Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters

While I don’t often delve too far into my academic experiences here at Cultural Learnings, this past weekend offered an interesting convergence of my various different hats, and since I’m going to be more academically involved in television studies in the years ahead I figure now seems like a good time to introduce some of that material here at the blog.

I was in Madison, Wisconsin over the weekend for Fiske Matters, a conference celebrating the legacy of John Fiske, professor emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Madison and considered to be one of the most influential figures in cultural and media studies. In particular, the conference was organized to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of his retirement from academia, and to begin the process of rescuing his work from a few decades of reductive criticism which has unfairly marginalized his contribution to the field.

The majority of people at the conference were themselves products of Fiske’s influential work: most of the attendees were former students, many of whom are now prominent academics within the field and who continue to rely on his teachings when inspiring a new era of scholars. And while I never had the pleasure of studying with Fiske, nor have I ever learned about Fiske in any of my direct academic experience, the conference was a fantastic introduction into the collaborative, creative and engaged academic environment which owes a great deal to Fiske’s work in the field.

I’m not going to be posting my entire presentation (for reasons I’ll get to beneath the fold), but I do want to discuss my paper and then raise some of my observations from the weekend which will hopefully be relevant to both academics and readers who may not be academics but might be interested in seeing how television and media are filtered through an academic lens.

My Paper

When I arrived at the conference, I had prepared a written paper I intended on reading: however, a day into the conference, I realized that I didn’t particularly want to read that paper. Right now, I am in what one would call a student mindset: every paper I write feels like it needs to be definitive, that it needs to make a particular argument and “prove” it with some sense of authority. And so when I sat down to discuss the relationship between John Fiske’s Television Culture and contemporary television criticism, I found myself making more definitive statements than I was comfortable making; as Jason Mittell demonstrated in his post “Critical Categories” from earlier this year, television criticism is something which leads to unstructured thinkpieces more than definition, and yet my academic mode was so trapped in “student” that I had tried to tie things up in a little bow.

It was an important learning experience, as I discovered that the cultural studies conference environment is highly collaborative: rather than presenting a fully-formed argument, presentations are often an opportunity to present nascent (but coherent) research in an effort to gain further insights from the highly informed scholars in the audience. Every paper is ultimately an attempt to investigate a particular idea, but rather than pushing for answers a conference like this one values questions, so long as they are informed questions that probe the audience to think of things in a new light. My only previous conference experiences were very clearly made up of people presenting papers they wrote for other classes within the conference environment, and so to see people presenting new research yet to be published or collected into written form was a real eye-opener for me.

My paper discussed the ways in which online television criticism from the likes of Alan Sepinwall, Maureen Ryan or The A.V. Club can be understood through Fiske’s work in Television Culture. In particular, my key arguments were as follows:

  • By focusing on many of the elements which Fiske identifies as unique to television as a medium (including genre, character and its polysemy of meaning), television critics are implicitly (and likely unknowingly) reaffirming Fiske’s analysis of television culture in their complex deconstructions of television episodes and seasons.
  • Using Fiske’s work on intertextuality, we can see those deconstructions as secondary texts which serve as an antidote to official promotion in terms of informing viewers about the quality of the primary text (the series itself) as well as pushing them to discover further meaning beyond their initial reading of the primary text.
  • By giving critics the space to post more often and at greater length, the Internet has allowed critics to evolve from presumably objective arbiters of quality to critically subjective television viewers not unlike the general audience. Enabling them to provide more information on what they television they enjoy and how they engage with through blogs, Twitter, and other social media in order to give readers a greater sense of their personality, the web creates critics who welcome readers into their viewing experience not unlike how Siskel & Ebert brought the audience onto the balcony alongside them.
  • As a result of this strong relationship between critic and audience, reader communities form within the comment sections of these reviews; these comments are then, using Fiske’s model, considered tertiary texts which respond to both the primary text (the episode or series in question) and the secondary text (the critical analysis).
  • Analyzing the comments section on Alan Sepinwall’s review of “Chuck vs. the Mask,” I looked at the ways in which frustrated fans noted the high expectations at “What’s Alan Watching?” compared with the forums as they complained about the episode’s events regarding Chuck and Sarah’s relationships; fans specifically noted the pressure to engage in a more intellectual discourse on Alan’s post, indicating that the critical environment he has created by example has led to readers elevating their own level of discourse in kind.

