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Critical Analysis: Cultural Encoding/Decoding

In: Social Issues

Submitted By Jimmy23
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The arrangement of television programming together with the initial meanings depicted and portrayed on our television screens, shape and define our cultural society more than we realize. However, for several reasons, one of which is that scholars hold differing views on the relevancy and suitability of coding in our programming, basic principles of decoding/encoding (Hall 1980) have been substituted with our cultural norms and as a result, they influence our interpretation of "the meaning". This critical review will explore two different articles on this issue and assess their contents. One could argue that Daniel Miller's paper “The Young and the Restless in Trinidad: A Case of the Local and the Global in Mass Consumption" (2002) which is a study on local and global transformation and cultural content in television programming does not fully take into account John Fiske's "Television Culture"(1987) which outlines the codes of images that determine the way we create and understand television; when claiming that society is already pre-disposed to coding cultures and therefore specific coding does not necessarily apply when cultural context is imposed on an audience. Firstly, Fiske and Miller believe that coding is involved in the process of guiding an audience to a meaning. Secondly, they imply that while culture context does manipulate an understanding of meaning, there needs to be an initial adapted code before context comes into play. Both of the articles, published within ten years of one another, are written from a post-modern viewpoint. This means that both authors discuss the general ideology of coding and how it affects the audiences understanding of "meaning". Equally important, both arguments contrast one another. One article breaks down coding and provides clear evidence and supporting details. Meanwhile, though his argument is valid, the other includes only general observations and offers limited views. Both of these articles incorporate similar ideals about television's influence on an audience. Stuart Hall's encoding/decoding model of communication (2004) originally created by Marx, is one whereby he formulated a new model of production-circulation-distribution/consumption-reproduction (Hall 128). Encoding and decoding are fundamental processes in the communicative exchange. There is a space between the production of the message "encoding" and the moment of its reception "decoding". The message, however, must be correctly decoded by the receiver in order for the model to work. In this case, the message is not understood unless it solicits the predetermined reaction from the audience. Therefore, according to Hall, in today's society, television programming is being modified because as cultures expand we begin to change our ideologies of what the audience reception and response will be (130). On one hand, in criticizing the perspective in "The Young and the Restless in Trinidad", Miller states there are global/local categories whereby different cultural meanings are interpreted by the audience. He uses the popular present day soap opera "The Young and the Restless" as an example for cultural influence in Trinidad and the United States. Miller feels the reasoning for why is show is so immensely popular among Trinidadians is that "people look at it because it is every day experience for some people. I think they pattern their lives on it (Miller 168). By this statement, Miller shows his belief that televised ideologies could be incorporated into the everyday life of a society as if it were their own. He suggests that the targeted audience is the average housewife (166), due to the attitude shared by majority of Trinidadian society, “70 percent of (households) with TV watched the show regularly, slightly more than those who watched the news” (180). With this in mind Miller's study shows that this is because "There are direct lessons that can be learnt from the narrative content for moral issues in Trinidad" (176). All in all, on one hand Miller's argument in this regard has some validity. On the other hand, the evidence provided in Miller's article does not completely support the overall argument that the local narrative influences the audience more so than pre-determined encoding. His study only examines one particular geographic in relation to a specific genre of television programming, so it calls into question whether the same findings would hold true for other types of genres or cultural groups. In contrast, John Fiske (1987) explains that the codes of television consist of three components. First there is the reality which is an event that is already encoded by social codes like: dress, makeup, appearance, environment, speech, expression, gestures, etc (4). Fiske argues that one of the ways we can understand the reality of our culture is to begin with is social codes; both precise or easily defined elements such as physical appearance and ambiguous elements such as the significance of elements of nature. For instance, different types of birds have different meanings in different situations (4). Secondly is representation, which is the reality that is encoded electronically by technical codes such as: editing, lighting, cameras, music, sound, etc (4). These technical codes are amplified by written language which can shape the representation through mediums such as: dialogue, setting, casting, conflict, character, etc (4). Lastly there is ideology which is a theme that both social codes and technical codes portray on television. Codes such as: race, class, materialism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc (4). These ideologies are what shape "meaning" in the televised world. The viewer is then ultimately left to make up their own assumptions of this meaning based on their world view and their "cultural reality". The premise of Fiske's paper is that television is technology which has been transformed in to an agent of the production of culture; this is depicted by encompassing the earlier noted codes which ultimately provide us -the audience- with a "meaning" left for us to interpret. If we take a look at our own biased ideas and notions which are formed by western society, we can try to understand how these ideals can guide us to read and analyze simple texts. What is interesting about Fiske's codes is that they are not only applicable to television these same stereotypes and codes can be disposed on any sort of medium be it television to print. Furthermore they have the ability to support claims made by theorists like Miller as they can transcend across different countries, societies and languages; the codes are universal. Miller argues that due to the local culture ideals, the Trinidadian culture has the right to interpret The Young and the Restless in a very different way compared to the America's whose everyday culture is not so vastly different. This is not to say that we in the America's can necessarily relate but rather reinforce that they take place in the USA and therefore the "westernization of it all" is what is prominent compared to the ideological views it sheds onto those in Trinidad. This ultimately corroborates with Millers argument that “Trinidad has been the recipient of sustained influences from the United States, reinforced by the American dominance of the media (503). However, sustaining Fiske's argument of social codes and stereotypes playing having a larger influence on a culture rather than vice versa by stating "Trinidad was never, and will never be, the primary producer of the images and goods from which it constructs its own culture”(513). This critical review has considered the two authors articles. As we can see, each of the articles focuses on the issue of encoding/decoding and its place in the global and local televised world. Fiske and Miller look at background components which make up the meaning behind a television show. Miller concentrates on the importance of cultural context with regards to culture and geographic. Meanwhile, Fiske focuses on the idea that there are subtleties which ultimately pre-determine what we as an audience understands about a television show. Their arguments insinuate that there are unspoken elements that affect us and our way of thinking to the point where we assume that we are already predisposed to them, therefore we look at television show and stereotypes we as a society have created and what they reinforce.

Works Cited
Fiske, John. Television culture. London: Methuen, 1987. Print.
Hall et al, Stuart. Culture, Media, Language. Routledge, 2004. 1 April 2014
Miller, Daniel. "The Young and the Restless and mass consumption in Trinidad." To Be Continued...: Soap Operas Around the World, (2002): 213. Print.

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