Cultivating Identity Through Language

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene II Romeo and Juliet

The famous quote from William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy asks, what is in a name? Unfortunately, the bard does little to offer suggestions about the worth of language, but he has a point. The reason we recognize a rose as a rose is only partly due to the word itself. “Rose” does absolutely nothing to tell us that it will have a lovely fragrance, and yet, if a rose was renamed “stink flower” we might talk about them very differently. Or would we? Unbeknownst to the famous playwright, Shakespeare tapped into a longstanding debate about language, its meaning, and the relationship between the words we use to describe something and the physical object itself.
These ideas are at the heart of Stuart Hall’s piece, “The Work of Representation.” In this essay, Hall sets out to outline how representation works in our ever-changing world. He begins by trying to navigate how language conveys meaning, which is one of the core principles of representation. One way that he attempts to make sense of this is by looking at three different approaches to the language of representation; reflective, intentional, and constructionist. The reflective approach suggests that meaning exists in the physical world, whereas intentional focuses on the author’s meaning. The constructionist theory, which is the main focus of the piece, examines how language is assigned a meaning and the construction of language and its meaning.
Before tackling constructionism too much, Hall analyzes how we define representation. Much of this discussion brought to mind Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” where the methods we use to define an object must be differentiated from the actual object itself. Hall achieves this by examining language’s use as a common denominator. In order for something to have meaning, a value and/or meaning must be placed on it by the society. This common way of communicating between people, he argues, is one of the defining traits of a culture. It was bizarre to read because it is such a basic concept that is frequently taken for granted, but Hall’s reading of how a group of people share a language, whether it be made up of words or signs, taps into a cultural need that is often overlooked.
Hall privileges the construction of language throughout his piece, discounting the intentional approach as too individualized to function in a society. He once again returns to the idea that meaning must be agreed upon by society at large, citing traffic lights and their meaning as a prime example. The traffic lights themselves, as well as their colors, have no meaning until we assign them one, such as red means stop and green means go. This leads hall to his discussion of semiotics and the basic theory of the signifier and the signified, which is a staple of most discussions of semiotics. At this point, Hall returns to a point he made in a previous essay about the fluidity of meaning. He makes it a point to discuss the roles that we inhabit as producers of meaning, which plays an indispensable role in how we create our own language. However, Hall’s reading of Saussure’s theories was not complete without his discussion of the pitfalls of these theories, which mainly consisted of Saussure’s rather limited scope and privileging his own technique. It was a minor portion of the reading, but it created a more well-rounded idea of the benefits of these concepts, but that they are not without their flaws.
As Hall continues, he makes good use of examples in his discussion of semiotics, the study of signs. It is an accessible concept as it is, or perhaps it is the amount it was discussed in undergrad film classes, but Hall’s discussion of the meanings we assign clothing made the discussion of semiotics less theoretical and more practical in using an example.
From semiotics, Hall proceeds to discuss another method of representation that Foucault wrote about, known as discourse. Discourse is a difficult thing to explain, due to its esoteric nature, but it essentially exists as an unspoken rule of how one communicates an idea properly. Foucault champions the idea that discourse is at work in our everyday lives and it is the one thing that defines language as a meaningful production system. As it is, discourse is better defined by what it is not, rather than what it is. Hall speaks to this in a section on madness, but what was most intriguing about this section was the process of contextualizing the information. Foucault argued that is a product of a certain time and place and that could not be ignored when examining how something is talked about or represented. This pertains to many of our studies, particularly in regards to personal topics of interest such as gender roles in 1970s horror, so it was interesting to see Foucault tackle contextualization in regards to cultural studies. Contextualizing plays a pivotal role in Foucault’s work, especially as he attempts to make sense of the power structure. This portion of the reading was particularly difficult, but the discussion from last week’s class, such as Gramsci and Marxism, helped make sense of Foucault’s proposed power structure. Much like Foucault’s argument earlier, it was much simpler to understand the knowledge/power portion by recognizing what it was not.
Hall shifts the focus from Foucault back to the issue of discourse, as it relates to the subject. While Hall struggles with an absolute definition of “subject”, he embraces the relationship between what is being looked at and who is doing the looking. These types of relationships are necessary to interpret when we discuss the production of meaning as well as the issue of who or what is being represented.
This issue of production and the spectator carries over into Hall’s other piece, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Hall takes Foucault’s emphasis on recognizing an object as a product of its time period a step further, by examining how history works to create identity, specifically Hall’s personal identity. The piece tackles cultural identity as a system of common values, but Hall goes on to say that the shared history of a people is also crucial to the formation of cultural identity. However, Hall also makes the important distinction that the process of cultivating an identity is an ongoing one. Although he mentions that identity is constantly evolving, most of the piece focuses on how history has shaped the perception of self for an entire people, in this case Jamaicans. The rest of the article details how identity continues to change and how that relates to these notions of representation and meaning that Hall outlined in his previous piece. Hall’s discussion of personal identity as well as the factors that play into the changing landscape of cultural identity, such as the accessibility of a people’s history is a major focus of the article. This leads to his discussion of diaspora, particularly in regards to the Jamaican people and the influences, African, European, and American that have created this concept of what it means to be Jamaican. In reading about the different influences at work, it was somewhat troubling to hear cultural identity discussed in terms of race only. It is understandable for Hall’s purpose, but these issues of identity certainly exceed the realm of race and ethnicity. While Hall does a solid job of relating these concepts to his own personal struggle, as a reader the article was somewhat less effective because it is such a personal project. The concepts remain the same, but the issue of being able to relate to the reading remains. However, this piece was definitely strengthened by the film Chan is Missing. Many of the core concepts that Hall discusses here are on full display in the film. What was particularly visible in the film, which Hall discusses in this essay, is the idea of displacement. How does one make sense of their culture in a foreign place? Chan is Missing does not offer many answers, but it speaks to the same questions put forth by Hall in this article. Still, it was effective for Hall to have this piece where he attempts to put into practice some of the theoretical issues that he, as well as several other theorists, had covered in the previous piece.
In the end, the questions of language, meaning, and representation remain unanswered. As Hall states time and time again, the landscape of cultural studies is constantly changing. Still, in order to make sense of where we are going, it is important to look at where we have been. Hall’s extensive coverage of the politics of representation proves to be a valuable asset as he continues to explore issues of how we produce meaning and issues of identity, also on display in Chan is Missing. While it is not an absolute history, creating a dialogue about these issues is an important step in the right direction that Hall has encouraged with his writings.


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