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Representations of Britain
Leonard Stone

As a point of departure, or platform of understanding, it is necessary in the first place just to simply lay a few theoretical cards on the table, to outline the subject matter for analysis. In contemporary words, that which has been constructed is to be deconstructed. Nowadays, what goes up, in a manner of speaking, must come down (and what it takes theoretically to bring it down, at the same time itself goes up). That subject matter in this instance is Britain, as a contested cultural phenomenon, and more significantly representations of Britain. At a basic level I can start at the beginning with a run-down of a few elementary notes on British culture, such that appear in standard “civilisation” books on Britain.

T.S.Eliot’s conservative cultural notes focus on a people engaged in a range of “cultural” practices, including Derby Day, the Henley Regatta, the Twelfth of August, a Cup Final, nineteenth-century Gothic Churches and the Music of Elgar. This list can be expanded and modernised to include the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Notting Hill Carnival, St. Patrick’s Day, the Eisteddfod and the Muslim festival of Eid. Modern, multicultural Britain, then, is more than Shakespeare, roast beef, warm beer, bangers-and-mash, and the pub. “New Britannia” consists of more than what Orwell called a nation of flower lovers, stamp-collectors, crossword-puzzle fans, do-it-yourself fanatics and television addicts. Although modern Britain is still the land of the Royal family, Cream teas, British breakfast and landladies, but it is also the land of Balti curry, of Danish lager, American jeans and Korean trainers. Sebastian Faulks, on the other hand, produces a more idiosyncratic, petty-bourgeois discourse, focusing on the “essence” of the English in particular:

Such representations as the above, and especially those worthy Other representations which depart from a political and cultural point of departure, form a series of contradictory and at times unexplored, or “semi-negotiated” (re)presentations of Britain. In order to investigate this matter it is obviously essential to pay particular regard to the methodological strategy at hand. To unearth representations of Britain, and what they stand for, I believe that it is both interesting and fruitful for the student to scatter the subject area. I have done this by employing a range of theoretical devices which, in the main, utilise a few essential concepts. Without scattering the subject in this way, only a few options would remain – eg. empirical scholarship. I also believe that in `coming at' Britain from a ‘level of representations’ perspective will facilitate the conception of the existence of Britain on a not just a range of levels, but also within a range of existences wherein is located the reality of contested cultural phenomena. That Britain exists on a number of discursive levels goes without saying. It is a multi-dimensional construction. Britain exists geographically of course, as it does as an independent nation-state. But it primarily exists (in terms of the entangled discourses of power and resistance) as a contested cultural construction, as an on-going historical construction. The brief purpose of the following pages, no less, is to briefly sketch an understanding of Britain at the level of language, discourse, but more especially representation.

Writing on, or about Britain essentially means constructing an image of Britain. An image, or representation stands for something; it portrays, depicts in a specific way. It symbolises. At a deeper, analytical level we can speak of representation in the same way as we can talk about the term discourse: as a structured domain of language-use that is unified by common assumptions. The notions of discourse, ideology and image, as a series of key, inter-related terms, need only detain us briefly.

The theoretical employment of discourse, as the primary ordering concept of (re)presentations of Britain, is illuminating from a postmodernist perspective. Discourses of Britain - ways of talking and thinking about Britain - have changed over time. We can see this by simply tracing changing domestic and international reactions to the former British Empire and thereafter to Britain as the Commonwealth ‘mother nation’ and now a member of the European Union. In practical terms we can obviously say that there are different and contending discourses of Britain. For instance, different discourses of the British citizen coexist - some stress a freedom to act (liberalism), others emphasise the individual's duty to the state (conservatism/fascism), or others their conditioned relationship to the cultural mode of production (neo-Marxism). These discourses are essentially political discourses, not least because they gravitate around power (as an interested discourse); a discourse which is structured and saturated by an empowering/ disempowering dialectic.

