Basic understanding of the film ◆ secondary sources ◆ being real ◆ critical judgment ◆ time investment ◆ rhetorical and logical missteps ◆ "Beyond-First-Thoughts" ◆ "Content-rich" ◆ managing dialogue
Key terms introduced in this chapter:
- term slippage
Key terms mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:
- authoritative thought system
- bounded dialogue
- CDE report
- cultural context
- horizon of expectation
- interpretive projects
- narrowly defined topic
In an academic environment, basic credibility is already established through one’s employment position or because the work has been published through an academic process that has already checked a manuscript for credibility. However, high-level credibility is something that is always the result of winning challenges. Some of these are explicit challenges, such as when one scholar mounts an argument against another, but most are silent challenges, as the critical reader looks for weak spots in the work, weak spots that might cause more general doubts about credibility.
Once credibility is lost, the entire work, not just an aspect of it, loses credibility. In worst case scenarios (but, actually, all too frequently) the entire corpus of that scholar is called into doubt. In my field, as in most academic fields I would guess, there are those scholars who we generally tend to believe, those who we generally tend to dismiss, and those about whom we have yet to have a clear opinion but seek to know which one of the other two categories is the best way to think of that individual’s work.
These decisions are based on whether we think the scholar has good thinking skills (the arguments delivered in the work hold up under critical scrutiny), is well-informed (has read extensively in relevant, credible materials and learned from that reading), and takes care when producing work (time investment).
Since students do not have either the employment or publication record to already be considered credible, their credibility comes from the content of work that results from good argument, good research, and time investment. Yet, I smile for a moment thinking that a student could, reasonably, make the argument that the status of being a student at Berkeley is similar to that of being employed as an academic; in other words, the mere status of “Berkeley student” should be taken as proof of credibility. That argument is a pretty good one. I still want to talk about credibility.
23.1.1. Analysis begins with a basic understanding of the story or film
Analysis is not understanding the basics of a narrative in terms of what happened as well as the context in which the narrative was produced (about the author and other basic contexts relevant to the composition of the work). Analysis “begins” after (is founded on) this understanding.
However, if we are to talk accurately, basic understanding is entangled in analysis—one starts with a basic understanding but that is revised as analysis causes you to rethink the story and of course once the story is reconsidered that has a ripple effect through the analysis. There is no clear boundary between the two. For example, about the Japanese film Dolls (Doruzu, 2002), to say that “Nukui used the knife to hurt himself” will be a narrative element that is probably beyond doubt. If one instead says, “Nukui used the knife to hurt himself because he was in love” that is an interpretation, but one so obviously true (the vast majority of viewers of the film would agree) that it is close to basic knowledge rather than analysis.
Understanding the story is achieved first from viewing the film in full, attentively. Sometimes extensive thinking may also be required during the viewing or afterwards. This should lead to a more or less clear understanding of what happened. Of course, films are full of puzzles and mysteries, so in some areas of the film, one might only have a reasonably solid guess as to what happened. Alternatively, one might decide that the film intends to leave the narrative moment as ambiguous. Therefore, knowing the story well does not mean deciding everything—it means knowing what can be known and having reasonable opinions about the rest, including “this is just not meant to be known” or “this cannot be determined because the story-telling was flawed when ….”
However, films are stories told and emotions evoked through multimedia: image and sound, where the framing of the image, its lighting, camera angle, and image movement, let alone actual content which includes settings and costumes, are all key factors in delivering message. Sound includes the full range of qualities of the human voice, sound effects, and soundtracks (music). These enwrap themselves in the storyline, while actors and many others insert their interpretations as to what the content of the story should be through their various performances. Editors sweep through all this material to generate yet another level of essential features of the final product. “Reading” a film well includes attention to all of these features, as deemed relevant by you.
If, when someone reads your analysis, they believe you are unclear as to the very basics of the story, of course they will not believe your analysis either. The lack of clarity of basic content where there should be clarity is a deal-breaker.
23.1.2. Using secondary sources effectively begins with wise selection and an understanding of its key ideas
In many cases, your observations will have enhanced sophistication and credibility when they have been enriched with the ideas of others who have offered well-considered ideas via publications. These are called secondary sources. (An example of a primary source would be the film you have viewed, while a secondary source would be an academic article that has analyzed it.) Students sometimes try to lend authority to their essays by quoting sources. If these are not credible sources, there is very little value in doing this. Similarly, if they are credible sources but the content is not well understood by you, the most immediate result is that the reader concludes the analysis is casual or sloppy.
