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First published 1989 by Unwin Hyman Ltd Second impression 1990 Reprinted 1991, 1992, 1994 (twice), 1995, 2004 (twice), 2006 (twice), 2007 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, OXi4 4RN 270 Madison Avenue, New York, NY iooi6 This second edition published 2010 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, 0X14 4RN Sirnuftaneously published in the USA and Canada To Lisa, Lucy and in memory of Matthew 270 Madison Aye, New York, NY 10016 Routledge isan imprint of the Taylor a Francis Group, an informa business © 1989 Unwin Hyman © 2011 John Fiske Why Fiske Still Matters © 2011 Henry Jenkins Reading Fiske and Understanding the Popular © 2011 Kevin Glynn, Jonathan Gray and Pamela Wilson The right of John Fiske to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with sections 7 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. Typeset in Joanna by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk Printed and bound in Great Britain by TJ International Ltd, Padstow, Cornwall All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Fiske, John. Understanding popular culture / John Fiske.—2nd ed. p. cm. “With a new introductory essay on Why Fiske still matters, by Henry Jenkins, and with a new discussion on the topic of Reading Fiske and understanding the popular, between Kevin Glynn, Jonathan Gray and Pamela Wilson.” Includes bibliographical references and index. i. Popular culture. 2. Capitalism. I. Title. CB151.F574 2010 306.4—dC22 2010022070 ISBN13: 978—0—415—59652—7 (hbk) ISBNi3: 978—0—415—59653—4 (pbk) ISBNI3: 978—0—203—83717—7 (ebk)









TECHNOSTRUGGLES: THEN AND NOW The technology needed for them [The Right] to establish the total surveillance upon which to base their moral totalism is already available. Fear will increase the likelihood ofthat technology’s use and the probability of right-wing forces being in power to use it. It is, therefore, in their interests to confine as many of us as they can to our cultural and geographic enclaves, Is this what we want?—John Fiske, Media Matters: E’eiyday Culture and Political Change, 1994 (MM, 253) The above four sentences constitute the final words in John Fiske’s final book before his retirement. It is telling that Fiske ends the book on a provocation— “Is this what we want?” No matter how dark his vision of the society had become, Fiske believed we have a choice, that we have the capacity to change our social conditions, and he called upon academics to deploy their expertise and institutional power in the service of social change. He asks explicitly: Is this what we want? He asks implicitly: If not, what are we going to do about it? The question culminates in a chapter devoted to what Fiske describes as “technostruggles,” one of the few places where Fiske wrote extensively about technology as an agent of cultural change. Fiske wrote about arcade games, well before his contemporaries, in Reading the Popular (1989). He discussed the ways people were using channel changers to exert greater control over television in Television Culture (1988). And he described how the wide spread deployment of photocopiers were causing anxieties about copyright regulation, even as copying television programs and music was becoming more “socially acceptable” ETC 3 11]. In each case, his arguments were ultim ately less about the technology than about its popular uses. In such passages, Fiske suggested the complex interplay between technological and cultural change, but he never developed a theory of oppositional use of technology until the final chapters of Media Matters. Fiske’s relative disinterest in technology (and often, in media ownership) drew sharp criticism from political economists, who felt that he under estimated the structuring power of entrenched capital. He explains in Understanding Popular Culture that his theoretical perspective is “essentially optimistic, for it finds in the vigor and vitality of the people evidence both of the possibility of social change and of the motivation to drive it.” [UPC, 21] We’ve heard so much over the past decade and a half about the democratic potential of new media technologies and practices that it is easy to forget that Fiske saw the Internet as simply another battleground through which ongoing struggles over meaning, pleasure, knowledge, and power would be conducted. But he also did not accept a model which saw certain media technologies as forces for cultural domination: “Information technology is highly political, but its politics are not directed by its technological features alone. It is, for instance, a technical feature of the survefflance camera that enables it to identify a person’s race more clearly than his or her class or religion, but it is a racist society that transforms that information into know ledge.” [MM 219] The affordances of new media could be deployed towards certain ends, but ultimately, how they were used reflected their cultural context. Fiske saw the promises of a digital revolution but did not declare a pre mature victory over mass media: New technologies cannot in themselves produce social change, though they can and do facilitate it. [MM 115] Power is social, not just technological, and it isthrough institutional and economic control that technology is directed. [MM 1371 We can make our society one that is rich in diverse knowledges, but only if people strive to produce and circulate them. Technology will always be involved and, if its potential is exploited, its proliferation may make the con trol over knowledge less, not more, efficient. [MM 2381 Technology is proliferating, but not equally: its low-tech and high-tech forms still reproduce older hierarchies, and although it may extend the terrain of


XV WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS struggle and introduce new weapons into it, it changes neither the lineup of forces nor the imbalance in the resources they command. [MM 239] The multiplication of communication and information technologies extend the terrains of struggle, modifies the forms struggle may take, and makes it even more imperative that people grasp the opportunities for struggle that the multiplying of technologies offers. [MM 240] Yes, Fiske tells us, media matters, but media change does not overcome other social, cultural, political, and economic factors. We might contrast Fiske’s skeptical and cautious tone with the much more emboldened speech we have come to associate with those who believe that new media has transformed the terrain and in some cases, made old forms of power irrelevant: Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, Iask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.—John Perry Barlow (1996) The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about. Think of passengers on your ship who got a boat of their own. The writing readers. The viewers who picked up a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can connect with each other and gain the means to speak—to the world, as it were. Now we understand that met with ringing statements like these many media people want to cry out in the name of reason herself: Ifall would speak who shall be left to listen? Can you at least tell us that?—Jay Rosen (2006) By comparison, Fiske promised no easy or lasting victories, offering us only new “opportunities to struggle.” This essay is intended as an introduction to Fiske’s life and works. My central focus is to describe why Fiske’s work continues to be relevant several decades after it was published and long after his retirement. Since the most important shift over that period has been the explosion of new media tech nologies which have altered the resources available for grassroots cornmuni cation, this first section deals with Fiske’s ideas about new media and their relationship to his larger arguments about popular struggles over meaning and knowledge. In the second section, I will draw on my experiences as one of Fiske’s former students to describe his approach to teaching and theory (which are closely linked in his work). One of my goals here is to show how Fiske continued to absorb and deploy new theoretical and methodological resources across his career. And in the final section, 1 will dig more deeply into Fiske’s theories of cultural change, popular meaning-making, active audiences, and political struggle, suggesting the continuities which exist across his books. Fiske typically acted as acounter-balance to prevailing paradigms, insisting on the complexity of our engagement with popular culture. At the start of his career, Fiske confronted Mass Culture critics who stressed economic and political constraints on our capacities to imagine alternatives to what Fiske liked to call the power-bloc, a term he borrows from Stuart Hall. Fiske responded by constructing a theoretical model emphasizing the capacity of readers to resist dominant ideologies, to construct their own meanings and pleasures, and to deploy resources appropriated from popular entertainment towards their own ends. This is the Fiske who wrote Television Culture, Reading the Popular, and Understanding Popular Culture. Later in his career, Fiske confronted a still emerging discourse, which often smacked of technological determinism in its claims about how digital media would set us free. Here, Fiske’s skeptical side emerges, throwing on the brakes, and shouting “not so fast.” This is the Fiske which comes across most powerfully in the final pages of Media Matters. When I brought John Fiske to MIT shortly after Media Matters was pub lished, I remember the disappointment and frustration some of my students felt that Fiske was “not ready” to embrace the promise of the digital, because atthe epicenter of the digital revolution, we were full of hopes that the new media would lower the barriers to entry into cultural production and distri bution, allowing many more voices to be heard and putting greater power (political, economic, cultural) in the hands of “the people.” Iwas surrounded by early adopters for whom the transformative capacity of new media was an article of faith. In this context, I often had to work hard to resist technological determinist arguments and to insist, as John had taught us, that cultural and social factors shape technology far more than technology shapes culture. Fiske pushed back against arguments about “media effects” throughout his work and he would have rejected any easy claims about the “democratizing” impact of new media as much as he would have repudiated the alleged power of broadcasting to “brainwash” the public. In Television Culture, Fiske tells us, “Television does not ‘cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does, however, work ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some social interests better than others.” [TC 20] Confronted with the assertion that the wide availability of new tools would enable greater public participa tion, Fiske wrote, “In premodern Europe,.. . everyone had a larynx, but few were able to speak in public and political life.” [MM 238] Technological access was not sufficient in the absence of efforts to overcome those social and cultural factors which blocked full participation—what we now would call “the participation gap.”




