Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 2, No. 2, 1989
Performance Theory Australia
Edited by Brian Shoesmith & Tom O'Regan

Optimism of the Economic, Optimism of the Popular

David McKie


Review of: John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987) 353pp.


Cultural Cartography

A decade on from Reading Television, Fiske's cultural cartographics continue to evolve. In fact their evolution, in shifting contours of coverage from textual analyses and semiotics to audience activities and reading formations, underpins Television Culture's structure. Augmenting these shifts with further marginalisation of context and production, his map reconstitutes media imperialism and political economy. After a ritual nod to the need for indigenous cultural production, for instance, he sets the cat among the chooks by asserting that 'Miami Vice is more "Australian" than a mini-series' [p.323] on specifically Australian history. In this topography the new cultural imperialism and capitalist economics become positive points of reference.

Economic factors also promote repeats and so might allow readers to check for themselves the episode of Hart to Hart which undergoes sustained analysis in Television Culture. Given the current recycling configuration in Australia's mixed economy of broadcasting old analyses need never die but merely be filed until the next re-re-run. Sustained study of the Hart to Hart segment constitutes the book's analytical core. Fiske's approaches, which follow critical pathways forged paradigmatically from Levi-Strauss and syntagmatically from Barthes, continue to display familiar insights along those lines.

Despite some sense of deja-vu, Fiske's current deployment discards excesses of earlier semiotic intoxication and synthesises over a decade of developments. The notoriously dogmatic News at Ten analysis modulates to a discursive reading of a Channel Nine item and concludes more flexibly that 'news is a montage of voices, many of them contradictory, and its narrative structure is not powerful enough to dictate always which voice we should pay most attention to, or what voice should be used to understand the rest.' [p.304]. In addition Fiske's strengthened gender politics open up news as male 'soap opera', attempting 'to control the disruptive forces of reality' at a social, narrative and genre level, and employs it to climax a masculine-feminine dichotomy running through the book.

How else has Fiske evolved? Almost chronologically according to his chapter contents. Chapters 2-13 bear marks of the influences on media and cultural studies over ten years. From the realism-and-radicalism debates through ethnographics and Foucault's matrices to Bakhtinian carnival and postmodernism Television Culture charts the changing field. However this temporal and theoretical structuring goes unacknowledged as do unresolved tensions with certain influences notably Foucault and postmodernism. Throughout Television Culture, including its extensive and helpful subject index, self-reflexivity is strikingly absent.

The fulcrum of Fiske's approach turns on Chapter 5's 'active audiences' which effectively discount the power of Screen readings, how screens position the viewer and 'traditional' semiotic analyses in favour of socially situated subject activity. Accompanying the change Television Culture's power-mapping moves from the critical equivalent of aerial photography to examining the work of site excavators. Such moves merit re-evaluation. Instead, three chapters into the fresh terrain, a recalcitrant structuralism, instructing readers how to read deeply like Levi-Strauss and mythically like Barthes, reappears from on high. At this stage Fiske takes care not to identify with either but they remain as bearings uncertainly related to new coordinates.

In "Positioning the Popular", Fiske does declare his position as on 'the left [p.322~ and favours gender rather than class as the most significant producer of social difference. Above all he identifies with optimism rather than with pessimism: 'I do not believe that the people are "cultural dopes" ... ,at the economic, cultural and political mercy of the barons of industry.' [p.309]. The unstated opposition to this optimism of the popular is the pessimism of determinist Marxism in general and political economy in particular. In the final chapter Fiske confronts what he terms 'the problems of the popular'.

Initially he appears doomed to steer between the rock of capitalism's ongoing hegemony, the hard place of subordinate consent to its continuance and the illusionary mountain of a 'people' idealised as 'authentic'. [p.310]. Instead his solution displaces the capital-labour contradiction onto a financial economy-cultural economy and social power-semiotic power plane. From there the forces of culture and semiotics will capture commanding heights of meanings, loosen the ideological cement securing an inegalitarian society and prepare the way for social transformation.

Whole ranges of readings are then mobilised to substantiate massive audience/s resistance/s to television power. Through reading strategies Fiske shows how women, school children and even 'trekkies' liberate themselves from television's dominant ideology. The sheer variety becomes heady as he also ransacks ethnographic research from all over the world to reveal audience 'productivity'. From English soap fans to Dutch left-wing feminists and Moroccan Jews to Sydney school children resistances are recuperated and celebrated. Notably absent is any first hand audience research. As with his structuralist master Levi-Strauss, there is a lack of sustained fieldwork which would, I suggest, be likely to yield less clear cut and optimistic conclusions.

Intermittently, since this 'notion of audience production takes on a new dimension that abrogates it away from the owners of capital' [p.313], Fiske's viewer-centred approach attributes all semiotic power to the people. Ironically these theoretical displacements also transpose elements of the determinism which led Gramsci to revolt 'against Capital'. As a result one spectre haunting Television Culture is that of disabling inevitability. What is still to be done if these resistances are already happening? Ultimately Fiske concludes that television must necessarily promote them and that far 'from being the agent of the dominant classes, it is the prime site where the dominant have to recognise the insecurity of their power'. [p.326]. Capitalist culture's new gravediggers emerge naturally from watching popular television.

