Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part Two)

Today, we continue a conversation between Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (London School of Economics), Sangita Shresthova and myself (USC) about our two books that launched the New York University Press/MacArthur Foundation book series, Connected Youth and Digital Futures:  By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. This time, we move beyond the goals and contexts that generated the books to focus on some of our findings.

If you live in or near London, you have a chance to watch this exchange continue in real time. I am flying to England this weekend and will be participating in an event being hosted around the two books at the London School of Economics’ Shaw Library, Old Building on June 22 from 4-6 p.m. In addition to myself, Livingstone, and Sefton-Green, the event will also feature University of Nottingham Professor of Education Pat Thompson. To reserve a seat please contact Svetlana Smirnova at

So what did we learn through our research?

Henry and Sangita write of By Any Media Necessary:

We got lucky: many of these groups and campaigns have gained visibility and influence over the period of our study. We were struck watching some of the early Democratic Party debates this U.S. presidential campaign season that many of the core issues — immigration reform, racialized police violence, income inequality, legalization of pot, among them — were issues that these networks had been mobilizing around. Kony 2012, a video produced by Invisible Children, broke all records for internet circulation during the period of our research. The Harry Potter Alliance successfully boycotted Warner Brothers to get them to embrace fair trade policies around the chocolates they produced and sold at their amusement parks. And Obama took executive action to promote the interests of the DREAMers, undocumented youth seeking greater citizenship and education rights. So, we sought success stories and those successes turned out to be more dramatic than we could have imagined when our research began.

Across this research, we identified some core principles shaping this new youth activism as well as some obstacles that are blocking these groups from achieving their full potential. First and foremost, as the book’s title suggests, these groups are seeking to make change by any media necessary. Yes, social media platforms have generated lots of press because they represent the newest technologies for mass mobilization and media circulation. But we also saw them tapping into  street protest and print culture as needed to reach a broad range of potential supporters. These groups had limited access to resources so they used whatever they could get their hands on, though often the most impoverished groups were among the most creative and thoughtful in learning how to use these platforms and practices in new ways.

Second, our work has led us to a focus on what we call the “civic imagination.” Any campaign for social change requires its participants to articulate a shared sense of what a better world would look like, the steps towards achieving this change, the political agency of participants, and often, some empathy for those whose experiences and perspectives differ from their own. Different cultures articulate what they are fighting for and what they are fighting against through different means. We were intrigued to see that, across these very different social movements, popular culture references played central roles in their rhetorical practices. Images from popular media — superheroes, wizards, zombies, and the like — are appropriated, remixed, reframed, and recirculated as a means of creating a common language amongst diverse participants.

Our book is cautiously optimistic about the ways these groups are impacting American politics. These movements model some ideal conditions for scaffolding young people as they transition into more active roles as citizens. These groups map ways that individual participation can add up to something larger. They direct attention to specific issues and propose ways that people can work together to bring about change. They train members to produce their own media and tell their own stories. They offer networks through which these media can circulate and reach an appreciative audience. Above all, they create a context where ‘talking politics’ is a normal, ongoing part of social interactions. In this focus on the conditions that enable meaningful connections between different aspects of young people’s lives, we are very much drawing on insights from the Connected Learning research. Young people are more likely to have both voice and influence when they connect with larger networks pursuing the same goals.

Of course, these networks are not open to all potential participants: there are systemic and structural biases in who can enter through these means; there is uneven access to technological infrastructure, mentorship, skills, and a sense of empowerment, all of which pave the way for new entrants. These groups do not necessarily breakdown on predictable class or racial lines: some of the most innovative and creative activism we’ve seen came from undocumented youth, many of whom lack access, on an individual bias, to the basic tools they need to do their work but have taken advantage of opportunities offered by libraries or community centers.

And these groups, themselves, struggle with core paradoxes as they think through the value of supporting broad participation as opposed to more centralized control over messaging and in particular an emphasis on process as opposed to results. These groups do not always command the respect of political leaders with the power to act on their concerns. They often face various forms of surveillance and intimidation. Participatory practices can be deployed by hate groups just as readily as by human rights groups.

The book coexists with or BAM, a resource that includes a large collection of original and curated materials related to the themes that emerged through our case studies. When we initially started developing it, we thought that BAM would effectively be a companion reader, a place where people could encounter media examples featured in the book. We ended up with a much more expansive resource that pushes far beyond our initial research to feature media created by a broad range of youth organizations, curated media, and original educational materials created through sustained partnerships we formed with companies like Participant Media and organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. While we anticipate that various visitors may find their way to BAM, we did specifically focus on educators who want to explore youth driven participatory politics with their students. This is why we piloted and eventually rolled out BAM through collaborations with educators affiliated with National Writing Project and the National Association for Media Literacy Education.


