Australian Journal of Cultural Studies
Vol. 1 No. 2, December 1983

Encouraging signs, television and the power of dirt, speech and scandalous categories

John Hartley

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seemed engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time honoured disguise and this borrowed language. (Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

This paper takes up the theme of borrowed languages; both those of television itself and those that have become established within analytical discourses in the study of television. I want to argue that some of the most familiar analytical categories we use to study television are in need of rethinking, and that television itself will emerge from this process shorn of its time-honoured disguise. Instead, television will be seen for what it is—a new scene of world history that supplants what has traditionally been understood as the power of speech. Despite our habit of anxiously conjuring up the spirits of the past to exorcize its power, I shall argue that for modern, industrialized societies, television is the power of speech. To begin with, then, I want to make a problem out of the received notions of textual analysis, especially where texts and reader have been conceptualized as an abstract binary opposition, with meaning somehow batted back and forth between the two.


The practice of 'reading' television texts has demonstrated fairly clearly that individual segments, programmes, series etc. are far from unitary in their meaning. In fact television provides a convincing in stance of the structuralist axiom of 'no intrinsic meaning'. Television texts are polysemic, and they resist attempts even to identify their smallest signifying units since there are so many different kinds on the screen at once: visual, verbal, aural, discursive, narrative etc. But even though television texts are saturated with meaningfulness, there is no textual warrant for any particular meaning to be privileged as 'true'. The best that the analyst can do is to show how texts themselves try to limit and close their own meaningfulness with ideological 'preferred readings', etc. But the problem of the text goes further than this. Television is recalcitrant when it comes to identifying where the text should stop. Quite apart from the problem of rationalizing what must in the end be an arbitrary act, namely the choice of this rather than that as the 'text' to analyse, television can not be reduced, even for the sake of analysis, to 'what's on telly'. The forms of TV representation are not specific to television; its discourses are produced, regulated and reproduced just as much off screen as they are on it, its institutionalization of these rather than those signifying practices cannot be explained by looking at the prac tices by themselves; and even its own programmes are made meaningful 'outside' television itself, in newspapers, magazines, conversations, learned papers, etc. In short, television texts don't supply us with a warrant for considering them either as unitary or as structurally bounded into an inside and an outside. If TV has a distinctive feature, it is that it is a 'dirty' category.


The notion of the reader is similarly a problem. Traditionally conceptualized (for the sake of analysis) as either one individual reader or a mass of individual readers, the category 'reader' has become established as both unitary and abstract. But, as anyone who studies television must know, there are differences in the way the same bit of television can be watched by the 'same' individual reader. Such differences may depend on mood, company or place, but there is also the question of which discursive resource, or combination of resources, the person brings to bear on the programme. Today I may be 'reading television' as critic, but tonight I'll be 'watching TV' as 'audience'. And sometimes (always) these two ways of watching will slide into each other or even contradict each other. Following from this, it is hard to sustain the notion of a unitary individual who is in possession of a unitary subjectivity in view of television. Without (necessarily) claiming that everyone is schizophrenic, it is possible to use television as a way of showing that no-one has a unitary subjectivity in their possession, but rather that there are clusters of significant identifications that may combine, split, contradict or con firm each other in provisional orientations that will for the time being serve the purposes of a social '1'. These identifications form an extensive, changing and informal paradigm that is carried in various discourses. What sense 'I' might make of television depends, therefore, on the discursive resources available. But although 'I' might identify with them, not all of them fit each other—some will necessarily marginalize or deny others, and some are more obvious well-worn and time honoured than others. Both paradigmatically (the discursive identifications) and syntagmatically (their combinations/contradictions) 'I' is a 'dirty' category too.

It seems to me that the dirtiness both of television texts and of individual readers is a matter worth looking into further. The notion that both of these categories are by definition dirty is not a new one. In respect of television, Hans Magnus Enzensberger has put it forcefully:

The electronic media do away with cleanliness; they are by their nature 'dirty'. That is part of their productive power . . . The desire for a cleanly defined 'line' and for the suppression of 'deviations' is anachronistic and now serves only one s own need for security (1972: 105).

As for individuals, this is how Edmund Leach puts it:

Individuals do not live in society as isolated individuals with dear cut boundaries; they exist as individuals interconnected in a net work by relations of power and domination. Power, in this sense, resides in the interfaces between individuals, in ambiguous boundaries. The logical paradox is that (i) I can only be completely sure of what I am if I cleanse myself of all dirt, but (ii) a completely clean 'I' with no boundary dirt would have no interface relations with the outside world or with other individuals. Such an 'I' would be free from the domination of others but would in turn be wholly impotent. The interface is the opposition: clean/dirty = impotence/potency and hence that power is located in dirt (1976: 62).

