Sunday Morning Coming Down

I’ve got to start grading, so I don’t have time for a full post, but I’m looking forward to reading Michael Bérubé’s discussion of Tom Frank’s latest book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. I remember reading the Salon interview with Frank a few months ago that Michael mentions in his blog entry:

You have a whole critique of pop culture that is difficult to summarize, but let’s talk more about your sympathy with the right-wing activists. When they bemoan how coarse and cheap pop culture has become, you almost seem to agree, or at least to feel that they have a certain kind of point.

Well, look. I should say this: I started out as a punk rocker, and we try to deal with cultural dissent, genuinely shocking things, at the Baffler. But as I have written about many, many times, so much of the shockery that surrounds us is not genuine. There’s no avant-garde about it. It’s not the real thing, it’s a watered-down capitalist projection. You’ve seen this argument before, “the commodification of dissent.”

The argument I’m making is not that they’re absolutely right to be disgusted by our culture—although when I’m away from the country and I come back and turn on MTV, I’m always like, “Holy shit!” I’m just trying to play up the flagrant contradiction. If you hate this stuff, talk about capitalism! Talk about the forces that do it! I’m focusing on the contradiction there, rather than accepting their argument about obscenity or whatever.

Right, so your real problem is with the kind of cultural-studies intellectual who believes that pop culture really is subversive.

Yes, exactly. The cultural studies people read these products of capitalism as face value. They see fake rebellion as the real thing. To put it in very vulgar terms, that’s the argument.

Madonna kissing Britney is somehow actually socially meaningful.

Right, exactly. And the heartland people often see it that way also. I’m saying it’s not that, it is as pure an expression of business rationality as is a McDonald’s hamburger.

While I’d certainly agree that the Madonna-Britney kiss is far from subversive, I’d argue that his characterization of cultural studies here is pretty misrepresentative. I doubt there are many serious cultural studies cholars who will read that event without thinking about the dollar signs that framed it. I’d planned to blog this interview when it first appeared, but never found the time, and right now, I really do need to be working on other things.

Also just wanted to note that the comments in Michael’s post led me to UC Irvine film and media professor Catherine Liu’s very cool blog, Don’t Ask Me!, which I’ll read regulalry from now on.


  1. Chris in Boston Said,

    September 20, 2004 @ 9:14 pm

    I doubt there are many serious cultural studies cholars who will read that event without thinking about the dollar signs that framed it.

    John Fiske?

  2. chuck Said,

    September 20, 2004 @ 10:44 pm

    You’re right of course. I may have misspoke a little, and I really should pay more attention when I’m blogging in a rush like that….

  3. Chris in Boston Said,

    September 21, 2004 @ 9:38 pm

    Oh, dashing off ideas and impressions is what blogging’s for, I just couldn’t resist the counterexample of Fiske. I’m actually just now remembering that essay he wrote on Madonna in Channels of Discourse so I thought I’d pull it off the shelf…

    “Madonna is a fine example of the capitalist pop industry at work, creating a (possible short-lived) fashion, exploiting it to the full, and making a lot of money from one off the most powerless and exploitable sections of the community – young girls.

    “But such an account is inadequate (though not neceesarily inaccurate as far as it goes) because it assumes that the Madonna fans are, in Stuart Hall’s phrase, ‘cultural dupes,’ able to be manipulated against their own interest by the moguls of the culture industry….

    “But if her fans are not ‘cultural dupes’ but actively choose to watch, listen to, and imitate her rather than anyone else, there must be some gaps or spaces in her image that escape ideological control and allow her audiences to make meanings that connect with their social experience.”

    So it’s not that Fiske exactly ignores industry and ideology, but as with the Birmingham School Cultural Studies folk, the emphasis is squarely on subcultural resistance and excess of ideological interpellation.

    That said, I’m not sure I agree with Thomas Frank either… he rather makes Fiske come off well!

  4. chuck Said,

    September 21, 2004 @ 10:25 pm

    Yes, there are things I do like about Fiske, especially in this passage. I don’t think that audience members are “cultural dupes,” simply and merely manipulated by what they see. And it’s clear that Fiske does acknowledge industry. In fact, industry seems to initiate Fiske’s thinking in that passage.

    I’m writing while very tired, so I’m having a hard time focusing, but I do have real problems with the “cultural dupe” thesis. I think that’s why I have been so frustrated with many of the “anti-big media” documentaries that imply audiences will automatically be fooled by what they see and read and hear. There’s absoultely something more complicated going on in terms of reception. I’m just not sure what that is (though I think that “subversion” is too strong a term).

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