At the heart of the function of discourses of Britain is their ability to close off other meanings. This is clear enough. In other words, within a discourse of Britain there are literally some things that are not accepted or entertained (alternatives to the liberal-bourgeois order are (de)legitimised). Discourses of Britain thus may have an effect similar to that of ideology  - ie. as a ready-made way of thinking it tries to rule out alternative ways of thinking and of negotiating identity.

Mainstream liberal-bourgeois writings on Britain no doubt form a particular speech: a collection of signs underpinned by a discursive practice which is understood as a formal system of underlying bourgeois conventions. Language strategy forms a deep structure to images of Britain. The common theme in Cultural Studies nowadays is that buried structures have to be uncovered to reveal meanings behind constructions of Britain. These deep meanings can be constituted by certain basic binary oppositions such as left/right, modern/traditional, or bourgeoisie/proletariat, and at the level of socio-linguistics, for example, the petty-bourgeois construction of a restricted code/elaborate code. The admittedly, well-worn idea here then is that Britain is constituted by the underlying structures of a bourgeois language game that is employed in its liberal (consensus rather than conflict) construction. Constructions which are above all else politically “loaded” texts. There is a smoking gun(s) here.

Let me just pause here for a moment and while I do so wheel out a few commonplace points. Discourses of Britain do not reflect actual causal connections in the lived relations of Britain. In other words, and unlike classical epistemology (which would assume a correspondence between concepts and what is Britain), the reality of what is Britain should be considered not as external to a realm of discourse which seeks to approximate them, but as wholly internal to such discourses constituted by them through and through. Thus, Britain does not spontaneously sort itself out into kinds, causal hierarchies, discrete spheres; on the contrary, it is we who do all this by talking and writing about Britain. Our language then does not so much reflect Britain as a reality, but signifies it, carves it into conceptual shape. A point banged out time and again. British reality itself, before we come to constitute it through our discourses, is just some inarticulate entity. Britain does not therefore sort itself into shape independently of our descriptions of it. This is a simple point, and is now standard fare in Cultural Studies textbooks.

British practices are to a significant degree a product, then, of our discursive constructions. In this way, discourses internally constitute nations. Discourses constitute a particular British reality by explaining, rationalising, concealing, legitimacy and so on. Much scholarship within the field of Cultural Studies continues to explain such processes.

The related term of ideology, though a contested concept (Habermas notwithstanding), can generally be said to do with legitimating, in this case, the existence and identity of a nation. Deconstructing ideology, moreover, is analysing the ways in which meaning serves to sustain the life of a nation. The process of legitimation can involve at least five different strategies: a nation may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalising and universalising such beliefs so as to render them conspicuous and apparently certain; denigrating hostile forms of thought; excluding ideas which might challenge it – eg. anti-British ideas emanating from a hostile power. (2)

This notion of `ideology as legitimation' concerns the nation's existence itself and involves the idea of power. Power, unlike in Lenin’s estimation, is not something confined to a nation's soldiers and parliaments: it is, rather, a global, elusive network of structures which patterns itself into a nation's slightest motions and most familiar comments. Power, thus, and as Foucault has endlessly informed us, is complexly diffused. Most contemporary Cultural Studies text-books, suggest, furthermore, that an ideological construction of Britain is a matter of discourse rather than language. In international relations it concerns the actual utilisation of language between particular states for the construction of specific consequences. Ideology can be described as an interested discourse. Thus, a nation's ideology is a form of discourse which presents itself simply as a shorthand for an extensive range of discourses in time and space, or, it can be viewed as a particular set of effects within discourses. A nation's ideology, hence, includes a particular discourse on property, a treatise on international and domestic jurisprudence and a way of talking about progress. Such discourses belong to a nation, not necessarily in the kind of languages that they are rather than the effect (situation) they produce: effects, for example, of `closure’, whereby certain hostile forms of signification (meaning) are silently excluded, (de)emphasised or de-legitimated. Such “hostile” dispositions are expressions of contesting forms of identity. As such they are part of the process of reproduction and transformation of material culture.

