John Fiske, "Popular Culture"

 

from: Frank Lentrichchia & Thomas McLaughlin, Critical Terms for Literary Study. The University of Chicago Press, 1995, 321 - 335.

This is a fine discussion of the contemporary understanding of "popular culture" as a critical term for literary and cultural studies.


"And what," asked the emcee of the New Newlywed Game "would you say best describes your wife's attitude to your romantic needs?" His voice put the last two words into heavy inverted commas. "'Yes, Master', 'No way, Jose' or 'Get serious, man'?" The four husbands in front of him duly answered "Yes, Master," some glossing it with comments like "I wear the pants," "She's very accommodating," or "She always does what I want," though one was slightly hesitant and was teased for being so. In the next segment of the show the wives were asked to guess their husbands' responses. Two dutifully guessed right and were rewarded with hugs from their men, points from the emcee, and applause from the studio audience. The wife of the hesitant one replied, "No way, Jose," and, embarrassedly, the husband admitted that she was actually correct, but only because of a "little operation" he had recently undergone. No hugs nor points for them, but a lot of studio laughter. The fourth wife's guess was "Get serious, man," which provoked a mock argument between the two about who was in control of their bedroom life. Again, no points, no hugs, but roars of laughter and prolonged applause from the studio audience.

The New Newlywed Game rewards the couple who best conforms to our ideological norms, for the winner is the couple who understands each other best as measured by their ability to guess each other's responses. Their prize commodifies their domesticity—it is usually an expensive kitchen appliance, a new bedroom suite, or a second honeymoon. These norms situate mutual understanding within a framework of male dominance and female submissiveness; the winners embody and underscore the naturalness of our socially produced normality. But the popular winners differ from the official winners: it is the couples who challenge or fail to live up to the norms that provide the popular pleasure of the show—they provoke the most laughter from the studio audience, and the emcee dwells on their disagreements while passing quickly over the consensual couples. The ideological norms of the heterosexual couple and the gender roles appropriate to it are simultaneously rewarded and undermined, and it is in the contradictions between these lines of force that we may trace some of the key character of popular culture. /322/

Let us define those two slippery words before exploring further their meaning. (I must explain first that I am limiting my account of popular culture to its textual forms, for those are the most appropriate to literary studies, and am not considering its more performative and embodied forms such as sport, fashion, or dancing, which are more appropriate to anthropology than literature.) By "culture" we refer to the social circulation of meanings, values, and pleasures, to the processes of forming social identities and social relationships, and to entering into relation with the larger social order in a particular way and from a particular position. Social relationships are personal, social relations are structural, and the former turn the latter into the lived experience of everyday life. Thus, in a patriarchal society such as ours, the social relations between the genders grant masculinity the position of power, but actual relationships between individual men and women may conform closely to the gender relations or may oppose, modify, or struggle against them: relationships are not totally determined by social relations but they can never be free of them either. Similarly, the social identities that people struggle to produce for themselves can never be free of determining social relations as expressed through categorizations such as gender, race, class, age, and so on; yet they are never totally determined by those relations, either. We can take this argument a little further by recognizing that the structuring social relations provide us with preformed frameworks of meaning or ways of making sense of our social experience, that they equip us with value systems by which to orient ourselves toward the events of our everyday lives, and that they teach us to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate pleasures. All this is the work of culture, but it is only part of its work, it is only the ideological part by which dominant norms are produced, circulated, and maintained. But, as the wives on the New Newlywed Game showed us, people sometimes comply with these norms and sometimes challenge them. There is a space between social norms and their application in particular circumstances, a space where compliance or contestation is negotiated, and a space between determining social relations and people's attempts to control their own identities and relationships; and these spaces constitute the terrain where popular culture is most active.

