be added that the cinema, contrary to restricted
modes of communication, has no sector of meaning (no portion of the
material of the content, in Hjelmslevian terminology) which is proper
" At the very beginning of volume 1 ("L'objet esthetique") of Phinominologie
de l'experience esthetique (Paris: P.U.F., 1953).

to it. Certain 'language systems' are at the same time semantic fields
- for example, traffic lights, the whole 'meaning' of which can be
reduced to the social problem of the movement or non-movement of
automobiles and pedestrians - but others are restricted to organizing
and expressing no particular field. Thus the cinema, like literature or the
theater, is in principle capable of saying anything, and conveys non-
specialized signifieds which are above all ideological and cultural, and
which could be found just as well - presented and organized in a dif-
ferent manner, but taken from the same semantic pool - in other
language systems utilized by the same civilization during the same



Ordinary language (as well as the majority of works devoted to

problems of the screen) employs the word 'cinema' not only to designate
those phenomena which Cohen-Seat would call 'cinematic', but also to
name two other notions both of which belong to the 'filmic': first, the
ensemble of films, and second, a single system which is supposed to
account for this ensemble. The first of these meanings is quite neutral,
purely summarizing, and may be retained, for it presents no problem.
We shall disregard it in the discussions which follow. The second, as
we have seen, should be discarded, for it results in too much confusion.
Current usage, however - frequently inconsistent and with definitions
which are implicit and unstable, remaining less than a terminology -
quite frequently treats the word 'cinema', in other cases, in an ap-
preciably different manner and one in which a new conception of the
thing takes shape. 'Cinema' ceases to be, then, more or less exactly, an
impossible global system whose unity would be vainly inferred from
a technico-sensory homogeneity, and tends to resemble more a veritable
code, of a systemic unity which is not expected to explain the totality
of elements of signification which appear on the screen.
In certain usages, in fact, 'cinema' refers rather precisely to only
one of the codes - or a single group of codes - at work in films : those
assumed to be at work only in films, and which are judged 'specifically
filmic', i.e., intimately connected with the adoption of the cinematic
vehicle itself - to the exclusion of other codes - which the film shares
with more or less broader areas of cultural symbolism. Such a use

of the word contains within itself a pluralistic conception of systems.

The cinema is thereby no longer the code underlying everything con-
tained in films, but only that which is contained only in films. These
two meanings of cinema, contradictory but common, are like two
concentric circles : the second regroups a class of facts which, in
relation to the class of facts designated by the first, is only a part of
the filmic. All that which is specifically filmic is filmic, but all that
which is filmic is not specifically filmic.
This beginning of a new conception (which is much more inter-
esting for semiotics) may be seen taking shape, for example, in the
following sentences, which are frequently read or heard: This film is
quite beautiful, but owes little to the resources of the cinema; This
film ends with a brilliant piece of cinema; The film is entirely a reflec-
tion on the cinema; This film is of a great purity and the cinema in it
is eclipsed and forgotten, etc. The extreme example is that celebrated
sentence, so often repeated and so often criticized : It's a box office hit
but it's not cinema, an assertion whose implications of normative
aesthetics (admittedly crude and irritating) we shall set aside here,
but which reveals at least a certain capacity to make a distinction
between what is materially cinematic and what is systemically so,
and to discern that all that which is in films is not necessarily of the
It happens, unfortunately, that this first step toward progress is
immediately canceled out by a certain abusive assimilation, which has
the opposite effect. The specific is isolated from the whole of the
filmic, only to be defined in turn according to criteria which are first
and foremost technico-sensory and of a non-systemic order. That which
'belongs to the cinema' is the visual, or what moves, or what presents
us with vast spaces, etc. These conceptions - in particular the defini-
tion of the cinema according to visuality or movement - are still rather
widespread, despite their commonplaceness.
We are touching here upon that notion of 'cinematic distinctiveness'
which has been so frequently invoked, and which Emilio Garroni, in
a recent work,17 has submitted to a profound and largely convincing
examination. Garroni recalls that throughout the history of cinematic
theories this 'distinctiveness' has often consisted, in the last analysis,
of an essentially normative notion (or even a weapon), which a descrip-
tive semiotic could not, as such, retain. It is in the name of the
distinctiveness of the cinema that some films have been condemned,
" Semiotica ed estetica.

being judged as insufficiently 'cinematic' or too 'literary' or too 'theat-

rical', whence comes the expression noted above (It's a box office hit
but its not cinema) which Andre Bazin has already had the merit of
criticizing. It is once again in the name of distinctiveness that such and
such a preferential evolution has been prescribed for the cinema of the
future. Thus it is said that the cinema ought to be the art of montage
(attempt to reduce the filmic message to the single code of montage),
or further that it ought to be the art of the image (attempt to reduce it to
the visual image, itself conceived of as resting upon a single code).
Garroni also attempts to show, with great precision, that this idea of
distinctiveness was tied, in more than one interpretation, to the belief
in a sort of massive homogeneity of the 'modeling system' proper to
each of the arts (we have only to think of certain attempts to establish
a 'system of Fine Arts'). In asserting the specificity of the cinema
- as musical specificity, pictorial specificity, etc. - it was often
hoped, more or less clearly, that it would be possible to construct a
cinematic code valid for all filmic material, and that the entire film
would belong to the cinema. 'Specificity', for many authors, had
as a vague corollary 'uniqueness of code', and this one code, as we
have seen above, was confused with directly physical traits such as
visuality, movement, or montage in a material sense (juxtaposition of
several independently filmed shots). Thus this code, or this system,
did not merit its name, since it consisted most often in an enumeration
of traits, and not in a structure.
We would not want to adopt the ideology (and even less the
fanaticism) of cinematic specificity. But merely because a notion has,
in certain phases of the history of ideas, involved too much confusion,
does not mean that it should be abandoned altogether. It is often the
case, and not just in the field of the cinema, that certain concepts
serve as the focal point of misdirected theories although the concepts
are quite accurate in themselves. Among those who have been misled,
the mere mention of 'specifically cinematic' elements (even if ill-defined)
brought to mind the idea that certain traits can be cinematic without
being specifically cinematic. The very presense of 'specifically' has the
effect of introducing a distinction which, if well understood, could be-
come an important one for the semiotics of the cinema. Above all, we
must, in this regard, make it clear that the only entities capable of
being or not being unique to the cinema are codes (systems), so that
these codes are only (or at least primarily) manifested in the film, or
that the film, to the contrary, is content to 'adopt' them from other

cultural units. On the other hand, cinematic messages (films) are

by definition cinematic throughout. Thus they could not be specific
or non-specific, or at least they are, in the weakest sense of the word,
always specific, since they always appeal, as messages, to a certain
material definition outside of which they would not even be called films.
To the extent that it is a film and not a painting or a book, a film, of
course, is always a particular sort of object. It is precisely the error of
many theories of specificity to want to present at the same time
the film as a semiotic fact (sometimes even, still more clearly, as a
systemic fact), and to nevertheless connect it, in a direct and naive
fashion, to some physical characteristic of the signifier, such as visuality
or movement. These features, because they are defined in sensory
terms, inevitably characterize all films, and thus could not distinguish
between them. Thus this theory renders a normative criterion unaccept-
able, although the establishment of this criterion was its true goal.
The fact remains, obviously, that some films more than others give
the viewer a strong impression of being cinematic. In this regard, the
films of Eisenstein or Murnau and a tape on which a theatrical per-
formance has been recorded with a single, fixed shot lasting three
hours are not comparable. Semiotics should not deny differences of
this sort, but should, to the contrary, account for them. But semiotics
should not forget, for that matter, that materially speaking these two
sorts of messages are both films, so that the unquestionable difference
of specificity is a result of the fact that, in the first, the structure of
signifying configurations (which is not a material thing) is, to a notable
degree, properly cinematic, while in the second case it is to some extent
almost totally un-cinematic.
The idea of specificity is of interest to semiotics only if, within a
given ensemble of physically homogeneous messages, one succeeds in
distinguishing with some degree of precision between the traits which
belong to this 'language system' and those which this language system
shares with others. The notion of specificity, in sum, is only useful to
the extent that it isolates certain characteristics and makes possible a
sort of selection. If, in a language system, everything is specific, it loses
the greater part of its value, for it fails to furnish the fundamental
definition that it claimed to have provided, and merely offers an
extensional definition close to common sense truths. However, if the
characteristic of specificity is attached to the material traits of the
signifier, this specificity can only become co-extensive with the 'lan-
guage system' as a whole and with everything in that language system,
since the latter is distinguished from others precisely by its material
of expression. To claim that 'the cinema is the art of movement' is not,
no matter what one says, to express one of the elements of the basic
distinctiveness of the cinema, since it is to express the most superficial
and most obvious of the elements of its distinctiveness, since all films
Such a statement is far from resolving all the problems, of course.
For even when the characteristic of specificity is associated with codes,
one is forced, in a certain manner, to return to peculiarities of a
physical order. If a code, in fact, is peculiar to a language system, it is
because it can only be manifested in a medium of expression which has
certain characteristics, and because the language system being consid-
ered has precisely such a means of expression. Thus, any rhythmic
code - disregarding the figurative senses of the word 'rhythm' - requires
for its expression a medium which has the physical characteristic of
temporality, and this is why rhythmic codes are specific to those
language systems whose means of expression satisfy this requirement
(music, cinema, poetry...). We shall return to the delicate problem of
the relationship between the specificity of codes and the specificity of
language systems (means of expression) below, in Chapter Ten. We
shall note here that there is a great difference between a specificity
defined directly according to material criteria and one that is defined in
terms of codes, even if the specification of codes cannot be accom-
plished without a consideration of certain traits of the material of the
signifier (and not of this material itself, taken as a whole and without
further analysis). In fact it is this second type of definition, and it alone,
which makes it possible to discern in each language system certain non-
specific configurations, and which thus allows us as well, when it is
declared that the others are specific, to propose something which is not
a truism. This definition will also permit us to determine degrees and
modes of specificity (as below, in Chapter 10.4).
To conclude the discussion of these points we shall agree that
cinematic specificity (or the absence of it) shall be used only in relation
to different systems which are manifested in films. In addition, the
word 'cinema' shall be used only to designate the ensemble of specific
systems. The notions of cinematic specificity and of cinema will thus
have two points in common: they group together systems, not isolated
physical traits; and they only group together some and not all filmic
What has just been said of the cinema and of cinematic specificity

could just as well be applied to the notion of 'cinematic language

system'. In writings about the big screen, the latter, like the others,
suggests two quite different and unequally interesting definitions. When
one speaks of cinematic language system, one sometimes has in mind
that conception (which has already been discussed) of a total and unique
code which would regulate all the elements of all films, which would
appear only in films, and which would, consequently, be directly linked
to their physical nature. This is the case when it is claimed that Cine-
matic language is essentially visual (while it is composed of diverse,
unequally visual systems, and while a system, even a visual one, is
never visible as a system) - or again that To know how to manipulate
cinematic language is to know how to express oneself with images and
sounds (while there exist a goodly number of audiovisual configurations
which do not belong to the cinema, even if they do appear in certain
films) - or even that In our day, it is necessary to teach children how
to understand cinematic language, which will play an important role in
their lives (while what may, perhaps, play an important role is the
totality of filmic messages, and not the properly cinematic codes, which
constitute only a small part of this totality), etc.
But there exists another class of propositions, also well represented
in the literature on the cinema, in which the expression refers rather
clearly to certain of the codes which intervene in films. One can say, for
example, that Cinematic language is almost lacking in this film, or
that In the first few years that followed the Lumiere brothers' invention,
there was still no cinematic language and films merely recorded familiar
scenes or music-hall spectacles, etc. Such uses evidently imply that all
that is found to occur in films need not belong to the cinematic lan-
guage system.
This suggestion, as we have seen, is associated with certain uses of
'cinema' and 'cinematic specificity'. Note, however, that the idea of a
specificity of a systemic nature (and of a specificity with a partial
explanatory power, i.e., not extending to the whole of the characteristics
of films) appears in 'cinematic language' and in 'cinematic specificity'
in general with more emphasis (although still implicitly) than in
'cinema'. The difference is without a doubt due to the fact that
'cinema' has a large number of other meanings, the confused memory
of which inevitably comes to connote the particular one that, in a given
utterance, the speaker alone had in mind - while 'cinematic language
system' and 'cinematic specificity' have a noticeably more restricted
domain of use. Moreover, in 'cinematic language', there is language,
a word which effectively evokes in many minds the double idea of a
specificity (one language system; it is one language system among
others), and of an ensemble of facts of a semiotic nature. In 'cinematic
specificity', the semiotic connotation is weaker but - as compensation -
the idea of specificity is made more explicit.
Once again, in one case as in the other, this semiotic specificity
should not be confused with a physical distinctiveness, and this is
why 'cinematic language' and 'cinematic specificity' - like 'cinema'
even if more infrequently - also permit uses where the confusions
which we have here tried to dispel begin to appear. These uses are
based on the word 'language' (which thus presents, in relation to the
problem considered here, both advantages and disadvantages). You will
recall that this word readily designates a unity in terms of physical
manifestation ('pictorial language', 'musical language', etc.), i.e., a
materially homogeneous but codically heterogeneous unit. This applies
as well to 'cinematic specificity', at least where what is understood as
the distinctiveness is the language system itself, and not some of its
What appears, finally, is an entire interplay of fluctuating, sometimes
contradictory nuances, implicit definitions, shiftings due to the context,
and connotative pressures, the sum of which cancels itself out if one
considers a large number of sentences. This explains why the three
expressions, 'cinema', 'cinematic language', and 'cinematic specificity',
are each capable of being used in two main ways, and why the dif-
ference between the two is nearly the same in all three cases.
We shall thus retain all three, but only in one of the two forms into
which common usage divides them, and according to a principle which
itself had to be made explicit. Thus they become parasynonyms, since
they both allude to filmic codes, and only those which can be shown to
be proper to the film. They refer to something that we shall, never-
theless, call globally the cinematic (nominalized adjective). This 'cine-
matic' is no longer that of Cohen-Seat, since it is composed of the
ensemble of signifying configurations which appear only in films (and
which consequently appear in films and are 'filmic').
Cinematic language, cinematic specificity, and cinema all designate
the cinematic, but from different angles. 'Cinematic language' refers
to it as a semiotic fact, as a fact of discourse, 'cinematic speci-
ficity', to the extent that it is in opposition to any structure which is
intrinsically non-cinematic, and, finally, 'cinema' as such and without
further specification. It is also common, as we have said earlier (p. 26

and p. 39), that the last term preserves in other contexts its neutral and
recapitulatory meaning (the sum of individual films), which does not
contradict the meaning we are considering here.


When the expressions 'cinematic language', 'cinematic specificity', and

'cinema' are taken in the vague and at the same time totalitarian
sense which we have rejected, the number of phenomena that one
is led to declare to be cinematic becomes very large. It thus creates a
heteroclite mass which is difficult to master (this is precisely why it is
preferable to distinguish within it several sub-sets, corresponding to as
many systems which remain, moreover, to be established). There is,
however, one trait - and one alone - that is shared by all those things
called 'cinematic', in the loose sense of the word: they are all phe-
nomena which are immediately discoverable infilms,phenomena which
are 'found' in films, which the investigator can 'attest' in films, which
have films as their place of manifestation.
In addition to being dangerous, as we have said, it is somewhat
paradoxical to call these phenomena cinematic, since another adjective
exists which is so-to-speak ready made to refer to them and which
would appear to be naturally (or rather linguistically) predestined to the
task: the adjective mic. In fact, what is filmic, if not the sum of what
appears in films ?
Remember, moreover, that writings on the film sometimes use this
adjective in this way, but since they also employ 'cinematic', they do
not take advantage of a distinction that could be associated with the
differential treatment of the two terms.
We shall pursue what is most interesting in these suggestions of
usage, but making it more exact and explicit - above all pinning it
down - and eliminating the inopportune meanings of the words we
retain. This is, as is well known and as has well been pointed out by
Hjelmslev, one of the ways of making a terminological system out of
that other system, ordinary language. It is, of course, not the only one;
instead of transforming a word into a term, one could directly fabricate
the latter, which is then a neologism (neologism at the level of the word
or the syntagm, i.e., of the 'locution'). Either of these solutions could
be preferred, depending on the pragmatic demands of optimal com-
munication in a given field of research as well as the overall set of

available lexemes, and without forgetting that a minimum of grace and

maneuverability should not be disdained.
We shall call filmic, then, all the traits which appear in films (i.e.,
in the messages of the cinema), whether they are or are not peculiar
to this means of expression, and no matter what idea one has of this
specificity or of its absence. We shall call cinematic certain filmic
facts which are supposed to play a part (or which one intends to
make play a part) in one or the other of the codes specific to the
cinema. The cinematic is but a part of the filmic. Certain phenomena
are filmic and cinematic, others filmic but not cinematic.
The point of departure for this discussion (Chapter One) was the
terminology proposed by Gilbert Cohen-Seat. In what concerns the
cinema, as we have shown, a semiotic interest remains essentially with-
in the domain which this author calls filmic, and scarcely touches what
he calls the 'cinema' (an industrial, technological, economic phenome-
non; the sociology of publics, etc.). We see now that, concerning the
filmic, the definition proposed here rejoins exactly - even if only after
a certain detour - the one Cohen-Seat himself formulated. The filmic,
for him as for us, is not the uniform of the theater attendants or the
architecture of the movie house, the price of seats or the budget of
production companies, the influence of the cinema on juvenile delin-
quency in the Southwest of France, the chemical properties of the
different emulsions used, or the technical modalities of the studio
equipment. The filmic is that which belongs to the signifying discourse
(to the message) that the film is as a perceived unfolding and as a
linguistic object (but which the film is not, as a supple tape rolled up in
a round can). It is only that, as Cohen-Seat has rightly indicated, but it
is all that, as we pointed out a moment ago.
As for Cohen-Seat's 'cinematic', it is more vast than the filmic and
encompasses it. The cinema is not only the film, but also what precedes
it (production and technology), follows it (audience and influence), ac-
companies it (the functioning of the projection room). But, on the
contrary, the filmic is more vast than the cinematic as we understand it,
and encompasses it: the film itself is cinematic only in some respects.
Thus, our definition of the filmic corresponds to Cohen-Seat's, but our
definition of the cinematic deviates from his. His cinematic is the object
of study for the technologist, the sociologist, the economist; ours is the
object of study for the semiotician, for it consists of a set of codes
which are combined in discourses.
If we have accorded an importance to the fact that 'cinema', in

current usage, often designates phenomena which intervene in the

filmic, it is became the status of the word is inseparable from the
status of the thing. Cohen-Seat does not emphasize sufficiently the fact
that film is twice, and in two different ways, in opposition to the
cinema. Film differs externally, in rejecting cinema as that which does
not belong to it, as that which surrounds it (and thus it is the 'cinema'
of Cohen-Seat), but it also differs internally, in circumscribing cinema
as that which, while within it, is only a part of it (and thus it is cinematic
in the sense we are proposing here). What Cohen-Seat fails to point out
is that cinema - and this time in all possible senses of the word -
is present at the very heart of the film, and that certain characteristics
of films are due to the fact that these films are the products of the
cinema. films manifest semiotic systems which do not appear else-
where (and which we thus call cinematic), it is because these systems are
connected, in one way or another, even if the connection is indirect and
complex, to that technico-sensory, economic, and sociological ensemble
which constitutes the 'cinema' of Cohen-Seat, and whose extension
within the film they represent.
It would also appear to be possible, given the following conditions,
to reserve for the word cinematic both of these meanings, Cohen-S6at's
and ours. They are two quite distinct notions, but that they correspond
to two meanings of the same word (instead of being associated with
two distinct terms) is neither an accident nor a troublesome collision
which should be eliminated. On the contrary, it is the everyday lan-
guage which is correct in giving the same name to the vast socio-
technico-economic 'machine' which produces or consumes films, and
to the systematic marks that this machine leaves on these films.
The semiotic approach, we have said, 'leaves aside' the phenomena
that Cohen-Seat calls cinematic. It would be more appropriate to say,
as we see now, that it does not touch directly upon their study, but
approaches them from another direction, and comes into contact with
them at their position at the heart of the film. It is when the cinema,
immersed and dissolved in the film, becomes itself a fact of language
and discourse that a semiotic analysis may usefully attack it.
Thus, the cinematic which is of interest to semiotics is the cinematic-
filmic. The cinematic of Cohen-Seat is nothing other than the cinematic-
non-filmic, and the other traits of the film, those which are not neces-
sarily related to the cinema, constitute the domain of the filmic-non-
Confusing the cinematic-filmic with the cinematic-non-filmic can

always be avoided (if it threatens) by the use of these two terms. How-
ever, in the perspective we have adopted here, we shall - except in a
context which could promote confusion - simply call the cinematic-
filmic 'cinematic'.
The adjectives 'cinematic' and 'filmic', as defined above, do not
maintain parallel relations with their corresponding nouns. A filmic
fact isfilmicby its source; it is a fact which has been discovered initially
in a film. A cinematic fact is cinematic by its destination; it is a fact
that the analyst consciously attributes to one or the other of the codes
proper to the cinema. Thus, a filmic fact has the film behind it, and a
cinematic fact has the cinema before it.
The difference is due to the fact that the film is a message, while
what is proper to the cinema is a group of codes. An analysis which
does not have to establish the literal purpose of the filmic, must on the
contrary construct the cinematic piece by piece. For the semiotician,
the message is a point of departure, the code a point of arrival. The
semiotic analysis does not create the film, which it finds already made
by the cineast. On the other hand, we can say that, in a certain manner,
the analysis 'creates' the codes of the cinema; it should elucidate them,
make them explicit, establish them as objects, while in nature they
remain buried in films, which alone are objects which exist prior to the
analysis. It should, if not invent them, at least discover them (in the
full sense of the term). It should 'construct' them, which is in one sense
to create them.
A filmic fact cannot be filmic by its destination. The film is not
something which one can decide whether to attribute or not attribute
to such and such a fact, for it is already 'complete' when an analysis is
made of it, and it thus already contains within itself the different traits
which the analysis can but discover. Similarly, a cinematic fact cannot
be cinematic by its source. The codes of the cinema are not things which
one can immediately discern somewhere, for the cinematic does not
exist independently; only an analysis can separate it out. It thus consists
only of what the analyst puts into it.
The analyst's task, in sum, is to uncover certain filmic facts and to
construct the cinematic codes by means of these facts; some filmic traits
are cinematically specific, others are not.



The reader may perhaps object that it is unnecessary to thus rein-

troduce the terms 'cinema' and 'cinematic', even with certain qualifica-
tions, into a study which is scarcely concerned with the cinematic fact,
at least in Cohen-Seat's sense (which itself corresponds to very common
usage). Wouldn't it be possible to imagine designating, by the word film
- this time taken in the absolute singular (singular of generality) - what
is expressed by the substantive 'cinema' when it refers to the totality of
films, and what is expressed by the substantivized 'cinematic' when it
refers to the codes proper to films ? It is something like this that critics
of the cinema are thinking of when they speak 'of film' (and not 'of
films'). This use of the word is, in French, only provisional, but it has
been strengthened in books written in other languages such as English
and German. Here the word 'film', employed in an absolute sense, is
found in places where the word cinema would be used in a French text.
Thus, semiologie du cinema becomes in English 'film-semiotics' or
'semiotics of film' (and not 'movie-semiotics' or 'semiotics of the
movies'!), in German Film-Semiotik (and not Kino-Semiotik/). To
langage cinematographique corresponds the German Filmsprache (not
Kinosprache), to structure de la signification au cinema, the English
'structure of meaning in film' (and not 'in the movies'), etc. If it were
decided to more rigorously extend this usage to French and to monitor
it rather closely, it would seem that one would both be able to render
impossible at the terminological level all confusion between Cohen-
Seat's cinematic facts and our specific codes, since the terms 'cinema'
and 'cinematographique' would be excluded from being a signifier of
the latter - and to clearly show that the semiotic approach remains
essentially within the domain of the filmic fact, since the only term used
would be 'film', in the singular or plural. At the same time this play on
'film' in an absolute sense 51

number would permit us to preserve the necessary distinction between

diverse individual messages (films) and systemic traits of a general order
(film). Thanks to the absolute singular, it would still be possible to
directly speak of the codes without involving any of their particular
This solution, perfect at first glance, is attractive by virtue of its
appearance of clarity, rigor, and simplicity. Examining it a bit more
closely, however, one sees that it could only create new confusions. It
would mean, in fact, substituting one of the meanings of the word
'film' (its absolute sense) for one of the meanings of the words 'cinema-
cinematic' (the one which we are proposing, and which refers to facts
within the filmic). However, French usage has merely suggested the
introduction of this usage, and without much perseverance; in order to
affirm or establish it, it would be necessary to do violence to it and
this means that no one would follow us; thus the manipulation would
lose its expected advantage.
It is noteworthy, in fact, that cinema and film, in French, tend to be
in opposition in almost all contexts. This opposition is quite flexible,
since each of the two words has several meanings,1 but if the site of
opposition is capable of changing, the fact of their opposition tends to
be maintained or to be reconstituted in each of these contexts.
Thus film, in singular or plural, is in opposition to the cinema of
Cohen-Seat. It is the signifying discourse (or signifying discourses)
as opposed to the economic and technological elements. We have
discussed this paradigm at length; it exists in ordinary language, and
formed the basis of Cohen-S6at's terminology. But what must be
noted here is that neither can film be substituted for cinema as we
understand it (groups of specific codes). This is obvious when the word
designates one or several particular films. 'Films' are thus messages, and
the same word cannot designate codes. The case is the same (despite
some suggestions to the contrary, noted a moment ago) when film is
used in an absolute sense.
Let us consider this last point. In ordinary English, one can say that
The film most often begins with the credits but not that The cinema
most often begins with the credits - that The film has a beginning and
an end, but not that The cinema has a beginning and an end, etc. These

Movies is more common than 'cinema' in French, without, however, correspon-
ding to 'cine'; students of English see in this an 'Americanism'. On the other hand,
English also has the word 'cinema', but which is rarer than its French cognate
and does not have the same area of usage.
52 'film' in an absolute sense
examples are simple and common, and could be easily multiplied. What
do they show ? They show that the word 'film' - even in the absolute
sense where it refers to a group of traits which are of the same
order of generality as the 'cinema' and which, like it, may be
applied to virtually all films - does not, however, designate the same
thing as 'cinema'. Certainly it becomes generalized in this way, and in
this approaches our 'cinematic', a convergence which formed the basis
of the terminological undertaking envisaged a moment ago. But m,
even in the general singular, is still the message, and it is the message
which begins most often with the credits, has a beginning and an end,
etc. All propositions which obviously imply a closed text, a discourse,
but which would no longer have any meaning - and moreover would
not occur to anyone, which accounts for the unacceptable sentences - if
they had to apply to a code (system), i.e., to a purely abstract entity
which does not involve a textual representation, and thus no 'beginning*
or 'end'. This ideal substance is cinematic. And concerning 'film' in
an absolute sense, one does well to exclude reference to any specific
message, but continue no less to include the fact itself of the message,
which is distinct from any code, codical elements, or group of codes,
a sufficient reason for abandoning the idea of using it as a substitute
for our 'cinema'. There is a second reason, a corollary to the first -
namely, that the message, precisely because it is a message, manifests
conjointly all sorts of specific or non-specific codes; however, our
notion of the cinematic excludes the second, retaining only the first.
Thus, cinema is in opposition not only to films (distributive plural),
but also to m (absolute singular). Similarly, 'literature' may be con-
trasted with 'book' as well as 'books', and 'painting' with 'picture', as
well as 'pictures', etc. For particular messages are not the only ones
to differ from general codes; the very existence of the message is dif-
ferent, or the ensemble of traits common to diverse messages to the
extent that they are messages and not codes. A book always has a be-
ginning and an end, while literature does not. A piece of music is a
discourse, while 'music' is not.
This notion of 'absolute-film', or at least the principle behind it, does
not present any difficulties. It designates - it is even, in its most common
usage, the only term to designate - what one has in mind when one
wants to speak of the message (a delimited object, a closed sequence, a
manifest and actualized unit, a web of co-presences) without referring
to any specific message(s) and in imagining what one says as being
applicable to any message - but also without this element of generality
'film' in an absolute sense 53
being able to lead to confusion with the system at the corresponding
level (a purely abstract signifying-ensemble, and as such never man-
ifested), which is equally a 'general' thing, but in a different manner.
The word 'film', in its diverse spontaneous uses, is thus always on
the side of the message, and it is to the context that tradition assigns
the task of indicating if it involves a given message or the fact of the
message. Everyday language maintains this last distinction in a rela-
tively clear way, although by means of quite different signifiers. Thus,
on the one hand we have This film is very beautiful, I don't like this
type of fiIm, Murnau's films have not become dated, etc. - and, on
the other, The film is thoroughly meaningful, Films are social objects,
A film is a work of art, All films are basically documentary, etc. These
examples also show that use of the word 'film* in the grammatical
singular is not necessarily always based on the singular of generality (a
semantic notion). If, for example, someone tells us that This film is one
of the most beautiful around, or that The film just shown was made in
Australia, the grammatical singular obviously excludes all generality,
and on the contrary, recalls the various remarks made earlier about
the plural of particularity. 'Film', in those cases, is similar to 'films'; it
is a question of particular messages, even if for the moment only one
is mentioned. Inversely, it may happen that the idea of generality is
easily established in propositions where the word 'film' is used in the
grammatical plural. Instead of saying that the film begins most often
with the credits, one can just as well say that Films begin most often
with the credits, and it is clear that in both cases one has said the same
thing. We shall nevertheless speak of the absolute use of the word
(rather than of its 'singular of generality') and of its distributive use
(rather than of its 'plural of particularity'). It would have seemed
simpler to distinguish between the 'general' and the 'particular' uses,
but this terminology would have been dangerous, invoking much too
much the notion of language usage (ordinary usage or, on the contrary,
special usages). However, the distributive use of the word 'film' is in
no way, in the present usage of French, an unusual one, but on the
contrary the most ordinary one, and the absolute use is, according to
present usage, the more restricted of the two. 'Film' serves much more
often to designate one or more specific messages proper to all films.
Thus the fact of the message, even considered in its greatest gen-
erality, is not to be confused with the fact of the code. And yet there
is nothing more in the message than in the ensemble of codes of this
message - if not their combination, which is itself a system, but a

particular system - since all the signifying structures, all the organized
configurations, all the 'laws' which the analyst discovers within the
message are the very things which will be attributed to one or another
of its codes, and which will thus contribute to the detailed establishment
of these codes. The particular combination of several codes within a
single message is nothing less than the structure of that message. But
the structure of an object and the object itself are nevertheless two
different things; the latter is what initially serves as the object of
analysis, while the former is the expression of the completed anal-
ysis. Codes exist only because the analyst has created them with
materials furnished by the message, but they (or their combination in
a particular system) are not real objects in the world and thus remain
inalterably distinct from the message. Thus we can understand that it
is not the cinema which has a beginning and an end, or which begins
with the credits - but only the film, which is always a message.
In English and German, the words movies and Kino (the closest
equivalents to the French cinema) are primarily restricted, in current
usage, to the designation of diverse things which Cohen-Seat would call
cinematic. 'Movies' and 'Kino' have only a slight connotation of the
filmic; they evoke the industry, technology, economy (like cinima),
but only slightly the discourse, language, or the work itself (contrary to
cinema). Also, in order to designate the filmic fact in its most general
sense, English and German use, in many cases, only 'film' in its absolute
sense. We leave aside the English motion pictures, which is very in-
consistent. In French, on the contrary - and in other languages, like
Italian, which behaves in this regard very much like French - the word
cinema currently designates filmic facts (example: le cinema est un
langage), except that the absolute sense of the word film is also used.
Thus French makes use of two terms within this semantic domain,
while English and German for the most part have only one, i.e., in
those cases where one would like to mention the filmic fact outside of
any particular film. It is without a doubt this duality, proper to certain
languages, which explains why the two terms are specialized and tend
to share the semantic field, 'cinema' on the side of codes, and 'film' (in
its absolute sense) on the side of the message itself, designated as a
general fact.
We shall conform, then, after having investigated them, to the
dominant tendencies of the ordinary usage of the word 'film', and will
duly use it in its distributive as well as absolute sense only to designate
facts of (particular or general) messages with the plurality and hetero-
'film' in a n a b s o l u t e sense 55

geneity of codes that they involve. Thus we support the definition of

the filmic proposed earlier: 'filmic' will be the adjective which cor-
responds to the substantive 'film' in its two uses.
For the codical facts which properly characterize the screen we shall
preserve the term 'cinematic', which has already been discussed. These
conventions have the advantage - and also the goal - of preserving a
clear distinction between codically heterogeneous messages and specific
codes, in the analysis of particular films as well as in the general study
of the film.


There is something which nevertheless should be called to the reader's

attention: the distinction between the cinematic and the filmic, which
everyday language maintains for better or for worse (obstinately and
confusedly at the same time) and which we would like to make
explicit here, does not prevent, in certain propositions, cinema and film
(or cinematic and filmic) from becoming interchangeable and from
being spontaneously felt as such in writing. Thus, outside of an espe-
cially qualified context, one could equally say that the crosscutting
montage and the lap dissolve are 'filmic' or 'cinematic' figures, that
they 'belong to the cinema' or that they 'belong to film'.
But doesn't this stem from the fact that the proposition itself, in its
content and its exact level of generality, provokes a provisional neutral-
ization of the two oppositions which normally separate 'film' from
'cinema' (and which we shall maintain elsewhere) - namely the opposi-
tion between message and code, and between heterogeneity and homo-
geneity ? On the one hand, the two figures in question here - cross-
cutting montage and lap dissolve - are in fact among those filmic facts
which also belong to the cinema. On the other hand, the statement was
presented in a sufficiently general form that we still did not know if
these figures are envisaged as occupying a segment of the discourse
(i.e., as aspects to the message, thus filmic) or as occupying a place in
a purely logical and ideal spatio-temporal combinatorics (i.e., ais
aspects of a code, thus cinematic). It suffices to modify the content
of the proposition so that the two words cease to be interchangeable.
Take, for example, a film whose tenth and eleventh minutes are filled
with a sequence of cross-cutting montage. No one would dream of
saying that this minute-by-minute account informs us of the cinematic
56 'film' in an absolute sense

status of the figure, for it is evidently its filmic status which is thus
revealed. On the contrary, if some theoretician of the screen established
in his 'montage schedule' a privileged relationship between the cross-
cutting montage and the parallel montage, emphasizing their common
characteristics and pinpointing precisely their differences in order to
establish their paradigmatic relationship, everyone would judge that it
was the cinematic situation of the figure (and not itsfilmicsituation) that
the author was attempting to show.
In the Soviet films from the classical period, the symbolic opposition
between the 'Reds' and the 'Whites' often helped to organize and
punctuate the narrative. One could not, and does not, speak, however,
of it as a cinematic construction, for the paradigm of the Reds and the
Whites belongs to a political code and not a cinematic one. When
it appears in a film, one speaks of it as a filmic construction. But it
could happen that the manner in which this opposition is used, in the
detail of images, calls for resources proper to the cinema. One could
say, for example, that The cinematic treatment of the antithesis be-
tween the Reds and the Whites was especially successful in this film.
A sentence like Cinema is a language (or Cinema is an art)
is much more common than Film is a language (or Film is an
art). One speaks of a cinematic language more often than of a filmic
language. In these three pairs of expressions, the version containing
the word 'film' (or 'filmic') borders on the unacceptable. It is felt to
be such in everyday language itself. To think that the cinema is an art
does not allow us to say that film is one, since it can only be a realiza-
tion of this art, and not the art itself.
In cinema, sound is as important as images/ In flm, sound is as
important as images: these sentences are both possible, and express
just about the same thing. This is because, at this degree of generality,
the idea which is put forward (the great importance of sound) is true
both of codically heterogeneous messages and of the homogeneous,
specific codes. On the other hand, it is at the end of the film - and
certainly not at the end of the cinema - that sound sometimes continues
to be heard while all images have disappeared from the screen : the
proposition, this time, makes sense only in reference to a message.
The contexts in which 'cinema' and 'film' (or 'cinematic' and 'filmic')
become interchangeable are quite numerous. Examples are easily found
in the literature on the cinema, and often consist of quite simple
sentences without any sort of affectation. We have already cited some
examples; there are many more, for example, The Cinema (or film)
'film' in an absolute sense 57

brings into play four types of materials, visual images, sound effects,
speech, and music.
The quite considerable extent of this zone of overlap should not be
surprising, and the overlap itself is no anomaly to be 'done away with'.
This phenomenon of contextual neutralization is not restricted to the
domain of the cinema (or of thefilm!); its equivalent may be found in
other semiotic studies, even in linguistics. To propose that Morse code
is based entirely on the opposition between short and long, or that
Every message transmitted in Morse is based entirely on the opposition
between long and short, is one and the same thing (except that the
words 'based entirely' do not have exactly the same meaning in both
cases). Similarly, if one asserts that clichis are practically nonexistent
in the French language, one could just as well say that Clichis are
practically nonexistent in French utterances (it is simply that the non-
existence in question is not exactly the same in both cases). It could
never be said that the notions of language and utterance are, in lin-
guistic research, freely interchangeable, or that their opposition rests
on uncertain and obscure considerations. It is clear to everyone that
these are two quite distinct notions. And yet there exists a class of
propositions which are true of both the utterances and the language; the
example given of clich6s is one. Others are perhaps more common;
thus, one can say that The combination of a verb and a noun is in
many idioms an essential characteristic of the language, but just as well
that The combination of a verb and a subject is in many idioms an
essential characteristic of the utterance - that The French language
permits both coordination and subordination, but just as well that
French utterances permit both coordination and subordination, etc.
We can understand, then, that if the distinction between cinema and
film is sometimes a source of difficulties, it is not because the two
notions are inherently ill-defined, or that their opposition is complex
and ephemeral, but rather that habits of rigor are less well established
in research on the cinema than in other disciplines. That two concepts
should overlap in one place while remaining distinct elsewhere should
cause confusion only in studies which are themselves confused.
What remains true, however - but which is of greater interest to
stylistics than to our terminological project - is that current usage turns
out to be on the whole more strict and more consistent when it is a
question of the word 'cinema' than of 'film'. The word 'cinema' almost
never occurs in statements concerning the message and the message
alone: anyone might say that Films rarely last more than three
58 'film' in an a b s o l u t e sense

hours, but no one says that The cinema rarely lasts more than three
hours (or at least one is speaking of something different: of the 'film-
show', which is a social institution and not a message or a discourse :
a good example of a cinematic-non-filmic fact). Anyone might say that
Films ordinarily end with a visual image which is longer than the others,
but no one would say that The cinema ordinarily ends with a visual
image which is longer than the others. One can commonly talk about
serial films, but not of serial cinema, etc. On the contrary, in certain
propositions concerning the code and it alone, one much more frequent-
ly finds the anomaly which causes 'film' to appear where 'cinema' was
expected. We have already mentioned Film is a language, Film is an
art. One also comes across sentences like It is difficult to compare
literature with film, for..., or still, Film achieves spontaneously and
effortlessly what baroque art has long been striving toward. Uses of
this sort are almost unacceptable in ordinary language, but occur quite
frequently in conversations or books on the cinema.
This means that there exists a sort of sub-usage, which may be
judged to be unfortunate but which has its own rules. These rules
predict that the interchangeability of 'cinema' and 'film' is unilateral:
'film' cannot be replaced by 'cinema', but 'cinema' may be replaced by
'film' (at least when it does not bear Cohen-Seat's meaning, and refers
to filmic facts). The idea of a code is more clearly present in 'cinema'
than the idea of message in 'film'. In addition, 'cinema' is ruled out
when speaking of the message, but 'film' is apt to designate both the
fact of the code and the fact of the message, or at least does not exclude
the code as clearly as 'cinema' does the message. 'Film' is thus capable
of being used in all cases, while 'cinema' may be employed only when
speaking of the code. This is precisely why 'film' can always replace
'cinema' without the reverse being true.
Why is this sub-usage unfortunate ? Because it deprives us of a term
which is clearly opposite 'cinema' as message to code, and which
designates only this message. And also because it creates with 'cinema'
and 'film' an unnecessary pair of terms when it is a question of re-
ferring to specific codes. We shall thus reject this particular usage in
order to preserve the tacit definitions of more general usage: 'film'
designates the message in its plurality and its codical heterogeneity,
'cinema' the ensemble of homogeneous and specific codes. The two
words are interchangeable only when what one wants to say applies, in
effect, to the two corresponding objects.
We shall conclude this chapter by remarking that the existence of
'film' in an absolute sense 59
this sort of overlap is inseparable from certain characteristics of the
semiotic enterprise itself, as well as of the facts that it attempts to
understand. If 'cinema' and 'film' are sometimes interchangeable, the
first reason is that certain phenomena, by their very nature, belong
both to cinema and to film. What we call cinematic, you will recall,
is the cinematic-filmic. Any cinematic fact is a filmic fact (although the
reverse is not true). Thus, the processes included in what one oc-
casionally calls the 'rhetoric of the screen' (montage figures, camera
movements, splicings, etc.) belong both to the cinema (and thus are
cinematic) and appear in films (thus, they are filmic). This is why, as
long as one is describing the most general principle of a form of mon-
tage, without any detail - as in the example of the lap dissolve and the
cross-cutting montage mentioned above - one can correctly speak of it
indifferently as afigureof cinema or of film.
In addition, there exists a level of analysis at which general codes
can be described as being made up of the combination of characteristics
common to all particular messages ('the cinema' thus rejoins 'the
film'), with the exception, however - the unavoidable exception - of
the very fact of the message. In addition, different features of signifi-
cation lend themselves to being analyzed, at least during a certain
time, as belonging to both cinema and film, or more exactly as being
situated beyond the point where the distinction is meaningful. Thus,
the two notions have in common a part (and only a part) of their
content, as is witnessed by the very existence of 'cinematic-filmic'. But
even in regard to this shared part they continue no less to differ radically
in terms of their definition, and to represent two objects which have
every reason to remain distinct in regard to the analytic procedure.
Code always differs from message in that one is code and the other
message, and - even if the complete list of what one finds in the
message were identical with the total list of what one introduces into
the code (a hypothesis which is immediately ruled out when several
codes are at work within the same message) - it would still be true that
these traits should be understood in the future as being associated with
one another throughout a given discourse, and thus linked by the co-
herence of a logic which is always tacit. The cross-cutting montage,
envisaged in its most general sense, can very well be both a process of
the cinema and film. It is nevertheless (or in any case it ought to
be) conceived of in the film as a form capable of occupying a particular
segment of the film tape, and in the cinema as a figure - another figure,
and yet the same, hence the confusion - which realizes one of the
60 'film' in an absolute sense

logical possibilities authorized by a purely ideal combinatorics.

In addition, beyond the area of applicability common to the two
words, i.e., surrounding it as well as within it, we shall attempt to
maintain each term in its proper place, such as the preceding chapter
tried to delineate: film on the side of the message (and thus on the
side of the heterogeneous), cinema on the side of the specific and the
homogeneous (thus on the side of the code).



The reader will have noticed that until now the notion of the cinematic
has been defined in terms of two distinctive features. To say that
something is cinematic means first that it occupies a position (or that
one hopes to assign it a position) within a generally coherent system,
i.e., a code. As long as a trait is found in a message and one merely
limits oneself to establishing its presence or superficially describing it,
one is treating it as a filmic trait. From the moment that one thinks of
it in terms of a code it becomes - or at least one tries to make it - a
cinematic trait. Codicity (i.e., the position with regard to the code,
to what is no longer the bare message) is thus one of the distinctive
characteristics of the cinematic. The other is specificity : we will speak
of the 'cinematic' only if the codes which we have in mind belong to
a certain means of expression (called the 'cinema'), or if we have the
intention of demonstrating that they do.
However, popular opinion and current usage implicitly associate the
notion of cinema with a third characteristic which cannot be confused
with specificity or with codicity - namely, the seme generality. The
word 'cinema' represents to most minds an ensemble of traits common
to all films. 'The cinema' is frequently opposed to 'films', and in doing
so it is not so much (or not immediately) the difference between code
and message, or between specific and heterogeneous, that one has in
mind, but much more spontaneously, the difference between the general
and the particular.
This suggestion, no matter how widespread, is the result of a mis-
understanding. The notion of the cinematic only involves generality
when the word is used in its absolute sense and with no modifier. The
indication of generality is thus limited to this use of the term and not to
the term itself. If I say that The cinema is a concrete art, I obviously be-

lieve that my statement applies to all films. But I can just as well say
that Films are more concrete than books and the suggestion of generality
would be just as strong, in spite of the absense of the word 'cinema'.
Inversely, it suffices to modify 'cinema' with some modifier in order to
make the idea of generality disappear: when someone talks to me
about the German cinema, or about the avant-garde cinema, or the
cinema between the two Wars, what follows is not expected to concern
all films.
It is once more necessary to note that the word 'cinema' (a sub-
stantive) is hardly ever used in the plural (when one speaks of 'cinemas'
one is thinking of movie theaters). This preponderance of the singular
form certainly contributes to a large extent to the misunderstanding that
we would like here to eliminate. One confusedly imagines the cinema
as a unique and global thing. (Likewise, it is because the word 'film' is
very often used in the plural that the notion is commonly felt to be
distributive and particularizing.) With the adjective 'cinematic' the
error is less pervasive, and the suggestion of an automatic generality
disappears. Since one can speak of cinematic styles, of cinematic codes,
of cinematic genres, etc., a fact can be cinematic and yet limited to
certain films.
Thus, cinematic phenomena are not necessarily common to all films.
They can be, in which case it is a question of general cinematic
phenomena. In this category, one can include not only the traits which
are in fact cinematic, but also those which are potentially so. It is clear,
for example, that the pan shot - if one means by this the figure itself,
and not just one of its particular values, which already puts us on the
level of a sub-code - is capable of appearing in any film, while other
traits are not (e.g., certain types of long shots are common only to the
Western, certain types of camera movements only to the German ex-
pressionist school, etc.). The pan shot thus constitutes a general
cinematic phenomenon, and yet its generality is only potential, for some
films do not include a single pan shot.
We shall call general cinematic codes those systemic processes
(which are to be constructed by the analyst) to which may be attributed
those features which not only characterize the big screen, but which
in addition are (actually or potentially) common to all films.
Opposite the general cinematic codes, particular cinematic codes
include those elements of signification which appear only in certain
types of films (which is why they are particular), but which nevertheless
are realized only in films (which is why they are cinematic). The
presence of codes of this sort is quite evident in films which belong
to a well-defined 'genre' like the classic Western. The Western mani-
fests a code (or a combination of codes) which is distinct from those
which characterize films in general (in the Western, the former are in
addition to the latter), but also from those which would play a role in
the organization of a song or an oral narrative of the American West.
The 'genre' is, however, only one example of those classes of films to
which particular cinematic codes correspond. There are others, such as
the films of a given 'school' (if a unity of choices really exists for it), or
a given epoch, or a given country (if indeed they have traits in common
which differ from those of other countries), or a given cineast, etc. We
shall return to these problems in Chapter Seven, Parts 1 and 2.
A particular code is not a particular system. Both a particular code
and a system are obviously general, as is indicated by their respective
names. But they must still not be confused. Each film has its own
structure, which is an organized whole, a fabric in which everything
fits together; in short, a system. But this system is valid only for one
film. It is a configuration which results from diverse choices of elements,
as well as from a certain combination of the chosen elements. These
choices have been made from among the resources provided by diverse
(general or particular) cinematic codes - but also by non-cinematic
codes. A film is not 'cinema' from one end to another, and what it
contains of the non-cinematic (its political background, for example,
or its character sketches) is just as important as the rest when it comes
to defining its uniqueness, i.e., to defining what differentiates it from
all other films. To the extent that films are considered as unique
totalities, each contains within itself a system which is as unique as the
film itself. It is a system, but not exactly a code, since it would have only
a single 'message'. Particular cinematic codes, on the other hand, in
spite of their particularity, well deserve to be called codes, for each of
them is at work in several messages (even if not in all the messages of
the cinema) and does not specifically concern any one of these messages.
One should be careful, then, not to confuse the particular with the
singular (in spite of the lack of generality common to both), for the
particular is still on the side of the code, while the singular refers to
the structure of the message (see Chapter 5.5). Note, in addition, that
the general and the particular, despite the difference of their scope,
have in common the fact that they are not singular, i.e., that they
remain codes.
In a word, if common intuition (incorrectly) attaches to the notion

of the cinematic the idea of an obligatory generality, it is because the

most common opposition is the one established between 'the cinema'
and 'films' (where one of the terms is taken in its absolute sense,
the other in its distributive usage). This vaguely perceived general
opposition results, in fact, from a pluralism of two distinct paradigms,
the paradigm of nouns and the paradigm of number. The idea of
generality and non-generality is based on the second paradigm, and on
it alone, but one is not accustomed to taking it apart analytically. How-
ever, it suffices to compare 'CINEMATIC STYLES' and 'FILMS' (only one
of the possible examples) in order to neutralize one of the oppositions,
and to isolate the other. In this way it becomes evident that, all things
being equal in regard to generality (or rather, in this example, in regard
to non-generality), one has to do with the difference that distinguishes
messages, taken altogether ('films'), from homogeneous and specific
codes ('cinematic styles').


The notion of 'particular cinematic code' deserves some special atten-

tion. We can well imagine that a cinematic code is general: since it
is cinematic, it must be linked in one way or another to the adoption
of that vehicle known as cinema, and consequently it must be capable
of being realized in any message entrusted to this vehicle. But if this
is the case, how is it possible that other cinematic codes are particular ?
We shall see that this notion is due, after all, to the simple but
important fact that there exist several cinematic codes, not just one.
The filmic, as we have said, is characterized by the multiplicity and
heterogeneity of the codes which it comprises. The cinematic, in turn
- although it excludes by definition a large number of filmic codes -
consists of a combination of codes and not just one.
The plurality of cinematic codes is first a consequence of the plurality
of films themselves. There exist a considerable number of films differing
in their subject, intention, filming technique, sociological context, etc.
Thus classes of films are formed which are themselves numerous. What
is called 'American comedy from between the two wars' is one class of
films, the 'burlesque of the silent screen' another, the 'Kammerspiel' yet
another, and so forth. Each of these groups of films includes different
codes of its own, and it is because the speaker senses or feels their
presence that he spontaneously arranges several films into a single
category. These codes are as particular as the classes of messages to
which they correspond, but they remain absolutely distinct from these
messages since they are ideal, constructed by the analyst, lack textual
actualization, and since each of them is specific to several films.
However, the plurality of cinematic codes is due not only to the
multiplicity of films and classes of films but is itself a multiple plurality
along several axes. Even if we consider only general cinematic codes,
and thus provisionally neutralize the first axis of plurality, nothing
would permit us to say, according to the present state of research, that
the remaining material will be organized into a single code. The
'general-cinematic' domain, as we have defined it, may itself consist of
different micro-systems, each of which is by definition more specific
than it is and yet continues to concern all classes of films. The dividing
lines between these partial codes do not coincide with those between
groups of films. If one takes as one's object of study what is known as
cinematic 'punctuation', camera movements, or even the main types of
relationships between sound and image, one would obviously have
'divided' the cinematic phenomenon. But one will have divided it in the
same way only if several sorts of films have been distinguished within
it, for each subdivision, in this case, concerns the ensemble of films.
When one examines general cinematic problems, one emphasizes
first (as is normal) diverse partial codes such as the code of montage
within the sequence (the problem of the principal types of sequences),
or the code of 'splicings', or the code constituted by the most common
temporal dislocations : backward motion ('flashback') in its subjective
and objective forms, the 'flash-forward' (leap into the future) which
allows the same variants, etc. Apparently it is much easier and faster
to present a quite precise, even an already pre-formalized study, of
these small, restricted systems - by demonstrating their logical and
symbolic coherence, their authentically codical nature - than to achieve
the same result for the entire set of general cinematic facts. Of course
these different systems may be linked to one another by ties which
axe themselves systemic, so that they form, in the end, a sort of single,
vast super-system. This is the situation of what is called 'the system
of a language', which is more precisely a system of systems. There is the
phonological system, morphology, syntax, different lexical configura-
tions, etc., but it is nevertheless possible to speak of a language as a
basically unitary system, for the links between partial systems have
already been studied and are in some cases quite well understood.
Within the transformational generative model, for example, the dif-

ferent 'components' of the linguistic mechanism (syntactic, trans-

formational, and phonological components, lexical matrices, etc.) are
closely articulated one after the other, so that the output of each be-
comes the input to the next. The situation is quite different with
cinematic studies, not only because investigations are much less ad-
vanced but, more fundamentally, because the cinematic language is
perhaps not as tightly organized as a natural language since it consti-
tutes one of those semiotic ensembles whose 'suppleness' is underlined
by popular opinion, i.e., which includes a large number of codes and
thus an appreciable margin of flexibility, such that it would be im-
possible to rule out the possibility that general cinematic facts are
definitely divided into a certain number of micro-systems only imper-
fectly related to one another and so-to-speak insularized.
Be that as it may, and until we know more about the question, any-
one studying the zoom and the counter-zoom (or the combination of
types of temporal relations possible between two contiguous frames)
finds himself confronted by a cinematic code which is general (since
it concerns virtually allfilms),but which is at the same time particular,
since it makes use of only some of the figures of signification of the
Thus it is possible without further explication to classify cinematic
codes into the 'general' and 'particular', since there exist two distinct
axes of plurality and because a code which is general along one of
these axes may be particular along another. We must remember that
a code is not something one finds there before oneself, already con-
stituted, but rather a coherent construction upon which the analyst may
confer the exact degree and type of generality or particularity that he
wants, on condition only that his conclusions be measured against this
initial act of delineation (this is the principle of distinctiveness). In
like maimer, a linguist can set as his goal the study of the code of
polite French, informal French, or of what is common to the two; it is
only necessary to make this explicit.
A study of camera movements in the cinema - and some have been
made - has as its specific subject a system which is general along the
axis of films (since it does not properly concern any category of mes-
sages), but particular along the axis of resources, since it takes into
consideration the movements of the camera and only these movements,
refusing to consider the other expressive resources of cinematic dis-
course. Inversely, anyone studing the cinematic style in American hard-
boiled detective films has to deal with a system that is general along
the axis of resources, but particular along the axis of films.
Hence the problem of assigning names. In which cases is one going
to say that a cinematic code is 'general' ? One could, of course, restrict
oneself each time to specifying along which axis it is general. This is,
moreover, the only thing there is to do when there is a possibility of
confusion. But otherwise this would be tedious and inconvenient. An
expression like 'cinematic-code-particular-along-the-axis-of-films' would
not fit into any English sentence, spoken or written. However, a solu-
tion does suggest itself, one which is due to the fact that, of the two
axes in question, there is one which, much more than the other, comes
immediately to everyone's mind - namely, the axis of films. Thus, in
a bibliography, a study of the different uses of the lap dissolve will
normally be counted among the 'general works', despite its particularity
along the axis of resources and for the sole reason that it does not
concern some films more than others. Inversely, one would consider as
a 'particular study' any work concerning cinematic processes in the
classic Swedish cinema, even though this work is general along the
axis of resources, but does not concern films as wholes.
We shall agree, then, except where it is necessary to be more
explicit, to rely uniquely on the axis of classes of films in judging
whether different cinematic codes are particular or general. A code is
'general' if, even if of a very restricted content, it is of interest to all
films. A code is 'particular', even if rich and of vast extension, if it
selectively concerns certain films and does not play a role in others. In
sum, as the axis of resources does not play a part in this terminological
process, it could happen that, along this axis, certain 'particular' codes
are quite general and certain 'general' codes quite particular. This is
the terminological convention which was adopted, in anticipation of
this discussion, in the preceding chapter.


These reflections on the plurality of cinematic codes make it possible

for us at this time to refine (without modifying) the notion of cinematic
language system as defined in Chapter 2.4.
We shall leave aside cases where this expression is provided with a
context which alone can determine its exact meaning. If I read that
The cinematic language system, in 'Ordet', succeeds without any dif-
ficulty in ... it is clear that what one is talking about is in fact a unique

system, proper to a single film. It is no longer really the cinematic lan-

guage which is in question, but the use made of it in a specific instance.
Similarly, if one says that The cinematic language system has its own
special way of dealing with punctuation, it is because one is really
thinking of one general cinematic code (only one, the code of punctua-
tion), i.e., one part of the cinematic language system rather than the
language system itself. In all cases of this sort, one notices that the
context furnishes specific information, but distorts the notion: one
knows exactly what one is talking about, but it is not the cinematic
language system.
There remain those cases, which are also common, in which one
speaks of 'cinematic language system' without further qualification by
the immediate context, for example in sentences beginning with cine-
matic language system is.... [adjective] or the cinematic language system
is characterized by its... [substantive], etc. This time the notion appears,
so-to-speak, in its purest form, so that it is most important to determine
exactly its meaning. Earlier (Chapter 4.1), we established two defining
traits, codicity and specificity; we may now add a third, inasmuch as
the first two are equally present (and even more explicit) in the term
'cinematic code'. We shall see, moreover, that this additional refinement
is already implicit in the ordinary use which is made of the expression
'cinematic language'.
Cinematic codes are multiple, while current usage represents the
cinematic language system as something unique which is always referred
to in the singular. To put forward this notion would be, for example, to
reorganize into a sort of unique system the different particular cinematic
codes which have succeeded one another during the course of the
history of the cinema (i.e., cinematic codes which are in a diachronic
relation to one another). Certainly one could say that The cinematic
language system has greatly evolved, but this way of saying it has the
effect of presenting it as change in a single code, and not as the succes-
sion of several codes. Similarly, the expression commonly serves to
lump together different general cinematic codes which differ from one
another along the axis of resources. Anyone who speaks without further
qualification of 'cinematic language system' has in mind a sort of ideal
ensemble which would include at the same time the system of montage,
the system of the camera movements, transitions, etc., and it is not by
chance that popular manuals devoted to cinematic language system are
most often composed of a series of chapters divided in this way. The
cinematic language system is also the sum - or the temporary syn-
cretism - of all the particular cinematic codes which belong to diverse
sorts of films. Such was the case in the example of diachrony mentioned
a moment ago (for films of the same period constitute a class of films,
such that by speaking simply of the 'cinematic language system' one
temporarily neutralizes the periodic variations, i.e., one of the variations
possible along the axis of classes of films). Similarly, in saying that The
shot/reverse-shot belongs to the cinematic language system, one is ab-
stracting from variations which, according to the school, genre, country,
and epoch, come to affect the 'value' of the shot/reverse shot. Once
again, in this case, the cinematic language system is so-to-speak the
common denominator of all individual cinematic codes, and even if
one declares that The cinematic language system varies greatly from
one school to another, one represents a series of particular cinematic
codes as so many variants of a single general code.
To summarize, then, current usage consists in speaking of 'cinematic
language system' when one wants to present as a vast systemic unit the
ensemble of properly cinematic codifications for all the classes of films
and all the expressive resources of the screen. We shall continue this
usage, which can be useful. At certain levels of analysis (and at certain
moments in discussions), it is quite true that all cinematic codes may
be considered as a block. One can imagine different propositions ap-
plicable to all of them, e.g., the propositions that cinematic language
system resembles a discourse more closely than a language, that it only
has rather large units, that it has nothing which corresponds to the word,
etc. (In fact, the class of things that can be said concerning, in-
discriminately, all cinematic codes constitutes a rather vast domain.)
On the contrary, in cases where one wants to discontinue this general
neutralization - the systemic nature of which should always be kept in
mind - one specifies that what is intended is some specific general or
particular cinematic code.
In conclusion, we shall define cinematic language system as the
combination of all particular and general cinematic codes, to the extent
that the differences between them are temporarily ignored, and that their
common roots are treated, through fiction, as a real, unified system.



A distinction is commonly made between authors who study the cin-

ematic language system and those who study films. Thus, 'theoreticians'
are sometimes classified as belonging to the former group, 'critics' to the
latter. In any case, the first are those who write about the cinema in
general, the second about some specific film.
According to this opposition, 'films' does not refer to simple filmic
material, for in this case the distinction would not hold. Anyone re-
puted to study the cinematic language system relies upon a corpus
which is also made up of films and only films (thus we could say that
he 'studies films'). What the usual distinction means - or its least un-
reasonable interpretation - is that two sorts of analysis exist: those
which have for a goal the reorganization of filmic traits into as many
systems as there are films, and those which try to regroup filmic traits
into one system (or a group of systems) which does not concern any
film in particular. Both consist of studying films : what is it, in fact, that
'is studied', if not the object pre-existant to the study ? When it is said
of an author that he does not study the cinematic language system but
films, this is understood to mean that he tries to established the way in
which films, taken individually, are constructed, the organization of
their themes and motifs, the particular use which is made in them of
diverse cinematic processes, the relations which hold between this use
and the 'content 'of the film, etc. In sum, if studies of this sort have
'films' as a point of departure, their destination (the goal they are trying
to reach) is in no way films, but the systems proper to films.
This common distinction between two sorts of studies seems at first
glance to contradict the definition just given of the cinematic language
system, since it involves the exclusion from the study of the cinematic
language system of the consideration of certain particular cinematic
systems, so that the cinematic language system seems no longer to be
the set of all cinematic codes. Obviously, it would be possible to
consider that it is a question here of a completely superficial misunder-
standing, as sometimes happens. 'Cinematic language system', as noted a
moment ago, refers to the entire set of cinematic systems : to study one
of them thus would not constitute a study of the cinematic language
system. In fact, it is not a matter of studying it in all its dimensions, but
only a part of it. It would thus be only a simple terminological mis-
understanding. One could just as easily say that to study English con-
jugation is not to study the English language, or that to study the fade-
out is not to study the cinematic language system.
But in the present case it is not a question of this. First, note that
when a study concerns a given system or a given properly cinematic
figure, no one would hesitate to say that it belongs to the analysis of
the cinematic language system, even if it involves the study of only one
film. Thus, everyone would agree that a text on The montage in
"Muriel" is of interest to the study of the cinematic language system.
What is called the study of films is something else again and is opposed
to the study of the cinematic language system; it is an analysis in which
the film is no longer considered simply as an example or specimen of
a given general or particular cinematic code which is not of any ex-
clusive concern to it, but as a unique totality examined as such, and
whose system one tries to establish. This system is as unique as the film
being studied, and is thus not a general code or even a particular one;
it is not a code at all, since there is only a single 'message'; it is,
precisely, a singular system.
It is quite true that anyone attempting to analyze such a system has
ceased to be concerned with the cinematic language system, not because
he is studying only a part of it, but because he is studying something else
entirely. Of course the total organization of each film borrows its
elements (or at least some of them) from diverse general or particular
cinematic codes; but it cannot be confused with them as a system. What
it borrows from them, more exactly, is only certain elements; as far as
form and the network of relations are concerned, it is distinct from any
cinematic code. Furthermore, this particular system borrows the ele-
ments which it combines not only from cinematic codes, but also from
non-cinematic codes and cultural forms of all sorts. Clearly, these non-
cinematic meanings which participate in films must be ignored when
studying the cinematic language system. This is a legitimate method-
ological abstraction without which the study would lose all principle of

relevance. But when one treats the film as a unique totality, the same
rigor of relevance demands that one take into consideration all the
codes which are manifested in the film in question, including those
which are not cinematic. There are, however, many of them, and
they play a most important role. There are a thousand things in a film
which do not come from the cinema (even if their realization within
the film - their 'treatment' - is capable of borrowing properly cinematic
means); for example, all the filmic material commonly subsumed under
labels like 'the psychology of personality', 'the study of customs', 'the
psychoanalytic background', 'the social (or religious or political) theme',
of the film, 'thematics'. (It is of little importance that all this is in-
correctly named - i.e., that the cinematic and the non-cinematic, within
a film, are not as opposed as a pure 'form' to a pure 'content'.1 In any
case, what remains is that certain elements of the film, with their form
and their content, are intrinsically tied to the cinema, while others are
not.) Thus it is true that the study of individual filmic systems is quite
distinct from the study of the cinematic language system or the diverse
cinematic codes underlying it.
All this confirms the fact that there are two different ways of being
interested in a given film and that common usage, when it speaks of
the 'study of films', often fails to distinguish clearly between them.
A film may serve simply as an example for a study of the cin-
ematic language system, or some general or particular cinematic code.
In this case it is a question of a process whose real point of application
is not the film, but the cinema (or at least some aspect of it) on the basis
of the example of this film. Among all the semiotic material afforded by
the film, the traits which the analyst will retain as relevant will be
those which are not unique in this individual film. It could also happen
(and the solution is in a sense the same) that one wants to examine one
or several non-cinematic codes, using this film as an example, as when
sociologists study certain social systems of representations or expecta-
tions behind films of fiction which do not, in themselves, interest them.
(In other words, one must understand that anyone who studies the
forward travelling shot on the basis of these very films is not more
'intrinsically' interested in films than is the sociologist; the latter is
more interested in the cinema than the former, not in the films which
serve as examples for both. A film, in other words, is not only an
example of cinema, but also of culture.)
We have studied this point in particular in "Propositions methodologiques pour
l'analyse du film".

