John Fiske: Understanding Popular Culture • “Culture” is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our social experience. • These meanings produce a social identity. • Culture making is a constant process, and it is a distinctly social process. • All meanings that are produced in our particular culture are in context of a particular social system. • This social system is stratified – it is dominated by certain groups who have relatively more power: whites, males, wealthy capitalists. • The dominant ideologies of our society emanate from these categories more than others. These dominant ideologies affect the preferred or dominant-culture readings of media texts.
Ideology • However, there are alternative or oppositional ideologies, too. • Oppositional ideologies are more likely to emanate from social categories that are ranked near the bottom of our social stratification system: racial minorities, women, the poor, etc. • Alternative or oppositional readings of media texts are more likely to emanate from these groups – the subordinated.
Popular Culture • Because culture relates to the social system and to its power structure, culture is inherently political. • It is centrally involved in the distribution (or possible redistribution) of social power. • “Popular Culture” is made by various social categories who are subordinated or disempowered in some way by the social system. • It emanates from people who lack some of the privileges that social power provides.
Mass Society, Stratification and Dominant Ideology • The larger or mainstream culture of a society will tend to reflect the meanings and interests of those categories that have the most power in society. • Those groups in power have various resources of society at their disposal to assure that their ideologies, values, and myths are visible throughout the mainstream culture. • Our mass society reflects the interests of the “superordinates” – the dominant categories within the social stratification system – particularly whites, males, and the rich.
Mass Culture vs. Popular Culture • In the mass culture, the mainstream way of life involves everyday “Betty Crocker” or “cookie cutter” lifestyles that presume certain preferred readings of media texts. • The “Betty Crocker” norms of everyday life are sufficient for most people, particularly those who do not feel disempowered by the social system. • Popular culture, however, is made by people who lack some of these societal resources. It is made by subordinates within the stratification system who do feel somewhat disempowered. • The Betty Crocker lifestyle – the cookie-cutter lifestyle - doesn’t work for them.
Popular Culture is Contradictory • Because Betty Crocker is rejected to some extent, subordinates seek to make their own culture. • To do this, they must appropriate the existing resources provided by the very social system the disempowers them. • Popular Culture is therefore contradictory, because it uses the resources provided by the dominant social system – but it uses them in ways that are not intended by the dominant social system. • In other words, these people are purchasing Betty Crocker brownies, but they are choosing to not follow the directions provided by Betty Crocker on how to cook these brownies. They are making something that fits their own subculture.
The Dominant System Provides lots of Resources • The dominant social system provides lots of resources in our culture: cars, clothes, TVs, games, language, shopping malls, music, sports, etc. • These resources carry the interests of the dominant social categories. They subtly reinforce the hegemony of their interests. • For example, the English language subtly reinforces patriarchy. It has so many words against women, and so few against men. • However, if appropriated into the popular culture, these resources may by modified to carry contradictory messages. • Feminists, for example, may use the term “whore” against men and thus “liberate” the word from its patriarchal connotations.
Excorporation and Incorporation • Excorporation: this is a popular culture term for when an item of the dominant culture is modified to “fit” the interests of subordinate groups in the social system. This liberates an alternative meaning of that item. • Incorporation: this is when members of society accept the preferred meaning of an item – the Betty Crocker or mainstream definition that carries the interests of the dominant groups. • To follow the Betty Crocker cooking instructions to the letter is to incorporate those instructions. But if they are modified by subordinate groups to fit their own interests they are excorporated.
Excorporation • To be adopted, the cultural commodities of the dominant culture must appeal in some way to the interests of ordinary folks – they must seem appealing to the subordinated. • For a product to become “popular,” ordinary people have to be able to fit it into their own lives. In the act of “fitting it,” people modify it. • This modification process is called excorporation. • Because people modify the resources made available to them, there is always an element of popular culture that lies beyond the control of the elite.
Popular Culture • Popular culture is always a culture of conflict. It involves a struggle to make social meanings that “fit” the world of the subordinated using the resources provided by the very groups who do the subordinating. • Essentially, popular culture is when the dominant culture is reconstructed and “made popular” by various non-elites. • The same resources, like television, can serve both the elite and the subordinated.
Popular Culture • Popular culture is that culture made by the subordinated out of resources provided by the mass society in which these resources are excorporated to fit the interests of the subordinate. • The meanings of popular culture can never be identified from the cultural resources alone. The meanings arise when these resources are taken and inserted into the everyday lives of non-elites, who excorporate new meanings from them. • There is an abundance of polysemy, because the same item of culture may mean something different to different people, and it may be used differently too.
