The study and conceptualization of visual representation were primarily associated with art and art history prior to the twentieth century, and drew on the analytical tools of iconology with a focus on the artist’s intention and perception. With the advent of semiotics, followed by other theories of the visual, the twentieth century marked a broadening in conceptions of visual representation from the realm of art to the realm of the everyday. Studies of visual representation have expanded to include the images that surround people every-day. This includes studies of images in film (Metz 1990), the use of photography (Sontag 1979), advertising (Goffman 1979), scientific imagery (Latour & Woolgar 1986), learning and development (Kress 1996), and the representation of social identities (Hall 1997). This expansion of the domain of the visual has influenced how visual representation is theorized and approached, including a shift in focus from the image to contexts of production and viewers. Today a range of theories is applied to understanding the visual, including theories drawn from anthropology, art history, cognitive psychology, cultural studies, linguistics, psychoanalytical theories, and sociology.
Studies of visual representation have shown that the visual is central to the cultural construction of social life. People’s everyday experience of the world, socially, physically, and psychologically, and their production of meaning are mediated by the visual. Visual representation is not only a matter of how people experience the world; it is also crucial in how the world itself is constructed. The twenty-first century is marked by a plethora of imaging and visual technologies, and in contemporary western society everyday life is saturated with the images that these technologies make available. Studies of late twentieth century culture have noted a turn to the visual (Mitchell 1995; Mirzoeff 1999) in which the modern world has become a visual phenomenon; a world that conflates looking, seeing, and knowing (Jenks 1995) to become a “vision machine” created through new visualizing technologies in which people are all caught (Virilio 1994).
Visual representation is a complex concept that connects with fundamental questions of “reality,” ideology and power, agency, as well as signification and the procedures and potentials for interpreting meaning. There is, however, a general agreement that the meaning of an image is “made” at three sites: (1) the site of the image, (2) the site of production, and (3) the viewer interaction. The meaning of visual representation is realized in the interplay across these three sites or factors.
The concept of visual codes and conventions (socially agreed ways of doing something) is often employed in the analysis of visual representations. Semiotics proposes that there is a wide range of visual, pictorial, material, and symbolic signs that are conventional in the way that they simplify, and yet bear some kind of resemblance to, an object or quality in the “real” world that they signify. This includes abstract signs that become associated through agreement into convention with the object or quality represented. These conventions are extended to a semiotic “code” to form an extended system of semiotic signs. Social semiotics uses the concept of “semiotic resource” rather than code. This serves to foreground the work of the sign-maker in interpreting and assembling semiotic resources.
What is depicted in an image and how it is represented are an obvious starting point for understanding the process of visual representation. Visual codes can, for example, be designed to realize visual narratives or conceptual categories, each of which serves to connect or disconnect depicted elements in different ways. That is, the way these relationships are represented marks (and establishes) what belongs and does not belong together, who acts on what, and so on. These represented relations are realized through a range of codes, including the representation of depicted elements, compositional arrangements, and analytical structures. Visual representations also work by using and representing many of the visual codes that are employed in lived rather than textual forms of communication. In this way visual representations can carry all the sign systems and codes (dress, style, body language, and so on) that can “make” the lived world meaningful. For instance, Goffman’s Gender advertisements (1979) offers a classic exemplar of how depicted elements, compositional structures, posture, and gaze contribute to the production and regulation of gendered identifies.
In addition to their “content,” visual representations position the viewer to look in particular ways. In this way an image can be understood as “telling” viewers who they are and where they are. In doing so the image realizes the ideological design of the viewer’s relationship with the depicted object, person, or event. The viewer can refuse to adopt the viewing position offered by an image, but nonetheless it is present.
In order to get at the meaning of an image, the ways in which the meanings and uses of images are regulated by institutions of production, distribution, and consumption need to be considered. The economics, motives, and intentions of those who produce and disseminate visual representations are aspects of the site of production. That is, visual representations need to be understood in context because these social factors and experiences are not separate from the signifying systems of the visual; they do not exist in an abstract realm – they actually structure it.
The production of an image is therefore integral to its use and meaning. Technologies of production, in particular new technologies, are key to the question of the relationship between visual representation and “reality.” Technologies have changed what it is possible to see and how these entities are seen, through the magnification of detail, slow motion, capturing images that escape “natural” vision, and the changing context of viewing.
