Fiske Matters


I am writing from a classroom that I spent many hours in in the 1990s, in Vilas Hall at University of Wisconsin. The occasion is Fiske Matters, a conference in honor of the ten-year anniversary of John Fiske’s retirement from academia. John was one of my graduate school mentors, and a key touchstone in both my research and teaching – and for those who don’t know the discipline, he is one of the major figures in creating the field of media studies in American in the 1980s.

The conference has been a reunion of John’s students from Wisconsin, and a celebration of his contributions to both the field and many of our individual lives. John himself gave his first academic presentation in a decade, an account of the emergence of the enlightenment self in 17th century Europe – a far cry from his analysis of television and contemporary culture, but a connection to his current life as an antiques dealer. It was tremendous to be in the audience, seeing John slip back into his role of master thinker and educator, and offering a reminder of what inspired me to become a media scholar and teacher nearly two decades ago.

Below is the manuscript of the talk that I gave this morning, discussing how John’s work on 1980s television applies to the work of contemporary television storytelling that I’ve been working on, prefaced by some personal reflections on how John’s mentorship directly shaped my career and outlook on teaching and scholarship. As always, feedback welcome.

Updating Television Culture for the Digital Era: From Hart to Hart to YouTube

Like many participants here, this conference is a homecoming for me, having attended graduate school in this building from 1994 to 2000. And given how formative that experience was for me both as a person and scholar, allow me some personal reflections to preface my talk. Without a doubt the primary reason that I am a media scholar today was my random encounter with John Fiske seventeen years ago. As a recent college graduate trying to eke out a living in Minneapolis, I took advantage of one of the few perks of being an underemployed administrative assistant at the University of Minnesota: free classes. In Fall of 1993, I was a future academic in search of a field, so when browsing through the catalog for evening classes that might help point me in a scholarly direction, I was intrigued by a course called Media and Popular Culture. Given that it was the ancient days before the World Wide Web – although being Minnesota, we did have well-developed Gopher resources, if any fellow old-timers remember that online precursor – I knew nothing about the instructor, a visiting professor named John Fiske. But I took the course on a lark, thinking that if nothing else, it should be fun.

For those of you who have had the pleasure of taking courses from John, you know that it was indeed “serious fun,” with equal emphasis on both words. That course awakened me to a field that I’d never encountered, and through John’s example, I quickly found my academic niche. Thankfully, I also found a mentor willing to take a risk on me – due to some shoddy GRE Verbal scores, I managed to get rejected from every graduate program I applied to that spring… except one. Wisconsin accepted me – I assume in large part due to John’s reassurances – and thus I followed John on his then-frequent migration down I-94 from Minnesota to Madison. Looking back, I’m eternally grateful for the other rejections, as I have no doubt that studying with John and the other excellent faculty and graduate students here at Madison was the best choice I could have made, had I had the chance to choose.

What made John’s teaching so inspiring might be encapsulated in that phrase “serious fun.” John took the serious material of daunting theoretical writing and made it fun, teaching us how to puzzle through dense discourse and see the core insights that often transformed our perspectives on the world. John taught theory as dialog not dogma, never adhering to one firm position, but modeling a mode of inquiry that always looks to find the useful insights in any theory and apply them to a range of cultural objects. And he took the fun materials of popular culture and made them serious, looking beyond surface frivolities – but never dismissing them – and helping us illuminate the significance of what many simply ignored or condemned. As per the title of this conference and his last book, John always emphasized why things matter beyond their first glances, whether it was abstruse French theory or frivolous music videos.

Given that my position at Middlebury College emphasizes undergraduate teaching, I try to live up to John’s pedagogical model everyday, and regularly fall short. I cannot replicate his truly impressive style – each class, John would sit down at the head of the seminar table or lecture hall, ask a student where we left off last time, and then lead a masterful guided tour of cultural theory without notes or looking at the assigned readings, incorporating student questions as part of the dialogism that he both taught about and modeled through his teaching, and leaving us with a clear understanding of that which seemed opaque an hour before. John’s academic legacy is broad and deep, leading the growth of both media studies and cultural studies in the United States, and establishing many of the key theoretical models and questions for the field to this day. But for those of us educated in Vilas Hall, and presumably the other places where John taught, his most profound influence was found in the classroom as a model for both how and why we should teach students to think about popular culture.