The idea that power is located in dirt, which can itself be define as ambiguous boundaries, strikes me as useful in respect of television. It suggests that the interface between texts and readers is capable of producing both meanings and 'relations of power and combination' precisely because it is not a clean opposition but always and necessarily ambiguous. What I shall be looking for, then, is not texts and readers as opposed entities, but the way boundaries between them are erected, transgressed and policed.


But first I'd like to introduce just one more dirty category into the discussion, and that is what is commonly understood as the power of speech. The power of speech, as commonly understood, is a natural attribute of the human species. Not only is the power (or competence) equally distributed, but speech itself is understood as natural, direct communication, as natural language. Small wonder that speech is taken as the model for linguistic and other kinds of analysis, such as semiotics, that are interested in meaning. However, the work of Derrida has shown that the privileging of speech is by no means an innocent act—on the contrary, as Jonathan Culler has explained:

Privileging speech in this way by treating writing as a parasitic and imperfect representation of it is a way of repressing or set ting aside certain features of language, or certain aspects of its functioning. If distance, absence, misunderstanding, insincerity are features of writing, then by distinguishing writing from speech one can construct a model of communication which takes as the norm an ideal associated with speech—where the listener is thought to be able in principle to grasp precisely what the speaker has in mind .... Writing, supposedly an external accessory in the service of speech, threatens to taint the purity of the system it serves (1979: 167).

If writing—the medium of Literature, Philosophy and Science—can be reckoned 'parasitic', 'imperfect', and 'tainting' because of its distance, absence, misunderstanding and insincerity, then what are we to say of television? The medium of trivia and sensationalism of sex, violence and bad language, of corruption and moral decline is commonly seen as the ultimate supplement. It threatens the purity of both speech and writing. It hasn't even got the artistic pretensions of cinema to redeem it. Nonetheless, it was Hollywood that first provided the model of impurity and the discourse of contagion for later use against television. Here is the Spens Report of 1938:

Certainly it would be an advantage if all our children could learn the same English speech, though we agree with [The Newbolt Report] in recommending the preservation of true dialect, as distinct from affected or debased forms which have no roots in history. Teachers are everywhere tackling this problem, though they are not to be envied their struggle against the natural conservatism of childhood allied to the popularization of the infectious accents of Hollywood. The pervasive influence of the hoar ding, the cinema, and a large section of the public press are, in this respect as in others, subtly corrupting the taste and habits of the rising generation.

Television has been policed by this discourse continuously since its earliest pre-history. It is still beyond the pale. Here is one commonplace example of the common sense barricade between literacy and TV. It is from the Sunday Times:

The great TV and literacy debate which has been rumbling on for 30 years or so shows no sign of reaching a conclusion yet. The impression—always strong among adults—that a race of square-eyed and weirdly dressed non-readers, non-writers and non-counters is in the making isn't the sort of thing that statistical proof or disproof does much to shake or confirm. It isn't exactly a sign of literacy attainment or public spirit when half the adult population is counted as 'readers' of the tabloids; and it's not necessarily a sign that television encourages children to read when publishers produce so many spin-offs from children 's programmes (April 10th, 1983).

In the teeth of its own concern with the ambiguity of television's boundaries with its media neighbours (the piece is a review of 'spin off' books), the article seems to need the security of a cleanly defined line between itself and TV. Television isn't much good for anything from this point of view, except it encourages children to stop using it in favour of 'literacy attainment', and naturally it's not even very good at that. But the main thing is to reduce contact with the contagion to the shortest possible time. The review as a whole is called:


Clearly the 'power of speech' is a dirty category. But here the dirt is identified, equally clearly, as 'belonging' not to speech itself but to television, the other electronic media, and the popular press. The power that is located in this dirt is of course of the negative kind—it infects and corrupts the rising generation, turning them into a race of weird monsters with funny and dubious habits. What is it that makes television into such a potent (dangerous) extension of language? Can you imagine a headline that read:


Another way of asking these questions without having to weigh the relative merits of the different concepts of motherhood that are implied in the weaning metaphor is to return to the notion of the power of speech and to concentrate for a moment not so much on the speech as on the power. For Saussurians, the power of speech is not only separated from the taint of writing, it is also protected from the grubby world of speaking: the power of speech is langue, an abstract system that lies beyond the individual and social will. Only parole, the abstract binary opposition of langue, is allowed contact with the social relations that, as Saussure concedes, are the sole precondition for the creation of langue in the first place (1974:113). It seems that the protection of langue from the social/individual will has more to do with the power of binaries than with the logic of the case. For Chomskians, the power of speech is an attribute of the species—innate competence. Here too it is regarded as almost unthinkable to suggest that such a power can be interfered with socially. But when it comes to the networks of power and domination that characterize social relations, individual natural capacities are neither here nor there. The notion of linguistic competence doesn't raise the question of who has power over it, just as the notion of a natural capacity to eat or to make tools doesn't explain who goes hungry or who owns the means of production. It appears, then, that both the concept of langue and that of competence have the effect of defining power out of the terms of study. But, as Stuart Hall has very briskly put it:

Of course, a native language is not equally distributed amongst all native speakers, regardless of class, socio-economic position, gender, education and culture: nor is competence to perform in language randomly distributed. Linguistic performance and competence is socially distributed, not only by class but also by gender. Key institutions—in this respect, the family-education couple—play a highly significant role in the social distribution of cultural 'capital'. in which language plays a pivotal role (1982:79).