XVI WHYFISKESTILLMATTERS WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XVII At such moments, we observe Fiske as a critical utopianist. Utopianism gets a bad name because many assume that utopianists naively believe that we are already living in the best of all possible worlds. Quite the opposite, utopianism represents a powerful form of cultural criticism—one which begins by identifying the ideal, focusing on our shared dreams and collective hopes, spelling out what it is we are fighting to achieve. Surprisingly few critical writers make the stakes of their political struggles clear, choosing to focus on the flaws of the current system, rather than identifying preferred alternatives. Fiske described this mode of criticism as “ultimately debilitating in its pessimism,” adding that “It may justify our righteous distaste for the system, but it offers little hope of progress within it.” [UPC 105] Fiske’s theory embraces the promise of local and short term victories and gradual progress, identifying moments when the weak gained ground in relation to the powerful. Having established those alternatives, the critical utopian now has a way to measure how far our current circumstances fall short of those ideals. The utopian vision represents the yardstick against which we can measure our progress. If the fantasy is a world where all groups are allowed to speak in their own interests, say, then Fiske’s example pushes us to identify what blocks or prevents them from doing so. And finally, the critical utopian identifies the steps we might take towards achieving our goals, the resources we possess or lack which might impact that struggle, and the success stories which might model future interventions. Fiske believed that the key to success lay in building upon moments of localized resistance or evasion of the oper ations of the powerful, tapping into popular fantasies which gave expressive shape of our hopes for changing our conditions. While Fiske’s critics have suggested he underestimated the gap between such micropolitics and the world of macropolitics which held entrenched power in place, Fiske always saw such moments as the first skirmishes in a much more prolonged struggle over power. Fiske typically followed claims about grassroots resistance with an acknowledgment of the powerful forces which were stacked against us. For example, Fiske was interested in the unequal status of high tech and low tech uses of communication technology, contrasting the “videohigh” of the broadcast industry with the “videolow” of citizen camcorder activism, a contrast which paves the way to a consider ation of how broadcast and grassroots media competes with each other for attention and credibility. Fiske wrote “technostruggles” in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial. As Fiske notes, the original video showing the Los Angeles police beating suspect Rodney King, captured via a home movie camera by a passerby George Holliday, possessed high credibility because it displayed so little technological sophistication: “George Holiday owned a camera, but not a computer enhancer; he could produce and replay an electronic image, but could not slow it, reverse it, freeze it, or write upon it, and his videolow appeared so authentic to so many precisely because he could not.” [MM 223] The LAPD’s defense attorneys deployed a range of technical and rhetorical tricks to reframe the King video and change how it was understood, at least by the jury, if not by the general public. For Fiske, this struggle over the tape’s meaning suggested what was to come—an ongoing competition between those who have access to low-tech, everyday forms of cultural production and those who had access to high-tech com munication systems. Ifnew media technologies were expanding the resources available to those who have previously seemed powerless, they were also expanding the capacities of the powerful. In Media Matters, Fiske’s embrace of participatory media practices was suggested by his enthusiasm for low-bandwidth “pirate” radio stations within the African-American community. At the same time, Fiske was quick to link networked computing with institutions of government surveillance. Fiske warned that the same practices deployed by companies to construct a “consumer profile” could be applied by governments to construct a“political profile”: “The magazines we subscribe to, the causes we donate to, the uni versity courses we register for, the books we purchase and the ones we borrow from the library are all recorded, and recorded information is always potentially available.” [MM 219] Fiske predicted that conservatives might intensify the power of the government m response to their “fear” as America became aminority-majority country in the coming decades. Fiske anticipated that increased controversy around racial conflict would be embodied through “media events” such as the Rodney King tape and the LA Riots, the battle between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and the murder trial and acquittal of 0. J. Simpson. A decade plus later, we are more apt to ascribe the growth of surveillance culture to the “terror” produced by 9/11 and its aftermath, though Fiske would have pushed us to consider the ways the War on Terror is linked to racial profiling and may mask other kinds of conflicts. Fiske’s accounts of cultural power always balanced his fundamental opti mism with arecognition of the capacity of “the power-bloc” to preserve its own power from outside challenge. The caricature of Fiske so often con structed today ascribes to him an unlimited belief in consumers’ creative and interpretive capacities. Jim McGuigan (1992) accuses him of “a romanticiza tion of the audience and its power that belies its social, political, and eco nomic powerlessness.” [CP 171] Fiske’s heart was on the side of the little guy, the cultural underdog, and the language he used to describe these strug gles sometimes bordered on the melodramatic. Yet, at the same time, he hardly can be said to make structural inequalities disappear or to make light of the difficulty of confronting hegemonic power. This faith in the “little


