Language and Representation Essay.
The first article I will be summarizing by Stuart Hall “Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices” (1997) is a study of the crucial links between language, culture and how shared meanings are constructed and represented within language.
Language is where we both produce and exchange meaning. Within a shared language are the shared understandings and cultural values of a group of people.
Language operates as a ‘representational’ system. Language symbolically represents shared cultural meanings. It does this through spoken sounds and the written word, but also through any other way that meaning can be represented and understood. It can be represented through music, body language, gesture, arbitrary symbols and through objects.
Hall indicates that ‘culture’ has a specific meaning, “Culture is concerned with the production and exchange of meanings..between the members of a society or group.”
Culture “is what distinguishes the human element in social life from what is simply biologically driven. “ (p.2)
So culture is everything in our lives, that is not biological, physical or from nature. According to Claire Kramsch in her article, ‘The Relationship of Language and Culture’, “Nature refers to what is born and grows organically.” Where as “ culture refers to what has been grown and groomed.” (1998, p.4)
Further, culture is how members of a group share their common understandings of their world. Different groups of people have different understandings of the world. They develop different shared meanings and therefore different cultures.
Hall indicates that Language is the ‘privileged media’ through which meaning is created and shared. Language then represents the meanings of things as understood by different cultures. Cultural difference is represented in different languages.
“To say that two people belong to the same culture is to say that they interpret the world in roughly the same ways and can express themselves .. in ways that will be understood by each other.” (1997, p 2)
Crucially for Halls arguments, this does not mean that Culture has fixed meanings within a culture. He completely rejects an essentialist approach that understands that things have one fixed meaning. Instead within any group, there is substantive variety of meaning on any subject and an array of strategies to represent it.
Importantly these understandings are not consciously shared. They permeate all aspects of our emotional conduct and have real effects on the regulation of social practices.
Hall presents a model for the development of these shared cultural meanings, referred to as a ‘circuit of culture’. There are five steps within his circuit of culture, and meaning is produced at any of these five junctures and is fed back into the system. The five elements are; Representation, Identity, Production, Consumption and Regulation.
Meaning is constantly being produced whenever people interact with each other. It is also being produced, and at increasingly rapid speeds, when people interact with any form of media, including television and the internet.
Hall stresses thought that the most privileged, or effective media in the development of meaning is language. Language includes communicated systems that are not spoken or written but can be interpreted by the members of a culture, including body language and music. All these languages work through representation, where an act, a symbol or a noise represents a shared intended and to a degree receivable meaning.
Language can also be understood as a signifying practice. Meaning is coded into a language as interpretable symbols or signs.
Hall notes two similar versions of constructionism, Semiotics and Discursive theory. He notes that Discursive theory is more relevant as it is focused on the “effects and consequences” of representation rather than the ‘how’ of representation.
Discursive theory is an effective framework because it allows for an understanding of history, the politics of meaning and issues in relation to power.
Hall’s most important conclusions inform the notion that meaning is never truly fixed. Meaning is “..always being negotiated and inflected, to resonate with new situations.” (1997.p10)
Meaning must enter into the circuit of culture and circulate until it has been received or decoded at some other point in the chain. Trough this circulation shared meanings are developed, understood, represented in language and are tested and adapted. Such a process is ‘Dialogic’, a dialogue sustained by shared cultural codes.
The second of the two Stuart Hall articles I am summarizing, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” (1997) is the presentation of a discourse of culture about his own historical background. The focus of this essay is the formation of identity within a historical and discursive framework. It examines the experience of the African Diaspora in the Caribbean and the narratives of displacement.
Hall looks broadly at the issues around identity. He notes that far from being fixed, identity should be seen as a ““production” which is never complete, always in process and always constituted within, and not outside, representation.” (p.51)
Hall relates this understanding specifically to the idea that there are two ways of thinking about ‘cultural identity’. One is an understanding of a one true history, a fixed shared culture that can be excavated from beneath layers of disenfranchisement. This attitude has been crucial in post colonial struggles. Although such a view is fixed, and therefore not compatible with Halls discursive views, he notes that this discovering of the past, whilst not unearthing a singular culture, is a crucial part of re-imagining the culture. Fed into the discursive turn, this historical imagining provides a shared cultural representation for the present community.