While John’s teaching has been absent from classrooms for a decade, aside from the inadequate cover-band versions that I and his other students try to emulate, his writing lives on – and with forthcoming Routledge reissues of many of his key books hopefully prompting readers to return to his work. John’s written voice comes close to capturing his pedagogical talent to make complex arguments accessible and highlight the complexities of seemingly simplistic cultural objects. However, I have noticed that despite my admiration for and debt to his written work, I assign almost no Fiske to my students. My thoughts about why point to the actual topic of this paper.

John wrote in the present tense, encouraging his readers to engage with the most mundane and common aspects of popular culture. In this regard, he looked to answer the key question that Stuart Hall poses as the task of cultural studies, per the late theorist Marvin Gaye: “What’s going on?” John looked to understand what was going on at the time of his writings, providing us with a vivid snapshot of the cultural politics and media practices of everyday life in the 1980s and 1990s. Not surprisingly, many of the aspects of everyday life that he used as his tutor texts were not to become the canonized, most remembered objects of 1980s television history, such as Hill Street Blues or Cheers, but the ephemeral everyday popular texts that would otherwise be forgotten, like Hart to Hart, Sale of the Century, and Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. For students today, reading these accounts challenges them to connect with the objects of analysis as much as with the theoretical ideas John argued via his accounts. I have found that this double disconnect makes many of these writings less than effective for students, as they cannot recognize the insights stemming from John’s analysis of these unknown and dated texts that were once simply taken for granted as familiar.

While I do not frequently assign John’s writings directly, I find myself teaching and building on his ideas quite frequently – often through the contemporary work written by my generation of media scholars trained and inspired by Fiske’s paradigm of media studies, many of whom are in this room. Thus for the rest of this presentation, I want to make some explicit connections between the writing and teaching I’ve been doing for the past few years on contemporary television storytelling and Fiske’s seminal account of the medium in Television Culture. I recognize that much of my narrative work may seem resolutely un-Fiskean, with a focus on formal structures and questions of aesthetics and evaluation rather than explicit accounts of cultural politics and semiotic struggles. But I would counter on two fronts: first, Television Culture has a broader scope than its most cited focus on active audiences and polysemy, containing foundational accounts of television narrative, genre, character, and form that I try to build upon in my own work. Second, John’s work so thoroughly reframed our discussions of television aesthetics and textuality that when I and others return to some of these issues, we are trying to chart a new mode of post-Fiske televisual analysis, not to return to a naïve pre-Fiske model. Thus while Fiske might not be the citation of first resort for many contemporary television scholars, we cannot take any work seriously that does not recognize and respond to a Fiskean understanding of television.

Take for instance Fiske’s concept of the “producerly text.” Building on Barthes and Eco, Fiske suggests that television programs are open to a range of meanings and sites of engagement in an accessible, popular way rather than an avant-garde distancing common within literature’s writerly texts: “The producerly text… relies on discursive competencies that the viewer already possesses, but requires that they are used in a self-interested, productive way…. It draws attention to its own textuality, it does not produce a singular reading subject but one that is involved in the process of representation rather than a victim of it, it plays with the difference between the representation and the real as a producerly equivalent of the writerly mixing of documentary and fictional modes, and it replaces the pleasures of identification and familiarity with more cognitive pleasures of participation and production” (95). Fiske goes on to highlight how the segmented form of television, with ad breaks and serialized episodes, encourage this engaged viewer to fill-in gaps, create intertextual connections, and resist closure typical of more monosemic readerly texts.

This description of textual engagement does not read as dated in the least, but the program used to exemplify the idea, Hart to Hart, neither registers as culturally accessible to readers today, nor seems as open and available to active viewer participation in the context of contemporary television. If the producerly text of the 1980s was one in which active viewers could selectively poach and resist dominant meanings, many of today’s producerly texts offer far more extensive opportunities for viewers to engage their “discursive competencies.” If the signs of producerly viewer participation in the 1980s were the subcultural manifestations of fandom, via zines and conventions, or occasional letters to producers or TV Guide, such practices appear quaintly disengaged to us today. This is not to suggest that fans of the 1980s were any less engaged or active in their participatory efforts, but that in today’s context, the spectrum of engagement has shifted such that many of the cultural practices hailed as resistant and participatory in Television Culture do not resonate as such with today’s readers and fans.