Or rather - and this is the second main possibility - the film is

analyzed as a unique event, i.e., to the extent that it is distinct from any
other film and even from any other cultural product. The film in ques-
tion is thus the same, but the traits which are considered to be
relevant are not the same: they are now those which are unique in
this particular film; or again: the singular combination of the different
individual selections which this film makes from among the resources
offered by diverse (non-singular) systems, whether they are cinematic
or not. And now it is the latter that are no longer being studied 'for
themselves', i.e., that do not serve as the specific object, or principle of
distinctiveness, of the analysis.
Nevertheless, one should not forget, even in regard to the second
case, that what the analysis is trying to bring to light - and which is
no longer a code - is still a system. The goal toward which all de-
scriptive work strives is not the film as a real discourse (a series of
images, sounds, and words arranged in a certain order, an object that
may be attested), for the latter is already an achieved object before the
analysis even begins. What a description hopes to establish is, rather,
the system which organizes this realization: the structure of this text,
and not the text itself. The system is nowhere clearly visible in the
actual unwinding of the film: a system, as such, is never directly
It is because the analysis searches for a system that it must select
from among the elements of the filmic text, retaining some as relevant
and temporarily ignoring others. For the text (the same text) also
contains other traits, which will be pertinent to the study of diverse
non-unique systems (i.e., codes) which are at work in the film.
Thus the text, as text, is distinct from any system, and even from the
unique system of which it is the only text. And the system, even if
unique, is distinct from any text, including its own.
The semiotician's work begins at the point where the cineast's ends.
The semiotician finds before him the already realized film. He thus
has nothing to do with making it, and nothing to say about how it
ought to be made (this is the task of the normative theoretician). He is
concerned with seeing how the film is constructed. He does not work
toward the film (which is the direction the cineast takes), but, on the
basis of the film he moves toward one or another of its systems. The
path that the semiotician follows is (ideally) parallel to that of the film
viewer. It is the path of 'reading', not of 'composition'. But the
semiotician forces himself to make explicit this procedure, step by

step, while the viewer practices it directly and implicitly, wanting above
all 'to understand the film*. The semiotician, for his part, would also
like to be able to understand how the film is understood, a path
'parallel' to the spectator's, we have said, but one which also goes one
step further; the two paths are truly parallel, in sum, and not at all
intersecting. The semiotician's reading is a meta-reading, an analytic
compared to the 'naive' reading (in fact, the cultural reading) of the
The semiotician follows a path which leads in the opposite direction
from that of the cineast. The cineast starts with diverse (most often
implicit, sometimes even unconscious) systems in order to arrive at a
demonstrable text. The semiotician focuses on the text in order to
reconstitute (and always explicitly) the systems which are implied by it,
which are invisible in it, and which are discoverable in it alone. What
the cineast constructs is the text, while the analyst constructs the system.
This distinction between the two approaches does not necessarily
presuppose the physical separation of persons nor of 'works'. We know
that, in regard to a book, the writer and the writing, to use Roland
Barthes' terms, occasionally tend to converge (Blanchot, etc.). The
notion of deconstruction advanced by the 'Tel Quel' group refers,
among other things, to the site of this juncture. There is no reason
why we should, in principle, ignore the cinematic equivalent of this
(see the studies undertaken in journals such as Cahiers du cinima or
Cinethique). It is simply more difficult to realize in practice, for the
average degree of theoretical maturity, judging from the whole of the
'domain', is appreciably smaller when it is a question of the cinema -
and also because the problem of the equivalence of the metalanguage
becomes much more complicated here. An expos6 written about the
cinema is not of the same form as what it is talking about, contrary to
what occurs in the theory of literature. Inversely, the utilization of the
cinema as a metalanguage reflected by (and reflecting upon) itself is
still an uncommon and very difficult operation, for it is not rooted in
the rich reflective past which exists for written works.


We were led, in the preceding chapter, to introduce a distinction

between system and code (which had been used, until then, as
synonyms), and consequently between their respective opposites, text
and message. The terminological pair 'text/system' is taken here in the
general sense defined by Louis Hjelmslev.2
Every code is a system, and every message is thus a text. But the
inverse is not true, and certain systems are not codes but singular
systems (despite their systemic nature, they involve only a single text);
and certain texts are not messages but singular texts: they constitute
the single manifestation of a system, not one of the multiple manifesta-
tions of a code.
Of course the same discourse may be both a unique text and a
message of a code (or even of several codes); it is a fact that the dis-
tinction is not a physical one, but is related to the point of view which
dominates the analysis. Each film is treated as a unique text in the
exact measure that one is trying to discover its unique system. But
this film contains within it, among other things, different camera
movements, each of which is a message (one of numerous messages) of
the code governing camera movements, i.e., of a general cinematic
code. And this very film - if, for example, it were produced at the
beginning of the era of talking pictures - will manifest in several of
its passages a deliberately 'a-synchronous' treatment of the sound
material which, by its time-lag with the visual image, will recall that the
film belongs to a certain historically quite dated aesthetics, one which
is seen in many other films. Each of the a-synchronous passages of
the film will thus be a message (one of the numerous messages) of that
particular cinematic code that constitutes sonorous non-coincidence,
as it was theorized and practiced in the period between 1928 and 1933
by a certain movement in the cinema (see Anaheim, Balzs, Eisenstein,
Poudovkine, Ren6 Clair, etc.).3 And neither should one forget that
other elements of the same film are the messages of various non-cin-
ematic codes.
What characterizes the systemic (the non-textual) is its nature as a
residual object constructed by the analyst. The system has no physical
existence; it is nothing more than a logic, a principle of coherence. It
is the intelligibility of the text, that which must be presupposed if the

' See the first nine chapters of Proligom&ne une thiorie du langage. The
opposition of these two terms reoccurs, moreover, in all of Hjelmslev's writings.
He frequently used procks in place of 'texte'.
' Concerning L'Esthetique et Psychologie du cinema by Jean Mitry, we have
progressed to a rapid historico-bibliographical 'focusing' on this question:
pp. 191-93 of "Problmes actuels de theorie du cinema", Revue d'esthetique
XX:2-3, special issue on "Le cinema", 1967, 180-221.

text is to be comprehensible. We see that codes have all the charac-

teristics of the systemic, which is why they are systems, although not the
only ones. What characterizes the textual (the non-systemic) is that it
consists in an actual unwinding, a 'concrete' object which predates the
intervention of the analyst; it is that which calls for an explanation. We
see that messages have all the characteristics of the textual; this is why
they are texts, although not the only ones.
Text and system thus differ from one another as an actual unfolding
from an imputed intelligibility. As for message and code, they differ
along this same axis, but they have an additional distinctive trait, which
is the same for the code as for the message, and which could be called
non-singularity. A code is a system which is valid for several texts (and
these texts thus become messages); a message is a text which is not
the only one to manifest a given system (and this system thus becomes
a code).
The system which is not a code (a singular system) has only one
text; the text which is not a message (a singular text) is the only one
to manifest its system.
This distinction seems to us to be of great importance for any struc-
tural analysis (not just a cinematic one), and up to now it has not been
sufficiently stressed, even though it is a rather simple one. It comes
down to saying that it is the peculiarity of certain structures that they
underlie entire series of events while concerning none of these events in
particular (thus the code of a language is present in every sentence,
narrative codes in every narrative, the typographical code in every
printed page, etc.), while other structures are linked from the very
beginning to unique events which they characterize and which are so-
to-speak by definition unfit to be used again, at least not in exactly the
same way. Such is the structure of a sonnet (not the sonnet-form) or
of a sonata (not the sonata-form).
The manner in which this chapter presents the notion of a singular
filmic system should be considered to be essentially provisional. Later
(Sections 6.2 and 6.3), we shall try to show that the 'singular system' is
more accurately the site of a perpetual displacement, that it is con-
structed as much against the codes as with them, and that it corresponds,
finally, to what could be called, in the strictest sense of the term, filmic
writing (not to be confused the with cinematic language system).
Nevertheless it is not yet time to try to explain just what these singular
systems are. It is necessary first to indicate their place in relation to
other (non-singular) systems, and, more generally, in relation to the

entire set of possible filmic studies. This first definition will remain
external and so-to-speak purely negative.
If we consider Carl Dreyer's Ordet, in its uniqueness as a finished
work of art, as a singular text, we find in it only a single system, one
overall system which coincides with what many would call the 'struc-
ture' of this film. If we look at it as a particularly rich source of diverse
and specific frame lines,4 Ordet (or rather its frame lines) are no more
than the messages of a general system, the system of frame lines in
the cinema - or of a more particular system but which does not specifi-
cally concern Ordet (or any other film), and thus which remains a
code, the code of frame lines in films of a certain (sometimes called
'expressionistic') style.
There are thus, concerning the film, three main types of systems, the
first two of which are codes and the third singular systems : general
cinematic codes, particular cinematic codes, and systems proper to
diverse films.
With the singular systems we apprehend the film as a 'work', while
with the codes it is seen rather as a fact of language, as the product
of a particular means of expression. One could say then - in temporarily
yielding to an impoverishing and all too common classification - that the
singular systems maintain a more visible, more obvious, relationship
to the 'aesthetic' approach to the filmic fact, and the codes to its
'semiotic' approach. However, as a singular system is at bottom only
a combination of several codes (and as, inversely, what is common to
all codes is that they are combined in singular systems), the so-called
aesthetic approach could only do itself damage if it neglected codes, and
the so-called semiotic approach would be dangerously incomplete if it
ignored singular systems.
We have come, then, to propose a distinction between codes and
singular systems. Each of the systems, it was said, borrows its elements
from the codes, while remaining distinct from them as a system. Thus,
for example, the cinematic codes include, among other elements, the
possibility of that particular construction known as the parallel montage,
but the study of these codes, in itself, would never tell us to what
extent and in what manner the parallel montage dominates the total
composition of D. W. Griffith's Intolerance. For to focus on this point
and to understand its exact significance, it no longer suffices to consider
the parallel montage as such, nor even to know what its place is in the
* See Philippe Parrain et al: "Dreyer, cadres et mouvements" Etudes cinema-
tographiques 53-56, Paris, 1967.

cinematic language system. What must be examined is its place in

Intolerance, i.e., in a total configuration which, in addition to being but
one realization of the cinematic language system among thousands of
others, represents, in many respects, the realization of diverse structures
which are basically completely foreign to the cinema. However, in the
system proper to this film (which will be studied more closely in
Chapter 6.3), both are closely imbricated and become interdependent.
The parallel montage should be related, notably, to the political opin-
ions of Griffith, his humanitarian ideology, his vision of history, his
method of making a film 'with a message', etc. We are quite far from
the cinematic language system to which the parallel montage belongs,
however, since it is here, and not in Intolerance or any other singular
system, that it enters into paradigmatic relation with (for example) the
cross-cutting montage, an opposition which gives to the two figures their
exact signification (and without which, moreover, we would not know
that it is a question of two distinct entities, such that the unit 'parallel
montage' would not even exist). We see, then, that the codes enjoy a
complete structural autonomy in relation to the singular systems with
which they furnish signifying material, and the singular systems enjoy
the same autonomy in relation to the codes from which they borrow
their elements.
One could say, in this sense, that the codes are sets of possibilities,
that they are never, as such, experienced, while the singular systems
are realized systems. In effect, nowhere is the cinematic language system
uncovered and exposed in all its ramifications. (At least no such place
exists prior to the intervention of the analyst, for the analyst, to the
very extent that he maintains a continuous discourse on the cinematic
language system, may create such a place, but one which is thus, by
definition, artificial). On the contrary, before any analytic undertaking
there exists a place where the system proper to Intolerance is revealed in
a single instance, and this place is Intolerance itself (if we mean by this
the text of this film, its literal unfolding such as is preserved by 'copies'
of the film which have not been damaged). There is another difference
closely connected with this one: if one thinks of cinematic codes, what
is known as 'parallel montage' is only one of the possibilities of a com-
binatorics, while if one thinks of the system of Intolerance, what one
designates by the same term is the fragment of a real film in which the
'parallel' construction appears.
It is thus true that codes are to singular systems as possibilities
to the realizations of these possibilities. However, we should be

eautious about saying that singular systems are 'real', for a system is
never real (only a text is). If the singular systems seem to be real, it
is because they are singular, and thus located in a unique and 'con-
crete' place. But this place is concrete only to the extent that it is a
text. The corresponding system, for its part, is nowhere made explicit,
even in this place. What the film copy in good condition preserves for
us, what it offers us, is the text of the film and not its system. Thus the
system is not 'real', which is why it is a system (a fabrication of the
analyst, like codes). What remains, nevertheless, is that the analyst
may effect this construction on the basis of a single text, while in order
to construct a code it is necessary to refer to multiple and dispersed
messages. Thus, the basic material one begins with (the corpus) coin-
cides in one case with an ensemble which was unified even before being
made into a corpus, while in the other case its unity is due only to the
organization especially undertaken by the analyst in view of constituting
a corpus. If one gets the impression that singular systems are more
real than codes, it is, after all, because the latter have several messages
while the former have only one.
Obviously one could, on the contrary, assign the characteristic of
being 'real' to the investigator's own construction: this construction
could be rigorous, coherent, and account for the facts. But in this case
too it is clear that the codes will not be less real than the singular
We may conclude, concerning this point, that it is possible to
contrast codes and singular systems as systems of possibilities to
realized (but not 'real') systems - and that this distinction does not in-
volve introducing, between these two sorts of constructed sets, any dif-
ference in the empirical degree of reality, but simply asserting (in an-
other way) that a singular system is a combination of several codes.


The distinction between 'general' and 'particular' cinematic codes is

somewhat crude, and fails to account for different degrees of generality
which a cinematic code may represent. These degrees form a vast scale,
for the total number of films to which a code may apply can represent,
according to the code in question, a quite variable proportion of the
total filmic production. Thus, between codes common to all films (thus
very general ones) and those which characterize the Italian Western
This concerns a genre which has been greatly developed over the last few

(much less general ones), one also finds those which belong to the
Western, and correspond thus to an intermediate degree of generality.
But if one simply divides codes into the general and the particular,
those of the Western and those of the Italian Western would uniform-
ly belong to the class of particular codes.
It should be understood, then, that the so-called 'particular' codes
are codes which are more or less particular - and, from this, that
the dual division of general and particular codes has as its only effect
(and also as its only goal) to distinguish clearly from all others those
cinematic systems which present the maximum degree of generality.
The principal dividing line, in fact, passes between phenomena which
concern all films and those which do not concern all films. When it is a
question of the latter, the difference between those which concern a
slightly greater or lesser number of films is not, of necessity, of com-
parable importance. It is a question, in any case, of phenomena which,
even if authentically cinematic, are differentially significant, i.e., which
distinguish certain films from others. General cinematic traits, for their
part, distinguish the film from what is not film : the study of these
traits thus poses very directly the very problem of the cinema itself,
while in establishing particular codes one deals with problems which
are posed, so-to-speak in the cinema.
But if this is the case, one could object, perhaps, that particular
codes are not truly cinematic, since what they are associated with is not
the cinema but a group of films. A fact deserves to be called cinematic
only if it belongs to the cinema, and thus to all films. The only cin-
ematic traits would thus be those which we call 'general cinematic',
and even this label would be a pleonasm. And 'particular cinematic
code' would be a contradiction in terms.
In fact, this is not at all the case, for certain traits present the re-
markable characteristic of appearing only in certain films, and of
nevertheless appearing only in films (at least in the exact form in which
they are observed). Hence there are characteristics which, without
belonging to all films, nevertheless belong to the cinema. Phenomena
of this sort are numerous and one comes across them at every step. It
is clear, for example, that the 'strong' forms of montage, as explored by
Soviet cineasts from 1925 to 1930, are so many properly cinematic
structures, although they have been noticed in only a small number of
films in relation to all those which exist. In sum, a cinematic trait is
years, by cineasts such as Sergio Solima or Sergio Leone. To this day, the best
knows film of this genre is Leone's II etait une fois dans L'Ouest.

not necessarily a trait which appears in all films, but it is necessarily a

trait which appears only in films. This comes down to saying that there
are several forms of cinema, that the cinema-fact may take several
shapes, and, since each of them is only one shape, it is not found in
all films. However, it belongs to the cinema and not to something else.
This is the case every time that a cinematic figure permits several
variants or that a 'process' (like the shot/reverse-shot or the high angle
shot) permits several 'values'. Each variant is particular, since others
exist, but each is cinematic, since it is a cinematic figure of which it is
a variant.
Of course, in a definition of the cinema, it is the general cinematic
traits which will hold pride of place. If our definition were sufficiently
brief, they would even be the only ones. This may be expressed as
follows : to define an object is not to enumerate all its traits. Thus, we
can imagine a definition of the cinema which would include the phe-
nomenon of montage without mentioning, for example, the particular
form which it has been given by the Soviet school at the end of the
era of silent pictures. It is thus true that particular cinematic traits,
although cinematic, do not fit exactly the definition of the cinema, for
their role is rather to refine this definition, and especially to position
the different forms in which its various traits may appear. We shall
return to this problem below (Chapter 7.3), where we shall see that
general and particular codes are related to each other as codes to sub-
Meanwhile, we shall repeat that the study of general codes and the
study of particular codes, although both analyses of cinematic speci-
ficity, nevertheless represent two quite distinct tasks. Tradition, more-
over, has to a certain extent established a point of de facto separation
between works which reflect upon traits common to all films and those
which examine the cinematic traits which differentiate some films from
others. In actuality, the latter sort are, in practice, called 'criticism of
the cinema' or 'history of the cinema', a pursuit essentially reserved for
men purely devoted to the cinema. They are the ones who establish and
enumerate styles, schools, and periods. General works, on the contrary
(commonly classified as 'theory of the cinema'), are gladly left to men of
the 'humanistic sciences' (psychologists of perception and cognition,
aestheticians, sociologists of the modern media, filmologists) - if not to
promoters or pedagogues by vocation (high school teachers, film critics
who direct cinema clubs, etc.) concerned with bringing to the largest
number of people an intelligent initiation into the 'language of images' -

or, finally, to a small number of men of the cinema (critics, cineasts,

historians : e.g., Bazin, Eisenstein, or Mitry) drawn more than the
others (who are, on the average, rather little attracted), toward
'theoretical' problems. Obviously this distribution is not particularly
rational and is due rather to old, established habits, as well as to the
sociological distribution of tastes, dispositions, and competence among
intellectuals who for one reason or another profess an interest in the
cinema. It remains, however, that general cinematic studies (where
one remains constantly within the confines of the cinematic fact) and
particular studies (where one remains, in principle, within the cinema)
do not exactly represent the same type of work to everyone involved
with them. To arrive at a definition of a style or a school of cinema,
one must view a large number of films, and certain specified films (not
replaceable by others). One must above all know how to compare these
films with others. In order to study a given general trait of the cinema,
it is necessary to view a rather large number of films of all sorts (but,
except for the most important ones, rather easily substitutable by
others, on condition that the sample remains varied and representative).
It is necessary, above all, to know how to deal with diverse extra-cin-
ematic data: linguistic, semiotic, psychological, sociological, etc.
On the other hand, there is no reason for analytic methods to differ
from one case to another, if you consider that cinematic traits (whether
particular or general) consist of formal and intelligible configurations of
a systemic order, and that the proper object of research is to uncover
these configurations. This is why 'particular' studies themselves would
have good reason not to remain closed to modern research devel-
opments in different extra-cinematic disciplines, for it is there - much
more than in traditional 'books on the cinema', or at least in most of
them - that one will find desirable examples of precision and rigor.
Inversely, we would hope that all those who write about the cinema,
even if it is in the tradition of the humanistic sciences or 'filmology',
would make an effort to acquaint themselves with what they are talking
about. They should view some films, know whose they are, and not
confuse dates and countries. But this touches upon a vast problem which
does not appear to be on the point of being resolved (despite recent
progress) - namely, that it is unusual that authors very well acquainted
with the cinema sufficiently master the technical apparatus and con-
ceptual complexities of modern thought, and that it is also uncom-
mon that investigators having such a scholarly education are interested
in the cinema. A s long as this is the case, we are afraid that the
literature on the cinema will remain as it is most frequently today, a
small, somewhat 'dull' universe a little outside the mainstream of ideas.
This is a long-range - fortunately quite attenuated - consequence of the
situation which the cinema has known since its beginning - namely, that
men of culture blinded themselves to the significance of this new means
of expression, and men of the cinema appeared as primitive souls for
whom the existence of signs in the world had begun only in 1895.


The terminology adopted in Chapter 5.2 might at first glance give the
impression of being arbitrary : why especially choose the word 'system'
as the most general term, and the word 'code' to refer to a particular
sort of system ?
In fact, if 'code' was selected here to refer to non-singular systems,
it is because in all its present uses it already (and exclusively) designates
such systems. In its original context, i.e., information theory, it serves
to name a system of similarities and differences which, by definition,
is designed to serve repeatedly and to remain the same across numerous
'messages'. In linguistics, into which the word was later imported, it
refers to langue (but not langage, discourse, or utterance), which pres-
ents the same character of anonymous repeated applicability. In sociol-
ogy and anthropology, where it is sometimes used, 'codes' are systems
of behavior, expectations, or collective representations which are
manifested on numerous occasions in the life of a group, and not just
once in the history of its development. In ordinary speech itself, the
word 'code' always designates systems with multiple manifestations and
frequent reutilizations, e.g., 'highway code', 'the code of maritime
navigation', 'cipher code', 'Social Security code number', etc. In truth,
the idea that there exist, except accidentally, several messages for a
single code - i.e., the idea that a code is a system capable of being in-
finitely reutilized - is an inherent part of the word itself, as it is
employed today. Moreover, when one talks about a 'code valid only
for a single message', as happens in the structural analysis of poems, it
is always in a so-to-speak manner, presenting this definition as meta-
phoric. Because it assumes the multiplicity of messages, the word also
has a connotation of instrumentality : a code is a tool, and if it normally
has several messages, it is because it is designed to serve. It is also quite
true that this instrumentality, this 'transitive' characteristic, inevitably

becomes associated with every system which happens to be used more

than once. This applies to cybernetic codes as well as natural language
(if the language capacity in general is not a tool, but man himself, a
particular language, for its part, is among other things an instrument).
This also applies to social codes of etiquette as well as to the postal zip
code system, and even to diverse codes in use in the arts. Whether it is
a question of classical rhetoric, fixed forms of versification, the 'art of
the fugue', or the 'grammar of montage' in the cinema, every system
which re-serves (i.e., every code) is to some extent a tool; there is also
instrumentality within the art.
The word 'system', on the contrary, is likely to refer to configura-
tions realized a single time, as well as structures which have multiple
reapplications. We speak of the 'system' of a natural language, dif-
ferent social 'systems' of behavior; we call the two principal codes of
maritime signalling recognized by international conventions 'lateral
system' and 'cardinal system'. But one also says of a great strategy,
in regard to a celebrated battle - of a great lawyer in regard to a
celebrated trial - that the 'system' of defence was such and such; one
admits that the great literary texts involve, more or less implicitly, a
'system' of relations, proportions, echoes, or dissonance. Common,
or even informal speech calls a method destined to resolve a habitual
and recurrent practical problem a 'system', just as well as an arrange-
ment or a special device put to work in an exceptional situation. The
connotation of instrumentality which accompanies the word in some
of its uses, for example, technologically, 'water cooling system',
'patented system', etc. - disappears in other cases, as when one says
that a work of art, form of thought, or doctrine is 'systematic', or when
one speaks of an individual 'system' of affects, of the 'system' of colors
and values which is found in some impressionist painting, etc.
On the other hand, what the word system strongly implies, in all
its uses, is that one is thinking of a coherent and integrated ensemble
- an 'autonomous entity of internal dependencies', as Hjelmslev said of
the notion of structure6 - of an ensemble within which all elements hold
together and have a value only in relation to one another. However, it
is precisely this characteristic that codes and singular systems have in
common : a partial resemblance which makes it possible, as mentioned
above, to occasionally assimilate the latter to 'codes with only one
* "Linguistique structurale", editorial in Acta linguistica (Copenhagen: Nordisk
Sprog og Kulturforlag, 1959) 21-26. Passage cited :23.

There is a second idea - also quite welcome - which is consistently

associated with the word 'system', although with different degrees of
implication. The word never refers to the concrete object which one is
in the process of talking about, but rather to its conceptual organization,
its principle of intelligibility. This is true even for the uses of the term
which would seem to be the most 'concrete' (a fortiori in the others) :
thus in automobile mechanics, when speaking of the 'water cooling
system', one is not exactly thinking of the radiator, of the core,
or of the hoses, but rather of the technological principle according to
which the rotation of a body of water in a closed circuit is charged with
the cooling of the motor.
Words like 'system' and 'code' sometimes provoke discussion and
misunderstanding, especially when they are used in relation to
signifying units which, like the cinema or the film, are partially of an
artistic or aesthetic order. Anyone speaking of a system or a code some-
times finds himself reproached for having missed, with an incredible
naivete (or a regrettable doctrinal rigidity, depending on the case),
what is most characteristic of the artistic fact - namely, its perpetual
uniqueness, the impossibility of associating it with a general code, the
radical difference between the creative act and the manipulation of an
idiom, etc.
We shall emphasize here that the word 'system', for us, has no other
sense than that which is conferred upon it by its contrast with 'text'.
The play of the two terms serves to designate what separates a discourse
with an actual unfolding, from an ensemble which is not manifest, which
is constructed and coherent. In the same way, the 'code' is that which
is not the message.
This use of these words has two consequences: first, that in many
cases, in the eyes of the semiotician, the 'system' is nothing more than
the necessary and unique construction which accounts for a unique and
irreplaceable work of art, and which semiotics is traditionally being
accused of misunderstanding. Besides very general systems (i.e., codes)
which underlie films and are so-to-speak indifferent to each of them
(such as the idioms underlying poems), one also finds, as we have said,
as many systems in the cinema as there are films; and the more a
film is aesthetically accomplished, the more 'beautiful' it is, and the
more forcefully its system expresses itself.
In the second place, since the systemic, here, is simply the non-
textual, the word system will often refer to entities which a certain
terminological tradition would consider not very 'systematic' (and the

word code to entities which, according to this tradition, would not be

rigorously 'codified') Some minds, as we have just said, are incapable
of disengaging from these words a connotation of an egalitarian level-
ing process and an anti-aesthetic uniformization. In the same way, it is
sometimes beyond their powers to conceive of an entity being of a
systemic nature if it does not appear to be visibly and meticulously
ordered, an explicit or draconian codification of a military type, a
quasi-geometrical configuration, with the regularity of a blueprint. In the
extreme, 'systemic' (or 'codified') becomes synonymous with rigid, or
monotonous, or drawn in a straight line. However, it is clear that in
the cinema (as in every phenomenon of any socio-cultural depth), we
will not find any such 'systems' - or, more exactly, that studies which
purport to be scientific (or even simply rigorous) are presently too
little admired in such areas to enable us to usefully present the systems
studied in a formalized way. It is characteristic of all cultural facts
that they function according to systems but are not felt or experienced
as such. It is distinctive of such systems that they remain unfixed,
purely implicit, submerged in history as well as in individual variations,
etc. - but it is also distinctive that they appear more and more clearly
as systems as our analysis of them gradually advances. Who would
have said that myths are logically 'systemic' before ethnology had
succeeded in demonstrating it ? For how many was it clear that lan-
guage is a system before Saussure so ably demonstrated it ?
We will thus call a system (and also code, if there is occasion) any
underlying organization which is logical and symbolic, i.e., of a non-
textual order, even if it is still poorly understood (as is so often the
case in the cinema), and even if it is not - and if one does not pretend
that it is - 'systemic' or 'codified' in the sense which these words have
in the humanist tradition, or in the rhetoric of undergraduate courses.
We will not dwell here upon another misunderstanding which is
too elementary and too inexcusable to warrant much discussion, and
which is also provoked by words like 'code', 'system', or even 'cin-
ematic grammar', 'cinematic syntax' - namely, the idea that the semi-
otics of film is trying to establish normative rules designed to tell
future cineasts how they should make films ! Let us simply recall that
the most fundamental procedure of semiotic analysis is exactly contrary
to this sort of thing (semiotics is a descriptive enterprise, its material
composed exclusively of so-to-speak established facts) - and also
that this accusation is particularly unwarranted in the cinematic domain,
where it is traditional (and not semiotic) theory which is in many cases

normative, and sometimes in the crudest and most naive manner. (It
has happened that, in the world of cinema, one calls 'theoreticians'
persons whose writings are devoted to advising cineasts to deal in their
films with 'social' rather than 'psychological' subjects.)
Another terminological refinement, this time relative to the word
'text': It is evident that this term, for us, does not apply solely to the
verbal element of the film. In one of its current uses, the term has a
restrictive sense and refers only to an intelligible series of words (and
even of written words, rather han spoken ones). But we will take it
here in Hjelmslev's sense, that is to name any semiotic expression
('process' according to the Danish author), whether it is linguistic, non-
linguistic, or a combination of both (talking pictures are associated with
the third of these cases). A series of images is also a text, as is a sym-
phony, a sequence of sound effects, or a series including images, sound
effects, and music, etc., together. This point will be further discussed, in
regard to the film, in Chapter 8.5.


Let us touch upon one final terminological point which is probably

more important than the preceding ones. The reader has perhaps
wondered why what we call 'singular system' could not more simply
be called structure of the message, as is the case in some semiotic
discussions, and as we have done, provisionally, in some of the opening
passages of this book. It is sometimes thought that there is on one
side the code (which is by definition a general sort of thing), and on
the other the message, always singular, and which thus has its own
But this way of looking at the situation is in reality far from
satisfactory. To speak of a structure of a message, in effect, is to assume
that the message has a structure which belongs to it alone, i.e., which
is not the same as the structure of the code. However, the 'message'
(or at least what is referred to in this expression) can only have its
own structure if several codes are conjointly at work in it, for in this
case the combination of these codes forms an autonomous level of
articulation, by definition irreducible to any one of these codes and
thus characteristic of the message as such. But at the same time we
see that this message is quite incorrectly labelled : it is no longer a ques-
tion of a message, but of a fragment which contains several messages,

since there are several codes. The autonomous structure one is trying
to find is thus not the structure 'of the message', but of the combina-
tion of messages. Inversely, to be able to speak justifiably of a structure
of the message, in the singular, it would be necessary to have before
one a fragment representing a single code (or even, which comes to
the same thing, a fragment which one has decided to analyze with
regard to only one of its codes). However, this message - correctly
named at last - would no longer have a structure of its own, so that
the moment the second half of the expression becomes exact ('of the
message'), the first ('structure') ceases to be so. In the present case, the
analyst would, as a working hypothesis, attribute to the single code all
the structural regularities found in the message. He would thus have a
structure in the message. This would not be a 'structure of the message',
but rather the structure of the code implicitly present within the
message. Thus, when a discourse is the message of a single code (or
when it is provisionally treated as such), it has no structure distinct
from the structure of the code. When one studies a natural language by
abstracting from all the codes of connotation grafted onto it, the
structure onefindsin each utterance is nothing more than one manifes-
tation of the structure of the idiom (of its grammar, its phonology, etc.),
which is present in that utterance as in any other, and which does not
account for its uniqueness. But if one takes into consideration other
codes (stylistic, intonational, etc.) represented in this utterance, a struc-
ture appears which this time cannot be confused with the structure of
any of the codes which are involved in it, since it consists, by definition,
in combining them in a certain way. It is this type of structure which
we would prefer to call a 'singular system'. The corrolary of this system
on the level of manifestation (i.e., the perceivable discourse in which
this system is found) is not the message, since it contains several
messages, but the text: to be exact, the text of that particular system,
of that single and overall system (for each of the messages within this
text itself remains a text, i.e., one of the texts of the corresponding
system, which is in this case a code).
Strictly speaking, there is never a structure of the message. This is
not paradoxical, but simply logical: only a plural text can offer a
singular system. We shall return to this problem, from another direc-
tion, in Chapter 7.6.
But if this is so, one could then say that this singular system, which
must not be called structure of the message, could at least be called
structure of the text. Does not the above discussion show, in fact, that

this second expression is not subject to the objections which were

just made in regard to the first, and even that the rejection of the first
expression is based on considerations which seem to recommend the
second ? It is true that, in speaking of the 'singular system specific to
a film', one only refers to what everyone would think of if one had
said 'the structure of this film'. Films, similar in this to all somewhat
complex discourses found in cultures, are not messages but texts, for
each of them contains several codes and as many messages. This is
why each of them, as we have just said, truly has a structure of its
own which deserves to be called, literally, 'structure of the text'.
So why should we also retain the term 'singular system' ? Because the
two terms are not synonymous. They denote the same object, but not
from the same point of view. They have the same referent, but not the
same signified. Moreover, no one would sense a tautology in a proposi-
tion like The structure of each text is a singular system. In this sentence,
the subject syntagm and the predicate syntagm both designate the same
intelligible configuration (the same form), but presenting the subject
as 'structure of the text' accents its ties with an actual discourse, re-
minds one that it is in this discourse that it can be discovered and that
it is the intelligibility of this discourse that it furnishes - while referring
to the predicate as a 'singular system' emphasizes, on the contrary, its
ties with other systems (notably with the codes which are combined
within it), and reminds us that (similar to codes) it is of a systemic
nature, and that (like them) it is so-to-speak on the side of the non-
actual, or ideal.
In sum, this form presents the double characteristic of being relative
to an object and of being one system among others. In calling it the
structure of the text, we define it on the basis of the object whose form
it is, and in calling it a singular system we define it in terms of the family
to which it itself belongs (the class of systems). If until now we adopted
the second term, it is because it was a question of examining the
similarities and differences (as well as the combinatory relations) which
exist between systems which are singular and those which are not.
All this obviously poses the more general problem of what sort of
relations hold, even outside of the particular cases just examined, be-
tween the notions of structure and system. Without pretending to fully
treat this question, we will simply note that it is no pleonasm to
speak of the structure of a system, and that this is in fact not uncom-
monly done (example: This system has a binary structure). It also
happens that in saying 'structure', one always implies at the same time

the object whose structure this structure is (in our example, this object is
itself a system) - while in saying 'system', one suggests that the form,
for its part, tends to become a sort of object and that this object, like
all objects, has its own structure. Take, for example, the proposition
The structure of this system is very complex (or numerous other sen-
tences of this sort): if it has any meaning, it is because the system
is assumed to be known, constructed, already demonstrated by the
analyst. It thus becomes itself a sort of text (an artificial one), and it is
of this text that one asserts that it has a complex structure.



We said in Chapter 5.1 that the statuses of general or particular cin-

ematic codes and that of unique filmic systems are profoundly asym-
metrical with regard to the problem of cinematic specificity. It is appro-
priate at this point to examine this question a bit more closely.
The study of a cinematic code always involves by definition several
films. Of course, there are cases where this plurality may remain
temporarily only potential. One could devote an entire article to the
detailed analysis of the function of 'entrances and exits from view' in
Jean Renoir's La regle du jeu .-1 how do the characters penetrate into
the filmed space, how do they leave it, how does the camera itself vary
its range in relation to the movements of the actors, etc. ? There is in
this a whole system which is a part of the dramaturgy of the cinema,
and it is certain that by examining Jean Renoir's film from this point of
view one will better understand the nature and exact significance of
this code. However, if it is in this dramaturgical code (and not in the
poetics of Jean Renoir) that one is really interested, one could not rely
solely on La regle du jeu. One ought to examine how the entrances into
and exits from the field of vision are organized in various other films.
But it is also clear that one could not rely on analyzing these films in
their entirety; obviously one will concentrate attention on the entrances
into and exits from the field of vision, and the other elements of the
films will only be taken into consideration to the extent that they are
relevant to these comings and goings. (It was to a similar method-
ological procedure in linguistics that Louis Hjelmslev gave the name
catalysis.) Thus, the entire organization of the field of vision is found
Andre Bazin outlined such a study in a well known article which is intelligent
and biased at the same time : "Renoir fran^ais", Cahiers du Cinema 8, January
1952, 9-29.

to be modified when one moves from the so-called standard screen

to the big screen (cinemascope and other patented techniques).2 One
must therefore take this variable into account in the study of entrances
into and exits from the field of vision, and the latter will perhaps give
rise to several appreciably different systems, according to the principal
types of screens. (These systems would thus be so many particular
cinematic codes.) No matter what the situation in regard to this point
- which is a question of fact, to which one can only respond by examin-
ing the filmic material - it should be noted that if one has brought
into play an element other than the entrances and exits from view, it
is still in relation to these entrances and exits, and in looking at them,
so-to-speak, from their point of view.
In principle, therefore, a study of the cinematic code always involves
several films, and only certain aspects of these films. For one or the
other of these reasons, such a study can never understand a film as a
unique totality: it is always, and always both at the same time, more
than and less than this. What it is concerned with is always more than
a film and less than a film, but never a film. Underlying studies of this
sort one finds a sort of selection taking place. From among the available
films, one chooses those in which the code under study seems to play a
particularly important role, and, from among the different traits of the
films thus selected, one examines only those which participate in the
code in question or which are related to it (principle of relevance).
This is why these studies, by the very process which creates them, are
always certain to remain within the domain of the 'specifically cin-
ematic', since they have by design set aside, as much in the range of
films as in the diverse aspects of each film, all that does not concern
the particular code whose intuited existence has guided selections from
the very beginning.
This is not the case in the study of singular filmic systems, for the
latter constitute the place where, by definition, the cinematic and the
non-cinematic - the 'specific' and the 'non-specific' - come together
and closely overlap. The system of a film is, among other things, a
unique utilization, proper to this film, of the resources provided by the
cinematic language system, but it is also a certain vision of the world, a
certain thematics, a combination of obsessive configurations which are
' Many cineasts have remarked this, in their response to the inquiry conducted
by Figaro (Paris) into cinemascope, in 1955, as have many critics during the
debate begun in 1953-54 (see Cahiers du Cinima 21, 25, 27, 31), when the first
film in cinemascope, The Robe by Henry Koster, was presented in France
(December 1953).

no less proper to this film, and which are nevertheless not inseparable
from the cinematic fact (although they are linked to it in the film in
All this, it might be said, applies to films which are original, and it
may happen that a film comes close to platitude and banality : to speak
of what this film 'has in its own right' thus becomes problematic. Let
us accept this, at least temporarily (for the absence of peculiar
characteristics is still, in one sense, a peculiar characteristic). It remains,
in any case, that this lack of peculiarities can just as well characterize
- depending on the film - the use which is made of cinematic codes,
the use which is made of non-cinematic codes, or the use which is
made of one and the other at the same time. Thus, it is not only filmic
systems in their realization and their manifestation which combine the
cinematic and the non-cinematic; this same combination is also as-
sociated with their disappearance, i.e., with, in the extreme, their
We shall refrain, then, from using the confused notion of originality
and banality to create pseudo-problems. The distinction, if better
understood (for it would be impossible to eliminate it entirely), cor-
responds to something completely different. Certain ways of utilizing
codes are more common than others, certain combinations of codes
are more common than others, and certain codes are more common
than others. But this fact is of a very general validity, and applies as
much to non-cinematic as to cinematic ones.
That is not all. A banal film is in reality not a film that is lacking
a singular system; it is a film whose singular system is banal. This is not
at all tautological, if at least one admits that a banal system is a system
quite similar to numerous other systems. Quite similar, but not iden-
tical, for each banal film is banal in an original way, and you will not
find two banal films which are banal to exactly the same degree or in
exactly the same way. Banality allows many variations, quantitative
and qualitative. If one defines it with reference to the commonplace,
it remains true that large numbers of cinematic and non-cinematic com-
monplaces exist, and that these are not the same ones that appear in
diverse commonplace films. It also remains true that no film is made
solely of commonplaces, and that two films which would be identical in
regard to their quantity of commonplaces - a hypothesis which is al-
ready extreme if taken literally - would continue to differ from each
other according to the small portion which, in each of them, escapes the
commonplace. Obviously, there are many other ways to define origin-

ality and banality. One could define them, for example, in terms of the
subject of the expression, i.e., in an original work, the subject which
'expresses itself' is a unique and singular being, an individual - while
in the banal work this subject is, in reality, a social group, or an anony-
mous ideology, or an ensemble of collective representations, or an ar-
chetype stemming directly from some profound but impersonal psy-
chology, etc. (in this conception, the 'official author' of a banal work is
thus not its true author). If one adopts this defining frame, the fact re-
mains that the anonymous forces which thus come to be expressed in
banal works are also quite numerous and of very diverse natures, and
that it is never exactly the same ones that inspire two banal works. One
could also define the original and the banal in terms of codes : the banal
is the mechanical application of a code (or reliance upon a combination
of codes which is itself codified), while the original is the 'play' on the
code or codes, the deviation of the code from itself, the new shifting
of one code onto another, etc. But even here it is necessary to note that
the codes (or combinations of codes) capable of being applied mechan-
ically are numerous, that there are several mechanical ways of making
use of the same code, etc. More generally, it is clear that none of
the criteria which may be invoked in order to define the banal allow
us to say that a banal film is one that lacks a singular system. This
may be expressed as follows : if a film is banal, it is because the
spectator, in seeing it, experiences a combination of impressions which
he summarizes by declaring that the film is banal (there exists no
other primary foundation for the notion of banality than the im-
pression of banality itself); and if the semiotic analysis of this film is
carried to its logical conclusion, i.e., if it succeeds in accounting explicit-
ly for the intuitive impression of the spectator, what it will inevitably
show is that the singular system of this film is banal. This film there-
fore has a singular system; and if it is, in turn, more or less banal, it
is because it is more or less similar to a greater or lesser number of
other singular systems.
This reasoning may even be pushed to its extreme: if it happened
that the singular systems of several banal films were absolutely identical
(a completely improbable hypothesis, after all), each of the examples
of this apparently non-singular system would remain a singular system
in the sense that we are here trying to define, namely that each of
them, in effect, would continue to express the whole structure of a
given film conceived of as a singular totality, would continue to com-
bine diverse codes within it, would continue to be distinct from all the

codes which are combined in it (and to be distinguished from them as

a realized system to potential ones), etc. It would mean, simply, in this
extreme case, that a certain number of totalities (of texts), by the play
of some amount of chance in statistical distributions, would push the
similarity to a quasi-identity (which would become a total identity at
the level of the structure, which is always 'poorer' than the text). Thus
genetic laws sometimes produce identical twins, quintuplets, and Sia-
mese twins. But, as far as similarities between films, the general case -
doubtless the universal case - is that of a 'simple (non-identical) banal-
ity'. Many filmic systems show partial resemblances (although these are
sometimes quite extensive) with many other filmic systems, under
conditions such that each of them nevertheless continues to be singular
(and, this time, even in the ordinary sense of the term). This situation
is not at all uncommon, and is not without correspondence in the most
diverse areas : fifteen fools, no matter how uniformly insignificant one
supposes them to be, nevertheless remain fifteen persons. We shall put
aside, then, in the discussions which follow, the problem of banal
films. One will recall only that singular has never been synonymous with
original, and that in any case it is not in these pages that it threatens
to become so.
This may be expressed in a different way. A film is a concrete entity,
a closed text, a finished discourse. In addition, it always contains an
ultimate principle of unification and intelligibility, commonly called its
'structure'. (This system is, in fact, a system of systems, but this does
not alter the situation.) If the film is 'original' or 'beautiful', aesthetic
theory will call this ultimate structure 'organic unity';3 but it also exists
if the film is a failure, if it is dull, if judgments of taste do not recognize
in it an organic unity, in a word if the principle of intelligibility of the
film has not been willed by the cineast, or if the principle which was
finally imposed upon it was poorer than what had been intended,
indeed even if nothing similar to either of these was even perceived by
the author, such that only a depth sociology (or psychoanalysis) would
be capable of accounting for it. (This is not to say that this depth sociol-
ogy, this psychoanalysis, this cultural semiotics would be deprived of

In the domain of the cinema, this notion has been adopted notably by
Eisenstein; see "The structure of the film", in Iskusstvo kino, (Moscow, June
1939); reprinted in Film Form (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949); in French,
a portion of the article was published in Reflexions d'un cineaste (Moscow:
Editions en langues etrangeres, 1958), 57-67, under the title "L'unite organique
et le pathetique dans la composition du Cuirasse Potemkine".

all explanatory power before a concerted and closely constructed work,

a work with an organic unity. In this case, they would simply no longer
be the only relevant ones, and they would be less directly relevant. It
would be necessary to reckon with all the refractions, tricks, and restruc-
turations involved in the real intervention of a will of writing, whether
conscious or unconscious. And then, of course, there are all the other
possible cases : there are those films with a strong organic unity but
whose real structure is otherwise; there are those films which have been
willed banal, and which are or are not such; there are those which
pretend to be disordered, but which, as they can realize only a certain
sort of disorder and not all possible sorts, thus find their own order.)
All these different cases correspond, as we see, to as many types of
relationships between the system of the film and the personality of the
cineast; but the system of the film, for its part, always exists. We shall
see below (Chapter 6.4) that this system is not necessarily unique, and
that it is not always necessary to look for one structure behind it. This
is how one would go about discovering 'original' films.
Meanwhile, it is still necessary to examine the position of (original
or unoriginal) singular systems in relation to cinematic specificity.
From the moment, as we have said, that one studies a film as a unique
totality, one is forced to take into consideration all the codes which
play a role in it, non-cinematic as well as cinematic. While the analyst
who studies a cinematic code can allow himself to make a selection
from the material of each film that he examines, anyone interested
directly in a given film gives up any possibility of such a selection. He
cannot reject as irrelevant the non-cinematic traits of the film being
studied, since these traits, although non-cinematic, are present in the
film. Ideally, the final construction of the analyst (the singular system
of the film) should account for all traits of any importance which appear
in that film.
If the study of filmic systems is inevitably conducted with frequent
and extensive excursions outside specifically cinematic territory, it would
seem that this is due to the absence of any selection just mentioned. And
yet, the analyst of a particular film also makes a selection; he also
makes use of a principle of relevance, without which his under-
taking would be condemned to a confused and impotent globality, and
his task impossible to carry out. But it is the criterion on which this
selection is based that is entirely different. The study of a singular
system must take into consideration all the codes, but none of them is
the proper object of its effort. It is necessary only (and this is already
quite a lot) that it establish in what way the use made of each of these
codes in this particular film is singular, or rather, that it establish that
the use made of some of these codes is not at all singular (in the case
of banal films). It is even more necessary that it analyze how these
diverse codes, whether or not employed in a singular manner, enter
into the film in an overall combination which is never a simple juxta-
position but which always has a certain form, i.e., which implies inter-
codical selections and hierarchies, and which, consequently, is always
more or less singular.
Thus, the desire to comprehend a film as a totality has the effect of
considerably displacing the line of separation between the distinctive
and the non-distinctive. The distinctive, from now on, is everything that
differentiates one film from others. The codical traits, i.e., all those
traits which are distinctive for codes (and, among others, to specific
codes of the cinema), are for the moment irrelevant, since they are by
definition traits common to all films (or to several) and do not properly
characterize any of them. As for those traits which do, on the contrary,
become distinctive, these are either codical variations or inter-codical
combinations, and thus in both cases are non-codical traits.
This is why the study of an individual filmic system is never a study
of cinematic specificity (this specificity, in effect, consists of a number
of codes). It is true that the most widespread conceptions of the sub-
ject tend rather precisely to affirm the contrary. Many critics or theore-
ticians of the cinema are ready to recognize that the film contains a
large number of configurations and structures which are not properly
cinematic, that the film does not belong only to the cinema, that it is
an open system where significations of very diverse origins come to-
gether. But most of the time, this is to add immediately that, in the
film, these figures, which come from all directions, are integrated into
a new order of discourse whose ultimate principle could only be cin-
ematic. Today one hardly ever encounters this particularly naive form
of cinematic fanaticism, according to which any structure appearing
in a film is a structure proper to the 'seventh art', for which the film
was throughout a festival of cinematic resources and only that. But
one still quite frequently encounters a sort of irredentist nostalgia (sadly
become more lucid and more cautious) for this archaic belief in a
total specificity. The sometimes implicit assertions which this twisted
position inspires could be summarized in the following way: semiotic
structures are not all cinematic when they first enter into the film, but
they are all cinematic so-to-speak when they leave it, i.e., when the

audience perceives them. At the outset the film 'adopts the most diverse
forms, but in the end all these forms have become cinematic, for each
of them has undergone a transformation which is the proper work of
the cinema, and has thus been augmented (or altered) by a sort of
automatic coefficient of cinematization.
Such conceptions, however, as we said in Chapter 2.4, in fact come
down to a begging of this question and leave untouched the problem
that they are meant to resolve. In fact both things can be reduced to
one. This cinematization is understood as concerning the physical form
of the signifier, and in this case one has stated nothing more than the
obvious (it is quite certain that any signification which enters into a
film becomes materially 'cinematized', since it is physically transmitted
through the medium of the cinema); but this comes down to saying that
this signification, initially forged outside the cinema, has merely turned
up for the moment in a film. In sum, every signification which enters
into a film is found in this film! With the intention of demonstrating
that this signification has become cinematic, we have simply proved
that it has become filmic. Or, on the other hand, the process of
automatic 'cinematization' invoked may be understood as affecting
the very form of the signification, i.e., its structure and not merely the
physical nature of the signifier. This is to admit, in this case, that the
structures are modified solely by virtue of a physically filmic trans-
mission. Moreover, to the extent that it is clear that a change in the
physical nature of the signifier can in some cases lead to a change
in the structural form itself, it is difficult to consider such a process
as unfailing and automatic. The film can transform the non-cinematic
structures that it takes up, but it can also be content with merely
adopting them as they are, i.e., inscribing them in a new material
while preserving their original form. It is always the case, for example,
that the sound film does not modify the structures of a language (which
it nevertheless 'borrows'); it simply inscribes these structures in the
recorded phonic material ('sound-tape'), while in their natural state
it was the directly perceived phonic material which transported them.
This modification does not, however, have the effect of adding a tense
or an aspect to the conjugation system, of displacing the differentiation
between voiced and voiceless phonemes, of creating a new series of
suffix derivations, etc. (The film introduces new forms of spoken
discourse, not new forms of language. Thus linguistic meanings, non-
cinematic in principle and origin, remain non-cinematic when they
appear in a film.) The coefficient of cinematization, if considered to
apply to the structures themselves, is thus not at all automatic, no
matter what popular opinion has to say about it. It simply represents
a possibility which is realized for certain extra-cinematic codes (and
for certain films) and not for others. We shall return to this question,
from two different perspectives, in Chapters 6.3 and 10.7.
It is a common occurrence that films, consciously or not, reflect
various systems of political thought, and that these - even if this time
they are expressed in the framework of a film rather than a book or a
poster - are not, by this fact alone, unerringly modified in their
structure. Once more in this regard we come across the problem of
original films, which should not give rise to a confusion of another
sort, viz., that where an inventive cineast can profoundly renovate,
even in its very structures, the system of political thought which initially
inspired it, this remodelling itself is not necessarily a 'cinematization',
for the new system may remain on the same level as the old one,
i.e., remain, like it, purely political, and not maintain any more of a
necessary relationship with the cinema, although it was in a film that
it happened to be elaborated. To modify a code is not necessarily to
render it more cinematic. It is cases like this that critics of the cinema
are thinking of when they say that some film has a rich and new
'content' in a still classic or even banal 'cinematic form'.


We begin to better understand why the study of singular systems is

constantly 'astride' both considerations which are specifically cinematic
and others which are not. The reasons for this, as we discussed a
moment ago, number only two : (1) If each film is singular, it is such by
virtue not only of what is contains of the non-cinematic, but also what
it contains of the cinematic; (2) A non-cinematic code does not become
cinematic solely by virtue of its presence in a film.
Even with these two points, however, we are still not at the center
of the problem, for it is not only a question here of different cinematic
or extra-cinematic, 'cinematized' or 'non-cinematized' codes which
account for the diverse parts of the film, its various aspects, or its dif-
ferent levels of meaning. It is a question of structures each of which
is partial in regard to the film itself, i.e., the film as a complete text.
However, if one is interested in the latter, the principal analytic ob-
jective is to go back to the global structure (by means of a considera-
tion of all these partial systems, which is indispensable) - or again

(according to the 'direction' of the method one adopts), to descend

again to these partial systems through the global structure which is
initially grasped in its general outline and then refined and confirmed in
the course of the study.4 In any case, it is this global structure which is
in some sense, as said above, a system of systems. It is this structure,
and it alone, which constitutes, properly speaking, 'the' singular system
of the film, at least in cases where there is only one (for other cases, see
Chapter 6.4).
It is not a question, then, at present, of examining individually each
of the codes that the film contains in order to see if it is or is not of
cinematic origin - and, in those cases where it is not, if the filmic
nature of its manifestation has or has not had the effect of modifying its
structure in the direction of a greater cinematicity. What we are con-
sidering now are not the partial systems integrated by the film, but
the activity of integration (or of disintegration) - the process of
composition or 'writing' - by which the film, relying on all of these
codes, modifies them, combines them, plays them one against the other,
eventually arriving at its own individual system, its ultimate (or first ?)
principle of unification and intelligibility.
However, it is when one is situated at this level of the integration of
the whole that certain beliefs in the specificity of the cinema are the
most difficult to dispose of. In our day, these beliefs relegate, without
too much difficulty, certain partial structures of the film to a non-
cinematic (and eventually 'non-cinematized') status, as long as they are
considered in isolation; but they readily accept as always purely cine-
matic the overall movement which integrates them within the film.
This idea is rather widespread among film critics. It is not always
expressed in the form we have just given it, but it underlies many of the
common assertions which are more or less felt to be self-evident. It is
said, for example, that each film takes its materials from the areas where
it finds them (in the biography of the cineast, his circle of friends and
acquaintances, his epoch, in literary influences, in the consciousness
of delivering a 'message' etc.), but that its overall construction con-
cerns the cinema and it alone; that the special character of the film is
to integrate the most diverse meanings into a cinematic 'composition';
that the proper task of the cineast is to 'make cinema' (and not only to

* We know that Lucien Goldmann, concerning literary texts, was a supporter of

this second stage, and not the first "Structuralisme genetique et analyse stylis-
tique", in Linguaggi nella societ e nella tecnica. Proceedings of a colloquium
held in October, 1968, in Milan (Milan: Edizioni di Comunita, 1970), 143-61.

'make films') with anything that is available to him; that it is not suf-
ficient to have many things to say in order to make good films, but that
in addition one must be capable of putting them onto the screen and
of 'thinking cinema', etc. Moreover, all these observations are correct
to the degree that they imply that the structure of each film results
from a sort of interaction between properly cinematic factors and
external properties. But they are false in that they all assume, quite
improperly, that the final word in this dialectic rests with the cinema
in an automatic and unilateral fashion ('or else the film is bad'...).
There is no final word on this subject, and the interaction is a true one,
without a victor or a vanquished.
From the moment that a text assumes the form of a film, cinematic
codes (or some of them) are always present in it - and their very dis-
appearance (in the extreme, their absence) still has a meaning which
remains cinematic: 'icriture blanche', refusal to 'make cinema', re-
jection of certain codes in favor of others which do not yet appear
to be such (this is the case of those films regularly described as 'shatter-
ing the cinematic language', while, if one is to believe the same analysis,
this language was already 'completely destroyed' by another film just a
few years ago). But from the moment that a film talks about something
- and all films say something, despite the formalist's illusions about this
subject - extra-cinematic codes are always present in it, for there is
nothing which can be said which does not have any form.
Saying that a filmic system is a combination of several codes also
implies that it consists essentially in a displacement. To the extent that
one envisages each of the codes that appear in films individually, one
can without difficulty - by a useful methodological convention, some-
what analogous to the one underlying the notion of synchrony ('state of
a language') in linguistics - allow oneself to treat the systemic as static.
It is true that a code - a code - functions at a given moment of its
historical evolution as a closed system which regulates choices which
can be listed, and which permits syntagmatic combinations which can
themselves be enumerated. (This is also the case, appearances to the
contrary, in transformational generative g r a m m a r : the originality of
this linguistic theory is in directly applying itself to the infinite number
of possible 'grammatical' messages, but the elements at the base of its
combinatorics - 'constituents' and 'rules' - are still finite in number. It
is thus not by chance that it has as its goal the study of a single code,
the 'model of competence'.) On the contrary, no code plays a central
role in the overall structure of a given text, not even those 'mobilized'

by the text. What 'makes' the system of a film is the passage from one
code to another; each film takes shape with various codes, and it is in
this 'with' that the importance lies.
With diverse codes, but also against them. In this sense, each film
is built upon the destruction of its own codes. It is not enough to prove
that in a filmic system each code is inessential because it is only the
combination of codes that is essential. It is necessary to understand,
beyond this, that the proper task of the filmic system is to actively
underplay each of these codes by asserting its own particular logic and
because it asserts it, an assertion which is necessarily accomplished
through the negation of that which is not itself, i.e., codes (which are,
as such, no longer important and become but the 'building blocks' of
another structure). In each filmic system, the (cinematic or extra-cin-
ematic) codes are both present and absent: present because the system
is built upon them (on the basis of them, with/against them), absent
because the system is only a system to the extent that it is something
other than the message of a code (or a series of these messages) i.e.,
because it begins to exist only when (and where) these codes begin to
cease to exist in the form of codes, because it is this very movement of
negation, of destruction-construction. In this regard, certain notions
advanced by Julia Kristeva in another domain are applicable to the
The relations between a code and its message are peaceful: in being
expressed, the message also expresses the code, since it has no other
structure than that which it has taken from this code. Thus each
spoken utterance expresses the code of the language (to the degree that
this language is considered by a legitimate abstraction as a uniform
code of pure denotation, i.e., to the extent that one ignores the other
codes which are at work in the same utterance : expressivity, connota-
tions, etc.). The situation is the same every time that one has to deal
with 'domains of a single semiotic dimension': groups of texts that
follow a single code, or that one wants to analyze in relation to only
one of their codes (this notion will be elaborated upon below, in
Chapter 7.6). But the relationship between a text and its codes cannot
be this harmonious. Within the overall system of a text, the different
codes do not align themselves next to one another in places which
could be predicted in advance. The filmic system is not a mere
accumulation of codes but an original combination which demands to be
executed (the notion of 'composition' in the theoretical writings of
Eisenstein, of 'production' in contemporary Marxist studies, of 'realiza-
tion' or of 'staging' for certain film critics and aestheticians). This com-
bination, which is new for each text, certainly constitutes a structure,
but one which is inseparable from an active process of restructuration,
without which a filmic system would be nothing more than the sum
of its codes (however, a code is not a text, and it is necessary to explain
how one goes from one to the other). The only thing which can be said
to be distinctive of the system of a film is that it integrates several
codes, that it cannot be reduced to any one of them (or to the sum
of them), and that it too plays them one against the other. The system
of the text is the process which displaces codes, deforming each of them
by the presence of the others, contaminating some by means of others,
meanwhile replacing one by another, and finally - as a temporarily
'arrested' result of this general displacement - placing each code in a
particular position in regard to the overall structure, a displacement
which thus finishes by a positioning which is itself destined to be
displaced by another text. The intrinsic consideration of a code does
not tell us how it may be articulated with other codes (or with which
ones), and at what level it may play a part in the general economy
of a long and complex text (as is every film, even the most rudimentary).
It is not the code which decides its own particular place in the system
of the film, or which determines which other codes will become its
temporary neighbors; it is the system of the film itself which does this.
the study of a code of cinematic montage does not tell us which
function it will fulfill in a given film, this is simply because a code of
montage does not make a film; even less does it do so alone.
It is not a question here of reverting to the old idea according to
which the film is an example of a language without a code,0 a pure
invention arising without cease, a creation ex nihilo - or again
(which comes to the same thing) an activity of organization and re-
organization arising directly from 'reality'. What is called reality - i.e.,
the different prefilmic elements - is nothing more than a set of codes,
that set of codes without which this reality would not be accessible or
intelligible, such that nothing could be said about it, not even that it is
reality. Whether the film is 'invention' or 'creation' is dependent solely

* In our early articles (notably "Le cinema: langue ou langage ?", Communi-
cations 4, 1964), we were rather wary of this conception (the influence of Andre
Bazin on cinematic studies was stronger then than it is today). Hence the auto-
critical notes which were added in the second publication of this article in our
Essais sur la signification au cinema (1968). Conversations with Italian semio-
ticians (in particular Umberto Eco and Emilio Garroni) have contributed to this

upon the degree to which it is operation, i.e., to the extent to which it

adds something to pre-existent codes, producing structural configura-
tions which none of them alone could have anticipated. Thus, this
addition itself (the coefficient of modification and work which is
appropriate to the text) does not intervene in relation to a simple, basic
reality, nor in some void which would strangely carry within itself the
promise of a future and unfailing creativity, but in relation to codes.
This is why the movement of the code seems to us to retain all of its
importance : not only because the study of codes, outside of any filmic
system, is, for semiotic research, an end in itself (although not the only
one), but because filmic systems themselves, as active processes of dis-
placement, are only intelligible if one has some idea of what it is that
has been displaced.
Just as the literary work, which can only exist thanks to some natural
language, is nevertheless constructed against it rather than in it (since
it is a working of the language, and since it is nourished by what this
language lacks as much as by what it possesses) - so the overall system
of a film consists essentially of a double and unique movement, a move-
ment by which are 'mobilized' diverse codes without which the film
would have nothing on which to maintain its drive, a movement which
relegates these very codes to a secondary position, and by which the
filmic system is detached from them, by which it tells us that it is some-
thing more than these codes, that it is, strictly speaking, this difference
itself, this re-impulsion. We noted a moment ago that when the analyst
moves from the study of codes to the study of filmic systems, he must
introduce a change of distinctiveness : we see now that this conversion
is not only imposed upon the activity of the analyst, but is also, so-to-
speak, 'pre-inscribed' on what one could call the activity of the m, i.e.,
on the movement by which the film, in being expressed, refuses to allow
itself to be confused with the diverse codes which, outside of it, are
more general than it is but, in it, more particular.
it is possible to treat a code as an 'immoveable' object, it is by
virtue of its anonymity. A code is a system which does not specifically
concern any of its messages, which is tied to no particular discourse; it
thus escapes, by definition, all 'compromise' in the unfolding of a text,
in its displacement, in its concrete enunciation. It is in this sense that
a code is a 'potential system' (see above, pages 78-79); it is not the
system of a text. A filmic system, on the contrary, is directly tied to
one text and one alone (even if it is not clearly exposed in this text);
it is thus a system which is constructed while the text itself is being

constructed. (The difference between the two, which still remains, is

due to the fact that the film presents itself as an unfolding observable
by all, while the first - which nevertheless presides over this un-
folding - can only be extracted from it by analysis.) While the film in
the course of its development abandons one code for another, the
filmic system, at that instant, is this very abandonment, this replacement.
While the film purposefully brings together two codes which are normal-
ly separated, the filmic system, at this instant, is this very unification.
This is not to say that it suffices to have noted the bringing together of
these codes in order to adequately deal with the system of the film.
But this bringing together is one of the elements of the system, one of
its distinctive features, while the two codes which have been brought
together are not. Or, more exactly, it is the structure proper to each
of the two which is not distinctive, for it is the fact that it is these two
rather than others which is of the greatest concern to the system of
the film.



