Sunday, February 10, 2008

Paratextually Lost

I've never written about the television show Lost for the same reason I've never written about Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I tend to think of both as being competently made, entertaining diversions to watch while grading papers or chowing down. Plus fans of the former tend to speak in the rapturous, mystical tones I'm only barely able to put up with when they come from devotees of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Wire. "In truth," I hear the French voice in my heading telling all the metaphoric dauphins, "it is a most excellent...horse."

But Lost did something really interesting the other week (I just saw it on DVR). It reran the final episode of the previous season and played little scrolling or pop-up messages on the bottom of the screen explaining the scenes to new viewers or instructing old viewers on how to interpret the scenes. It was sort of like MTV's Pop-Up Video only not played for laughs or trivia.

Anyway, this interested me because when I was in graduate school I was fascinated by Gerard Genette's Paratexts: Threshold's of Interpretation. This book/essay really made me think about our easy assumptions of what a "text" is and how it is experienced, particularly if we've been weaned on the New Critics and have some idea of a text as a Platonic, unchanging, ideal thing that is only represented by any particular printed copy of it. Are the glosses to "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" part of the text? The author's introduction to Leaves of Grass? The dedication in David Elginbrod (which is referenced by the narrator in the primary text)? What about C.S. Lewis's afterword that is included in some editions (but not all) of Till We Have Faces?

Almost two years ago I wrote a paper on the director commentary of the film Dead Man Walking (for an anthology on that work that may someday still see the light of day). I mentioned that I am tempted to see director's cuts of films, and commentary tracks as sorts of paratexts--elements of the work that are often considered outside the work but are used to mediate the work and are sometimes included with the work itself. I noticed in surfing today that this book applies many of the same concepts to film trailers.

Now the interesting thing about the Lost episode, to me, is that it further blurs the line between text and paratext. It is hard for me to look at these comments as revisions, but I think it is important to point out that unlike a film DVD this commentary was not on a separate track that could be turned off or on. (Some pop-up comments included references to other episodes or even to extra-textual writings: "This is not the first time we've seen Jack pull people from wreckage"; "We can't see what is in the story, but speculation is that it is the report that somebody died"; "Easter Egg: The sign on the funeral home can be anagrammed to say 'Flash Forward.'")

Part of the reason for these little epitextual comments seems unquestionably to get new viewers up to speed by filling them in on episodes they missed. Another is to take the place of the Victorian narrator that everyone born after 1920 appears to hate so much--the one that renders explicitly the themes and questions the attentive viewer most likely picked up on: "Say who do you suppose is in that coffin? And why is Jack so distraught even though he says it is neither 'friend' nor 'family'?" But another part seems to me to point the regular/viewer outside the text, and in so doing acknowledging that things like message boards, discussion boards, etc. are no longer just thought of as commentary on the text but an integral part of the experience. Television has experimented with episodes or modes of presentation before that force viewers beyond a self-contained episode to something outside of the text. There have been, for example "cross-over" episodes where, as in comic books, someone had to go to a different text to get the conclusion of or key information about a plot in a totally different narrative. When Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard "This is not a clue. Or is it?" he was making reference not just to the mystery within the text but to the contest outside of it. My point is, by airing the comments with the episode, ABC gives them the stamp of text. They themselves become clues to the authors' intention(s) by acknowledging ways and places where the authors put clues or instructing readers on the sorts of questions or reactions they are supposed to have to the text proper. One can do this in a commentary or critical article or interview, but the reader/viewer always has the option of eschewing or avoiding such interpretive instructions when they are outside the text. When they become epitexts or peritexts (paratexts packaged with the text), they become impossible to avoid and thus become part of the text and not just a comment on it.

It will be interesting when ABC releases the DVD collection of the current season of Lost to see whether or not the paratext episode is viewed as simply a repeat of the episode from season three or as a different text. (Not interesting enough to actually buy the DVDs, but interesting enough to raise my curiosity.)

Oh, and for the record, I can never be too excited about Lost as a postmodern metaphor or as a mystery, because I quite frankly don't believe that there will ever be consistent, satisfying narrative resolution. It's like the X-Files meets the final half season of Felicity. At some point, there become so many unresolved threads and mysteries that the authors can't remember them all, much less convince me that they have an intentional end in mind from the beginning. But I enjoy it as an experiment in form even if I find the results of that experiment less gratifying than its fans.

6 comments:

peter said...

Ken,
Is it possible these paratexts are no more than Cliff's Notes for the Wikipedia generation? Can they really become independent texts or are they merely a crutch for those who need to be spoon-fed subtexts or complicated ideas? I don't mean these questions to sound combative; I'm genuinely interested in your take.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Peter,
Certainly one function of the gloss on this episode was/is to initiate the unread and bring the poor reader/viewer up to speed. So I don't think the Cliff's Notes analogy an entirely poor one.

But unlike some, these paratexts were never meant to become independent texts. (Genette distinguishes in definition between external texts that are at some point folded back into the text, such as, say Mary Shelley's introduction to the second edition of Frankenstein, and peritexts that always exist in the text, such as titles, introductions, footnotes, etc.)

It is the inclusion, then, of the explanatory gloss into the "text" of the television show that fascinates me. To use your literary metaphor, the "Lost" example seems to me akin not to the teacher saying it is okay to read the Cliffs Notes or even the teacher teaching the Cliffs Notes, but to the author or editor including the Cliffs Notes in his second edition, maybe in a page by page, side by side edition. Perhaps we might see something like this in a Norton Critical Edition...actually what it reminds me of is reading a critical edition of some article that has footnotes by the author and so the editors will have explanatory footnotes and then there will be a an explanatory footnoe and in brackets the editor will say something like ["author's note."]

On the television, it isn't even clear to me if this is the author's note or the editor's (i.e. studio's). I presume the latter. But then again, if the director/writer doesn't have final cut, then the question of whether or not the editor's footnotes are part of the text is pretty fuzzy.

peter said...

OK, now I understand what you mean. However, if this sort of thing becomes routine, I certainly hope they'll adopt something like the SAP function on the TV to turn it off!
You've probably never spent any time watching the music video channels (the ones that still actually show music videos, that is). One of them has a show where they run popular videos and superimpose email or phone text messages from viewers around the edges of the screen, apparently in real time, but probably edited on a short delay ("Lisa G., I love you! Foo Fighters Rock!", etc.) My great fear is that sooner or later narrative TV will take what Lost did to this next, odious, viewer-dictated level.

Elizabeth said...

I agree that "Lost" has seemed to lack direction, but the recent announcement of a definite end to the series (2010) gave me some hope that the writers/producers would create a more coherent plot.
And no dissing Buffy until you've actually watched it.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Well I wasn't dissing Buffy so much as the awed tones in which its fans speak of it, but point taken.

Russell Lucas said...

I saw the first five minutes of that episode of Lost, Ken. The reason the show is such a phenomenon is because the show is capable of being compulsively talked-about and speculated-about. What does this new development mean? What were the Dharma people doing? Are the rescuers good or bad? Of course, the internet creates all new outlets for this endless jibber-jabber, and that pop-up episode basically just inserted a bunch of internerd theories and tried to point out a bunch of clues, the meaning of which still hasn't been explained.

I started watching the show again after last season's finale, which showed that at least the show was going to go one better than The Prisoner, but it's just not a good show. It's intricately plotted for the sake of being intricately plotted, and without a single insight into the human condition.