Tracing the Roots of Media Literacy: Raymond Williams and John Fiske

A while back, media literacy educator and advocate Renee Hobbs approached me about contributing an essay to a new anthology she was editing: Hobbs asked some leading scholars to share personal essays about the people who have influenced their own thinking about media, popular culture, and learning. I was asked to contribute something about the role Birmingham cultural studies had played in the development of media literacy, and I was happy to agree.

We were supposed to describe our intellectual “grandparents”, and I ended up writing a deeply personal essay that discussed the relationship between my work on participatory culture and that of Raymond Williams and John Fiske. Along the way, I  also shared something of my biological grandparents — on my father’s side — and the ways I saw myself in some of William’s more autobiographical writings.

Hobbs’ book, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy Through Personal Narrative, has just come out, so I asked her if I could share a bit of my essay as a way of whetting your appetites for this important collection.  Here are a few others who have contributed to this anthology, which offers a novel way to introduce students to the roots of the media literacy movement:

  • David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
  • Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
  • Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
  • Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
  • Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse
  • Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertholt Brecht
  • Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
  • Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey
  • Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
  • Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
  • Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud

What follows is an excerpt from my contribution. There’s more where this comes from:

John Fiske can be described as the Johnny Appleseed of Cultural Studies, given the ways that his personal journey as an academic who worked in the United Kingdom, Australia, and finally, North America, helped to spread and reframe the cultural studies approach to new generations of scholars. Fiske also provides an important bridge between his mentor, the Welsh born critic and novelist Raymond Williams, and my generation, many of whom were Fiske’s students, who helped to adopt the British-based approach to deal with the particulars of U.S. culture. Read together, our story represents one trajectory in the relations between cultural studies and media literacy.

Starting with a strong belief in the critical agency of “ordinary” people, the multidisciplinary field of Cultural Studies documents the ways everyday people create meaning and pleasure through their everyday practices. Media Literacy as a movement has sought to insure that everyone has access to the critical literacies which allow them to meaningfully consume, critique, produce — and now participate within — media. One could argue that cultural studies is the theory, media literacy is the practice. We need look no further than NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education, which insist that the concept of literacy can be applied to a broad range of different forms of media and popular culture, that media content gets actively interpreted by individuals and groups based on local frames of reference, and that media literacy is fundamental to the promotion of active political and civic participation, all concepts that come — at least in part — from the British cultural studies tradition.

Along with the historian E. P. Thompson, the literary critic Richard Hogarth, and the theorist Stuart Hall, Williams is widely acknowledged to be one of the founders of the cultural studies approach. More than any other essay, William’s “Culture is Ordinary” (1958) set the tone for the British Cultural Studies movement. Williams offers a more inclusive model of culture, a concept Williams would described in Keywords (1976) as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” Here, Williams tells us, “Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing itself into the land.” (p.93) William’s conception of culture contrasts with that of Matthew Arnold, whose 1869 essay, “Culture and Anarchy,” had defined culture in terms of “the best knowledge, the best ideas of their times,” seeing the promotion of high cultural values to the general population as the best defense against what he saw as “harsh, uncouth” about modern industrial culture. Under Arnold, some aspects of human life—the most elevated or perfected aspects, those removed from immediate utilitarian value and from the harshness of a growing machine culture—were worth passing down to the next generation, while others were disposable. Those who embrace Arnold focus on the value they see as intrinsic to “great works,”while those who criticize the tradition focus on what it excludes–including most of what has been written by women, minorities, the developing world, as well as media and popular culture.

William’s approach is expansive, embracing the arts and sciences, the exceptional and the ordinary, the traditional and the emergent. For Williams, culture is at once the stuff of learning, an acquired set of skills and appreciations, and the stuff of experience. Perhaps, the essay’s most radical element is the way Williams pits his own lived experience growing up working class in the Welsh countryside against what his own mentors were teaching him at Cambridge: “When the Marxists say that we live in a dying culture and that the masses are ignorant, I have to ask them, as I did ask them, where on Earth they have lived. A dying culture, and ignorant masses, are not what I have known and see.” (p.96) Cultural studies commits itself to better understanding the ongoing struggle over what counts as culture and who gets to decide what culture matters.

Williams is at his most moving when he describes what reading and writing meant for his family: “My grandfather, a big hard laborer, wept while he spoke, finely and excitedly, at the parish meeting”, (p. 92) he tells us, while his father, a labor organizer, read through the lines of news stories to identify entrenched economic interests. He talks about the value his people placed on library books and tell us many more would have gone to college except for the financial responsibilities they bore to their family and their communities. He describes a visit home after time in college and discusses the tension he felt within himself as he looked at their culture through eyes shaped by formal education: “Now they read, they watch, this work we are talking about: some of them quite critically, some with a great deal of pleasure. Very well, I read different things, watch different entertainments, and I am quite sure why they are better…But talking to my family, to my friends, talking, as we were, about our own lives, about people, about feelings, could I in fact find this lack of quality we are discussing? I’ll be honest — I looked; my training has done this for me. I can only say that I found as much natural fitness of feeling, as much quick discrimination, as much clear grasp of ideas within that range of experiences as I have found anywhere.”(p.99) He contrasts this sense of a community eagerly engaged in conversation with the snootiness of the tea shop just outside his university, which taught him in the most painful way possible that some see culture as “the outward and emphatically visible sign of a special kind of people.” (p. 93) Williams suggests, “If this is culture, we don’t want it.” (p. 93)

