Mass Communication – encoding decoding and the production and consumption of messages
Hall’s view of the communication process can be looked at as a specificity of a larger more holistic process of production and consumption as described by Karl Marx. Both Hall and Marx see the distinct moments (For Marx: production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. For Hall: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, and reproduction) as part of a larger unity, or a process (Marx, Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy p.236 ; Hall, p.508). Marx deals with the more general notions of production and consumption which constitute the economic structures of society, the foundation on which rise an overarching legal and political superstructure (Williams, Marxism and Literature, p.75). This superstructure for Marx includes in the most general terms political and legal institutions, forms of consciousness that express a particular world view, which favors one class over the other, and political and cultural practices (Williams, Marxism and Literature p.76-77). In his article, Hall specifically looks at the production and re-production of messages through television vis a vis broadcasters and the ruling classes. This can be referred to in Marxist terms as some of the institutions that make up the whole ideology of the class or a way of seeing the world.
The purpose of the communicative process to Hall is to produce meanings and messages that are organized by codes prescribed by the ruling class (Hall p.511). The ruling class tries to create its own meanings of the world, its view of reality, and how society should see and extract meaning from the world around it. According to the classical Marxist position, the mass media disseminates ideas and the world views of the ruling class, and deny, filter, or reject alternative potentially challenging ideas. In regards to television: there are institutional structures that are bound by practices, organized relations and technical infrastructures and are required to produce programs (Hall, p.509). This idea is further illustrated in the following quote from Marx: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it” (Marx Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas p.172). Here it is important to note that both Hall and Marx state that the moment of production of messages (production in general terms for Marx) is not completely autonomous but is in fact relatively autonomous.
Hall examines mass communication as a process that consists of related and relatively autonomous and distinct moments of production, circulation, distribution, consumption, and reproduction of messages (Hall, p.508). The moment of production to Hall is a determinant moment. It is in the moment of production/encoding of the messages that dominant or preferred meanings are being coded into messages (Hall, p.513). Broadcasters encode media messages under the idea that viewers will be able to decode them successfully, extract meaning from the same messages and will be able to translate them into social practices all through dominant discourse. The power that broadcasters hold at the moment of production is manifested in their ability to codify messages based on meaningful discourse through which dominant ways of thinking and power relations within society are then imprinted in messages and imprinted back into society (Hall, 510). Parallels can be drawn from Hall to Marx at every stage of the production – reproduction process of messages. It is important to note that for Marx, the moments of distribution, exchange and consumption, and for Hall the moments of circulation, reception, and consumption are also ‘moments’ within the greater process of production (Hall p.509).
The messages that are produced need to have an effect and/or be successfully decoded at the receiving end. Hall borrows Marxist terms by saying that “circulation and reception are indeed, ‘moments’ of the production process in television and are…incorporated into the production process itself” (Hall, p.509). The choice of the manner in which messages will be circulated (television, in Hall’s case) will have an effect on the way those same messages will be produced. For Hall this will lead to the reformation of the same messages in social practices (Hall, p.508). If the messages that are produced have no meaning at the receiving end and/or the moment of decoding, there cannot be a consumption of those same messages (Hall, p.508). This is similar to Marx’s idea that production cannot exist without consumption. For Marx, production without the purposes of consumption is meaningless (Marx Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy , p 228). It strips production from its intended goal which is consumption. For example, in order to produce my own existence, I need to consume. While I consume food, I produce my existence, without it I will perish. The same can be applied to media messages in Hall’s model. In order to produce media messages and code them in a manner that would allow for decoding, broadcasters also depend on a certain type of consumption; the consumption of raw materials. These materials can take the form of resources such as electricity in order to operate and broadcast messages but also can take the form of information. The production of messages for Hall, “is not without its discursive aspect: it too is framed throughout by meanings and ideas” (Hall, p.509). These meanings and ideas are based upon assumptions and presuppositions about audiences and filled with political and ideological content.
