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Forum 2: Discourses on Diegesis

~ On the Relevance of Terminology ~


To complete the section of this issue dedicated to the cinema proper, we have a forum addressing an ongoing debate regarding the continuing relevance of the term diegesis and its attendant distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic sound. This forum arose out of various discussions that have taken place on the sound-article email list hosted by filmsound.org, the now legendary site created by Sven E. Carlsson which has become the internet’s foremost resource on matters of film sound. These discussions were often founded upon a basic split between theorists and practitioners, the latter generally feeling that this terminology is of little value in the actual making of films. Many such practitioners expressed the idea that such terminology is strictly the domain of academics who like to use elitist jargon while over-interpreting their objects of scrutiny. I can certainly understand where such sentiments might stem from. I have no problem believing that industry film sound people don’t use the terms diegetic and non-diegetic while working on their projects. And I certainly have no problem agreeing that some academics are guilty of throwing jargon around unnecessarily. Yet as an academic who also practices the art of sound recording and mixing (though admittedly on a non-professional level), I can’t help but think there is some value in holding onto the terminology founded upon the concept of the diegesis.

So I invited opinions on the matter from members of the sound-article list and beyond. The resulting forum presents five takes on this terminology and its usefulness to the theory and practice of film sound. Henry M. Taylor kicks things off by reminding us that the use of this terminology in film theory has been somewhat misappropriated from its origins, while ultimately conceding that its successful adaptation has earned it a vibrant place amongst film scholars, clearly illustrating its continued relevance. We then follow with three essays that point to interesting areas of film sound that this terminology helps us to flesh out: Martin F. Norden examines the role of diegetic sound as provider of narrative commentary, a role that belies its often perceived status as indifferent part of the story world; Mark Kerins asks how the auditory construction of the diegesis has changed in the era of multi-channel sound; and I postulate what value there might be in distinguishing between two kinds of diegetic sound not often discussed. And the last word goes to Academy Award-winning sound designer Randy Thom. He brings a view from the side of industry, taking a position that reflects the opinions held by many of the folks working as professional sound people: that this terminology simply isn’t needed when filmmakers discuss sound during the production process. However, he takes it one step further, offering up an intriguing hypothesis as to why the term is irrelevant when considering the actual uses to which film sound is so often put. As such, Thom crosses the boundary line between theorist and practitioner, ultimately suggesting that the reasons why sound designers don’t use these terms might well be the same reasons why theorists should put them to bed once and for all.

When all is said and done, this forum serves as an interesting view of the boundary that exists between film theorists and those who produce our objects of study. For some, these lines are not to be crossed. However, as many of the ideas presented in this forum suggest, there may yet be methods of reconciling the ways in which theorists and practitioners think about their work. In the end, perhaps issues of language need not stand in the way of celebrating those cinematic moments so enjoyed by theorists and practitioners alike.

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