Given that, research should have the following three qualities.
184.108.40.206. The source is academically credible
In all my courses, the definition of “academically credible secondary sources” is that it meets one of these sets of criteria: a) that there is an identifiable author and you can independently confirm that author is qualified in the relevant topics, or, b) the work has been published in a refereed journal or academic press. The easiest way to confirm this second set of qualifying criteria is to use material that is part of an online academic repository such as JSTOR or eBrary, or use material from an academic library system.
These usually do not meet the course grading standard of “credible sources:”
- newspaper and general interest magazine articles
- website content with no obvious author, and
- blogs and similar content.
Commonsense and good critical judgment are involved regarding when the source needs to meet the credibility standard. It depends, in large part, on what the source is used for.
If the information is not central to your argument (such as whether The Tale of Genji was composed in 1008 or sometime shortly after 1020), you can be less diligent, although care is always welcome. Or, if the information you wish to quote is widely accepted, you either do not need a source at all or can quote from a more casual source such as Wikipedia. So, for example, if you write, “Premodern Japanese literature had a high regard for poetry” there is no need for a quote to support your claim but if you said, “Premodern Japanese literature exhibits a fetish for hibiscus flowers,” then any critical reader would definitely want to know your source for the claim, and, further, will scrutinize whether it is a credible one.
Finally, secondary sources should always be used with critical alertness. A source might be credible but still unconvincing or simply inaccurate in parts or in whole. In other words, just because it is published does not make it true. Proceed with a reasonable, but not paranoid, level of skepticism.
220.127.116.11. You understand what you are reading
Credible argument will easily indicate that you have understood the key ideas (not facts) of the relevant part of the secondary source that you are citing. This may be the whole article, or a chapter, or a subsection but it most definitely is more than the sentences you wish to quote and almost certainly more than just the single paragraph in which the quote resides.
18.104.22.168. You use the idea(s) effectively
This includes of course the basic course principle that I call the “over the shoulder” rule — that the author, looking over your shoulder as you use her or his work, would conclude that your use of the material is “fair and accurate.”
But, aside from this, the ideas should have some organic relationship to the flow of your argument. My preference is for limited quoting by the way, and a limited use of sources — one good source well understood easily brings greater sophistication to your work than a longer list of sources because I am inclined to believe they have just been gathered by a search engine and have little to do with the actual content of your work. In this particular case I am highly skeptical until you show otherwise by using the ideas meaningfully. Multiple quotes and long bibliography lists have little use in establishing credibility.
23.1.3. Being real in discussions and interpretive conclusions
When making assertions or considering possible analytic conclusions or when encountering those of your group members or other groups, ask yourself whether those assertions or conclusions just seem “real” as in the sentence, “Please be real” or, “Please be realistic.” In other words, the content should pass basic commonsense measurements that others will bring to bear on it in terms of its recognition of the realities of a situation. Since, ultimately, we are exploring narratives for the sake of understanding cultural communities, our goal is not to offer a delightful interpretation that is intellectually entertaining; it is to make a claim that seems well-grounded in considerations of the real world. This advice is related to the earlier discussion of “making sense” of a narrative. Both rely on your understanding of how the world works and how you think others, too, think the world works. And, as such, both are indeed vulnerable to judgment error due to *horizon issues.
On this note, I have one more observation to make: “Being real” includes being open to the pluralities of a situation. We place against this short-listing to increase the *shareability of a project, but this does not mean to simplify a situation for the sake of rhetorical power. We all know that simple messages are often the more powerful ones. Being real does not mean being powerfully simple, it means to take care not to get lost in the intellectual intricacies or pleasures of constructing an argument, to continually ask, instead, whether the observations and conclusions line up well with the “real” world.
23.1.4. Critical judgment
When one has lost a sense for offering observations and conclusions that line up well with the real world, the consumer of the analysis will judge the thinking process as dangerously unrealistic. If the point is just to explore various theoretical positions or walk the very pleasant avenues of high-discourse argument, this is just fine. But when it is tied to making assertions about actual *cultural contexts, it is not. The consumer will step away from your conclusions—your thinking processes, themselves, have lost credibility. Similarly, the consumer will be evaluating your ability to use good crucial judgment.
