Encoding/Decoding, Stuart Hall

Our readings up to this point have primarily focused on how media forms can help shape the dominant ideology. However, we haven’t discussed much about the audience themselves and what happens to ensure that they reproduce the standards of hegemony. Stuart Hall explores a more dynamic audience model and takes into account the engagement that individuals have with the information they receive. In his piece “Encoding/Decoding,” he critiques the traditional model of communication as a simplistic one-way transaction. Instead of a three-step process involving only a sender, message and receiver, Hall argues that production of the culture industry are part of a continuous cycle. Far more complex than three steps, he sees a communicative process which includes production, circulation, distribution and consumption, and then reproduction of a message.

One problem that still arises from this cycle is that despite seeing the audience taking in the information and interpreting it for themselves, the dominant message is more often than not reproduced in its original intent. According to Hall, this is because of the common frameworks through which stories are told. We can take a look at the film industry to see this idea in action.

Kirby Ferguson picks apart the idea of original thought in his series “Everything is a Remix.” The second installment of his series in particular considers how film is a continuous cycle of repeated themes, messages and even images. In his video, he says, “Of the 10 highest grossing films in the past 10 years, 74 out of 100 are adaptations or remakes of comic books, video games, books and so on.” He notes that this could be due to the expenses involved in producing a film, the popularity of books and graphic novels as source material or simply because audiences prefer the familiar. Whatever the reason, the examples that Ferguson highlights show how several dominant cultural themes, such as “the rise of the underdog” or “fighting for justice,” can be reproduced through the messages of these films.

In class we spoke a little about how the Star Wars series falls into this discussion. Ferguson says that although it is seen as a pioneering film for narrative and cinematic techniques alike, it is yet another in a long list of films that is just a mashup of other films that came before it. He argues that the film’s elements come from Joseph Campbell, who popularized structures of myth with his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The different storytelling structures included in the Star Wars “monomyth” are the call to adventure, supernatural aid, belly of the whale, road of trials, meeting with the goddess, etc. This falls in line with the idea that thematic story arcs have been reproduced over time from the Greek epic to the Bible all the way down to popular culture today. What this means from Hall’s perspective, though, is the reproduction of a dominant cultural order through messages. This empowers the hegemony.

Despite the prevalence of mass reproduced messages, Hall says that it still falls on the audiences to decode the messages in one of three ways: audiences can either accept the message, reinterpret it for their own codes, or reject it altogether. Greg Colón Semenza argues that film adaptations may not be so bad in his article “Radical Reflexivity in Cinematic Adaptation: Second Thoughts on Reality, Originality, and Authority.” Instead of seeing remakes as simply avoiding the work of coming up with original work, he considers them “an alternate tradition of cinematic adaptations in which reflexivity is used not to forge connections between the source text and the adaptation but rather to sever the through metaphoric displacement and substitution.” He argues that in some cases, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill included, these meta-films actually subvert the hegemonic message to poke fun at the way other films enforce it. Hall might consider this reinterpreting the dominant culture for the filmmakers’ own means, or in some cases rejecting it altogether to prove a point that they do not fall within the dominant model at all.

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