This entry was posted on March 18th, 2013

Por Adelmo Dunghe

What is necessary, therefore, is the semiology of the

language of action or, in simplest terms, of reality.

(Pasolini, “The Written Language of Reality”, 204)

Most semioticians believe that a language is a self-contained semiotic system that can be used to communicate human experience, and that this communication exists within the limits of our language. Pasolini asserts that reality itself–or at least the reality we perceive–is a semiotic system.  “It seems to me,” he says, “that the first language of men is their actions.  The written-spoken language is nothing more than an integration and a means of such action.” (Ibid).

Existing as we do within the processes of language, humanity has created spoken and written systems through which symbols such as words and phrases serve to represent and to circumscribe our experience of reality. It is these language systems that maintain humanity’s history, culture, and tradition. With the advent of motion picture and sound reproduction (“audiovisual technique” is Pasolini’s term), a new semiotic system has emerged.  It is a language that uses not only words and phrases to represent reality:  it is a system in which reality is represented by photographic images–that is, by reality itself.

Pasolini’s attempts to define cinema as “the written language of reality” began in 1965 at the Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema in the Italian town of Pesaro.  There he joined Christian Metz, Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, and other theorists in the first of a series ofseminars and panels that would ultimately result in the establishment of Semiology, or Semiotics, as the dominant discipline of academic film study.  In their initial studies of human language and symbol systems, focusing primarily upon the “reality” of the cinematic image, these pioneer semioticians had begun to explore the nature of the cinema as a sign system.

Foremost among them was Metz, whose grande syntagmatique du film narratif (1966) would provide an influential model for the systematic analysis of films. Metz recognized cinema as only an art form with its own special vocabulary, not as the “strongly organized code” (Barnett, “Introduction” to Heretical Empiricism xxiii) which constitutes a true language.  In essence, Metz adopted the terminology of linguist Ferdinand de Saussure to differentiate between langue, a language system with its own clearly delineated rules of organization, and langage, a language of style (i.e., a jargon), characteristic of an art form, which may contain its own set of structural rules but which lacks a formal vocabulary or proper grammar. The language-like regularities of any art form, Metz argued, are the result of artistic practices and traditions, not the formal grammar of a language system.  It was primarily in response to Metz that Pasolini wrote his 1966 essay defining cinema as “The Written Language of Reality.”

In taking it upon himself to defend the cinema as a genuine langue in its own right, Pasolini realized that his task would be to outline a “‘General Semiology’ which,” he claimed, “for the time being doesn’t exist . . . [a] semiology [which] is the descriptive science of reality.” (Pasolini “Observations on the Sequence Shot” 236).  Within this “descriptive science,” Pasolini would discover, an understanding would be required not only of the codes by which human individuals observe, experience, and attempt to understand the world around them, but of those individuals themselves–thinking, feeling, and, significantly, dying.  Integral to this semiology, he argued, would be a recognition of cinema as langue.

a.  “The Linguistic Mode” and the Language of Action

“As semiotics struggled to achieve legitimacy,” writes James Monaco, “it clung tightly to the accepted patterns of the study of linguistics that had preceded it” (Monaco, How to Read a Film 340).  Reflecting upon the earliest years of film semiotics, the decade of the 60s in which Pasolini and Metz wrote their contrasting studies, Umberto Eco recalls a time dominated by “the overevaluation of the linguistic mode” (ibid.).  During this stage in the evolution of film semiotics, the focus for Metz, Pasolini, and others was montage, the art of film editing, which does bear striking similarities to verbal language. The arrangement of images into shots, shots into sequences, sequences into scenes in the construction of all “film texts” seemed to necessitate a scientific study of “film language”–for Metz the jargon and methodology of an art form (langage), for Pasolini a full-blown language system (langue).

Pasolini identifies his argument with Metz as threefold.  First, he accuses Metz and other theorists of regarding cinema as an art form like any other.  While Pasolini admits that cinema certainly should be regarded as an art, he feels that Metz does not take sufficient account that cinema is an art form from whose familiarity and practice a set of “conventional processes” has arisen, rendering it in another sense “only a ‘written’ language” (“The Written Language of Reality” 200).  In this latter sense, Pasolini refers strictly to “audiovisual technique” (ibid. 197), a term under which Pasolini also would include the medium of television, as opposed to individual films, just as semioticians would isolate the notion of “written language” from that of specific novels, poems, essays, etc.

