Cinematic Discourse Notes 2:
Discoursal and Cinematic Audiences

A) Discourse and the audience

The audience is important in the analysis of cinematic discourse. But it is unstable. Nevertheless, we should try to understand it, instead of leaving it aside, as understanding the cinematic audience will help our understanding of cinematic discourse and the cinematic text.

B) Apparatus theory

One cinematic theory that tries to look at the audience is what is known as apparatus theory. Apparatus theory is often regarded as an ideological approach to cinema. But before ideology could be satisfactorily analysed, we have to take a look at the technicalities involved in this theory. Apparatus theory deals with the cinematic apparatus, such as the camera, editing and most importantly, the theatres where the films are played. and how these affect the audience. The following is a good summary of the theory by Leslie Kan:

First developed in 1970 by film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry, apparatus theory purports that the physical layout of the theater space produces a spectatorship that falsely identifies with the onscreen subject: the film camera is positioned in the back of a darkened room behind the view of the spectator, causing s/he to become totally unaware of the apparatus producing the filmic image. Engulfed within an ideological spectacle, the spectator remains ignorant of the entire film labor process (audio-video production, editing, etc.) and the ideological effects of the apparatus.

The above lacks currency. Viewing a film in a darkened room where the camera is positioned at the back, is not the only way that films are viewed today. How about viewing films on television or on a computer screen? If the cinematic apparatus described by Baudry is missing, the ideological level of analysis cannot be reached. So a theory linked to the apparatus associated with some cinema screenings, does not apply to cinema per se. A more adequate theory for the cinematic audience is thus needed.

C) The schema and related concepts

A theory that may provide a more adequate account of the cinematic audience of film per se, and not the apparatus associated with cinematic screenings, is schema theory. The schema is the basis of all knowledge. However, the concept is not easy to pin down (the chapter on the schema, in my Narrative Theory web-book (henceforth NT), discusses some of the issues mentioned in this section in greater detail).

One way the schema operates in relation to our understanding of language and other phenomena is through the missing links or default values associated with a particular schema. The missing links or default values ensure that not everything needs to be stated or shown, but it is assumed when the schema is instantiated.

Thus through schema theory, we have a greater understanding that meaning is not only restricted to what is immediately 'there' in the text. Meaning is also superimposed on the text by the audience, and one way to understand how this works is through the application of schema theory.

Some of the concepts that are associated with, or can be related to, the schema, are listed below.


One concept associated with the schema is the prototype. The prototype is a semantic concept which gives meaning to an entity through the most typical instance or instances of a particular semantic category. Thus the stock characters in a film, such as what a cowboy should normally be, can be understood in terms of prototypes.


The stereotype involves the assumption of prototypicality by the audience. The stereotype is usually, but not automatically, provoked by what can be found in the text. Likewise, a stereotype may be associated with a prototype, but this is not necessarily the case: a non-prototypical member of a semantic category may thus be assumed to be representative of the category. Furthermore, the stereotype may have a social consequence, and may be associated with certain assumptions about people belonging to certain ethnic groups or their gender. Some stereotypes may thus be ethically objectionable, and they are attacked in the more 'critical' approaches to discourse analysis.


Scripts are a prototypical sequence of schemas, consisting of events. Everyday behaviour is script-like, and we are dependent on certain scripts in our execution of daily tasks, such as making coffee or ordering food in a restaurant.

D) Discourse and communication

Before jumping into the assumption that the idea of communication could be ubiquitously and unproblematically applied in the study of cinematic discourse, a few critical questions are in order:

► To begin with, is the idea of communication appropriate for the study of cinematic discourse?
► Isn't it the case that, when applied to cinema, communication is ‘stuck’ in the text, i.e., there is no need to refer to, or be immediately aware of, the audience or the communicatee, in order to ‘communicate’ through the cinematic text?
► Also, there is usually no feedback from the communicatee to the communicator, and even if there is, it is usually too late, as the film has already been made.

The upshot of the above questions is not to deny that there is communication in cinematic discourse, but that it must be contextualised. Communication should be viewed relatively, and it does not mean that there is no discourse if a film does not ‘communicate’ with us.

E) Inter-textuality: Foucault, postmodernism, postcolonialism, & cognitivism

A concept that could also be used for the analysis of the cinematic audience, is that of inter-textuality (quite often spelt without a hyphen: intertextuality). Inter-textuality has to do with the relationships between texts. Some inter-textual configurations which may be used for the analysis of cinematic discourse are those associated with Michel Foucault: the discourse formation and the archive.

The discourse formation (or discursive formation) has to do with the interlinks between discourse that establish what is truthful, meaningful, discussable or allowed to be discussed or mentioned when a particular set of discourses and their underlying texts are considered. These sets of discourses usually have some of  kind of social linkages, and what is pertinent in relation to one discourse formation may not be pertinent or even disallowed in another. There is a also a problem of the relationships, or lack thereof, between discourse formations: a particular idea or meaning, for example, may not be easily transferred or translated from one discourse formation to another. Thus the discourse formation involved in discussions on linguistics – although quite useful for the study of film – may not always be easily transferred to the discourse formation pertaining to cinema, which is something that we have encountered, and will encounter again a few more times in this module. What is especially useful for the study of cinema is that Foucault's concept of the discourse formation need not always involve discourses that are encoded in language

Foucault's concept of the archive is related to the discourse formation, except that it involves discourse formations which were more active in the past, but now exist or are stored in depositories of knowledge such as libraries and museums. The archive is not something that is completely disconnected with discourse formations that operate today, but have an influence on them. Thus, in any discipline, there may be occasions where one needs to look to the historical past in order to understand how a concept or a practice came into being or was developed.

Some terms which may appear on the surface as referring to historical periods, such as the postmodern and the postcolonial, may also be best understood as discourse formations, and not strictly, as historical periods, as the postmodern has historical overlaps with the modern, and likewise, the postcolonial has historical overlaps with the colonial. These concepts have more to do with the corpus of texts and the discourses that are associated with them, than with their exact location in time.

Finally, it needs to be noted that inter-textuality does not merely refer to relationships between texts that are inherent, but that their relationships have to be cognitively registered in the minds of people who perceive these relationships, or who have an understanding of how these texts are related with regard to particular discourse formations. Thus the discourse formation associated with particular inter-textual configurations has a cognitive base, and this is how Foucault himself regards the concept of the discourse formation, even if he does not put it in these terms. As such, inter-textuality cannot be separated from the cognitive response of the respondent, be it the written text's reader, or the cinematic audience.

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© 2010. Last revised: 06 July 2011.