Representation, Meaning, and Language

Representation, Meaning, and Language by S. Hall

Hall, S. (1997). Representation, meaning, and language. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, pp. 15–30. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Representation is the production of meaning through language. Representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture. It does involve the use of language, of signs and images which stand for or represent things. To represent something is to describe or depict it, to call it up in the mind by description or portrayal or imagination; to place a likeness of it before us in our mind or in the senses. To represent also means to symbolize, stand for, to be a specimen of, or to substitute for. It is the link between concepts and language which enables us to refer to either the ‘real’ world of objects, people or events, or indeed to imaginary worlds of fictional objects, people and events.

There are two processes, two systems of representation, involved. First, there is the ‘system’ by which all sorts of objects, people and events are correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations which we carry around in our heads. Without them, we could not interpret the world meaningfully at all. Meaning depends on the system of concepts and images formed in our thoughts which can stand for or ‘represent’ the world, enabling us to refer to things both inside and outside our heads. It does not consist of individual concepts, but of different ways of organizing, clustering, arranging and classifying concepts, and of establishing complex relations between them. Meaning depends on the relationship between things in the world — people, objects and events, real or fictional — and the conceptual system, which can operate as mental representations of them. The second depends on constructing a set of correspondences between our conceptual map and a set of signs, arranged or organized into various languages which stand for or represent those concepts. The relation between ‘things’, concepts, and signs lies at the heart of the production of meaning in language. The process which links these three elements together is what we call ‘representation’. The meaning is not in the object or person or thing, nor is it in the word. It is we who fix the meaning so firmly that, after a while, it comes to seem natural and inevitable. The meaning is constructed by the system of representation. It is constructed and fixed by the code, which sets up the correlation between our conceptual system and our language system

There are broadly speaking three approaches to explaining how representation of meaning through language works. In the reflective approach, meaning is thought to lie in the object, person, idea or event in the real world, and language functions like a minor, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world. The second approach to meaning in representation argues the opposite case. It holds that it is the speaker, the author, who imposes his or her unique meaning on the world through language. Words mean what the author intends they should mean. The third approach recognizes this public, social character of language. It acknowledges that neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning in language. Things don’t mean: we construct meaning, using representational systems — concepts and signs. Hence it is called the constructivist or constructionist approach to meaning in language.

At the end of the day, we cannot communicate the meaning of an object without a language. Language consists of signs organized into various relationships. But signs can only convey meaning if we possess codes which allow us to translate our concepts into language. Thus The meaning of a traffic light is universal from a concept perspective even if the language used to delineate between red and Rouge is different. The concept is the same.

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