Perhaps here we have a clue as to why television is commonly regarded as a dirty, dangerous medium that 'our' children must be weaned off. In the first place, it has none of the abstract purity of language, nor the natural pure individualism of competence—it is all too evidently a social relation of sense-making from which power cannot be excluded. And second, maybe even consequently, television is threatening:

In this sense the electronic media are entirely different from the older media like the book or the easel-painting, the exclusive class character of which is obvious .... Potentially the new media do away with all educational privileges and thereby with the cultural monopoly of the bourgeois intelligentsia. This is one of the reasons for the intelligentsia 's resentment against the new industry. As for the 'spirit' which they are endeavouring to defend against 'depersonalization' and 'mass culture', the sooner they abandon it the better. The new media are oriented towards action, not tradition. Their attitude to time is completely opposed to that of bourgeois culture which aspires to possession, that is to extension in time, best of all, to eternity. They do away completely with 'intellectual property' and liquidate the 'heritage', that is to say, the class-specific handing on of non-material capital (Enzensberger, 1972: 108-9).

It is perhaps just as well that Enzensberger prefaces these refreshingly optimistic remarks with the word 'potentially', since television as presently instituted does not conform to its potential. But it is important to consider what that potential or 'productive capacity' might be, in order to demonstrate the extent to which its development is not determined by 'innate' capacities as such, but on the way these are organized socially and institutionalized. In fact, television supplies us with a model for understanding how the social power of communication—the power of speech—is neither abstract nor innate, but a power relation. Further, television demonstrates that the production of senses, knowledges and meanings is thoroughly socialized, marking a decisive break with the kinds of cultures associated with the 'older media'.


The implications of this argument for the analysis of television itself will, I hope, become clearer later on. For the moment I want to take up Enzensberger's point about the analyst. He points to the cultural (class) monopoly of the intelligentsia, and their/our 'resentment against the one industry'. Such resentment may, of course, be expressed openly and with vigour ('Ways to wean children off TV'), but it may also have something to do with apparently neutral and respectable intellectual boundaries (usually in the form of covers). They can be 'possessed' in different ways by clearly identifiable authors and readers—they are a very good way of ensuring 'extension in time, best of all . . . eternity'. They can even be hoarded and auctioned. And as Roland Barthes has argued, this concept of text produces characteristically authoritarian social relations:

The notion of the text is historically linked to a whole world of institutions: the law, the Church, literature and education. The text is a moral object: it is the written in so far as the written participates in the contract. It subjects us, and demands that we observe and respect it, but in return it marks language with an inestimable attribute which it does not possess in its essence: security (1981:32).

Television analysts, especially those of us who are institutionalized within education, are notoriously susceptible to the appeal of security, whether of text or tenure. But television is, equally, resistant to classification into texts, and its ambiguity extends even to the 'dirty' boundary that surrounds its institutionalized study (there is no academic 'discipline' called Television). Small wonder that we are driven to borrowing the costume of the text in order to dress this scandalous subject in respectability. However, the consequence is that we tend to analyse the costume, to use television to demonstrate an inestimable attribute which it does not possess in its essence: security of texture. In short, we need to find


But of course the notion of the text is a thoroughly naturalized term in analysis. And as Stuart Hall has put it:

Changing the terms of an argument is exceedingly difficult, since the dominant definition of the problem acquires, by repetition, and by the weight and credibility of those who propose or subscribe to it, the warrant of 'common sense' (1982:81).

Hall invokes Volosinov's concept of 'sign as the arena of class struggle' to suggest that the 'same term could be disarticulated from its place within one discourse and articulated in a different position' (p.80). Hence it is not necessary to abandon the notion of the text in respect of television. But the ideological inflections of the term need to be recognized, and where necessary changed (though that may prove 'exceedingly difficult'). What's needed is not to reduce television to texts, but to disarticulate the notion of the text from the discourse of possession, and rearticulate it in the position(s) of television.


Before I attempt that, however, I'd like to bring the other term of the text:reader binary back into play. First of all, rearticulating the notion of the text calls into question the separability of text and reader. Recent work on subject positioning by Screen theorists, for example, suggests that subjectivity itself is an effect or product of textual relations. Readers, in this model, are as it were written on by texts. Of course television isn't written, it's produced, which is a suggestive metaphor for its reader-relations, but I'd like to propose that the relations between TV and its viewers might be thought of in terms of accessing. Viewers 'access' TV discourses and representations both in and beyond the act of watching TV ('accessing' goes on after the TV set is switched off). And vice versa: television accesses its viewers' (culture's) discourses and identifications in the act of production.

