In Which Encoding and Decoding Meet Ideological State Apparatuses

This week’s readings take a far different turn from Social Network Analysis and Networked Individualism and Rhizomes. I am familiar with two of the three (the ones I will be focusing on most here since the third is a book we’re dividing between this week and next week) from taking Cultural Studies last semester: Stuart Hall and Louis Althusser. Now, this feels like somewhat more familiar ground.

Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies Theorist. Image hosted on the blog, Book Forum.

Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies Theorist. Image hosted on the blog, Book Forum.

Louis Althusser. Image hosted on the blog, Maddalo.

Louis Althusser. Image hosted on the blog, Maddalo.

Meet Stuart Hall

While this video does not really touch the article my classmates and I read for this week, it helps me to ground myself in the work of Hall as a way to see how Cultural Studies can start to fit within the larger images of Theories of Networks and Networks of Theories.

Shall We Begin This Trip?

With Stuart Hall’s article, “Encoding, Decoding,” “it is also possible (and useful) to think of this process in terms of a structure produced and sustained through the articulation of linked but distinctive moments – production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction. This would be to think of the process as a ‘complex structure in dominance’, sustained through the articulation of connected practices, each of which, however, retains its distinctiveness and has its own specific modality, its own forms and conditions of existence” (Hall 478). He was setting up this model as an alternative to the traditional model of “sender-message-receiver,” by proposing a process where the creation, distribution, and consumption is one a one-way street between producer and consumer (media stations and all of us), but a two-way avenue where the producers send out, the consumers (us) take in and then spit back out towards the producers.

Stuar Hall's Theory of Encoding and Decoding. Image hosted on a WikiSpace.

A figure of Stuart Hall’s Theory of Encoding and Decoding. Image hosted on a WikiSpace.

This moves away from the idea that the populace is composed of  passive media receptors, but are, instead, just as active in the discourse going on around them as those producing the media. According to Hall, what is moving through this continuous circuit of production, circulation, distribution/consumption, and reproduction “is meanings and messages in the form of sign-vehicles of a specific kind organized, like any form of communication or language, through the operation of codes within the syntagmatic chain of a discourse” (Hall 478). In order to better understand what “syntagmatic chain of a discourse” might be, I found a website, Semiotics for Beginners, that discusses syntagmatic analysis (sounds like fun stuff, right?). The author of this webpage, Daniel Chandler, mentions that, “The study of syntagmatic relations reveals the conventions or ‘rules of combination’ underlying the production and interpretation of texts (such as the grammar of a language). The use of one syntagmatic structure rather than another within a text influences meaning.” I have only touched on Semiotics briefly in some of my classes, so I will leave the diagram below as a way to remind myself of what components in a syntagmatic chain of a discourse may look like.

A diagram of Syntagmatic Levels. Image hosted on Aberystwyth University's Semiotics for Beginners.

A diagram of Syntagmatic Levels. Image hosted on Aberystwyth University‘s Semiotics for Beginners.

Moving along, I really liked that Hall’s exploration of the process, using the example of the creation, distribution, and consumption of a television programme, talks about how the production of media does not occur in a “closed system,” but, instead, the producers are drawing upon the different ideologies underlying the society within which the programme is being created. This conversation happens often with movies, where some people want to see the movie as existing within a vacuum, having no relevance to what is going on in the society at large. By looking at media as operating within an open system of ideas, beliefs, values, and ideologies (a cultural network, might be a way to visualize this), then we start to see that these media are loaded from the get-go: “[The producers] draw topics, treatments, agendas, events, personnel, images of the audience, ‘definitions of the situation’ from other sources and other discursive formations within the wider socio-cultural and political structure of which they are a differentiated part” (Hall 479). This comment reminds me of when I was watching the movie 300: Rise of an Empire.

While the movie is very loosely based on events that occurred in history that were rendered, with much blood spewing, in graphic novels that were then adapted to movie format, the movie itself can be seen as reflective of how Americans may see the United States right now. The film is very loud about the call for freedom, honor, self-sacrifice if the need calls for it, strength of certain women (but only if they are exceedingly obstinate in their wills, in a manly way, or just plain blood-thirsty…or into a necrophilia moment or two), and a certain degree of egocentrism (Greece is the best!). However, the film also draws upon the belief that we are a nation divided and that if a way to overcome these divisions is not found, we will collapse beneath the sandaled feet of foreign invaders. Another concept that rears its metaphorical head is the cost of war, not just for the soldiers but for the leaders who must “feel the weight” of their decisions in sending youths to their deaths, as Themistocles stares moodily out across the blood-laden waters and still decides to sail forth with his plans out of necessity but mainly pride. Yes, this is my movie tangent but also the way I process what Hall was saying about the model he was proposing and how the messages and meanings in each production of a media text changes through every step.

By looking at the changing of meaning in media, I am hoping to better understand how content moves within a network and  changes. So, taking Rise of an Empire as my example, how would the meanings and messages of the film change through each step?