I’d contend that this shift in our horizons of engagement stem from both the obvious growth of the Internet as a platform to make fannish participation broadly accessible and mainstream, and the simultaneous emergence of television textual forms that have ratcheted up their producerly possibilities. One mode of today’s television – although certainly not the only one – that fosters producerly participation is the narratively complex primetime serial form that I have been writing about for the past few years. Much like Fiske’s description of the producerly text, these serials foreground their own textuality and intertextuality, embrace open ambiguity over closed certainties, and create fictions that trigger the “cognitive pleasures of participation and production.” Today’s television fans find themselves engaged with programs that invite their participation, via textual openings for collective problem-solving and critical conversations, and have access to tools that facilitate what I have called “forensic fandom,” via the platforms of blogs, wikis, YouTube, and social networking that facilitate producerly engagement at a level hard to fathom in the 1980s.

There is a good debate to be had as to whether the expansion of producerly elements in television texts has co-opted the politics of viewer resistance that Fiske emphasized – can we regard the participatory act of collectively decoding a map offered by the producers of Lost as a resistant cultural practice? I would say probably not – but even as such narratively complex shows provide and reward licensed opportunities for forensic fans to engage in collective problem solving, the critical communities and skills developed around such participatory practices can be turned against the dominant meanings of the shows. Fan communities form to trek down the transmedia trailheads provided by producers, but once gathered, they might turn their forensic abilities to question a show’s racial politics, seek out spoilers to counter the dominant narrative structure, or rally against the network’s incorporation of advertising within a tie-in game, all practices I have seen within the Lost fan community.

Another key concept from Television Culture that has become more important in today’s television culture is tertiary textuality. Fiske defines tertiary texts as those “that the viewers make themselves out of their responses, which circulate orally or in letters to the press, and which work to form a collective rather than an individual response. This is then read back into the program as a textual activator” (124). Although we have seen an exponential growth in fan-produced texts over the last decade that certainly function as collective responses and textual activators, this description and the examples in Television Culture of oral conversations and fan letters seem too narrow to speak to today’s wealth of both digital and physical paratexts. For students who may consume, comment on, and produce fan vids, fan wikis, and television blogs, or collect and create television tie-in merchandise, a letter-to-the-editor does little to speak to the power of a “textual activator.” Likewise the boundary slippage between primary, secondary, and tertiary texts in an era of network-sponsored fan remix videos, or co-existing official and unofficial alternate reality games, might suggest that these terms have become meaningless in the digital era. But I would argue that even though the specific examples might no longer be apt, the conceptual distinction between officially-sanctioned and fan-originated paratexts is all the more crucial today to understand the negotiations between fans, producers, and channels over intellectual property, narrative canon, and interpretive frameworks.

Finally, I want to turn to Fiske’s categories of masculine and feminine narratives and genres. Although The A-Team and Dynasty no longer resonate as paradigmatic examples – although Hollywood’s penchant for mining the depths of television history for story ideas means that nothing is dated forever – the crucial questions and distinctions drawn in Television Culture still matter in how we conceive the relationship between gender and genre. Looking back, Fiske’s distinction between masculine and feminine television might appear too stark and determined, as certainly gender has always been blurred both within programming norms and viewerships. However, if we consider them dominant poles if not absolute characteristics of gendered texts, Fiske identifies major tendencies that still matter, contrasting the feminine facets of narrative deferment, emotional process, and character complexity, with masculine norms of exclusively male professional spheres, conclusive actions, and narrative closure.

Television Culture does not present these poles as an either/or choice, exploring genres that actively mix gender norms, like wrestling and music videos. But I believe contemporary complex narratives foreground this mixture even further within the realm of fiction, actively combining the traditionally feminine serial form with more masculine genres of action, mystery, and professional drama. Fiske acknowledges that this process was well underway in the 1980s, with landmark cop dramas Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey; however, the heightened presence of online fandom today allows us to see such mixtures in much sharper light, and the expanded terrain of serialized plotting complicates the assumed link between serial form and soap opera melodrama.