Contradictions and Consequences

One of Television Culture's fortunate contradictions is how its practice generally avoids its more extreme theorising. At the level of praxis Fiske accepts Bakhtin's questions of whose are the meanings and pleasures of television? Through analyses and audience perspectives he also suggests answers. His chosen terrain 'of greatest significance' is the 'most popular, mainstream, internationally distributed programs'. [p.13]. From there Fiske defends the specific meanings and pleasures people make and take from the application of carnival to Rock 'n Wrestling, ritual to game shows and the politics of style to Miami Vice.

Admirable though these myriad of insights are, misgivings remain. To valorise all of the popular evades, scandalously, the socially discriminating discrimination of literary criticism and the pessimism of 'cultural dopes'. It also endorses other perspectives. The fact that both Ronald Reagan and Aboriginal viewers found different pleasures through Rambo's 'overspill' does not reduce the film's potential to promote Star Wars rather than land rights. The shift to the point of reception frees the audience considerably but its theoretical liberty to do what it likes with the programme-as-text has only a restricted influence on the making of the programme-as-programme.

Fiske points to the high rate of failure as evidence to the contrary. He claims, without source, that twelve 'out of thirteen records fail to make a profit', and asserts less precisely that 'TV series are axed by the dozen' and 'expensive films sink rapidly into red figures' [p.313]. These 'enormous' failure rates are then attributed to consumer sovereignty through audience rejection of the majority of meanings and pleasures made for them. This is too large an unargued leap. More specific analyses and figures are required to justify such an hypothesis.

Some existing research indicates that other factors, such as too great corporate control, can contribute to a volume drop in sales in particular sectors. For example, the reduction of independent U.S. producers in the 70s reduced record sales overall. Traditional political economy might be more central, even to his own argument, than the cartography allows. Fiske's 'classic' Hill Street Blues example claims to show how the intersection of the 'financial and cultural' economies works in the viewing consumer's favour. It is an equally exemplary instance of how intersecting audiometrics and advertising sponsorship establishes what programmes are made, allowed to survive and thrive. Nor does the distinctive epithet 'quality' commonly associated with MTM television suggest that Hill Street Blues is a typical outcome of either intersection.

Television Culture, ironically in view of its title, underplays one further intersection, that between television and culture, which tend to be conflated for all but the final one of the book's seventeen chapters. A brief exception is Chapter 7's two pages on how 'popular taste shifts with social and historical changes'. Significantly Fiske focuses on the 'rise of Reaganism and the rehabilitation of the U.S. experience in Vietnam'. [p.112]. He goes on to make stimulating links with law, genre, masculinity and the exercise of social power. What is at stake here is crucial to U.S. culture but massively distorts the agenda for countries with different perceptions of that war such as Australia and Britain let alone Vietnam and Cambodia.

In asserting optimism in pessimistic times the book is as 'excessive' as the television it admires. Yet while endorsing MacCabe's points that a 'felt collectivity' is needed for political action and 'that politically enabling collectivities are to be located across subcultures, be they national or international' [p.320], Fiske identifies few. To promote the popular he downgrades the national, hence the preference for Miami Vice over the Oz mini-series, and favours the commonality of point of reception over geographical location. This culminates in the extraordinary advocacy of Dallas as 'more likely to maintain cultural differences and to produce subculturally specific meanings and pleasures' [p.320] than, say, S.B.S.

Who's Zoomin' Who?

Such statements provoke and suggest revised priorities. They form the beginnings of a left critique which would research specific historical conjunctures: which texts, in which cultures/ subcultures and at which particular moments. They also invite challenge. Fiske acknowledges the one way flow of international media programming but finds 'little evidence of a global surge of popularity for western nations and their values.' [p.302]. This is easier to assert than prove and at the basic level of health, given the "cancerogenic" advertising of the tobacco companies in Asia and the hamburger and cocacolonisation of the world, is, at the least, arguable. Fiske's position invokes a kind of perverse fifth international in which mainstream U.S. television becomes the major global means of maintaining the subcultural diversity crucial to any revolution.

A left critique would move beyond diversity theorised under an umbrella of market pluralism and paternalism, 'the developed nations can help the less developed to produce their own cultural commodities' [p.323]. It would combine selected anti-system antagonisms towards moments of ideological challenge which would not be easy to resist or assimilate. Instead Reading Television's still pertinent 1978 observation that 'the really dislocated subcultures do not feature in the broadcast communication system at all' does not feature in Television Culture.

Strangely, considering its debt to early Barthes, the book does not address the question of television's mythic system as a whole. Pivoting on active audiences, and the corollary of all semiotic power to the viewing people, Fiske does not connect back with his helpful chapter on the social construction of subjectivity. As a result the politically enabling lamination of subjects, with dissensus having the potential to be realised collectively, remains over optimistic because underdeveloped.

