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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

What even is 'representation'?

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

Students often seem to stumble on essay questions which ask them to consider 'the representation' of something. In the previous instantiation of Module C for Advanced, People and Politics (or People and Landscape if you were a real sucker for Alain de Boton), students were supposed to read texts with an eye to the 'representation' of politics or landscape.

Some kids just treated it as a flash word for 'show'. Others overcomplicated it and got into the whole semiotic bit (usually the same kids who tied themselves up in Extension 2 essays and 'parodic story-sequences'). But the question of what representation really is has a bearing on what we're doing when we teach and analyse literature.

Essentially representation is about choices. When writers or film-makers produce a 'representation' of, say, the human experience of anger or fear, passion or joy, they're really making a choice. The story and its themes have taken care of the What. Representation is about the How.

I could, for example, show that Portia is cleverer than Bassanio by having her write an anonymous letter to him, saying that I have the ring he swore not to give away, and forcing him to do something ridiculous and public to get it back - dance naked across St Mark's Square in Venice or something. But Shakespeare chooses to show the same thing (i.e. Portia's greater wit and social courage) by having her and Nerissa disguise themselves and play out the extortion dressed as learned doctors of the law.

Another example: One Night the Moon - the couple are clearly estranged after the disappearance of the daughter, and there are a number of ways that Rachel Perkins could have shown this estrangement, and the effect of the daughter's disappearance. She could have shown the two eating separately, or the husband trying to lead his wife off to bed while she resists, clutching the child's teddy. Instead, she shows the two bedrooms from above, with the two sleepless adults reacting to the absence of the daughter in their own way.

If you have a question about representation, try pitching it by asking students 'How else could the writer/director have shown this? Why did they present it this way?

For visuals, here's two ways to represent political change in the US

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