I've argued elsewhere (Hartley, 1982 and O'Sullivan et al, 1983) that accessing on television has some peculiar features. It is not a case of information retrieval. When you are quoted or interviewed or appear on television (accessed), you may have 'your say' but you don't 'speak for yourself'. Your contribution is semiotically 'stolen' that is, appropriated by the overall TV discourse. It is made to mean something different from whatever you may have intended by its status as a 'quote'. You are rearticulated into being an actor in the drama, and what you say is like fictional dialogue—it is subservient to what else is being said, to who is saying it, and to what the drama is about. Further, accessing lends the credibility and legitimacy (realism) of your authenticity and authority to TV.

If television can be thought of as a means of accessing a multiplicity of discourses and representations, so can the viewer. Everything I've just said about the way TV accesses applies equally to the individual viewer. We are all a means of accessing a multiplicity of discourses and identifications. Not only is what we say and the way we make sense of the world largely 'quoted', but also the resources from which we 'steal' these discourses and identifications cannot control the way we use them in combination. However, although I take the relation between TV texts and 'readers' to be similar in that it is a process of mutual accessing, I am not arguing that it is uniform or even handed. It is still a hegemonic power-relation in the way it is currently organized socially. In brief, some viewers have more discursive resources than others, and TV has more than all.


I shall return to the power inequalities later. At this point I'd like to take up the idea of individuality (subjectivity); not as a self contained and clearly identifiable entity, but as a 'dirty' structure of accessed identifications. In order to be more definite about what I'm referring to I'll suggest seven of what I take to be the more important identifications that are available or encouraged. They are what I'm tempted to call seven types of ambiguity: namely self, gender, age-group, family, class, nation, ethnicity. The list is both abstract and analytical (I don't have a textual warrant for it), and in the concrete instance of television it is not even a list, since the seven categories get very mixed up, and some are encouraged more than others (family more than class), whilst others don't co-exist very peacefully (some notions of nation with some types of ethnicity). These identifications are neither self evident nor essential, in either TV or individuals. In the context of this paper that means I shall pay attention to the way ambiguous boundaries are erected and transgressed within and between the identifications.

I am looking, then, for textual processes and representations which may encourage reader identifications. It is implicit in my argument that none of the seven types is represented in isolation. Further, the way each one is taken up ideologically (produced) is similar in structure to the way each of the others is treated. They can be seen, structurally, as homologous transformations of each other. Thus, each type of identification (together with others I've not included in my list) serves to define and limit the others. And there are what I'll call condensations of them, where for instance particular senses of all seven are collapsed into one star-sign, the signifier for which may be a person, like Prince Charles or the Princess of Wales, or it may be an emblematic object or practice, like a car, a landscape, or a sports event. Television produces its own star-signs, from news presenters to more obviously fictional characters, and these too are available as condensers for our seven types of subjectivity.


In this paper I am going to have to concentrate on just one identification to serve as a metonym or representative for the others. The one I've chosen is that of age-group. In the spirit of the paper, however, what I'm looking for are the marginal, ambiguous edges of the category, and the way these offer what looks like a settled, positive, natural 'inside' for 'us' to access as our own selves. In this respect I've found Barthes' notion of ex-nomination very useful. Barthes (1973) suggests that 'capitalism' is quite easily named in economic discourses. It is uncontroversial to say that ours is a capitalist economy. In political discourses, however, capitalism is less easily named—there is no Capitalist Party as such. In cultural discourses, capitalism 'disappears'—it is completely ex-nominated. As Barthes puts it, the bourgeoisie is the social class that does not want to be named (see also Fiske and Hartley, 1978:176)

This notion can be applied to all of our seven types of social identification, to show how within each one there are ex-nominations going on. The way to spot such absences, of course, is to look for those nominations or namings that are in play. In the instance of gender, women are frequently nominated as women. They are represented first in terms of gender—defined by their looks, procreative ability, 'femininity' etc. Men, on the other hand, appear to be 'beyond gender'—they just get on with whatever they are doing, and are defined in terms of their job, character, actions etc. Men are ex-nominated as men. Similarly, in the instance of class, there are plenty of representations of 'working-classness', which is nominated as such, whereas 'middle-classness' is rarely presented as a significant signifier on its own. More often it is taken for granted, whilst the focus of the story lies elsewhere (see Dallas from TV or, interestingly in view of its title, Ordinary People from cinema). In the instance of ethnicity/nation, in Britain blacks and non-English nationals are often signified as 'belonging' to their respective race or nation (this includes nationals of the non-English parts of Britain; Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland). For English whites these attributes are apparently devoid of significance—they are ex-nominated. Finally 'the family' is a thoroughly ex-nominated category, despite evidence that the classic family is now very rare (see Ellis, 1982), unless you belong to a 'broken' one, or a 'single-parent' one, etc.