"Popular" is a more elusive term even than "culture." One meaning of the word, a widespread but debased one, is statistical—what is most popular is what appeals to the most people. Another, a more productive one, is that "the popular" serves the interests of "the people." "The people" as we use the term here, is not a class or social category, but rather a shifting set of social interests and positions that are defined by their subordinate relations to the dominant society. In this definition, the "compliant" wives were not behaving as members of "the people" for they were promoting the power relations and maintaining the norms of the dominant society—they were performing the roles and identities provided for them, they were making sense of their experience in a predetermined way, using the provided value system to evaluate their experience and to enjoy only /323/ the pleasures that it legitimated. They were producing nothing for themselves, and, insofar as they were members of a gender subordinated by the norms to which they conformed, they were acting against their gender interests and in the dominant ones. The noncompliant wives, however, particularly the one who answered, "Get serious, man," were trying to promote their gender interests against those of the dominating normality, and, in so doing, were acting as members of the people. "The people," then, are better recognized by what they do than by who they are, and popular culture, by analogy, is better recognized by what it does than by what it is. Popular culture is more a culture of process than of products.

This understanding of the word "popular" is both recent and a reversal of its earlier uses in cultural theory. As Europe and America industrialized themselves during the nineteenth century, their populations moved from rural areas to the cities that were built at high speed to house the workforce needed by the new mills and factories. This urbanized, highly concentrated mass of people was a new social phenomenon that traditional concepts of the people as rural peasantry or folk could not describe. As the development of a society's language and its ways of thinking is shaped primarily by its ruling classes (though this is less the case in today's multicultural, market driven societies), so the ways of talking and thinking about this new "people" reflected ruling class interests—they were either elitist and anxious, or patronizing and nostalgic.

The anxious elite used the word "popular" synonymously with ones like gross, base, vile, riffraff, common, low, vulgar, plebeian and cheap. In the same mindset, "democracy" was something to be feared, for it connoted mob rule. From this point of view, the people were seen as a cultureless, lawless timebomb that might explode at any moment into anarchy and social disorder. The danger lay less in the people themselves, however, than in their gullibility, for, paradoxically, besides being dangerous, they were also motiveless and sheeplike, following blindly whoever could win them over. Matthew Arnold, then, in his influential book Culture and Anarchy argued that the crucial issue facing nineteenth century society was the leadership of this mass of people. The culture wars of the time were fought between the properly cultured (that is, those maintaining the values of the best that had been thought and said in the world [read "Europe"] ), and the new, emerging middle class who were materialist and uncultured but wealthy and increasingly powerful politically. He called them Philistines and worried that their influence over the masses would lead to social degradation, vulgarization (and ultimately), anarchy, and the destruction of civilization. The cultural elite for whom he spoke saw many parallels between Britain and ancient Rome, with the important difference that the modern equivalent of the Goths and Vandals who overthrew the Roman Empire and sank Europe into the Dark Ages were already inside the walls: the people were the enemy within. The direct descendants of this view of culture are still with us and show every sign of living on /324/ into the next century. It is still, unfortunately, necessary to remind ourselves not only of their elitism but also of their Eurocentricity.

The patronizingly nostalgic view of the people was also formed in reaction to the forces of industrialization and urbanization, but in this case the point of critical comparison was not a civilized culture threatened by the future but a pastoral folk culture lost in the past. The Romantics, who were the main proponents of this view, were genuine, if sentimental, in their criticism of the bad social conditions of the new working class, but, like the cultural elitists, they did not believe that this class had the ability to produce a culture of its own and to make its own contribution to the complex industrial society that was emerging. It was not until the second half of this century that cultural analysts began to discover how active the lower classes had been in shaping their own culture and to recognize the influence they could exert over the culture as a whole.