Viewer And Gaze
The viewer, looking, and subjectivity are key themes in theorizing and understanding visual representation. Understanding the agency of the viewer demands a shift of analytical emphasis away from the image or text to the social identities and experiences of the viewer. This necessarily connects with the context of viewing as part of the production of meaning. From this perspective, meaning is understood as constituted in the articulation between the viewer and the viewed, between the power of the image to signify and the viewer’s capacity to interpret meaning. Visual representations work (mean) by producing effects each time they are looked at. However, the image also depends for its effects on a certain way of seeing.
Asking who the viewer is raises the question of the alignment and identification of their points of view and perspective with those of the maker of the image. In other words, both the maker and the reader of a visual representation are involved in the process of making sense (designing meaning). Seeing the viewer as agentive means that the power of a visual sign remains a potential until the viewer engages with it. The parameters within which interpretations are made are shaped by the viewer’s social position and subjective capacity in conjunction with the conventions and codes of a visual representation.
The mediating effect of contexts of viewing is especially relevant for visual representation in the twenty-first century, when images are mobile across different media and contexts. For example, reading a magazine at home, driving by a billboard on the road, and watching an advert at home on television or with friends in the cinema all call forth different practices of viewing. The context of viewing contributes to realizing different practices of looking and interpreting.
In summary, visual representation can be understood as a cycle of production, circulation, and consumption, a cycle in which visual representations become a site of struggle over what something means.
Visual Representation And Signification
Signification and how to theorize the relationship between referent, signifier, and signified are central to the way visual representation is conceptualized. Current theories of perception, structuralism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism theorize their relationship in different ways. This influences how the power of visual representation is understood to shape people’s experience of the world, what the world is, and what it can be.
Models of perception are concerned with image-making as an internal psychological process, that is, with the perceptions and sensations in the mind of the image-maker and the viewer. Here the goal is the perfect reproduction of reality. This places reality as external to representation, in which the referent “exists” and the signifier reflects it.
From this perspective an image is a transparent window through which the viewer can connect directly (via the signifier) to an original object or presence (the referent). This presents a notion of the image as autonomous and as containing within itself an inherent meaning. This conception of visual signification and image-making as cognition, perception, and a kind of optical truth severs the connection between image and society and fails to account for the relationship between image and power.
In the twentieth century semiotics began to interrogate the elements and structures of systems of representation, language, and the visual. Traditional semiotics (e.g., Saussure 1986) views meaning as consisting of two parts: the signifier and the signified. On the one hand, the signifier denotes a sign’s literal meaning: that is, who or what is depicted. On the other hand, the signified connotes a sign’s associated meanings: that is, the cultural ideas and values associated with the objects depicted. Structuralism asserts that although we depend on the relationship between these two parts to produce meaning, it is an arbitrary relationship established through cultural convention. This presents language and other systems of meaning as self-contained structures, a system of arbitrary and differential signs that do not name or reflect thoughts or concepts that pre-exist it, but rather actively construct them.
Structuralism attempts to understand the social and cultural forces that motivate representation, rather than accepting representation as given or natural. This brings the relationship between referent, signifier, and signified into a social relationship. Viewing is repositioned as a social process that involves the unfolding of meaning through the “activation” of visual codes of recognition, codes learnt through the viewer’s interaction in the social cultural world, rather than an individual physiological and cognitive process.
Locating visual representation in the social domain in this way opens up the necessity of thinking of visual representation as discursive work, work that produces society. This reconnects images with the social and in doing so locates image in relation to power. However, structuralism has been criticized for being ahistorical and for being deterministic in the way that it privileges structure over individual human agency. In this way it is inadequate in theorizing the potential of human agency to resist, challenge, and change systems of representation. Peirce (1991) brought human agency into semiosis by his assertion that sign-making involves the cooperation of a sign, its object, and its interpretant. In other words, for Pierce signs cannot exist independently of a subject to interpret them. This shifts attention from the idea of meaning as embedded in text to a concern for the interactive process of meaning-making.
Poststructuralism developed in the 1960s as a critical response to the assumptions of structuralism. Poststructuralism rejects the structuralist notion that there is a consistent structure to a text and argues instead that these structures and systems that underlie a text are themselves a cultural product. Poststructuralism argues that the systems of knowledge that produce it, as well as the text itself, need to be analyzed in order to understand the meaning of a text. In other words, poststructuralism can be seen as the study of the production of knowledge (Worth 1981).
