Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Hermeneutics of Description

Two Examples from the World of "Golden Age" American Cartoons

I’ve recently done a bunch of posts about two classic cartoon shorts, Bob Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland (1938), and Shamus Culhane’s The Greatest Man in Siam (1943). So far I’ve done four posts about Wackyland and seven posts about Greatest Man. But I didn’t set out to do that many posts in either case.

In both cases my method has been analytic and descriptive, and most of what I’ve written has been primarily descriptive – though not exclusively so. That’s what this post is about, the informal logic of arriving at descriptions of such complex and poorly understood phenomena as cartoons. My point of conceptual departure is the observation that, in the two cases, my initial posts were quite different in character. And, in fact, my initial intent was different as well. I approached Wackyland as a descriptive venture and Greatest Man as an interpretive venture, though I’ve ended up devoted more energy to descriptive matters in the latter case and managed to wander into interpretive waters in the former.

I attribute these differences to the nature of the cartoons themselves and the challenges each presents to analysis. My first post about the Clampett was an analysis that divided the cartoon into six segments, which I revised to seven in my second post about the cartoon. In contrast, my first post about the Culhane was devoted to a single segment late in the cartoon.

Why the difference?

The Greatest Man in Siam is a straight-forward cartoon. The characters and settings are readily intelligible and the action is easy to follow. As its name implies, Porky in Wackyland is not straight-forward. Porky aside, the characters are look strange and do strange things. The settings are strange, if not incoherent. My primary objective in analyzing Wackyland was to find a coherent order by breaking it into parts. Why? Because animation is a temporal art; things happen in time; that’s the primary ordering vehicle. Since Greatest Man, however, had an obvious coherence, it was easy simply to identify a segment of interest and to concentrate my initial efforts on that segment.

That is, while it was obvious to me that there was a lot of stuff going on in Wackyland, the temporal boundaries weren’t obvious. What’s the first thing that happened? The second? And so forth. So I set some boundaries. The fact that it took me two posts to arrive at a scheme I liked shows that the boundaries were not obvious. (First post here, second one here) I looked at the cartoon time and again, concentrated on this and that segment, and compared what was happening. I also listened to the soundtrack and looked at the relationship between the sound and the action. Taking all those things into consideration, I was able to segment the cartoon into seven parts.

In short, I was going around and around in the good old hermeneutic circle (& here’s links to pictures). As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains:
In the seventh chapter of the Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), Spinoza proposes that in order to understand the most dense and difficult sections of the Holy Scriptures, one must keep in mind the historical horizon in which these texts were written, as well as the mind by which they were produced. There is an analogy, Spinoza claims, between our understanding of nature and our understanding of the Scriptures. In both cases, our understanding of the parts hinges on our understanding of a larger whole, which, again, can only be understood on the basis of the parts. Seen in a larger perspective, this hermeneutic circle, the movement back and forth between the parts and the whole of the text, is an important hermeneutical theme.
Now, in this case I’m certainly not dealing with Holy Scriptures, nor with any literary text. Nor was I trying to explicate or interpret my texts, that is, the cartoons – well, maybe a little. I was mostly trying to identify some parts, not the ‘bottom-most’ or ‘smallest’ parts, but parts at some intermediate level of parts, parts that consist of other parts and which, in turn, contribute to higher levels of organization. The more I looked, the more I saw. Things changed and revealed themselves as the process went forward. 'Round and ‘round I went, just to arrive at a description.

With Greatest Man, the process started with a specific part, that dance between He and She, and then went out from there. Actually, that’s not quite right. When I started out I was thinking about the four men who competed in the contest – which, as you may recall, was for the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage. Why’d the last guy win and the other’s loose. Sure, he played the trumpet, but that’s not quite right. And the first guy, he claimed to be the smartest, but obvious was not smart at all. So that’s what was on my mind as I started taking screen shots, but I ended up being so taken with that dance that I decided to concentrate on it for my first post and get back to the other stuff in a later post. Which I did (here and here).

Why’d I decided to concentrate on that dance? I don’t really know. It interested me, that’s what. I liked the music, I thought the animation was fabulous. And so I took a close look. In the process I anchored my thinking about the cartoon in the details of a specific segment, the climax of the piece. I knew – from having been at this business for many years – that all the action in the cartoon ‘fed in’ to that sequence, or ‘came out’ of it. And so I moved outward from that segment to the whole. But also back again as I discovered more and more. Thus at this post late in the series I concentrate on eyes, though I’d mentioned them in that first post, and this still later post looks at electricity (among other things).

Now, the BIG QUESTION: Are the things I’ve described in these cartoons, Porky in Wackyland and The Greatest Man in Siam, are they really there? Am I describing what’s there or am I just projecting my own analytic predilections onto the cartoons? Well, you can see for yourself. My posts are full of evidence in the form of screen shots and the cartoons are readily available on the web or on DVD.

My guess is that, when you do that, you’ll see that, yes, much of what I say is there, really is there. But some of it, well, I’m pushing it a bit. So perhaps I need to cut back on this or that claim. But I figure we should be able to reach substantial agreement on an interesting range of descriptive issues.

And that leads us to a still BIGGER QUESTION: So what? Given that all this is there in the cartoons, what of it? That, as far as I can tell, will require a great deal of work, over decades, by people in various disciplines. We’re not in a position to understand how the mind in it’s brain does such things.

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