Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1 No. 2, 1987
Film, TV and the Popular
Edited by Philip Bell & Kari Hanet

Reply to John Fiske's paper

Tim Rowse

I want to undermine the theory of power, and the distribution of power and the relationship betwen the mass media and power that John Fiske has presented. I take his paper to be a sociological theory of TV. There are two social agencies which are essential to the sociological theory John has articulated. These he calls a 'dominant' social agency and against it are arrayed a number of subordinate social agencies which John characterises as an ensemble, even though pointing to their diversity.

My first critical point is that there are twenty different inscriptions of what the dominant social agencies are in his paper. I'll read them out to you: they are called 'producers', 'distributors', 'dominant classes', 'bourgeoisie', 'capitalism', 'the culture industry', 'the financial economy', 'the forces of capital', 'Hollywood culture', 'Hollywood moguls', 'Hollywood', 'patriarchy', 'the broadcasters', 'the news format', 'the powerful', 'the power system', 'the dominant', 'the rules that constitute the social', 'society', and 'TV'.

Now, that is too many different descriptions of the dominant social agency. With a bit of factorial analysis you could probably distil them down to about five, but that is still too many. And it causes great problems when you try to characterise what the interests and manner of acting of that dominant social agency are.

What about the subordinate social agencies? They're characterised a bit more coherently - the term consumers is important, consumers of cultural goods. They may be oppositional, although I think that's a point on which John equivocates. And it's not clear what they are oppositional to. Just as the word 'transgress' has become an intransitive verb recently, so 'oppositional' has become a term without an object. These subordinate agencies are various in their cultural identity - they are sometimes referred to by John as 'the people', as those who inhabit or work in the cultural economy or consume in this economy. What characterises them is that their culture tends to differ from, or even conflicts with the culture of the producers of cultural commodities.

So, what do these two social agents do? What interests do they have? As I read him this is John's account. The dominant produce and distribute cultural commodities, ie those things whose use value when enjoyed or consumed is productive of meaning, pleasures and personal identities for those who consume them. The basic interaction between the dominant and the subordinate is characterised in that way. John attributes to the dominant - those who produce cultural commodities and disseminate them - an interest in, and a desire to, homogenise and control the uses made of cultural commodities. It seems to me that he can't just do that by his say-so: it's not a convincing proposition in itself. Not only does he attribute to them a tendency to homogenise pleasures and social identities, he also sometimes says that the dominant try to establish their preferred meanings, pleasures and social identities. This is not quite the same thing as saying they want to homogenise them. It is going one step further and saying they seek to homogenise a preferred set of meanings, pleasures and social identities. It is important that John does attribute this interest in and desire to homogenise a preferred meaning because it's only if you accept that that is the interest and activity of the dominant social agencies that he's talking about that you can have the theory of resistance that he develops in the latter part of his paper.

So, what do the subordinate do? They form conversational communities, whose conversations and exchanges are not governed by the dominant social agents. In doing that, they find "a set of meanings and identities that serve their interests and that oppose those interests to that of the powerful." So the subordinate have interests which are opposed to that of the powerful; they serve those interests by productively consuming cultural goods. John equivocates here, however, on a very important matter. Firstly, are these "reader-generated meanings" as he calls them at one point, oppositional to dominant culture, a term that he's used, not mine, or are they merely different from it? I think that he equivocates on whether being different from is the same as being opposed to. And I think that is a rather important point.

However, if the dominant interest is to homogenise, then to be different is to be oppositional. That's why it's important for John to attribute an interest in, and desire to homogenise to the dominant. Because, therefore, any act of self-differentiation by the consumer must be oppositional: it's contesting that dominant interest. So, QED, the polysemic nature of the text is an arena of relatively successful social struggle for the consumers.

