What is "Representation"? 

The Theory of Representation is explored visually on this page.

Stuart Hall provides an excellent introduction to representation (you can see a summary of his points by going to the bottom of the page and following the links, but there is always more to say about a basic concept like this.) The following link to a page at Emory University provides another summary of the idea:


Some questions to ask yourself about this lesson later:

Dr. R held up various 'apples.'   Why do we call all of those material objects 'apples'?  They each represent something slightly different yet we all use one word, 'apple,' to represent each.  

René François Ghislain Magritte
(November 21, 1898August 15, 1967) was a Belgian surrealist artist. He became well known for a number of witty and amusing images.

You may remember his famous painting featured in the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (see www.imdb.com for film titles and credits).  

The following images themselves provide a commentary on representation.  Two of the most famous are:

His painting of a classic apple

Translated: "This is not an apple"


His painting of a pipe

Translated: "This is not a pipe"

What is the point of Magritte adding to his illustrations the statement, "This is not . . ."?

He is visually making a complex point: we live in a world of representations which we talk about as if they were the 'real' thing.  His work increases your theoretical understanding of art and language and the human mind. Quite a lot to accomplish for a visual artist.  

There are other images in this series, but these two are often used as the primary examples of Magritte's work.  


Hall, Stuart. "The Work of Representation." Represenation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. ed. Stuart Hall. London: Sage, 1997. 1-74.

Stuart Hall Video Summaries

Okay, Representation is not as easy as it at first looks, So we have to go back over some things

This class is about how language/s work.  Our language is ultimately visual text, i.e. film and video, but all language essentially the same.  

We are not uncovering TRUTH in this class.  From within the discipline of cultural studies (and lots of other disciplines by the way), there is no objective truth humans can identify.  This does not mean there is no truth.  Personally, I believe, but be clear this is a belief, that truth exists out there; however, humans do not have access to truth.  This is why virtually all religious traditions claim that it is not possible to know the truth, that only something we call god can know the truth.  Indeed, the injunction against claiming absolute truth for human beings is explicit in some religious traditions.  For ancient Judaism, Yaweh, was the being whose name should not even be spoken, so God's name was written in the unpronounceable letters YWH, a code for that which should not be spoken.  To speak God's name was to take him in vain.  Men should not try to call out to Him.  Even more clearly, the Tao Teh Ching begins with these words, "The Tao which can be named is not the Tao."  You might imagine the Tao as The Force, a la "Star Wars" for the time being.  It is not possible to express the Tao, so the signifier "Tao" itself is negated in the very first line of the ancient text which is the founding text for Taoism.

So, here it is: we have barely started the semester and there is already an issue which we must take time to discuss.


First of all, if you have a problem with something that is done or said in this or any classroom, talk to the professor.  You are adults and this is a formal environment.  You have responsibilities.  If you do not discuss your concerns with your professor, then she cannot address them.  It is not appropriate for you to take those concerns outside this little community we have here before you discuss it with her and the class.  That would be equivalent of the professor deciding your for the semester right now.


In most classes in this or any University, the idea is to encourage the exchange of ideas.  That means, no one shouts anyone else down, literally or metaphorically.


If anyone here thinks that they will be punished in any way for speaking their mind, they are just plain wrong about my class.  This is a projection of student fears onto the situation.  Now it is true that in a fair fight, I have all the advantages on my side.  My main advantages are not my power to award a grade or even to lead the class, they are my highly trained intellect and experience.  But this is not a fight unless a student chooses to make it into one.


To repeat: discuss issues with me privately first if the issues are sensitive and with the class as a whole at the moment things are happening if possible.


Second, there are misconceptions about what happened in Tuesday’s class and even what the appropriate topics are in this room.


