Representation, Meaning and Language
In this short piece of writing I shall examine the definitions of representation, meaning, language and culture, and explore their relationship to each other. I will be mainly referring to the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his book Representation.
Representation is an essential process by which meaning is produced, and exchanged between members of a culture. It involves language in the broadest sense, and this includes visual language, spoken and written language, gesture, embodiment and music. However, the construction of meaning and its transferral is not straightforward. Describing and defining representation is a key stepping stone in the understanding of how language works, and also how language contributes to shaping the scaffolding of culture.
Lets take a look at basic terms. Hall asserts, that simply put “representation is the production of meaning through language” (Hall, 2013, p. 2). Meanwhile, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary suggests two relevant meanings for the word:
- To represent something is to describe or to depict it, to call it up in them in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in our senses.
- To represent also means to symbolize, to stand for, to be a specimen of, or to substitute for.
Meaning is the agreed significance of a thing, place, idea, person, object, and event whether imagined or real. It is the process whereby groups of individuals refer to the same concept through the system of linguistic representation. As Hall elucidates, meaning is the way you makes sense of the world of people, objects, and events and the way you communicate them to other people in a way that other people understand (Hall, 2013, p. 3).
In order to convey meaning, language is needed. While we are on definitions, it is broadly agreed that language is a system of signs, across a range of mediums that communities use to create shared understanding. And in order for people to understand each other, and enter from the sphere of private meaning into the public they must share a system of representation, meaning making and language. And this is why the definition of culture is sometimes presented as the experience and demonstration of “shared meanings or shared conceptual maps” (Du Gay et al., 1997). Therefore, culture can be broadly defined as a demonstration of shared meanings and a shared method, or language used in the communication of those meanings.
However, Hall argues that a conceptual system for defining and organising shared meaning is not enough. We must be able to exchange our shared meanings, and do this more or less, consistently. In terms of understanding what is meant by language, be it visual, filmic, verbal, sonic or otherwise, Hall presents two main systems of representation, and details how they are at play in the way we construct meaning in our minds, and employ language and signs to refer to our concepts (Hall, 2013).
Before I delve further into these systems, it is important to make the distinction between visual and verbal signs. In linguistics visual signs are known as iconic signs, while written or spoken signs are known as indexical signs. For example, an iconic sign is a referent to the material object (place, thing, person, event) that bears a resemblance visually. For example, a photograph of a tree reproduces some of the actual conditions of our visual perception of a tree. The indexical equivalent however, bears no obvious resemblance to the object it refers to. The word tree does not refer in any real way to a tree (Hall, 2013, p. 7). The word tree does not look anything like trees in nature, nor the word tree sound like the nature or activity of a tree. With this example in mind, Saussure argues that the relationship between the sign, the concept and the object have no relationship to each other (Saussure, 1960). Using this logic, a tree therefore, in indexical terms could be referred to as YYZ or EERET. It is important to bear this in mind when we refer back to Halls systems of representation the help us construct meaning in the world.
As we turn to the systems and methods use to identify and define representation, it is useful to keep this definition of representation in the fore of our minds. “Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our minds through language” (Hall, 1997, P. 3). When establishing definitions about the processes employed in the construction and interpretation of meaning, Hall outlines two main systems.
- The construction of concepts or mental representations that are broadly agreed to refer to things in the material world, including people / objects / places / events. For example, think of the concept of a dog. The conceptual representation of a dog broadly involves concepts of hairy, four legged, animal. There is no reason the word dog should conjure such imagery, but the fact that it does is testament to the cultural construction of the meaning of the word dog. To understand meaning, we must first understand if the same concept refers to the same thing for different people.
- Language is the second system of representation. The shared conceptual map of meaning must be converted into language that communicates the meaning of the concept. The general term used for words, image, sounds, or gestures that convey meaning is signs. These signs represent the concepts that comprise of meaning systems which constitute culture.
They key question here, is why is this important. Why bother putting definition to linguistic systems, building methods of systemic interpretation and analysis of signs. Hall argues that without shared conceptual representations, and a language that consistently refers to similar codes, or conceptual constructs, then culture is non-existent and relationality through shared meaning is limited. Simply, we struggle to comprehend one another fully.
All linguistic expressions are signs, and therefore need to be interpreted. The process of interpretation helps us compare and contrast the conceptual associations of a shared system of meaning. For example, Hall invites readers to consider an example of interpreting meaning in his book Representation. Imagine an abstract cartoon drawing of a sheep. Readers of this abstract representation of a sheep will need a sophisticated linguistic and visual system to infer that the mark on the page is indeed a sheep. At times different readers may find themselves wondering if the oval, white shape outlined with undulating arcs and four dark rectangles attached to the underneath of the oval outline, is indeed a sheep. As the relationship between the sign (abstract drawing of a sheep) and the referent (concept of sheep), the meaning begins to slip and slide away from us towards uncertainty (Hall, 2013, pg. 5). It is in this example that the importance, and indeed function of interpretation and analysis of meaning, of language, of association is demonstrated. Without time spent analysing, discussing and sharing interpretation of the abstract sheep, how can individuals know that they are indeed reading the same text, and extracting the same meaning from the image.
In conclusion, The Work of Representation introduces us to specific definitions of meaning, language, signs, and representation. We are able to understand that Hall proposes that in order for individuals to share a cultural identity through language that a shared code of meaning must exist, along with a shared language system. Without transferrable correlate conceptual associations of signs, a shared reading of them is impossible. And without a linguistic system of signs to refer to those meanings, the communication of meaning is impossible.
He also introduces us to the idea of linguistic signs, indexical signs, iconic signs and codes; a variety of methods by which to arrange and analyse language. Time is spent introducing is to Saussure’s idea of arbitrary meaning. The fact that the relationship between ascribed between the linguistic system and the conceptual system is the marriage of arbitrary associations. However these arbitrary systems of meaning become fixed and reinforced by social conventions. For example, through repetition we all learn that a Green traffic light means go. However, there is no reason that go should be represented by the colour Green. Indeed it could be referred to by any other colour, or pattern, or icon.
Becoming exposed and influenced by the relationships between concepts and linguistics is a key factor is what turns all individuals into cultural subjects. Understanding these ideas, and making time for the dissection and interpretation of concepts and language, of unpacking meaning is important, as it can prove through the sorting of shared meaning, that individuals belong to the same linguistic and conceptual universe. That people refer to the same thing when they communicate. Early anthropologists of language, like Sapir and Whorf argue that each individual is locked into the individual “mind sets” and that the study of language is the best insight into such individual universes (Hall, 2013, p. 8). Essentially time spent understanding what meaning is, how it is constructed, by who and how it shapes understanding and relationships with a cultural context is integral to reading, understanding and participating in cultural practice.
Du Gay, P., Hall, S., James, L., Mackay, H. and Negus,K. (1997) Doing Cultural Studies; The Story of the Sony Walkman, London: Sage / The Open University.
Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (2013). Representation. 2nd ed. London: Sage.
Saussure, F. De. (1960) Course in General Linguistics. London: Peter Owen.