Resistant Popular Culture • Popular culture is made in relationship to the structures of dominance. This relationship can take two forms: Resistance and/or Evasion. • Resistance involves making resistant meanings. • For example, when teenage girls adopt a definition of Madonna as a liberator from patriarchy (she asserts sexual independence), they have adopted a resistant meaning. • The emphasis in resistance is on creating alternative readings to the preferred reading of a media text or an item of culture (such as Madonna). • Creating alternative readings produces a form of pleasure called productive pleasure. New meanings are produced in a creative way.
Resistant Meanings • Making resistant meanings, or making alternative readings of media texts, is the first step toward developing an oppositional ideology to the status quo. • This is significant to Marxists because Marxists argue that one must develop a class consciousness of collective resistance to achieve a revolution and remake the social system. • John Fiske is not a Marxist, however. He argues that resistant meanings are not necessarily “revolutionary” rejections of the status quo. They are simply alternative meanings. But they do fertilize the groundwork for social change and may lead to class consciousness.
Evasive Popular Culture • The other form of popular culture is Evasion. Evasion involves evading or avoiding the hegemonic influence of the dominant social system. • The evader ducks out. Fiske’s example is the subculture of surfers who develop their own lifestyle (with nicknames) apart from mainstream expectations to “get a job” and “settle down.” People who evade seek to remain independent from the dominant culture – not to change it. They are typically apolitical pleasure seekers. • The pleasures they seek are independent from society and societal expectations. Evaders tend to emphasize the pleasures of the body. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, when done to the extreme, produce evasive pleasures.
Resistance and Evasion • Whereas resistant popular culture is mostly about producing alternative meanings (even though these meanings bring some pleasure), evasive popular culture is mostly about producing alternative pleasures. • In evasive popular culture, the message is often to “party” or “get high” and one must do this away from authority figures.
Summary • Resistant popular culture is associated with productive pleasures – creating new meanings. • Evasive popular culture is associated with evasive pleasures – pleasures of the body that are outside the limits of “dignified” mainstream society like sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll that are done to the extreme. To surfers, bikers, and hippies, it’s about the rush. • It is also about avoiding the hegemonic “discipline” of mass society with its bureaucratic rules and regulations – the “rat race.”
Hegemonic Pleasure • Popular culture emphasizes two forms of popular pleasures: productive pleasures and evasive pleasures. • There is a third form of pleasure, and it is associated with the dominant culture. Hegemonic pleasure is the pleasure of conforming to the rules. • It is the pleasure of “discipline” in which we reveal that we are capable of playing by society’s rules and thus pleasing authority figures like our parents, teachers, bosses, etc. • While popular pleasures involve resisting or evading the rules, hegemonic pleasures are the pleasures of conformity to the rules. Every child who has been toilet trained knows this pleasure.
The Shopping Mall: different meanings, different pleasures • The meaning of the shopping mall resides in the interrelationship between the resource and the user. • The dominant culture meaning of the Mall is that it is a cathedral of consumption. One is expected to be a proper consumer. The “good shopper” shops properly - on credit – and achieves a hegemonic pleasure. • However, in our stratified society, poor people cannot easily achieve this pleasure. Indeed, poor people are not welcome in shopping malls. Yet despite the security guards there are poor people at the mall. And there are suspicious teenagers there too who are not shopping properly. What are they doing there?
The Shopping Mall • Marginal people may use the mall for alternative purposes than shopping. They may be there to merely window shop, or to meet friends, or just to use the space. These users are not consumers. They may simply be using the mall to duck out from school (evasive popular culture) and/or to reject its preferred meaning in favor of an alternative meaning, thus engaging in resistant popular culture. • There are even shoppers at the mall who are not Betty Crocker shoppers. The teenage Goth shopper is purchasing tons of black makeup to make a statement of (popular culture) resistance against the dominant culture. It is easy to find hegemonic, productive and evasive pleasures at the mall.
Popular Culture is fluid and diverse • Popular culture is the culture of the subordinate who resent their subordination at some level. • They may avoid the system, they may “trick” the system, they may redefine the system, or they may openly reject the system. • Those who evade or resist the system are not one unified homogenous group. Popular culture is loose, fluid, and diverse. They same people who “tricked” the system one day may behave “properly” the next day. Popular culture has a guerilla resistance nature to it.
