Class context: Stuart Hall famously argued that audiences take an active role in interpreting
media content and create meanings based on their own social positions, ushering in the field of
audience reception studies. Per Hall, all audiences participate in “decoding” media, and in this
process of decoding reconstruct the meaning for themselves. Audiences can even decode from a
negotiated position, in which the audience rejects some of the intended message, or an
oppositional position, in which the audience rejects the entire message. bell hooks builds on the
oppositional position, describing the “oppositional gaze” that black female spectators bring to
mainstream media as a source of power and critique. The proliferation of fan-produced media
and criticism since the 1970s has allowed for the circulation of oppositional readings of
mainstream media amongst fan communities. Paper Instructions: In this paper, you will use Hall’s encoding/decoding model to consider the
ways in which media audiences intentionally subvert the intended meaning of a particular media
text. You will select a single movie or television show and analyze it how oppositional readings
have subverted intended meanings. Your paper should consist of the following sections: Introduction
★ Introduce your topic and argument Encoding and Circulation
★ Research the production of your selected media example. Note the production
company, network or distribution platform, and any additional research about
finance or marketing
★ Research the creative direction. Who is the showrunner, director, writer, etc?
★ Describe content in greater detail. What is the genre? Who are the main
characters? What are the main plot points? Here, try to describe any intended
messages about politics, gender roles, or identity. Do these messages support
dominant ideology?
★ How popular is this film/program? You can indicate this through metrics such as
how much money it has grossed, any published viewership numbers, or reviews.
★ Why might those involved in the production process be motivated to make work
that represents or is in harmony with dominant ideology? Decoding and Oppositional Readings
★ Research the oppositional audience reception. How have viewers of this film or
television show indicated their oppositional or negotiated readings through
criticism, fan-fiction, memes, or other forms of their own media production?
★ Describe specific examples. How do these circulate and who is their primary
★ Indicate what position their critque is taking–feminist? queer? anti-capitalist?
anti-racist? Here, try to describe the specific messages of the oppositional
readings and how they subvert specific messages of the original media text Conclusion
★ Re-state your argument and trace how your previous two sections built towards
your argument
★ Consider any questions that this research brings up and what this particular case
adds to the discussion of fan studies, and to Stuart Hall’s original model. Citation requirements:
★ Include at least two scholarly texts (you can select from the list below, you can use
readings from our course, or you can utilize your own research –see below for tips on
searching for academic work in this area)
★ Cite any facts presented throughout your paper using a consistent citation style. Many of
your sources might come from internet research or from the popular press. Use a citation
guide to make sure you cite these correctly.
Unformatted Attachment Preview
St udies
G ul t u r al
Read e r
Londonand NewYork
6 stuartnau
Stuart Hall’s influentialessay offers a densely theoreticalaccount of how
messagesare producedand disseminated,
referringparticularlyto television.
He suggestsa four-stagetheory of communication:production,circulation,
use (whichhere he calls distributionor consumption),and reproduction”
him eachstageis ‘relativelyautonomous’fromthe others.This meansthatthe
codingof a messagedoes controlits receptionbut not transparentty
– each
stage has its own determininglimitsand possibilities.
The conceptot relative
autonomyallows him to argue that polysemyis not the same as pluralism:
messagesare not opento any interpretation
or usewhatsoever-justbecause
eachstage in the circuitlimitspossibilitiesin ttJenext.
In actual social existence,Hall goes on to argue, messageshave a
‘complexstructureof dominance’becauseat each stagethey are ,imprinled’
by institutional
a messagecan only be received
at a particularstageit it is recognizable
or appropriate- thoughthereis space
for a messageto be usedor understoodat leastsomewhatagainstthe grain.
This meansthat power relationsat the pointot production,tor example,will
looselyfit those at the pointof consumption.In this way, the communication
circuitis also a circuitwhich reproducesa Datternof domination.
This analysisallows Hall to insert a semiotic paradigminto a social
framework,clearingthe way bothfor furthertextualistand ethnographicwork.
His essay has been particutarlyimportantas a basison which tieldworklike
DavidMorley’shas proceeded.
Fuftherreading:Hall 1977,1980;Morleyi 980, 1999.