There is another way of conceptualizing the people in industrial societies that share certain features with both anxious elitism and patronizing nostalgia. This was most comprehensively proposed by the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist social theorists who fled Nazi Germany to the United States. In their view, the industrialization of culture and the development of the mass media had destroyed all traces of authentic popular or folk culture and was rapidly eroding high culture. The culture industries ensured that capitalism could colonize people's leisure time as fully as their work time. They were crucial in enabling capitalism to saturate people's experiences and consciousness so thoroughly as to leave no space in which to experience a noncapitalist identity or consciousness, or to establish non- (let alone anti-) capitalist relations. The culture industries, then, were the means by which capitalism could erase any possibility of opposition and thus of social change. They alienated people from their social relations, whether with local communities or with their own class, and they turned the people into a mass of atomized individuals who had no sense of collectivity and were thus denied the social power that derives only from collective action. They commodified people by erasing their consciousness of all needs or desires except those that could be satisfied by commodities, and they produced one dimensional people who were incapable of criticizing capitalism because they had no experience of anything outside it. For the Frankfurt School, the universal human values of high culture provided the sole remaining noncommodified system of values, and they traced how capitalism set to work to extinguish this area of potential opposition as well. It commodified high art by using cheap reproductions of paintings in advertisements and by turning the products of human greatness into plastic souvenirs; it played classical music in elevators and packaged it for mass consumption; great books had their greatness taken out of them by being condensed and predigested for easy consumption. The result was what was later called a "middle-brow," conformist culture that seemed expressly designed for Matthew Arnold's Philistines. The industrialization of cul- /325/ ture, then, destroyed both popular and high culture, the two possible sources of an authentic sense of being human from which to criticize the inhumanity of capitalist society. This critical pessimism was ultimately elitist because it saw the people as the helpless, passive victims of the system, and denied them any agency of their own. It did not allow them any ability to devise means of coping with, or exerting influence upon, the socio-economic forces that were ranged against them.

The idea that the people in industrial societies had no culture also drove the nineteenth century science of anthropology. To discover the universal truths of human society and culture, anthropologists went into "primitive" or non-European societies where they found that myth, ritual and religion did for them what elite culture did in the West—they kept the social order and its highest, traditionally tested values alive and in good shape. Anthropology has had a good influence in extending the notion of culture to encompass far more than elite works of art and has helped open up the space where popular culture could be studied. Its influence, for example, underlay Raymond Williams's richly simple, and in its day, highly provocative, proposition that "culture is ordinary." But it has been less positive when it has influenced cultural theorists to treat complex industrial societies as oversized tribes and their mass culture as the equivalent of rituals that give their society cohesion. Watching Dallas, the Superbowl, or the Gulf War on television serves, in this view, the same social function as a ritual in a tribal society. The problem with this view is that it subsumes the people into society as a whole and thus denies them their distinct cultures or social identities; it also denies any sense of conflict of interest between the elites and the people, and the only beneficiary of the denial of conflict of interest is the status quo and its power structure.

The theory of popular culture that underlies this essay derives from the tradition of cultural studies. This school of thought agrees with all the criticisms of industrial capitalism sketched above but disagrees with the claimed totality of their effectiveness. It accepts the accuracy of the diagnosis of the forces with which popular culture has to cope but rejects the assumption that the people have no resources of their own from which to derive their coping strategies, their resistances, and their own culture. Popular culture in industrial societies does exist, even though it may never be pure and authentic, for it is always made from cultural resources that are opposed to it, it is always contradictory and inscribed with traces of that to which it is opposed. It is always, then, a culture of struggle, a culture of making do rather than one of making. Popular culture is typically bound up with the products and technology of mass culture, but its creativity consists in its ways of using these products and technologies, not in producing them.

Three of the works that are often claimed to form the foundation of cultural studies are The Making of the English Working Class by the historian E. P. Thomp- /326/ son (published in 1963) and two books published in 1958 by literary critics and cultural theorists, The Uses of Literacy, by Richard Hoggart, and Culture and Society, by Raymond Williams. The German playwright Brecht was also influential, though less centrally. In essays such as "The Popular and the Realistic," he was one of the first to argue that "the people" and "the popular" could be "fighting" concepts. He understood that the people were the driving force of social change and that popular art had not only to appeal to them but that it had to represent and validate the progressive section of the people in such a way that it could take over the leadership. He tried to produce such a popular culture in his plays, but, unfortunately, apart from a brief period in pre-Nazi Germany, his work has been more popular with the left-wing intelligentsia than with the people. His attempt to produce a popular culture for the progressive section of the people was ultimately misguided, for it misunderstood the culture of the people as a culture of products or texts rather than a culture of process by which texts are used for popular purposes. Of course, some texts have greater potential for such uses than others, and Brecht's attempts to produce a popular theater were not entirely misguided. He did, however, attempt to direct and control the political uses to which his plays should be put, and, despite his best intentions, ended up didactically talking down to the people he was trying to talk with. Popular culture rejects preachiness and insists on determining its own uses of texts, for that is where the creativity of the people lies.

