Guide The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations (2nd Edition)

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Our material interests and our bodies can be called to account. But equally engagud are our fears and fantasies.

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The more we look into this process of repmsentation. The embodying of concepts. Languagn, thtm. It is the shared cull ural 'space' in which the production of meaning through language - that is. The receiver of messages and meamngs is not a passive screen on which the original meaning is accurately and transparently projected. The 'taking of meaning' is as much a signifying practice as the 'putting into meaning' Speaker and hearer or wnter and reader arc active participants in a process which -since they often exchange roles - rs always double-sided, always mteractive.

Representation functions less like the model of a one-way transmitter and more like the model of a dialogue- it is, as they say, dialogic.

What sustains this 'dialogue' is the presence of shared cultural codes, which cannot guarantee that meanings will remain stable forever- though attempting to fix meaning is exactly why power intervenes in discourse. But, even when power is circulating through meaning and knowledge, the codes. We should perhaps learn to think of meaning less in terms of 'accuracy' and 'truth' and more in terms of effective exchange- a process of translation.

In this chapter we will be concentrating on one of the key processes in the 'cultural circuit' see du Gay, Hallet al. The aim of this ehapter is to introduce you to this topic, and to explain what it is about and why we give it such importance in cultural studies.

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The concept of representation has come to occupy a new and important place in the study of culture. Representation etmnects meaning and language to culture. But what exaclly do people mean by if! What does representation have to do with culture and meaning? One common-sense usage of the term is as follows: 'Representation means using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people. Representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture. It does involve the use of language, of signs and images which stand for or represent things.

But this is a far from simple or straightforward proeess, as you will soon discover. How does the c;oneept of representation wnned meaning and language to culture?


In order to explore this connection further, we will look at a number of different theones about how language ts used to represent the world. Here we will be drawing a distinction between three different accounts or theories: the reflectil'e, the intentiOnal and the constructionist approaehes to representation. Does language simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, people and events ref]ective? Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants to say.

Or is meaning construeted in and through language constructionist '! You will learn more in a moment about these three approac;hes Most of the dmpter will be spent exploring the constructionist approach. This chapter chooses to examine two major variants or models of the constructionist approach -the semiotic approach.

Later chaptms in this book will take up these two theories again, among others, so you will have an opportunity to consolidate your understanding of them, and to apply them to different areas of analysis. Other chapters will introduce theoretical paradigms which apply construc;tionist approaehes in different ways to that of semiotics and Foucault.

All, however, put in question the very nature of representation. We lurn to this question first.

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What does the word representation really mean, in this context? What does the process of representation involve? How does representation work? To put it briefly, representation is the production of meaning through language. The Shortel' Oxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the word: To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses; as, for example.

The figures in the painting stand in the place of, and at the same time, stand for the story of Cain and Abel. Likewise, the cross simply consists of two wooden planks nailed together; but in the context of Christian belief and teaching.

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Here is a simple exercise about representation. Look at any familiar object in the rOllin. You will immediately recognize what it is.

But how do you know what the object is'? What does 'recognize' mean? Now trv to make yourself conscious of what you are doing- observe what is going on as you do it. You recognize what it is because your thoughtprocesses decode your visual perception of the object in terms of a concept of it which you have m your head. This must be so because, if you look away from the object, you can still tl! Now, tell me what it is. Say it aloud: 'It's a lamp'- or a table or a book or the phone or whatever. The concept of the object has passed through your mental representation of it to me via the word for it which you have just used The word stands for or represents the concept, and can be used to reference or designate either a real' object in the world or indeed even some imaginary object.

This is how you give meaning to things through language. This is how you 'make sense of' the world of people, objects and events, and how you are able to express a complex thought about those things to other people, or. Why do we have to go through this complex process to represent our thoughts' If you put down a glass you are holding and walk out of the room.

Actually, you can't think with a glass. You can only think with the concept of the glass. As the linguists are fond of saying, 'Dogs bark. But thP concept of "dog" cannot hark or bite.

You can only speak with the word for glass- GLASS- which is the linguistic sign which we ust in English to refer to objects which you drink water out of. This is where representation comes in. Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. It is the link between concepts and language which enables us to refer to either the 'real' world of objects, people or events, or indeed to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people and events.

So there are two processes, two systems of representation, involved. Without them, we could not interpret the world meaningfully at all. In the first place, then, meaning depends on the system of concepts and images formed in our thoughts which can stand for or 'represent' the world, abling us to refer to things both inside and outside our heads. Before we move on to look at the second 'system of representation' we should observe that what we have just said is a very simple version of a rather complex process. Jt is simple enough to sec how we might form concepts for things we can perceive- people or material objects.

But we also form concepts ofrather obscure and abstract things. We have called this a 'system of representation' That is because it consists. For example, we use the principles of similarity and difference to establish relationships between concepts or to distinguish them from one another. Thus I have an idea that in some respects birds are like planes in the sky, based on the fact that they are similar because they both fly -but I also have an idea that in other respects they are different, because one is part of nature whilst the other is man-made. This mixing and matching of.

There are other principles of organization like this at work in all conceptual systems: for example, classifying according to sequence - which concept follows which- or causality- what causes what- and so on. The point here is that we are talking about, not just a random collection of concepts, but concepts organized, arranged and classified into complex relations with one another.

That is what our conceptual system actually is like. However, this does not undermine the basic point. Meaning depends on the relationship between things in the world - people, objects and events, real or fictional -and the conceptual system, which can operate as mental representations of them. Now it could be the case that the com;eptual map which I carry atound in my head is totally different from yours, in which case you and I would interpret or make sense of the world in totally different ways.

We would be incapable of sharing our thoughts or expressing ideas about the world to each other. In fact. However, we are able to communicate because we share broadly the same conceptual maps and thus make sense of or interpret the world in roughly similar ways. That is indeed what it means when we say we "belong to the same culture' Because we interpret the world in roughly similar ways. That is why 'culture' is sometimes defined in terms of 'shared meanings or shared conceptual maps' see du Gay, Hall et al.

We must also be able to represent or exchange meanings and wncepls, and we can only do that when we also have access to a shared language. Language is therefore the second system ot representation involved in the overall process of constructing meaning. Our shared conceptual map must be translated into a common language. Stl that we can correlatE' our concepts and ideas with certain written words, spoken sounds or visual images. The general term we use for words, sounds or images which carry meaning is signs.

These signs stand for or represent the concepts and the conceptual relations between them which we t:arry around in our heads and together they makfl up the meaning-systems of our culture Signs are organized into languages and it is the existence of conrmon languages which enable us to translate our thoughts [concepts into words, sounds or images, and then to use these.

Remember that the term 'language' is being used here in a very broad and inclusive way. Evon music is a 'language', with complex relations between different sounds and chords, though it is a very special case since it can't easily be used to reference actual things or objects in the world a point further elaborated in du Gay, ed. Any sound, word, image or object which functions as a sign, and is organized with other signs into a system which is capable of carrying and expressing meaning is, from this point of view, 'a language' It is in this sense that the model of meaning which I have been analysing here is often described as a 'linguistic' one; and that all tho theories of meaning which follow this basic model are described as belonging to 'the linguistic turn' in the social sciences and cultural studies.