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The Relationship between Reality and its Representations

A persistent philosophical issue in the field of media studies is how to represent reality. Between all genres, this issue is particularly relevant in documentaries because they are usually the most concerned with reporting the past as accurately as possible. Many historians claim that the proper way to represent the past is to use footage and only discuss factual events that can be verified. Conversely, Stuart Hall and Vilém Flusser have contributed to this debate by highlighting the importance of the audience in decoding the message carried by media such as photography and cinema. Many scholars have agreed with these two philosophers by claiming that alteration is unavoidable in the representation of reality and makes it subjective. Consequently, artistic representations of past events are essential to discuss reality and grasping the deeper meanings and emotions they provoke.

The text by Flusser (1983) could be read as an explanation of how reading texts, images, photographs, and films objectively, so away from interpretation, can bring to "textolatry". He explains that the meaning of an image is a synthesis of the intention of the image and the observer. With this, the author gives a pivotal role to the observer, who is described as the giver of meaning. He provides a reason for this by claiming that "images are […] 'connotative' (ambiguous) complexes of symbols: they provide space for interpretation" (Flusser, 1983). An example is the surrealist art of René Magritte (Figure 1). With Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1929), the painter made it very clear that the image of an object is not the object itself because representation and signs differ from reality. Images consist of unclear signs, and they need to be interpreted by their viewers to acquire meaning. Because of this, Flusser (1983) also claims that images are not mirrors of reality but rather maps to interpret to get oriented in the world. When this does not happen, humans fall into textolatry, which is the act of being faithful to the image and taking the concepts it expresses as absolute truth instead of interpreting them. Textolatry can become very problematic because images are maps one must decode to understand the world (Flusser, 1983); if they are not read as such, they provide a wrong understanding of reality.

Very similar concepts are expressed in the text by Stuart Hall titled Encoding/Decoding (1980), in which the scholar discusses the relationship between the processes of encoding and decoding messages in TV programs. Hall explains how encoding meaning into a program requires it to be translated into discourse through signs or symbols. Similarly to Flusser's idea that every text has to be interpreted, Hall claims that signs and symbols used to express a concept need to be decoded. The decoding process also happens when the sign and symbols belong to a specific language because a word or a sentence can be interpreted differently depending on the circumstances the viewers find themselves in during the viewing experience. Ceci n'est pas une pipe (1929) could also be interpreted as Magritte's way of mocking viewers and confusing them since he painted a pipe and wrote underneath that it is not one. Consequently, in Hall's theory, the audience acquires a significant role since it can create its own messages and ideas about a media product despite the message the creator planned to be received.

Figure 1: This is not a pipe, but its representation.

The process of decoding signs and symbols can bring misunderstandings if the message that is addressed is an actual event. However, Hall (1980) explains that in order to be told, an event has to be turned into a story. This concept agrees with Flusser's idea of reproducibility, which claims that reality is one, unique, unrepeatable, and reproducible only if altered. He explains that by recording and photographing, "every action simultaneously loses its historical character […] and turns into an endlessly repeatable movement" (Flusser, 1983). This happens because "this space and time peculiar to the image, […] is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences" (Flusser, 1983). This means that events lose their historical feature when reproduced because history is linear and cannot be repeated. The tv-series Narcos (2015-2017) reenacted the pictures taken after the death of the narco-terrorist Pablo Escobar (Figure 2). This recreation was done to make the viewers properly understand the context in which they were taken and probably also for aesthetics; however, both can be considered mere representations of a historical moment that has ended. Consequently, we should not deceive ourselves into believing that we can perfectly reproduce reality because alteration is a consequence of representation. Hall's concept is essential in the discussion about the representation of reality because it introduces the question of how to represent history and whether we should try to represent it at all.