The production part of creating the film Rise of an Empire is an authorship between screenwriter(s), director, producer, actors, CGI creators, craftsman, and everyone else involved in making the film. How they decided to film the movie, what scenes to keep and which to cut, what parts of the graphic novel to expand upon or downplay, what actors to use, what music for what moments are all decisions that filter into the messages being threaded into the film. It is where the film team (from the director on down) are making decisions influenced by the ideologies, values, and beliefs in the society and culture from which they are coming to which they are hoping to distribute to a financial gain. Even the studio’s decision about which movies get the go-ahead are influenced by this same open system as they make claims about which movies they think will sell and which ones they think will flop.

For the next step, circulation, this is the advertising part of the film’s pre-release (and, later, DVD/Blu-Ray release). The funny thing about trailers is that there is a second round of editing and decision-making that occurs, but is not always in the hands of the director and producer. There are some movies where the trailer and film do not match up, leaving audience members disappointed or heavily surprised. When a film is being advertised, the material that is chosen to be featured is weighted based on the value it is estimated to have in drawing in the audience. This estimation is based on ideas and beliefs about the target audience and what parts of the film will be intriguing enough to make viewers want to pay for movie theater tickets. Because Rise of an Empire is relying on the popularity of its predecessor 300, with its emphasis on burly Spartan men and their glory and gore as they face the legion of Persian armies, the filmmakers also recognize that this is a different film, one with more speeches and slightly less in-your-face action. Even the posters use the same dramatic visual flair while the words framing the image tell a different story, with the first one being a more aggressive take-no-shit-from-anyone versus a power struggle between a faltering Greece and an unquenchable desire for power.

Prepare for Glory Poster for the Movie 300. Image hosted on

Prepare for Glory Poster for the Movie 300. Image hosted on

Rise_Conquer Poster for the Film 300: Rise of an Empire. Image hosted on the website PakGames.

Rise_Conquer Poster for the Film 300: Rise of an Empire. Image hosted on the website PakGames.

But what about the viewers, with our consumption of the texts? If we are not the passive receptors previously assumed, how does the messages and meanings put forth by the author/directors/actors/film crew/advertising teams change when they reach and scramble about in our brains? This is the part that reminds me most about education and teaching students. We all come from different backgrounds, with different experiences and knowledge that help to shape our worldviews. Because of these differences, the messages that have been encoded in the texts are not always universally decoded in the same way. Where someone may see Rise of an Empire as a story of freedom at all costs, another person may see the movie as a story that shows how alike different groups of people can be in brutality. When I went to see the film with my cousin, we each came away with different parts of the movie we focused on. People consume meanings and messages and ideas and beliefs and values in line with and in reaction to that which they bring to the experience.

Which leads me to the reproduction part of how I was unscramblind (decoding?) Hall’s theory in relation to Rise of an Empire. I know that there are many people out there who do not like talking during movies (hell, they would prefer all reactions to the film’s content to be quiet affairs, best left in the brain or in the silent curling of fingers into the arms of the chair), but conversations about people’s interest, disinterest, and reactions to the movies and ideas and perceived meanings do happen. It’s hard to keep quiet when walking out of a movie theater about parts we hated, characters we loved or loved to despise, how well the music fit with the scenes, what were/are our favorite quotes, what scenes could have been left out (Transformers 3, anyone?). We talk, we rant, we swoon, all adding into a giant discourse that surrounds movie-going. Reviews happen, memes are created, Facebook pages go up, tumblrs appear. Fans are not silent, brainless entities. They shine their opinions loud and clear, and Hollywood (and its compatriots and rivals) hears what is going on (to an extent. They probably don’t look at everyone’s tumblrs).

Welcome to the network of communication and culture, which has sense broadened the grid as communication technologies reshape (Castells, Rainie, and Wellman would be so proud, or disturbed?) our societies.

It's not just this. Image hosted in the Telegraph article "3D television to burst into the living room."

It’s not just this. Image hosted in the Telegraph article “3D television to burst into the living room.”

It's also this. Discourse at the movies. Image hosted  on the website FilesNews.

It’s also this. Discourse at the movies. Image hosted on the website FilesNews.

Now We Turn Our Attention to Althusser

Within Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus,” he discusses how the proletarians subordinate themselves by giving into distractions of popular culture and the ways in which various Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) are used in order to ensure that the proletarians remain cooperative to the dominant class and the Repressive State Apparatuses (police, army, local, federal, and state laws, and so on) that effect a more direct line of trying to keep the proletarians in line. haha It’s funny to say the word proletarians because it is a societal group into which I was born raised, have worked, am still a part of, and am now (in a way) studying.

ISAs, though, interest me more and are the ones I want to talk about in this section of my post because they are so prevalent and interwoven into our daily lives that we don’t even see most of them as indoctrinating us towards certain beliefs and values. So what are the different types of ISAs? Let’s look at the list that Althusser provides in his article:

“the religious ISA (the system of the different churches),
the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private ‘schools’),
the family ISA,[8]
the legal ISA,[9]
the political ISA (the political system, including the different parties),
the trade-union ISA,
the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sports, etc.)”

