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Representation Matters in Semiotic Approach

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 1748 words Published: 11th Jul 2018

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According to Hall (1997), 'Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. […] The relation between things, concepts and signs lies at the heart of the production of meaning in language. […] Language is therefore the system of representation involved in the overall process of constructing meaning.' His representation study is lighted with wisdom from Saussure's theory whose significant contribution was the point of way of signs the meanings production, negative of reflection or intentionality and building up the constructionist approach. For Saussure, the production of meaning depends on language and to be a sign system, language was associated this two element - the signifier and the signified. (Culler, 1976, cited in Hall, 1997) Saussure gave his model of representation shifting from linguistics to semiotics. People fix the meaning by the signifier correlating with the signified which simultaneously involves our cultural and linguistic codes and this is the process to achieve the representation as well. In Saussure's study, the emphasis was put on the various general rules and codes of the linguistic system. The connection provided by the codes between the signifier and the signified produced signs; and signs, organized into languages, created meanings. This formed the way to constructionist thought.

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Later with the development of Myth theory which was based on the model of representation provided by Saussure, Roland Barthes, the French critic, suggests that signs can be constructed into levels. 'The first, completed meaning functions as the signifier in the second stage of the representation process, and when linked with a wider there by a reader, yields a second, more elaborate and ideologically framed message or meaning.' (Hall, 1997:39) Barthes called the second level of signification the level of myth or meta-language. These two theories indicate the semiotic approach provides a method for analyzing how representations convey meaning.

Hall uses the concept of representation to discuss the origin of the object's cultural meaning and analyzes that the objects by themselves do not mean anything; meanings are generated and constructed by language or other cultural signs processed through language. He defined representation 'is the production of the meaning of 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.' (Hall, 1997:17) In brief, representation is the procedure of connecting with objects, conceptual map in our mind and language cultural symbols. There are two representation systems existing. In the first system, mental representations which we carry around in our heads present various objects and turning to the second system a set of signs stand for these conceptual maps. Furthermore, the practices of representation imply 'the embodying of concepts, ideas and emotions in a symbolic form can be transmitted and meaningfully interpreted. Meaning must enter the domain of these practices, if it is to circulate effectively within a culture.' (Hall, 1997:10) With the combination of Hall's theory, representation can be regarded as presenting objects through language or other symbols and produce some relative cultural meanings and values; moreover representation has a share in production, multiplication, exchange and circulation of the whole cultural meanings and values system.

Under the framework of Hall's theory, the significance of representation practice is that it is involved in the production and circulation of cultural meanings and values system. He defines culture as a sharing meaning or a sharing conceptual map. That reveals culture is just like meaning sea and social or group members are like fish in it; they produce and exchange from each other. This view is basically rooted on culture concept of Raymond Williams who regards as 'a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in are and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behavior'. (1961: 41) Hall then transformed Williams' 'meanings and values' into more symbolic meanings and inherited Williams' cultural materialism on culture status and function. Culture has been judged as a fact with economy and politics to construct the whole society production instead of a negative reflection or accessory for economical and political process. Cultural meanings and values system have practice effect to build up rules, standards and customs which regularize social life and order human behavior. After being decoded, the meanings and values in cultural representation production change into consciousness and practice. Given this definition, Hall's cultural representation theory highlights the areas of cultural symbols in social life in an important position.

The Politics---the discursive approach

In French philosopher Michel Foucault's research, he prefers regarding representation as an origin of social knowledge production and put emphasis on the method of knowledge produced by discourse rather than Saussure's linguistic model which focuses on the representation process itself. Comparing with the semiotic approach, Foucault's theory firmly bases on history and pays more attention on historical specificity. He concerned relations of power, not relations of meaning, so the main matter changed from language to discourse.

Discourse, power and the subject is three major ideas demonstrated by Foucault about the discursive approach to representation.(Hall, 1997:43)

The first term-discourse was treated as a representation system by Foucault. He points out that the object has its objective existence, but except discourse the object has no meaning. In another word, only when the object is in its discourse can it be the target to knowledge. The existence of discourse needs historical context which means, in each period, the modality of knowledge produced by discourse and its object, subject and practice is dramatic changed over time and vitally there is no necessary connection in. For example, in our ancestors' language structure they explained natural phenomenon like windy, rainy and thunder by fairy tale or the method of imagination, by contrast, we today explain them by scientific or observation way. It is more remarkable in the particular social identity and ethics meanings made up by human language structure: male and female, white and black, ruler and ruled. They all changed with society and culture changed.

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Talking about the concept of power and knowledge, Foucault's view is different from the theory of Marxism. Foucault believes that in all of classic Marxism, relationship between knowledge and power simplified to a class of power and class interests was due to establish its own truth concept.(Hall, 1997:48) Although Foucault did not deny the existence of classes, he did not believe beyond any discourse game there existed truth. His definition of the ideology is similar on Gramsci's cultural hegemony theory. Introducing the theory of ideology into representation theory embodies Hall's resistance and critical consciousness of vulgar Marxist theory on ideology and economic determinants. Furthermore, in Foucault's opinion, knowledge and meaning of an object are not only related to their discourse but also related to dominant power and 'power does not function in the form of a chain - it circulates. It is never monopolized by one centre. It is deployed and exercised through a net-like organization.'(1980:98)

Discourse produces the subject by itself; on the other hand, it produces a position for the subject like reader and viewer. In the cultural representation system, there is a wide variety of subject positions for instance the submissive wife and obedient slaves and there are many characters who are regarded as good, such as the image of Faust, Prometheus and Confucius. Although our identities are constrained by the structural relationship of social order, these images carrying cultural significance and values can be cultural resources which establish and update our own subjectivity. Overall, the cultural representation system is the mainstream values and ideologies of production and operation of the site, and it is the main social individual symbolic resource in its own copy of the values of culture and ideology. However, there are some cultural texts manage an abnormal discourse and practice in its representation to create a lot of rebellion, revolution, anomaly and even unreasonable characters. These characters tend not to follow the rules and break the old, outdated values and identities so that they or their representatives become a new social order or a new value of the cultural heroes, such as a rebellious slave consciousness or a self-conscious woman. It allowed us to recognize that knowledge is always a form of power.

Concluded from the two approaches-the semiotic approach and the discursive approach, the concept of representation, from a cultural point, is a cultural significance creation by various symbols in the text or image and this process is involved in the whole field of the production and distribution of cultural symbols; representation no longer analyses the extension of power relations in the field of symbolic representation through epistemological sense of right and wrong, but on the angle of discourse power, meaning disputation and symbol distribution in cultural representation field; representation emphasizes the social environment and cultural institutions of cultural representation practice and regards a cultural text as a symptom making out of the entire social and cultural environment which implies a sociological perspective to analyze the path of cultural representation issues; representation focuses on the cultural symbols involved in real life function, while representation is the way for the value concept which is produced in social life to flow in the field of cultural symbols and it is the main symbolic resource for social individual forming their own identity. People are largely dependent on the subject position in cultural representation to be a man or a woman, as a specific person. In this sense, representation constructs our world of meaning.


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