Seeing is Believing?
A Problem in Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding / Decoding’ – Model
In his paper ‘Encoding / Decoding’ (1986/1973), Stuart Hall proposed the most influential model in media studies in the last few decades. As an attempted synthesis, this model combines semiological insights with Marxian theory; its purpose is to theoretically bridge the gap between media production, distribution and consumption. While Stuart Hall rightly emphasises that these different sites in the trajectory of the media message follow distinct logics, and different mechanisms are at work in any of them, the ‘encoding / decoding’ – model is able to describe the whole process of mass media communication; it thereby grasps a unity of contradictory phenomena. This distinguishes the model from collections of unconnected facts, and marks a decisive step from a descriptive to an analytical theory of communication.
We need to be sensitive to the difference between, say, a person not understanding the relationship between inflation and unemployment claimed in a news report, and, say, a person disagreeing with the claim (Corner 2000: 300; his italics).
To give another example: we can easily imagine a reader decoding a news report about violence occurring during a public demonstration meaningfully, while rejecting the preferred reading that the demonstrators are to blame. Instead he attributes the incident to, say, police provocation. Was this a misunderstanding? Or a critique of the message from a meta-level? How can we describe this decoding as oppositional if the ‘factual content’ is not challenged by the decoder? The ‘encoding / decoding’ – model contains no clear distinction between comprehension and agreement (Morley 1981: 3-5).
the politics of reception analysis has all too often been one-sidedly cast within the terms of a liberal defence of popular culture, just as uses and gratifications research could implicitly or explicitly, in theoretical and political terms, serve as a decontextualized defence of the media status quo by pointing to their functions for the active audience (1996: 242-3).
I am thinking of John Fiske’s seminal text on television viewing, in which he first dissolves the TV audience in single viewers, and then these single viewers in multiple viewing subjects (1989: 57-59). In this secular utopia, determining moments in media consumption no longer play a decisive role. Critical audience research, on the contrary, has to theorise how audience activity can be channelled. I will argue that the emotive dimension in decoding is salient to understand dominance in mass communication. To explain this dimension, I draw on literary theory concepts developed by Wolfgang Iser. If modified, Iser’s notions of ‘implied readers / authors’ and ‘addressee / addresser’, can be employed instructively. This will shed a rather different light on pleasures arising from news consumption.
Understanding is believing?
Before this message can have an ‘effect’ (however defined), satisfy a ‘need’ or be put to a ‘use’, it must first be appropriated as a meaningful discourse and be meaningfully decoded. It is this set of decoded meanings which ‘have an effect,’ influence, entertain, instruct or persuade, with very complex perceptual cognitive emotional, ideological or behavioural consequences (Hall 1986: 130).
Pleasure possibly arises, in the next step, from the ”social practices” of decoding. Does that mean that decoding consists of a sequence of two different practices, a temporal order that could even be experimentally verified? Then, audience members would understand the denotative level of the text first, and decide in which mode to read it afterwards. But when ends the first part of the audience members’ activity: after their reading of the whole text? After one paragraph? How long is the first phase before they engage in evaluation?
AGREE - MISUNDERSTAND
These verbs allude to the procedural character of reading. As we have seen, the corresponding processes and mental states cannot be theorised temporally. Rather these terms mark the poles which limit ‘a field’ where interpretation takes pace. Numerous proverbs and fixed expressions hint at the real connection between the cognitive and the emotional (‘love and understanding’). A person might describe the end of his relationship with a sentence like ‘We didn’t understand each other anymore!’ The distinction between emotive and cognitive reactions is valid only on an analytical level, in order to explain audience reactions theoretically. In discursive practice, these reactions are intertwined, and we encounter complex interactions between them.
We need to be sensitive to the way in which evaluative dispositions affective selective attention and interact with the matter of what is ‘understood’, ‘misunderstood’... and what is not understood at all (Corner 2000: 300).
If we denominate a specific decoding practice as ‘oppositional’, how can the relation between the cognitive, normative and emotive be described? As Roman Jakobson has shown, different functions of language are intertwined in every speech act (1990: 72-4). The question then becomes which of them is in the foreground. If the main function of an utterance is the contact between sender and receiver ‘as such’, Jakobson labels it phatic. The evaluation of the contact between the communicating subjects tests the reliability of the ”physical channel” as well as the ”psychological connection” (73). But in the mass media system, these tests cannot be carried out in a way comparable to face-to-face communication. Both sides make assumptions about the other side, but these are more difficult, in many instances impossible, to verify.