To be engaged in the production of representations of Britain, furthermore, is to be engaged in the making and cultural (re)making of Britain's meaningful conditions of existence. A (re)presentation, for example, on an aspect of British affairs, is not a way of learning about something in Britain; it is rather a way of producing that aspect of Britain as real, identifiable, classifiable, knowable, and meaningful. Representation creates an additional insertion in the British text.

It can be argued, and often is, that the discursive representation of reality in Britain is an integral part of the relations that are present in the international arena. The process of discursive representation is infrequently a neutral detached one. It is structurally imbued with the interest and authority of the namers and makers of British reality - ie predominantly scholars, journalists, businessmen and politicians caught within the discourse of social class formations in the capitalist grand narrative.

We are constantly reminded that there is disagreement amongst Cultural Studies scholars as to whether one can speak of descriptions, images or representations of Britain as either approximate or not. Where agreement does exist however is on the idea that representation retains a site of meandering meaning, but a horizontally shifting meaning autonomous from discourse. The highly complex question raised here focuses on whether representations of British affairs are less a matter of representations of British reality than lived relations in Britain? To my mind the answer no doubt depends on the relationship between British lived relations and one's notion of reality. In a sense we can sidestep this question if we note that representation implies an empirical representation of British affairs. This means that such representations can either be “approximate” to situational reality or not, or for our purposes to a certain `disposition'. Discourse on the other hand jettisons empirical issues in the sense that discourses are, as noted above, constitutive of our practices. However, the utilisation of the term representation, rather than discourse, implies that there exists some internal relation between particular lived relations, and specific kinds of assumptions. Put discourse and representation together and you achieve a balance between the internal and external respectively. Using discursive representation as a theoretical point of departure is, no less, to encounter the intellectual process of exploring not only the potential of this specific relationship, but also to slice open the kinds of representations of British conditions and practices. To explore this relationship it is necessary to explore a wide range of representations. However, a major, significant problem immediately arises.

To explore such a relationship outlined above entails the use of the highly glamorous methodology of deconstruction in particular, and discourse analysis in particular. However, this leaves little methodological leeway in attempts at unmasking the multi-dimensional construction of Britain (postmodern theory does not deliver on the question of justice, for example, nor social desserts). The term image, on the other hand, is looser in terms of its theoretical applicability. This means that the employment of the broad term, image, can settle scores on two fronts, so to speak. In the first instance, an image-approach to an understanding of modern Britain produces a significant degree of autonomy from social science orthodoxy simply by the employment of an imprecise, literary, or ironically a `street term'. In this way it is possible to avoid the pitfall of contributing more to the theoretical enterprise of deconstruction rather than to an understanding of modern Britain itself. In the second place, and by deliberately employing this loose, malleable term, it is at times possible to create the opportunity to fill it, to theoretically shape it as this theoretical process unfolds. It is in such a supple, flexible manner that an exploration of images of Britain, could be attempted. Such an approach is, nevertheless, not without its pitfalls. Image is a liberal arts term, one that in its theoretical utilisation has its hands tied: in the sense that it describes British reality rather than explains, evaluates rather than analyses. It is an incomplete term therefore, and one that is loaded with ambiguity.

The problems noted above arise, on reflection, if any of the above terms are employed exclusively.  If they are used in their own right. The danger here is that understandings of Britain may be moulded in the shape of a preconceived image, or theoretical paradigm. One way out of this imploding scenario is to explore the reality that is Britain by examining and exploring Britain on a number of levels; while inter-changing the above noted key terms in a strategic network of signposts. These levels and layers come under the rubric of representations of Britain.



1. Sebastian Faulks, ‘Beware of the Elusive E-Factor’, The Guardian Weekend, 12 September 1992, p16.

2. On this particular schematisation see especially Eagleton, T. (1991) Ideology, London: Verso,  p 5.


(Leonard Stone edits Postscript)
From Postscript, Summer 1998: 19-23.