The media has a role to play in the transformation of the raw materials received/consumed in order to reshape them to news form. For example, since each newspaper has its own “social personality” each has a different criteria on what is deemed newsworthy to satisfy their reader’s base, the newspaper organizational and ownership structures, and how much space is allocated for each topic as well as to what sections of the public it wants to appeal to (Hall, Policing the Crisis, 57). In other words, the production of messages by broadcasters, depend also on their ability to consume raw materials from what Hall calls their primary and secondary definers. These raw materials need to be of a certain value to their respected audiences. These primary definers, according to Hall, are usually privileged institutions with easy access to the media (Hall, Policing the Crisis p.58) with the aim of advancing their own agenda. It is at this moment of transformation from raw materials into meaningful messages that ruling class ideologies, beliefs and presuppositions are coded. The media and more specifically the mass media in Marxist terms can be regarded as the ‘means of production’ or as seen before the ‘means of mental production’. In capitalist society the means of production are in the ownership of the ruling class. It is in the process of production/encoding of messages and the circulation/consumption/decoding that Hall extends Marx’s arguments through his use of semiotics and hegemony to describe both the coding and circulation and decoding of media messages
To borrow Marxist terms, the ruling classes, who own the means of production, aim to produce a sense of ‘false consciousness’ that would reaffirm their position of power within society. Looking specifically at television the above can be read in a way that suggests that the mass media functions to produce ‘false consciousness’ among its consumers in the image of those with access to the means of production. Media products in the form of news, mainstream television and popular shows for example are seen as a one dimensional expression of the ruling class values. The dominance of the ruling class operates not only because they own the means of production but also because they own the means of “mental production” (Hall, Policing the Crisis p.59). A deterministic statement such as this doesn’t allow much for autonomy on the side of the consumers. It ignores any diversity of values, beliefs and interpretation of the messages within society. It reduces media consumers and audiences to mere mindless zombies without any possibility or a capacity to read or decode messages other than the prescribed way, as encoded by the producers. Hall argues that we require these codes on order to make sense of what viewers see or hear (Hall, p.511). This is where Hall introduces his ideas of semiotics and hegemony in saying that meanings are not fixed.
There are very few instances where the images and/or codes that we see will signify their literal intent or meaning (Hall, p.512). “The fluidity of meaning and association can be more fully exploited and transformed (Hall, p.512). Hinting here of the power of the ruling classes to transform of shape reality for other classes, Hall opens the possibility of negotiation of meanings. If the ruling classes have the power to shape codes, and create meaning at the coding end, the same can take place at the encoding end; all occurring within the prescribed televisual discourse. The individuals composing the ruling class rule as producers of ideas. For Marx the ruling class must give its ideas the form of universality, and represent those ideas as appearing valid, rational and universal (Marx Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas p. 173). Hall extends Marx’s argument to say that this is “the ideological effect of concealing the practices of coding which are present” (Hall, p.511). These ideas, which Barthes refers to as myths, are the way a culture grants meaning to the world around it. One example of the manifestation of myth according to Barthes is the form of ideology. This is where a parallel can be drawn from Marx albeit with some differences. Marx, as seen earlier, states that the ruling ideas are aimed at appearing transparent and natural to the subordinated classes. For Barthes, these ideas are not completely concealed but are subject to some interpretation and challenging points of view (Barthes, p.115).
Barthes gives a certain amount of autonomy to the human agency. He unfolds three ways in which a myth can be deciphered and/or read. In the first phase a person can create a myth by looking at an empty signifier – looking at an image and filling in the meaning. For example, looking at an image of a black man saluting the French flag can be seen as an example of French imperialism. In the second phase a person looking at the same image may see the form (what it represents) and the signifier (the black man saluting the French flag) and the relationship between the two. The viewer “deciphers” the myth, and sees the motives of the creators of the myth. At this stage a person may decipher the myth and see it as an “imposter” or distortion (Barthes p.115). In the third option, according to Barthes, or the consumer of the messages, believes and accepts the image presented in full without any hesitation. This is a good example of what Hall would call ‘accepted meaning’ in the moment of decoding. When a viewer takes the coded meaning from a newscast or any current affairs program at face value, with no hesitations Hall suggests this viewer is operating within the dominant code that has been prescribed (Hall, p.515). Both Hall and Barthes build upon Marx’s notion of ideology by recognizing the ability of the audiences to negotiate meaning from the messages that are presented to them. The ruling classes aim at naturalizing certain conceptions of reality that would appear normal and reaffirm their position of power, but Hall and Barthes argue that these may appear transparent but in fact are only partly so, paving the way for a relatively autonomous way of decoding (for Hall) or deciphering (for Barthes) the myths and/or messages with which they are presented. I use the term relatively autonomous because both the encoding and the decoding of messages are bounded by certain discursive boundaries.
