In any culture, the signs and images we see

Read and respond:

In any culture, the signs and images we see (for example on billboards or TV), everyday objects (from red-yellow-green traffic lights to red-yellow-green flags), the behaviors and actions we observe every day (running a red light, raising a clenched fist)— all stand in for larger ideas and meanings, beliefs and values. We are constantly decoding objects, images and behaviors for their explicit or hidden meanings, just as we are constantly participating in, reinforcing and challenging social codes. Even a seemingly everyday action—like deciding between wearing a dress or a suit—can serve to reinforce and/or challenge the meanings people assign to gender within a given system of representation.

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We are constantly interpreting our everyday world in terms of representation—the various systems of meaning that members of a culture actively engage, through repeated and everyday practice (including how people use language, behavior, gestures, signs, objects and images). Most importantly for this course, people don’t just passively accept the systems of representation which determine cultural activity. People constantly struggle over representation. People actively question and protest systems of representation, both in terms of their evident and hidden meanings.

Performance functions within larger systems of representation. Our work in this class is to notice and study systems of representation invoked, rehearsed, and as importantly, transgressed, by a performance: What are the system’s outward/obvious and hidden/indirect codes? How does the system of representation interact with and shape the meaning of the performance? How does the performance reproduce and/or challenge the codes of the system? 

Representation and Performance Theory

Performance theorists’ work is to study various phenomena, even everyday events, as performance. Even a still photo may “perform” as part of a larger system of representation. Performance theorists especially pay attention to the event/performance’s efficacy: it’s ability to produce a desired or intended result; its power to produce effects. Similarly, a boss or company evaluates the efficacy of the workers by considering their ability to perform required tasks, and they might even describe their expectations of workers using performance language like “effective” and “high-performance”. How would you describe the world of the meat factory floor? Who performs there and under what conditions? What kinds of performances are expected or required? Is there a beginning or ending to the performances? What performances transgress the norms of the system?

A performance theorist might ask questions like: Who performs and under what conditions? How does the performance effect different types of audiences who view it with different, often conflicting perspectives, values and concerns? What were the conditions (context, setting) under which the performance was produced? What happened just before the performance? What happened after? How do those conditions impact the performance’s efficacy?

Representation 101 Cheat Sheet

  • Representation is a system of meaning through which people interpret and participate in their world (example, the traffic light)
  • Coding, decoding, codes, coded meanings are various terms used to describe how systems of representation establish relationships between words-images-actions-behaviors and meanings
  • Representation is culturally specific, participatory, and embodied (we use our bodies to create meaning through our behaviors, emotions, actions, etc); we rehearse systems of representation everyday
  • In performance studies terms, systems of representation create meaning through rehearsalàwe rehearse meaning by interacting with systems of representation

Politics of Representation

  • Representation is not static and unchanging
  • People and groups in societies constantly struggle over representation (i.e. question and challenge both obvious/direct and implicit/hidden meanings)
  • Representatoin is about struggle

Decode the traffic light as a system of representation. What are the codes that drivers learn and rehearse in their bodies, each time they interact with the traffic light?

1a.) What verbal command does each color of the traffic light stand in for?

1b.) What bodily action/response does the driver perform when they see each color? (be specific about how the driver uses their body)

1c.) What part of the body does the driver use to perform this action? 

2. What other cultural meanings are assigned to the colors red, yellow and green? You can give examples from within or outside the U.S. and/or draw on your unique cultural knowledge.

3.) How is the gender binary color-coded in the United States? For this question, describe the most obvious, conventional color codes of the gender binary, as a hegemonic system of representation. Explain the codes.

3a.) Which costumes and props are typically color-coded to fit the gender binary system of representation which you described above? For example, you could describe specific articles of clothing, accessories, toys, furniture, etc.

3b.) Can you think of a circumstance from your learning or your own experience, in which people or social groups have challenged or shifted the codes of the gender binary system of representation? Who challenged the system and how? You can consider colors, symbols, costumes and props, restored behaviors, etc.

4.) How is race color-coded, as a system of representation in the United States? Again consider the conventional coding of race as a hegemonic system of representation. In other words, what specific colors are used to represent race on a wide/mass scale? Do those same colors have other cultural meanings as well?

Read and respond:

Jacques Derrida, French philosopher, 1930-2004

  • Deconstruction is Derrida’s method for revealing hidden meanings
  • Deconstruction disrupts binaries (aka binary opposition, dualism, binary construction)
  • good/bad, true/false, right/wrong thinking is based on binary construction
  • Critical thinking deconstructs/disrupts binary thinking in order to pay attention to how specific meanings are made visible or obscured
  • Critical thinking includes articulating context, assumptions and stakes

Rules of Binary Opposition

1.) Two concepts opposed (defined as fixed opposites): good vs. evil, true vs. false, civilized vs. savage, authentic vs. fake, Western vs. non-Western

2.) One concept/term is dominant (higher social power and value); the other concept/term is subjugated (less social power and value). This value system is constructed in order to establish a hierarchy of power (e.g. Western culture is civilized so therefore must rule, while non-Western cultures are savage and must be brought under control)

3.) A binary reproduces other binaries: Western/non-Western links to good/evil, innocent/guilty, clean/dirty, civilized/savage, etc.

Why is binary opposition effective/powerful?

  • binary oppositions reduce and simplify thought
  • binary oppositions control thought and make it difficult if not impossible to question or challenge the regime of truth

How to Deconstruct

Determine the opposing terms of the binary.

Determine which term is dominant/which term is subjugated.

Consider what other binaries are linked to the main binary.

Discuss the primary binary power relation that “Couple in the Cage” represents, plays with and performs.

1.) What are the primary terms of the binary? What side of the binary are the “Guatanauis” assigned to? The “museum visitors”?

2.) Who is dominant in the power relation? Who is subjugated?

3.) What other binaries are associated with or linked to the primary binary?

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