Representing Stuart Hall

Back into the archives this week, this time for a guest lecture I did for a large undergraduate class here at the University of Minnesota in 2012. At least that’s what my notes tell me. I was asked to come in and say some useful words about Stuart Hall and his importance to media studies to about 150 undergrads who had been assigned a chapter about Hall, but nothing actually by him. The chapter in question was . . . so-so. I had to spend the first part of my time both explaining (gently) what was wrong with the chapter, while also acknowledging that the chapter’s author was trying to summarize way too much of Hall’s work in way too short a space, and so some of the chapter’s weaknesses were an understandable product of that kind of compression. After that, though, I, too, tried to explain too much Hall in not enough time. But I think I did a passable enough job of that. :)

At the risk of oversimplifying a bit, a classic, old-school, 1970s (and earlier) approach to media representations — a school of thought that Hall explicitly critiqued and challenged — is based on the assumption that there is something “out there” called reality, and that it is the job of “the media” to represent (literally to re-present) bits of that reality to people who don’t have direct access to it. Something happens in Iraq, or France, or Cuba, and people who want to know about those events in Minneapolis, or London, or Shanghai need to have those events re-presented to them by various media outlets.

This approach to media studies — which, again, Hall critiques — then typically goes on to analyze specific examples of re-presentation to see how “accurate” they are. Are they faithful to reality? Do they distort reality? Do they introduce specific biases into those re-presentations that we should worry about?

Hall, however, thinks about representation in a different sense of the term, and with a very different philosophical underpinning than this. For him, the word representation (as it relates to the media) is much closer in spirit to the notion of political representation: i.e., our political representatives don’t simply re-present our political views; they serve as substitutes for our views. They stand in for us on our behalf in a context where we cannot all be there to speak for ourselves . . . and, in so doing, they actually wind up producing “our” views for us. For Hall, then, the media don’t simply re-present reality to us; they continually produce and reproduce a particular reality that we then live in.

Now, on the surface, this seems a little nuts. Disney and Fox didn’t actually manufacture the planet, after all. The universe existed perfectly well without The New York Times, and will go on doing so after the Times goes away. But this isn’t quite what Hall is driving at.

Here, I want to take a short sideways step and quote James Carey — not the rubber-faced actor (who spells his last name with 2 Rs), but the communication scholar — who once described communication as “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.” Again, Carey isn’t arguing that the world only exists because we communicate about it.

What he is arguing, however, is that the world is only intelligible, navigable, and understandable because we impose various communicative grids over it. Language divides the universe up into categories. It imposes a semi-arbitrary order on the world. The act of giving something — a concept, an object, a chunk of land — a name is an artificial way to draw a distinction between that something and the rest of the universe.

Example. How many people here have flown in an airplane? When you look out the window of an airplane at 35,000 feet, are the borders of counties, states, nations (etc.) typically visible to you? Generally no. And, even when they are, you’re almost always looking at natural borders (rivers, lakes, coastlines) yet you still have no way of automatically knowing whether any given river, for instance, is or isn’t a geopolitical border. Just a few feet from where we stand, the Mississippi River is not such a border at all — you’re in Minneapolis, regardless of which side of the river you’re on. Travel downstream another couple of miles, though, and the same river suddenly separates Minneapolis from St. Paul.

And these are, in the end, very real differences — that is, they matter in tangible, material, significant ways. And, in the end, they’re differences produced by symbolic, communicative acts. People draw invisible lines in the earth; give different labels to the various shapes produced by those lines; and then go on to create massive, complicated sets of rules — some formal (laws), some informal (customs) — for how people should behave when they’re inside one of those shapes.

The world as we know it is produced through these types of acts of communication — not just in geopolitical terms, but in the very ways that different languages carve up the universe into different, not always identical, subcategories.

And this brings us back to Hall. Who argues that one of the major things that “the media” do for us (or to us) — not alone, mind you, which is why he wouldn’t want to think of “the media” as somehow separate from other symbolic practices — is to create specific versions of reality that we then inhabit. And that these different realities are never politically neutral. They’re never objective. They can’t be. They come from particular cultural contexts, which means that they are inevitably shaped by a broad set of linguistic, social, political, economic (etc.) forces that are specific to those contexts.

