Popular Culture Joke Hermes
Looking back over five decades, the study of popular culture appears to have been a successful struggle for recognition. Reading women's magazines, watching television or playing video games have more and more been deemed worthy of academic and critical appreciation and attention. Interesting things have been said about them. Although it is doubtful whether the-culture-that-a-lot-of-people-like is now a fully emancipated area, there is a new challenge that needs to be met. New forms of popular culture have the irritating habit to use words but to be unlike a ‘text’. Magazines, films and televisions shows can be studied that way, even if it means privileging narrative and dialogue over for instance background music and mise-en-scene. To reduce newer forms of popular culture, such as twitter or Facebook, or even games would be patently ridiculous. They are new mixtures of narrative and hand-eye coordination, of interweaving the social and the entertaining. Much of what we know about popular culture does not apply. These are new platforms to show of on to others. These media do something new for us. They are the ‘me’ media and a whole new ball game.
‘Old’ media, or 1.0 media were made by institutions and broadcast or distributed among mass audiences. They were audio-visual or textual phenomena and they were used in highly specific ways. Famously Raymond Williams described the unsettling experience of American television for a Brit in 1974 as ‘flow’. It was not, as was Western European television in the 1960s and 70s a string of discrete programmes, each with a beginning and an end, all properly introduced by the channel’s presenter. American television, even then, was the epitome of all commercial multi-channel television to come: a hotchpotch of programme content, commercials and short spoilers for programmes later that evening or that week. The experience of watching television had nothing to do with any single programme, it was more like being immersed in an audio-visual environment.
With multi-channel television today a fact of life, we all zap and navigate the flow. We are no longer the media 1.0 audience, we ‘manage’ our own needs for news and entertainment, we record content or find it as streaming video on the internet. To understand popular culture 2.0, we need to understand its texts and practices of use, and the shift in the sense of ownership of media content that it brought about. We need to understand what the new popular culture does for us. The tweet makes no sense if you do not understand the practice of twittering, which in turn comes out of a longer lineage of headstrong practices of media use, that challenged the right of a small number of elite and state institutions to manage our media diet for us. How we are users of popular culture is the key to understanding today’s popular culture 3.0.
Williams' study of himself as viewer returned in new, open forms of audience research in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies combined an ethnographic interest in everyday media use with a strong drive to theorize popular culture as both text and social practice. They show how we, as media users, made television programmes and cheap novels mean something to us. How popular genres are ‘owned’ by their fans. Janice Radway's study of romance reading in 1984 is a case in point. She shows how romances as novels portray ideal masculinity as just the right mix of machismo and caring ‘motherliness’. The hero needs to be strong and tender at the same time. Reading them, as a social practice, meant something else again for the readers. They claimed a moment for themselves, a temporary vacation from real life heterosexuality. Real-life husbands were not in for a reform, real-life patriarchy was, albeit in a small way and disguised by the celebration of heterosexual intimacy. Henry Jenkins some years later observed the ‘textual poaching’ of Star Trek fans in 1992, which takes readers’, or in this case viewers’ ownership of their favorite genre a step further. ‘Poaching’ refers to the rewriting of storylines to fit fans’ ideas about characters and what the series should be about. Following his groundbreaking study, others followed and all kinds of subcultural uses of 'mainstream culture' came to light. The rewriting of very obviously straight characters, whether in Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is just one example that make you smile when thinking of all the care taking by the television industry not to offend conservative viewer groups.
All media stand a fair chance of being used ‘perversely’, counter to the ideas of their developers. Programmes that appear to promote consumerism, may be a forum for gendered identity (re)construction which has nothing at all to do with the direct intentions of neo-liberalist entrepreneurship. This example is John Fiske’s who wrote the first introduction to the study of popular television in 1987 and discussed, amongst other genres, game shows in which contestants had to guess the price of consumer goods. The best part of his analysis is when he suggests that something other than the reinstatement of capitalist materialism might be going on. Was it not the case, after all, that the female contestants were behaving in very unladylike ways (screaming and shouting) and displaying their knowledge, hardly a display of demure femininity?
How popular culture becomes meaningful is unpredictable. Fact is, popular culture presents an opportunity for emancipation and expression of selfhood to those who do not often get that chance. This is what popular culture does for is, and what makes studying it so very worthwhile. That is not to say that we should always be appreciative of popular culture. Both the texts themselves and practices of use can and should be approached with level-headed criticism.
