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Television Culture

“If you had to recommend a single work which applies cul-

tural studies clearly, comprehensively, intelligently and
generously to a major subject of inquiry, this would be it.”
Media Information Australia

“Fiske’s analyses skilfully trace the insertion of conflicting

social, economic, cultural and political ideologies within the
television text.”
Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Film Quarterly

This revised edition of a now classic text includes a new introduc-

tion by Henry Jenkins, explaining “Why Fiske Still Matters” for
today’s students, followed by a discussion between former Fiske
students Ron Becker, Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steve Classen,
Elana Levine, Jason Mittell, Greg Smith and Pamela Wilson on
“John Fiske and Television Culture”. Both underline the continuing
relevance of this foundational text in the study of contemporary
media and popular culture.
Television is unique in its ability to produce so much pleasure
and so many meanings for such a wide variety of people. In
this book, John Fiske looks at television’s role as an agent of
popular culture, and goes on to consider the relationship between
this cultural dimension and television’s status as a commodity
of the cultural industries that are deeply inscribed with capitalism.
He makes use of detailed textual analysis and audience studies to
show how television is absorbed into social experience, and thus
made into popular culture. Audiences, Fiske argues, are productive,
discriminating, and televisually literate.
Television Culture provides a comprehensive introduction for
students to an integral topic on all communication and media stud-
ies courses.

John Fiske is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Com-

munication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.
Also re-issued by Routledge:
Introduction to Communication Studies, third edition

Understanding Popular Culture, second edition

Reading the Popular, second edition


Television Culture

Second Edition

With new introductory essay on Why Fiske Still Matters,

by Henry Jenkins, and with a new discussion on the
topic of John Fiske and “Television Culture”, between
Ron Becker, Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steve Classen, Elana
Levine, Jason Mittell, Greg Smith and Pamela Wilson

London and New York

First published in 1987 by Methuen & Co. Ltd

This second edition published 2011

by Routledge
2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon 0X14 4RN
Simultaneously published in the USA and Canada
by Routledge
270 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2010.
To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s
collection of thousands of eBooks please go to
© 1987, 2011 John Fiske
Why Fiske Still Matters © 2011 Henry Jenkins
John Fiske and ‘Television Culture’ © 2011 Ron Becker, Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steve Classen,
Elana Levine, Jason Mittell, Greg Smith and Pamela Wilson
The right of John Fiske to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by
him in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any
form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented,
including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system,
without permission in writing from the publishers.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fiske, John.
Television culture / John Fiske.—2nd ed.
p. cm.
1. Television programs—Social aspects. 2. Television and politics. 3. Popular
culture. I. Title.
PN1992.6.F57 2010
ISBN 0-203-83715-0 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN10: 0–415–59646–7 (hbk)

ISBN10: 0–415–59647–5 (pbk)
ISBN10: 0–203–83715–0 (ebk)
ISBN13: 978–0–415–59646–6 (hbk)
ISBN13: 978–0–415–59647–3 (pbk)
ISBN13: 978–0–203–83715–3 (ebk)
To Lisa, Lucy and in memory of Matthew

acknowledgements xiii
why fiske still matters xv
Henry Jenkins
john fiske and Television Culture xlii
Ron Becker, Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steve Classen, Elana Levine,
Jason Mittell, Greg Smith, and Pamela Wilson
notes on contributors lix

1 Some television, some topics, and some terminology 1

The codes of television 4
Some terminology 13
2 Realism 21
The form of realism 24
Realism and radicalism 33
3 Realism and ideology 37
Popularity 37
Realism and discourse 42
Television and social change 45
4 Subjectivity and address 48
The social subject 50
The discursive subject 52
Addressing the subject 55
Psychoanalysis and the subject 59
x contents

5 Active audiences 62
Text and social subjects 62
Making meanings 65
Modes of reception 72
Gossip and oral culture 77
The social determinations of meanings 81
6 Activated texts 84
The polysemy of the television text 85
Open, writerly texts 94
Producerly texts 95
Segmentation and flow 99
Television and oral culture 105
7 Intertextuality 109
Horizontal intertextuality 110
Genre 110
Inescapable intertextuality 116
Vertical intertextuality: reading the secondary text 118
The tertiary text 125
Intertextuality and polysemy 127
8 Narrative 129
Realism revisited 131
Structuralist approaches to narrative 132
Mythic narrative 132
Narrative structures 136
Narrative codes 143
Televisual narrative 145
9 Character reading 150
Realist and structural approaches 152
Reading character from the primary text 156
Reading character: the secondary texts 165
Identification, implication, and ideology 170
10 Gendered television: femininity 181
Soap opera form 182
Disruption 183
Deferment and process 184
Sexuality and empowerment 186
Excess 194
Plenitude and polysemy 196
The feminine as decentered 198
contents xi

11 Gendered television: masculinity 200

The structure of the masculine A-Team 200
The absence of women 204
The absence of work and marriage 208
The A-Team as achievement 211
The phallus, the penis, and porn 212
Male bonding and the hero team 215
Gender and narrative form 217
12 Pleasure and play 226
Psychoanalysis and pleasure 227
Pleasure and social control 229
Pleasure, play, and control 232
Pleasure and rule breaking 236
Empowering play 238
Pleasure and textuality 238
13 Carnival and style 242
Rock ’n’ Wrestling 245
Style and music video 252
The pleasures of Miami Vice 257
Commodified pleasure 264
14 Quizzical pleasures 267
Game and ritual 267
Knowledge and power 269
Luck 272
Commodities 273
The active audience 274
Articulating quiz shows 275
15 News readings, news readers 283
The strategies of containment 285
Categorization 286
Subcategories 288
Objectivity 290
Exnomination and inoculation 292
Metaphor 293
News narrative 295
News analysis 298
The forces of disruption 304
16 Conclusion: the popular economy 312
The problem of the popular 312
xii contents

The two economies 314

Popular cultural capital 317
Resistance and semiotic power 319
Diversity and difference 322

references 331
name index 344
subject index 348

The name on the spine of a book identifies only the hand that wrote the
words. The voices that are assembled here are those of colleagues and stu-
dents whose work I have read, or listened to at conferences, and with whom I
have conversed to my enormous pleasure and profit over the years. I thank
you all. Those whose words I have quoted directly are, I hope, adequately
acknowledged in the references. Those others, whose input has been just as
important if less direct, must be content with a more generalized expression
of gratitude: they are mainly, though not exclusively, my colleagues and
students at Curtin University of Technology, at Murdoch University, at the
University of Iowa, and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In particu-
lar, the graduate students at Curtin, Iowa, and Madison have been intimately
involved in the development of these ideas: they will recognize many, and
may even feel responsible for some.
The individuals who have helped me directly include Bruce Gronbeck,
whose generosity with his time and expertise has been exceptional, Mary
Ellen Brown who has encouraged and criticized me every word of the way,
Graeme Turner, David Bordwell, Ron Blaber, Noel King, Graham Seal, and
Jennifer Garton-Smith. My secretarial colleagues, particularly Rae Kelly at
Curtin, and Evelyn Miller and Mary Dodge at Madison, have collaborated
with me so effectively that they have at least doubled my own productivity: I
wish all academics had colleagues as good as they.
I wish to thank, too, the benefactors of the A. Craig Baird foundation at the
University of Iowa and the Brittingham foundation at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison: the visiting professorships which their generosity made
possible have played important formative roles in this book.
I gratefully acknowledge the permission given by the publishers of the
xiv acknowledgements
following magazines to reproduce the photographs in figures 7.1, 7.2, 10.1,
and 11.2: Soap Opera Digest, Daytime Nighttime Soap Stars, TV Week, Fame, and Daytime
TV. Early versions of some parts of this book have appeared as journal articles
as follows: parts of chapters 1 and 6 in Critical Studies in Mass Communication and
in the Australian Journal of Screen Theory, part of chapter 9 in Communication, and part
of chapter 13 in Cultural Studies. I hope readers who have come across these
articles will find that their development in this book will compensate for any
sense of familiarity as they reread them.
And, importantly, I wish to thank those who contribute so much to my
experience and enjoyment of television: my family, particularly Lucy and
Matthew, my friends, all those who watch it with me, gossip about it with me
and who are part, in one way or another, of the thorough implication of
television into my everyday life. And not least of these are those who are so
often cast as the scapegoats for the ills of capitalist societies, the producers
and distributors of popular television. Without their products my leisure
would be less fun, my teaching less stimulating, and this book impossible.
I apologize for the absence of illustrations to the transcripts of Cagney and
Lacey and from Miami Vice in Figure 13.1: the fees demanded by the producers
were beyond the scope of an academic book. I regret that their desire for
additional profit overrode the value the illustrations would have had for
John Fiske
Department of Communication Arts
University of Wisconsin-Madison
April 1987

Every effort has been made to obtain permission to reproduce copyright

material throughout this book. If any proper acknowledgment has not
been made, or permission not sought, the publishers would be glad if the
copyright holders would contact them.