Mass culture, like high culture and like Brecht's putative popular culture, is a culture of products for products are readily sold. Mass culture produces cultural commodities, high culture produces artworks or texts. The cultural commodities of mass culture—films, TV shows, CDs, etc.—are produced and distributed by an industrialized system whose aim is to maximize profit for the producers and distributors by appealing to as many consumers as possible. This industrialized mass culture is not popular culture, though it does produce many of the resources out of which popular culture is made, and its market centered approach means that it is often more effective in producing texts that the people can use for their progressive purposes than was Brecht with his explicit progressive intentions. The marketplace has always been a site of negotiation rather than one of economic exploitation, and the market places of capitalism are, in this respect, no different from those of other economic systems. In industrialized societies the people make their culture out of resources that are not of their making and are not under their control. Popular culture typically involves the art of making do with what is available.

Crucial to the art of making do is the selection of what to use. Roughly 80 percent of the products of mass culture are rejected by the people: eight out of ten Hollywood films fail to make a profit at the box office (this is their main target market, though now many make more money in secondary markets such as home video or export); four out of five new television shows fail to survive /327/ their first season, and the music and print industries show similar patterns of rejection.

But popular discrimination does not stop at the selection of the commodity or text, it then selects the functional elements within it. Homeless Native Americans, for instance, chose to watch old westerns on the VCR in their shelter, but they selected only the first half of them, and switched off the movie at the point when the wagon train had been successfully attacked, the fort captured—they chose not to watch the reassertion of white empire. Aboriginal people watching the Rambo movies in Australia chose to ignore the conflict between the free west and the communist east and focused instead on the conflict between Rambo, whom they saw, by a selection of physical and behavioral characteristics, as a member of the third world like them, and the white officer class that systematically and mistakenly underestimated his abilities.

Popular selection, then, is performed not by universal aesthetic criteria of quality, but by socially located criteria of relevance. Rambo was a cultural resource that Australian Aboriginals could use in making their own sense of their identities in a white society; they saw similarities between the white officer class in the movie and the Australian government officials who regulated so much of their lives, so the movie was useful to them in making their sense, as opposed to the white sense, of the paternalist and demeaning bureaucracy with which they had to deal. Similar creative, functional, and selective processes can be observed in the way people watch the New Newlywed Game. When I showed students the episode that contained the exchange at the opening of this chapter I could detect three recurrent patterns in their widely varying responses. Some women, often those who explicitly aligned themselves with feminism, were so offended by the sexism of the question and its built-in assumption that women's sexuality exists only to respond to men's that they rejected the show altogether; they did not watch it at home and did not make it part of their popular culture. When asked to watch it in class, some of them, however, did recognize a wry pleasure in seeing just how awful patriarchy could be, as one put it, "You couldn't ask for a clearer example of what we're up against!" Other women, however, laughed delightedly at the noncompliant wives, and many of them chose occasionally to watch the show at home. They chose to attend to the popular winners rather than the official ones, and did make the show into part of their popular culture. We will trace some of the implications of this choice in a moment.

One other, possibly more surprising, pattern of response occurred among the men in my classes. Many of them commented that the husbands were put on the spot by the question. Patriarchy's construction of masculinity made it almost impossible for a man, in public, to reply in any way other than "Yes, master," for one of the requirements of this masculinity is public performance. So even those men who, in private, might relate to their wives or girlfriends very differently would, in public or on television, be under strong pressure to conform to the /328/ norms of mastery: they were placed at a point of acute and anxious contradiction I between the social relations of gender and their own personal relationships. These particular husbands, if they experienced this contradiction, were less able or willing than their wives to stand up for personal relationships over ideological relations. We may speculate, on the basis of this slender evidence, that the ideology of patriarchy may work more effectively upon men than women, maybe because men have less to gain by resisting it, or, at least, less experience of resisting. For the men in my classes, however, who did recognize the contradiction, the question was so excessively patriarchal that instead of naturalizing patriarchal norms into common sense, it actually exposed those norms to questioning and criticism. In this respect their response was similar to that of the feminist women.

