A Reality of Representation: ancient wisdom for an alternative fact world

Insults and Idiocy: the phenomena that is Trump

Walls, registers, expulsions, denials, grabbing pussies, bombing Isis,  and… ‘alternative facts’.

Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOo3-R7q3YU

So there it is. The office of the President of the United States of America can, legitimately, interpret its own reality. Verifiable data, it would seem, is now polysemic.

Is the world slipping into a curious Orwellian ‘post-truth’ age of ‘alternative facts’ or, to put it more simply, institutionalized  lying? Has the ‘doublespeak’ of 1984 come to be all to real? Does the truth matter any more? Are we being asked, as the superstate of 1984 instructed its citizens, to ignore the evidence of our eyes and ears? To swallow whatever is dished up to us by the ruling power?

How can we decide between what is real and what is not? If we are not media literate we run the risk of uncritically accepting what the media tells us. That if I buy that cologne I will cause (more) hot flushes as I swan on by, that South Auckland is full of dangerous and violent criminals, that true happiness lies with the purchase of those matching bedside table lamps, that having more Facebook likes makes me popular and worthy…

To not be media literate is to ride the media roller coaster, with its swooping descents into fear and its sudden ascents into consumer happiness. To not be media literate is to be afraid. And to buy more stuff.

So what is real? We assume reality can be observed, that there is a fixed point from which we can get our bearings from (Bruner, 1991). Thus we use our understanding of our own lives as a starting point to  observe the representations of the lives of others; on Facebook, for example. When we view someone’s Facebook page we are seeing a representation of their lives, not their real lives. It is, moreover, a representation of reality that they wish to present to the world. When the media slices the conflict in Syria into bite size chunks for its audience thousands of kilometers away from the Middle East, it is presenting a representation of the conflict, not the reality. And, like someone’s Facebook page, it is a representation that the media wants to portray.

We have a “zone of relevance” (Adoni and Mane, p. 326, 1984) for media we consume. For a student in New Zealand a Facebook friend’s representation of their lives is likely to be more relevant than conflict in Syria. Proximity thus influences the level of crituqe. We are likely to be more discerning about events which are closer to us, e.g. a Facebook friend’s post about an event we were at, than a report on Syria on the evening news.

‘Reality TV’ only muddies the water further. Shows like Survivor or The Biggest Loser are presented as the truth, and are, seemingly, often accepted as such. But how real is reality TV? (Escoffery, 2006).

So what is real? Is the TV news real? Are ‘alternative facts’ real? Is Kellyanne Conway’s position as ‘Counselor to President Trump’ really real?

Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-niPJMSeh34

Pipes and Plato: the treachery of images

We are dealing with a conundrum often termed as the Treachery of Images, as portrayed in the painting by Rene Margritte – ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’  (This is not a pipe).

Clip: https://goo.gl/images/Ft3V1b

An initial glance at the image would no doubt prompt the thought, “That is a pipe”. But that is to confuse the representation with the reality. It is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. The image and its byline is a meta message – it refers to itself.

However, this painting is only effective as a medium to challenge perception of reality if those who see the painting share what Hall (1997) terms ‘conceptual maps’ (p. 18). Prior knowledge of, in this case, a pipe, is necessary to interpret the painting in the first place. To someone who does not know what a pipe is this painting would make little sense. That is because their conceptual map, which consists of  “concepts that are organised into… complex relations with one another” (Hall, p. 18, 1997), does not include a pipe. Upon seeing the painting a person who does not know what a pipe is would try to makes sense of the image by attempting to connect it to something they know. Is it some sort of chair, for example.

In much the same way, what is communicated via the media is interpreted in different ways by different people. It is polysemic.  A person’s Facebook page that is full of joyous photos and comments portraying great happiness may be interpreted as a clear message that said person has a wonderful life. On the other hand, it could be understood as trying too hard and thus suggesting all is not well.

For the average teenager submerged in social media this could be a difficult concept to grasp – that representation does not equal reality. I have found that an effective way to teach secondary school students about representation and reality is to turn to the wisdom of Plato. I see clear links between what Plato wrote over 2,000 years ago and the world we live in today.

In the Republic, Plato outlined his now famous allegory of the cave as a means of understanding reality.

Image: https://goo.gl/images/FW4bRl

Plato likened those who are not media literate (actually, he was referring to those who do not study philosophy, but we will tweak this slightly for our purpose) as “prisoners in an underground cave dwelling” (Plato, p. 207, 1948). The prisoners are chained to the floor and to a wall behind them. They can see only to the front of them; that is the limit of both their vision and their world. Behind the wall there is a fire, which casts its flickering indistinct light on the wall in front of the prisoners.