Second, Pasolini criticizes Metz for labelling the cinematic image an “impression of reality” (ibid. 200), when, by the medium’s very nature, each audiovisual image presents a view of reality itself.  Metz holds that because what the film image displays does not (and cannot) occupy the same space as the film spectator, one does not in viewing a film experience reality itself but an “impression of reality.” In viewing the series of moving images that is cinema, Metz goes on to say, the spectator’s “impression of reality” suffers a radical displacement, becoming folded into a narrative process (Metz’ term is “diegesis”), a fictional “story world of denotation” that is not the real–impressions aside. Contrary to this argument, Pasolini maintains that, narratives aside, just as written language puts the reality of human speech into a code of writing, so the reality of human action may likewise be “written” in the language of audiovisual technique.  It is from objects which exist within reality that the audiovisual image is constructed, and these objects are what constitute the “smallest units” of the cinematic language.

Third, Pasolini takes issue with Metz’ refusal to delve beneath the film image, or “shot,” which Metz insists is the smallest possible unit of film language. To Pasolini, it is from the objects which appear within a shot, objects existing within reality, that each audiovisual image is constructed, and it is therefore these objects which constitute the “smallest units” of the cinematic language. This latter point Pasolini considers to be the “most relevant” (ibid.), since it leads Pasolini to delineate what he sees as the grammar of the cinema–the organizing principle which seems to confirm that the cinema is indeed a language (langue) in its own right.

Pasolini begins this argument with Metz’ appeal to Andre Martinet’s theory of “double articulation.”  For the cinema to qualify as a langue, Metz writes, its structural components would have to be assembled on various levels of meaning.  In a verbal language, the smallest unit of distinction is the phoneme, one of a relatively limited number of verbal sounds that are the elements from which words are constructed.  Available to us in an almost limitless number, words (or monemes) constitute the first level of meaning – and it is from these that phrases, sentences, and entire texts are constructed.

Without this “double articulation” of monemes and the phonemes down to which they can be reduced, Martinet writes, a system of symbols cannot be seen to constitute a language (langue).  In applying this criterion to the cinema, Metz refuses to regard cinema as a langue.  He takes it that the individual image (or shot) is the basic unit of meaning.  Sequences, scenes, and entire films are constructed by the combination of shots.  Metz considers the function of this basic unit to be always already a segment of discourse, a type of “sentence.”  The shot of a revolver always says minimally, “Here is a revolver.”  Metz does not conceive of any limited number of smaller units of distinction.  Although the shot does appear to correspond with the moneme, Metz does not perceive of any limited number of smaller units of distinction from which any given cinematic image may be composed.  So Metz concludes that there is no “double articulation” in the cinematic language.  Therefore, he argues, the cinema may be regarded as a langage but cannot be labelled a langue.

Pasolini insists that “it is not true that the smallest unit in cinema is the image.”  Rather, “there cannot be a shot composed of a single object: because there is no object in nature composed only of itself . . . No matter how detailed the shot, it is always composed of various objects or forms or acts of reality.” (ibid.).  Metz failed to recognize that within each shot are the individual objects, existing in nature, which combine to make up the image. To Pasolini, a shot never says only “Here is a revolver,” since within such a shot the spectator may also see a finger, a shirt cuff, a showcase, or some other object in relation to the revolver. Subsequently, “the various real objects that compose a shot,” and not the shot itself, “are the smallest unit of film language.” These smaller units Pasolini labels kinemes, corresponding with the phonemes of verbal language. Although there is a difference between the two–the actual number of phonemes in use within any language is extremely small while the number of kinemes in the world is virtually infinite–Pasolini emphasizes that both are “natural” and “obligatory” (ibid.).

Pasolini insists that both phonemes and kinemes are “natural.” Both share the “same characteristic of obligatoriness; we can only choose from among [those] that exist” (ibid. 201). Specifically, filmmakers cannot invent the objects that they elect to photograph, but must choose from among the objects of nature–the given small units of film language, the kinemes, which are not, in the first instance, cultural objects. While phonemes are the materially perceptible sounds produced by the human breath that our culture teaches us to shape and recognize as we grow to speak, kinemes are “the objects, forms, and acts of reality that we [can] perceive with our senses” (ibid.).  Just as one cannot speak without using phonemes, so one cannot make a film without the use of kinemes.