Popular culture is often excessive, and is frequently criticized by those who do not understand it for being "sensational." Excessiveness, sensationalism, and exaggeration are stylistic devices of contradiction, and, as I have argued, the contradictory is characteristic of popular culture. Each of these devices takes ideological norms and then exceeds them, magnifies them so that their normality is brought to our attention and is not allowed to continue its ideological work unseen: its powerful position of "the taken-for-granted" is thus disturbed. They promote a norm and then exceed it, spilling over beyond its ideological containment. This excess meaning then becomes a resource that people can use to interrogate or contradict the normal, the excessive is meaning that has escaped the control of the norm.

Intrigued and heartened by my students' responses to the NewNewlywed Game, I then advertised locally asking for "real life" fans of the show to write or telephone me their accounts of why they enjoyed it. Twenty-two bothered to do so. Across their varied responses I was able to trace four recurrent similarities. The first was that twenty-one of the respondents were women, and the lone male called me only at his girlfriend's insistence because she was too shy to do so herself. This 100 percent female response does not indicate that the show was watched only by women, but it does indicate, I believe, that those to whom the show is important enough for them to want to describe their pleasures in it to a strange professor were disproportionately, if not exclusively, female. The show matters to women. This is an intriguing observation if the show is as patriarchal as it first appears.

It was common for these women not only to watch the show with their husbands or boyfriends but also to play it. But the genders did not watch in the same way—in almost every case the woman reported that the man only watched at her insistence: men typically expressed reluctance to watching it and even greater reluctance to playing it.

Almost as obvious as the gender of the respondents was the use of one particular concept, which appeared explicitly or implicitly in almost every response— /329/ "embarrassment." This embarrassment took three forms, embarrassment at admitting to watching the show, the embarrassment of the couples, particularly the men, on the show, and a similar embarrassment experienced by the "real life" couples in front of the screen when they played the game themselves.

The final common pattern was the functional relevance of the show in the everyday lives of the women. They could use it actively in constructing their own sexual relationships and, more passively, but still usefully, as a point around which to organize their daily routines. i

All of these typical responses come together in one of the letters, which is worth considering in some detail. Here it is:

Dear Mr. Fiske,

Although I'm not sure exactly what you want to know, I can tell you, with some embarrassment, that I have become an avid viewer of The Newlywed Game. I don't know if I can really explain why, but I know I started watching it over three months ago, mostly because the time it comes on fits my schedule well. After I come home from work, I make dinner while watching the evening news, then at 7:00 it's ready, and I can sit down and eat dinner while watching The Newlywed Game.

Probably the thing I like about it is that I can relate a lot of that trivial domestic stuff to my relationship with my own husband, and it's a little uncomfortable realizing how much we are like those couples on the show. In fact, I will usually answer the questions and then guess how my husband would respond. If he's home at that time and watches the show with me, I urge him to answer the questions so we can compare our answers. Actually, we do learn something about one another, not always what we want to know. So, for that reason I enjoy the show. Another reason might be that I like to see people making fools of themselves. Well, maybe not fools, but just being themselves with all their peculiar idiosyncrasies. It makes for good comedy, in my opinion . . .

I just thought of something else: it has to do with the MC of the show. He definitely goads the contestants to get them going. Stirring up conflict between husband and wife does seem like part of the show's appeal.

That about covers it, Mr. Fiske. For what it's worth, I also watch The New Dating Game which follows The Newlywed Game, but I don't enjoy that as much. If I were single, I probably would prefer that one more.

 

Let us explore the significance of embarrassment. Embarrassment occurs, I suggest, at the point of conflict between the prescriptive norm and the desire to challenge it, between the conventional and the subversive, the dominant and the subordinate. Embarrassment occurs when what we feel is in our interests or for /330/ our pleasure conflicts with the dominant norms that we have internalized. So men are embarrassed when the repressed disagreements between the couple are brought out into the open, but women find this pleasurable and liberating. The norm that is subverted here results in our ideological practice of laying the responsibility for emotional management upon femininity rather than masculinity. Failures or strains in a relationship are more likely to be judged the fault of the woman than the man, and consequently the woman is more likely than her partner to feel guilt when their relationship is under pressure. Making disagreements fun and turning them into the stuff of public comedy takes them out of the guilt-producing realm of feminine responsibility, and thus can be both a liberating and a norm-subverting process. This letter writer enjoys learning what she and her husband may not always want to know about each other, and in her letter this pleasure is associated with that of seeing people make fools of themselves. Being foolish subverts the norms of good sense, and her comment implies that living normally involves a form of masquerade, but that occasionally the mask slips to reveal the "real" people underneath: this show provides many occasions when the "real" person is embarrassingly revealed under the mask of social normalitv. This occurs both on the screen and in front of it.

