CUST 100 Week 17: 26 January Stuart Hall: Encoding/Decoding Reading: Stuart Hall, Encoding/Decoding (Coursepack)

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1 CUST 100 Week 17: 26 January Stuart Hall: Encoding/Decoding Reading: Stuart Hall, Encoding/Decoding (Coursepack) N.B. If you want a semiotics refresher in relation to Encoding-Decoding, please check the following site: Daniel Chandler, Semiotics for Beginners Encoding/Decoding The domains of preferred meanings have the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices and beliefs: the everyday knowledge of the social structures of how things work for all practical purposes in this culture, the rank order of power and interest and the structure of legitimations, limits and sanctions. And [encoding] cannot determine or guarantee, in a simple sense, which decoding codes will be employed. Otherwise communication would be a perfectly equivalent circuit, and every message would be an instance of perfectly transparent communication. Introductory remarks This week we are going to look at the active role of the audience in the construction of meaning that takes place in the circuits of commodified culture Hall s basic thesis: circuits of communication reproduce a pattern of domination meaning is interrelated with power This takes place during a process of what Hall calls encoding and decoding Encoding: refers to the creation of cultural texts (i.e. TV program) Decoding: refers to the interpretation of cultural texts While Hall emphasizes the active role of the audience, he also realizes that interpretation is conditioned by the preferred reading that is encoded into the text upon production This encoding is imprinted by institutional power relations and express a complex structure of dominance ideology Nonetheless, meaning (the preferred reading) is never guaranteed

2 So while we always have agency in the construction of meaning, our interpretation is always in relation to the preferred reading even if it radically differs Thus Hall situates meaning as polysemic not pluralistic Key themes and concepts 1 Process of Encoding-Decoding 2) Semiotic aspect of Encoding-Decoding 1) Process of Encoding-Decoding Hall offers a four-stage model for the process of communication (he originally wrote this paper specifically about television broadcasting) He does so because he wants to understand how meaning is produced Specifically, he wants to know two things: 1) how do we actively participate in the construction of meaning 2) how does dominant meaning gets reproduced He emphasizes how meaning (the symbolic) always occurs in a specific context (material) As such, he is implicitly critical of Behaviourist models (like effects, uses and gratifications as used in Psychology) which focus exclusively on the interior interpretation of the individual There are four relatively autonomous stages in the production and dissemination of meaning i) Production ENCODING ii) Circulation iii) Use (reception/consumption) DECODING iv) Reproduction Each stage has its specific modality and conditions of existence In short, one stages does not strictly determine the following stage Thus decoding often differs (slightly or greatly) from encoding i.e. how a message is interpreted is not always the same as how it was constructed

3 i) Production both material and symbolic This is a set of material practices w/n a given media apparatus The institutional structures of broadcasting, with their practices and networks of production, their organized relations and technical infrastructures, are required to produce a programme. The symbolic is the actual construction of the message is it where the message in encoded The encoding is the key moment in the entire circuit of communication 2 key points about encoding in production 1) The event or content must be put into message form a privileged moment in the overall circuit/process i.e. raw events cannot be circulated (they must be encoded first) 2) Encoding takes place via what Hall calls the institutional-societal r/ns of production this production structure does not form a closed system it is w/n a wider socio-cultural, and political structure ii) Circulation There is a difference in how we perceive something that is circulated on a major network vs. community television On a more basic level, there is a difference in how we perceive a visual image as opposed to the written word (C.F. Medium theory) each medium as its own conditions of perception In short, how the content is circulated is going to influence how it is received The visual image of TV is a good example The dog in a film can bark but it cannot bite. In other words, TV violence is not violence; rather, it is a message about violence Many (most?) have difficulty making this distinction because visual images appear as if they are transparent representations of reality We often forget that visual images are themselves encoded