Fight the power! • To John Fiske, while many people are “passive dupes” (conformists) of industrial capitalism and its dominant ideologies, many people are not. They are active choosers of which products to buy, which TV shows to watch, and which information to believe in. • In our mass society, there is a constant interplay of power and resistance to power. • Much of this struggle is a struggle for meanings. What is the dominant culture meaning of a poor black person in the ghetto? Do these blacks accept this definition, or do they fight back with alternative definitions?
Popular Culture is everywhere, and it is often vulgar • Popular culture is full of resistances – puns, vulgarities that assault elites, jokes, parodies – anything that doesn’t conform to the “disciplined” social order that the social system encourages. • The use of vulgarity in hip hop culture is often to send a message of resistance against “mainstream” white-dominated society. This is an “in-your-face” resistance that says “we don’t play by your rules.” • Indeed, youth culture itself is filled with vulgarities in the face of “repressive” adult norms. It is even possible for adults to enjoy these vulgarities. They may read an anti-aristocracy statement in youth culture vulgarities that they too identify with.
Mass culture and popular culture • Hal Himmelstein is worried that popular culture is a culture of subordination in which people have been massified into dupes of capitalism and its dominant myths. • Himmelstein is concerned about the effects of “mass culture” and does not differentiate it from what Fiske calls “popular culture.” Himmelstein is a “mass culture” theorist. • Fiske differentiates between mass culture and popular culture. • Mass culture is produced by elites and their corporations and serves the interests of elites. It is the “assembly line” culture of the mainstream, such as found on Top-40 radio.
How dupified are the masses? • Popular culture is produced by subordinates out of resistance to or evasion of mass culture. • Fiske argues that mass culture theorists underestimate the extent to which popular culture works as an agent of resistance against the dominant groups in society. • Fiske does not see people as passive and opiated, although he concedes that some are. He sees active interpreters who evaluate using different criteria than those provided simply by dominant ideologies.
Resistance is not futile • Fiske sees everyday acts of deviance in the mall, at school, on the job, at the theater, in sports arenas, etc. • They may not take the form of an organized social movement, but they are resistant. • These everyday acts of defiance provide fertile soil for more organized and visible challenges to the status quo to emerge. • To Fiske, evasion is the foundation of resistance, and resistance is the foundation of a social movement that can dramatically change society. • He likens this to a kind of guerilla warfare in which anyone at any time can engage in deviant behavior and sent a message of resistance or evasion.
Popular Culture is Empowering • The beginning of political empowerment is the ability to think differently. This is the source of resistance. • This resistance results from the desire to exert control over the meanings of their own lives. People who are subordinated face the problem of more powerful groups defining them. If they allow this, they lose their self esteem and can become passive. • Resistance is empowering. When one takes control over their own defining process they gain self esteem, and this confidence leads to more visible actions of resistance. • A guerilla resistance may appear minor, such as getting a risqué tattoo that is disapproved of by society, but it seeds empowerment.
Comparison of the Economic Model (Himmelstein) with the Cultural Model (Fiske)EmphasisEco. ModelCult. Model
The Jeaning of the World • Jeans were developed in America and have become so popular throughout the world that they have become a world symbol of American culture and values. • When jeans are adopted in the popular culture of other countries, these cultures excorporate new meanings for the jeans. • Yet they also bear traces of their “Americanness.” • The export of jeans contributes to the Americanization of the world, but these cultures do not become American. They pick and choose aspects of “Americanism” that they identify with.
Containment • Fiske argues that popular culture is everywhere and that excorporation is very common. • When subordinated groups use resources in a new way, and this underground style becomes popular at the grass roots level, the corporate producers of the resources must resort to the process of containment. • Manufacturers quickly exploit the popularity of the underground style by reproducing it in the factory and marketing it as “hip” or “the next big thing.”
Containment • Fiske gives the example of torn jeans. The original torn jeans were done by ordinary hippies who simply wore out their clothes rather than replace them with “new” store-bought jeans. Hippies don’t believe in consumerism, and the torn jeans came to symbolize this counterculture. • But the very popularity of torn jeans made them attractive to corporations, who began to offer factory-beached, factory-torn jeans as the “next big thing.” The process of adopting the signs of resistance into the dominant system is an attempt to rob them of their oppositional meanings – to co-opt them.
