A Summary of Representation, Meaning and Language by Stuart Hall

  • Representation has an important place in cultural studies as it connects meaning and language to culture.
  • Representation means using language to represent or to say something meaningful about the world meaningfully. According to Stuart Hall, it is an essential part of the process of production and exchange of meaning between members of a culture.

Stuart Hall draws a distinction between three different theories; the reflective (reflecting an already existing meaning), the intentional (expressing a writer’s or speaker’s personally intended meaning) and the constructionist (constructing meaning in and through language). These are the approaches to representation.

In recent years, ‘constructionist approach’ has had the most significant impact on cultural studies. Stuart Hall focuses on two models of constructionist approach; the ‘semiotic’ approach which is greatly influenced by Saussure, and the ‘discursive’ approach which is associated with Michel Foucault.

Stuart Hall argues that representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our mind through language. The link between concepts and language enables us to refer to either the real world of objects, people or events, or to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people, events.

In the process of representation, there are two systems. The first system correlates objects, people and events with a set of concepts or mental representations that we carry in our heads. We interpret the world meaningfully with the help of this system.

While constructing meaning, language is the second system of representation. Our shared conceptual map (culture) must be translated into a common language so that we can correlate our concepts and ideas with written words, spoken sounds or visual images. The term ‘signs’ is used to refer to words, sounds, or images that carry meaning.

Language refers not only to the literal language written or spoken. It also refers to objects, images or anything else when they are used to express meaning.

From this point of view, any sound, word, image or object which functions as a sign, and is organized with other signs into a system capable of carrying and expressing meaning, is a language.

Hence, the first system enables us to give meaning to the world by constructing a set of correspondences between things and our system of conceptual maps. In contrast, the second system depends on constructing a set of correspondences between our conceptual map and a set of signs, organized into various languages which represent those concepts.

The relation between things, concepts and signs lies at the center of the production of meaning in language. Representation is what links these three elements together.

Language and Representation – Stuart Hall

According to Stuart Hall, people who belong to the same culture must share a similar conceptual map and the same way of interpreting the signs of a language so that meaning can be exchanged effectively.

Visual signs and images, even when they closely resemble the things they refer to, are still signs; they carry meaning and have to be interpreted. To interpret, we must have access to the two systems of representation.

Visual signs are also called ‘iconic’ signs because they bear a certain resemblance to the referent. On the other hand, written or spoken signs are also called ‘indexical’. Words don’t look or sound anything like the things they refer to, hence it’s comparatively more difficult to create meaning through indexical signs.

In systems of representation, the relationship between the sign, the concept and the object to which they might be used to refer is entirely arbitrary.

Sharing the Codes – Stuart Hall

According to Stuart Hall, the meaning is not in the thing itself, nor is it in the word. We fix the meaning so firmly that it later becomes natural and inevitable. Meaning is fixed by the code, which sets up the correlation between our conceptual system and our language system in such a way that whenever we think of a tree, the code tells us to use the word TREE.

Stuart Hall asserts that we think about culture in terms of shared conceptual maps, shared language systems, and codes which fix the relationship between concepts and signs.

When codes arbitrarily fix the relationship between conceptual and linguistic systems, we can speak and hear intelligibly. In this process, meaning passes from speaker to hearer and is effectively communicated within a culture.

Hall argues that cultural codes, in fact, make biological individuals cultural objects. Children learn the systems and conventions of representation, the odes of their culture and language so that they can become culturally competent subjects.

Since meaning is established by our social, cultural and linguistic conventions, meaning can never be finally fixed.

Theories of Representation – Stuart Hall

There are three approaches to explaining how the representation of meaning through language works. They are the reflective, the intentional, and the constructionist.

Reflective Approach of Representation

In the reflective approach of representation, the meaning is supposed to lie in the object, person or idea in the real world, and language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning.

To explain how language, in a broad sense, imitated Nature, the Greeks used the notion of ‘mimesis’ in the 4th century B.C. Hence, the theory that says language functions by simply reflecting the truth which already exists in the world, is often known as ‘mimetic’.

Nevertheless, there are many words, sounds and images which we fully understand but are entirely fictional and the world is wholly imaginary.

Intentional Approach of Representation

The intentional approach of representation argues that the author or the speaker imposes meaning on the world through language. In this approach, words mean what the author intends them to mean.

However, the intentional approach is also flawed. As ourselves being the source of meaning, we could express in entirely private languages. Nonetheless, the truth is that language depends on shared linguistic conventions and shared codes.

In order for us to be understood, our intended meanings have to enter into the rules, codes, and conventions of language. It is because language is completely a social system.

Constructionist Approach of Representation

 

 

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