November 8, 2007

Shifting Images vs. Encoding/Decoding

Perhaps I am just a little behind the rest of you, but a thought came to me earlier today and I was curious for your opinions. My question is how shifting images are different from encoding and decoding messages. Relating back to Bert and Bin Laden, the meaning of the images clearly shifted among countries, but could this be a result of ambiguous coding by the creator? If this is something that everyone else has already figured out, then sorry, but in all honesty, I am just really curious now...



brett said...

Richard addresses the system of circulation of images – images are passed around, and as they circulate, some images tend to gravitate towards others, become connected by association, and may become emblematic of certain attitudes with certain people, but nothing is ever truly fixed. New images displace old ones, clusters become divided, images become disconnected, and may crossover and become absorbed into other clusters; discourse within a culture changes, and as a result, attitudes change, meaning changes, yet the images remain, and as they continue to circulate, their meaning may change as well. More than this, as Richard illustrates, the circulation of images crosses over into all cultures. Not only are images fairly universal in the respect that we don’t need to speak the same language in order to recognize an image as OF something, but with public internet archives, anyone that has a computer can easily access any available image. Richard makes the point that with the internet, images may very easily cross cultures: “Internet images do not privilege one culture; they are there for public use” (p. 214). And of course, as images cross cultures, they may shift meaning.

So, as Dan suggested, a semiotic approach to the shifting image would consider encoding, decoding, aberrant decoding, shifting, denotation, connotation, production, circulation, etc. –

Barthes suggested that an image, by itself, is polysemous, that is, an image has a “floating” chain of signifieds (p. 39) that may be given some degree of fixity or anchoring by a linguistic message that serves to control interpretation by directing the selection of meaning. Thing is, if the image is anchored by a language that others may not understand, then the image is released of its anchoring to its potential chains of signification. In the case of Bert and Bin Laden, the image loses any kind of anchoring once it is accessed by people whose language is other than the language used by the web page in which it was embedded.

To what extent is the encoded message a function of the linguistic message? As this example illustrates, we can encode a message linguistically all day long until we’re blue in the face, but if other people don’t understand the language that we’re speaking, they’re free to decode the message however they may.

So then, what about the image itself? Certainly there is an encoded message over and beyond the linguistic message. Back to Barthes; remember all the business about denotation and connotation?

In hopes of not belaboring the point, everyone seems to have no problem agreeing on the DENOTATIVE mesage of the image; I presume that the creator of this image, the demonstrators, and us, all recognize the image as depicting Bert and Bin Laden. I suggest that encoding and decoding of the denotative message is accurate for all parties concerned: we all recognize what the image is OF.

The Bert and Bin Laden example illustrates that the same denotative meaning can be associated with DIFFERENT connotative meanings, according to the cultural or historical contexts in which the message is produced and interpreted. Connotation is the ideological meaning that is attached to the image, the meaning inscribed by cultural codes. Where those involved in communicating do not share common codes and social positions (ie. don’t share a common ideology) decodings are likely to be different from the encoder's intended meaning. Umberto Eco uses the term 'aberrant decoding' to refer to a message that has been decoded by means of a different code from that used to encode it.

Dan suggests that the code governing the image is ambiguous, and this seems fairly obvious from our discussion in class, for even among the relatively few of us, there was disagreement on what the image meant. I think this was mainly due to the lack of linguistic code, for none of us had seen the image in its original context. However, even though we weren’t certain how to decode the image, we WERE CERTAIN that the demonstrators had conducted an aberrant decoding of it.

So, I’ve been rambling, and I don’t think that I’ve successfully answered Dan’s question, but that’s what a blog is for, right? In summary, I think the image’s ambiguity may have a lot to do with the loss of linguistic message. Back to the notion of encoding and decoding, Hall suggests that there are NO inevitable decodings, ever. Hall suggests that there is never certainty in meaning, for encoding and decoding are different moments, and interpretation is always fundamental. This fact is illustrated and exemplified by the Bert and Bin Laden image.

JK said...

I think that you brought up an interesting point when you stated the fact that the bert and bin laden image does not have any linguistic power. The two images next to each other do not make much sense for the American society or for the society in which the posters were shown. Therefore, I question whether or not any symbolic meaning of Bert was gained or lost. Even discussing this image in class, the image seemed new to most of us, therefore, the effect did not seem to catch on in either society. However, the concept that the image did not have any linguistic meaning is important to investigate because I wonder if anything more would have come from the image had there been words or a word on the poster. Bert still seems to have no meaning for Bin Laden's people other than they may understand that Bert is an American figure. And quite honestly, it's rather humerous that Bert is not exactly a "kind" character in our society either. So meshing Bert and Bin Laden really did not change any meaning of the symbolism behind Bert.
I think that if anything, the image reinforces Richard's theory of how easily symbols can be cross-cultured due to the incredible use of the internet in today's society. Ruining a cultural icon can easily be done by one individual. However, I think that a large event would need to happen and a signifying image with a cross-cultural symbol would need to be shown in order for a symbol to lose meaning in its original culture. I dont think that one image can do much to change years of a symbolic understanding, unless it is the result of a public attack that really hits home.