XV1H WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS guy’ is part of what linked Fiske to earlier moments in the evolution of British cultural studies—to the democratic impulse which shaped the work of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paddy Wadell, and others of their gener ation, who had insisted on the importance of taking seriously the lived experiences of working class people, who displayed popular skepticism against entrenched power, and who had tapped the Open University struc tures to expand the reach of cultural theory. If Fiske’s formulations have been described as over-simplistic, then what do we make of his critics’s own simplification and dismissal of his work? In a sense, it is always easier for academics to be pessimistic and much harder to create work which maintains the hope of cultural and political transformation. The dismissal of Fiske has in many ways become a rite of passage for a generation or more of academics who wanted to demonstrate that they were hard-headed, even hard-hearted enough, to gain entry into critical studies and political economy, though increasingly, the dismissal has been directed by those who have had little direct exposure to his ideas and sometimes by those who have never even read his books. The Fiske who will emerge here is not that cartoon character or stick figure, but a complex individual, who got some things right but who also would have been among the first to acknowledge that he got some things wrong. He revised his views over the course of his career many times and he would no doubt have con tinued to grow as he entered more fully into the realities of a changed media landscape. What puzzles me, though, is what about our present moment of participatory culture would leave one less hopeful about the prospects of grassroots power when compared with the mass media culture Fiske was discussing. I’ve always read Norman Spinrad’s early cyberpunk novel, Little Heroes (1989) as the perfect fictional embodiment of the way Fiske saw the world. Little Heroes depicts a future where corporations have generated the first totally synthetic rock star as the ideal vehicle for their brand messages, designing him to be totally under their control. Instead, popular resistance groups appropriate his icon and attached themselves to his message in hopes of bringing down the government and the banking system. A popular upris ing burns down the offices of the MTV-like company to the ground, yet the company films the mass destruction and uses it as the raw material for their next music video, and so the struggle begins anew. Much like Spinrad, Fiske celebrated the capacity of the people to match each act of co-optation with a corresponding act of appropriation, to meet top-down strategies with bottom-up tactics. If little ground was won, little ground was lost. Coming out of theories which ascribed little agency to audiences, even these claims seemed radical or utopian, and accounted for much of the backlash Fiske’s work would receive in some quarters. TEACHER, THEORIST WANDERER WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XIX “1 listen to these warring voices inside me, for besides being an academic theorist, I am also afan of popular culture; Ihave strong vulgar tastes and my academic training has failed to squash my enjoyment and participation in popular pleasures—.l watch TV game shows, for instance, mainly because of the enormous fun they give me, and secondarily because they arouse my theoretical interest and curiosity. iexperience them both as afan from the inside and as an academic from a critical distance. . . . Ienjoy watching tele vision, I love the Sensational tabloid press, I read trashy popular novels and enjoy popular blockbuster movies. . . . Despite all this, Ido not think Iam the dupe of the capitalist system because Ican find great pleasure within it; in fact, my pleasures typically have art edge of difference to them, an awareness that they are my pleasures that Iproduce for myself out of their resources, and that insome way Iam, from their point of view, misusing their resources for my pleasure.” [UPC 178—179] When Ifirst met John, Iwas agraduate student at the Universj of Iowa, struggling to reconcile my experiences as ascience fiction fan with the theory I was reading in my classes. My fannish experiences gave me a taste ofparticipa tory practices and logics, while the theory we were assigned in those days came with a deep dose of cultural pessimism and assumed a largely passive acceptance of the dominant ideology. Iwas thrashing about, unwilling to accept what Iwas being taught, unable to find an alternative formulation which might have any degree of academic respectability. The semester was already underway, Idecided to sit in on aseminar being taught by Fiske, who had newly arrived as avisiting scholar. After the first session, Iwalked straight tothe registrar’s office, having found someone who offered me the alternative theoretical tools Ineeded to reconcile my scholarship with my life experi ences. I was lucky enough to study under Fiske twice—first at Iowa and second at the University of Wisconsin..Madison his final academic home. The first was during the time he was completing Television Culture, and the second was during the time he was working on the two Popular Culture books. Fiske was an extraordinary teacher, possibly the best I have ever known. He sat in front of us with no notes, communicating complex theoretical formula-dons with clarity and simplicity. He was acompelling personality, charis matic, sexy, comical, thoughtful, impassioned, inspirational, yet he was not seeking any followers. He wanted us to question everything he said, to push back hard on ideas which jarred with our own lived experience, and to bring our own best thinking into the conversation He used language to clarify rather than to obscure, to engage rather than to impress, and to empower rather than to overwhelm


XX WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XXI As a theorist, Fiske was always also a teacher, taking us step by step through his understanding of how culture works, offering vivid models for how we might apply our analysis to specific media texts, doubling back to outline key concepts and to reaffirm key conclusions. In many cases, Fiske played a key role in popularizing the work of other theorists, showing how their theories could be made to ask and address new questions. Many of his books were designed as textbooks which might introduce core concepts in the field to an undergraduate or early graduate level student, and this striping down of complex formulations to their core assumptions was some times what left him exposed to critics who accused him of over-simplifying issues. The books which Routledge is reprinting and rereleasing emerged from extended seminars where Fiske would work through his ideas with his stu dents, and so many of us read these books in relation to our classroom experiences. We’ve tried to capture here something of the spirited discussion which Fiske’s ideas always engendered in a seminar, staging a series of online conversations with Fiske’s former students which we have edited down to provide forewords to each of these volumes. These discussions involve students from many different periods of his life, some of whom had been classmates together, some of whom had never met before this project began. Their theoretical and methodological approaches represent a broad spectrum of contemporary work in media and cultural studies, suggesting how open Fiske was to approaches which differed significantly from his own. And yet, for each of us, Fiske’s ideas, his formulations and language, remain lasting influences on our thinking, teaching, and writing. To be honest, I had not read many of these books for many years. I had internalized Fiske’s ideas; they had shaped how I thought in such powerful ways that I had worked at times to free myself from an “anxiety of influence.” I was surprised, then, upon rereading these books to find so much language, so many ideas I had thought my own prefigured in Fiske’s writings. I was fascinated by how much his ethical commitments as a scholar had influenced my later work, even as I had thought I was pursuing my own path, and even when my conclusions differed in some significant ways with his own. Some of this has to do with what I had absorbed from Fiske and some of it had to do with the ways Fiske had learned from his students, incorporating their ideas into his writing, sharing their accomplishments with the world, and in the process, assimilating them into his own conceptual models. Each of Fiske’s books represents a crossroads between different strands of theory and research which constitute contemporary media and cultural stud ies. Reading Television shows us Fiske and Hartley at the start of their careers, working through the legacy of content analysis and media effects on com munications, drawing often on ideas from semiotics, cultural anthropology, and the literacy and orality debates to try to construct anew understanding of television and its modes of consumption. Introduction toCommunication Studies is the book where Fiske is most focused on the cornerstones of a semiotic approach to culture. Television Culture draws far more decisively on the Birmingham Tradition, but also on arange of European theorists (Roland Barthes, Mikhajl Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel De Certeau), while at the same time, exploring the emergence of new ethnographic modes of audience research (Charlotte Brunsin, David Morley, Ellen Seiter Janice Radway, Robert Hodge and David Tripp, among many others). By Understanding Popular Culture and Reading The Popular, these European theories have come to dominate his thinking, though they are now joined with ideas from gen der and sexuality studies. By Power Plays, Power Works and Media Matters, they have been combined with a deep reading into critical race theory and political philosophy. Across this same period, Fiske also absorbed and demonstrated arange of methodologies, most clearly those of textual analysis and genre theory, ethnograpliy and reader-response theory, and discourse analysis, while remaining open to, for example, concepts from psychoanalysis which appear very rarely within the cultural studies tradition. Fiske’s own strengths were as atheorist, first, and then as a close reader of texts—a strength on display in the extended reading of a sequence from Hart to Hart which opens Television Culture or his complex, multi-angled reading of political discourse in Media Matters. While he did little ethnographic work himself, Fiske trumpeted the emergence of ethnographic audience research, making the case for how this approach expanded our understanding of popular decoding practices. Fiske paved the way for more comparative perspectives in media study, in part, by expanding the range of texts which could be subjected to critical analysis. Fiske is today best remembered as a television scholar, but many of his students recall his openness to a range of other popular culture forms, including video games, wrestling, fashion, location-based entertainment, advertising, and popular journalism. As atextual analyst, Fiske left his own strong imprint on the canon of television studies. As Greg Smith (2008) has noted, contemporary television studies encourages scholars to write from their fannish knowledge of programs they enjoy, a tendency Fiske helped to foster. An unintended consequence is that the texts most discussed—from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Lost to True Blood—reflect a particular taste configur ation, celebrating self-reflexivity, complexity, progressive politics, and often, the fantastic. Contemporary television studies often centers around high pop, whiie Smith asked us to consider what happens to shows like JAG or CSI: Miami, which maintain strong ratings and reflect key production trends but are not intellectuals’ favorites. By contrast, Fiske’s examples often show a bias