My conclusion is that these reviews have become hybrid fan/intellectual spaces where television’s active audience is both particularly active (in that they are inspired to comment and engage with the multiple potential meanings of a particular episode) and particularly critical (in the spirit of the indepth analysis being undertaken by the critics in question), and that the relevance of Fiske’s work on intertextuality and the active audience to these communities demonstrates his continued legacy. Chances are I will be expanding on these ideas in the future, especially considering the great discussion we had after the panel: for example, Henry Jenkins pushed me to consider the difference between reviews which focus on horizontal intertextuality (like collecting/explaining pop culture references, soundtrack choices, guest stars, etc.) and vertical textuality (investigating genre, character development) which drills further into the series’ complexity, and how this intersects with other variables (like comedy and drama, or procedural and serialized), while Jason Mittell and Karen M. extended my discussion to question the ways in which the fan response to Maureen Ryan’s criticism of Lost’s depiction of female characters reflects upon these communities. And this is to say nothing of how the work of my fellow panelists (Abigail De Kosnik, Jonathan Gray and Rhiannon Bury) engaged with fandom, and how that work will continue to swirl around in my head in the weeks and months to come. So, thanks to my fellow panelists, and to our sizable audience who sat out the football match to listen to us talk about fandom.

The Keynotes

Bill Kirkpatrick has a better account of the conference as a whole than I would be able to muster over at Antenna, but I do want to make a few observations about the keynotes.

John Fiske’s discussion of 17th century culture was truly fascinating: in light of how the mirror’s scarcity made self-image less important than other forms of social status, Fiske looked at the ways in which furniture and etiquette demonstrate changing cultural norms during this period (inspired partially by his recent work dealing antiques). The point which stood out most for me, though, came during the Q&A section, when Fiske said the following: “History is difference and change. Progress is a value judgement.” And while I think it’s unnecessary to “modernize” Fiske’s analysis of 17th century culture, I couldn’t help but see two particular parallels to contemporary television.

One is that I think this offers an interesting perspective on the ways in which traditional sitcoms operate: while I like to point out that these shows (like Two and a Half Men) don’t embrace change, the truth is that they simply engage change and difference without making a particular value judgment. While one could argue that the return to the status quo indicates a judgment in favour of the series’ established premise, each individual episode is still an investigation of change and difference. I still have greater respect for shows which are willing to make value judgments within their worlds, but Fiske’s terminology gave me pause and forced me to reconsider how I criticize traditional sitcoms on a regular basis.

The second is that it’s a fitting statement for how Big Love approaches the concept of history within its controversial premise. The Henricksons are obviously different, in that they live a polygamist lifestyle, but the series does not make a value statement about whether or not their lifestyle is inferior or superior to the alternatives, in particular the Mormon faith from which the series’ polygamists splintered over a century ago. While the Mormons argue that their faith progressed beyond plural marriage, Juniper Creek and other communities would argue that it simply changed, and that those who remained true to Joseph Smith’s vision are following a different, and superior, path. The series wants us to view history not as a linear evolution of progress, but rather a series of changes which breed difference and conflict and which remain for us to interpret as we see fit, and so Fiske’s comment struck me as an interesting mantra for the series.

Meanwhile, Henry Jenkins’ excellent discussion of activism within fan activity had a number of really intriguing points, such as his observation that Avatar’s generic storyline makes it incredibly malleable for different activist groups to adopt its message as their own (as seen in this Gaza Strip protest), or that we are shifting from a distribution culture to a circulation culture. However, I want to focus on his brief mention of Glee, and the way it uses popular culture to engage with audiences. He particularly pointed out the various images of Madonna which were provided for the show’s characters in the promotion leading up to “The Power of Madonna,” and the way the show used the activism inherent to Madonna’s image transformations to help build the activism and empowerment within the show’s fanbase. And on that level, I would give “The Power of Madonna” a fair deal of credit, as Glee’s ability to speak to a generation of youth and inspire them to express themselves is part of the show’s unique appeal.

However, I’ve always wanted the show to focus more on its characters, and that is where the Madonna episode falls apart for me (as my review indicates): while the Madonna images worked towards the series’ premise and its connection with audiences, it did very little to speak to the individual characters. The presentation of three characters coming close to losing their virginity simultaneously may be an aesthetic triumph, but it had very little impact on the individual characters, just as the episode’s message of empowerment didn’t change anyone’s trajectory. I guess I’d wonder what it says about the series’ activism when it (not unlike sitcoms) tends to revert to the status quo: does the continued marginalization of the Glee Club and the transient nature of each episode’s message undermine the empowerment the series seems to advocate, or do those moments of inspiration resonate with fandom long enough to make them think differently about their own experience? As someone who (not too wisely) watches the show as a serialized drama, I find the series contradictory, but episodes like “The Power of Madonna” are quite potent examples of the series’ potential if isolated from those expectations, and Jenkins’ comments helped me confront my issues with the episode in greater detail.