Another scholar who has tried to solve the problem of representing reality and history is Jennifer R. Ballengee (2001). Ballengee focused on the Holocaust and how to represent it most appropriately. In one of her interviews, she lets Geoffrey Hartman (the co-founder of Yale University's Fortunoff Archive for Holocaust Testimonies) explain how every kind of "testimony is a text in need of interpretation". In the case of Escobar's death, both the original photographs and the recreation could be interpreted as the enjoyment of death and violence. On the contrary, the images symbolize Colombians' freedom from Escobar's massacres. Hartman also elaborates that authenticity is not an excuse for taking testimonies or any other historical representation as absolute truth. As a matter of fact, for some Colombians, the death of Escobar could have meant more violence by the new narcos. In every case, for how authentic and reliable a source might seem, it still provides us with one or some of the many possible interpretations of reality since absolute reality remains unique and unreproducible

Figure 2. Recreation of Pablo Escobar's death in Netflix's tv-series Narcos (2015-2017).

Also, Kerner (2011) discusses the importance of not taking historical testimonies as absolute truth but rather as small parts of the truth. He explains in his book that documentaries are often "burdened with a presumptive fidelity to objectivity". This genre is often expected to express historical authenticity, a term that often acquires a wrong connotation. Especially historians tend to connect this term with facts, proofs, and science. This causes them to dismiss many testimonies from people who experienced historical events only because they contain errors (Kerner, 2011) or to think that art and aesthetics compromise validity (Ballengee, 2001).

Consequently, any artistic approach to history, especially abstract works of art like Picasso's Guernica (1937) (Figure 3), that only portray the suffering and destruction that were caused and not the Second World War itself could be considered wrong and incorrect. This dichotomy is deeply reductive and problematic for two reasons: first, authenticity does not deal solely with facts or science; second, art has the essential role of helping us understand complicated and hurtful matters. In the case of historical events, it is sometimes difficult to know precisely the dynamics of the happening. This is because the experience of an event does not include only the chronological order of events but also what happened mentally to the people that lived it. Hence, their personal history and how that event impacted their lives. Both types of history can be true, and one does not invalidate the other, even if they might seem to interfere with each other. This is because we can never talk about a single true reality but rather multiple or subjective realities. Consequently, many historical moments are much more than the events they are composed of, and because of this, they cannot be described merely through facts. This is why art has the essential and potent role of serving as a medium through which certain unexplainable things can be addressed and discussed.

Figure 3. Pablo Picasso in Guernica (1937) represents the horrors of the Second World War. A Nazi pointed at the painting and asked Picasso: “Did you do this?” and Picasso answered: “No, you did.”

To summarize, Hall (1980), Flusser (1983), Ballengee (2001), and Kerner (1983) have argued that media products cannot represent absolute reality but only different versions of it. These can be called subjective realities because they are numerous and different and lie in the eyes of the viewers. Hall (1980) and Flusser (1983) claimed that media products are encoded with many concepts, and viewers charge these products with many other meanings by decoding different messages. Therefore, it is impossible to obtain an objective representation of reality, as many historians want (Kerner, 2011). It is not as problematic as it sounds because authenticity does not consist of facts but of many different points of view or interpretations of reality. These, together with art, are necessary to comprehend past events and history (Ballengee, 2001). As Kerner claims, art cannot be avoided because every representation is a form of art. Finally, what we can grasp from these scholars is that alteration is an unavoidable feature in the representation of the many subjective realities. Because of this, "there is no transparent window onto the past. We might never be able to assemble the truth, or the history […], but it is possible to construct a truth, and a history" (Kerner, 2011).

Bibliographical Sources

Kerner, A. (2011). Film and the Holocaust: New Perspectives on Dramas, Documentaries, and Experimental Films. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Bazin, A. (1946). The Myth of Total Cinema.

Hartman, G. H., & Ballengee, J. (2001). Witnessing Video Testimony: An Interview with Geoffrey

Hartman. The Yale Journal of Criticism, 14(1), 217–232.

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. In Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-1979 (pp. 112–121). Routledge.

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Reaktion Books.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Lucia Cisterni

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