A major reason for such a careful approach is that there is as much perversity in how audiences have countered the expectations of media inventors and producers, as in how media businesses have used, for instance, social movements. Watching television comedy or crime shows, we can see how gender relations are on the agenda: points for feminism! But we also see that feminism has been reduced, gender is mostly problematized in terms of personal or work relationships. No longer is what women do part of a struggle for economic independence and equality, which second wave feminism campaigned hard for in the 1970s and 80s. Ironically feminism provided us with interesting strong women, as individuals, and otherwise was emptied of its political power and impact because its strong notion of solidarity has been lost.
The unpredictability of media users
From my perspective, the biggest challenge in popular culture research is to retain a multiple interest in texts, practices and in what popular culture does for its audiences. Audiences may seem predictable from a distance, up close they will put any researcher’s ideas and prejudices as an intellectual to the test. While everybody today is their own media manager, that does not mean that all of the choices we make are well thought-through. When, years ago, I interviewed readers of women’s magazines, they would be a bit surprised at my interest in their reading habits. Mostly, they said, they would read a magazine ‘if nothing else was available’. It was hard work to find out whether there was anything at all meaningful in the magazines themselves. Likewise, when I ask friends or students why they use twitter, they said, they more or less found themselves doing it. By chance. Often enough after a period of intense interest and activity, they only looked at the tweets of those they follow occasionally.
Women’s magazines, like writing tweets does something for those involved. Below the surface, all those ordinary people managing their own media use, and today, some of their own media production, collectively wonder about why the world is the way it is. They may do so in very practical and unreflective ways. That is everybody’s individual right. When taken together, however, practices of use allow a glimpse of the –utopian- possibility of change (or what hinders it). What would seem to be given, part of the natural order of things, is recognized to be a myth or a fairytale. Why should women not fantasize about a better type of patriarchy, in which the strength of men is used to women’s benefit rather than to control or constrain them? Such insights are hardly ever shared. They may become part of intellectual discussion but will mostly remain below the surface. Still, popular culture is where new views of society and social relations are contemplated.
Granted, in real life, it has been rare for culture to be the place where revolutions start, let alone for cultural research to fire the imagination to an extent that governments are overthrown or societies change. Skeptical readers, however, should note that it is not as impossible as it sounds for culture to be the agent of change: in 19th century Belgium an opera performance started mass upheaval; feminist biographical novels provided much of the fuel for the feminist movement; novels and poetry were a weapon of choice in the former Middle and Eastern European communist regimes. Facebook and twitter gave Arab revolutionaries a voice and a genre of communication. The Chinese authorities to this day try to regulate all of the above to prevent political unrest.
Realm of imagined identities
While dreaming about the revolutionary potential of popular culture research, there are a number of questions to be asked. What does gaming do for us, or twitter? Is Facebook popular culture, or would that be misunderstanding forms of communication and communication technologies for popular culture? When writing about ‘television’ the problem appears to arise less. We have learned to handle ‘flow’ and recognize individual programmes. We have a sense of what television ‘does’ for its viewers. But should we or should we not include the websites that now come with virtually all television programmes and their facebook pages? How do we deal with what has been called 2.0 media content and especially with the newest practices of use?
In fact, ‘what popular media do for us’, has become a difficult question in other ways as well. Conventionally, when speaking of popular culture we tend to mean fiction and narrative culture. Therefore when other genres are studied as popular culture, we point it out literally: news as popular culture. The drive of such research is to understand how news has meaning and significance for audiences, and how it depends on entertainment formats. Such distinctions would seem to be less and less relevant: fiction and non-fiction genres have merged to a large extent: reality genres, entertaining news, communication modules in games all make this point. To understand media platforms as separate, or genres as autonomous, is to miss the direction that popular culture has taken. Popular culture 3.0 is upon us.
Communication technologies, narrative strategies and genres have become integrated. What remains is that popular media use is ritual behavior. Reading romances or magazines, listening to music or playing a game mostly ‘naturalizes’ identities. We feel a real fighter, or a strong mother. From time to time popular media make us wonder about the possibilities of a better world. Because there is something at stake in the media, we use and co-produce them. I can feel a good citizen when watching the news, even if I do not remember much of a particular news cast the day after. I can feel a good friend when reading advice columns in women’s magazines and imagine myself advising a friend, even if I never do so. Popular culture (like other forms of culture) provides us with a safe harbor of empty identity shells that allow us to imagine ourselves in ways that we enjoy or that we assume are approved of and make us feel better. Popular culture does so more and better than other forms of culture, simply because there is so much of it, and it is shared so widely.