p XXII WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS towards the middle brow, starting with his focus on light entertainment programs and game shows (Come Dancing, Top of the Pops, The Shirley Bussey Show, Match of the Day, The Generation Game) in Reading Television, extending through the action adventure series (Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, The Rockford Files, Police Woman, The A-Team, Hart to Hart) and soaps (Dallas, Dynasty, All My Children) in Television Culture, and down to the sitcoms which become the focus of discus sion throughout Media Matters (Murphy Brown, Desinin Women, Cosby). Fiske was acutely aware that these preferences did not reflect our expectations about what intellectuals enjoy watching. Yet they were also very considered choices, seeking progressive potential in unlikely places. Unfortunately, his tory has not been kind to his examples, with the nighttime soaps and action series of the 1 980s enjoying far shorter shelf life than the sitcoms and dramas of the previous decades. Most of the series he discusses are available on DVD but they do not seem particularly meaningful to contemporary students, even as Hollywood is raiding them to generate new big screen versions. The result isa tendency to skip over his close readings in favor of the more abstract theoretical formulations, but to do so is to overlook some of Fiske’s best work as acritic and to miss much of the nuance of his arguments. I have found it particularly interesting to map Fiske’s conceptions of “masculine” and “feminine” television forms in Television Culture onto shifts in television storytelling over the past few decades—particularly the move towards “complex narratives.” (Mittell,2006) Fiske himself anticipated this move: Hill Street Blues with its multiple plots and characters, its rapid switching from plot to plot, its sense that characters live between episodes, its memory” from episode to episode combines many of the elements of soap opera with the action and achievement characteristic of masculine narrative. [TC 219] if Fiske was right in connecting the formal qualities of soap opera with modes of reception characteristics of women living in a patriarchal society, what are the implications of the integration of serialization across a much broader range of television content, especially series centering on profes sional rather than domestic life? Fiske also drew on the historical strands of the cultural studies tradition, especially calling attention to how contemporary struggles over popular cul ture fit within a much larger tradition of carnivalesque transgression and institutional suppression. He shared this focus on historical context with his Reading Television co-author, John Hartley. It is unfair to John Hartley to treat his work as an extension of his collaboration with Fiske. Hartley remains one of the most fearless and original thinkers in contemporary cultural studies, WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XXIII one who has not only carved his own directions as a researcher and institu tion builder. That said, it is interesting to see the directions Hartley’s career has taken in the years since Fiske’s retirement—deeper into aconsideration of creative industries and digital culture (Hartley, 2005; 2010), into a discus sion of popular culture and journalism as sites of popular education and sources of civic engagement (Hartley, 2007), into aconsideration of the “indigenous public sphere” and the struggles of a post-colonial culture (Hartley,2007)—as suggesting some of ways that institutional factors and cultural change might have also pushed Fiske in directions we can only partially anticipate from his existing writings. Fiske loved to play the “bad boy” of cultural theory. I will always remem ber the ways he would squint his eyes, a broad grin moving across his leathery face, as he would topple “sacred cows” in his seminars. Not surprisingly, Fiske’s work provoked reaction, in part because he questioned so many of the orthodoxies of left-wing academics, calling attention to romantic conceptions of the autonomous artist or the authentic folk culture underlying the mass media critique and showing how critical theory often masked the writer’s unexamined revulsion over popular taste. Fiske wrote in Under standing Popular Culture: With few exceptions, left-wing theorists have failed to take account of central areas of everyday life. Most glaringly, they have failed to produce a positive theory of popular pleasure. The result of this is that their theories can all too easily appear puritanical; the society they envision is not one in which fun plays much part, if it exists at all—they have allowed the right to promise the party. [UPC 162] What often got lost in the polemics was that Fiske also showed a capacity to learn from his critics, seeking to absorb their concerns into his own evolving framework, a tendency which comes through especially powerfully in Media Matters which was written in response to critiques from, among others, bell hooks. As Fiske explained during recent correspondence, “Criticisms of my work never upset me too much. I’d always seen theory as a debate—mine arose out of debates/difference with others, and I expected others to develop theories out of differences with mine. I never sought to provide final answers, but to throw ideas into the ring in the hope of stimulating thought. So Inever answered my critics by trying to prove them wrong and me right: I felt my time was better spent in refining and nuancing my own ideas.” Whether we are talking about his institutional affiliations or his theoretical conceptualizations, Fiske was possessed by a certain wanderlust, which made it difficult for him to stay very long at asingle spot. Fiske was born in Wotton-under-Edge, asmall town in the Cotswolds where his father was the