Traditionally, mass-communications research has concepfualized the
process of communication in terms of a circulation circuit or loop. This
model has been criticized for its linearity – sender/message/receiver- for
its concentration on the level of message exchange and for the absence
of a structured conception of the different moments as a complex
structure of relations. But it is also possible (and useftrl) to ttrinl of this
process in terms of a structure produced and sustained tfuough the
articulation of linked but distinctive moments – productiory circulation,
distribution/consumption, reproduction. This would be to think of the
process as a ‘complex structure in dominance’, sustained tfuough the
articulation of conlected practices, each of which, however, retains its
distinctiveness and has its own specific modality, its own forms ald
conditions of existence.
The ‘obiect’ of these practices is meanings and messagesin the form
of sign-vehicles of a specific icind organized, like any form of commurfcation or language, through the operation of codes within the syntagmatic chain of a discourse. The apparatuses, relations and practices of
production thus issue, at a certain moment (the moment of ,productiorr,/
circulation’) in the form of symbolic vehicles constituted within the rules
of ‘language’. It is in this discursive form that the circulation of the
‘product’ takes place. The process thus requires, at the production end,
its material instruments – its ‘means’ – as well as its own sets of social
(production) relations – the organization and combination of practices
within media apparatuses. But it is in the discursizteform that the
circulation of the product takes place, as well as its distribution to
different audiences. Once accomplished, the discourse must then be
translated – transformed, again – into social practices if the circuit is to
be both completed and effective. If no ‘meaning’ is taken, there can be
no ‘consumption’. If the meaning is not articulated in practice, it has no
effect. The value of this approach is that while each of the moments, in
articulation, is necessary to the circujt as a whole, no one moment can
fully guarantee the next moment with which it is articulated. Since each
has its specific modality and conditions of existence, each can constitute
its own break or interruption of the ‘passage of forms’ on whose continuity the flow of effective production (that is, ‘reproductionl) depends.
Thus while in no way wanting to limit research to ‘following only
those leads which emerge from content analysis’, we must recognize
that the discursive form of the message has a privileged position in the
communicative exchange (from the viewpoint of circulation), and that
the moments of ‘encoding’ and ‘decoding’, though only ‘relativeiy
autonomous’ in relation to the communicative process as a whole, are
detnminnte moments. A ‘raw’ historical event cannot, in that form, be
say, a-televisionnewscast’ Events can only be signified
Eansmitted by,
forms of the televisual discourse’ In the moment
Jihin the aural-visual
it is subject
when a historical event passes under the sign of discourse,
To Put it
to all the complex formal ‘rules’ by which language signifies’
are ‘in dominance’, without, of course, subordinating out of existence
the historical event so signified, the social relations in which the rules
are set to work or the social and political consequences of the event
having been signified in this way. The ‘message form’ is the necessary
‘form of appearance’of the event in its passagefrom sourceto receiver.
Thus the transposition into and out of the ‘message form’ (or the mode
of s)’rnbolic exchange) is not a random’moment’, which we can take up
or ignore at our convenience. The ‘message form’ is a determinate
moment; though, at another level, it comprises the surface movements
of the communications system only and requires, at another stage, to be
integrated into the social relations of the communication process as a
whole, of which it forrns only a part.
From this general perspective, we may cmdely characterize the
television communicative process as follows. The institutional structur€s
of broadcasting, with their practices and networks of production, their
organized relations and technical infrastructures, are required to Produce a programme. Production, here, constructs the message.In one
sense, then, the chcuit begins here. Of course, the production process is
not without its ‘discursive’ aspect: it, too, is frarned throughout by
meanings and ideas: knowledge-in-use concerning the routines of production, historically defined technical skills, professional ideologies,
institutional knowledge, definitions and assumptions, assumptions
about the audience and so on frame the constitution of the programme
through this production structure. Further, though the production
skuctures of television odginate the television discourse, they do not
constitute a dosed system. They draw topics, treatments, agendas,
events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situationj
from other sources and other discursive formations within the wider
socio-cultural and political structure of which they are a differentiated
part. Philip Elliott has expressed this point succinctly, within a more
traditional framework, in his discussion of the way in which the
audience is both the ‘source’ and the ‘receiver’ of the television message.
Thus – to borrow Marx’s terms – circulation and reception are, indeed,
‘moments’ of the production process in television and are reincorpor-
ated, via a number of skewed and structured ‘feedbacks’, into the
production process itself. The consumption or reception of the television
messageis thus also itself a ‘moment’ of the production processin its
larger sense, though the latter is ‘predominant’ becauseit is the ‘point of
departure for the realization’ of the message. Production and reception
of the television message are not, therefore, identical, but they are
related: they are differentiated moments within the totality formed by
the social relations of the communicative process as a whole.
