Initially, research in mass communication conceptualized the process of communication as a linear process, with information proceeding from the sender to the receiver via a channel (Wood 125). One of the most famous linear communication models is Shannon’s model of communication that reduced communication process to a set of basic constituents that not only explained a successful communication process but also gave a means of explaining why communication fails. The minimalist and structurist way that Shannon’s model explains the communication process has made it one of the most enduring and popular communication models. However, Shannon’s and Weavers model has been heavily criticized for being overly simplistic and misrepresenting the nature of human communication, which is complex and nuanced (McQuail and Windahl 47). In an attempt to tackle some of the inherent weaknesses of Shannon and Weaver’s model, Hall (91) developed his theoretical framework for interpreting communication based on the encoding and decoding of information. Hall’s model, unlike Shannon’s which assumes that if a message is accurately transmitted it will be precisely deciphered, assumes that a message passes through four distinctive moments – production, circulation, use and reproduction – where it can get distorted.
Hall’s model was developed to examine the process of communication through mass media, specifically through the television medium (91). Communication involves the transmission of information from the sender to the recipient using presentational and discursive symbols that are rooted within the cultural semantic code of the sender. Hall conceptualizes the packaging and transmission of information through the television medium as a complex structure of relations that have distinctive but linked moments which he identifies as production, circulation, use and reproduction. Although each of these moments is linked, they each retain their distinctiveness, specific modalities, and have their independent forms as well as conditions of existence (Hall 91). Before information can be broadcasted, it must be produced by first turning it into a story which then becomes the communicative event (Hall 92). Production constructs the massage that is to be sent to the receiver, and is influenced by the discursive aspect that is innate to the production process, which turns information into a discursive form that is then sent to the receiver.
Encoding of the message usually happens in the production stage of the communication process, and is done by the sender, who converts the message into a discursive form, in which the message will be circulated (Hall 91). The encoding process uses codes that are within the syntagmatic chain of discourse to convey the message as well as meanings in the form of sign-vehicles that are relevant and recognizable within the encoding context. The encoding of the message within the production end of the communication process is not an isolated process, but is influenced by other discursive formations within the socio-cultural and political context as well as images of the audience.
Decoding occurs on the other end of the communication process and involves the conversion of the discursive message produced by encoding into the structures of social practice (Hall 95). Decoding requires a degree of symmetry between the codes at the encoding and decoding ends, so that when the message is being decoded, it can be as similar as the encoded message as possible. Hall (97) states that it is rare for signs organized in a discourse to have only their literal meaning because signs usually combine the denotative and the connotative aspects. Therefore, when the discursive form is being decoded, a message can get distorted depending on which aspect is emphasized, because meanings are inferred through the matching of the discursive form codes with the deep semantic codes of the culture of the decoder. Although encoding and decoding are determinate events, when encoding a message, there must be an attempt by the encoder to achieve some symmetry with the intended decoder. Schrøder (237) criticizes Hall’s model for being one-dimensional and focusing on how the decoder treats the message. However, the model offers a framework for examining the different ways in which a decoder can interpret a message. Hall posits that there are three ways in which a decoder decodes a message (Hall 100).
The dominant-hegemonic decoding hypothetical position assumes that the viewer will take the connotative meaning of the message he receives at face value and decodes the received message in terms of the reference frame with which it was coded (Hall 101). This is the perfect communication scenario, which rarely happens, because there is no misunderstanding or distortion of the message. In hegemonic decoding, there is perfectly transparent communication between the coder and the decoder, implying perfect symmetry between the encoding and decoding codes, and the coder and decoder have similar semantic codes (Anderson 3). Although the dominant-hegemonic decoding presents the ideal communication scenario, it is also the most simplistic approach towards construction of meaning from the discursive form (Howarth 9). Since codes will always have the denotative and connotative meanings, it is unlikely that practical communication can have perfectly symmetrical codes at the encoding and decoding stages. The dominant-hegemonic decoding position assumes that the coded message is neutral because of the professional code operating within the dominant code, which strives for neutrality. However, hegemonic interpretations of events are influenced by the elite making the coded message to be skewed. This makes the hegemonic decoding position susceptible to manipulation by the coder.
Oppositional decoding occurs not because the decoder cannot understand the message, but the decoder uses an alternative framework of reference to interpret the message, since the decoder understands both the connotative and literal meanings of the message perfectly (Hall 103). This is because they have the requisite semantic codes to make sense of the discursive form of the encoded message. However, after decoding the message, an oppositional decoder does not take the literal meaning of the decoded message. Rather, he will decode the message, get the literal and connotative meaning using the appropriate semantic codes, and then fit the message within an alternative framework that might be antithetical to the coding framework (Steiner 6). This process may give the message an altogether different meaning from the one intended by the coder. Oppositional decoding involves the detotalization of a message from the global code, and then retotalizing it using a different reference framework leading to a completely different meaning.