XXiV WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS headmaster of the Katherine Lady Berkeley’s Grammar School, founded in 1284. He attended the Kingswood School in Bath (founded by John Wesley) and earned aBA and MA in English from Cambridge, where his personal tutor was Raymond Williams, a situation which linked him very early on into the emerging cultural studies movement. He began his career at Slough Col lege of Technology, where he was an assistant lecturer in Communication and Liberal Studies. The first new course he devised was on James Bond, suggesting his growing recognition that he was drawn more to the study of popular culture than canonical literature. His career from there took him to Sheffield Polytechnic and then the Polytechnic of Wales, Western Australian Institute of Technology (soon to be Curtin University) and University of Wisconsin-Madison with visiting lectureships at a range of other colleges and universities. He wrote, in the acknowledgements of Understanding Popular Culture: one of the advantages of being an academic is that theories travel well, with only a touch of jet lag. . . . My nomadism has left many traces in these books, but my experiences in different continents are held together by a common thread running through them—the countries with which am familiai and whose cultures Iwrite about, are all white, patriarchal, capitalist ones. 01 course, each inflects the common ideology differently, but the differences are comparatively superficial, though fascinating to live through and think about. [UPC ix] This history of migration meant that his work often had a global perspective, even as he was writing about a specific national context as he did in Myths of Oz or Media Matters. Fiske at times fit within a tradition of “outsider’ theorists—from Alexis De Tocqueville and Charles Dickens to Theodor Adorno and Jean Baudrillard—who wrote about American culture with insights that might have been lost to those who were more fully immersed in our national culture. Fiske’s decision to retire early, move to New England, and start an antique shop seems in hindsight part of this same process of relocation and repositioning, not to mention a return to the traditional village life and historical traces which surrounded him growing up. When Fiske today speaks about antiques, he does so with a respect for traditional crafts manship, for the people who made the furniture, rather than the monied elites who may have once owned it. Those who have never read his works closely often simplify his formula tions (when he loved complexity) and offer static, ahistorical accounts (when his ideas evolve so dramatically over time). Despite the constant exploration, certain core commitments run across Fiske’s work—his deep respect for popular readers’ creativity and resourcefulness, his distrust of WHY FISKE STILL MATTER5 XXV attempts by moral reformers (of all political stripes) to police taste and construct cultural hierarchies, and his recognition of the needs of the power less to carve out some time and space for their own enjoyment if they are going to continue to struggle against deadening and depressing conditions. The next section will explore some of the common themes and issues that run through his books. MAKING MEANING, CHANGING CULTURE Culture making (and culture is always in process, never achieved) is a social process: all meanings of self, of social relations, all the discourses and texts that play such important cultural roles can circulate only in relationship to the social system, in our case that of white, patriarchal capitalism. Any social system needs a cultural system of meanings that serves either to hold it in place or destabilize it, to make it more or less amenable to change. Culture (and its meanings and pleasures) is a constant succession of social prac tices; it is therefore political; it is centrally involved in the distribution and possible redistribution of various forms of social power. [RTP i] There’s lots we can learn about Fiske’s thinking by looking closely at this passage. First, there is the notion of culture as dynamic, “always in process, never achieved.” For Fiske, culture is not something passed down across generations (the Matthew Arnold concept of the “best that man has pro duced”), but rather something created anew through each social transaction. For Fiske, dominant institutions sought to fix this play of meaning, reigning in interpretive freedom and regulating the construction of taste. Summar izing Michel De Certeau (1984), Fiske tells us, “the powerful are cumber some, unimaginative, and overorganized, whereas the weak are creative, nimble, and flexible.” [UPC 32]. Such passages are the kind which drive Fiske’s critics nuts, because they construct a melodramatic opposition between the media industry and its consumers, while shifting the locus of power from the capitalist infrastructure, which is “overorganized” and onto the people, who are “creative” and “flexible.” Fiske often described these oppositions in militaristic metaphors—including “guerilla warfare,” which he borrowed from Umberto Eco (1990), and “tactics” / “strategy” which he took from Michel de Certeau. Because they are and will remain diverse, the public’s interests cannot be fully served by products produced for mass con sumption; the people identify points of localized “relevance,” which by its very nature is “ephemeral” and “transitory”. Fiske describes the complex negotiations through which mass media producers seek to identify and connect with these differences: “Advertising works hard to match social


XXVI WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XXVII differences with cultural differences with product differences.” [UPC 29] The dynamism of culture means that the public will not necessarily stay where they are put and may come back to the media product from unexpected directions. What others saw as “misreadings,” as “failures to communicate,’ Fiske understood as culturally generative and politically productive. In his focus on the generative aspects of culture, Fiske was evoking some of the central tenets of the Birmingham Tradition which informed much of his early writing. We might compare this dynamic understanding of “cul ture making” with Raymond Williams’s argument (1958) in “Culture is Ordinary,” which describes culture as involving “active debate and amend ment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land.” For Williams, culture was “made and remade in every individual mind.” [93] Williams saw culture as “both traditional and creative”, stressing both the continuity within the cultural tradition and the capacity of every individual and every social group to make and remake the culture on their own terms. [93] William’s formulation was first published during the years that Fiske was studying under Williams at Cambridge and would no doubt have been part of the conversation between them. A key difference between Fiske and early Williams is that Fiske was far more focused on the “social” dimensions of meaning-making, seeing the produc tion of culture as a collective rather than purely personal process, and tending to read identity formation through the lens of identity politics, while Williams at this point has a much stronger stress on what happens in “every individual mind.” This emphasis on collective rather than “idiosyncratic” response is already there in Reading Television: The internal psychological state of the individual is not the prime determin ant in the communication oftelevision messages. These are decoded accord ing to individually learnt but culturally generated codes and conventions, which of course impose similar constraints of perception on the encoders of the message. It seems, then, that television functions as a social ritual, overriding individual distinctions, in which our culture engages in order to communicate with its collective self. [RTV 85] Fiske and Hartley note that television was often watched within the family circle and the shared knowledge of television links us to larger subcultural communities where we construct shared meanings. Second, popular culture functions as a “resource” that can be mobilized as part of the practices of everyday life. “The people” in Fiske’s account demonstrate what Michel de Certeau called “the art of making do.” In a mass-mediated society, the public constructs its cultural identities in terms not of its own choosing. The people transform those raw materials—the images, stories, characters, jokes, songs, rituals, and myths of popular culture—in ways which gave expressive shape to their own lived experiences. For Fiske, mass culture was a category of production—referring to forms of cultural expression which are mass produced and mass marketed, while popular culture was a category of consumption—emerging from the efforts of consumers to make cultural offerings their own through acts of resistance and appropriation. This understanding of popular culture surfaces through out the two books Fiske wrote on the subject: Popular culture is made by various formations of subordinated or dis empowered people out of the resources, both discursive and material that are provided by the social system that disempowers them. -. -The resources-television, records, clothes, video games, language—carry the interests of the economically and ideologically dominant; they have lines of force within them that are hegemonic and that work in favor of the status quo. [RTP 2] If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out ofwhich the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular. [RTP 2] These popular forces transform the cultural commodity into a cultural resource, pluralize the meanings and pleasures it offers, evade or resist its disciplinary efforts, fracture its homogeneity or coherence, raid or poach upon its terrain. [UPC 28] Fiske’s concept of “cultural resource” implies that mass culture needs to be reworked before it can be consumed, much as raw materials must be pro cessed before they can be used; the term also suggests that commercially produced culture can be inflected in ways which serve grassroots interests. Fiske often spoke of two economies—one surrounding the production of commodities, the other the production of meanings. Fiske (1992) rejected the notion of passive consumption which had dominated earlier critical the ory, depicting consumers as also producers and identifying three distinctive forms of consumer productivity—semiotic productivity, the making of meaning; enuniciative productivity, the articulation of meanings to others; and textual productivity, the creation of new cultural goods. Fiske starts from the premise that the people lack the means to produce and circulate their own culture. He fears that the folk traditions through which the subordinated expressed their world view in the past were des troyed by the rise of mass communications; he worries that broadcast media provided no mechanism for grassroots participation and often set high barriers of entry to the marketplace of ideas:



XXVIII WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XXIX There is no “authentic” folk culture to provide an alternative, and so popular culture is necessarily the art of making do with what is available. [UPC i] Across his books, Fiske struggles with the relations between folk culture and popular culture. In Reading Television, Fiske and Hartley stress the similar ities between television and oral culture, describing television as a “bardic media.” In Television Culture, he theorizes that the contents of television are absorbed into an “oral culture,” framed most often in terms of women’s gossip or children’s play: Children . . . frequently incorporate television into their games, songs, and slang, and, indeed, use television as the raw material out of which to create new games and new songs. All of this suggests that a folk, oral culture still lives despite the dislocations of mass society, and that television is not only readily incorporable into this, but that it is actually essential to its survival. For television provides a common symbolic experience and a common dis. course, a set of shared formal conventions that are so important to a folk culture. And an oral or folk culture provides the television viewer with a set of reading relations that are essentially participatory and active, and that recognize only minimal differentiation between performer and audience or producer and consumer. ETC 80] In Understanding Popular Culture, Fiske draws sharp distinctions between popular culture and folk culture, which by this point he is suggesting can not function in an industrialized society for a variety of reasons: Folk culture is the product of “a comparatively stable, traditional social order,” suggests shared values (rather than embodying conflict), originates bottom-up, and enjoys relative stability over time. None of these traits, he suggests, recur in contemporary mediated societies, where the economics of mass media encourages rapid change and generational differentiation, where culture is generated and dispersed through centralized modes of production, and where economic inequalities produce constant struggles over our differences. Even within Understanding Popular Culture, Fiske describes queer cultural expression as a “folk culture”: [The gay community’s] opposition to the social order is so radical that any cultural resources produced by it [the commercial industry] are so contamin ated by its values as to be unusable. It therefore produces its own subculture, a form of radicalized folk culture. [UPC 171] Not everyone would agree with Fiske that the “gay subculture” was so far outside the cultural mainstream that it could no longer tap the resources of popular culture: Richard Dyer (1986) and Alex Dory (1993), for example, both discuss the ways gay readers engage with stars like Judy Garland and embrace camp reading practices. Ultimately, this passage tells us more about how Fiske was trying to fit sexuality into the categories of difference which shape his analysis and how he was still looking for some signs of life in the concept of “folk culture.” Fiske clearly wants there to be a“folk culture” or an “oral culture,” operat ing in the shadows of mass culture, which has its own “participatory” logic and helps shape the ways the people process the resources they take from television. Yet, he had acrisis of faith, returning many times to the idea that the people lack the infrastructure and resources to sustain their own forms of cultural production. Fiske struggled across his writings to find some evidence which might convince his critics that popular struggles over meaning were widespread and impactful. Fiske wrote in Understanding Popular Culture: The products ofthis tactical consumption are difficult to study—they have no place, only the space of their moments of being, they are scattered, dispersed through our televised, urbanized, bureaucratized experience. They blend in with their environment, camouflaged so as not to draw attention to them selves, liable to disappear into their “colonizing organization”. [UPC 35J Fiske’s enthusiasm for audience research paved the way for fan studies. He often referenced his students and colleagues work on fans’ elaborate forms of cultural production and circulation (fauzines, filk tapes, song vids, etc.), yet his theories never fully absorbed the implications of our emerging concep tion of “participatory culture.” His pioneering writing on fans emphasized acts of discrimination and taste-formation far more than they discussed fans asauthors and artists. Fiske and Idisagreed about whether fan practices differed in “kind” or ‘degree” from other forms of consumption. Istressed the cultural specificity of fan cultural production, seeing fan fiction not simply as traces of interpret ation, but as representing adistinctive tradition with its own genre expect ations and literacy practices. Fiske saw these fan texts as extending the interpretive and appropriative activities all consumers performed. We may have both been right on our own terrain: fans do have a distinctive culture, but more and more people are reading like fans as they move online. Yet, the constant conversation we had over the years on such disagreements contrasts sharply with the efforts of his sometimes thuggish critics to shut down debate and silence his perspective. As fans becon-ie early adapters and adopters of new media, they brought their “participatory culture” practices online, where they gained much more cultural visibility and influence, even as the commercial industry has


XXX WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS XXXI embraced a range of strategies to commodify and manage their potential disruptiveness. In the 1 980s, Fiske’s critics could dismiss such textual poachers as figments of our over-active imaginations; today, you can find fans all out in full force on the web. The internet has made visible the invisible work of media audiences and the rise of social networking sites has also helped us to map the ways that such expression is collective rather than purely personal. Fiske embraced a model of reader resistance because he felt consumers were locked outside cultural production, but this model needs to be reframed for a world where many more people are producing and sharing media. The debate now centers on the terms of our participation, not whether spectator-ship is active or passive. Fiske provides a useful conceptual language through which to identify the conflicting interests being masked by talk about ‘Web 2.0” and “user-generated content”. We may no longer be able to draw a clear or simple distinction between consumers and producers, but we need to recognize the conflicting interests of those for whom the production and circulation of media content operates within the reciprocal social relations we associate with gift economies and those for whom the production and circulation of media reflects commercial motives. Third, the passage links “meanings and pleasures.” Matt Hills (2002) has criticized the first generation of audience researchers—including Fiske—for what he calls “cognitivism”, for stressing meaning at the expense of pleasure. Hills worries that we may be avoiding the pathological construction of the fan by over-rationalizing their relations to mass culture, ignoring the passion which makes them fans in the first place. But for Fiske, “meanings and pleasure” form a recurring couplet, linked inextricably in his mind, and often shadowed by the third concept, “identity.” In Understmdirig Popular Culture, Fiske offers this useful summation of the relationship between these three terms: Culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience, and such meanings necessarily produce a social identity.. for the people involved. . . . Within the production and circulation of these meanings lies pleasure [RTP iJ Here, consumption involves making meanings, constructing identities, and finding pleasures. Fiske taught me and many of my contemporaries that humans do not engage in meaningless activities. When confronted by a form of popular culture which is alien to our own experiences and values, our gut impulse is often to dismiss it, but the good analyst instead tries to understand what these cultural practices and artifacts mean in the lives of the people for whom they are meaningful. These forms of culture may not yield much meaning to us, but they are not meaningless or “mindless.” Fiske wrote in Television Culture: The object of ethnographic study is the way that people live their culture, Its value for us lies in its shift of emphasis away from the textual and ideological construction of the subject to socially and historically situated people. It reminds us that actual people in actual situations watch and enjoy actual television programs. Itacknowledge the differences between people despite their social construction, and pluralizes the meanings and pleasures that they find in television. It thus contradicts theories that stress the singularity of television’s meanings and its reading subjects. It enables us to account for diversity both within the social formation and within the processes of culture. [TC 63] The value of ethnographic investigation was the prospect of making “dis coveries,” challenging our presuppositions and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. At times, this search for the “surprising” led to the exoticization of diverse subcultural communities as different species of rogue readers yet it could also help us to respect and value cultural experiences that seemed irredeemable on first encounter. Here, too, Fiske faced critics, like Meaghan Morris (1 991), who accused him of celebrating “banality” in his search for examples that reflected very localized and everyday forms of “resistance.” A formulation found in Television Culture again suggests the close linkage between pleasure, meaning, and identity: “The pleasure and power of mak ing meanings, of participating in the mode of representation, of playing with the semiotic process—these are some of the most significant and empower ing pleasures that television has to offer.” fTC 239] Here, Fiske adds two other key concepts to this cluster—”participation” and “play”—both of which have assumed, if anything, much greater significance in cultural the ory since Fiske’s retirement. In Television Culture, Fiske tells us that play is “active pleasure”: “it pushes rules to the limits and explores the con sequences of breaking them.” fTC 236] And in this same passage, he explores a range of different possible meanings of play: There is “play” within the system much like “a door whose hinges are loose”; the reader “plays” the text as “a musician plays ascore: s/he interprets it, activates it, gives it aliving presence.” And the reader “plays” the text as “one plays a game: s/he volun tarily accepts the rules of the text in order to participate in the practice that those rules make possible and pleasurable.” ETC 230] Resistance was only one kind of textual encounter. Fiske also stressed how consumers often work with as well as against popular texts: “There is no pleasure in being ‘duped’ by the text into a helpless viewer, but there is