As for the identifications within the category age-group, these too have a naturalized, ex-nominated centre—the category of adult with other more ambiguous, marginalized identifications on its boundaries. Like television, I'm going to concentrate on one of the nominated, ambiguous boundaries, namely youth.

Youth is a very 'dirty' category indeed. First of all I'll explain in general terms why this is so, and then have a look at some examples to see how it is represented. Youth is a scandalous category because it offends against binary logic. Binary systems are two-term universes and binary logic requires the two terms to be not just equivalent but-opposite, but also mutually exclusive. For instance, there are plenty of such binaries in play in analytical discourses—signifier:signified; subject:object; text:reader; producer:consumer speech:writing. Binaries are also capable of being applied to both the physical and social world. The surface of the earth can be understood in terms of the binary land:sea, and the people on it in terms of the binary child:adult. All very neat and clean. But if we look closer at, for instance, the binary land:sea, we find things aren't quite so simple. There is a margin between the two which is ambiguous Sometimes it is land, sometimes sea. I refer, of course, to the beach—the very same ambiguous category that people flock to in order to escape all sorts of otherwise strict social boundaries The ambiguous beach is the place where you can do all sorts of scandalous things, from taking your clothes off in public to being more or less continuously preoccupied with pleasure, sex and self, without getting arrested. And of course you flock there in the ambiguous non-time of Sundays and other holidays, especially (in Britain) on Bank Holidays.

Youth is just this kind of scandalous category. It is neither child nor adult. To see why youth is so very dirty, then, all that's necessary is to list some of the most general, naturalized and commonsense attributes that separate child (as a category) from adult, and to notice how completely youth transgresses them all. For instance:


With youth, all such opposites are transgressed; youth has the attributes of neither child nor adult, and both child and adult. Just to show that the scandalousness comes from the categorical ambiguity of youth and not from what it does, here are one or two examples of media-stories in which age-group is significant. I've taken these from popular newspapers for ease of reproduction, but I hope these 'fixed' texts will illustrate at least part of what goes on in the more complex 'moving' text of television, especially in view of TV's own ambiguous boundaries with its media neighbours.

What would you think of someone who brutalized a goldfish, terrorized a cat (three times), assaulted his father, set fire to his aunt, vandalized a car, disrupted a social club, and pinched people's bottoms with a pair of pliers? Normally, this is just the kind of behaviour we are encouraged to think of as scandalous, and to associate with the excesses of youth. But not in this case. For as the (London) Sun (15-11-79) tells us, 'little imp Colin' is a child of three.

Leafing through the same newspaper, we come across someone who, at 21 years, is closer to the category of youth in age.

Further, this person is sitting at a school desk wearing virtually no clothes. Again, however, the action is not represented as scandalous. Quite the reverse, for of course this is a pin-up, and thus firmly within the realms of gendered sexuality. The girl may be (must be) youthful, but the representation is addressed to adult men.

Despite the reputation of youth, then, it is not violence or overt sexuality as such that constitutes the problem. The problem is that youth transgresses the naturalized limits of both childhood and adulthood. In anthropological terms it is a rite de passage, a crossing of boundaries, and that means it becomes the subject of taboo, and is subjected to ritual and repression.

Here is the (London) Sunday Mirror of May 17th 1981.

The whole story is a ritual condensation of boundary transgressions and scandalous categories. It is set in that special place and time—the seaside on a Bank Holiday (although in this case it hasn't actually happened yet; it's 'next weekend'). Since we are in the presence of an affront to logic, the story is presented irrationally, as 'disturbing', frightening', and as about 'aggro', 'victims', 'fear', and 'thugs'. The transgressors themselves are represented as 'Britain's young tribes', 'sworn enemies' and 'like animals', and in the pictures, as Nazi-sympathizers whose appearance is precisely tribal; even their faces look like masks, and their clothes and haircuts are all paraded to confirm our worst fears. The story itself comprises a succession of transgressions: of speech (they swear); of the peace ( they fight); of patriotism (they parody the national flag); of politics (they're racists and admire Hitler); of sexuality (they stir up murky psychological depths); of gender (the women swear and fight); of marriage (they insult a happy young couple); of the home (they live alone with a naked light bulb, greasy plates and a crinkled picture of Hitler) and of sobriety (one of them at least gets drunk whilst being plied with pints of lager by the reporter).

Mixed up in the unfolding of all these transgressions are almost all of the seven types of subjectivity I've mentioned. Of course, the story is not encouraging its readers to identify with the skinheads. But it is not just a matter of excluding them as 'foreign', or as unlike us since that would not implicate the reader in the various identifications. I think there is an (ex-nominated) WE:THEY binary in play in the story's mode of address, but once again the object of attention, youth, is significant precisely because it transgresses it. The skinheads certainly aren't 'us' but they're not foreigners either (which is why they're 'frightening'). The reporter can talk and even joke with them, and he gets invited to bedsit and pub. He purports to understand and even like them: 'playing with the body is one of the great preoccupations of the young. They can be bright, chirpy, quick-witted'. He pities them, and advises us to do the same: 'for their lives are very, very empty'. He fancies the girls too: 'Many skinhead girls, with their close-cropped hair, sparse make-up and skin tight around the cheekbones, can look totally breathtaking—making you wonder what murky psychological depths in you they are stirring up'. None of these concessions would be possible if the skinheads really were alien 'tribes' of 'animals' ....