4 We must understand how reality is both mediated and coded reality is not natural reality is articulated thru. codes reality is mediated reality is naturalized thru. codes This brings us to another basic point made by Hall: Communication is not a process by which reality is transparently represented We need to look not for verisimilitude but for how reality is naturalized thru. codes In short, reality only becomes reality thru. a process of codification The operation of naturalized codes reveals not the transparency and naturalness of language but the depth, the habituation and the near-universality of the codes in use. Naturalized codes produce a seemingly natural or transparent recognition of reality that has the ideological effect of concealing the practice of coding It is thru. the naturalization of codes that dominant meaning gets produced thus constructing equivalency b/n encoding and decoding We read signs as natural even though they are only ever coded When codes are naturalized to this degree, Hall calls it an ideological effect the practice and intervention of the codes (in ordering reality) are concealed iii) Use Decoding Some of the most important details of decoding will be covered in section 2) below Here I will outline the three key positions Hall outlines for decoding This is the site in the circuit of communication where the audience is active The preferred reading or encoding is not always fully accepted although the encoding sets parameters and limits for decoding Hall emphasizes the structural (not the individual) aspect of such variations A) Dominant or Hegemonic A virtually identical equivalence b/n encoding and decoding

5 you receive the cultural text fully within the dominant code the coding seems natural and transparent B) Negotiated The preferred reading is accepted as legitimate with some alteration a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements overall the decoding is very similar to the encoding but there are specific modifications full of contradictions and disjunctions C) Oppositional The preferred reading is rejected a clear understanding of the dominant coding but it is wholly refused and replaced by a different set of codes that reflects the receivers alternative frame of reference iii) Use Decoding CONT D 2) Semiotic aspect of Encoding-Decoding What is unique about Hall s approach is that he inserts a semiotic paradigm into a social framework This is important because semiotics were typically used for an abstract analysis of meaning (synchronic structuralist method) Hall situates our active participation in the construction of meaning in both its material and symbolic context Semiotics refresher in relation to Encoding-Decoding Semiotics is the study of signs dvlpd in the early 20 th c. by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure Sign (word/symbol and its meaning) = signifier (thing represented by sign) + signified (concept or idea of signifier) Meaning is produced thru. a system of signs codification

6 Denotation and Connotation The level of connotation is where already coded signs intersect with the deep semantic codes of a culture and take on additional, more active ideological dimensions. Important conceptual tools necessary for understanding the process of encoding/decoding The semiotic construction of meaning is broken down into two levels by Roland Barthes in the late 1950s (Mythologies) Denotative level the literal meaning of something Connotative level associative meaning where the struggle over meanings occurs (Volosinov) Denotative-Connotative level and the construction of meaning Denotative level the level of meaning that is naturalized coding (ideology) as deeply sedimented a reflection of structural power r/ns a reflection of the dominant cultural order This level is part of what Hall calls the structure of discourses in dominance In other words, it helps to produce the dominant or preferred reading (which is encoded into the message) This dominant or preferred reading has both i) the institutional/political/ideological order imprinted in them ii) become institutionalized themselves (in encoding) Connotative level Where our active participation in the construction of meaning takes place When decoding is negotiated or oppositional, it occurs on the connotative level But the connotative level always operates in r/n to the denotative level

7 If we take the negotiated or oppositional position, we are working against the preferred meaning against the orders of social life, of economic and political power, and of ideology Thus even oppositional readings are never an individual or private matter but are in r/n to encoding that is structured in dominance iv) Reproduction comes into place here Dominant meaning needs to be reproduced in order to remain dominant i.e. it must be decoded Thus dominant meaning unfolds in a two-sided process Of course, it can be broken oppositional decoding but that happens against sedimented meaning