r XXXU WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS considerable pleasure in selectively viewing the text for points of identifica tion and distance, in controlling one’s relationship with the represented characters in the light of one’s own social and psychological context.” {TC 175] Such discussions offer us some starting points for thinking about the ways participatory culture may be complicit in the mechanisms of “Web 2.0” even as consumers often challenge and question the logic of branding and commodification which shape these companies’ terms of service. Participa tion is, by definition, not full-on opposition, yet it does not also mean uncritical surrender. Fiske’s understanding of the progressive potential of popular pleasure (as well as of the limits or constraints on those pleasures) surface in his groundbreaking discussion of video games. Keep in mind that Fiske was describing arcade games in the late 1 980s. At the time, games were often blamed with encouraging truancy and being a waste of time and money. Fiske saw games as “machines that consume instead of producing,” amused that young people played with the same kinds of technologies which were transforming the workplace. Fiske used the contrast with games to refine how one produced meaning and pleasure from television: Even though the reader does exert some control over the meanings of the 1I narrative, the control is semiotic rather than material. Video game joysticks and firing buttons concretize this control by extending it from meanings to events. The outcome of the video game narrative may always be the same, but the means of achieving it is delegated to the player. This lack of narrative authority in the games works with the absence of meaning to evacuate the author and into that space the player inserts himself. The player becomes the author. [RTP 89] The simple, highly stylized, and already commercialized games being played in the arcade were limited in their ability to represent our everyday soda] realities or to express political opposition: Nowhere do we find video representations of Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher to be blasted out of the skies, nor do cartoon figures of bloated capitalists, schoolteacher bullies, or the fuzz appear as monsters to bI avoided or zapped into smithereens. . . . The video arcades are not, therefore, seething hotbeds of social revolution, for they are popular culture, not radical culture. [RTP 91] WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS Xxxiii long they could play against the machine. Fiske saw the arcade as a third space, less regulated by adults than school, work, or home. Fiske ismodest in describing the potential long-term impact of such popular pleasures, even as he links current debates about “media effects” to alonger history of regula tory efforts by government and church authorities against the same pleasures upon which capitalists profited. And of course, as the tools and skills involved with making games have been more dispersed, we are starting to see progres sive and even radical games produced which do offer forms of critique of entrenched power—”games for change.” Fourth, Fiske links the cultural to the political. As he notes above, culture-making “is centrally involved in the distribution and possible redistribution of various forms of social power.” Each of Fiske’s books is more explicit in their politics than the preceding volumes. Nevertheless, Fiske was often accused of not being “sufficiently political,” which meant not being suf ficiently radical, given the Marxist roots of cultural studies. The claim was that his focus on popular culture removed him from the sphere of “real politics” and made him complicit with the culture industries he so consistent’y cri tiqued. Jim McGuigan’s Cultural Populism (1992) argues that there’s no real difference between Fiske’s notion of “semiotic democracy” and capitalism’s “consumer sovereignty” {CP 72] and Robert McChesney (1996) accuses him (not by name) of overseeing “the trivialization of politics” [MC 545] and of writing “an apologia for the market.” [MC 544] For the record, while it was certainly amemorable phrase, Fiske uses “semiotic democracy” in only a few places. Fiske ites in Telision Culture that a truly popular text “treats its readers as members of asemiotic dem ocracy, already equipped with the discursive competencies to make mean ings and motivated by pleasure to want to participate in the process.” [TC 95] Later in the same book, he argues: We need a theory of pleasure that goes beyond meanings and ideology, a theory of pleasure that centers on the power to make meanings rather than on the meanings that are made. This is the thrust of what I have called television’s “semiotic democracy” its opening up of its discursive practice to the viewer. . . . The reading positions of a producerly text are essentially democratic, not autocratic ones. [TC 239] Here, Fiske focused attention on what he called “popular discrimination,” building on Pierre Bourdjeu’s work on cultural discrimination, directing attention on the ways consumers evaluated and appraised popular texts and the skills and owledge they brought to bear upon them. Fiske’s work trans Despite their limits on the level of signification, games did provide opportum formed the American media literacy movement, which still sees the focus on ities to evade control—skipping school, hiding out from parents, seeing how” the ways different audiences may read the same text in different ways as part k’ I


