CHAPTER ONETHE WORK OF REPRESENTATIONStuart Hall1 REPRESENTATION, MEANING AND LANGUAGEIn this chapter we will be concentrating on one of the key processes in the ‘cultural circuit’ (seeDu Gay et al., 1997, and the Introduction to this volume) – the practices of representation. The aimof this chapter is to introduce you to this topic, and to explain what it is about and why we give itsuch importance in cultural studies.The concept of representation has come to occupy a new and important place in the study ofculture. Representation connects meaning and language to culture. But what exactly do peoplemean by it? What does representation have to do with culture and meaning? One common-senseusage of the term is as follows: ‘Representation means using language to say something meaningful about, or to represent, the world meaningfully, to other people.’ You may well ask, ‘Is that all?’Well, yes and no. Representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is producedand exchanged between members of a culture. It does involve the use of language, of signs andimages which stand for or represent things. But this is a far from simple or straightforward process,as you will soon discover.How does the concept of representation connect meaning and language to culture? In order toexplore this connection further, we will look at a number of different theories about how language isused to represent the world. Here we will be drawing a distinction between three different accountsor theories: the reﬂective, the intentional and the constructionist approaches to representation. Doeslanguage simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, peopleand events (reﬂective)? Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants tosay, his or her personally intended meaning (intentional)? Or is meaning constructed in and throughlanguage (constructionist)? You will learn more in a moment about these three approaches.Most of the chapter will be spent exploring the constructionist approach, because it is thisperspective which has had the most significant impact on cultural studies in recent years. This01-Hall Ch-01.indd 118/04/2013 12:23:49 PM
Representationchapter chooses to examine two major variants or models of the constructionist approach – the semiotic approach, greatly influenced by the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, and the discursiveapproach, associated with the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault. Later chaptersin this book will take up these two theories again, among others, so you will have an opportunityto consolidate your understanding of them, and to apply them to different areas of analysis. Otherchapters will introduce theoretical paradigms which apply constructionist approaches in differentways to that of semiotics and Foucault. All, however, put in question the very nature of representation.We turn to this question first.1.1 Making meaning, representing thingsWhat 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 ShorterOxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the word:1 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, in the sentence, ‘This picture represents the murder of Abel by Cain.’2 To represent also means to symbolize, stand for, to be a specimen of, or to substitute for; as in thesentence, ‘In Christianity, the cross represents the suffering and crucifixion of Christ.’The figures in the painting stand in the place of, and at the same time, stand for the story of Cain andAbel. Likewise, the cross simply consists of two wooden planks nailed together; but in the context ofChristian belief and teaching, it takes on, symbolizes or comes to stand for a wider set of meaningsabout the crucifixion of the Son of God, and this is a concept we can put into words and pictures.ACTIVITY 1Here is a simple exercise about representation. Look at any familiar object in the room. You will immediatelyrecognize what it is. But how do you know what the object is? What does ‘recognize’ mean?Now try to make yourself conscious of what you are doing – observe what is going on as you do it. Yourecognize what it is because your thought processes decode your visual perception of the object in termsof a concept of it which you have in your head. This must be so because, if you look away from the object,you can still think about it by conjuring it up, as we say, ‘in your mind’s eye’. Go on – try to follow theprocess as it happens: there is the object . and there is the concept in your head which tells you what itis, what your visual image of it means.Now, tell me what it is. Say it aloud: ‘It’s a lamp’ – or a table or a book or the phone or whatever. Theconcept of the object has passed through your mental representation of it to me via the word for it which201-Hall Ch-01.indd 218/04/2013 12:23:49 PM
The Work of Representationyou have just used. The word stands for or represents the concept, and can be used to reference ordesignate either a ‘real’ object in the world or indeed even some imaginary object, like angels dancing onthe head of a pin, which no one has ever actually seen.This is how you give meaning to things through language. This is how you ‘make sense of’ theworld of people, objects and events, and how you are able to express a complex thought aboutthose things to other people, or communicate about them through language in ways which otherpeople are able to understand.Why do we have to go through this complex process to represent our thoughts? If you put downa glass you are holding and walk out of the room, you can still think about the glass, even thoughit is no longer physically there. Actually, you can’t think with a glass. You can only think with theconcept of the glass. As the linguists are fond of saying, ‘Dogs bark. But the concept of “dog” cannot bark or bite.’ You can’t speak with the actual glass, either. You can only speak with the wordfor glass – GLASS – which is the linguistic sign which we use in English to refer to objects outof which you drink water. This is where representation comes in. Representation is the productionof the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language. It is the link between concepts andlanguage which enables us to refer to either the ‘real’ world of objects, people or events, or indeedto imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people and events.So there are two processes, two systems of representation, involved. First, there is the ‘system’by which all sorts of objects, people and events are correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations which we carry around in our heads. Without them, we could not interpret the worldmeaningfully at all. In the first place, then, meaning depends on the system of concepts and imagesformed in our thoughts which can stand for or ‘represent’ the world, enabling us to refer to thingsboth inside and outside our heads.Before we move on to look at the second ‘system of representation’, we should observe that whatwe have just said is a very simple version of a rather complex process. It is simple enough to see howwe might form concepts for things we can perceive – people or material objects, like chairs, tablesand desks. But we also form concepts of rather obscure and abstract things, which we can’t in anysimple way see, feel or touch. Think, for example, of our concepts of war, or death, or friendship orlove. And, as we have remarked, we also form concepts about things we have never seen, and possiblycan’t or won’t ever see, and about people and places we have plainly made up. We may have a clearconcept of, say, angels, mermaids, God, the Devil, or of Heaven and Hell, or of Middlemarch (thefictional provincial town in George Eliot’s novel), or Elizabeth (the heroine of Jane Austen’s Prideand Prejudice).We have called this a ‘system of representation’. That is because it consists not of individualconcepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, andof establishing complex relations between them. For example, we use the principles of similarityand 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 theyare similar because they both fly – but I also have an idea that in other respects they are different,301-Hall Ch-01.indd 318/04/2013 12:23:49 PM
Representationbecause one is part of nature while the other is man-made. This mixing and matching of relationsbetween concepts to form complex ideas and thoughts is possible because our concepts are arrangedinto different classifying systems. In this example, the first is based on a distinction between flying/notflying and the second is based on the distinction between natural/man-made. There are other principles of organization like this at work in all conceptual systems: for example, classifying accordingto sequence – which concept follows which – or causality – what causes what – and so on. The pointhere 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 systemactually 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 conceptualsystem, which can operate as mental representations of them.Now it could be the case that the conceptual map which I carry around in my head is totally different from yours, in which case you and I would interpret or make sense of the world in totally differentways. We would be incapable of sharing our thoughts or expressing ideas about the world to eachother. In fact, each of us probably does understand and interpret the world in a unique and individualway. However, we are able to communicate because we share broadly the same conceptual maps andthus make sense of or interpret the world in roughly similar ways. That is indeed what it means whenwe say we ‘belong to the same culture’. Because we interpret the world in roughly similar ways, weare able to build up a shared culture of meanings and thus construct a social world which we inhabittogether. That is why ‘culture’ is sometimes defined in terms of ‘shared meanings or shared conceptualmaps’ (see Du Gay et al., 1997).However, a shared conceptual map is not enough. We must also be able to represent orexchange meanings and concepts, and we can only do that when we also have access to a sharedlanguage. Language is therefore the second system of representation involved in the overallprocess of constructing meaning. Our shared conceptual map must be translated into a commonlanguage, so that we can correlate our concepts and ideas with certain written words, spokensounds or visual images. The general term we use for words, sounds or images which carrymeaning is signs. These signs stand for or represent the concepts and the conceptual relationsbetween them which we carry around in our heads and together they make up the meaningsystems of our culture.Signs are organized into languages and it is the existence of common languages which enableus to translate our thoughts (concepts) into words, sounds or images, and then to use these, operating as a language, to express meanings and communicate thoughts to other people. Rememberthat the term ‘language’ is being used here in a very broad and inclusive way. The writing systemor the spoken system of a particular language are both obviously ‘languages’. But so are visualimages, whether produced by hand, mechanically, electronically, digitally or some other means,when they are used to express meaning. And so are other things which aren’t ‘linguistic’ in anyordinary sense: the ‘language’ of facial expressions or of gesture, for example, or the ‘language’of fashion, of clothes, or of traffic lights. Even music is a ‘language’, with complex relationsbetween different sounds and chords, though it is a very special case since it can’t easily be used401-Hall Ch-01.indd 418/04/2013 12:23:49 PM
The Work of Representationto reference actual things or objects in the world (a point further elaborated in Du Gay, ed., 1997,and Mackay, ed., 1997). Any sound, word, image or object which functions as a sign, and isorganized 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 havebeen analysing here is often described as a ‘linguistic’ one; and that all the theories of meaningwhich follow this basic model are described as belonging to ‘the linguistic turn’ in the social sciencesand cultural studies.At the heart of the meaning process in culture, then, are two related ‘systems of representation’. The first enables us to give meaning to the world by constructing a set of correspondencesor a chain of equivalences between things – people, objects, events, abstract ideas, etc. – and oursystem of concepts, our conceptual maps. The second depends on constructing a set of correspondences between our conceptual map and a set of signs, arranged or organized into various languageswhich stand for or represent those concepts. The relation between ‘things’, concepts and signs liesat the heart of the production of meaning in language. The process which links these three elementstogether is what we call ‘representation’.1.2 Language and representationJust as people who belong to the same culture must share a broadly similar conceptual map
You can’t speak with the actual glass, either. You can only speak with the word for glass – GLASS – which is the linguistic sign which we use in English to refer to objects out of which you drink water. 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 .