Friday, July 09, 2010

Stuart Hall, Codes, and Theory

This was a presentation whose goal was to explicate two articles by Stuart Hall, "Encoding, Decoding" and "Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies." It's a useful exercise for students, to help leverage oneself into another's theoretical perspective, but I also took the time to press some of my own positions on Hall's theory of coding. Hall's notions--or rather, perhaps, his metaphor--became extremely popular in the just budding field known to English Departments as "cultural studies." Hall was at the forefront of what came to be known as the Birmingham School, the place where English Marxist critics fled to do what they wanted to do, and one lasting field they helped pioneer was the study of popular culture. (The balance between the two poles of literature and popular culture might best be exemplified by Raymond Williams on one side and Dick Hebdige on the other.) One finds the metaphor of coding, for example, in Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious: a Marxist, but only oddly a member of cultural studies (mainly because, hinted at in the last section, most of whom identify as doing cultural studies don't want to say they are working in a discipline, and Jameson still held that Marxism--through its teleological philosophy of history--can still provide a ground for such work).

The article below functions as a primer on dislocating oneself from pre-Quinean philosophy of language. While anglophone philosophers of language largely don't work with Saussure, anglophone English professors largely don't work with Quine. Since whatever background I might be granted is in the anglophone tradition, I bridged the gap by being abstract, but the points Hall scores against the "defunct model," as I call it, are basically the one's post-positivists want to score. Where we go from there is the $64 question not everyone agrees about, and where my line of critical pressure comes from. But the basics about encoding and decoding is the same kind of thing Donald Davidson, for example, would want to say (with his account of triangulation).

You'll also notice a Marxist vocabulary blithely used (ideology, substructure): not my favorite choice, but Marxism underscores almost all the lasting critical trends that have made it to the new millennium. While deconstruction has thankfully petered out, New Historicism, Cultural Studies, and Post-Colonialism are still chugging along. But I cannot emphasize baldly enough: I hate the Marxist vocabulary. I think it just obscures everything important in a cloud of self-righteousness. So, while for some righteousness seems a necessary condition of their writing (like Jameson), for others the cloud lingers and annoys (like Hall, who seems otherwise quite sensible). Call it a bias, but I can't see that anything is gained by talking about "ideology" or "substructure" once everyone's turned in their "I have a science/method to distinguish illusion/ideology from reality/substructure!" cards (which even Jameson admits to not having).

All references are to The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd Ed., edited by Simon During.


What’s Meaning?

How is meaning generated? In an old version, “meaning” was seen as a little bundle put together by a speaker/writer and sent out into the world to be caught by a hearer/reader—meaning as a kind of paper airplane, or better—bullet. On this model, a reader shotguns sentences into her mind and understanding is a matter of getting each of these bullets right.

Hall sums up this defunct model in “Encoding, Decoding” as the “sender/message/receiver” (478) circuit. The biggest trouble is how thin the notion of each segment in the circuit is—how does the sender construct the message and what, exactly, does the receiver do with it? In an attempt to do justice to both ideology and substructure, Hall constructs a model of meaning generation and dissemination that attempts to capture, in an isolated yet flexible fashion, the various pieces of life that go into the creation of a bit of meaning.


Every piece of communication—from a whisper over wine to Tom Brokaw’s bramble-mouth—has both a means and an end. For means, in the case of broadcast news, we can list cameras, computers, cell phones, satellites, green screens—all of these serve particular kinds of purposes in generating particular kinds of meaning (simply recall the “how cool are we” gesticulations of news outlets during the 2008 election with their holograms and mega-maps). In the case of writing, paper, pens, computers and other devices all contribute to the kind of meaning able to be produced (consider the case of Blake’s engraved poetry). Even—and this is key—in the case of one-on-one verbal communication we must—in order to remain coherent materialists—count utterances as material means. Think of the different kinds of meaning produced by the words “I love you” when said by a classmate versus Johnny Depp over wine. Not simply the producer is at issue here, but too, think if Depp had yelled it or, with all the charismatic power of years playing celluloid (now digital) heart-throbs coming to his aid, whispered it in your ear. When Hall says, “the organization and combination of practices with media apparatuses” (478), I think we must think long and wide. Every computer chip, every light bulb lighting Brokaw’s face, every acting lesson Depp took to get on 21 Jump Street—these all combine to transform senders into the particular kind of sender they are. The “means of production” in Hall’s vision of Marxism is considerably widened: “knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies, institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions about the audience and so on…” (479).

