The Actness of the Enunciated Image: Notes for a Linguistic Anthropology of Cinema

Conférence de Constantine V. Nakassis de l’université de Chicago dans le cadre de l’ARAL (Atelier de Recherche en Anthropologie du Langage) Cerlis, Université Paris Descartes.

Le 26 JUIN à 17h

Salle J536 (batiment Jacob, université Paris Descartes, 45 rue des Saints-Pères, Paris)


At the birth of structuralism in film studies, the question of ‘film language’ and the analogy of linguistic analysis to film analysis was already decreed problematic by its primary advocate, Christian Metz. And while semiology has largely atrophied as a topic in American film studies, and the analogy to language/linguistics has been repudiated, a number of scholars—primarily European—continued to engage the analogies between language and film through appeal to the pragmatics of speech, in particular, by taking up Émile Benveniste’s concept of enunciation. Yet while enunciation for Benveniste focused on (how language indexed) the actness of utterances (as lexicalized and grammaticalized in deictic form classes) and how speech “does things with words,” in theorizing filmic enunciation, film scholars such as Christian Metz, André Gaudreault, Francesco Casetti and others have focused on Benveniste’s distinction of histoire and discourse and its relationship to deixis (or rather, personal pronouns). Based on this, Metz and others argued for the impersonal, machinicnature of enunciation in film and (wrongly) its fundamental difference from the personal, presentist nature of enunciation in linguistic discourse. Unfortunately, to my mind, in doing so such work turned towards the question of filmic narrative and textuality, and their theorization in literary studies, and away from questions of the contextualized social action enabled by cinema.

In this paper, through a number of examples from the Tamil cinema of south India, I discuss the question of the performativity of images and the act(ness) of filmic enunciation. Drawing on linguistic anthropological discussion of the metapragmatics of efficacious action in speech and multimodal ritual, Austin’s discussion of linguistic performativity, and Goffman’s deconstruction of the speaker and hearer (viz. his discussion of participation frameworks and production formats), I revisit Benveniste’s notion of enunciation and follow the (deictic) path not taken in film studies. I argue that rather than leading us ‘into’the (storied) filmic text—as seemingly sui generis and autonomous, impersonal and machinic—Benveniste’s discussion leads us ‘outwards’ into events of cinematic semiosis. Such a shift in orientation demonstrates how the personal or impersonal nature of cinematic enunciation is not a medium feature but a situated, semiotic achievement; it is an empirical question and, as we see in the Tamil cases discussed, deeply political in nature. This points up the deeply ideological (and methodological) blinders that have beset much film theory while pointing to a productive avenue to non-reductively rethink language and cinema, and thus linguistic anthropology and film studies, together.

Constantine V. Nakassis is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Associate Faculty in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in semiotics, mass media and film theory, intellectual property, and youth culture; his regional focus is Tamil Nadu, India. He is the author of Doing Style: Youth and Mass Mediation in South India (2016, University of Chicago Press) and is currently working on a book about the ontological politics of the Tamil cinema of south India, entitled Onscreen/Offscreen. For more information and publications, see

Citer ce billet
Cécile Canut (2019, 5 mai). The Actness of the Enunciated Image: Notes for a Linguistic Anthropology of Cinema. SOCIOLINGUISTIQUE POLITIQUE. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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