From Media Matters to #blacklivesmatter: Black Hawk Hancock Discusses John Fiske (Part Five)

I was struck re-reading parts of the book by how central “family values” were in the debates of this period. Today, I would say that the culture wars are more apt to be fought in terms of protecting the American Nation, “bringing our country back,” “making America great again” vs. “making America whole”, etc., and around notions of citizenship (whether Obama’s birth certificate or the issue of undocumented immigrants)  rather than in terms of protecting traditional conceptions of the family.  First, would you agree and if so, how might a Fiskean analysis help us to understand why this shift has occurred? A Fiskean analysis would take us directly into the change in the “structure of feeling” of society and into the change in discourses that are a result of that shift. Thinking through the “structure of feeling” is a way to bridge our own personal experiences in relation to the social structures and historical formations within which we are situated today. In this sense, the feeling—the meaning, values, and practices lived and felt by those who are caught up in them—has a structure that pulls together people’s social experiences and articulates them in terms of shared outlooks and values.

But what has caused such a massive shift in our outlooks and values to bring us to the point we are at today? What is this new set of discourses that is marked by a “crisis” in the Nation. As you point out, there is a dominant undergirding theme here—the insecurity of the nation and the need for protection—the loss of our identity and place as the center of the free world that needs to be restored—the loss of our international status and the need to regain that feeling of international dominance—but I think the most important phrase you picked up on is “making America whole.” This is the lynchpin to the current state of mind or the collective consciousness of the country.

To me this is a true indicator of the status of the structure of feeling. I have an Peter Baker New York Times article from 2014, "A Steady Loss of Confidence," that I still use in the classroom today. Baker argued that when Pres. Obama took office he "set out to restore society’s frayed faith in its public institutions, saying that the question was not whether government is too big or small 'but whether it works' (Baker 2014: A1). He goes on to report:

A 2009 Gallup poll shows that in the heyday of the Obama presidency, public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen, including organized religion, the military, the Supreme Court, public schools, newspaper, Congress, television news, the police, the presidency, medical system, the criminal justice system and small business. The only institutions Gallup tested that showed slight improvement from 2009 to June 2014 were banks, organized labor, big business and health maintenance organizations. Even so, all four of them had the confidence of just roughly a quarter of the population or less. (Baker 2014: A3)

Whether in everyday interactions or in the public’s collective consciousness, it is clear that collective faith in the structure of feeling as shared values and outlooks is one that is eroding to the point of crisis. This sort of Fiskean work of unearthing the structure of feeling is the first part, and then understanding the discourses that are circulating through society is the next layer of analysis.

In terms of undertaking a Fiskean analysis, several questions need to be posed: What are the dominant discourses that intersect and work to legitimate the current “crisis” of the nation? In addition, we need to ask what has become legitimated as practices through them? Finally, to what political ends do they lead? While there are more, I will stick to the dominant four that stand out for me—all of these are discourses of insecurity, discourses that instill fear, resentment, anger and distrust throughout society.

First, is the discourse of economic insecurity. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the global financial crisis of 2008, both devastated the U.S. and led us into a four year recession. Many talked about this as the worst economic situation since the Great Depression. The huge bailout of major financial institutions by the government helped them, but it simultaneously created complete distrust of the banking system, where credit availability tightened, and the stock market suffered as investors lost confidence (and their money).

In addition the unemployment, which led to evictions, foreclosures, etc.…All of these factors created a deepening economic insecurity with what was a complete breakdown of public trust. Economic instability, which leads to economic insecurity, primes the pump for other discourses that reciprocally serve to reinforce economic insecurity, which in turn legitimates extreme responses to that and other forms of insecurity.

Second, the discourse on terrorism as one of complete social insecurity. The overall notion of the “war on terror” in the post 9-11 world has fundamentally reorganized our understandings of safety and vulnerability. From 9-11 followed the Patriot Act, the founding of Homeland Security, the hyper-escalation of military spending, and the centrality of national security as a state of insecurity. From colored warning codes disseminated in airports, to stop and frisk procedures, the discourse on terrorism became the fulcrum to legitimate people giving up their civil liberties for the sake of security. All of this links to our ongoing military presence in the Middle East, the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fight against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and of course the ongoing struggle to locate ISIS. As a result, we have a seen an escalation in hatred towards Muslims, all of whom are now branded as terrorists.

The entire discourse on the war on terror, which of course can never end since it is framed as a mode of constant vigilance and alert, affords the government the opportunity to constantly tap into responses of anger and vengeance, and fervent patriotism, as opposed to thoughtful and more rational thinking around these issues. Furthermore the ongoing media propaganda, sensationalism and sound-bites have minimized debate and make most claims made by governmental officials and pundits unchallengeable. The war on terror creates a permanent state of insecurity with no end in sight.