Having the means doesn’t produce meaning—you must have a message to impart. Thus enters the notion of having an end-in-view—the combination of the means with an end produces the encoded sign-vehicle (478). In the case of news, “reporting events” might be a typical end-in-view. What Hall highlights is how an actual event we see happening before our very eyes is not what is on the news. What he terms the “‘raw’ historical event” is what we otherwise call “life.” When we attempt to communicate about life—that is when the process of encoding begins, when the means of communicative production transform the raw material of life into a transportable object. Hall’s paradox becomes much more apparent when we replace “life” for “event” in his formulation: “[life] must become a ‘story’ before it can become a communicative [life]” (478). In terms of TV, “events can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of television discourse” (478). When an event goes behind a camera, we put make-up on it, we light it, we shoot it at its most favorable angles. And even if we don’t, this too can become part of encoded meaning. Mockumentaries have raised our awareness of the earmarks of reality, the syle of the real. The rise of the jittery-camera (stemming from, perhaps, Saving Private Ryan's colossal success) as a technique has lent the constructed authenticity of “reality”—somehow we perceive (if not think) that Jason Bourne is deserving of more pathos because we can hardly see him behind Paul Greengrass’ interminable camera-shaking.


Our notion of “meaning” is not complete, however—now that we have an encoded message, we must have a receiver to decode it, untie its message, generate the meaning latent within it. This is where things get tricky for Hall:
Once [encoding is] accomplished, the discourse must then be translated – transformed, again – into social practices if the circuit is to be both completed and effective. If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be no ‘consumption’. If the meaning is not articulated in practice, it has no effect. (478)
Hall suggests that the benefit of this approach is the isolation of encoding from decoding, but his description seems to go a bit beyond his cause. Hall seems to suggest that, e.g., if I do not buy Bud Light after seeing a commercial, the meaning-loop has not been closed. If we expand the notion of “social practices” to a very wide parameter, where even an occurent thought—something that just flashes across the mind's eye—counts as a member of a social practice (for Wittgensteinian reasons)—and I think this is the right approach for the lasting value of Hall’s model—then everything counts as a proper effect, up to and including the noise we attribute to foreign languages, for if we’ve previously formulated the assumption that there is an intentionally aimed message careening at us, then even the shrug of nonunderstanding is meaning enough. What meaning? “No meaning,” which is an articulable enough reaction and effect of a communicative event—“Did you see that advertisement for Bud?” “Yeah.” “What did you think of it?” “Nothing.”

I’m pulling a little hard on Hall’s notion, but I hope there’s a payoff. For there is certainly an obvious enough sense to what Hall’s suggesting if we limit ourselves to the example of advertisements and the perspective of advertisement executives. For the encoder, no meaning has been exchanged and the circuit remains unclosed if there is no apparent reaction, like buying beer or laughing at Super Bowl frogs and Clydesdales. It is helpful in this regard to recall William James’s old pragmatic question, “what’s the difference that makes a difference?” If the receiver remains, more or less, unaffected by the message, then should we say the receiver has even decoded it? Not a lot seems to hinge on saying yes or no, since either way the receiver is unaffected.

The trouble that I think begins here, however, is the lack of perspective. There are hardly any people populating Hall’s analysis. When I talked about ends-in-view, this was part pedagogical and part cover-up. What the ends of messaging are dissolved into, in Hall’s analysis, are roughly “hegemonic powers.” To get ahead of Hall, at the close he says, “Majority audiences probably understand quite adequately what has been dominantly defined and professionally signified. The dominant definitions, however, are hegemonic precisely because they represent definitions of situations and events which are ‘in dominance’ (global)” (486). It seems difficult to understand precisely what is said in that second sentence, what extra meaning has been generated to deepen our understanding of Hall’s vocabulary, when it appears tautological. What I think has dropped out and been replaced by an awkwardly rendered, anonymous power is the message-creator, and specifically the ends, or purposes, of the creation of messages. What we get instead is “dominance which is hegemonic because it’s dominant”—a kind of “dominance is as dominance does” answer to the ends of dominance. The end of power might be power, but power itself is always a steady state—it is a person’s share in power that fluctuates (perhaps even in Foucault's analysis).

