Representation and Cultural Identity

In his essay on Representation, WJT Mitchell describes the structure of both political and semiotic representation as a triangle: “representation is always of something or someone, by something or someone, to someone.” (12) Although this may sound straight forward, the axes of communication (between the artist and the viewer) and of representation (between the object represented/signified and the representation/signifier)—the two parts of the project of representation—create room for “misunderstanding, error, or downright falsehood.” (12) There is thus a double role that representation can play, “as a means of communication which is also a potential obstacle to it.” (13) Representation offers us an opportunity to communicate and convey meaning while at the same time leaving the ultimate meaning and experience of the viewer/reader beyond the artist’s control. To further complicate things, “the representation sign never seems to occur in isolation from a whole network of other signs”: language, images, pictures, and any other form of representation do not exist in a vacuum, but in a jostling concatenation—in relation to and articulated with—other signs and signifiers.
As Stuart Hall notes in “Cultural Identity and Diaspora” “every representation is a regime of power.” (236) Thinking of identity and representation in a Caribbean context, Hall notes that cultural identity can recognize many points of similarity, as well as “critical points of deep and significant difference,” and that such ruptures and continuities signify the Caribbean’s “uniqueness.” (236) The multivalent and heterogenous character of diaspora, and the Caribbean in particular, is apparent in representations of the Caribbean as seen in Ruddy Roye or ARC, to name a few.

Images speak (just as, for Hall, bodies speak) in a code that evades language and communicates messages about both the subject and the context in which it was made. For both Hall and Mitchell, the political dimension of such representation is unavoidable, perhaps even necessary depending on the project, but also beyond the control of either the artist, photographer, or the subject of a particular photograph. This represents a danger, given the negative legacies of racism and colonialism, but one that is outweighed  by the ability to create one’s own image, inserting the un- or under-represented into dominant structures and hierarchies. Further, in cases of photography, which Mitchell notes acts as both an index and an icon, the possibility  for both overdetermination and miscommunication about both the subject matter and its context exists. However, as with Hall’s discussion of Caribbean cinema, cultural movements and understandings are contingent on recognition, being able to see oneself reflected in surrounding representations. Images can be particularly powerful at articulating the diaspora experience as “defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity.” (Hall, 244) By speaking a nonverbal language, lines of communication remain open that are closed by language. Within a multivocal context like the Caribbean, thsi messsaging mght be all the more powerful for its ability to communicate within and among its different constituencies, as well as to communities beyond its borders.

-Gwen Shaw

One comment

  1. Chy

    Your post (specifically the second portion) makes me think of the book, Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. In the book, Fusco says that what is important to note about images is that they can teach / inform those that are illiterate. If one is exposed to “negative” images, one may form opinions and convictions about the people or things represented in the image. The lines of communication that images provide, in my view, are quite similar to the ones that words provide. I do think images provide a wider space for interpretation–and that is very valuable, but the power of imagery is very potent. A documentary called Ethnic Notions (directed by Marlon RIggs) speaks to this very well. The documentary discusses the prevalence of racial iconography from U.S. slavery to the present (1980). The existence of racialized imagery on simple things like pepper shakers and hair pomade speak to the entrenched nature of racism in the U.S. I bring this film up to counter the notion that images don’t also colonize the mind. You talk about the fact that imagery also “represents a danger” in regards to overdetermination, but that “overdetermination” is very powerful. I am sure that imagery can teach us to discern and categorize, as well as celebrate and question, but I am not sure that it is that much different from language.

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