Through such images, Williams conveys his discomfort with the policing of cultural boundaries, the ranking of cultural products, and the dismissal of other people’s culture. While himself critical of the “cheapjack” quality of the new industrially produced culture, Williams articulates a great distrust of the “directive” impulse in the Cambridge intellectuals who seek to “impose” their cultural assumptions on the unlearned masses. “There are no masses, but ways of seeing people as masses,” Williams writes (p.96). And he also distrusts the anti-intellectual impulses in his own background, the ways that working class critics dismiss “culture vultures” and “do gooders”, even when doing so cuts them off from resources that might improve the quality of their lives. Something vital is at stake in these struggles over culture, and his goal as an educator was to help people to better articulate their own cultural politics.

“Culture is Ordinary” was published in 1958, the year I was born. I never knew Williams, never heard him speak, never got to talk with him, but I would first encounter “Culture is Ordinary” when doing a directed reading for John Fiske at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When Williams writes about the experience of taking a bus through the mountains to go off to college, I have come to trace my own drive across the Blue Ridge mountains to go to graduate school.   I have come to see myself as perhaps several generations further into the process of cultural, economic, and technological change that Williams describes there. I had been raised in Georgia, the son of a construction company owner, the grandson of a sheet metal worker, and the great-grandson of a dirt farmer. Across three generations, my family had left the farm, moved to the city, and then, to suburbia, and our class status had shifted along the way. As an upwardly mobile middle class youth, I had experienced with distaste the trappings of “redneck culture” which still found their way into my home: I wanted nothing to do with that “shit-kicking” bluegrass music my grandparents listen to and I cringed when they used earthy language to describe themselves and their values. Yet, I was also starting to make my peace with my roots. When I was heading off to graduate school, my dirt-poor grandfather gave me some money — a small amount for most, but a kingly fortune for him — to take with me on my journey. As I stood in his workroom, surrounded by rusty wire and scrap metal he had salvaged by the roadside, not to mention wooden crosses he had carved by hand, he told me about his own first steps away from the family farm when he went away to France during the first world war. Despite having only a fourth grade education, he had marked in the front of his King James Bible the number of times he read it cover to cover. And alongside it, in his desk, could be found his union card, a book of the collected speeches of FDR, and a postcard depicting Will Rogers, each a marker of a particular form of grassroots politics that had shaped his world view. I’ve come to hear some of that progressive politics as it gets expressed through the bluegrass music I once held in disdain and now, the twangier, the more atonal, the better. I’ve come to appreciate that my grandmother, who made quilts, was a remix artist, who took patches of leftover cloth from the local textile mills and working with other women, made them into something artful which could be used to express their shared joy when a new couple got married or a new baby was brought into the world.

I don’t think I ever felt so “southern” as I did when I left the south to pursue my education. And so, when I first encountered Williams’ account of his struggles to reconcile what he had learnt at the family dinner table with what he was being taught at Cambridge, I recognized myself in his conflicts, and through his eyes, I came to a deeper appreciation of who I was and where I had come from.

As a graduate student, I also felt a strange disconnect from what I knew as a fan about the ways that everyday people might critically and creatively engage with media texts and what I was being taught by my own professors, at a time when prevailing forms of media theory stressed the power of media texts to suture their readers into a powerful ideological system which always worked against their own interests.

And this is the moment when John Fiske entered my life. The first time I saw him, I was struck by his broad toothy grin, the crinkle of his leathery skin, the wicked sparkle in his squinting eyes, and the Akubra hat that he was wearing in the frozen wastelands of Iowa City. He entered our lives as “the Man From Down Under” — something exotic, something wild and untamed, yet it did not take long to discover his gentleness, his modesty, above all, his care for his students.

When Fiske came to the University of Iowa, he sparked a degree of intellectual excitement I have not experienced since. Every week, more students were showing up at his seminar, eager to learn what for us was a new conceptual framework, drawn from cultural studies that informed his work. Like Williams, Fiske offered us a way to see the world that was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, yet which was hopeful about the prospects for meaningful change and respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

Raymond Williams had been Fiske’s personal tutor when he was pursuing his BA and MA in English Literature at Cambridge, and so it would be hard to imagine a better guide to the British cultural studies tradition. I was lucky to have studied under Fiske twice — first when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Iowa and then when he was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Like any great mentor, he empowered me to find my own voice, to draw on my own knowledge and experience, and to make my own original contribution to the field. I soaked up everything I could learn from this man, and in the process, absorbed vocabulary, concepts, philosophies, and ideological commitments, that have become so deeply enmeshed in my own world view, that I am still surprised to come across phrases in his writing that I had thought entirely my own. And, my own commitment to media literacy is deeply bound up with the things I learned from him and through him, from Williams.

When I wrote to Fiske, now long retired, and asked him about his relationship to the concept of media literacy, he stressed that the term was one which he never used directly, but that in retrospect, he now realized that he had been working through ideas about media literacy across his entire career: “I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip ‘literate’ TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV. My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me. They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about.” (Personal correspondence with the author, 2013)

To read the rest of this essay, check out Hobbs’ exciting new book.