The second view of cultural identity is one that recognizes the many points of differences amongst the Diaspora, as well as the similarities. This view recognizes that history has intervened at many levels and that the resulting unique experiences have created the different flavors of Caribbean culture. In recognizing these differences we note that the situation is continually in flux, and therefore that cultural identity can never be fixed in one point of history, but is a process that is always developing.
Hall argues that this transformative view is the best way to understand and interpret the trauma of Caribbean colonial history. It recognizes the changes that were made to the culture through the interference of power and control. It recognizes the results of a people subject to an Edward Said ‘Orientalist’ type imagining. Further it provides an understanding of how this understanding of the ‘Other” was even internally imposed upon the minds of the people, through forced displacement and other displays of power.
So all understanding of the Caribbean must be considered in a dialogic framework with two vectors, one is the similarity of experience, the other is the vector of difference.
Hall notes that the cultures that arrived from Africa were originally extremely different, with different tribes, different gods and cultures, and it was precisely the trauma of slavery that united them. This dialogic of difference and commonality has always defined the African Caribbean culture.
Hall makes the important point that taking a historical and discursive view of culture does not indicate that meaning is trivial because it is always in development. He notes that “meaning in any specific instance, depends on the contingent and arbitrary stop.” (p.54) The positioning that participants within a culture take at any moment, how they understand their world, is the important and functional representation at that time.
In this essay, Stuart Hall has applied discourse theory to his own sense of identity. In the next section of this essay I will relate that theory to my own life.
One clear example of the link between language, identity and cultural difference in my life was the process of becoming an atheist in a very strict Christian family.
I will discuss this example in relation to the two previously summarized Stuart Hall articles, along with the article “The relationship of language and Culture” (1998) by Claire Kramsch, along with other readings as they become relevant to my discussion.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 King James V.
Rejecting God within a fundamentalist Christian family is to be placed and to understand your self, as an other, separated from a shared culture. It is to lose common threads of identity with your immediate culture and instead to develop a strong identity based on what you are not, rather than what you are. From the lens of discourse theory I can look back and see how this deliberate positioning affected my identity. Most interestingly though, like the experience of the African Caribbean Diaspora, I am not able to separate myself from my history when considering the development of my cultural identity. There is within my family the dialogic of belief and non-belief, but beyond that is a series of values, practices and shared meanings that that I hold in accord with the belief side of my culture.
I became an Atheist at a very early age and it was due to my sense that the cultural understandings of Christianity did not fit with my experience of my own biology, meaning my sexual urges, and my sense of justice. (You could argue that either of these were culturally nurtured but that has always been my historical imagining.)
Kramsch notes this difference between culture and nature in the work of the Romantic poet, Emily Dickinson, presenting her thoughts of “The General Rose – decay” The rose represents nature without culture, “Beautiful, yes, but faceless and nameless.” (p. 4)
Culture in this sense adds or is the meaning to the meaningless. But culture must first have the nature to interpret, and it was my re-interpretation of nature that caused me to become an “Other”.
Shakespeare as usual says it best.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Sc. 2)
After what I would determine to be an encounter with her biology through falling in love with Romeo, Juliet takes the step of questioning her cultural identity and the hatred and bloodshed, loyalty and history that are represented in the names of Capulet and Montague. What is in a name? Sadly for her and tellingly for the link between language, culture and identity, everything is in a name.
The history of my becoming an Atheist, at least as I now imagine it, is similarly inspired by encounters with nature or my own biology.
To continue Kramsch’s theme of understanding through the Romantic Poets, my rejection of God is represented by William Blake in his poem the “Garden of Love.”
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
The rose, the nature, that which was not cultural, was my joys and desires. The culture that was being imposed on my joys and desires was that of the priests in dark gowns. I felt that the meaning given to the rose was one I couldn’t accept and therefore rejected it.
Hall states that “attempting to fix meaning is exactly where power intervenes in discourse.” (1997. p.10)
I found myself within a discourse of resistance against a culture that sought to fix meaning.
I feel very strongly that it was my biological impulses that lead me to a position of resistance to the Christian culture. The reason I focus on this concept is that I feel the impact of the natural is neglected in Hall’s articles. Had I been born gay, or a woman I can imagine an increased biological influence that would create an even stronger discourse of resistance against a fundamentalist Christian culture.