Since we define singular filmic systems in this way, the reader will
perhaps wonder why we persist in refusing to consider them as being
wholly endowed with cinematic specificity. Is not the singular system,
as described a moment ago, profoundly tied to the unfolding of the
film, to its composition, to the arrangement of its images and sounds ?
In sum, is it not a cinematic thing from one end to another ?
There is in this regard, in effect, a difference - and an important
one - between the codes which appear in films and the systems of these
films themselves. Among the first, some, as we have said, are largely
extra-cinematic, and it may even happen that their adoption by a film
scarcely affects their proper structure. The process of 'cinematization',
for a code, is not at all infallible. In its absence, the influence of the
film on the code modifies only the material of expression and thus
brings about only a renewal of the manifestation of this code, through-
out which the form, i.e., the relational network of oppositions and of
combinations, remains intact. Thus, when the 'plastic effects' frequently
employed in painting are adopted as such by certain color films pre-
occupied with 'beautiful images', in still shots naively presented for
prolonged contemplation, the code has not changed, but only the
physical definition of its signifies In the first case, it is the colored

image made by hand, in the second case it is the colored image obtained
by means of a camera.
No matter how common they are in films, phenomena of this sort
have a paradoxical appearance. One would expect, rather, that the
change in manifestation would involve a change of form - a trans-
formation that one does not have reason to expect in every case but
which would seem, at least, to be capable of consisting quite frequently
in a series of distortions, displacements, and inflections which together
would suffice to establish a new code distinct from the initial one,
even if similar to it. It happens, however, that even this is not the case,
because the code is not the film, but simply the partial material of the
film, such that its internal structure is not necessarily engaged in the
general movement of displacement by which the film is a film. The
films, moreover, may be content to actualize the code so-to-speak in
passing (to utilize it without working it), and in this case, if the initial
code is extra-cinematic, it will remain as such after having become
filmic. The proper task of the filmic system is to modify the codes that
it integrates; however, it is a question of an overall modification estab-
lished at the level of the entire film. This does not mean that every
film modifies all of its codes, and leaves untouched that vast domain in
which the analyst uncovers so many filmic codes which remain extra-
But all this changes when attention is focused upon the system of
the film itself. This system is not a material out of which the text is
constructed : it is this construction itself. It is not a partial element of
the film, but a structure coextensive with the entire film. Is it or is it
not compromised in the work of the film, and to what degree ? This
question can no longer be asked, since it is this very work. In addition,
the system of a film, differing in this from all (cinematic or extra-cin-
ematic) filmic codes, cannot under any circumstances consist of a
'form' which is totally extra-cinematic.
It does not follow from this that one must jump to the other
extreme, i.e., that it is necessary to admit, as has been done all too
often, that afilmicsystem is an entirely cinematic structure. The diverse
figures which invade the film from without, i.e., which come to it from
some other cultural domain (from other arts, from everyday, already
organized semiotic practices, etc.), do not penetrate into it solely by
means of its codes; one does not see the mysteriously insurmountable
barrier which keeps them from being introduced into the film from an-
other direction and from making their importance felt in the overall
composition which animates the film. However, there is still one dif-
ference - namely, that, when this influence is exerted at this level, it is
from the very outset mixed up with cinematic constructions. A code, in
sum, may be cinematic or extra-cinematic, while a filmic system is al-
ways both cinematic and extra-cinematic; it is the system of a film,
and not of a book, social behavior, or any other 'text', but this film, in
turn, may not be reduced to a 'pure' product of the cinema alone. There
are two sorts of codes but only one sort of filmic system, which is mixed.
According to one current conception, the proper task of the film is
to organize diverse non-cinematic materials into a cinematic construc-
tion. What we are maintaining here is that the proper task of the
film is to integrate cinematic codes and non-cinematic codes into an
overall construction which preserves this duality, while surpassing it in
the logical and structural unity of a singular system, i.e., which trans-
forms duality into mixture.
Consider David Wark Griffith's film, Intolerance (1916), one of the
classics in the history of the cinema. The text is composed of four
distinct narratives, each of which evokes a particularly spectacular
instance of intolerance, fanaticism, or persecution (one has as a context
ancient Babylon, another France of the 16th Century and the Religious
Wars, another Palestine at the time of the crucifixion of Christ, and the
fourth, modern America). It has often been remarked that parallel
montage and acceleration play a central role in the overall structure
of this ample filmic fresco - in the system of the film, as we say here.
At the beginning of the film, each episode is presented at length before
passing on to the next; eventually, the unfolding of images increasingly
intermixes the four stories, according to an alternation whose rhythm
becomes more and more rapid, until a final crescendo where the mixture
becomes a visual whirlpool and induces in the spectator a sort of four-
termed mental superimpression, the symbolic intention of which is
clear, and even emphasized.
This configuration, which dominates the whole film (and, literally,
assembles it), is obviously not absolutely lacking in cinematic specificity.
With another means of expression (written language, for example),
alternation - and its acceleration - could not have been organized into
as direct, and as tightly knit an affective and visual whirligig. The
author could not have rendered the constantly underlying humanitarian
symbol in the same manner: the rapid unfolding of the four images
gives one the feeling of an almost physical interpenetration among the
four different historical epochs, and the acceleration in the periodicity of

the visual breaks slowly exalts this interpenetration to the point of

conferring upon it the affective status of a fusion, such that the symbol,
even in its imaginary force, is to some extent realized on the screen.
On the other hand, the parallel montage is a sort of syntagmatic process
which is located in a properly cinematic code (a code of montage, in
this particular case), for it only has a meaning - and even an existence -
by its opposition to other iconic series capable of appearing on the
screen, and not only in opposition to the so-called cross-cutting
montage (in which the cyclical return of images signifies first the simul-
taneity of events at the level of a literal chronology, instead of referring
directly to some directly connotative 'relationship' which transcends
the times and places of denotation), as with another form of cinematic
montage, where the alternation of 'shots' corresponds simply to an
alternation of the events represented. In diverse regards, then, the filmic
system of Intolerance may be considered to be cinematic.
Of course, the code of montage - or the sub-code of montage ex-
ploited by Griffith - is content to offer the film a sort of 'schema' (in
this case the parallel montage), with the organization proper to it, as
much on the level of the signifier as on that of the signified. This
'donor' code alone does not specify whether the parallel montage
is going to be used within a single sequence of the film (or in several
different sequences), or if, on the contrary, it is going to distribute the
alternation of its elements on the level of the entire film. It may be one
or the other (the code does not specify which) or - as in Intolerance -
an original combination of both, where the parallel montage doubles
back on itself: at the end of the film, the 'parallelism' is within the
sequence, in the middle of the film it is effective between sequences, in
the beginning, between groups of sequences; thus, to anyone considering
the text in its full extension, internally alternated segments become
(retroactively) the elements of a larger alternation, which in turn func-
tions as one of the terms of an alternation of the third degree. It is the
textual and successive unfolding of these three dimensions - in the
reverse order in which they have been mentioned here - which gives the
film its characteristic profile of acceleration while keeping it until the
very end in parallelism. The acceleration is in this case only a sup-
pressed parallelism. The filmic system thus cannot be reduced to a fact
of a cinematic code, nor even to that code to which it owes the most
(parallel montage). If it makes use of this code, it is, on the contrary, in
order to work it, to multiply it, to displace it (at the same time that it
assigns it its place in the film), to negate it insofar as it is a general code,
a code capable of being readopted by other films, each of which will in
turn negate it in another way. The system of Intolerance already dis-
plays its non-codical (or trans-codical) nature, but, from where we stand
now, it remains of a purely cinematic order. It is the system of a film
in the exact measure to which it 'works' a cinematic code (and not in
the measure that it applies it), but the code that it works is cinematic.
The system, as analyzed for the moment, consists precisely in a working
of the cinema by the film, i.e., in a movement by which the film re-
elaborates its specific codes, and the process of elaboration is also cin-
But, in other aspects, the general structure of Intolerance is non-
cinematic (even though its manifestation is thoroughly filmic). In fact
it is clear that parallel montage, at least the particular use made of it in
this film, is inseparable from a segment of ideology announced even in
the film's title. (The reader will note, in this regard, that the titles of
films are not formulated in 'cinematic language', but in one or another
natural language.) Griffith establishes an insistent opposition between
humanitarian sentiment (which delegates in the film the allegorical
image of a young mother near the cradle of her infant, an image re-
curring in the manner of a refrain) an the intolerance or fanaticism that
he conceives of - somewhat in the manner of Voltaire - as bad instincts
ingrained in the psychic nature of man, capable of reappearing identical-
ly across the most diverse historical situations, and punctuating the
history of humanity with their (repeated and yet intemporal) bloody
manifestations, recapitulations which invite in the text a reverse scan-
sion by which the cineast, this time speaking directly for himself, throws
in the face of his own film the 'leitmotif' of a blond and sunny Maternity
which succeeds in contemporalizing the great persecutions of universal
history, since it remains the same face in all four of them. In addition,
it is not unimportant for the system of the film that this theme of in-
tolerance - instead of being built up on the basis of the evocation of a
single historical event, or even several with separate and successive
descriptions - was maintained in the four narratives that the film both
distinguishes and equates, that it distinguishes first in order to better
equate them subsequently. All the movement of the film is toward this
progressive displacement by which the interpenetration of four moments
in history (and, finally, their symbolic fusion) inexorably gains ground
- ground which is nothing less than the filmic text - over their separa-
tion, proclaimed at the beginning of the film. What the parallel montage
and its auto-acceleration mean - what they mean in the film, and not in

the code of montage from which they nevertheless come - is that the
historic and geographic diversity of acts of fanaticism is an illusion,
that the more profound nature of intolerance remains the same in all
times and places, that it is like the contrary of the maternal (human-
itarian) sentiment invoked by the visual refrain. At this level, all the
images of intolerance in the film may be regrouped into a single
'motif', which in turn enters into parallel montage with Maternity: an
alternation of the fourth degree, which opposes Maternity with Intol-
erance while the other three assimilate the three faces of Intolerance.
This construction is closely linked to a certain idea of intolerance itself
and, beyond that, to a certain idea of history, of human nature, etc., all
things which are not primarily cinematic, but ideological. What should
be examined here is the state of American society at the time when the
film was produced, Griffith's cultural and social antecedents, his political
opinions, etc. Such a fragment of ideology can just as easily be ex-
pressed in a novel, in the propoganda poster of a philanthropic associa-
tion, or in an allegorical painting.
There is an extra-cinematic input, then, which nevertheless, as
pointed out above, plays an essential role in the structure of the film.
The filmic system would appear - and it is in this that it is profoundly,
intimately mixed - as the place where the cinematic and the extra-
cinematic meet, where they form a juncture (more or less 'happy'
depending on the case), where each is transformed in relation to the
other and where both take on the same form and give rise to correlative
choices. What is distinctive in the system of Intolerance is neither the
parallel montage nor the humanitarian ideology, both of which appear
elsewhere, nor even a unique use of parallel montage or a unique
version of the humanitarian ideology, for nowhere (and above all not
in Intolerance) can one find one without the other. The system of the
film is the interaction of one with the other, the active fashioning of
one by the other, the exact point - the only point - where these
two structures succeed, in every sense of the word, in 'working' to-
gether. Each film is the site of a (more or less) productive encounter
between the cinema and that which is not the cinema - 'between the
cinema and the world', as is sometimes said, but on condition that what
is meant by 'world' is an extremely varied collection of figures and
cultural systems which have in common only that they were not created
by the cinema.
If the parallel montage rather than some other form of montage
dominates the entire development of Intolerance, it is because this

organizational principle of images - which in the cinematic code is

defined by the directly connotative bringing together of distant events
in the time and/or space of fictional reality - was more appropriate
than others to the ahistorical conception of fanaticism which underlies
the film. Thus, the selection made from among the resources offered
by the cinematic code has been imposed by extra-cinematic considera-
tions. But the reverse is also true : the cinematic technique of the film
founded on parallelism quite obviously shapes the notion of intolerance,
such that in the end it becomes disengaged from the text, and floats
toward a timeless horizon.
The influence of ideology may be stronger in one direction or an-
other, depending on thefilmor the cineast - perhaps also depending on
the epoch and the (conscious or unconscious) principles which guide
the practices of the different men of the cinema. There are some extreme
cases : in the classic 'propaganda' film, cinematic choices are under the
direct influence of extra-cinematic purposes; in the 'art' film, it is just
the opposite. There are also less simplistic cases, to begin with all films
of any interest and substance; on the other hand, the new sort of
'political' film - like those the journal Cinethique would like to see
spread, and which would not treat explicitly political themes in every
instance - constitute a good example of a double and balanced in-
fluence. These films would be inspired by extra-cinematic systems of
thought such as historical or dialectical materialism, but would aim at
transporting Marxist thought into new cinematic codes, or refor-
mulating it in terms of pre-existent cinematic codes (the notion of
'deconstruction', borrowed from similar investigations concerning
written works). One could say, to summarize, that the balance of forces
between cinematic and external properties is quite variable from one
filmic system to another. But these considerations involve the social
psychology of cineastic 'creations' (and of spectator receptivity), as
well as diverse problems of general epistemology, rather than the
structural analysis of the films themselves, in which specific and non-
specific elements are in any case accessible only from within a unique
and hybrid system, no matter what their respective motivational weight
before the film (at the moment of its conception) or after it (in what
each public retains of it).
It is not, moreover, always easy to respond to this question of the
balance of forces, even when it is a case of a cineast (like Griffith)
of a rather unpolished temperament, and of a film, like Intolerance,
whose system is ingenious but not at all subtle. We know that Griffith

was fond of films with a message, that he was a great amateur of

'humane messages'; thus extra-cinematic schemes could have determined
his cinematic selections. But we also know that he had a passion for
formal research and that his own, powerful and naive at the same time,
have made a historically decisive contribution to the fashioning and
even to the invention of the cinematic language as a specific ensemble
of codes and subcodes. We must not, therefore, underestimate the role
that must have been played, in the elaboration of Intolerance, by what
one could call the passion for parallel montage. (In a completely dif-
ferent frame, but somewhat in the same sense, Valery has remarked
that an entire poem may be born from an initially intuited rhythm,
from an intensely desired metrical disposition.) It is the problem of
'formalism' that is involved here, and the attitude of an Eisenstein
- who was, moreover, a great admirer of Griffith7 - would pose the same
difficulties of interpretation, simply transposed onto a higher level of
cinematic and general sophistication.
No matter what its (conscious or unconscious) motivations, the
system of Intolerance is defined by the close association, which it makes
itself, between a certain use of parallel montage and a certain manner
of understanding fanaticism. There was a reason for our having taken
as an example a rather 'simple film', i.e., a film with a rather simple
system. Other filmic systems would offer more complexity, but not
necessarily a greater degree of mixture. Eisenstein's October is the result
of a combination of studies of montage, of maximum fragmentation, of
non-diegetic metaphor, and of a revolutionary conception of the work
of art as a 'collectivist narration', without hero, punctuated by crowds
in movement, itself divided by dialectic thrusts, and penetrated from one
end to the other by a didactic concern : the function of art is to invite
the spectator to raise himself up from the sensorial to the ideological;
the public should in turn become involved in the iconic-intellectual
circuit in which the film itself was elaborated. This sort of poetics
- where Marxism and 'artistic heritage' are curiously blended - does
not particularly concern the cinema but all the arts, to which Eisen-

In "Poesie et pensee abstraite" (a lecture given at Oxford University, reprinted

in Varietes V, 1944), and in "Au sujet du Cimetiere marin" (in Nouvelle Revue
Frangaise, March 1, 1933, 399-411; reprinted in Varietes , 1936). Passages
cited: 1338 and 1503 in Volume I of Paul Valery in the BibliotMque de la
Pleiade (Paris: Gallimard, 1957, edition organized by Jean Hytier).
"Dickens, Griffith and the film to-day", Eisenstein's contribution to the collec-
tive volume Amerikanskaya kinematografyia: D. U. Griffit (Moscow, 1944, vol. I
of Materiali pro istorii mirovogo kinoiskusstva). Reprinted in Film Form, 195-255
in the edition with The Film Sense (see note on p. 178).
stein refers excessively in his written commentaries. However, a
theoretical text is not a filmic text, and in October the same ideas - for
they are indeed the same, as ideas - maintain a close and structural
relation to cinematic studies of montage.
It would be easy to demonstrate, on the basis of other examples, this
characteristic mixture proper to the filmic system.
- Reflections on memory, on forgetfulness and circular construction
with the omnipresence of the 'chronological' in montage, in the varieties
of photographic exposition and luminosity: Hiroshima mon amour by
Alain Resnais.
- Impression of existential fracture, of daily, almost phenomeno-
logical schizophrenia, of profound perceptive 'distraction' and perpetual
sequential derailments in the rapid (rather, dispersed) montage: Muriel
by the same cineast.8
- Keen, tragi-comic sense of a constant and derisive reversibility of
possibilities, hopes, and beliefs and aggressive-arbitrary variegation of
the image, with hesitant sequences which retrace their steps, which
regret not having disposed of their 'shots' in some other order : 9 Pierrot
le Fou by Jean-Luc Godard.
- Reflections of a cineast on the reflections of a (different ?) cineast
in the process of making a film different from the one that the first is in
the process of making, but which will nevertheless become such at the
end and double "art within art" construction of all of the filmic un-
folding, which deliberately mixes images of several different 'degrees':
81/2 by Fellini.10
- The cineast's (as his hero's) will to power and abundant, ego-
tistical, playful exuberance of the picture track, tumultuous recourse to
the most diverse cinematic subcodes (which are seen to accumulate in
the same passage of a film : rapid montage just before a shot-sequence,
etc.) : Citizen Kane by Orson Welles.
- Tortured cult of the female idol and interminable framelines

* See Bernard Pingaud, p. 31 of "Cinema et roman" (Lecture of June 2, 1963,

reproduced in Cinema et universite 7 ,1st Quarter 1964, 19-34). The author has
reprinted and reworked this text, under the title "Nouveau roman et nouveau
cinema", in Cahiers du Cinima 185, special issue "Film et roman. Probfcmes du
recit", Christmas 1966, 26-40.
* We have analyzed in detail one of these sequences of Pierrot le Fou (in
calling it "potential sequence"), in Essais sur la signification au cinema, 213-15.
See Christian Metz. "La construction 'en abyme' dans Huit et demi de
Fellini", in Revue d'ethetique XIX: 1, January-March 1966, 96-101. Reprinted
in Essais sur la signification au cinema.

calculated in relation to the face of the actress, which the camera

(desire) envelops with long movements, taking in the fabulous and
superabundant environment of a palace where convulsive statues
grimace, torsos are pierced with arrows, then returning very close to
the adored face, within reach of the batting of its eyelashes, of its
too open eyes, of its irregular breathing wich tortures (without ever
extinguishing) the flame of a candle placed too close to i t : The Scarlet
Empress by Joseph von Sternberg, the cineast in love with his star,
and wife, Marlene Dietrich.
To say that the filmic system is always 'mixed' is to refuse (as in other
passages of this book) to confuse the cinematic with the filmic; from
this concern stems the very term which was chosen: singular filmic
system (and not, singular cinematic system). Filmic as a whole, this
system is only cinematic in part.
It is also to refuse to confuse the (cinematic or non-cinematic) codes
with the system associated with a particular discourse and with this
discourse alone. It happens that this distinction is not always clearly
maintained, from which arise the frequent and confused discussions
(already mentioned above) when it is a question of knowing in what
measure the film 'cinematizes' the elements which it uses. The most
common response to this question by critics and aestheticians of the
film is largely affirmative: they would readily concede, for example,
that such and such a recent film issues from a reflection on the fickle-
ness of the human heart, the difficult achievement of emotional freedom,
the hazards of the 'modern couple', etc., but this would be to quickly
add - with a precipitancy which could be interpreted as panic at the
thought of getting outside the domain of the cinema - that these themes,
when they appear in a film judged to be a 'success', are entirely ex-
pressed in ways proper to the cinema, that they are thus no longer the
same after the film as before it, that the couple has become a cinematic
couple, etc.
However, such remarks have only a very general, and not very
significant validity, and one which is specific to the cinema. It is true
that every text (literary, pictorial, mythical, etc.), all organized social be-
havior, feeds back onto the codes which have inspired it, returning
them somewhat different to the mass from which they were originally
taken. Each time a word is used, its meaning as well as its pronuncia-
tion finds itself infinitesimally modified, and when the word returns to
the language, it brings with it this miniscule deviation which, being
added to thousands of others, will in the long run end by changing the

language itself11 (without which we would not be able to understand

how the codes have their characteristic diachrony). In this sense, each
film slightly modifies all its codes; but it happens that this modification
is negligible in the immediate context (if not, it is the notion of syn-
chrony which would in turn become unintelligible). In addition, this
modification, negligible or not, does not necessarily involve an injection
of cinematicity (although this may sometimes happen, as we shall see
below). A problematics of the couple, even if one makes films out of it,
remains an (eventually modified) problematics of the couple, and the
very fact of the couple - which refers to psychoanalysis, economics,
ethnology, social psychology - will not automatically become cinematic
by virtue of the numerous films which the 'modern' cinema devotes to it.
The argument of an inevitable modification refers to a commonplace
phenomenon which does not particularly concern the cinema. However,
this argument is sometimes expressed in another way which pretends
to be more relevant; this is the case when certain critics of the cinema
remark that a system of thought, sentiment, or behavior (or any cultural
configuration) only appears, in a film, in the same form, when an inter-
nal analysis of it is made - and when they hasten to attribute this dif-
ference (which apparently, and even literally, is due to the film) to the
'cinema'. It is the cinema, they tell us, which has transformed, reshaped,
the cultural figure; taking into consideration its initial form would not in
the least be able to increase our understanding of the film, for this is
not what the film presents to us for interpretation, etc. However, this
position is untenable, despite its appearance of correctness, for it rests
entirely on the confusion between codes and textual systems, that is to
say also between cinema (codes) and film (textual system) : in the film,
obviously, the cultural figure is not essential as such; it has been 'trans-
formed', it is true, since it has entered into new relationships with
other figures (note, however, that the latter, in turn, are not all cine-
matic). But - in addition to the fact that one cannot know how the film
has transformed it without considering what it was before its trans-
formation - the modification of this figure in the film does not nec-
essarily involve its modification in the code from which it comes and
to which it eventually returns (for a code is not a text) - and even less
a mysterious creation of some fundamental kinship between this code
and some other cinematic code. The proximity of codes in a text does
not always lead to contacts or links between these codes themselves.
See Paul Ricoeur, "La structure, le mot, 1'evenement", in Esprit X X X V : 360,.
special issue "Structuralismes. Methodes et ideologies", May 1967, 801-21.

Not always, but sometimes. One finds here the idea of an eventual
cinematization of certain non-cinematic codes, as a possible con-
sequence of their adoption by films, i.e., in cases where the filmization
is accompanied by a cinematization (itself capable of several degrees).
Sociologists like Edgar Morin have remarked12 - and common observa-
tion confirms it - that in certain times and places the courting behavior
of adolescents was in some measure influenced by the erotic stereo-
types proposed by films. These stereotypes thus become innovators;
they fashion expectations and behavior, facilitate complicity, offer
patterns of dress, bearing, speech, seduction, unconstrainedness, etc.
Certain adolescents try to conform to them in their everyday life (take,
for example, the 'James Dean phenomenon',13 whose astonishing
magnitude in its day we all remember). In our view, what characterizes
cases of this sort is that the interaction between the cinematic element
(the role of the star, iconic charm, etc.) and an extra-cinematic code
(for the case in point, a social code of everyday behavior, a small
portion of a 'life style') comes to survive the film and continues to be
expressed outside of the textual system. Thus we can speak, here, of a
cinematization of the code itself, since it remains impregnated with
echoes of the cinematic when it functions elsewhere than in a film.
There is something two-directional in this: the film borrows certain
codes which are external to it, but when it restores them to the culture,
they carry with them, in varying degrees of strength, a little of the
cinema with which they found themselves neighbors in the film (an
association which, elsewhere, would have remained without conse-
quence), and their proper (codical) structure as such finds itself
modified or reshaped. The film reflects social behavior, but may also
remodel it to a certain extent (which must not be overestimated). We
are dealing with such phenomena each time that the film exercises an
influence on something other than itself: not only on customs, but also
on other means of expression (the influence of cinematic montage on
certain narrative codes in use in modern American novels, etc.).
The notion of cinematization makes sense only in relation to these
cases, which are probably less numerous than is sometimes assumed. (In
addition, we must not forget that the reverse process exists as well:
cinematic figures become, so-to-speak, partially 'de-cinematized', i.e.,
modified and reshaped as a result of their contact with non-specific

" Les Stars (Paris: Seuil, 1957), Chapter \ .

Ibid., Chapter V.

elements, in favor of certain filmic systems.) But in order to return to

the 'immanent' consideration of filmic systems, we shall set aside such
problems, which are of greater interest to the problem of the diachrony
of codes and the study of influences.
Contrary to what is asserted by certain fanatical supporters of cin-
ematic specificity, the film is not the place where 'the world becomes
cinema', i.e., where a mysterious alchemy succeeds in transmuting
extra-cinematic codes into cinematic ones. The film, as its name
ought to indicate, is a place where extra-cinematic elements are
filmized, i.e., integrated into the system of a specific filmic discourse. It
is also - it is as much - the place where cinematic elements are also
filmized (the definition of the term remains the same). It is thus in the
film that these two sorts of elements, which remain distinct as elements
of codes, enter into interaction within a non-codical, textual system.
That this interaction in either direction may be prolonged after the film
and may reshape these codes themselves is another problem.
The preceding remarks authorize (and invite) a modification of one
aspect of the terminology which has been proposed until now.
The notion initially presented under the name of singular system
(Chapter 5.2) would profit from being renamed textual system : we have
been led, more and more clearly as we progress, to define it entirely
according to its rooting in a given text (in a single text, but considered
in its entirety). A special discussion (Chapter 7.7) will, moreover,
endeavor to show that singularity is not exactly the defining charac-
teristic of the textual, but rather a corollary of this definition: it is
not because it is singular that a text is a text, but because it consists of
a manifest unfolding anterior to the intervention of the analyst (as it
happens, such unfoldings are always singular). In another passage
(Chapter 7.1), we will make it clear that one can treat as a text, itself
including a textual system, such and such a unit of the filmic devel-
opment greater or smaller than the 'film' (that is to say smaller than
the single and entire film) : thus, in certain cases, a part of the film is
already a text; or a group of films, when the films present sufficient
historical and cultural similarities, one justifiably considers to be
a sort of single, vast film. However, a term like 'singular' suggests
too much the exclusion of cases of this sort, and evokes the idea
- perhaps linked to the Latin origin of the word - that the only texts
will be individual films : never less and never more than one. Finally,
we have already noted that 'singular' may provoke an unfortunate
confusion with original - and thus risk supporting an aestheticizing

mythology of 'pure creation' - while textual systems may be, and fre-
quently are, banal.


One hears it said quite frequently in discussions about the cinema that
what characterizes somewhat complex and profound films, i.e., films
with which we become involved and which live with us, is - contrary to
that heavily insistent univocality which marks the overall nature of the
filmic production - the capability of being understood in several ways,
of offering their symbolism, outside of any semantic 'castration', to
several systems of interpretation, of allowing several levels of reading.
This is the theme of 'multiple readings' which is applied to the filmic
text as to other sorts of texts, and with good reason.14
But the expression of this idea sometimes gives rise to a theoretical
misunderstanding which is not without importance. It happens, in fact,
that the plurality of readings is associated with the plurality of codes
which give form to the film : the 'rich' or emancipated film would thus
be one which makes use of diverse codes, the poor or conventional film
one which is constrained by the tyranny of a single code, displayed in
all its redundant self-sufficiency.
What we maintain here, on the contrary, is that any film, even the
dullest, contains within itself several codes, such that the diversity of
possible readings in the most elaborate films corresponds to the number
of textual systems, not to the number of codes.
That several codes are at work in a text is a very general fact, as we
have tried to show in the entire first part of this book, and one which
does not especially characterize the great texts. But that several textual
systems come into play in the same film - while the textual system is
what unifies and organizes the film., and would thus seem to be obliged,
in every case and with good reason, to remain unique - is already less
probable (and in fact extremely rare). It is something slightly

At the origin of this theme one would expect to find specific authors, like
Roland Barthes with the notion of plural reading, or Umberto Eco with that of
open work, or Julia Kristeva with that of dialogism. And it is true that they are
sometimes invoked in cinematic discussions, but this is rather rare, and on the
whole very recent. In the realm of the film the (much more vague and general)
idea of a multiplicity of levels of interpretation is often expressed without
reference to such authors, and it was expressed before them. It is an 'indigenous'
miraculous which 'fashions' the text of the film (the text itself, and the
text in us) in a completely different manner.
To invoke the notion of 'multiple readings' too often, and without
taking an exact measure of what its logic involves, is to obfuscate it. To
say that a text allows several readings is to advance an idea which
would lose all meaning if each of the readings invoked did not bear
on the ensemble of the text, or if each of them did not provide it alone a
sort of 'thread' guiding one from one end of the text to the other, such
that these readings constantly maintain relations of substitution and
exclusion, reduced to entirely eliminating each other or, even when they
'refer' to one another, can only do so, with each revolution of the
semantic turnstile, by also referring the entire text to the reading. This
is why their simultaneous assertion seems paradoxical and acquires a
value which is both weak and strong.
But we see at the same time that this particular structure, which
met en resonnance ('sets to resonating')16 the textual surfaces, can only
be established if each reading re-orders all, or at least the principal,
elements of the film (re-orders, in sum, their very structural relations);
the notion of 'level of reading' ceases to be intelligible if each reading
should simply correspond to a code. In a film, each code is a partial
element, and as long as these codes invest different parts or aspects of
the film, their plurality gives rise only to the processes of combination,
complementation, or reciprocal alternation which characterize any
textual system (see Sections 6.2 and 6.3), and are found just as well in
primarily univocal texts, albeit ones which are insistent and as closed as
possible, as for example that of Intolerance discussed above.
A film does not have to be subtle in order to be pluri-
codical. It is such by necessity, and simply in order to exist. If it wishes
to tell a story, even an insipid one, it must rely on a narrative code; as it
is necessary to tell it in a certain order, even a banal one, and thus to
divide it into sequences or into 'episodes' of whatever nature, recourse
to schemas of composition, conscious or unconscious, is imposed on it
no matter what; as each of these sequences must be filmed, it cannot
do otherwise than mobilize systems of cutting and of editing, even if it
uses the poorest of them; as each frame must be 'lit', under pain of
offering to the spectator only a black rectangle, it is necessary to select
a type of lighting (and natural light, in 'outdoor' shootings, is also a
choice); etc.
Formula borrowed from Jeffrey Mehlman, "Entre psychanalyse et psychocri-
tique", in Poetique 3, 1970, 365-383.

What characterizes a code and distinguishes it from a textual

system is that it never involves an entire film, a film in all its parts
and all its aspects. This is why several codes are necessary to make
up the film; this is also why they may co-exist in banality without
their multiplicity conferring a particular symbolic depth to the textual
fabric, of which they simply share the surface (see Chapter 7.5 and
p. 181). There are exceptions to this, which we shall discuss separately
(p. 182). But the plurality of textual systems in a film can never be
resolved into a neutral co-habitation of this sort, for each of them
is obliged to lay claim to the textual territory in its totality, such that
this totality is perpetually torn apart by its opposing irredentisms; it is
thus a true case of multiple readings.
The idea that we would like to explicate here is not, moreover,
absent from those very expositions which invoke the plurality of 'codes'
in relation to films with many readings. It is asserted less clearly in
these writings, and is in implicit contradiction with the use of the
word 'code', but it is there nonetheless. It is in fact remarkable, in filmic
analyses so oriented, that each of these so-called underlying 'codes'
of one of the readings in fact turns out to constitute, as soon as its
nature is more closely defined, a vast and complex system of interpreta-
tion, with an obviously inter-codical role, and not a localized code:
thus, we are told (this is one of the most popular examples in the
literature on the subject) that some of Bunuel's or Bergman's films
- beyond their anecdotal and narrative reading, on the very first
level - permit a psychoanalytic reading and a political one. This is not
at all doubtful. But we also see that it is not a question of two codes;
what one calls 'psychoanalysis' and 'politics' in such cases are instances
of syncretization, each of which covers an immense field where many
codes are already operative. The analytic or the political concern as
principles of decipherment - which must not be confused with political
or psychoanalytical codes of a more restricted significance, as may be
uncovered at certain points in films which are quite localized (see
p. 55 and p. 224) - can from the first be situated only above several
codes and at the level of the relations between them, thus at the level
of the entire film; it is the textual system, and not any particular one
of its codes, which is bisected by this double concern.



Until now we have reasoned as if 'the film' - that is to say the single
and entire film - constituted the only unit which offers a coherent text
to which there corresponds a textual system; in sum, we have asserted
(or have seemed to do so) that all textual-systemic units have the
dimensions of a film, and that none of them is larger than a single
film or smaller than an entire film.
However, this is not at all the case. Textual-systemic units, in the
sense in which we have tried to define them here, are capable of
considerable variation in size. Thus, it is clear that to the classic
Western, for example (which has already been the subject of a rather
large number of books), there corresponds a single overall system. This
system mobilizes at the same time diverse particular cinematic codes
(a privilege accorded to mass shots, great panoramic shots, etc.) and
diverse non-cinematic codes which are also particular: a certain code
of honor and friendship, of restrictive rituals concerning gun duels,
etc. These two sorts of codes do not belong only to the classic Western:
shots of large, open spaces also appear in certain adventure films, the
code of honor in songs of the old American West ('Western songs', not
to be confused with 'Western films'). What characterizes the classic
film of the West, and it alone, is a certain number of selections that are
made from among these codes, and the arrangement of those elements
into a quite definite overall configuration resulting from the interaction
between the cinematic and the extra-cinematic options. This configura-
tion is thus a textual system, since it displays exactly those charac-
teristics which in the preceding chapters we have attributed to the
system of each film. The only difference is that it is associated with a
group of films, and not a single film. It is the text whose dimensions
have changed: the analysis has chosen to consider the ensemble of
classic Westerns as forming a single vast and continuous text.

Certain properties of cinematic productions can but encourage this

procedure. There are many films which have been fabricated in a serial
fashion and thus present only weakly the characteristics of a 'work',
even if a textual system is involuntarily asserted there. Certain genres,
on the contrary, have a clear existence; their homogeneity, already
felt in the simple viewing of the films, is confirmed by historical facts :
we know that, in the cinema of Hollywood in its 'golden era', genres
were in some sort institutions (and not only textual ensembles). Each
genre had its regular script-writers, sometimes on yearly contract, its
directors, its craftsmen, its studios, its partially autonomous financial
circuits, etc.
Nevertheless, this variation in the size of the text is not something
which is self evident and without methodological implications. The film
(the single and entire film) remains a privileged textual-systemic unit,
since it represents, in principle, that which in cinematic art cor-
responds to the level of the 'work'. However - although the sentimen-
tality about the work of art, in the naive and exaggerated form which
it took during the 'classic' (that is to say romantic) period, is today in
serious decline - nothing indicates that the group of works or the part
of the work is gaining in the eyes of the analyst of 1970 a unity as
significant as the whole work. And even if this were a case of the
survival of an old illusion, the result would not be different, since, in
each epoch, those who make analyses must work with the mental equip-
ment which they have at their disposal (at least with the resources which
have become operational for them), and not with the equipment they
would like to have (i.e., which is simply glimpsed by them). On the
other hand, this does not exclude the possibility of working in a
manner such that the latter begins to influence the former - or, more
exactly, that a part of the latter starts to become the former. This is
why it seems possible for us, at present, to treat certain parts of works
(not just any one, however), or certain groups of works (again, not just
any), as textual-systemic units endowed with a greater or lesser degree
of 'natural' reality - that is to say socio-cultural homogeneity - units
which a filmic analysis may always focus upon as objects, on sole
condition that this be clearly stated and that in each case the dimensions
of the conclusions be strictly proportionate to the dimensions of the
text which has been chosen as a corpus (this requirement is only another
form of the principle of relevancy).
Thus, certain 'sequences' of films, highly structured and endowed
with some autonomy, offer the analyst a textual unit whose system

he will be able to attempt to establish; it will suffice to keep in mind

that this unit is in turn embedded in a larger unit, which in this case is
the film. But as this film itself is embedded in other, even larger units,
the act of methodological abstraction does not necessarily have to be
considered as more sacrilegious if it intervenes at this particular level of
size than if it intervened at other levels (such 'segmentations' are the
condition and the price of all meticulous work, and are currently
practiced in diverse disciplines). Besides, the sequence is not the only
conceivable part of the film. The picture-track of a film is also (at least
in certain cases) a text whose system one could explore. It would
obviously be necessary to take into account its connections with the
sound-track of the same film (especially in cases where the catalysis is
indispensable), but this circumstance does not result in rendering il-
legitimate in and of itself the proposal to concentrate attention on the
visual image rather than the sound. (We will reject on principle the
somewhat childish but widespread criticism which cries out at the
'mutilation of the work' every time that a study limits its subject because
of a concern for precision.) Similarly, one could study the linguistic
series of a given film (the ensemble of its spoken utterances), or even the
sound effects series, etc. One could focus on the picture-track and the
linguistic series (a partial totality already significant in many films and
causing afirstgroup of hybrid arrangements to appear, which one would
not assume to be the only one in the film under study). More generally,
a large number of textual-systemic segmentations is possible, as long
as the analyst clearly measures the exact degree of arbitrariness which
has influenced their initial delineation, and consequently the exact
degree of autonomy of the unit which he is studying. This is not to
say that any division whatsoever is permissible; thus, it has never
occurred to anyone, understandably, to delimit an object of study
made up of the sound-track of one film plus the picture-track of another.
(This would be conceivable only if empirical circumstances, antecedent
to the analytic undertaking, themselves invited as little generalizable
a type of regrouping, e.g., a historically attested interpolation, an actual
or probable 'filiation', etc. On the other hand, it would then be a
question of a comparative study rather than of an analysis of a corpus.)
Those who criticize the arbitrariness of these delimitations forget that
they are small in number in relation to those which would be possible
theoretically, and the majority of which is never realized : proof that the
concern for real units is not absent in those inspired by formalistic aims.
'Parts of works', we have said, but also groups of works: there are

several sorts of groups of films which constitute, each at their own level
and in their own way, authentic textual-systemic units. Thus, what
could that which is known as the 'work of a cineast' possibly b e - i n
those cases where it has a minimum of coherence, that is to say
existence - if not the single vast text of which each completed film be-
comes a chapter, and thus the vast system which is erected out of
several sub-systems ? It would be necessary in principle to take into
account all the films of a given cineast, but not everything in these
films. One would, on the contrary, strive to isolate that which in these
films stems from the system which characterizes this cineast (or is
capable of demonstrating that such a system exists). Thus, among other
traits of these films, those which refer to a single sub-system (to a single
film of the cineast) would be excluded, except if they were found to
be in structural correspondence - homologous or the reverse - with
traits found in other films (in this case, moreover, one could no longer
say that they refer to a single sub-system). In return, one would
exclude those traits - if any exist, which depends on the cineast and
on the film - which definitely belong to one of the films, and not to
the 'work of the cineast'. However, it is precisely these which will be
found at the center of the analysis if the 'work of the cineast' had as its
declared object a single and entire film. We thus see that the universe
of meaning includes a mass of signifying-units self-embedded ad in-
finitum, and maintaining among themselves thousands of relationships
of intersection and of inclusion, such that the essential thing is always
to know what one is talking about. This elementary and fundamental
requirement is rarely respected in the domain of cinematic studies,
where one is accustomed to mixing everything together; it is this
perpetual uncertainty in regard to the subject treated and to the criteria
of relevancy adopted which explains (in part) the frequency of mis-
understandings and the violence of polemics in everything that touches
The work of the cineast is not the only textual-systemic unit greater
than the film. There is also what one calls the 'cinematic genre': bur-
lesque, 'hard-boiled detective', musical comedy, etc. We have said above
that one may apply oneself to the task of disengaging from a corpus
composed of several Westerns (the number and choice of which depends
on the exact orientation of each study), the distinctive traits of 'Western-
ness'. It is these traits that make a Western a Western, and make it so
that - even if the thing is at no moment made explicit in the film, neither
its credits, nor in the posters or taped announcements of its publicity
campaign - it is unmistakably recognized as such by any public which
has at its command the appropriate socio-aesthetic information, i.e.,
which is to some extent familiar with the system of the Western.
Another textual-systemic unit larger than the film is the production
of what was called a 'school' of cinema (Kammerspiel, the English
documentary school, the Soviet school of the 'golden era', etc.) or the
'total production' of a given country, or of a given period, or of a given
country in a given period (assuming, which is at first glance less prob-
able, that it would seem to present a minimum of unity, and that one
would attempt to support or invalidate this impression in constituting
to this effect a corpus of several films, selected according to what one
wanted to prove or disprove).
It is useless to continue this enumeration, which is not exhaustive. If
we brought it up, it was only to underline the fact that the real
opposition is not between cinematic language system, on the one hand
(that is to say the group of general or particular cinematic codes), and
ms, on the other (that is to say the systems proper to a single and
whole film) - but rather that this distinction is only one particular form
of a more vast and more essential division, which places on one side
the codes (general or particular, cinematic or extra-cinematic), and on
the other systems which are associated with particular filmic texts,
texts whose 'length' is quite variable. We have called the latter textual
systems; the totalities which correspond to them, whether small or
large, are texts. The term filmic text does not assume anything about
size. The single and entire film (film in the distributive sense, as defined
in Chapter 3.1) is obviously the filmic text par excellence, but it is not
the only one.
If a portion of a film or a group of films may be texts (in the exact
measure that one treats them as complete discourses), it may happen,
inversely, that a film is not treated as a filmic text; one may simply see
it as one message, among others, one code among others.
Between the filmic texts which coincide with films and those which
are larger or smaller than films, there is nevertheless a difference which
cannot be done away with by the development of analytic procedures,
which can be eliminated only by a profound change in cinematic
practices themselves. At present, cinematic production is accomplished
film by film. Also, when the analyst takes a film as a filmic text, he
is sure that the external contours of his text, its material extension,
have been fixed by others and exist prior to his analysis. It is not
necessary to exaggerate the importance of this reassurance of object-

ivity, for some genres or sequences have more reality than some films;
nevertheless, there is in this a sort of guarantee which limits the degree
of arbitrariness.
But the whole problem is to know if one ought to draw from this
a negative conclusion (the rejection of pluri-filmic texts, or, on the
contrary, fragmentary texts) rather than a positive conclusion, which
amounts to an effort of great prudence in dividing these somewhat
particular texts, as well as a continuous respect for the initial criterion
of distinctiveness (to measure conclusions against the act of selection
without which these conclusions have different boundaries). In this
sense, and as was said above, such analyses are always tentative. It
is not really a question of asserting that a cinematic genre is a vast
single film, but rather of seeing what one comes up with if one decides
to treat it as such.
Between the negative and positive solutions we would not hesitate to
choose the second, considering the obvious importance of phenomena
such as 'genre' (and, more generally, inter-filmic affinities) in the history
of the cinema, and, at the other extreme, the very strong unity of
certain sequences of films, which have made possible some of the most
solid textual analyses available today.1


The preceding definitions (Chapter 7.1) bring us back to the notions

group of films and class of films, already developed in Sections 4.2
and 5.3, and which may seem to be synonymous. This synonymy, as
we shall see, is only apparent. But in order to show this, it is necessary
first to consider the words 'group of films' in their most ordinary sense,
that is to say short of the distinction towards which we are proceeding.
Let us thus consider, for a minute, any unit whatsoever which includes
several films and only films, no matter what the manner in which the
principle of re-grouping is to be understood.
A group of films may correspond to two quite different semiotic
levels. It may be a question of the ensemble of messages of a single

Example: Raymond Bellour, "Les Oiseaux de Hitchcock: analyse <fune
sequence", in Cahiers du Cinema 216, October 1969, 24-38. Analysis of a filmic
segment of 6 minutes IS seconds (84 shots), according to three textual criteria
precisely stated and followed throughout
code, since particular codes exist and since they are characterized
(whether they are cinematic or extra-cinematic) by not appearing in
all films but only in certain ones - that is to say precisely by their being
associated with groups of films. But it may also be a question of a
unique totality analogous to that constituted by a film, and which differs
from it only by its larger size. In the second case, the ensemble of
films is apprehended as a single and continuous text which contains
within it a textual system. In the first case, on the contrary, each of
the films of the group is examined separately, and one considers those
of its traits which realize the code under study. Due to the very nature
of the research, the group's unity is broken, and even doubly s o : first,
by the fundamentally enumerative procedure which attends the regroup-
ing (a procedure implying that the films of the group form a group
only from a very specific point of view, and only through a small
number of their traits), next because each of the films of the group, in
the same movement, sees its continuity taken apart, the codically
distinctive traits being taken into consideration by abstraction from all
the rest of the film. A group of films, when it is of this sort, is not felt
to form a profound kinship. Taken as a whole, the films of the group
may not even resemble each other at all (if not on points which are,
in each of them, perhaps secondary). From the point of view of cultural
consumption (which is not a semiotic analysis), the group may be
heteroclite to the greatest degree. (It may be, but not necessarily. Every-
thing depends upon the importance of the code in relation to which
the films have been grouped. If it is a question of a code of interest
only to cinematic 'punctuation', the films preserve an immense area
in which they may differ from each other. If it is a question of a more
or less encroaching political symbolism, the domain of difference is
reduced to that extent, and the films may resemble each other globally,
even on simple viewing.)
On the other hand, when by 'group of films' one understands a vast
collective text which crosses over several inter-filmic boundaries, it is,
by definition, that one supposes between these films a profound and
global kinship, a certain homogeneity involving the general structures
of each film, and to which there necessarily corresponds - although this
may be in different degrees - a certain unity of impression, an air of
family resemblance which influences the ensemble and may be directly
observed - in brief, to a resemblance in the most ordinary sense of the
word. This is the case, notably, for well-structured cinematic genres
(i.e., those that are fully genres). Take, for example, the American

'hard-boiled detective' film of the years 1940-1955.2 If one is tempted

to treat it as a single large text, as a homogeneous category of mic
production where to a certain extent the borders between different
films are eliminated, it is because the films are quite similar even upon
their first viewing, and because anyone who knows them recognizes
them. From one to the next, one finds the same general atmosphere of
disillusionment and hardness in the relations between persons, the same
contrastive utilization of black and white in the photographic lighting,
the same noctural urban decors of asphalt and cement, the same private
detective characters, midway between the calculating scoundrel and
the romantic servant of all lost causes. These remarks would also apply,
mutatis mutandis, to those 'works of the cineasts' which have a min-
imum of unity and are supposed to be veritable works. They would
apply also to other strong genres such as the classic Western, classic
musical comedy films, etc.
Thus, two different things may be understood by 'group of films'.
If it is the ensemble of messages of a single code, it is more exact to
speak of class of films. This expression evokes taxonomic and classi-
ficatory activities, and it is indeed these which are at work when one
compares several films in relation to only one of the codes which they
manifest. In contrast to the classes of films so defined, we shall use the
expression 'group of films' to designate ensembles whose unity is
supposedly more profound, and which are treated, if only on a trial
basis, as unique texts. These two sorts of 'groups' correspond to two
types of regroupings, and their duality derives directly from the prin-
ciple of relevancy. A group of films - of one uses the expression,
once again, in its general sense - is not an object which exists prior
to the act of regrouping performed by the analyst, even if this act is
based on intuitively perceived similarities. To say that there are two
sorts of groups of films is to say that there are two ways of regrouping
films : one may assign to the same class all those films in which a certain
use of camera movements (a particular cinematic code) is found or for
all those in which the background music is atonal (a particular extra-
cinematic code); but one may also consider all Murnau's films to form
a single film. In the present state of ideas on the subject, the second
type of regrouping is felt to be the more 'natural', and in a sense it is,
since it strives toward concrete units of discourse. But the delimitation

See Raymond Borde and fitienne Chaumeton, Panorama du film noir amiri-
cain 1941-1953 (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1955).

of the latter always remains a problematical act, a hypothesis to be

justified; it does not less engage the analyst than does the abstraction
of a code.


It is appropriate at this point to return to the notion of particular cin-

ematic code, initially defined in Chapters 4.1 and 5.3, and consistently
implied in subsequent discussions. We were led in passing to
insist quite a bit on three characteristics belonging to these sorts of
codes: (1) Although particular, they remain common to several films
and do not concern any of them in particular; (2) They are specifically
cinematic, and not at all 'mixed'; (3) In both cases they are clearly
distinct from the textual systems of films.
However, these three characteristics, if one pays close attention to
them, precisely coincide with the three characteristics of general cine-
matic codes. The only difference which exists between general and
particular codes (and which, moreover, is expressed in their names) is
due to the fact that the first, and only the first, concern all films At the
same time, however, the relation which unites these two sorts of codes
reveals its precise logical nature - namely, in relation to the traits which
define the general cinematic codes, those which define the particular
cinematic codes are in a position of sub-sets.
They are even such doubly, viz., in regard to the list of related
messages (films) and in relation to the modes of realization ('usages'). If
we admit that a general code of 'cinematic punctuation' exists (fade out,
lap dissolve, wipe, etc.), each particular code of punctuation will be
distinct from the general code in two ways: because it is found only
in certain films and not in all of them, and because it consists in ac-
cording to the different processes of punctuation (and to the system of
their oppositions) a 'value' which is only one of those that the general
code makes possible. We find here, in a double form, the idea that
particular cinematic codes concern classes of films (see Chapter 7.2),
each of these classes being a sub-set of that other class formed by the
totality of films. Compared with the general cinematic codes, the par-
ticular cinematic codes are sub-codes, in the sense that recent studies
(in phonology, for example) give to this term (and yet with something
in addition, which will be examined separately in Chapter 7.5). The
phonological system of a language covers several different 'pronuncia-
tions' (or usages), such as, for example, relaxed pronunciation and

'correct' pronunciation, to take two particularly clear and vast sub-

codes. Each of these usages appears in certain speakers and/or in
certain situations, thus in any case in certain utterances realizing the
idiom. Each of these pronunciations, in addition, consists of a certain
mode of realization of phonemes (and of their oppositions), a mode
of realization which is authorized by the language, but which is not
the only one possible.
Thus let us agree henceforth to replace 'particular cinematic code'
with cinematic sub-code, and 'general cinematic code' with cinematic
code. There are diverse cinematic codes, and each of them allows
diverse sub-codes. As for the notion of cinematic language system, we
will continue to use the definition which was given in Chapter 4.3, and
which may at present be reformulated in the following manner: the
cinematic language system is the set of cinematic codes and sub-codes,
to the extent that one wishes to speak of them as a single, vast object.
The cinematic sub-codes may thus not be confused with textual
filmic systems, even when the latter are associated with ensembles in-
cluding several films. For textual systems, we have seen, mobilize extra-
cinematic codes or sub-codes as well as cinematic ones, which is to say
that, in relation to ('general') cinematic codes, they are not in the
position of being sub-sets, since they contain elements external to
themselves. This is the true difference between filmic systems and cin-
ematic sub-codes, and consequently (in cases where the filmic system
covers an inter-filmic ensemble) the difference between a group of
films and class of films.
A few more words about cinematic sub-codes. There are some par-
ticularly clear examples of these, frequently invoked under other names.
These are the different historically successive 'states' of the cinematic
language system (or the different 'periods of its evolution', as is more
commonly said), e.g., the still very theatrical staging of the pioneers, the
triumph of a certain conception of montage in the great period of silent
pictures, the 'classic shooting script' of the 30's and 40's, the diverse
tendencies of 'modern' cinema, etc. When one attempts a periodization
of this sort, one refers, for each of the sub-sets that one distinguishes,
to only certain traits of the films which belong to it. One considers only
the manner in which each epoch utilized the different resources author-
ized by the cinematic vehicle, the selection and hierarchy that it estab-
lished between them (in ignoring some, in 'discovering' others...), the
overall system that it has constructed with its selections, etc. One
does not consider, in such studies, that other set of codes, that other

set of structures constituted by what one has agreed to call the 'content'
of films. One also does not consider establishing a relationship (itself
structural) between these two orders of considerations, in order to be
able to analyze as a complete discourse such a film or such a group
of films belonging to one or the other of the periods which one has
Thus one has classified the films according to some of their traits
(initially abstracted from others) - namely those which are supposed to
be properly cinematic, and which in addition are supposed to represent
the reality of the proposed periodization. Thus, each of the great phases
which may be delineated in the history of the cinematic language
system corresponds exactly to what is here understood under the name
of cinematic sub-code (or again, to a set of several of those sub-codes
which were in use during the same epoch).


The two distinct notions of cinematic sub-code and textual filmic

system doubtlessly represent the best opportunity research has, in its
present stage, to shed a little more light on the important problem faced
in the last few years by those who study the cinematic language system.
Most of them (and, following them, the author of this book) hold that
one of the great differences between this language system and natural
language is due to the fact that, within the former, the diverse minimal
signifying units, or at least some of them, do not have a stable and
universal signified. In a natural language, each morpheme (moneme)
has a fixed signified, unless it has several, equally fixed signifieds (in
the case of polysemic units with 'multiple meanings'). This signified
- or rather this value, which is inseparable from the overall semantic
system - may vary throughout history, but it is fixed in each synchronic
'state'. It is shaped in diverse directions according to the contextual
effects proper to each utterance, according to the particular habits of
usage proper to each speaker or category of speakers, etc. But this
margin of variation does not exceed certain limits, at least as long as
it is really a question of the same language (this qualification aims to
avoid the false problem of highly deviant 'dialects', which are, in fact,
in whole or in part, other languages). Thus, in modern French, the unit
sentiment (a fixed syntagm composed of two morphemes constituting
what one calls a 'word') encompasses a semantic zone whose contours
fluctuate considerably according to the context and the speakers. It no

less continues to designate on every occasion something which is of the

order of an impression of affect, and it never denotes (for example) that
more violent and more instantaneous reaction which one calls 'anger'.
However, this is not the case of 'cinematic processes', or at least
some of them. These processes are precisely of the same number as the
minimal signifying units proper to cinematic codes (even if other
m i n i m a l units of these codes do not correspond to 'processes', which
is a different problem). It is clear, in fact, that cinematic 'figures' - an-
other hallowed expression - have a meaning : these are signifying, but
not distinctive, units. It is also clear - if one considers the process it-
self, in abstracting from the spectacle which has been filmed thanks
to it or through it - that these meaningful units are minimal: one can-
not cut into two or three pieces a blur or a stop-action shot; one cannot
substitute a part of a dolly in for a part of a dolly out: it is the two
dolly shots, as wholes, which may be exchanged.
We have thus to deal with minimal units of meaning, even if an
exact list of them remains to be established, and even if one con-
sequently has to consider as combinations of several 'morphemes', in
certain positions in the inventory, some configurations which are usual-
ly treated as forming a single process. Among the specifically cinematic
traits, one finds, among other things, figures such as camera movements
(dolly shots, panning shots, 'trajectories' realized with the camera crane,
etc.), variation in the size of the shot (that is to say the 'scale of shots':
long shot, medium-long shot, medium shot, 'knee shot', etc.), changes
in the angle of shooting (called variations of angular incidence : straight-
on shot, high angle shot, ground angle shot), the 'optical effects'
(whether it is a question of trick shots or of processes of punctuation :
dissolves, wipes, 'swish panning shots', etc.), time-lapse, slow motion,
reversal of the film ('sequence passed in reverse'), blur, iris, super-
impression, simultaneous images (the screen divided into several
distinct 'frames'), and many other processes of this sort. This is not
the place to draw up a list of these units, but only to establish that
among these units there are many which do not have a fixed meaning
(although, as the others, they always have a meaning).
This is the notorious problem of usage, which has a large place in the
literature devoted to the cinematic language. Thus, slow motion may
create an atmosphere of dream-like strangeness (as in Jean Vigo's Zero
de conduite), but it may also come to dramatize a brief instant of
violence (as in the battle scenes of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch),
or even to function in relation to time in the same way as the magni-

fying-glass in relation to space (as is expressed in the German word

which designates this process : Zeitluppe 'temporal magnifying-glass') :
this last use is frequent in scientific films, and notably in those which
deal with rapid movements. The time-lapse may also appear in scientific
films (with a function which is the reverse of that of slow motion, and
yet rather similar), but it serves elsewhere for comic effect (as in
Eisenstein's Old and New), and finally it may contribute in no uncertain
manner to create sentiments of uneasiness and anxiety in certain films
of the fantasist tradition such as Murnau's Nosferatu (in the scene
with the black carriage). The dolly in shot may be 'descriptive'3 (intro-
ducing the spectator into a new setting which is presented little by little,
and not all at once in its entirety), but it may also 'accompany' person-
ages who are moving forward and whom the camera would like to keep
at a constant distance within its field of vision (in watching them from
behind), and finally it may - if it approaches a space which 'grows'
rapidly under the eyes of the spectator - announce an impending
transition to subjectivity,4 and thus signal that the events which are
henceforth going to appear on the screen are only mental evocations
of the character whose face is in the process of filling the screen : this
is thus the so-called 'subjective' dolly in, frequently employed (for ex-
ample) in David Lean's Brief Encounter. Cases of this sort have often
been catalogued in works devoted to the resources of the cinematic
language system. The conclusion which most authors draw from this is
that the cinematic figures (or some of them) acquire a precise meaning
in each context, but that 'taken in themselves' they have no fixed value.
one considers them intrinsically, one can say nothing about their
meaning; one can at the most draw up a disparate list of their par-
ticularly frequent or particularly normalized uses.
All this is correct. But one can (and ought) to say something more
precise about this 'context' to which such an important role is ascribed.
It may be a question of a syntagmatic or a paradigmatic context. (It is
only in the first case, strictly speaking, that it merits its name; but let
us put this aside for the moment.)
The common propositions which we have mentioned all finally come
down to the idea that certain cinematic figures require that, in order
to take on a precise meaning, 'something else, in addition' furnishes

" See Marcel Martin, Le langage cinematographique (Paris: Ed. du Cerf, 1955,
new augmented edition in 1962), 37 and 40.
* See Marcel Martin, 41. Or Henri Agel, Le cinema (Paris: Casterman, 1954),

them with it. But this 'something else' may be of two sorts, and there
are two ways in which it may be 'in addition'. Most often this distinction
is not made and the two cases are confused.
In the case of the first, what is implicitly asserted is that certain
processes of the cinema are impossible to interpret if separated from
the film (or the very least from the portion of the film in which they
are found). The context invoked is thus a syntagmatic context, a context
in the proper sense of the word. There remains, however, a fact which
is almost always forgotten - namely, that a context so defined could
have the explanatory value one credits it with only if it is itself analyzed,
such that one could relate each of its traits (or sets of traits, or
relations between traits) with the figure being studied. It is true that
this coupling makes it possible in numerous cases to determine the
signifieds of the figure. On the other hand, if what is designated by
the term context is a film (or a passage of a film) taken globally,
before any analysis has been made, it could in no way explain the
figure, for it would itself need to be explained. (One could obviously
respond that, even before the analysis, films have a meaning which is
directly comprehended or 'lived' by the spectator. This is the phenom-
enological level of meaning. But this fact, which we would not want to
contest, concerns the meaning of the figure as well as that of the
context. The problem would thus be eliminated, for at this level the
meaning of the figure is always already known. On the other hand, if
one is not content with thisfirstperception, if one wishes to go as far as
the specific units on the level of the signified, it is then necessary to
analyze both the figure and the context.) The objection may thus be
rejected. But one thing remains : a unit of analysis which would isolate
the figure from the very beginning may make work impossible, while
a unit initially constituted by the 'process* and its setting may make it
possible to analyze both. In sum, what has explanatory power is not
the syntagmatic context as 'brute' filmic text, but this same context to
the extent that it contains within itself a textual system. In other words,
certain cinematic processes acquire a fixed meaning only in relation
to filmic systems.
But there are other cases where, it would seem, this is not what
theoreticians of cinematic figures have in mind. Various passages in
their writings appear to suggest that some of these figures - far from
having an indeterminate number of signifieds (as many as there are
singular systems) - represent on the contrary a relatively fixed number
of 'meanings', even if this number is rather large, even if the different

uses have at first glance nothing in common, and even if present

studies are not in a position to furnish an exhaustive list of them. It
will be noted, moreover, that this proposition is not incompatible with
the first, which associated 'values' with context and thus with text, not
only because certain developments concerning the figures are sufficiently
vague that the reader may ignore whether or not he should adopt the
first or the second interpretation (or sufficiently lacking in rigor that
both are positively indicated, without the fact of their difference being
indicated) - but also, and more fundamentally, because it is not im-
possible to imagine (and with clarity, this time) that both have their
place in the theory of processes which belong to the cinema. It may be
asserted, in fact, that certain figures acquire a fixed meaning in two
logically successive times : first, in relation to a finite (even long) list of
'uses', and next, in relation to a textual system with delimits, restricts,
or shapes the particular meaning which it employs.
Whatever the status of this possible compatibility between the two
interpretations, it is necessary first to finish examining the second
in its own right. A question arises in this respect - namely, when
traditional theories do not relate the vast polysemy of certain figures
to filmic texts, what do they then mean by 'contexf, since they never-
theless continue to say that the context alone is capable of explaining the
meaning of these figures ? It is certain, although rarely expressed, that
in this case it is a question of a paradigmatic context (if we may put it
in this way). The figures - or at least those with an unstable meaning,
since this entire discussion leaves others aside - are capable of being
'adopted' by different codes. If their signified varies from one code
to another, it is because from one to another the neighboring signifieds
(neighbors in the code, and not in the film) have themselves changed,
such that the relational network of oppositions is entirely displaced. It
is this second interpretation which is imposed each time that com-
mentators - in place of directly enumerating examples of filmic passages
in which the figure acquired such and such a meaning - apply them-
selves to the task of drawing up a sort of catalogue of principal codified
uses, possibly even furnishing some examples of films for each of
them. The idea which is thus presented to us, in fact, is that certain
processes lack a stable signified at the level of general cinematic codes,
but acquire one within the framework of different sub-codes; one
could not attribute to the figure a meaning which would be valid for
all films, but it possesses diverse meanings which correspond to diverse
cinematic 'usages'.

Thus, if the internal examination of a figure uncovers no signified

sufficiently precise to be put to the test, and gives at first glance a more
or less clear impression of pansemy (or of quite an extensive polysemy),
one may be dealing with one or the other - indeed even with one and
the other - of the two phenomena just mentioned: (1) the signified
appears only in each textual system ('context' in the proper sense);
(2) the signified appears only in each cinematic sub-code ('context' in
a metaphorical sense). The study may usefully go off in either of these
two directions, on condition that they are kept separate.
The two processes have one point in common; only one, but one
which is important - namely, that at the level of cinematic codes them-
selves ('general cinematic codes'), units of pansemic appearance seem
to be signifiers without a signified. By this notion we are trying
to account for a fact which traditional commentaries (criticized a
moment ago) have rather frequently noted, and with good reason:
namely, the very existence of figures which, in spite of the dis-
turbing and quasi-indefinite extension of their semantic shiftings,
are formally precise and belong, according to all evidence, to the 'ex-
pressive resources' - that is to say to the codes - which properly
characterize the cinema. We shall limit ourselves here to a single
example, that of the lap dissolve. Its significations are numerous and
varied, but this diversity does not succeed in masking what is speci-
fically cinematic about the process. It consists, in fact, of a sort of
transitory superimpression of two otherwise successive images. The
'amount' of this superimpression varies constantly, the first image
fading away little by little while the second is reinforced to the
same degree. We see that this figure, in its most literal definition,
is closely linked to the technical possibilities of photography, the se-
quential aligment of the photographic images on the film strip, and
the set of photo-chemical manipulations realizable in the laboratory.
Also, one can speak of the 'lap dissolve in literature' (as is sometimes
done) only in a metaphorical sense; simply in order to be executed,
the lap dissolve, properly speaking, requires the technical equipment
of the cinema.
Not - and Chapter 2.4 of this book has adequately stressed this -
that cinematic specificity may be directly defined in technico-material
terms : it consists of a certain number of codes. But codical par-
ticularities, in turn, as was also mentioned earlier in the same
chapter, indirectly refer to particular circumstances which concern the
physical realization of the signifier. Things like silver nitrate, the com-
position of the film strip or the equipment of the laboratories annexed to
the film studios, cannot define by themselves a cinematic specificity
in the semiotic sense of the term, since all this equipment serves as well
to producefilmicsequences in which is faithfully reflected such and such
a system of collective representations currently appearing in books or
on posters. However, it is not a question here of the equipment, but
of the lap dissolve, i.e., of a well-defined, discrete unit, without mean-
ing, taken in various oppositions which are diversely computable (for
example with its own absence, or with the fade out) : briefly, it is a
question of a codical article - which nevertheless may be realized only
thanks to this equipment. We are assuredly dealing with a cinematic
trait: on the one hand, it is of a codical nature, and on the other, it is
inseparable from the material of expression proper to what is called the
cinema (see all of Chapter Ten).
Here, then, is a configuration with meaning and specific to the cin-
ema, but which on this same global level (that of 'the cinema') does
not have a fixed and determinate meaning. However, what does this
mean, if not that general cinematic codes - or at least those which
concern suchfigures- are systems of signifiers without signifieds ? What
is characteristic of the cinema in cases of this sort is the very existence
of the process as a discrete and definable configuration, but not its


We said in Chapter 7.3 that the notion of sub-codes has been adopted
here in the same sense as it is used in linguistics (viz. in relationship to
the code, each sub-code constitutes a sub-set, and this in two ways :
because it concerns a smaller number of films, and because it confers
on the resources of the code an organization and value which are only
some of those the code permits). But in spite of the similarities of
definition, we begin to notice, with the facts presented in Section 7.4,
an important difference between cinematic sub-codes and linguistic
sub-codes, a difference which concerns the degree of stability of codes
with multiple sub-codes. Concerning the cinema, we call sub-codes
different responses to a single question: these are, as American
semioticians would say, several 'coding devices' (coding processes,
types of codifications) destined to resolve a single problem, several
ways of utilizing and of structuring the same set of possibilities. But the
'common trunk' onto which these diverse solutions are grafted - that

is to say the level of the code, to the extent that it is distinct from that
of the sub-codes - may very well appear, in the study of certain cine-
matic phenomena, as relatively thin, and of a degree of precision
inferior to that which one would have expected of a code. It is, in some
sort, the balance of forces between the code and its sub-codes which
may shift in favor of the sub-codes more than would be the case in
linguistics. In certain cases - but not all - the place of the code (the
common core) seems to be made up of something which, in the
absence of sufficiently definite structures, is not yet a code but rather
the potential location (although already outlined) of diverse possible or
future codifications, a coding problem and not yet a code, a question
and not yet a response, a set of possibilities and not yet an organization
of these possibilities. The 'responses', the positive organizations, come
into play only with the sub-codes.
In linguistics, each sub-code ('level of language', or 'linguistic usage')
augments and details in its own manner the productions of the code,
but these productions are already determined before any activity of
this sort. The different pronunciations of French, which vary from the
most relaxed to the most formal (or from one region to another, from
one social category to another, etc.), introduce notable variations, but
the total weight of these different traits remains nevertheless relatively
slight in relation to the importance of the shared features which define
the code, i.e., the phonological system of ordinary French. It is this
phonological system, and it alone, which already indicates the major
portion of the characteristics which will subsequently reappear, iden-
tically, in all pronunciations. Thus the list of phonemes (and hence of
relevant distinctions, which is more important) may essentially be estab-
lished at the level of what is called the 'common language'. Differences
between sub-codes will influence only the 'optional variants' of these
phonemes, and sometimes a small proportion of the phonemes them-
selves. (The French dialects of the Midi often continue, in 1970, to
treat as two different phonemes those segments which the orthography
notes as 'in' and 'un' respectively, while the dialects of northern
France, for the most part, have lost this distinction, which in certain
cases they no longer even perceive, and have a single phoneme in the
corresponding position on the phonological matrix; but besides this,
they all have thirty phonemes in common.)
In cinematic matters it may happen that the code is rather vague
- at least in a certain sense, which, as we are also going to see, is
relative - and that it is necessary to look to the sub-codes in order to
find more precise indications. We have seen an example of this in
Chapter 7.4, with those cinematic figures which acquire a signified
only in each sub-code and which, at the level of the code (that is to say
for the ensemble of films), remain as signifiers without a signified. This
example is, moreover, doubly significant: it also shows that the
position of the code, even if 'vague', guards important and precise in-
formation, since it includes an exact list of the commutable signifiers,
which is in itself a great deal. It thus begins to appear that the dis-
tinction between 'questions' of coding and their 'answers' - to which
one has recourse here for convenience of explanation - does not cor-
respond to situations as decisive as the words used would lead one to
suppose. It suffices that, at the level of the 'question', a definite set of
semiotic circumstances already exists, so that this question is already
the beginning of an answer. It contributes information, since it excludes
a considerable number of possibilities. The 'vague position' may be
precise as the outline of a 'problematic'.
Another example, and even of particular historical importance, would
be that of cinematic montage: montage in the broad sense,5 not
limited to the cutting and pasting that one practices in the editing room,
after filming, but includes the 'shooting-script', that is to say the
manner in which, before the filming, the segmentation of the film (and
thus also, in part, the forms of this very filming) is conceived. Depend-
ing on different cinematic practices common to different countries,
epochs, schools, etc. - and also depending on different theories, for
this problem has always been linked with normative conceptions about
'the essence of cinematic art' - several sub-codes of montage are found,
each very different from the other, which go from extreme fragmenta-
tion to continuous filming with wide pans. However, the common base
from which the principal styles of montage diverge does not consist
of a pre-organized system, but may be reduced to a certain number
of specifically cinematic features and traits which are sufficiently gen-
eral so that the sub-codes deviate considerably from one another
(thereby indicating the importance of their own contribution), but
which are sufficiently precise so that they are in opposition on the
same territory and, if we may so express it, so they are all talking about
* This notion of montage in the broad sense but the 'broad sense', in this
case, is at the same time the strictest sense already appeared in the work of
Andre Bazin (notably 61-62 of Orson Welles [Paris: Chavanne, 1950]); it was
presented in a particularly precise manner (in its relations with the 'splicings',
montage in the narrow sense) by Jean Mitry, Volume (1965) of Esthitique et
Psychologie du cinema, 9-61, especially 21-22.

the same thing. There is, notably, the fact itself of the cut, i.e., the
possibility of segmenting the film strip (or of not segmenting it) - of
interrupting the filming (or of not interrupting it) - at any point between
two photographs; the fact of splicing, which makes it possible to con-
nect two (separately recorded) segments of film at any point between
two photographs, according to quite variable methods; the scope of the
field of vision, that is to say the capacity of the camera for taking in
a more or less prolonged event: when the field is very small for each
take, it is quite possible that many 'shots' will be necessary in order
to constitute an entire scene, but when it is more vast, one can film
the whole scene continuously. (The reverse is also true: one decides
what the size of the field should be according to whether one wants to
obtain a more or less fragmented scene.) There are differences in
focals and of diaphragmation which make it possible, all things being
equal in regard to the length of the shot and to the eventual movement
of the camera, to obtain a clear and legible photograph at a greater or
lesser distance (axial distance, lateral distance, or both at the same
time). In sum, what is common to the diverse sub-codes of montage is
not the general lines of the solution adopted, but the basic givens of
the problem, and the very definition of the problem which is to be
treated (how must one 'put together' a scene ?).
For all forms like cutting, splicing, etc., some of which were discussed
just now in a very simplified manner, even though of a very general
significance, nevertheless remain without an exact equivalent - and,
as a whole, without any equivalent at all - in other forms of expression.
They accurately delimit a field of research which the sub-codes will
occupy. Of course, strictly speaking there is no code of montage if one
understands by this a positive and detailed process of montage which
would be valid for all films and which would be distinct from any sub-
code (that is to say, from all styles of montage which have existed) and
which, in relation to the latter, would be in a position of a common
code anticipating only minor variants or supplementations. But in
another sense there is a code of montage, since all these sub-codes have
in common the characteristic of 'playing' on a number of specific traits,
to the exclusion of all others, traits which are differently exploited in
each of them. In the extreme, and perhaps by forcing things a little,
one could conceive of a particular type of code which, outside of any
precise specifications, would be defined only as the place common to
several sub-codes, as a calculus (in the logical sense) of possible codifi-
cations, as the space without which one could not know that the
sub-codes have to do with the same point in the cinematic process and
are in mutual relationships of concurrence. As for the selection
from among the resources available, the hierarchy to be established
between them, and their combination into an organized system which
alone is able to assign a value to each of them, all this could be decided
only on the level of sub-codes.
Thus we can say that the location of the code, in certain sectors
of 'cinematic grammar', is not occupied by a code but by a coding
problem. One could also express this in another way - a question of
terminological convention - by saying that among cinematic codes,
some are only weakly expressed and remain as sketches, leaving to
their sub-codes an important part of the work of codification.
This phenomenon varies considerably in degree, moreover, when
passing from one cinematic fact to another. Thus, the level of the
code is more indeterminate in the case of montage than in the case
of figures without a general signified, for, before any intervention of the
sub-code, the latter display, more clearly than the former, an already
well-defined organization on the level of expression (the proper system
of signifiers). Later in this book (pp. 268 and 281), we shall also see
that codes of analogy form a stable and organized unit even without
their sub-codes. Similarly, in linguistics, the supplementary information
and the specific variations that the sub-codes add to the code are of
unequal importance, according to the idiom and the degree of 'unifica-
tion' proper to each of them, according to whether it was a question of
phonology, syntax, lexicon, etc. While it has been found that the level
of the code compared to that of the sub-codes is more consistent in
spoken language than in the cinema, it is a question of a difference of
degree, which may be expressed in terms of averages.
With this qualification the difference remains and is significant. For
the very notions of code and sub-code do not directly express empirical
reality, but are analytic tools. The code is not an object which exists
in the real world, but is a name given to that part that is common to
different semiotic facts. And this common part is of varying im-
portance according to the concrete case. If it is on the average less
important in the cinema than in natural languages, it is because the
cinematic language system is in effect less 'unified' than a natural lan-
guage, for diverse reasons of a sociological nature which we have
examined in another book. This language is used (at least at the
Essais sur la signification au cinema, notably 103 and all of text 3 ("Le
cinema: langue ou langage ?"), 39-93.

emittor's end) by a small group of specialists, while natural language is

used by an immense group of speakers (normalization by a large number
thus plays a larger role in it.) Natural language, much more than the
cinema, is constantly involved with daily social life, rapid exchanges,
ordinary communication intervening at every hour of the day. The
cinema, much more than natural language (which is not literature), is
included in properly aesthetic movements, it is even more dependent
upon artistic innovations, individual and conscious modifications, etc.
We shall return to this question in Chapter 11.5.
Making a clear distinction between what belongs to the code and
what belongs to the sub-code seems very useful to us, in cinematic
analyses, in accounting for something which is encountered at every step
(and about which a word was said in Chapter 4.2), namely, that cin-
ematic codifications do not all differ from one another in the same way,
but in two. In certain cases they do not concern the same point in the
process of cinematic elaboration, they do not address themselves to the
same problem, they do not come into play in the same filmic situations,
and, consequently, they are not in opposition, one excluding the other,
but are capable of co-existing in the same style or in the same cinematic
aesthetics. Thus we speak of different codes (and not different sub-
codes); the relations between different codes are peaceful; they do not
work in the same place and do not share a territory. This is the relation-
ship which exists, for example, between codifications of lighting and
montage. Obviously, this does not exclude the possibility that a certain
selection of lighting (sub-code) is incompatible with a certain selection
of montage, or, on the contrary, that it has privileged affinities with
others, which is witnessed so often in the history of cinema. What
remains, and which is alone implied by our definition, is that it is
never a question of choosing between some sub-code of lighting and
the sub-code of montage. The film must be lighted and must be edited.
The cineast will necessarily choose, in either a conscious or intuitive
manner, a sub-code of lighting and a sub-code of montage. Lighting
and montage, as such, are not in paradigmatic relation (a relation of
substitution) to one another, but in syntagmatic relation, which implies
addition and combination.
It is always necessary to choose, on the contrary, between two
styles of lighting. In the same film - or rather at the same point in a
film - the light cannot be at the same time contrasting and even, strong
and weak. A compromise (and there are many in the films which we
see) would not be a combination of two choices (even if they are cor-
relative) made on two distinct axes, but would itself constitute a third
choice along a single axis of lighting. It is in this case the case of
constrastive codifications, which are mutually exclusive and which may
be substituted only for each other, since they all treat the same problem
but treat it differently - that we speak of a diversity of sub-codes of
the same code, and not of a diversity of codes.
Thus, these two differences do not signify the same thing and do not
concern the same aspects of the cinematic fact. The plurality of codes
corresponds to the internal complexity of specifically cinematic prob-
lems, which are themselves multiple: montage, camera movements,
etc. (On this point, see Chapter 4.2.) The plurality of sub-codes is due
to the fact that the solutions to these problems are in turn quite diverse :
it is not exactly the composite of the 'cinematic' that it reflects, but its
historicity, its variations from one epoch to another, from one country
to another, from one school to another, etc. The ideal sum of sub-
codes (and not of codes), the play of their competition and successive
exclusions, constitute nothing more than the history of the cinema, at
least insofar as what is truly cinematic is concerned (for one gives this
name, quite often, to the history of films, but it is then a case of a
terminological abuse).