On a certain level, oppositional decoding practices are consciously rebellions, for media consumers identify the preferred code before they reject it. Stuart Hall described their attitude instructively with the sentence ”You wanted me to read it in this way, but I don’t read it in this way” (1994: 266). Such decided a rejection must be justified. What Herbert Marcuse called ‘the normative power of the factual’ is at work in media consumption insofar as the signifying power of the media institutions is naturalised, and usually not challenged. We have to understand that, for theoretical cogent reasons, pleasure arising from oppositional decoding is the exception. This assertion may sound bold. I want to return to this point later, and argue that usually a preferred reading is more pleasurable. This is because the corresponding subject position is less difficult to maintain, especially if consumption takes place alone.
Agency in and the theoretical status of ‘Encoding / Decoding’
In the ordinary use of the term, subject in fact means: (1) a free subjectivity, a centre of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom accepting his submission… There are no subjects except by and for their subjection (Althusser 1993/1970: 56; his italics).
When ‘Encoding / Decoding’ emerged in the 1970s, this was, and still largely is, received wisdom in cultural studies. Paul Willemen, writing in Screen, represents a structuralist psychoanalytic critique of subjectivity. He describes the interaction of text and subject as a simultaneous and reciprocal process.
Neither do texts construct subjects outside of social processes then to be placed in those formations… But with texts too, there is a necessary simultaneity, a subject construction always already in history (1978: 45).
To read and understand means to become a subject, to be ‘interpellated’ by the text, as Althusser famously put it (1993: 45). The encounter of an individual and the text gives rise to a subjectivity that did not exist previously, which is theorised as a seemingly frictionless process.
The problem then becomes how to theorise agency. Much of the allure of structuralist approaches stems from their ostensibly scientific character. Even though of paramount importance, nothing is more difficult to theorise than subjectivity. If the subject is granted agency and initiative, its future behaviour is unpredictable; by definition, it cannot be extrapolated from past behaviour. This problem returns in cultural studies, where subjectivity delineates authority in individual meaning production. This production contains a moments of creativity, something the culture and media industries cannot get rid off. For Althusser and his disciples, however, exactly the notion of subjectivity is the core of ideology, and agency a mere illusion. And if this is true, we can rightly limit our inquiry to the textual level.
The epistemological problems of structuralism increasingly troubled Stuart Hall himself (1994: 255). Using the distinction between ‘structure’ and ‘practice’, the theoretician has pointed out that
Practice is how a structure is actively reproduced. Nevertheless, we need both terms if we are to avoid the trap of treating history as nothing than the outcome of an internally self-propelling structuralist machine (Hall 1996: 15).
Notwithstanding Hall’s own reservations, his terminology in ‘encoding / decoding’ clearly is structuralist. This results in conceptual difficulties. The employment of the concept ‘code’, for example, means ”taking for granted high levels of systemic organisation among cultural phenomena, levels often involving a fixity of relationships” (Corner 1980: 84). This is problematic for encoding. Two different ‘codes’ are at work in media signification: the general social signifying practice and the secondary ”code of professionalism” that reproduces ”the hegemonic signification of events” (Hall 1986: 136). The elements of the professional code, especially in the production of news television, could also be described as ideological tropes. If we decide to call these tropes ‘signs’, we need to stress their complexity.
Is the preferred reading a property of the text per se? Or is it something that can be generated from the text (by a ‘skilled reading’) via certain specifiable procedures? Or is the preferred reading that reading which the analyst is predicting that
most members of the audience will produce from the text? In short, is the preferred reading a property of the text, the analyst or the audience? (Morley 1992: 57)
It seems to me that these questions can not be resolved without taking into account intentionality. By definition, communication is inter-subjective, the encounter of different subjects, something Hall implicitly accepts when he says that encoding and decoding are ”different but interrelated practices” (Hall 1994: 257). An interrelation can only exist via a text that relates agencies outside of it.
Subject positions inside and outside the text
Closed texts have two main features. First, the discourses they work with are arranged in a distinct and well-signposted hierarchy so that one is preferred over the others and presented to the audience as truer (sic!) and more valid. This does not mean that it goes uncontested, simply that the contest is rigged. The ensuing struggle is resolved by the second main feature of the closed text, the unambiguous ending in which the superiority claims of the preferred discourse are demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt (1989: 240).
The sequential organisation of discourses mentioned above is only one method to close texts, to prefer. One of the methods with which producers try to enhance the ”effectiveness” of ”their” message (Hall 1986: 135) is the choice of perspective. As is well known in literary studies, the joy of narratives lies in their evoking a vicarious subjectivity, in identification. This was traditionally theorised as ‘point of view’ and ‘implied reader’, i.e. the concept an author has of readership.
