Weekly Reading Reflections

READING REFLECTION AND NOTES | Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding” model (Week 8)

Week 8 | Making and Disseminating

Theophilus London

Week 8 | Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

At first, I found this text to be dense and difficult for me to fully understand and apply to my creative project. Now that I’ve read “Encoding/Decoding” a few times along with Hall’s other work, I believe that is very relevant to my creative project and could be used to frame some of the issues I’m addressing. In some of his most acclaimed work (such as “New Ethnicities” which I will write about in another post), Hall speaks about race, ethnicity and identity politics.  He has also discussed the representation of the black subject in television and film which is relatable to my work because I am speaking about the representation of the black subject in fashion-related media.

In his text “Encoding/Decoding,” Hall presents a model for the communicative process of interpretation in mass communication. John Corner summarizes the moments of encoding, text and decoding as such:

  • the moment of encoding: ‘the institutional practices and organizational conditions and practices of production’ 
  • the moment of the text: ‘the… symbolic construction, arrangement and perhaps performance… The form and content of what is published or broadcast’ 
  • the moment of decoding: ‘the moment of reception [or] consumption… by… the reader/hearer/viewer’ which is regarded by most theorists as ‘closer to a form of “construction”‘ than to ‘the passivity… suggested by the term “reception.”

The passage of “Encoding/Decoding” that I found to be of most relevance to my work is the three hypothetical positions of decoding. I understand this to mean the three possible positions that decoder can inhabit when decoding.

The first is “the dominant hegemonic position” which is described by Hall as “when the viewer takes the connoted meaning from, say, a television newscast or current affairs programme full and straight, and decodes the message in terms of the reference code in which it has been encoded, we might say that the viewer is operating inside the dominant code” (Hall, 515).  I understood to mean that the viewer fully accepts the dominant hegemonic code (as seen in a television newscast for example)  without questioning it.

The second is the “negotiated code or position.”  Hall explains, “decoding within the negotiated version contains a mixture of adaptive and oppositional elements: it acknowledges the legitimacy of the hegemonic definitions to make the grand significations (abstract), while, at a more restricted, situational (situated) level, it makes its own ground rules – it operates with exception to the rule” (Hall, 516).

And lastly, Hall identifies the “oppositional counter hegemonic code or position” as:

“It is possible for a viewer perfectly to understand both the literal and the connotative inflection given by a discourse but to decode the message in a globally contrary way. He or she detotalises the message in preferred code in order to retotalise the message within some alternative framework of reference … He or she is operating in what we must call an oppositional code” (Hall, 517).  The viewer is operating under a “oppositional, counter-hegemonic” code, meaning he or she acknowledges the dominant, hegemonic code but does not fully accept it.

Obviously, I’ve put together a very basic summary of Hall’s discussions. I think that they are far more complex than what I have listed above. But in using this summary I believe Hall’s classification of decoding positions are applicable to fashion and more specifically the progression of black style. I find it to be most identifiable when looking at black style as seen through menswear.

It could be suggested that the dominant code for “black style menswear” as seen in Western society could be clothing strongly linked to hip hop culture. Baggy jeans would be a clear and well-known example of this. Generally speaking, we have become accustomed to seeing young black men wearing baggy jeans, fitted caps, Timberlands, Air Jordans etc. in fashion related imagery.  Someone who operates under this code may be a fifteen year old black kid who buys a pair of Air Jordans.

Kanye West could be someone who operates within the negotiated code of black style menswear. He wears hip hop influenced clothing but also wears clothing that is not. A good example of this would be when he wore a Celine tunic from their Spring 2011 womenswears collection and with a pair of baggy jeans and gold chains during his 2011 Coachella performance.  Since the debut of his first album The College Dropout in 2004, West has been as an “exception to the rule” that all rappers must dress like “gangsters.”

Theophilus London, the boys of Street Etiquette, Preston Davis and others who are ushering in this new era of black style opearate under the oppositional code, perhaps unbeknownst to them. I suggest (or the basis of my MRP suggests), that they acknowledge the dominant code of black style menswear and reject it. They may not fully reject it, but they are dressing in a way that is in opposition to it. André 3000 of Outkast could be seen as a predecessor. Remember when he used to wear long blonde wigs, football gear, pink pants and still managed to be one of the most successful and acclaimed rappers ever? (I can’t find a good image of this but it did happen!)

Black masculinity as seen through fashion being challenged and blogging  is a vehicle for the dissemination of this new era of black style. This is passage of my MRP proposal that further explains what I mean when I say that these “key figures” in this new era of black style are operating under the oppositional code of “black style menswear.”

“Although he speaks mostly about style in British youth subcultures, I found that Dick Hebdige’s discussions to be applicable when considering the subcultural qualities of street style and contemporary black style. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), Hebdige states that:

Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization.’ As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenges the principle of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus. (Hebdige, 18)

Aspects of style in subculture and black style in the blogosphere coincide because of the oppositional resistance to ideological portrayals of black subjects. For example, Street Etiquette, which is a “street style” blog consisting of two young African American men (Joshua Kissi and Travis Gumbs) routinely challenges the predominant notions of black masculinity in fashion. With each blog post, which documents their personal style choices and preferred way of dressing, they put forth an alternative ethos that moves away from the heavy influence of hip hop/gangster culture and towards way of dress that emphasizes strong tailoring, careful accessorizing and slim silhouettes. (Caramanica, 1). While they may not be “ … offending the ‘silent majority’”, they are undoubtedly challenging the general consensus of how black men should dress. Street Etiquette, along with other blogs of a similar nature, are acts of counter hegemony in practice. Additionally, it my assertion that black masculinity in fashion is in the midst of redefinition and fashion-themed blogs are an integral part of this transformation.”

I am not suggesting that these codes and positions “black style menswear” are fixed. In fact I suggest that they fluid and highly debatable. Not one person can completely embody these codes but as I have attempted to explain, these codes are tracable.

I find it noteworthy that all of this is communicated through clothing and personal adornment — something often believed to be frivolous, void of any significance and not worthy of serious dicussion. It speaks to the communicative power that fashion has.

references

On Stuart Hall: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem08c.html

Caramanica, Jon. “Pushing the Boundaries of Black Style.” The New York Times 17 August 2011.  Web.

Hedbige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York, NY: Routledge. 1979. Print.

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