Instead across programme types a set of institutionalised pro-status quo representations clearly emerges. As Fiske says of news in an unequal class society 'the opening state of equilibrium ... is the unspoken norm whose taken-for-granted common sense obviates any need to articulate it' and that is from a perspective which ignores the growth of PR fed news items. Or consider race and the crime series insistent depiction of villains as ethnically non-WASP. Even Fiske's valorised soap operas rest implicitly on patriarchal structures in that, while it may never be sustained, the 'equilibrium of a happy stable family is constantly there in the background' [p.180].

Television Culture's self contradictions emerge as early as the acknowledgments. One paragraph praises 'those who are so often cast as the scapegoats ... the producers and distributors of popular television' while the next deplores 'their desire for additional profit' which price useful illustrations out of the reach of a student text book. In following the chronological evolution of his field Fiske's audience activities exist apart from the socio-economic context of the late 80s. The tightening logic which denies whim his illustrations constricts both producers and viewers.

My own impressions see existing regimes of television as narrowing, with few exceptions, with regard to: mise-en-scene; use of the long shot; reliance on weak dialogue; camera movements; quality of imitation; compositional variety and so on. Expanding communication conglomerates, generally uninterested in questions of production separated from considerations of profit, invest their massive financial clout in the creation of giant distribution networks able to dictate what they want for the least cost for whatever markets they choose. Their rhetoric of freedom of consumer choice and pleasure overlaps ominously with celebrations of limited audience emancipation through typical television.

As well as abandoning 'radical texts' and existing radical channels Fiske abandons other transformational possibilities. After all social 'change in industrial democracies rarely occurs through revolution which is the sociopolitical equivalent of the radical text.' [p.47]. Consequently Television Culture stays imprisoned in a Ptolemaic-like pragmatism ignoring power shifts from east to west and structural changes in the globe and global economy which point to futures other than business as usual for late capitalism. In the emerging age of Asia cultural imperialism and capitalist economics may well be radically reconstituted but in different ways to those plotted by Fiske's co-ordinates.

Further Reflections on Self-Reflexivity

Fiske, as this review testifies, is far from alone in his contradictions and lack of self-reflexivity. Our common base, the cultural studies field, is not without inner tensions. While rarely professing any utopia its project holds the implicit promise of a more egalitarian society in terms of class, race and gender. Its major opponents can therefore be identified as capitalism, imperialism and patriarchy. In practice its fights have been with elitist culture, especially crude political economy. Its allies have been French structuralism, British culturalism and sections of the tertiary education system.

Such alliances establish its master narrative, or tall story, lineage and place it in the current legitimation crisis where disagreements over the name of the subject to be liberated have given way to fundamental doubts about the right to represent anyone. Visible signs of difficulty surface in Fiske's pronominal insecurity. His usage of 'we' and 'our' seems to oscillate between generalised human beings and relatively advanced students of television and at one point clearly distinguishes an 'us' [of academics?] from a 'they' referring to 'social groups that are relatively powerless' [p.3101.

What is it then that Television Culture and cultural studies do? Centrally they propose values and in these unlegitimatable times this poses problems. On what grounds are selected sets of texts, ways of reading, discourses and social structures to be preferred to others? And what are the relationships between those of us who set up as privileged preferrers and those whose preferences are to be guided. The so-called 'problem of the popular' is actually the problem of the academic. From positions of power within tertiary education cultural studies and Television Culture, albeit more heretically, still underpin strategies with a neo-Marxist paradigm in practical and theoretical difficulties.

Postmodernist answers propose provisional alignments, greater playfulness and a radical suspicion of all sources of authority. Sometimes Television Culture concurs but simultaneously sets up an authoritative grid whose ethnocentric, gradualist latitudes and dated semiotic-structuralist longitudes would overlay such issues. A self-reflexive approach, checking its own left credentials and their emancipatory credibility, would rely less on an explanatory meta-system to admit more of its own preferences, changes of mind and favourite television programmes. In the final inconsistency Fiske offers the best existing introductory guide while radically, if implicitly, throwing doubt on the whole cartographic enterprise.

Alternative Ending

In the intensity of its focus, Television Culture exemplifies the problems. The enormous presence of recent television studies material highlights a compressed intellectual configuration. Western disciplines such as post-Freudian psychology, apart from the mandatory Lacanian mirror phase, philosophy and sociology barely register, while eastern studies are totally absent. Fiske's minimal use of Foucault, who has undoubtedly widened the field's horizons, foregrounds the compression further. A 1987 review of Robert Ornstein's Multimind acknowledged his debt to the sufis and lamented his lack of zen. For all its vaunted interdisciplinarity cultural studies does not aspire to such breadth and openness. Beyond structuralism's binocular vision, western intellectual myopia, and left-brain blindness exist other universes. Beyond the binary there is space to be optimistic without being optimistic.


New: 19 February, 1996 | Now: 11 March, 2015