Heavily inspired by Jacques Lacan, Paul Willemen criticises this notion. For him it necessitates ”full subjects having a point of view and even imposing it on others” (1978: 48). While it could seem as if he thereby privileges the text, on the other hand, he criticises the idea of textual structures dominating subjectivity: ”This split (between textually implied and subjects in history) makes texts into autonomous, self-enclosed and self-regulating systems available for appropriation by ‘objective’ structural analysis” (49). One of the many problems of this ”abstract text-subject relation” (Morley 1986: 163) is that the reader appears to be a blank page, as if bringing nothing with him or her to the interpretative act. Every text evokes ‘its’ subjects. Every subjectivity is hailed by only one text, not even by intertextual structures (which is how ideology is classically understood). Instead of an encounter of reader and text, one subdues the other, ”there can be no struggle at the site of the interface between subject and text” (164).
‘You just don’t understand the readers, do you, eh?’ MacKenzie rapped out his picture of the Sun’s older reader. ‘He’s the bloke you see in the pub – a right old fascist, wants to send the wogs back, buy his poxy council house, he’s afraid of the unions, of the Russians, hates the queers and weirdoes and drug dealers. He doesn’t want to hear about that stuff!’ he finally yelled, veins bulging.... (Chippindale and Horrie 1992: 147-8).
At every step of the communicative chain, subjects make assumptions about the next step. Because media commodities are produced for a market under circumstances of competition, media producers structure the text in a way that might appeal to the readers they imply. Thus we can find marks of their intentions, identify textual features that allows as to re-construct the producer’s construction.
Ideal authors and implied readers
ADDRESSEE / ADDRESSER
This model shows an ideal-typical organisation of subject positions, with important methodological implications. The implied readers and authors are features of the subjects in the fields of encoding and decoding, whereas the concepts in the middle are properties of the text. As the reified product of (creative) work, the text gains a certain independence from the two social practices. Using ‘a skilled reading’, with which we inaugurate a hermeneutic dynamic between text and interpretation, we can construct these positions from the text, which in turn means, deductively.
(Texts) consist of ideas throughout by someone else, but in reading the reader becomes the subject that does the thinking. Thus there the disappears the subject-object division that otherwise is a prerequisite of all knowledge and observation (1978: 292).
Interestingly, Iser believes that identification can only happen under two premises: ”the life-story of the author must be shut out of the work and the individual dispositions of the readers must be shut out of the act of reading” (1978: 292-3). If not a certain ‘space’ is opened where the merging of addressee and reader can take place, the existing difference between author and reader comes into focus.
Addressee and Addresser in the News
Dominant definitions connect events, implicitly or explicitly, to grand totalizations, to the great syntagmatic views-of-the-world: they take ‘large vies’ on the issue: they relate events to the ‘national interest’ or to the level of geo-politics, even if they make these connections in truncated, inverted or mystified ways (Hall 1986: 137).
The addressee appears as a subject that forgoes its particular interests. The same is true for the addresser, whose truth claims are ubiquitous, but discrete and barely perceivable. What is described as neutrality and objectivity of news is exactly the avoidance of socially specifiable subject positions, with important effects. Tony Bennett notes about news programmes that they ”achieve their ideological effectivity precisely through their observation of the statutory requirements of balance and impartiality” (quoted in Schudson 2000: 144).
Ritual Functions in the Mass Communication
His research showed, that while 80 per cent of Finns watched at least one news broadcast per day, when interviewed the next day they could remember hardly anything of the specific information given by the news (Morley / Brunsdon 1999: 122).
Contrary to the conclusions of Nordenstreng, who describes this specific way of consuming as a ‘mere ritual’ which has ‘no effect’, the ritual function of media consumption is of paramount importance. His research has to be situated within the specific historic situation in a specific region of the world. In the news, readers and viewers are explained ‘what is going on in the world’. But the importance of their understanding, their opinions and consent is far from clear, for they rarely influence the workings of the societal macro level. For many, media consumption is a possibility of linking the micro with the macro level, a way of making sense of their life in a ritual way. The specific content, albeit not exchangeable, is of lesser interest than the consumption of ‘news as such’.
The ambiguity of Hall’s notion of decoding, involving both emotional and cognitive practices, is not coincidental, but reflects that both dimensions are intertwined, if in a complex and sometimes contradictory way. To read oppositional may in some instances lead to lower attention, but usually involves drawing on a meta-level. In the terminology of Jakobson, this means to privilege the denotative function, while neglecting the emotive.
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