Politics of Representation

Representation embodies the notion that the media assists in the construction of meanings in the world: the ways in which we look at the world. The ideas and meanings produced by representations are the focus of studies in this area.

Two key approaches to representation

  • Reflectionism (mimesim, realism) – Mimesis refers to art and language as a mirror reflecting nature. It is a theory of pictoral apprehension and representation. The mimema is a vehicle for “man-made dreams produced for those who are awake” (Plato). The task of representation in this context is to adequately reflect existent meanings of “the real.”
  • Constructivism or Conventionalism (relativist) – Constructivism involves the recognition that signification systems have a central part in conveying meaning. The theoretical roots of constructivism can be traced to the study of semiotics, and the movement from structuralism to post-structuralism within this branch of academia.

Semiotics – Semiotics is the study of how signs are used as representations of meaning. The field of semiotics has been heavily influenced by a number of academics including Saussure, Peirce, Barthes, and more recently, Stuart Hall.

Structuralism – Structuralism has been heavily heavily shaped by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist. He distinguished between langue, the underlying system of language; and parole, an individual act of speaking or writing. Saussure’s focus was on langue in postulating the the structure of language frames our thought about the world. According to Sapir (1949), “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent built up on the language habits of the group […] We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.”

Post-Structuralism – Barthes contribution to semiotics is the contrast between denotation, a value-free relationship of sign to referent; and connotation, the underlying meaning behind a sign, which is interpreted in terms of the wider realm of social ideology. Eventually, Barthes concluded that all denotation was connotation, a key notion in post-structuralist theory: there is no reality that is accessible other than through systems of representation (Orgad). In this view, reality is always believed to be encoded and never raw. Even a medium such as documentary film-making, which makes claims of being a realist medium, is encoded.

Politics of Ideas and Politics of Presence

One critique of the politics of ideas comes from the libertarian belief that we are all the same and thus one person may easily stand in for another. The field of politics as clearly demarcated, containing various clusters of preferences and interests; it is simply a question of representing a range of interests and ideas – it does not matter who does the representation.

Ann Phillips presents a contrast between the politics of ideas and the politics of presence. This concept involves perceptions that what is to be represented takes precedence over who does the representation. Phillips points out that issues of political presence are largely discounted: it does not matter who represents the range of ideas as long as intellectual diversity is ensured and maintained.

Politics is a process of formation and struggle for expression in which individuals and groups face difficulties in finding a voice. The emphasis is consequently on the people who present and develop the ideas. This involves a critical view of the tendency to essentialise “a” group when in reality there is a diversity of subject positions and differences among a group.

Practice: Think about the politics of presence in the context of US Senator Sam Brownback’s support for the Iran Democracy Act.

Contemporary Examples that deal with Representation


Sapir, E. (1949). Selected Writings in Language, Culture and Personality. Berkeley: University of California Press.