Monthly Archives: February 2017

ENGL 806 Bib 2: Stuart Hall “Encoding, Decoding”

Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (pp. 90-102). London and New York, NY: Routledge.

In “Encoding, Decoding” Stuart Hall lays the groundwork for a contextualized theory of communication. Hall (1993) argues that for too long communication has been conceptualized as “a circulation circuit or loop. This model has been criticized for its linearity—sender/message/receiver” (p. 91). In response to this reductive model of communication, Hall offers a semiotic paradigm consisting of several determinate, yet interconnected, moments: “production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction” (p. 91). This semiotic paradigm models the complex social relations involved in the production, circulation, consumption, and reproduction of televised discourse while accounting for misunderstandings that can arise from asymmetrical power relations between television producers and viewers. From the determinate moment of production, the power and social relations of professionals yield a code that is encoded in the discursive message of a televised broadcast. This message is eventually decoded by viewers, becoming embedded in social relations and, in turn, feeding back into the moment of production. Some codes appear to be so universal they are naturalized, taken for granted as common sense. This naturalization process has tremendous ramifications in terms of ideology, as the naturalization of codes “has the (ideological) effect of concealing the practices of coding which are present” (p. 95). Hall also makes the distinction between the denotative and connotative level of a message. At the analytical level, the denotative meaning is the literal “fixed” meaning of a sign, while the connotative meaning refers to the polysemic, open, or associative and, hence, ideological level of the sign. However, Hall is quick to point out that the denotative level is not immune to ideology. For new ideological meanings to become naturalized they must first be mapped onto new discourses that are “preferred,” preferred meanings having the backing of the dominant power structure. Hall outlines three possible subject positions for decoding meaning. The dominant hegemonic position interprets a message at its face value. The viewer receives the message exactly as the producers intend it. In the negotiated position, the viewer receives the dominant or preferred meaning, but partially contests it at some level, usually at its local application. Finally, in the opposition position, the viewer completely rejects the dominant message, instead interpreting the message from an alternative ideological framework, such as seeing the message as promoting the interests of a specific class.

Hall’s semiotic paradigm is still the most fully conceptualized model of mass communication. What makes the model so powerful is that it allows for the power dynamics, social relations, and discursive rules within the semiotic chain—from production to distribution to consumption to reproduction—to be analyzed at each determinant moment. Instead of a reductive behavioral model, which posits that a discursive message, say for instance about violence, would actually promote violence, Hall’s model is capable of analyzing the underlying social dynamics and power dynamics that generate visual discourse. The semiotic paradigm is also able to account for “misreadings” between production and consumption, as well as analyze the role the media establishment plays in the naturalization of ideologies as common sense.

In terms of my research, Hall’s semiotic paradigm allows me to link visual texts to their social contexts or culture in a dialectical way. Additionally, the model helps analyze visual texts at stratified levels, including their denotative “natural” level and their connotative, ideological level, while being able to situate visual texts intertextually. From the article, it is uncertain whether Hall foresaw the rise of user-generated content or alternative media. New media brings up several questions in terms of the application of Hall’s model, including how it is applied to the subject position of viewers. Although most social media activism is coded as revolutionary, as Marx noted, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” So, messages coded as revolutionary on social media may be, in fact, still operating from a dominant hegemonic position, whereas alternative media most likely operates strictly within an opposition code. Applied to a contemporary context, Hall’s work shows an increasing polarization between the dominant and opposition codes, with less space for a reasonable negotiated position. Although Hall may not have predicted the rise of social and alternative media, his theory still accounts for it, as user-generated content feeds back into the professional moment of production.

ENGL 806 2/16-23 Visual Argument: Smokey Says, Resist

In their groundbreaking book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design, Kress and van Leeuwen (2006) write that “Just as grammars of language describe how words combine in clauses, sentences and texts, so our visual ‘grammar’ will describe the way in which depicted elements—people, places and things—combine in visual ‘statements’ of greater or lesser complexity and extension” (p. 1). Following their work using SFL, I view the clause (the configuration of participants, processes, and circumstances) as the basic unit of experience, which also applies to images in terms of the construction of visual arguments as well. Designers create visual arguments using the available semiotic resources of their social contexts. I do not believe images can be created without some linguistic or contextual reference, as by definition, visual arguments are socio-semiotic constructs.

Smokey Bear Resist T-Shirt

When discussing the three sites of visual production—the technological, compositional, and social—Rose (2012) uses the work of Marxist and critical geographer David Harvey to help elucidate, in Harvey’s terms, The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) of our contemporary social environment. Here, I will briefly apply a “Harvey-ian” lens to the above image of Smokey The Bear as an activist, created after a faction of the National Park Service recently went “rogue.” Harvey (2005) argues that neoliberalism has radically restructured the economic and social landscape, creating a ruling elite of tech CEOs and billionaires, whose hegemonic ideology frames an interventionist, neo-imperialist foreign policy as a radical form of personal liberation and social justice. Central to neoliberalism is the co-option of 1960s activist discourses and new social movements centered on civil rights and sexual and identity politics, to legitimize and normalize state and global control in the hands of a few elites. The Smokey The Bear Resist image plays into a radical chic neoliberal doctrine of pseudo-activism, by coding a message in support of maintaining the status quo (a decades-long politicized techno-environmental science agenda) as an edgy social justice issue. Harvey’s method allows for a deeper, ideological critique of internet activism that would be nearly impossible to uncover from the mere denotative level of the visual argument. The Marxist irony is not lost, as this supposedly anti-consumerist message is being sold on t-shirts for $22.99.