Henry Jenkins


The technology needed for them [The Right] to establish the total surveillance
upon which to base their moral totalism is already available. Fear will increase
the likelihood of that technology’s use and the probability of right-wing forces
being in power to use it. It is, therefore, in their interests to confine as many
of us as they can to our cultural and geographic enclaves. Is this what we
want?—John Fiske, Media Matters: Everyday Culture and Political Change,
1994 (MM, 253)

The above four sentences constitute the final words in John Fiske’s final book
before his retirement. It is telling that Fiske ends the book on a provocation—
“Is this what we want?” No matter how dark his vision of the society had
become, Fiske believed we have a choice, that we have the capacity to change
our social conditions, and he called upon academics to deploy their expertise
and institutional power in the service of social change.

He asks explicitly: Is this what we want?

He asks implicitly: If not, what are we going to do about it?

The question culminates in a chapter devoted to what Fiske describes as

“technostruggles,” one of the few places where Fiske wrote extensively about
technology as an agent of cultural change. Fiske wrote about arcade games,
well before his contemporaries, in Reading the Popular (1989). He discussed
the ways people were using channel changers to exert greater control over
xvi why fiske still matters
television in Television Culture (1988). And he described how the wide-
spread deployment of photocopiers were causing anxieties about copyright
regulation, even as copying television programs and music was becoming
more “socially acceptable” [TC 311]. In each case, his arguments were ultim-
ately less about the technology than about its popular uses. In such passages,
Fiske suggested the complex interplay between technological and cultural
change, but he never developed a theory of oppositional use of technology
until the final chapters of Media Matters.
Fiske’s relative disinterest in technology (and often, in media ownership)
drew sharp criticism from political economists, who felt that he under-
estimated the structuring power of entrenched capital. He explains in
Understanding Popular Culture that his theoretical perspective is “essentially
optimistic, for it finds in the vigor and vitality of the people evidence both of
the possibility of social change and of the motivation to drive it.” [UPC,21]
We’ve heard so much over the past decade and a half about the democratic
potential of new media technologies and practices that it is easy to forget that
Fiske saw the Internet as simply another battleground through which
ongoing struggles over meaning, pleasure, knowledge, and power would be
conducted. But he also did not accept a model which saw certain media
technologies as forces for cultural domination: “Information technology is
highly political, but its politics are not directed by its technological features
alone. It is, for instance, a technical feature of the surveillance camera that
enables it to identify a person’s race more clearly than his or her class or
religion, but it is a racist society that transforms that information into know-
ledge.” [MM 219] The affordances of new media could be deployed towards
certain ends, but ultimately, how they were used reflected their cultural
Fiske saw the promises of a digital revolution but did not declare a pre-
mature victory over mass media:

New technologies cannot in themselves produce social change, though they

can and do facilitate it. [MM 115]

Power is social, not just technological, and it is through institutional and

economic control that technology is directed. [MM 137]

We can make our society one that is rich in diverse knowledges, but only if
people strive to produce and circulate them. Technology will always be
involved and, if its potential is exploited, its proliferation may make the con-
trol over knowledge less, not more, efficient. [MM 238]

Technology is proliferating, but not equally: its low-tech and high-tech forms
still reproduce older hierarchies, and although it may extend the terrain of
why fiske still matters xvii
struggle and introduce new weapons into it, it changes neither the lineup of
forces nor the imbalance in the resources they command. [MM 239]

The multiplication of communication and information technologies extend

the terrains of struggle, modifies the forms struggle may take, and makes it
even more imperative that people grasp the opportunities for struggle that
the multiplying of technologies offers. [MM 240]

Yes, Fiske tells us, media matters, but media change does not overcome other
social, cultural, political, and economic factors. We might contrast Fiske’s
skeptical and cautious tone with the much more emboldened speech we have
come to associate with those who believe that new media has transformed
the terrain and in some cases, made old forms of power irrelevant:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I
come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask
you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no
sovereignty where we gather.—John Perry Barlow (1996)
The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people
of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform
shift you’ve all heard about. Think of passengers on your ship who got
a boat of their own. The writing readers. The viewers who picked up
a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can
connect with each other and gain the means to speak—to the world,
as it were. Now we understand that met with ringing statements like
these many media people want to cry out in the name of reason herself: If all
would speak who shall be left to listen? Can you at least tell us that?—Jay
Rosen (2006)
By comparison, Fiske promised no easy or lasting victories, offering us
only new “opportunities to struggle.”
This essay is intended as an introduction to Fiske’s life and works. My
central focus is to describe why Fiske’s work continues to be relevant several
decades after it was published and long after his retirement. Since the most
important shift over that period has been the explosion of new media tech-
nologies which have altered the resources available for grassroots communi-
cation, this first section deals with Fiske’s ideas about new media and their
relationship to his larger arguments about popular struggles over meaning
and knowledge. In the second section, I will draw on my experiences as one
of Fiske’s former students to describe his approach to teaching and theory
(which are closely linked in his work). One of my goals here is to show how
Fiske continued to absorb and deploy new theoretical and methodological
resources across his career. And in the final section, I will dig more deeply
into Fiske’s theories of cultural change, popular meaning-making, active
xviii why fiske still matters
audiences, and political struggle, suggesting the continuities which exist
across his books.
Fiske typically acted as a counter-balance to prevailing paradigms, insisting
on the complexity of our engagement with popular culture. At the start of his
career, Fiske confronted Mass Culture critics who stressed economic and
political constraints on our capacities to imagine alternatives to what Fiske
liked to call the power-bloc, a term he borrows from Stuart Hall. Fiske
responded by constructing a theoretical model emphasizing the capacity of
readers to resist dominant ideologies, to construct their own meanings and
pleasures, and to deploy resources appropriated from popular entertainment
towards their own ends. This is the Fiske who wrote Television Culture,
Reading the Popular, and Understanding Popular Culture.
Later in his career, Fiske confronted a still emerging discourse, which often
smacked of technological determinism in its claims about how digital media
would set us free. Here, Fiske’s skeptical side emerges, throwing on the
brakes, and shouting “not so fast.” This is the Fiske which comes across most
powerfully in the final pages of Media Matters.
When I brought John Fiske to MIT shortly after Media Matters was pub-
lished, I remember the disappointment and frustration some of my students
felt that Fiske was “not ready” to embrace the promise of the digital, because
at the epicenter of the digital revolution, we were full of hopes that the new
media would lower the barriers to entry into cultural production and distri-
bution, allowing many more voices to be heard and putting greater power
(political, economic, cultural) in the hands of “the people.” I was surrounded
by early adopters for whom the transformative capacity of new media was an
article of faith. In this context, I often had to work hard to resist technological
determinist arguments and to insist, as John had taught us, that cultural and
social factors shape technology far more than technology shapes culture.
Fiske pushed back against arguments about “media effects” throughout his
work and he would have rejected any easy claims about the “democratizing”
impact of new media as much as he would have repudiated the alleged power
of broadcasting to “brainwash” the public. In Television Culture, Fiske tells
us, “Television does not ‘cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does,
however, work ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the
world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some
social interests better than others.” [TC 20] Confronted with the assertion
that the wide availability of new tools would enable greater public participa-
tion, Fiske wrote, “In premodern Europe, . . . everyone had a larynx, but few
were able to speak in public and political life.” [MM 238] Technological
access was not sufficient in the absence of efforts to overcome those social
and cultural factors which blocked full participation—what we now would
call “the participation gap.”
why fiske still matters xix
At such moments, we observe Fiske as a critical utopianist. Utopianism
gets a bad name because many assume that utopianists naively believe that we
are already living in the best of all possible worlds. Quite the opposite,
utopianism represents a powerful form of cultural criticism—one which
begins by identifying the ideal, focusing on our shared dreams and collective
hopes, spelling out what it is we are fighting to achieve. Surprisingly few
critical writers make the stakes of their political struggles clear, choosing to
focus on the flaws of the current system, rather than identifying preferred
alternatives. Fiske described this mode of criticism as “ultimately debilitating
in its pessimism,” adding that “It may justify our righteous distaste for the
system, but it offers little hope of progress within it.” [UPC 105] Fiske’s
theory embraces the promise of local and short term victories and gradual
progress, identifying moments when the weak gained ground in relation to
the powerful.
Having established those alternatives, the critical utopian now has a way to
measure how far our current circumstances fall short of those ideals. The
utopian vision represents the yardstick against which we can measure our
progress. If the fantasy is a world where all groups are allowed to speak in
their own interests, say, then Fiske’s example pushes us to identify what
blocks or prevents them from doing so. And finally, the critical utopian
identifies the steps we might take towards achieving our goals, the resources
we possess or lack which might impact that struggle, and the success stories
which might model future interventions. Fiske believed that the key to success
lay in building upon moments of localized resistance or evasion of the oper-
ations of the powerful, tapping into popular fantasies which gave expressive
shape of our hopes for changing our conditions.
While Fiske’s critics have suggested he underestimated the gap between
such micropolitics and the world of macropolitics which held entrenched
power in place, Fiske always saw such moments as the first skirmishes in a
much more prolonged struggle over power. Fiske typically followed claims
about grassroots resistance with an acknowledgment of the powerful forces
which were stacked against us. For example, Fiske was interested in the
unequal status of high tech and low tech uses of communication technology,
contrasting the “videohigh” of the broadcast industry with the “videolow”
of citizen camcorder activism, a contrast which paves the way to a consider-
ation of how broadcast and grassroots media competes with each other for
attention and credibility. Fiske wrote “technostruggles” in the aftermath of
the Rodney King trial. As Fiske notes, the original video showing the Los
Angeles police beating suspect Rodney King, captured via a home movie
camera by a passerby George Holliday, possessed high credibility because
it displayed so little technological sophistication: “George Holliday owned
a camera, but not a computer enhancer; he could produce and replay an
xx why fiske still matters