The negotiated code position is an amalgamation of the hegemonic and oppositional decoding and is, therefore, riddled with contradictions (Hall 102). Negotiated decoding is generally done using global definitions, which can be considered as hegemonic positions because a global code is of necessity hegemonic in nature. A hegemonic viewpoint defines and limits the mental horizon, giving meanings as well as carries the stamp of legitimacy because it appears natural and in sync with the social order. Messages are decoded using the hegemonic viewpoint to obtain the abstract meaning at a global level. Oppositional decoding is then used to situate the message within local conditions and determine its relevance within a more restricted local level (Chandler no pag.). The negotiated decoding position accepts the hegemonic global viewpoint as valid but incorporates exceptions to the rule, and hence may not apply the message although it is accurately decoded The decoder can decide not to apply it to her situation if an oppositional analysis of the message shows that it is not applicable to local conditions.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The movie The Wolf of Wall Street is the story of the rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker, who begins working in Wall Street as a licensed stock broker in Black Monday, loses his job, and thereafter goes to work at Investor Center, a small establishment. He is very successful in pitching sales and soon establishes his brokerage firm. However the firm is basically a swindling operation where he launders clients’ money making him and his peers a small fortune. However, the law eventually catches up with him and he eventually spends time in prison. The movie received mixed reviews and the following is an analysis of some of the reviews using Hall’s decoding framework.
Thomson’s review is premised on the hegemonic decoding position as he describes the movie as ‘the funniest’ with ‘an authentic daring’. Thomson considers the movie as one that dispelled the ‘bogus holiday atmospherics’ when it was released, giving timely lessons ‘in blithe amorality.’ Therefore, his take on the movie is rather uncritical and he decodes it hegemonically, lavishing praise on it for its ‘authenticity.’ Brody reviewing the movie for The New Yorker is full of praise for the movie saying it has a rhythm akin to ‘a great jazz band in flat-out rumble’ and may be Scorsese’s best movie with its acknowledgment of the essential vitality of the ‘predatory manipulations and reckless adventure’ that runs through the movie. He considers the narrator’s voiceover as a ‘great device to impose the protagonist’s point of view,’ and says that the movie ‘is an outrageous comedy’ that has some of the funniest scenes he has ever seen. This is a hegemonistic decoding of the movie as it tallies with the coders’ perspective.
Orr writing for The Atlantic also uses the hegemonistic viewpoint to decode the movie calling it ‘a magnificent black comedy, fast, funny, and remarkably filthy’ that is one of Scorsese’s best pictures in the last 20 years. Orr considers the movie a cinematic master piece ‘crammed with giddy effects and visual jokes’ and concludes by saying that although the movie is not subtle, it ‘is a great—no, a fucking great—movie movie.’ Davis writing for Awards Circuit also decodes the movie from the hegemonic position describing the movie as ‘one of the year’s most compelling pictures and definitely the year’s best comedy.
Hylton reviewing for Dark Horizons uses the negotiated decoding position to analyze the movie. He writes that ‘it’s not a bad movie’ although it ‘is surprisingly off-putting, overlong and morally skewed.’ He criticizes the movie for being too long considering the simple story line, yet in the same breath says that it never drags and that its dialogue ‘is sharp and witty.’ Roberts reviewing for Fan the Fire praises Scorsese’s adaptation of the script into ‘something that is giddily enjoyable to watch’ claiming that it has a ‘brilliantly constructed ending.’ However, he also feels that the movie is ‘a tad indulgent and lacking the emotional resonance’ which is required to turn a good movie into a true great. Glasson reviewing for Concrete Playground states that the movie’s ‘cycle of sex, drugs and opulence admittedly entertains at first’ and is a chronicle of depravity that amuses. However, he says that the movie is also shallow and none of the characters in the movie grows, making the movie ‘less arresting’ when compared to movies of a similar genre.
Morgenstern reviewing for The Wall Street Journal analyzes The Wolf of Wall Street from an oppositional decoding position. He states that the movies ‘is selling three hours of incessant shouting and sensationally bad behavior’ and that he ‘is selling three hours of incessant shouting and sensationally bad behavior.’ Morgenstern states that the movie requires a ‘huge investment of time for a paltry return’ and is merely hollow cinematic experience and a waste of time for the viewer. Knight reviewing for Windy City Times is also scathing of the movie. Referring to a scene where Reiner exclaims that “This is obscene!” after surveying the perverse financial goings on, Knight says that this gem ‘perfectly sums up both the subject of the movie and it’s bloated, three-hour running time.’ He feels that the movie is ‘ultimately hollow exercise in movie excess’ which has no redeeming qualities. Ross (no pag.) describes the movie as ’a monotonous, repetitive piece of work’ that is ‘three hours of the same events, over and over.’ The movie does not have any depth and has no ‘psychological insight, no moral insight, just no insight, full stop,’ making a pointless piece of work.
Hall’s framework provides an invaluable framework for interpreting and analyzing the communication process. The framework is robust an offers different perspective through which meaning is constructed from the same discursive form of communication. For communication to occur, there must be some symmetry of codes between the encoding and decoding ends of the communication process, otherwise, the message will be distorted and the greater the asymmetry, the greater the distortion. Perfect symmetry gives perfect communication just as perfect asymmetry will likely lead to a complete breakdown of communication. However, even in cases where there is symmetry between the encoding and decoding sides of communication, the different positions used for decoding leads to construction of different meanings. The preceding analysis of the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, shows that different people looking at the same movie can come up with very different interpretations of its merits. This analysis agrees with Hall’s framework, indicating that the framework can be used to accurately analyze the communication process
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