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


Fiske had much to say about the role which pirate radio played in the 1990s in transmitting and encoding counter-knowledge and counter-history. He had less to say about digital media, even though it was taking shape at this same moment. How might this framework help us to understand the role which social media is currently playing in today’s civil rights struggles?

When I think back to the historical context of Media Matters, I can’t help wonder if the media event of Rodney King, (the chase, the beat down, and the arrest), was truly the first moment whereby the camera was turned back on the police. That event to me was like a tectonic plate shifting in society. It took the country, or at least parts of it by surprise, and validated other parts of it that this was everyday life for them. I raise this in particular because my students today were not born then, so to get them to think about the significance of this, the role that media played at the time was crucial.

In the chapter “Technostruggles” in Media Matters, Fiske had already mapped out the ways that information technology both circulates discourse and produces and applies power. For Fiske, at the time of Media Matters, it was surveillance, the top down Foucaultian panoptic gaze, that was becoming the most efficient, totalitarian, and hardest form of power to resist.

If Fiske were writing today, he would be writing against the domination of the surveillance society, documenting all the new ways that media platforms have proliferated since the first edition of Media Matters—with the development of smart phones, the internet, social networking sites, blogs, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, tablets, mp3 files, streaming, YouTube, and virtual information storage—and how this diverse forms of media are now more pervasive through out society than ever.

This shift in the social landscape, or as Fiske would argue, a shift in of “structure of feeling,” through new forms of technology opens up ever-new possibilities of expressing identities, communities, perspectives, and most importantly as weapons for engaging in political struggles. These “weapons of the weak” to borrow James Scott’s terminology become the very tools of resistance.

In fact, Fiske would be having a field day with his critics! He was right all along! I can’t help to remark about the responses to his essay “The Culture of Everyday Life” in the Cultural Studies book. It is just too good of an example not to mention. If Fiske ever reads this interview, I hope he revisits that just to have a laugh at how obtuse those people were and how WRONG they got it!

In writing this review I had to revisit that. I didn’t mention it in the new introduction, but that was not the place for assessing the worthlessness of his critics, but this forum is precisely the place since I’m the one making the critique. These are exactly the types of developments that no one could predict, thus being exactly the kinds of resistance Foucault himself would have pointed to—to make sure we remember where there is power, there is always the possibility of resistance—making them unable to be completely interpellated back into the hegemonic power bloc.

Not only do they provide weapons, they are new modes of documentation, new modes of constructing counter-knowledge and counter history through turning the lens back on those surveilling. It is not simply the documentation with video from smart phones, as one example of use, but the speed and breadth one can circulate that knowledge. People can post videos instantly and they can circulate globally, connecting people and informing people from all different sorts of communities.

We can take any number of examples of African American men killed by police that have been documented through a multiplicity of video devices—from Jason Harrison documented on a police-worn body camera, Jerame Reid documented on a Dashboard camera, John Crawford III documented on a Walmart surveillance camera, to Kajieme Powell and Eric Garner documented with a bystander's cellphone. These can be immediately uploaded and used by citizens to challenge authority and hold authorities responsible for unauthorized use of violence—and in these cases all ending in death.

People are now turning these devices into weapons to fight back, protecting themselves through the innovative uses of these new technologies. While racial domination and police brutality continue, the speed and intensity of making visible what might have gone invisible, as well as the ability to connect across vast physical distances with other social networks, social movements, community organizations, and activists, has opened up a new form of politics we are just beginning to explore.

As you discuss in your introduction, Fiske’s own politics underwent a change from a focus on Macro-level politics (overturning capitalism) towards micro-level change (“change from within ... a gradual shifting rather than a revolution.”) Is this distinction still useful in making sense of contemporary models of cultural politics?

Yes, I absolutely do, but the challenge is immense. With Neoliberalism seemingly unstoppable in its expansion around the globe, along with the privatization of social services and infrastructure, I think micro-level politics are all we have. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I heard the word capitalism, except if someone were teaching Marx. I think the erasure of the term capitalism or the euphemism of neoliberalism has made capitalism all but invisible and no longer something on the table to discuss.

People, politicians, etc., discuss the economy, job disappearance, unemployment rates, but none of these issues are linked to structural inequality, directly to capitalism itself. If this is even hinted at, conversation automatically stops because you must be a heretic or a socialist. This conversation goes nowhere. So in terms of macro-level transformation, I just don’t see it as a viable strategy. I don’t see social change happening through the grand revolution, nor do I see it occurring within the confines of a two party political system.

I think as intellectuals that we need to focus more on connecting with the people, communities, institutions, organizations we study, offering our expertise while coming to better understand their perspectives in relation to our own. The idea of that we can affect changes in our communities or our local institutions on a much smaller scale, doesn't diminish the larger ideal. Rather, we should focus on how small shifts or small accomplishments of change could be connected, such that small changes cumulatively add up, perhaps eventually adding up to enough to challenge the bigger picture.

In addition, I think we need better networks, locally, nationally, globally, to create what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as the “collective intellectual“ where collective research, collaboration, and the cultivation of a community of intellectuals could foster more effective research with an agenda for social change. We could certainly step out of our discrete disciplines and begin to communicate and coordinate this sort of community. While requiring a great deal of effort, the payoff may be worth the labor.

This is a great challenge for intellectuals today. We may reach our students, and they are an important public to reach as they go out into the world, but perhaps there has to be more. Given how marginalized intellectuals are in the US, this makes it problematic from the start, but I think in many ways we have let that occur. We need more optimism, less pessimism, but it is hard to remain optimistic when we continue to see the fraying of the social fabric day in and day out.

As universities have become ever more subject to marketization, the commodification of knowledge, and the disappearance of state funding, which in turn necessitates alternative modes of financing through private corporations or public-private partnerships. The escalation of these trends over the last 15 years has served to cut wages and benefits, and shifted the labor market away from tenure-track and tenured faculty to adjuncts and part time lecturers, all of which undermine the autonomy and intellectual mission of higher education. These dynamics have shifted the terrain on which ethnographers pursue their craft.

Two issues arise from these new conditions. First, time, given the duration that good research takes, it becomes more and more challenging to conduct long-term fieldwork. Second, ironically, given tenure and promotion concerns, intellectuals may have to conduct more “professional research” as opposed to “public research” in the end.[1]

I’m not say that we should give up scholarship and all become activists. But given that we need to consider doing research that connects with people beyond the walls of the university, tearing down those walls may be our best start.

[1] For a slightly different version of this same argument, see Fine, Gary Alan and Black Hawk Hancock. “The Ethnographer at Work” Qualitative Research. Forthcoming

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.