1.      Any and all issues related to our culture are fair game in this classroom.  We are studying how language creates meaning and how we interpret those meanings.  All of this is political in the largest and smallest sense.  It is impossible to teach this course or any other course in American Studies without treading on political ground.  It is necessary to understand what the word ‘politics’ means in this case.  In the large sense, we are discussing the power to control meaning in the culture.  In the small sense, any political move anyone makes is power exercise.  Language is politics writ large and political debates are THE MOST OBVIOUS SETTING in which to practice the skills you will learn in this class.  Indeed, the narrative of Dark Angel, our primary text, is ultimately a political narrative!!!  Oh, and remember the title of the course which was in the class schedule: RACE AND THE GENDERED, CYBORG BODY.  Hey, what could be a clearer marker for discussions of racial politics?????


2.      Our analysis on Tuesday was an analysis of the ‘representations’ being constructed around Palin.  What we were discussing was not TRUTH or the ‘real’ Sarah Palin.  I have no idea what the ‘real’ Sarah Palin is like.  Everything I know is filtered through a language system.  What we addressed was the rhetoric, the discourse surrounding Palin as the McCain campaign wishes us to perceive her.  This is what the politics of language is about: attempting to control what meanings are put into circulation. 


3.      Neither did I make any statements about my own political advocacy.  In fact, I barely, if at all, mentioned Obama.  I certainly did not advocate for him because, if I was going to do that, a completely different set of points would have been made.  And if you were exposed to my core political beliefs, you would probably be surprised.  For example, I began this primary season as a strong supporter of the Southern white gentleman on the Democratic side, not the woman or the mixed race guy. 


4.      The example I used in Tuesday’s class, which if you remember originated with Chris Matthews of CNBC, concerned the rhetoric of the campaign as he saw it being constructed in the past week or so.  It wasn’t even my insight although I agreed with it.  To repeat: Matthews had, by Monday night of this week, concluded that the campaign rhetoric as a whole had now shifted from issues to personality and image.  Whenever this happens and it happens with every Presidential election in recent history to an extraordinary degree, the citizens of the U.S.A.  We were discussing the rhetoric of the campaign as a very powerful example of representation.  Understanding how that rhetoric works is FUNDAMENTAL to this class.  I told you the first day that the cyborg theme was just one way of learning these skills.  I am fascinated by the cyborg theme, but if anyone here thinks that does not involve a whole boatload of politics, s/he is going to be increasingly shocked by where the class goes.  lose their democracy a little more.


5.      I did not declare McCain or Palin a racist.  I am a very serious race scholar.  Most of you have no idea what that means but I use the word race in a very careful way and the term ‘race scholar’ applies to me.  We discussed the rhetoric as a racist discourse.  I sometimes use the word, ‘racialized’ in this context.  Race is present in this Presidential election in a new way (by the way race is always present in our politics).  The discourse is using ‘race’ – in this sentence ‘race’ means ‘representations’ about x,y,z – to manipulate citizens.  I stand by Matthew’s analysis and mine: a dualism has been created.  Citizens are being asked to vote based on which side of the equation they wish to validate.  And the equation is a classically racist equation.  On the one side is 1. white middle class small town moral America, moms and hockey and apple pie, a vision of what America thought it was in the 50’s and still imagines itself to be in many ways (Hence Mayberry where I live, by the way to remind you, we spent a fair amount of time discussing the ‘representation’ of my community). Versus 2. low class black America urban crime ridden corrupt dirty and immoral in every sense.  This is how the rhetorical moves will proceed from now on unless the Democrats are able to change the terms of the debate, something I doubt will happen for more than a few minutes at a time.


6.      Almost nothing we discuss in this class will be about ‘facts.’  Indeed, it is my very clear contention, that facts are not what they are cracked up to be.  Any seriously analysis of facts reveals them to be not all that factual.  For example, if I were to measure the table at the front of the room, I would come up with slightly different measurements depending on my measuring ‘stick’ and the conditions in the room.  Given the most accurate ‘stick’ imaginable, the measurements would actually change depending of the temperature of the room.  And the measurements would certainly change depending on which ‘stick’ I used. 


