1. Presence, bearing, air; Appearance; impression on the sight. 2. An Image, likeness, or reproduction in some manner of a thing; A material image or figure; a reproduction in some material or tangible form; in later use, a drawing or painting. (of a person or thing); The action or fact of exhibiting in some visible image or form; The fact of expressing or denoting by means of a figure or symbol; symbolic action or exhibition. 3. The exhibition of character and action upon the stage; the performance of a play; Acting, simulation, pretense. 4. The action of placing a fact, etc., before another or others by means of discourse; a statement or account, esp. one intended to convey a particular view or impression of a matter in order to influence opinion or action. 5. A formal and serious statement of facts, reasons, or arguments, made with a view to effecting some change, preventing some action, etc.; hence, a remonstrance, protest, expostulation. 6. The action of presenting to the mind or imagination; an image thus presented; a clearly conceived idea or concept; The operation of the mind in forming a clear image or concept; the faculty of doing this. 7. The fact of standing for, or in place of, some other thing or person, esp. with a right or authority to act on their account; substitution of one thing or person for another. 8. The fact of representing or being represented in a legislative or deliberative assembly, spec. in Parliament; the position, principle, or system implied by this; The aggregate of those who thus represent the elective body.
Representation is presently a much debated topic not only in postcolonial studies and academia, but in the larger cultural milieu. As the above dictionary entry shows, the actual definitions for the word alone are cause for some confusion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines representation primarily as “presence” or “appearance.” There is an implied visual component to these primary definitions.Representations can be clear images, material reproductions, performances and simulations. Representation can also be defined as the act of placing or stating facts in order to influence or affect the action of others. Of course, the word also has political connotations. Politicians are thought to ‘represent’ a constituency. They are thought to have the right to stand in the place of another. So above all, the term representation has a semiotic meaning, in that something is ‘standing for’ something else. These various yet related definitions are all implicated in the public debates about representation. Theorists interested in Postcolonial studies, by closely examining various forms of representations, visual, textual and otherwise, have teased out the different ways that these “images” are implicated in power inequalities and the subordination of the ‘subaltern’.
Representations– these ‘likenesses’–come in various forms: films, television, photographs, paintings, advertisements and other forms of popular culture. Written materials–academic texts, novels and other literature, journalistic pieces–are also important forms of representation. These representations, to different degrees, are thought to be somewhat realistic, or to go back to the definitions, they are thought be ‘clear’ or state ‘a fact’. Yet how can simulations or “impressions on the sight” be completely true? Edward Said, in his analysis of textual representations of the Orient in Orientalism, emphasizes the fact that representations can never be exactly realistic:
In any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a re-presence, or a representation. The value, efficacy, strength, apparent veracity of a written statement about the Orient therefore relies very little, and cannot instrumentally depend, on the Orient as such. On the contrary, the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as “the Orient”. (21)
Representations, then can never really be ‘natural’ depictions of the orient. Instead, they are constructed images, images that need to be interrogated for their ideological content.
In a similar way, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak makes a distinction between Vertretung and Darstellung. The former she defines as “stepping in someone’s place. . .to tread in someone’s shoes.” Representation in this sense is “political representation,” or a speaking for the needs and desires of somebody or something. Darstellung is representation as re-presentation, “placing there.” Representing is thus “proxy and portrait,” according to Spivak. The complicity between “speaking for” and “portraying” must be kept in mind (“Practical Politics of the Open End,” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues.) Elsewhere, Spivak addresses the problem of “speaking in the name of”: “It is not a sulution, the idea of the disenfranchised speaking for themselves, or the radical critics speaking for them; this question of representation, self-representation, representing others, is a problem.” Spivak recommends “persistent critique” to guard against “constructing the Other simply as an object of knowledge, leaving out the real Others because of the ones who are getting access into public places due to these waves of benevolence and so on” (“Questions of Multi-Culturalism” The Post-Colonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues).
