Encoding/Decoding: The Drawing On Of Myth

I spent the better part of the afternoon rewriting Wikipedia’s page on “Hall’s Theory” – having read his 1973 paper on the idea of responses to the messages in a tele-visual discourse, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw there was a Wiki page on it. However, it was so short and badly written I felt it was necessary to take the time and revise.

Stuart Hall was influenced by Antonio Gramski’s notions of cultural hegemony being necessary to maintain capitalism. The aspect of reception theory he developed with Encoding/Decoding was that of possible audience responses to messages developed by broadcasters. Hall says are three positions people can take as an audience. Dominant Hegemonic, Negotiated, and Globally Contrary  positions have to do with the way that people choose to either interpret or deal with the relations of signs and their meanings as presented by broadcasters, who presumably use professional codes or hegemonic codes of understanding.

We can think of professional codes as a type of institutional knowledge, or industrial/professional psychology which would lend itself to groupthink. If this is the case, hegemonic and dominant codes (which are not determined but subject to change) are a natural facet of power structures and establishment ideology. Globally contrary positions possess the quality of being accessible only by the media-literal and critical thinkers who are capable of understanding those dominant codes, yet choose alternative frameworks and personal points of reference, which they use to detotalize the positions of the broadcaster, then retotalize into a new understanding.

It is reminiscent of Barthes Mythologies and his conceptions of myth being native to the right, a clumsy artificial reconstruction of the left which owes its usefulness to the bourgeois aspirations of the dominant parts of society.

Semiology has taught us that myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal. Now this process is exactly that of bourgeois ideology. If our society is objectively the privileged field of mythical significations, it is because formally myth is the most appropriate instrument for the ideological inversion which defines this society: at all the levels of human communication, myth operates the inversion of anti-physis into pseudo-physis. – P. 142

Myth, in Barthes conception, is a form of politicized speech which conservative elements can draw upon to make their case. It exists as a type of deep embedding of meaning, the connotative level of historical record where deep semantic codes exist and ideologies and discourses intersect, according to Hall. This is why myths are so usefully repurposed throughout history and in the literary traditions of many cultures, and why constant archetypes are repeated and drawn upon, as our oldest narrative traditions.

Stuart Hall “Encoding/Decoding,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed., Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 166-176.

Barthes, Roland (1957), Mythologies


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