electronic image, but could not slow it, reverse it, freeze it, or write upon it,
and his videolow appeared so authentic to so many precisely because he
could not.” [MM 223] The LAPD’s defense attorneys deployed a range of
technical and rhetorical tricks to reframe the King video and change how it
was understood, at least by the jury, if not by the general public. For Fiske,
this struggle over the tape’s meaning suggested what was to come—an
ongoing competition between those who have access to low-tech, everyday
forms of cultural production and those who had access to high-tech com-
munication systems. If new media technologies were expanding the resources
available to those who have previously seemed powerless, they were also
expanding the capacities of the powerful.
In Media Matters, Fiske’s embrace of participatory media practices was
suggested by his enthusiasm for low-bandwidth “pirate” radio stations
within the African-American community. At the same time, Fiske was quick
to link networked computing with institutions of government surveillance.
Fiske warned that the same practices deployed by companies to construct a
“consumer profile” could be applied by governments to construct a “political
profile”: “The magazines we subscribe to, the causes we donate to, the uni-
versity courses we register for, the books we purchase and the ones we
borrow from the library are all recorded, and recorded information is
always potentially available.” [MM 219] Fiske predicted that conservatives
might intensify the power of the government in response to their “fear”
as America became a minority-majority country in the coming decades.
Fiske anticipated that increased controversy around racial conflict would be
embodied through “media events” such as the Rodney King tape and the LA
Riots, the battle between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and the murder
trial and acquittal of O. J. Simpson. A decade plus later, we are more apt to
ascribe the growth of surveillance culture to the “terror” produced by 9/11
and its aftermath, though Fiske would have pushed us to consider the ways
the War on Terror is linked to racial profiling and may mask other kinds of
Fiske’s accounts of cultural power always balanced his fundamental opti-
mism with a recognition of the capacity of “the power-bloc” to preserve its
own power from outside challenge. The caricature of Fiske so often con-
structed today ascribes to him an unlimited belief in consumers’ creative and
interpretive capacities. Jim McGuigan (1992) accuses him of “a romanticiza-
tion of the audience and its power that belies its social, political, and eco-
nomic powerlessness.” [CP 171] Fiske’s heart was on the side of the little
guy, the cultural underdog, and the language he used to describe these strug-
gles sometimes bordered on the melodramatic. Yet, at the same time, he
hardly can be said to make structural inequalities disappear or to make light
of the difficulty of confronting hegemonic power. This faith in the “little
why fiske still matters xxi
guy” is part of what linked Fiske to earlier moments in the evolution of
British cultural studies—to the democratic impulse which shaped the work
of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paddy Wadell, and others of their gener-
ation, who had insisted on the importance of taking seriously the lived
experiences of working class people, who displayed popular skepticism
against entrenched power, and who had tapped the Open University struc-
tures to expand the reach of cultural theory.
If Fiske’s formulations have been described as over-simplistic, then what
do we make of his critics’s own simplification and dismissal of his work?
In a sense, it is always easier for academics to be pessimistic and much
harder to create work which maintains the hope of cultural and political
transformation. The dismissal of Fiske has in many ways become a rite of
passage for a generation or more of academics who wanted to demonstrate
that they were hard-headed, even hard-hearted enough, to gain entry into
critical studies and political economy, though increasingly, the dismissal has
been directed by those who have had little direct exposure to his ideas and
sometimes by those who have never even read his books. The Fiske who will
emerge here is not that cartoon character or stick figure, but a complex
individual, who got some things right but who also would have been among
the first to acknowledge that he got some things wrong. He revised his views
over the course of his career many times and he would no doubt have con-
tinued to grow as he entered more fully into the realities of a changed media
landscape. What puzzles me, though, is what about our present moment of
participatory culture would leave one less hopeful about the prospects of
grassroots power when compared with the mass media culture Fiske was
I’ve always read Norman Spinrad’s early cyberpunk novel, Little Heroes
(1989) as the perfect fictional embodiment of the way Fiske saw the world.
Little Heroes depicts a future where corporations have generated the first
totally synthetic rock star as the ideal vehicle for their brand messages,
designing him to be totally under their control. Instead, popular resistance
groups appropriate his icon and attached themselves to his message in hopes
of bringing down the government and the banking system. A popular upris-
ing burns down the offices of the MTV-like company to the ground, yet the
company films the mass destruction and uses it as the raw material for their
next music video, and so the struggle begins anew. Much like Spinrad, Fiske
celebrated the capacity of the people to match each act of co-optation with a
corresponding act of appropriation, to meet top-down strategies with
bottom-up tactics. If little ground was won, little ground was lost. Coming
out of theories which ascribed little agency to audiences, even these claims
seemed radical or utopian, and accounted for much of the backlash Fiske’s
work would receive in some quarters.
xxii why fiske still matters


“I listen to these warring voices inside me, for besides being an academic
theorist, I am also a fan of popular culture; I have strong vulgar tastes and my
academic training has failed to squash my enjoyment and participation in
popular pleasures—I watch TV game shows, for instance, mainly because of
the enormous fun they give me, and secondarily because they arouse my
theoretical interest and curiosity. I experience them both as a fan from the
inside and as an academic from a critical distance. . . . I enjoy watching tele-
vision, I love the sensational tabloid press, I read trashy popular novels and
enjoy popular blockbuster movies. . . . Despite all this, I do not think I am the
dupe of the capitalist system because I can find great pleasure within it; in
fact, my pleasures typically have an edge of difference to them, an awareness
that they are my pleasures that I produce for myself out of their resources,
and that in some way I am, from their point of view, misusing their resources
for my pleasure.” [UPC 178–179]