Closely linked to the economic insecurity is a third discourse on immigration and illegality. Homeland security enacted massive spending in order to strengthen border security. In addition, all the media representations of immigrants as illegal aliens and threats serve to naturalize illegality as the reason that people can go ineligible for citizenship, defend the rightlessness of those categorized as such, and to neutralize any dissent. As the discourse on immigration-illegality intersects and overlaps with the discourse on terrorism, Mexican immigrants get mixed in with Arab and Muslims, making terrorism-immigration-illegality all part of the same rhetoric. All of this is wrapped in a racialized discourse of the nation, specifically a nation under siege.

These racial threats are also spun into cultural and economic threats as justifications for their eradication. We have gone so far out, as we racially profile “suspects” of either illegality or terrorism to force them into compliance as “patriots” of the state, thus interpellating them into the very discourse that serves to subjugate them. In the end, the discourses of immigration-illegality-terrorism, all serve to criminalize and justify unchecked governmental, police, and military interventions. As public fear and resentment are fostered by politicians (The Donald being a prime example of cultivating xenophobia) we may truly be in Carl Schmitt’s state of emergency, or worse yet, Giorgio Agamben’s “state of exception” where government can suspend people’s rights and the rule of law for the “benefit of the public good.”

A fourth discourse would be the ever-increasing surveillance of social life. With whistle blower Edward Snowden, we were introduced to the massive surveillance by the NSA intelligence agency who was intercepting email, phone calls, and all forms of communication. The information collected is far beyond anything we can imagine, to such a degree that PRISM was set up as a dragnet to pull in al sorts of information.. This surveillance was justified by the war on terror, yet they found nothing having to do with terrorism. In addition we see the ever expansion of video cameras, both for running red lights, as well as blue light police cameras monitoring our streets, as well as satellites and drones monitoring our skies. Google, Facebook, Comcasst record data, as now do retailers who analyze consumers purchases. Our smartphones have GPS pinpointing our location 24/7. Bank cards, credit cards, debit cards, bus passes all track times places location and purchases. At the same time social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram being two particularly popular venues today, provide people the opportunity to openly publicize images of themselves, as well as document their own lives for others to see.

While we may leave in a world of hyper-surveillance, it may not matter, since the self-surveilling effect of the panopticon has come true in new and more insidious self-subjugating ways.

All of these discourses intersect with each adding layer upon layer of fear, and insecurity. If there were ever a time for a Fiskean analysis of notions of nationhood and citizenship in a post-911 era, the time is now.


Baker, Peter. 2014. “A Steady Loss of Confidence.” New York Times. October 22.


To me, one of the best discoveries in your introduction was to learn more about Fiske’s concept of the work of the public intellectual. I certainly have always looked to Fiske as a model for the way an intellectual might relate to the larger society, but I had no idea he had articulated such a clear vision for this kind of intervention. What insights should we take from his theory of intellectual labor as we think about the role of Cultural Studies at the current moment?


We have to see or think about how Media Matters is a book of public Sociology or public Cultural Studies. It was written for a wider audience and is very accessible, the most accessible of all of Fiske’s works, despite the fact that the issues he is grappling with are highly complex. He consciously wrote the book for the general public with the idea that these issues had to be conveyed in a way that everyday people can understand without sacrificing the rigor of the analysis. That is not to say that Fiske held an elitist position, that everyday people couldn’t grasp the big theoretical ideas, but that it was urgent to get this into people’s hands, into their heads, and hopefully into their actions.

I thought that was the goal of the new introduction was to reconstruct the implicit theory or the theoretical framework that is in the background, which allows us to see these events. I felt it important to highlight the particular lenses that Fiske offers, so as to pass on his wisdom to future generations of cultural scholars, students, activists, and everyday people who are invested in social justice and social equality.

The most important aspect of Fiske’s kind of intervention is that he refused to accept that people were duped by some form of ideology, though they certainly could consciously identify with hegemonic positions, but that people in general were creative and far more aware of their circumstances than those who focused solely on political economy. This runs throughout Fiske’s work.

Now Media Matters is a very public oriented book, whereas Power Plays Power Works is much more oriented towards the sphere of the academy, but even if you go back to Understanding the Popular, what was the dominant idea? People are more resilient and aware of their conditions than we as scholars who study them may often think. So he wasn’t changing his position, he was shifting registers if you will. He never took an elitist approach, which is why the question of “how does one learn how to Fiske?” one that I am still grappling with 16 years after his retirement.