Pasolini further suggests that the natural affinity that humanity has for verbal language corresponds to the response which most spectators have to the “language of reality,” witness their natural recognition and understanding of reality in action.  He attempts to demonstrate how the language of the cinema may be seen as the “written” manifestation of human action and interaction with nature, just as written language serves to reproduce human speech. “All of life in its entirety,” he writes, “is a natural, living film . . . the linguistic equivalent of oral language in its natural and biological aspect” (ibid. 204).

Among the observations which emerge in Pasolini’s analysis of the cinema’s connection to written language are the anthropological implications which would go on to inform the larger part of Pasolini’s subsequent cinematic output. Holding that the cinema is a code as valid as any written language, Pasolini attempts to trace the pre-cultural linguistic roots of the “natural” human aptitude for cinema literacy. If oral language pre-dates written language–itself a continuum which retains certain aspects from primal times to the present–Pasolini suggests that the “written language of reality” (the cinema) must likewise bear traces of pre-cultural human experience, the “first and foremost language” of which Pasolini identifies as “action” (ibid. 213),  traces of which continue to shape the human mind.

“There is an entire world in man which expresses itself primarily through signifying images,” Pasolini writes.  “This is the world of memory and of dreams” (Pasolini “The Cinema of Poetry 168).  While written language and its grammar may trace their origins back to the language of human speech, he asks, where do the roots of the audiovisual language of the cinema lie?  To answer this, Pasolini looks to the “intended audience,” to the individual spectator who, like most people, is “accustomed to ‘read’ reality visually” (ibid.).

To Pasolini, every human experience is a “conversation between us and an environment which expresses itself through the images that compose it” (ibid.).  Just as the words we speak (in semiological terms, linguistic signs, or lin-signs) may be reconstructed by means of written language, so do each of us reconstruct the images of our experience (Pasolini calls them image signs, or im-signs) that enter our memory and our dreams.  “Every effort to reconstruct a memory,” Pasolini writes, “is a ‘sequence of im-signs’” (ibid.).  For Pasolini, it is in this natural human language of im-signs where the roots of any spectator’s aptitude for cinematic language may be found.  Pasolini regards the cinema to be an anthropological capacity rather than a cultural or technical innovation. Therefore, he says, “in a primordial sense,” there is no difference between a reconstructed memory and a film sequence.  Specifically, “an action of imagined reality and an action of imagined audiovisual language are exactly identical” (Pasolini “The Rheme” 289).

Applied to Pasolini’s grammar of the cinema, the im-sign corresponds to the shot, (generally) the cinematic equivalent of the moneme in verbal language.  This said, Pasolini notes that while our verbal language’s supply of monemes may to a large extent be “collected and enclosed in a dictionary,” the im-signs available to us can be contained only in “an infinite dictionary, as infinite as the dictionary of possible words” (“The Cinema of Poetry” 169).

Again, the difference between verbal language and Pasolini’s notion of the cinema as “the written language of reality” lies less in their natures than in their scope.  Just as the phonemes from which we are able to formulate words are extremely few in number compared to the limitless number of kinemes from which cinematic im-signs may be composed, so the dictionary of any given language’s vocabulary is small in comparison to the infinite number of im-signs imaginable.  While writers select most of their words–and the accepted usage–from the stock of conventional and organized signs contained in a dictionary (“from a shrine, from a protective sheath, or from some baggage”), filmmakers must extract the im-signs they utilize “from chaos, where they are nothing more than possibilities or shadows of a mechanical, oneiric communication” (ibid.).

Pasolini adds that while the writers’ task is the aesthetic one of extracting and arranging words with established denotations, connotations, and etymologies from their language’s dictionary (allowing that one may contribute to this stock of meanings by one’s usage or innovation), the filmmakers’ task is unavoidably “double,” since they must first “take the im-sign from the meaningless jumble of possible expressions (chaos), make its individual existence possible, and conceive of it as placed in a dictionary of meaningful im-signs (gestures, environment, dream, memory)” (ibid. 169-170).  In short, while the task of the writer is primarily aesthetic, the task of the filmmaker is both aesthetic and linguistic.

