Week 0 – Surfaces and Strategies- Stuart Hall – Part 1

During the holidays, I created a small project to be printed in a small book, but I will talk about that in a different post. I have read chapter 4 of Stuart Hall Representation: The spectacle of other. The reading was very enjoyable as it is suitable for the themes that I usually work with. Here I am going to make a summary of the Chapter.

The spectacle of the ‘Other’

“Representation is a complex business and, especially when dealing with ‘difference’, it engages feelings, attitudes and emotions and it mobilizes fears and anxiety in the viewer, at deeper levels than we can explain in a simple, common-sense way. This is why we need theories- to deepen our analysis.” (Hall, 216)

The initial question is how do we represent what is different from us and why this is such a contested theme in the area of representation? What is discussed about racial differences, coming on as the first theme of the chapter, could also be applied to gender, sexuality, class and disability.

Image 1

The chapter starts discussing the Sunday times image, with the title “Heroes and Villains”. Is talks about racial identity and the way these athletes are racially defined. And the reason for the title is that there is a discussion about drug use by Ben Johnson, the leader at the image. (Image 1)

Here “race” and “otherness” is clearly stated, and Hall reminds us of Barthes’ idea of myth, and that this image works as a myth. The denotative meaning is that Johnson is at the front of the 100 meters, and the connotative is the drug story. The sub-theme is race and difference, and it also tells us how the “myth” works: it is a powerful image, but the meaning is very ambiguous (disgrace and triumph).

There are two discourses on the page: the written language and photography. Stuart Hall reminds us how Barthes argues that the caption frequently is the one that selects the meanings of the image and anchors with it (Hall, 128).

Otherness and Binary Opposition

Here, in showing difference from the majority, often opposed extremes are used: good/bad, civilized/primitive, ugly/excessively attractive, repelling different/attractive exotic. Barthes would call it a “meta-message”, or a myth about race and otherness.

Image 2 – Linford Christie

Another image of Linford Christie is also discussed, the triumph for the race, the country, of for himself. The general definition of Britishness is white, but described himself as a British national, since he has been living here for 28 years. He was a subject for the tabloid press, as they mentioned the size of his “lunchbox”. He felt humiliated and considered this as an act racism and stereotyping of black men.

Here, the representation of difference takes another level, it adds “sexuality and gender to race, ethnicity and colour (Hall, 220).” Therefore, gender and sexuality have ambiguous meanings in the images.

Image 3 – Carl Lewis

Lewis here is a black male athlete and identities with a “super-masculinity”, but it is disturbed by introducing his femininity with the use of the hells. Sexual and racial messages are again ambiguous (inter-textual). Therefore, why otherness is such a compelling subject of representation and how it is linked with power?

Hall use 4 theoretical accounts to get deeper in the subject on “why difference matters”?

  • 1- From linguistics, Saussure

The use of language as a model on how the culture works. The main argument is that difference matters because it is essential to meaning. Without it, meaning would not exist. Therefore, meaning depends on the differences of opposites. Earlier on Hall discussed on the extremes of binary oppositions and how cruel and reductionist they can be. As an example, the black and white photography are not made of the two extremes, but of shades of grey.

While we still have them, binary oppositions create an over-simplified way to create meaning. It is a rigid two-part system. Jacques Derrida argues that there are very few neutral binary extremes: one is dominant and there is always a connection with power: white/black; men/women; masculine/feminine; upper class/lower class; British/alien.

  • 2- Also from the theory of languages, Mikhail Bakhtin

Russian linguist argues that we need difference because we can only construct meaning through the dialogue with the other. He studies language as a system that is sustained by a dialogue between 2 or more speakers. Saussure studied languages as an objective system.

Bakhtin argues that that word is half someone else’s and that it is a “give-and-take”. It only becomes one’s own “when a speaker appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic expressive intention. Before that, it is neutral and impersonal” (Hall, 225).

“Everything we say and mean is modified by the interaction and interplay with the other person.” “The other, in short, is essential to meaning (Hall, 225). This is the positive in his theory. The negative is that meaning cannot be fixed and that one group cannot be in charge of meaning.

  • 3- Anthropology

The argument here is that “culture depends on giving things meaning by assigning them to different positions in a classificatory system.” So, this way, the symbolic order is the culture, binary oppositions are essential in this system to establish the differences between things. Therefore, difference here is fundamental to cultural meaning.

However, this can create negative feelings because, when things turn out in the wrong category, it can be really disturbing. Substances, like mercury that is a liquid and a metal, do not fit the general description. A social group such as mulattoes, do not fit anywhere, because they are neither white nor black.

Symbolic boundaries keep the categories “pure”, giving cultures their unique meaning and identity. As a result, it expels and stigmatize what can be described as abnormal, a threaten to the cultural order.

  • 4- Psychoanalytic theory

“The argument that the ‘Other’ is fundamental to the constitution of the self to us as subjects, and to sexual identity”. Freud’s version of the Oedipus myth, that the boy develops sexual attraction to the mother and sexual difference create was contested and many questioned his speculative personality.

On the other hand, Jacques Lacan goes further than Freud, arguing that the child has no sense of separation from the mother until it sees itself in the mirror: “the mirror stage”. There the child recognizes itself as a unified object, separate from the outside world (the Other). Lacan also says that it mis-recognize itself, and that can never be fully unified. Melanie Klein (1957) argues that copes with the lack of stability splitting its image and identification with the Mother into its good and bad parts.

“Our subjectivities, they argue, depend on our unconscious relations with the significant others. However, there are also negative implications. The psychoanalytic perspective assumes that there is no such thing as a given, stable inner core to “the self” or to identity. Psychically, we are never fully unified as subjects. Our subjectivities are formed through this troubled, never-completed, unconscious dialogue with – the internalization of – the ‘Other’. It is formed in relation to something which completes us but which – since it lies outside us – we in some way always lack. (Hall 2278)”

Here difference is ambivalent, it can be good and bad.

Using these theories, Hall follows exploring the representation of the “Other” in the western culture. I will stop for now, and do another port for the second part of the chapter.

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