7.      And returning to the ‘racist’ issue.  It is clear that Hillary Clinton’s campaign used racist rhetoric to try to defeat Obama in the primaries.  It was a sad day for Democrats and a very sad day for millions of Clinton supporters who were surprised that Hillary’s campaign would use those tactics.  Now, I do not believe that Hillary is a racist in any meaningful way although it is clear that we all swim in racist discourse and we all, all, have racist thoughts swirling in our heads.  How could it be any other way in a world in which race is critically important to the meanings we make out of our world?   But to see the Clinton camp, historically an anti-racist force, to descend to that rhetoric was truly sad.  I do not want to go into explaining how that rhetoric worked, but Hillary’s statement that it ‘seemed’ that Obama was a Christian, these are not her exact words, her criticism of his pastor and his choice to remain in his church, her use of the three o’clock phone call idea, her claim that she would advocate for hard working Americans (unstated: she will not work for all those lazy brown Americans), etc. were all powerful racist rhetorical moves.


8.      Conversely, Obama’s rhetorical moves can be examined.  And this is probably the best place to end this discussion.  That is, with a mini lesson about the ‘representations’ of Obama floating around out there.  The problem is, his ‘representations’ have not settled down yet.  Because the very fact of a mixed race American as a nominated Presidential candidate is unprecedented, our country does not know how to define Obama.  He is an unknown quantity and is likely to remain so for some time if he is elected.  Ironically, if he is elected, his ‘representation’ is going to shift as his actions in the Presidency continue to define him.  Right now, this is the best I can do regarding the discourses swirling around Obama:


Barack Obama’s Range of Representations


In actuality this chart needs more columns, but suffice it to say that especially within the supporter column, there exists a wide range of ‘representations’


Obama Campaign Agenda

Obama supporters and sympathizers


The completely mythical neutral point

McCain supporters and sympathizers

McCain Campaign Agenda


change agent



able to stand on the world stage

Let’s look at some artists representations of Obama



In addition



clean - Biden said this







will do radical things to 'get back' for racism hidden agenda =  an angry black man.  


A Senator from Georgia has called Obama, "uppity" which is normally paired with the "n" word.  

scary unknown no experience big spender elitist

liberal = commie

a celebrity a la Paris Hilton community organizer = urban community = lazy brown people








So let us try to clarify the points I was making last class about Sarah Palin's representation.  Remember, we are discussing representation, not truth.

Remember, I used the example of my housing development built by the local company, Mayberry.  Mayberry did market research to determine what kind housing developments people would be attracted to.  The results were clear: people wanted an nostalgic landscape; they wanted front porches where people could gather and conversation between residents would be fostered.  Mayberry erected a stone marker at the single entrance to our community: a young boy wearing baseball cap and walking a dog is the literal representation of my community.  Opie hangs out there at the end of my street.  Andy Griffith is my uncle.  I feel so safe (my landscaping was stolen the second night I spent in the house.  The thieves came right under my bedroom window.  Sort of shook me up.)

The irony is that I have never seen such a young boy with a dog in my neighborhood, and although people seemed to believe they wanted front porches, they do not sit on them.  In fact, they do not sit on the hundreds of decks visible in our backyards.  Mayberry is strangely empty, especially so on holidays.  But everyone, including me, raves about the place!!!

Despite Mayberry's sincere effort to create a cohesive, stable small community environment, has not yet succeeded, but it's representation of the community as Mayberry is deliberate and is read by potential customers as a very pleasant and calming place to be.  

When we example representations, we are always discussion how things mean, how power circulates to define those meanings.


click this link for an exploration of Obama's representations

The thing is Obama's 'representations' are not clear at all, not at all.

So by creating the dualism

we are the white candidates of the middle class


they are the scary black candidates who will waste your money and let us be attacked by terrorists

This is a racist discourse.  I stand behind that analysis all the way.  McCain may or may not be a racist, but he is willing to use a racist discourse to win, so was Hillary to my shock. 


The image below is the one referred to on page 39 in Hall.

Here is a very interesting image of the actor/model Djimon Hounsou, who is now Calvin Klein's "underwear representative," from last week's New York Times ad on page A 5 (9/5/2005), see also: http://justjared.buzznet.com/2007/07/18/djimon-hounsou-calvin-klein-ads/

What does this contemporary image signify about race, the body, sexuality, representation, etc.?

Check this out!!!