It  is important to remember as well that Fiske never felt he was right on all occasions, or that he was ever in any way dogmatic; to the contrary, he was always open to rethinking, and reworking ideas. I raise the issue to be consistent, whether he was addressing the general public or PhD students at the University of Wisconsin, everyone was treated with the same respect. Even if the people Fiske was engaged in dialog with were radically different than himself, for example see the chapter on Back Liberation Radio in Media Matters, he was collaborating in the production of knowledge.

Fiske was someone who saw himself as part of a collective, that together we could help each other understand the world with greater nuance, greater sensitivity, and with the aim of the greater good. The working class was never so driven by necessity that they don't understand their own material constraints, of course they are aware of them and better aware than anyone else.

I don’t mean for that to sound sentimental, it certainly was not. Fiske thought intellectual labor was a hard painstaking undertaking and never to be considered lightly. That’s why his views on politics shifted from the major revolutionary idea to the Gramscian war of position; one where small victories (or losses) are what one is fighting for in the end. That small social changes could matter and that those very victories proved what he stood for—that everyday people could make a difference.

In the end, I really think Fiske’s intellectual weapons were the most important, since they were all forged for the greater project of social change. This is the importance of theory; theory is what links the individual experience to the collective, the isolated to the community, the disenfranchised to the relevant, such that each encounter could possibly link people to a greater collective consciousness about ourselves, our communities, and the world we want to live in, not just the world we do.

Perhaps it was redundant for me to argue that theory contextualizes the specificities of everyday life and illuminates the often latent political dimensions within those contexts, providing new perspectives and opening up new possibilities; or that theory provides a shared conceptual language to speak across different social formations and social positions.

For Fiske, we must remember, intellectual work can both cultivate a collective consciousness and be put into service for informing social practices and to interrogate, to transform, and to overturn them. As I have said before, the most important lesson about theory in the work of Fiske is to remember that theory was never used for the sake of theorizing; rather it was always used to figure out “what’s going on.”

Fiske embodied the public intellectual in his scholarship, teaching, mentoring, and friendship. All of these were merely facets of the same approach—ways to provoke us and to make us aware that interventions into the public sphere were of necessity, not just academic performances.

Furthermore, Fiske never let us succumb to the “detached ivory tower perspective” of intellectual life; he took the role of the intellectual and the intellectual labor one produced to be important contributions to society. For Fiske, the production of knowledge was not just to understand our social conditions, but to work to improve them.

The corpus of Fiske’s scholarship works to promote such a democratic advancement. For Fiske, this is never about changing people’s consciousness alone; rather it is provoke people to examine the material conditions of their lives where inequalities are experienced most viscerally.

Intellectual labor, for Fiske, must take on all areas of society, from the political, to the economic, the educational, and the industrial. Fiske always cautioned us to remember that the politics of everyday life are never sufficient on their own to create social change. However, everyday life is political, and those politics can be, and often are, possibilities for progressive change.

Fiske always encouraged us to see the potential or progressive elements within popular culture and the possible political ends to which people put it to use. While he cautioned that popular culture alone would not produce radical change in society, it was always a resource that could aid in transforming one’s control over their everyday lives. As such, the power of popular culture was always in its possibilities, possibilities without guarantees.

All of this leads me to think about the current state of Cultural Studies. I think that it is important for us to remember in the wake of Fiske’s work that we need to be vigilant about what Cultural Studies can still do and what directions we need to take it. Given that universities, where of us work, are more than ever, subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding. In addition, changing requirements for tenure and promotion, where as journal articles and other professional writings strictly targeted to academics, take precedence over other forms of work make the challenge today even greater.

We need to collectively think about the role and relevance of Cultural Studies today, as public intellectuals, for the defense of civil society itself. This is the most critical issue on the table today. Given the conditions within which we work, and the ways that we are often dismissed or ignored by the general public, we must really work at coming up with new strategies, collective strategies of political intervention, new strategies of connecting to other publics, lest we wind up cultivating their own obsolescence.

How we do so is the big question, of course, but to just say we educate our students and they go out into the world and may make changes is not enough, nor is simply publishing a trade book or writing an op-ed piece alerting people to some issue or another. These things all help, but they are not enough. We need to connect across disciplines and areas of expertise, we need to be having wider conversations, not locked in our offices like silos. his is the challenge for all liberal arts and social sciences today, as colleges and universities cut programs, we must collectively work towards rethinking the place of the academy in society, in a way that makes it valuable to the wider society.

Again these are big questions that I don’t think any one individual can answer. Our only hope lies in coming together, and that is a massive, yet not impossible undertaking.

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.