Containment • To the economic model - the model emphasizing incorporation - these signs of opposition are turned to the advantage of the manufacturers, so that the wearing of torn jeans becomes a way of extending consumerism rather than a way of opposing consumerism. • Fiske argues the problem with this model is it fails to recognize that there is a huge difference between a person who wears their own torn jeans (as a statement of resistance to the corporate machine) and one who wears factory-torn jeans (as a statement of conformity to what the corporate machine dictates as “hip”).
Containment is never fully successful • Containment, says Fiske, is never fully successful because resistors simply move on to create new styles of resistance. • Corporations are constantly trying to catch up with these underground styles. • They pay close attention to these resistors and evaders emanating from the streets, from high schools and colleges, from the ghettos, from tattoo parlors, music clubs, and other dives, and from youth culture in general. • Popular culture fashion and music is always ahead of the mass culture versions of their products.
Popular culture and mass culture • There are basically two cultures operating simultaneously in our society – popular culture and mass culture - and they are connected through this process of containment. • At the grass roots level, ordinary subordinates seek to create their own identities and make new fashion, music, language, sports, and other styles to reflect these efforts. • At the mass culture level, corporations market copy-cat versions of these styles which are slightly modified to be safe for the status quo. • Corporate rock music is not the same as underground rock music - it has been factory bleached to be safe for mass marketing.
Adaptation, not adoption • To Fiske, popular culture is made by the people – not produced by a culture industry. • It is in the self-interest of large corporations to massify, to promote dominant ideologies and myths, and to offer standardized assembly-line products. But these behaviors and messages do not go unopposed. • The opposing forces transform or excorporate mass made products into new cultural resources. In doing so, the opposing forces pluralize the meanings of that particular commodity. • The culture of everyday life is found in the process of adaptation (not adoption) to the imposed systems brought forth by the powerful.
Tactical Consumption • One form of adaptation is tactical consumption. • In our society, everyone is a consumer, so everyone feeds the machine of corporate capitalism. • Yet the act of consumption can be detached from the strategies of capitalism. A consumer might use a commodity to make a different statement than the one intended by the product’s manufacturer. When this is done, it is called tactical consumption. • An example was given earlier of a goth subculture consumer who buys and wears outrageous makeup on purpose in order to send a message of resistance. This is a tactical consumption.
Popular Culture is Inclusive • This is not to say that a member of a dominant group cannot participate in popular culture. They can and do. But to do so, they must reform their allegiance away from those that give them their social power. • It is also possible that a wealthy white male might identify with the plight of the Jews, or be a feminist, or be aligned in some way against some aspect of the power structure. • Our social statuses are complex, and our loyalties are complex. • Any product offered by the mass culture may be used or interpreted in a popular culture manner, and almost anyone can do this.
Empowerment • The key motivating force behind popular culture is the desire and pleasure of producing one’s own meanings and pleasures, while avoiding or resisting the “social discipline” imposed by the dominant forces in society.
Evasive Pleasure • Evasive pleasure usually focuses on the pleasures of the body. It is extra-social. • Ecstasy, bliss, the orgasm – these are all pleasures which are associated with the loss of self. • The self is socially constructed and therefore socially regulated. The loss of self is therefore a form of evading the socially-constructed self – it is a form of evading societal control. • In the pleasures of the body, we are all equal, and this insight poses a threat to any hierarchical social system.
Evasive Pleasure • In the moment of orgasm, or any bliss, the temporary loss of one’s social identity produces a momentary unique identity apart from society. • This temporary bliss may be induced by drugs, orgasm, loud music, surfing, skydiving, rhythmic dancing, chanting, praying, or even singing in the shower. It is a distinct “body high” and it has nothing to do with society and its rules and everything to do with our nervous system. • At this moment, one may sense a temporary oneness with others or even a spiritual awakening that is related to this new extra-social identity.
Evasive Pleasure • Regardless of how it is achieved, these evasive pleasures attract the forces of social discipline because they threaten the status quo. • These experiences are totally subjective and beyond the manipulative power of dominant groups to control. • This is one of the reasons why there have been so many attempts to control and discipline the expression and experience of sexuality. • Women’s sexual pleasure, and even masturbation itself, has been restricted by the forces of social power. In the Victorian 19th century, it wasn’t “civilized” for a woman to achieve orgasm.
Evasive pleasure • To be “civilized” is to be disciplined by the rules of society. And a Christian or Victorian society allows only certain forms of pleasure. • Therefore to experience these bodily pleasures is to refuse to be socially controlled, at least momentarily. • This temporary experience is empowering because it reminds us that there are aspects of ourselves that lie beyond the laws of society. • Fiske argues that evasive pleasures produce the energy and empowerment that underlie the production of resistant meanings. They are a foundation.