The writer was also embarrassed to admit that she watched the show. She knows that the show is socially judged to be of low status that its appeal is only to those of low taste. She knows, in other words, that she "ought" not to watch and enjoy it, but she does. She is embarrassed to refuse to conform to the social hierarchy of taste, but she finds pleasure in that refusal. The hierarchy of cultural tastes corresponds precisely with the hierarchy of social positions, so that the cultural forms that appeal to the tastes of those lowest in the social hierarchy are always denigrated and critically evaluated as "bad art." In a patriarchy women are lower in the hierarchy than men, so the cultural forms that appeal to them are judged to be aesthetically inferior to those that appeal to men. If we wish, for instance, to denigrate any chain of events, we call it a "soap opera" or a "romance," but to call something a "detective story" is to accord it at least a degree of dignity. The difference in the evaluation stems from the gender of the cultural tastes not from the aesthetic values of the genres. To give another example, the pop music that appeals to teenage or pre-teen girls, who are subordinated by both age and gender, is commonly considered the lowest musical form.

These three forms of embarrassment are popular among the women because they are sites of recognition that what they ought to do and like is not what it is in their interests to do and like. Recognizing and overcoming embarrassment, then, is one way in which women can change the meanings of femininity as they operate in their own relationships. I sense a growing experience of empowerment and self worth in the first five sentences of the second paragraph of the letter—from "probably," "trivial," "a little" (first sentence), through "in fact" (second sentence) and "I urge him" (third sentence) to "Actually, we do " in the /331/ fourth sentence to the culmination in the confident assertion of the fifth: "So, for that reason I enjoy the show." This discursive increase in self-confidence is the linguistic equivalent of her behavior in her marital relationship, and is typical of the way that popular culture operates in the micropolitics of everyday life.

These gendered micropolitics permeate the letter. Despite the fact that both she and her husband work outside the home, it is the wife who cooks dinner, but she times it so that watching her game show rewards her for performing her feminine duty, and if she can embarrass her husband at the same time her reward is even greater. In cooking dinner she subjects herself to patriarchal norms, in watching the New Newlywed Game she challenges them. That's her popular culture in process.

Popular culture, then, is not mass culture, though it is typically made from it. The relationship between the commercial interests of mass culture and popular interests is always antagonistic and unstable. The people constantly scan the repertoire produced by the cultural industries to find resources that they can use for their own cultural purposes. The industry similarly constantly scans the tastes and interests of the people to discover ones that it can commodify and turn to its own profit. The industry always tries to incorporate the culture of the people and the people always try to excorporate the products of the industry—the to and fro between incorporation and excorporation, or between appropriation and expropriation, is a constant feature of the relations between mass and popular culture, and the boundary between the two is always on the move, never fixed in analytical certainty. While popular culture is never mass culture, it is always closely bound up with it.

The same may be said of the relations between high culture and popular culture, for popular culture is also defined in part by its difference from the high brow. High culture is recognized better by its texts or artworks than by its processes, though the cultural processes performed by these texts are now much more central in literary studies than at times they have been. Many argue that in postmodernity the distinctions among high, mass, and popular culture are rapidly disappearing. I think that this is overstating the case, though there is evidence that the boundaries are blurring and becoming more permeable. But some differences remain. While individual texts may move more rapidly and freely around the cultural geography, the ways in which they are evaluated and used still differ significantly, and still perform the function of distinguishing between high and popular culture.

Many of these differences are clustered around the status and use of the text. In popular culture the text is a cultural resource to be plundered or used in ways that are determined by the social interests of the reader/user not by the structure of the text itself, nor by the intentions (however we may discern them) of its author. Indeed, the text typically originates from a social position that differs markedly from that of its popular readers/users. To the extent that its conditions /332/ of origin are inscribed more or less explicitly within its structure, the text works in ways that can oppose the interests of its readers—the relations between reader and text contain strong elements of antagonism. In this light the text may be compared to the terrain of a landowner and the reader to a poacher: so the women who enjoyed the New Newlywed Game poached meanings that promoted their interests while avoiding capture by an ideological gamekeeper who controlled the overall structure of the text itself. The reading relations of high culture are not typically seen as antagonistic.

