Danai Gurira in Black Panther
Stuart Hall starts chapter one of Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices with the question:
How does the concept of representation connect meaning and language to culture? (p.15)
He begins by defining the concept of representation itself in its broadest sense: the use of one thing to stand for another. He argues that language is a primary example of this process where letters, which represent sounds, make up words, which represent things: both tangible and conceptual. One thing is not represented by the same word across languages and cultures, just as different languages and cultures have different collections of concepts and how to understand them. Because of this, representation can never be an exact science, one thing can never exactly map onto another without relying on context and the knowledge of both writer and reader, speaker and listener. Stuart Hall, therefore, emphasises the importance of recognising that language creates a constant “sliding of meaning” (p.33) where meaning is being determined by a combination of the writer’s intention, the reader’s understanding and the historical and cultural context in which the exchange is happening.
Hall breaks representation down as the process which links together THINGS (ie objects, people, animals), CONCEPTS (ie ideas, abstractions) and SIGNS (ie words, pictures, symbols) – concluding that:
“Representation is the production of meaning through language” p.28
So representation is a process, one in which meaning is constantly being negotiated in order to enable communication, however inexact it might be. BUT the slipperyness of language is not the only complication in this process, another huge factor is power.
Foucault argues that the way we interpret language is in fact based on “relations of power, not relations of meaning.” (quoted p.43). Hall explains that knowledge does not exist in a vaccuum, it is instrumentalised and the process by which this happens affects reality. He gives the example of crime: if you think crime is mainly a result of drugs and addiction, you use the police and prisons to come down hard on drug users and dealers, however if you think it is mainly a result of social and economic inequality you draft legislation to change these conditions and fund services that help to alleviate them. These two approaches will have very different results, even though they began as a response to the same problem. Crime itself is complicated by the fact that it is defined by law, which itself is written by those in power. In the past it has been legal for white people to own black slaves, if they tried to escape – this was a crime – now it is owning slaves that is considered a crime, and the law attempts to help free those in modern day slavery. The definition of a crime is dependant not only on historical context but also on who commits it, for example white drug users in the USA have historically received much lighter sentences than black drug users.
Therefore having control of knowledge, and it’s interpretation gives you a huge amount of power – and this creates what Foucault calls “regimes of truth“:
Each society has its regime of truth, it’s general politics of truth, that is, the type of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true. (quoted p.44)
Those who have power and social capital – have a huge amount of control when it comes to making their own discourse “function as true” – from legislation, to control of the media, to education the “regime of truth” is consistently upheld. Richard Dyer, explores this further in Chapter Four. He describes how those in power can make their own values and beliefs appear as objective truth:
“The establishment of normalcy (ie what is accepted as “normal”) through social and stereotypes is one aspect of the habit of ruling groups… to attempt to fashion the whole of society according to their own world view, value system, sensibility and ideology. So right is this world view for the ruling groups that they make it appear (as it does to them) as “natural” and “inevitable” – for everyone – and in so far as they succeed, they establish their hegemony.” (quoted p.259)
The idea of what is “normal” or “natural” is such a huge part of our socialisation that it takes many of us years to question such concepts, and often only when we are forced to stand outside of them. This “normalcy” is hugely damaging to those who do not fit within it’s narrow parameters. Because to deprive a human of social recognition denies their existence. Judith Butler expresses this in Undoing Gender:
“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in it’s reach? If I desire in certain ways will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life, and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence?”
Without seeing ourselves in the society presented to us at school, on television, in books, by our families, how do we know we exist? And if we don’t how do we survive?
I was thinking about all of these ideas when I went to see Black Panther, the new blockbuster from Marvel, last night. There has been much hype in recent weeks about the representation of the black and african community in this film. Black Panther has an almost entirely black cast, there is not one but three powerful black female leads, the costumes are by black designers who have done huge amounts of research into the cultures from which they come, african rituals and ways of speaking are showcased and celebrated throughout the movie.
The film is set in the legendary country of Wakanda, an African nation that is the richest and most technologically advanced in the world but hides itself beneath the illusion of a third world country. The argument of the film is between those in Wakanda who wish to isolate themselves and remain safe in their comfort and riches and those who call upon a wider idea of pan-blackness in which they should not remain hidden while their communities outside Wakanda face ceaseless oppression. This complex representation of blackness, which covers many different cultures and communities across the globe is in stark contrast to the stereotyped usually lone black character in most mainstream hollywood releases.
This film reverses the assumptions of white supremacy – our society’s current “regime of truth” – in which African peoples are considered “backwards” or “primitive” and rely on the aid sent by “white” “advanced” countries. The film sets forth a different idea of “normalcy” one in which female warriors armed with spears defend technologically as yet unimagined, in which African tribespeople are the most powerful, rich and knowledgeable in the world, in which they have both the power and the weapons to overthrow and destroy their oppressors. Obviously, this is fantasy, Wakanda does not exist, imagining it exposes the lies and stereotypes behind the “regime of truth” we are socialised into and that is consistently sold to us throughout our lives.
Could representations of other worlds, of other ways of living and being create a possibility for a broader definition of what it means to be human and how we live in the world? Imagining these possibilities seems, perhaps, a good place to start.
*Quotes from Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Edited by Steven Hall, Open University, 1997