At a certain point, however, the broadcasting structures must yield
encoded messages in the form of a meaningful discourse. The
institution-societal relations of production must pass under the discursive rules of language for its product to be’realized’. This initiates a
further differentiated moment, in which the formal rules of discourse
and language are in dominance. Before this messagecan have an ‘effecf
(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. In a ‘determinate’ moment the structure employs a code and yields a ‘message’: at
another determinate moment the ‘message’, via its decodings, issues
into the structure of social practices. We are now fully aware that this reentry into the practices of audience reception and ‘use’ cannot be
understood in simple behavioural terms. The typical processes identified in positivistic research on isolated elements – effects, uses, ‘gratifications’ – are themselves framed by structures of understanding, as well
as being produced by social and economic relations, which shape their
‘realizationi at the reception end of the chain and which permit the
meanings signified in the discourse to be transposed into practice or
consciousness (to acquire social use value or political effectivity).
Clearly, what we have labelled in the diagram @elow) ‘meaning
strucfures 1’ and ‘meaning structures 2’ may not be the same. They do
not constitute an’immediate identif. The codes of encoding and
decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical. The degrees of symmetry that is, the degrees of ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ in the
communicative exchange – depend on the degrees of symmetry/asyrrr
metry (relations of equivalence) established between the positions of the
‘personifications’, encoder-producer and decoder-receiver. But this in
tum depends on the degrees of identity/non-identity between the codes
which perfectly or imperfectly transmit, interrupt or systematically
structures 2
of knowledge
of knowledge
of production
of production
distort what has been transmitted. The lack of fit between the codes has
a great deal to do with the structural differences of relation and position
between broadcasters.and audiences,but it also has something to do
with the aslanmetry between the codes of ‘source’ and ‘receiver’ at the
moment of transformation into and out of the discursive form. What are
called ‘distortions’ or ‘misunderstandings’ adse preciseiy fromthe lackof
equioalencebetweenthe two sides in the commuricative exchange. Once
again, this defines the ‘relative autonomy’, but ‘determinateness’, of the
entry and exit of the message in its discursive moments.
The application of this rudimentary paradigm has already begun to
transform our ulderstanding of the older term, television ‘content’. We
are just beginning to see how it might also transform our understanding
of audience reception, ‘reading’ and response as well. Beginnings and
endings have been announced in communications research before, so
we must be cautious. But there seems some ground for thinking that a
new and exciting phase in so-called audience research, of a quite new
kind, may be opening up. At either end of the communicative chain the
use of the semiotic paradigm promises to dispel the lingering behaviourism which has dogged mass-media research for so long, especially in
its approach to content. Though we know the television programme is
not a behavioural input, like a tap on the knee cap, it seemsto have been
atnost impossible for traditional researchers to conceptualize the corrmunicative process without lapsing into one or other variant of lowflying behaviourism. We know, as Gerbner has remarked, that
representations of violence on the TV screen ‘are not violence but
messagesabout violence’: but we have continued to research the question of violence, for example, as iI we were unable to comprehend this
The televisual sign is a complex one. It is itseu constituted by the
combination of two types of discourse, visual and aural. Moreover, it is
an iconic sign, in Peirce’s terminology, because ‘it possessessome of the
properties of the thing represented’. This is a point which has led to a
great deal of confusion and has provided the site of intense controversy
in the study of visual language. Since the visual discourse translates a
three-dimensional world into two-dimensional planes, it cannot of
corrse, be the referent or concept it signifies. The dog in the film can
bark but it cannot bite! Reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language: and what we can know and
say has to be produced in and through discourse. Dscursive ‘knowledge’ is the product not of the transparent representation of the ‘real’ in
language but of the articulation of language on real relations and conditions. Thus there is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a
code. Iconic signs are therefore coded signs too – even if the codes here
work differently from those of other signs. There is no degree zero in
language. Naturalism arrd’realism’- the apparent fidelity of the representation to the thing or concept represented – is the result, the effect,
of a cefain specific articulation of language on the ‘real’. It is the result
of a discursive practice.
