Understanding Popular Culture. John Fiske

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. London; New York: Routledge, 2010.

Fiske is arguing for a strategy of looking at popular culture from the ground up, suggesting that those who consume the products of mass culture do so in ways that can resist the meanings offered them by the producers of mass culture, and that this product is popular culture.  He suggests those that “concentrate almost exclusively on the power of dominant groups to maintain the system that advantages them” (16) are only seeing part of the picture, and in doing so “paradoxically align themselves with the forces of domination, for, by ignoring the complexity and creativity by which the subordinate cope with the commodity system and its ideology in their everyday lives, the dominant underestimate and thus devalue the conflict and struggle entailed in constructing popular culture within a capitalist society.” (16) He is attempting to navigate between those, like Adorno and Horkeimer, who see mass culture as an external, homogenous culture sold by a culture industry ready-made to unwitting dupes that uncritically consume it; and those who celebrate popular culture without “situating it in a model of power” (although interestingly criticism on Fiske seems to place him into this camp).  He sees consumption as a series of exchanges that are similar to a battle, constantly shifting lines, with the consumer as someone who can make changes in their own lives and consequently affect change in the larger system.  “Structural changes at the level of the system itself, in whatever domain- that of law, of politics, of industry, of the family –occur only after the system has been eroded and weakened by the tactics of everyday life.” (17) Thus for Fiske “A text that is to be made into popular culture must, then, contain both the forces of domination and the opportunities to speak against them, the opportunities to oppose or evade them from subordinated, but not totally disempowered, positions. Popular culture is made by the people at the interface between the products of the culture industries and everyday life.”  (21)  In part he is making these arguments because they can account for the habits and shifts in consumers desires in a far more sophisticated way than the top-down view of mass culture can. Additionally, the constant process of incorporation of popular culture back into mass culture production (in order to both domesticate it and sell it as a product) could not happen if there was not some kind of practice happening at the level of consumption that is different than wholesale adoption.  Thus he situates the consumer as a producer, not of products, but of “meanings and pleasures” (22) and he suggests these cannot be commodified or consumed, but instead can be “produced, reproduced, and circulated only in that constant process that we call culture.” (22)  I am not sure if I agree with him on this point, but I believe he is trying to make a distinction between meaning and product, between act of consumption and meaning of that act, that is important. Inspired by De Certeau’s discussion of everyday life, and calling on Stewart Hall’s notions of resistance, he thinks about everyday life as a series of tactics, a set off exchanges, adaptations, etc. that underscore “everyday life is the art of making due” (23).   “At the point of sale the commodity exhausts its role in the distribution economy, but begins its work in the cultural.” (28) and yet the oppositional acts blend into the commercial environment as the consumer/producer can disappear into the “colonizing organization”… and yet he argues along with de Certeau that “the very success of the bureaucratic commercial order within which we live has created, paradoxically, the means of its own subversion” (34)  Fiske discusses the way in which the politics of popular culture is not radical in that it is not trying to overthrow the system that distributes power in the first place, but it is a micropolitics that has a pleasure of “producing meanings that are both relevant and functional.” (46) since there is both resistance and relevance to the forms of domination, and those meanings are useable in everyday life not entirely disruptive to it.  The meanings again are produced from a text, not by a text.  This kind of perspective is really critical since it not only suggests we do not need to concentrate on mass movements, but that by doing so we will miss the resistances that happen in the small paces of daily life.

“The struggle for control over the meanings and pleasures (and therefore behaviors) of the body is crucial because the body is where the social is most convincingly represented as the individual and where politics can best disguise itself as human nature.” (56)  Ok, the focus on the body here is very exciting.  However, in his discussion of Barthes (wrestling) and Baktin (carnivalesque)  he suggests the spectacle of wrestling is “pure spectacle, it works only on the physical senses, the body of the spectator, not in the construction of a subject.  Spectacle liberates from subjectivity.  Its emphasis on excessive materiality foregrounds the body, not as a signifier of something else, but in its presence.” (77)  The only problem I have here is the ironic distance of the spectator, the knowingness of the fans, who while they understand the wrestling bodies as ‘evil’ or ‘good’ also have an awareness of the production of wrestling.  Part of their pleasure when they are gloating over the ‘win’ of a wrestling bout is the knowledge that it is not harmful to the crumpled body of the loser.  Fiske’s interpretation leaves an open space here that needs to be reconsidered, and I think is taken up in Henry Jenkin’s Convergence Culture (up for review next).


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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