realism (narrative theory) The production of sound, speech, actions, rituals, performances and artifacts, text, image, sound, that signify and communicate a representation of reality. This is the broad definition of realism: something that represents the real, something that can be recognized and understood as connected to reality: our perception, experience and understanding of present, past and future events. Realism also refers to specific forms, aesthetic modes in art, performance and literature that aim to represent the world as a social reality: individual experiences depicted within a specific socio-historical environment, with different mediums moving through a range of representational techniques and strategies that are directly labelled or are generally accepted as realism. In literature Naturalism is a particular form of realism, with Naturalism being a significant aspect in the history of the realist novel, and in this aesthetic form prose fiction aimed to represent the concurrent social environment. In narrative film, Neo-Realism and Social Realism are forms of film narrative that aim to represent actual social circumstances, often contemporary to the filmmakers. These specific forms of realism do not limit or define what is realist in relation to the concept of mimesis: a story set in a future world that is unlikely to represent any actual future reality is a realist narrative, because the actions and speech of the story is mimetic: we can recognise the action of the story and understand it in relation to actual life.
A difference can be understood between non-representational forms, and forms of realism that do not intend or claim to be socially accurate and to reproduce real life; the specific personal, social and historical experience. In this respect aesthetic modes such as expressionism, romanticism, melodrama, the gothic, horror are all realist forms that are mimetic, and even though their aesthetic form is understood to have aims that present narrative in certain ways this aesthetic intent does not make them non-realist: Expressionism is a realism that aims to depict subjective, psychologically distorting experience, while the Gothic and horror presents the fantastic or the uncanny in a realist form: Dracula and vampires do not exist in the world, but the stories in which they figure are within a mode of realism: a representation of places, people, societies within a coherent temporal narrative.
In painting, the understanding of non-realism, non-realist art might be limited to the abstract in painting, or certain forms of installation, event or exhibit where the form or presentation cannot be taken to be representative of any figure, person, place, or time: a canvas with a range of colours, a set of draped clothes in a gallery.
In the medium of film because photographic practice reproduces reality, non-realist practices can display the medium and be no-realist. So, marks made on film, scratches rather than images are made, and this non-representational film when projected is non-realistic, or with a similar approaches being the cinematic apparatus desconstructured in a gallery or exhibition in some way: light projected but without any image, just the project and the light. Here the medium and the technology is used so that it does not represent anything with photo-realism and so avoids realism.
A second practice for non-realist film is non-narrative or anti-narrative film, based on the understanding that the construction of narrative film through conventions of framing, filming, and editing, with documentary recording, or staged performance, all create a form of realism which other forms of filming and editing do not produce. In non-narrative film forms images, shots, and sound are combined in ways that do not construct a narrative, and so, in terms of realism these non-realist films are incoherent, even if their images use the photographic recording of actuality or staged performance. Non-realist film will either completely exclude representation or else step away from or reject the conventions and forms of narrative film.
The broad definition of realism can be discussed and understood through semiotics, which offers a model of interpretation and meaning: how the mind perceives and understand objects in the real world and also representations of the world, an understanding which is developed through the learning process of lived experience and as part of this process developing a shared communication and understanding.
The newborn child perceives the world, but there is no established meaning, then there is a perception of things, of the situation and of relationships between things, and also temporality and a coherence derived from this experience of events. As part of this social development there is representation, where there is the object in the world, what it is and also what it represents: an event or a thing can stand in for some other thing.
In semiotics there are representations that are iconic, that represent themselves: so seeing a face in life, interpreting this as a particular person’s face and then seen an object, painting, photography, sculpture, as a representation of the same person is an iconic interpretation. (In contemporary usage iconic is widely used to refer to a person or thing and that has a singular, special, social status: this use has its source in religious imagery, religious icons, things of special significance, and also in relation to semiotics, where iconic images have a representative singularity: they only represent themselves and so can be unique.)
Semiotics, in order to consider representation and its understanding, offer two pairs of divisions, one of these is between the signifier, the object and how this can be interpreted, what is signified by the object: so a wooden cross is an object, a signified, and what it signifies can be interpreted as just a wooden cross, or a Christian cross, or a representation of Christian belief and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The division of signified and signifier is paralleled by the terms denotation and connotation. Denotation is what the object is: it’s a cup, a door, a fence. Denotation is iconic meaning, the most narrowly defined level of interpretation and meaning, and then there is connotation, other levels of signification, the indexical and the symbolic.
A photograph on a computer screen, is a photograph on a computer screen, and this limited meaning, is its iconic interpretation, and its denotation as an object. The photograph represents streets, this is an iconic representation of an image of streets, its denotation as a representation of streets, and this image, expanding the interpretation, and meaning can be understood as indexical, when the streets are interpreted as a part representing a whole, so the streets in the image represent the city, or the suburbs, or Victorian London, or Hong Kong, these are what the image of streets might connotes through an indexical representation
Iconic and indexical interpretation is linked to an understanding of actuality, a lived reality a realism: in the image there are city streets that could exist, or these streets are understood as a fictional representation of city street, but they are coherent in many ways with how the actual world is understood, they are similar to actual city streets. Disconnecting from actuality and reality, is symbolic interpretation and meaning, so that connotation and the signified separates from the object and its iconic and indexical meaning and its denotation: the image of the city street connotes and symbolically represents modernity, the cosmopolitan, urban chaos, suburban tranquillity, suburban banality, suburban happiness, suburban conformity. Here interpretation and understanding is socially complex and developed: symbolic meaning is shared meaning and also personal meaning: what the symbol means to many and what it means to the individual. In narrative film the narration can use established symbolism which the audience are assumed to understand: driving luxury car indicating the wealth of the driver. Films can also establish specific iconic meaning, a painting in the narrative of the film have a special and specific meaning for a character as it connects to an event in their life, which the audience are given knowledge of by the plotting of the story. A symbol carries meaning because of it connection to something, not what it as an object, or what is represents. Indexical meaning, where the part refers to the whole is also known as synecdoche, and there is metonym, which is metaphorical meaning, where the signified is different and distinct from the signifier: water representing purity, a rocket representing the future.
