The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) presents eight definitions for the term representation demonstrating that the concept of representation embodies a range of meanings and usages dipping into mathematical, scientific, political, and legal discourses. Within this article, I will focus on the definitions I deem most relevant to our discussion of media while keeping in mind that many more layers of meaning exist outside of this particular discussion.
“An image, likeness, or reproduction in some manner of a thing” is the first of two OED definitions related to our discussion of media. (OED Online-representation). This first definition posits that a representation functions through its ability to resemble something else casting representation as an object: “an image, likeness, or reproduction…” (OED Online-representation). What does this understanding add to our discussion of media? Recall the definition of media: “newspapers, radio, television, etc., collectively, as vehicles of mass communication” (OED Online-media). In thinking about representations as objects, we can think of the individual radio shows and television programs each as representations working through specific mediums constructing our larger media networks.
The ability of the representation to become a form or a tool for media relates to its reproducible character. A simple example will help clarify this last point, but bear in mind that the following picture of representation painted is one that we will problematize. While not everyone has access to the painting of the Mona Lisa, most people have some idea as to what this painting looks like. This is to say that most people have come to know the Mona Lisa through representations (i.e. reproductions or copies) of the original painting of the Mona Lisa. In this sense, we can understand representation as a medium in that it stands between ‘the real’ and the spectator. Because of its ability to be copied or reproduced, the representation becomes more accessible to be communicated on a mass level.
This example carries us to our next OED definition: “the fact of standing for, or in place of, some other thing or person…” (OED Online-representation). If we attempt to understand this definition in light of our Mona Lisa example, we then understand representations of the Mona Lisa as standing for the original painting of the Mona Lisa. While our Mona Lisa example has helped us to understand representation at its most basic, object level, it has also introduced us to a set of political problems and questions which representations bring to the table such as the `privileging of the original or authentic presentation over the mediating re-presentation or reproduction. This is just a small fragment beginning our larger discussion of the politics in and around representation.
The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism continues our discussion of media and representation by outlining some of the key usages of representation in Western thought dating back to Plato (260). According to this source, representation was a term arousing Plato’s suspicion while striking Aristotle as being natural to human beings (260). From our previous class discussions of “Allegory of the Cave”, we gleaned that Plato’s distrust for media representations comes from his belief that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the ‘real things’ (lecture notes: 14 January 2002). With Plato, we are confronted with representation as media in that they intervene between the student and ‘the real’ creating illusions which lead one away from the ‘real things’. Aristotle, on the other hand, viewed representations in an entirely different manner arguing that representations are necessary since mimesis is natural to man. For Aristotle, representation becomes man’s way of being in the world and his method of learning (lecture notes: 14 January 2002). Unlike Plato, Aristotle seems to view representation as a medium or channel through which man gets to ‘the real.’ [see simulation/simulacrum, (2)]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy takes a more focused approach to the discussion of representation by examining the term only on a political level stating that political representation is a fundamental feature of democratic states while posing the question: “But what does it mean to say that one person or one group of people represents a larger group?” (766). This way of seeing representation ties into our second OED definition that speaks to how representations “stand for” something or someone else. But in this source, political representatives are termed “agents” “sometimes symbolizing them [those they represent], sometimes typifying their distinctive qualities or attitudes” (766). Such agents function as medias in that they are intermediates sometimes standing for and acting for those whom they represent.
Through a not entirely different avenue, Stuart Hall discusses the relationship between politics and representation and the systems representing both. Hall takes up the politics of representation in his text entitled Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices approaching representation as the medium or channel through which meaning production happens. He assumes that objects, people etc do not have stable, true meanings, but rather that the meanings are produced by human beings, participants in a culture, who have the power to make things mean or signify something (19).
Clearly, for Hall, representation involves understanding how language and systems of knowledge production work together to produce and ciruclate meanings. Representation becomes the process or channel or medium through which these meanings are both created and reified. Like the Poststructuralist approach, the Hall approach to representation involves looking at representation as something larger than any one single representation. We see Mitchell take up this approach while adding to it a clearer plan for how to study representations.
How has representation been utilized in readings we have met with for this course thus far and what do these usages provide us in terms of meaning? To date, we have not directly encountered the term often. However, it has come to us through Picture Theory. In the introduction of Picture Theory, Mitchell sets up the term representation to be a master-term of sorts for the “whole field of representations and representational activity” (6). With Mitchell’s picture of representation, I am struck by how often it is that when attempting to define or represent this term, how easily we fall back on using other forms of the term to define its usages. It is as though we are sometimes trapped inside the term and unable to talk about it from outside of it.
Like other texts already discussed, for Mitchell, representation is not being approached as any single representation, but as part of a larger project or field. In chapter six, Mitchell extends our definition of representation by talking about he perceives representation to work: “representation (in memory, in verbal descriptions, in images) not only ‘mediates’ our knowledge (of slavery and of many other things), but obstructs, fragments, and negates that knowledge” (188). In other words, representation does not only mediate the knowledge we consume, it also affects knowledge through fragmenting, negating, etc. Thus, representation constructs knowledge.
In his conclusion to Picture Theory, Mitchell leaves us with a most provocative way of viewing representation. He asks us to stop seeing representations as only particular kinds of objects, but to instead think of representation “as relationship, as process, as the relay mechanism in exchanges of power, value, and publicity” noting that “nothing in this model guarantees the directionality of the structure” instead suggesting a dialectical structure (420). What is helpful about this model is Mitchell’s order to stop thinking about representations in terms of merely objects representing but rather to approach representation with an eye toward the relationships and processes through which representations are produced, valued, exchanged etc. I offer that it would be most helpful if we view Mitchell’s approach to representation as a helpful way of viewing media. In other words, instead of just looking to individual mediums, we should be looking to the relationships and processes through which mediums are produced, valued, and exchanged as we are attempting to do in this class.
Joseph Childers, ed. The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
Concise Routledge Ecyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1999.
Stuart Hall, ed. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Open University Press, 1997.
W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.