In particular, you need to show good critical judgment:
- in how you expand your knowledge through credible research and knowing when that research is needed,
- in the selection and use of sources,
- whether you have reread your own work and adjusted it to edit out those areas where you unnecessarily drifted off topic or made unreasonable claims,
- and so on.
For example, you can use a blog as evidence of an individual’s perception of a film, and probably you can even use it with some care as representative of how many viewers might be reacting to a film, but you cannot use it as authoritative analysis of the film.
23.1.5. Time investment
This was introduced earlier as part of the principle of credibility. It is important enough, in my opinion, to locate it in the section on basic principles, not here.
23.1.6. Rhetorical and logical missteps
22.214.171.124. “Overreach” “Overextension” “Sweeping conclusions”
“Overreach” refers to observations or conclusions that are broader or more assertive than is warranted. Credibility is derived from the reader’s perception that you are more interested in descriptive accuracy than proving a point and that you understand the justifiable reach of your claim, no more. You might hear me also call these “sweeping conclusions.” In the Japanese film Patriotism (Yukoku, 1966), the young officer kills himself while he lovingly thinks of his wife.” This is an accurate statement. The implausible extension follows: “Japanese have an unusual connection between the sword and romantic love.” It is good to resist the urge to add importance to your observations by presenting them as relevant beyond credible limits. Small conclusions in this course that are derived from the disciplined use of the method are all that is needed. This way of thinking is similar to the idea that many small laboratory experiments, carefully done but each limited in scope, collectively work toward larger scientific discoveries. Of course, ours is not a science, nor do we continue over the years to collect data and make larger conclusions. But I respect that method in its fundamental integrity towards the analytic process and have adopted it for this course even though, in terms of the big picture, we make very little progress toward describing the cultural terrain of our *East Asian countries. But we do, nevertheless, discovery many interesting things along the way.
126.96.36.199. “False equivalence claims”
In the formal terminology of logic, this is a type of association fallacy. In our class, “false equivalence claims” appear most frequently in the following type of scenario. Imagine a student who is being a little over-enthusiastic in tracing the *cultural context for an *instance back to a *traditional *worldview or *value and asserts that there is Daoism in the video short “High-Five.” The student uses this argument:
Observation: The female protagonist Heidi, seems interested in things psychic.
Logic step: Things psychic are like things mystical.
Logic step: Daoism has a mystical part.
Conclusion: There is Daoism in the video short.
My comment: The first observation is solid but the first logical step is a loose equivalence that cannot be carried forward so easily. The second logical step overemphasizes an aspect of Daoism simply to set up away to get to the conclusion.
Observations: The mother, Megumi, at the center of the Japanese film Tokyo Sonata (Tokyo Sonata, 2008) has a pretty tough life taking care of her family.
Reformulation: The mother is suffering.
Logic step: Buddhism teaches that all life is suffering.
Conclusion: Buddhism is a relevant *cultural context for this film.
My comment: Buddhism may well be a relevant *cultural context but there will need to be more to support this claim than is offered so far. It is unlikely that the *authoritative system itself is present. Thinking should circle around whether this is a *fragment of Buddhism, or a *derivative that has become something as simple and modern as “life is hard.”
188.8.131.52. “Term slippage”
The second is avoiding “*term slippage.” “*Term slippage” is an undisciplined exploration of an idea. (If done on purpose, which is exceptionally common in rhetorical arguments, it is a sly rhetorical move.) Here is an example of unintentional term slippage:
In L for Love L for Lies (Hong Kong, 2008), beauty and grace are the most important feminine values. Ah Keung falls for Ah Bo because of her kind and trusting nature.
This writer is implying that the personality traits “beauty and grace” are the same as the personality traits “kind and trusting.” This may or may not be true, but to slip from one set to the next raises confusions we do not want. It also making an argument simply by association which is unconvincing.
The other essential component of other-oriented analysis besides producing credible work is that it should be interesting. “Interesting” when used in this course as an adjective to describe expected qualities of results from *interpretive projects means these three things:
- It should be interesting to you because otherwise the work will not be high-quality and you cannot evoke interest from others.
- It should be accessible to others in terms of clarity (of concept, verbal expression, and overall presentation), concise, and have good organization of contents. Readers will not bother to push through poorly presented material.