In the preceding pages, we have made rather wide use of the notion of
textual system, as opposed to the notion of code (a more or less general
system). This will perhaps astonish those who have the idea (or the
impression) that, by definition, a system is always a general thing and
a text always a particular thing - i.e., all those for whom the opposition
system/text is closely parallel to social group/individual. It is very
largely upon this criterion that rested, as we know, the distinction be-
tween langage and parole in Saussure's thought. But we also know
that the tendency of more recent linguistic research consists, on the
contrary, of reformulating in terms of sub-codes - 'secondary modeling
systems' according to Soviet scholars, 'models of performance' ac-
cording to Chomskians, etc. - the ensemble of variations that Saussure
classified, as a whole, as parole. These variations, in effect, are irrelevant
only in relationship to the code of a common and neutral 'langage'
and it is only from this point of view that one can consider them as
pure 'facts of parole'. They become distinctive again as soon as one

attempts to establish other codes - intonational, expressive, stylistic,

sociolinguistic, etc. - which are so many 'second languages' grafted
onto the first, that is language strictly speaking (Saussure's langue). In
the extreme, the characteristics of speech which are proper to an
individual are themselves organized into a code which has its own
autonomous logical functioning, a code with a single user that one
calls an idiolect. It would thus seem that studies leading in these
directions end by dissociating - as we do ourselves - the idea of
systematicity from the idea of generality, and are independently pro-
gressing towards notions similar to the notion of 'singular system'.
But this would be a premature conclusion. In reality, the different
sub-codes are more or less- general systems (and in any case non-
textual), for each of them is common to several messages, and does
not belong to any of them in particular. The idiolect itself, which
characterizes a single speaker, does not characterize a particular utter-
ance of this speaker, but consists exclusively of a set of traits which
appear in all of his utterances. The sub-codes, as their name indicates,
moreover, and as we have repeatedly stressed, are so-to-speak of
the same order as codes, and, if one has a tendency to call them
'particular', it is simply because they are less general than the codes
onto which they are grafted. They remain general, however, if one
understands by this that that which characterizes a given text remains
irrelevant in the eyes of the analyst who constructs them (the sub-
codes). That they differ from codes indicates the existence of several
degrees of 'generality' itself, and leaves aside problems posed by the
uniqueness of each text. It also remains true, after as well as before
the introduction of the notion of sub-code, that the systemic coincides
with the general, and the singular with the textual.
This is why we have strongly insisted on the fact that a singular
system is something completely different from a sub-code. Such a
system is by nature non-codical; it has, so-to-speak, only a single
message. And indeed, one cannot express the situation in this way, for
this single message no longer merits the name. A singular system is a
system which has only a single text. And one of the methodological
(and terminological) problems of the semiotics offilmic,facts is to avoid
the ever-present confusion between two oppositions which must never-
theless remain distinct (see Chapter 5.2.) : the opposition between
the singular and the general, on the one hand, and between the text
and the system, on the other.
It is intentionally, and so-to-speak by definition, that the terminol-
ogy code/message ignores these two distinctions. The word 'code'
deliberately designates a set of traits which are all, simultaneously, on
the side of system and are of more or less general significance. The
word 'message' designates a set of traits which are all, simultaneously,
on the side of the text and are relative to individual discourses. Thus,
and to use rather crude examples, 'code' is frequently associated with
an adjective like 'social', and 'message' with an adjective like 'in-
dividual'; thus, similarly, the code and messages are commonly opposed.
It seems, on the contrary, that the pair system/text which we propose
to add to 'code/message' is commonly understood - or capable of
being understood - as delimiting that which separates the ideal from
the real, and this alone. It thus makes easier the task of anyone who
wishes to make the distinction between the general and the particular
appear as something different.
The confusion criticized here between code and system - or between
message and text - seems to have a specific cause, which is itself tied
to the history of research. In the beginning (and subsequently quite
often), these two words have been used as synonyms in linguistic or
semiotic writings which, at the beginning, delimited their subject in
such a way as to place it within a domain with a single semiotic dimen-
sion. Thus we would say of a domain of research so delimited that
its subject matter is 'covered' by a single system. It is this unique system
which then becomes the code, and the remainder of the subject may be
converted into pure messages (see Chapter 5.5). Thus, the systemic
coincides exactly with the general, the textual with the singular. This
situation is, moreover, without inconvenience in those particular cases,
i.e., in those in which the four notions meet in pairs in the manner
which has been specified. The double reference by a single word thus
becomes an advantage. And, since a code is a general system and since
in domains with a single semiotic dimension the unique system with
which one is occupied is a general system, code and system may in
practice (and provisionally) become synonymous. Since a message is the
text of a single system and since in a domain with a single semiotic
dimension all texts are studied in relation to but one of their systems,
message and text may in practice (and provisionally) become synony-
There exists a very clear and very important example of this situa-
tion, which is the one in which 'pure' linguistic studies are quite often
found. By a legitimate methodological convention, the linguist frequent-
ly decides to treat the data which he collects concerning a language as

referring to a homogeneous and unitary code of pure denotation, and

thus to set aside throughout a part of the analysis geographical, socio-
professional, etc. variations (as well as the ensemble of structures of
connotation and expression), in order to avoid from the outset being
faced with a domain with several semiotic dimensions, i.e., with a
domain delimited in such a fashion that each text may refer to several
systems. (You will recall that Louis Hjelmslev is particularly clear on
this point: it is not as a given that 'denotation' is first, but only as a
creation of the analyst. The basic given is always a mixture of
denotation and connotation. But systems of connotation are only
clearly discoverable if one has previously isolated, by abstraction, an
ideal instance of 'pure' denotation.) Thus, when one studies a language
as a unitary code of denotation (see Chapter 5.5), everything that may
be unique within each utterance may be relegated to the 'text' and to it
alone (here a synonym of 'message'). This uniqueness contains nothing
systemic - nothing structural - for the only systemic elements to which
one has decided for the time being to address oneself are those of a cer-
tain system, which is general and thus a code. Thus, it is the very notion
of singular system which (provisionally) disappears from the concep-
tual landscape. Certainly, the different messages each conserve their sin-
gularity, but the latter is taken into consideration only to the extent that
it manifests the diverse individual choices that the speaker may make
from among the resources of a single system. In addition, these choices
do not themselves constitute systems (other systems), but simply offer
examples of diverse occurrences authorized by the system. In sum, as
a direct consequence of the working hypothesis, the singular and the
manifest meet in the 'message', the general and the systemic in the
'code'. Within a given utterance, that which represents the systemic
would be (among other things) the grammatical system, which is valid
for all the idiom and does not concern this particular utterance rather
than its neighbors, the phonological system, the organization of the
lexicon, etc. In brief, in its different aspects, the langue of Saussure
is present in this utterance as in any other. The systemic as a whole
would belong to the non-singular, for the only thing capable of being
at the same time systemic and singular is what we call here the textual
system, i.e., what, at the heart of the text, would organize into a specific
configuration (with its own proper order) a plurality of codes whose
multiple appearances would all be taken into consideration. However,
when one studies the 'langue', one excludes from consideration all these
codes except one (namely, that which is called the langue).

At certain points along the chain of speech, the Latin language offers
a choice between a so-called final proposition and a consecutive one. If,
in a given utterance, it is the consecutive proposition which appears, one
would not be dealing as such with some 'singular linguistic system'. But
this depends on this particular situation. Concerning spoken language,
there is a very strong tendency, since Saussure, to consider the code of
the language in isolation. One sometimes ends - contrary to the wish of
Saussure - by forgetting the existence of the initial act of abstraction,
and by confusing langue with all of langage. For it is quite certain that,
in relation to the langue, the selection of the consecutive and the
exclusion of the final in an utterance does not refer to an autonomous
system, but falls within the pure and simple irrelevancy of 'facts of
speech' (parole). In this perspective, it is the general existence of a
paradigm 'final/consecutive' which constitutes the only relevant fact.
The utterance in which either member of this paradigm appears only
indicates the existence of this paradigm, and not the existence of some
textual system.
But from the moment that one considers langage, and not langue,
one finds that each utterance is constituted as such on the basis of
several sorts of choices, which refer to several distinct codes. And if
the utterance appears nevertheless to the hearer as a coherent and
unified whole, it is because these multiple choices have not been brought
together at will, but rather because they respect constraints of mutual
compatibility and because they are organized or combined into an
overall configuration which is of a systemic nature but which happens
nevertheless to appear in a particular utterance and in it alone. For it
is uniquely in each utterance that this overall system reveals itself to be
distinct - distinct as system - from different codes which are more
fragmentary, within it, and more general, outside of it. Latin culture
(even when it borrows a linguistic vehicle) is something much more
vast than the Latin language. If one takes into consideration the dif-
ferent Latinic 'writings', or the style of different authors (and many
other systems as well, which are external to the langue, but within the
realm of langage in general, to the verbal language), the selection of
the consecutive and the exclusion of the final in an utterance cease to
be irrelevant features, for they are no longer the only ones involved
but are related to literary forms, to intentions, i.e., to many other
selections and other exclusions, and it is the set of these choices which
defines a coherence proper to the utterance (a coherence which would
not be the same in another utterance, in which the only point in com-

mon with the first would also be to have opted in the langage for the
consecutive), a coherence which, in each instance, delineates a textual
system. The singularity of this system is analyzable only in relation to
the diverse codes and sub-codes which are combined within it. But this
system is distinct from any one of them: first, because what charac-
terizes it is that it combines several of them; next, because the combina-
tion is unique, while that which it combines is not.
In sum, and as was already announced in Chapter 5.5, the very fact
of treating a domain as dependent upon the conjoined action of several
codes necessarily leads whoever envisioned it as such to clearly dis-
associate, by introducing the notion of singular system, the opposition
between the systemic and the textual from the opposition between the
particular and the general.
In the case of spoken languages, which are extremely complex
signifying-ensembles, one can obtain a domain of a single semiotic
dimension only at the price of an initial act of abstraction (and it is
this same complexity which renders the methodological act indispen-
sable, and thus legitimate). When, on the contrary, it is a question of
intrinsically simple units of a rather small scope, the domain with
a single semiotic dimension is in. large measure acquired in advance,
without having to isolate phenomena of expression, connotation, or
others. For facts of this sort, in such domains, hardly exist and play
quite a modest role, as was said in Chapter 2.3. Thus, for other reasons,
the practical situation is in the end the same. This explains why the
synonymy of code and system, very much at ease in the study of natural
languages as unitary systems of pure denotation, are just as much
at ease in the analysis of road signs, messages transmitted by flags or
lights, or certain strictly monosemic gestural languages made up of a
small number of uniformly obligatory signs, etc.
On the other hand, it is important to consider that the filmic fact
(to which we now finally return) could not be treated as a domain with
a single semiotic dimension - and especially in the present state of
research - in a manner as permanent and as generalized as are spoken
languages. This methodological abstraction has an immense field of
application in the study of natural languages, because the level which it
isolates (and which is precisely what we call the langue) is endowed
with a very strong and very obvious social reality, in spite of the parallel
presence of the sub-codes which have been abstracted. But in the cin-
ema, there is no langue (see below, in Chapter 11.5). The codes exist,
of course, and it is this existence which is sensed in the very notion of
'cinematic language system'. But this language system does not have the
same cohesion or the same precision as a spoken language (and, in
addition, it remains to be established). In parallel fashion, the textual
systems of different films, of different cineasts, of diverse genres, etc.
(and in which one finds, among other things, the 'aesthetic' dimension
of the filmic fact) play a considerable role in the cinema. Some of them
have as much autonomy and cohesion - as much 'reality', we might say,
if this word were not so problematical - as the cinematic language
system. Thus, in comparison with what takes place in the study of
spoken languages, it is the balance of forces between the code and the
singular system which is displaced here. In addition, even within non-
textual systems, this balance of forces is displaced in a second manner :
the relative weight of the sub-codes, compared with that of the codes,
sometimes comes to be more important than in the case of spoken lan-
guage. We saw an example of this above (Sections 7.4 and 7.5), in
establishing that certain cinematic figures, lacking a signified at the level
of codes, may acquire one at the level of sub-codes.
For all these reasons, the very person who studies a general cine-
matic code and (in principle) it alone - thus placing himself before
a domain with a single semiotic dimension - is incapable of constantly
and without further qualification maintaining this operational abstrac-
tion, which will nonetheless serve him as a guide. He must at each
moment take into account (if only in order to explain that he is provi-
sionally putting them aside) the diverse textual systems, on the one hand,
and the diverse sub-codes, on the other. He must clearly present them as
such, but they are more difficult to 'separate' from the cinematic codes
than is the structure of a poem or a sociolinguistic sub-code from the
code of a spoken language; or again (but the result is the same), it may
be that one is less accustomed to separating them, and that the research
is here less advanced, and rigor less an established habit. From whoever
talks about the cinema, one still hears about total discourse (the mirac-
ulous response to all frustration) which one no longer expects to hear
from the linguist on the subject of verbal language. The different levels
of analysis, the relatively autonomous phenomena, the different sorts of
'embedding', of multiple codes within a single text, all these, when it is
a question of linguistic objects, are (in a certain measure) distinguished.
In regard to the cinema, on the contrary, one generally continues to
mix everything together.
It is nevertheless important to begin to disentangle these notions, and
this is why the semiotics of the filmic fact ought constantly to make use

of three concepts which it can always use with ease. Having defined
them, let us repeat them. They are :
(1) filmic texts, which may present different degrees of material scope,
the privileged one being the single and entire film (the notion of
'film' in its distributive sense);
(2) textual filmic systems, i.e., filmic systems which correspond to these
different texts; and
(3) non-textual filmic systems (codes), which themselves present dif-
ferent degrees of generality (the distinction between code and sub-
codes), and which, according to the individual case, may be cine-
matic or extra-cinematic; those which are cinematic constitute, as
a block, the 'cinematic language system'.
We could thus summarize the task of the semiotics of the filmic fact
as follows : to analyze film texts in order to discover either textual
systems, cinematic codes, or sub-codes.
As for extra-cinematic codes, we have mentioned them only in
order to recall that they play an important role in films. But a study of
these codes could not be the goal of the analyst of the cinema, nor of
the analyst of films. Neither is it a question of a unified study, i.e., a
'discipline'. The extra-cinematic material found in films is as extensive
and varied as social life itself (from which it directly stems), and
its analysis relies upon quite diverse skills and a large number of pre-
existing disciplines. In the division of labor customary today, one al-
ways has the tendency to confound the cinematic and the filmic, and
to expect from the analyst of the cinema a science which covers all
aspects of all films. It is not understood that this would be an almost
universal understanding, because films may be about anything. Th&
immoderation of the expectation only encourages cinematic journalism.
The latter has its own proper function, which is to account for the
events of the present, to keep the public informed, but it is not nec-
essary that the accomplishment of this task engulf the totality of
writings on the cinema or on films.


We have already noted that the characteristic of generality does not

enter into our definition of system. One could thus ask, inversely, if
(and in what manner) the characteristic of singularity is tied to the
notion of text. Filmic texts allow diverse degrees of material scope
(or 'length') and they may include several films (see Section 7.1 and 7.2);
but they are at any rate precise texts, not 'general' ones.
The analyst who wishes to construct the system of a particular film
obviously starts with this film (even if he compares it with many others).
But it does not follow, by some strange corollary, that anyone who
wishes to establish a cinematic code starts with a more general film. He
too can only start from diverse, especially designated, or especially
designatable films (for there exist no others). Simply, there will be a
large number of these films, and the traits which the analysis will
retain from each of them will be much less numerous (on this point,
see above, Chapter 6.1).
However, certain theoreticians, as we know, have spoken of an
infinite, or global text. In linguistics, Louis Hjelmslev speaks of the
text, and not of texts. This is because it is really a question of some-
thing else: this global text is the result of the physical accretion of
all texts, of their being positioned end to end; it is not a general text.
When one treats all the films of a particular cineast as a single, vast
text, the 'film' so obtained does not cease to be a certain film. The
infinite text sometimes alluded to results from an operation of the same
sort, this time pushed to its extreme (an extreme which varies according
to the school of thought: this is the same problem of 'segmentation',
still being debated). What is said about the so-called literary texts may
to a certain point apply also to the cinema. In this sense, at the very
least, the ensemble of films realized constitutes an immense text, always
open to its own (more or less harrowing) prolongation, and phenomena
of inter-textuality, ably elucidated by Julia Kristeva, play a considerable
role in this. Consciously or not, films are determined in large measure
in relation to each other. They thus delimit a 'field' which is not with-
out similarity to the literary field as discussed by Gerard Genette;7 they
react to one another, they cite one another, they parody one another,
they 'surpass' one another, and all these plays of contexture (this word
to be taken in a strong and precise sense) contribute in a very central
way to advancing along an uninterrupted development the production
of the indefinite and collective text that cinematography offers us.
The classic Western was already self-parodying, like all genres
which are highly formulaic and which accept this without shame. Ford's

* Fourth part of "Structuralisme et critique litteraire", in Figures I (Paris:

Seuil,1966), 164-70.

My Darling Clementine (1946), a film which today appears to be 'an-

cient', had already created the accent of parody which was an integral
part of the genre, and yet it remained a Western. Some Westerns of
the 50's, which were called 'Superwesterns' in their time, passed from
parody to contestation. The hero was no longer young and nimble,
showed sings of wear and tear, looked his age, and looked forward to
retirement. But as the film was nothing more than a delay in the
realization of this wish for retirement, the Superwesterns (one is
more conscious of this today) remained fully Westerns. Among them
was John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), which was a
direct 'answer' to My Darling Clementine - in the cinema, this is
what one calls a remake - on the same legendary fact of history, that
is to say on the basis of the same extra-cinematic code, first enlarged
and 'cinematized' by the (already parody-like) discourse which John
Ford gave it. With Italian Westerns, notably Once Upon a Time in
the West (Sergio Leone, 1969), contestation gives way to 'decon-
struction': the entire film is an explication of the code and of its
relation to history. One has passed from parody to critique, but the
work is still a Western, and any child who goes to see it notices nothing,
he witnesses it directly according to his naive and innocent codes : he
antedates it. However, the truly old Westerns (those with Tom Mix, for
example, in the 1910's) were even then not without humor, the heavi-
ness of which did not change the situation. The future doubtlessly has
in store for us a certain number of additional such cases. Such is the
infinite text of what one calls a genre.
But this total text is not a general text. When it is said of a system
that it is general (that it is a code), what is meant is that it does not
specifically concern any of the texts in which it is found. However,
there is nothing in the order of the textual in which this type of gen-
erality may be recognized. A global text is not a text which does not
specifically have the characteristics of any text; it is a text which has
the characteristics of all texts. A film which was made up of all films
would still be a film, but a film which contained no film would no longer
be a film. This asymmetry, as we shall see, is a result of the very
definition of the textual and of the systemic.
One does not come across any non-singular texts (even when they
are immense), while one does find singular systems (those of texts)
next to non-singular systems (codes). This disequilibrium is only elim-
inated, and in a very provisional manner, in the particular case where
the system is a code and the text a message. The message, like any text,

is never general, and the code, contrary to certain other systems, is

never singular. Thus for once the textual and the systemic are in direct
opposition : each of the two is on the same side. But the code-message
relationship reigns undivided only over domains of a single semiotic
dimension (see Chapter 7.6). In every other case, it makes it possible
to begin the work of analysis, and not to finish it (see Sections 6.1, 6.2,
and 6.3).
There is a new difficulty here, distinct from the preceding one. In
Chapter 3.1, we referred to the fact of the film and spoke of it as of a
general fact; this is precisely what is designated by the word 'film' in an
absolute sense, in utterances such as The film always has credits.
But what is general, here, is precisely the fact of the film (hence this
term), and not the film itself. The generality of the existence of the text
does not necessarily involve the existence of a general text. 'Singularity',
in other words, is itself a general fact. Each film differs from all other
films, but it is also by means of this difference that it resembles them,
since each of these other films in turn differs from all the other films,
and notably from the one with which one began.
The 'fact of the film', in any case, not only refers to the existence
of the text, but also to some of its characteristics. In the cinema, as
elsewhere, one finds traits which are common to all texts or to many
of them - thus more or less general - which nevertheless belong to
these texts as texts, i.e., to the extent that they are not systems. Thus
the film, as noted above, is always of a limited and measurable duration,
often terminates with a frame which is longer than the others, etc. And
it is the film which displays these characteristics; these are not so
many diverse general systems, as those whose ensemble constitutes the
'cinema'. Nor are they textual systems which represent, like the
preceding - which is how they remain systems - ideal events without
a literal unfolding, and which are thus quite incapable of being termin-
ated by a frame which is longer than the others. (A system, more-
over - and even the system of an iconic text - contains no frames; it
is no more than a logic.)
Certain characteristics of the text are thus general. But they do not
make it any easier for us to understand what a general text could be.
For, in order to consider them in themselves, it would already have
been necessary to isolate them from other traits of the film, which vary
from film to film; it would have been necessary to have begun, no
matter how little, to break up the manifest and continuous unfolding of
the text (that is to say its very textuality), where general traits are inter-

mixed with those which are not. And, once the first are isolated, what
could be done with them, if not to attribute them to the cinema ? 'Cin-
ema', you will recall, is taken here to be synonymous with 'cinematic
language system' (see Chapter 2.4) which indistinctly refers to all cin-
ematic codes and sub-codes (see Chapters 4.3 and 7.3). However, the
traits in question - the final frame purposely longer than the others, the
frequently initial position of the credits, etc. presents the double
characteristic of being specifically cinematic and common to all films
(or, depending on the case, to a class of films). In addition, they depend
on cinematic codes (or sub-codes) and thus at any rate on the 'cinema'.
There is in this something of a paradox. The traits which are common
to films as films and not cinema nevertheless belong, in another sense,
to the cinema and not to the film. (We shall return to this question
below.) Just as all that is codical in texts is general, everything which
is general in texts is codical.
Given a proposition like Films usually last an hour and a half,
to what can it be said to 'apply' ? Literally, it is to the text, of course,
and to it alone (one could not even say The cinema usually lasts an
hour and a half); no code, sub-code, or textual system lasts an hour
and a half.
We shall omit the textual systems from this discussion, which con-
cerns only more or less general filmic traits, and thus those irrelevant
to any singular system; we shall call 'code' any non-textual system,
code, or sub-code.
What is characteristic of the code is that it is a construction of the
analyst and not a pre-existing discourse. Thus the code consists of a
collection of propositions relative to texts and only verifiable in
them, statements which announce the characteristics of the text but
which, precisely for that reason, are propositions of the code. The more
or less general traits which, first, 'belong' to the text are the very ones
whose specification and classification 'belong' to the code.
It is still true that it is the film, and not the cinema, which lasts an
hour and a half; the text, and not the code. But that the film has, on
the average, this duration rather than another is an important aspect
of the cinema as a codical fact. And if - as is possible, as it seems
already to present itself - the average duration of the film became
little by little more variable, less uniform, it is obviously the di-
achronic evolution of one of the cinematic codes that one is witnessing
(or the replacement of one sub-code by another, which is still a codical

We know, since Saussure, that the 'langue' (the code) has no

characteristic which is materially its own, that one can reach it only
through 'parole' (the texts), and that it is made up entirely of certain
traits of parole (namely those which are general). It is certainly impos-
sible to say that The credits are found most often at the beginning of
the cinema; but it is no more possible to say that The grammatical
subject is most often found at the beginning of the French language:
it is at the beginning of the utterance that the subject is found, and the
credits at the beginning of the film. And yet this position of the subject
in the linguistic text, and of the credits in the filmic text, are both codical
facts: the code of the French language, the code or sub-code of the
cinema. Similarly, it is one of the important characteristics of the liter-
ary fact, at least in a part of its uses (sub-code), that it authorizes that
particular type of syntagm known as the chapter. But in order to
express this, one must state that Books are often divided into chapters,
and not that Literature is often divided into chapters. One is never-
theless talking about literature.
Thus, the fact of the text (where all that is general in the text is
grouped, their existence, and some of their traits) is itself a fact of
the code. To say that films exist, or that the formula-film exists, is to
say that the cinema exists. It is also to say that films, which are not to
be confused with the fact of the film, are always singular.
This 'singularity' however, is not what defines the text, since one
also finds it - exactly to the same degree - in the system of this text.
The text, as such, is sufficiently defined by its characteristics of man-
ifestation : it is a unit of discourse, a unit of unfolding which is present
before any intervention on the part of the analyst; it is a 'whole' which
is coherent and whose boundaries are predetermined (by the cineast,
by his unconscious, by society, etc.): it is "une richesse et une nature",
as Roland Barthes has said of books.8 This perceptible, exhibited un-
folding, is the textuality itself, that which makes a text a text. A film
- at least in this sense, i.e., in relation to the position of the analyst -
is an object 'of the real world', a 'concrete' object, a given.
The singularity of the text is only a consequence of its definition.
An 'object' is never general, it is always situated somewhere, it always
has its own peculiar characteristics : a film is necessarily a film. An

P. 3 of "Par commencer?" (in Poetique 1, 1970, 3-9). "Tout concourt en

effet innocenter les structures que l'on recherche, les absenter (...). Face au
phenomene textuel, ressenti comme une richesse et une nature (deux bonnes
raisons pour le sacraliser) ..."

'abstract' construction, on the contrary (if one understands by this the

analytic process or its result, expressed after the event), may allow
quite a variety of degrees of generality, depending on the principle of
distinctiveness adopted in each case: code, sub-code, textual system.
It is that the abstraction - and the selection of a criterion of distinct-
iveness is always an act of abstraction - makes generalization possible
but not obligatory. In addition, it does not tell us anything about the
exact scope of this generalization. In studying a textual system, one
abstracts without generalizing (or at least, one generalizes only within
the limits of the film under study). In attempting to discover a cinematic
code, one follows another procedure, one in which abstraction is in-
separable from maximum generalization (maximum in a certain field).
It is precisely this margin of variability which has no equivalent in
the order of the textual, where the dimensions are pre-established. The
singularity of the text, which is not its very principle, but the automatic
consequence of this principle, is expressed in all cases and suffers no
exception (which is why we have insisted on this to such an extent). But
one also sees that this singularity is itself a topological trait, a fact of
position, a 'node' in a topology established by the analytic enterprise -
and not something irreducible or ineffable, an infallible originality
which refers directly to the 'person' or the 'work'.


We concluded Chapter 3.2 by admitting that the notion of 'film' (in

its absolute sense) and that of 'cinema' as an ensemble of codes must
not be confused and can be substituted for one another only in
propositions which effectively apply to both. But what was said a
moment ago (Chapter 7.7) comes down to claiming that the study of
the 'film' is within the study of the 'cinema'. This is also why the flm
does not appear in the summary which closes Chapter 7.6, where texts,
textual systems, and non-textual systems (codes) are mentioned, but
not 'the text'. There are not four things to be distinguished, but three:
two sorts of systems, the 'film' in its distributive sense, and not this
same 'film' in its absolute sense.
At this point, the notions of film and cinema are distinct, but not
the study of the film and the study of the cinema; the study of the
film is a part of the study of the cinema.
The final triad of Chapter 7.6 consisted, basically, of separating the
point of departure of semiotic work - namely, the always singular
texts - from its (or rather their) point(s) of arrival, i.e., systems, which
may be singular or not. For this analysis, the 'general text' is not a point
of departure (since it does not exist), nor is it a point of arrival, since
the general traits of texts refer, in the end, to general systems. The
semiotician's approach, which always takes him from texts to
systems, may lead to 'models' of diversely and unequally general sig-
nificance, but he can only begin with localized objects. At any particular
moment, the analysis has nothing specifically to do with the film: be-
fore it, in any case, are found only 'films', and after it, thanks to it,
'the film' begins to exist: not as a fourth term, but as a part of the
third (codes). When one claims to 'study the film', what is meant is
that, in a movement of reflection oriented toward cinematic codes and
sub-codes, one forces oneself to organize a certain number of traits
(which are themselves more or less general, and lacking a separate
existence outside of the semiotic discourse) which present, in addition,
the remarkable peculiarity of rejecting any immediate attribution to
the code itself (since it is not the cinema which lasts an hour ana a
half), while nevertheless 'belonging' to this code. The study of the
'film' is thus well within the study of the cinema.
But why then are other propositions, which also contribute to the
establishment of the code, capable, on the contrary, of being directly
attributed to this code, even sometimes requiring it? Anyone who
would consider that Painting is a language of color or that The cinema
is an art of the concrete would hesitate to say that The picture is a
language of color or that The film is an art of the concrete. Finally,
among the utterances relevant to the code, there exists a third group
which is made up of those which are accommodated by name of
the text as name of the code: it is these which give rise to the zone of
semantic overlap between 'cinema' and 'film' discussed in Chapter 3.2.
To tell the truth, if one considers a 'proposition about the code' in
its most immediate terms, one notices that it may, in some cases,
involve a characteristic of the text, the code itself, or a trait common
to both.
How could a statement about the code be relative to this code,
since the code consists of a group of statements about the text ? Little
by little, it is the very notion of code which requires additional quali-
fications. The code is only the result of a certain treatment of the text
by the analyst, but it is capable in turn of being treated as a sort of
object, as soon as one ignores the work of the semiotician, as soon as
one speaks of it as if it had been completed, as soon as one only

considers whatever fixed things result from it - from the moment, in

sum, that one no longer thinks about the construction of the object
but of the constructed object. It is to this object, as to any object, that
one may attribute some quality or some property, as in a statement like
This code is strange (one sees that sentences of this sort are not nec-
essarily complicated; what is a little more so is to understand why they
are not). There exist, then, propositions - those of our second group -
about which one can say in all rigor that they speak about the code, even
if it is, in the end, an indirect way of speaking about texts.
Other propositions speak directly of texts (this is our first group),
short of actually concerning the code: Films are often accompanied
by music (one does not find, except improperly, The cinema is often
accompanied by music). These statements do not talk about the code :
they speak the code. They acquire meaning at a moment in the
discourse where the code is not yet constructed, where it is not an
object, where there thus exists no quality which may be attributed
specifically to it: a moment in which the code is not yet the subject
of possible predicates, but only the ideal point of convergence of diverse
predicates which all have texts for subjects.
Thus this 'ambiguity' - which is not really an ambiguity, since
usage masters it even when it does not understand it - is based on
the fact that one may understand two difierent things (although identical
in their content) by 'code': the work of codification or its objectivized
As for statements of the third group, which permit either the term
'text' or 'cinema', they turn up in the first or the second group
according to which of their two versions appears in each instance.
Also, the passage from one to the other necessarily provokes, if not
a modification of the statement, at least a change in the point of view in
relation to which that which is asserted is asserted. If one declares that
The French language has a singular and a plural but not a dual, one
implicitly proposes, and if need be by anticipation, an object 'the
French language' which is already given as established, and it is to this
object that one explicitly attributes a property (here, the absence of the
dual). If one says, on the contrary, that French utterances have a
singular and a plural but not a dual, one implies that the same absence
of the dual has been established at some point along a path which
starts with French utterances in order to progressively specify what
one is going to understand by 'French language'. It is thus a question
of two different points of view of the code, and of only this: in one
case as in the other, the absence of the dual, and the existence of the
singular and of the plural, are traits which can only be initially attested
in the text, but which ought finally to be attributed to the code.
Certain propositions may thus fall into one or the other perspective.
But one also finds statements whose content excludes one of the two,
and thus one discovers the first and second groups. Concerning the
first group: when the statement excludes the term 'code', it is be-
cause it concerns a characteristic of the text which is inseparable from
its textual unfolding, and which thus could not be immediately attributed
to the code (if this latter is conceived of as an object), since what is
characteristic of this object is that it has no textual unfolding. In
sentences like Films ordinarily last an hour and a half, already men-
tioned several times, 'films' cannot be replaced by 'the cinema'. What
ordinarily lasts an hour and a half is precisely the textual unfolding
of the film. The utterance, here, does not concern the code-object, but
the statement is a part of the codifying activity, that is to say of the
'study' of the code.
Concerning the second group (propositions excluding the term
'text'), these are those in which are asserted properties incapable of
being applied to anything other than an object which is already pre-
constructed. In proposing that The Greek language is richer than the
Italian language, one does not compare two groups of concrete ob-
jects but two entire systems; in addition, one assumes them to be suf-
ficiently understood in order that it is possible to know which of the
two is as a whole 'richer'. The same may be said of The cinema is quite
different from television. However, these assertions indirectly lead us
to texts: they would be impossible if their author did not judge that
Greek sentences, in large number, are 'richer' than Latin sentences, or
that films are in general 'very different' from televised broadcasts.
We have three groups of propositions then, but, in reality, only two
classes : on the one hand, all that which may be directly said about the
code; on the other, all that which may be directly said about the text.
These two classes intersect one another, since certain traits may be
directly attributed to the code and the text at the same time. Thus one
arrives at three groups if one wishes to set aside that which may be said
about the code alone and about the text alone, as we have done above.
The characteristics attributed to the code as an object (class A) were
initially discovered in texts. The characteristics attributed to texts as
common to several or all of them (class B) rejoin the code to the extent
that the latter is a statement made by the analyst.

If 'cinema' and 'film' (film in the absolute sense) remain distinct as

notions, it is because the totality of what one can say about one and the
totality of what one can say about the other only partially intersect (zone
of intersection -B). But the sum of what one can say about one and
the sum of what one can say about the other, if added together, delimit
a new class of traits which always originates in the text (as it appeared
directly in and indirectly in A) and which is always going to
augment the code: the pre-constructed code (as it appeared directly
in A) or the code in the process of being constructed (as it appeared
indirectly in B). This is why the 'study of the m' () is a part of the
'study of the cinema' (A + B).



One sometimes reasons, as much with regard to the cinema as in other

domains, as if the opposition between system and text corresponded
exactly to the opposition between paradigmatic and syntagmatic, the
film offering itself as a purely syntagmatic event except that the effort
of the semiotician towards disengaging any of these systems would be
an entirely paradigmatic enterprise; in sum, the text would be a tissue
of conjunctions, and the system a tissue of disjunctions.
In the beginning, it is true, one inevitably finds that the film is a
place where different co-present elements of signification are combined,
while each of the codes which together constitute the 'cinema'
consists of a network of oppositions, a sort of symbolic logic in-
volving several units of meaning from among which it is necessary to
choose, and which thus mutually clarify each other by their absence.
When one says that the film is 'discourse', one most often means by
this, and with good reason, that its proper task is to co-actualize a
certain number of signifying elements which, on the sensory level
(Louis Hjelmslev's material of expression), may be homogeneous or
heterogeneous, depending on the case: homogeneous if one is dealing
with the meaningful arrangement of two or more images, two or more
'sound effects', etc.; heterogeneous if the 'similarity' found in the text
concerns an image and a sound, a visual element and a segment of
dialogue, etc. These syntagmatic relations may be displayed simul-
taneously as well as in succession, for the film takes place both in time
and in space; in either case they remain syntagmatic, since each of
the terms that they unite consists of an element which is present in the
film. Montage - if one takes this notion in its broadest sense (which
is also the strictest), i.e., as a general process of ordering which may
be relevant within a single 'shot' as well as between different shots - is

the very foundation of the film as a signifying discourse; it is because

of it that the film is something more than a simple reproduction of
some pre-existing spectacle, that it is 'a language'. Earlier we spoke of
the film as a textual fabric; this is another way of saying that the film,
from one end to the other, is a combination of co-occurrences, of
syntagms entering in turn into larger syntagms; the film-form, more-
over, may be defined as the maximum syntagm permitted by the
cinematic language system, at least in the present stage of its evolution.
On the other hand, it is clear that what is missing in a code (and, among
others, in a cinematic code) is this property of being a syntagm. A code
is not a discourse, but an abstract principle of intelligibility which lies
'behind' the discourse, or more exactly which explains different parts of
different discourses (since each code is common to several discourses
without being the only one in any of them).
But these findings, far from exhausting the problem, only serve to
introduce it. For we have already remarked that, if the text is in a sense
a vast syntagm (or a syntagm of syntagms), the code is in no way a vast
paradigm, nor a paradigm of paradigms. The code is not situated
unilaterally 'on the side of the paradigm'. In some aspects (which will
be specified below), the code is related in the same way to the paradigm
as to the syntagm, and does not maintain a more particular affinity with
one than with the other. What one calls a code is a logical entity which
has been constructed in order to explicate and elucidate the functioning
of paradigmatic relations in texts, and also in order to explicate and
elucidate the functioning of syntagmatic relationships in the same text.
The code contains within itself the intelligibility of the syntagm as well
as that of the paradigm, without itself being either a paradigm or a
syntagm. The text - or the message, for at this point in the discussion
the two things are fused - is differentiated from the code in an asym-
metrical manner; it is tied more to the syntagmatic than the code is
to the paradigmatic.
This is because the syntagmatic relation, contrary to the paradigmatic
relation, is already given in the text. (This, as we shall see, is true only
in a certain sense; but this is of no consequence for the moment, for at
this level one finds nothing equivalent on the paradigmatic side.) The
syntagmatic relationship is established between two or more terms
which are all attested in the message, such that it is itself, in some
manner, 'present' in it; the ideal line which connects the terms with
each other remains internal to the text throughout its entire length. The
paradigmatic path, on the contrary, always 'emerges' from the message,

since it connects a term which figures in it to a term or several terms

which do not figure in it. However, we have ourselves defined the text
(and the message) as a manifest unfolding which is preexistent to the
intervention of the analyst. There is thus, in this sense, a selective af-
finity between the textual and the syntagmatic which has no equivalent
in the relationship between the codical and the paradigmatic.



One must not confuse the syntagmatic with syntagmatics. The latter is
a study, the former, what is to be studied, the very fact of the syntagm
and the existence of syntagmatic relations. Syntagmatics (as paradig-
matics) is one of the parts of the analytic activity proper to the
semiotician; if the syntagmatic is always 'given', syntagmatics never
is : co-presences in the text are manifest, but their organization is not,
and this is why syntagmatics belongs to the code. That one type of
combination is possible and not another is plainly of a codical order.
One could even define a code - at least from the perspective of a
non-generative structuralism - as the set formed by a para-
digmatics and a syntagmatics articulated one with the other. (Emilio
Garroni has recently noted this,1 and in a convincing manner.)
This was already the position of Saussure when he noted that the
'grammar' of a language (element of a code) has two major com-
ponents : an 'associative' (paradigmatic) grammar and a syntagmatic
grammar. Similarly, glossematic theory rests entirely on the idea that
the analysis of relations 'in the text', or 'in the process' (functions of
the type 'both-and', Hjelmslev's relations) and the analysis of relations
'in the system' ('either-or' functions, co-relations) constitute the two
essential tasks of the internal study of a language. In sum, and contrary
to what might be suggested by the terminology (which, no matter what
one does, always threatens to lead to automatism), the system is not
concerned only or even particularly with 'relations in the system', but
just as much with the 'relations in the process': for the latter may indeed
be 'in' the process, but their structure is nevertheless 'in' the system.
Each code is characterized, among other things, by the types of
syntagms that it permits. All linguists admit that the study of language
cannot be reduced to the establishment of paradigms, but also requires
Semiotica ed estetica, 19-20.

the establishment of the laws of syntagms, if not, why would they be

unanimous in their opinion that syntax is a part of linguistics ?
We know that in transformational generative theories the 'codical'
status of syntax is even more clearly asserted: syntax is not only a
component of the linguistic code, it is a central component; it
is in relation to it that it becomes possible to study the two other
components (the phonological and semantic components), which are
considered as 'peripheral' or 'interpretative'. Thus, syntax is at the very
heart of the code; and, within syntax, it is the syntagmatic which plays
the principal and decisive role : it generates the deep structures, while
the non-syntagmatic part of the syntax - the part called 'transforma-
tional' - generates only the surface structures. In this perspective, the
syntagmatic has a codical importance so considerable that it comes even
to encompass the paradigmatic. It is in the course of the syntagmatic
phase of the process of generation that the linguist formalizes and
situates most of the phenomena which structuralist theories attributed
to the paradigmatic.
We shall not enter here into these discussions of technical linguistics,
we wanted only to show that in the domain of linguistics - where
the notions of paradigmatic and syntagmatic have served as the
objects of the most attentive reflection - the syntagmatic is always
considered as a fact of the code: the divergence between schools, in
this regard, concerns only the degree of relative importance which it
is necessary to accord it in relation to the other parts of the study of
the code.
What remains, however, is that the semiotician who studies the code
(and, among other things, syntagmatics) does not have to establish the
syntagms themselves, while he must establish the paradigms when he
studies paradigmatics. This brings us back to the difference, already
discussed above, between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic: a
paradigm, by definition, is a class of elements only one of which figures
in the text (or at a given point in this text). It is thus characteristic of
the paradigm that it is never entirely exposed at the textual level; the
analyst alone may exhibit it, by commuting the fragment of the text
considered with fragments of other texts (or other fragments of the
same text); thus, the simple literal exposition of the paradigm, i.e.,
the exact enumeration of its members, already involves the analytical
activity (since it is necessary to commute), and already demands that
the manifest unfolding of the text be 'broken up': to construct the
paradigmatic and to establish the paradigm are one in the same thing.

A syntagm, on the contrary, is a set of elements which are co-

manifest in the same fragments of texts, which are already next to one
another before any analysis. Thus, the syntagm is always and already
exposed in the text, and this is why the analyst - who must establish
the laws of this exposition, classify the syntagms found into different
structural types, etc. - finds himself, on the contrary, excused from
having to establish the literal content of the syntagm. To establish the
syntagm and to establish syntagmatics are thus two different activities;
the latter comes from the analyst, the former from the emitter of the
If one goes back to the origin of these ideas, one sees that the quite
widespread sentiment of a privileged kinship between the code and
paradigmatics is a sort of insidious misunderstanding nourished by two
sources: the more or less conscious confusion between syntagmatic
and syntagmatics, and the difference (which is quite real) between the
syntagmatic and the paradigmatic in their relation to the textual. The
misunderstanding consists in unduly carrying over onto syntagmatics
and paradigmatics a difference of behavior which has been sensed, with
good reason, between the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic; as the
latter two do not have the same relationship to the text, one has a
tendency to believe that the first two will not have the same relation-
ship to the code.
This is where the error lies. The syntagm and the paradigm are
unequally textual, but the analysis of the syntagm and the analysis of
the paradigm are equally codical. The aim of the analyst is not exactly
to discover syntagms, but to discover syntagmatic regularities; the
latter are evidenced in the text, the former are not: nowhere are they
clearly enunciated and nowhere do they figure more than do para-
digmatic regularities. Such, for example, is the filmic 'sequence', which
is one of the types of syntagms to play an important role in the cinema;
as a semiotic notion, as an element of a code, it is not 'present' in any
part of any film, and there is no textual place where it can be attested.
Films simply offer us - even if this is in profusion - particular sequences,
individual tokens of the sequence-type: the 'observation' of the
text reduced to itself, the discovery of these occurrences (no matter
how minute), will never tell us which are the distinctive features
which make a sequence a sequence, which are, on the contrary, the
characteristics which may vary without a sequence ceasing to be a
sequence ('non-distinctive' features), what are the sub-types of
sequences which exist at a given period in the history of the cinema

considered as a synchronic 'state' in the evolution of the code of

sequences, etc. All this information - with which one goes beyond the
syntagmatic to syntagmatics - may only be attained through the
analytic process; to force oneself to obtain them in already to begin
to establish the code, although this is only one aspect of the determina-
tion of the code.
In the preceding discussion, what was called the 'text' was in fact a
fragment of text; that fragment in which the syntagm is entirely
exposed and where the paradigms, on the contrary, authorize only
one of their members. one decides, as Hjelmslev so often did, to call
'text' the ensemble of texts, it becomes possible to say that all the
terms of the paradigm (like all those of the syntagm) are present in
the text. But one does not eliminate the difference as such, one only
displaces it. The elements of the syntagms are co-present in the same
passage of the text, while the members of the paradigm are co-present
in all parts of the text; one is thus led to distinguish between a
contiguous co-presence and a more remote co-presence - or again, to
define this syntagm as a set whose elements are brought together by
the author of the text, and the paradigm as a set whose elements are
brought together by the analyst.
There is still a third way of formulating this 'asymmetry' between
the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic (which is annulled when one
passes to paradigmatics and syntagmatics). One can propose that
there exist syntagm-tokens but not paradigm-tokens (and that,
consequently, 'syntagm' signifies two things while 'paradigm' signifies
only one). By 'syntagm', one understands either the assimilation effected
by the text (just mentioned a moment ago), or the syntagmatic type as
a codical article which may only be disengaged after different com-
parisons effected by the analyst; this is the difference between the
token and the distinctive unit. On the contrary, the paradigm can
only result from the comparisons effected by the analyst. Since the
members of the paradigm, by definition, are never brought into relation
by the text (and it would not be necessary to object that what is
characteristic of certain texts, as Roman Jakobson has noted in regard
to poetic language,2 is the ordering of the members of the paradigm :

* "Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics", in T.A. Sebeok ed., Style and
Language (New York, 1960). Reprinted under the title "Linguistique et po6tique",
in Essais de linguistique generale (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1963), 209-48. Trans-
lated by Nicolas Ruwet.
* Ibid., 358. "The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the

for what happens then - and Jakobson mentions this as well8 - is

precisely that the paradigm becomes the syntagm; as such, the paradigm
is always textually disjointed). It does not 'appear' in the text; its first
appearance is in the code, it is from the beginning something of the
analyst's. It is codical or it does not exist. The syntagm, for its part,
makes two successive appearances (in the text and in the code), since
it has the double characteristic of consisting (contrary to the paradigm)
in a unit of unfolding, and of being (like the paradigm) capable of
semiotic formalization. This is why we said above that the paradigmatic
activity of the analyst is accomplished only with the establishment of
the actual content of paradigms, while the actual discovery of syntagms
is only the point of departure of the syntagmatic activity : the paradigm,
in effect, cannot be uncovered, since it is nowhere in the text; it is from
the beginning necessary to construct it, such that with the paradigmatic
one is already within paradigmatics. On the contrary, one can remain
for a long time within the syntagmatic without having begun syntagma-
tics, since syntagms are things which are observable before they are
formalizable, but nonetheless formalizable.
It would thus seem logical to use two words for the syntagmatic
side (syntagmatic and syntagmatics), and only one (which would remain
to be determined) for the paradigmatic, since syntagmatic and synt-
agmatics designate two different things while paradigmatic and para-
digmatics are in a sense one and the same thing. But this logic would
be illusory, for, as a first effect, it would render more difficult any
comparison between the syntagmatic side and the paradigmatic side
considered on the same level (the level of the syntagmatic and the para-
digmatic or the level of syntagmatics and paradigmatics). In addition,
and above all, it would conceal the fact that paradigmatics and the
paradigmatic, contrary to what was said a moment ago, cease to be
one and the same thing as soon as one varies the point of view. The
paradigmatic activity of the analyst is already fully engaged in the literal
explication of each paradigm; but as this analyst assumes that the same
paradigms, although not observable, play a real role in the signifying
functioning of the text, his efforts to disengage them (an effort which
constitutes paradigmatics) is not to be confused with what he is trying
to disengage (i.e., with the paradigmatic).
We thus have a reason for maintaining, on the paradigmatic side
as well as on the syntagmatic, a lexicalized distinction between the
axis of selection onto the axis of combination." "Equivalence is promoted to the
constitutive device of the sequence." (Our emphasis.)

formalization which is proposed and the facts which are formalized -

even if the latter pre-exists much less than the former in the para-
digmatic as compared to the syntagmatic.


It is, in effect, in quite diverse degrees that the 'facts studied' are pre-
existent to the study; the degree of pre-existence varies with the nature
of the study; thus, it is greater in the experimental sciences than in the
formal sciences; within semiotic studies, it is greater in syntagmatics
than paradigmatics, since the second (but not the first) consists in
bringing together elements which it defines itself as having been
separated before its intervention. Paradigmatics, we know, has as an
objective the comprehension of relations in absentia. But by the very
fact that it formulates them, it makes them, in some way, relations in
praesentia. It is in this sense that it largely 'creates' its object, at least
more than does syntagmatics, which, if one can put it this way, relates
the already-related, without explicating the laws of comparison which
do not figure clearly in what is compared.
And yet, traditional theory seems sometimes to suggest that the
degree of pre-existence of the object would be as great in paradigmatics
as in syntagmatics; the paradigm, like the syntagm, 'would exist' (its
terms being exhibited and assembled) before any analysis; it is only the
place of this exhibition which differs : the syntagm pre-exists in the
message, while the paradigm pre-exists in the mind of the user. In sum,
it is a little in the form of a more or less conscious association of
ideas, depending on the case, that the paradigm would be an object
anterior to its formalization. One finds in Saussure passages which
lead in this direction;4 this is doubtless the reason why what he called
'associative' relationships are today normally called 'paradigmatic'.
But this psychologism and this associationism are precisely among

* For example, on page 171 of Cours de linguistique generale (Paris: Payot,

1st ed. in 1916), "(...) en dehors du discours, les mots offrant quelque chose de
commun s'associent dans la memoire, et ils se forment ainsi des groupes, etc."
"Ainsi le mot enseignement fera surgir inconsciement devant l'esprit une foule
d'autres mots (enseigner, renseigner, etc.)." "On voit que ces coordinations pa-
radigmatiques sont d'une tout autre espce que les premieres [ = syntagmatiques].
Elles n'ont pas pour support l'etendue; leur siege est dans le cerveau (...). Nous
les appellerons rapports associates." Nevertheless, one must not forget that it was
not Saussure himself who edited the Cours.
those aspects of Saussurean thought which have become the most out-
dated. It is not by being based on the associations of ideas which exist in
the mind of the user (and which are very difficult to know) that one
succeeds in establishing a paradigm; this is accomplished in fashioning
an inventory of communications at a given point in the message, and in
replacing the elements which figure there by other elements, themselves
borrowed from other messages. The intervention of the analyst, and
with it the rupture of the initial message in its manifest unfolding, are
apparent from the very beginning and diminish to this extent the degree
of pre-existence of the paradigm-object. One does not deduce the
paradigm from the 'mind of the user', but rather from what ought to
happen, in one manner or another, in the mind of the user, from the
(formally established) paradigm.
Transformational generative grammar radicalizes this principle, since
it conceives of the psychological functioning of language (apart from
the laws of performance) on the model of a Turing machine which it
would be necessary to construct explicitly in order to enumerate all
and only grammatical sentences. We know that, in this perspective, to
construct such a model is at the same time to construct a 'model of
the competence of the speaker'.
It is thus a feature common to all modern concepts of paradigmatics :
one does not 'search for' the different members of the paradigm in the
minds of speakers, but in the messages attested or at least attestable
('grammatical'); briefly, in the text, i.e., either the fragment from the
original text from which one commutes, or fragments from other texts
that one commutes with the first. Since what is characteristic of the
syntagm is precisely that one finds all of its elements in the text (but
this time all in the same place), there only remains the difference, al-
ready noted above, between the contiguous co-presence (syntagm) and
the more remote co-presence (paradigm) - with the inequality which
results from this due to the degree of pre-existence of the object.
All this, as we see, is linked to a more general evolution of linguistic
and semiotic procedures which recognize only texts and not psycho-
logical phenomena as objects anterior to their control and specifically
of concern to them. The study of psychological phenomena is more use-
fully handled by psychology; semiotics does not rely on an initial
accounting of them (even if it may, in the end, contribute to their
illumination); it is defined more and more clearly as the study of
discourse, not the psychology of discourse; this would also be true of a
generative semiotics which, refusing to make the 'corpus' (the discourse

itself) its point of departure, would prefer to directly investigate the

grammaticality of the discourse, that is to say the grammaticality of


Let us return to syntagmatics. We have already said that it belongs to

the code as much as does paradigmatics. It is necessary to add at this
point that, in this code, syntagmatics and paradigmatics constantly
refer back and forth to one another and are, properly speaking, in-
separable. (If one sometimes forgets this, it is because the syntagm and
the paradigm may be examined separately for a certain time, as we have
done here.) But as soon as one begins to examine the mechanisms of
operation, the structure of syntagms and that of paradigms appear as
closely correlated one with the other. This is one reason - the second -
for not giving way to the simplistic idea that a code is a paradigmatic
mechanism, an idea which this chapter is trying to criticize. A code is
both a paradigmatic and a syntagmatic mechanism.
Thus, in the cinematic domain, it is impossible to define the notion
of sequence other than by its differences with other forms of syntagmatic
ordering, i.e., with different sorts of non-sequences, for example the
filmic segments which place end-to-end images which are separate and
which do not 'go together' (for certain films, or certain parts of films,
do not contain sequences, and this fact is essential in order to under-
stand what is a sequence in films where they are present). Thus, when
one wishes to define, beyond the sequence-tokens, the sequence as
an element of the code - as a distinctive unit of syntagmatics - one
is immediately led to introduce paradigmatic considerations (sequence/
non-sequence commutation). Similarly, the only way to enumerate the
diverse sub-types of sequences is to rely on their mutual differences :
sequence of parallel montage, sequence of cross-cutting montage,
strictly 'chronological' sequence, etc. However, each sort of sequence
is a syntagmatic unit (a series of several shots), and remains so; but it
was possible to delineate it only by means of a paradigmatic com-
parison. One thus arrives, as we have begun to do in another work,6
at the enumeration of the principal models of sequential organization
between which the film has a choice: the catalogue which results,
no matter what its details, will be a paradigm of syntagms.
The reverse process may also be found. Let us suppose that one
* Essais SUT la signification au cinima, 121-34.
defines the 'sequence of cross-cutting montage' as that which follows
the distributional scheme A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B-A-B- etc., in contrast to
other principles of ordering such as A-A-A-B-B-B- etc. or A-A-A-B-
A-A-A- etc. One has a definition which is, in principle, of a syntagmatic
type, since it consists in stating an order. But what is the exact nature of
the 'elements' which come to be arranged in the order indicated ? What
does each ' and each 'B' represent ? It is here that paradigmatic
considerations necessarily reappear, and this time in another fashion.
For these 'elements' are not exactly elements but rather classes of
elements: in order to be able to identify a cross-cutting montage as
such it is necessary to reduce alternate images to ' and 'B'; in the
cross-cutting montage, as may be directly seen in films, one never finds
two images, but numerous images which may be classified into two
categories (or, in other cases, into three categories, into four, etc.).
Without this classification, one would be unable to distinguish cross-
cutting montages with two series from those which have three or more
series. In addition, one would be unable to speak of 'series', for each
series is precisely one of the classes of images which alternate. How-
ever, outside of the act of categorization, there would not even be any
cross-cutting. If one adopted as a unit the image rather than the class
of images, one would discover only a succession, since each image is
different and unique. There would remain no difference between a
sequence of cross-cutting montage and a non-cross-cutting sequence,
so that it is the very notion of cross-cutting montage which would dis-
appear. The latter is thus completely linked to the taking into account
of classes of images (distinctive units). However, the only criterion
which makes it possible to classify several different images into ' is
that they are not 'B' (and vice versa). Thus - and to take a particularly
banal example of a cross-cutting montage with two terms - one would
put into ' all the images which show the chasers, and into 'B' all
those which show those being chased in a chase scene. Finally, the
simple enunciation of the syntagmatic scheme (------ etc.')
would itself only be possible thanks to the play of a logical opposition
('A/B'), i.e., of a paradigmatic scheme. (Certainly, what is also charac-
teristic of A and is that they alternate: a syntagmatic notion; but,
once again, one can only know that they alternate if one has already
established categories.) Thus, the terms of the syntagm (-B) are at the
same time members of the paradigm (A/B): one properly calls 'para-
digm' an opposition between two classes, and not between two tokens.
A moment ago we defined the 'catalogues' which enumerate dif-

ferent syntagmatic types ('catalogues of montage', for example) as

paradigms of syntagms. We find at present that each syntagmatic type
is in itself a syntagm of paradigms, or more exactly a syntagm of
members of paradigms : a class of sequences of classes of elements, as
American distributional linguistics would say (e.g., Zellig S. Harris).
In other words, one can only enumerate and identify syntagmatic
types by setting them into paradigmatic relation, and one can only
define each of them as a syntagmatic combination of paradigmatic
classes. This is the cinematic version of a semiotic fact of the most
general order which has often been noted and which one could call a
sort of circularity of syntagmatics and paradigmatics.
A category (paradigmatic notion) is defined in the last analysis in
relationship to the 'point' on the syntagmatic chain where it is capable
of appearing (and where one has established an inventory of commuta-
tions), while a combination (syntagmatic notion) is defined by the
categories that it combines. One calls 'verb' that which it is necessary to
add to a noun in order to make a sentence, and one calls 'sentence' a
combination of a verb and a noun (in this example it is only a case of a
certain type of sentence, namely one which includes a verb and a noun :
the circularity, in any case, remains). One calls 'vowel' that which it is
necessary to add to a consonant in order to make a syllable, and one
calls 'syllable' a phonological combination consisting of a vowel pos-
sibly accompanied by one or more consonants. Similarly, in the cin-
ematic domain (where one is simply less conscious of this), one calls
'cross-cutting montage' a combination A-B-A-B, and one calls ' all
images which are capable of appearing after without the montage
ceasing to be cross-cutting.
This circularity is implied in the Harris-like definition mentioned a
moment ago: each sentence type is a class of sequences of classes of
morphemes. A (very simplified) example : a sentence type exists in dif-
ferent languages which may be expressed as 'Article 1 + Adjective +
Noun 1 + Verb + Article 2 + Noun 2'; it is a class of sequences,
since it covers The little boy hits the balloon as well as The old cart
hits the wall, etc. (similarly, hundreds of cross-cutting montages exist);
and what is put in sequence are classes of morphemes: 'Adjective'
covers little or old as well as blonde, shy, etc. (similarly, there are

* Harris does not speak of "classes of elements", but of "classes of morphemes",

since in this case it is a question of verbal language. See Methods in Structural
Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947) in particular 262, 342,
several ' images in a single cross-cutting montage; a syntagmatic type,
in the cinema, could thus be defined as a class of sequences of classes of
images; the level of the morpheme, here, is obviously missing).
The same circularity is found in phonology (Trubetzkoy, Jakobson,
Martinet) : this is the oscillation between segmentation and substitution
(which together form the commutation). And it is this that Emile
Benveniste has formulated in a celebrated article.7 It reappears in
transformational generative syntax, although in a notably different
form: it is in this case the presence of commas or of parenthetical
elements (which open paradigms) at the very heart of syntagmatic
rewrite rules, to the right of the arrow (or even the brace, which notes
that the constituent on the left may be rewritten in several manners to
the right). In the glossematic perspective, Louis Hjelmslev (Essais
linguistiques, 97) would consider 'grammar' as the site of a permanent
interference between paradigmatics and syntagmatics: the proper
function of grammatical categories (such as 'preposition', 'noun', 'case',
etc.) is to contract relations, i.e., regular syntagmatic environments, and
the proper function of syntagmatic combinations is to contract corela-
tions, i.e., to enter mutually into paradigmatic relations : thus, the dif-
ferent types of subordinate propositions differ among themselves, etc.
One sees, finally, that it is not possible to construct the paradigmatics
of a code without constructing at the same time its syntagmatics (and
vice versa). It is in this sense that the code, contrary to a far too wide-
spread impression, does not maintain a unilateral affinity with the para-
digm. The study of any cinematic code at all (for there are many) is
not the study of a certain number of paradigms, which would abandon
the corresponding syntagms by considering them as purely filmic and
as of interest only to the message. The study of different cinematic
codes, i.e., the study of the cinema, is the study of specifically cine-
matic paradigms and syntagms.


