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Media as the "systematically distorted communication" of meaning: how Stuart Hall's "Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse" lays out a foundational framework for Media Studies

Profile picture of Samson ZhangSamson Zhang
Oct 3, 2021Last updated Dec 13, 20219 min read

Previously I've written (summarizing my reading) that objectivity in journalism is a myth, and the journalistic transmission of information is inherently biased in one form or another.

In his 1973 essay "Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse", Stuart Hall -- one of the founding scholars of what's now considered as media studies -- presents the more general precursor to my previous point: there is no such thing as transparent communication in any media.

Specifically, to be transmitted through media, communicated meaning must be encoded and then decoded, Hall says. Encoding and decoding are non-neutral processes, in which societal structures and powers play a large part. Ideas like genre, style, and transparency arise from specific patterns of interpretation. The idea of transparency especially reflects the idea of a "dominant" intended message, with alternative readings of the same piece of media alternatively supporting or opposing this dominant code.

Here's a walk-through of Hall's 20-page paper, in three parts.

1. Communication as Production, and Media as "Systematically Distorted Communication"

Hall begins by framing communication as a form of production, where the object of production is a message, a symbolic vehicle of meaning. The message has a "material substratum", i.e. a printed book or a broadcast station and television set, but it has a more fundamental "phenomenal form".

The production of this message happens not only when the direct producers of a piece of media create and transmit the media, "encoding" meaning into the message, but also when the consumers of the media "decode" the message back into the meaning that they understand.

Both encoding and decoding are "determinate moments" that shape the nature of the message, Hall says. Both direct producers and consumers help produce the message, the product of the process of production of communication.

It's easy to see that the meanings encoded and decoded don't have to be the same, and in the case that they aren't, it's not a simple failure on one side or the other to communicate an idea that results in the difference: it's an asymmetry between two complex processes with a multitide of possible forms and causes.

Conversely, constructions of meta-meaning in media can be clearly explained as symmetries in encoding and decoding. Ideas about different genres or styles, for example, arise when viewers recognize certain patterns of encoding meaning, and develop corresponding decoding methods to interpret them. Deviations from the understood encoding pattern -- a subversion of a tropey plotline, or an experimental visual style, for example -- may push the boundaries of a genre in exciting ways, or confuse and disappoint viewers who find their decoding methods unable to handle what they're given.

Thus communication through media is not a straightforward passage of truth, but rather a "systematically distorted communication", Hall writes.

2. Case Study: Violence in Westerns

Hall farmes this encoding-decoding model of communication in opposition to traditional "behavioral" understandings, where meaning is viewed as constructed directly from an individual's immediate and past experiences.

As an illustration of the depth this new model brings, Hall uses depictions of violence in "Western" genre movies as a case study.

On-screen violence doesn't aim to communicate to the viewer actual experiences of violence, as past research counting bodies in movies seem to imply: rather, they communicate messages of violence, and of other things.

"Typically, [researchers presume] that all other elements -- setting, action, characters, iconography, movement, conduct and appearance, moral structure, and so on -- were present as so many inert supports for the violence: in order to warrant or endorse the violent act," Hall writes. But anybody who has learned the interpretative methods of a high school English class can understand the faults of this presumption, and that, for example, "the violence might be present only in order to warrant or endorse the character."

Take the violent trope of the Western hero being the fastest to draw a gun in a duel, for example. One way to interpret this depiction of violence is to read the message: "when challenged, shoot to kill without hesitation." With context, however, it becomes clear that this violence is meant to represent the competence and professionalism of the hero. The message becomes, as Hall writes, "when challenged, master contingencies by 'professional cool'".

Crucially, the distinction between the two readings is context: the good-and-evil moral codes in Westerns, the characterization of certain kinds of death as good or bad ones, befitting of heros or villains. Depictions of violence have no communicative meaning in isolation: it is only through learned codes of reception, corresponding to repeated codes of production, through which the meaning of violence, as a message, is constructed.

3. Communication, Connotation, and Hegemony

Finally, Hall distinguishes between two kinds of decoding viewers do when consuming media: decoding denotative symbols and connotative ones.