- It offers ideas that others find stimulating or useful.
It is not always possible for these three to all be present in any given project but it is certainly the aspirational goals that they are, and the best work will meet these expectations.
Above all, your analysis is interesting to others in the course when it is relevant to the class project at hand (either in specific terms such as a *narrowly defined topic on which everyone is working or general terms such as the course interest in exploring the status of *traditional *worldviews and *values). Beyond this fundamental precondition, your *interpretive projects are interesting, in part, because you invested time that others can then benefit from, you offered interpretations that are rich in specific content rather than vague ideas, and the results have benefited from lively and diverse discussion (when group work) or extensive consideration from multiple angles (when individual work) of the topic. I would like to comment briefly on each of these.
23.2.1. Time-investment: The “Beyond-First-Thoughts” standard
There are many ways that *interpretive projects benefit from time investment. How the investment of time enhances credibility was discussed earlier under principles. In that context it meant the time invested in doing research, assembling one’s ideas, and giving everything a “one more time” critical review to check for weaknesses in the content.
Here, I want to consider something a little different. This is the time invested in the early moments of encountering an idea (either spoken by someone else, read, or just arises in the mind). As a biological entity, we are designed to respond quickly to danger. For example, sound stimulus is processed in various ways but the fastest of these pathways (the primary auditory pathway) takes the stimulus from the ear directly to the brain stem, so that we can react to a dangerous situation that split-second more quickly.
Well, new ideas are not threats to run away from and we should not dispose of them with this sort of reflexive, quick reaction. As you have probably gathered by now, I am highly suspicious that one’s initial first reactions to a situation are built on *models already in the mind, not a cognitive review of what is actually at hand. The “*Beyond-First-Thoughts” standard is, above all, meant as a subversive breaker of this instinctive rush to decide the meaning of something. Ask yourself: “Is the position I am taking right now just based on common sense or common values?” That will be useful to know. It may still be the best position but it is good to know first the source of your initial analytic judgment. After that initial check, the real analysis begins, following this guideline: “Okay, I think I know what I am dealing with now. Is there something I can say that wouldn’t just as easily occur to others, so there is no real point in saying it? How can I carry my thoughts a bit further, to offer something a little more perceptive or insightful?”
So, simply put, the “*Beyond-First-Thoughts” standard means not jumping to conclusions and exceeding in interpretive or analytic value what an average reader could have done on her or his own. When a reader reacts, “Yeah, yeah, I already know that,” then she or he does not find your work interesting. When that reader thinks, “Oh, I haven’t thought about it in that way, let’s see if I agree ….” then it is interesting to that reader. And, if the reader finds the idea credible, it is probably useful, too.
One final comment. In the spirit of practicability, clearly this is not a process you can do for every step along the way. Develop a sense for when this extra effort is needed.
23.2.2. The “Content-Rich” standard
“The analysis should be content-rich.” “Your response will be graded on whether it is content-rich.” “This was topical, not content-rich, as a description.” I use “*content-rich” in a wide variety of situations and in nearly all grading rubrics. For this reason, I have put more than the usual length of discussion of the term in the key concepts and terms part of this book.
Imagine a conversation between “a certain parent” and “a certain daughter:”
“How was your day at school.”
This is not content-rich. In fact, the “certain parent” wants to know how the day’s test went. The daughter is saying, “You don’t get to ask about the test, okay?”
Here is a simple set of three dialogues. The first uses a general category word and is not content-rich. The rest are at increasing levels of richness either in specifying reasons or spelling out the specifics of the emotions. The appropriate level depends on the situation:
“What did you think of the film?”
“I didn’t like it.”
“What did you think of the film?”
“I didn’t like it. I felt the portrayal of the main guy was unrealistic.”
“What did you think of the film?”
“I started out liking it. But gradually I lost interest because the main guy just didn’t make sense to me.”
“What did you think of the film?”
“I started out liking it. But gradually I lost interest because the main guy just didn’t make sense to me when he said ‘No’ to his daughter. The rest of the film seemed to suggest a different sort of man. That part didn’t fit and that began to bother me a lot as the film progressed.”
And so on.
When a description is generic or topical rather than including the specifics, using adjectives with broad, non-specific meaning (“good”), it is not *content-rich. The principle of shareability means we collect the results of our thoughts and deliver them in a way that shares those results. We are duty-bound (that is, it is a course requirement) to be “*content-rich” in our sharing.
