Sequence refers to any fact or instance of succession. As our senses operate within space and time, it functions to inform and order our reality. Despite its fundamental role within perception, attempts at identifying an instance of sequence and its effects on the message is made difficult, if not in some cases impossible, by the infinite ways that an audience is able to perceive and order the abundance of data. In this essay, I will define and explain the production and interpretation of sequence across media, and its effects on the audience according to historically and culturally relevant texts.
Sequence, in its earliest use1, meant the notes sung on the last syllable of the Alleluia, before the Gospel. Upon its introduction into the Western liturgy, the sequence medium gained both tonal complexity and a linguistic dimension with its added length and lyrics, evolving as religious ritual and as a genre of music and poetry. Within the containment of a medium, sequence can be understood as the relationship of separate elements in a finite space or time, with its relevance to the audience dependent on the degree of fragmentation the medium permits. The function of sequence is highly form-specific—to draw out an extreme, sequence has no relevance in Marshall McLuhan’s electric light and its singular content. Comparatively, the comics medium with its highly disjointed content has been defined as “pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence,”2 or even more simply, as “sequential art.”3 In “Rhetoric of the Image,” Roland Barthes suggests that given scattered instances of information, the audience will always attempt to render order onto the events so as to produce a total and absolute meaning. In this way, the audience’s recognition of distinct elements both demands and produces sequence, and in turn, sequence provides a means for the audience to perceive and experience the elements as a whole.
McLuhan attributes the understanding of sequence as causal to the linearity of the written language where letters form meaning only in sequence, an understanding, McLuhan adds, that is heavily championed by Western communications despite its lack of natural or logical basis. Barthes, too, makes note that the text dominates over the image and its “discontinuous signs”4, precisely because of its “sequences of messages”5. It would follow then that the prominent discussion of sequence through history can be found in theories concerning written narratives. A notable case can be found in the Russian Formalist movement, where sequence is seen as a negotiation between story, the explicit presentation of content to the audience, and plot, the implicit linear order of the events. The structuring of the content is dictated by a conscious effort around specific formal traits. The tension between sequence and plot becomes a means to create a “making strange” of the order of events to create a meaning that the audience would have missed with a straight-forward telling. A similar understanding of form and function can be seen in visual art criticism. Sequence, as intended delineation of the audience perception, is both a means to create a meaning only possible within art, and a measure of the artistic merit of that created meaning.
Counter to the form-centric interpretation of sequence, Barthes attributed the realization of sequence to the audience, under the frames of prorairetic (usage of a “model of action [to] help readers place details in plot sequences”6) and hermeneutic (assumption of a problem/solution narrative formula) interpretation. Through such cultural codes, the audience automatically processes content from uncertain into identifiable order. As with function, the audience’s control over the sequence is also form-specific. For Barthes, the image medium presents no predetermined sequence, where as the text medium can and does direct both the pace and movement of audience’s perceptions. In interpreting any message, the audience is, practically and ideologically, anchored by the text to one specific progression, and thus, one specific meaning. This correlation of sequence and meaning in can be found Raymond Williams’ description of an evening of television:
I still cannot be sure what I took from that whole flow. I believe I registered some incidents as happening in the wrong film, and some character in the commercials as involved in the film episodes, in what came to seem—for all the occasional bizarre disparities—a single irresponsible flow of images and feelings.7
Williams’ experience indicates that the medium-determined sequence will automatically produce the effects of connectivity, regardless of author/audience intentions.
Both Barthes’ and Williams’ explanations confirm the existence of the tension between form and interpretation. The fact of sequence only denotes spatial or temporal relationship between the elements, but the perception of sequence connotes a contextual or logical relationship. As implied by Barthes’ notion of the hermeneutic reading, narrative mediums function on the expectation of sequence as implicit logic. Gilles Deleuze expands the effects of the formal /interpretational tension created by sequence as eventive instants Cinema I, and sequence as emotive change in Cinema II. Deleuze explains perception as the brain’s interaction with “images,” and sequence, as the order that in the “images” are processed. For Deleuze, the film medium presents the possibility of both reinforcement of and resistance against traditional sequential understanding because of its privileging of the movement (as produced by the illusion of continuous images) over the instant. Due to extended continuity in the audience perception, form-driven sequence, as established by frames of a comic, or sentences in a book, is supplanted by content-driven sequence that requires—and ideally, for Deleuze, challenges—both sensual and logical engagement from the audience.
Deleuze goes on to expand the usage of sequence in two ways, the movement-image and the time-image. The movement-image uses a sequence of actions, discerned by the audience as movements of “things” from a starting point to an ending point, and from the consequence, creates a dynamic of action-situation-action, or rarer, situation-action-situation. The relatively quick-paced nature of the movement-image allows for surprises and upsets, deftly demonstrated by the physical humor in Chaplin’s Modern Times. The viewer is astonished and delighted, when a punch is thrown and met with a kiss. If the viewer had no expectation that the second instance in the sequence should logically follow the first, the viewer would gain no amusement. In this way, the medium is manipulating sequence to drive audience reactions, and teaching them new expectations for space/time interactions.
Deleuze praises the abilities and innovations of the movement-image, but finds a much richer usage of sequence within the time-image for its representation of the message as open, rather than closed. The time-image uses the sequence shot, also known as the long take8, altering our perception of sequence and moving from the eventive into the emotive. The changes perceived by the audience come not from their relations with the action and plot, but shifts in moods as produced by their growing awareness of space and time. Deleuze argues that the time-image reinforces not only the connection between the audience and the film, but the connection of the audience to their experience of the film, because it:
transforms an empirical sequence… into a sequence of images, which tend in themselves in the direction of a limit, which orients and inspires the first image (the before) and gives away to another sequence organized as series which tends in turn towards another limit (the after). The before and after are then no longer successive determinations of the course of time, but the two sides of the power, or the passage of power to a higher power.”9
This openness of time, not as cause and effect, but as ongoing changes, creates an introspective dialogue between the audience and the implicit logic of the narrative. In this more fluid presentation of sequence, perception becomes creative.
For McLuhan, the movement of film was that towards “instant sensory awareness of the whole,” and with it, the awareness of sequence as created effect, rather than absolute logic. This marks the dawn of the move from mechanic to electric:
Mechanization is achieved by fragmentation of any process and by putting the fragmented parts in a series. Yet… there is no principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts for nothing… except change. The greatest of all reversals occurred with electricity, that which ended sequence by making things
With the advances of the electric age, McLuhan firmly states the elimination of sequence within the medium, but not the elimination of the experience of sequence within audience participation. Initially, I stated that the importance of sequence is in its production of meaning for the audience, and in tracing its uses in differing theoretical texts, I believe this holds true. The developing understanding of sequence within a medium, discussed above, emphasizes audience involvement in the constructions of a message’s meaning. Given that media studies must take in account the effects on an audience, understanding sequence is crucial.