Referring back to the Dickinson poem, Kramsch states that “the poem itself bears testimony that nature and culture both need each other. “ (1997. p5)
In his article Cultural Identity and Diaspora (1997) Hall
does recognize physical geography as being one of the three major influences in the discourse of Caribbean identity. He calls this the Presence Americaine, and describes it as “..not so much power, as ground, place, territory.” (p.57)
The shared experience of an environment unlike anything in Africa has both created a unified sense of identity when before there was none, and changed existing cultural practices and understandings. Two obvious examples are religion and cooking.
I would like Hall to further develop how nature feeds into the circuit of meaning, especially considering that culture feeds back into nature in the way that it shapes and impacts the natural environment.
Positioning myself as ‘Other’ to my family and social group was very significant to my identity.
Kramsch states “To identity themselves as members of a community, people have to define themselves jointly as insiders against other, whom they thereby define as outsiders.” (1997 p.8)
I believe that the enormous success of the Cult of Christianity lies in a very effective understanding of this notion of how a community is strengthened by defining itself against others. It tells you that you are an “other” but offers a simple method for you to become within the culture – to become ‘Saved’.
In the article “Entity and Difference” Katherine Woodward, (2007) presents an example of otherness during the war in the former Yugoslavia, that “presents different identities dependent on two separate national positions, those of Serbs and Croats…two distinctly identifiable peoples..” (p. 8)
More importantly she notes that “Identities are given meaning through the language and symbolic systems through which they are represented.” (p.8)
Difference is represented in language and in symbols like the cigarettes that they smoke. The main difference though is that of the ‘other’. Being Croat means that you are not Serbian and vice versa. However when questioned, Woodward notes that a Serbian soldier quickly recognizes that there are actually significant similarities between the two peoples.
Just like this example of otherness in the former Yugoslavia, I experienced how Christianity deliberately creates a duality of otherness between those that support its cultural representations and those that don’t. I also recognize that despite the explicit otherness of Christian thinking, I share with them more cultural understandings than I have differences.
How Christianity represents meaning and otherness in signs, symbols and language is a rich field. I think the most stark example is the language of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ and ‘Hell’ and ‘Heaven’. I grew up in a time when Hell was real. It’s horrors were presented to us in Sunday School in great detail. Anyone who chose to be other than Christian was to be permanently punished.
Interestingly, the meaning of Heaven and Hell within Christianity and how it has changed in the Anglican and Uniting church, and not changed in the fundamentalist churches during the last twenty years, demonstrates well Hall’s circuit of culture. A change in community values that has supported such things as the ordination of women and homosexuals within the progressive protestant denominations, has simultaneously witnessed a change in belief from one of punishing the ‘other’, to one of celebrating shared values like love and peace. The representation of the ‘other’ going to ‘Hell’ seems to have been discarded.
However, the fundamentalist churches, with the clear exercise of power within the discourse, have reinforced their views over heaven and hell as they have fought to fix meanings within their culture.
it always seems to be the Diasporic or colonialsised churches that are most focused on essentialising meaning. My family arrived in the mid 1800’s from Scotland and still define themselves through their conservative Presbyterianism. Their cultural identity was reinforced through it’s positioning as an ‘other’.
The Christianity that I was exposed to formed what Kramsch refers to as a ‘discourse community’. A Group where “Common attitudes, beliefs and values are reflected in the way members of the group use language – for example, what they choose to say or not to say and how they say it.” (1998, p.6)
I remember being told in Sunday School that swearing was the same thing in the eyes of god as murdering someone. I have never heard my father swear, I heard my mother once say the word ‘bloody’ and I’m fairly sure I have never sworn in their presence.
Being a Christian means not swearing, at least according to my parents.
There are numerous examples of pro-active ways that Christianity reinforces it’s representation of meaning through the use of language. The main one is bible study. The bible being a text that supposedly contains all the culture of Christianity. Even this example of a text does not escape Hall’s circuit of culture. What books are included in the bible, what translation is used, what parts of it are in vogue and simply different interpretations of the same verses, all change over time and all reflect different meanings.
Other examples of meaning reinforced through shared cultural practice are that of prayer, the singing of hymns and the saying of grace. During these activities participants vocalize and share their beliefs in a ritualized format in front of witnesses. They use similar wordings and represent key understandings like the request for the forgiveness of wrongs they have committed, admitting their failings and declaring their commitment to a common identity and culture.