One good example is Veronica Mars, a mix of the female-centric teen drama highlighting romantic and familial relationships, with the neo-noir crime procedural typically framed as masculine. The series opens by positing teenage Veronica as a hard-boiled cynic, solving crimes and condemning romance, while surrounded by a cast of male characters who often surpass her in sensitivity and sentimentality. In terms of narrative pleasures, many of the show’s core storylines fit more neatly into the masculine mode of action and detective drama than the effeminate realm of romantic melodrama. While Hill Street Blues and other primetime serials of the 1980s focused their serialized plots on traditionally feminine relationship and character arcs, keeping the masculine crime and professional plots more episodically contained, the new breed of complex narratives weave serialization into all realms of their plotting. Veronica Mars features heavily serialized mysteries as well as character drama, blurring assumed gendered appeals into a fictional world that actively questions the presumed gender norms of its characters, and, by extension, its viewers.

We can see such gendered mixtures spilling into television fandoms as well, as exemplified by the debates around the final season of Lost. More than any other successful series, Lost has typified the ludic logic of narrative complexity, inviting its fans to treat the show as a puzzle to be solved via the collaborative tools of online tertiary texts. While this forensic fandom might be seen as typically residing in the masculine realm of fanboys – and I should note that many active Lost puzzle-solvers were female – the show also offered an array of traditionally feminine pleasures, with ongoing relationship dramas and characters coming to terms with their emotional pasts. For much of the show’s run, the assumed fanbase could be viewed as split between feminine shippers and masculine forensic fans, an oversimplified characterization that was never really accurate, but served as cultural shorthand for the more multifaceted and muddy world of Lost‘s global fandom.

The balance between these gendered modes of engagement came to a head in the final weeks of the series. As forensic fans clamored for answers to the island’s endlessly deferred mysteries, the show veered away from puzzles in favor of emotional payoffs, providing closure on character arcs rather than resolving its complex mythology. The split reactions amongst fans certainly did not break down along gender, as many male bloggers praised the finale and female critics critiqued the lack of answers, but the reactions speak to the ways that complex serials can serve as the site of competing expectations that are linked to gendered assumptions if not bodies. Fiske’s foundational work might not so neatly map onto television genres as it did in the 1980s, but his framework of gendered pleasures and practices still can still help us make sense of contemporary programming.

Television Culture may no longer offer an apt analysis of what’s going on in American television today, but its conceptual frameworks such as tertiary textuality, gendered appeals, and producerly texts, along with many others, are still essential tools in the theoretical repertoire of television studies. One of my key lessons from John comes not from his theories or teaching, but from the way in which he handled his critics, of which there were many. Instead of ramping up his rhetoric to decry the way his work was misread, caricatured, or decontextualized – which is how I read most of the critical backlash – John positively reasserted his vision of culture and media, with greater attention to aspects that his critics seemed to have misread. Thus in response to some recent discussions criticizing that work like mine focusing on questions of narrative and form ignores the political context of cultural studies, I want to highlight how my work is rooted in the foundation of Fiskean media studies and its take on the cultural politics of popular television. In this model, politics is always present, and even if they are not foregrounded in the analysis, they are always a relevant concern. I believe there is a way to return to some of these questions of form that Fiske addressed back in Television Culture, but in an updated approach that takes the lessons of post-Fiske media studies and applies them to today’s television culture. I hope that by making these connections explicit in this presentation, I’ve started to make the case for why such work matters, and why Fiske’s work may not always be explicitly cited, but is always framing the discussion.

4 Responses to “Fiske Matters”

  1. 1 Hudak

    It is truly amazing that one man’s insight into the complex web of gender context in television programs can be applied to virtually any one show coming to our screens in the near future. I’m coming to appreciate the level of understanding held by Fiske if his studies not only apply to what programs he directly observed, but to allow for the construct of gender types to form a template of characteristics that holds true time and time again.

  1. 1 Disjointed Observations » Blog Archive » Fiske Matters 2010 & the Gender of Genre
  2. 2 Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters « Cultural Learnings
  3. 3 Thoughts on teaching theory to undergrads « Just TV

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