Monday, July 13, 2009

Different Mechanisms of Coherence?

Do we know how to measure different mechanisms of coherence? I've been pondering this question in response to a silly prompt: in a beautiful Minneapolis theater this weekend, I watched for the umpteenth time Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the antics of Terry Gilliam's animation revived my interest in the possibility of differentiating between different ways to construct coherence.

A writer of fiction has some fairly obvious tasks involving coherence. In constructing narratives, the writer asserts the coherence of plot, of landscape, of character — to hold the story together, whether subtly or with great flourish. The opposite may appear to be an exercise of much less coherence — loosely coherent pieces often read as if mechanisms of coherence are exercised less vigorously — as if, for example, in non-fiction, the writer has relied more on correspondence with the topic in question to structure the text, or in any kind of writing, as if a kind of incoherence is pressing outward on the coherence, perhaps as if the text is following closely a winding thread of thought rather than reflecting an orderly thought imposed on that text. Competing claims of correspondence make what might be carefully constructed narrative edifices loosen a bit, perhaps seem haphazard.

Correspondence is the organizational schema usually posited in opposition to coherence. Correspondence is defined by similarity to that represented — verisimilitude rather than integrity, perhaps: detail competing with overview; complicated maelstrom of contradiction and ambiguity versus simple elegant form. But it could be argued that correspondence and coherence may pull each other together, binding meaning with supports that resemble a mixing of the methods we might associate with each. These sentences, for example, could be said to show both coherence and correspondence: they both hold together under a set of closely aligned themes while also pulling apart to follow and allow space for meanders of thought.

In some ways, the antagonism between coherence and correspondence might be said to have something like an inoculating function: when one comes up against the opposition of the other, in order for the text to still read well, the first must get stronger (or the second must accurately gauge and adjust to the strength of the first). This might have the effect that something as incoherent seeming as a scene from the last James Bond movie (reviews of which in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times featured the descriptor "incoherent") can afford its local incoherence, and even indulge inane preoccupation with choreographed correspondence precisely because it inhabits such a strongly coherent Bond aesthetic frame that local coherence has room to relax.

And Terry Gilliam might be the contrast: he appears to be driven by such pressing correspondence as to break into explicitly random-seeming imagery at any provocation ("and now for something completely different ...") However, these apparently incoherent streams of imagery that follow far-reaching associative lines of thought engage these lines of thought with an unexpectedly precise coherence that beautifully composes bizarre gibberish into hyperactive coherence. This is, of course, the nature of the idea play that defined the term "pythonesque" — and it may provide some insight into the interactions of different mechanisms of coherence.

Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin (1975). Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

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