Julian and Sonia write of The Class:

It may be that when our class of British 13-year olds gets a bit older, they too will explore such civic possibilities as Henry describes above. But certainly when we hung out with them, they were taking only the most tentative steps towards the wider world – perhaps by joining Twitter to follow the adult worlds of news, sports or celebrity. For them, Harry Potter was definitely a focus for fandom but not yet a pathway to the civic.

Rather, our class was more concerned to sustain clear boundaries between home, school and peer group than to overcome these through digital or social networking. For example, the school devoted a lot of time being distressed by students’ use of Facebook, seeking ways to keep its “drama” out of the life of the school, just as students proved equally keen to protect their free time (not that there was much of it) and spaces (ditto) from prying adult eyes.

One of our driving questions was to understand how digital media were used at home and school and especially, given ever greater access to mobile digital technologies, whether this allows home and school to be connected in different ways. At school we noticed how the teachers’ appropriation of popular culture served to create shared values and norms within but not beyond the walls of the class. So in afternoon registrations the class often watched BBC News. A geography teacher used the model of voting from ITV’s X Factor to liven up math teaching. Role models from the media dotted the classroom walls. But rarely was there any discussion about how the media are produced or who controls them or how they are structured to convey particular messages. For example, films about slavery in Black History Month were tacitly treated as transparent “windows on the world”, seemingly unrelated to the mix of black and white faces of the students watching the screen.

High culture received more explicit prominence, by contrast. The head-teacher favored a boy (who had private music lessons) who could play Chopin when the year group filed into assembly. Activities involving Shakespeare or great works of art were given prominence by the school. Kids learned classical music in school music lessons while enjoying something completely different in the home, and those who learned non-standard music at home received little recognition at school.

Moreover, attempts to use the media across the boundary of home and school were carefully policed. The school’s information management system worked really well as a form of digital surveillance, but all too often the Virtual Learning Environment didn’t work or wasn’t properly understood by teachers or students. Mobile phones, which could be very useful for learning, were forbidden in school (for reasons of concentration and safety). For all the talk about living in a connected world, the students didn’t want teachers or parents to have access to their world; and the same was true of the adults.

Perhaps one of the most excruciating things to witnessed was the slow microscopic unfolding of misunderstandings, missed opportunities and social injustices experienced by the young people over the year. There was no shortage of high aspirations, good intentions and ambition but a lack of knowledge by the school about the actuality of the class’ day-to-day lives meant that the way the offer was organized, the way opportunities were constructed, were commonly at odds with how young people and families imagine what learning is good for. This led us to wonder: how would the school be different if teachers knew more about their students’ lives outside school? Why does the school choose not to know much about its students and why might they not want to reveal themselves to the school? In whose interests might greater, or lesser, connection across and between the social world of young people operate?

To return to the relation between our two books highlighted in this blog post, together they provide insights into both the extraordinary and ordinary nature of growing up in the digital age. While one book focuses on civic and political participation and the other on learning, together they capture the two key opportunities that adults hope young people will pursue, enabled by today’s digital and networked media. One book focuses on the exciting possibilities opening up, the other on how everyday realities favor practices of social reproduction that undermine the realization of such possibilities. It is surely now for society to work to bring more of the opportunities within the grasp of most, not just a few, of young people.




Connected Youth and Digital Futures: A Conversation with Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green (Part One)

I was proud that our new book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, (co-authored with Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman) was selected to be one of the two launch titles for an exciting new book series being produced by the MacArthur Foundation and the New York University Press. As part of the launch of this series, I’ve been involved in a series of conversations with some of the other authors included in the series, including an event to be held next week at the London School of Economics. More details on that event next time.

Here, I am joined by Julian Sefton-Green and Sonia Livingstone. Sefton-Green edits the series and co-authored with Livingstone the other launch title, The Class:Living and Learning in the Digital Age. They both are faculty at the London School of Economics.


What’s the series all about? Julian Sefton-Green writes:

May saw the launch of the first two books in a new series Connected Youth and Digital Futures. Building on research supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media & Learning initiative, it offers books about how the day-to-day lives and futures of young people are being reconfigured at the intersection of civil and political reform, transformation in employment and education, and the embedding of digital technologies across all domains of social and personal life.


We live in divisive and divided times where the futures that young people may inherit appear more fraught than in previous generations. As Western societies have become increasingly marketised, older forms of social contract – of conformity, working hard and aspiring high – can no longer fulfil the promises they appeared to offer:


  • Access to employment, housing and independent living has become increasingly competitive;
  • Generations are being lost from participation in conventional forms of civic activity and political action;
  • Traditional state institutions like schools and colleges seem more peripheral and excluding, and life pathways confused, complex and competitive;
  • Forms of social stratification seem to have become more acute as elites have reasserted their power and privilege.