No matter how far removed we think we are from being shaped or molded into subordination, every one of us is surrounded by and embedded within these ISAs. Lovingly taking him out of context, John Donne was right when he said, “No man is an island.” So, why would the dominant class want to have the proletarians’ ideologies, beliefs, values, and ideas shaped in such a manner? haha It’s all about the means of production and the “reproduction of the conditions of production” (Althusser) —> cheap labor. He wrote that culture has become monopolized, as mythologies have become very effective in winning the masses over and allow them to believe they have agency.

Morpheus, bringing down the mood. Image hosted on the Shen's Multimedia Rhetoric Blog.

Morpheus, bringing down the mood. Image hosted on the Shen’s Multimedia Rhetoric Blog.

In Althusser’s text, these ISAs are external forces that shape us, starting with the family and then branching out into the other ISAs as we get older and branch out into different societal groups: “Of course, many of these contrasting Virtues (modesty, resignation, submissiveness on the one hand, cynicism, contempt, arrogance, confidence, self-importance, even smooth talk and cunning on the other) are also taught in the Family, in the Church, in the Army, in Good Books, in films and even in the football stadium.”

However, Althusser believes the Eudcational ISA taking the place of religion, with most teachers working within and for the system by promoting the dominant ideology to millions of children and teenagers: “But no other Ideological State Apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven. But it is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is …lay), where teachers respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their ‘parents’ (who are free, too, i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their ‘liberating’ virtues.” This is a pretty sinister way of looking at the educational system, but think about how true that is.

When trying to wrap one's head around the thought of all those ISAs operating in our lives... Gif from the movie Silver Linings Playbook.

When trying to wrap one’s head around the thought of all those ISAs operating in our lives… Gif from the movie Silver Linings Playbook.

This seems like the time for an example, to prove that my nodding towards Althusser’s soul-crushing ideas of education indoctrinating young people to believe in “liberating virtues” while actually binding them within an ideology that will turn them into exploited workers. It’s at this point in the essay where I start to think about the college education inflation that is happening right now. Instead of promoting different avenues of training for young people (trade schools and the like as well as college), there is the constant societal hammering that if anyone wants to succeed in life, to be able to feed the families they will have, to achieve the shining providence promised in the American Dream (whatever that is now), people must attend college. Get those four year degrees and get to work at those fabulous Fortune 500 companies or be a doctor or a lawyer or own your own business! And yet, that’s not what is happening. Instead, there are too many people with undergraduate degrees with relatively little relevant work experience trying to find their places in an economy that is too saturated. A cycle is at play: you need an education to be a candidate for a job, but you are not a right fit for the job if you do not have experience in the field, and yet experience is now required for many, many entry level jobs because there are too many people with varying levels of education and experience applying for a limited number of jobs. Education is liberation, but there is always “and yet…” tied into the sentence. There are such drastic problems cracking the foundation of our nation’s educational system, but it’s ability to churn out legions of employees for lower level jobs is very efficient (that’s the best word for it). Education is supposed to be power, and yet (I meant it when I said that earlier) our educational system as an assembly line would make Ford proud.

Industrial Model for Our Educational System? Image hosted on the blog Funny Pictures.

Industrial Model for Our Educational System? Image hosted on the blog Funny Pictures

But, what does this have to do with the rest of my reading notes? How are these ISAs a network?

Well,  these ISAs compose a cultural/societal network. They have two levels of what is being moved through the network: the surface layer is composed of the messages being sent to the proletarians to which they submit themselves , and the underlying level that pushes forth the ideologies of the ruling class. This is not a network of computers (though Rainie and Wellman’s Networked Individualism and Castells’ Network Society start to become very suspicious in the idea of proletarians are just continuing the cycle of promoting all of the ideologies in which they are entrenched, but can now do so on a global level with the pressing of a few buttons). ISAs also make me think of the Rhetorical Situation Theories we have read in class because I start to wonder about all of the foundations upon which the rhetors are speaking and upon which the audience members are drawing upon as they form reactions to the rhetorical discourse. This then makes me think of Actor-Network-Theory because the dominant class is using state apparatuses (both repressive and ideological, but especially ideology) to keep in place boundaries and then the proletarians are propagating these ideologies in nearly everything they do. Althusser has proposed a cultural network, one that attempts to establish (and can be quite good at doing so) cheap labor forces so as to continue within the network of production processes.

Diagram of Base and Superstructure. Image hosted on the blog Mass Think.

Diagram of Base and Superstructure. Image hosted on the blog Mass Think.


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” Marxists Internet Archive, 1970.  Web. 19 Apr 2014.

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader. 3rd ed. Ed. Simon During. New York: Routledge, 2007. [PDF].

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

A Historical Drama Tribute With All the Good Graces

This entry was posted in ENGL894, Reading Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to In Which Encoding and Decoding Meet Ideological State Apparatuses

  1. Julia says:

    Excellent set of reading notes. I’d not seen that image of Hall’s theory before. You spent a lot of time here; you really got into good application and specifics.

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