The most uniting example of this is the use of the “Lords Prayer.” From the gospels of Mathew and Luke in the New Testament, this passage is used throughout the world to state a clear, shared and fixed representation of Christian belief. It was noted on the Lords Prayer Wikipedia page that “On Easter Day 2007 it was estimated that two billion Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christian, read, recited or sang the short prayer in hundreds of languages.” (2010)
Christianity provides fantastic examples of meanings that are communicated in ways like language, but through signs or symbols rather than written or spoken forms. As Hall states “..we can see that all these practices ‘work like languages’, not because they are all written or spoken, but because they all use some element to stand for or represent what we want to say, to express or communicate a thought” (1997 p.4)
The symbol that illustrates this concept best, anywhere, is ‘The Cross’. The Christian Cross is Christianity. For Christians it is a symbol of belonging, representing their beliefs in the existence of god, their faith in the concepts of the bible as well as ideas of sacrifice and salvation. For those positioned as ‘other’ it’s meaning ranges from a comforting presence, as in on a tomb stone, or a ward against vampires in fiction, to one of extreme disgust, representing the infidel, the un-clean, or a hated competitor.
I have always felt that positioning myself away from the culture of Christianity had a profound effect on the development of my identity and caused difficulties within my sense of belonging and ongoing challenges with my representations of meaning. However I am challenged in this belief through my reading of Halls article, “identity and difference.” It is reductionist and too simplistic to see myself as either within a Christian culture or outside of it, as I used to imagine. He states “The past continues to speak to us. But it no longer speaks to us as a simple “factual” past, since our relation to it, like the child’s relation to the mother, is always-already ‘after the break’. (1997. p53)
I cannot discard the history of my Christian up- bringing and the influence of that culture on my identity. I’m not either Christian or non – Christian in a binary sense but instead have representations of meaning that stem from both Christian and non- Christian influences. I share a sense of social justice and a common sense of manners and respect for family and elders which indicates the type of language I may use in certain situations.
I abhor violence. I respect notions of love and justice as guiding principals in preference to those of economic rationalism.
These are shared cultural traits between myself and the ‘other’ I had positioned myself against. In association with the progressiveness of the church in a post modern context on issues like hell and women’s rights, and indeed even the actual existence of god, I find that my beliefs and theirs can become more one of fusion, or hybridity, rather than one of resistance.
Stemming from these Christian influences arises the final concern I have with Hall’s theories. I find that they are entirely relativistic in relation to aesthetics and morality. I can’t shake the notion that some kind of essentialist truth and aesthetic exists, some things are just more beautiful, or better than others. This essentialist moral position must come from either within people or from without. My Christian influenced understanding of the world suggests to me that there is such a thing as right and wrong and that this is a thing external. I cannot justify this however in any rational way.
Libertarian socialist philosophers like Chomsky and Bakunin, would argue that this essentialist authority comes from within each individual. As Prakash Kona relates in the article “Noam Chomsky: Post Structural Anarchist”, “The human mind with its inbuilt mechanism of rules can hypothetically function to the utmost level of its competence in the absence of authority.” (2010)
Bakunin seems to have a similar perspective when quoted in the same article as saying that human liberty “is the organization, at once planned and free, of a social environment, in conformity with the natural laws inherent in every human society.” (2010)
If there is some external essentialist form of truth and beauty, or if there is an “inbuilt mechanism of rules” or “natural laws inherent in every human society” then this would have a significant impact on the way meaning is formed or understood in society and provide challenge to Stuart Hall’s arguments.
Kramsch, C (1998) The relationship of language and culture. In Language and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3 – 14.
Hall, S. (1997) Introduction in Hall, S. (ed.) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage, pp. 1-11.
Woodward, K. (1997) Introdution. In Woodward, K (ed) Identity and Difference. London: SAGE Publication, pp.8-21.
Hall, S (1997) Cultural identity and diaspora. In Wodward, K (ed) Identity and difference. London. Sage Publication, pp. 51-59.
From – Linguistic and Literary Broad Research and Innovation
Volume 1, Issue 1, 2010
Prakash K (2010) NOAM CHOMSKY: POST-STRUCTURAL ANARCHIST Department of English Literature,
The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India
“The Lord’s Prayer”, 2010, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord’s_Prayer, last accessed on 2nd September 2010. Sited – (Kang, K. Connie. “Across the globe, Christians are united by Lord’s Prayer.” Los Angeles Times, in Houston Chronicle, p. A13, April 8, 2007