Huck V.S. the Representational System

PosterĄG Eric Kao at 9:34:9 11/20/97 from

The production of meaning depends on language: "Language is a system of signs." These SIGNS, whatever appear in the forms of sounds, images, written words, clothing, etc. function as communicators that express/suggest meanings to receivers (listeners/viewers). According to Stuart Hall, the process of producing meanings, which is to symbolize or stand for whatever something material or metaphysical, is supposed to be "representation." In the process, the producers of meaning can be receivers, performers, or the fixed social conventions that always bring arbitrariness of signs. However, the production of meaning may not absolutely arbitrary, if there is someone trying to reform or challenge. In this journal, I will try to use some events in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a text: 1) the event of Huck's pretendence of girl; 2) Huck's constant shifts of identy, etc., to demonstrate how the representational system works.

According to du Gay, systems of representation are categorized into two making processes. First, a system, by which "all sorts of objects, people and events are correlated with a set of concepts or mental representations that we carry around in our heads," enables us, for instance, to think about a banana without eating a real one but with a "concept" in our heads. Second, a system that we used to "form concepts of rather obscure and abstract things" enables us to ponder love, death, and friendship, and other metaphysical concepts. Huck, when trying to belie one of his given identity--male, in my opinion, applies his CONCEPT of being a female to overturn his biological and social gender. (Social gender here I mean Huck's concepts, which are given and taught by the society, of how a man should be. It can be said a certain male myth: how men should be looked like.) Huck's concept of being a female exteriorly is, "...... shortened up one of the calico gowns and I turned up my trowser-legs to my knees and got into it. Jim hitched it behind with the hooks, and it was a fair fit. I put on the sun-bonnet and tied it under my chin." "Jim said I didn't walk like a girl; and he said I must quit pulling up my gown to get at my britches pocket." However, Huck's success in pretending a female only reaches physical level. His mind is still bound up with male myth, or to say, male-dominant ideology, which hardly enables him to reach a high level of mental representation that allows him to present a recognizable female image. To put it more simply, why Huck's strategy of pretending a girl is a failure is because he only uses the exterior part of the system of representation. That is, he merely applies male concept/idea of a girl but not the essential element: mature female mental representation.

Although Huck's strategy of pretending a girl is exposed, viewers' reading strategies can not be neglected. Let's view Huck's action of shifting identity as a read subject. Viewers can make sense of Huck's up-to-the-moment identity only when the two parties have the same CONCEPTS in their minds. It is like Huck pitches a ball to someone in a certain direction, there must be someone catching the ball without slipping up. Fortunately, most of Huck's actions of disguise are not doubted, except the one of pretending a girl. Besides, one particular and interesting point of constructing the reading strategies is that Huck always can push his viewers to adopt the reading strategies he expects, while the viewers negatively follow the "appropriate" strategies that make Huck's disguises understandable. For example, in Chapter 13, Huck, in order to save two pirates who are left on a wreck in a storm, disguises himself as a helpless crybaby. This action is suddessful, for his means of representation is processed under some social conventions. This way enables him to bridge a relationship with others with compassion, which is like concepts of angels, God, abstract but meaningful in the system of representation. Though what results in understandings of abstract material may not only be social conventions; individual metaphysical thinking can be a possible way, Huck and his viewers/helpers, whoever active or negative, demonstrated what du Gay says, "culture is sometimes defined in terms of shared meanings or shared conceptual maps."

Above I discussed is two possible processes of conveying and receiving "meanings." However, they have not shed light on how meaning is determined and by whom. According to linguisticians' theories of representation, there are three approaches determining meaning: reflective, intentional, and constructivist approaches. In the reflective approach, "meaning is taught to lie in the object, person, idea or event in the real world, and language functions like a mirror, to reflect the true meaning as it already exists in the world." That is to say, if we have no idea of what elephant is, the vocabulary "elephant" is merely a group of alphabets without comprehensible meaning. Language is just an aid for us to comprehend meaning. In Advantures of Huckleberry Finn, most of Huck's shifts of identity and lies are made based upon possible circumstances in the reality. For instance, in Chapter 16, in order to avoid Jim being searched out in his raft, he disguises himself as a child whose dad is suffering from small pox and resting in the raft. To put it more evidently, the appearance of Tom Sawyer from Chapter 33 to the end not only solves Huck's predicament of lie unmasked, but demonstrated that fathomable meaning is always down-to-earth realistic persons or objects. (Huck uses the meaning of the name Tom Sawyer to make his temporary identity believable.) Language, in Huck's strategy, is just a medium to reflect meanings.

The second approach of representation is called "intentional approach." It holds that "it is the speaker, the author, who imposes his or her unique meaning in the world through language. Words mean what the author intends they should mean." In this novel, Huck, besides using realistic stuff to have his identities shiftable and let language to reveal his intentions, also employs the approach to interpret some terms that can be supposed to be Huck's one and only interpretation in the world. For instance, in Chapter 28, to make Mary Jane's leave reasonable, Huck make an excuse that a relative on the other side of river is suffering from mumps, while he does not know what mumps are. He tells Susan it's a new kind:

" 'How's it a new kind?'
'Because it's mixed up with other things.'
'What other things?'
'Well, measles, and whooping-cough, and erysiplas, and consumption, and yaller janders, and brain fever, and I don't know what all.' "

The third approach is called contructivist approach. It recognizes "this public, social character of language. It acknowledges that neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning in language." Simply speaking, it is social actor, such as culture, linguistic representational system, that constructs meaning and makes the world meaningful to us. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, every time that Huck shifts his identity to another, or Clemens describes life on the Mississippi river, is thought to fit the context of the social background of the times. One reason for this is that Clemens himself had been a pilot of a Mississippi riverboat. He made careful observations of the lives on the river and on the both sides of it, while he was doing the job. His observations contribute to his success in popularizing the book, for he let culture itself interpret the book much more meaningfully than a writer can do.

In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, what Huck shakes is not only the concept of identity: identity is not fixed but can be shiftable if we like, but also the arbitrariness of meaning, for he all the time endows words with his own individualized meanings, such as "mumps." On the other hand, as I have discussed above, the process of producing meanings depends upon many actors. Readers, authors, and social conventions that enable us to form concepts/ideology, are all interactive while we are conveying and receiving meanings.
Down to the reality, why not ask ourselves: is the discourse strategy in this paper matching the reading strategies of yours?


Reply the post:

Your Name ĄG
E-Mail AddĄG
Your opinion ĄG

[Local Preview]