8 ADDENDUM We already covered semiotics in great detail. The following notes are taken directly from last semester s lectures. You may find it helpful to review this material in relation to the Encoding-Decoding model. 1) The Fundamental Elements of Semiotics In order to understand the broader implications of semiotics and structuralism especially on the discipline of Cultural Studies we must first identify its component parts. This approach replicates the new methodological orientation Saussure brought to linguistics That is, first identify the elemental components of language and the logic of their internal r/n before examining how that overall structure changes or influences other fields. The fundamental elements are as follows: a) Diachronic; b) Synchronic; c) Referent; d) Sign; e) Signifier (denotative); f) Signified (connotative); g) Signification; h) Langue; i) Parole a) Diachronic the study of a system over time traditionally, language was studied via changes in systems of meaning over time this is called diachronic linguistics, or, philology thus it was concerned with the origins of language and how language changed over time i.e. tracing changes in the meaning of individual words from their origin in a source language (like Latin) C.F. Williams Keywords Saussure s main contribution to the study of language (linguistics) was to break away from diachronic linguistics to synchronic linguistics he felt we should first understand the overall shape of language before studying its change over time Saussure developed a relational theory of language Remember the chess board metaphor

9 b) Synchronic the study of language at a given moment the structure of language hence structuralism Saussure focused on the internal relations of the structured whole of language an abstract, not empirical approach to the study of language his argument was that people had become so bogged down in the empirical fact of particular languages and their word-stores (philology) that there was no developed theory of language-ingeneral from which to make sense of the empirical data. (Hartley) synchronic linguistics became the norm over the 20 th c. the structuralist method that it founded spread to many other disciplines, including the study of culture and cultural texts The basics of this synchronic approach is the isolation of elements (signs) and their internal r/nship w/n an abstract system (codes) of different sign systems c) Referent what the sign stands for it can be an object, condition, or event it is part of the linguistic signifying system, not the inherent property of that externally existing thing not an important concept for Saussure; used by later semioticians like C.S. Pierce d) Sign (word/symbol and its meaning) anything i.e. words, pictures, sounds, gestures that stands for something else in the production of meaning a core concept of semiotics i.e. the red rose + love All signs must have physical form; refer to something other than itself; and, be understandable A sign has two components: signifier and signified All signs have an arbitrary r/n to both a) signifier (the thing to which it refers); and b) signified (the concept it represents) e) Signifier the material thing represented by the sign i.e. the red rose the flower itself this is the denotative level

10 The signifier denotes Denotation is the literal meaning of something the surface level What is denoted is the thing itself f) Signified the concept referred to by the signifier i.e. the red rose signifies love this is the connotative level The signified connotes Connotation refers to the ideas or feelings that the sign signifies a deeper level of meaning What is connoted is the meaning of the thing itself N.B. There is always the possibility that a given signifier has multiple signifieds (i.e. many different meanings) For example, in England, the red rose also signifies the Labour Party This multiple meaning is often called polysemy g) Signification the output of signs communication itself a concept of importance to Barthes he organizes signification into three levels: 1) denotative (a tree); 2) connotative (tree connotes nature); 3) mythical (nature is bountiful) h) Langue (the language system) the structure of speaking the rules and codes the underlying abstract system of signs and conventions Saussure was interested in the structure of speaking, more than the act of speaking (parole) this can be extended to the study of culture e.g. the patterns or social organization of fashion would be its langue It is langue which Saussure subjects to synchronic analysis, as he was concerned with the deep structure of language i) Parole (speech) the act of speaking

11 it is full of variable and accidental aspect messy, as Sabina would say because it is riven with individual variations, it is more difficult to systematize or submit to structural analysis how we collectively implement linguistic structures it also helps us realize how we may influence language thru. our particular usage and if we extend this to the study of culture, we could isolate a single piece of clothing as an individual instance of parole The chess metaphor: langue is the rules of the game; parole is an actual match In short, langue is structure; parole is performance like structure and agency Meaning as arbitrary? There is no essential correspondence b/n signifiers and signifieds Linguistic system work by marking difference, not expressing a natural meaning Do not get confused by the arbitrary r/n b/n the signifier and signified This arbitrary aspect refers to two things: i) that meaning is relational, not essential ii) the impossibility of a single, universal fixed meaning with which everyone, everywhere would agree The whole point about culture (and systems of representation) is that it always tries to fix meaning On an everyday level, we operate in a realm of relatively fixed meaning However, this only comes about thru. linguistic and cultural codes, and, power r/ns (hegemony, ideology, myth, etc.) Thus meaning gets fixed, but never permanently it always remains open to contestation

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