In the conference’s final keynote, Herman Gray looked at politics of recognition in regards to race in America, and I was particularly intrigued by his interest in award shows as a place where race is often recognized (the BET Awards, for example). I raise the BET Awards as an example because Chris Smith discussed the network’s (d)evolution earlier in the conference, and at the time I had wondered about the BET Awards in terms of their recognition of African American culture as compared with the network’s occasionally reprehensible depiction of African American culture. Specifically, I wondered about the fact that Justin Bieber was nominated for a BET Award for Best New Artist. Now, he isn’t the first prominent white pop/R&B singer to be nominated for the award (Justin Timberlake was nominated in 2003), nor is this the only category where a white male has been recognized (Eminem was nominated for Male Hip Hop Artist in 2003, while Justin Thicke (2007) and Timberlake (2003) have been up for Male R&B Artist).

However, I wonder whether Bieber is being included because of his talent or because of his immense popularity which could draw viewers to the telecast: unless they’re counting “Canadian” as a minority (which are included in the awards’ stated purpose according to Wikipedia), Bieber doesn’t qualify for any reason beyond his genre (arguably, R&B, although I’d call it pop) being predominantly African American, which seems a bit slippery to me (and I would say the same for Eminem, Thicke and Timberlake). And what does it say about the awards when there hasn’t been a single non-African nominee for Actor/Actress of the year: does this mean that no other minority has been worthy of being in these categories, or just that the awards preference African American over any other minority? Award shows, as Gray indicated, contain a wealth of information in regards to representations of race as well as celebrity and other forms of cultural discourse, and I’m hopeful that more analysis is done in this area in the future.

The Panel Highlights

I won’t be able to speak to every panel I saw over the weekend, but here are a few brief comments on the rest of my conference experience, which was truly an engrossing and enlightening way to spend my weekend – thanks to all of the presenters, conference organizers, and attendees who made it all possible.

  • I was very interested in Julie Cupples and Kevin Glynn’s paper on the mediation of Africa in contemporary television drama, in particular through ER; it made me question the way that Chuck used Africa and Doctors without Borders within its third season, and whether the transient nature of that storyline and it being subsequently forgotten in the episodes thereafter perhaps reduces the potential impact of their visit (and the use of Africa in general).
  • Some great thoughts in the “Discplining Fiske” panel, as Sam Ford investigated the relevance of the anthology form in terms of reflecting critical discourse, Mark Hayward discussed the future of the academic journal, and Bill Kirkpatrick introduced some very interesting ideas on the nature of media policy (arguing that policy goes beyond bodies like the FCC to policies of consumption within the household, for example).
  • I’ve always followed game culture, but the panel on how Fiske’s work could help us understand game studies and its relationship with cultural studies in general really pushed me to consider game culture more carefully. I was particularly intrigued by Liz Ellcessor‘s observations about The Guild and its relationship with game culture, and there was a nice post-panel discussion (okay, by “nice” I mean I’m the one who started it) about the complexities of Guild cosplay (as people dress up as the characters dressed up as their characters).
  • Lisa Parks delivered a really intriguing look at the way satellite dishes can become a source of populist discourse, going beyond technology to becoming statements of identity or political activism. She also directed us towards a site where you could purchase stickers to go on your satellite dish, which seems kitschy but which stems from immigrant communities looking to display their heritage (hence the Turkish pattern being one of the first designs made available).
  • I didn’t get to see his discussion in person, but Jason Mittell has made his discussion of the continued relevance of Television Culture to modern classroom environment available at Just TV, making me slightly less guilty about my decision to spend time at another panel in the timeslot.


Filed under Cultural Studies

4 responses to “Fiske-ian Learnings: Reflections on Fiske Matters

  1. What a fascinating experience that panel must have been. Reading your post I was dying of jealousy for not having been there but thank you for sharing this with us! I particularly liked the part about horizontal vs. vertical intertextuality and what happens when they intersect with with certain types of shows. I hope to read more on this guy Fiske, as I never heard of him in school. Thank you again! I’ll be back 🙂

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