Poststructuralism argues that the author is not the primary source of the meaning of a text (Barthes 1977) and that there is a multiplicity of meanings to any text. Decentering the authority of the author in this way serves to open up the meaning of a text to the work of the reader and other sources for meaning, such as cultural norms and historical context. Placing the reader at the center of meaning-making in this way asserts that no text has one meaning, purpose, or existence. In addition to demanding a rethinking of texts and representations, poststructuralism also destabilizes the notion of the “self.” From this perspective the concept of the self as a single and coherent entity is a fictional construct.
Social semiotics rejects the concept of code as too rigid and static and instead uses the concept of semiotic resource (Hodge & Kress 1988). A focus on semiotic resources serves to recognize the social, historical, and cultural character of visual codes and the ideological work of signs. From a poststructuralist perspective the act of reading a sign is repositioned as the act of sign-making, of giving meaning to a signified. That is, the reader is the signmaker and signs are constantly remade and transformed through people’s engagement with them. In this way, the denotative (the signified) can be seen as always connotative, no matter how literal its relationship to the “real” world.
The relationship of the referent with the signifier and signified is significantly “loosened” in poststructuralism- and the term “signifier” is preferred to “sign” to indicate that no single meaning is secured to a word, and that the possibility of a full and secure meaning is always deferred (Derrida 1978). In other words, meaning is never as fully “fixed” as structuralism appears to suggest. This attempts to move away from the linking of representation with the idea of reconstituting the missing “presence,” the original source “content” of the empirical form of a representation.
Postmodernism argues that the economic and social conditions of late capitalism, in particular globalization and new technologies, have led to a decentralized, fragmented, and media-dominated society saturated with images. Postmodernism rejects the idea of “representation” in favor of “simulation” to emphasize the constructed character of signs. Simulations are understood as simulacra of the “real” that presuppose and precede the “real.” These hyperreal symbols and signs do not have an original, stable referent or a source of meaning. In this way postmoderism breaks the relationship between seeing and knowing. Baudrillard (1983) argues that society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that what people understand as “reality” is actually a simulation of reality. From this perspective, images are to be fundamentally mistrusted because they claim to signal a referent that they have become detached or severed from.
Postmodernism is a contested term. Whether or not it is a distinct historical period or an extension of modernism remains a matter of debate. There is agreement, however, that the conditions of late capitalism have realized some of the aspects encompassed in postmodernist theory, such as the breakdown of traditional structures (e.g., genre and other stylistic forms) and classificatory categories. This conceptualization of visual representation refutes the possibility of representation as a mimetic reflection of “reality.”
Visual Representation, Identity, And Postcolonialism
The visual produces as well as represents culture, constituting (and constituted by) its relations of power and difference, so that cultures of everyday life are entwined with practices of representation. The continuous circulation and repetition of images presented as the norm or reality in visual media actively define social and cultural norms as fixed and natural. In the ways that people are depicted, vision is complicit with power and discipline through surveillance. Understanding visual representation as embodying and constituting ideologies (the system of thoughts and beliefs that determine the subjects action and behavior) shows how ways of investing meaning in the world are realized in visual representations.
The theorization and study of identities is one example of a significant area that has shown the potential of visual representation in understanding social and cultural phenomena (e.g., Hall 1997). Work has shown how racial, gendered, and other identities are visually represented, recycled, and contested. Visual discourses work to govern and empower particular understandings of a subject through their representation. Building on the work of Foucault (1977), identity theorists have examined visual representation as a part of the regulatory force of culture (sets of practices, cultural norms, meanings, and values) as they apply to the production of identities.
The cultural practices of looking and seeing are (like other social practices) organized around the founding principles of the articulation of difference. Looking at how representations attempt to fix difference offers a way of conceptualizing the complex relationship of power and representation. The practices of representation can be employed, for instance, to mark gender and racial difference. The “visible” signifiers of race and gender on the body can be called on to make these differences seem real and therefore true. The differences we can “see” appear to ground their “truth” beyond the social and historical construction of race and gender into nature and therefore to be unchangeable. The question of how the “other” is produced and reproduced through visual representation is central to postcolonial theories. The idea that discipline and control can be achieved through relations of looking and the knowledge and power that vision allows over what is seen is central to Foucault’s work and postcolonial theories.
Visual representations are, then, a discursive means by which a dominant group works to establish and maintain hegemonic power within a culture in which meaning is constantly reproduced and remade as signs are articulated and rearticulated. Images are thus a site of struggle for meaning, a site of power, and constitutive of society. Cultural production therefore has real political and ideological effects. As a result, visual representation has also been taken up as a potential tool for resistance and the remaking – reimaging – of society.
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