As the film is an object which occupies both time and space, the
syntagmatic dimension in it is deployed as much along the axis of
sequences (as 'shots' which succeed one another within the sequence)
* "Les niveaux de l'analyse linguistique", in Proceedings of the 9th International
Congress of Linguists, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962 (The Hague: Mouton,
1964). Reprinted in Problimes de linguistique generale (Paris: Gallimard 1966),

as along the axis of simultaneity : as reciprocal relations between visual

facts and verbal facts in a single shot or a single sequence.
The axis of sequences corresponds globally to the duration of the
projection. In itself it contains four parallel series : visual series
('picture-track'), linguistic series, 'sound effects' series, musical series;
the addition of the last three forms is what one calls the 'sound-track'.
The written credits, which are integrated with the picture-track (such
that the latter contains only images), constitutes a fifth, in general more
discontinuous, series.
The axis of simultaneity in fact includes two axes : there is the
rectangle of the screen, with all the spatial co-presences that it allows
(composition of each image) - and, on the other hand, the simultaneous
syntagms which may be established between different series but in a
synchrony of perception: between a visual element and a sentence
heard at the same moment, etc.
There are thus homogeneous temporal syntagms (in the sequence of
one of the four theories), homogeneous simultaneous syntagms (in the
image), heterogeneous simultaneous syntagms (between series at the
same moment), but also oblique syntagms, for it happens that a signi-
ficant ordering alone mobilizes the temporal projection and the space
of heterogeneity (the space which is created by the quadruplication of
the temporal chain); hence the syntagmatic relations which are estab-
lished between a visual element and a sentence which comes later.
The syntagmatic, in the cinema, thus does not correspond to one
dimension but to several. There is even a rather large number of them,
if one fully 'develops' the principles of classification suggested a moment
ago. (For example : heterogeneous simultaneous syntagms between two
series, images and speech; between two series, images and sound effects;
between three series, images-speech-music; between three series, speech-
music-sound effects, etc.) One witnesses an internal multiplication of
the syntagmatic axis, which is basically the overall consequence of three
distinct circumstances : (1) The cinema (even if one ignores the written
credits) is defined by four materials of expression, and not by one.
(2) All four are temporal (language, music, sound effects), or temporal-
ized (images). (3) One of them, in addition, is spatial (images).
It is also necessary to remember, in matters concerning the cinema
even more than others, that the syntagmatic is not at all confused with
the consecutive but is defined - more generally and more rigorously at
the same time - by the notion of co-actualization within a single

In Chapter 7.1-5, it was in relation to codes that we tried to situate

the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic. It is also necessary to see what
they become in other sorts of systems, the textual systems of films.
A filmic system 'encompasses' several codes; it thus contains within
itself diverse paradigms and syntagms of a properly codical type, which
were just discussed. But these are partial paradigms and syntagms on
which the system is constructed, not the paradigms and syntagms of the
system itself. Thus the general figures of montage intervene in films :
a normal and permanent phenomenon, which is nothing other than the
reappearance of codes in texts. Moreover, it is only if one has begun
with the study of codes that one can speak of reappearance, for it is
in fact a question of an appearance, and even the only one of which
the codes are capable, if one did not discover them in the text, one
could say nothing about them.
At the other extreme, textual systems taken as a block may contract
between themselves syntagmatic or paradigmatic relations; para-
digmatic, for example, when one compares two films in terms of their
overall organization, or when one finds that the overall production of
certain cineasts regularly alternates films of two distinct types, or when
one looks at two genres as genres (e.g. the classic detective film and the
'hard-boiled detective' film of the 40's and 50's, each of which is a
pluri-filmic text). In all cases of this sort it is an entire textual system
which becomes the partial element of a more vast unit, and this
unit is a paradigm. It may also be a syntagm; pluri-filmic textual
systems, discussed in Chapter 7.1, result precisely from this operation,
since each of the elements is already an entire film with its own text-
ual system, and because the latter are in some sort syntagmatically
related in order to constitute a single super-system. Syntagmatization is
moreover only one of the aspects of this process, for the super-system
is not obtained by a mechanical process of addition; it does not contain
all the traits of all the systems (see p. 68), but only those which 're-
semble one another' from one system to another - whether this be by
direct similarity, by homology, by inversion, by a mirror effect or
'message within a message' effect, etc. - and the full intelligibility of
which, consequently, is only revealed at the level of the super-system
(or rather, constitutes the super-system, for there is no reason to sup-
pose its existence in the absence of such similarities). The syntagmatiza-
tion is accompanied by a paradigmatization. In any case, the basic

element of these manipulations is an entire textual system, and their

culmination a pluri-systemic unit. But this does not yet tell us
anything about the paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations proper to
textual systems, i.e., within each of them (and which must not be
confused with the meta-syntagms and meta-paradigms created by the
operations of the analyst).
In codes, paradigmatics and syntagmatics are strictly closely related
to one another (see Chapter 8.4). In textual systems, this kinship is even
closer, for it is manifested in a smaller area, and within a 'real'
unit (while a code is an ideal unit). A text, as the etymology
of the word already indicates, is nothing other than a series of dif-
ferences, and this applies as well to the film. Considered in regard to
their syntagmatic aspects, like the juxtaposed stitches of a piece of
knitting, these differences (or rather their sum) assure the material
existence of the text; if one did not pass constantly from one image to
another, from an image ti a sound, from one 'character' or 'decor'
to another, etc. - if there were not, at the same instant, several things
to see and to hear - films would simply not exist. Of course one is here
at the level of the syntagmatic and not of syntagmatics, of the text and
not the textual system.
But these very differences, if one considers the regularity of their
juxtapositions and not the simple fact that they are juxtaposed, con-
stitute the syntagmatics of the text and already introduce us into its
textual system: reoccurrences of motifs, reoccurent groupings, privi-
leged associations, etc. And it is again these differences which form
the paradigmatics of the text, as soon as one no longer envisions them
as juxtapositions, but as openings delimiting the form of the meaning.
Each film, consciously or not, selects the differences on which it is
going to be constructed; it fabricates with these its syntagmatics to
the extent that these are transitions, its paradigmatics to the extent that
they are differences (oppositions, for example).
This phenomenon is so constant it is easily overlooked; it is not
limited to films of high quality, but may be found in any film. When
one passes from a sequence of particularly lively 'action' (gun battle,
brawl, etc.) to a scene of static conversation (a lovers' dialogue,
in the calm of the evening), as is frequent in adventure films, the
difference between the calm and the agitated is both a syntagmatic
principle (it is one form of 'transition' among others, transition by
contrast) and a paradigmatic principle to the degree that the film itself
draws a line of separation between the calm and the agitated - a
particularly banal one in this example - a line which could have been
drawn in other directions. This opposition, for example, does not exist
in burlesque films like those of the Marx Brothers (which are calmly
agitated from one end to the other), nor in films with an imperceptible
and chilling 'suspense' (like some of Hitchcock's), where the agitation
is within the calm throughout the first three quarters of the film.
The idea of a close kinship between textual syntagmatics and text-
ual paradigmatics can already be seen in Roman Jakobson's celebrated
analysis of poetic language (projection of the paradigm onto the
syntagmatic axis). If it does not take the same form there as here, it is
because Jakobson does not explicitly attempt to distinguish codes from
textual systems. But in studying the passage more closely,8 one sees that
it is a paradigm of the code (of language in general) which becomes a
syntagm of the text. We may add that it also becomes a paradigm of
the text (since the latter is constructed on the basis of the code),
and that the effect of poetry is due precisely to the fact that the same
elements are at the same time 'opposed' and 'related' by the text; this is,
for example, the enfer polaire about which Baudelaire speaks in Chant
d'Automne; more generally, it is clear that a figure like antithesis is by
definition a mixture of paradigm and syntagm, and draws from this
all its value.
The Russian Formalists, with whose 'functionalism' one is well ac-
quainted, claimed that the true meaning of a literary element depends
exclusively on its position9 in relation to all other elements of the text
or of a larger pluri-textual ensemble (that is to say on its function, in
their terminology): its paradigmatic status and its syntagmatic status
are thus closely intertwined.
One finds a similar idea in the famous analysis made by Vladimir
Propp of the Russian folktale : the thirty-one 'functions' which succeed
one another obviously construct the tale's own syntagmatics, but also
its own paradigmatics, where the 'initial lack' is opposed to the final
rectifying of this lack, the 'interdiction imposed on the hero' to the
transgression of this interdiction, the 'donor' to the 'villain', etc. (See,

Notably 220-22, and also in regard to versification (222-34), which organizes

in the text contrasts whose natures vary according to the phonological paradigms
of the language in which the poem is written. (The pagination indicated is that
of Essais de linguistique ginirale.)
' See, for example, Boris Tomachevski, "La nouvelle 6cole dTiistoire litt6raire
en Russie", Revue des Etudes slaves, 1928, 238-39); or J. Tynianov in "De Invo-
lution litteraire" (1927), reprinted in Tzvetan Todorov ed., Theorie de la littira-
ture (Paris: Seuil, 1965), 120-37. See 123.

in relation to this, the commentaries on Propp by Claude Levi-

Strauss,10 Claude Bremond,11 and Julien Greimas.)12
L6vi-Strauss, analyzing myths,18 arranges in vertical (paradigmatic)
columns the same 'mythemes' which, read horizontally, define the par-
ticular syntagmatics of the myth. This procedure has become common
in studies of texts, and one finds it, in a somewhat different form, in
transformational generative poetics (see Samuel R. Levin).14
One sees, moreover, in these examples, which could easily be
multiplied, that paradigmatics and syntagmatics are not identical: they
bring into play the same elements, but they do this in two different
Eisenstein relates15 how the overall composition of Alexander
Nevsky partially rests on the deliberate opposition between black
and white. (It is a question of their opposition in the text, and not
in some code, for the author is careful to specify that this same
dichotomy has a completely different value in Old and New.) Such
an 'opposition' functions as a paradigm in that it marks, with a quasi-
arbitrary sign (Eisenstein himself employs this word) as in Japanese
theater or Elizabethan decor, the white Teutonic invaders and black
defenders of ancient Russia. But it is also syntagmatic, by the contrast
that it establishes between one image and another, or within the same
image in battle scenes. It has both functions in the type of final
reversal where the white surface of the frozen lake is broken, collapses,
and swallows up the white profaners of the ancestral land.
In scholastic 'explications de textet, one requires students to establish
the plan of the fragment to be studied. This exercise has its cinematic
equivalent, for example in the 'filmographic Aches' produced by certain
"La structure et la forme. Reflexions sur un ouvrage de V. Propp", pp. 3-36
in Cahiers de l'Institut de Science Economique Appliquee 99 (series "M", no. 7),
March 1960.
"Le message narratif", Communications 4, 1964, 4-32.
" " la recherche des modeles de transformation", in Semantique structurale
(Paris: Larousse, 1966), 192-221.
See in particular, Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Pln, 1958), 234, where
the author is particularly explicit on this point.
" It concerns the notion of coupling, which is the basis of the method presented
in Linguistic Structures in Poetry (The Hague: Mouton, 1962), the definition of
which closely associates syntagmatic and paradigmatic considerations.
"Color and meaning", third part of The Film Sense (New York :Harcourt-
Brace, 1942, revised edition 1947). In the combined edition Film Form - The Film
Sense, trans, and supervised by Jay Leyda (New Y o r k : Harcourt-Brace and
Meridian Books, 1957), "Color and meaning" occupies pages 113-53. Passage
cited: 150-51.
associations for popular education, which attempt to distinguish be-
tween the principal parts and sub-parts of the film, thus placing itself
within the perspective of the textual system. However, what is a 'plan',
if one supposes it to be well done ? It is first, and by definition, an
attempt to disengage the syntagmatics of the film in its broad char-
acteristics; the syntagmatics of the film itself, and not of one or another
of its codes (its dispositio in the sense of ancient rhetoric). It is the
enunciation, in the very order of the text, of fragments which succeed
one another in it. But it is also, and always at the level of large masses,
a view of the paradigmatic that the film establishes. A given film may
be constructed on the basis of the opposition between town and country,
about which its 'major parts' revolve (Murnau's Dawn). Many of
the Soviet films about World War II that were produced during the
Stalin era rest on the opposition between scenes at headquarters
and those at the front, which regularly alternate. We see what binary
oppositions of this sort ('city/country', 'headquarters/front') owe to
codes external to the film, and even to the cinema, in these examples) :
social representations or literary traditions with regard to the natural
and the artificial (for the 'city/country'), systems of patriotic fervor (for
'headquarters/front'); all elements of textual systems have such codical
connections. But when one returns to their functioning within the film
itself, one finds that these articulations of the 'plan' are not only the
principal organizers of the filmic unfolding (thus, syntagmatic), but
also provide oppositions functioning as such, thus paradigmatic. One
finds the circularity between these two aspects already defined in
Chapter 7.4 : if the author of the plan has been able to reveal an op-
position between the town and the country in the film, it is because these
two terms alternate syntagmatically, but if he has been able to reveal
this alternation, it is because the difference between the town and the
country is perceptible as a paradigm, and thus makes it possible to
assign to a single category ('country', for example) several images which
differ a great deal in other contexts. The 'plan' is never purely syn-
tagmatic. What Murnau wants to tell us by means of the 'dispositio' of
Dawn is, among other things, that the town is corrupting and the country
healthy; what the previously cited war films want to tell us is that there
are two ways of fighting which are of equal dignity, that the heroism
of the soldier on the front has as an equivalent the strategic genius of
Stalin, etc.
The example of the 'plan' of films is particularly crude, first because
only the very general outline and not the detail of the textual para-

digmatics and syntagmatics appear in them, next because the plan,

even detailed, is not all there is to the textual system. The latter also
proceeds by remote disjunctions, or on the contrary by simultaneous
polysemy, and the plan does not account for configurations of this sort,
for it recognizes, for its part, only successivities, and only gradual
But the close relationship between syntagmatics and paradigmatics
would also be found in these more polished .constructions. A remote
similarity, complicated by a slight modification ('mock repetition'), it
has in any case the double effect of opening a paradigm, by the very
fact of slowing down, and of creating a syntagm of a suprasegmental
and discontinuous type (see Chapter 9.6), which links the inital motif to
its reappearance above the rest of the film. A simultaneous polysemy
offers us a paradigm of different possible interpretations, but it also
places these interpretations into a syntagm - and it is a particular case
of simultaneous syntagm (see Chapter 7.5), a syntagm of signifieds -
since there would no longer be polysemy in the text if these multiple
meanings were not effectively co-present. It would in this case be a
question of a polysemy in the code, which is very different; in a code, a
single unit may have several meanings, but the code does not tell us
if it has them all at the same time, and many texts (by the effect of
what one properly calls the context) eliminate all but one, such that
the codical polysemy, always potential (see Chapter 7.4), is not
extended into an actual polysemy, i.e., a textual one (see the end of
Chapter 5.2).
From the preceding, it results that the members of a paradigm, in a
textual system, are all within the text, without it being necessary to
go beyond its boundaries (and thus they are always syntagmatically
related, whether it is a continuous or discontinuous syntagm, the textual
system itself). This may seem to be in contradiction to another quite
familiar and entirely legitimate analytical requirement which, finding
that all texts are related to one another, makes it necessary to clarify
each element of the text by elements of other texts (similar, 'inter-
secting', or opposing elements), and to thus establish intertextued para-
But these two procedures are not of the same order. First, the inter-
textual paradigm is indispensable for establishing the codes themselves,
since a code, by definition, concerns several texts; the intertextual para-
digm, here, is nothing more than the codical paradigm, and it is thus
of no concern to the analysis of texts as such. However, this case, which
is simpler, is not the only one. It may also happen that one compares
the properly textual value of an element with this same value in another
textual system (this is a common procedure among critics of the cin-
ema). But even when this is the case, this first clarification is not
enough to determine the exact significance of the element in the filmic
system from which one has departed in order to make a comparison,
and to which it is necessary to return after having made it; the element
will be taken up again in its intertextual paradigm and given back to
its textual paradigm, which is alone capable of furnishing its significa-
tion with the desired completeness.
There is thus something of a hierarchy of successive operations - a
hierarchy which does not necessarily have to become metaphysical,
and which varies with the principle of relevancy adopted in each
study. When one analyzes a textual system, this principle involves a
consideration of what makes each text a singular totality. It is clear
that this principle is not only that, but also a link in one or more
intertextual chains. When these chains are the object of the study, the
hierarchy is reversed and the examination of intratextual paradigms no
longer intervenes as preparation for the examination of intertextual
paradigms; it is thus that one obtains pluri-filmic textual systems (such
as genres), as discussed in Chapter 7.1 as well as the beginning of
the present chapter.
Textual paradigms and textual syntagms present another remarkable
peculiarity. In certain cases they borrow each of their terms from a
different code or sub-code. According to the classical definition, a para-
digm or a syntagm is only established between terms which belong to
the same code, for example to the same language. The French word
blanc is not in paradigmatic relationship to the German schwarz or the
English black, but the French noir. The ordinary definition thus con-
cerns codical paradigms and syntagms. In this sense, the textual phe-
nomena which we are going to discuss do not perhaps merit the name
paradigms and syntagms (it is here a question of terminology, to be
settled by explicit convention), and yet elsewhere they readily resemble
the paradigms and syntagms most commonly accepted as such. As for
their 'inter-codical' nature, it is obviously due to the fact that the text-
ual system is the place where several different codes meet.
The inter-codical syntagm is a common case of textual syntagms.
Within the same sequence, the same image, one will find combined
(and thus in syntagmatic relation) some figure from a code of montage,
another which comes from a lighting code, a third which figures some-

where in the general system of 'registers of speech' in the cinema

(ordinary dialogue/voice-off in the first person/voice-off of an anony-
mous speaker/ etc.). It is thus simply a question of a combination of
codes within the textual system, which is a normal and ever-present
fact. Each term of the syntagm is in some sort an entire code, re-
presented in this sequence of the film by one of the figures that it
The inter-codical paradigms as textual paradigms represent a less
common case, reserved for films which are in some manner trans-
gressive and develop to a greater or lesser extent in the direction of a
metatext (films containing a commentary on the cinema). The cinema,
like all language, is not accustomed to comparing its own codes with
each other, and ordinarily prefers to use them without making them
explicit; we know that there is always something indistinctly subversive
in the activity of a metalanguage, which offends the ordinary 'trans-
itivity' of discourse (Roland Barthes). This transgression, in the cinema,
may be expressed in two ways, one of which is the inter-codical para-
digm. In principle, the film (which, as just said, mobilizes, on the
whole, several codes) is not accustomed to concentrating several of
them at the same level and at the same point. When it does so (in it-
self a syntagmatic act), it proposes at the same time a necessarily ironic
confrontation of these codes, a feeling of excess which turns the object
of the discourse toward the codes themselves, an unusual and
enumerative use in which a paradigm of a special type is established,
somewhat similar to that procedure of scholastic grammars (where one
also speaks of 'paradigms') which consists in reviewing the five Latin
declensions in succession in the same chapter. The filmic discourse
thus seems to be a series In the manner of...
In which situations may one find such a construction ? In order to
answer this question, a special study would obviously have to be made.
But we can already distinguish, offhand, two sorts of films which man-
ifest intercodical paradigms. There are first those films which, according
to a hallowed expression, 'mix genres' (a good example of which
would be Francois Truffaut's Tiri sur le Pianiste) : hard-boiled detective
film, parody of the hard-boiled detective film; melodrama, parody of
the melodrama; comic film; and finally sentimental film. To the extent
that each genre is itself a textual system (see Chapter 7.1), the
notion of a mixture of genres is misnamed, since the film which
'mixes' them has its own textual system (where the mixture is ac-
complished), and because this textual system cannot thus encompass
each of the genres as a totality; it consists, on the contrary, in not fully
accepting any of them, and in weighing them against each other; hence
the amused tenderness which dominates the entire Truffaut film, and
which belongs to none of the genres that it combines. And yet, the tradi-
tional name captures something of the truth. Films of this sort borrow
certain codes from different genres so that, in their textual system, sever-
al genres are in some sort 'represented'; each of the genres provides one
or more of its codes, and what results from this is very much an impres-
sion of mixture. Thus, the film brings entire codes into syntagmatic
relation, but the syntagm operates only towards paradigmatic ends,
and establishes a sort of meta-filmic and recapitulative confrontation,
by which the film commemorates its past.
Inter-codical paradigms are activated in another sort of film, those
which belong to a 'flamboyant' tradition of romantic-baroque ex-
uberance, and are distinguished by a particular (always a little playful)
multiplication of 'cinematic processes', for example, Orson Welles'
Citizen Kane, Glauber Rocha's Terre en transes, Josef Von Sternberg's
The Scarlet Empress or Agent X.27, etc. What is characteristic of films
of this sort is that they are not content to appeal to several distinct and
complementary cinematic codes - a normal procedure and one common
to every film, as just stated - but to several sub-codes of the same code,
the normal rule for which is to have some sub-codes exclude the others
and maintain mutual relationships of substitution (see all of Chapter
7.5). These sub-codes are syntagmatically related, since the film co-
actualizes several of them. It is no longer a question of the ordinary
'inter-codical syntagm' defined above : it is not (for example) a code of
montage and code of lighting which are juxtaposed in the film, but two
sub-codes of montage which come from different aesthetics and different
'epochs', and between which films normally choose. Thus the direct
bringing into contact of the very terms of the choice indicates a refusal
to choose, and it is this refusal - or this explicit affirmation of several
contrary codes - which gives to such films their particular appearance;
they seem to skip across the history of styles and are expressed
according to an onthological procedure which may be feverish (Glauber
Rocha), artful (Sternberg), or both at the same time (Orson Welles).
The intercodical syntagm, as in the case of mixed genres, operates solely
thanks to a paradigmatic and meta-cinematic confrontation.



Since some cinematic studies have begun to adopt a more or less

semiotic perspective, which is to say that, in the last few years, certain
authors have posed the problem of the minimal unit in the cinema and,
in some cases, have even begun to propose various types of solutions to
this problem. In the discussion which has thus been opened, one even
hears it said quite frequently that the establishment of the minimal unit
would constitute a prerequisite and would be capable, as long as it were
not settled, of blocking the further progress of cinematic analysis.
It appears to us very dangerous to outline the problem in this way.
This proposition, first, has a formidable inhibitory power to the extent
that it situates at the very beginning of research, and as an indispensable
condition for its pursuit, a theoretical point which is among the most
difficult of all and whose solution would require ample previous studies.
But this is not the most serious objection which can be made: if this
situation, even if uncomfortable or provisionally circular, corresponded
to reality, one could not criticize those who subscribe to it (Saussure,
in his time, remarked that the problem of the linguistic unit - what
one would later call the morpheme - was both indispensable to resolve
and very difficult to deal with).1 It is even more important to underline
the fact that the theme of the minimal unit, in discussions of cinematic
semiotics, is often based on a tacitly asserted idea, which is precisely
the one which calls for the most severe criticism - namely, the idea that
there would exist in the cinema one (one single) minimal unit, and that
it would thus be associated with all presentations of the big screen. One
finds here, in a new form, the confusion between code and language
(abstract system and material of expression), a confusion whose other
consequences have been examined above (cf. Sections 2.2 and 2.3). A
Cours de linguistique ginerale, 149.

minimal unit - or a specific type of articulation integrating several units

each of which is, in its place, minimal, for example the distinctive unit
and the meaningful unit in the linguistic conception of 'double articula-
tion' (Andre Martinet) - is never what is characteristic of a language,
but always of a code. No minimal unit (for specific systems of articula-
tion) exists in the cinema: such a unit exists only in each cinematic
The analogy between linguistics and cinematic research must be
handled more prudently, a requirement which, far from taking us
away from linguistics, causes us, on the contrary, to look even more
closely at it. One commonly assumes that, since linguists have determin-
ed the characteristic units of verbal language and by doing so have
made important progress, analysts of films ought to do the same. But
this is a grave misunderstanding. The fundamental units which linguists
have discovered, morphemes, phonemes, distinctive features, sememes,
semes, the Chomskians' 'formants' - although differing from one school
to the next in their definition and exact number - all retain, and
constantly, the well-established characteristic of applying to la langue
and not langage in general, in which la langue is only a single code.
Take, for example, an utterance like Voudriez-vous tenir ceci, s'il
vous plait ? 'Would you like to hold this, please ?' - It is a brief text, a
fact of (pluricodical) langage. one analyzes it from the point of view of
one of its codes, here the French langue, one would say that its m i n i m a l
units - on the level of the signifier, in this example - are distinctive
features, and, among others, the feature of voicing which distinguishes
the /d/ of voudriez (voiced) from the /t/ of tenir (unvoiced). But in
order to account for this utterance in its totality - and no matter what
its brevity and its finality - it is also necessary to take into account its
other codes, for example the code of etiquette which is obviously man-
ifested in it. However, this code of etiquette has its own minimal units,
different from the first in their size and their boundaries, and which have
nothing in common with distinctive features. Thus, one can commute
Voudriez-vous tenir ceci, s'il vous plait ? with Voudriez-vous tenir
ieci ?, which is already a bit less polite. The segment s'il vous plait,
which is commutable with its own absence (the phenomenon of zero-
signifier), is not decomposable in the code of etiquette where it may
only be actualized as a whole or not at all; but in the code of the French
langue, this same segment forms a complex super-unit which can be
further analyzed: plait is a verb, vous is a personal pronoun, etc.
Far from corresponding to some minimal element, it is already on the

level of a sentence (the notion of 'proposition'). In the French langue,

plait may appear in s'il vous - s'il without vous plait, etc.; but not in
the code of etiquette (s'il - without vous plait - is not on item of
politeness; for example: S'il fait beau temps 'If the weather is nice'),
and it is only s'il vous plait taken as a block which constitutes, in this
code, a distinctive unit. In our example, this code reveals some of its
other units : the use of the conventional vous (commutations S'il vous
plait/S'il te plait and Voudriez-vous/Voudries-tu), the use of the con-
ditional (commutations Voudriez-vous/Voulez-vous), the use of the
verb vouloir with an interrogative intonation (commutation Voudriez-
vous tenir ?/Tenez /) We see that these minimal distinctions would no
longer be such in the code of the langue, where each of them cor-
responds to an already complex segment: a word inflected with several
morphemes (the verb in the conditional), a modification affecting
several morphemes at the same time (the use of the conventional vous),
etc. These are thus not units of the spoken language nor of this sentence,
but of a certain code which is manifested in this spoken language and
especially in this sentence.
In a more general way, it has already been remarked (by Hjelmslev,
Barthes, etc.) that the minimal units of codes of connotation are often
of a larger syntagmatic dimension than those of the corresponding code
of denotation. This is to say that several codes co-present in the same
text may be represented there by entirely distinct units, and that this
text as such (as an instance of homogeneous manifestation) does not
thus have a single type of minimal unit, but several which overlap one
another and are woven into it, which make it a structure. The 'con-
notators' (signifiers of connotation) which characterize a given 'style',
'nuance', 'intention' (signifieds of connotation) are often quite large if
one compares them with the properly linguistic units on which they have
been superimposed within the same text: archaism, affectation, modern-
ism, familiarity, 'nobility', etc., not necessarily being marked by distinc-
tive phonic features, phonemes, or even semes, but much more frequent-
ly by words or entire groups of words, or even by minimal units which
are directly of the order of the shape of the expression, i.e., by a specific
inflection which affects as a block a long segment of speech such as,
in the phonetic order, careful or relaxed pronunciation, 'stately'
elocution, etc. The brief sentence discussed a moment ago also offers
a case of this sort. In it the French langue served as the code of
denotation, and 'etiquette' as the code of connotation. A segment like
s'il vous plait functions in it - following Hjelmslev's famous analysis -
as a signifier of politeness (signifier of connotation), while in the French
langue it is a signified, which makes use in turn of its own signifiers
(the segment /silvuph/). Thus the signifier of connotation mobilizes
the whole code of denotation, with its signifiers and signifieds.
In Anthropologie structmrale,2 Claude Levi-Strauss has noted that
mythical codes, although they are always manifested in one or another
natural language, since a myth would not exist if it were not spoken
(two codes in the same text), have specific units which are not those of
the idiom of expression, but which must be disengaged separately by
a series of commutations internal to the mythical features of the corpus
and to them alone. The narrative of a myth, as produced by the native
informant, may contain morphemes equivalent to the French et, ou,
parce que, etc.; these are not units of the myth (to which they belong,
however, materially), but only of the language which supports it. The
same initially recorded mythical narrative (the same text) will also man-
ifest specifically mythical units, for example - in Levi-Strauss' studies -
those which may be rendered into French by princesse, vautour, chacal,
'princess', 'vulture', 'jackal', etc. A minimal unit of the mythical code
under study, an item like princesse, is not a minimal 'unit in the idiom
of expression, where it alone includes, on the level of the signifier,
several phonemes, and on the level of the signified, several semes
('royal family', 'female sex', etc.).


Analyses oriented in this way are less common in writings about the
cinema, where one readily confuses langage and langue, and where
linguists, who study the latter (langue) are often considered to be
studying the former (langage). In this way the idea is spread that the
phoneme, the morpheme, etc., would be the minimal units of the spoken
language, and that they would thus belong to all manifestations of a
certain material of expression - phonetic substance - and that, since
'the cinema' is also characterized by this means of expression, it ought
to have, in the same way, one specific minimal unit, or one specific
battery of minimal units integrated among themselves (a specific system
with several articulations). One begins to search for the minimal cin-
ematic unit, which is sometimes believed to have been found in the

' "La structure des mythes", especially 230-33.


'shot',3 or in the photogram, sometimes in the filmed-object,4 or in a

stretch of film based on more complex criteria;5 one wonders if the
system of the cinema has two articulations, or more,7 or, on the
contrary, only one, etc.
All these propositions would be more interesting - and their co-
existence would provoke less confusion - if, instead of being supposed
to apply globally to the 'cinema', they clearly focused on some par-
ticular, explicitly designated cinematic code (or group of cinematic
One sometimes has the impression that each author has his own
minimal unit, and it is astonishing that, in so few years of research,
so many minimal units (or types of articulations) have been proposed,
each of which was believed to be the only true one. The reason for this
is that each author was thinking of a particular code or a particular
group of codes, which he more or less clearly identified with the
cinematic fact in its entirety.

* This is (implicitly) the traditional position and (explicitly) that of Eisenstein

during one entire period of his theoretical thought (the entire film reposes on the
dialectic opposition between shots).
For Pasolini (see note 6), the shot is the unit of first articulation.
For Sol Worth, it is the fundamental unit of the cinema; Worth calls it videme
and distinguishes two sorts: the cademe or "camera-shot" (the shot as it
"leaves" the camera) and the edeme or "editing-shot" (the shot after montage); see
"The development of a semiotic of film", in Semiotica 1:3, 1969, 282-321
(especially 299 ff.).
* Or "cineme" in the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini (see note 6).
' As, for example, the "iconeme" of Gianfranco Bettetini; see Cinema: lingua
e scrittura (Milan : Bompiani, 1968), 44-63, especially 48-52 and 54-55, in English
translation by David Osmond-Smith, The Language and Technique of the Film
(The Hague: Mouton, 1973), 33-50. It is necessary to note that, with this author
it is not the iconeme which is itself the minimal unit, but it is in relation to it that
one may determine the minimal units.
* This is the position of Pier Paolo Pasolini, 71-73 of "La lingua scritta
dell'azione" Nuovi Argomenti, new series, no. 2, April-June 1966, 67-103. The
unit of second articulation is the "cineme" ( = filmed object), the unit of first
articulation the shot.
With a great deal of caution, Gianfranco Bettetini (see the previous note)
estimates that in a certain sense one can speak of a double articulation in the
cinema (52-60).
The Collectif Quazar group (see note 9), considers the photogram the unit of
second articulation.
' The idea of a triple cinematic articulation in the work of Umberto Eco
(Chapter B.4.1. of La struttura assente; in French: 41-49). For this author, it is
not the cinema as a whole which displays three articulations, but only the techno-
logical codes corresponding to what one calls the reproduction of reality.

Such a remark is not only critical, but also autocritical. In our Essais
sur la signification au cinima (pp. 212-34), we studied a certain sub-
code of montage, the large syntagmatic category ('grande syntagmati-
que') of the picture-track in the classical film narrative. It was said in
various places (notably pp. 122 and 138) that this is only one cinematic
code among others; however, in certain passages (p. 138 + passim),
the importance of this code in relation to the ensemble of the cinematic
material is clearly overestimated, and the idea that one could really be
dealing, if not with the single code of the cinema, at least with a
privileged and particularly central code, was not sufficiently avoided.
This vacillation explains, and justifies in part, some of the criticism
which has been levelled against us, and which nevertheless remains
unfounded. One has especially reproached the study of the large syn-
tagmatic category for not having mentioned certain cinematic elements
whose importance is unquestioned: sound, dialogues, the visual
'point of view' in which the action is presented to the spectator, the
construction of images proper to the most recent and most innovative
films, etc. These signifying configurations certainly stem from other
codes, the study of which, from the beginning, was excluded by the
very definition which we gave the large syntagmatic category (122).
However, the expose did intrinsically lay itself open to these criticims,
to the extent that it failed to establish explicitly enough the pluricodical
nature of the cinema, such that the only code (or rather sub-code)
which, in the passage in question, was studied in detail tended to appear,
from a somewhat hurried reading, as the only code of the cinema.8

* It is exactly on this point that a misunderstanding has arisen between Emilio

Garroni {Semiotica ed estetica 74, 77, 78) and the present author. Emilio Garroni
has criticized our attempt to divide the filmic chain into successive 'autonomous
segments'; it is still a question of the "grande syntagmatique of the picture-track".
The Italian author believes that, if one is content to split the overall filmic
message (pluri-codical text) into smaller material branches one has not really
analyzed it, for one obtains, in the end, segments which are just as completely
heterogeneous but simply smaller in size. This criticism would be valid only if our
theory of the types of sequences ( = autonomous segments) were presented as a
tool for the total analysis of the filmic message : but, in our opinion, it constitutes
only an attempt to elucidate one of the codes of the film, the one which organizes
the most common spatio-temporal logic within the sequence. This logical com-
binatorics is only one of the systems which make up the 'grammar' of the cinema
(and thus a fortiori which instructs the total message of the film). Concerning the
deliberately fragmentary nature of this attempt, the reader is referred to our dis-
cussion* in "Considerazioni su gli elementi semiologies del film", Nuovi Argo-
menti 2 April-June 1966, 58; in "Problemi di denotazione nel film di finzione"

To return to the question of the minimal unit, it would be good to

take the example of the photogram9 which, among others, is sometimes
suggested to fill the function of 'smaller cinematic segments'. Two
things come immediately to mind, however, and we do not see how
either could be avoided : the photogram is not the minimal unit of all
cinematic (and even less, filmic) manifestations, and it is incontestably
the minimal unit of some of them. If one studies, for example, the dif-
ferent codes which in Hollywood films organized the behavior of the
actors, their dress, the choice and the 'typification' of their phy-
siognomy, the system of occupations (the gangster, the cowboy, the
'private', etc.), the modes of elocution, the deportment, and all similar
things, it is clear that the photogram, far from being the minimal unit,
is most often not even a distinctive subdivision of it. Phenomena like
those just enumerated are not articulated by photograms, but are
organized according to segments which, along the axis of time, are
larger than the photograms, since they are stretched out over several
successive photograms (such as a facial expression which is changing)
and, along the axis of space, smaller than it, since they occupy only a
part of its surface (such as the same facial expression in a medium

0Cinema e film 2, Spring 1967, 175, and in Essais sur la signification au cinima,
Thus it is quite true that each of the autonomous segments recognized
in a film remains a heterogeneous conglomerate in other respects, and constitutes
an authentic unity only within a certain perspective, i.e., in the perspective of one
of the formal models which may be as we have said constructed by abstrac-
tion from the concrete text: the autonomous segment is not a unit 'of the film',
but a unit of one of the systems of the film. Our attempt thus leads in the same
direction as do Emilio Garroni's thoughts on the codical heterogeneity of the
cinematic language. It would, moreover, be an unusual coincidence if the different
systems of the film all gave rise to units, within the filmic chain, whose boundaries
coincided exactly with their syntagmatic positioning: it is thus normal that the
units of this particular code ( = the autonomous segments) are not units for other
filmic codes; but we have not said that they were.
The Collectif Quazar group in Brussels (a team of cinematic semioticians led by
Michel Gheude and Daniel Peraya) accord a great importance to the level
of the photogram, without, however, making it the universal minimal unit; see
"Les photogrammes comme signifiants", comments made by Michel Gheude at
the Conference, Stato e tendenza attuali della ricerca sulle communicazioni di
massa, un particulare riferimento al linguaggio iconico (Milan: Institut Agostino
Gemelli, 9-10 October 1970). The photogram is considered to be a unit of second
The photogram plays an important role in the paper by Umberto Eco on triple
articulation in the cinema (cf. note 7).
Recently, authors like Roland Barthes and Silvia Pierre have examined the
notion of photogram, but from a point of view which is foreign to the present

shot, which also shows the furniture, the body of another person in
'outline', etc.): here is thus a group of codes - and there are others -
where the minimal unit is certainly elsewhere than in the photogram.
It is when one is thinking of cinematic codes of this sort that one may
rightly assert that the cinema is not a machine for the purpose of
combining photograms, but rather for suppressing them and rendering
them imperceptible.
On the other hand, one also finds at least one group of codes in
which the photogram is certainly the minimal unit (or one of the
minimal units, if one allows several integrated articulations): we are
thinking of the technological codes which are involved in the very
functioning of the cinematic equipment (of the camera), which are its
program (in the sense that one speaks of the program of a computer)
and which constitute the very principle of its construction and
operation. These technological codes, although they have machines
as their 'users', have been constructed by men (inventors, engineers,
etc.); moreover, the structures which they impose on the information
are again treated and mastered - but this time at the level of decoding -
by other humans, the spectators of the cinema, who perceive the pro-
jected images and understand them. Among these codes, there is one
which is so important it is even commonly considered to be the very
principle of the cinema, its very definition: this is the complex system
according to which the cinematic equipment (recording camera, film
strips, projector) 'reproduces movement' - in fact: analyzes it, preserves
it and recomposes it on demand - by making use of diverse optical
phenomena, primary among which is the' -effect'10 (and not the retinal
after-effect, which simply plays a balancing role, in other respects quite
important for a better legibility of the image). Everyone can understand
that in this technical code (which is the very code of the cinematograph),
the photogram is truly the minimal unit, or at least one of the minimal
units. It is the smallest segment along the axis of sequences, like the
phoneme in spoken languages, but not along the axis of the simulta-
The ' -phenomenon', or 'illusion of movement' was know long before the
invention of the cinema, and commonly considered to be 'natural'. As early as
1840, psychologists were describing it without analyzing it. These were the famous
experiments of Wertheimer (1912), and of Korte (1915) which have established its
existence in a precise manner. See R.C. Oldfield, "La perception visuelle des ima-
ges du cinema, de la television et du radar" Revue Internationale de Filmologie
1: 3-4, October 1948, 263-79), and A. Michotte van den Berck, "Le caractere de
'realite' des projections cinematographiques" (same journal, same issue, 249-61).
The same idea (with a different context) is expressed in the work of Umberto
Eco concerning "triple articulation" in the cinema (cf. note 7).

neities,11 for there are several luminous lines in a single photogram, as

there are several phonetic features in a single phoneme, and even in a
much larger number; what is set in motion from one photogram to the
next is an entire bundle of these lines; the 'movement' usually credited to
the cinematograph is not just any movement, but the setting in motion
of a whole photographic surface. One could object, here, that our
exposition is contradictory, and that this code of movement, within
which we pretend to confer on the photogram a special status, is
precisely that which has the effect of rendering the photogram imper-
ceptible, since it substitutes for several fixed and disjointed perceptions
a unique, continuous, and moving vision. But the objection is hardly
valid, for what is characteristic of this code is that it arrives at such a
result on the very basis of the photogram and its optimal utilization
(or at least what is judged as such: sixteen images per second in the
period of the silent film, twenty-four today) - and thus that it needs
what it is trying to 'suppress' in order to be able to suppress it. In the
cinematic process this code intervenes at the precise moment when
one passes from the photogram to its negation. This negation is its
goal, its specific function: what is negated is thus distinctive. Other
codes, on the contrary - like those which organized the behavior of
the actor, mentioned a moment ago - are characteristic in that they
intervene only after the latter, on the basis of its henceforth acquired
effects, at a moment when the fabrication of the movement on the
basis of successive immobilities is no longer a problem, and when new
figures are inscribed in a fabric already in motion. At this stage of the
process, movement is no longer a form that the code must conquer, but
simply one of the characteristics of an initially available material of
expression: the photogram (author of its own negation and thus of
movement) is then something which has been 'surpassed'; it has ceased
to be distinctive.
This photogram is only one of the segments which have been pro-
posed as the 'minimal cinematic unit'; other examples could be analyzed
in the same manner. Thus, it is impossible to determine to what extent
and in what exact sense the 'shot' in the cinema is a minimal (or even
simply distinctive) unit if one does not take into account the plurality
of cinematic codes, and thus of the cinematic 'grammar' as a whole.
Historians of the cinema know that the role of the shot in the construc-
tion of films has varied considerably according to the period, the style
of the shooting script, shooting, and montage (as well as the ideologies
linked to these diverse styles). In the great period of the Soviet cinema,

when the theories and practices of the so-called 'sovereign-montage'

were in wide use, the shot had an irreplaceable function of major
importance : each shot was, in principle, constructed around a unique
and central motif which it 'isolated', the visual composition of the film
resting on the clash between successive shots, the film being truly
'mounted' shot by shot. In some - but not all - more recent films
the filmic unfolding proceeds, on the contrary, according to entire
'scenes', some of which, consisting of a single rather long shot ('shot
sequence'), are commutable with others which nevertheless contain
several shots connected in a smooth and barely noticeable manner
('classical shooting script').
Such a variation in the distinctive unit corresponds to different sub-
codes which are distinguished along the axis of history (for example,
notions like 'the Soviet School of the 20's', 'continuous shooting in the
modern cinema', etc.), each of which concerns a certain class of films
(this term has been defined in Chapter 7.2); but they all specify a single
code, or, more exactly, the same coding problem (see Chapter 7 . 5 ) :
namely, what is known as cinematic montage, in the broad sense in
which it encompasses also the shooting script and certain shooting
options. In the example of the photogram discussed above, it was a
question, on the contrary, of differences between codes, and not between
sub-codes; the behavior of the actor and the optical reconstitution of
the movement are two distinct questions, not two answers to the same
question. But what concerns us here is that these two things come
down to the same thing: what we wanted to show is simply that the
position of a given filmic segment (shot, photogram, or any other), in
relation to the function of the minimal unit (and even of the distinctive
unit), may vary considerably from one code or from one sub-code to
another, and thus may only be determined in relation to each of them
separately, never simply in relation to the 'cinema'.



It is not true that the identification of minimal units is a prerequisite

for the entire domain of cinematic semiotics. It is appropriate, on the
contrary, as a beginning, to disengage and distinguish between - to
isolate - the principal cinematic codes and sub-codes, or at least some
of them; and it is in the measure that one will have best delineated them
that one will be able to determine (by commutation within each of

them, and not within the 'cinema') the minimal unit which belongs to
one or the other.
The problem of minimal units is not an autonomous theoretical point
which could be settled independently of a more general investigation of
'cinematic grammar', and before undertaking such a study. The m i n i m a l
unit does not exist outside of the conceptions which one may have of
the grammar, and it already engages them in their most general outline;
it does not constitute the preface to it. To the multiplicity of codes there
corresponds the multiplicity of minimal units. The minimal unit is not a
given in the text; it is a tool of analysis. There are as many types of
minimal units as there are types of analysis ! (By 'analysis' it is nec-
essary to understand the analysis performed by the users as well as
that made by semioticians, since the latter has as a goal, among other
things, to make explicit the former.)
There is no cinematic sign. This notion, like that of 'pictorial signs',
'musical signs', etc., stems from a naive classification which proceeds
according to material units (langages) and not by units of a logical order
(codes) : a fanaticism of specificity which is not without some meta-
physical notions, as we have said in another context in Chapter 2.4. In
the cinema (or elsewhere) no sovereign code exists which imposes its
minimal units, which are always the same, on all parts of all films.
These films, on the contrary, have a textual surface - which is temporal
and spatial - a fabric in which multiple codes come to segment, each
for itself, their minimal units which, throughout the entire length of the
filmic discourse, are superimposed, overlap, and intersect without their
boundaries necessarily coinciding.
The present state of cinematic semiotics, marked by the absence of
minimal units which are clearly recognized and agreed upon by all, is
not at all especially discouraging, or at least would not be so if
theoretical confusions did not complicate matters. The study of codes
can begin without delay, and the minimal units will be established in
the course of time. The essential thing, now as later, is never to make
a minimal unit of a cinematic code into a minimal unit 'of the cinema'.
There is some similarity - which is methodological, not substantial -
between this situation and that of the morpheme in natural language, as
it is represented by transformational generative linguistics. Nevertheless,
transformational generative grammar deals with a single code (spoken
language, the 'model of competence', an abstraction made from all the
'models of performance'), while the study of the cinema has greater dif-
ficulty in establishing for itself a domain with a single semiotic dimen-
sion (see Chapter 7.6). The similarity lies elsewhere; it concerns the
relationships which exist between the determination of the minimal
unit and the overall study of grammar. Generative linguistics, we know,
holds that the minimal segment which is distinctive for the 'syntactic
component of the grammar' - the 'terminal constituent' of the syntactic
phase of generation - cannot be the object of a predetermined definition,
independent of the detailed analysis of the syntactic machine itself.
Even this analysis can show, for example, that certain segments com-
monly considered as morphemes (bifacial units with a signifier and a
signified) in reality merit another name - these are pure jormants, in
generative terminology - for they consist of simple grammatical tools,
lacking any particular signified, as the English do in negative or inter-
rogative sentences, ne or pas in the code of French 'neuter' (where the
only group 'ne...pas' constitutes a morpheme, which has negation as its
proper signified,12 etc. In the 'syntagmatic' (or 'categorial') part of
syntactic generation, the terminal constituents - minimal units - are
all morphemes; in the transformational part of the syntax, which comes
later, the terminal constituents are formants, some of which coincide
with morphemes (they have been led back in identical fashion, trans-
formation by transformation, from the terminal-syntagmatic string
to the terminal-transformational string), and some of which are new
and specific constituents, which do not appear in the terminal-syn-
tagmatic string and which had to be introduced in the course of the
transformational phase : these formants (do, ne, pas, etc.) are not mor-
There can thus be two sorts of minimal units - and it is not a ques-
tion here of minimal syntactic units (Andr6 Martinet's units of first
articulation). Similarly, at the level of the second articulation, the study
of phonological mechanisms shows, according to generative linguists,
that it is not impossible to do without the phoneme,1* and to directly
represent the phonetic content of spoken strings in terms of distinctive
features; these features may be combined successively (in which case

On the other hand, as Nicolas Ruwet remarks {Introduction la grammaire
ginerative [Paris: Pln, 1967], 38), pas may occur without ne in the colloquial
sub-code of French (Je veux pas). We might add that, in an 'aristocratic' sub-code
ne may appear without pas (Je ne saurais le dire). In such cases, pas (on ne) alone
expresses negation ( = proper signified), and alone constitutes the transformational
development of the element eg. included in the deep structure (terminal syntag-
matic string); the formant thus coincides with the morpheme.
" See, for example, Sanford A. Schane, "Introduction" to La phonologie gendra-
live, Langages 8, 1967, 3-12.

it is a single phoneme). To the extent that this mode of 'phonetic

representation' without phonemes - i.e., this new conception of the
code itself - would succeed in accounting satisfactorily for sentences,
the location, dimension, and even the definition of the minimal unit
of the second articulation would be entirely changed, since this would
no longer be the phoneme but the feature.
In sum - and it is especially this that it is appropriate to remember
for cinematic studies - the determination of the m i n i m a l unit does not
precede the study of codes but is a part of it, and is closely associated
with conceptions scholars have of the functioning of these codes both
in general and in detail.
To wish to determine the minimal cinematic units at the present time
would be to put the cart before the horse. To wish to determine a single
minimal cinematic unit (concept of cinematic sign) would - far from
taking care of the necessary preparation for the analysis of codes -
make this analysis impossible.


In the entire preceding discussion, it was only a question of distinctive

units proper to cinematic codes. If one takes into account the ensemble
of filmic codes, one will see the number of minimal units multiplied
even more, i.e., those units which are entirely distinct from one another,
and into which it is possible to segment the material fabric of the film.
For extra-cinematic codes, just as cinematic ones, determine in the
film the minimal units which belong to them.
Thus, in films where symbolisms appear which are more or less
clearly inspired by psychoanalysis (or even in other films where a similar
intention is not at all conscious, but which may be legitimately inter-
preted from the point of view of Freudian experience), some of the
relevant units that the study will discover will consist of symbolic
objects, in the precise sense that Freud gave to this notion.14 Thus there
are units which may be legitimately considered to be filmic (since they
can be seen in the film under study), but which are not at all cinematic,
since they retain the same value and the same function in a novel, a
poem, or a dream (the site of their first appearance). One could avoid
obscuring the issue, as is done all too often in similar cases, by repeating

" See, or example, Chapter X (165-87) of Introduction la psychanalyse

(1917), French translation (Paris : Payot, 1964).

that the treatment of these symbolic units, the modalities of their ex-
pression, their contextual positioning, the overall network where they
are 'used', etc., are quite different in the film from what they would be
elsewhere - that a staircase which is evoked verbally and one which is
photographed are two distinct objects. For similar propositions, which
are not at all questionable, concern other codes (which organize the
'treatment'), and the only one of which it is a question here - the one
in which the unit staircase is symbolically associated with the perfor-
mance of the sexual act16 - remains independent of the cinema, and
identical in other means of expression. (In the course of psychoanalysis,
it happens that one 'translates' images into words without paying atten-
tion to the connotative losses brought on by the 'betrayal' of other
codes. One works, in these moments, according to what Freud
called 'symbolic' - to the temporary exclusion of larger 'primary
processes'. It also happens that one attaches oneself to the most recur-
rent representations in dreams in order to disengage their, in some sort,
literal meaning, i.e., in this case, their corresponding impulse in the
unconscious. This is proof that it is a question there of an autonomous
level of meaning, which one may consider by abstracting from the
modalities which preside over the concrete evocation of these same
symbolic objects.) When a case of this sort is presented on the screen,
the filmed-objects - or more exactly certain filmed-objects - acquire
a status of distinctiveness for the decipherment of the film; but they do
not become, as such, minimal cinematic units; and to suppose that they
do elsewhere, in some more specific cinematic codes (and not neces-
sarily in all!), it is clear that this distinctiveness will thus be charac-
teristic of all filmed-objects (of the 'object-unit' as such) - or at least, if
it is necessary to admit that certain objects are cinematically more
distinctive than others, that this would not be selectively those of them
which play a privileged role in dreams. Thus, the filmed-object-of-a-
fixed-psychoanalytic-value offers us an example of a distinctive unit
which is filmic without being cinematic.
There are many others. In certain Westerns, for example Howard
Hughes's film entitled The Outlaw,16 critics have discovered a precise
'theme', 17 an organized and repeated structure which one could call

" Freud, Introduction la psychanalyse, 174-75.

" 1944. French title: he Banni. The film was directed in part by Howard
" See Andr6 Bazin, "La meilleure femme ne vaut pas un bon cheval", Revue
de Cinema (2nd series) 16, August 1948, 66-71.

the theme of the woman and the horse. It is a question of a stabilized

antithesis, in the extreme, of an allegory - and, as well, of a certain
affective structure which is attributed, mythically or not, to the wild
pioneers of the American West - in which the horse stands for freedom,
wandering, solitary irredentism, and surly loyalty in the soul of the hero,
while the woman symbolically expresses (and effectively encourages) a
bad inclination which in the end he will not follow, a temptation of
sedentary fixedness, of a renunciation of the asceticism of lost causes
and dusty battles, even a magical danger of falling into the flabbiness of
life, the betrayal of friendships, and ethical blindness. This naive and
pompous diptych, inspired by an ideology of virility and materaalistic
misogyny, many traces of which are found in Westerns, is rooted in the
conditions of life of one region and of one epoch (the conquest of the
West in the 19th century), in the ethos of a certain social class (that of
the 'pioneers'), in a Puritanical mentality which in turn goes back to
more ample social conditions, and finally in more or less 'deep' psycho-
logical configurations : the fantasy of the mount, of two mounts. (All of
this is not to say that the pioneers of the West, or at least most of them,
had really adopted this system of sentiment about and conduct toward
women and horses - but that the latter, even in its mythical unreality,
as a fabrication of the Hollywood scriptwriters who came after the
event, can only be explained, in its lasting success with audiences, by
direct, inverse, or oblique references to the conditions of real life.) In
any case, we are here far from the cinema as a specific fact: the theme
of the woman and the horse was already taking shape, before the
invention of the Lumifcre brothers, with characters like that of 'Calamity
Jane', in songs of the Old West (Western songs), in the popular literature
spread by peddlers (Western books),16 etc. In films where the code to
which this theme belongs appeared, the minimal unit - at this specific
point of the filmic development - can be defined in no other way than
as the syntagmatic relationship between two filmed-objects, the woman
and the horse; it is neither the figure of the woman nor that of the horse
which is distinctive, but only the fact of their antithetical comparison.
However, it is clear that such a unit (the co-presence of two individual
representations, to the exclusion of all others) is not one of a number
of distinctive elements of some properly cinematic code or another,
and even less of the cinematic language system taken as a whole. One

Remember that "Calamity Jane" (the true Calamity Jane, who was called
Mary Jane Canary or Mary Jane Connaray, and lived from 1852 to 1903)
had dictated her memoirs, and that book had had a great success.
thus sees to what point one risks missing the real structure of films
when one insists on finding the minimal filmic sign.


The minimal units of the film (cinematic or not) are not only distin-
guished by their numerical multiplicity, but also - and this is the con-
sequence - by the variation in their material form, and notably in their
syntagmatic scope. Some of them are small, others much larger; each
of them, however, is minimal in relationship to its code: 'minimal'
does not mean small, but designates the smallest unit which is still
commutable (and which may be rather large).
We saw above that the minimal unit is in certain cases the photo-
gram, in others the shot; these are two very unequal filmic segments
with respect to their size (syntagmatic dimension), i.e., in regard to the
material quantity of textual surfaces that they respectively occupy (this
surface, you will recall, is also a temporal surface, since the filmic text
is inscribed in a material of expression which mobilizes both space and
time). The shot always contains several photograms, and sometimes a
very large number of them - 144 for one six-second shot
In certain psychoanalytic codes capable of playing a role on the
screen, a brief example of which was mentioned in the preceding
chapter, the distinctive unit is of the order of the size of the filmed-
object. It is the same with codes of iconic designations, as we shall
call the systems of correspondences between distinctive iconic features
and distinctive semantic features of spoken languages which allow the
spectators of films, elsewhere users of some spoken language, to identify
the recognizable and recurrent visual figures, and to assign to them a
name drawn from that language: it suffices for the French-speaking
spectator to perceive on the screen a fast-moving quadruped with striped
coat in order to think 'zebre', without needing additional visual clues;
the recognition does not operate according to the overall ensemble of
the image, but according to the distinctive features of the iconic signi-
fier, which correspond, in turn, to the distinctive features of the lin-
guistic signified (on this subject, see the analyses of A. Julien Greimas,
on the one hand,19 and Umberto Eco, on the other).20 Here again, the

" Cf. note 13 of Chapter 2.

" Cf. Chapter B.1.II of La struttura assente, more especially .1..5 and
.1..6 (In French, 13-21, more especially 16-18.)

distinctive unit is of the order of the size of the object, or more exactly,
one has a system with two integrated levels (two articulations) in which
the large distinctive unit is the nameable object - the zebra - and the
small unit the feature of iconic recognition (the stripes of the coat, etc.).
These units, whether it is a question of the nameable object or of a
distinctive part of it, are of small size in relationship to the total surface
of the film.
However, in other cases (in other codes), the minimal unit occupies
a much larger filmic segment: thus in narrative codes (see the works
of Propp, Bremond, L6vi-Strauss, Greimas, Barthes, Todorov, etc.),
codes which appear on the screen as well as elsewhere, the distinctive
units - whether their definition centers around the action, the sequence
of actions, the character, the octant, or the function, etc. - may each
occupy several minutes of the film strip. Other actions, it is true, are
evoked by the film with extreme brevity; but this variation itself con-
firms to what point one must guard against the tendency to confer the
status of a minimal unit on filmic segments of some particular absolute
order of size.


The different minimal units of the film thus differ in size, but also in
syntagmatic form, i.e., in the exact contour of the 'hole' that each of
them leaves in the textual surface of the film, if one subtracts a minimal
unit from the film, ideally leaving all the rest intact, notably the imme-
diate surroundings. When the units consist of filmed-objects, they
occupy a continuous segment of filmic space and time; the hole would
be so-to-speak of a single piece. In these cases, the distinctive unit has
for material content a certain surface of image and a certain time of
projection, both of which are measurable; the same may be said of units
like the shot, the photogram, the entire sequence, etc.
But in passing we have already come across examples of a quite
different situation. Thus, in the ideological code of the Western, with
the theme of the woman and the horse (see p. 198), the unit of analysis
does not, properly speaking, occupy any textual surface; it is only
the figure of the woman, or that of the horse, which occupies any text-
ual surface; but they are not distinctive for the code considered; it is
rather their co-presence which is. And the fact of co-presence, as such,
occupies neither space nor time; it is an 'abstract', immaterial, primarily
relational unit - and yet strictly localizable within the filmic devel-
opment; one localizes the co-presence in terms of the co-present objects,
and one can say exactly at which minute of the film and in which
images this antithetical theme appears, this theme which however
occupies neither a fraction of a minute nor of an image.
There is another striking example of these filmic units which occupy
no place and which can nevertheless be situated. They belong, this time,
to a cinematic sub-code, which we have studied in another book under
the name of 'large syntagmatic category' (see Chapters 8.4 and 9.2).
This code, let us recall, specifies the principal sort of 'sequences' which
appear in the picture-track of the classic narrative film; their funda-
mental types are of a fixed and limited number, and each of them has its
own principle of internal construction, an intelligible and formalized
'scheme', a certain spatio-temporal logic of the ordering of the suc-
cessive images within the same sequence. (With the 'cross-cutting
syntagm', which is one type, the alternation on the screen of two series
of intermixed images - A-B-A-B, etc. - signifies that event A and event
are simultaneous in regard to the plot of the film; with the 'parallel
syntagm', the same alternation signifies something else in the chronology
of the story, etc.) The distinctive element in such a code is not the
sequence itself (the entire sequence, with all its textual fabric), but only
the logical principle of ordering with animates it and which assures its
cohesion, permitting the images to form a sequence instead of remain-
ing isolated views (cf. p. 171); it is a question, in sum, for each type
of sequence, of a certain form of montage, i.e., of one of the figures of
specifically cinematic space-time. In films, the cross-cutting syntagm
may serve to represent a chase (alternation between the images of the
chasers and the images of the chased), but also a siege (images of the
besiegers and images of the besieged), a football game (images of team
X and images of team Y), and even other actions. However, elements
like 'chase', 'siege', 'football game' - even those which, in a cross-
cutting syntagm, occupy the surface of the image and the time of the
projection - are not distinctive for the codical definition of the cross-
cutting syntagm, and thus of the minimal unit considered here. The
latter consists neither of the images which alternate, nor of the actions
which are supposed to be simultaneous, but of the figure of significa-
tion which says that the alternation of (no matter which) images may
denote the simultaneity of (no matter which) actions : a purely logical
entity which, by itself, does not take place in the film; however, one
knows exactly at what moment of the film a cross-cutting syntagm

appears, at which moment it does not. Thus, in this code of the 'large
syntagmatic category', the distinctive units do not consist of filmic
segments, but of sorts of abstract exponents each of which is attached
to a filmic segment. (It will also be noted that, as for these segments
themselves, they may be of a very large size - for certain sequences
are very long - without their 'exponent' ceasing to constitute a single
minimal unit.)
In certain color films the distribution of colored masses according
to the space of the image and the time of the production follows a
precise and highly elaborate structure. It may be a question of one
or more cinematic (or simply filmic) codes relative to the symbolism
of colors in the culture, or of different textual systems used throughout
the same film, and which are not without analogy in the systems of
values of black and white in films 'without color' (see p. 178), such as
Eisenstein has theorized about and practiced them. When one analyzes
films of this sort, certain distinctive units will thus be colored, and color
(contrary to appearances) occupies no textual surface: it is a colored
object which occupies it, and not the fact that it is blue rather than
red (in which, and in which alone, the color consists). However, the
color is localizable, according to the placement of the colored object.
Color, when it is distinctive, thus offers another example of an ex-
ponential-unit. Compare the similar case of movements, which must
not be confused with the spectacle that they permit us to observe, or
which is made available to us by means of them,21 etc.
It seems, then, that the different (cinematic or non-cinematic) dis-
tinctive units of the film, considering what we called earlier their syn-
tagmatic form, may be classified into at least two categories: there
are those which are segmental (the photogram, the shot, the filmed-
object, the entire sequence, etc.), and those which are suprasegmental,
like the co-presence of two objects, color, camera movement, figure
of montage, etc. The latter, as was said, consists of exponents which
selectively affect - and this is how they can be localized - a specific
filmic segment (or several, in the case of co-presences), but which are
not confused with the entire textual surface of this (these) segment(s),
and do not occupy any place by themselves : this is why we call them
(metaphorically) exponents.
In the realm of linguistics, the distinction between the segmental and

On the 'suprasegmental' status of camera movements, see Christian Metz,
Essais sur la signification au cinema, 76.
the suprasegmental has been made - notably by Andr6 Martinet22 and
Zellig S. Harris23 - in order to account for the difference between two
of the principal aspects of phonology: phonemics (the study of pho-
nemes, i.e., of articulation) and prosodies (the study of intonation, or at
least of those aspects of intonation which belong to the langue and not
simply to langage, in particular accent, tone, and vocalic quantity).
In a verbal utterance, the phonemes are strictly consecutive, and
it never happens that two of them are emitted at the same time (this is
the famous 'linearity' of language, or more exactly of the spoken utter-
ance). Each phoneme thus occupies a segment of the utterance (from
which comes the name 'segmental'), and the succession of phonemes
constitutes the second articulation, on its syntagmatic side. But it also
happens that the chain of linguistic signifiers is so-to-speak divided in
half (notion of the 'suprasegmental') and that a second chain - signi-
ficant or simply distinctive, according to the case -is expressed at the
same time as a phoneme or a sequence of phonemes, and in some sort
over it: thus, in tone languages (as certain languages of Southeast Asia),
the grave or acute pronunciation of a vowel belonging to a given pho-
nemic sequence is sufficient to establish, with this 'unique' sequence, two
different morpheme signifiers (in practice, two different words of ab-
solutely distinct meanings); all this happens, then, as if the melodic
pitch of the voice had contributed an additional distinctive differentia-
tion, being added (along the axis of simultaneity) to those already
furnished by the diverse phonemes of the sequence.
One sees that the linguistic distinction between the segmental and the
suprasegmental is very close to the distinction we have made beween
two sorts of distinctive filmic units; hence the terminological trans-
ference. The objects distinguished, of course, have nothing in common;
but the distinction is separate from the objects distinguished. supra-
segmental unit, in linguistics, does not, properly speaking, occupy any
segment of the spoken chain; what does occupy a place is the vowel
pronounced with an acute tone, not the fact that this tone is acute
rather than grave (in which, and in which alone, the distinctive supra-
segmental distinction consists); however, the latter may be accurately
localized, since it is attached to one vowel or another (or syllable, in
See Chapters 3-24 and 3-35 of Elements de linguistique generale, 77-90. And
studies such as "Accents et tons" (Miscellanea phonetica, 2nd fasc., 1954, 13-24),
reprinted and augmented in La linguistique synchronique (Paris: P.U.F., 1965),
The notion of 'contour' ( = distinctive suprasegmental intonation); see for
example, Methods in Structural Linguistics, 169-70.

other cases) which, for its part, is fully segmental. The relationship
which exists between the tone and 'its' vowel is thus homologous to
that which unites thefilmiccolor to 'its' object - or, in the code of the
large syntagmatic category, the spatio-temporal logic of the cross-
cutting montage (here alone distinctive to 'its' sequence, i.e., to the
material segment of thefilmin which it is used).
We shall agree to call frame of syntagmatic reference, or simply
'frame of reference' - also a term inspired by linguistics - the textual
segment to which a distinctive filmic unit of a suprasegmental type is
'attached'. In this way one can distinguish the exponent itself (the
distinctive unit) from that which is only its textual support. The frame
of reference is always of a segmental nature. It may happen that it has
itself the status of a distinctive filmic unit, but in another code; for
example, the 'sequence', which is only a frame of reference with respect
to the units of the large syntagmatic category, becomes in turn dis-
tinctive (at least in certain cases) in relation to the narrative code of
action. However, when such a segment is designated as a frame of
reference, it is, by definition, because it is not envisioned according to
the code in which it is distinctive, but according to the code in which its
exponent is (or else there would be no reason to call it this, since then
it would itself be the distinctive unit). Similarly, in the suprasegmental
analysis of certain languages, the tones have the vowels as frames of
reference which elsewhere, when the segmental analysis is being made,
are phonemes like the others, distinctive units and no longer only the
support of distinctive units. This change, which is produced in lin-
guistics when one passes from one sector of the code (the prosodic) to
another (the phonemic), appears in filmic research when one passes
from one code or sub-code to another.