How Not to Talk About Language

Saussure was wrong—language is not arbitrary, it has no rules, it is not based on conventions. Hard words, and difficult to defend, but evolution is important here: social practices are evolving bodies in reality. Part of the strike against scientific Marxism is the recuperation of the “superstructure,” or "ideology," the flake at the top of reality that Marx didn't seem to take seriously, but later Marxists like Gramsci do. Hall is sympathetic to this. However, if we see the beginnings of (oral) communication as a matter of collating noises to reactions, such that regularity of response to sounds becomes the beginning of a “language,” then the stability and utility of language only exists insofar as regularity is reproduced, sound and expected reaction. This stability is only as arbitrary as our thumbs—it is only from a cosmic, external view of language and species that we should be able to call the use of the word “cow” or thumbs arbitrary. And like thumbs, there are things language can and cannot do, but neither have rules—Wittgenstein’s metaphor of language-games was misleading just insofar as it cast the spectare of mechanical input-output productions. There are no “rules,” only effective and ineffective communication strategies—just as Hall says about the closing of the meaning-loop being the effect in social practices.

Hall seems importantly right to remark that “there is no degree zero in language” (481). In understanding, I take it, there is no point at which language drops out and reality stands apart naked. All signs are “culture-specific” and those that appear “natural” simply display the “depth, the habituation and the near-universality of the codes in use” (481). There are two different notions here that make up the appearance of naturalness: depth and near-universality. We should distinguish between the two to capture the difference between a code’s wide dissemination and how deeply it is ingrained. The zero-degreeness of language and the trappings of naturalness is what stand in tension with Hall’s Sausurrean suggestion that “cow” is arbitrary and built out of convention whereas the pictogram of a cow is not. If we are to take seriously both the slogan that there is “no degree zero in language” and that all events—life—become transfigured in the process of encoding/decoding, including pictograms and TV, then we ultimately have to reject the nature/convention distinction. It is only by standing on the outside of Creation that we can attain the external view necessary to suppose arbitrariness. And this effect of standing outside of Creation isn’t, in fact, difficult to achieve once one follows Wittgenstein’s suggestion that a language composes a lebensform (lifeform) and then get’s dropped into a foreign-language speaking village—every sound will be noise, and the noises seemingly arbitrarily emitted. Why one noise as opposed to another? Why make that noise when you see a cow? To learn a language, however, you have to at once drop the notion that the noises are arbitrarily emitted and suppose that there is a pattern of regularity and stability, the learning of which constitutes the learning of a language. The noise the French make, “vache,” instead of “cow,” only seems arbitrary when you either don’t know the language at all or isolate it from the herd of other noises and compare them by themselves: “Why ‘vache’ instead of ‘cow’? How arbitrary!” Or the person who arbitrarily throws foreign words into conversation: “Why did you say lebensform instead of lifeform? How arbitrary!” Except that, just like what goes behind a camera, these can be earmarks for specific kinds of codes, e.g. a comedic display of erudition or a random display of arbitrariness.

Denotation and Connotation

Following fashions in linguistics, Hall defines “denotation” as “literal meaning” and “connotation” as “associative meanings” (482). Hall’s beef with the linguistic theorists is that they often mistakenly take denotation to be a transcript of reality, whereas connotation is all those extraneous and idiosyncratic associations we make between, e.g., vache and marbles—completely arbitrary to everybody but the person for whom it makes perfect sense. What Hall would rather like to do is take the denotative/connotative distinction as a rule of thumb to be deployed at instances of communication to separate out these two distinct parts. For example, the existence of sarcasm makes “Oh, you look great in those jeans” an entirely different denotation than if sans sarcasm. Denotations and connotations more fluidly interact with the action of communication.