Certain codes may, of course, be so widely distributed in a specific
language comrnunity or culture, and be learned at so early an age, that
they appear not to be constructed – the effect of an articulation between
srgn and referent – but to be ‘naturally’ given. Simple visual signs
aPpear to have achieved a ‘near-universality’ in this sense: though
evidence remains that even apparently ‘natural’ visual codes are culfurespecific. However, this does not mean that no codes have intervened;
rather, that the codes have been profo lundly ruturalized. The operation of
naturalized codes reveals not the transpatencv and ,naturalness, of
language but the depth, the habituatior, and the near-universality of the
codes in use. They produce apparently ‘natural, recognitions. This has
the (ideological) effect of concealing the practices of coding which are
present. But we must not be fooled by appearances. Actually, what
naturalized codes demonstrate is the degree of habituation produced
when there is a fundamental alignment and reciprocity – an achieved
equivalence – between the encoding and decoding sides of an exchange
of meanings. The functioning of the codes on the decoding side will
frequently assume the status of naturalized perceDtions, This leads us to
think that the visual sign for ‘cow’ actually r:s(raiher than represents)lhe
anirnal, cow. But if we thhk of the visual representation of a cow in a
manual on animal husbandry – and, even more, of the linguistic sign
‘cow’ – we can see that both, in different degrees, are albitrury wlth
respect to the concept of the animal they represent. The articulation of
an arbitrary sign – whether visual or verbal – with the concept of a
referent is the product not of nature but of convention, and the conventionalism of discourses requires the intervention, the support, of codes.
Thus Eco has argued that iconic signs ‘look like obiects in the real world
becausethey reproduce the conditions (that is, the codes)of perception
in the viewer’. These ‘conditions of perception’ are, however, the result
of a highly coded, even if vtutually unconscious, set of operations decodings. This is as true of the photographic or televisual image as it is
of any other sign. Iconic signs are, however, particularly r,llnerable to
being ‘read’ as natural because visual codes of perception are very
widely distributed and because this type of sign is less arbitrary than a
linguistic sign: the linguistic sign, ‘cow’, possessesnoneof the properties
of the thing represented, whereas the visual sign appears to possess
someof those properties.
This may help us to clarify a confusion in current linguistic theory
and to define precisely how some key terms are being used in this
article. Lingnistic theory frequently employs the distinction ‘denotation’
and ‘connotation’. The term ‘denotation’ is widely equated with the
literal meaning of a sign: because this literal meaning is almost universally recognized, especially when visual discourse is being employed,
‘denotation’ has often been confused with a literal transcription of
‘reality’in language – and thus with a ‘natural sign’, one pioduced
without the interqention of a code. ‘Connotation’, on the other hand, is
employed simply to refer to less fixed and therefore more conventionaIized and changeable, associative meanings, which clearly vary frorn
instance to instance and therefore must depend on the intervention of
We do not use the distinction – denotation/connotation – in this
way. From our point of view, the distinction is an analytic one only . It is
useful, in analysis, to be able to apply a rough rule of thumb which
distinguishes those aspects of a sign which appear to be taken, in any
language community at any point in time, as its ‘literal’ meaning (denotation) from the more associative meanings for the sign which it is
possible to generate (connotation). But analytic distinctions must not be
confused with distinctions in the real world. There will be very few
instances in which signs organized in a discourse sig ly only their
‘literal’ (that is, near-universally consensualized) meaning. In actual
discourse most signs will combine both the denotative and the connotallrveaspects(as redefined above). It may, then, be asked why we retain
the distinction at all. It is largely a matter of analytic value. It is because
signsappear to acquiretheir full ideologicalvalue – appearto be open to
articulation with wider ideological discourses and meanings – at the
level of their ‘associative’meanings (that is, at the connotative level) for here ‘meanings’ are not apparently fixed in natural perception (that
is, they are not fully naturalized), and their fluidity of meaning and
association can be more fully exploited and transformed. So it is at the
connotative lnel of the sign that situational ideologies alter and transform signi{ication. At this level we can see more clearly the active
intervention of ideologiesin and on discourse:here, the sign is open to
new accentuations and, in Volo5inov’s terms, enters fully into the
struggle over meanings – the class struggle in language. This does not
mean that the denotative or ‘literal meaning is outside ideologyIndeed, we could say that its ideological value is strongly fixed -becatse
it has become so fully universal and’natural’. The terms ‘denotation’
and ‘connotation’, then, are merely useful analytic tools for distinguishing, in particular contexts, between not the presence/absenceof ideology in language but the different levels at which ideologies and
The level of connotation of the visual sign, of its contextual reference and positioning in different discursive fields of meaning and
association, is the point where alreadycodedsigns intersect with the deep
semantic codes of a culture and take on additional, more active ideological dimensions. We might take an example from advertising discourse.
Here, too, there is no ‘purely denotative’, and certainly no ‘natural’,
representation. Every visual sign in advertising connotes a quality,
sit …
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