Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

Some comparison between the semiotic notions of coding, overcoding, and undercoding (Eco, U., 1976/1979, A Theory of Semiotics) and Erwin Panofsky’s phases of iconological insight (Panofsky, E., 1939, Studies in Iconology) seems possible. In particular, the two movements accomplished in Umberto Eco’s given coding-overcoding sequence (p.134) would seem to correspond to the first two stages, i.e. the pre-iconographic and iconographic phases, in Panofsky’s three staged iconology. In the first stage we have a purportedly ‘innocent eye’ that merely inventories the more conventional signs (‘here is a woman bearing a pair of eyes in a golden saucer’), and then at some indeterminate point, the possession of iconographical knowledge (one could also say ‘cultural knowledge’ or ‘cultural familiarity’) would determine the onset of a second stage. In that second stage the rules of the first code still operate to identify the elements, but become the basis of a further rule that determines their applicability, in effect telling us how to apply them (‘here is a conventional image of St. Lucy’). In some respects one may even say that the meta-rules or overcodings provided in the iconographic phase serve to suspend the usual operation of the first, ‘innocent-eyed’ layer of codings.

If we read Panofsky alongside Eco, we can say that according to Eco’s definition of overcoding:

While iconology recognises a specific arrangement or organisation of items to refer to a particular icon or theme, it is only through the ‘innocent-eye’ coding of these individual elements or items that they first become recognisable. Iconology thus practices an overcoding on the basis of this coding, a further rule to its rules; first it recognises (de/codes) the items but then, on top of that, it recognises (de/codes) their specific arrangement, their co-occurrence or constellation, as having further specificity on the plane of cultural meaning.

Thus, in the case of the image of a woman carrying her eyes in a saucer, which Eco gives (and here is an example) the first level of coding is composed of the conventional elements {woman, saucer, eyes, carrying}, but a further recognition of a more specific, rarer coding or convention is needed in order to see that, in the arrangement of these elements in the context of a certain kind of image within a certain cultural history, we find ourselves before a very specific though conventional figure or symbolic representation of St. Lucy. Suddenly, the woman is no longer a woman, the eyes are no longer (just) eyes. Through the constellation with the eyes she holds and the golden saucer that bears them, against a background of cultural knowledge, a further, symbolic figure appears. If not exactly nullifying the conventional coding on which it was initially dependent, this new image certainly pushes it to the back burner. This is so because a new and different register or context has opened — the iconological — and the ‘innocent’ register, a necessary step but lacking overcoding, has been superseded. At least, this would be the standard reading of the iconological hermeneutic translated into Eco’s semiotic terms.

Overcoding and Iconology in Transcultural Contexts

However, as with the standard criticism of Panofsky’s stages — the ‘innocent eye’ is retroactively constructed as a virtual position we were never really in (i.e. free of cultural associations) — it is also possible to hold a critique of Eco’s overcoding. Are we not always already looking for a referential context when we first approach an image, approaching its elements only as features within a synoptic whole, rather than already having broken it down into recognisable atoms of reference to be reassembled? It can be argued that on first approach there is not an empirical stock-taking of discrete elements, but that the initial approach beholds first their ensemble.

In other words, on the first approach we are already operating in the realm of overcoding, rather than coding. This is perhaps tantamount to stating that we are already acculturated, socialised, and thus iconologically operative, when we first encounter the image. If so, then is this encounter nothing other than the site where cultural differences, rather than monocultural confirmations of ‘competence’, might appear?

The problem with the transcultural (or multicultural) audience regarding the monocultural icon is that according to Eco such an audience ‘undercodes’, that is to say, ‘in the absence of reliable pre-established rules’ (p.135), such an audience guesses at a general cultural meaning, constructing a ‘rough’ coding. Thus according to Eco, ‘images produced by an alien civilization… are understood by way of undercoding’ (p.136). Clearly this statement is insufficient when read in the light of an always-acculturated audience, which is to say, an audience for which ‘reliable pre-established rules’ always exist: it is not that these rules of decoding are unreliable, nor under-established; it is simply that they are culturally different to those of the artist and of his or her attendant iconologists of the same culture. The criterion of ‘reliability’ in determining the subject of an image would then come down to this rather dismal question: as a foreigner, are you culturally competent enough to understand what the artist is representing? Here it is appropriate to ask why this sharing of cultural context with a posited presence or intention is considered the ‘reliable’ overcoding, whereas an equally acculturated audience from a different ethnic or social background, bringing a variant overcoding, is not reliable. Why are these other kinds of overcoding to be regarded as deficient, as ‘undercodings’? Clearly one reason is that they would not necessarily fall into line with, i.e. reproduce, the existing discourses of existing powers. And here we are mired with the problem of a monoculturally-embedded authorial intentionality, which only a panel of cultural hierophants are sufficiently equipped to divine for an ‘ignorant’ laity. This audience, it would seem, remains constitutionally uninformed by its divergent cultures, and can only graduate from its alien undercoding to ‘proper’ overcoding by a passive process of learning from those experts who write the official cultural history, and produce the proper knowledge. Certainly there are problems of cultural imperialism here.

I thus propose to replace Eco’s problematic conception of undercoding — specifically in this transcultural instance — with what we might choose to name contestant overcoding. And in principle, all overcoding — including those instances in which the authors of artworks themselves accompany their work with cultural explanations — can be shown to be contestant overcoding.

In this way it would be possible to bring together a conception of contestant overcoding with that of hegemony (in the case of Gramsci) and of enchainment (in the case of Laclau) to provide a theory of meaning in which differences of interpretation can co-exist, if often antagonistically.

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