Cinema “obliges us to broaden our notion of language,” Pasolini writes. “Cinema does not evoke reality as literary language does; it does not copy reality like painting; it does not mimic reality like theatre. Cinema reproduces reality: image and sound! In reproducing reality, what does it do? Cinema expresses reality with reality” (Stack, ed., Pasolini on Pasolini 29).

Throughout his semiological writings, Pasolini repeatedly insists on the necessity of an as-yet-unwritten “General Semiology of Reality.”  This necessity is born of the desire to delineate a “General Semiology of the Cinema” which must include the realization that if “cinema expresses reality with reality,” then the linguistic and symbolic implications of reality itself must also be taken into consideration (Pasolini “The End of the Avant-Garde” 133).  “We… already have in our heads a sort of ‘Code of Reality,’” he writes. “It is through this unexpressed and unconscious code that we are made to understand reality, [and] that we also understand the various films” (Pasolini “Is Being Natural?” 238).  To Pasolini, not only do we recognize reality in any given film image, but what we see in that image “cannot be distinguished from reality” (ibid.).

Of major import in this regard is Pasolini’s observation, throughout his semiological writings, that the one basic characteristic of reality (at least as humanity has experienced it) is action.  “Human action in reality,” Pasolini writes, is the “first and foremost language of mankind.”  It is this action which, anthropologically, preceded both written and verbal language, and it is the human experience which first inspired humanity’s adoption of verbal codes.  In Pasolini’s words, “the linguistic remains of prehistoric man are modifications of reality due to the actions of necessity: it is in such actions that man expressed himself” (“The Written Language of Reality” 198).

To write a “General Semiotics of Reality,” then, would be to write of “the language of action…the language of the non-symbolic signs of the present” (“Observations on the Sequence Shot 234), or of “the linguistic characteristics of life understood as language” (“Is Being Natural?” 239).  And within any study of the semiology of reality as the language of action, Pasolini suggests, there would be “three fundamental chapters” (“The End of the Avant Garde 134), each of them based upon one of three different types of language, or “living syntagmas of [human] action” (“Is Being Natural?” 238), which humanity utilizes in relating to “the objective world.”  Specifically, these languages would include: “the one of physical presence, the one of behaviour, and the one of written-spoken language” (“The End of the Avant Garde” 134).

The Language of Physical Presence (or “physiognomy”) is one of appearance.  This is strictly analytical and non-interpretive, an empirical observation of shape, size, number, form, texture, colour, etc.  This is “the language of natural reality…[which] only produces data” (ibid.).

The Language of Behaviour, Pasolini writes, is “certainly…the most interesting and the most complex” (“Is Being Natural?” 238).  Pasolini subdivides this collection of “living syntagmas” into two categories: “the language of general behaviour” which would involve the “learned behaviour” of a given individual, as manifested through “his actions…his expressions…his words,” and indicating “his historical, social, and ethnic conditions” (ibid. 239), and “the language of specific behaviour” which “precisely defines this positioning in the most extremely concrete manner,” involving the actual (non-verbal) conventions of expression which a given social situation would seem to dictate.  Examples of this latter category of “specific behaviour” would range from the proper etiquette of a given social function to “religious representations, mimes, dances, theatrical productions…the languages in which man, to express himself, uses his own body, his own form.”  Pasolini connects this human “language of specific behaviour” to other “ceremonial acts…[of] the natural animal world: the peacock that fans his tail, the rooster that crows after coitus, the flowers that display their colours in a given season,” and concludes that “the language of the world is, in short, essentially a spectacle” (ibid.).”

The language of written-spoken language, as the formulation would indicate, involves all verbal (or “sign-dependent”) representations of reality.  This category would include all languages for which a dictionary could be reasonably complete (including, one would think, sign-language for the deaf), but where one draws the line between this category and certain aspects of “the language of behaviour” Pasolini does not here indicate.  Consider, for example, what Pasolini elsewhere refers to as “the ‘system of gestural signs’ that in actual oral communication is interwoven with and completes the system of linguistic signs” (“The Cinema of Poetry” 167).