If there is always an element of interpretation involved in representation, we must then note who may be doing the interpreting. Ella Shohat claims that we should constantly question representations:
Each filmic or academic utterance must be analyzed not only in terms of who represents but also in terms of who is being represented for what purpose, at which historical moment, for which location, using which strategies, and in what tone of address. (“The Struggle over Representation: Casting, Coalitions, and the Politics of Identification,” Late Imperial Culture, 173)
This questioning is particularly important when the representation of the subaltern is involved. The problem does not rest solely with the fact that often marginalized groups do not hold the ‘power over representation’ (Shohat 170); it rests also in the fact that representations of these groups are both flawed and few in numbers. Shohat asserts that dominant groups need not preoccupy themselves too much with being adequately represented. There are so many different representations of dominant groups that negative images are seen as only part of the “natural diversity” of people. However, “representation of an underrepresented group is necessarily within the hermeneutics of domination, overcharged with allegorical significance.” (170) The mass media tends to take representations of the subaltern as allegorical, meaning that since representations of the marginalized are few, the few available are thought to be representative of all marginalized peoples. The few images are thought to be typical, sometimes not only of members of a particular minority group, but of all minorities in general. It is assumed that subalterns can stand in for other subalterns. A prime example of this is the fact that actors of particular ethnic backgrounds were often casted as any ethnic “other”. (Some examples include Carmen Miranda in The Gang’s All Here (1943), Ricardo Mantalban in Sayonara (1957), and Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik ). This collapsing of the image of the subaltern reflects not only ignorance but a lack of respect for the diversity within marginalized communities.
Shohat also suggests that representations in one sphere–the sphere of popular culture–effects the other spheres of representation, particularly the political one:
The denial of aesthetic representation to the subaltern has historically formed a corollary to the literal denial of economic, legal, and political representation. The struggle to ‘speak for oneself’ cannot be separated from a history of being spoken for, from the struggle to speak and be heard. (173)
It cannot be ignored that representations effect the ways in which actual individuals are perceived. Although many see representations as harmless likenesses, they do have a real effect on the world. They are meant to relay a message and as the definition shows, ‘influence opinion and action’. We must ask what ideological work these representations accomplish. Representations or the ‘images or ideas formed in the mind’ have vast implications for real people in real contexts.
Both the scarcity and the importance of minority representations yield what many have called ” the burden of representation”. Since there are so few images, negative ones can have devastating affects on the real lives of marginalized people. We must also ask, if there are so few, who will produce them? Who will be the supposed voice of the subaltern? Given the allegorical character of these representations, even subaltern writers, artists, and scholars are asking who can really speak for whom? When a spokesperson or a certain image is read as metonymic, representation becomes more difficult and dangerous.
Solutions for this conundrum are difficult to theorize. We can call for increased “self representation” or the inclusion of more individuals from ‘marginalized’ groups in ‘the act of representing’, yet this is easier said then done. Also, the inclusion of more minorities in representation will not necessarily alter the structural or institutional barriers that prevent equal participation for all in representation. Focusing on whether or not images are negative or positive, leaves in tact a reliance on the “realness’ of images, a “realness” that is false to begin with.
Finally, I again turn to Spivak and her question, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’. In this seminal essay, Spivak emphasizes the fact that representation is a sort of speech act, with a speaker and a listener. Often, the subaltern makes an attempt at self-representation, perhaps a representation that falls outside the ‘the lines laid down by the official institutional structures of representation’ (306). Yet, this act of representation is not heard. It is not recognized by the listener, perhaps because it does not fit in with what is expected of the representation. Therefore, representation by subaltern individuals seems nearly impossible.
Despite the fact that Spivak’s formulation is quite accurate, there must still be an effort to try and challenge status quo representation and the ideological work it does. The work of various ‘Third world’ and minority writers, artists, and filmmakers attest to the possibilities of counter-hegemonic, anti-colonial subversion.
It is obvious that representations are much more than plain ‘likenesses’. They are in a sense ideological tools that can serve to reinforce systems of inequality and subordination; they can help sustain colonialist or neocolonialist projects. A great amount of effort is needed to dislodge dominant modes of representation. Efforts will continue to be made to challenge the hegemonic force of representation, and of course, this force is not completely pervasive, and subversions are often possible. ‘Self representation’ may not be a complete possibility, yet is still an important goal.
“Untitled Heads” by Jin Lee
Author: Ann Marie Baldonado, Fall 1996