Why This Method For This Artifact?

The theoretical methodology I am developing is a Frankentheory that needs to be capable of analyzing visual texts as well as their dialectical relations to culture. This notion of modeling both a text and its social relations comes from SFL, especially Firth, Hasan, and Halliday’s argument that language can only be understood within its context of cultural-use. Hasan (2016) writes, “the relation between language and society is dialectical. Language creates, maintains, and changes human society while this stable and yet forever changing society puts pressure on linguistic resources for making a specific range of meanings, with consequences that are far-reaching indeed for both language and society” (p. 12).

To analyze memes as visual texts I will be using SFL, specifically the stratified view of language pictured below. This model views language from the ground up at various stratified levels, beginning with the minutest level of phonology, to lexicogrammar, to discourse semantics (the text as a whole), to register (the context of situation dealing with field, tenor, and mode variables), to the context of culture (genre, a pattern of register patterns), to ideology. The level of ideology has been added to take into account patterns of meaning that cannot be understood by the text, register, or genre, alone. I will be applying this method of textual analysis to memes. Here the expression plane of phonology and grammar is represented by visual signifiers, while the content plane that goes beyond the text—register, genre, and ideology— will be considered the signified. Register analysis will be essential for understanding visual narratives in terms of the field (the experiential level of participants, processes, and circumstances), tenor (the emotional level, attitude, solidarity, power), and mode (the channel(s) of communication). Following Poynton (1992), ideology will be considered as dealing with evaluation (some form of judgment) and in terms of binary oppositions— “male/female, capitalism/socialism, war/peace,” etc. (p.10).

Yet, just analyzing visual texts with this stratified model of language is not enough to gain a full understanding of the dialectical relations between visual texts and culture, so from the cultural perspective I will be drawing from the work of cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Basil Bernstein, and Jean Baudrillard. This methodology should provide a more fully contextualized and dialectical framework for understanding the role ideology plays in the construal of visual texts in our culture.

The method used to analyze this particular artifact draws from the cultural studies side of my framework by operationalizing several of Harvey’s concepts in terms of Neoliberalism and pseudo-activism to better understand the connotative meaning, motivations, and power relations, behind social media activism.

Language and its semiotic environment (Martin, 1992, p. 496)

What Did The Analysis Reveal?

The analysis reveals a deeper ideological level embedded in the text that is difficult to retrieve solely from the denotative level. At the denotative level, the image conveys an unproblematic liberal humanist message about standing up for one’s beliefs and the environment against those willing to destroy it. At a deeper level, however, the analysis reveals a complex ideological system with possibly unstated ulterior motives. These ulterior motives can manifest as “weaponized discourse,” think the “meme wars,” unduly influencing viewers with sophisticated ideologies at an almost subconscious level. Within this framework, social structures generate specific codes based on class-specialization, giving rising to various forms of consciousness. In general, members of the old middle class believe in a strong classification (such as border walls, extreme vetting), while the new middle class believes in weak classification (open borders, weak categorizations of gender roles, etc.). These sorts of class-strata differences in terms of code, realized through visual texts such as memes, lead to ideological conflicts within the  the middle class, potentially causing economic, social, and ideological divisions.

What Does The Analysis Miss?

At this point in time, this analysis misses the “how” of visual texts. From a semiotic perspective, how does the image of Smokey the Bear convey its specific denotative and ideological messages? This is where visual analysis using SFL comes into play, especially a register analysis of field, tenor, and mode. But as stated earlier, mapping the ideological plane is necessary for a full understanding of the text, so that is why a dialectical theory of text and culture is necessary.


Harvey, D. D. (2006). A brief history of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.

Hasan, R. (2016). Context in the system and process of language (J. Webster, Ed.). Sheffield, UK: Equinox.

Kress, G. R., & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design (2nd ed.). London: Taylor & Francis.

Poynton, C. (1992). Language and gender: making the difference. Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press.

Rose, G. (2011). Visual methodologies: An introduction to the interpretation of visual materials (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.


J.R. Martin, “Grammaticalising Ecology: The Politics of Baby Seals and Kangaroos” Bib Entry 1

Martin, J. R. (1986). Grammaticalising ecology: The politics of baby seals and kangaroos. In T. Threadgold, E. A. Grosz, G. Kress, & M. A. Halliday (Eds.), Language, Semiotics, Ideology. (Vol. 3). Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture.

