Cultural theorist Stuart Hall examined the relation between the viewer and what is viewed. He was concerned with the cultural practices of 'looking' and ‘seeing' and how they were affected by social positions. Hall quotes W. J. T. Mitchell as saying “a picture must be understood as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, bodies and figurality” (p.16)(1). The power or capacity of the visual sign to convey meaning is only 'virtual' or potential until those meanings have been realised in use. Their realisation requires, at the other end of the meaning chain, the cultural practices of looking and interpretation, the subjective capacities of the viewer to make images signify.” (p. 312)(2).
Hall regards seeing as a cultural practice as “social positions help to shape...subjective capacities” (p.310). He warned against meaning being conceptualised in a reductive way and commented that 'the meaning' of an image can't be seen as rigid and permanent through time and different cultures. Also, the subject itself, at the end of the 'meaning chain', is not a finished article but an entity formed through elaborate and incomplete processes both social and psychic, something Hall termed 'a subject-in-process': the meanings which images construct 'subject' us largely 'out of awareness’. Hall compared this process to using a language: we comply with assumed rules, which make our voices understood, without always purposefully following the rules. Hall uses the term 'discursive' to replace what he sees as the narrow definition of 'text'. He feels it's valuable “because it blurs...distinction between thought and action, ideas and practices” (p.311).
Image's 'effects' operate not just 'discursively', but at the level of the unconscious. The symbolic power of the image to signify is in no sense restricted to the conscious level and cannot always easily be expressed in words. In fact, this may be one of the ways in which the so-called power of the image differs from that of the linguistic sign: “the power of the image...is immediate and powerful even when its precise meaning remains...vague, suspended – numinous” (p.312).
The cultural practices of looking and seeing...rest on complex conditions of existence, some of which have psychic and unconscious dimensions of which the behavioural definition of meaning's 'effects' has only a very reductionist understanding. We are conscious of an image's scope to cover a greater symbolic range, to allude to experiences which seem remote, outside the limits of logic, “which disturb by the very way in which they exceed meaning.”(p.311).
Hall maintains that the cultural practices of looking and seeing - based on the complicated environment we live in - has a subconscious effect and that “the symbolic power of the image to signify is in no sense restricted to the conscious level” (p.311), which is why the “behavioural definition of meaning's 'effects' has only a very reductionist understanding” (p.312). Uncovering these hidden, often unconscious and shifting relationships was essential to Hall’s work, connecting race, class, gender and power. Similarly, my work with everyday matter such as sugar and breath examines their hidden properties, using them to explore relationships and tensions between objects, spaces and social distinctions such as class and gender.
Writing in the Guardian, Suzanne Moore (3) describes Hall as seeing incremental change regarding multiculturalism and sexual identity but an analysis of neo-liberal consensus left him pessimistic about class: “an accommodation with globalisation that leaves so much of the world desperately poor”. Hall said he was 'always within shouting distance of Marx’. Using Marxist theory as a tool, his politics were more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. He was interested in the situations or developments that would accelerate change. What combination of elements come together to create big shifts in consciousness?
As Moore succinctly puts it: “interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies was the study of how power operates in the everyday...his insistence that identities shift and drift, that new forms of power and opposition are always emerging, is still vital”. This seems similar to Gramsci’s ideas of cultural hegemony - how power operates through beliefs, and values so the view of the ruling class becomes the norm and everyday.
If, as Hall believed, cultural practices rest on complex conditions of existence, which may be at least partly hidden or implicit, then to apply Gramsci, it follows that these practices also rest on the power paradigm of cultural hegemony. This is a notion that interests me and is one that I am exploring through my work: if the hidden cultural underpinnings of society reflect the hegemony or dominant ideology, is this also the case with the hidden properties of everyday objects and personal acts such as sugar and breathing?
(1) Mitchell, W.J.T (1994) 'Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and. Visual Representation'
(2) Hall, S. (2009) 'Looking at Subjectivity' in Evans, J. And Hall, S. (2009) 'Visual Culture: A Reader'
(3) Moore, S. (2014) 'Stuart Hall was a voice for misfits everywhere. That's his real legacy' The Guardian