Put a different way, we see a preponderance of certain types of media representations — and not others — because those types of representations fit well with the particular biases and preferences of our culture. More precisely, though, we get a preponderance of certain types of media representations — and not others — because those types of representations fit well with the particular biases and preferences of the people and institutions who have the most control over the media.

Now, on the surface, this might seem to take us back to that old school model of media studies that Hall rejects. And insofar as both that old school of thought and Hall are concerned with issues of bias, it sort of does. There are two key differences worth noting here, though.

First, the old school of media studies implicitly assumes — in ways that Hall would adamantly disagree with — that the problem of bias can be fixed with better controls for “objectivity” or “neutrality” on the part of media producers. Hall wants to insist that this is impossible, since we all bring particular sets of cultural biases to the table with us. None of us are capable of viewing the world through a completely unfiltered lens, since we could only do so if we could somehow escape the biases of language, of cultural upbringing, of the various social norms we swim in.

Second, though, and perhaps even more importantly, Hall insists that one of the major methodological biases of old-school media studies approaches to representation is that it can only measure and analyze what is actually represented. Who is visible on screen in a news report? What words are used to describe the events? What music is used to indicate mood in a movie? And so on. Part of what Hall contributes to the study of media is an insistence on examining what is not visible, what seemingly can’t be said, what is left unrepresented, since this — he wants to suggest — is where some of the most significant ideological work is done.

Example. Let’s talk about crime. More specifically, let’s talk about mainstream media coverage of crime, and mainstream political statements about “getting tough on crime.” When we see such coverage, when we hear such statements, what types of crime are journalists and politicians generally talking about? With very few exceptions, they’re talking about “street crimes” perpetrated by “ordinary” people: e.g., murder, mugging, rape, assault, battery, arson, robbery, drug dealing, auto theft, identity theft.

When we hear about the need to “get tough on crime,” what we’re hearing is a particular inflection of what does and doesn’t count as “real” crime, significant crime, important crime, dangerous crime. We’re being told a set of stories about what types of people are (and are not) likely to be criminals.

And this, following Hall’s logic, depends on some pretty significant silences about “crime.” Viewed literally, after all, the odds are good that everyone in this room is a criminal. Everyone. Have you ever driven over the speed limit? You’ve broken the law. Parked at a parking meter longer than you’d paid for? You’ve broken the law. Jaywalked? You’ve broken the law. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get caught doing these things — any more than a thief who doesn’t get caught is somehow not still a thief. There are laws on the books that govern our behavior and most of the adult US population (and probably an awful lot of the children too) has broken at least one of those laws at some point in their lives. Probably more than one. Probably more than once. Yet we know perfectly well that “tough on crime” media narratives aren’t typically intended to make sure that people who text while driving are locked up for the rest of their lives. Those narratives simply ignore “minor” crimes as irrelevant . . .

. . . but, more significantly, they also ignore some pretty major crimes too. In particular, white collar crime and corporate crime is almost never part of the “tough on crime”/“law and order” narrative. When prominent politicians and businesspeople employ undocumented aliens as maids and groundskeepers, they’re breaking federal employment laws. When factories dump toxic waste into rivers and lakes, they’re breaking environmental protection laws. When big businesses use creative accounting to avoid paying income taxes, they’re breaking the law. When allegedly competing corporations get together and coordinate the prices they’ll charge for their goods and services, they’re violating federal trade law. When businesses systematically refuse to hire and/or promote people because of their race, gender, religion, or age (and, increasingly, in some locales, their sexual orientation), they’re violating labor laws. And so on.

When these stories make the news — and they sometimes do, of course — they don’t get framed as stories about “crime” (even though they are). These sorts of criminal activities are routinely excluded from media representations of “crime” . . . and this, Hall would argue, has everything to do with the question of who controls the mainstream media and what sorts of narratives those people and institutions are interested in perpetrating about people and institutions who are very much like themselves.

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