XXXIV WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS of its core framework. Fiske saw media literacy not simply as something which needed to be taught but also as something which emerged through informal learning (an idea to which the field has only recently returned.) In short, the phrase “semiotic democracy” doesn’t mean what Fiske’s critics think it means. Certainly, given the sheer range of remix videos on YouTube, it would be hard to deny that viewers can and do take media in their own hands, cracking open popular texts, and deploying them to generate unintended and sometimes subversive meanings. Fiske was always explicit that these works remained commodities, objects in economic exchanges, and the consumption of such texts still served the economic interests of their producers. Yet, he stressed that such texts were never simply commodities, but were also meaningful for those participated in their pleasures. We don’t buy things to serve capitalist interests; we buy them to serve our own inter ests and in so far as compaines want to sell them to us, they have to find ways to acknowledge and accommodate those interests. Fiske’s ideas helped pave the way for the field of consumer research, which is now taught in many of the world’s top business schools. But it has also paved the way for new forms of consumer activism—culture jamming and ad busting—which challenges and reroutes the construction of meaning around advertising. Despite the complexities of his description of consumer politics, Fiske is still probably best known for what he had to say about resistance: The term “resistance” is used in its literal sense, not in its more overt political or even revolutionary one of attempting to overthrow the sociiJ system. Rather it refers to the refusal to accept the social identity proposed b the dominant ideology and the social control that goes with it.... The fad that this subversive or resistive activity is semiotic or cultural rather than social or even military does not denude it of any effectivity. Sociopolitict systems depend finally upon cultural systems, which is to say that the mearr ings people make of their social relations and the pleasures that they se& serve in the last instance to stabilize or destabilize that social system. Mean ings and pleasures have a general and dispersed social effectivity though maybe not a direct and demonstrable social effect. [TC 241] WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS )O(XV too far, has been too progressive, and whose political and cultural impetus is reactionary in atleast some aspects. There isa right-wing populism, there are some formations of the people that act as areactionary, not progressive, force. UPC 163 At the same time, Fiske cautioned us against dismissing these reactionary culturaj practices too quickly without understanding how they express “the desire of subordinated people for some control over certain aspects of their lives, in particular over their culture.” [UPC 164] Given the polarized state of contemporary political discourse, learning to decipher what conservatives believe and how they position themselves in Opposition to their cultural enviroents seems key to changing the terms of the debate. Fiske also maintained that popular texts were “progressive in that they can encourage the production of meanings that work to change or destabilize the social order, but they can never be radical in the sense that they can never oppose head on or overthrow that order.” [UPC 133] Capitalist enterprises are unlikely to produce “radical” works and avant-garde texts are unlikely to be accepted by popular audiences without sufficient preparation. Yet, popular fantasy could model utopian alternatives and could thus inspire more overt kinds of political action: “the ability to think differently, to construct one’s own meanings of self and of social relations, isthe necessary ground without \Vch no political action can hope to succeed. . . . The interior resistance of fantasy is more than ideologically evasive, it is anecessary base for social action.” [RTP 10] Fiske’s description of ayoung Madonna fan (generally believed to be his daughter) maps the potential trajectory from popular consumption to polit ical action: The teenage girl fan of Madonna who fantasizes her own empowerment can translate this fantasy into behavior, and can act in amore empowered way socially, thus winning more social territory for herself. When she meets others who share her fantasies and freedom there is the beginning ofa sense ofsolidarity, of ashared resistance, that can support and encourage progres sive action on the microsocial level. [RTP 104]


Fiske’s critics argued that he saw all forms of popular resistance as progres sive. Not true! Yes, he wrote mostly about the ways resistant readings we4 Fiske’s defense of Madonna as afigure of potential female empowerment deployed towards progressive causes and yes, he someumes heard cries ct became awedge issue in the culture wars of the I980s, bringing him scorn rebellion as faint as the voices of the Whos down in Whoville. But in kom the right and the left. Here, Fiske was embracing the emerging, still unnarne ‘rd wave” oferican femsm. The Riot Grrls, who are often standin9 Popular Culture, Fiske explicitly states: se as a key vanguard of Third Wave femmism, moved from being fans of We must recognize that opposition need not necessarily be progres5ise popular music to producers of their own DIY culture and in the process, There are alliances among the people for whom the power-bloc has advanc4 caine toarticulate their own shared identities and collective struggles.


XXXVI WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS We might juxtapose Fiske’s description of the young Madonna fan with Kathryn Rowe Karilyn’s summary of Third Wave cultural politics (2003): In Third-Wave feminism, popular culture is a natural site of identity-formation and empowerment, providing an abundant store house of images and narratives valuable less as a means of representing reality than as motifs available for contesting, rewriting and recoding. E8] Arguing that Third Wave feminists have rejected essentialist categories of. identity formation, Karilyn suggests that these old categories nevertheless provide resources for their semiotic play. These identity markers can be “borrowed, performed, and pieced together ironically, playfully or with political intent, in a mode typical of postmodern culture.” [8] Such play gives rise to empowered identities and create semiotic solidarities within the movement. Third Wave feminists are, of course, not the only activists to deconstruct and remix popular culture to help fuel campaigns for social change, many of whom were operationalizing what they learned studying Fiske’s books. in our classrooms. Mark Dery’s 1993 essay, “Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing And Snipping in the Empire of Signs,” described “semiotic guerilir : warfare” as a key activist strategy across many counter-culture movements, some digital, some taking place in the streets, but all explicitly framed in opposition to dominant economic and political institutions. More recently, Stephen Duncombe’s Dream (2007) has discussed “ethical spectacles,” play ful performances, such as Billionaires for Bush, which often took their language from popular culture to “manufacture dissent” against the Bush administration. Fiske ends his account of the teenage Madonna fan and her trajectory


(meaning making, identity formation, subcultural participation and collett ive action) with a consideration of the role of the theorist in fueling social change: It may well be that one of the most productive roles for the cultural critic i5. to facilitate and encourage transitions among these sociocultural levels consciousness and action. Theory can help to cultivate a social dimension, within interior or fantasized resistances, to link them to social experiencesi shared with others and thus discourage them from becoming merely ind& vidualistic; theory can situate the specilicities of everyday life within s conceptual framework that can enhance the awareness of their poIitical dimensions. It can thus facilitate their transformation into a more collectiw consciousness, which may, in turn, be transformed into more collectia social practice. [UPC 13}


WHY FISKE STILL MATTERS Xxxvii Fiske played that role for his students and his readers, defining a set of ethical norms and political goals for the study of popular culture which still inform our research and activism. Many of Fiske’s students have embraced more vernacular modes of writing (such as blogging or twitter), trying to make sure that our ideas become resources for larger publics. The world has moved in directions Fiske helped us to anticipate, and we are trying to keep pace with the cultural change, reformulating his theory to reflect these new realities, identifying which tools and which communities are more visibly reworking the contents of mass media to serve their own ends. We are speaking truth to power in hearing rooms and corporate board rooms, in the streets and on the web, and we are asking the question which Fiske left us with: “Is this what we want?” Ifnot, what are we going to do about it? REFERENCES Barlow, John Perry (1996) “A Declaration of Independence Of Cyberspace,” De Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Ei.’etyday Ljfe (Berkeley: University of California Press). Dery, Mark (i99) Culture Jamming• Hacking, Slashing and Sniping in the Empire of Signs (Open Magazine Pamphlet Series). Doty, Alex (1993) Making Things Petfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). Duncombe, Stephen (2007) Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (London: New Press). Dyer, Richard (1986) Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: British Film Institute). Eco, Umberto (1990). Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harvest). Fiske, John and John Hartley (1980) Reading Television (London: Methueri). (RTV) Fiske, John and Robert Hodge (1988) Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Popular Culture (Allen and Unwin, Australia). Fiske, John (1988) Television Culture (New York: Routledge). (TC) Fiske, john (1989) Understanding Popular Culture (New York: Routledge). (U PC) Fiske, John (1989) Reading the Popular (New York: Routledge). (RTP) Fiske, john (1990) Introduction to Communication Studies (New York: Routledge). (ICS) Fiske, John (1992) “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in Lisa A. Lewis (ed.) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (New York: Routledge). Fiske, John (1993) Power Plays, Power Works (Minneapolis: University of Minne sota Press). (PP, PW) Fiske, John (1994) Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). (MM)





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