Achieving *content-rich expressions is not easy for several reasons. First, of course, we need to actually have thoughts on the topic. Second, we need to notice when we are using words that we think are obvious as to the unspoken details when shared (“I hate uncooked shrimp.”) but from the listener’s side are not as obvious (“Why?? That is one my favorite types of sushi!”). Third, writing *content-rich prose is definitely more time consuming.
Again, as with the “*Beyond-First-Thoughts” standard, the practicability principle is in play here. I think you should always ask whether what you are about to say or about to write, or what you have written (that is, during a critical reread of your writing) is *content-rich. I think having this question on your mind very frequently is good analytic practice. However, if you are holding back from sharing in a conversation because of this principle, you are killing the essential reason for having a discussion. Just plunge ahead with your comment. Others can ask if they do not understand. And if everything you wrote was *content-rich it would be impossible to finish and would over-burden the reader.
Given these considerations, I think the guiding principle here might be something like: “Try to be somewhat more *content-rich than you are used to being. Definitely make *content-rich statements at key moments in the report or discussion. Try to remember that others may be slower at understanding you than you think.”
23.2.3. Lively dialogue, bounded dialogue
A core assumption behind the design of this course is that it is through discussion with others that one learns new information as well as discovers the flaws in one’s own thinking. The best environment for these two things to happen is when a variety of thoughtful individuals are freely sharing their knowledge and opinions. The *course method, as a method, is meant to arrive at a few interpretive conclusions that might be interesting or useful to others. But, as a group process, what in fact happens is that all sorts of random details arise along the way. Many if not most of the details will not find their way into a report and yet they can be some of the most informative in terms of the project of this course when writ large: learning about the cultures of our *East Asian countries, as perceived by actual people, not as abstractions.
So, there is a tension between *bounded dialogue that keeps a discussion focused and random discoveries that are out-of-bounds in terms of the method or topic at hand. It is for this reason that there is an “R” in the *CDE report. That is where the intriguing random things that popped up in the discussion can find a home.
Discovery can be simply the result of good research or good listening or even just good thinking. But there is an aspect of discovery—and this is definitely the case for “insight”—that cannot be planned. It can be invited by some disciplined thinking and process, but ultimately it is something that cannot be forced to happen. Lively discussion will strike a successful balance between being “on topic” and “off topic” / “within the bounds of the method” and “ignoring the method.”
Lively discussion is grounded on good preparation. When you arrive to a meeting having done research and some initial thinking you bring a substantive value to the meeting. You might be very intelligent and able to comment on the ideas of others, yes, but the course visualizes that you do more than be a commentator on the work of others. You, too, bring work to the meeting.
That being said, the key elements needed for lively discussion are interpersonal ones—on the one hand, the group honors and elicits the contributions of each member, and, on the other, each member makes the effort to offer something. It is a two-way process of inviting contribution and overcoming hesitation about contributing. Some aspects of this are:
- Second language issues should be respected.
- Different thinking should be given a fair place in the discussion. (It does not mean that every observation is true, just that every observation should not be treated dismissively but instead receive fair consideration first.)
- A friendly environment evokes the free flow of ideas.
- One should take care not to dominate the discursive space. Speak, but also listen. And “winning” the discursive space is not the point. What “winning” looks like is a group with a rich and various array of ideas on the table for consideration.
- Goal-oriented process that suppresses the exchange of ideas (“We need to get this done”) can kill some of the best moments of discovery or insight. Allow time. Insight in particular seems to be a function of “enough time”—although admittedly I am speaking unprofessionally. I have never formally studied what makes insight possible.
- The outside world (other working groups) is not forgotten. Group-think is far too easy to fall into. To help prevent this, you can imagine a critical outsider watching your group. Avoid consensus thinking or certainty of conclusion unless it really holds up to critical scrutiny.
- I wish to make this book recommendation: John Brockman, This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (Edge Foundation, 2013). It offers this as a summary of its contents: "Drawn from the cutting-edge frontiers of science, This Explains Everything presents 150 of the most deep, surprising, and brilliant explanations of how the world works, with contributions by Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Nassim Taleb, Brian Eno, Steven Pinker, and more." When I read this, it seemed to me that insight was a key element in all of these ideas. ↵