Essay: The Work of Representation by Stuart Hall

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  • The Work of Representation by Stuart Hall
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In chapter four of “The Work of Representation” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practice, Stuart Hall begins by giving an overview of Foucault’s perspective of discourse. Firstly, Hall summarizes Foucault’s main theories, giving us insight on what discourse is, how it differs from simple language, and how discourse could be used in varying situations. Foucault was especially concerned with how knowledge is produced, and how we can put knowledge into practice through discourse, especially in institutional settings. He was principally interested in the relationship between knowledge and power, and how they relate to one another. He observed how power was exercised in institutional “apparatus” (referring to various institutional, or physical mechanisms and structures maintaining the exercise of power within social bodies), and what its techniques and tactics were. This is a contrast to Marxists who see power in terms of the state apparatus. Foucault strongly opposed Marx’s theory of ideology, since it was very much reduced to the idea of class. Equally, he also opposes ideology due to the fact that this concept always stands against something that is meant to technically count as “truth.” Marx stated, “in every epoch, the ideas are the ideas of the ruling class.” Thus, Marxist thought generally looks to unravel this ‘ideological layer’ in order to find truth, which is the conflictual relationship between the public and the bourgeoisie. Foucault stated that, rather than ideologies, he is interested in how “effects of truth” are produced within discourses – of which are neither false nor true.
Hall then goes on to distinguish Foucault’s theory on discourse, power, and knowledge from the Marxist theory of class distortion and ideology. Foucault essentially had two main propositions. Firstly, he wanted to demonstrate that knowledge has the power to show the truth or make something true. This also means that knowledge and power are always inextricably linked. Foucault gives an example by relating this particular concept to criminals. This had had effects for both the criminal and the punisher and has been used historically in prison regimes. Moreover, Foucault also created a new notion of power itself. Power is usually always seen as a one directional, chain-like form. However, he states that power doesn’t solely arise from one particular place, but from multiple different levels – it “circulates”. He believes that power is, in fact, everywhere and therefore we are all caught up in it to a certain extent, since it doesn’t go in one particular direction. Foucault was fascinated by the applications of power in the past as well as in modern times, such as the mechanisms of school discipline, prison surveillance, and the censorship of bodily conduct like sex.
Overall, Foucault’s theory on power and knowledge is seemingly complex, but Hall succeeded in giving a complete overview of his main theories. Although insightful, Hall doesn’t state much of his own opinions in terms of the relationship between knowledge and power. It would have been very interesting to hear the perspective of Hall himself in addition to Foucault’s view.

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