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Encyclopedia > Representation (arts)

It is generally agreed that people know and understand the world and reality through the act of naming it; thus, through language and representations (Oxford English Dictionary, cited in Vukcevich 2002). The term representation embodies a range of meanings and interpretations. In the context of literary theory the term is commonly defined in three ways:

  • to look like or to resemble something
  • to stand in for something or someone
  • to present a second time-to re-present (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2002).

Representation began with early literary theory in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle and has evolved into a significant component of language and communication studies in the contemporary world.


Defining Representation

The first definition is closely related to the media, suggesting that representation functions through reproductions, or by possessing the likeness of an object. Representations, according to this definition, can be reproduced an incalculable number of times. Paintings for example, have been reproduced in this way. The majority of Western Society will have, at some point in their lives, come across an image of Da Vinci’s famous painting, the Mona Lisa. However, very few of those people will have witnessed the painting in reality. It is as a result of their reproductive ability that representations, such as reproductions of the Mona Lisa, become accessible to the masses and work to stand between ‘the real’ and the audience or spectator (Vukcevich 2002). Television soap operas such as Home and Away are another classic example in which the characters and their lives are intended to resemble real life; time reflects that of reality, the plots are located in the familiar and realistic settings of the home, school, work place, diner, gym and beach, with much of the focus revolving around issues evident within society today including divorce, love, happiness, relationships, marriage, children and the work-place.

The second definition refers to representation as using one thing to stand for another. It has been adopted by new historicists who use the meaning in regards to the symbolic construction of a particular society at a particular period in time (Murfin & Ray 1997). For instance, the reproductions or copies of the Mona Lisa stand in for or represent the original. It is important to recognise, that the ability of representation to do this may often be problematic, raising issues of authenticity and value.

This definition can also take on a political stance. The focus can shift towards political representation in which one person or group ‘stands in for’ someone or something, in this case, the larger societal group (Concise Routledge 1999). Such a form of representation is pivotal in the functioning of democratic societies (Vukcevich 2002). Thus, ‘representative government’ is central in political theory and ideas about legislative authority, control and the interaction between individual citizens and the state (Mitchell).

In the context of this definition, both semiotic and political representations rely on someone or something to stand in for or act on behalf of someone or something.

The third definition implies that ‘representation’ is the ability of texts to draw upon features of the world and present them to the viewer, not simply as reflections, but more so, as constructions (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2002). Hence, the images do not portray reality in an unbiased way with 100% accuracy, but rather, present ‘versions of reality’ influenced by culture and peoples habitual thoughts and actions (O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2002). Representations are, as a result, influenced by culture and in much the same way, have the capacity to shape culture and mould society’s attitudes, values, perceptions and behaviours (Moon 2001).


Since ancient times ‘representation’ has played a central role in understanding literature, aesthetics and semiotics. Plato and Aristotle are key figures in early literary theory who considered literature as simply one form of representation (Childers 1995). Aristotle for instance, considered each mode of representation, verbal, visual or musical, as being natural to human beings (Vukcevich 2002). Therefore, what distinguishes humans from other animals is their ability to create and manipulate signs (Mitchell 1990). Aristotle deemed mimesis as natural to man, therefore considering representations as necessary for peoples learning and being in the world (Vukcevich 2002). Plato, in contrast, looked upon representation with more caution. He recognised that literature is a representation of life, yet also believed that representations create worlds of illusion leading one away from the 'real things' (Hall 1997). For Plato, representation, like contemporary media, intervenes between the viewer and 'the real', creating illusions which lead one away from the 'real things'. Plato believed that representation needs therefore, to be controlled and monitored due to the possible dangers resulting in its ability to foster antisocial emotions or encourage the imitation of evil (Mitchell 1990).

It is also important to note that:

One apprehends reality only through representations of reality, through texts, discourses, images: there is no such thing as unmediated access to reality. But because one can see reality only through representation if does not follow that one does not see reality at all…Reality is always more extensive and complicated than any system of representation can possible comprehend and we always sense that this is so-representation never ‘gets’ reality, which is why human history has produced so many different and changing ways of trying to get it. (Dryer 1993, cited in O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2002, p. 3)

Consequently, throughout the history of human culture people have become dissatisfied with languages ability to express reality and as a result have developed new modes of representation. It is necessary to construct new ways of seeing reality, as people only know reality through representation (Dryer 1993, cited in O’Shaughnessy & Stadler 2002). It is from this arises the contrasting and alternate theories and representational modes of abstraction, realism and modernism, to name a few.

Contemporary ideas about representation

It is from Plato’s caution that in the modern era many are aware of political and ideological issues and the influences of representations. It is impossible to divorce representations from culture and the society that produces them. In the contemporary world there exist restrictions on subject matter, limiting the kinds of representational signs allowed to be employed, as well as boundaries that limit the audience or viewers of particular representations. M and R rated films are an example of such restrictions, highlighting also society’s attempt to restrict and modify representations to promote a certain set of ideologies and values. Despite these restrictions, representations still have the ability to take on a life of their own once in the public sphere, and can not be given a definitive or concrete meaning; as there will always be a gap between intention and realization, original and copy (Mitchell 1990).

