Humans have a unique capacity to communicate meanings through representation, the process of producing a symbol to communicate an idea or set of ideas. Symbolic representation allows people to communicate about the past, present and future, and it also provides a means of conceptualizing abstract and intangible mediums such as philosophy, math, physics, feelings, and more. Yet the process of representation is shaped by social and cultural forces and systems of power.  This lesson will examine the different types of representation used in the Humanities, the role of the Humanities in creating representations, and the socio-cultural politics of representing and being represented in the Humanities.

Representation Lesson Objectives

  • Understand the role of symbols and representation in the Humanities
  • Interpret symbolic meanings through different mediums in the Humanities
  • Analyze the relationship between symbols,  representation and power in the Humanities


Humans create symbols to signify ideas by assigning meanings to arbitrary representations. What this means is that the symbol itself does not possess an inherent quality or trait associated with the meaning it represents; the meaning has been assigned to the symbol.

Take language, for example. Language is a complex system of arbitrary symbols and their associated meanings (Saussure 1911) . Right now, you are looking at a collection of arbitrary symbols called letters (or listening to a series of arbitrary sounds) which are arranged together to form words that are associated with meanings. There is nothing inherent to these letters that indicate their meanings. At some point in our lives, we both learned to associate these symbols with the same meanings, and through practice, we can now effortlessly translate the symbols into meanings without realizing we are doing it. It is through our shared knowledge of this collection of symbols and meanings, called English, that we are able to communicate ideas about the past, present and future.

Can you understand the symbols and meanings below?

مع نفس المعاني، ومن خلال الممارسة العملية، يمكننا الآن ترجمة جهد الرموز والمعاني دون أن يدركوا أننا نفعل ذلك. ومن خلال معرفتنا المشتركة لهذه المجموعة من الرموز والمعاني، وتسمى باللغة الانجليزية، ونحن قادرون على توصيل الأفكار عن الماضي والحاضر والمستقبل

Or these?

Δεν υπάρχει τίποτα που είναι συνυφασμένοι με αυτά τα σύμβολα που δείχνουν νοήματα. Σε κάποιο σημείο στη ζωή μας, εμείς οι δύο μάθει να συνδέσει αυτά τα σύμβολα με τα ίδια νοήματα, και μέσα από την πράξη, μπορούμε τώρα να μεταφράσει αβίαστα τα σύμβολα και τις έννοιες, χωρίς να συνειδητοποιούν το κάνουμε. Είναι κοινή γνώση μέσα μας αυτή τη συλλογή των συμβόλων και εννοιών, που ονομάζεται αγγλική γλώσσα, ότι είμαστε σε θέση να επικοινωνούν τις ιδέες για το παρελθόν, παρόν και μέλλον.


If you do not understand the system of symbols depicted in the above paragraphs, it is because you never learned to associate the system of symbols with concepts or meanings.  These associations vary cross-culturally according to the unique experiences shared within a community.

In addition to language, symbolism can take many different forms. Writers use symbolism to strengthen their writing, making it more interesting and adding a layer of deeper meaning. Symbolic interpretation of religious scripture has a very long history. In the case of Christianity, for example, Bruno Barnhart (1989) points out that symbolic interpretation was the dominant mode of religious study for the first thousand years of Christian history. He argues that symbolism in the biblical narrative has a deeper  level of significance beyond the literal meaning.

Since ancient times, symbolism has been pervasive throughout all forms of art and literature as objects, colors, and scenarios have been used to represent meanings intended to establish an aura or mood that is not captured through simple literal translation. Plants, animals, weather, shapes and colors are common sources for symbol-making that have been used to convey complex meanings, ideas or a set of ideas. The poem ‘Harlem,’ by Langston Hughes about the African American experience during the first half of the 20th century, uses objects like ‘a raisin in the sun’ and a ‘festering sore’ to describe what he thinks happens when dreams are put off or deferred. Visual arts make use of shapes, textures, and colors to establish moods and motivation. Yet the symbols and meanings not only vary cross-culturally, but they can also be used to communicate contradictory meanings. Red, for example, is often used to communicate anger and power while at the same time representing love or embarrassment in different artistic representations. In his short fictional story, The Red Room, Paul Bowles describes a room within a villa that has a particularly odd feeling. Once the reader learns of the significance of the room, the color red, a color frequently used to express love in different mediums, lends a creepy sinisterness. After reading, it seems unlikely that the colors mauve, beige, or blue would provide the same effect. To read the short story, click here.  This is why it is important to not only learn about and identify the many different uses and modes for symbol-making, it is just as significant to be able to situate the symbology within its specific context. To learn more about the vast range of symbols and their uses, visit the Living Arts Originals website.

It is impossible to thoroughly explore symbolism within a single lesson, or even a single class. For now, however, we will take a brief look at a few of the most common types of symbols or symbolic practices in the Humanities before interrogating the politics of representing people and being represented in the Humanities.


A metaphor is a  figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ by Robert Burns (1759-1796) is one type of symbolism used in literature to represent romantic love, and more than 200 years later it continues to represent love in the primetime TV series, The Bachelor).  Both metaphor and simile use comparisons between two objects or ideas.