Between the fire and the wall, images are being carried by – for our purposes – the media. The non-media literate see on the wall in front of them a representation of the images cast by the light of the fire. Because their understanding is limited to what is front of them, “the only truth the prisoners can conceive is the shadows of the manufactured articles”  (Plato, p. 208, 1948). They presume that what they see is real. But in fact, they are seeing only a representation of reality. Moreover, what they see is a representation of a representation of the real. The prisoners see, in this case, the shadow of a horse from an object of a horse copied from a real horse. They are thus two steps removed from reality. That is the lot of the non-media literate.

Thus the ‘alternative facts’ of the Trump administration are representations of the real facts. The image above of Margritte’s work is a representation of a representation of a real pipe. And in the clip from The Matrix, Neo is correct when he touches the chair and says it is not real. It is not – it is representation of a real chair. And we see a representation of that representation.

To continue the allegory, Plato says that should one of the prisoners manage to smash their chains and climb out the cave – for Plato by studying philosophy, for us by studying media literacy – their eyes will hurt and they will be dazzled by the light of reality. Just like Neo again.

Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-U_bReQVww

But in time their eyes become used to being ‘open’ and they will begin to understand what lies behind the representations of reality. And should they descend back into the cave and try to convince the other prisoners of what they know, they will likely be chastised by those in chains, who may think they are foolish and possibly – just for Trump – unpatriotic. They may abuse the one who attempts to teach them or – again, like Trump – stop them at the border.

This can be the lot of the teacher of media literacy when working with so-called millennials! Students may get annoyed (even ‘snowflake’-like offended), or withdraw from the class and seek a ‘safe space’. Plato actually suggested that the other prisoners will try to kill the one who returns “if they could lay their hands on him” (Plato, p. 210. 1948) – like the Athenians did to Socrates. One may want to end the lesson before this salient point.

Plato’s allegory of the cave shows us it has always been difficult to separate representation from reality (Pouyioutas, 2012). And in the age of Web 2.0 the shadow is often more appealing than the substance. But, to carry the classical allusions one step further, beware the sirens’ song of manipulative media…

So, how to teach secondary school students about media literacy, representation and reality using Plato? In my next blog I will include classroom strategies I have used and further ideas I have.


Adoni, H. and Mane, S. (1984). Media and Social Construction of Reality. Communication Research, 11(3), 323-340. DOI: 10.1177/009365084011003001

Bruner, J. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1-21. DOI:        10.1086/448619

Escoffery, D. (Ed.). (2006). How Real is Reality TV? North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Hall, S. (1997). Representation, Meaning and Language. In S. Hall (Ed.), Representation;   cultural representation and signifying practices (pp. 15-27). London: Sage in association with the Open University.

Retrieved from https://auckland.rl.talis.com/items/04F72025-2D57-F234-1D73-7E16F4B1B252.html

Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. London: Secker & Warburg.

Plato (380 BCE / 1948). The Republic. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd.

Pouyioutas, P. (2012).   Plato’s allegory of the cave in the digital era of the Internet, Web 2.0 applications, social networks and second life – an educational, political and social interpretation. Academia. January 30, 2017. Retrieved from  https://www.academia.edu/3694891/Plato_s_Allegory_of_the_Cave_in_the_Digital_Era_of_the_Internet_Web_2.0_Applications_Social_Networks_and_Second_Life_An_Educational_Political_and_Social_Interpretation




2 thoughts on “A Reality of Representation: ancient wisdom for an alternative fact world

  1. Hi Aidan,
    I can now understand your plato,s cave on representation and reality better than in the class. The point I liked was when you mentioned Plato’s allegory of the cave that showed us that it has always been difficult to separate representation form reality. I understand reality is there all the times same but were representation is how one show or perform to others. Hope I thinking in a way it said. Well done Aidan great work on your blog and I like how you are using the ancient and modern examples. I can’t wait see your teaching in your class.


  2. This is such a funny and witty post that captures the ridiculous of our buy in to media. How easy it is to get sucked into the ‘buy more stuff’ attitude. I am definitely guilty of accepting what media tells us and purchasing to find true happiness! I liked the analogy between what is represented on Facebook and what is shown about Syria because we can see how our friends cut and paste the good bits of their lives despite what else is going on. I also liked how you used the Plato example and the Matrix. It made me think about human nature and our need to follow the crowd. I think Plato, The Matrix and the many people who are anti-Trump show that there are always people who see the crowd following blindly and want to try to point it out to them. I really enjoyed reading your blog and think you had a clear and interesting discussion about the importance of teaching media literacy.


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