In fact one of the appealing aspects of this story is the uneasiness of its movements between the skinheads and 'all of us': 'All of us may lose our tempers, lash out when provoked, or fight in self defence. But skinhead violence is different'. As the story thinks through the transgressions of the skinheads, then, it establishes boundaries between 'we' and 'they' identifications. It establishes a narrative point of view which takes for granted—ex-nominates—the 'we' identifications it requires its readers to access in order to make sense of the story in its own terms. Thus, the skinhead girls mark the limit of sexuality for women, and it is not without significance that the story is written from a male point of view whilst speaking for 'all of us'. This point of view carefully distinguishes between those girls who look 'totally breathtaking' and those who, 'with their loud-mouthed effing and blinding and their constant egging on of the blokes to fresh violence, seemed to me totally unwomanly'. In another instance, what the skinheads do with the national emblem is distinguished from 'all I understand our national flag to stand for'. And so on.


It seems to me that this is a highly risky strategy if the story's scandalized tone is taken at face value. Carefully separating the transgressors off from 'us' is of course one good way to encourage fantasy identifications, but quite apart from that there is another risk too. The strategy generates far more meaningfulness than it can control. Ambiguous categories are by definition more meaningful than the two (or more) categories they transgress, since they partake of the attributes of both. On television, the more complex modes of representation generate an even greater excess of meaningfulness, since TV signifies by colour, motion, sound and time as well as by pictures, words and composition. All these are variously affected by their internal juxtapositions and their external relations with discourses and social relations off-screen. Thus, beyond the social risk (of encouraging love rather than hate, attraction rather than repulsion), there is a semiotic risk which is even more fundamental. For excess of meaning and overlapping opposites are among the defining characteristics of madness, or at least of non-sense. It is hardly surprising, then, to find television itself characterized by a will to limit its own excess, to settle its significations into establish ed, taken for granted, common senses, which viewers can be disciplined to identify with. Disciplining is done partly by television's conventionalised codes of composition, lighting, movement, narrative, genre, etc., and partly by 'external' limits such as those professional, legal and other exclusion devices which limit who and what gets on air.

However, I would argue that television can never succeed in its will to limit its own excesses of meaningfulness. For in order to think through abstract problems associated with various kinds of categorical ambiguity, television must necessarily scandalize the overlapping boundaries. In order to limit meanings, then, it must first produce excess. It does this in both fictional and factual programmes (so much so that the separation of fact from fiction is another abstract binary which has a 'dirtier' boundary than is commonly admitted). In fictional programmes, characters rarely act as mere persons. Usually they signify some mighty opposite like man:woman; individual:institution; good:evil; active:passive; efficient:inefficient; normal:deviant; nature:culture; rural:urban; heart:head; etc. (A recent example of a text which unfolds its narrative by means of an unusually obvious series of such binaries is the film ET). So the bar-room or bedroom brawl is ritual condensation of the opposites being distinguished and thought through. Action sequences are 'calculating machines' and their outcome is as 'pure' as a mathematical QED. But meanwhile, of course, the action itself may be as 'dirty' or excessive as the budget allows. The raison d'etre of programmes—especially news—is scandal, conflict and the disruption of normally settled categories. Internally, such programmes make sense by producing abstract binaries (we:they, etc.) which serve as the ex-nominated point of view from which the particular event or person can be recognized as ambiguous marginal, scandalous and hence newsworthy. In short, television's signifying practices are necessarily contradictory—they must produce more than they can police. Concomitantly, for the viewer, the discipline of the 'preferred reading' must be disrupted continuously by the presence of the very ambiguities it is produced out of.

It seems then that the signifying practice of mainstream, broad cast network television is not so much to exploit as to control television's semiotic potential. The ideological strategies it uses continuously to draw the line between categories are, I suggest, the 'test' that should constitute the object of analysis. Both in general and in detail television's efforts to make signification into sense, representations into reality, and to interpellate this rather than that reader-subject, raise important theoretical and political issues. And these include its strategies of inclusion and exclusion; the ex-nomination of dominant identifications and the marginalization of 'emergent' ones—the attempt to clarify ambiguous categories whilst scandalising their overlaps; using the 'power' of ambiguity to collapse or condense different social identities into each other in order to represent them as naturally fused- and the transformation of different identifications, and different scandalous categories, into each other. Such analysis would, of course, be impossible if these ideological strategies actually worked—the analysis is founded on the active contradictions within television discourse.