When I first met John, I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa,
struggling to reconcile my experiences as a science fiction fan with the theory I
was reading in my classes. My fannish experiences gave me a taste of participa-
tory practices and logics, while the theory we were assigned in those days
came with a deep dose of cultural pessimism and assumed a largely passive
acceptance of the dominant ideology. I was thrashing about, unwilling to
accept what I was being taught, unable to find an alternative formulation
which might have any degree of academic respectability. The semester was
already underway, I decided to sit in on a seminar being taught by Fiske, who
had newly arrived as a visiting scholar. After the first session, I walked straight
to the registrar’s office, having found someone who offered me the alternative
theoretical tools I needed to reconcile my scholarship with my life experi-
ences. I was lucky enough to study under Fiske twice—first at Iowa and second
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his final academic home. The first
was during the time he was completing Television Culture, and the second was
during the time he was working on the two Popular Culture books.
Fiske was an extraordinary teacher, possibly the best I have ever known. He
sat in front of us with no notes, communicating complex theoretical formula-
tions with clarity and simplicity. He was a compelling personality, charis-
matic, sexy, comical, thoughtful, impassioned, inspirational, yet he was not
seeking any followers. He wanted us to question everything he said, to push
back hard on ideas which jarred with our own lived experience, and to bring
our own best thinking into the conversation. He used language to clarify
rather than to obscure, to engage rather than to impress, and to empower
rather than to overwhelm.
why fiske still matters xxiii
As a theorist, Fiske was always also a teacher, taking us step by step through
his understanding of how culture works, offering vivid models for how we
might apply our analysis to specific media texts, doubling back to outline
key concepts and to reaffirm key conclusions. In many cases, Fiske played a
key role in popularizing the work of other theorists, showing how their
theories could be made to ask and address new questions. Many of his
books were designed as textbooks which might introduce core concepts
in the field to an undergraduate or early graduate level student, and this
striping down of complex formulations to their core assumptions was some-
times what left him exposed to critics who accused him of over-simplifying
The books which Routledge is reprinting and rereleasing emerged from
extended seminars where Fiske would work through his ideas with his stu-
dents, and so many of us read these books in relation to our classroom
experiences. We’ve tried to capture here something of the spirited discussion
which Fiske’s ideas always engendered in a seminar, staging a series of online
conversations with Fiske’s former students which we have edited down
to provide forewords to each of these volumes. These discussions involve
students from many different periods of his life, some of whom had been
classmates together, some of whom had never met before this project began.
Their theoretical and methodological approaches represent a broad spectrum
of contemporary work in media and cultural studies, suggesting how open
Fiske was to approaches which differed significantly from his own. And yet,
for each of us, Fiske’s ideas, his formulations and language, remain lasting
influences on our thinking, teaching, and writing.
To be honest, I had not read many of these books for many years. I had
internalized Fiske’s ideas; they had shaped how I thought in such powerful
ways that I had worked at times to free myself from an “anxiety of influence.”
I was surprised, then, upon rereading these books to find so much language,
so many ideas I had thought my own prefigured in Fiske’s writings. I was
fascinated by how much his ethical commitments as a scholar had influenced
my later work, even as I had thought I was pursuing my own path, and even
when my conclusions differed in some significant ways with his own. Some
of this has to do with what I had absorbed from Fiske and some of it had to
do with the ways Fiske had learned from his students, incorporating their
ideas into his writing, sharing their accomplishments with the world, and in
the process, assimilating them into his own conceptual models.
Each of Fiske’s books represents a crossroads between different strands of
theory and research which constitute contemporary media and cultural stud-
ies. Reading Television shows us Fiske and Hartley at the start of their careers,
working through the legacy of content analysis and media effects on com-
munications, drawing often on ideas from semiotics, cultural anthropology,
xxiv why fiske still matters
and the literacy and orality debates to try to construct a new understanding
of television and its modes of consumption. Introduction to Communication Studies
is the book where Fiske is most focused on the cornerstones of a semiotic
approach to culture. Television Culture draws far more decisively on the
Birmingham Tradition, but also on a range of European theorists (Roland
Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel De Certeau), while at the
same time, exploring the emergence of new ethnographic modes of audience
research (Charlotte Brunsin, David Morley, Ellen Seiter, Janice Radway,
Robert Hodge and David Tripp, among many others). By Understanding
Popular Culture and Reading The Popular, these European theories have come
to dominate his thinking, though they are now joined with ideas from gen-
der and sexuality studies. By Power Plays, Power Works and Media Matters,
they have been combined with a deep reading into critical race theory and
political philosophy.
Across this same period, Fiske also absorbed and demonstrated a range
of methodologies, most clearly those of textual analysis and genre theory,
ethnography and reader-response theory, and discourse analysis, while
remaining open to, for example, concepts from psychoanalysis which appear
very rarely within the cultural studies tradition. Fiske’s own strengths were as
a theorist, first, and then as a close reader of texts—a strength on display in
the extended reading of a sequence from Hart to Hart which opens Television
Culture or his complex, multi-angled reading of political discourse in Media
Matters. While he did little ethnographic work himself, Fiske trumpeted the
emergence of ethnographic audience research, making the case for how this
approach expanded our understanding of popular decoding practices. Fiske
paved the way for more comparative perspectives in media study, in part, by
expanding the range of texts which could be subjected to critical analysis.
Fiske is today best remembered as a television scholar, but many of his
students recall his openness to a range of other popular culture forms,
including video games, wrestling, fashion, location-based entertainment,
advertising, and popular journalism.
As a textual analyst, Fiske left his own strong imprint on the canon of
television studies. As Greg Smith (2008) has noted, contemporary television
studies encourages scholars to write from their fannish knowledge of
programs they enjoy, a tendency Fiske helped to foster. An unintended
consequence is that the texts most discussed—from Star Trek to Buffy the
Vampire Slayer, from Lost to True Blood—reflect a particular taste configur-
ation, celebrating self-reflexivity, complexity, progressive politics, and often,
the fantastic. Contemporary television studies often centers around high pop,
while Smith asked us to consider what happens to shows like JAG or CSI:
Miami, which maintain strong ratings and reflect key production trends but
are not intellectuals’ favorites. By contrast, Fiske’s examples often show a bias
why fiske still matters xxv
towards the middle brow, starting with his focus on light entertainment
programs and game shows (Come Dancing, Top of the Pops, The Shirley Bassey Show,
Match of the Day, The Generation Game) in Reading Television, extending through the
action adventure series (Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, The Rockford Files, Police
Woman, The A-Team, Hart to Hart) and soaps (Dallas, Dynasty, All My Children) in
Television Culture, and down to the sitcoms which become the focus of discus-
sion throughout Media Matters (Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Cosby). Fiske was
acutely aware that these preferences did not reflect our expectations about
what intellectuals enjoy watching. Yet they were also very considered
choices, seeking progressive potential in unlikely places. Unfortunately, his-
tory has not been kind to his examples, with the nighttime soaps and action
series of the 1980s enjoying far shorter shelf life than the sitcoms and
dramas of the previous decades. Most of the series he discusses are available
on DVD but they do not seem particularly meaningful to contemporary
students, even as Hollywood is raiding them to generate new big screen
The result is a tendency to skip over his close readings in favor of the more
abstract theoretical formulations, but to do so is to overlook some of Fiske’s
best work as a critic and to miss much of the nuance of his arguments. I have
found it particularly interesting to map Fiske’s conceptions of “masculine”
and “feminine” television forms in Television Culture onto shifts in television
storytelling over the past few decades—particularly the move towards
“complex narratives.” (Mittell,2006) Fiske himself anticipated this move:

Hill Street Blues with its multiple plots and characters, its rapid switching
from plot to plot, its sense that characters live between episodes, its
“memory” from episode to episode combines many of the elements of soap
opera with the action and achievement characteristic of masculine narrative.
[TC 219]

If Fiske was right in connecting the formal qualities of soap opera with
modes of reception characteristics of women living in a patriarchal society,
what are the implications of the integration of serialization across a much
broader range of television content, especially series centering on profes-
sional rather than domestic life?
Fiske also drew on the historical strands of the cultural studies tradition,
especially calling attention to how contemporary struggles over popular cul-
ture fit within a much larger tradition of carnivalesque transgression and
institutional suppression. He shared this focus on historical context with his
Reading Television co-author, John Hartley. It is unfair to John Hartley to treat
his work as an extension of his collaboration with Fiske. Hartley remains one
of the most fearless and original thinkers in contemporary cultural studies,
xxvi why fiske still matters
one who has not only carved his own directions as a researcher and institu-
tion builder. That said, it is interesting to see the directions Hartley’s career
has taken in the years since Fiske’s retirement—deeper into a consideration
of creative industries and digital culture (Hartley, 2005; 2010), into a discus-
sion of popular culture and journalism as sites of popular education and
sources of civic engagement (Hartley,2007), into a consideration of the
“indigenous public sphere” and the struggles of a post-colonial culture
(Hartley,2007)—as suggesting some of ways that institutional factors and
cultural change might have also pushed Fiske in directions we can only
partially anticipate from his existing writings.
Fiske loved to play the “bad boy” of cultural theory. I will always remem-
ber the ways he would squint his eyes, a broad grin moving across his leathery
face, as he would topple “sacred cows” in his seminars. Not surprisingly,
Fiske’s work provoked reaction, in part because he questioned so many
of the orthodoxies of left-wing academics, calling attention to romantic
conceptions of the autonomous artist or the authentic folk culture underlying
the mass media critique and showing how critical theory often masked
the writer’s unexamined revulsion over popular taste. Fiske wrote in Under-
standing Popular Culture:

