Hall’s "Oppositional Code" and the Possibility of Counter-Hegemonic Performances in Culture and Literature

What Stuart Hall, in his essay “Encoding/Decoding”, posits as the three kinds of codes of televisual discourse; dominant-hegemonic position, negotiated code and oppositional code,[1] can be interpreted as a critique of Althusserian understanding of the individual as subject. Althusser regards the individual as a passive participant of society. The individual is subjected to Ideological State Apparatuses along with the repressive ones so that the capitalist mode of relations in society could maintain its continuity. Besides, from an Althusserian reading, one can conclude that there is no escape from ideology; although there is the possibility of exchange of the possession of state apparatuses from one class to the other. At any rate, what is central in Althusser is not the individual, but the state.

When Stuart Hall propounds the idea that there is an oppositional code in which the individual is aware of the literal and connotative inflection of a particular discourse, but nevertheless decodes the message “in a globally contrary way.”[2] The crucial point in Hall’s analysis is that, the viewer doesn’t only interpret the message in the opposite way of what the global meaning urges the individual to understand; the viewer takes one step further beyond encountering with the message at the first instance, and produces another meaning –his/her subjective approach- which is independent of what the particular discourse aims to elicit within the viewer, when “he/she detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference.”[3] Eventually, as Hall exemplifies, a viewer might interpret a mention of “national interest” as “class interest”,[4] although the televisual discourse never utters it.
Moreover, following Althusser, one might refer to what Hall describes as “televisual discourse” as a specific kind of ISA, which functions to dictate particular messages to the viewers in order to reproduce the relations of production in the capitalist society. However, Hall makes it explicit that, in fact, it is possible for one to refrain from and even alter that ISA. Therefore, Hall depicts the individual not as a passive participant of a society, but as an active agent who not only abstains from subject formation but also takes role in meaning production set against the dominant discourse.
In this respect, it is possible to generate critical outlooks against particular texts without getting hypnotized -so to speak-, thus being assimilated into particular meaning formations by a particular “globalizing” discourse. For instance, reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf doesn’t necessarily turns me into a Fascist. Or, I don’t have to be a Kemalist to read Atatürk’s Nutuk. As an active agent of culture, my act of writing on Nutuk or reading Nutuk doesn’t correspond to the affirmation or confirmation of Kemalist approach towards History. Contrarily, Kemalist approach towards History can be criticized by using the very source that Atatürk utters; that is to say, Nutuk can be decoded in an oppositional code as Hall would suggest. Namely, Atatürk’s Nutuk evokes different ideas in me; such that several passages from Nutuk implies that Atatürk was the only person to react against the invasion, and every single other including the Ottoman Sultan were passive, withdrawn, timid and in betrayal; which altogether indicates that the purpose of Nutuk is to constitute a national history on the basis of the life narrative of one individual: Atatürk.
The same approach is valid for the Ittihadist accounts about Armenian-Turkish events of 1915. One might read Talat Paşa’s memoirs in accordance with the dominant-hegemonic position, and just accuse the Ottoman-Armenians of being the sole perpetrators -as the public discourse in Turkey still do-; however, another might interpret Talat Paşa’s memoirs as “Travels of a Unionist Apologia into History”, which contains “the myth of self-defense and Ottoman victimhood during World War I.”[5] All in all, within a particular discourse, which expects one to decode the meaning in accordance with the dominant-hegemonic position, one can produce an alternative meaning which would enervate that discourse.
As one last remark, I think that Hall’s emphasis on individuals decoding particular meanings out of televisual discourse is also related to reader-response literary criticism, which regards the readers as the active participants in the course of the fulfillment of the literary text. According to Stanley Fish, different readers have different interpretive strategies during their interactions with a text. These strategies constitute interpretive communities that are “made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.”[6] Therefore, similar to the way that the viewer interacts with the televisual codes which Hall introduces; Fish implies that, the act of reading is not an act only of consumption (of the literary text) but of production (This might also be a challenge against structuralist way of approaching the text; since structuralist approach might regard a text as a signifier of some particular set of thoughts, intentions, which correspond to a particular sign that is ideological; whilst in theories emphasizing reader-response, there are no constant sings that the process of signification always refers to, since every reader might interpret the text as distinct signifiers, and thereupon produce different processes of signification. Different interpretive communities might bring about distinct ways of significations and signs.) Hence, the reader fulfills the text, similar to what Hall suggests in his analysis where the viewer fulfills the televisual discourse by means of interpreting it in three possible ways.
It is also worth noting that both Stuart Hall and Stanley Fish –whose theories share commonalities despite their different interests of study, (Hall’s media/cultural studies vs. Fish’s literary criticism)- have both published their works in the same decade of 70’s; while Hall publishing his essay in 1973 and Fish, “Interpreting the Variorum” in 1976.
[1] Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding” in Culture, Media, Language, eds. Stuart Hall, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis, Routledge, London, 1980. p. 136-137-138.
[2] Ibid., p. 138.
[3] Ibid., p. 138.
[4] Ibid., p. 138.
[5] Hülya Adak. “Identifying the “Internal Tumors” of World War I: Talat Paşa’nın Hatıraları [Talat Paşa’s Memoirs] or the Travels of a Unionist Apologia into History.” In Räume des Selbst: Selbstzeugnisforschung transkulturell, edited by Andreas Baehr, Peter Burschel and Gabriele Jancke, 151-169. Köln, Weimar, Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2007.
p. 158.
[6] Stanley Fish, “Interpretive Communities”, in Literary Theory: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p. 219.

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