It is somewhat perplexing is that Pasolini numbers his “written language of reality” (the language of the cinema) as one of the “representational, living languages” of his “language of specific behaviour” and not among the “written-spoken languages” (“Is Being Natural?” 239).  Elsewhere, in considering “a single system of gestural signs as the single instrument of human communication” (such as sign-language for the deaf), Pasolini claims:  “It is on such a hypothetical system of visual signs that the language of the cinema founds its practical ability to exist, its right to be conceivable as the result of a series of natural communicative archetypes” (“The Cinema of Poetry” 167-168). Taking a few steps backward in order to see this perplexity in perspective, we recognize that Pasolini’s “General Semiology of Reality” is also a “General Semiology of Humanity.”  If, as Pasolini maintains, “semiology is the descriptive science of reality,” then the object of his science (reality) must have a subject.  If “the world [is] language to be decoded” (Pasolini “Res Sunt Nomina” 256), then there must be an understanding of the “decoder” who lives (within) its reality.

b. Expressing Reality with Reality:  The Mortal Narrative

The implications of what Pasolini refers to as “the existence of a relationship of sensory perception with physical reality” (Pasolini “The Code of Codes” 278)–what he felt would serve to validate his notion of cinema as “the written language of reality”–drew Pasolini into dispute with other semiologists in the 1960s, specifically with Umberto Eco. Dismissing Pasolini’s claims, Eco wrote that while one of “the most elementary aims of semiology [is] to eventually reduce the facts of nature to cultural phenomena,” Pasolini “naively” attempts “to bring the facts of culture back to natural phenomena” (Eco quoted in ibid.).  What Eco did not understand, Pasolini responded, was that the problem lay not in what appeared to be Pasolini’s efforts to naturalize the cultural. Rather, Pasolini argued, the problem lay in Eco’s definition of language, an understanding of which can only be broadened by an appreciation of the cinema as language at its most basic: the language of human action.

Just as written language manifests human speech, the language that is cinema may be seen as the “written” manifestation of human action and interaction with nature.  And just as our affinity for verbal language is in our human nature, so does our response to the language of the cinema come to us naturally.  To interact with reality, whether in nature or on film, is to enter into discourse with an environment whose self-expression–or language–we perceive as images. (“Observations on the Sequence Shot” 236).  It is from the reconstruction of these images that our memories and dreams are comprised (“The Cinema of Poetry” 168).   Thus, as noted previously, “an action of imagined reality and an action of imagined audiovisual language are exactly identical” (“The Rheme” 289).

In writing of reality as a language which “connects with human action,” Pasolini observes, our first-order interactions with this reality initially suggest that human existence is a continuum without beginning or end.  Such notions as past, future, and history can only be imagined.  Only when taken out of lived reality can phenomena appear to have beginnings, middles, and endings.  This is how we read them in our imaginations, and this is how they are crafted into films.  But for Pasolini, this also is what happens in our individual lives (“Observations on the Sequence Shot” 236).

Just as an “action lacks…meaning until it has been completed,” Pasolini writes, so as long as a human life has a future, that person remains “unexpressed.”  While we are alive, our individual existence is “a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations and meanings without resolution” (ibid.).  “A life,” Pasolini reflects, “can be completed and truly deciphered only after death” (“Is Being Natural?” 242).  While engaged in the continuity of reality, we have no ultimate meaning.  Once people die, the “editing” begins, the significant moments of their lives may be considered in sequence, and the passage of time between them dismissed or excised.  A life becomes a whole in and through a process of memory and imagination.

In light of this, Pasolini says, the author of a poem, a novel, or a film “inhabits death rather than life” (Pasolini “The Unpopular Cinema 268) because he or she dares to bring parts of reality to imaginative completion.  As an aspect of our physical presence within the continuum of reality, nature gives us an “instinct of self-preservation,” but Pasolini recognizes within authors (and in all people who may share with them such ideas as “liberation”) an equally natural but contrary instinct (from the “unknowable depths of our spirit”): “the desire to die” (ibid. 267).

Pasolini associates the quest for meaning and the quest for freedom with a subject who

“enjoys his . . . freedom to die” (ibid. 269).  Does this imply that an author must be suicidal? On the contrary, the author loves life and uses his medium and its language to both challenge others and “keep the code vigorous” (ibid. 273).

