Abstract of “The Television Discourse – Encoding and Decoding” by Stuart Hall
Abstract by Diane Neu
I. Description of Article
Hall discusses the role of encoding and decoding from the vantage point of television production. He discusses the process of television production as a series of codes and signs that are constructed in order to relay specific messages. He also discusses the role that television production plays in encouraging a “preferred meaning or reading,” and he also discusses the issue of misreading signs. Hall ends by discussing three types of codes and how they affect the viewer’s connotative meaning. The codes are: dominant or hegemonic, professional, and negotiated.
II. Comments and Questions
Hall argues that television is structured to produce a specific message – this message is organized and transmitted through “the operation of codes” (28). These codes are structured to relay a certain message while adhering to the “rules” of language. The successful transmission of this message requires the traditional materials of television production – film, cameras, etc. Hall refers to these materials as “substratum,” and I am not entirely sure what he means by that. Is he saying that the message that these materials transmit replace the actual transmitter? The transmitter no longer exists – only the message matters? Or is the material merely transforming the message – the message is no longer pure because it must be transmitted through another material? I am not saying that I don’t necessarily agree with all that – I’m just not sure that’s what he is saying.
Hall explains encoding as the process where an event becomes a story – essentially, by being turned into “televisual language” the “raw historical event” becomes different because of the signs and rules of language that are now imposed on it. I think he’s trying to say something about the difference between watching a newscast of an event and watching the TV version – like Band of Brothers or something. I’m really not sure what the argument is here. I have a lot of trouble following the process of encoding. What are these rules that he is talking about?
The communicative exchange (in television) is described as a sort of linear, closed circuit process where the broadcasting organizations, who already have rigid “institutional structures and networks of production” organize certain “routines and technical infrastructures” (29). These routines and infrastructures are necessary “to produce the programme” (29). I’m not sure if Hall means “programme” as just a 30-minute television program or in the method sense of the word – like a program of study or a program of events. Maybe both. The production process initiates the message that the program is broadcasting. Hall is clear that “production and the reception of the television message are not identical, but they are related” (29). He further explains that while production and reception are linked, they are still separate parts of the communicative process. Hall uses the formulaic TV Western to explain how certain discourses are heavily encoding with certain rules, content expectations, etc. The Western is a good example of a televisual language where the message being decoded by the viewer is likely to be “highly symmetrical to that in which it had been encoded” (29). It is a more straightforward discourse where the expectations of the view are inline with the intentions of the producers.
Is a picture of a cow the same as an actual cow? Is it an actual urinal or a sculpture of a urinal? That’s the complex nature of visual signs. Every visual sign is encoded with numerous amounts of information – the “fundamental perceptual codes which all culture-members share” (31). Visual signs are more universal. While it can be easy to think that visual signs, because of their universality, are simple and straightforward, they can actually lead to misreadings because they appear so transparent and easy to read. We assume that the image is only saying one thing – we oversimplify the decoding process by assuming that the visual sign is empty of connotative meaning.
Visual signs are also connotative signs. The connotative sign of the visual sign is the “point where the denoted sign intersects with the deep semantic structures of a culture, and takes on an ideological dimension” (31). The connotative sign represents that point in culture where the word means something else on its own because of the perceptual codes that the word represents. Hall uses advertising as an example of a visual sign that is nearly void of denotative communication. The visual signs in advertising are full of connotative communication. Every aspect of the ad “ ‘connotes’ a quality, situation, value, or inference” (31). Hall then describes three different kinds of connotative reading: dominant or hegemonic code, professional code, and negotiated code.
Dominant or Hegemonic Code
The viewer is operating within the dominant or hegemonic code when they take the message “full and straight” (32). They read the message entirely as the maker intended it.
The viewer is operating within the professional code when they receive the message transmitted by a broadcasting professional. This message may be highly similar to the dominant code, but it may also contradict it is some ways. The professional code is highly linked to the dominant code, and while “the professional code is ‘relatively independent’ of the dominant code,” it still “operates within the ‘hegemony’ of the dominant code” (32). The professional code is tied to the dominant code since the controllers of the dominant code also control the news reporters, producers, etc. However, these broadcasting professionals are still able to spin the dominant code if they so choose. I think a good example of this would be when the Bush administration sends out a press release, brief, etc. Taking that message “full and straight” would be to read it as a dominant code. Some broadcasting professionals (Fox news) may deliver the message as almost identical to the dominant code, whereas other news professionals may take a different spin on it – entering the professional code. At least that’s what I think he’s saying.
The viewer is operating within a negotiated code when they acknowledge some aspects of the dominant code (usually those aspects that are removed from their immediate community), while also disagreeing with aspects of the dominant code that might negatively impact them personally. Hall gives the example of a worker agreeing that a bill to restrict union rights might make sense from a national economics viewpoint. However, that doesn’t mean that the worker won’t ardently oppose the ramifications the bill when it impacts his own salary and working conditions.
III. Key Terms and Links
Dominant or hegemonic code
If this link doesn’t work, search for “linguistic substratum” on JSTOR. It’s the first article that comes up: “Linguistic Substrata of American English” by E. C. Hills I couldn’t figure out how to hyperlink to a subscription based service.
At one point Hall quotes Gerbner – I’m guessing he was talking about this guy: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=2881)
This is from the computer side of things: