Monday, 21 December 2009

The Power of Representation

In The Burden of Representation (1988) John Tagg looks at photography in relation to its representation of history. Much of his text is concerned with how institutions enable certain photographic images to gain status when representing particular aspects of history. Tagg dovetails the theories of Foucault and Althusser when analysing power structures and ideological apparatuses in regard to the implications of representations of history. While Tagg reproaches Althusser for his circular analysis of power in its movement around the ISAs - the ISAs were unable to produce power themselves and were only able to act upon it (1988: 25) - this criticism also becomes a way of enabling Foucault's model of power to orient Althusser's theory of ideology:
The discourses, practices and institutional structures of the Ideological State Apparatuses could secure nothing in themselves but only function as the reflex of an already inscribed power and repetitively re-enact or re-present what was already ordained at the level of the relations of production, into which a complex diversity of irreducible social relations were now collapsed. (ibid).

In the chapter 'The Currency of the Photograph' Tagg, in his own words, “set[s] out to bring a semiotic analysis of photographic codes into conjunction with an Althusserian account of 'Ideological State apparatuses' and to hold them in place by a Foucauldian emphasis on the power effects of discursive practices.” (1988: 22). This has also been my attempt when discussing the actions and practices within the institution and the inscriptions of power on the body, prescribed through an ideology which promotes ideas of excellence. The institution can only re-present and re-inscribe power that is already available to it; but, I maintain, this is done through an ideological structure that promulgates certain ideas (ideologies) that become realised through concrete practices in the form of actions carried out by the body (the subject).

Tagg states that cultural practices belong to “a field of power effects in which they are articulated with economic and political practices, representations and relations, without presupposing any unified outcome.” (1988: 30). He explains that it is “systems of representation” that actually operate on identities; constructing them, rather than expressing them (ibid.). The problem for anyone attempting to scrutinise the contemporary university's representation of itself, in regards to the effects it produces, cannot be critiqued outside of a historical analysis. As Tagg says: “There are no laws of equivalence, then, between the conditions and effects of signification, only specific sets of relations to be pursued.” (ibid.).

Tagg's critique of how photography is used by the state hinges not around the “power of the camera” in its capacity as a technology used for surveillance but “the power of the apparatuses of the local state which deploy it and guarantee the authority of the images it constructs to stand as evidence or register as truth.” (1988: 64). In the age of virtual technology where the university's website becomes a portal to the educational institution, everything that is represented there, or indeed is accessed there, becomes, potentially, a guarantee of this authority. The university owns the copyright of the images of itself that appear on the homepage of the website, they cannot even be used by students in their own work. While my focus is not on photographic images, but rather cartography, many of the criticisms that Tagg directs at photographic representations of history also apply to representation in general, especially in relation to power. Tagg, in his discussion on Foucault, states that power “is what displays itself most and hides itself best” (1988: 67). This has become apparent in regards to the cemetery at the University of Leeds: it exists in actual geographical space, but is not very apparent in cartographic representations of the university campus1. The map entitled Where is the cemetery? (above) demonstrates this problem: the cemetery, St Georges Field, exists and does not exist at the same time. I maintain that St Georges Field, in its (non) representation by the university, is highlighted perfectly when Tagg states in his criticism of Althusser: “What he does not show is that it is in the representational practices of these apparatuses themselves that the ideological level is constituted [...]” (1988: 69). What is not represented (and what is) is both a cause and effect of ideology.

I believe these representations (for example, something as 'innocent' as a map of the university campus) become what Tagg describes as “discourses which themselves function as formidable tools of control and power, producing a new realm of objects both as their targets and as instrumentalities.” (1988: 70). Power produces the lived experience, what we consider to be 'reality'. This orients power in everyday gestures, actions and practices, at the same time naturalising it. The structure of the university in relation to power, with its project of excellence orientated in ideological concrete practices, becomes a self-sustaining operation. Tagg explains this circularity in relation to Foucault's model of power:
A regime of truth is that circular relation which truth has to the systems of power that produce and sustain it, and to the effects of power which it induces and which redirect it. Such a regime has been not only an effect, but a condition of the formation and development of capitalist societies; to contest it, however, it is not enough to gesture at some 'truth' somehow emancipated from every system of power. Truth itself is already power, bound to the political, economic and institutional regime which produces it. (1988: 94).

Therefore, the ideology manifest in the concrete practices of the university utilise power in order to produce truth. But while these 'truths' appear in representations of the university, it is important that one does not get caught up in these representations and forget what appears behind them and holds them in place. We need to study the material of the university in order to be able to question its origins and reveal these regimes of truth. While meaning is made within the specific formation of the particular institution, this does not mean that the dominant mode of power cannot be challenged. This is acknowledged by Bill Readings when he explains that the Renaissance city streets offer the inhabitant a chance to reappropriate its “angularities and winding passages” (1999: 129); so too Tagg explains that institutions offer “multiple points of entry and spaces for contestation” (1988: 30).


1 At a presentation of my thesis to a group of academics at the University of Leeds, one said to me that he had been at the university ten years before he knew of the cemetery's existence.


Readings, Bill. 1999. The University in Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press).

Tagg, John. 1988. The Burden of Representation (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

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