THE WORK OF REPRESENTATION Stuart Hall 1 REPRESENTATION, MEANING AND LANGUAGE In this chapter we will be concentrating on one of the key processes in the ‘cultural circuit’ (see Du Gay et al., 1997, and the Introduction to this volume) – the practices of representation. The aim of this chapter is to introduce you to this topic, and to explain what it is about and why we give it such importance in cultural studies. The concept of representation has come to occupy a new and important place in the study of culture. Representation connects meaning and language to culture. But what exactly do people mean by it? What does representation have to do with culture and meaning? One common-sense usage 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 produced and exchanged between members of a culture. It does involve the use of language, of signs and images 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 to explore this connection further, we will look at a number of different theories about how language is used to represent the world. Here we will be drawing a distinction between three different accounts or theories: the reflective, the intentional and the constructionist approaches to representation. Does language simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, people and events (reflective)? Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants to say, his or her personally intended meaning (intentional)? Or is meaning constructed in and through language (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 this perspective which has had the most significant impact on cultural studies in recent years. This 01-Hall_Ch-01.indd 1 18/04/2013 12:23:49 PM Representation chapter 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 discursive approach, associated with the French philosopher and historian, Michel Foucault. Later chapters in this book will take up these two theories again, among others, so you will have an opportunity to consolidate your understanding of them, and to apply them to different areas of analysis. Other chapters will introduce theoretical paradigms which apply constructionist approaches in different ways 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 things What 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.


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