Common metaphors

  • Anger bottled up inside.
  • A shot across the bows.
  • An endless night.
  • Apple of my eye.
  • Batten down the hatches.
  • Battle of egos.
  • Belling the cat.
  • Belt was a snake.


A simile makes a comparison of similarities between two different things. Unlike a metaphor, a simile draws on resemblance and relies on words such as “like” or “as” to make a direct comparison.  Simile adds beauty and effect to literature. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad used simile to compare the helplessness of a soul to a small bird in a cage.

“I would have given anything for the power to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself in its invincible ignorance like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage.”

Simile can add appeal and attention to the senses by encouraging the imagination to envision what is being communicated. It also infuses a life-like quality by compelling readers to relate feelings and personal experiences. This makes it easier for the readers to understand the moods and meaning of a literary text.


Allegory is another type of symbolism found in literature where the use of story elements such as the plot, setting, characters or objects are used to symbolize something else. George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm, uses allegorical meanings to make a commentary on oppressive institutions, and this type of symbolism remains throughout the entire literary work. In the plot of Animal Farm, the farm animals rise up against their human masters, and this mirrors and critiques the political events in Russia in the early 1900s. The animal characters symbolizing real-life political figures such as pig named Napolean, who takes charge.


A parable is a short story that typically ends with a moral lesson. Common parables include The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Turtle and the Rabbit, and The Good Samaritan.  Parables rely on symbolism, similie, and metaphor to communicate a complex lesson in a succinct narrative. Parables are often used in religious texts such as the Upanishad, the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran.

In the second chapter of the Quran, (Al Baqra 2: 259) for example, there is a story of a man who begins to doubt the ability of God to resurrect as he passes through a place where people died. Subsequently, God caused him to die, and then resurrected him after a hundred years. When God asked the man how long he slept, he replied only a day because the food he brought with him was still fresh. The man’s donkey, on the other hand, became a skeleton. God joined the bones, muscles, flesh and blood of the donkey brought it back to life. This Islamic parable aims to teach a moral lesson in three ways: God has control over all things and time; God has power over life, death, resurrection and no other can have this power; and humans have no power, and they should put their faith only in God.

Parables are great teaching tools to convey complicated moral and philosophical lessons in a way that is relatable and understandable to the reader’s personal experiences. Parables take common scenarios in day-to-day lives and use them to represent deeper meanings and messages. They are effective because the reader is guided to draw a conclusion and then apply the lesson’s principles in life. There are a wide range of other forms of symbolic represention in the Humanities, and we will take a closer look in future lessons. Now, we will examine the meanings and effects of symbolic representation of the body, particularly in terms if gender and race, within the Humanities.

Representation and the Body

The human body has been a central focus within the Humanities since prehistory. From cave paintings representing humans in the hunt, the Venus of Willendorf, Greek and Roman statues and the Terracotta Soldiers of China to Michaelangelo’s David  and the Sex in the City television series, the human body has been represented in an infinite number of ways. Watch the video below to get a sense of the multiplicity of ways the body has been represented in painting.

As the video shows, there is a broad range of considerations an artist takes to represent the Human body such as symbolism, realism, depth, dimension, arrangement, proportion and more. Yet, the artist’s decisions are oftentimes influenced by cultural values and ideas, that the artist may not be aware is influencing the work, yet the cultural norms and values are clear to the viewer. This complicates the manner in which bodies are represented in the Humanities, because the representation of a body extends into a representation of the people, class and culture to which the body belongs. Therefore the manner in which the body is represented and the body being represented is steeped in a rich social and cultural context that communicates meanings in intended and unintended ways. Art and media are the lens through which we see ourselves and our culture as well as others and their culture. This is why it is important to think critically about the ways people are portrayed in the Humanities. Studying representations of race and gender in the Humanities also allows us to learn about social relationships throughout history and across cultures. This is most where the representation of people, or a class of people, reflects systems of power and inequality (or contestations of power and inequality) within a society.

Gender and Representation

By studying women and men as well as their images and representations in the humanities (language, literature, art, music, and popular media), we can identify and examine symbolic meanings associated with gender roles, norms, and stereotyping. We can also investigate ideas about gender within its cultural contexts, and its relation to sex, sexualities, roles and identity. In his documentary, Dream Worlds, Media Studies professor Sut Jhally, examines how representations of women, gender and sexual relationships in popular music videos reflects a culture of male entitlement and sexualization of women as objects for men’s pleasure. He also reflects on the ways that these representations in turn inform gender relations in American culture.

The status of women in society is also reflected through visual art, literature and storytelling. In her book, The Serpent and the Goddess, Mary Condren analyzes how the declining status of women in ancient Ireland during Christianization parallels changes in the mythology of Brigid. The pre-eminent Goddess in early Irish religious traditions was considered the patroness of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, sacred wells,  and serpents. Yet her role in mythology changes over time, from a woman of immense power to a victim of rape. Her decline, and that of women, is epitomized in Saint Patrick’s eradication of serpents from Ireland which is celebrated every year during St. Patrick’s Day.