When representations are understood as either as index or symbol, synecdoche, or a metonym, they can represent abstract concepts, or a complex of meanings. The image of a street is a synecdoche of a city, a simplified representation of a far more complex physical and social structure. As an icon, a denotation, a flag is a rectangle with a range of geometric shapes in different colours and sometimes other representational images. As a symbol, a flag represents nationhood, which is an abstract concept: the America flag, the stars and stripes, represents a nation-state which is a complex social and ideological construction. Pieces of clothes do not represent a nation through an iconic or indexical connection, it is purely symbolic link: the flag is composed of stars and stripes, but the country it represents is not implicit in this. Metaphors, metonyms, are swapped objects, the man is violent and unemotional, a shark is violent and unemotional, so metaphorically the man is a shark. There are verbal literary metaphors and visual metaphors: comical, satirical cartoons use visual metaphors.
Some symbols having their own representational aspect apart from their symbolic meaning: in Tarot cards figurative images are understood to represent predictions of situations and events. The cards have figures which are iconic, they represent objects and people and they are also symbolic. The I Ching has a similar semiotic usage but the figures have no realism. The symbols of the I Ching uses an arrangement of lines which have no iconic representational aspect, there are no figures or objects unlike Tarot cards, but as with the Tarot the I Ching can be used symbolically to consider aspects of life through prediction. In everyday usage the terms symbolic, metaphorical, iconic are often used haphazardly, with little consideration for how the meaning is being formulated. When considering an audience understanding in a narrative film we don’t all share the same symbolic or cultural knowledge, so relying metaphors or symbols to be automatically understood in a film is unlikely to be successful as a method of narration. A habit of new screenwriters and filmmakers is to assume that objects and images can carry complex meanings when this symbolism is not established in the film’s narration.
In terms of being able to interpret and understand the newborn infant is presented with a computer and an image on the screen and they will not know what a computer is, what a photographic image is, what a street is, what a city is, what London is, what cosmopolitan is, what suburban is, and their development of interpretation and meaning has to be learned as a long term process. In this respect the infant is often taught to understand and and also learns to interpret: constructing a social reality that is externally presented and which then becomes internally understood and defined: lived experience is socialisation, creating shared understandings and values, it is also a unique individual experience.
The differences of belief systems and the difference in what is accepted as realism, as real, as realistic in different cultures and at different periods and times evidences the social construction of reality, the representation of different societies create different realisms. The realism of Western society seeming or claiming to be an authentic realism, but in fact it is a historically and socially developed realism. As an example of this, in the eighteenth century the concept of a universality of all people and persons being human and human rights emerged and this is now accepted as true in large sections of contemporary society and a true interpretation of reality. This humanism has replaced that of many societies that understood themselves to be comprised of different types of beings, nobles, those appointed by God to rule, and commoners whose duty it was to obey and serve those who were noble. As such there was no sense of human rights, or an equal and shared humanity and humanness. The reality of these two types of society and what would be accepted as a real differs and these differences would be developed and understood through learning, so that the interpretations of people in these societies would understand the world in different ways: presenting everyone as equal, as human and having rights to a fifteenth century monarch would be perceived and understood as nonsensical, incoherent, false, unreal.
Through the semiotic model lived experience can be understood as a constant process of interpretation with the mind constantly shifting between meanings, iconic, indexical, symbolic. This can be a conscious process or an unconscious process: we can consciously think, distancing the self from experience or we can experience without mediation, understanding without thought, and even without a sense of perceiving and interpreting, we are in the moment: the perception reality is effectively these two types of mental processes, conscious and unconscious perception and interpretation, we have an experience of reality and realism/s are the forms of representation in different mediums that mimic and convey this experience: there is realism in the representations produced by drama, art, literature and film.
Every society throughout its history develops complex and specialised forms of representation. The forms of novels, plays, films, and poems differ between cultures, and many cultures have no such forms, and these forms will have a realism in their indiegenous culture, but not necessarily in another culture. The fact that realism shifts can be seen when films from the past, which were once taken to be realistic now appear to be artificial, contrived and even false. We may experience or believe that contemporary narrative films and other forms of representation are more realistic that past forms, but these contemporary forms of realism will also date and be perceived as artificial: just as Shakespearean drama is no longer the current mode of realism so the contemporary feature film will become arcane. The experience of lives and people will change and so will their reality and the realism it produces.
Today, in present society, while narrative film and the form of scripted, acted mimetic drama is still strongly prevalent, narrative in other medium, in computer games and on the web are understood to have the potential or they have already changed social and individual reality: the set narrative of the fixed text, book, play, film, being replaced by the interactive and emergent narrative of the computer game in 2D, 3D and CVR with their being a cyberspace, where hyper-textual browsing and surfing of the web is non-linear and precarious. In this respect narrative film may be understood to be fading as a narrative form or it will become a minor form of realism, rather than having the socially dominant place it occupied in 20th century society and culture.
It can be argued that the concept of realism should be narrowly defined, that it is specialised mode of representation, and specific modes of realism can be identified, but it is more the case that perception works to interpret and understand the environment, effectively searching for and wanting to create a reality as direct experience and also through the interpreting of representational artefacts and forms: images, books, plays, films: story is the grouping of meaning to represent experience and story creates and offers a realism.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019