Consequently, for each of the above definitions there exists a process of communication and message sending and receiving. In such a system of communication and representations it is inevitable that potential problems may arise; misunderstandings, errors, and falsehoods. The accuracy of the representations can by no means be guaranteed, as they operate in a system of signs that can never work in isolation from other signs or cultural factors. For instance, the interpretation and reading of representations function in the context of a body of rules for interpreting, and within a society many of these codes or conventions are informally agreed upon and have been established over a number of years. Such understandings however, are not set in stone and may alter between times, places, peoples and contexts. How though, does this ‘agreement’ or understanding of representation occur? It has generally been agreed by Semioticians that representational relationships can be categorised into three distinct headings; icon, symbol and index (Mitchell 1990).

Hall (1997) also agrees that objects and people for instance, do not have a constant meaning, but their meanings are fashioned by humans in the context of their culture, as they have the ability to make things mean or signify something. In viewing representation in such a way Hall focuses on understanding how language and systems of knowledge production work to create and circulate meanings. Representation is simply the process in which such meanings are constructed (Hall 1997). In much the same way as the post-structuralists, Hall’s approach to representation considers it as something larger than any one single representation. Mitchell (1994, p188) also draws upon a similar perspective, viewing representation as part of a larger field, ‘…representation (in memory, in verbal descriptions, in images) not only 'mediates' our knowledge (of slavery and of many other things), but obstructs, fragments, and negates that knowledge’. Mitchell (1994, p 188) proposes a move away from the perspective that representations are merely objects representing, towards a focus on the relationships and processes through which representations are produced, valued, viewed and exchanged.

Peirce and Representation

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) was considered an innovator of his time. Measured an excellent mathematician and founder of American pragmatics, he revolutionised a monistic metaphysical system. Peirce's central ideas were focused on logic; which he considered a division of semiotics (Burch 2005).

Semiotics and Logic

Peirce proposed that logic, as a whole, is connected to semiotics, of which it is one of three main parts:

  • Speculative grammar
  • Logical critic
  • Speculative rhetoric (Dupriez 1991)

Speculative grammar

Making a connection between the kinds of signs there are, and how they can be pooled is what Peirce means by speculative grammar. Within this broad term, Peirce further created three trichotomies of signs:

  • Qualisigns, sinsigns or legisigns- qualities, habits, individual events and states.
  • Icons, indices or symbols- create meaning through similarity to objects, relation to objects or caucus to objects.
  • Rhematic signs, dicisigns or arguments- predicational/relational, propositional, or argumentative in character.

Through his grouping of logic into three trichotomies of signs, he calculated that there were only 10 kinds of logically possible signs, through which he attempted to create a relation of all potential accepted and predictable signs, whether simple or complex. (Burch 2005)

Logical critic

Through the use of this term Peirce refers to everyday logic, commonly used in regards to mathematical logic. The main objective of this term therefore, is to categorise the correlations between correct and incorrect reasoning.

Speculative rhetoric

In speculative rhetoric Peirce refers to the importance of the effective use of sign in constructing helpful courses of research and giving valuable expositions. Here Peirce coincides with Morris’s notion of pragmatics, in his interpretation of this term. It is also known as ‘methodeutic’, in that it is the analysis of the methods used in exploring, giving expositions and creating submissions of truth (Moon 2001).

Using signs and objects

During his research and involvement in signs Peirce concluded that there are three ways in which signs represent objects:

ü Iconic

ü Symbolic

ü Indexical (Ibid)

Iconic representation:

This term refers to signs of resemblance, such as portraits and paintings. Such signs are designed to mimic that which it is trying to bear a resemblance to.

Symbolic representation:

Symbolic representations draw from what is socially accepted and culturally agreed upon. Rather than being based on the resemblance of the sign to what it signifies, it is based on arbitrary stipulation (Mitchell 1990). Thus, it uses what is already known and accepted within our society to give meaning. This can be both in spoken and written language.

For example, we can call a large metal object with four wheels, four doors, an engine and seats a 'car' because such a term is agreed upon within our culture and it allows us to communicate. In much the same way, as a society with a common set of understandings regarding language and signs, we can also write the word 'car' and in the context of Australia and other English speaking nations, know what it symbolises and is trying to represent. (Dupriez 1991)

Indexical representation:

Peirce explains that this type of sign refers to cause and effect. For example, if we see smoke we conclude that it is the effect of a cause- fire (Dupriez 1991).

Saussure and Representation

Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure played a major role in the development of Semiotics with his argument that language is a system of signs that needs to be understood in order to fully understand the process of linguistics (Culler 1976). The study of Semiotics examines the signs and types of representation that humans use to express feelings, ideas, thoughts and ideologies (Ryder 2004). Although semiotics is often used in the form of textual analysis it also involves the study of representation and the processes involved with representation. Semiotics foregrounds the process of representation and suggests that reality and experience are characterized using codes that we recall mentally or phonetically in order to fully comprehend them.