With few exceptions, left-wing theorists have failed to take account of central
areas of everyday life. Most glaringly, they have failed to produce a positive
theory of popular pleasure. The result of this is that their theories can all too
easily appear puritanical; the society they envision is not one in which fun
plays much part, if it exists at all—they have allowed the right to promise the
party. [UPC 162]

What often got lost in the polemics was that Fiske also showed a capacity to
learn from his critics, seeking to absorb their concerns into his own evolving
framework, a tendency which comes through especially powerfully in Media
Matters which was written in response to critiques from, among others, bell
hooks. As Fiske explained during recent correspondence, “Criticisms of my
work never upset me too much. I’d always seen theory as a debate—mine
arose out of debates/difference with others, and I expected others to develop
theories out of differences with mine. I never sought to provide final answers,
but to throw ideas into the ring in the hope of stimulating thought. So I never
answered my critics by trying to prove them wrong and me right: I felt my
time was better spent in refining and nuancing my own ideas.”
Whether we are talking about his institutional affiliations or his theoretical
conceptualizations, Fiske was possessed by a certain wanderlust, which made
it difficult for him to stay very long at a single spot. Fiske was born in
Wotton-under-Edge, a small town in the Cotswolds where his father was the
why fiske still matters xxvii
headmaster of the Katherine Lady Berkeley’s Grammar School, founded in
1284. He attended the Kingswood School in Bath (founded by John Wesley)
and earned a BA and MA in English from Cambridge, where his personal
tutor was Raymond Williams, a situation which linked him very early on into
the emerging cultural studies movement. He began his career at Slough Col-
lege of Technology, where he was an assistant lecturer in Communication
and Liberal Studies. The first new course he devised was on James Bond,
suggesting his growing recognition that he was drawn more to the study of
popular culture than canonical literature. His career from there took him to
Sheffield Polytechnic and then the Polytechnic of Wales, Western Australian
Institute of Technology (soon to be Curtin University) and University of
Wisconsin-Madison with visiting lectureships at a range of other colleges and
universities. He wrote, in the acknowledgements of Understanding Popular

one of the advantages of being an academic is that theories travel well, with
only a touch of jet lag. . . . My nomadism has left many traces in these books,
but my experiences in different continents are held together by a common
thread running through them—the countries with which I am familiar, and
whose cultures I write about, are all white, patriarchal, capitalist ones. Of
course, each inflects the common ideology differently, but the differences are
comparatively superficial, though fascinating to live through and think about.
[UPC ix]

This history of migration meant that his work often had a global perspective,
even as he was writing about a specific national context as he did in Myths
of Oz or Media Matters. Fiske at times fit within a tradition of “outsider”
theorists—from Alexis De Tocqueville and Charles Dickens to Theodor
Adorno and Jean Baudrillard—who wrote about American culture with
insights that might have been lost to those who were more fully immersed in
our national culture. Fiske’s decision to retire early, move to New England,
and start an antique shop seems in hindsight part of this same process of
relocation and repositioning, not to mention a return to the traditional village
life and historical traces which surrounded him growing up. When Fiske
today speaks about antiques, he does so with a respect for traditional crafts-
manship, for the people who made the furniture, rather than the monied
elites who may have once owned it.
Those who have never read his works closely often simplify his formula-
tions (when he loved complexity) and offer static, ahistorical accounts
(when his ideas evolve so dramatically over time). Despite the constant
exploration, certain core commitments run across Fiske’s work—his deep
respect for popular readers’ creativity and resourcefulness, his distrust of
xxviii why fiske still matters
attempts by moral reformers (of all political stripes) to police taste and
construct cultural hierarchies, and his recognition of the needs of the power-
less to carve out some time and space for their own enjoyment if they are
going to continue to struggle against deadening and depressing conditions.
The next section will explore some of the common themes and issues that
run through his books.


Culture making (and culture is always in process, never achieved) is a social
process: all meanings of self, of social relations, all the discourses and texts
that play such important cultural roles can circulate only in relationship to the
social system, in our case that of white, patriarchal capitalism. Any social
system needs a cultural system of meanings that serves either to hold it in
place or destabilize it, to make it more or less amenable to change. Culture
(and its meanings and pleasures) is a constant succession of social prac-
tices; it is therefore political; it is centrally involved in the distribution and
possible redistribution of various forms of social power. [RTP 1]

There’s lots we can learn about Fiske’s thinking by looking closely at this
passage. First, there is the notion of culture as dynamic, “always in process,
never achieved.” For Fiske, culture is not something passed down across
generations (the Matthew Arnold concept of the “best that man has pro-
duced”), but rather something created anew through each social transaction.
For Fiske, dominant institutions sought to fix this play of meaning, reigning
in interpretive freedom and regulating the construction of taste. Summar-
izing Michel De Certeau (1984), Fiske tells us, “the powerful are cumber-
some, unimaginative, and overorganized, whereas the weak are creative,
nimble, and flexible.” [UPC 32]. Such passages are the kind which drive
Fiske’s critics nuts, because they construct a melodramatic opposition
between the media industry and its consumers, while shifting the locus of
power from the capitalist infrastructure, which is “overorganized” and onto
the people, who are “creative” and “flexible.” Fiske often described these
oppositions in militaristic metaphors—including “guerilla warfare,” which
he borrowed from Umberto Eco (1990), and “tactics”/“strategy” which he
took from Michel de Certeau. Because they are and will remain diverse, the
public’s interests cannot be fully served by products produced for mass con-
sumption; the people identify points of localized “relevance,” which by its
very nature is “ephemeral” and “transitory”. Fiske describes the complex
negotiations through which mass media producers seek to identify and
connect with these differences: “Advertising works hard to match social
why fiske still matters xxix
differences with cultural differences with product differences.” [UPC 29] The
dynamism of culture means that the public will not necessarily stay where
they are put and may come back to the media product from unexpected
directions. What others saw as “misreadings,” as “failures to communicate,”
Fiske understood as culturally generative and politically productive.
In his focus on the generative aspects of culture, Fiske was evoking some
of the central tenets of the Birmingham Tradition which informed much
of his early writing. We might compare this dynamic understanding of “cul-
ture making” with Raymond Williams’s argument (1958) in “Culture is
Ordinary,” which describes culture as involving “active debate and amend-
ment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing
themselves into the land.” For Williams, culture was “made and remade in
every individual mind.”[93] Williams saw culture as “both traditional and
creative”, stressing both the continuity within the cultural tradition and the
capacity of every individual and every social group to make and remake the
culture on their own terms. [93] William’s formulation was first published
during the years that Fiske was studying under Williams at Cambridge and
would no doubt have been part of the conversation between them. A key
difference between Fiske and early Williams is that Fiske was far more
focused on the “social” dimensions of meaning-making, seeing the produc-
tion of culture as a collective rather than purely personal process, and tending
to read identity formation through the lens of identity politics, while
Williams at this point has a much stronger stress on what happens in “every
individual mind.” This emphasis on collective rather than “idiosyncratic”
response is already there in Reading Television:

The internal psychological state of the individual is not the prime determin-
ant in the communication of television messages. These are decoded accord-
ing to individually learnt but culturally generated codes and conventions,
which of course impose similar constraints of perception on the encoders
of the message. It seems, then, that television functions as a social ritual,
overriding individual distinctions, in which our culture engages in order to
communicate with its collective self. [RTV 85]

Fiske and Hartley note that television was often watched within the family
circle and the shared knowledge of television links us to larger subcultural
communities where we construct shared meanings.
Second, popular culture functions as a “resource” that can be mobilized
as part of the practices of everyday life. “The people” in Fiske’s account
demonstrate what Michel de Certeau called “the art of making do.” In a
mass-mediated society, the public constructs its cultural identities in terms
not of its own choosing. The people transform those raw materials—the
xxx why fiske still matters
images, stories, characters, jokes, songs, rituals, and myths of popular
culture—in ways which gave expressive shape to their own lived experiences.
For Fiske, mass culture was a category of production—referring to forms of
cultural expression which are mass produced and mass marketed, while
popular culture was a category of consumption—emerging from the efforts
of consumers to make cultural offerings their own through acts of resistance
and appropriation. This understanding of popular culture surfaces through-
out the two books Fiske wrote on the subject:

Popular culture is made by various formations of subordinated or dis-

empowered people out of the resources, both discursive and material that are
provided by the social system that disempowers them. . . . The resources—
television, records, clothes, video games, language—carry the interests of
the economically and ideologically dominant; they have lines of force within
them that are hegemonic and that work in favor of the status quo. [RTP 2]

If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the
people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities,
they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made
popular. [RTP 2]

These popular forces transform the cultural commodity into a cultural

resource, pluralize the meanings and pleasures it offers, evade or resist its
disciplinary efforts, fracture its homogeneity or coherence, raid or poach upon
its terrain. [UPC 28]

Fiske’s concept of “cultural resource” implies that mass culture needs to be

reworked before it can be consumed, much as raw materials must be pro-
cessed before they can be used; the term also suggests that commercially
produced culture can be inflected in ways which serve grassroots interests.
Fiske often spoke of two economies—one surrounding the production of
commodities, the other the production of meanings. Fiske (1992) rejected
the notion of passive consumption which had dominated earlier critical the-
ory, depicting consumers as also producers and identifying three distinctive
forms of consumer productivity—semiotic productivity, the making of
meaning; enuniciative productivity, the articulation of meanings to others;
and textual productivity, the creation of new cultural goods.
Fiske starts from the premise that the people lack the means to produce
and circulate their own culture. He fears that the folk traditions through
which the subordinated expressed their world view in the past were des-
troyed by the rise of mass communications; he worries that broadcast media
provided no mechanism for grassroots participation and often set high
barriers of entry to the marketplace of ideas:
why fiske still matters xxxi
There is no “authentic” folk culture to provide an alternative, and so popular
culture is necessarily the art of making do with what is available. [UPC 15]

Across his books, Fiske struggles with the relations between folk culture and
popular culture. In Reading Television, Fiske and Hartley stress the similar-
ities between television and oral culture, describing television as a “bardic
media.” In Television Culture, he theorizes that the contents of television are
absorbed into an “oral culture,” framed most often in terms of women’s
gossip or children’s play:

Children . . . frequently incorporate television into their games, songs, and

slang, and, indeed, use television as the raw material out of which to create
new games and new songs. All of this suggests that a folk, oral culture still
lives despite the dislocations of mass society, and that television is not only
readily incorporable into this, but that it is actually essential to its survival.
For television provides a common symbolic experience and a common dis-
course, a set of shared formal conventions that are so important to a folk
culture. And an oral or folk culture provides the television viewer with a set
of reading relations that are essentially participatory and active, and that
recognize only minimal differentiation between performer and audience or
producer and consumer. [TC 80]

In Understanding Popular Culture, Fiske draws sharp distinctions between

popular culture and folk culture, which by this point he is suggesting can not
function in an industrialized society for a variety of reasons: Folk culture is
the product of “a comparatively stable, traditional social order,” suggests
shared values (rather than embodying conflict), originates bottom-up, and
enjoys relative stability over time. None of these traits, he suggests, recur in
contemporary mediated societies, where the economics of mass media
encourages rapid change and generational differentiation, where culture is
generated and dispersed through centralized modes of production, and
where economic inequalities produce constant struggles over our differences.
Even within Understanding Popular Culture, Fiske describes queer cultural
expression as a “folk culture”:

[The gay community’s] opposition to the social order is so radical that any
cultural resources produced by it [the commercial industry] are so contamin-
ated by its values as to be unusable. It therefore produces its own subculture,
a form of radicalized folk culture. [UPC 171]

Not everyone would agree with Fiske that the “gay subculture” was so far
outside the cultural mainstream that it could no longer tap the resources of
xxxii why fiske still matters
popular culture: Richard Dyer (1986) and Alex Doty (1993), for example,
both discuss the ways gay readers engage with stars like Judy Garland and
embrace camp reading practices. Ultimately, this passage tells us more about
how Fiske was trying to fit sexuality into the categories of difference which
shape his analysis and how he was still looking for some signs of life in the
concept of “folk culture.”
Fiske clearly wants there to be a “folk culture” or an “oral culture,” operat-
ing in the shadows of mass culture, which has its own “participatory” logic
and helps shape the ways the people process the resources they take from
television. Yet, he had a crisis of faith, returning many times to the idea that
the people lack the infrastructure and resources to sustain their own forms of
cultural production. Fiske struggled across his writings to find some evidence
which might convince his critics that popular struggles over meaning were
widespread and impactful. Fiske wrote in Understanding Popular Culture:

The products of this tactical consumption are difficult to study—they have no

place, only the space of their moments of being, they are scattered, dispersed
through our televised, urbanized, bureaucratized experience. They blend in
with their environment, camouflaged so as not to draw attention to them-
selves, liable to disappear into their “colonizing organization”. [UPC 35]

Fiske’s enthusiasm for audience research paved the way for fan studies. He
often referenced his students and colleagues work on fans’ elaborate forms of
cultural production and circulation (fanzines, filk tapes, song vids, etc.), yet
his theories never fully absorbed the implications of our emerging concep-
tion of “participatory culture.” His pioneering writing on fans emphasized
acts of discrimination and taste-formation far more than they discussed fans
as authors and artists.
Fiske and I disagreed about whether fan practices differed in “kind” or
“degree” from other forms of consumption. I stressed the cultural specificity
of fan cultural production, seeing fan fiction not simply as traces of interpret-
ation, but as representing a distinctive tradition with its own genre expect-
ations and literacy practices. Fiske saw these fan texts as extending the
interpretive and appropriative activities all consumers performed. We may
have both been right on our own terrain: fans do have a distinctive culture,
but more and more people are reading like fans as they move online. Yet, the
constant conversation we had over the years on such disagreements contrasts
sharply with the efforts of his sometimes thuggish critics to shut down
debate and silence his perspective.
As fans become early adapters and adopters of new media, they brought
their “participatory culture” practices online, where they gained much
more cultural visibility and influence, even as the commercial industry has
why fiske still matters xxxiii
embraced a range of strategies to commodify and manage their potential
disruptiveness. In the 1980s, Fiske’s critics could dismiss such textual
poachers as figments of our over-active imaginations; today, you can find fans
all out in full force on the web. The internet has made visible the invisible
work of media audiences and the rise of social networking sites has also
helped us to map the ways that such expression is collective rather than
purely personal.
Fiske embraced a model of reader resistance because he felt consumers
were locked outside cultural production, but this model needs to be reframed
for a world where many more people are producing and sharing media. The
debate now centers on the terms of our participation, not whether spectator-
ship is active or passive. Fiske provides a useful conceptual language through
which to identify the conflicting interests being masked by talk about “Web
2.0” and “user-generated content”. We may no longer be able to draw a clear
or simple distinction between consumers and producers, but we need to
recognize the conflicting interests of those for whom the production and
circulation of media content operates within the reciprocal social relations
we associate with gift economies and those for whom the production and
circulation of media reflects commercial motives.
Third, the passage links “meanings and pleasures.” Matt Hills (2002) has
criticized the first generation of audience researchers—including Fiske—for
what he calls “cognitivism”, for stressing meaning at the expense of pleasure.
Hills worries that we may be avoiding the pathological construction of the
fan by over-rationalizing their relations to mass culture, ignoring the passion
which makes them fans in the first place. But for Fiske, “meanings and
pleasure” form a recurring couplet, linked inextricably in his mind, and
often shadowed by the third concept, “identity.” In Understanding Popular
Culture, Fiske offers this useful summation of the relationship between these
three terms:

Culture is the constant process of producing meanings of and from our

social experience, and such meanings necessarily produce a social identity
for the people involved. . . . Within the production and circulation of these
meanings lies pleasure [RTP 1]

Here, consumption involves making meanings, constructing identities, and

finding pleasures.
Fiske taught me and many of my contemporaries that humans do not
engage in meaningless activities. When confronted by a form of popular
culture which is alien to our own experiences and values, our gut impulse is
often to dismiss it, but the good analyst instead tries to understand what these
cultural practices and artifacts mean in the lives of the people for whom they
xxxiv why fiske still matters
are meaningful. These forms of culture may not yield much meaning to us,
but they are not meaningless or “mindless.” Fiske wrote in Television Culture:

The object of ethnographic study is the way that people live their culture. Its
value for us lies in its shift of emphasis away from the textual and ideological
construction of the subject to socially and historically situated people. It
reminds us that actual people in actual situations watch and enjoy actual
television programs. It acknowledge the differences between people despite
their social construction, and pluralizes the meanings and pleasures that they
find in television. It thus contradicts theories that stress the singularity of
television’s meanings and its reading subjects. It enables us to account for
diversity both within the social formation and within the processes of culture.
[TC 63]