Denotative symbols in films, for example, are straightforward elements of film language: the passage of time signified by scene changes, the emotions signified by various camera angles, or the concrete events represented by certain imagery -- a character's death shown by a splatter of blood.

These symbols are sometimes not obvious or universal, to be sure. But they are "closed", Hall says: "we need primarily to refer to the immanent world of the sign and its codes" to clarify misunderstandings.

On the other hand, connotative symbols are "open". There are many ways that the depiction of a certain action or event can make a viewer feel, and unlike with denotative decoding, what a viewer feels is influenced by the much broader (effectively unbound, thus "open") societal context.

Yet the direct producers of media must consider consumers' connotative decoding patterns as well as denotative ones when encoding meaning; beyond tweaking encoding methods, media producers also work hard to shape how consumers decode messages to get meaning. Presented with a given narrative or character profile, media producers want viewers to respond in a particular, predictable way.

On the mass-media scale that film and broadcast TV exist on, shaping consumers' connotative decoding codes is no less than shaping their values and worldviews. What connotative codes are enforced, then, reflect the will of the hegemonic powers that be: the economic and cultural elite to whom media institutions necessarily exist in close proximity with, and thus are ever-influenced by. Out of this influence there emerges "dominant" codes for how things should be considered and judged when depicted in the media, according to the interests of the hegemonic elite.

Ultimately, Hall names four different codes that could determine the production of meaning:

  1. Dominant code: the viewer consumes a piece of media and decodes the message to the be same as how it was encoded. Their code for decoding is exactly in line with how direct producers, and the invisible powers guiding them, want it to be. This is constructed as "transparent communication".

  2. Professional code: this is the layer of distortion introduced by the direct producers of media, i.e. the process of real event => story => communicative event. This distortion isn't of great sociological importance so much as it is technical and practical: how news programs are arranged, what debate questions are asked, etc., usually in direct service of conforming to the dominant message and reinforcing the dominant code on the reception side.

  3. Negotiated code: the viewer decodes the dominant meaning encoded in a message and unconsciously recognizes it as privileged, but makes an exception at a local level. Hall gives as an example an industrial worker who agrees at a high level that wages should be kept low to combat inflation, as a dominant message might go, but still participates in strikes to increase their own pay. This discord is constructed as a "failure in communications".

  4. Oppositional code: the viewer decodes the dominant meaning, but also sees in some way the hegemonic forces that construct it as such, and uses this understanding to modulate their reception of the message. Hall extends his previous example: a more class-conscious worker listening to a debate about limiting wages might recognize that what is meant to be decoded as "national interests" for all to rally behind are in fact the interests only of the ruling class. "He detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference," Hall writes.

Codes of meaning-production and their underlying influences laid bare, Hall reiterates that, beyond a "strictly denotative level", there is no such thing as neutrally "improving communications" or "making communications more effective".

Hegemony functions by making itself invisible, and the construction of transparent communication fulfills this: "to 'misread' a political choice as a technical one represents a type of unconscious collusion with the dominant interests," Hall says, concluding the paper with a warning for other social scientists: "[This is] a form of collusion to which social science researchers are all too prone...it would not be the first time that scientific researchers had 'unconsciously' played a part in the reproduction of hegemony, not by openly submitting to it, but simply by operating the 'professional bracket.'"

Conclusion

Hall's conclusion hints at the innovative contributions of cultural and media studies to the social sciences. Mass media must not be ignored or treated as homogeneous and unworthy of critical attention, lest hegemonic powers be left with a completely unexamined channel to shape society.

Hall's essay presents only a high-level framework, with sparse illustration of its concrete usage relative to the framework's ambitious scope (even with a third of the paper dedicated to the case study of Westerns). Adorno and Horkheimer's "The Culture Industry" and Fiske's "The Cultural Economy of Fandom", two other readings from this class, both provide more explicit examinations of media as enforcement of capitalistic power structures.

But this essay lays a bigger-picture foundation that distinguishes media studies from critical theory or isolated case studies, and gives it justification. A great read for an intro media studies class.

Revolutionary Reading Club

Notes on Lenin and other revolutionary/critical/whatever social theory I stumble upon