From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock discusses John Fiske (Part One)

Full disclosure: I was lucky enough to have had a chance to study under John Fiske, first at University of Iowa where he was a visiting scholar and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he closed out his faculty career. He was a gifted mentor, who introduced me to the world of cultural studies, as he did so many scholars of my generation around the world. While he retired several decades ago, I was able to spend some precious time with him last fall when I was in Cambridge on leave, and he still has the same irreverent wit and critical intelligence and the same warmth as a mentor. I am still learning from him decades later.

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I was honored several years ago to be asked to write the introduction to the reissues of the books he had published for Routledge, including Television Culture, which he was writing when we first met and thus will always have a special place in my heart. But the rights to two of his final books — Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters — were owned by another press.  They have recently been reissued with a thoughtful introduction, ” Learning How to Fiske,” by the sociologist Black Hawk Hancock. Hancock helps us to see why these works remain timely, even urgent, today and what lessons scholars and students might take from them to apply to understand more contemporary phenomenon.  Hancock shared with me some of the circumstances which led to their republication:

I was asked to be the keynote address for the luncheon/ acknowledgement ceremony for our AKD (honor society) students in the sociology department. Someone from the department usually does it. I usually don’t attend, but Spring of 2014 my senior colleague who runs the event was adamant that I do it. I was talking with Routledge at the time about PPPW, but nothing was decided. When you did the new editions in 2010 it lighted a fire and I pursued Verso for PPPW, since it is my favorite in terms of theory… So the night before I am to give this address, Routledge emailed and gave me the green light on a new edition. So I dropped everything, tossed the previous talk into the recycle pile and set out writing what was going to be the introduction for PPPW as I had envisioned it in my head for years. It would be a reworking of my presentation at Fiske Matters “Learning How to Fiske.” I thought what better way to leave our graduating students than with lessons learned from someone who continues to animate my intellect today—John Fiske. So at about 10 pm until 3am, I sat down and wrote down 9 lessons John taught us, lessons that were not about the classroom, but about being an intellectual and what should be expected of you as you went out into the world. So the talk was written purely from memory and was an overwhelming success. In actually putting the introduction together, I had to go back into the text to ferret out some material, but I was keen on looking at supplementary texts, as both introductions emphasize, so as not to repeat the arguments of either text verbatim.

Once they had my plan for PPPW, then they wanted MM. So that was a totally different undertaking, and I do outline the two animating factors in my thinking about MM, but again I didn’t want to just discuss the text, I wanted to let Fiske speak for Fiske. I just despise the introduction written such that it simply gives yu a summation of what the books says, rather than animates your thought about what the book can do, and that is what I attempted in the introduction to MM… I wanted the introduction to serve as a springboard for the relevance of Fiske’s approach to cultural studies and its applicability today. So the introduction to MM is really about the generative nature of Fiske’s thought and my attempt to draw out the implicit theoretical framework and tools that he undertook such a magnificent book.

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If Power Plays Power Works is Hancock’s favorite, Media Matters ranks as the book I would most like to see people read today. This is where Fiske dug as deep as he ever had into the specifics of how politics worked and what media had to do with it. He was writing in the wake of Bill Clinton’s election to president — a Democratic victory after the long years of Reagan and Bush. And he saw the election as a byproduct of both demographic and discursive shifts: America was moving gradually towards a minority-majority country and as those shifts occurred, there would be an enormous amount of struggle over race, power, knowledge, which would express itself he felt through a series of media events — such as the Rodney King beating, the confirmation drama between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, or the O.J. Simpson case — which would often be the battle ground amongst competing frames for understand larger changes taking place.  And he discussed these shifts also in terms of how these discourses worked through and upon the kinds of popular culture circulated at these same moments.

Fiske’s analysis proved enormously prescient, especially as we watch how minority voters have become essential to Democratic candidates, the so-called Obama coalition, which may well determine the outcome of the fall campaign, and as we watch the struggles over race in America play themselves online and on television in the age of #blacklivesmatter and the Dreamer movement. Not coincidentally, we are seeing dramatic television productions focused on the O.J. case (The People vs. O.J. Simpson) and Hill-Thomas (Confirmation) and we are seeing all of this spill over into entertainment television — from Scandal to Blackish, from American Crime to Fresh Off the Boat, From Empire to Master of None, etc. Fiske’s theoretical tools and methodological moves in Media Matters, thus, could not be more timely and I hope the reissue helps more people to discover this work.

Hancock was enormously generous in responding to this interview. When I typically do these interviews, I tend to ask a mix of over-the-plate questions to allow the author to spell out some of their core assumptions and more provocative ones to push beyond the book’s frame. In Hancock’s case, though, I am asking questions about a book he did not write, and I realized only later that what I really wanted was for him to channel John Fiske and tell us how his ideas would have changed in response to, say, Donald Trump. It’s a bit like that moment in Bladerunner where they zoom in on a door knob and see around corners. In any case, Hancock has put an incredible amount of time and effort into providing substantive responses to my sometimes off-the-wall questions, for which I am much impressed and very grateful. The result is an extensive interview which reflects on Fiske, race and American politics from a range of different angles.

John Fiske remains one of the most controversial thinkers in the global Cultural Studies tradition — admired by his students, attacked harshly by critics. Why do you think his work remains so divisive? To what degree is the divisiveness part of what has made his work so generative?

I think a number of factors play into Fiske being a controversial thinker. First and foremost, the central role of resistance—by which ordinary people, through their own conscious or unconscious uses of the material and symbolic resources around them, defied being absorbed into some sort of mindless conformity of a uni-dimensional or mass society—drew the most backlash. This was often caricaturized or dismissed. I think the problem was that his critics failed to read him or just refused to take this seriously.

I find it comical now that so many of those names have faded into obscurity, while Fiske’s work is coming out in new editions. His work continues to endure precisely because of this issue.

Fiske was not simply concerned with Foucault and De Certeau, he worked across disciplines to gather the theoretical tools he uses—drawing from a wide range of theorists—Mikhail Bakhtin, Michele De Certeau, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Valentine Voloshinov, and Raymond Williams. Other scholars may have drawn on some of these figures in their work, but Fiske drew on the all of them to construct his conceptual frameworks.

Furthermore, the role resistance played in his work was never something established a priori, but was only revealed by actually going out and seeing what was going on—what people were actually doing in everyday life. At the time he was writing, political economy and rational choice theory were dominant theoretical paradigms in the social sciences and communication studies. Fiske refused to fall into any sort of determinism or reductionism, structuralism, positivism, etc…or that any one social structure (political economy) could explain the complexity of social life.

Finally, he refused to think that people were duped by the system, or take an elitist position, like Pierre Bourdieu, that they were simply not smart enough to understand their own conditions of subordination and are therefore complicit in their own domination. Academics who accused him of promoting a “populist” agenda was absurd and intellectually irresponsible. Most of them fell into the very Bourdieusean elitism I mentioned, while Fiske was simply arguing that people are aware of their social conditions and can carve out spaces of autonomy, self-control, and agency relative to those social conditions.

As I started to think about the new introductions to Power Plays Power Works and Media Matters, I went back and looked at some of the original critiques and thought how ironic they were since, at least as an ethnographer and a sociologist or race and culture, Fiske’s ideas are taken for granted, in that they have become absorbed into our intellectual horizon. This is one of the main reasons that his work continues to speak to us today. In the ever-expanding neoliberalism and globalization, his works remain touchstones to help us think about ways of countering these social forces that are eating away at the social fabric of society today.


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For those who have a stereotypical conception of Fiske’s work, what sets the late work, especially Media Matters, but also Power Plays, Power Works, apart, from the earlier writings?  What do you think shifted in his thinking as he entered this final phase of his career?

I’m not so sure I would see them as radically different from his other work, in the kind of breaks or periods of thought in the works Foucault for example, but I do see in these two books the full crystallization of his methodological pluralism and theoretical synthesis. I also think that these two books are two sides of the same coin, in that Power Plays Power Works contributes in terms of theoretical frameworks for interpreting the world, whereas Media Matters contributes in providing the concrete empirical analysis of socio-historical events. I think they support each other while showing opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum.

Having thought a bit more about this, I could also say that the depth in which Fiske was exploring Foucault’s work, how central that became to him, does define the two works as different from the others. Power Plays goes deep into Foucault’s thought, and sets up the theoretical apparatus that he would use in Media Matters.

I think that is pivotal in thinking through these two works because when read together, there was a need, or so it seems to me, in this more Foucaultian approach to extend beyond reading popular culture and move into the realm of the concrete politics defining our time. In a sense Fiske becomes his own “specific” intellectual, to use Foucault’s term, for intervening into particular debates within which one has expertise. In the end that may be why Media Matters is such a charged and passionate book in its intensity and searing critical commentary.

Black Hawk Hancock is an Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in Sociology, and his B.A. from the University of California at Berkeley in English and Philosophy. He is both an ethnographer whose work focuses on issues of race and culture, as well as a social theorist. His first ethnographic monograph, American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination was published with The University of Chicago Press. His next book, In-Between Worlds: Mexican Kitchen Workers in Chicago’s Restaurant Industry, is currently under contract at The University of Chicago Press. His theoretical work includes two books with Roberta Garner, Social Theory: Continuities and Confrontations, 3rd edition (The University of Toronto Press), and Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (The University of Toronto Press), while his articles have appeared in such journals as The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and History of the Human Sciences.