Television's active contradictions can in fact be quite revealing, and the kind of analysis I am suggesting—which, I confess, I'd like to call Videological Analysis—offers principles by which we can select from TV's 'dirty' texts and social relations those that reveal what television is up to, as opposed to those that reflect back to us our inherited or established presumptions about what a text should look like. Here are one or two brief examples. The main commercial TV news (ITN News at Ten) for 25-10-82 in Britain carried as its lead story an item about two kidnap/murders in Northern Ireland. Despite the obvious political implications of this, the story was not made sense of in terms of nation, nor of ethnicity, nor of class, but almost exclusively in terms of family. Verbally, the story foreground ed the numbers of children each of the two victims had, and described details of their family situation, including how one was identified by a watch his family had given him for his birthday, and how many 'orphans' the killings had produced. Visually, one of the men's daughters was filmed against a domestic background, a bishop was filmed inside one of the men's home, and the reporter did his closing piece to camera in the setting of a residential street. ITN's textual strategy, then, was to disarticulate the Troubles from any national/political discourse and to rearticulate them in the discourse of domesticity. In this context, the events are literally senseless, and this is how they are described in the story. Interestingly, the source of this description—'a cycle of senseless depravity', and 'vicious primitivism in its most depraved form'—was that of Authority in the shape of the R.U.C. and its Chief Constable. The local bishop was also quoted as expressing his 'horror' at the 'acts of violence'. These accessed voices of Authority allowed ITN to accomplish the double move of ex-nomination and marginalization without appearing to 'editorialize'. The 'acts of violence' themselves, together with their history, politics, agents, etc., are marginalized with the strongest possible rhetoric—depravity and primitivism, senseless and horrible. Meanwhile, the category of the family is ex-nominated—it is taken as self-evidently the 'natural' point of view from which to observe the events. Without having to deny that such events are horrific, it can be said that these discursive strategies belong to ITN and to television rather than to the events, and that 'we' are being 'in formed' more about the ideology of the family than about Northern Ireland's troubles.

Similarly, political and industrial news offers a point of view that is television's rather than 'ours' (the viewers) or 'theirs' (the participants in the event). Again, families are foregrounded, usually as victims, and usually in the guise of 'consumer'. The parties to industrial disputes are sorted out by both camera and narrative point of view into 'we' and 'they' positions. But just as youth is ambiguous in this repect—it is both 'us' and 'them'—so too are the initiators of negative action (strikers). They partake of the attributes of foreigners (the paradigm example of which are of course the Russians), which is what makes them scandalous. I have followed the semiotic fate of both strikers and political opposition elsewhere (Hartley, 1982, chapters 4 and 7).


It may by now be apparent that this paper too is ambiguous as to its boundaries. I am aware that the material I have introduced has been excessive and is not entirely under my control—certainly there is more to say about the examples I've used than I've said. Perhaps finally I should try to clean up some of the remaining dirt. The point about dirt, crudely, is that it encompasses notions of ambiguity, contradiction, power and social relations all in one. This strikes me as a helpful condensation, since part of my purpose here has been to show that our analytical discourses tend sometimes to operate with categories that are too unitary, pure, abstract and clear cut, especially in a field of study that holds as axiomatic that nothing is intrinsically anything, but that entities are defined negatively by what they are not. Working back through my argument then, I've tried to show that television is a prolific producer of meaningfulness, which it seeks to discipline, by prodigious feats of ideological labour, into familiar categories which it proffers to 'us' as appropriate identifications for our subjectivity to access. But I've also tried to suggest that television's meaningfulness is, literally, out of control. For instance, despite rearticulating the N. Ireland story into the discourse of domesticity, the news could neither ignore nor silence all of the event, some contradictory aspects of which were even able to erupt into and disrupt the 'text'. Even as the daughter-scene established a powerful chain of family-significations, the drone of an unseen military helicopter above provided an appropriate metaphor for all the absences the 'videological' text itself sought to repress. It is at this point that my argument can be referred to the concept of hegemony. It is by now well established that television plays its part in the diffusion of consent for a power monopoly—not least in its own social relations of production and consumption. However, the concept of hegemony should not be collapsed into the old 'pure' text:reader binary where there's a clear-cut division between the hegemonic text and the subjected reader. Hegemony is a good deal dirtier than that—it's not just a matter of 'them' telling 'us' what, how and when to think. Television is not just videology—- it's also a resource. There are contradictions even in its most confident assertions of the supremacy of 'natural' categories, and there are marginal places and times on television where 'common' sense slides into 'good' sense. Even as it is presently constituted, television's productive capacity cannot be policed at every point. And what it says depends on how you look at it. Even so, how you look at it depends on what it says. And this brings me back to the beginning of this paper, where I suggested that what any one viewer can bring to bear on a TV programme is a combination of discursive resources. Such resources are determined by the same social relations as are represented on television, and by institutions such as education. They will, of course, include aspects of the hegemonic (hegemony is a social relation, and hence an at tribute of the individual bearers of that relation) which is what makes hegemony 'dirty'—it's an attribute of 'us' not 'them'. But television plays a part in distributing and popularizing hegemonic discursive resources too—it is a discursive and representational resource. One way of demonstrating just how potent it can be is to take each of my seven types of subjectivity in turn, and try to access one of its marginal, nominated, scandalous identifications whilst watching mainstream TV. How can you watch the news and, at the same time feel yourself to be a non-unitary self, and/or a woman, and/or a youth, and/or outside 'the' family, and/or working class, and/or Welsh, and/or black? You will soon, I think, discover that television is not addressing you at all, and that it does encourage certain social relations and discourage, deny or marginalize others.