There is a small cadre of problems hidden in Hall’s not-so-different use of the literal/associative distinction (some to do with metaphor, others to do with meanings-as-bundles), but the most interesting for a grasp of Hall’s style is that the use of “literal” allows Hall to eliminate reference to people communicating. If you don’t understand what somebody’s denoting, you ask them, “What did you mean?” and the first answer they decide to choose among a possible bevy of things they were signifying we can call the literal, denoted meaning, with all the others the frosting that makes language a beautiful, associative cake. This dissolves the faceless “literal,” which retains the notion of small, essential monads of meaning attached to small swatches of phrases, into “desired encoding”—what did the sender want the receiver to receive.

This muddies the water, however, for Hall suggests that it “is at the connotative level of the sign that situational ideologies alter and transform signification” (482). Recurring to a different distinction, the up-shot of Hall’s rendering is that the overt message is what is said on the surface while ideology is a covert encoding intended to slip past our decoding censors. “Desired encoding,” on the other hand, obliterates the difference between overt and covert since both are likely desired by self-conscious television news producers.

On the other hand, something terribly difficult happens when Hall continues his faceless analysis by talking about the decoding of denotative and connotative meanings. Things appear fine when he talks about the “‘work’ required to enforce, win plausibility for and command as legitimate a decoding” (484), for we can get the swing of how many techniques are used by people to disseminate a message and its decoder ring, positive reinforcement being the most general category to name it with (give a cookie to the person who cheers back “Bourgeois ideology!”). But something goes awry when we get to Hall’s three decoder positions—are these positions self-conscious or unconscious? Are they just analytically descriptive? How does an analyst know whether the dominant-hegemonic position is being taken if everyone, including the analyst, has to engage in the act of decoding, which produces the position of “am I getting this wrong?” This is where it is helpful to have a concept of agency lying around. Hall can’t ask anyone because his apparatus is built of faceless literal meanings and dominant codes. A lot of useful analysis can be done by Hall’s model, but it runs into a hole when moving to individuals decoding messages. Take Hall’s “simplest example of a negotiated code,” which is one that is a “mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements”: “At the level of the ‘national interest’ economic debate the decoder may adopt the hegemonic definition, agreeing that ‘we must all pay ourselves less in order to combat inflation’. This, however, may have little or no relation to his or her willingness to go on strike for better pay and conditions…” (486). Surely Hall’s worker is not self-consciously “adopting” the hegemonic option? Yet, would it not be terribly easier when talking about decoding to talk about the individual’s relationship to the codes in play? That, on the one hand, the worker feels a simple patriotism and responds to calls for duty, but on the other needs more money? The notion of “adoption” sneaks agency into Hall’s fairly unpeopled vocabulary because he needs it to describe people, but it reflects the same kind of arbitrainess nonsense we need to extirpate from the level of philosophy of language (what they call "decisionism" in moral philosophy). Choices and readings and decodings aren’t made arbitrarily, and some of the work involved in just this activity is elided by his vocabulary.

What Is Theory For?

The epithet I was reaching for at the close of the last section was “overtheorized.” This is a danger Hall takes up in his retrospective gloss on the growth of cultural studies in “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies.” At least at two points, Hall stops to remark that he hopes nobody’s reading him as anti-theoretical (39, 41). Nothing could have been farther from my mind, but it strikes up the utility of theory in general. Why should Hall be so self-conscious? Because theory is well-known for being over-jargonized? Well, what is theory if not a specific jargon one wields to approach a problem?

The trouble is that theory still plays two games—one amongst themselves and one with the problems. Over-jargonizing is a sign that theorists have been playing with themselves for too long. So Hall wants to suggest that they get their semiotics dirty (35). However, he also doesn’t want to slight theory. One exemplary metaphor he uses is “theoretical work as interruption” (39). Theory interrupts what you are otherwise doing, like working with people with AIDS. It allows you to create a space with which to wonder about the work you are doing, because in the midst of it you must remain in the midst of it to do it well. This space allows us to become self-conscious about the tools we employ while doing our work, and for cultural studies that means the way we represent, signify, and symbolize. For example, we no longer have autistic children because work done in identity-formation suggests that treating certain kinds of illnesses and whatnot as attributes rather than baggage creates a stymied identity that limits a person’s ability to grow—so we now have children with autism. Representational shifts like this are easily lampooned, but it is difficult to see why such representational experimentation is any different than the R&D we do in technological industry—if there’s a problem, you try and fix it. Some people do it badly, but still, how is that any different than Toyota?

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