The value of ethnographic investigation was the prospect of making “dis-

coveries,” challenging our presuppositions and pushing ourselves beyond
our comfort zones. At times, this search for the “surprising” led to the
exoticization of diverse subcultural communities as different species of rogue
readers yet it could also help us to respect and value cultural experiences that
seemed irredeemable on first encounter. Here, too, Fiske faced critics, like
Meaghan Morris (1991), who accused him of celebrating “banality” in his
search for examples that reflected very localized and everyday forms of
A formulation found in Television Culture again suggests the close linkage
between pleasure, meaning, and identity: “The pleasure and power of mak-
ing meanings, of participating in the mode of representation, of playing with
the semiotic process—these are some of the most significant and empower-
ing pleasures that television has to offer.” [TC 239] Here, Fiske adds two
other key concepts to this cluster—“participation” and “play”—both of
which have assumed, if anything, much greater significance in cultural the-
ory since Fiske’s retirement. In Television Culture, Fiske tells us that play is
“active pleasure”: “it pushes rules to the limits and explores the con-
sequences of breaking them.” [TC 236] And in this same passage, he explores
a range of different possible meanings of play: There is “play” within the
system much like “a door whose hinges are loose”; the reader “plays” the
text as “a musician plays a score: s/he interprets it, activates it, gives it a living
presence.” And the reader “plays” the text as “one plays a game: s/he volun-
tarily accepts the rules of the text in order to participate in the practice that
those rules make possible and pleasurable.” [TC 230]
Resistance was only one kind of textual encounter. Fiske also stressed how
consumers often work with as well as against popular texts: “There is no
pleasure in being ‘duped’ by the text into a helpless viewer, but there is
why fiske still matters xxxv
considerable pleasure in selectively viewing the text for points of identifica-
tion and distance, in controlling one’s relationship with the represented
characters in the light of one’s own social and psychological context.” [TC
175] Such discussions offer us some starting points for thinking about the
ways participatory culture may be complicit in the mechanisms of “Web 2.0”
even as consumers often challenge and question the logic of branding and
commodification which shape these companies’ terms of service. Participa-
tion is, by definition, not full-on opposition, yet it does not also mean
uncritical surrender.
Fiske’s understanding of the progressive potential of popular pleasure
(as well as of the limits or constraints on those pleasures) surface in his
groundbreaking discussion of video games. Keep in mind that Fiske was
describing arcade games in the late 1980s. At the time, games were often
blamed with encouraging truancy and being a waste of time and money.
Fiske saw games as “machines that consume instead of producing,” amused
that young people played with the same kinds of technologies which were
transforming the workplace.
Fiske used the contrast with games to refine how one produced meaning
and pleasure from television:

Even though the reader does exert some control over the meanings of the TV
narrative, the control is semiotic rather than material. Video game joysticks
and firing buttons concretize this control by extending it from meanings to
events. The outcome of the video game narrative may always be the same,
but the means of achieving it is delegated to the player. This lack of narrative
authority in the games works with the absence of meaning to evacuate the
author and into that space the player inserts himself. The player becomes
the author. [RTP 89]

The simple, highly stylized, and already commercialized games being played
in the arcade were limited in their ability to represent our everyday social
realities or to express political opposition:

Nowhere do we find video representations of Ronald Reagan or Margaret

Thatcher to be blasted out of the skies, nor do cartoon figures of bloated
capitalists, schoolteacher bullies, or the fuzz appear as monsters to be
avoided or zapped into smithereens. . . . The video arcades are not, therefore,
seething hotbeds of social revolution, for they are popular culture, not radical
culture. [RTP 91]

Despite their limits on the level of signification, games did provide opportun-
ities to evade control—skipping school, hiding out from parents, seeing how
xxxvi why fiske still matters
long they could play against the machine. Fiske saw the arcade as a third
space, less regulated by adults than school, work, or home. Fiske is modest in
describing the potential long-term impact of such popular pleasures, even as
he links current debates about “media effects” to a longer history of regula-
tory efforts by government and church authorities against the same pleasures
upon which capitalists profited. And of course, as the tools and skills involved
with making games have been more dispersed, we are starting to see progres-
sive and even radical games produced which do offer forms of critique of
entrenched power—“games for change.”
Fourth, Fiske links the cultural to the political. As he notes above, culture-
making “is centrally involved in the distribution and possible redistribution
of various forms of social power.” Each of Fiske’s books is more explicit in
their politics than the preceding volumes. Nevertheless, Fiske was often
accused of not being “sufficiently political,” which meant not being suf-
ficiently radical, given the Marxist roots of cultural studies. The claim was that
his focus on popular culture removed him from the sphere of “real politics”
and made him complicit with the culture industries he so consistently cri-
tiqued. Jim McGuigan’s Cultural Populism (1992) argues that there’s no real
difference between Fiske’s notion of “semiotic democracy” and capitalism’s
“consumer sovereignty” [CP 72] and Robert McChesney (1996) accuses him
(not by name) of overseeing “the trivialization of politics” [MC 545] and of
writing “an apologia for the market.” [MC 544]
For the record, while it was certainly a memorable phrase, Fiske uses
“semiotic democracy” in only a few places. Fiske writes in Television Culture
that a truly popular text “treats its readers as members of a semiotic dem-
ocracy, already equipped with the discursive competencies to make mean-
ings and motivated by pleasure to want to participate in the process.” [TC
95] Later in the same book, he argues:

We need a theory of pleasure that goes beyond meanings and ideology, a

theory of pleasure that centers on the power to make meanings rather than
on the meanings that are made. This is the thrust of what I have called
television’s “semiotic democracy,” its opening up of its discursive practice to
the viewer. . . . The reading positions of a producerly text are essentially
democratic, not autocratic ones. [TC 239]

Here, Fiske focused attention on what he called “popular discrimination,”

building on Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural discrimination, directing
attention on the ways consumers evaluated and appraised popular texts and the
skills and knowledge they brought to bear upon them. Fiske’s work trans-
formed the American media literacy movement, which still sees the focus on
the ways different audiences may read the same text in different ways as part
why fiske still matters xxxvii
of its core framework. Fiske saw media literacy not simply as something
which needed to be taught but also as something which emerged through
informal learning (an idea to which the field has only recently returned.)
In short, the phrase “semiotic democracy” doesn’t mean what Fiske’s
critics think it means. Certainly, given the sheer range of remix videos on
YouTube, it would be hard to deny that viewers can and do take media in their
own hands, cracking open popular texts, and deploying them to generate
unintended and sometimes subversive meanings. Fiske was always explicit
that these works remained commodities, objects in economic exchanges, and
the consumption of such texts still served the economic interests of their
producers. Yet, he stressed that such texts were never simply commodities,
but were also meaningful for those participated in their pleasures. We don’t
buy things to serve capitalist interests; we buy them to serve our own inter-
ests and in so far as companies want to sell them to us, they have to find ways
to acknowledge and accommodate those interests. Fiske’s ideas helped pave
the way for the field of consumer research, which is now taught in many of
the world’s top business schools. But it has also paved the way for new forms
of consumer activism—culture jamming and ad busting—which challenges
and reroutes the construction of meaning around advertising.
Despite the complexities of his description of consumer politics, Fiske is
still probably best known for what he had to say about resistance:

The term “resistance” is used in its literal sense, not in its more overtly
political or even revolutionary one of attempting to overthrow the social
system. Rather it refers to the refusal to accept the social identity proposed by
the dominant ideology and the social control that goes with it. . . . The fact
that this subversive or resistive activity is semiotic or cultural rather than
social or even military does not denude it of any effectivity. Sociopolitical
systems depend finally upon cultural systems, which is to say that the mean-
ings people make of their social relations and the pleasures that they seek
serve in the last instance to stabilize or destabilize that social system. Mean-
ings and pleasures have a general and dispersed social effectivity though
maybe not a direct and demonstrable social effect. [TC 241]

Fiske’s critics argued that he saw all forms of popular resistance as progres-
sive. Not true! Yes, he wrote mostly about the ways resistant readings were
deployed towards progressive causes and yes, he sometimes heard cries of
rebellion as faint as the voices of the Whos down in Whoville. But in Under-
standing Popular Culture, Fiske explicitly states:

We must recognize that opposition need not necessarily be progressive.

