Representation connects meaning and language to culture.
Theories about how LANGUAGE is used to represent the world:
* the reflective, Does language simply reflect a meaning which already exists out there in the world of objects, people and events? * the intentional Does language express only what the speaker or writer or painter wants to say, his or her personally intended meaning? * the constructionist Or is meaning constructed in and through language? this perspective has had the most significant impact on cultural studies in recent years. Two major variants or models of the constructionist approach - the semiotic approach (Ferdinand de Saussure) and the discursive approach (Michel Foucault).
It is simple enough to see how we might form concepts for things we can perceive -people or material objects, like chairs, tables and desks. But we also form concepts of rather obscure and abstract things, which we can't in any simple way see, feel or touch. Think, for example, of our concepts of war, or death, or friendship or love. And, as we have remarked, we also form concepts about things we never have seen, and possibly can't or won't ever see, and about people and places we have plainly made up. We may have a clear concept of, say, angels, mermaids, God, the Devil, or of Heaven and Hell.
Now it could be the case that the conceptual map which I carry around in my head is totally different from yours, in which case you and I would interpret or make sense of the world in totally different ways. We would be incapable of sharing our thoughts or expressing ideas about the world to each other. In fact, each of us probably does understand and interpret the world in a unique and individual way. However, we are able to communicate because we share broadly the same conceptual maps and thus make sense of or interpret the world in roughly similar ways. That is indeed what it means when we say we 'belong to the same culture'. Because we interpret the world in roughly similar ways, we are able to build up a shared culture of meanings and thus construct a social world which we inhabit together. That is why 'culture' is sometimes defined in terms of ‘SHARED MEANINGS/CONCEPTUAL MAPS'.
However, a shared conceptual map is not enough. We must also be able to represent or exchange meanings and concepts, and we can only do that when we also have access to a shared language. LANGUAGE is therefore the second system of representation involved in the overall process of constructing meaning.
At the heart of the meaning process in culture, then, are two related 'systems of representation'. The first enables us to give meaning to the world by constructing a set of correspondences or a chain of equivalences between things -people, objects, events, abstract ideas, etc. - and our system of concepts, our conceptual maps. 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'.
1.2 Language and representation
Sheep, cartoon and abstract painting.
Visual signs are what are called iconic signs. That is, they bear, in their form, a certain resemblance to the object, person or event to which they refer. Written or spoken signs, on the other hand, are what is called indexical.
1.3 Sharing the codes
The question, then, is: how do people who belong to the same culture, who share the same conceptual map and who speak or write the same language (English) know that the arbitrary combination of letters and sounds that makes up the word, TREE, will stand for or represent the concept 'a large plant that grows in nature'? The meaning is not in the object or person or thing, nor is it in the word....
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