In this chapter we have emphasized three important characteristics of

the distinctive units which may be found in the film: their numerical
multiplicity, the diversity of their size, and the diversity of their syn-
tagmatic form. These are three reasons why it is necessary to be wary
of the notion of the cinematic sign (in the singular), at least in the more
or less clearly asserted form in which it frequently appears (sometimes,
in extreme cases, it appears as a mere expectation) : this is the idea that
there would exist - that it would be necessary to look for - a single
cinematic sign or a single cinematic type of articulation; that this sign
would be of nearly stable and more or less familiar size (it is represent-
ed, following the model of the linguistic sign, as being relatively
'small', not too different from the morpheme, which is why one looks
especially on the side of the filmed-object, the photogram, or even the
shot); and that this sign, finally, like the morpheme, would necessarily
be segmental (an additional reason for thinking of the object, or the
'filmic image', etc.).
It is in the work of certain semioticians or researchers influenced
by semiotics that these tendencies are witnessed. But we must not
ignore the fact that, to the extent that they lead filmic analysis along
overly simplistic paths too poor in relation to the concrete diversity of
the textual material, they threaten to provide arguments to those who,
hostile to any formalization and to the segmentation of any units what-
soever, take as a pretext the richness and the variety of the filmic signi-
fications in order to continue the empiricism and the impressionism
which have until now dominated discussions about filmic productions.
one pretends, or if one postulates, that there exists in the cinema a
unique type of sign, more or less comparable to the morpheme of
spoken languages, these people will t'eel justified, after having estab-
lished the absence of such a sign, in concluding from this the vanity of
the very notion (however much more vast and diverse) of a distinctive,
minimal, suprasegmental, signifying, etc., unit. Does not one of their
most common arguments, which is not completely unfounded, consist
precisely in bringing the semiotic approach into suspicion in the name
of the obvious and considerable differences which distinguish the cine-
matic language system from language in general -by reason of the fact,
for example, that the cinema offers nothing comparable to the stable,
relatively enumerable units which are all of the same type as are mor-
phemes or (to a lesser degree) words ? And certainly, it is a highly in-
adequate view of the semiotic enterprise to imagine that a conceptual
apparatus inspired in part by linguistics has only one possible utiliza-
tion - namely, to demonstrate at any price that the diverse language
systems resemble spoken languages trait for trait. These concepts, in
truth, are just as useful for demonstrating the contrary - and for con-
clusively demonstrating it, since one takes the trouble really to look at
how spoken languages are constructed. And it is for this reason that it is
also necessary that the semiotician himself, faithful to this conceptual
arsenal, takes upon himself another task as well - namely, that of
really looking at how different sorts of texts, and, among others, those

of films, are constructed. If not, it would sometimes happen that the

detractor of semiotics, ignorant of linguistics, has a definite overall
'feeling' for the cinematic thing which, even formulated without much
rigor, is more accurate than that of the semiotician. In sum, the notion
of the cinematic sign (in the sense which it has been specified) seems
to us doubly dangerous : from the perspective of the internal devel-
opment of semiotic research, and from that of the public debate with its
It is necessary nevertheless to note that the scepticism expressed
here in regard to the 'cinematic sign' - differing in this, beyond the
various influences owing to the history of ideas, from other critiques
of the sign which have been made, for example in the works of Jacques
Derrida or the Tel Quel group - does not have so much to do, finally,
with the notion itself of sign as with an overly uniform conception of
the sign, one too uniformly 'linguistic'. For, among the diverse dis-
tinctive units which have been mentioned in the course of this chapter
- in a very incomplete way and simply as examples - there are some
that could be legitimately called signs, if, at the very least, one took
this term in a specific and technical sense (the smallest commutable
element still having a meaning), in separating from it adventitious
connotations which too often become associated with it and are com-
pletely foreign to its nominal definition: the idea that the sign is always
segmental, that it is 'small' in the absolute sense, that there is a single
sign for each 'language', the impression that every sign has a general
appearance and a normal behavior more or less similar to those of the
linguistic sign, etc. Once these parasitic representations are eliminated,
there is no trouble considering a camera movement as a sign - even if
its value varies considerably from one sub-code or from one textual
system to another (cf. Chapter 7.4) - since this camera movement al-
ways has a meaning, and since, in the code of camera movements, it is
the smallest movement which has one (a dolly shot has a meaning, a
half of a dolly shot does not, as was pointed out on p. 131: one can
only commute a dolly in shot as a whole with a whole dolly out shot, or
a dolly shot with its absence, i.e., a dolly shot and a fixed shot).
This is not to say that all distinctive filmic units are signs in the sense
just specified. Some are syntagms of several signs (such as a complex
series of camera movements); others, on the contrary, simply distinctive,
not yet meaningful (at least in relation to the codes considered) units.
Thus, in the code of 'iconic designations', briefly mentioned on p. 199,
the stripes of the zebra - which are themselves objects, and thus signs
elsewhere - intervene only as means of visually identifying the zebra,
thus as distinctive elements 'smaller' than any given sign.
The notion of the sign, in effect - even if one submits it to a healthy
reduction in scope and if one confines it to the minimal sense which
has been specified - has no right to play a more important role in
cinematic and filmic semiotics than in other areas of contemporary
semiotics and linguistics. Without rejecting the notion of the sign as
such, it must be realized that it only represents, today, one tool of re-
search, and that it no longer enjoys the privileged and central status
which it had with Saussure or Peirce; other notions have been shown
to be just as important, and sometimes more so, for the concrete
progress of analysis : generation or transformation, syntagm and para-
digm, system and code, expression/content, form/matter/substance,
etc. A system of signification is not only a system of signs; units larger
or smaller than the sign play a considerable role in it; the 'level of the
sign' should not be isolated from the others. This is one more reason
- the last which will be mentioned here - for not linking the study of
the distinctive units of the film to the exclusive search for the cinematic



Throughout this book, we have made wide use of the notion of

material of expression (or material of the signifier), which has been
borrowed from Louis Hjelmslev. The material of expression, as its
name indicates, is the (physical, sensorial) material nature of the signi-
fier, or more exactly of the 'fabric' into which these signifiers are woven
(for one reserves the term 'signifier' for the signifying form). This fabric
may be phonetic (spoken language), aural but not phonetic (instrumental
music), visual and colored (painting), visual but not colored (black and
white photography), it may consist of movements of the human body
(gestural languages), etc. As has already been said, the most common
classification of the different language systems (and among others of the
different 'arts') rests on criteria of the material of expression: each
language system has its own material of expression or a specific com-
bination of several (the sound and talking films [i.e., today, simply
the cinema] belongs to the second case).
But, having arrived at this point, it is necessary to be more specific
about Hjelmslevian terminology. A brief critique of Hjelmslev's texts is
going to be necessary, for the exact definition of material, as well as of
form and substance (to which 'material' is opposed in a triadic para-
digm), as well as of their mutual relationships, is not always easy to find
in the writings of Hjelmslev, who in this regard went through a certain
number of variations and vacillations, which is the almost inevitable
price of all original thinking which is truly 'searching'. The intro-
duction of the word 'meaning' as an occasional synonym of 'material'
(with, as a consequence, the existence of a 'meaning of expression' op-
posite the 'meaning of content') does not at all simplify matters.
There is, however, one interpretation of Hjelmslev's thought which
appears to us to be more probable than others, not only because it
See note 19, p. 240.
avoids conceptual subtleties which are quite contorted, but also
because it permits one to find a wide agreement between the numerous
passages of the Danish linguist's writings. This is the interpretation
which is made explicit - with the word 'meaning' in place of 'material' -
in Chapter 13 of Prolegomenes (pp. 71-85 in the French version) where
Hjelmslev reproaches Saussure (C.L.G., pp. 155-57) for having said
that what one finds 'before' form is an amorphous substance (more
exactly, two amorphous substances, that of meaning and that of sound).
Hjelmslev protests (p. 74) that substance is not amorphous, that it is
the strict correlate of form, and that it thus, by definition, always has
some form (p. 76). There is, of course, he adds (pp. 74-75), something
amorphous which is independent of form and which exists 'prior' to
it - but this is not substance, but meaning: meaning of content (or
simply 'meaning') and meaning of expression (p. 80).
For our part we shall retain the term 'material', as Hjelmslev him-
self did in his Essais linguistiques1 (notably pp. 48-50),2 for the term
'meaning', which is quite appropriate for the material of content, gives
rise to quite useless and somewhat 'affected' difficulties when it is a
question of the material of expression. On the contrary, 'material'
('purport') offers the advantage of being clear for both the level of
expression and the level of content.
Let us return to Chapter 13 of Proligomenes, where it is said that
form is a purely relational network, that the material (here baptized
'meaning') represents the originally amorphous something in which
the form is inscribed and 'manifested', and that the substance is that
which appears when one projects the form onto the material "as a
stretched string projects its shadow onto an uninterrupted surface"
(p. 81). This metaphor seems particularly clear to us: the "uninter-
rupted surface" is the material, the "stretched string" is the form, and
the "shadow" of the string on the surface is the substance.
Thus - contrary to persistent popular opinion - the essential opposi-
tion in the thought of Hjelmslev would be between form and material,
and not between form and substance. The 'third' term, the term which
is logically derived from the opposition of the other two, is substance
and not material. Substance is nothing more than the result of the
meeting of form and material; substance has nothing of its own; its

Copenhagen : Nordisk sprog og kulturforlog, 1959 (Volume XII of Travaux du
Cercle linguistique de Copenhague).
* In "La stratification du langage" (first published in the form of an article in
Word X, 1954, 163-88).
210 'specific/non-specific'
nature is dependent on the material (thus, in natural languages, the
substance of expression is the phonetic sound, i.e., it is confused
by its physical nature with the material of expression, which is also
phonetic sound), and it takes its relational organization from form. We
know, in effect, that for Hjelmslev substance (considered at least from
a semiotic point of view) does not have a special form - the form that it
has is that which has been imposed upon it - in all senses of the word -
by 'the form', which is the only semiotically existant form. This inter-
pretation has the advantage of eliminating any mysterious, encumbering,
or supranumerary 'third term': the substance so understood does not
constitute some third thing which will come to be added to the form
and to the material; it is simply that which appears when a form happens
to organize a material, or when a material is organized by a form. Sub-
stance, Hjelmslev adds (Prolegomdnes, p. 76), is not something other
than the material (here called 'meaning'), for it is characteristic of the
material only to appear as the substance of a form; nevertheless, the
substance is logically distinct from the material (p. 76), for one calls
'substance' the material which is already formed, while the term
'material' (or 'meaning') designates by definition something not yet
formed ('amorphous', according to Saussure); the result of imposing a
form is to transform material into substance (p. 76).
One will also note that this interpretation accords well with what is
said in Essais Linguistiques, on pp. 72-74 : 3 language as a 'schema'
corresponds to pure form, and language as a 'norm' to material form;
however, in another passage of that work (p. 31),4 Hjelmslev reproaches
the Prague phonologists - wrongly, it seems to us, but this is another
question - for not having considered 'pure form', but form as already
manifested semantically (or phonetic manifestation as already formed):
with distinctive features, certainly, but with distinctive features form-
ulated in phonetic terms. one compares these two passages - and even
others - one sees that phonological studies concerned, in the eyes of
Hjelmslev, the 'material form' (or the 'norm') of the level of expression,
i.e., that area which is neither pure form nor pure material, but quite
precisely substance in the special sense that, in our opinion, the
author gave to this notion despite his diverse variations in formulating
it. Pages 48-50 of Essais Linguistiques support this interpretation of
In "Langue et parole" (first published as an article in Cahiers F. de Saussure 2,
1943, 29-44).
* In "Structural Analogs of Language" (first published as an article in Studio
Linguistica I, 1948, 69-78).
' In "La stratification du langage".
'substance', since it is said there that the material is the manifestant
in general (even unformed), while the substance is, uniquely, the al-
ready formed manifestant.
We shall adopt then, for our present purposes, an interpretation of
Hjelmslevian thought in which one has only two logically prior things,
the form and the material (which correspond rather closely to a defini-
tion which current usage gives to these two respective words) - and
in which the substance is nothing more than the formed material, or
the materialized form.
Also, the term 'substance' is not used in this book. But this does not
mean, far from it, that considerations of substance are absent from it:
one shall return to this point in Chapter 10.8.
Form is thus proper to codes, material to language. It is this point
of view which has been maintained, in anticipation, since Chapter One.
But one point still remains to be discussed. In the writings of
Hjelmslev, the distinction 'form/material/substance' is always com-
bined with another, which opposes expression and content (the level
of the signifiers and the level of the signifieds), and which is independent
of the first, such that their recombination is organized into a double
entry table which contains six final items : from of expression, form of
content, material of expression, material of content, substance of ex-
pression, substance of content.
There are thus two 'materials'. And if, throughout this book, it has
only been a question of one of them (the material of expression), it is
because it is the only one which distinguishes one language system from
another. The material of content, as Hjelmslev remarked,6 is common
to all semiotic phenomena (for our part we would say : to all language
systems and all codes); in some a single material of content exists, which
is what one calls meaning (the fact itself of the meaning, the semantic
fabric). What varies from one semiotic phenomenon to another is the
division of this fabric into distinctive units of signifieds - i.e., the
form of content, the proper system of the signifieds themselves - but
not the nature of the fabric itself, which is always the meaning. All
systems of signification whatsoever have as a function the transmission
of meaning. They may borrow their signifiers from quite different
spheres (visual, auditory, etc.), but their signifieds always belong to the
semantic sphere and to it alone: to this ideal 'material' - immaterial
material, so-to-speak - to this psycho-sociological material which is
* For example, Essais linguistiques, 61, in "stratification du langage".

The fact remains, however, that, from one language to another, or

from one code to another, the material of content may vary greatly, if
not in its nature, at least in its scope. Hjelmslev notes7 that certain
codes, like natural languages, have a material of content which is co-
extensive with the totality of the semantic fabric : they make it possible,
in principle, to express anything (it would perhaps be more accurate to
say that codes or language systems of this sort have a material of content
which is infinite, or at least indefinite, in extension; one cannot assign
precise limits to it; no clearly delimitable sector of meaning exists for
whose expression they are specialized and confined). Other systems of
signification, on the contrary, like military bugle calls, maritime signal
lights, etc., have as a function the organization and transmission of a
precise and restricted number of semantic meanings, all within a single
sector of meaning: their material of content, taken in its totality, thus
extends only to a small part of the general semantic fabric. This prob-
lem has already been examined at the end of Chapter 2.3, where we
saw that the cinema is not a specialized language system, and that its
material of content is indefinite. It is thus not this fact, nor even its in
some sort of quantitative extension, which allows us to distinguish the
cinema from theatre, from literature, from opera, etc., or even from
spoken language. The 'non-specialized' language systems are rather
numerous, especially among the arts, and if Hjelmslev mentioned only
spoken language, it is because he did not wish to treat this question in
detail. In the case of the cinema, this indefinite extension of the semantic
fabric is the result of two distinct causes whose effect is cumulative:
on the one hand, the cinema encompasses a code - spoken language, in
talking pictures - whose presence alone would suffice to make possible
semantic messages of the most varied types; in the second place, other
elements of the filmic text, for example pictures, are themselves lan-
guage systems whose material of content has no precise boundaries.


Until now, we have distinguished those filmic codes which are specifical-
ly cinematic from those which are not. The existence of the latter
scarcely poses any problem; any problem of principle, at least, for to
actually draw up an exact list would take a long time; but their status
itself (their non-specific nature) may be established without difficulty in
each concrete case, on the sole condition that one sets apart, as has
been done in diverse passages of this book, the treatment of the code
in the film, which is distinct from the code itself, which is in fact the
work of other codes, and which may be cinematic, if these other codes
are. Once this precaution has been taken, there is nothing adventurous
in considering as extra-cinematic, for example, a given collective re-
presentation or some social imago (the seductor, the model spouse, the
wayward youth, the adventurer, etc.) which appears in films as well as
in books, newspapers, and conversations, at least within a given cultural
On the other hand, it is much more difficult to ascertain with any
certainty that a given code is specifically cinematic. In order to do this,
it would be necessary, in effect, to establish, if not that this code is
manifested in all films, since the sub-codes are also specific (cf.
Chapter 5.3), at least that it never manifests itself elsewhere than in
films (this last point calls for some discussion, which will follow, in
Chapter 10.4; but it remains, nevertheless, in all evidence, linked in
one way or another to the very definition of the 'specific') However, it
is not necessary to go very far in order to ascertain that certain codes
(or articles of codes), intuitively felt to be specific and commonly
presented as such in writings on the cinematic language, appear as
well, in more or less similar forms, in the 'text' provided us by other
means of expression. Borrowings, transferences, imitations, adaptations
of semiotic figures (and, more generally, all of the vast domain of what
we will call semiotic interference between arts) represent a rather
common phenomena, which constitute the rule and not the exception :
certain configurations which would appear to be most obviously cine-
matic reappear in comic strips, or in literature (such as the 'cross-
cutting montage' in the novels of Faulkner); certain plastic effects
which seem most closely linked to pictorial art have been adopted by
German or Swedish expressionist films; narration in the first person,
a construction which is said to be 'essentially novelesque' became com-
mon in films after 1939;8 etc.
This objection, however, in turn gives rise to diverse counter-
objections : the 'adaptations' of semiotic figures do not take place
This problem has often been studied by theoreticians of the cinema. See in
particular Jean-Pierre Chartier, "Les 'films la premiere personne sonore' et
l'illusion de ^ l i t e au cindma" (Revue du Cinema, 2nd series: 4, January 1947,
32-41); Albert Laffay, Logique du cinema (Paris: Masson, 1964), 77-82; Jean
Mitry, Esthitique et Psychologie du cinema, tome II, 68-71, 107-112, 140, 403-

without profound distortions of the signifier and the signified, and one
could not pretend that the same figure 'passes' from one art to
another without abusing the English language since, at the end of this
'passage', it is not exactly the same as it was before. To speak of a
cross-cutting montage in the work of Faulkner, or of the flashback in
the novels of Sartre, as has sometimes been done, is to employ meta-
phors; it is also to confound diachrony with synchrony, for there may be
historical influence without structural identity. It is clear that a con-
figuration of montage as particular as the 'bracketed syntagm' (if one
takes this notion in the precise sense in which we have tried to define
it elsewhere)9 exists only in the cinema or on television, even if it has
undergone, during its development, the influence of some construction
already in use in literary works, and even if it 'inspires' in turn certain
pictorial compositions of certain stationary 'photo-montages': for these
precursors of these heirs of the syntagm are not bracketed syntagms.
In addition, it often happens that it is a particular unit of a code, and
not the entire code, which individually serves as the object of borrow-
ing. Faulkner has perhaps 'adopted' the cross-cutting montage, but he
has certainly not adopted the entire system of cinematic montage (in
which the cross-cutting montage is opposed to other types of montage,
and draws a good part of its meaning from this contrast). It might be
added that this system of montage, despite all its influences or localized
offshoots, remains specifically attached to a particular art, the art of
the cinema.
However, these circumstances are not enough to eliminate the
objection mentioned a moment ago (the argument of 'semiotic inter-

* Essais sur la signification au cinema, 127-28. Definition of the bracketed

syntagm: "A series of brief scenettes representing events which the film gives
as typical examples of a single order of reality, deliberately refusing to situate
them in time to others, in order, on the contrary, to emphasize their supposed
kinship within a category of facts that the cineast has as his goal to define and
render sensible by visual means. None of these expressions is treated with all the
syntagmatic scope which might have been possible ( = system of allusions): it is
their ensemble, and not each of them, which is taken into account by the film,
which is commutable with a more ordinary sequence, and which thus constitutes
an autonomous segment (there is in this an awkward filmic equivalent of concep-
tualization or categorization). Example: the initial erotic expressions in Une
femme mariee (Jean-Luc Oodard, 1964), a sketch by variations and partial repe-
titions of an overall signified like 'modern love' (...) We shall give to this construc-
tion of images the name bracketed syntagm since it suggests between the events
that it regroups the same type of relation as brackets do between the words that
it brings together (...)."
ferences'); they only point out certain cases in regard to which this
objection would be without bearing. But in other cases, it is the entire
code (or a vast section of it) that one language system borrows from
another, as, for example, systems of clear-obscure, where the overall
field of semiotic oppositions has itself been taken over by genres of
color photography from genres of pictorial works. Obviously, one
could think that codical interferences of this scope suppose that the
donor-language and the target-language do not differ to any great extent
in their material of expression; in the case of the clear-obscure, the
migration of the entire system is possible, one would suppose, only
because the two arts involved share the same characteristic of presenting
their addressees with fixed, visual, colored images; but what would it
mean then, if - as is quite possible - the same symbolism of clear-
obscure were adopted in a literary description and expressed by means
of words ? The vehicle, henceforth verbal, would be profoundly chang-
ed, but the internal ordering of semiotic oppositions could, in the
extreme, remain the same, or at least largely isomorphic, throughout
this new migration.
It is not enough, then, to distinguish between localized semiotic
interferences, where only one particular figure is 'common' to two or
more language systems and where, from this very fact, one can doubt
that it is truly common to both of them, and interferences which we
will call codical, in which a system or a large fragment of a system
appears in two or more language systems in a more or less homologous
form. It is also necessary to distinguish, even within this second cate-
gory, cases where the codical interference is accompanied by a trans-
position in the material of expression (pictorial clear-obscure/literary
clear-obscure), from those where such a transposition does not take
place (pictorial clear-obscure/clear-obscure in color photography).
One will perhaps object that, in this last example, there is never-
theless a transposition of the material of expression; photography
(even in colors) is not painting, and the features which distinguish it
from painting are related precisely to the material of expression. If it
is true that visuality, two-dimensionality, color, etc., are common to
both arts, it is nevertheless true that the pictorial image is obtained by
hand, while the photographic image results from a photochemical
process. But we shall see below, in cases of codical interferences, that
there are always differences between materials of expression seen
face-to-face; if there were none, we would be dealing with one and the
same material of expression, so that it would no longer be a question

of codical interference (which supposes either distinct codes, or at least

distinct manifestations), but of a single code, since elsewhere, in
this discussion, the form of the system was supposed to be capable of
remaining the same across the two language systems considered; one
would thus have the same form in the same material, and consequently
a single code. What permits us to say (at least in a first, simplified
formulation) that the pair 'painting/photograph', when a question of a
code of clear-obscure, presents a case of codical interference without
transposition in the material of expression is that the differences between
the two materials involve features which are not distinctive in relation
to the code being studied. Among the conditions necessary in order that
a system of clear-obscure exists and remains authentically such, there is
none which specifies whether it ought to be painted by hand or photo-
graphed. On the contrary, a clear-obscure which would no longer be
visual but expressed with words would, strictly speaking, no longer be
a clear-obscure, but a description of clear-obscure (the material trans-
position, this time, would involve features which are distinctive for any
system of clear-obscure). We shall give below (Chapter 10.3) the defini-
tion of those features of the material of expression which may be said
to be distinctive in relation to a particular code (or to a group of codes).
Thus, this problem of semiotic interference between language systems
seems to us to involve three distinct types of facts :
(1) Localized interference only vaguely concerns systemic study and
above all diachronic research; the Faulknerian construction which is
sometimes called (by abuse of the English language) 'cross-cutting
montage' acquires its true value only in relation to other elements of
the Faulknerian composition, exactly like Faulknerian figures which
have not been 'borrowed' - even if it was suggested to the writer by
viewing different films.
(2) At the other extreme, codical interference without sensorial
transposition represents in reality a case (and even the only one of the
three) where one can speak in all rigor of one and the same code being
manifested in several arts or language systems (this is a sort of 're-
utilization in identical form'). This fact, obviously, may nevertheless
involve an instance of borrowing or influence, but as such it only
concerns diachronic research. Thus, of the two manifestations of the
single system, one would have preceded the other in the history of that
culture, would have influenced it, or would even to a certain point have
been the determining 'cause' of it (this is probably the case for the
passage of certain systems of clear-obscure from painting to color

photography). But from the point of view of a functional analysis, it is

a question of one and the same code, since the formal structure of
oppositions, as well as the fundamental characteristics of the sensorial
sphere of manifestation, are the same in both cases. (The notion of
'fundamental characteristics' may appear somewhat vague : how is one
to determine, in effect, the sensorial characteristics that one would call
fundamental, and those that one would not consider to be such ? This
idea will be more precisely formulated in Chapter 10.3, where we
shall define the distinctive features of the material of expression.)
(3) Finally, in the intermediate case, that of codical interference
accompanied by sensorial transposition, one no longer has to deal with
multiple manifestations of a single code, but with distinct, more or less
isomorphic, codes, each of which is manifested in a different language
system; we shall give the name group of codical transpositions to the
set which they form (in order better to distinguish it from the
single code with multiple manifestations). This is, in effect, the only one
of the three cases where one can truly speak of codical transformation :
in the first, there was transposition, but it was not codical; in the
second, there was no transposition (at least functionally) but identity.
Here in the third case, on the contrary, this identity disappears
since a certain logic of what is perceptible, even if it remains the
same as logic, is no longer the logic of the same perceptible thing.
'Transposition' (or 'equivalence', 'copy', 'broad homology', 'broad iso-
morphism', etc.): as many terms which by themselves imply a certain
mixture of similarity and difference. The internal economy of the
system, which by definition consists of an abstract network of pure
relations, may in the extreme remain identical across these migrations
between several materials of the signifier, but a too fundamental divers-
ity of the latter is enough to establish the plurality of codes.
Codical transposition (case number 3) seems to present quite fre-
quently a unilateral and unidirectional character, which confirms, more-
over, the duality of codes; of the clear-obscure which is seen and that
which is written in a book, it is the second which is transposed, even
when the system is strictly identical in both cases. It is not the
diachronic factors (surreptitiously reintroduced after their pro-
claimed eviction) which will come to establish, for example, that the
system considered has made its first appearance in the domain of cer-
tain arts and is discoverable in the domain of another art only at a
more recent date; for, within the framework of a functional analysis,
this circumstance tells us nothing about the specific appurtenance of

this code to one or the other of two arts. Also, from the moment that
it is entirely adopted into the domain of the second, it 'belongs' to it as
much as it belongs to the first. On the other hand, what is of interest
to semiotic analysis (the analysis of the texts themselves) is that the
clear-obscure as a phenomenon is intrinsically visual, such that its
visual representations are closer to its perceptual reality - and, so-to-
speak, to a less transposed degree - than are its written expressions.
Inversely (and in parallel fashion), there are certain poetic effects which
are linked in their very existence to the grammar or phonology of
spoken language (which Roman Jakobson is thinking of when he
speaks of the "poetry of grammar" and of the "grammar of poetry")10:
figures based on the use of the tenses of verbs, on a certain manipula-
tion of phonological oppositions proper to the language, etc. It is
writing which offers us a direct expression - or at least a more direct
expression - of this type of 'effect', and it is the study of visual
equivalences (as in certain silent films striving toward 'rhyme') which
constitutes here a transposed manifestation of the system.
The above remarks have introduced the idea that the material of
expression - in the degree which shall be specified in Chapter 10.3 -
may be on the receiving end in the identification and the enumeration
of codes. It was said, for example, that, in certain cases the diversity
of manifestations is enough to establish the very plurality of codes if
the form (structure) remains the same. We shall see, in addition
(Chapter 10.7), that this is not always the case, for certain codes are
from the beginning independent of any perceptual sphere.
Considerations of this sort have intentionally not been introduced
earlier. It seems to us, in effect, that the most important thing, in studies
devoted to productions of the big screen, is to clearly distinguish be-
tween the cinema as a specific fact and the film as the place where the
specific and the non-specific intermingle; it is at this point that the
most common and most serious confusions are made. It is also nec-
essary to insist on the fact that afilmiccode is not necessarily cinematic,
for a code (in principle) is defined exclusively as a relational logic, as
pure form, and is thus not linked to a particular material of expression,
for example the material of expression which is proper to the cinema.
"Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics", 244-47 in Essais.
In this passage, the author discusses primarily poetic figures connected with the
grammar of languages, and not with their phonology: but in other passages (for
example 240-43, or 222-34, concerning the reiterative 'phonic figure*), Jakobson
studies what could be called (in paraphrasing) the 'poetry of phonology' and the
'phonology of poetry'.
However, as was remarked on pp. 42 and 137, our definition of
the code - and from the very beginning - includes an indirect reference
to the material of expression, by the sole fact that the existence of
'specific' codes in permitted; indirect reference, since specificity ought
to be defined as an ensemble of codes and not directly by the material
nature of the signifier, but reference all the same, since these codes,
in turn, can only be declared specific if one supposes them linked, in
their very existence, to the material of expression which is proper to
the cinema, i.e., if one supposes them absent in other materials of
sum, the position which is adopted here includes two elements,
not one: (1) the specificity which interests semiotics is the specificity
of codes, not the 'crude' specificity of physical signifiers; (2) the speci-
ficity of specific codes nevertheless refers to certain features of the
material of expression.
The first aspect is necessary and sufficient to distinguish the cinema
from the film, the pluri-textual code from the pluri-codical text, i.e.,
to set apart those codes which are not specific. But one now comes to
the second, which is indispensable if one wishes to say in what exact
sense those codes that one declares specific are specific.
Considerations of 'material', eliminated to the benefit of codical
considerations, ought to be reintroduced to the precise degree that they
concern these very codes.


The entire preceding chapter leads to the conclusion that the choice of
one or another material of expression is not, all the same, insignificant;
by taking this detour, and by more 'aesthetic' paths, one finds one of the
principal objections which has been addressed to Hjelmslev in properly
linguistic discussions. That the material, in itself (in the sense that
Hjelmslev understands it), cannot be the object of a semiotic study, and
that the latter inevitably has as a goal and as an effect the isolation of
the form that this material manifests, is certain; but it also seems
clear to us that the form would itself have been different if it had been
inscribed in another material. In this regard, certain responses that the
Prague phonologists made to Hjelmslev appear to be difficult to refute :
how is one to believe that the phonetic nature of the signifiers, in spoken
languages, has no influence on the very form of its signifiers, and on the
system which they constitute ? We know, furthermore, that this

Hjelmslevian notion - no matter how doctrinaire and forced - of a

structure which would be at the same time that of the signifiers and
would owe nothing to the concrete characteristics of the aural trans-
mission of spoken utterances, has been abandoned in the more recent
studies of transformational generative grammar. For Chomskyans
there exists, distinct from the structure which is only distinctive for the
analysis of the signified of the sentence ('deep structure'), a structure
which is alone distinctive for the analysis of the signifier of the sentence
('surface structure'); but the latter, although studied with respect to its
formal organization, is conceived of as a phonetic form (and not as a
form without any particular manifestation). The part of the grammar
which specifically concerns the signifier is understood from the be-
ginning as an 'interpretative component', i.e., in general, phonetic (cf.
the 'matrices of phonological features', the 'phonological rules of re-
dundancy', and the 'transformational cycle in phonology'). If, on the
other hand, it is true that a totally abstract thing exists, in this concep-
tion (called 'syntax' or 'syntactical component of the grammar'), it is in
no way the equivalent of Hjelmslev's 'form of expression' - no more
than of his 'form of content - since it constitutes something completely
neutral between sound and meaning, i.e., something which is not even
manifestable as such, and since it is not properly speaking the form of
the text (of the manifested), but the form of a Turing machine which
would be situated before the text and would be capable of generating it.
Emilio Garroni has recently recalled11 that Eisenstein,12 in particular
in the reflections inspired in him by his collaboration with Prokofiev on
Alexander Nevsky, showed himself to be well aware of the fact that
certain rhythmical schemes may be common in a filmic sequence to
both the visual series and to the musical series, and therefore to two
different materials of expression (moving picture and musical sound).
We admit this fact itself, but we still do not know how to interpret it.
A rhythmical scheme - even if one could, and even if one ought to
analyze it as a purely relational form, as an abstract relation of
measurable dimensions - is an intrinsically temporal phenomenon. If
this is forgotten, it would still be a scheme, but no longer a rhythmical
one. One could also say that such a scheme is 'proper', if not to the
music alone, at least to the language system which the material of
expression presents as being inscribed in time (and consequently, among
Semiotica ed estetica, 92.
See especially "Form and content: practice", Part IV of The Film Sense; in
the combined edition with Film Form, 157-216.

others, in music and in cinema, which makes the remarks of Eisenstein

possible while preventing us from generalizing from them). We know
- and Jean Mitry has aptly commented on this point13 - that the visual
manifestations of rhythmical schemes are situated in the order of the
moving picture or the succession of pictures (where the vectoriality
of time is preserved), but that in the purely static order of the still
and individual picture, one no longer finds equivalences or transposi-
tions which more or less approximate 'rhythm'. It is thus true - as in
the case of the clear-obscure, where vast sections of systems are trans-
ported from painting to still color photography, both visual, 'instanta-
neous', and colored arts - that certain rhythmical codes are trans-
ferred from music to the cinema, both temporal languages; but they
would not be able to move from music to painting, for the temporality
of the signifier (a sensorial given instrinsically tied to the notion of
rhythm) is lacking in painting. In this sense, 'pictorial rhythm' is
a transposed rhythm (it is a case of codical transposition); a musical
rhythmical system and a pictorial rhythmical system may be more or
less isomorphic, but they cannot constitute two manifestations of a
single code.
Total isomorphism, as was said in the preceding chapter, represents
in the groups of codical transpositions the extreme degree of 'equi-
valence' between systems; specific studies alone will be able to tell us if
this degree is sometimes attained, or never, or more frequently than
one would think. In the case of single codes with multiple manifesta-
tions, total isomorphism, on the contrary, is by definition assured from
the very beginning.
The very possibility of there existing codes with multiple manifesta-
tions is thus dependent upon one condition : that the diverse expressive
materials have a certain number of characteristics in common. This is
not to say that all their characteristics are in common, for in this case it
would be a question of one and the same material of expression, such
that it would no longer be only the code which is singular, but also
its manifestation; it simply refers to those sensory characteristics which
are linked to the internal economy of the system itself, as well as to its
In sum, the possibilities of diverse manifestations which characterize
certain codes do not in any way imply that they may be manifested in
any language whatsoever. It is probable, on the other hand, that they

Esthitique et Psychologie du cinima, tome , 149-51.

may have (at least in principle) 'transposed' codes corresponding to

them in no matter what language, the degree of precision of this cor-
respondence varying in each case.
It would, in fact, be necessary to identify and enumerate (in the
form of discrete units) the sensory characteristics to which a given code
is intrinsically linked; everything takes place as if there existed, in
relation to each code, distinctive features of the material of the signifier.
In an orthodox Hjelmslevian perspective, this notion would appear
to be a contradiction in terms, since a distinctive feature, by the very
fact that it is distinctive, becomes a fact of form (or at least of
substance), and because the material, as such, cannot have a feature
which is distinctive. However, in the framework of a truly 'general'
semiotics, this is one of the problems which cannot be avoided.
Thus, as was just said, codes which deserve to be called rhythmical
(other than metaphorically) are manifested in diverse materials of ex-
pression which all have the feature of temporality, but which do not
all have the feature of sonority. Authentic 'visual rhythms' exist, the
sole condition for which is that the picture be temporalized (by its
being put into movement, or by the successive projection of several
still pictures). Thus sonority and visuality are not linked to the notion
of rhythm, and do not constitute distinctive features of the material of
the signifier, at least in relation to rhythmical codes - while the feature
temporality, in the same case, is distinctive. One is thus led to establish
that, in order that a single code may have multiple manifestations in
diverse arts or language systems, it is necessary that the latter have in
all cases a material of expression which displays the necessary distinctive
features in relation to the code considered, even if it varies elsewhere in
its non-distinctive features. This variation may be of notable dimension,
since in cases of rhythmical systems it includes (at the very least) the dif-
ference which separates music and cinema, two arts which obviously
present considerable sensorial differences. In a more general manner, it
is the very existence of this non-distinctive margin of variation which
allows us to speak of multiple manifestations of a single code. It is clear,
in effect, that if all features were distinctive, the material of expression,
for a given code, would always be identical, such that it would, so-to-
speak, be a question of a single code with a single manifestation.
There is, moreover, no reason to exclude a priori the hypothesis
according to which this would be the case for some codes, nor the
reverse hypothesis, according to which, for certain other codes (see
Chapter 10.7), no particular characteristic would be required on the
part of the 'manifestant' of the signifier. We begin to perceive two
extremes - codes with single manifestations (i.e., those in relation to
which all of the features of the material of the signifier are distinctive),
and codes with the universal manifestation (i.e., those in relation to
which no feature of the material of the signifier is distinctive - and,
between the two, codes with multiple but not universal manifestations,
i.e., those in relation to which some (but not all) codes of the material
of the signifier are distinctive. One could establish in this sense a
classification of types of relationships between codes and language
From the moment that the distinctive material features (distinctive
relationship to the code considered) between two arts or language
systems begin to vary, one enters the domain where only a more or less
perfect isomorphism between distinct codes is possible, i.e., the
domain of groups of codical transpositions (see Chapter 10.2).
We know that in linguistics itself this type of problem has often
been considered: among the different sensory and phenomenological
characteristics of the phonetic material (sonority, very broad 'linearity',
relative non-spatiality, variability in the force of vocal emission, of its
melodic pitch and its duration, etc.), which ones, if they had been
otherwise, would have left language almost intact as a relational
form, and which are those, on the contrary, whose alteration would
have altered the linguistic system itself ? One may think, moreover, that
these questions in linguistics have never been confronted in their fullest
sense; but, in this domain, variation of the material of the signifier
remains in some sort imaginary, since the only material with which
one has to deal is phonetic material, whose sensory nature could only be
modified by 'thought experiments'. In general semiotics one has to deal,
on the contrary, with materials of expression which really do differ from
one another (musical material, sound effects, phonetics, photographic
picture, graphic picture, painted picture, moving picture, still picture,
individual picture, picture in sequence, color or 'black and white',
etc.) - such that one is inevitably led to ask, in the middle of such rich
and complex sensory variations, which are those which permit and
which those that prevent the preservation of a given form. This comes
down to saying, quite simply, that the problem of the relations between
form and material immediately becomes much more imposing when
one is faced with several effectively distinct materials.



A code may thus be specific for several languages; but as it is necessary

that the latter themselves have a certain number of characteristics in
common (distinctive sensory characteristics), the system of signification
which is common to them may without inconvenience be said to be
'specific' of each of them; this is only a simpler way of saying that it
is associated with what is common to them (as rhythmical codes are
specific of temporality, which is itself common to several languages).
This notion of an obviously multiple specificity is paradoxical only
in appearance. Sameness is not the only form of specificity, and a
circumscribed multiplicity also forms a specific group; a specific field
is not necessarily a very small one.
Finally, it is also necessary to say that the specific appurtenances of
certain codes to certain languages or groups of languages does not at
all have the effect of preventing (more or less isomorphic) general
codical transpositions into another language system or group of language
systems - and even less localized and more or less deformative bor-
rowings, having to do with certain particular combinations authorized
by the code.
From all this it results that within specifically cinematic codes, one
finds a sort of hierarchy of specificity. A 'cinematic' code may be more
or less specific. The extreme degree of specificity is that of the code
which is manifested only in the cinema. It is a question, in this case,
of a code with a single manifestation, in the sense which has been
defined in Chapter 10.3 - namely, the code in relation to which all the
features of the material of expression which belong to the cinema are
distinctive, such that there is no latitude of manifestation in other
language systems, and not even in those which resemble this cinema in
their technico-sensory definition (or more exactly, which comes to the
same thing for our problem, a code in relation to which those material
features which are distinctive exist in no language system other than
the cinema). Furthermore, one arrives progressively at lesser degrees
of specificity (not to mention non-specific codes, which are irrelevant for
the moment, and will reappear in Chapter 10.7). There are codes which
are specific to one group of language systems, including the cinema,
and a small number of other means of expression. The distinctive
material features of these codes are those which are common to lan-
guage systems of this group, and this group happens to be rather small.
In other cases it might be larger, such that the cinema (which continues
to be a part of it) is a little more 'inundated'. One arrives, then, at codes
which still merit being called cinematic, but whose degree of cin-
ematicity is reduced. All codes whose specificity is not maximal belong
to the category of codes with multiple but not universal manifestations
(defined in Chapter 10.3). Certain physical traits are distinctive of these
codes (and this is why they are not manifested in all language systems,
but only in those of a certain group), and other physical features are
not at all associated with their definition, which makes it possible for
them to be manifested in several materially different language systems,
and not just one. Specific codes with a non-maximal specificity are
thus those which are strictly associated, if not with the cinema and it
alone, at least with a precise group of language systems, including the
In spite of appearances, these considerations are not at all abstract
and are directly linked to problems which are often touched on in
discussions concerning the cinema or the 'audio-visual'. Thus, even in
the most 'concrete' debates, it would not be at all difficult to admit
that an obviously cinematic figure of montage like overprinting also
exists in photography; and no one would feel that it ceases in this to
be cinematic. Thus everyone implicitly admits what, for our part, we
try to formalize - namely, that a given configuration may be specific of
a language system even if the area in which it may appear extends
beyond this single language system, on condition nevertheless that it
does not go too far beyond it and that its manifestations, being carried
to the opposite extreme, do not become universal. (Concerning the
example we have chosen, one could respond that overprinting in the
cinema is moving while photographic overprinting is motionless; thus
each of the two figures is confined to a single language system. But it is
not a question of this; in popular discussions, one has in mind what is
common to these two overprintings, and what is properly called 'over-
printing' - namely, the simultaneous perception of twe images in the
same frame. One has in this a good example of degrees of specificity;
the moving overprinting is more specific of the cinema than is the
principle of overprinting itself, for the group of language systems to
which the first belongs is much more restricted than that which
manifests the second.)
In a general way, one can say that, among the 'figures' (articles of
codes) which are reputed to be cinematic, many are in fact common to
the cinema and to a more or less important number of neighboring

language systems, that is to say language systems whose technico-

sensory definition, although distinct from that of the cinema, are no
more different from it than, for example, literature. This is one of the
essential problems of so-called audio-visual research, with all its im-
plications, especially pedagogical and political. What is called audio-
visual, in effect, is a group of neighboring language systems (in the sense
just specified), which includes cinema, television, some radiophonic
productions (and, more generally, different sorts of sound recordings),
photography, the photo-novel (and, more generally, diverse sorts of
sequences of still photographs), comic strips, etc., an enumeration which
does not pretend to be exhaustive, for the field baptized audio-visual, if
quite clear in its central core, becomes rather unclear at its edges (there
are certain border areas, some of which, such as the radar picture, are
unexpected, and others, like painting and music, of the right size; but
this problem does not concern us here).
These diverse language systems have physical definitions which are
at the same time different and similar (which explains the complexity of
the codes and their respective specificities). In order to provide a first
impression of them, we propose a 'characterization' of some of them,
in terms of their materials of expression. (This characterization, for the
moment, may without inconvenience remain cavalier.)
Photography: picture obtained mechanically, single, immobile.
Painting (at least 'classical painting'): picture obtained by hand,
single, immobile.
Photo-novel (and similar forms): picture obtained mechanically,
multiple, immobile.
Comic strip : picture obtained by hand, multiple, immobile.
Cinema-television: picture obtained mechanically, multiple, mobile,
combined with three sorts of sound elements (speech, music, sound
effects) and with written credits.
Radiophonic pieces (and similar forms): three sorts of sound
elements (speech, music, sound effects).
We see that these language systems, even at the level of their material
composition, reveal the complexity of their mutual relations. In certain
cases, it is true, the logical relationship is one of exclusion, i.e., that they
do not share any distinctive feature of the material of expression (for
example: photography/radiophonics, as the 'table' above shows). But
in other cases, it is a question of a relation of inclusion: a language
system has all the material traits of another, as well as material traits
which the other does not have (for example, the cinema 'includes' the
radiophonic piece). Finally, one also finds cases of intersection: two
language systems have certain traits in common, but each has traits the
other does not (for example, the photo-novel and the comic strip have in
common the features 'picture', 'immobile' and 'multiple', but the feature
'mechanical image' concerns the photo-novel and not the comic strip,
the feature 'image obtained by hand' the comic strip and not the photo-
novel). In sum, one is not dealing with language systems which are next
to each other, uniformly external to one another, or aligned along a
single classificatory axis (such that their respective specificities never
overlap), but with language systems which are imbricated and partially
intersect, and whose specificities thus overlap. This point was already
anticipated in Chapter 2.3.
This is why the specificity of the cinema - if, as we would hope,
one defines it in terms of codes - is a phenomenon of great internal
complexity which is ordered, so-to-speak, according to a certain
number of concentric or secant circles; each circle designates what is
called a class - a group of codes - and at the same time a group of
language systems - the set of language systems with which this group
of codes is properly associated.
Take, for example, the different codifications which appear in the
picture-track of the film. It is a partial text which, as its name indicates,
is made of pictures. Also, the codes which surround the 'picture' as such
(all sorts of pictures) are capable of being manifested as well in filmic
pictures. (They may be; this is not to say that they all do it in every
instance, and in every 'shot' of the film.) The codifications of this group
are those for which, in the material of expression, the feature of visual
iconicity, and it alone, is distinctive. We shall adopt the word 'iconicity'
in order to designate the characteristic which is proper to all so-called
real (not mental) and 'figurative', i.e., weakly schematized, images. (The
word is used in this way by many semioticians in the United States, for
whom it designates all analogical codifications, in contrast to 'digital'
codes, even if they are not visual but, for example, auditory.) The
visual-iconic codes are obviously cinematic, since it is an important
characteristic of the cinema that it is composed, among other things,
of images; but their degree of specificity remains rather low, for they
concern, in addition to the cinema, all language systems based on the
image, and the latter are relatively numerous : figurative design, figura-
tive painting, fresco, animated design, cartoon, television, photography,
sequences of photographs (as the photo-novel), etc. We have already

met, in passing (p. 199), a code belonging to this group, the code of
'iconic designations' (a system of correspondences between the distinc-
tive features which make it possible to identify the image as a recurrent
visual figure, and the distinctive semantic features of the lexeme - or
rather of the 'sememe', in the sense specified by Greimas [cf. p. 32])
which, in a given language, designates the recognizable object, thus
rendering it even more recognizable. This code is not the only one of
this group. There are many others, for example all those which - in
order to employ a favorite term which is somewhat bizarre, and in any
case improper in the case of the flat picture - concern the 'plastics'
of the picture: spatial disposition of iconic elements, the role of the
frame (i.e., of the finitude proper to iconic representations) in the
ordering of visual elements, distribution of masses and lines of force
(thus the 'golden mean', which we know preoccupies, after painters,
certain cineasts), the play of figures and grounds (principal 'motifs' and
backgrounds), etc. The cinema, as some authors have said, is also a
'plastic art', something which becomes important in certain films, like
those of the German expressionist school or the later films of Eisenstein
(Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible). To this first category of
codes, which is associated with visual iconicity, belong even (or rather :
belong first) different systems of great anthropological importance,
which we shall call 'codes of analogy': those which are responsible for
analogy itself, which operate in view of 'resemblance', which cause the
resembling object to be felt as such. Analogy is not the contrary of
codification, for it is itself codified, although its codes have the property
of being felt to be natural by the user. It is a question of a whole
ensemble of psycho-physiological montages, integrated with the per-
ceptual activity itself, and whose modalities vary noticeably from one
culture to another (see especially the works of Pierre Francastel). The
role of these codes in a semiotic perspective has been the object of
diverse studies, among others by American semioticians, and in Com-
munications 15.14 They are common to the cinema and to other iconic
language systems.
But the picture-track of the film is not sufficiently defined by this
iconicity; there is still the fact that the images of which it is composed
are obtained by mechanical duplication. Thus codes of a second group
Paris, 1970, special issue "L'analyse des images".
On this point, see the contribution of Eliseo Veron (52-69), of Jean-Louis
Schefer (210-21), of Umberto Eco (especially in B.I., B.2. and B.3., i.e. 11-40),
and our own "Presentation" (1-10).
may appear in it, those which are proper to the 'mechanical picture' in
general, and thus to the group of means of expression which have
recourse to this picture - codes that the cinema shares with television,
photography, a sequence of photographs, etc., but not with drawing,
painting, fresco, animated design, cartoon (where the pictures are
composed by hand). Such codification presents a less than maximum
degree of cinematicity but one which is greater than that of generally
iconic codes. The cinema shares them with other language systems, but
the latter are already less numerous. This second class of language
systems is in a position of inclusion in relation to the first. The two
circles are 'concentric' (an approximate metaphor, which should not be
taken too literally). It is here that one finds the codes which are some-
times called photographic, a term which is moreover improper since the
televisual image, contrary to the cinematic image, is not photographic.
But the notion of photograph, by a sort of implicit synecdoche, des-
ignates in certain contexts the ensemble of figurative images obtained
by mechanical means (and which, in effect, are quite similar with
respect to reception, as one finds with the pair cinema-television). In
this group, one thus has 'photographic' codifications linked to phe-
nomena like angular incidence (shooting angles : high angle shot, ground
angle shot, frontal incidence, 'inclined framing', etc.), the 'scale of
shots' (which is commonly classified according to the progressive
layering of 'sizes' in the axial line of the lens, the size considered as
distinctive being that of the principal motif of the image: long shots,
medium shots, close-ups, etc.),15 the perceptible effects of different
lenses as well as filters and other apparatus, the diaphragm stop (on
which depends the scope of the zone of visibility around the object on
which the focusing of the lens has been regulated, and thus the ensemble
of variations of the 'depth of the visual field' or its absence), etc. All
this plays the most important role in films.
However, the image in the cinema is not only mechanical and
iconic; it is, in addition, 'multiple', i.e., related sequentially with itself;
a film is several images. A new bifurcation arises : the cinema, in this
Authors like Fran501s Chevassu (Langage cinimatographique. [Paris: d.
de la Ligue frangaise de l'enseignement, 1962] 14) or Jean Mitry (EsthStique et
Psychologie du cinima, I [Paris ditions universitres, 1963], 149) have insisted
on the fact that each 'shot size' corresponds to a sort of size scale ( = surface
relation between the dimension of the screen and that of the principal object
The 'size scale* taken as a whole is thus a scale of scales, a scalar hierarchy.
One could speak of 'scalar variations' as one does of angular variations.

regard, is distinct from painting, drawing, photography, etc. (all lan-

guage systems which are based on the individual picture), but resembles
animated design, cartoon, fresco (a moment ago excluded because their
pictures are not mechanical), and remains in the company of television
and the photo-novel (with pictures both mechanical and multiple).
This third circle is thus concentric with the first, that of general
iconicity, and smaller than it (included in it). But in relation to the
second, that if the mechanical image, it is in a position of intersection.
In fact:
(1) It includes means of expression which the latter excludes (car-
toon, animated drawing, fresco: images in sequential order but not
(2) It excludes what the latter includes (photography : images not in
sequential order but mechanical).
(3) It has some means of expression in common with it (this is the
'logical product' of classes 2 and 3, their zone of intersection) : photo-
novel and television, where the pictures are both mechanical (thus
class 2) and in sequential order (thus class 3).
The codifications of the third level have thus a degree of cinematicity
which is in general comparable to that of the second (since the two
circles are not in a relationship of inclusion), but a mode of cine-
maticity - this time a qualitative notion - which is clearly different.
They are not cinematic in the same way, which indicates two things : on
the one hand, the cinema does not share them with the same language
systems (for the two classes are distinct; not 'identical', in logic); on the
other hand, within cinematic processes, they do not concern the same
phenomena. Codes of group 2 also characterize the cinema, but to the
extent that it rests on the successive plurality of images. In this group 3,
one finds everything that is relative to the sequencing of the image as a
specific phenomena (although common to several means of expression).
Psychologists and social psychologists are often interested in problems
of this sort10 - namely logical relations perceived by the spectator (like
the causal relation, the adversative relation, the simple juxtaposition,
etc.) between successive and contiguous images, between successive but
not contiguous images (image 15 and image 18), diverse means of ex-
pressing temporal relations such as simultaneity, close consecution,
remote consecution, between actions represented by the different images
of the sequence ('flashback', so-called ordinary chronological order,
See, for example, Anne-Marie Thibaut-Laulan, Etude psycho-linguistique
d'images visuelles en sequence (1969, these de troisieme cycle, Bordeaux).
etc.), more properly aesthetic codifications : echoes of motifs or graphic
contours from one image to another (with the problem of 'transition'),
violent contrasts between contiguous images, etc. It is scarcely nec-
essary to state the importance of constructions of this sort in films. They
form a part - only one part, but a notable one - of cinematic montage,
which in effect includes those configurations which are linked to
the movement of the image (and thus resort to codes of group 4, which
will be discussed shortly), and others which simply stem from the mul-
ticiplicity of this image, and which one finds as well in cartoons or
sequences of still photographs (the latter, significantly, are sometimes
called 'photographic montages'). You will notice that the code of the
'large syntagmatic category' (see p. 200) constitutes a reordered en-
semble of cinematic codifications, most of which belong to the group
which here is called group 3 : the large syntagmatic category is con-
cerned with the facts of montage to the extent that they concern
pluralities of successive images, but without especially being associated
with movement, which stresses only one of the means of obtaining this
plurality (thus, the movements of the camera are beyond the framework
of this study).
Iconicity, mechanical duplication, and sequencing are not the only
distinctive features of the material of expression proper to the
image in the cinema which is, in addition, moving. In this regard,
the cinema belongs to a fourth group of language systems which rest
upon the moving picture: television, animated design, cinema. It
happens, at least in the most frequent cases, that this moving picture
is also multiple; thus the fourth circle, defined by two features (move-
ment and multiplicity), is within the third (which was delimited by the
single feature of multiplicity), and more restricted than it, for it
excludes certain language systems which the third includes - namely,
those which have recourse to a multiple but stationary pictures (photo-
novel, cartoon, fresco). Codifications of the fourth level thus have a
degree of cinematicity greater than those of the third level, for the
cinema shares them with a smaller number of means of expression.
On the other hand, the cinema belongs to yet a fifth group of language
systems, characterized by pictures which are, all at the same time,
mechanical, moving, and multiple (three distinctive features). This
group 5 is equal to the logical product of 4 and 2, for it includes only
language systems which figure at the same time in 4 (multiple moving
pictures) and 2 (the mechanical picture), i.e., cinema and television.
(Throughout this discussion, our statements have been based, and not

without a certain amount of arbitrariness in the selection, upon cultural-

ly very common means of expression. The overall picture would be
modified if one introduced language systems which are more 'un-
common', or more uncommon today, like those made possible by the
improvement and increasing differentiation within audio-visual tech-
nology, e.g., images of the magnetoscope, cathode screen, etc.) The
animated drawing, which belongs to group 4 (multiple and moving
images), is excluded from 5 because it is excluded from 2 : its images
are not mechanical. The photograph and the photo-novel, which belong
to 2 (mechanical images), are excluded from 5 because they are
excluded from 4 : their images are stationary. Also, the codifications
of the fifth level present a rather high degree of cinematicity: the
cinema does not share them with television, i.e., perhaps with itself
(but we shall return especially to this point in Chapter 10.5). With
group 5 come into play all the constructions which are linked to the
movement of the image as well as to the movement in the image. These
are the two principal forms of movement, and they are related yet
distinct (the camera may move, as well as the actor). One thus has
'camera movements' (diverse sorts of dolly shots, pans, more complex
trajectories, 'optical dolly shots' like the zoom and the pancinor, etc.);
one has all the figures of montage which are inseparable from move-
ment and, without it, materially unrealizable : 'accord in the movement'
from one image to another, passage from a medium long shot to close-
up shot (or the reverse) as a procedure of montage which puts two dif-
ferent images in succession without recourse to 'cutting' certain move-
ments of the actors (called 'entrances and exits from the field of
vision') which fit several scenes in a single shot, etc. So many express-
ive resources which, as those of the other levels, are constantly put to
work in films, and that all works on the cinematic language system have
we abandon for the moment the picture-track in order to turn to
the sound-track of the cinema, one finds first that - outside of the
codes of the auditory analogy itself, obviously - it has a certain number
of codes in common with the radiophonic piece (the German notion
of Hrspiel) and with television; it is a question of those which concern
the sound composition and it alone: the syntagmatic ordering of
auditory elements among themselves (music, sound effects, speech),
'primary sound shots' in their contrast with the 'background sound' (a
contrast which is highly elaborated in certain films like Jean Epstein's17
1947, in collaboration with the musician Yves Baudrier and the audial

Tempestaire), a progressive transformation of certain sound effects

into a musical motif (one has spoken, in this regard, of a sort of sound
'sublimation'),18 interruption of the music to the profit of speech or, on
the contrary, a deliberate covering over of the music by the speech,
'counterpoints' of diverse sorts, etc. On the other hand, concerning the
properly audio-visual composition, i.e., the mixed syntagmatic relations
which make use of both sight and hearing, the codifications capable of
appearing in the cinema belong to an already more restricted (and
thus more specific) group than the first, since it includes television but
not the radiophonic piece, where the physical trait of mixture is lacking.
This second group includes all figures which are associated with the
relation between the picture and sound: the reinforcing of one by the
other, perhaps going as far as (a partial or a total, voluntary or in-
voluntary) 'pleonasm', effects of contrast between one and the other,
ordinary sound or sound-off (according to whether the sound source
appears or does not appear in the picture when the corresponding sound
is heard), intermediate and more complex constructions, stemming from
what is called, in theoretical discussions of the thirties, 'a-synchronism'
(for example, the sound source appearing in the picture, but after or
before the corresponding sound), diverse types of relations between
picture and speech (the ordinary speech of 'dialogue', monologue said
to be 'internal' and which is not, 'sonorous first person', external com-
mentary assigned to a speaker or an anonymous narrator, etc.). This
last problem is, in sum, one of speech registers in the cinema; these
registers are distinguished from each other by the type of relationship
that exists between the speech and the picture.
This brief discussion of a certain number of cinematic codes is quite
incomplete. It does not aim to be exhaustive (thus, one has said
nothing about color, written credits, etc.), and does not even present
itself as a first attempt at drawing up a repertory: the latter must
necessarily form the object of a special study.
We simply wanted to show that the problem of specificity merits a
more systematic treatment than that which is ordinarily given it. One
cannot speak of specificity in relying only on intuitive impressions
which, upon the viewing of films, makes us feel that certain construc-
tions are 'typically cinematic', and in being content to enumerate them.

engineer Maurice Vareille. See what Epstein himself says about this in "La
valent du son", in Livre (Tor du cinima frangais (Paris: Agencc d'information
cinematographique, 1947-1948.)
Marcel Martin, Le langage cinimatographique, 119.

The very notion of specificity loses all meaning if one does not link it
closely with a discussion of the physical nature of the cinema, of a
definition of the 'cinematic' which is literal and technical (craftsman-
like, one could say) - or, more exactly, of certain features of this defi-
nition on the basis of the material of the signifier - namely those features
which are commutable with features belonging to other language
systems and which, consequently, as material as they are, are neverthe-
less divided into discrete units (distinctive features) and are organized
into a system: that system which is formed by different language
systems between themselves, and thus the different specific codes
between themselves.
From the moment that one defines specificity in this manner - as a
notion which is at the same time material and systemic - it does not
take long to see that problems of specificity are considerably more
complex than is customarily thought. In the presence of a codification
which - if only because its manifestation is not universal - could in one
manner or another be specific to a given language system, one must al-
ways ask to what extent it is (i.e., with how many other language systems
does the language system under study share it), and in what manner, i.e.,
with what other language systems is it shared, and what is the material
trait which is common to the language systems of the group so con-
stituted. A codification, as we have just seen, may be 'cinematic' to the
extent that the cinema is made of pictures, but it may also be cinematic
to the extent that the cinema is moving, or to the extent that it is
sonorous, etc.
These phenomena of imbrication, which forbid the making of
'specificity' into a homogeneous and compact domain, are thus directly
related to the distinctive features of the material of expression. This is
only normal; if the code is specific, it is that it is linked to certain
physical characteristics of the signifier (if not, what would 'specific'
mean?). But there may exist several language systems in which the
signifier presents these characteristics; and inversely, the signifier of
each language system has several characteristics, all of which it does
not share with the same set of other language systems. These two
circumstances, which are combined among themselves, come down to
an 'overlapping of specificity' (exclusions, inclusions, intersections).
In this chapter we have merely tried to lay bare the basic principle of
this overlapping, rather than attempting a complete exposition of all
its complexities. We can say the same thing more quickly, in stating
simply that a single language system belongs simultaneously to several
classes of language systems.


In the first part of this book, up to and including Chapter Nine, we
defined specific ('cinematic') codes as those which are never found
outside films (see, for example, p. 39). This was a provisional
formulation which was intended to lighten the exposition as long as it
did not envision the problems internal to the notion of specificity, and,
above all, to make it possible to set aside clearly non-specific codes.
We see at present that this first definition is appropriate only for those
codes which display the maximum degree of specificity and why other
codes are specific to the cinema without being specific to it alone
(notion of 'ultimately multiple specificity').
But it is more interesting to remark that, until now, we have not
mentioned - we have not appeared to mention - codes which attain
this maximum degree of specificity; the smallest 'circle' discussed in
Chapter 10.4, as much for the picture-track as for the sound-track,
which nevertheless encompassed the cinema and television. Could it
be that there exists no codification proper to the cinema alone ? It is
usually in relation to television that this question arises, since of all the
means of expression, television is in all evidence the one most similar
to the cinema.
However, the question, if one considers it with reference to the
preceding chapter, raises in turn a preliminary question which is the
enumeration of language systems themselves, about which nothing has
been said until now. One can only ask oneself about codical inter-
ferences between two language systems if one is sure that these systems
are themselves distinct; however, there are cases in which one is not
sure. Between the cinema and television, borrowings, adaptations, or
reutilization of figures or systems of figures are quite numerous, but
this is really due to the fact that the two 'media' constitute, at least in
their basic physical features, one and the same language system.
The nevertheless incontestable differences which distinguish them
from one another are of four types : technological differences, of course;
socio-politico-economic differences in decision-making processes and
processes of production on the side of the 'emittor' (television is often
a State monopoly, the cinema less frequently so; even when this dif-
ference is not found, a television station does not function in the same
way as a unit of cinematic production); socio-psychological and affec-

tive-perceptual differences in the concrete conditions of reception (the

small screen as opposed to the large, the family home to the public
building, the lighted room to the dark hall, distracted attention to a
more sustained attention, etc.); finally, differences in the programming
of the vehicle, and principally in the 'genres' which are favored or pre-
dominate in each. One finds, for example, that a whole series of non-
narrative genres (as roundtable discussions, those parts of televised
news broadcasts where nothing is seen but the news broadcaster, dif-
ferent forms of didactic discourse, etc.) occupy to this day a notably
more important place in television programs than in films; similarly,
direct broadcasts or even 'dramatic presentations' (even 'pre-recorded')
are televisual genres without a precise equivalent in the cinema.
In enumerating these four types of differences, one obviously admits,
at the same time, that certain codes appear in the cinema and not in
television, others in television and not in the cinema. Take, for example,
the technological differences mentioned above; to take them into
account comes down to saying, among other things, that a code like
that of the technical recomposition of movement (code of the 'photo-
gram', which was discussed, in another context, on p. 191) is not a
factor common to television and to cinema; and, in fact, there are no
photograms in television (if only when films or filmed recordings appear
there), for the televisual image is electronic and not photographic. In
a more general manner, we understand that each of the differences
discovered between the two 'media' opens the possibility of different
These different codes, however, call for several remarks. First,
some of them are entirely external to the problem that is posed here,
for they are specific neither to the cinema nor to television; for example,
the majority of those which we have placed in the fourth class, in
regard to the differences which concern the 'programming' of the vehicle
rather than the vehicle itself. The narrative process, for example, is
more important for the cinema than for television (at least as matters
stand at present); but it is not absent from televised broadcasts. This
is only normal, since the proper codes of narration (and the very fact
of narrativity) are neither cinematic nor televisual but much more
broadly anthropological and cultural. The difference which in this
regard separates cinema from television - or which separates within
them some other two language systems - may not be represented by a
table of pluses and minuses, but only in terms of more or less, and,
moreover, in a quite variable manner over a given period of time, even
within a short period. (Certain specialists of a given means of expres-
sion, in some cases concerned with specificity at any price, are too eager
to construct, in terms of a single 'essence', particularities of this order,
which in reality owe a great deal to fluctuations of inclination. There
is something in this frame of mind which resembles a sublimated form
of corporealism.) Such differences between two given language systems,
even if numerous, tell us nothing about the degree of proximity or
distance which exists between them as language systems, i.e., between
their respective sets of specific codes. This is also the case with the
second category of differences which we have discovered between the
cinema and television, those which concern the process of decision
making and financing. They depend on the political and economic
systems of the general society, not on the cinematic or televisual lan-
guage systems. This is why differences of this order vary considerably
from country to country.
As for the other differences between the big and the little screen
- technological differences in broadcasting and socio-psychological dif-
ferences in reception - one could not deny that this time they influence
what is specific to the two means of expression. But we also see that
these differences (and the codes which correspond to them) are of
relatively little significance in relation to the considerable number and
importance of the codifications that the two language systems have in
common, and about which we have tried, in Chapter 10.4, to give some
idea - namely, generally iconic codes, codes of the mechanical picture,
codes of the pictures in sequential order, codes of moving pictures,
codes of sonorous composition, codes of visual-sonorous composition.
The differential codes of a technological order, mentioned above in
first place, of course play an important role in broadcasting - or at
least in fabrication, which is not the sum of the problems concerning
the emittor - but are hardly perceptible in the reception, i.e., in per-
ception, which also has its own specific classifications : for the viewer,
the cinematic image and the televisual image hardly differ in size. Other
different features of reception, mentioned above in third place (the
family home as against the public building, etc.), do not exactly concern
the text of the film or of the televised broadcast - the principal object
of the semiotic enterprise, which is immanent - but rather the extra-
textual conditions of its socio-psychological functioning, i.e., the 'cin-
ematic' fact (or its televisual equivalent), but this time in a completely
different sense, that of Gilbert Cohen-Seat (cf. Chapter One). We saw,
in addition, in the same chapter, that technological determinations -

when they do not involve a perceptible difference in the text itself, in the
'filmophany' (p. 13) - also stem from the 'cinematic' domain so defined
(non-filmic-cinematic; cf. Chapter 2.5).
All this, obviously, does not have the effect of volatilizing the
existence of different codes. First, because there are no airtight
compartments between considerations which are properly semiotic and
those which concern instead sociology or technology, between the
filmic-cinematic and the non-filmic-cinematic. Next, because the cin-
ematic material of expression and the televisual material of expression
still remain separate - but for long ? - by a distinctive feature which
affects the text in a perceptible manner - namely, the size of the screen.
(It is not by chance that, in ordinary language, this trait alone, of all
the differential traits, has been retained in order to express the dif-
ference between the two language systems : the 'big screen' and the 'little
In spite of this reduction in size (the codical consequences of
which are still poorly understood or perhaps not understood at all), it
remains that the respective texts of the cinema and of television have
in common all the most important distinctive material features (which
will be recalled in a moment), and that the specific codifications, i.e.,
those linked to the distinctive features, are largely the same in the two
cases. In both one finds close-up shots and medium long shots, lighting
effects, dolly shots and trajectories, images perceived as 'photographic',
sound-off and sound-on, 'dialogue' and external 'commentary',
credits, 'sound effects' coordinated with the pictures, chronological
montage and flashback, rapid montage and 'sequence-shot', etc. It
would take a long time to enumerate the figures and systems of figures
which are common to the big and little screens. Their precise use,
their average frequency, their preferred context, etc. may vary from
one to another, but they may also vary within the frame of each: it is
a question of differences between sub-codes, not between language
systems. In addition, still concerning usage, we know each day that
cinema and television resemble each other and interact more and more.
Differences which separate the cinema or television from any other
language system have nothing in common with those which separate the
cinema from television: the first are compact, both immediate and
irremediable; definitive differences between materials of expression,
involving entire groups of specific codes. The radiophonic piece is not
visual while the cinema and television are, but the photograph is fixed
while the cinema and television are moving, etc.
On page 225, we defined neighboring language systems as language
systems which have in common a certain number of distinctive physical
features, and thus a certain number of specific codes. In essence, cin-
ema and television are nothing more than two neighboring language
systems, but ones which push this relationship much farther than is
ordinarily done. Within each of the two, the distinctive physical features
and specific codes which also belong to the other are much more
numerous and important than those which do not belong to it; and
inversely, those which separate them are much less numerous and im-
portant than those which separate them, in common, from other lan-
guage systems.
Thus one can treat them as if they formed a single language system.
This is only a convention, since the differences remain, and they would
become of primary importance if one undertook the internal study of
the cinema-television pair. (Also, it is clear from the very outset - and
common opinion does not contradict this - that these two 'media' are
both distinct, and yet very similar.) But this convention may bring
about greater clarity and discard several false problems in the classifica-
tions and discussions which, going beyond the frame of the cinema as
that of the television, envisage the more general state of codifications
and specificities in a rather vast domain, like that of the 'audio-visual'
and, a fortiori, of general aesthetics.
It will be said, then, in this spirit, that cinema and television are two
technologically and socially distinct versions of a single language system
which is defined by a certain type of combination between speech,
music, sound effects, written credits, and moving pictures (to the notable
exclusion of smells, tastes, tactile sensations, etc.) - it being under-
stood that the techniques of mechanical duplication utilized in order
to 'reproduce' these five sorts of elements end, for the three of them
which are auditory, by largely re-establishing the phenomenal and per-
ceptual richness of the object which is reproduced, while the iconic
series (however obtained, also, by mechanical duplication, as compared
with what takes place for example in painting or design) manifests
a partial and incomplete perceptual analogy in relation to the re-
produced object, since it tolerates the alteration of some of the per-
ceptible characteristics of the 'model' (presence of the rectangle of the
screen which is absent in ordinary vision, absence of binocular factors
of relief which are present in ordinary vision, different functioning of
the mechanisms of the re-establishment of constancy, etc.).
A definition of this sort, we see, applies both to cinema and to tele-

vision. It obviously does not rely on formal features, but on sensory

considerations (the material of expression); it is that the object defined
here is not a code, but a language system.
Let us return, finally, to cinematic codes with maximum specificity.
one admits that cinema and television form essentially a single lan-
guage system, these codes will not be uniquely those which belong to the
cinema alone, but also - and even especially, since we have just said
that they are more numerous and important than the first - those which
belong to cinema and television alone, and which were discussed in
the preceding chapter - namely, codes proper to the mechanical picture,
sequencing and movement (this was our 'group 5'), and codes relative
to the combination of such a picture with the triple sound element (as
well as with the written credits).