“If we then speak of works by an author,” Pasolini writes, “we must consequently speak of the relationship between author and intended recipient as a dramatic relationship between democratically equal individuals.”  Himself a poet, author, and filmmaker, Pasolini regards any given spectator as “merely another author” who “codifies the uncodifiable act performed by the author.”  Sharing a “common, average language,” both author and spectator together enjoy the awareness of each other’s freedom (to die), and in sharing this freedom each of them “objectifies and recognizes the unobjectifiable and the unrecognizable by means of sympathy.”  In their mutual encounter with a text, both author and spectator enter into a sadomasochistic relationship where both are “wounded” for each other’s enjoyment–but the implications here are much greater (ibid. 269-270).

As we have seen, Pasolini maintains that the act of creating any text is an act of revolt

against the innate human instinct of self-preservation. He is sensitive to the natural human desire to keep on living in the face of inevitable death, but the freedom exercised by an author in choosing to transform life into a text is an exercise of human freedom, that is, “the freedom to choose death.”  This, he says, is because only in death is the sum total of any life’s actions brought to a conclusion. Therefore, by engendering lives on the page or screen, an author “inhabits death rather than life.”

For Pasolini, the “chaos of possibilities” without definitive meaning that characterizes human reality, is what most of us prefer to the “autolesionistic” suffering of the authors among us. In fact, it is in this exercising of their “freedom to choose death” that authors satisfy the needs of their equals–the readers and spectators.  As Pasolini writes, “The specific liberty of the spectator consists in ENJOYING THE FREEDOM OF OTHERS.”  Hence, the sadomasochistic relationship in which “the negative and creative freedom of the author is brought back to the feeling–which it would like to lose–of the freedom of the spectator” (ibid).

As Pasolini acknowledges, there are, of course, different categories of spectators. The “overwhelming majority” are those for whom the appropriation of a text “scandalized, withheld itself, laughed, screamed, in short, covered the authors with the shame that they were explicitly demanding” (ibid 270-271).  Pasolini’s ideal spectators or readers, however, are those “democratically equal individuals” who respond to the authors’ efforts by sharing in the authors’ desire to “inhabit death.” This second type of spectator, Pasolini indicates, “codifies the uncodifiable act performed by the author who invents, inflicting on himself more or less serious wounds, and in this way asserting his right to choose the contrary of his prescriptive life and to lose what life orders him to save and preserve” (ibid. 269).

To dare to “inhabit death,” to abandon all thoughts of self-preservation, to freely join one’s memories and hopes to the expectation of an irrevocable ending, this is Pasolini’s notion of the relationship between authors and their ideal spectators.  Yet for Pasolini, this autolesionistic encounter may also point to something more profound.  As indicated in other of his semiotic writings, particularly “The Cinema of Poetry” (the subject of my related article, “Pasolini’s Semiotics of the Sacred”), this mutual loss of self within a film narrative may also be a way into a higher realm.  For the author, as well as for the ideal spectator, Pasolini suggests, the act of transgression that a film text’s configuration represents may become, in the text’s refiguration, a means of seeing beyond life’s “chaos of possibilities.”  The exploration of this prospect would become one of Pasolini’s major challenges as a filmmaker throughout the last decade of his life.

In the appropriation of a film text, Pasolini holds, we temporarily inhabit a world assembled from the observed reality of an author, and from that world we emerge with our own reality both challenged and increased. Furthermore, in bringing our own experiences and beliefs to those present in the configured text, we are able to contemplate our narrative identities and, in the face of inevitable death, it may be possible for us to rise above the limits of time and space to see ourselves in new ways.  For Pasolini, then, the act of reading a text in “the written language of reality” may ultimately be seen as an act of transcendence.


Barnett, Louise K., ed.  Heretical Empiricism.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.  Translations by Louise K. Barnett and Ben Lawton of the following essays by Pier Paolo Pasolini:  “The Written Language of Reality” (1966), “The Unpopular Cinema” (1970), “Observations on the Sequence Shot” (1967), “The Cinema of Poetry” (1965), “The Rheme” (1971), “The End of the Avant-Garde” (1966), “Is Being Natural?” (1967), “Res Sunt Nomina” (1971), “The Code of Codes” (1967).

Stack, Oswald, ed.  Pasolini on Pasolini.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Monaco, James.  How to Read a Film: The Art, Technology, Language, History and

Theory of Film and Media.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.