All of these changes call into question the nature and purpose of learning in these uncertain times. At the same time, and somehow entangled with these changes, social life is increasingly mediated through forms of digital technology and the interpersonal and day-to-day life in neighbourhoods and communities have become increasingly surveilled and automated. Many of the claims advanced for the digital are now being tested around the world as institutions, families, and young people themselves negotiate, incorporate or transform in response to these changing possibilities.


In this blog post, the authors of the first two volumes in the series, By Any Media Necessary: the New Youth Activism and The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age explain why they were motivated to write these books, what we think they achieve and in what ways their themes relate to each other and fulfil the aims of the series.


Henry Jenkins writes:


Our book, By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, emerged from our participation in the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network. Chaired by Joe Kahne, this multidisciplinary network brought together philosophers (Danielle Allen), educators (Howard Gardner) Political Scientists (Jennifer Earl, Cathy J. Cohen), youth advocates (Lissa Soep, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl), and technologists (Ethan Zuckerman), all committed to research or interventions intended to shed light on the political lives of American youth.

Over seven plus years of conversations, we evolved a shared conceptual vocabulary for discussing what we call participatory politics, characterized as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” Across diverse methodologies, the network was finding evidence that: “the participatory skills, norms, and networks that develop when social media is used to socialize with friends or to engage with those who share one’s interests can and are being transferred to the political realm.”

The network’s survey, involving more than 3000 respondents, was finding some compelling insights about young people’s civic engagement.

  • More than half (56 percent) of those contacted had not been involved in politics in any form over the 12 months prior to the survey. But roughly 40-45 had involved in some form of participatory politics across this same period.
  • Contrary to claims that online political participation decreased “real world” political involvement, the survey found that those who engaged in politics via social media were twice as likely to vote as those who had not.
  • There was greater racial equality in terms of participation in online political actions than in more institutionalized forms of politics. 43 percent of white, 41 percent of black, 38 percent of Latino, and 36 percent of Asian youth had participated in at least one act of participatory politics during the prior 12 months. By contrast, the difference in voting as of 2008 showed a gap of 25 percent between the most active youth (African-Americans at 52 percent) and the least active (Latino Youth at 27 percent).

Our research group’s task was to go behind these statistics and provide a portrait of what forms of participatory politics emerged when we looked at innovative organizations and networks that have been highly successful at getting young people involved in civic and political activities. We ended up selecting groups and networks organized around brands (Invisible Children), fan interests (Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters), faith-based communities (American Muslims), identity politics (DREAMers) and shared ideological and philosophical commitments (Students for Liberty), resulting in an ethnically and ideologically diverse mix of organizations.

In practice, each of these groups blurs the categories we initially proposed and we learned the most by looking at what these groups had in common. Altogether, we interviewed more than 200 young activists who shared with us their “civic paths” (that is, how they were invited into the political process) and the ways that media platforms and participatory practices have informed their activities.

Sonia Livingstone writes:

In parallel with the Youth and Participatory Politics Network work focused on political participation, described above, in the Connected Learning Research Network we have focused on learning opportunities, exploring whether and how “connected learning taps the opportunities provided by digital media to more easily link home, school, community and peer contexts of learning; support peer and intergenerational connections based on shared interests; and create more connections with non-dominant youth, drawing from capacities of diverse communities,” as explained in the network’s research synthesis.

That report highlighted the case of 17-year-old Clarissa, an aspiring screenwriter whose friends introduced her to a role-playing site online where equally enthusiastic peers pooled their creative and critical resources to the point where Clarissa could use her new-found expertise to get into college. Relatedly, Mark Warschaeur and Tina Matuchniak wrote about how 14-year-old Max produced humorous videos and posted them on YouTube, gaining so much fan mail that his video aired on mainstream television. These and many other cases rightly serve to inspire adults and youth, tech developers and the public alike, as does the rise of young vloggers or the popularity of Minecraft communities. Yet these are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions, raising the question – how widespread are such activities, what everyday conditions support them and, more normatively, are these pathways that society wishes to prioritize for its youth?

While research suggests that connected learning opportunities arise when the sites of home, school and other locations for learning are connected and supported, our project was inspired by the observation that few studies based in schools refer to children’s lives at home. Even the idea of spending a year with “a class” evokes a curious fascination, suggesting a closed, intense, yet fragile world of school that adults, especially parents, generally do not see into. Equally, most studies of life at home rarely follow children outside it, tending towards a perception of the home as equally closed, especially from the teachers’ perspective. Of course young people are themselves the link across sites of living and learning, so we designed our research to follow them and get closer to their experiences and perspectives to trace their connections and disconnections.