Let us now turn to further characterisations of what the subordinate do. There are a number of terms used here - they 'struggle', 'play', 'vaunt or express the body', 'transcend the social', 'the cultural', they 'invert social subjection' (a phrase which I defy anybody to give an interpretation of), they 'excorporate', 'travesty', and 'parody'. People do these things, both at once, and diversely. That is, John is confidently characterising the consumer in general, but also saying that the products of their actions are diverse. That, I think, is fair enough. But it does worry me, and here I get on to a general misgiving I have about some strands of cultural studies at the moment. I think that John's confident characterisation of the act of consumption in this way is little more than generalising from his own professional practice.

That is, his practice is to struggle, play and negotiate with the text to find polysemy and so forth. Therefore he attributes that capacity to everyone (which I don't disagree with). But it's quite another thing to say that it is always done as much as John does it. I think one of the endemic overpoliticisations of cultural studies nowadays occurs through cultural critics wanting to politically situate their cultural criticism, identifying their own critical practice with that of a vast populace at large, with 'the people'. I don't find that identification convincing. I think it has to be more argued.

Nonetheless, at the heart of this paper there are some unarguable theoretical and empirical propositions. The theoretical proposition (which I think we'd all accept) is that texts are polysemic, have multiple meanings. That's something that can be easily defended from semiotic theory; and there's a fairly well-founded empirical claim being made here - ethnographies of audiences are marvellously diverse and productive in the ways they might read the same text. So I've got no quarrel with that part of John's paper.

It's the political significance that he gives that core of argument that I find implausible. It seems to me that John never really answers the question of what is the wider political significance of the ungovernable nature of cultural consumption. What is its wider political significance? He gives it a spurious political significance by assuming that the dominant social agency (however we might characterise it from that twenty ways) has a kind of totalitarian will and that any thwarting of that will constitutes an act of resistance. I think that, historically, it has been quite exceptional for capitalist societies or capitalist classes to attempt to be culturally totalitarian. There have been evidences of crisis and sickness in the capitalist states concerned to be so dominant. The more general stance of capitalist classes and states is to be quite resolutely opposed to totalitarian domination of conversation, of the exchange of ideas, and so forth. So, it's only by erecting this counter-factual figure of the totalitarian capitalist that John is able to derive a notion of resistance through cultural consumption. In other words, he has developed a completely artificial and implausible little scenario on the basis of his insight into the polysemy of the text.

I'd like to read his last sentence because it is one of the few times where he explicitly tries to establish the political relevance of this polysemy. Interestingly, it's a sentence which is not about the empowering of the governed; it's about the insecurity of the governors. I think that's a proposition well worth discussing. He says that "mass mediated popular art is the prime site where the dominant have to recognise the insecurity of their power; where they have to encourage cultural difference with all the threat to their own position that this implies." I don't really think that that threat is real; but I'm intrigued that it may be a kind of fantasy of insecurity that is experienced by some cultural elites that John has had the ability to observe empirically.


Reply to the reply

John Fiske made two points in reply to Tim Rowse's commentary. He said, in part:

My model is not an essentially sociological one: a 'culturalist' or 'cultural studies' label would be preferable. It seems to me that the difference between the two is crucial. Any social system (which I take to be the main object of sociology) requires a system of meaning to hold it in place. It cannot exist, it cannot be held stable (or unstable), it cannot change without the meanings that people make of their experience of that social system and the meanings of that social system itself, changing.

So, a cultural position, particularly coming as I do from structuralism and semiotics, puts meanings and, more recently, pleasures, as central to understanding how culture works in any form of society, particularly in capitalist society. So my model differs quite considerably from Tim's, because it prioritises (and I make no apology for this) meanings, the subcultural identities that people construct by the process of making meanings. So we must agree to differ.

The other point I would wish to come back on is that I make no apology for a plurality of words to describe the differential distribution of power in society. In fact, one of my arguments is that this sort of power is exercised by a vastly different array of agencies and with vastly different sorts of inflections, depending upon the cultural domain within which that power is operating at any one time.

So, certainly I don't apologise for characterising agencies that exercise this power in a wide variety of ways. It was my deliberate intention and one that I'm happy to defend as a very useful way to think about the way that culture operates within a power stratified society.

21 Wilson and Gutierrez, passim.


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