Regarding television, Hall argues that “events can only be signified within the aural-visual forms of the televisual discourse’ (Hall p.508). Television has its own discursive form: the visual and the aural (Hall, p.511). Choosing to circulate messages via the televisual discourse has a determinant effect on the production of the messages. Here Hall builds upon Marx’s notions of distribution and production to show the relationship between the two. For Marx, distribution cannot be totally separated from production. The distribution of the means of production determines how production will be carried out (Marx, Introduction to Critique of Political Economy p.233). For Marx distribution cannot be looked upon as just the shallow distribution of products and/or services, but also the distribution of people, work forces, laws, rights, and of course the means of production. All of these have a determining effect on the process of production itself and can in fact be seen as moments of production within themselves (Marx Introduction to Critique of Political Economy p.236). For example, distribution of a work force in one area over another will have an effect on the amount of production that will take place in that same area and at the same can be considered of production of the work force. Using Hall’s model as an example, the choice to distribute messages over the medium of television determines how those messages will be produced. Other words to describe this soft deterministic view can be Marshal McLuhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, p.23). Here we can draw a parallel to McLuhan’s medium theory. McLuhan proposed that the medium is shaping and controlling “the scale and form of human association and action” [McLuhan, p.23]. McLuhan proposes that a medium, in Hall’s case the television, influences a given society by its characteristics not only through the content delivered over that medium, but also by the characteristics of the medium itself. Again, the choice of using the medium of television will ultimately determine how messages are built, designed and coded. Here we can see a parallel between Marx’s notions of distribution, Hall’s idea of circulation and McLuhan’s medium theory. By selecting television as the object of analysis, Hall and McLuhan (although McLuhan didn’t focus primarily on television) suggest that by choosing to produce a message for television it must pass through all the formal “rules by which language signified” (Hall p.508). In the case of television it must be coded in a certain way in order to produce a desired effect on the receiving end. It is in this specific production moment that ruling ideas and the popular discourse dominate over the messages themselves. Foucault, on the topic of discourse writes:
“It is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together. What is said and what is concealed. What is required in order to enunciate and what is forbidden. What is not said is as important as what is said” [Foucault, p.100].
This prescribed discourse is a means of control. It is a way to use language and signs to signify real life phenomena, or an agreed upon structure that signifies how one should view the material world around them. Discourse is bound by social rules; it is a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, images, photographs and other media products. The choice of what discourse to use, for broadcasters and specifically looking at television, will ultimately determine what will be shown and what form it will have. The form in which the message is chosen to be transmitted to receivers is its ‘appearance’ and hence a determinant moment for Hall. This ‘form’ is later intended to be decoded and incorporated into social practice if its contents are to be made relevant (Hall p.509). Thus messages need to be coded with a structure of dominance to reaffirm positions of power within society if they are to have any desired effect. Broadcasters produce their definition of a social reality; they construct a particular image which represents their own interests (Hall, Policing the Crisis p.59). In other words they paint a particular image of society which favors selected classes over others. However this image ultimately needs to be accepted or negotiated with audiences if it is to be effective.
Gramsci uses the term Hegemony to describe the structures of bourgeois power over the working classes (Anderson, p.18), although in its original form the term Hegemony was used to described the attempt of the working class to unite and overthrow their rulers. Since this failed to occur the term was extended to the domination of the ruling classes over the proletariat. Hegemony was reached in part by making the proletariat accept a position of subordination and accept the division between political and economic struggle (Anderson, p.18). This acceptance was achieved through negotiation. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world which would appear to the subordinated classes as ‘common sense’ and ‘natural’ is a process of negotiation, rule by consent. This ‘common sense’ is not something rigid but fluid, constantly changing, that requires frequent alterations in order to maintain it and the consent of the masses (Anderson p.19, 42, 44). Hall follows suit and states that “any society of culture tends, with varying degrees of closure, to impose its classification of the social and cultural and political world” (Hall, p.513). The ruling classes practicing hegemony understand that certain compromises need to be undertaken in order to maintain their position of power. For Hall, the way the message is built, designed and coded or in other words its discursive form has a dominant and important position in circulation (Hall, p.508). A message must be coded under the discursive laws that have been laid out by the ruling class and agreed upon by the rest of society.
In summary, Hall’s model of communication is in part an extension of the Marxist model of production-consumption. In his model Hall provides another way of seeing how messages are produced/coded on the one end and consumed/decoded on another end by implying that there is a constant negotiation taking place between producers and consumers of media messages. In other words, the ruling hegemonic ideas are constantly being negotiated between the ruling class and subordinated classes. There is a circular nature to Hall’s model of communication which parallels the circular model of Marx’s production-consumption model. However a distinction is made on the place where these struggles or negotiations take place. At the same time Hall can be read as extending (or furthering) Marx’s argument by introducing the negotiation part of decoding messages. Hall places the negotiation/the struggle over the signification of the signs/messages that are produced through and over the televisual discourse. Consumers can chose to accept, reject or negotiate alternate meanings from the messages with which they are presented. However, this entire process is determined in part by a determinant moment of “production” which is in essence a process that involves all other moments of distribution, exchange, and consumption.
Broadcasters also depended on the consumption of the information they produce by intended audiences – otherwise their production will never be complete (according to Marx and Hall). Messages are intended to be consumed, otherwise their existence is meaningless.
 The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness and therefore think (Marx Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas, p.173). They rule as producers of ideas. But these individuals who shape the ruling ideas are too divided between mental and material labour according to Marx (Marx Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas p.173). While some members of the class have the capacity (time) to engage in creative thought, others are busy materializing the ruling ideas into social practices. For example, while editors and owners of newspapers frame and set the agenda for their newspapers (creative thought) others, the writers, reporters, photographers are working to get their stories to fit within this frame of thought imposed on them by their superiors (material labour). It can also happen that these editors chose to code or frame messages in their own image which may be different than the one prescribed to them by their employers as a form of struggle.
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