Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stuart Hall

The Stuart Hall reading, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices is an interesting breakdown of the flow between the concrete world of physicality and experiences, the mental understanding of this, and the subsequent communication between people, especially in regards to cultural experience and language. For the most part, Hall provides plausible arguments about the system that surrounds communication and culture.

Stuart Hall argues that meaning and language are connected to culture through representation. Language carries meaning; either reflective, intentional, or constructionist. These meanings are shared by a culture, through shared representations or cultural maps. Reflective meaning is intrinsic, intentional is intended by the author, and constructionist is the result of language. He says that language constructs meaning: "The main point is that meaning does not inhere in things, in the world. It is constructed, produced. It is the result of a signifying practice- a practice that produces meaning, that makes things mean (Hall, 24)." Essentially, he is writing about the usage of language to construct meaning, while using urban legend and mythological, ethnocentric findings to buttress his argument.

The inaccurate report he cites is the Scott Polar Research Institute in Table 1.1 (Hall, 23), that indicates Inuit use multiple terms for snow and ice. This is a faulty case-study popularized by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis was a linguistic theory that explored the difference between the way a culture thought and its vocabulary. The example that the Inuit terms for snow show that different languages impart different meanings onto the same physical symbol. In the Inuit language, prefixes and suffixes can be added to a root word to change its meaning, while in English, adjectives and descriptive clauses accomplish the same effect (Harley, 82).

Stewart Hall is making an argument that meaning is affected by the language of the culture. This is called constructivism, and this particular version is set forth in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Essentially, this means that a culture's thinking is affected by the words it has at its disposal. I don't agree with this, because the meaning of words changes according to the culture's needs. As well, the words available to a culture can be rearranged to form new meanings and abstract thoughts. Hall uses the example of the Inuit's words for snow to illustrate this. This particular example which he is using is an urban legend, which makes his claims unsubstantial.

This reading not only perpetuates this myth, that of the Inuit having a different way of thinking about snow, but also a linguistic hypothesis that is unsubstantial. Hall's choice of linguistic construct negates his whole point. He is using a manipulated version of the Inuit language to prove a point about meaning and language.

The idea that thought patterns differ based on grammatical analysis of language is one that was first proposed by Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir (Wilton, 51). The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was based on an analysis of the recorded grammar of the Apache. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was faulty, because of the difference between thought patterns and written language. Hall himself makes this differentiation through his definitions of intentional, reflective, and constructivist meaning. The only validity of this argument is that it is easier to communicate if one has a succinct word instead of a rambling paragraph.

This problem regarding the way that Inuit languages is so out-dated it is unbelievable that it is still being disseminated in university level texts. A class meant to provide a history of non-western art should avoid using the stereotypes and urban legends that have perpetuated past misconceptions about non-western cultures. As a First Nations student who has not had the opportunity to learn the Th Cree dialect, I am insulted that the only Native American language education I have ever encountered, even in passing, is an urban legend based upon a linguistic theory that only holds merit in its most diluted form.