One regular response to these discoveries is to develop an understandable but, I think, mistaken hostility to television. This response would take television not for what it is but for what it sometimes aspires to be—a private conversation between two friends, excluding outsiders from their private world. But television is not like that. It is social, public, open. It is for this reason that I want to open up the apparently closed frontier between television and the power of speech itself. I think it is possible to argue that the power of speech should no longer be seen as the primary model for all signification and communication, but as a primitive technology that occupies in the economy of sense-making the sort of position that wood-burning does in the economy of energy. Speech may, historically, be one of the original forces of production, but it has been industrialized and transformed in line with other forces. Like them, it is barely recognizable in its modern form: the power of speech is now the electronic media in general and television in particular. Its source is no longer (if it ever was) the individual human subject, but social. It is characterized by socialized production and family/individual consumption; by a division of labour between and within producers and consumers; and by the exchange of a 'subsistence wage' that is just sufficient for the sense-making economy to sustain and reproduce itself and its social relations—the 'wages' of common sense. Speech is, of course, supposed to be exempt from all these impure influences, because of its general availability and individualized production, but I don't think it is (or ever has been). The example of television, in fact, leads to questions about speech—about who has appropriated, historically, the power to produce discourse (make speeches), and how speech as a force of production has been organized socially in relation to the prevailing mode and phases of production. It also suggests that in speech, as in television, there are marginalized, muted and scandalized identities for subjects whose powerlessness entails that the only means they have to hand to represent themselves represents them as marginal, muted and scandalous.

The reason why I want to pursue this line of thought is not to discredit speech. On the contrary, the notion that speech is more like television than is commonly realized allows for some highly embarrassing questions to be asked. It would be truly scandalous to discover that whole sections of the population were systematically being denied access to the power of speech by a power bloc of professionals and their allies in commerce and government. But this is just the situation that obtains in television. Conversely, the model of television suggests that the discourse is socially produced and disciplined in ways that our sentimental attachment to the individualism of speaking only masks. Speech, too, is a power relation, but we need to be reminded of that fact by the 'poor relation' whose productive power is greater than that of speech but whose reputation has been 'scandalized' by segments of the very power bloc that operates it. Could it be that this behaviour itself signifies that television is beyond the control of its controllers, that its potential for socialized sense-making is being resisted because TV isn't a 'boob tube', 'goggle-box' or any other dangerous, silly or contemptible thing, but a valuable weapon that is currently in the hands of those who despise but must use it in the struggle to maintain cultural supremacy?


It seems to me that because television's productive and social relations are industrialized it is clear that little can be done to alter those social relations in isolation from others. But equally it seems wrong to abandon the medium to its own kind of 'free market' of meanings. And there are signs that determined efforts can produce changes, even in the face of state and commercial hostility. The signs I have in mind include two recent British television ventures: Channel Four (a new national network) and Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C—a new network for Wales which broadcasts in Welsh during peak hours). Despite commercial hostility (from advertising agencies, the ITV companies, etc) Channel Four has been instituted with a parliamentary mandate to provide 'experiment and innovation in form and content' across the range of its programmes. It prioritizes 'minority' programming, foreign language films, etc. S4C is the direct result of a decade of militant, direct-action campaigning by Welsh language activists in the teeth of sustained government hostility. In both cases there's plenty to worry about (see Blanchard and Morley, eds, 1982), since neither venture is exempt from the prevailing climate of what TV 'should' be like, and in both cases there are power relations and struggles whose outcome is not always encouraging. But both of them have an institutional commitment to putting marginalized groups and ambiguous categories a little closer to the centre of the screen. I take these to be encouraging signs.

The Polytechnic of Wales


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Author's note: This paper was originally presented orally, and signs of this previous form will appear occasionally as palimpsests under its written surface.

Webmaster's note: This paper was published in revised form in John Hartley, Tele-ology, Routledge, London & New York, 1992: 21-42, as 'Television and the power of dirt'; and in the USA in Willard D. Rowland & Bruce Watkins eds 1984, Interpreting Television: Current Research Perspectives, Sage, Beverly Hills.

New: 30 June, 1997 | Now: 23 April, 2015