In “Grammaticalising Ecology,” Martin argues a fourth level of ideology needs to be added to SFL’s three-tiered, multi-stratal model of language. Unlike denotative semiotic systems such as music, where there is a one-to-one correspondence between meaning and expression, Martin (1986) believes connotative semiotic systems are parasitic—”they don’t have a phonology of their own; instead they take over another semiotic system as their expression form” (p. 226). In this model, language serves as the expression of register (the context of situation made up of field, tenor, and mode variables); register serves as the expression of genre (the context of culture made up of register patterns); and genre serves as the expression of ideology (p. 226). However, these patterns of meaning can cut across various levels, as ideology can be encoded in lexis (wording), for instance, calling a crowd a mob or riot. Martin argues that without theorizing a plane of ideology it is difficult to predict why certain groups choose different genres for communication, and it is also difficult to predict how genres will be realized in specific contexts. A looming question regarding ideology is the role of access in terms of what social groups have access to what meanings.

In the article Martin provides a model for mapping the ideological positions of different social groups in terms of their stances towards political issues. Martin (1984) believes it is useful to look at disputes as “ideology in crisis”: “When ideology is in crisis, the linguistic choices reflecting one or another stance are foregrounded” (p. 228). Martin’s model for ideology in crisis begins with a particular issue. Issues have two sides, pro and con. On each side there are antagonists, those concerned with stirring up an issue, and protagonists, those concerned with resolving disputes in an effort to maintain the power of the dominant group. The full model divides issues into Right and Left sides, the Right concerned with maintaining power and the Left concerned with gaining power, each side also containing antagonist and protagonist roles (see Figure 1.).

Figure 1. Issues as ideological systems

Martin uses this model of ideological systems to analyze two texts. The first text, from Habitat: A Magazine of Conservation and Environment, discusses whether Australia should kill kangaroos for population control, while the second text, taken from International Wildlife: Dedicated to the Wise Use of Earth’s Resource’s, discusses whether Canada should continue to hunt baby seals. As a magazine dedicated to environmental activism, Habitat could be said to be on the political Left, while International Wildlife, dedicated to more “conservative” forms of conservation, is on the Right. Both texts use different genres to achieve their social purpose. Text 1 is an example of a hortatory genre to provoke a call to action. In terms of register, text 1 uses more dramatic lexis, using words like killing and murdering to convey the injustice of slaughtering kangaroos. Text 2, on the other hand, is expository and analytical, concerned with preserving power. Text 2 is less emotional, using words like population control and wildlife management, positing seals as a natural resource to be controlled responsibly.

While the modeling of ideological systems is still in its early stages, Martin does raise several questions related to meaning, texts, and ideology. What ideologies and range of meanings do different social groups draw from? How can social groups “stir up” and resolve ideological conflicts through discourse? How do social groups mischaracterize and attack their opposition intertextually?

I will be able to draw from Martin’s work by applying this linguistic model to the realm of images. This model will be useful in analyzing the “meme wars” of our current political climate. Martin’s approach provides a tangible method for beginning to understand the complex relations visual rhetoric has to design, text, intertextuality, power, and social context. By mapping an ideological plane of visual rhetoric, rhetoricians have more systematic tools for understanding the gendering of discourses, as well as the unequal distribution of access to genres in terms of social power.

Moving Beyond the Image: Mapping the Semantics of Visual Ideology Proposal

This article argues that ideology plays a decisive factor in the encoding and decoding of meaning within visual rhetoric. While systemic functional linguistics (SFL) has made some efforts to understand the determining role ideology plays in the construction of meaning in language, this conceptual model has not yet been applied to the visual rhetoric of images. Analyzing images in terms of ideology provides a number of theoretical challenges. While language use in the written and spoken word is predicated on the context of situation in which language is embedded, visual rhetoric such as memes all share the same context—the virtual world—requiring visual rhetoricians to move beyond the image and into the context of culture, which systemic linguists label genre. However, even within the context of Internet culture, memes often share similar genres while construing vastly different ideologies and subjectivities. In this article I will apply SFL’s multi-stratal concept of language to visual texts. I will then use this theoretical framework to map the semantic components of ideology arising through the dialectical relations between text and social context. In particular, the framework will be applied to a popular set of memes conveying a liberal humanist ideology, which I argue, following Basil Bernstein, develops out of a peculiar contradiction within the social structure of the new middle class, leading to potentially misguided forms of social advocacy. The article will provide researchers with a critical tool for mapping visual ideologies, as well as predicting ideological realizations through the encoding and decoding of visual rhetoric.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (M. Holquist & C. Emerson, Eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bernstein, B. B. (1971). Theoretical studies towards a sociology of language (Vol. 4, Class, codes and control). London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Hasan, R. (2016). Context in the system and process of language (Vol. 4, The collected works of Ruqaiya Hasan) (J. Webster, Ed.). Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Equinox Publishing Ltd.