Representation theory hand-out


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Representation theory hand-out

  1. 1. Key Media Concept – RepresentationDefinition: Representation refers to the construction in any medium(especially the mass media) of aspects of ‘reality’ such as people, places,objects, events, cultural identities and other abstract concepts.Key Points: Representations become familiar through constant re-use and come to feel natural and unmediated. A key concern is the way in which representations are made to seem ‘natural’, despite the fact that they change over time. Representation is unavoidably selective, foregrounding some things and backgrounding others. Representations require interpretation – meaning is often subject to individual interpretation Representation always involves the construction of reality from a particular point of view Systems of representation are the means by which the concerns of ideologies are framed to create ways of looking at texts; such value systems ‘position’ their subjects.Contemporary theories of representation stress the construction of particularrealities. 1
  2. 2. Stuart Hall – Reception TheoryHe wrote a paper entitled ‘Encoding/Decoding’ (1981) in which he discussedthe three ways of reading a text.Preferred reading – the reader experiences recognition of their own valuesand interprets the text as the producer intendedNegotiated reading – the meaning of a text lies somewhere between theproducer and the reader. Even though the producer encodes the text in aparticular way, the reader will decode it in a slightly different mannerOppositional reading – the reader interprets the text in a way that is totallyoppositional to the intended readingLaura Mulvey - The Male GazeAs Jonathan Schroeder notes, Film has been called an instrument of themale gaze, producing representations of women, the good life, and sexualfantasy from a male point of view (Schroeder 1998, 208). The conceptderives from a very important article called ‘Visual Pleasure and NarrativeCinema’ by Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist. It was published in 1975and is one of the most widely cited articles in the whole of contemporary filmtheory. It focuses on how subject positions are constructed by media textsrather than investigating the viewing practices of individuals in specific socialcontexts.It explores the idea of the power of gaze and sets up some of the basicconcepts behind the representation of gender.Mulvey notes that Freud had referred to (infantile) scopophilia - the pleasureinvolved in looking at other people’s bodies as (particularly, erotic) objects. Inthe darkness of the cinema auditorium it is notable that one may look withoutbeing seen either by those on screen by other members of the audience.Mulvey argues that various features of cinema viewing conditions facilitate forthe viewer both the voyeuristic process of objectification of female charactersand also the narcissistic process of identification with an ‘ideal ego’ seen onthe screen. She declares that in patriarchal society ‘pleasure in looking hasbeen split between active/male and passive/female’ (Mulvey 1992, 27). This isreflected in the dominant forms of cinema. Conventional narrative films in the 2
  3. 3. ‘classical’ Hollywood tradition not only typically focus on a male protagonist inthe narrative but also assume a male spectator.Traditional films present men as active, controlling subjects and treat womenas passive objects of desire for men in both the story and in the audience, anddo not allow women to be desiring sexual subjects in their own right. Suchfilms objectify women in relation to ‘the controlling male gaze’ (ibid., 33),presenting ‘woman as image’ (or ‘spectacle’) and man as ‘bearer of the look’(ibid., 27). Men do the looking; women are there to be looked at.It was Mulvey who coined the term the male gaze.Mulvey distinguishes between two modes of looking for the film spectator:voyeuristic and fetishistic, which she presents in Freudian terms as responsesto male ‘castration anxiety’. Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gazeand Mulvey argues that this has has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure liesin ascertaining guilt - asserting control and subjecting the guilty personthrough punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29). Fetishistic looking, incontrast, involves ‘the substitution of a fetish object or turning the representedfigure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous.This builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into somethingsatisfying in itself. The erotic instinct is focused on the look alone’. Fetishisticlooking, she suggests, leads to overvaluation of the female image and to thecult of the female movie star. Mulvey argues that the film spectator oscillatesbetween these two forms of looking (ibid.; see also Neale 1992, 283ff; Ellis1982, 45ff; Macdonald 1995, 26ff; Lapsley & Westlake 1988, 77-9).Semiotics The audience look for signs to help them interpret the narrative. These deeply rooted signs are based on the expectations the audience has due to their prior knowledge of old tales or myths. The theory of how we interpret these signs are as follows: o Sign = the total of the signifier and signified eg how we interpret the combination of the signifier and the signified o Signifier (the object) o Signified (the meaning) 3
  4. 4. Roland Barthes – Denotation and Connotation Meaning includes both denotation and connotation. Denotation tends to be described as the definitional, literal, obvious or commonsense meaning of a sign. The term connotation is used to refer to the socio- cultural and personal associations (ideological, emotional etc.) of the sign. These are typically related to the interpreters class, age, gender, ethnicity and so on. Signs are more polysemic - more open to interpretation - in their connotations than their denotations. In The Photographic Message (1961) and The Rhetoric of the Image (1964), Barthes argued that in photography connotation can be (analytically) distinguished from denotation (Barthes 1977, 15-31, 32- 51). As Fiske puts it denotation is what is photographed, connotation is how it is photographed (Fiske 1982, 91). Related to connotation is what Roland Barthes refers to as myth. We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of gods and heroes. But for Barthes myths were the dominant ideologies of our time. Like metaphors, myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture (Lakoff & Johnson 1980, 185-6). They express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture. Their function is to naturalize the cultural - in other words, to make dominant cultural and historical values, attitudes and beliefs seem entirely natural, normal, self-evident, timeless, obvious common-sense - and thus objective and true reflections of the way things are. It is possible to argue that all media representations relate to broader cultural myths and belief systems. 4
  5. 5. TASK:Pick one of your productions and answer the following questions on the blog: 1. What/who is being represented? 2. How is it being represented? (Use microelements) 3. How is the representation made to seem true, commonsense or natural? 4. What is foregrounded and what is backgrounded? Are there any notable absences? 5. Whose representation is it? Whose interests does it reflect? How do you know? 6. How do people make sense of the representation? According to what codes? (Consider Mulvey’s theory and Barthes concept of myth – make reference to both). 7. Apply the theory of semiotics to your production i.e. what are the signs and their associated meanings? 5