Fiske's assessment of the 'radical' approach

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Semiotic subversion - John Fiske

In the English-speaking world, perhaps the most enthusiastic proponent of de Certeau's essentially optimistic view of oppositional readings has been John Fiske.

Fiske's assessment of the 'radical' approach

Like de Certeau, Fiske recognises that the dominant classes' strategy is to impose their preferred reading. He recognises our debt to the critiques produced by the radical tradition:

On the one hand we need to focus on the deep structure of the [popular] text in the ways that ideological, psychoanalytic analyses and structural or semiotic analyses have proved so effective and incisive in recent scholarship. These approaches reveal just how insistently and insidiously the ideological forces of domination are at work in all the products of patriarchal consumer capitalism. When allied with the work of the political economists, and the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School they expose, with terrifying clarity, the way in which the economic and ideological requirements of the system determine, and are promoted by, almost every aspect of everyday life.

Fiske (1989) p.105

However, the work of these critical theorists is, ultimately, a dead end:

... to confine ourselves to this focus alone is not only to cut ourselves off from an equally important area of culture in capitalist societies, but also to confine ourselves to a position that is ultimately debilitating in its pessimism. It may justify our righteous distaste for the system, but it offers little hope of progress within it, and only a utopian notion of radical revolution as a means of changing it.

Fiske (1989) p.105

People's generation of their own meanings

Fiske firmly rejects the following assumptions:

  • that capitalist industries produce a variety of products whose variety is finally illusory because they all promote the same capitalist ideology

  • that any text conveys the same message to all people

  • that people are 'cultural dopes', a passive, helpless mass at the mercy of the capitalist 'culture industry'

  • that the only thing different people and different social groups have in common is baseness, so that art which appeals to a wide audience can only do so by appealing to base instincts.


In Fiske's view, the fact that there is such a wide variety of capitalist voices is in itself evidence of the successful resistance of the subordinate classes against the homogenising force of capitalist ideology.

What has been neglected are precisely those guerrilla raids which the ordinary reading public carry out on the texts produced by the dominant culture:

The complementary focus is upon how people cope with the system, how they read its texts, how they make popular culture out of its resources. It requires us to analyse texts in order to expose their contradictions, their meanings that escape control, their producerly invitations; to ask what it is within them that has attracted popular approval.

Fiske (1989) p.105

A text is the site of struggles for meaning that reproduce the conflicts of interest between the producers and consumers of the cultural commodity. A program is produced by the industry, a text by its readers.

Fiske (1987) p.14

An example of the wide variety of resistive readings which is often quoted by media commentators is audience reception of Dallas, in part because it had huge ratings in the USA and must have reached a socially diverse audience and because it was widely exported and therefore offered researchers an opportunity to study its reception in widely differing cultures. In support of his approach, Fiske quotes that research:

Ien Ang (1985) for example, found a Dutch Marxist and a feminist who were able to find pleasures in the program by finding in its excess of sexism and capitalism critiques of those systems that it was apparently celebrating. Similarly, Katz and Liebes (1984 et seq) found that members of a Jewish kibbutz were clear that the money of the Ewings did not bring them happiness, whereas members of a rural North African co-operative were equally clear that their wealth gave them an easy life. Russian Jews, newly arrived in Israel, read the program as an intentional self-criticism of the American way of life - a sort of capitalist confessional. Indeed, typically, each of Katz and Liebes' fifty different ethnic viewing groups was able to separate their pleasures in, and meanings of, Dallas from the American capitalist ideology that apparently informs the program so centrally. Buying the programme does not mean buying into the ideology.


In Fiske's view, some commentators have mistakenly assumed that the top-downness of the financial economy means that the cultural economy has a similarly top-down operation. For such commentators Bourdieu's notion of cultural capital has unfortunately been misleading because it implies that the financial and cultural economies operate in the same way. Fiske is keen to emphasize that the cultural economy and the financial economy do not work in the same way.

Bourdieu's institutionally validated cultural capital of the bourgeoisie is constantly being opposed, interrogated, marginalised and ignored in a way that economic capital never is.
This popular cultural capital can maintain its relative autonomy because the financial economy can exercise control over only a fraction of it. However hard the forces of capital attempt to control cultural production and distribution, there will always be a zero-capital production and circulation system that remains finally and defiantly outside their control, if not beyond their influence: I refer, of course, to that one called 'word of mouth'.