There are alliances among the people for whom the power-bloc has advanced
xxxviii why fiske still matters
too far, has been too progressive, and whose political and cultural impetus is
reactionary in at least some aspects. There is a right-wing populism, there are
some formations of the people that act as a reactionary, not progressive,
force. [UPC 163]

At the same time, Fiske cautioned us against dismissing these reactionary

cultural practices too quickly without understanding how they express “the
desire of subordinated people for some control over certain aspects of their
lives, in particular over their culture.” [UPC 164] Given the polarized state of
contemporary political discourse, learning to decipher what conservatives
believe and how they position themselves in opposition to their cultural
environments seems key to changing the terms of the debate.
Fiske also maintained that popular texts were “progressive in that they can
encourage the production of meanings that work to change or destabilize the
social order, but they can never be radical in the sense that they can never
oppose head on or overthrow that order.” [UPC 133] Capitalist enterprises
are unlikely to produce “radical” works and avant-garde texts are unlikely to
be accepted by popular audiences without sufficient preparation. Yet, popular
fantasy could model utopian alternatives and could thus inspire more overt
kinds of political action: “the ability to think differently, to construct one’s
own meanings of self and of social relations, is the necessary ground without
which no political action can hope to succeed. . . . The interior resistance of
fantasy is more than ideologically evasive, it is a necessary base for social
action.” [RTP 10]
Fiske’s description of a young Madonna fan (generally believed to be his
daughter) maps the potential trajectory from popular consumption to polit-
ical action:

The teenage girl fan of Madonna who fantasizes her own empowerment can
translate this fantasy into behavior, and can act in a more empowered way
socially, thus winning more social territory for herself. When she meets
others who share her fantasies and freedom there is the beginning of a sense
of solidarity, of a shared resistance, that can support and encourage progres-
sive action on the microsocial level. [RTP 104]

Fiske’s defense of Madonna as a figure of potential female empowerment

became a wedge issue in the culture wars of the 1980s, bringing him scorn
from the right and the left. Here, Fiske was embracing the emerging, still
unnamed “third wave” of American feminism. The Riot Grrls, who are often
seen as a key vanguard of Third Wave feminism, moved from being fans of
popular music to producers of their own DIY culture and in the process,
came to articulate their own shared identities and collective struggles.
why fiske still matters xxxix
We might juxtapose Fiske’s description of the young Madonna fan with
Kathryn Rowe Karilyn’s summary of Third Wave cultural politics (2003):

In Third-Wave feminism, popular culture is a natural site of identity-

formation and empowerment, providing an abundant store house of images
and narratives valuable less as a means of representing reality than as motifs
available for contesting, rewriting and recoding. [8]

Arguing that Third Wave feminists have rejected essentialist categories of

identity formation, Karilyn suggests that these old categories nevertheless
provide resources for their semiotic play. These identity markers can be
“borrowed, performed, and pieced together ironically, playfully or with
political intent, in a mode typical of postmodern culture.”[8] Such play gives
rise to empowered identities and create semiotic solidarities within the
Third Wave feminists are, of course, not the only activists to deconstruct
and remix popular culture to help fuel campaigns for social change, many
of whom were operationalizing what they learned studying Fiske’s books
in our classrooms. Mark Dery’s 1993 essay, “Culture Jamming: Hacking,
Slashing And Snipping in the Empire of Signs,” described “semiotic guerilla
warfare” as a key activist strategy across many counter-culture movements,
some digital, some taking place in the streets, but all explicitly framed in
opposition to dominant economic and political institutions. More recently,
Stephen Duncombe’s Dream (2007) has discussed “ethical spectacles,” play-
ful performances, such as Billionaires for Bush, which often took their
language from popular culture to “manufacture dissent” against the Bush
Fiske ends his account of the teenage Madonna fan and her trajectory
(meaning making, identity formation, subcultural participation and collect-
ive action) with a consideration of the role of the theorist in fueling social

It may well be that one of the most productive roles for the cultural critic is
to facilitate and encourage transitions among these sociocultural levels of
consciousness and action. Theory can help to cultivate a social dimension
within interior or fantasized resistances, to link them to social experiences
shared with others and thus discourage them from becoming merely indi-
vidualistic; theory can situate the specificities of everyday life within a
conceptual framework that can enhance the awareness of their political
dimensions. It can thus facilitate their transformation into a more collective
consciousness, which may, in turn, be transformed into more collective
social practice. [UPC 173]
xl why fiske still matters

Fiske played that role for his students and his readers, defining a set of ethical
norms and political goals for the study of popular culture which still
inform our research and activism. Many of Fiske’s students have embraced
more vernacular modes of writing (such as blogging or twitter), trying to
make sure that our ideas become resources for larger publics. The world has
moved in directions Fiske helped us to anticipate, and we are trying to keep
pace with the cultural change, reformulating his theory to reflect these
new realities, identifying which tools and which communities are more
visibly reworking the contents of mass media to serve their own ends. We are
speaking truth to power in hearing rooms and corporate board rooms, in
the streets and on the web, and we are asking the question which Fiske left
us with:

“Is this what we want?” If not, what are we going to do about it?

Barlow, John Perry (1996) “A Declaration of Independence Of Cyberspace,”
De Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of
California Press).
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Signs (Open Magazine Pamphlet Series).
Doty, Alex (1993) Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).
Duncombe, Stephen (2007) Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of
Fantasy (London: New Press).
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Film Institute).
Eco, Umberto (1990). Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Harvest).
Fiske, John and John Hartley (1980) Reading Television (London: Methuen). (RTV)
Fiske, John and Robert Hodge (1988) Myths of Oz: Reading Australian Popular
Culture (Allen and Unwin, Australia).
Fiske, John (1988) Television Culture (New York: Routledge). (TC)
Fiske, John (1989) Understanding Popular Culture (New York: Routledge). (UPC)
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Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (New York: Routledge).
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sota Press). (PP, PW)
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University of Minnesota Press). (MM)
why fiske still matters xli
Hartley, John and Alan McKee (2001) The Indigenous Public Sphere: The Reporting
and Reception of Aboriginal Issues in The Australian Media (Oxford: Oxford
University Press).
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Hartley, John (2007) Television Truths: Forms of Knowledge in Popular Culture
(London: Wiley-Blackwell).
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Karilyn, Kathryn Rowe (2003) Scream, Popular Culture, and Feminism’s Third
Wave: “I’m Not My Mother,” Genders Online Journal 38.
McChesney, Robert (1996) “Communication for the Hell of It: The Triviality of
U.S. Broadcasting History.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 40.
McGuigan, Jim (1992) Cultural Populism (London: Routledge).
Mittell, Jason (2006) “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary Television,” The
Velvet Light Trap—Number 58, Fall 2006, pp. 29–40.
Morris, Meaghan (1991) “Banality in Cultural Studies,” Block #14.
Rosen, Jay (2006) “The People Formerly Known as the Audience,” Pressthink,
June 27,
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with Greg M. Smith,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, February 29, http://
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Everyday Life Reader (London: Routledge, 2002).

Ron Becker, Aniko Bodroghkozy, Steve Classen,

Elana Levine, Jason Mittell, Greg Smith, and
Pamela Wilson
(moderated and edited by Pamela Wilson)

For many of us who are now scholars in media and cultural studies, John
Fiske’s writing about television and popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s
was life-transforming and profoundly influential upon our scholarship and
our careers. It opened our eyes and our minds to a new understanding of
television’s role in our social and cultural lives and illuminated a new field of
study that has continued to engage us for the past twenty years.
Fiske and his co-author John Hartley first published Reading Television in
1978; nearly a decade later, after his broader introduction to semiotics and
structural analysis (Introduction to Communication Studies, published in 1982),
Fiske returned to write his most comprehensive theoretical analysis and text
on television, Television Culture, in 1987. Here, a group of media scholars who
studied with Fiske as graduate students at the University of Wisconsin have
come together in a dialogue to discuss the significance of his writing, think-
ing and teaching about television, popular culture and media studies.

Steve Classen: For me, Reading Television prompted an intellectual awakening—

and I know I was not alone. I recall picking up the small paperback in the
1980s and finding the authors’ insights, approach and sensibility compelling.
I couldn’t put the book down. In part this was because Fiske and Hartley were
first-rate scholars pressing students like myself to think differently and to
engage new lines of cultural theory and practice. But the appeal of the book
also resided in the clear manifestation of the authors’ appreciation for the