The Problematics of Representation

The representation of the world in texts is not a simple matter. Here are some considerations:

  1. We have to use symbols, which are not the real world but our ways of indicating it, transmitted through human interaction, governed by social use. What we know when we see representations of the world are the representations, not the world itself. There is only one way to get the "real world" into a book in a non-symbolic way - you go out and pick up a piece of it and put in between the pages. And even that may be construed symbolically: we may pick up an old book of a deceased favourite aunt, and find a wildflower pressed between the pages. We think about what this may mean, what it may tell us about her, about what was significant to her. The pressed wildflower can become something other than just itself, in a flash.

  2. We have to select. And to select means to choose some things as important and not others, to create a frame in which the selection makes sense, to leave things out, to put the selected bits into some relationship so we can infer what is omitted. What we end up with is a "whole" which is made up of bits in certain relations to one another, and which imply a world which is only partially represented (and that through symbols).

  3. We have to use form - that is, there has to be a pattern that allows us to make sense of the data with which we are presented. There has to be a beginning, middle, end, a way for people to connect the data in a meaningful way: in fact, if you change the way the pieces of data, the signs, are related, you are likely going to change the meaning.

  4. Representation is also from a perspective: we have to look at the "real world" from some angle, with some background of experience and expectation. One is only representing from a perspective or point of view.

  5. We interpret symbolic structures like texts according to the genre . We attribute certain contexts and ways of construing symbols through the genre of the text. We read a legal document differently from the way we read a letter from a friend, and we read a novel about a person's life differently from the way we read a "true account." These conventions of reading and of writing are crucial to the way we interpret the texts, and to the relation we see between them and the "real world."

  6. Works in the same genre may be however in different modalities, using different representational devices to present us the world in different ways - so a text might be written in a realist mode, or a modernist mode, and so forth. On the one hand, the modality follows from and reflects the way in which the world is seen at some deep levels of ontological and epistemological reality; on the other hand (and the hands do meet) texts written in any modality follow conventions of practice for that modality, the usages of other texts.

  7. Texts tend to refer to other texts, to be written "in the light" of them, to play off them, to deviate from them. This dimension of representation is known as intertextuality.

  8. As well as referring to and following the conventions of other similar texts, texts refer to and use the broader ways of speaking and writing about subjects and activities current in the culture. Textual representations tend to conform to or play off of the discursive practices of the community in which the text is written.

  9. In order to communicate the world we have to have readers who will understand the forms of representation that we use. We have to have conventions of representation, and we have to have an interpretive community, a group that can understand the symbols and forms of representation. Different representational modes can have different communities. For instance many people can understand and appreciate a painting of a beautiful sunset, but not that many can understand and appreciate non-representational modern art. We learn to interpret; some forms are common to a broad group, some are common to a smaller group.

The problematics of representation follow from its nature and complexity. We can never represent the "real world" in any but a symbolized form, so it is not the world but our symbolization of it that we see. We can never see the whole of it, but only what we select and arrange, and we see as we arrange. There are various ways of representing the world, each one governed by an understanding of what the world is, how we see it, what is important to see.

This leads to another whole set of issues, however, around the location of meaning. Were is it located? Is it in the intention of the author, in the text, or in the reader? I have a web page which introduces some of the considerations of the problem of where meaning is located.

© Copyright John Lye 2004