Twitter and Facebook are products of the internet 2.0 economy, of new media forms that depend on cooperative ventures, that become better when they are used more. They are linked to the type of collectivity that may produce the wisdom of crowds. But mostly, what they do for us, is provide a stage that we can try on for size. Identity construction has become a game. Second Life, yesteryear’s worldwide internet hype, can now be played for real.
While all the traditional mass media, who deliver content to be consumed by others, are at their wits’ end about how to engage audiences, the new social media are a seemingly effortless success. Traditional media producers are hurt by what has been called the attention economy. Viewers and users have become a scarce commodity (content is not). Now here are Facebook and twitter with millions of happy media users suddenly producing content about themselves and their thoughts about the world, who are their own audiences. Or are happy to just be a minimally resourced media producer with a smartphone or a computer and a camera, uninterested in whether there really is an audience. The platform, and all the new identities it allows the user/producer to fantasize, is more than enough.
To understand twitter and Facebook as media technology and shapers of our consciousness to the world is of real interest. The challenge is to come to understand how media such as these, and others that will come along in the near future, help us do identity work. That is, if they are indeed the newest form of popular culture, provider of imagined and reinvented selves? Or if, perhaps, they do something entirely different? The only means of access to fully understanding new media culture is through lengthy empirical, anthropological research. The further challenge is to do so in a systematic and well-documented manner that will allow, over time for both a political and a theoretical understanding, and who knows, for revolutionary change.
Empirical popular culture research at its best has been a mixture of political engagement, sociological thoroughness, anthropological adventurousness and literary imagination. It has tried to understand historical and social conditions in relation to technology and forms of government, in relation to genres and to practices of surviving and meaning making. It has combined a sense of aesthetics and discourse with blunt materialist interest in power and politics. It is now time to come to a new understanding of research practice itself. As much as media institutions and the entertainment business are in a love/hate relationship with audiences, popular culture research has a history of mixed feelings about viewers, gamers, popular culture users and readers. Mostly they are providers of data, of research material: interviews or observation logs or the invisibles behind viewer and sales statistics. They should be a researcher’s partners in crime.
Or: Media ‘R’ Us
Now that popular culture itself seems to be changing, and now that old divides between consumers and producers are up for redefinition, we can expect capitalist enterprise and government regulators to try and find new forms of management and control. Depending on their favorite mode of reducing real people by defining them in ‘productive’ ways, they will be populations or eyeballs or checking accounts. Popular culture research does not need to go along with this. It can take its own intellectual history seriously and engage in far-reaching forms of participant design. That would mean redefining what the goals of research could and should be. All participants after all, should have a stake in the outcome: more entertaining entertainment, or even easier ways to connect with preferred others, or less challenging ways to imagine yourself in ways that feel good, or, for that matter, superior understanding of why we don’t rebel more. Research could, in a way, become part of popular culture.
Participant design is not highly likely to bring revolution or to change the world dramatically. But the ‘me’ media can and perhaps will. Re-tweeting research outcomes will quite possibly lead to unexpected new results. It could pragmatically help under-resourced groups, make professionals in media institutions and popular entertainment companies much more reflexive and inventive as they too will start to see new opportunities and possibilities.
The downside of ‘media R us’ by means of participant design is that it will not bring more freedom, but that it will do the opposite. There is a considerable risk of inviting even more effective forms of population control. Co-ownership in research and in media content will help us re-imagine ourselves temporarily in much more favorable ways than daily life usually allows us to. Will it seduce us into policing ourselves or into revolutionary change? No way to tell. Popular culture 3.0 might even produce a win-win scenario. While aiming for the revolution, we will in any case have better and better popular culture and entertainment. After all, while Aldous Huxley and George Orwell may have perfectly understood the development logic of complex societies and the increasing need for control and overview, they discounted development dynamics: popular culture is a terrain of struggle, in which most victories are not won by force but via seduction. As popular culture users, producers and researchers, we may yet start a revolution by playing hard to get. As audiences, we are, after all the scarce commodity of today.
Dee Amy-Chinn and Milly Williamson (eds) (2005) Special Issue : The Vampire Spike in Text and Fandom - Unsettling oppositions in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, European Journal of Cultural Studies, 8 (3).
John Fiske (1987) Television culture: London: Routledge
Joke Hermes (1995) Reading women’s magazines. Cambridge: Polity Press
Henry Jenkins (1992) Textual poachers. Television fans and participatory culture. New York: Routledge
Janice Radway (1984) Reading the Romance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
Raymond Williams (1974) Television. Technology and cultural form. London: Fontana