Saussure suggests that the meaning of a sign is arbitrary, in effect; there is no link between the signifier and the signified (Holdcroft 1991). The signifier is the word or the sound of the word and the signified is the representation of the word or sound. For example, when referring to the term ‘sister’ (signifier) a person from an English speaking country such as Australia, may associate that term as representing someone in their immediate family who is a female but not their parent (signified). An Aboriginal Australian may associate the term ‘sister’ to represent a close friend that they have a bond with. This means that the representation of a signifier depends completely upon a person’s cultural, linguistic and social background. Saussure argues that if words or sounds were simply labels for existing things in the world, translation from one language or culture to another would be easy, it is the fact that this can be extremely difficult that suggests that words trigger a representation of an object or thought depending on the person that is representing the signifier (Chandler 2001). The signified triggered from the representation of a signifier in one particular language do not necessarily represent the same signified in another language. Even within one particular language many words refer to the same thing but represent different peoples interpretations of it. A person may refer to a particular place as their ‘work’ whereas someone else represents the same signifier as their ‘favorite restaurant’. This can also be subject to historical changes in both the signifier and the way objects are signified.

Saussure claims that an imperative function of all written languages and alphabetic systems is to ‘represent’ spoken language (Arnason 2006). Most languages do not have writing systems that represent the phonemic sounds they make. For example, in English the written letter ‘a’ represents different phonetic sounds depending on which word it is written in. The letter ‘a’ has a different sound in the word in each of the following words, ‘apple’, ‘gate’, ‘margarine’ and ‘beat’, therefore, how is a person unaware of the phonemic sounds able to pronounce the word properly by simply looking at alphabetic spelling. The way the word is represented on paper is not always the way the word would be represented phonetically. This leads to common misrepresentations of the phonemic sounds of speech and suggests that the writing system does not properly represent the true nature of the pronunciation of words.


Arnason, D 2006, Reference material, viewed 12 April 2006, from

Baldick, C 1996, ‘New historicism’, in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, viewed 8 April 2006, http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e652

Barry, L 2002, Beginning theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory, Manchester University Press, Great Britain.

Burch, R 2005, ‘Charles Sanders Pierce’, in ‘The stanford encyclopedia of philosophy’, viewed 24 April 2006, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2005/entries/peirce/.

Chandler, D 2001, Semiotics for beginners: Modality and representation, viewed 8 April 2006, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem02a.html.

Childers J (ed.) 1995, Columbia dictionary of modern literary and cultural criticism. Columbia University Press, New York.

Concise Routledge 1999, Encyclopaedia of philosophy, Routledge, London.

Culler, J 1976, Saussure, Fontana Modern Masters, Britain.

Dupriez, B 1991, A dictionary of literary devices, University of Toronto Press, Canada.

Free Dictionary by Farlex 2005, Dictionary, viewed 19 April 2006 from, http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/

Fuery, P & Mansfield N 2005, Cultural studies and critical theory, Oxford University Press, Australia

Hall, S (ed.) 1997, Cultural representations and signifying practice, Open University Press, London.

Holder, D 1991, Saussure – signs, system, and arbitrariness, Cambridge, Australia.

Lentricchia, F & McLaughlin,T (eds.) 1990, Critical terms for literary study, University of Chicago Press, London.

Mitchell, W 1990, ‘Representation’, in F Lentricchia & T McLaughlin (eds), Critical terms for literary study, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Mitchell, W 1994, Picture theory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Moon, B 2001, Literary terms: a practical glossary, 2nd edn, Chalkface Press, Cottesloe.

Murfin, R & Ray, S.M 1997, The bedford glossary of critical and literary terms, Bedford Books, Boston.

O’Shaughnessy, M & Stadler J 2002, Media and society: an introduction, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.

Prendergast, C 1999, ‘Circulating representations: new historicism and the poetics of culture’, Substance: The Review of Theory and Literary Criticism, no. 28, issue 1, pp. 90-105, (online Humanities International Complete)

Ryder, M 2004, Semiotics: language and culture, viewed 6 April 2006, from http://carbon.cudenver.edu/~mryder/semiotics_este.html

Shook, J 2005, ‘The pragmatism cybrary: charles morris’, in The Pragmatism Cybrary, viewed 24 April 2006, http://www.pragmatism.org/genealogy/morris.htm

Vukcevich, M 2002, ‘Representation’, in The University of Chicago, viewed 7 April 2006, from


See also

Representationalism, or the representational theory of perception, is a philosophical doctrine that in any act of perception, the immediate (direct) object of perception is a sense-datum that represents an external object, which is the mediate (indirect) object of perception. ... Figurative art describes artwork - particularly paintings - which are clearly derived from real object sources, but are not necessarily representational. ... Realism in art and literature is the depiction of subjects as they appear, without embellishment or interpretation. ... A cultural artifact is an man-made object which gives information about the culture of its creator and users. ... Media studies, a communication science, studies the nature and effects of media upon individuals and society. ... Culture theory is the branch of anthropology and other related social science disciplines (e. ...

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