In a culture which is predominantly literate and where vast amounts of communication reach us through the mass media, oral communication is virtually of necessity oppositional, 'one of the prime media through which these subordinated groups have resisted incorporation, have maintained their social difference.' (1987b). Talk works to adjust the dominant readings incorporated in media texts to suit the needs of the communities in which it is practised.

Certainly, Fiske's view seems to be supported by the results of a range of recent studies. In their study of ethnic Israeli audiences of Dallas Katz and Liebes demonstrated how discussion of the programme served to reinterpret it in terms of the community's needs in their own lives. Mary Ellen Brown has shown how the conversation networks surrounding TV soaps serve the same function for the women who watch them (see the section on Soap Opera and Women's Talk). Rosella Tursi's brief study of the reception of Beverley Hills 90210 (available at the excellent Media Tribe website) has demonstrated how various categories of audience members watch the show together, discussing it and generating for it meanings which suit their purposes. Tursi examines an audience not intended by the producers, namely 'intellectuals' in their early twenties rather than the young teens the show is made for. The results of Tursi's research suggest for example that gay men watch the show for the pleasure they take in what they see as the show's exaggerated gender stereotypes. Two drag queens interviewed by Tursi actually dress like the characters Kelly (Jennie Garth) and Brenda (Shannon Doherty) in the show, commenting, 'We do really know them! We are them!' (Tursi (1996)). Drag queens identify with the characters in Beverley Hills 90210, Grease is a lesbian cult movie. Is there any limit to the interpretations media users can make? When I think of a student of mine who, after watching the shower scene from Psycho, commented on Hitchcock's use of colour, I sometimes whether it isn't possible that every one of us can read any media text radically differently from everyone else. However, most of the work being done in this area is beginning to show patterns of interpretation as different audiences draw on different interpretive repertoires.


The generation of meanings by readers of popular texts in their guerrilla tactics of resistance to the dominant order is essentially progressive, in Fiske's view. Hitherto, there have been, very broadly speaking, two ways of looking at popular culture. From the point of view of the liberal pluralists the popular is seen as the result of a voluntary consensus; from the point of view of the 'radicals', it is seen as the dominant classes imposing their priorities on the masses. Either way, popular culture is seen as operating to maintain the status quo. Fiske, on the other hand, sees the generation of oppositional meanings as emancipatory. Perhaps, initially, only at the micropolitical level - for example, he quotes the example of a woman whose reading of romantic novels empowers her to resist the patriarchal demands made upon her by her marriage (in this connexion see the section on Janice Radway:Reading the Romance). He is prepared to argue, however, that these minor resistances in the minutiae of the everyday may

act as a constant erosive force upon the macro, weakening the system from within, so that it is more amenable to change at the structural level. One wonders, for instance, how effective the attempts to improve the status of women would have been if it had not been for the constant erosion of millions of women working to improve the micro-political conditions of their everyday lives. It is arguable that the needs of the people are better met by progressive social change originating in evasive or interior resistance, moving to action at the micropolitical level and from there to more organized assaults on the system itself, than by radical or revolutionary change.

Fiske (1994) p. 12

What is intriguing about Fiske's studies and the many studies which his work has inspired is that the increasing insistence in such studies on the positive force for progressive change found in audience resistance has been paralleled in the 'financial economy' by increasing inegalitarianism, increasingly oppressive labour legislation, increasingly retrogressive social welfare legislation and the triumph of global capitalism. During precisely the period when one might have expected cultural studies to have been paying increased attention to the financial economy and the way that it structures the cultural economy, defining the agenda within which supposed resistance can take place, it has in fact often focused exclusively on the pleasures of consumption. In some cases, it has almost felt as if some of the studies were intended as the academic left's consolation prize snatched from the ruins of the initially left-inspired project of cultural studies: the punters might have voted for Thatcher, Reagan, Chirac and Kohl, but look, they're all right really - they're resisting. So, why didn't they resist more effectively by voting someone else into power? Jim McGuigan rightly suggests that it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the position adopted by Fiske and that of the various right-wing economic think-tanks in 'this theoretical convergence of an exclusively consumptionist cultural populism with right-wing political economy'. (McGuigan 1997 : 142)


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