Analyzing texts that have been made popular involves, then, searching for their contradictions, their rough edges that have not been authorially smoothed out into organic coherence, for these abrasive bits that open a text up to popular uses, and enable it to be seen not as a complete and unified whole, but as a terrain upon which people can engage in the struggle for meanings. In popular culture the text is not an object of reverence to be understood in all its coherence and completeness, but a resource to be used. Indeed, the text that is made into popular culture is always incomplete until it is used, it remains at the level of cultural potential until it is selectively taken up and inserted into the social circulation of meanings. In popular culture, the film Rambo is a text that is not completed until it is taken up and used by socially situated readers. Australian Aboriginals used it one way, and Ronald Reagan, who claimed it was one of his favorite movies because it demonstrated the effectiveness of the free, self-motivated individual, in quite another. For some readers the character of Rambo embodied third world resilience, for others Reaganist yuppiedom.

The meanings that are made at the point of intersection of the text and the social position of the reader cannot then be determined by, nor even analytically predicted from, the structure of the text alone. At least an equal participant in the negotiation of meaning is the relevance of the text to the reader, and relevance is produced by the social interests of the reader not by the text or its author. In studying popular culture the textual analyst, then, has to identify the different lines of force in a text and to trace how those which promote the interests of the socially dominant may be contradicted by others. The textual analyst must also be a social analyst, for he or she must be able to speculate in a disciplined manner how different elements in the text may be taken up by differently situated readers. This is the analysis of potential rather than of a completed art object.

Selecting some of the potential meanings of the text entails rejecting others, and there is often as much for the critic to analyze in what is not used in a text as in what is. Absence and rejection can signify as importantly as presence and selection. In my collection of cultural uses of the New Newlywed Game, for example, racial meanings were significantly absent, though the text offered their potential. Two of the couples playing the game were white, one was Latino/a, and one African American. The women of color were the noncompliant wives, the white women the compliant ones. Each of the responses in the menu offered /333/ by the emcee encoded racial relations in its words of address—"man," "master," and "Jose" are words whose history of use by whites in relation to nonwhites cannot be entirely erased. Yet very few of my students and none of the respondents to my advertisement activated this potential set of meanings. And the few who did were almost always students of color. The show usually has at least one nonwhite couple (but never a mixed race one), though race relations are not always as clearly encoded into its questions and answers as in my chosen example. Not activating racial meanings is, then, a signifying rejection that produces a significant absence. And in this case the absence appeared to be a sign of whiteness. One explanation may be that racial identity is not a problem for whites in our society but can be taken for granted. If this is the case, then the racial dimension of their social identities and social relations would not be relevant to them in the way that the dimension of gender clearly was. This is not the case for people of color whose everyday experience in a white-dominated society is permeated with their racial identities. Ignoring race is a white privilege.

The analysis of which potential meanings of a text are activated and which rejected and of the social position in which this activation/rejection process occurs may be more speculative than the formalist analysis of the text in and of itself, but it is richer because the object of analysis extends beyond the text to its conditions of use. It is also more engaging in the classroom, because the students' ways of reading the text are just as valid as those of the critic or professor; indeed, they are necessary to the analytical process for they provide material that can be studied to answer questions about how meanings are made. These "how" questions are particularly appropriate to a culture of process.

