The Decoding of Stuart Hall
The active audience tradition in Cultural Studies continues to be a relevant approach to studying television within a given cultural context. Indeed, Chris Barker and Emma Jane maintain in their 2016 edition of Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice there is a good deal of mutually supporting work being carried out amongst cultural studies researchers on television audiences.1 Inspired by Stuart Hall’s 1973 paper ‘Encoding and Decoding in Television Discourse’, which was later revised and published as ‘Encoding/Decoding’ in Culture, Media, Language (1981), David Morley would further develop and apply Hall’s theories on active audiences in his oft-cited study, The Nationwide Audience (1980). More recently, Huimin Jin (2012) has published Active Audience: A New Materialistic Interpretation of a Key Concept of Cultural Studies, a re-interpretation of the work carried out by Hall and Morley at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies on what Jin calls “active audience theory.” Jin goes so far as to say that active audience theory is an epoch-making contribution to television studies by the Birmingham school.2
Television studies have had to adapt to a paradigm shift, however, in consumer viewing habits. What was previously thought of as “TV” must now be expanded to include the screens associated with television, as TV appears to have “escaped the confines of the domestic [environment] and gone public.”3 YouTube, a social-media online video platform, has arguably become the dominant medium for video consumption today. It is also embedded within other social-media platforms. Viewable on smartphones and other digital devices, YouTube has eclipsed television as a primary source of popular media consumption. Its content is an audio-visual buffet, filled with media created by everyone and anyone with access to prosumer devices, platforms, and Internet connectivity. In opposition to the tightly scripted hegemonic television programming of more traditional major network broadcasters and corporations, viewers now have the ability to watch what they want when they want it. The participatory engagement of “remix” culture (as active audience) has allowed the proliferation of cut and paste, collage, and digital mash-ups in the digital environment of Web 2.0. The idea of remix culture bears witness to the retrieval of older content repurposed and re-contextualized in the process of making something new out of something old by an extremely active audience across all screen environments. Content is up for grabs everywhere in today’s digital environment.4
Using Hall’s Encoding/Decoding theory to analyse an excerpt from the film Addams Family Values (1993), it is clear that the active audience concept is still relevant in making sense of a post television Web 2.0 world. The clip in question has been remediated and widely distributed on YouTube, to become, arguably, more popular than the actual film from whence it originated. Every year around Thanksgiving people share the video—in an act of what Hall calls an “oppositional code”—on their facebook newsfeeds and twitter posts. They enjoy spreading the video, which mocks the traditional Pilgrim narrative associated with the American holiday and literally turns it upside down by showcasing an “Indian” rebellion on centre stage. In an even more rebellious act, the Indigenous hip-hop group A Tribe Called Red has produced a second YouTube video in which they have extracted Wednesday Addams’ speech from the Addams Family Values excerpt and remixed her voice on top of programmed beats set to a montage of found archival images of Indigenous people. Instead of a simple remediation of the original black and white images, the viewer receives altered images that are tinted red and black. Juxtaposed with the anti-hegemonic war declaration of Wednesday Addams against the Pilgrims and hip-hop drumbeats reminiscent of tribal drums, the combination of audio-visual elements in the remix is quite striking as an expression of Indigenous solidarity and resistance against colonial power.
In “Encoding/Decoding” Hall begins with an indirect critique of the Shannon-Weaver model of communication, taking the stance that its concentration on “the message”—specifically the transportation of the message—is far too linear to be of use to a study of complex structures of relations.5 He notes that the televisual sign is a complex one: it is after all the combination of two distinct types of discourse, the aural and the visual.6 The active audience theory that would emerge from “Encoding/Decoding” is based on the paradox that an event must become a “story” before it can be experienced as a communication event on television.7 To these ends Hall identifies three levels, or hypothetical positions, “from which decodings of a televisual discourse may be constructed.”8 These three positions are as follows: the dominant-hegemonic position, the negotiated code, and the oppositional code.
The reception by an active audience of a re-contextualized and remediated video clip from Addams Family Values has been reviewed, working backwards from the decoding side of Hall’s encoding/decoding circuit, with specific reference to the ways in which it has been received and decoded in the process of meaning-making by users of social-media and an Indigenous hip-hop band. This approach elucidates the point made by Phillip Elliot that the “action” of television takes place at the level of the audience—where the audience is paradoxically “both the ‘source’ and the ‘receiver’ of the television message.”9 As an antipode to the oppositional code, the encoder-producer instils the dominant-hegemonic position at the encoding process when creating the television program. This level of communicative discourse is “the regular scheduled programming” in regards to the most transparent reading possible of the intent of the encoder-producer. Hall uses ‘meaning structures 1’ to refer to encoding and ‘meaning structures 2’ for decoding. Both Hall and Jin remark that the codes of encoding and decoding may lack perfect symmetry, and in some cases, may be excessively asymmetrical as a result of distortion between what has been transmitted and received.10 Sitting In Medias Res is Hall’s second position of discourse—the negotiated code. Consisting of a balance between the dominant-hegemonic and oppositional codes, the negotiated version contains a mixture of possible meanings. Jin simplifies this notion by stating that “the audience is never as innocence as the text hopes.”11 In other words, an audience is not a tabula rasa for encoder-producers upon which to imprint what they wish.
Cole, Jarrett. “Negotiating Code: The Decoding of Stuart Hall.” Winnsox, vol. 1 (2020).