Sections 10.4 and 10.5 have shown that what characterizes a given lan-
guage system is not a code, as those who search for 'the code of the
cinema' would maintain, but a combination of several codes. This point,
we know, has been forcefully developed by Emilio Garroni in Semiotica
ed Estetica (see Chapter 2.3), but he concludes from this that no code
is specific to a language system; a code is never specific; only language
systems (i.e., combinations of codes) are. This position seems acceptable
to us, and we have discussed it in an article whose ideas are recon-
sidered and systematicized throughout this chapter.19 The concept of
language systems as specific combinations of codes, which is assuredly
the most satisfying, does not imply that the combined codes are nec-
essarily non-specific; some of them may be specific, such that what one
calls (globally) the specificity of a language system is a phenomenon
with two levels. The combination is specific, as are some of the
combined elements, an idea which is inseparable from a differentiated
view of specificity itself, with its variations of degrees and modes, its
overlapping from language system to language system (Chapter 10.4).
But, in fact, the partial disaccord which exists between Garroni's
position and ours stems from a point of semiotic theory whose signi-
ficance is more general. One admits here that the form itself (in the
sense of Hjelmslev), i.e., the code, is linked to certain features of the
material of expression, or at least that it is in the case of certain codes,
which by this single fact (to one degree or another, in one way or
"Specificite des codes et specificite des langages", in Semiotica 1 : 4 , 1969,
370-96. Several passages of this article have been reprinted in the present chapter.
another) may be considered to be specific. Garroni, on the contrary,
establishes a more absolute separation between form and material; a
form, for him, is always a 'pure' form, independent of material determi-
nations, such that every code is capable of being manifested in every
material (in any language system), and thus specific codes do not exist.
This divergence reflects on the scale of general semiotics what in
linguistics sets Danish glossematics (attached to pure form) apart from
the Prague or post-Prague phonology and transformational generative
grammar, which are in agreement at least insofar as preserving certain
linVs between form and material is concerned. These questions were
discussed in Chapter 10.3.
This point of disagreement comes to be associated with the idea,
asserted on all sides, that language systems are specific combinations
of codes, an idea which merits being made more precise. It seems to us,
in effect, that in each language system the combination is itself double
and occurs in two different senses, the first of which is taxonomic, the
second more dynamic. What is involved here is the very definition of
what one will understand by 'combination'.
We have first a combination in the most ordinary sense of the word:
each language system corresponds to a regrouping of multiple codes,
some specific in different degrees, others non-specific. Some of the
regrouped codes are capable of reappearing in all the regroupings : these
are, obviously, the non-specific codes (which owe their very definition
to this peculiarity). The others may figure in one or more regroupings,
but never in all of them: these are the specific codes (specific to one
or more language systems); in addition, the set which they form is
never the same from one regrouping to another (Chapter 10.4): neigh-
boring language systems have in common some of their specific codes,
but not all of them, for in this case it would no longer be a question of
neighboring language systems but of one and the same language system
(cinema and television come close to this). Thus, to say that each
language system is a specific combination of codes is to assert that the
total regrouping of codes is never identical from one language system
to another - although the non-specific codes may participate in all the
regroupings and certain specific codes in several - for a given set of
specific codes never participates in more than one, which is enough to
differentiate each total regrouping from all the others. In this sense, the
combination that is invoked is properly a combinatorial fact, a taxo-
nomic fact, and in addition it opens up, in the end, the perspective of a
general and systematic classification of the diverse means of expression

as so many sets of codes; this would be a sort of Mendelian table, and

also the culmination, in its structural version, of the already ancient
dream of a 'system of the Fine Arts' (where only 'fine arts' appear).
But there is also another manner in which codes are combined in
each language system. They are not regrouped, added to one another, or
juxtaposed in just any manner; they are organized, articulated in terms
of one another in accordance with a certain order, they contract uni-
lateral hierarchies, similar in certain regards to those which, according
to Julien Greimas,20 are twisted about the semes of each lexeme or of
each sememe. Thus a veritable system of inter-codical relations is
generated which is itself, in some sort, another code, and which - on
the level of the codical, not of the material of expression - represents
what is most specific in each language system; this is the codical
formula of its specificity. This structure must not be confused with
another, which is also inter-codical, but which functions in each text of
a language system and not on the level of the language system as such;
(we have spoken of the latter in Chapters Five and Six, calling it a
'textual system'). As for the inter-codical relations which are established
at the level of the language system itself, it is doubtless too soon to be
able to understand these in any precise manner, but in Chapter 10.4 we
have attempted to outline the problem, if incompletely. We discussed,
for example, the relations of unilateral implication which come to
successively 'embed' the less specific groups of codes in more specific
groups of codes. In the cinema, generally iconic codifications are
'topped' by more specific ones which stem from the mechanical
picture and which in turn only appear - at least in the cinema, we
insist - with those of the mechanical picture in sequence, which them-
selves do not function alone, but thanks to the codes of the mechanical
picture in sequence and moving, the latter coming finally to be em-
bedded in audio-visual configurations (relations between the visual track
and the sound track). In this sense, to speak of language systems as
specific combinations of codes is to say that each language system is the
site of a work of structuration, of a specific dynamic which ends up by
conferring on the diverse 'regrouped' codes positions which they did
not have anywhere except in this system, which thus characterized
the language system and not its codes. As the textual system in each
text dislocates codes in order to locate them (Chapter 6.2), each lan-
guage system also dislocates them in its own manner, and also in order
to locate them - to locate them not in the text, but in the configuration
" Simantique structurale, especially 30-54.
of codes which, understood in this way, becomes the 'combination'
proper to this language system.
These two aspects of the process of combination correspond to two
fundamental and complementary analytic procedures. The first consists
in considering, one by one, the codes or groups of codes that are com-
bined - to discover, for example, that the cinematic codes of a generally
iconic order also appear in eight or ten other language systems (which
are thus recorded at the same time), the cinematic codes of the mechan-
ical picture in only three or five (the 'table' of which is thus completed
by this same commutation), graphic codes of sequencing in five or
seven, etc. The other procedure rests on the finding that, in the cinema
(and not elsewhere), the picture in sequentiell order is precisely a me-
chanical image (in the animated drawing, it is a picture made by hand
which is put into sequence) that this mechanical picture inevitably also
has an 'iconic' character, that the image put into sequence is the very
one which is put into motion (in the comic strip, it is a fixed image
which is put into sequence), etc. Thus, the action of codes upon each
other is achieved along paths and intersections which characterize the
cinema itself (or television). From this second perspective, the codes are
no longer lined up side by side; they are 'piled up' one on top of the
other. We see that the two procedures do not exclude but rather
complement one another, and that the first - this is why we have so
named it - necessarily comes before the second.
Distinguishing between these two perspectives makes it possible to
understand that, in the internal functioning of a given language system,
a code which is more specific than another is not necessarily a more
important code. It may be, but it is not automatically so. A more
specific code - and this is its very definition (see Chapter 10.4) - is
simply a code that a given language system shares with a smaller
number of other language systems, which is sufficient to establish (in
the taxonomic perspective) that it characterizes it even more. Is not
the 'specific', or at least one of the variants of this notion, that which is
absent elsewhere ? But if one ignores this 'elsewhere' and conducts the
proper analysis of the original language system, we see this more specific
code contracting multiple and frequent functional relations with some
less specific code, such that it would be difficult (and, moreover, quite
useless) to decide which of the two plays the more 'important' role.
We have already encountered, in anticipation, a good example of a
similar situation (p. 230), in establishing that cinematic montage, taken
as a whole, includes codifications relative to the sequencing of the image

and others which are associated with its movement These two sorts of
organizations - which are distinct, moreover, since sequences of still
photographs exist like those which form the 'photo-novel' - constantly
interpenetrate and are combined in films, for whose montage they
assume in common the responsibility. For the internal study of the
cinema, what is most important is this very collaboration, i.e., the
montage - the analysis of which, however, could only gain in rigor if
the two elements are clearly distinguished. (In this case, one would
find, as we have done elsewhere,21 that the concerns of sequencing
have had priority over the problems of the elaboration of movement
in certain phases of the development of the cinematic language system,
which has been dominated by an obsession with montage in a narrow
sense, i.e., of cutting and splicing, thus of sequentially more than of
movement.) And yet, it cannot be doubted that the mobility of the
image is more specific to the cinema than is its plurality : the first, not
the second, has given its name to the cinematographic, the first is found
only in a small number of means of expression, all of which appeared
only recently, the second in many 'modern' language systems - the
forerunners, and others, such as the photo-novel, the cartoon, the lay-
out of illustrated magazines, etc. - as well as in older productions:
frescos, paintings or drawings ordered in series, triptychs, or even
strongly 'narrative' individual paintings, as those of Breughel, with their
numerous motifs which defy any reading other than a successive one.
It is, moreover, a rather common judgment, present in many recent
representations of the cinematic fact, that movement - from an implicit-
ly taxonomic view - is more characteristic of films than the plurality of
'shots', almost to the point of also admitting (in modifying the perspec-
tive, even unknowingly) that the succession of images plays as important
a role, in these very films, as does their mobility.
We shall thus try to keep from confusing degrees of specificity with
estimations of 'importance', for the first can only be decided in com-
paring several language systems, and the second only for each system
taken separately. (It is not, after all, certain that the question of im-
portance is of great significance. What is important is the articulation
of codes in the language system, and not the list of merits that one may
draw up for it. It is not indispensable, in order to analyze the cinema, to
know if it is 'the art of movement' rather than 'the art of the image',
" 'Montage* et discours dans le film", in Volume I of Linguistic Studies Pre-
sented to Andre Martinet (Word 23 : fascicle 1-2-3, dated 1967, appeared in
1969), 388-95.

'the art of space' or - why not ? - the art of situated sounds; it is all
this at the same time, and it is this 'at the same time' which is im-
portant. But also, in order to disentangle this 'at the same time' with-
out confusion, it is necessary initially to consider its components one by



Having arrived at this point, the reader will perhaps wonder what good
it does to 'attach oneself to the idea of specificity when one is led to so
qualify and circumstantiate it, and why not admit (as Emilio Garroni
has done) that the codes themselves are never specific, and that only
combinations of codes may be ?
The reason is that the notion of the 'specificity' of certain codes
seems to us to represent - at least in the present state of research, which
Garroni anticipates with a little too much optimism - the only way of
accounting for so directly perceptible a phenomenon, which should be
probed and analyzed by structural methods, such as we understand
them, and not excluded offhand. The common experience of the re-
ception of diverse texts leads us to believe that, of the codes which are
combined in the text of each art, such codes are closer to this art itself
than others - and that each language carries with it certain formal
systems while it is content to adopt others.
Take, for example, a system of clear-obscure, specific both to
painting and still color photography; in the experience of cultural
consumption, it would be effectively felt to be specific in both cases,
despite the fact that there are two of them. This is because in both
cases it will enter into contact with other codes, which will be less
specific than it. At the heart of the pictorial work, this clear-obscure
will be found, so-to-speak, beside the painting (and not the painted
subject), since the same painting will manifest elsewhere - and this
is only one example - some code that Panofsky would declare to be
"iconographic",22 and which would organize the mythological material
(if it is a question of a painting with a mythological subject). In other
words, if it is true that not everything in painting is pictorial, it is not
true that everything in it is non-pictorial to the same degree, and
certain configurations are more pictorial than others. Pictoriality is only
a part - but a true part - of painting, in the same way as the 'literariness'
(literaturnost), for the Russian formalists, was not the sum total of
Essais d'iconologie (see note 9, Chapter 2).

literature but was itself open, by abstraction, to a separate analysis,

and corresponded to a series of contructed models (codes) which were
proper to it.23 This same reasoning could be applied to a color photo-
graph where there was an identical effect of clear-obscure which,
there again, would find itself opposite something less 'photographic'
than it.
There is one common conception which opposes, within the filmic
text, the 'form' and the 'content'; the form so understood is the cine-
matic language system itself, and the content, what one express with this
system in each particular case. This way of looking at things is both
confused and simplistic, and we have elsewhere devoted a special
article24 to criticizing it. First, to oppose the form to the content is to
contaminate the two distinctions, which are methodologically in-
dependent of each other (that of the signifier and the signified, and that
of the form and the material). Next, each of the systems of signification
(codes) which are at work in the film - whether it is specifically cin-
ematic or not - is both a system of signifiers and a system of signifieds
(without which it would not be a system of signification), such that the
supposed constituent codes of the 'form' also have their specific signi-
fieds, and the supposed constitutive codes of the 'content' also have
specific signifiers.
Nevertheless, through this clumsy distinction between the form and
the content, common sense appears to us to express (even if it expresses
it poorly) a very real articulation which, better named, would be that
of the vehicle and that of the program - it being understood that the
vehicle is not the signifier and that the program is not the signified, but
that the vehicle and the program each consist of a set of codes, with
their own signifiers and signifieds.
We know that what is characteristic of certain modern texts, in
particular in the so-called literary domain, is that they select as a pro-
gram a reflection on the vehicle, even a literal production of the vehicle.
This is found in diverse contemporary writings which consist of a ques-
tioning of the writing process, or in a production of a writing in the
course of being written. This example, it seems to us, confirms the use-
fulness of the notions of vehicle and program : there would be no sense,
in effect, in saying that such writings take their own form as content, or
their own signifier as signified; it is a question of something else.
Roman Jakobson said in 1921: "The object of literary study is not literature
in its entirely, but its literariness, i.e., what makes it a literary work."
* "Propositions methodologiques pour l'analyse du film" (see note 7, Chapter 1).
If a sonnet (vehicle) describes a sunset (program), one is dealing
with two sets of codes whose distance in relation to the sonnet-
fact is unequal: the systems of versification associated with the sonnet-
form (with their specific signifieds) are on the side of the vehicle, the
symbolic organization of colored masses in the expression of the
setting sun (with its proper signifiers which could be, in this case,
certain relationships between words found in the text) is on the side of
the program. For this sonnet could have described the battle of the
Titans without ceasing to be a sonnet, while it would have ceased to be
a sonnet if it had seventeen lines. To conceive of the different codes
which are combined in an art as all uniformly distant from this art - as
would happen if the specificity of each language system were defined
solely by the combination of codes - would be to operate according to
a sort of leveling process which is somewhat artificial, and which fails to
account for an important element of the aesthetic experience.
One finds again here the notion of multiple specificity (Chapter
10.4): if a code may be common to several language systems without
ceasing to be specific in each of them, it is precisely because, in each of
them, it is situated on the side of the vehicle; and if it is situated on the
side of the vehicle, it is because, as we have said, it is linked even in its
formal characteristics to certain features of the material of the signifier,
and that these features are precisely those which enter into the definition
of the different language systems considered, the language systems being
units of manifestation and their enumeration thus being achieved by
virtue of material considerations.
Rhythmical codes are linked to the sensorial trait of temporality,
and this trait enters - with others, obviously - into the definition of
diverse temporal language systems. Thus, in declaring that rhythm is
specific to temporal arts, one actually says two things : that rhythmical
systems are not manifested (if not in a transposed form) in anything
but the temporal arts, and that, in the temporal arts themselves, the
rhythmical systems are on the side of the vehicle. The analysis thus
supports a suggestion made by the language system itself; the word
'specific' brings two ideas to mind: what is specific is what does not
exist elsewhere, and it is also that which, in this very sphere of existence,
is felt to be defining, not interchangeable and not accidental.
In sum, to wonder about the specificity of a code does not consist
only in asking oneself, as was done in Chapter 10.4, if other language
systems employ or do not employ this code, but also (as has been done
in the rest of this book) if the other codes of the same language system

are or are not closer to the technical constraint to which this language
system owes its definition, and even its independent existence. One can
investigate specificity in comparing several language systems from the
point of view of a single code, but also in comparing several codes from
the point of view of the same language system.
The distinction proposed in Chapter 10.2 between the three cases
of semiotic interferences was situated within the perspective of the first
procedure, since it was a question of 'following' a single code (or a
single figure of a code, or a single group of codical transpositions)
across diverse language systems; on the contrary, the differentiation of
the vehicle and the program follows this second procedure, since the
segmentation that it establishes divides the ensemble of codes of a
single language system into two groups.
However, to the extent that it is necessary for the clarity of things
that the two procedures not be confused, it is appropriate to repeat, in
the sense already indicated a moment ago, that these two procedures
lead to the same result, or, more exactly, that the specificity of the code
may only be established at their intersection; they are distinct in their
principle, but they refer to two complementary aspects of the notion
of specificity, and this duality does not at all have the effect of creating
two conflicting lists of specific codes. The distinctive features of the
material of the signifier specify the group of language systems in which
a given code is may be manifested, but they contribute by this to the
definition of these language systems; they thus tell us about both the
specificity of codes and the specificity of language systems.
This is why each language system is not specific only with respect to
the combination of its codes, but also in terms of certain of these codes
which enter into combination.
The notions of vehicle and program may be formulated in another
manner. There are, in each language system, codes of expression and
codes of content, which implies that entire codes (each with its level of
expression and its level of content) may be found unilaterally on the
side of expression (or on the side of content) in relation to the overall
text of a given language system.
Take, for example, the cross-cutting montage, which has been
discussed in several places, and which belongs to a code of montage.
In itself, it is presented as a unit of signification, if one understands by
this that it already has a signifier side (the alternating disposition of
images) and a signified side (the indication that the corresponding

actions are simultaneous). But in relation to the film considered as

a whole, the cross-cutting montage is entirely on the side of expression;
in order to recount such and such an episode, the cineast has a choice
between this montage and another, another which is also a unit with
two sides.
Of course, this selection on the level of expression influences the
content of the film (that is to say, in our example, the very concept of
the episode 'recounted'), and it is, inversely, always and already in-
fluenced by this content. The choices of expression are not things which
come afterwards. But it is a question here of the action of displacement
proper to the textual system, discussed in Sections 6.2 and 6.3, and
which joins cinematic elements and the extra-cinematic elements with
each other. This displacement does not make it impossible - but rather
implies - that the two sorts of 'elements' are already significations, that
they are themselves two-sided (signifiers and signifieds), before the
action of the film comes to position them in the overall structure of the
text, some on the side of the expression, and others on the side of the
content. This effect of separation and encasement obviously rests on
the fact that the text (and the language system) are structures of struc-
tures, and are constructed of several codes.
The codes of the content are those which have been designated on
p. 223 as capable of universal manifestation (manifestation in all lan-
guage systems), i.e., in relation to which no feature of the material of
expression of any language system is distinctive. These are thus proper-
ly semantic codes; their signifiers, as well as their signifieds, are so-to-
speak internal to the material of the content, to what one calls 'mean-
ing', in this instance one which is common to all language systems (see
p. 210). Their level of expression itself consists of abstract configura-
tions of semanticisms, their level of content corresponds to the social
and cultural signification which is associated with these configurations,
for example, the very notion of episode, which we took as an example a
moment ago : the episode as an organized semanticism, and that which
it refers to. (The episode is not a code of content in itself, but it belongs
to one of them.) Or even codes of narrativity, seen at the level where
they are independent of narrative vehicles (language systems) : the
'agent', the 'patient', the 'adjuvant', or all similar things are formal
entities, already of an abstract and purely semantic nature; a 'villain',
for example, may be drawn, photographed, 'described' (that is to say
written), etc. But these entities, in the properly narrative code, specify

the form of the signifiers, and the content which corresponds to them
consists of what they tell us about what is recountable (and thus about
what is not recountable) in each culture. In a text, on the other hand,
this entire code is on the side of the content (and thus enters into
interaction with the specific codes).
It is codes of this order which, in the cinema (language system),
constitute the non-specific element and which, in the film (text), come to
inscribe their signifiers and their signifieds on the side of the content.
Certain modern studies have already given us an idea of the manner
in which such codes function. This is, however, an extremely difficult
problem, and it is too early, above all in the cinematic domain, to
undertake a general work which would aim to formulate in a theoretical
manner, and in all its fullness, the 'non-specific' status of the codes of
content and the exact nature of their relationship to diverse language
Such a study could not even be begun here. We only wish to situate
these codes, as from the outside, in relation to others (to those which
are specific); to mark their place in some way.
One of the principal difficulties for the future seems to be the follow-
ing : what is the exact relation - transposition (as in Chapter 10.2) or
other relation, and of what sort ? - between certain codes of content and
certain codes of expression which give the impression of being ad-
jacent ? For example, how is one to understand a notion like 'sunset',
mentioned above in passing, which seems to refer to a code of content
when one thinks of its appearance in a written text, but which comes
closer to a code of expression in visual, colored, and figurative language
systems ? Or yet: what is the sector of the material of content (and is
there one) which is proper to music ? In one sense, it is clear that there
is none; music is not a specialized language system (see p. 211); the idea
of a properly musical content (which would be, for example, the in-
effable emotions) is completely obscure and unsatisfying; but, on the
other hand, how is one to forget that music is not capable of expressing
everything, that it cannot tell a story or conduct an argument? The
same problem is posed, moreover, for the cinema (where it is, however,
less central): the cinema is also not a specialized language system, and
yet it cannot (in spite of certain hopes on the part of some) conduct an
explicit theoretical discourse in the same manner as would a written
text or an oral expose (unless this discourse is entrusted to the voice of
a personage, of a speaker, or to 'cartoons' using writing). Semiotics, as
we see, encounters here some very old problems, and it is not the only
science which has been hindered by their complexity.
It is thus not impossible that, among the codes of content them-
selves (as a whole non-specific), some nevertheless find themselves in
a position which is not equidistant from all language systems, for
reasons which, in this case, perhaps no longer concern the material of
expression - and that thus, to the specificity which we have defined,
ought to be added on another level a new notion which remains to be


In Chapter 10.1, we seemed to abandon the Hjelmslevian concept

of substance, and to treat it as inessential, derivative, 'secondary' in
relation to form and material. However, paradoxically, every analysis
in this book has been conducted on a level which Hjelmslev would
have called substance. We considered the forms (codes), but in their
relations to diverse materials of expression; on the other hand we have
taken into account the material, but only as it intervenes in the defini-
tion of certain codes (this is the notion of distinctive material features).
Concerning groups of codical transpositions, we have admitted that the
change in material may suffice to establish distinct codes even if the
relational logic, in the extreme, remains identical (p. 218). The level
on which we were operating, in all these cases, was thus that of the
material considered as formed, or of the form considered as material-
ized : precisely the 'substance' of Hjelmslev.
Hence the partial disagreement with Garroni (discussed on p. 240),
and with Hjelmslev himself (p. 219), who also judged that the substance
is already too close to the material, and that semiotics ought to limit
itself to pure form: this position seems to us difficult to maintain with-
in the perspective of a truly 'general' semiotics, where one has to deal
with language systems, the material differences between which are
numerous and considerable.
The properly cinematic units about which we have spoken would
all be, for Hjelmslev, units of substance. Their signifier would be
fashioned in the substance of expression, their signified in the substance
of content. Thus, we have defined the cross-cutting montage according
to its distributional scheme (A-B-A-B) - that is to say, by its form -
but not without specifying that only an alternation of moving photo-
graphic images (and not words, musical phrases, or just any items what-
soever) would strictly merit being called cross-cutting montage; in sum,

we have refused to assimilate (if not under the title of transposition)

the cross-cutting montage of the cinema with its literary or other
'equivalent', and to reduce it thus to the purest principle of alterna-
tion; what we understand by 'cross-cutting montage' is thus, precisely,
a materialized form.
We have also seen that iconicity, although it is directly and physical-
ly perceptible, results from the action of certain codes - namely, the
'codes of analogy'.
In these conditions, why have we always spoken of 'material', and
not of 'substance' ? For two distinct reasons : first, because the post-
Hjelmslevian tradition - if one excludes certain authors such as Julien
Greimas - has a tendency to 'level' the tripartition of the Danish linguist
into a bipartition form/substance, such that 'substance', today, often
designates what for Hjelmslev was the material. In this usage, in effect,
the word has ceased to be maintained in its intermediate position by
the double pressure of 'form' and 'material', and it finds itself pushed
quite simply towards the material, for it has only 'form' opposite it,
and only on one side. Thus substance becomes difficult to use if one
does not wish to misconstrue the definition given it by Hjelmslev him-
self, and yet to remain intelligible in a larger, post-Hjelmslevian frame-
In the second place, it is possible that the vocabulary of Hjelmslev,
on this point, was unfortunate from the very beginning and uselessly
complicated the understanding of his own ideas, thus favoring the
distortion just noted. In everyday language, 'substance' and 'material'
are parasynonyms: it was foolhardy to confer on them a definite dif-
ferentiation. In fact, in order to designate that place where form and
material meet, and which results from their very meeting, the simplest
thing is to renounce a third term, whatever it may be - for it always
risks making us forget this fact of their intersection, and thus the close
ties with the two other levels - and to speak directly of the formed
material or of the materialized form, as Hjelmslev himself has done in
some places (cf. p. 210).
It is this solution which has been adopted and generalized here.
Even when one operates on this level - above all when one operates
here - it is preferable to situate it in relationship to whichever of the
two terms it is opposed in each case, and for which Hjelmslev's terms
are clear and in accord with ordinary language. This is the surest way
(for this problem of terminology is linked to other, more important
ones) to escape the double stumbling block of formalism and im-

pressionistic expression, which are located, respectively, on the side

of pure form and pure material. The level of the 'substance' is not an
independent entity which has need of a special name, which would
simply risk obscuring the two other terms. What is important to study
is the action of the form in the material.



One readily speaks of the cinema (and has for quite some time) as of
a script. Certain critics and historians employ the expression 'cine-
matic writing', journalists, even more often and with less precaution,
and theoreticians and commentators make different sorts of comparisons
between the cinema and writing. But in the majority of cases, these
comparisons are hasty and may be understood in several ways, which
are not always clearly distinguished. We are now going to attempt to
somewhat disentangle them.
There is a first point common to cinema and writing - namely, that
they are both recording techniques (they are not only that, of course).
We shall subsume under the word 'recording', in conformity with a
frequent usage, the three successive stages of the process when it is
completely developed: the recording, properly speaking; the preser-
vation; and the ultimate 'reproduction'.
Cinema and writing thus record events. But these events are quite
different in both cases. Those which the cinema 'captures' are groups of
events accessible to view and to hearing; those fixed by writing are
either spoken sequences, and only spoken ones (in the case of diverse
phonetic scripts : syllabic writing, which records syllable by syllable;
alphabetic, i.e., phonemic writing, which records phoneme by phoneme,
etc.), or discrete elements of social experience, when it is a question of
different so-called ideographic (morphogrammatic, pictographic, etc.)
A difference which, if one thinks about it, encompasses two dif-
ferences whose effect is cumulative. First, the event which is recorded
does not in all cases belong to the same sensory order: auditory and
visual with the cinema, only auditory (and more precisely phonetic,
which even excludes many auditory elements) with phonetic scripts, and
purely mental, non-perceptible, with ideographic writings; we know, in
effect, that in the latter, the grapheme which designates a 'tree' does not
record the tree as an object of the world ('the referent'), but a certain
notion of the tree (we shall return to this in Chapter 11.6).
In the second place, depending on whether or not it is a question of
the cinema, or phonetic or ideographic writing, the recordable event
does not occupy the same position in relation to social communication.
What the phonetic script records is a spoken discourse, thus an object
which was plainly linguistic before being recorded; in addition, phonetic
writing retains of the spoken utterance only what belongs to the lan-
guage; it excludes the other elements of spoken language, it 'records'
one code and only one. (There are exceptions to this, which perhaps
do not merit this name, for example graphic signs which, like certain
exclamation marks, correspond to purely expressive, i.e., extra-lin-
guistic intonations; but these signs are precisely those which do not
appear in the proper system of the phonetic writing and have simply
been added to i t : thus, in the case of alphabetic writing, these would
be the graphemes which are not letters of the alphabet.) This is because
phonetic writing, in principle, records a pre-existent code - the phono-
logical code, for the alphabet - that it is defined by linguists as a
surrogate code, a code of the second degree. (Apparent exceptions,
again, should not mislead one: it is true that in French one finds
several different graphs - 'im', 'ein', 'ain', etc. - for the single
phoneme / / ; these are paradigmatic distortions. It is also true that
each of these graphs uses several letters, while / g / is not a sequence of
phonemes but one phoneme; these are syntagmatic distortions. But here
one touches upon orthography, which is not writing, and whose very
existence results from the disjunction between the alphabetic script of a
language and the adoption or the maintanence of an alphabet which
was made for some other, more ancient, language, having a different
phonological system; thus the 'Latin' alphabet serves to record French,
German, Polish, etc. Moreover, when the orthographic fact has a very
important place, as it does in contemporary French, the theoretically
phonetic writing ceases in part to be phonetic and achieves a sort of
ideography; certain written words are recognized as a whole by their
orthographic contours, such that the notation, in practice, relies a little
less on phonemes, units of the second articulation, and a little more
directly on units of signification, of the first articulation. This evolution
has been commented on by linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure,
Charles Bally, Marcel Cohen, Andr6 Martinet, Georges Gougenheim,
Charles Beaulieux, Claire Blanche-Benveniste, Andr6 Chervel, etc. In

a more general way, without even speaking of ideographic tendencies,

it is certain that in languages like French or English, whose notation is
in principle phonetic, but in fact is quite far from phonetic, the spoken
and written tend to be organized into two distinct and not isomorphic
codes, such that the second no longer 'substitutes' for the first, or
does so only in part, a phenomenon which Hjelmslev has noted,1 and
which Jean Dubois2 has studied in detail for contemporary French.
All this shows that it is not necessary to attribute to alphabetic writing
that which diverges from it. Its principle, and the great invention that
one traditionally attributes (in simplifying things somewhat) to the
Phoenecians, remains the bi-univocal correspondence between pho-
nemes and graphemes : one grapheme per phoneme, one phoneme per
grapheme. (In sum, the definition of phonetic writing as a surrogate
code implies two things : (1) what is recorded was already analyzed and
structured in view of communication (was a code); and (2) the notation
itself does not introduce a second analysis different from the first
In this regard, the dividing line, whether paradoxical or not, does
not pass between cinema and writing, but between phonetic writing,
on the one hand, and cinema and ideographic writings, on the other.
This explains why treating the cinema as a new form of ideographic
writing has so often tempted theoreticians of the film. This point will be
examined separately (Chapter 11.6) and we shall see that the com-
parisons proposed would profit by being less hasty, for the cinema and
ideography differ profoundly in other respects. But it is precisely in
these other respects that they are different, and we shall retain for the
moment their common manner of being opposed to phonetic writing :
what both of them record is not a pre-constituted code, a statement of
human experience, but segments of this experience itself, perceptual
experience with the cinema, mental and socio-cognitive experience
with ideographic writing. It is not a question here of opposing the al-
ready elaborate experience to some 'crude' experience that the cinema
or ideography directly and faithfully record; brute experience is in-
accessible, all experiences which we have are already elaborated. The
'ideas' that ideographic writing fixes, the 'spectacles' that the cinema
fixes are already full of a thousand codes, but, and this is the point, a
thousand codes and not a single one. In this type of recording process,
one finds nothing comparable to what the phonological code is for al-
Essais linguistiques, "La stratification du langage", 50-51.
Grammaire structurale du francais. Nom et prenom (Paris: Larousse, 1965).
See, for example, 50, 82, 89-90.
phabetic writing, i.e., an immediately prior stage which already
consists of a single, fully integrated code in view of explicit communica-
tion, which the medium of recording is content to 'copy'. This is why
the cinema and ideographic writing are not surrogate codes (or sets
of codes); quite the contrary, it is by their intervention that is begun,
if not the first analysis of the process that they record, at least the
first analysis which responds to the aims of properly informational
transmission. The mental and social classifications which precede ideo-
graphic writing, or the audio-visual events which precede the cinematic
recording are not statements, at least in the ordinary sense of the word
(for elsewhere, they obviously say quite a bit); they only become so
once they have been recorded.
Thus the 'recording', in a word, is more than a recording and in-
volves the possibility of structuring which is proper to it: the
segmentation of experience which appears in ideographic writing is
created by it as much as 'reflected' in it (there is in this a circularity
which one does not find in phonetic notation). The objects and actions
which appear in films are profoundly modified by the very act of
filming (which does not imply that, outside of it or before it, they
could have existed in an amorphous state). Only the phonetic writing
- nevertheless within the margins of international creativity which have
been discussed earlier in passing - may be defined as a pure process of
reporting (we shall see, in Chapter 11.2, that even this calls for a
qualification). Cinema and ideography, although they also record (since
they gave a material and durable form to that which, without them,
would not have any), are incapable of recording without transforming.
This comes down to saying that they are codes (or more exactly sets of
codes), while phonetic writing, rather than a code, is a notation of a
Thus the common comparisons between the cinema and writing
which are founded, explicitly or not, on the notion of recording, con-
tain only a very general and not very significant truth : they are limited
to pointing out the common existence of a phenomenon of 'preserva-
tion', which authorizes deferred exchanges. But this holds true as well
for the decimal system, for chemical or logical symbols, for records or
tape recordings, for books, for musical notation, etc.


It is not always on the basis of the idea of recording that comparisons
between the cinema and writing are made. In other cases (but often in

a manner which is also not very explicit), it is the notion of 'duplication'

that sustains them. What is focused upon in these cases is the fact that
the entire cinema may be defined as a process of transmission: visual
elements re-appear on the screen in the form of their own effigies, the
auditory elements (speech included) in the form of their sonorous re-
productions (we shall not dwell here on the obvious difference of
fidelity which separates these two sorts of representation; this will be
discussed in Chapter 11.6). It remains that the cinema, in addition to
its own elaborations, functions also as a vast reserve of visual and
auditory substitutes.
This trait also belongs to writing, or rather to phonetic writing, a fact
which is sometimes left unsaid. The latter functions as a transmission
(transmission of speech); it also offers us a substitute : the alphabetical
grapheme, which transmits a phoneme, the syllabogram, which trans-
mits a syllable, etc.
However, the process of obtainment of the transmission does not
follow the same paths in the two cases. The cinematic substitute, in
order to exist, needs all the codes - psycho-physiological, like per-
ception itself; socio-cultural codes, like judgements of 'similarity'; socio-
linguistic codes, like the codes of iconic designations (see p. 199) -
which together produce analogy, the 'iconicity' of American semioti-
cians, the 'likeness' of Peirce,3 and the impression of perceptual simi-
larity felt by each and every one. The substitute, here, is coded without
being 'arbitrary' in the sense of Saussure.
In phonetic writing, it is arbitrary. It consists at present of a graphic
configuration drawn on a support (a grapheme), and the object that it
transmits is a phonetic element: a syllable, a phoneme, a supra-segmen-
tal prosodeme (like vocalic quantity or the accent of intensity of ancient
Greek, marked by graphemes that one sometimes calls 'tonic'),4 a
pause of phonetic emission (that is to say a phonetic event, often
designated on paper by a period: another sort of tonic grapheme), a
phonetic segment taken as a whole, for example a word (thus the
written-sign 'p\ which is a 'lexical grapheme',8 refers in a indivisible

* Charles Sanders Peirce, "Speculative Grammar" ( = Part ) of Elements of

Logic, 1932, Volume 2 of Collected Papers (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 8 volumes (from 1931 to 1958), 129-69. In Peirce's celebrated triparti-
tion, "likeness" is the characteristic which distinguishes icons from the other two
sorts of signs, symbols and indices (cf. especially 143-44).
Terminology of Eric Buyssens, Les langages et le discours 49-52.
manner to the word philosophy, a unit of the spoken language). There
is here no perceptible similarity between the signifier, always visual,
and the signified, always auditory, while the cinema represents the
visual by the visual and the sonorous by the sonorous (except in certain
silent films which attempted, with a short-lived success, to replace the
sound of the whistle of the locomotive by the images of jets of steam).
No analogical code links the phoneme / a / to the written a, the
phoneme / g / to the written ain: the link does not rest on the vast
ensemble of perceptual and cultural systems which are responsible for
the similarity (even if the latter takes hold of it afterwards and estab-
lishes a symbolism oj letters), but on a unique and special code of an
arbitrary nature, which decrees, in one blow, the list of correspondences.
These correlations, in spite of the necessary passage from the auditory
to the visual, could have at least relied upon the inter-sensory affinities
(synesthesias) which exist in every culture; but one only rarely notes
the existence of such a 'motivation', in relation to all the links between
phoneme and grapheme, which together constitute alphabetic writing.
The process of transmission thus circumvents analogical codes, while
in the cinema it makes great use of them.
The argument of transmission becomes even weaker if the writing
that one compares with the cinema is ideographic. With phonetic
writing, the cinema at least preserved the similarity, even though hardly
characteristic, of offering us objects which function, at a certain level,
as substitutes. With the ideographic, there is no longer anything of the
sort (if this is not in the measure that the scripts generally called ideo-
graphic are for one part phonetic, including a minority of 'phonograms'
associated with a majority of ideograms; we know that the typological
unit, in regard to scripts, is not the entire 'script' but the grapheme : all
known scripts combine several sorts of graphemes, and it is according
to the typological appearance of the majority of them that one
script is called phonetic, another ideographic; we shall return to this
in Chapter 11.6). Ideographic writing, in those parts where it is truly
ideographic, displays nothing which resembles a transmission : what it
'transmits' - if one understands by this what is prior to it - is not
a perceptible object but a social division of experience, i.e., a set of
mental representations. One could only (with rigor) speak of trans-
missions for phonetic writing and for the cinema in the measure that
they inscribe a perceptible process (graphic chain, film) in the extension
of another process which is also perceptible (phonetic chain, visible and
audible event). But ideographic writing offers the first physical (visual)

manifestation of a process which, before it, was not accessible to the

The argument of transmission is also internally weak, i.e., in regard
to the very point where it is brought to bear (cinema and phonetic
writing envisaged as substitutes). Between the transmitted process and
the transmitting process, a sufficient number of transformations inter-
venes so that the very notion of transmission is rather uncomfortable,
and somewhat peripheral in relation to what it is supposed to designate.
Everyone knows that the act of filming profoundly modifies the
filmed object, if only by the inevitably implied intervention of the most
specific codes (angular incidence, movement of the camera, montage,
etc.). This transformation may take two distinct forms. The first, which
is the most common in our day, consists of a (sometimes radical) alter-
nation of the pro-filmic spectacle, which affects its overall perceptual
appearance without going so far as to suppress its internal elements:
if one films a house, even at the rarest angle and in the most unusual
light, and even if this house, on the screen, ends up by being no longer
recognizable, it remains that one has not eliminated from the image
its balcony or the shutters of its windows. In other cases, actually
more rare, the act of filming involves intervention even within the
filmed element; technically, they necessitate direct manipulation of
the film; recourse to the settings of the camera no longer suffices.
Thus, one suppresses some photograms in keeping those which come
before and after, or one alters the film in diverse manners. This is a
trick shot, while a moment ago only the 'normal' process of the cin-
ematic deformation was involved. However, the difference between
the two situations is less important than it appears, and than
is sometimes supposed: certain trick shots are realized in the filming
itself, and the shooting alone, in addition, authorizes distortions which
may - or which could - be as radical as the so-called trick shots them-
selves. The entire filming, many authors have said, is only a perceptual
trick (for cultivating the probable as well as the improbable), and it is
this above all that counts, in regard to the conception of transmission.
Phonetic writing also modifies what it transmits, but in a completely
different manner. The alphabet, the most characteristic form of phonetic
writing, does not note all of the phonetic events, but only those of its
features which are distinctive in a certain code, that of the spoken
language (see Chapter 11.1) : it does not note the phonetics, in other
words, but the phoneme. A French phoneme like / / may be pro-
nounced in several manners (more or less apical, or on the contrary
velar, etc.), without these phonetic variations passing into the writing,
which always notes V - short of introducing its own variants, distinct
from those of pronunciation and consisting in modifications of form
left to the discretion of each writer and not distinctive in the social code
(but distinctive for the graphologist). Much more than 'phonetic',
the script which is so called is phonological, and if it is distinguished
from certain artificial notions elaborated by the phonologist, this is not
in regard to its principle only to its degree of exactitude and sim-
plicity. The strictly phonological notion is content to eliminate the
distortion that tradition, academicism, and above all orthography (see
p. 255) have progressively brought to the bifacial correspondences
of phoneme to grapheme. In the vocal emission, the distinctive features
are mixed with other features, but the script isolates them and retains
them alone. It thus does a little bit more than transmitting speech; it
analyzes it as it transmits it, and in the very manner in which it takes
it in order to transmit it. In this it resembles the cinema (over and
above all the differences that one could mention), but the common
point is not the transmission; it is, on the contrary, that which, in the
two cases, is active intervention and escapes the transmission.
We said in Chapter 11.1 that phonetic script is a surrogate code, a
neutral copy of the phonological code; we now see that it nevertheless
exercises a certain influence of its own. These two features are not
contradictory; it is in relation to the phonological code (to the language)
that it is passive reflection, in relation to speech that it is intervention.
In speech, the phonological code remains unconscious, submerged in
the free variations of pronunciation (i.e., in the midst of other codes):
alphabetic script extirpates the phonological code from this variation,
and thus makes it into a materially separate object, which it was not
in the spoken state, although it made possible the very intelligibility
of this speech. It is in this that the inventors of the alphabet, as one
often says, are the direct precursors of the phonologists of 1930.
In a word, considerations of transmissions do not permit us to push
the comparison between the cinema and script very far. First, they are
inoperant for ideographic writings. Next, processes of transmitting are
very different when one passes from phonetic script to the cinema,
in the former, an express and special convention, in the latter, general
codes of iconicity. Finally, the cinema and phonetic script (a fortiori
ideographic script, which transmits nothing) do not 'resemble' each
other less, everything taken into consideration, as non-transmissions
than as transmissions.


The notions of recordings and transmissions, combined in that of
'printing', witnessed a particular development with the cinematic con-
ceptions of Marcel Pagnol, put forth in the two manifestos that he
edited in the course of the first years of talking pictures, and largely
taken up again in Cesar, an autobiographical volume published in
1966.7 The author summarizes his views in the following manner : the
silent picture was the art of printing, of fixing and of diffusing
pantomime, while the talking picture is the art of printing, of fixing and
of diffusing theatre;8 "the marriage of ideography in its cinematic form
(it is a question here of silent pictures, or of the picture-track of the
talking cinema) and of phonetic writing in its phonographic form
(invention of the phonograph in 1885, and verbal element of the talking
film) has given us the talking picture which is the nearly perfect, and
perhaps definitive, form of writing".9 These ideas have their place in a
larger context, the other aspects of which are of less direct concern to us
here, and which is a general conception of what the author calls
'dramatic art' - namely, that this art would, in the course of its history,
have taken on diverse partial forms, for example, choreography (the
dance form of this art) or even pantomime, which is its 'silent form' -
and a complete form, which the theater had already approached, and,
which is not moreover exactly the talking picture, but is technically10
'realized', is preserved and transmitted thanks to it.
In our perspective, this calls for four remarks :
(1) It is paradoxical to speak of a 'script', even phonetic, in relation
to phonography (the phonograph properly speaking, or the speech of
talking pictures). Phonography, in effect, turns its back on writing in
its very principle; it is, in a certain sense, nothing less than a renuncia-
tion of writing. Writings, ideographic and phonetic, address themselves

" First manifesto in Le Journal, 1930. Second manifesto: "Cinematurgie de

Paris", in Les Cahiers du film, December 15, 1933; reprinted in Marcel Lapierre,
ed., Anthologie du cinema (Paris: La Nouvelle Edition, 1946), 284-94.
Editions de Provence. The part of this volume which is in question here is
Chapter I it had been excerpted, with Chapter , in Cahiers du Cinema (173,
December 1965, 39-54), under the title "Cinematurgie de Paris" (like the mani-
festo of 1933, whose substance is largely the same).
"Cinematurgie de Paris" (1933), 293 (Lapierre pagination).
' "Cinematurgie de Paris" (1965), 43, col. 3 (Cahiers du Cinema pagination).
Notion of the "art of realization" : "Cinematurgie de Paris" (1965), 43, col. 3,
and 44, col. 1 (Cahiers du Cinema pagination).

to sight and consist of visual signs (graphemes), which has structural

consequences. Obviously, Marcel Pagnol forgoes any comparison be-
tween phonography and ideographic scripts. It is clear that the first is
distinct from the second in that it does not write its signifier but speaks
it, thus accepting the detour by way of phonetic substance, which the
second refuses, and even accepting it doubly: on the codical level,
because it by-passes the language, and on the sensory level, because it
gives this language an inscription which is itself auditory. But phono-
graphy is also opposed to phonetic writing, although the codical factor
(the presence of the language) is this time common to both modes of
inscription. Phonetic writing (see Chapter 11.2) has recourse to a special
and arbitrary code in order to transmit speech by its visual configura-
tion, and in favor of this transposition, eliminates from the speech that
which is not language - Marcel Pagnol says elsewhere in passing some-
thing somewhat similar11 - while phonography has recourse to codes of
auditory analogy in order to transmit speech by other speech which,
like the first, contains in it all its codes, the language and others;
Marcel Pagnol himself credits phonology with its greatest fidelity to
the living flesh of the voice.12
Phonography thus has in common with writing only that which, with
the latter, is the least characteristic : the function of recording (that one
finds in phonography and in all writings; see Chapter 11.1) and the
function of transmission (see Chapter 11.2), that one finds in phono-
graphy and in phonetic writing. Curiously, Marcel Pagnol was the
first to insist on this. He states it specifically in several places : the
talking cinema is not the "almost perfect form" of the dramatic art
itself, it is the almost perfect form of its notation, of its preservation and
its transmission.13 Words of this sort often recur in the text. But the
author also uses "writing" as their synonym : "(...) the talking film (...)
is perhaps the definitive form of writing";14 he takes satisfaction in
establishing "that the new generation speaks with much authority of
the camera-pen" ;15 this formula "is enchanting, for from a pen one can
derive only writing"16 (for the theory to which he alludes, see Chapter
11); dramatic art should not be confused with what is only writing, etc.
To do this would be not to render justice, on the one hand, to true

"Cinematurgie de Paris" (1965), 43, cols. 1, 2, and 3.
" Ibid., 43, col. 3.
Ibid., 43 ,col. 3, and 44, col. 1.
Ibid., 43, col. 3.
Ibid., 43, col. 3.

scripts which - especially the ideographic (Chapter 11.1), but also

the phonetic (Chapter 11.2) - are something other than recordings or
passive transmissions, and, on the other hand, to the cinema which,
silent or talking, intervenes actively in what it 'notes', and does not
necessarily note only dramatic art.
(2) As for the picture-track of the cinema (silent or talking), Marcel
Pagnol proposes to assimilate it to ideographic writing : it was believed,
he said, that the latter was dead or "definitely condemned to very
modest usages" (sign boards, panels, etc.), while it had been "re-
suscitated" and even "marvelously enriched" by photography and the
cinema;17 the silent cinema was a means of "printing" and diffusing
pantomimes18 (we find here the author's constant vacillation between
the notion of writing and that of the technique of recording); it was the
"publisher" of pantomime,19 etc.
On the subject of ideography - and apart from the fact that publish-
ing or printing is not writing - the ideas of Marcel Pagnol run into
difficulties which are not only restricted to them, but are common to
all attempts (and they are numerous) to compare the cinema and ideo-
graphic writing; we shall not discuss these here, for a special section
(Chapter 11.6) will be devoted to them.
(3) On the other hand, the insistence on a close kinship between
pantomime, ideographic writing, and the picture-track of the cinema is
a point which is more peculiar to Marcel Pagnol. If the assimilation
of the moving picture to an ideogram comes down to overestimating
the sensorial diversity of elements of experience which the first may
record - which records only the visual, contrary to the ideogram (see
p. 274) - its simultaneous assimilation to a script of pantomime comes
down to an underestimation of the variety of elements that it is capable
of recording within the order of the visual itself : the filmic image may
represent all sorts of visual elements (landscapes, 'still lifes', battles,
etc.), and not only those of them which are organized into one gestural
language (pantomime is one gestural language among others).
In addition, in presenting the filmic image as a notation of gesture
and as an ideographic writing at the same time, the author over-

" Ibid.
Ibid., 39, cols. 1 and 2.
"Cinematurgie de Paris" (1933), 293 (Lapierre pagination).
" "Cinematurgie de Paris" (1965), 39, col. 2.
estimates the role of the gestural in ideography itself; this gestural part
exists, and corresponds in general to those ideograms which are
'dactylograms'; but many other ideograms (morphograms, for example)
are not gestural and do not have a special relation to gesture (on these
points, see p. 272).
(4) What 'talking' pictures have added to silent pictures is not only
speech, but also sound effects and music, which have no place in
Marcel Pagnol's cavalier view. However both, in all evidence, have
very little relationship to phonetic writing. And even, concerning the
sound effects - which in the cinema comes to complement the pictures
and not speech, such that the most important division does not pass
between the visual and the auditory (nor consequently between the silent
cinema and the talking cinema) but within the auditory itself, and results
in putting to one side speech, to the other the complex image-sound
effect, where codes associated with iconicity predominate - the com-
parison to look for, even if it inspires in turn many reservations, would
be as much with ideographic writing as with phonetic writing (see
p. 272).
In sum, the conceptions of Marcel Pagnol on the 'silent' picture as
ideographic writing and the 'talking' picture as phonetic writing do not
help us to understand the cinematic language system. But, to tell the
truth, this is not their goal, and it is a question rather of an author's
aesthetics; the father of Fanny makes it quite evident, and often with
much humor, that he is above all searching to support with general
considerations his personal preoccupations as a cineast-playwright. It
is only in the measure that these concerns lead him to more theoretical
excursions that the existence of this chapter is justified.
As the immediate reactions of an author to the advent of the talking
picture, the opinions of Marcel Pagnol have played a positive role in
the history of the cinema, in particular during the early thirties. They
issue directly from an attitude of broad acceptance of the talking
picture, in a period where many of the great, well-known cineasts or
critics persisted in repeating, in diverse forms and with different amounts
of force, that with the death of the silent picture it was the cinema
itself which was dead. Marcel Pagnol's response to them was useful,
often quite just, and always amusing. We have touched upon this other
aspect of the question elsewhere.20

" "La cine-langue et les vraies langues: le paradoxe du cinema parlante" in

Essais sur le signification au cinema, 56-62.


The usual comparisons between cinema and writing are not always
based on the idea of recording or on that of transmission. In other
(particularly frequent) cases, their support lies elsewhere, and what
they seem to focus on is not writing as a social code, the writing
that one teaches to children in primary school, but writing as an
activity of composition, as an artistic activity in the most general sense.
And it is true that the film, similar in this to the book and not to spoken
conversation, is an especially fabricated object, wholly invested with
intentions, which presupposes a complex and costly operational activity,
a sustained work, at the origin of which is found a decision (that of
'making a film', of 'writing a book'), which is localizable and does not
allow itself to be diluted in everyday experience: speech, on the
contrary, is closely linked to everyday life and to general social activity.
To all this, which we shall not deny, we do not see what recourse
to the notion of 'writing' can add. Remarks of this order are also valid
for a piece of music, a sculpture, a painting, etc., and one speaks,
moreover - in the same somewhat extenuated sense - of 'musical
writing' or 'pictorial writing'. The cinema, in those of its aspects in-
voked here, does not merit being especially compared with literature
(which 'writing' suggests), since this usage, in a simultaneous and
contradictory manner, calls 'writing' any fabrication of texts, whether it
does or does not have recourse to writing in the common sense of the
But it is precisely this contradiction, or at least this ambiguity,
which makes it possible to see what the metaphor is aiming at when
it is treated in such a journalistic manner. It searches, obscurely, to
operate in two areas, and would like to have at the same time, by the
inclusion of all the 'arts', a vast field of application, and, by the
privileged allusion to literature, which is understood, an appearance of
selective precision at the same time as of cultural legitimacy, to the
extent that literature (in our society) is of all the arts the most re-
cognized and the noblest.
The history of cinematic opinions offers a particular and rather well-
known avatar of the comparision between the cinema and writing under-
stood as composition - a comparison, in this case, more explicit and
more motivated. In his Manifeste de la camera-stylo,21 Alexandre
Astruc proclaimed that the cinema, whose expressive possibilities are
In L'ecran frangais, issue of March 30, 1948.

most often mutilated by the imperatives of commercial saleability and

traditional narrativity, was intrinsically capable of richer and more
varied productions, more comparable to those offered, within its re-
lative liberty, by the book market. He called for a cinematic writing as
supple and as emancipated as literary writing; the camera ought to be
to the cineast what the pen is to the writer. He asserted, not without
reason, that the cinema is capable of 'saying all', that there are no
subjects which are forbidden it or, on the contrary, reserved exclusively
for it (in semiotic terms : there does not exist, concerning the content,
any specialized sector which is proper to it; cf. pp. 38 and 212).
The history of the cinema is marked by diverse texts where this same
fundamental inspiration can be found. These are cries of revolt, de-
mands for liberty in view of the economical or ideological con-
straints (the vraisemblable, for example). These are not theoretical
analyses. But when they are expressed in terms of 'writing', they
manifest, in different degrees, the confusion just discussed. The liberty
that they demand is that needed by any man who wishes to compose a
somewhat novel work. If there exists, in addition, a more specific
kinship between the cinematic composition and the literary composition,
it must be made explicit. But the usage which is criticized here consists
precisely in not doing this. And comparisons of this sort between
the cinema and writing do not take us very far.



Another sort of comparison could be established between the cinema

and writing; 'could be', for this is not actually done. It would be, how-
ever, more enlightening, no matter what its final outcome, than many
current comparisons. It would focus on another sort of writing, that
which has been defined by Roland Barthes in Writing Degree Zero?2
You will recall that this 'writing' corresponds to a level of codification
whose degree of generality is intermediate between that of spoken lan-
guage (common to the entire social body) and that of style, which is
proper to the individual and is rooted in the biological depths of
idiosyncrasy. There is no style except for each writer, and the language
is unique for an entire people, but one finds between the two several

" Le degre ziro de l'icriture (Paris: Seuil, 1953). English edition, trans. Annette
Lavers and Colin Smith (Londen: Cape, 1967).

writings, each of which is proper to a set of writers of the same period

or of the same tendency, and which are as many faces of the literary,
markings which designate the literary discourse as such.
The cinematic language system is also distinct from the styles of
cineasts: the latter, as we have said in Chapter 7.2, are either sub-
codes or textual systems, according to the manner in which one en-
visages them, while the first is the set of specific, and only specific,
codifications. The cinematic language system, on the other hand, is quite
different from a spoken language, whose homogeneity, coherence, and
relative stability in time (cf. p. 141) it does not share. The individual
style of cineasts (or at least some of them), their deliberate innovations,
influences noticeably and rather quickly the evolution of the cinematic
language system, somewhat like the personal influence of certain writers
shapes the history of literature (which is nevertheless distinct from it)
but not that of the spoken language, whose 'resistance' is due to the fact
that it is used and shaped at the same moment by the entire speaking
mass. One can thus say, in Barthesian terms, that the cinematic lan-
guage system has more points in common with writing than with lan-
guage. It is the cineast, not the overall population, who has made the
cinema, as it was writers who have made literature. Language belongs to
everyone, cinema and literature are things belonging to 'specialists',
although they are not the same thing as the idiolects proper to each of
them. This is why the cinematic language system evolves considerably
more quickly than spoken language, and why its evolution takes place
in a temporality which is not of the same scale as that of linguistic dia-
chronies, and more resembles literary diachronies.
However this comparison, a little less vague than the comparison
previously criticized, should not be pushed too far, for fear of turning
it into approximations that one should try to avoid. The cinematic lan-
guage system presents certain similarities with the 'writings' defined by
Roland Barthes, but this is not to say that it is such a 'writing', even
transposed into the audio-visual substance. Writings, in effect, are
distinct from the spoken language and are added to it (for it exists),
while the cinematic language system is different - rather than 'distinct' -
from what would be a language, but takes its place (for here, it does not
Writing is closely articulated with another code, the very one from
which we said it was distinct (and thus inseparable), and whose proper
order it readily transgresses (but which is indispensable to it) : the
code of the spoken language, which it necessarily presupposes. It is
this prior event which the cinematic language system is wanting, and
it has nothing on which to lean. It is itself both writing and lan-
guage : language if one considers its general codes, writing by some
of its sub-codes, those which exceed in scope the style of a single
cineast - genres, for example, or principal schools, to the degree that
one considers them from the angle of the sub-code (as classes of films)
and not from the angle of the textual system, as groups of films (see
Chapter 7.2).
But then, it is at the very heart of the cinematic language system that
one finds to a certain point the Barthesian duality of language and
writing: what corresponds to it is the opposition between general codes
and the large sub-codes, the most restricted sub-codes being styles.
Cinema is not a writing, but it contains several.
In the literary text, the function of the language is to assure a first
layer of intelligibility (called 'literal meaning' and which corresponds in
general to denotation), while writings involve a second level of meaning,
which is of the same number as connotations. In the cinema, the first
comprehension of audio-visual elements is assured - only partially,
we will see - by the ensemble of codes which are constitutive of analogy,
and which have already been discussed (perceptual codes, codes of
iconicity, codes of identification, etc.): they make it possible to re-
cognize visual and auditory objects which appear in the film, thanks
to the similarity for which they are responsible. These codes do not
result from a conscious work of a small group of men, but are
rooted profoundly in the entire social body (socio-cultural classification
which enumerates perceptual 'objects', etc.), and even in psycho-physio-
logical processes (perception as such). These are stable structures,
highly coherent and 'integrated', with a slow and unconscious evolution,
largely free from the action of individual innovations. In all this, they
somewhat resemble spoken language, to which, moreover, they are in
part linked (codes of iconic designations; see p. 199). They are clearly
distinguished from cinematic 'writings' proper to schools or to genres,
which are the conscious work of a small number of cineasts, and which
give to the film a second layer of (non-'literal') meaning at the same
time as a mark of cinematicity ('this is a film').
The codes of iconicity are specific, but to a rather small degree (see
Chapter 10.4), for they are common to the cinema and to all other
'figurative' languages; the large sub-codes obviously have a greater
degree of specificity. Similarly, in relation to the literary text, the spoken
language is a specific code (which would be lacking in painting or in

music), but less specific than the writings, for many manifestations
which still imply language exclude writing (such as scientific treatises,
didactic texts, etc.).
In both cases one would thus have more specific and more conscious
codes, the writings, which would come to lean upon the codes of
denotation which are less specific and of more generally social import:
spoken language in literature, iconic codes in the cinema; and also
spoken language in the cinema itself, when it is a question of the verbal
utterances of the film in their literal meaning.
Thus 'recast', the comparison holds longer. It must be remembered
that it no longer concerns the cinematic language system itself. It is not
the cinematic language system which is a writing. But one finds writings
in the cinema as in literature, and here, as there, a language system, or
something which takes its place.
In this perspective, the internal dividing line, in the cinema, does not
pass between general codes and sub-codes. Certain sub-codes are not
writings, but rather styles of cineasts (one finds an analogous situation
in the literary domain). And, what is more significant, certain general
codes become difficult to situate exactly between 'language system' and
'writing'; it is a question of codes other than those of iconicity and which
are nevertheless common to all films (as, for example, those which
concern the camera movements, relationships between the image and
sound, the broad features of montage, etc.). Their generality forbids
our calling them 'writings', and yet they are the work of cineasts, like
writings; they thus do not constitute a 'language system', and yet are as
common as it.
Thus, we see appear discrepancies there where we hoped to have
settled everything. To this is added the fact that general codes other
than iconic ones sometimes concern the literal meaning of the film,
sometimes its connotations, and quite frequently both at the same time.
They participate in the filmic composition and in its 'effects', similar
in this to writings. But they also intervene, and this time in close
contact with iconic codes, in the first decipherment of the film : for the
latter may not be reduced to the identification of objects seen or heard,
but also supposes the correct understanding of their connections and
mutual relations (spatio-temporal relations, cause-effect relations etc.);
and here configurations are at work which are much more specific than
those of iconicity, in particular those of the montage in the broader
sense, which assumes conjointly denotative and connotative functions
(we have insisted a great deal on this double role on different occasions).
There is more. The first comprehension, in the cinema - and thus
the function of the language system - in certain cases makes use of some
of these 'large sub-codes' which should be situated on the side of
writing (and which, moreover, are located there, as much by their
lack of generality as by their rapid evolution linked to conscious in-
novations) : thus, for example, the large syntagmatic category, which
plays an important role in the denotation of temporal relations within
the sequence (p. 200), is established within strict chronological limits
- a period of twenty years, as we have said elsewhere. It marks - be-
coming again, in this, writing - a certain epoch of the cinema, a certain
aspect of cinematicity (the one to which one gives the name 'classical
shooting script'), without ceasing to assure its working of 'language'.
The Barthesian notion of writing draws its force from the clearness
with which it stands out against the background of something 'lasting',
spoken language. In the cinema, the dividing line is not as definite. One
witnesses partial exchanges (exchanges of characteristics and exchanges
of functions) between what serves language and what serves writing.
It is also preferable not to call iconic codes a language system (al-
though they are the equivalent of it in certain regards), nor the large
sub-codes writings, although, like them, they are both distinct from
individual styles and general codes.
One finds in the cinema, to a certain extent, the opposition between
language and writings. But what specifically characterizes the cinematic
language is less this opposition than its weakening: in the cinema,
that which serves as language has certain characteristics of a writing,
and writings certain functions of a language.