Cultural ideas about men and masculinity are also reproduced within the Humanities. Ancient mythology of the Greeks and Romans reflects classical ideas about men, power and authority as well as gender relationships between men and with women. Religious texts codify roles and expectations for men, relations with women, and men’s role in marriage and families. Representations of superheroes in popular American comics present a narrow focus on men, heroism, and masculinity. Representations of ‘superheroes’ provide hypermasculinized representations for men and boys while at the same time challenging normative ideas. In the article, ‘Superhero Masculinity,’ Steven Jones points out that superheroes can represent new models for men and boys beyond power and authority by revealing binary or dual relationships such as superman and Clark Kent, Batman and Robin, and by presenting the first gay superhero, Northstar, in 1979 with an official coming out (‘I am gay’) in 1992. Changing representations of male superheroes reflects changing cultural norms and values about men, gender and sexuality.

Visit the MOMA learning module and read the brief lessons, The Body in Art and Constructing Gender.

The Politics of Representing Races and Cultures

It is easy to see throughout the Humanities that there has been a distinctive pattern associated with power and representation. In most cases, representations are produced by those who have power, and the powerless are usually the ones being represented. In his book, Orientalism (1978), Edward Said points out the social and political implications associated with power and representation as he described the inconsistencies between outsider representations of Arab men and his own experiences as an Arab man.

According to Said, representations of the Middle East and Arab cultures had nothing to do with the realities of life in the region and had everything to do with the unequal relationship of power in colonial domination. He defined Orientalism as a prejudiced outsider representation shaped by the attitudes of imperialists in order to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the exploitation of indigenous people who live in those territories.  This same perspective is reflected in the negative representations of Arab cultures in contemporary films in the documentary “Reel bad arabs – How hollywood vilifies a people from ضفاف متوهجة on Vimeo.)

Said’s analysis primarily targets artistic representations of the Middle East by European artists and writers, yet his critique on representation and power has been expanded to address pejorative representations of colonized and oppressed people throughout the world; Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the indigenous populations of North America. It has informed more critical analysis of race and representation within a cultural group by scholars such as Stuart Hall. The video below gives a synopsis of the underlying thesis in Hall’s work.

The work of Said, Hall and other scholars of critical theory reveals patterns of othering, a process of creating a representation of a person or group that appears foreign, alien and strange to the viewer. There is what is familiar, and then there is the Other. The Other is created through Binary Opposition, a key concept in structuralism (a theory of sociology, anthropology and linguistics) that states that all elements of human culture can only be understood in relation to one another and how they function within a larger system or the overall environment. Light needs dark, good needs evil, and so on. Binary oppositions are prevalent in the Humanities where relationships between different groups of people (rich and poor, white and black, men and women, gay and straight,etc.) are represented. A key aspect of Othering is that the producer and the receiver of what is produced (viewer, listener, etc) are of the same group, but the person or people represented in the work is not.  These representations create or reinforce boundaries between groups of people and promote prejudice and discrimination of those who are othered in the representation due to fear induced by the representation.

Practice within the Humanities is beginning to diversify, and with this comes the emergence of new voices and perspectives that have been previously under-represented in the Humanities. The Humanities provides a platform for people to deconstruct pejorative representations from the past and reconstruct self-representarions that present a new interpretation of life and culture from a different perspective. As artists, writers, film makers, philosophers and the like contribute to Humanities as a practice, Humanities as a filed can benefit from the addition of diverse perspectives, unique experiences, and different ways of viewing the world.  Literary works such as the novella, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, provides a window into the lived experiences of post-colonialism in the Carribbean. Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes were Watching God) and Alice Walker (The Color Purple) are part of an elite league of African-American female writers who take the experiences of African American women from the margins and into the mainstream. Films produced by Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, aims to redefine representations of blackness in Hollywood while the film, The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s first best-selling book, countered popular stereotypes about Asian women. African artists such as El Anatusi and Nnenna Okore are rocking the art world with a unique style that integrates ancient African techniques with cutting edge technologies. As Thelma Golden points out in her Ted Talk below, the Humanities not only reflects our culture, it can also provide a means to change it.

When we enter into the next analytical module, it is important to contemplate the power of symbol-making and the socio-cultural politics of representation in the Humanities as we dig deeper into various mediums such as literature, poetry, art, film, and others.


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For Discussion: In his article, Electronic Empires, Hoglund applied Edward Said’s theoretical perspective on Orientalism to show how the representations of Arab men in American video games contribute to a pattern of negative representations of Arab people created by outsiders. Search the internet for another example of Orientalism/ Othering in the Humanities (film, art, song, etc.) and conduct your own analysis using Said’s and or Hall’s theoretical framework: What is the prejudiced outsider representation ? Who produced the representation and who is being produced. In what ways does the representation serve to promote or  justify the oppression, exploitation or inequality of the person or people being represented? Be sure to embed or include a weblink to the image or representation in your post.

Expression: Create an alternative representation that goes against the grain of popular cultural representations. Use a representation that is taken for granted for example, and turn it upside down.

When you complete this lesson, study your notes for this module and prepare to take the quiz before moving on to the next module, Analysis I.