Toward An Expanded Cognitive Theory of Spectatorship

by Robert David Simmons

USC School of Cinema-Television, Fall 1995,

served since December 13th, 1995.

Previous cognitive approaches to the spectator care only about narrative comprehension. Every cowboy and cowgirl knows there's more to viewing a film than that!

How can an understanding of cognitive architecture and contracting reveal more about the spectator experience?


Here are some helpful books and articles to get you on your way!

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wi., 1985. This text was important to the project in that it suggested a method of approaching narrative in fiction as an activity, with representational, structural, and procedural qualities. It also begins to theorize film viewing as an active, complex process that can be understood in terms of schema, or clusters of information utilized by the viewer in narrative comprehension. A key assertion made is that the narrative prompts the spectator into the act of comprehension.

Branigan, Edward. Narrative Comprehension and Film, Routledge, London, England, 1992. Branigan takes the relationship between narrative and cognitive theory further than does Bordwell, suggesting that the former is really a form of the latter. Narrative is really a way of organizing information according to Branigan; "narrative schema" structure information for active use in comprehending not just films, but the world itself. As is the case with the Bordwell book, this is geared more toward understanding narrative rather than spectatorship.

Fiske, Susan T. "Schemata-Based Versus Piecemeal Politics: A Patchwork Quilt, But Not a Blanket, of Evidence," from Political Cognition: The 19th Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition, editied by Richard R. Lau and David O. Sears, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J., 1986. This article begins with a cautious word about the dominance of schema-based cognitive approaches to political science. It not only helped to build a foundation for a similar critique made in my project of the application of cognitive theory to cinema, but it provides an outline for an alternative cognitive approach as well. It also addresses a critique of cognitive theory, that it cannot explain or incorporate affective or emotional responses to stimuli.

Iyengar, Shanto. "Shortcuts to Political Knowledge: The Role of Selective Attention and Accessibility," from Information and Democratic Processes, edited by John A. Ferejohn and James A. Kuklinski, University of Illinois, Urbana, Il., 1990. Easily one of the most important articles in the understanding of heuristics and biases specifically, and of decision making in general which is represented in this bibliography. Iyengar Makes some compelling arguments about the key issues surrounding information acquisition and use, backing up his assertions with well-crafted and critiques experimentation and data. Though highly specific in its focus, this is a piece of scholarship which yields very generalizable results.

Kinder, Marsha. Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games, The University of California Press, Berkeley, Ca., 1991. This book looks at schema formation in children and suggests that that children's entertainment focuses gender specificity upon its spectator/users. More so than Branigan, Kinder consciously places her analyses, including those rooted in cognitive theory, in the context of post-structuralism. The importance of this text to my project was in its articulation of the compatability of cognitive theory and post-structuralism, and in the general methodological versatility which is displayed throughout.

Lau, Richard R., David O. Sears. "Social Cognition and Political Cognition: The Past, the Present, and the Future," from Political Cognition: The 19th Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition, edited by Richard R. Lau and David O. Sears, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J., 1986. This is the capstone article to one of the two really useful anthologies on cognition in political science. Lau and Sears look at elements common to the pieces in the book, assessing the strengths and limitations of the cognitive approaches theorized and applied therein. They go on to speculate about what political science has to offer cognitive theory and vice versa.

Ottati, Victor., Robert S. Wyer, Jr. "The Cognitive Mediators of Political Choice: Toward a Comprehensive Model of Political Information Processing," from Information and Democratic Processes, edited by John A. Ferejohn and James A. Kuklinski, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Il., 1990. This article is from the other great political cognition anthology, and here Ottati and Wyer do an excellent job contextualizing cognition. Three consideration key to their understanding are that people have limited information processing abilities; that the cognitive operations performed on information may depend on the expected use of that information; and finally that emotional or affective responses can have a significant role in cognition.

Shohat, Ella, Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge, London, England, 1994. At one point, my project was going to attempt to theorize "race" as a cognitive construct in more than a cursory way, which is what led me to this book at the outset. I have not read the entire work, but two qualities stand out from the sections I have read; it is more than effective in working through issues of representation and stereotyping which were key to a case study used in my project, and as a superior piece of writing, it served as a distant goal for my more clumsy articualtions.

Tversky, Amos, Daniel Kahneman. "Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," from Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases, edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1982. Tversky and Kahneman are the champions of the "heuristics and biases" argument in cognitive psychology. It is from this work and those founded upon it that the assertions in my project most squarely rest. They suggest that the act of cognition be placed in the context of limited resources and time, an overabundance of information, and an uncertain environmental moment.