Traditional ways of studying high culture give high value to the concept of "distance." One dimension of this is the critical distance between text and reader which is claimed to be essential if the critic is to analyze the text objectively. To be objective, critical readers have to distance themselves from their specific social identities and become ideal, or universal readers. In the analysis of popular culture this approach works well in uncovering the ideological norms embedded in the text, and in identifying its unrealized potentials, but it needs complementing by "insider" readings that are not distanced, but that trace the intimacy between a reading and the social conditions in which it is performed. I chose to take an episode of the New Nemlywed Game into my dasses, for example, because at the time the show was part of my popular culture. My first marriage had not long ended and I was in the early stages of the relationship that eventually became my second. The gender relationships of my first marriage were more "traditional" than those of my second, and I was thus, when well into middle age, involved in renegotiating my gender identity. It struck me that these conditions must have accounted for some, at least, of the pleasure I derived from watching the show. Now, happily married, I no longer experience the same need to renegotiate my gender identity, so the show is no longer a useful cultural resource /334/ and I rarely watch it. This nonobjective, "insider" reading is, I believe, significant because it provides an instance of culture in process, an instance that is not unique or eccentric, but that is culturally typical and thus a valid part of the object of cultural analysis. Such instances of culture in process are often brought into the classroom by students from their own popular culture. They provide educationally rich material not only because they break some of the barriers between the academy and everyday life, but also because they can open up the relations between teacher and students—they can absolve the professor-critic from the responsibility of holding the key to the true meaning of the text and of being the arbiter of its readings. They can help make the classroom into a place of collaboration rather than of dictation.

Another dimension of distance is that between a text and its conditions of production and reception. High culture texts are valued for their ability to transcend their immediate and therefore limiting social conditions. They are thus moved toward the universal and their values are claimed to be those of humanity rather than those of historically and socially situated human beings. Aesthetics is one way of theorizing and identifying these supposedly universal human values. Because these values transcend social conditions they are unchanging and can thus serve as a benchmark by which to measure the success of any one text in embodying them. The critical practice associated with them is that of valuing and ranking texts in which they can be found and of rejecting those where they cannot. By extension, then, the readings of a text, particularly those produced by students, can be ranked according to their approximation to the ideal reading. The popularity of a text, however, consists only in its relations with its immediate social and historical conditions: popular texts cannot be transcendent. Neither the texts nor their readings can be evaluated against universal values and are thus not subject to hierarchization. Those who denigrate popular culture because its texts "do not last" fail to understand that it is the transcience of the text which often links it so closely to its social conditions and that its transcience is often most active in ensuring its popularity. Popular culture is the culture of the here and now, not of the always and forever. Popular texts, therefore, are evaluated according to their social values, not their universal or aesthetic ones. If there are universal human values they enter popular culture only in forms that are peculiar to those immediate social conditions from which popular culture cannot be distanced. The critical evaluation of the New Newlywed Game, for instance, involves the social values that are promoted by the ways it is used: a value that we might like to consider universal, such as equality between human beings, comes into play only in the specific conditions in which it is denied and fought for. (Incidentally, both history and anthropology might lead us to question just how universal a value equality actually is.) Critically evaluating the New Newlywed Game involves evaluating the women and the men who use it progressively or reactionarily, and the socio-political values activated in that use. It can also, quite /335/ legitimately, involve criticizing its critics: members of the contemporary religious right, for example, might criticize the show for its bad effect upon women, its mockery of men and its undermining of so-called "family values." Such opposition to the show would quite properly form part of the object of cultural analysis, and its critical evaluation would extend to judging the so-called "traditional family values" against the values of the women who made it part of their popular culture.

Popular critical analysis and evaluation must recognize that a text cannot be distanced from its uses and users. Texts that once have been made into popular culture are occasionally treated as high culture and hung in galleries or exhibited at film festivals: these exhibitions distance the text from its conditions of popularity and move it toward the transcendent and the universal. The movement toward the transcendent is away from the people, who do not, in general, seek their culture in art galleries, film festivals, and similar sites that are set apart from the mundanity of the everyday; for them, the mundane is the crucial site of cultural significance, for the mundane is the only terrain upon which popular culture can be made and can be made to matter. Culture is ordinary, and the ordinary is highly significant.

 

SUGGESTED READINGS

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life.

Dyson, Michael Eric. 1993. Reflecting Black.

Fiske, John. 1989. Understanding Popular Culture.

_______. 1993. Power Plays Power Works.

_______. 1994. Media Matters.

Grossberg, Lawrence. 1992. We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

Radway, Janice. 1984. Reading the Romance.

Storey, John. 1993. An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture.

Turner, Graeme. 1990. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction.

Williamson, Judith. 1986. Consuming Passions.