For those who study cinematography or directing, the Kuleshov effect is the way that the context of film shots gives more detail than the shots separately do. The presence of shots adjacent to each other presents a context that informs the way that the viewer looks at each shot individually. For example, we could see in isolation a shot of someone talking and another shot of someone else talking, but when the two shots are interlaced with each other and attention cuts from one person to the other, we see that the two of them are in a conversation with each other. And so it goes. Through the judicious use of editing, a whole film is created from the various cuts that, individually, would not be all that impressive for the most part. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and where those parts join together, some kind of context is meant.
This is as true of texts as it is of films. To be sure, it is not always as obvious that a text is discontinuous in the same ways that a film is. We do not usually create texts out of collages of different texts that have no connection to them. Yet it is not an accident that we often examine and critique films as well as texts from a textual standpoint. Someone reading Psalm 23, for example, will note its chiastic structure, and note that the poem has an obvious and familiar form. Similarly, one can note that just as a Shakespearean play had to have five acts, so to a contemporary film is organized as a three act structure, generally speaking. And in both texts as well as films there are discontinuous elements. This particular text is a personal essay, albeit of a somewhat esoteric nature, and its discontinuous elements are marked as paragraphs. Sometimes, like film cuts, the paragraphs of a personal essay can be greatly discontinuous in that they show a slice of the author’s thinking, and in combination with other slices make up a (hopefully) coherent whole which is greater than the sum of its parts because of the context of those parts.
And what kind of context do we get by this discontinuity of textual elements? Let us take, for example, the text of John 3 and 4. In the interests of brevity we will not quote these two chapters, but let us summarize them. John 3 tells the story of a secret disciple, Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus Christ at night and is confused about what he says about the need for a believer to be born again. Jesus Christ patiently explains to him the spiritual rebirth that is required for entrance into the Kingdom of God and comments that this is such a basic matter that it is shocking that Nicodemus does not know such matters and purports to be a teacher of God among the Jews. In contrast, John 4 takes place in the heat of the day where Jesus Christ has a conversation with an outcast Samaritan woman in which he flagrantly violates the cultural norms of his time and place–even now his level of intimacy with women would be violating the cultural norms of the Middle East, and even among Westerners he would be thought of as somewhat daring because of his high degree of respect for women and willingness to engage them in friendly conversation. In that conversation he bridges the divide between Jew and Samaritan and shows himself a prophet by knowing the woman’s sad story of divorce and remarriage and present cohabitation in concubinage, leaving her an outcast among the women of the town and unable or unwilling to gather water with them. The response of the women is to become an evangelist of sorts by telling her story of encountering Jesus with the rest of the town.
And how is this discontinuous combination of stories important? A great deal of the power of these two stories is in their contrast as well as in comparison. Nicodemus is a privileged male, a member of the elite Jewish Sanhedrin, and yet his insight is questioned and he is demonstrated as a not very knowledgeable person about important spiritual truths. The unnamed Samaritan woman, in contrast, is an outcast among an outcast people, who Jesus treats with considerable graciousness and tact, far beyond what she would expect from a Jewish male, who was perhaps the first man she had ever encountered who treated her with respect. Nicodemus came to Christ at night, while Christ comes to the Samaritan woman in the heat of the day. Both messages deal with salvation and the need for repentance, and while the conversation with Nicodemus is conducted on an intellectual level, the level of Jesus’ interaction with the woman is surprisingly practical. Both Nicodemus and the Samaritan recognize the social aspect of the truth about Jesus’ identity and both of them specifically recognize Jesus Christ as being sent from God. Each story gains resonance from being placed in context with the other story, even if they are seldom read together to fully grasp the power of that shared context.
Why does this matter? All too often people do not read texts thoughtfully. We may seek to plunder a text for various proofs of what we are looking for, but seldom do we engage with texts by seeking to look at the context of what we are reading. This context can be complicated. When people think of John 3, immediately the one verse that comes to mind is John 3:16, perhaps the most quoted scripture in the entire Bible. How often is John 3 read in context with John 4 as part of a set of deeply related stories? How often are the various ties between these chapters and the rest of the Bible explored as part of the larger context? If we are content with looking at fragments and isolated statements, how are we to understand the points that an author is making by putting stories together in context? And if we cannot do this with the Scriptures, which give truths to help lead believers to salvation, how are we going to do this with the lesser texts (like this one) which seek to talk about one or another small aspect of the larger importance of communicating through the written word? If we are only interested in soundbytes and isolated phrases and sentences, where are we going to be able to handle the juxtaposition of stories to draw out elements that can be compared and contrasted between them?
Indeed, we have the Kuleshov effect in film because the same aspect has always been present in texts. Perhaps we do not read as well as we once did, as a civilization, because texts have always provided a great deal of insight for those who wished to see the combinations and communication between them. Intertextuality has always existed as long as texts have. The ancient Hebrew psalms were often deliberately set against the literature of Babylon, Ugarit, Egypt, and other places. Later on the biblical polemics were extended to Persian and Greek and Latin texts and the expectations of their writings. Individual texts sprang not only from the mind of individual writers, but also dealt with issues of importance for entire communities engaged in efforts at self-definition and contrast with other communities. The same is true today, one of the reasons why texts are so difficult to appreciate in the contemporary period when they are not merely creative but deeply polemical in nature, and aimed like a snub-nosed pistol pointed at the portly belly of the reader ominously threatening to blow his guts out if he so much as raises a peep against the violent rhetoric of the oppressed subaltern identity of the author. The context of a text has always mattered, and as long as people seek to communicate their thoughts and feelings and beliefs and experiences with other people, such contexts will always matter a great deal.