In pursuing the examination of the various comparisons which have

been made (or which could be made, as in Chapter 11.5) between
the cinema and writing, one comes across one which most often recurs
in the writings of film theoreticians. It consists in comparing, selectively,
the cinema with ideographic writing, and it alone.
This theme appeared rather early. As early as 1919, in an article
in Crapouillot, Victor Perrot wrote, concerning the cinema: "It is a
writing, the old ideographic writing!" Throughout a series of studies
published in Cine-France and Stars et films, between 1932 and 1937,
Georges Damas (who sometimes uses the name Georges d'Aydie)
called attention to the evolution of the cinema and of the old ideo-

graphy. His essay "Rythmes du monde" contained some general con-

clusions : "The cinematic image is a sign of the thought of an author
in the same way as the first design in ochre in pre-historic caves,
a sign like Egyptian hieroglyphics, like Chinese characters, like the
primitive scripts of America." Closer to us, the same comparison is
made, with less insistence, by Marcel Martin 23 and Jean-R. Debrix.24
But it is Eisenstein who has pushed the comparison the farthest, notably
in his article of 1929.25 In the accent put on the problem of the ideo-
gram that year, one finds the profound influence on the Soviet theoreti-
cian of the performances of the Kabuki Theater - given in 1928 by a
Japanese group on tour in Russia. From Japanese culture, Eisenstein
went on to the ideogram, by a somewhat rapid assimilation, as some-
times happens. Japanese writing, he has estimated, succeeds in signifying
abstract notions which could not be drawn, by the suitable association
between two ideograms, each representing a perceptible object by a
figurative sign (this view of the ideograph is somewhat simplified). The
author gives some examples: 'ear' + 'door' = 'to listen', 'heart' +
'knife' = 'sadness'. The cinema proceeds in a similar fashion, he
continues, which can only compare by the montage of fragments which
are always figurative, since they are photographic.
In his Breviaire du cinema,26 Charles Ford has drawn up a list of
commentators who very early, as early as the 1920's, have seen in the
cinema a language: it is striking that for a number of them this
notion of 'language' is fixed in the cinema in 'ideographic writing'. This
is thus a widespread theme.
We see what makes it tempting, briefly indicated above (Chapter
11.1) : while phonetic writing, to the degree that it is truly such, notes
the phonological code, ideography and cinema have in common not
being surrogate codes, not referring to spoken language. They appear
to note directly an object of perception, thought, a mental image, a
state of consciousness: 'directly', i.e., at least 'outside of the analysis
of sound', to adopt one of Ricciotti Canudo's formulas in L'usine
aux images27 - a formula which evokes what Antonin Artaud said
Le langage cinematographique, 28.
" Les fondements de l'art cinematographique (Paris: fid. du Cerf, 1960), 10.
On the one hand "The filmic fourth dimension", in Kino (Moscow), August
27, 1929. On the other "The cinematographic principle and the ideogram",
postface to Yaponskoye Kino (Japanese Cinema) by N. Kaufman, Moscow, 1929.
Both reprinted in Film Form. Passages cited: respectively, 65-66 and 29-30 and
35-36 (pagination of the combined edition with The Film Sense).
" Paris : Jacques Melot, 19451.
Paris: fid. fitienne Chiron and Geneva: Office Central d'fidition, 1927.
in the "Foreword"28 which he had written to La coquille et le
clergyman (filmed by Germaine Dulac and on which Artaud had col-
laborated), as well as the theory of Bela Balzs in Der sichtbare Mensch
oder die Kultur des Films : 29 the cinema has taught us once again to
read the human face, which had become unintelligible since one listens
only to its voice. (The position of Balzs, unfortunately, is tied to the
idea that there would have existed at an earlier period some absolutely
complete gestural language functioning alone as a vernacular, in the
absence of any phonetic expression; it was from this condition that
humanity would have passed next to spoken language; we know that,
even in linguistics, Marr and Van Ginneken have maintained similar
ideas, but that they have been abandoned in later studies, for lack of a
minimum of supporting evidence.
The comparisons between cinema and ideography, the foun-
dation of which can easily be seen, obviously leaves aside the verbal
element of talking pictures. It was, moreover, in the period when
pictures were silent that most of the commentaries similar to those
which we have just cited were made. In the meantime, it has become
sonorous, which the ideogram is not: an important difference in the
material of expression. But we could not draw a conclusion from this
alone, for there remain the principles of composition and ordering.
And also because certain sonorous elements like the sound effect - the
sound effect which in the cinema is on the side of the image, almost
'in' it - could, if commentators were right, be more or less analogous
to the ideogram on the structural level, in spite of their sensorial trans-
position. Thus it is not what is central to the question.
What is more important is that no script exists which is as plainly
'ideographic' as is, in this conception, the picture-track of the cinema
itself. The known scripts mix graphemes of several sorts. Ideographic
scripts are formed only in part of ideographic characters; there are,
for example, the morphograms or pictograms, simplified but recogniz-
able representations of a perceptible object (a tree, a horse, etc.). But
one also finds here directly abstract relational components, and also
'dactylograms', as the works of Tchang Tcheng Ming have shown : 30

This text is not included in Volume III of Oeuvres completes, published by
Gallimard. (This volume, published in 1961, brings together, among others, the
main cinematic writings of Artaud.) An extract of this work is found in the
anthology by Pierre L'Herminier, L'art du cinema (Paris: Seghers, 1960), 57-59.
" Vienna : Deutsch-sterreichischer Verlag, 1924.
L'ecriture chinoise et le geste humain (Paris, 1937, doctoral dissertation). It

the latter do not note the 'stylized' contour of the object, but represent
schematically the gesture which designates the object in a gestural
code that the same ethnic group utilizes. These are notations of the
second degree, which happens to be, in this regard, on the same level as
alphabetic characters, even if the code which they transmit is gestural
and not phonetic; in a sense they are not ideographic, since they do not
write the 'idea'. Ideographic writings also include phonetic graphemes
(or, sometimes, mixed ones, and in the process of being made phonetic),
which refer to certain elements of the language spoken by the com-
munity at a given moment; we know that in the course of the historical
evolution of scripts which are predominately ideographic, the proportion
of these phonetic graphemes have little by little increased (see, for
example, Gustav Guillaume,81 J. J. Gelb,82 and historians of writing).
But inversely, in our modern, predominantly phonetic and 'sub-
stitutive' scripts, certain graphemes directly note an intellectual opera-
tion, or introduce an element which by-passes sound and has no equi-
valent in the spoken utterance: asterisks, braces, parentheses (it is the
phonetic discourse which, by retroaction, sometimes says 'parentheti-
cally'), brackets and hyphens, certain quotation marks,83 the grave
accent on the French preposition '' (which is thus distinguished, in
writing but not orally, from the French verb 'a'),34 duality of the semi-
colon and of the period (which corresponds in speech to a single pause),
etc. These signs, in a certain manner, are ideographic.
The situation is thus less simple than those who would equate cinema
with an ideographic script think, and the existence of the latter in such
a sense - which, in order to sustain the comparison at the level where
it was posed, ought to consist, for example, of a homogeneous sequence
of morphograms - has never been demonstrated. One could not com-
pare the cinema to a 'pure' ideographic script which does not exist, and
to which the picture-track of the cinema itself (as well as certain other
modern iconic productions) comes closest - a picture-track which al-

is on this work that Van Ginneken's theory just mentioned rested, which is no
longer accepted today. But the facts reported by Tchang Tcheng Ming remain.
Review of Van Ginneken's La reconstruction typologique des langues
archaiques de l'humanite (1939) in Bulletin de la Societe de Linguistique de Paris
XL, dated 1938, published later.
A Study of Writing, the Foundation of Grammatology (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952). Progressive
decline of "Semasiographics" ( = non-phonetic notation) in favor of "phonogra-
phies" ( = writing in relation to phonetic substance).
Already noted by Buyssens, 49-52.
* Ibid.
ways 'directly' represents the object of perception (photograms) or
directly designates a thought process (as in the fade out, evoking the
idea of a strong separation), remaining 'ideographic' in one case as in
the other, and even when it ceases to be photographic (a dissolve is not
a photograph). One has the impression that certain commentators con-
ceived of ideography on the basis of the model of the cinema, and
compared the cinema with itself. On the other hand, the picture-track
includes written credits, and these have recourse, according to the
country producing the film, sometimes to phonetic script, sometimes to
ideographic script, sometimes to mixed and quite complex scripts (like
Japanese script as it appears, for example, in the credits of con-
temporary Japanese films). The 'comparison', decidedly, is not at all
It remains, obviously, that the cinema could resemble, if not ideo-
graphic scripts such as they exist or have existed, at least that which
they have which is truly ideographic. A comparison remains possible
between the cinematic language system and the ideographic principle
Here new difficulties emerge. The greatest ones are, moreover, not
those which could come easily to mind, and which one finds clearly
exposed (or simply suspected, according to the case) in the work of
certain theoreticians of the film, hostile for their part to the ideographic
conception of the cinema. It is not certain, in effect, that it is necessary
to oppose the schematicism proper to the ideogram - the ideogram is
not, as we know, a drawing, which designates all trees by a single
grapheme, with 'normalized' contours, representing the general notion
of tree without representing any particular tree - to the concrete rich-
ness of the cinematic image, which can only show us singular trees with
the knots and gnarls of their trunks and all the trembling detail of their
foliage. One separates a little too much, sometimes, the concrete-visual
(filmic image) from the abstract-visual (ideogram); the works of Jean
Mitry, which avoid the criticisms which follow, do not entirely escape
this one. Besides, one opposes too crudely the ideogram as a conven-
tional (although not arbitrary) sign to the filmic image taken for non-
conventional and purely analogical, for a "printing of reality" or a
"language of objects", as expressed by Andr6 Bazin,85 principal re-
presentative of the tendency (sometimes called 'cosmophanic') which
accords to the cinematic language system the omnipotence of the
* In "Le langage de notre temps", contribution to Regards neufs sur le cinima
(collective work directed by Jacques Chevallier, Paris: Seuil, 19531).

'natural'. For when it is thus that one refutes the ideographic nature of
the cinema, one exposes oneself to a danger which, in certain regards, is
the reverse of that which awaited the theoretician of the silent picture
who is fond of ideography; one is less mistaken than they are in regard
to the ideogram, but one is still quite mistaken about the cinema.
In Le langage et la pensee,36 the psychologist Henri Delacroix re-
marked that the ideogram, if it does not note the word of the spoken
language, nevertheless notes a concept which has a name in this lan-
guage (this is his theory of the 'idea-word', which insisted on the ideo-
gram's conventional and codified nature); but does one not in fact
find a phenomenon of the same sort in the cinema and in all 'concrete'
images, with the codes of iconic designations discussed above (p. 199),
and which associate spoken language with the identification of visual
objects ? From the material absence of the language, one must not
too quickly conclude its codical absence. Paradoxically, it is more
present in concrete images than in ideography.
The schematicism, which is a mental and notably perceptual prin-
ciple, goes far beyond the field of schemas in the current sense of the
term (materialized schemas, like the ideogram), and the most concrete
vision is a classificatory process. The cinematic, or photographic, image
is legible (intelligible) only if one recognizes objects in it (as Antonin
Artaud insisted in regard to La coquille et le clergyman), and to 're-
cognize' is to classify, such that the tree-as-concept, which does not
figure explicitly in the image, is reintroduced there by sight. We also
know, through technological (notably televisual) studies and through
informational theories of perception, that the most faithfully figurative
image is analyzable into a certain number of discrete and geometrical
elements (points, spots, 'lines', etc.); Abraham Moles has produced
experimental films where this is shown with humor. Modern studies, as
much in semiotics as in the psychology of perception, cultural anthro-
pology, or even in aesthetics (Pierre Francastel), no longer make it
possible to oppose as simply as in the period of Saussure the conven-
tional and the non-conventional, the schematic and the non-schematic;
they end up rather by distinguishing modes and degrees of schematiza-
tion, or, on the contrary, of iconicity (Abraham Moles' "degrees of
iconicity", for example).
It is precisely these degrees and these modes which differentiate the
cinematic image from the ideogram. Their divergence is important. It
is not unimportant that the notion is based on the distinctive features
Paris : Alcan, 1924, 342.
of recognition and on them alone, thus illuminating the material in-
scription of others, as is in general the case in the morphogram - or
that on the contrary the 'text' itself, as in the cinema, offers the features
of identification to sight only mixed with all the others, and without
explicit indication of their ranking. It is true that the spectator, as
long as he understands the image, will himself construct the ideogram,
but it is also true that it is up to him to do it, while ideography (more-
over by quite variable means) presents him with the ideogram already
made. The path, in the cinema, is a little longer, and it is a little less
certain: the object is recognized more or less quickly, more or less
precisely; there are some dead ends and some surprises, which do not
have a morphogrammatical equivalent but that certain films selectively
exploit (fantasy films, horror films, certain 'suspense' films, etc.).
In a more general way, if one does not take into account the dif-
ference between the schematicisms of the ideogram and those which
permit the perception of the filmic image, one cannot understand the
polysemic potential of the latter (the reading of which, even when it
does not decidedly 'go astray', may hesitate or divide itself between
several simultaneous series), nor its trick shots (about which one is
concerned only because the most fundamental trick shot of the non-
trick segments does not appear, and this is why no one would fake an
ostensible schema), nor all its plays on the impression of reality
(realistic and unrealistic mystifications).
There is good reason, in this regard, to recall the partial similarities
between filmic perception and everyday perception (sometimes called
'real perception'), similarities that certain authors (including the present
author) have sometimes misinterpreted. They are not due to the fact that
the first is natural, but to the fact that the second is not; the first is
codified, but its codes are in part the same as those of the second. The
analogy, as Umberto Eco has clearly shown,87 is not between the effigy
and its model, but exists - while remaining partial - between the two
perceptual situations, between the modes of decipherment which lead
to the recognition of the object in a real situation and those which lead
to its recognition in an iconic situation, in a highly figurative image such
as that of the film (but not like the ideogram).
There is another difference which is tied to this one. A cinematic
image can directly designate only visual objects. It is true, and aesthe-
ticians of the cinema have said so, that it succeeds in suggesting sen-
sorial impressions of a non-visual order, and presenting the visual
" La struttura assente, Chapter .1..3; in French, 14-15.

objects which are habitually associated with them in daily experience.

And also that the film - the film rather than the image - may succeed,
by appropriate associations of 'shots' (or 'motifs' within a shot), in
orienting the mind of the spectator toward ideal and non-sensory ob-
jects, as abstract notions or reasonings of different orders; this 'intellect-
ual montage', we know, was one of the great dreams of Eisenstein. But
we also see that, for the extra-visual or abstract elements, the filmic
image has recourse to designations which are in some way lateral and
which proceed either by metonymy (sensory elements other than visual
ones), or by paraphrase and discursive suggestion (non-sensory el-
ements). In the ideograph, on the contrary, it happens that certain of
its elements are directly denoted by a grapheme whose sole function it
is to do this, and which is not content to orient the attention towards
them but to expressly evoke them, in the manner in which, in the
spoken language, a name would.
These differences in coding between the cinema and the ideograph
are noticeably increased when one passes from the picture-track of the
film to its sound-track. It is not exactly, and not only, that this track
is sonorous while the ideogram is visual, for the degree of schematiza-
tion could remain analogous or adjacent despite the sensory difference,
but it is that, in reality, it does not remain so; the cinematic technology
authorizes sonorous reproductions of a greater fidelity than its visual
productions, and thus of a lesser degree of schematization; the func-
tioning of filmic perception and that of ordinary perception resemble
one another more in sound than in image; to the 'naive' ear, there is
little phenomenal difference between the recorded sound and the directly
heard sound, at least if the technicians have taken pains with it.
The modes of schematization also play a role. In the visual image,
certain elements are openly encoded: the rectangle of the screen, the
absence of what psychologists call the 'third real dimension' (the binoc-
ular), and the regular suppletion of which by so-called depth perception
(monocular perspective + movement) does not escape anyone who
supplements it without effort, etc.; facts of this sort, which have been
closely studied by filmology and by certain aestheticians of the cin-
ema,38 run counter to the impression of reality; however, as far as
the filmic sound is concerned, obvious distortions of the same im-
portance do not exist (this is due in part to the fact that the spatial
They play a large part in the writings of Rudolf Arnheim, Bela Balzs, Jean
Mitry, in L'univers filmique (collective work previously cited), etc. and on the
other hand in the first issues of Revue Internationale de Filmologie (articles by
anchoring of a sound is weaker and more vague than that of a visual
With sound, on the other hand, it is speech which invades the film;
speech which is, if we may say, unwritten. And with the speech, the
language which surrounds the ideograph: a codical difference, which
is obviously of great importance.
The same remark applies to music. We know, however, that silent
representations were regularly accompanied by a pianist or a small
orchestra. But this music, which adorns the spectacle from the outside,
was not integrated with the text of the film; it was a non-filmic-cinematic
clement, while the musical series of the sound film is filmic-cinematic
(for this distinction, see Chapter 2.5). The change is thus important; the
music no longer participates only in the cinematic institution, but in the
cinematic discourse itself.
And, of course, there is the physical difference mentioned above,
which is due, for its part, to the sound-track in its entirety : the overall
text of the cinematograph, in its materiality, is addressed also to the
ear, while the ideograph has no auditory 'lens'. In sum, and as is
normal, the absence of the 'talkie' has led the cinema even farther away
from the ideograph.
But more curiously, it is also (and perhaps above all) for visual
reasons that it has become more remote. The presence of sound has
retroacted onto the image, and has discarded certain forms of construc-
tion from it, forms which were sought after by the most inventive silent
films, and which somewhat recalled the ideograph. The absence of
speech and of sound effects made it necessary, or at least encouraged,
combinatorial ingeniousness which the modern cinema has abandoned,
and the general principle of which is a little like that indicated by
Eisenstein in the quotation noted above ('heart' + 'knife' = 'sadness',
etc.). This montage comes from Eisenstein himself, at the beginning of
Old and New, a film which dates from 1929, when the author was

Michotte van den Berck, Cesare L. Musatti, Yves Galifret, Rene Zazzo, R. C.
Oldfield, etc.) as well as in L'esperienza cinematografica by Dario F. Romano
(1966): we have discussed this ourselves in " propos de l'impression de realite
au cinema", first text of Essais sur la signification au cinema.
They have become fashionable once again since 1968-69, with the influence of
the journal Cinethique (Paris) and, following this, the group Collectif Quazar
(Brussels), who sought to renew the problematics by showing that the impression
of reality is in itself an ideology. This latter position seems basically correct, but
its supporters present it in an overly monolithic and sometimes uselessly 'terrorist'
form which is insufficiently technical and circumstantiated ( = underestimation of
the relative autonomies and mediations).

actively interested in ideographic writing. At the time of the division of

an inheritance, two brothers saw in two their miserable cottage; the
wife of one regards them with consternation; the montage systematical-
ly alternates close-ups of the saw and the face of the wife: 'saw' +
'face' = 'consternation', one could say. We see, moreover, that the
similarity between this ideograph and reality remains approximative
(Bela Balzs39 considered the sequence of the cottage as the imitation
of a verbal metaphor: 'cut to the quick', etc.). But the problem,
for us, is not this : the ideograph of the cinema can only be aproxima-
tive, and the unconscious influence of the spoken language (if Balzs
is right) is only too understandable; what remains, in montages of this
sort - which have been discussed at length in relation to notions and
quarrels of 'intellectual montage', 'the montage of attractions', etc. -
is a sort of ideographic inspiration, of an obviously rather general
order, but which is in decline in talking pictures, for it relied for
one part on the fact that the image, reduced to itself, explored more
systematically all its internal possibilities. These problems have often
been discussed by aestheticians of the cinema, and by us in another
With the example drawn from the film of Eisenstein, one already
touches upon the modes of sequencing of successive images. The com-
parison between the cinema and the ideograph may not be reduced to
the relation between the cinematic image and the ideogram; one must
also consider two types of sequentially. It is, moreover, at this level
that the comparison, in certain cases, has been proposed. The study by
Georges Damas, mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, established
in another passage that "the mechanism of the transposition of mean-
ing (in the cinema), the progressive conquest of symbolism and of
access to abstraction, is actually visible"; similarly, when Eisenstein
tells us that 'ear' + 'door' = 'to listen', he puts the accent on the re-
lations between images as much as on the ideographic status of each
of them.
Nevertheless, movement is absent from ideographic sequences, while
it plays a very important role in the cinema : a difference in the material
of expression, but also in the systems of sequencing themselves; the
cinematic configurations which form the montage rely as much on

" Theory of the Film (London : Dennis Dobson, 1952), 127.

Cf. the entire beginning of text no. 3 ("Le cinema: langue ou langage ?") of
Essais sur la signification au cinema, 39-93.
movement as on sequentially properly speaking, as we have seen else-
where (p. 244).
The latter remains as a common factor in the two modes of ex-
pression, but also in many others (sequences of images or drawings,
paintings ordered in a series, etc.). It is true that in the history of the
cinema there is a movement starting from the simple animated photo-
graph or from the 'living tableau', to conquer little by little the specific
forms of discursive connections, something which is not without similar-
ity in the passage from drawing to writing (ideographic), with occurred
much earlier in human evolution; a parallelism expressed rather well by
the phrases of Georges Damas ("mechanism of the transposition of
meaning", "progressive conquest of symbolism"), but about which one
sees at the same time that it concerned only a general tendency. the
fact itself of the juxtaposition of several ideograms in a written chain
evokes generically the syntagmatic activity which presides over the cin-
ematic montage - and if both have the effect of disengaging supra-
segmental signifiers (Chapter 9.6), or of authorizing reciprocal selec-
tions between similar elements, of provoking diverse sorts of remote
constraints (Chapter 8.6), etc., thus multiplying the initial symbolism of
each element by that which stems from their very multiplicity - the
specific paths that this common thrust of meaning takes remain different
in the ideograph and the cinema, and one does not see what, in the
first case, would correspond exactly to camera movements, to variations
of the angular incidence between contiguous images, to the passage
from medium long shot to a medium close-up (or the reverse), to the
depth of the field of vision, to optical effects as modalities of sequencing
(lap dissolve, etc.), to the multiplication of sequentially itself - a second
multiplication - by the confrontation of several distinct series (speech,
sound effects, etc.), in brief to an important part of the properly cin-
ematic forms of the "progressive conquest of symbolism".
The relationships of images just discussed were syntagmatic. There
are also paradigmatic relations. On this point, the differences between
the cinema and the ideograph are particularly visible. There seem to
us to be two principal ones :
(1) Several ideographic scripts exist, which are distinct and which
require 'translation' in as imperious a manner as do languages. The
phenomenon of the idiom has a sort of equivalent in the ideograph. In
the cinema, there is nothing like this (if not for speech, of course).
Certainly, filmic images are far from constituting the 'visual esperanto'
or the 'international language' that one has sometimes hoped for;

their internal organization, their decipherment by the spectator varies

considerably from one culture to another; one has only to think of the
difficulty of the western spectator before certain images of Japanese
films (or at least of those of them which have not been prefabricated
with a view to exportation and international festivals) or before certain
images of new films which begin to come to us from Black Africa.
But these perplexities and these misunderstandings are not an absolute
incomprehension, as it is for the 'native' user of an ideographic writing
who is placed before a text printed in another ideographic script which
he has not especially learned. The cultural differences which have re-
percussions in the encoding of filmic images do not go so far as to
create a plurality of iconic idioms, opaque to each other and separated
by border trenches. It is that the role of arbitrary codifications (in the
Saussurian sense of the term) is stronger in ideography than in the
imagery of the cinema, while in the cinema, the role of codifications
linked to iconicity is more important; the latter become less active and
less completely unintelligible from one part of the world to another;
they have, in addition, a basis in psycho-physiological organizations
(like perception), the 'cross-cultural' variations of which, while im-
portant, are nevertheless less radical than for certain other codes.41
(2) One can say that each ideographic script is organized into a
code (a single one), to the degree that the diverse paradigmatic re-
lations between graphemes are 'integrated' in it (more or less completely
according to the case), within a super-system. In this regard, an ideo-
graphic script resembles a language: each language is a system of
systems (since the persons of the verb already form a system, the
'table' of occlusives another, etc.), but these partial systems are artic-
ulated with each other with enough precision that one has the right to
speak of the language as of a system. One cannot say the same for the
codes of the filmic image (see p. 64), the mutual articulations of which
- at least in the present state of our knowledge - are not 'in accord'
with the same rigor. Nothing permits us to foresee, for the moment,
the existence of some super-code which would dominate the different
configurations of the cinematic image. In this sense, the latter, as we
just said, does not form several idioms; neither forms an idiom.
The differences between the cinema and ideographic writing, which
do not exclude diverse analogies, seem to be due to two principal sorts
of circumstances, both of which refer to sociology and history. First,
This fact has pedagogical implications, which we have discussed in "Images et
pedagogie" (Communications 15, 1970, 162-68).
there is the influence of technology; what has made the cinema possible
is of another era, it rests on a more advanced state of science, it
renders possible reproductions which increasingly bring into play the
very codes of iconicity; the degree of schematization is weaker, less
apparent; the machine has become capable of partially simulating the
function of perception, it attempts to 'optimize' the final output of this
similarity. The ideogram, on the contrary, is drawn by hand : this very
simple fact is important. It is also technical progress which has made it
possible to unite in the same text configurations inscribed in a large
variety of materials of expression (movement, sound, etc.), thus in-
troducing codes whose very presence draws the cinema farther away
from ideography. Older arts, like the opera, already had this 'poly-
phonic' character, but did not permit its fixation: their text disappears
after each representation; that of the film is recorded (Chapter 11.1),
and this is why one has the idea of comparing it with the ideographic
text, even when this is in order to note their divergence.
There is, in the second place, between the cinema and ideography,
a difference of social function. In relation to explicitly practical
communication, these two means of expression do not occupy the same
place. The cinema was from the very beginning an 'artistic' writing
(even when the films were bad); it was linked to fiction and to the
spectacle before having had the time to serve anything else. It was,
in some fashion, snapped up from its very birth by aesthetics, insofar
as the latter designates a particular sector of social activity. It is only
afterwards, in a very small proportion, that it was made didactic,
scientific, etc. Ideography, which is continued in literary writing and
whose effects are felt very widely around it, is nevertheless a script in
the sense that historians, linguists, anthropologists like Leroi-Gourhan,
and graphologists of the school of J. J. Gelb have given to this term :
it is not to the narrative spectacle and to recreation that it was first
linked, but to other social practices, from daily communication to
wartime transmissions, to religious rituals, to royal prescriptions, etc.
It is, more than the cinema, dependent upon the constraints of com-
munication properly speaking, which demands a minimum of univocal-
ity. This is not without relation to its superior degree of schematism and
its stricter organization.
What may we conclude, if not that the true comparison of the
cinema with ideography remains to be made ?42 This chapter has also
" Note that the Marxist linguist Marcel Cohen, who is one of the great histo-
rians of writing, is interested in the problem of the relationship between writing

not succeeded in making such a comparison: we wished simply to

reveal its complexity, which is sometimes greatly underestimated.
Certain ideographic facts and certain cinematic facts call for a com-
parison : the avoidance of spoken language (even if partial), the access
of visual forms to a linguistic and discursive organization. But it is
impossible to rely on this. The comparison will only become effective
if it is extended to the detail of configurations, those of the cinema as
those of ideography. In addition, it would be necessary to renounce
isolating the two of them in an imaginary conversation, as until now
has been done all too often, and to relocate their confrontation in a
more vast context, to which 'modern ideograms' other than those of the
cinema (iconisms of diverse orders, television technology, schemas and
other 'logical icons' in the sense of Peirce, 'symbols' of publicity and
tourism, graphic cartographic codes analyzed by Jacques Bertin, etc.)
also belong and, on the other hand, the manifestations of ideography
other than the ideographic script properly speaking, in literature, paint-
ing, 'primary' mechanisms of the unconscious (see the works of Jacques
Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Louis Schefer, Jean-Francois Lyotard,
etc.). For there is something artificial and strange in the manner in
which certain theoreticians of the film selectively compare ideography
in the strict sense with cinema, and with it alone : why these two
particular manifestations, and not others ? One thus risks confusing
the general with the specific, of misunderstanding the exact degree of
generality of each 'similarity' discovered.

and the cinema. He devoted an article to it in 1947 ("ficriture et cin6ma", Revue

Internationale de Filmologie 1 : 2 , Sept.-Oct. 1947); but this study is rather brief,
and it is primarily situated in a perspective of 'external linguistics': social cir-
cumstances of the utilization of the cinema, compared with those of writing (as
well as with those of speech, published materials, etc.).
The article is reprinted in Davis Cohen (ed.), Melanges Marcel Cohen (The
Hague: Mouton, 1970).

Chapter Eleven attempted to show that none of the comparisons be-

tween the cinema and writing leads to clear and decisive results. One
is led, in each case, to discover some common points, some differences,
somewhat as one could have done with certain other phenomena taken
two by two (cinema and painting, for example, or even writing and
gestures, etc.). In sum, the main criticism that one may make of the
comparisons enumerated in the preceding chapter (and this is why
we have criticially examined them), is precisely that they lack speci-
This seems to be due to two principal facts, which we shall content
ourselves with summarizing, since this entire book has been dealing
with them.
(1) If one thinks of writing in the common sense of the word
(codified graphic lines), the technology of the cinema is much too dif-
ferent, even in its material definition, from that of scripts, that the
comparisons may become specific and go further than the establishment
and exact delimitation of certain common functions of a very general
order, for example the fact of recording. And this apart, the camera is
not the pen, the screen is not the blank page, the sound recording has
nothing which corresponds to it in writing, etc.
(2) If one thinks of writing in a more modern sense (writing as a
textual activity), it is no longer the cinema which may play the role of
the 'legitimate interlocutor' in the confrontation, it is the film.
In this conception, there clearly exists a filmic writing, while the
concept of 'cinematic writing', from our perspective, would hardly
have any meaning. The cinematic is a set of codes (particular codes of
the big screen); it thus could not correspond to a writing; writing is
neither a code nor a set of codes, but a working of these codes, by
means of them and against them, a work whose temporarily 'arrested'
result is the text, i.e., the film : thus, we shall call it filmic. The cinema.

for its part, is not writing, but what writing makes possible; this is why
we have defined it as a language system ('cinematic language system');
a language system makes it possible to construct texts, but it is not itself
a text, nor an ensemble of texts, nor a textual system. One can thus
discard the notions of 'cinematic writing', on the one hand, and of
'filmic language', on the other (on the second point, see p. 55), both of
which would be almost a contradiction in terms, in order to preserve,
with the two remaining combinations, a clear distinction between the
set of codes and sub-codes (cinematic language system) and the set of
textual systems (filmic writing).
The study of the cinema thus involves two great tasks : the analysis
of the cinematic language system and the analysis of filmic writing. This
book, as its title indicates, dealt essentially with the first of these. the
second was discussed (Chapters 5, 6, and 7), it was in order to try to
define its connections (and its differences in distinctiveness) with the
first, in order to situate them in relation to one other.
In regard to the first itself, the reader will perhaps be surprised at not
having found here an explicit enumeration of specific codes. This
omission was intentional. First, because to study the status of a phe-
nomenon (to define it intensionally) and to deploy its entire content (to
define it extensionally) are two distinct steps and that, when the 'phe-
nomenon' is rather a constructed notion (as is the case for the cinematic
language system), the detailed exposition of distinctiveness is what
should take pride of place. Next, because cinematic studies are not yet
developed enough; one is not able to seriously advance an explicit list
of all the codes and sub-codes. It is, of course, possible, even desirable,
to proceed already to a preliminary listing, to propose a beginning of an
enumeration, even if incomplete and still approximative. But even this is
a task which, in order to be useful, demands specifications which would
require a separate book.
One has sometimes remarked1 that the cinema does not, at first
glance, represent any of the three characteristics which are common-
ly made the elements of an implicit definition of a language system; one
considers as 'language system' a system of signs destined to be used for
However, the cinema, at first blush, presents a completely different
picture. To the always more or less enumerable lexicon of spoken lan-
Gilbert Cohen-Seat, Essais sur les principes d'une philosophie du cinema, 146.
The author does not take into account the definition of language in question here;
in formulating it, he (clearly) sums up an opinion which is not uncommon.

guages, it opposes the indefinite (and incessantly growing) quantity of its

images; to the constituted codifications of morpho-syntax (grammar), it
opposes the exuberant and apparently unmanageable abundance of its
orderings of images, or of its ordering of images and of speech; to the
phonological systems, finally, it has nothing to oppose.
The cinema, 'supple language', language 'without rules', language
open to the thousand perceptible aspects of the world, but also lan-
guage forged in the very act of the invention of a singular art, and, for
this as well as for that, site of the free and of the uncontrollable : this
is what is often said. Reproduction or creation, the film always would
be less than or more than a language system.
It was necessary to recall this here, if only in order to situate the
film-semiotic enterprise in relation to that which seems to defy it, and
over which it ought in eSect to conquer; for this 'appearance' that the
cinematic language system offers is also a part of its reality, or at least a
moment of the view that the analysis takes of it: a formalizing
procedure which - lacking a direct sentiment of things, or for any other
reason - would shorten this moment, would risk foundering shortly
afterwards in schematicism.
But to take cognizance of what there is of abundance in a language
system so different from a spoken language, so immediately dependent
on innovations of art as on perceptual appearances of the represented
objects, could not constitute an end in itself for whomever desires to
pursue in their most hidden form the structures which account for the
intelligibility of texts of different orders. It is beyond this first step that
the problems of analysis begin to appear.
One can never repeat too often that it is in relationship to spoken
languages that the cinematic language system appears so unsystematic,
and that if one compares it to other signifying-ensembles to which it is
clearly more closely related (as those which the arts or the principal
cultural means of expression form), it would soon cease to call attention
to itself by an abundance of more specially exuberant forms than else-
where. One can never repeat often enough that what one 'compares'
most often, is, on the one hand, the already largely analyzed spoken
language (for linguists have been working for a long time), and, on
the other, the cinematic language system before any analysis (for the
semiotics of the cinema does not yet exist) - such that this impression,
which is so vivid, and so often invoked, of a large inequality in system-
atization, actually constitutes a situation which is rather delicate to
interpret. Precisely which part of it is dependent on the intrinsic nature

of the objects compared, and which is based oil the historical divergence
of studies conducted in the two areas ? Is it necessary to recall that the
morpheme - which one often invokes in discussions of this sort as proof
of the intrinsic systematicity of spoken languages - is in no way a man-
ifest reality which would impose itself upon a simple 'naive' attention,
but a unit of commutation and of internal functioning which could
only be discovered after years of detailed research ? Is it necessary to
recall that it is with the actual speech (and not with the phoneme,
as some have attempted to do) that it is necessary to compare some
unanalyzed iconic element - and that, in this new confrontation, it
would be difficult to predict on what side the impression of unsystem-
aticity would be the most striking ?
One of the goals of this book was to show that the problem of cin-
ematic signification cannot be conveniently treated if one holds to the
definition of language as a system of signs destined to be used for com-
munication. It only really begins to take shape if one has recourse to
more precise notions - more 'technical' notions, as is sometimes said -
and if it is relocated within the larger framework of present semiotic
A cinema is not a system, but contains several of them. It seems not
to have signs, but this is because its own are very different from those
of spoken language; in addition, the domain of signification largely
goes beyond that of signs (see p. 207). It also goes beyond that of
communication strictly speaking : the cinema, it is true, does not author-
ize the immediate play of bilateral exchange, but it is not the only
semiotic system to behave in this way; nothing directly responds to a
myth, to a folktale, to a ritual, to a culinary or clothing system, to a
piece of music.
"Is or is not the cinema a language system ?" : this is a debate which
is already traditional. But it needed to be enlarged, and at the same time
made more precise (one does not go without the other, contrary to
appearances). This is what we have tried to do here.

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1954 Le cinima (Paris : Casterman).
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1960 "Foreword" to La coquille et le clergyman, excerpted in Pierre L'Her-
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1961 Oeuvres Completes III (Paris: Gallimard).
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1948 "Manifeste de la camera-stylo", L'icran frangais (30 March).
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1924 Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films (Vienna: Deutsch-
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1952 Theory of the Film (London : Dennis Dobson).
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1953 Le degre zero de l'ecriture (Paris : Seuil).
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1967 Semiologie graphique (The Hague: Mouton and Paris: Garthier-
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1968 Cinema: lingua e scritura (Milan: Bompiani). Translated into English
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1955 Panorama du film noir americain 1941-1953 (Paris: Minuit).

Bremond, Claude
1964 "Le message narratif", Communications 4.
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1945 Les langages et le discours (Brussels: Office of Publicity).
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1927 L'usine aux images (Paris: Chiron and Geneva: Office Central
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1947 "Les 'films la premiere personne sonore' et l'illusion de realite au
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Chevassu, Frangois
1962 Langage cinematographique (Paris: Ligue frangaise de l'enseignement).
Cohen, Marcel
1947 "ficriture et cinema", Revue Internationale de Filmologie 1 : 2 (Sep-
tember-October). Reprinted in David Cohen, ed., Melanges Marcel
Cohen (The Hague: Mouton, 1970).
Cohen-Seat, Gilbert
1946 Essai sur les principes d'une philosophie du cinema (Paris: PUF).
Debrix, Jean-R.
1960 Les fondements de l'art cinematographique (Paris: Cerf).
Delacroix, Henri
1924 Le langage et la pensee (Paris : Alcan).
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1965 Grammaire structurale du frangais. Nom et prenom (Paris: Larousse).
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1953 Phenominologie de Vexperience esthetique (Paris: PUF). Vol. I. L'objet
Eco, Umberto
1968 La struttura assente (Milan: Bompiani). To be published in English as
The Semiotic Landscape (The Hague : Mouton, 1973). "Semiologie des
messages visuels", Communications 15 (1970) is a French translation of
Chapter IV.
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1929a "The cinematographic principle and the ideogram", postface to
Yaponskoye Kino, by N. Kaufman (Moscow). Reprinted in Film Form.
1929b "The filmic fourth dimension", Kino (August 27). Reprinted in Film
1939 "La structure du film", Iskusstvo Kino (Moscow, June). Reprinted as
"The Structure of the Film" in Film Form.
1942 The Film Sense (New York: Harcourt Brace; revised edition, 1947).
1944 "Dickens, Griffith and the film today", Amerikanskaya kinematogra-
fiyia: D.U. Griffit { Materialii pro istorii mirovogo kino iskusstva 1)
(Moscow). Reprinted in Film Form.
1949 Film Form (New York: Harcourt Brace).
1957 Film Form The Film Sense, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Harcourt
Brace and Meridian Books).
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1947 "Les valents du son", Livre d'or du cinema frangais (Paris: Agence
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Fonagy, Ivan
1964 "L'information de style verbal", Linguistics 4.
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1945 Breviaire du cinema (Paris: Jacques Melot).
Freud, Sigmund
1917 Introduction la psychanalyse. French translation. (Paris: Payot, 1964).
Garroni, Emilio
1968 Semiotica et estetica (L'eterageneita del linguaggio e il linguaggio cine-
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Approaches to Semiotics and in French in the series Champs Libres.
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1952 A Study of Writing, the Foundation of Grammatology (Chicago: Uni-
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1966 "Structuralisme et critique litteraire", Figures 1 (Paris: Seuil).
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1970 "Les photogrammes comme signifiants", Stato e tendenze attuali della
ricerca sulle communicazione di massa, un particulare riferimento al
linguaggio iconico (Milan: Institut Agostino Gemelli).
Goldmann, Luden
1970 "Structuralisme genetique et analyse stylistique", Linguaggi nella
societa e nella tecnica (Milano, Edizione di Communita). Acts
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1966 " la recherche des modeles de transformation", Semantique structu-
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1968 "Conditions d'une semiotique du monde naturel", in A. J. Greimas, ed.,
Pratiques et langages gesturels (= Langages 10).
Guillaume, Gustav
1938 "Review of van Ginnekens La reconstruction typologique des langues
archdiques de l'humanite", Bulletin de la Societe de Linguistique de
Paris 40.
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1947 Methods in Structural Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago
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1943 "Langue et parole", Cahiers F. de Saussure 2. Reprinted in Essais
1948 "Structural Analogs of Language", Studia Linguistica 1. Reprinted in
Essais Liftguistiques.
1954 "La stratification de langage", Word 10. Reprinted in Essais Linguisti-
1959a Essais Linguistique (= Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague
19) (Copenhage : Nordisk Sprok og Kulturforlog).
1959b "Linguistique structurale", Acta Linguistica.
1968 Prolegomine une thiorie du langage (Paris: Minuit).
Jakobson, Roman
1960 "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics", in T.A. Sebeok, ed.,
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(Paris: Minuit, 1963).
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1964 Logique de cinema (Paris : Masson).
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1950 Movies, A Psychological Study (Glencoe : The Free Press).
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1958 Anthropologie structurale (Paris: Pln).

1960 "La structure et la forme. Reflexions sur un ouvrage de V. Propp",

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1962 Linguistic Structures in Poetry (The Hague : Mouton).
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1955 Le langage cinematographique (Paris: Cerf). Expanded edition, 1962.
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1963 Elements de linguistique generale (Paris: Armand Colin).
1954 "Accents et tons", Miscellanea Phonetica, 2nd fasc. Reprinted in La
linguistique synchronique (Paris : P.U.F., 1965).
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1970 "Entre psychanalyse et psychocritique", Poetique 3.
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1964 "Le cinema: langue ou langage", Communications 4. Reprinted in
1966a "Considerazioni su gli elementi semiologici del film", Nuovi argo-
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1966b "La construction 'en abyme' dans Huit et demi de Fellini", Revue
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sur les Sciences Sociales VII: 4.
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1937 L'icriture chinoise et le geste humain (Paris, doctoral dissertation).
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1963 Esthetique et Psychologie du cinema 1. Volume 2 appeared in 1965.
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1957 Les stars (Paris: Seuil).
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1959 "Les systemes de communication non-linguistiques et leur place dans la
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1948 "La perception visuelle des images du cinema, de la television et du
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1930 First Manifesto, Le lournal.
1933 "Cinematurgie de Paris", Les Cahiers du Film, December 15. Re-
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1966 Cesar (Editions de Provence). Excerpts in Cahiers du cinema 173
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1967 "Dreyer, cadres et mouvements", Etudes cinematographiques 53-56.
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1966 "La lingua scritta dell'azione", Nuovi Argomenti 2.
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1967 La structure, le mot, l'evenement, Esprit 35 : 360.
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1966 L'esperienza cinematografica.
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1967 Introduction la grammaire generative (Paris: Pln).
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1966 "Perspectives semiologiques", Communications 7.
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aesthetics ("aesthetic" dimension of the plurality of the materials of expression

cinema), 12, 14-16, 23, 36-38, 76-77, in the cinema (see material of expres-
85-86, 94-96, 148-149, 266-267 sion)
articulations (see distinctive units) plurality of the syntagmatic axes of the
"audio-visual", 31-35,224-235 cinema, 173-185,280
ideology of the audio-visual,9,34-35,43 summarizing acceptance of "cinema"
properly audio-visual composition (see 26, 39, 46
codes of audio-visual composition) working of the film in the cinema,
"banal/original" (see original/banal) cinematic "figures", 131-137
"cinema, art of the image" (traditional certain cinematic figures as signifiers
idea, see visual) without a signified, 136-137
"cinema, art of movement" (traditional cinematic figures as minimal signifying
idea), 41-43, 244 units, 131
cinema, cinematicity pansemic tendency of certain cinematic
absolute acceptance of "cinema", 28, figures, 131-137
61-62 the problem of the "occupations", 129,
"cinema" and "film" (semantic ap- 133
proach), 55-61, 154-160 cinematic "genres", 62, 64, 121, 124-129,
cinematic and extra-cinematic (combi- 152-153
nations, interactions), 70, 77-78, 92, cinematic language system, 39-46, 67-70,
96-101,105-118,121,130, 248-249 130, 267-271, 285-289
cinematic "figures" (see cinematic degree of coherence of the cinematic
"figures") language system, 17, 65-66, 137-141,
cinematic/filmic (as oppositions), 47-48 148-149, 267-271, 282
cinematic-filmic, 22-24, 39-50, 58-60, cinematic treatment of a given extra-
279 cinematic unit, 55-56, 70, 196
cinematic-non-filmic, 9-13, 46-50, 58, circularity of the paradigmatics and syn-
236-238, 279 tagmatics, 170-172
cinematic treatment of a given extra- class of films/group of films, 62, 121-128
cinematic unit, 55-56, 70, 196 classification of language systems, 24-26
cinematization, 97-101, 105-107, 114- codes, 21, 24-27, 28, 37, 60, 65, 70-78,
117 83-86, 93, 97, 102-105, 113-114, 118-
distinctive units of the cinema, 132, 120, 126-127, 143-148, 149-150, 155,
187-192,199-207 156-160, 285-286
history of the cinema (see history of code/problem of construction of the
the cinema) code, 137-143
"large cinematic sub-codes", 266-270 codical polysemy/textual polysemy, 180
modes and degrees of cinematicity of construction of the code/the con-
the cinematic codes, 224-234. structed code, 156-160

inter-codical paradigms, 181-183 codes with multiple manifestation (see

inter-codical relation system in a lan- specificity, "multiple specificity")
guage system, 240-243 codes, non-specific (see specificity, "no
inter-codical relation system in a text specificity")
(see textual system) codes of the perceptual analogy (visual
inter-codical syntagms, 143, 181-183 and auditive), 228, 232, 257-259, 269-
language systems as combinations of 270, 276-278, 283
codes (see language system) code of the photogram, 190-193, 235-
modes and degrees of specificity of the 236
codes and the specificity of the lan- codes, photographic (see codes of the
guage systems, 43,224-235 "mechanical picture")
paradigmatic and syntagmatic in the codes of "plastics", 228
codes (see paradigmatic and syn- codes, semantic (see specificity, "no spe-
tagmatic) cificity")
propositions of the code, 154, 156-161 codes of the sequencing of the image,
relations between the codes and the 230-231, 243-244, 280-281
material of expression (see material codes with single manifestation (see spe-
of the expression, distinctive features cificity, "maximum specificity")
of the material of the expression) codes of sound composition, 232
relations between the specificity of the codes, specific (see specificity)
codes and the specificity of the lan- codes, specific, of a group of language
guage systems, 247-248 systems (see specificity, "multiple spe-
"unique and total code by the language cificity")
system" (traditional idea), 27, 34-36, codes, specific, of a single language
40, 43 system (see specificity, "maximum
codes of the audio-visual composition, specificity")
233 codes with universal manifestation (see
codes, cinematic specificity, "no specificity")
degrees and modes of cinematicity of codical transposition (see third case of
the cinematic codes, 224-234 the codifications more or less common
ensemble of the cinematic codes (see in several language systems)
cinematic language system) codifications more or less common in
general cinematic codes, 61-70, 79-83, several language systems, 28-38, 105-
129-130,136-143, 267-271 107, 212-239, 247
particular cinematic codes (see sub- first case; localized semiotic inter-
code) ferences, 212-218
codes of cinemontage, 22, 80, 107- second case; unique code of multiple
109, 138-139, 228-229, 242-244, 275- manifestation (see specificity, "mul-
277 tiple specificity")
codes of content (see specificity, "no third case; group of codical transposi-
specificity") tions, 212-218
codes of expression (opposite of codes of commutation, 29, 165, 169, 170-173,
content), 245-250 186-187
codes of iconic designations, 32-33, 199, connotation, 31-32,145,186-187,269-270
228, 268-270, 273-275 consecutive and syntagmatic, 173-175
codes of identification of the objects (see content
codes of iconic designations) codes of the content (see specificity,
codes of the "mechanical picture", 229- "no specificity")
230 "content/form" (traditional opposition,
codes of the movement, 190-192,231-232, see form/content)
243-244, 280 form of the content (see form of the
"the cinema, the art of the movement" content)
(traditional idea), 41-44, 245 material of the content (see material of
the content) class of films/group of films, 62, 121-
context, 133-136 128
contrastive codifications/non-contrastive distinctive units of the film (see dis-
codifications, 142-143, 182-183 tinctive units)
"film" in an absolute sense, 50-60,153-
degrees and modes of iconicity (see 154, 156-161
schematicism) "film" in an enumerative sense, 50-55,
degree of coherence of the cinematic 121-126, 149
language system (see cinematic lan- "film" and "cinema" (semantic ap-
guage system) proach), 55-61, 154-161
degrees of particularity of the cinematic filmic/cinematic (as oppositions), 47-
sub-codes, 79-80 48
degrees of preexistence of the "object" filmic-non-cinematic, 46-50, 105-118
in paradigmatic and syntagmatic, 168- plurifilmic text and pk'rifilmic textual
170 system, 121-129,150-151
degrees of specificity, degrees of cinema- "study of film", 156-161
ticity (see specificity) "study of films", 70-74
displacement (the system of the text as working of the cinema by the film,
displacement), 99-114,248-249 108-110
distinctive units; articulation types, 184- working of the film/working of the
208 analyst, 104-105
cinematic distinctive units in the film, filmic writings, 74, 76, 95, 99-114, 1 -
131-132, 187-193 18, 285-286
cinematic "figures" as significant mi- "form/content" (traditional opposition),
nimal units, 131-132 10, 15, 151-152, 154-155
distinctive units and grammar, 193-196 form of the content, 16, 21, 211-212,
diversity of form of distinctive units, 245-251
200-204 form/material, 208-212, 251, 254
diversity of size of distinctive units, relations between the form and the
199-200 material of expression (see material
extra-cinematic distinctive units in the of the expression, "distinctive feat-
film, 196-199 ures of the material of the expres-
plurality of the distinctive units in the sion")
same text, 184-187 frame of reference/exponent (see supra-
suprasegmental distinctive units, 200- segmental)
domains of a single semiotic dimension, general system (see code)
87-88,101-103, 145-149, 153 gestural, 264, 271-273
grammar, 193-196
enumeration of language systems, 235 group of films/class of films, 62, 121-128
exponent/frame of reference (see supra- groups of codical transpositions (see
segmental) third case of codifications more or less
external contours of a conversation, 12, common in several language systems)
22-23, 24, 79, 117, 121-126, 128-129,
150-156 heterogeneous simultaneous syntagms,
extra-cinematic (see cinema, "cinematic 174
and extra-cinematic") history of the cinema, 9,14,67-70, 81-83,
cinematic treatment of a given extra- 137, 143
cinematic unit, 55-56, 70, 196 homogeneous simultaneous syntagms,
extra-cinematic distinctive units in the 174, 179-180
film (see distinctive units) homogeneous temporal syntagms, 174

film; filmic, 9-24,47-48 iconic codes, 227-228, 257-258, 282, 283


degrees and modes of iconicity (see semiotic interferences between lan-

schematicism) guage systems (see codifications
ideography, 33, 257, 259, 262-265, 271- more or less common in several lan-
285 guage systems)
ideology of the audio-visual (see audio- specialized language systems, 36,37-39,
visual) 148, 212
ideology of the specificity (see specificity) transpositions from language system
idiom (cinema and idiomaticity), 282 into language system (see codifica-
impression of reality, 190-192, 277-280 tions more or less common in several
inter-codical paradigms, 181-183 language systems)
inter-codical ielation system in a lan- "unique and total code by the language
guage system, 241-242 system" (traditional idea), 27, 34-36,
inter-codical relation system in a text 40,43
(see textual system) usual classification of the language
inter-codical syntagms, 142-143, 181- systems, 24-25
183 "large cinematic sub-codes", 267-271
intertextual, 150-151, 180-182 "large syntagma tic category", 172, 189,
intertextual paradigms, 180-182 200-202, 231, 270
levels of reading, 118-121
language, its piesence in the film localized semiotic interferences (see first
its presence in the filmic image (see case of codifications more or less
codes of iconic designations) common in several language systems)
its presence in the spoken words of
the film, 35, 98, 262-263, 279-280 material of the content, 211-212,250-251
its presence in the title of the film, sector of the material of the content,
109 38-39, 212, 250-251, 266
its presence in the written credits, 275 material of the expression, 208-211
its relative presence, 284 (see also distinctive features of the material of
ideography) the expression (relations between
language system form and material of the expression,
codifications more or less common in between code and material of the
several language systems (see codi- expression), 43-44,142-143,212-235,
fications more or less common etc.) 240, 251
enumeration of the language systems, every language system as unit of ma-
235 terial expression, 24-28
every language system as a combina- plurality of the materials of the expres-
tion of codes, 28-39, 61-70, 224-235, sion in the cinema, 16, 24-27, 35,
240-245 173-175
every language system as a unit of material/form (see form/material)
material of expression, 24-28 meaning (see material of content)
inter-codical relation system in a lan- message, 23-24, 74-75, 126, 143-148
guage system, 240-243 the fact of the message as a general
modes and degrees of specificity of a fact, 51-54, 59-60
code in relation with a language "structure of the message" or structure
system, 44, 224-235 of the text?, 54, 63-64, 87-91
neighboring language systems, 34,225- meta-paradigms, 175-176
226, 235-240 meta-syntagms, 175-176
partly overlapping of the specificities modes of specificity, modes of cinema-
of several language systems (see ticity (see specificity)
specificity, "intermixed specificities") multiple syntagmatics in the cinema, 173-
relations between specificity of the lan- 175, 280-281
guage systems and specificity of the
codes, 247-248 oblique syntagms, 174
"occupations", 190 (see also cinematic plurality of textual systems for a single
figures) text, 118-121
"original/banal" (traditional oppositions), plurifilmic (plurifilmic text, plurifilmic
93-99, 118-121, 156 textual system), 121-129, 150-152 (see
also text, "plurifilmic texts")
paradigmatic and syntagmatic, 161-184 plurifilmic textual system (see text,
circularity of paradigmatics and syn- "plurifilmic texts")
tagmatics, 170-173 polysemy
degrees of preexistence of the "object" codical polysemy/textual polysemy, 180
in paradigmatic and syntagmatic, the pansemic tendency of certain cine-
168-170 matic figures, 131-137
heterogeneous simultaneous syntagms, polysemic potential of the cinema, 276-
174 277
homogeneous simultaneous syntagms, the problem of the "occupations", 129,
174,179-180 132
homogeneous temporal syntagms, 174 potential system/actual system, 78-79,
inter-codical paradigms, 181-183 105, 180
inter-codical syntagms, 142, 181-183 principle of relevance, 9-22, 24, 30, 46,
intertextual paradigms, 180 67, 71-73, 75, 92, 96-97, 105, 122-123,
meta-paradigms, 175-176 123-124, 125, 127-128, 143-144, 147,
meta-syntagms, 175-176 157
oblique syntagms, 174 distinctive features of the material of
paradigmatics / paradigmatic; syntag- expression (see material of the ex-
matics/syntagmatic, 163-168 pression)
paradigmatic and syntagmatic in codes, "printing" (the cinema as "printing"),
161-173 262-266
paradigmatic and syntagmatic in tex- problem of the code/coding, 137-143
tual systems, 175-184
plurality ol the syntagmatic axes in the
"reading", 73
cinema, 173-175, 280
syntagm of signifieds, 180 levels of reading, 118-121
syntagmatic and consecutive, 173-175 recording (the cinema as recording), 254-
particular system (see sub-codes) 257, 264
phonography, 262-264 remote similarity, 180
picture-track of the film, 123, 173-175, reproduction (the cinema, "mean of pro-
duction?"), 103-104, 254-266, 287
227-235, 264, 274-275, 279-280
plurality of the codes in the same lan-
guage system (see language system, schematism; modes and degrees of
"every language system as a combina- schematism, modes and degrees of
tion of codes") iconicity, 32-33, 275-279
plurality of codes in the same text (see semiotic interferences between language
textual systems) systems (see codifications more or less
plurality of the distinctive units of the common in several language systems)
cinema, 187-193,199-208 set of cinematic codes (see cinematic
plurality of the distinctive units of the language system)
film, 187-193, 196-208 "sign", 193, 204-208, 287-289
plurality of distinctive units in the same signifiers without a signified, 136-137
text, 184-187 singular system (see textual system)
plurality of the materials of the expres- social image of the cinema (problems of
sion in the cinema (see material of cultural legitimacy), 14, 26, 38, 41, 83,
expression) 266
plurality of the syntagmatic axes in the sound effects in the cinema, 265, 273,
cinema, 173-175, 280 278-280

sound-track of the film, 26,123, 262-264, 118-121, 121-129, 143-148, 150, 150-
278-279 163, 176, 184-187, 285
specificity, 31-34, 36, 61-70, 79-83, 126- dimensions of a text (see external con-
131, 134-135, 235, 240, 245-246, 285- tours of a conversation)
289 "general text", 150-156
degrees of specificity and degrees of intertextual, 150-153, 180-181
importance, 243-245 intertextual paradigms, 180-181
ideology of specificity, 24-25, 41-43, plurality of the codes in the same text
97-99, 101, 106, 114-117, 193 (see textual system)
intermixed specificities (partial over- plurality of distinctive units in the
lapping of the specificities of several same text, 184-187
language systems), 212-235 plurality of the textual systems for the
maximum specificity (specific codes of same text, 118-121
a single language system, codes with plurifilmic texts, 121-129, 150-153
unique manifestation), 223-224, 235, "structure of the message" or structure
240 of the text?, 54, 63-64, 87-91
modes and degrees of specificity of a textuality, generality, singularity, 74-
code in relation to a language system, 79, 117, 150-156
43, 224-235 textual polysemy/codical polysemy,
multiple specificity (specific codes of a 179-180
group of language systems, codes textual system, 54-55, 62-63, 67, 70-79,
with multiple manifestation), 212- 91-121,126-129,130,143-148,149-150,
235, 247 175-184, 242-243, 285-289
"no specificity" (non-specific codes, paradigmatics and syntagmatics in the
codes with univeisal manifestation, textual systems, 175-184
codes of content, semantic codes), plurality of the textual systems for a
28-39, 72, 149, 223, 245-251 single text, 118-121
relation between specificity of the codes textual system as displacement, 99-114,
and specificity of the language sys- 248
tems, 247-248 textual-systematic units, 121
"structure of the message" or structure textual systematic units, 121
of the text?, 54, 63-64, 87-91 transmission(thecinema as transmission),
"study of film", 156-161 257-263
"study of films", 70-74 transposition from language system to
sub-code, 30-31, 36, 61-70, 79-83, 126- language system (see codifications
131, 135-136, 137-143, 144, 149-150 more or less the same in several lan-
degrees of particularity of the cinematic guage systems)
sub-codes, 79-80
"large cinematic sub-codes", 267-271 "unique and total code by the language
substance, 208-212, 251-254 system" (traditional idea), 27, 34-36,
suprasegmental, 179-180, 200-204 40,43
exponent/frame of reference, 149-150
syntagmatic and consecutive, 173-175 vehicle/program, 23, 246
syntagms of signifiers, 179-180 "visual/verbal" (traditional opposition),
syntax, 163-164, 195 31-35
system; systematic, 22, 73-74, 74-79, visual; visuality, 31-35, 107, 173-175,
83-87, 143-150, 156, 287-288 213-218, 220-223, 225-232, 254, 256,
systematic, generality, singularity, 74- 258, 259, 262, 264, 265, 272-274, 275-
79, 143-150 282
"the cinema, art of the image" (tradi-
tional idea), 25-27, 34-36, 41-43, 245
television, 235-240
text; textuality, 21, 70-79, 87-99, 117, Western, 63, 79-80, 121, 124, 152
working of the analyst/working of the writing (the cinema in relation with the
cineast, 23,49, 74 writing), 254-285
working of the cinema by the film, 108- ideographic writings (see ideography)
110 writing in the sense of Degre Zero,

Agel, ., 133 Damas, G., 271, 280, 281

Arnheim, R., 10, 75,278n Damas, J., 26
Artaud, ., 272, 273, 276 Debrix, J.-R., 272
Astruc, ., 266 Delacroix, H., 276
Aydie, G.d., 271 Delluc, L., 26
Delvaux, ., 29
Delvaux, P., 29
Balzs, ., 10, 75, 273,278, 280
Derrida, J., 206, 284
Bally, C , 255
Dietrich, M., 114
Barthes, R., 74, 118n, 155, 182, 186,
Dreyer, C., 77
190n, 200, 267, 268
Dubois, J., 256
Baudelaire, C., 177
Dufrenne, M., 38
Baudrier, Y., 232n
Dulac, G 273
Bazin, ., 10, 41, 82, 91n, 103n, 139n,
197n, 275
Beaulieux, C., 255 Eco, U., 31, 32, 36, 103n, 118n, 188D,
Bellour, R 126n 191n, 199, 277
Benveniste, E., 173 Eisenstein, S. M., 10, 42, 75, 82, 95n,
Berck, A.M.v.d., 191n, 279n 102, 112, 133, 178, 188n, 220, 221,
Bergman, I., 120 228, 272, 279, 280
Bertin, J., 31, 32, 284 Epstein, J., 232, 233n
Bettetini, G., 188n
Blanche Benveniste, C., 255 Faulkner, W 213, 214
Borde, R., 128n Fellini, F., 113
Bourdieu, P., 15 Feyder, J., 29
Bremond, C., 34, 178, 200 Fnagy, I., 31
Breughel, P., 244 Ford, C , 151, 152, 272
Bhler, ., 36 Francastel, P., 12, 228, 276
Buyssens, E 29, 36, 258n, 274n Freud, S 196

Cantineau, 36 Galifret, Y., 279n

Canuda, R., 26, 272 Garroni, E 27, 30, 31, 33, 40, 41, 103n,
Chartier, J.-P., 213n 163, 189n, 220, 240, 241, 245, 251
Chaumeton, ., 128n Gelb, J. J., 274, 283
Chervel, ., 255 Genette, G., 151
Chevassu, F., 229n Gheude, ., 190n
Clair, R 75 Ginneken, J. v., 273, 274n
Cohen, M., 255, 283n Giraud, J., 13
Cohen-Seat, G 10, 12, 13, 22, 23, 26, Godard, J.-L., 113, 214n
39,45,47,48,50, 51, 54,58,237n, 286n Goldmann, L., 100
Gougenheim, G., 255 Pagnol, M 262, 263, 264, 265
Greimas, A. J., 32,33,33n, 178,199,200, Panofski, E., 32, 33, 245
228, 242, 252 Parrain, P., 77n
Griffith, D. W 77, 78, 107-112 Pasolini, P. P., 188n
Guillaume, G., 274 Passeron, J.-C., 15
Peckinpah, S., 132
Harris, Z. S., 172, 203 Peirce, C. S., 207, 258, 284
Hawks, ., 197n Perrot, V., 26, 271
Hitchcock, ., 126n, 177 Pierre, S 190n
Hjelmslev, L., 16,16n, 24, 29, 31, 36, 37, Pingaud, B 113n
46, 75, 75n, 84, 87, 91, 146, 151, 161, Poudovkine, V., 75
166, 173, 186, 208, 209, 210, 211, 212, Prieto, L. J., 36
219, 220, 240, 251-253, 256 Prokofiev, S 220
Hughes, H., 197 Propp, V., 177, 178n, 200

Jacobson, R., 166, 173, 177,218, 246n Renoir, ., 29

Jacquinot, G., 13 Renoir, J 29, 91
Resnais, ., 113
Kaufman, ., 272n Ricoeur, P., 115n
Korte, 191n Rocha, G., 183
Kster, ., 92 Romano, D. F., 279n
Kristeva, J., 102, 113n, 151, 284 Ruwet, N 195n

Laffay, ., 10, 213 Sartre, J.-R, 214

Lean, D., 133 Saussure, F. d., 9, 30, 31, 86, 143, 144,
Leites, ., 15n 146, 147, 155, 163, 168, 184, 207, 209,
Leone, S., 80n, 152 210, 255, 258, 276
Leroi-Gourhan, 283 Schane, S. ., 195n
Levi-Strauss, C., 178, 187, 200 Schefer, J.-L., 228n, 284
Levin, S. R 178 Solima, S., 80n
L'Herminier, P., 273 Souriau, E., 13
Lumiere Bros., 9, 44, 198 Sternberg, J. v., 114, 183
Lyotard, J.-F., 284 Sturges, J 114,183

Magritte, R., 29 Tchang Tcheng Ming, 273, 274n

Marr, 273 Thibault-Laulan, A.-M., 230n
Martin, ., 133n, 233n, 272 Todorov, ., 19n, 200
Martinet, ., 24n, 173,185, 195,203,255 Tomachevski, ., 177n
Marx Bros., 177 Trubetzkoy, N., 173
Mauss, M., 9 Truffaut, F., 182
Mehlman, J., 119n Tynianov, J., 177n
Mercillon, H., 18
Metz, C., 113, 202 Valery, P., 112
Mitry, J., 10, 75, 82, 139, 213, 221, Vareille, ., 233n
229, 275, 278 Veron, E 228n
Mix, ., 152 Vigo, J 132
Moles, ., 33, 276 Voltaire, 109
Morin, ., 10, 116
Morris, C., 36 Welles, ., 113, 139, 183
Mounin, G., 32, 36 Wertheimer, 191
Murnau, 42, 53, 133, 179 Wolfenstein, ., 15
Musatti, C. L., 279n Worth, S., 188

Oldfield, R.-C-, 191n, 279n Zazzo, R 279n


Agent X.27, J. v. Sternberg, 183

Alexander Nevsky, S. M. Eisenstein, 178, 220, 228
Brief Encounter, D. Lean, 133
Citizen Kane, . Welles, 113, 183
Dawn, Murnau, 179
8 1/2, F. Fellini, 113
Gunfight at the OK Corral, J. Sturges, 152
Hiroshima, mon amour, A. Resnais, 113
II etait unefois dans UOuest, S. Leone, 80n, 152
Intolerance, D. W. Griffith, 77-79, 107-111, 112, 119
Ivan the Terrible, S. . Eisenstein, 228
Kermesse Heroique, J. Feyder, 29
La coquille et le clergyman, G. Dulac, 273, 276
Le regle du jeu, J. Renoir, 91
UHomme au crne rasi, A. Delvaux, 29
Muriel, . Resnais, 71, 113
My Darling Clementine, J. Ford, 151-152
Nosferatu, Murnau, 133
October, S. M. Eisenstein, 112-113
Old and New, S. M. Eisenstein, 133,178
Ordet, C. Dreyer, 77
Pierrot le Fou, J.-L. Godard, 113
Tempestaire, J. Epstein, 232-233
Terre en transes, G. Rocha, 183
The Outlaw, . Hughes, 197
The Robe, H. Kster, 92n
The Scarlet Empress, J. v. Sternberg, 114,183
The Wild Bunch, S. Peckinpah, 132
Tire sur le Pianiste, F. Truffaut, 182
Une femme mariee, J.-L. Godard, 214
Une partie de Campagne, J. Renoir, 29
Un soir, un train, A. Delvaux, 29
Zero de conduite, J. Vigo, 132