Revisiting the Political Dimensions of John Fiske’s Work

September 5, 2012
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On (the) Wisconsin Discourses: Part One (Part Two, Here)

Why has the term discourse served as such an influential moniker in Madison for the analysis of cultural phenomena?

This series will look at an overarching research theme pursued by Media and Cultural Studies faculty over the past 25 years at the University of Wisconsin. While faculty topics have varied widely from media theory to industry history to the study of content reception, a shared current can be found through the overlapping interrogation and usage of the concept discourse. “Discourse” has been used in multiple theoretical systems since the 1960s, perhaps most famously by Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams, each who hold contrasting views regarding its meaning. To attempt a general and overlapping definition of the term (that’s open to debate), a discourse refers to: 1) material and ideological practices coordinated by coherent and often non-dominant systems of belief and affiliation, and 2) the structure of internal reference points, assumptions, and reasoning patterns endemic to a specific group, communicated with reference to and relative autonomy from an economic ‘base’. Discourse has not only acted as a concise descriptive marker for cultural phenomena but has exemplified a social justice orientation to qualitative research deserving of continued attention.

The term appeared with earliest regularity during the tenure of John Fiske—a foundational figure in American cultural studies who taught in the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin for 12 years. Fiske holds the unusual distinction of being both a deeply influential and widely disparaged figure in the field of media studies. Many of the criticisms of Fiske have stemmed from the notion that he depoliticized the overtly political methodologies of the Birmingham School. Yet a revisiting of his corpus, especially how he utilized the concept discourse in Power Plays, Power Works and Media Matters, reveals genuine engagement with the political dimensions of culture. Whether or not he succeeded at formulating a sustainable argument is certainly open to debate, but the widespread assumption that his work lacked an ethical agenda demands reinvestigation and close reading.

What are the political dimensions of institutional, textual, and receptive mapping?

While Vincent Mosco has persuasively pointed to overlapping socio-ethical goals between political economy and cultural studies, there are genuine differences. Central to the political economic tradition is an examination of the political effects of industrial practices. By looking at how laws and examples of institutional sustainability create tangible precedents for future regulatory and informational approaches, political economy endeavors to address policy deliberations and effect change in the present. Cultural studies, in contrast, calls upon a current of cultural Marxism that believes in change as slowly elicited through interventions over spheres of identity formation.

According to this position cultural formations monitor and adjust to available meanings, practices, and affiliations, which Raymond Williams calls determinants. Determinants are learned through evaluation of the circulation of information by cultural spheres over educational, communicative, and public spaces. A discourse forms, aligns, and reforms when necessary through selective self-structuring in response to circulating determinants. A discourse positions itself in regard to circulating determinants, and in turn circulates its own beliefs among informational spheres. Eventually determinants take a life of their own through circulation as active, tacit, and hybrid forms that can then be selected by future groups as conditions for consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent condition that signifies awareness of available meanings, but it can also be located in tangible real-world practices and relationships as a motivational logic.

Rather than asking how consciousness is mediated into circulation, Fiske offers the unusual reversal of assessing how circulation is mediated to other discursive formations. In other words a discourse must circulate into informational spheres to persist. A discursive formation is not a tangible social force until it has been recognized as circulating. Mediation, in contrast, occurs as the condition of social recognition, or reception, within a broad social sphere.

Hence a central tenet of Fiske’s work is the argument that political change takes place foremost through processes of circulation to other proximate cultural groups. Examination of the ‘distance’ between sites of circulation and specific discursive formations, or mapping, helps to identify what groups and messages are visible in circulation, and helps to measure general conceptual proximity between groups. Indeed the strongest legacy of Fiske’s work, also to be attributed to David Morley, has been empirical analysis of the matrices in which media is disseminated and received.

Admittedly hilarious roasts such as David Bordwell’s—that there is an element of cultural studies that believes it can change the world by watching television—are not entirely incorrect. The goal of such an approach is that it conceives of consciousness as something that can be evaluated in its traces amongst sites of circulation, especially media. The will to change cultural inequities is directly tied to what circulating determinants groups have access to during the political act of identity selection. Political economy’s attention to regulatory and institutional practices are crucial terrains of analysis; cultural studies additionally looks to every sphere in which consciousness may be mediated, especially widely circulating meanings found in popular culture.

Yet, while I would argue that Robert McChesney has underestimated this method, he and (Fiske student) Aniko Bodroghkozy are correct to voice concern that no inherent impulse is present in mapping to foment capacities for change. Mere mapping of phenomena in the cultural sphere, as Meaghan Morris points out, falls into the danger of reinforcing banal practice of dominant paradigms. Indeed it is a mistake to argue that the complexity of discursive circulation and selectivity is naturally subversive, and that the political project of cultural studies ends with a descriptive assessment of circulating messages.

But a much needed distinction needs to be made between critical evaluation of Fiske’s politically-directed empirical model for discursive analysis, and differences over political strategies on the left. A depoliticized form of mapping would be rightfully subject to many of these received criticisms. Fiske’s work relies upon the assumption that change in the cultural sphere cannot be elicited without a rigorous understanding of the contradictory beliefs and practices that allow for strategic intervention.

Part two of this series examines John Fiske’s method for political research on aesthetic circulation.

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3 Responses to “ Revisiting the Political Dimensions of John Fiske’s Work ”

  1. Kyle Conway on September 5, 2012 at 8:33 PM

    (I’m posting this a second time — I’m not sure if the original comment went through.)

    This is a great entry, Josh. There’s a lot to chew on, and I’m eager to see part two.

    Something I find bewildering about “discourse” as a theoretical term is how it relies on other terms (such as “identity,” as you show here) that are equally difficult to pin down. There’s something recursive about these definitions — one (“discourse”) points to another (“identity”) which points to another (I’d put “narrative” here), and it’s turtles all the way down. For me, this has something of a paralyzing effect — how do I intervene when the terms of my intervention are so ambivalent, or ambiguous, or even vague? I wonder how much of an effect this ambivalence has on our willingness to stop at the stage of mapping, rather than moving past it. A good map is necessary, but pursuing action based on that map involves a certain risk, in that it requires us to decide what we mean and to say it.

    • Josh on September 19, 2012 at 12:16 PM

      I thought a lot about your post, Kyle. I make two points in response:

      1. Translating a concept into practice assumes that the concept is coherent and well-enough considered to apply to material conditions.

      2. This being the case, you’re right that the concept of discourse carries a wide net that analytic or quantitative thinkers may deride for lack of precision.

      I offer that this is a different point than political will. The main criticism political economy and (general) Fiske detractors have posed is that the American “media studies” strain of cultural studies (of which he has become a straw man) has lacked a focused political will. My goal here is to frame Fiske in regard to his ethical concerns, as they are tied to cultural/political processes, of which the term discourse attempts to account for in abbreviation. In other words for Fiske politics are written into the methodology, which will be discussed in the next scheduled post (October 5th).

      I don’t think a lack of strategic intervention or directed political motivation can be traced to imprecision of language, although language is always a crucial contested site.

      “Cultural analysis” in a Birmingham tradition seems to denote the first step toward the possibility for mobilization. If specific adherents are invested in “next steps” is a fair question. A rigorous discussion of concepts and methods and where they originate, as you note here, has often served as a historical catalyst for political activity.

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