John Fiske on the Politics of Aesthetics
On (the) Wisconsin Discourses, Part Two (Part One, Here)
What political investments are written into discursive analysis?
The previous post in this series looked at how “discourse” became a foundational concept for Media and Cultural Studies at Wisconsin. Concisely stated, the term “discourse” is used as an abbreviation for how cultural groups adjudicate upon and incorporate information into frameworks of belief over time. Central to this approach is the supposition that the most sustainable opportunity for organizational change occurs during the formation of consciousness. In Emeritus Professor John Fiske’s work, reference to the term discourse carries several political assumptions indebted to the Birmingham School regarding the agenda of media and cultural studies research:
1) Social and political change occurs most sustainably in the superstructural sphere, among belief systems and within conditions of identity formation; 2) Identity formation is subject to what codes and meanings are available in cultural circulation, be it through media, education, politics, or the popular; and 3) Cultural messages can be collected and then assessed, or mapped, among other coherent belief systems for the purpose of strategic intervention.
Put differently, media analysis for John Fiske consists of identifying how coded messages circulate and correspond to other meanings. Central to this orientation, it is assumed that social change can be observed in cultural circulation before it has taken the status of official knowledge or institutional precedent. If a specific practice has become dominant, it will still resist ossification and can be addressed through appropriate tactics. With reference to study of the effects macro-conditions such as regulation and industry ownership, discursive analysis favors evaluation of the everyday practices, meanings, and strategies reflective of consciousness and perspective. “Mapping” is a bottom-up method developed for the purpose of empirically identifying traces of dominant and emergent consciousness in information, opinion, and intention. A cultural studies project is fundamentally based in the hope that researcher literacy of this selection process be utilized for political mobilization.
What is the relationship between media literacy and aesthetic analysis?
Perhaps the most misunderstood element of Fiske’s work is his contention that aesthetic and political domains are never mutually exclusive. Aesthetic construction is, for Fiske, a fundamentally deliberative process directed at circulation. Since screen, image, text, and interpretation are filtered through discursive lenses, aesthetics cannot be divorced from ethical and political considerations. Representations are in the first place constructed with conceptual concerns, be it profit, advocacy, or depiction. And he believes that there are tools for tracing how those concepts become tangible practices and consequent reference points for social engagement.
Fiske argues that political will can be viewed in part among contours of discursive circulation, such as television, popular culture, etc. He claims that traces of consciousness can be seen both implicitly and overtly within how information is conceived, created, and positioned. Groups identify with, resist, or attempt to affect flows of cultural circulation within circulation itself. And in this way, the “understanding” of media adds a tool for political planning.
Which information has the capacity to infiltrate hybrid circulating spheres of political investment relies heavily upon how perceived confluence is interpreted by the internal “sense” of a discursive formation. That pleasure is taken in the consumption of media, for example, depends upon the quality of the artifice of communicative or representational impact, and to how many different outlets, messages, and interpretative channels information is received.
Discursive analysis of media is directed at mechanisms beyond ordered discipline or ideological reproduction at varied productive and interpretive processes. Analysis begins with tangible codes, methods of production of those codes, and distributive practices. To account for the complex processes surrounding media, Fiske proposes something like Richard Hoggart’s concept of “drift” literacy. Fiskean media literacy evaluates how different cultural information is filtered and comes into contact among public and popular spheres.
An act of production can be evaluated for the quality of its creative use of technology, performance, and affect. But for Fiske aesthetics refers to the way that content design serves as a façade for political will. He’s much closer to Bourdieu’s notion that aesthetic evaluation is indicative of one’s place in a social field, than say Kant’s argument that aesthetics are synthetic judgments based in a priori cognitive structures. Either position would be quite different than the assumption that Fiske advocates for a low media effect framework. An audience is not automatically or merely “active”; cultural analysis requires that a discursive formation carry historical engagement with cultural logic and hold coherent views for how to reconcile social contradictions. A discourse cannot spontaneously materialize out of shared habits of consumptive reflection, regardless of the degree of reciprocation between audience members or content manufacturer.
Hence Fiske’s “literacy of media aesthetics” may be thought about as critical evaluation of the artifice and strategies of discursive circulation. For a discourse to sustain, it must be recognized among a social field. And a social field is always embedded within future-directed political struggles over perspective, belief, and material relations. Research into “discourses” includes evaluation of how groups, industries, and individuals develop and interpret coherent codes of framed perspective. Since information is coded by methods of production while inflected with conditions of interpretation, developing tactics for political intervention requires sophisticated literacy of cultural institutional practices.
The next post in this series will look at how the concept ‘discourse’ has been examined by several faculty approaches to research into ‘circulation’.