Productive pleasure • Whereas evasive pleasures center on the body, productive pleasures center on the mind. • Creating resistant interpretations, such as by using an alternative interpretation of a mainstream TV show, produces a productive pleasure. • Embarrassing elites is a common popular pleasure. Much of our tabloid culture offers plenty of opportunity for productive pleasures. • Empowerment comes from producing your own meanings from the available cultural resources and making them relevant to the everyday world.
Strategies of Discipline • The industrialization of the 19th century produced extreme social class divisions, and the worlds of the rich and the working class were extremely different, as were their consciousnesses. • These differences constituted a threat to the ability of the wealthy to control the social order for their own interests. • Consequently, the disciplinary energy of the wealthy was directed toward trying to control or contain the leisure activities of the lower classes. • The significance of leisure for the working class is that it is an activity that lies beyond the workplace and is therefore not directly controlled by the company manager.
Strategies of Discipline • Consequently, the dominant classes developed strategies to control the leisure of the working class – to control or try to manipulate their conditions of pleasure. • There were two main strategies: • 1. Repressive legislation to actually stop the behavior. Cockfighting, for example, could be outlawed. • 2. Containment of their “vulgarities” into socially acceptable formats. Wrestling and boxing could be subject to rules and officials in order to “civilize” them and bring them under the control of the dominant classes.
Strategies of Discipline • In the popular culture of this era, the popular recreations were either blood sports like cockfighting or carnivalesque festivals such as annual fairs and sports events. • Historically, where popular behavior exceeds social control, it tends to be defined as immoral and as a threat to “civilized” society (in other words, elites). • This is true to some extent, because all popular culture is inherently subversive to the status quo. • The pleasures and excesses of the body, such as drunkenness, sexuality, drug use, idleness, rowdiness – these were all seen as threats to the social order. They were “undisciplined” behavior.
Strategies of Discipline • While drunkenness and sexual promiscuity were frowned upon if they occurred in the world of the aristocracy, there were not seen as threatening. This same drunkenness in the working class, however, was perceived as threatening by elites. • So an old peasant ritual characterized by public drunkenness and rowdy behavior – the holiday we now call Christmas - might be appropriated – or contained – and turned into an official holiday. In its 19th century version, this holiday was to be earned by the industrial worker for being obedient to the boss. Pass the spiked eggnog… please. • Actually despite efforts at containment, many of us still get drunk and rowdy over Christmas.
Strategies of Discipline • Wrestling was also a popular working class sport that was subject to containment. Wrestling was appropriated into a ring, with an official who would assure that “civilized” rules would apply. • The dominant class sought to turn wrestling into a “controlled recreation.” Their goal was to turn a “vulgar” activity into a “respectable” activity. • Despite the attempt by the dominant classes to control (or contain) the lower classes, these efforts have had limited success. People still get drunk and rowdy, and wrestling is still pretty vulgar.
Wrestling as popular culture material • Indeed modern wrestling makes a parody of rules and officials, signaling working class contempt against elites. Wrestling is filled with intentional bad taste and degradation, just as hip hop is - and for similar reasons. • Today, modern wrestling is similar to the medieval carnival. It is intentionally uncivilized – a place where rules are made to be broken. In wrestling, the referee is not powerful, and even the wrestler’s body borders on the grotesque. • A sign of popular leisure is when the people themselves participate in the activity, and in wrestling the fight always spills out into the stands.
Wrestling as popular culture material • Wrestling, therefore, is a parody of the world of the upper class, where they laugh at the “wimpy” aristocrat. • This is why wrestling still appeals mostly to the working class. It is they who are subject to the rules of elites. • Therefore, this audience enjoys a sport of excess, where the cheaters and ugly characters win and where the guy who plays by the rules loses. • We expect insults and vulgarities in wrestling because they symbolize a refusal to be tamed by the elite forces of “discipline.”
Conclusion • To Fiske, popular culture is progressive in the sense that it challenges the status quo and its pecking orders. • It is micro-based rather than macro-based, and it reflects everyday statements that reveal a desire for self-determination and self-expression in the face of social hierarchies. • While it is not a direct ideology of revolution, it provides the soil for social change and for revolutionary ideologies to emerge. • To Fiske it is wrong to assume that because people are not in a state of class consciousness, then they must be in a state of false consciousness.