John Fiske on the Politics of Aesthetics

October 9, 2012
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John FiskeOn (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’.


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2 Responses to “ John Fiske on the Politics of Aesthetics ”

  1. Colin Burnett on October 9, 2012 at 2:14 PM


    I have only a casual understanding of Fiske, so these posts are proving to be quite useful. Now, a question, and an objection, regarding an issue you raise in the third to last paragraph–Fiske’s aesthetics versus those of Bourdieu.

    Some historians, and I count myself among them, read a statement like this and begin to wonder about how Fiske arrived at certain conclusions that he did:

    “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.”

    Does he just posit this? Cultural analysis may require x, y, or z. But that doesn’t make it so. More specifically, as a historian of film style like myself–one who has affinities for elements of discourse analysis and for those figures, like the cultural historian of art Michael Baxandall, who very much influenced Bourdieu–will wonder how it is that Fiske comes to reason that viewers aren’t “automatically or merely ‘active.'” (And I wonder what you mean by “mere,” incidentally.) This, it seems to me, is NOT something that can simply be posited by an analytical approach; it is itself an empirical question.

    In other words, the relationship between viewers and culture is complex. Here, viewers may be more active; there, “culture,” or forces working on individuals with or without their cognizance, approval or control, may play a more prominent role. In addition, this is empirical from a cognitive science perspective. One could investigate the extent to which viewers’ choices affect outcomes in their own viewing, and by extension in the cultural products then created for their consumption.

    These questions and concerns would seem to be vital in considering whether Fiske’s aesthetics can do explanatory work.


    • Josh Shepperd on October 10, 2012 at 6:17 PM

      Colin, two thoughts:

      1) the notion of ‘active audience’ refers to a couple possible readings. the first reading, as you note here, is the unusually complex way that an individual receiver of information will interpret codes, information, aesthetic production, etc. the second reading, which i try to address in this post, refers to the assumption that social change emerges _necessarily_ out of social contradictions due to the complexities of production, distribution, and interpretation. the pejorative way that the ‘active audience’ paradigm is usually attributed to Fiske refers more to the latter question here — otherwise stated as the notion that dialectical progress is made merely through acts of reception regardless of political will. the problem with this argument, if Fiske indeed makes it, is that it allows for any affirmative or critical viewpoint to serve as activity, relativizing the purpose of social justice methodologies. if Fiske’s critics read him correctly, they are right that we cannot just assume any act of reception or consumption to be dialectical, especially anti-democratic interpretations of information. but i offer that Fiske has been misinterpreted in part because he is less invested in a specific political project. his work is more directed at devising a methodological logic for ‘reading’ information. as i write in the first post of this series, this doesn’t excuse flaws in argument, but i do hope that it clarifies a longstanding misconception about the tradition he’s working in. by looking at the more general intellectual history of his arguments, it should be quite clear that he’s a birmingham thinker dedicated to a slower long-term form of political intervention. and i do think he’s one of the more sophisticated readers of how ‘circulation’ works in the tradition.

      2) on the point of the sustainability of his argument, i broach the question of media literacy to point to a central claim of his work — that social processes can be viewed tangibly in acts of depiction, representation, and circulation. any aesthetic reading regardless of its novel or sophisticated qualities, according to Fiske, is already immersed in a ‘discursive’ logic and has consequently been coded for some kind of social reception. if his claim about aesthetics is correct is, of course, a worthwhile question. i do reject perspectives that artificially separate one form of judgment from larger deliberative processes.