To do this, we capitalized on our complementary expertise as researchers, each trying to pay attention to what the other found surprising. As we explain in the book, Sonia has spent much of her career with families at home, seeking to understand their media lives and exploring the dynamics of gender and generation in the home. Julian has spent much of his career with students and teachers at school, exploring the conditions by which media use at school and elsewhere could enable creativity and knowledge. Our project was designed to bridge these perspectives.

By spending a year with a class of 13 year olds – at school, at home, with their friends, and online, we could begin to unpack questions such as:

  • Do today’s youth have more opportunities than their parents?
  • As they build their own social and digital networks, does that offer new routes to learning and friendship?
  • How do they navigate opportunities for formal and informal learning in a digitally connected but fiercely competitive, highly individualized world?
  • What is expected of parents, and what do parents actually do, when bringing up their young teens in the digital age?

(More Next Time)

Sonia Livingstone is a full professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. She is author or editor of eighteen books and many academic articles and chapters. The past President of the International Communication Association, Sonia was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 ‘for services to children and child internet safety.’ Taking a comparative, critical and contextualised approach, Sonia’s research asks why and how the changing conditions of mediation are reshaping everyday practices and possibilities for action, identity and communication rights. Her empirical work examines the opportunities and risks afforded by digital and online technologies, including for children and young people at home and school, for developments in media and digital literacies, and for audiences, publics and the public sphere more generally.

Julian Sefton-Green is an independent scholar working in Education and the Cultural and Creative Industries. He is currently Principal Research Fellow at the Department of Media & Communication, LSE and a research associate at the University of Oslo working on projects in London and Oslo exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains. He has authored, co-authored or edited 12 volumes including: The International Handbook of Creative Learning (2011 Routledge); Learning at Not-School (2013, MIT Press); Learning and Literacy over Time (2014, Routledge). Recent volumes are The class: living and learning in the digital age (New York University Press 2016) and Learning Identities, Education and Community: young live in the cosmopolitan city (Cambridge University Press 2016). 

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.

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.





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.




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


In some ways, the Rodney King video set the stage for many subsequent debates about racialized police violence. Here, as now, the incident was caught on video and shown to the nation, yet then as now,  the police faced no legal sanctions for their action and public outrage boiled over into the streets. What conceptual tools might Fiske’s account of these events contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc.?

I’d like to focus on the last part of the question, on the conceptual tools that can contribute to the current debates around Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. Before fully responding to this question, I should point out the other animating force behind the new introduction to Media Matters is what Berkeley Sociologist Michael Burawoy refers to as “public sociology,” whereby we as intellectuals intervene in the political debates and social problems of our time in the multiple publics or social spheres in society. [1] Public sociology takes on two dominant forms, the traditional public sociology, which disseminates information and attempts to stimulate debate in traditional media venues, such as popular trade press books, newspapers, magazines, and the organic public sociology that engages the particularistic interests of more circumscribed publics —community organizations, hospitals, schools, trade unions, etc. Public sociology, in either form, seeks to take information beyond any specific community and circulate it as widely as possible.

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 14: Demonstrators march on W. Florissant Ave., in Ferguson, Mo., August 14, 2014, during a gathering to show concern over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen killed August 9th by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

UNITED STATES – AUGUST 14: Demonstrators march on W. Florissant Ave., in Ferguson, Mo., August 14, 2014, during a gathering to show concern over the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen killed August 9th by a Ferguson police officer. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Fiske is doing a bit of both forms of public intellectual labor in Media Matters. I argue that what runs throughout Media Matters, and specifically captured in the excellent chapter on Black Liberation Radio, are the critical tools of constructing “counter-history” and ”counter-knowledge.” I find these to be of critical importance in our struggle for racial equality. These two approaches to documenting social life serve as correctives or alternatives to the official history and knowledge, or the history and knowledge that has been institutionalized by the dominant groups in society (the power-bloc) in order to create competing ways of interpreting the world as well as reposition and reinterpret the facts of the dominant knowledge. Counter-history assembles experiences and historical events in order to reveal the workings of power relations in society and how those power relations structure societies in inequalities. Counter-history illuminates the effects of those power relations upon bodies, revealing how those bodies have been subjugated, exploited, excluded, marginalized or silenced. In addition, counter-history reveals the social formations and social positions to which those bodies have been relegated. The focus on the body emphasizes how power relations are not simply conceptual, regulating the mind, but are also physical in that our socialization is also always embodied as well. Counter-history is the embodiment of past experiences that serve as a reservoir of knowledge that has been omitted from the official record. Counter-history gathers those past experiences and articulates them, connecting the past to the present, in effort to affect the present. Counter-history challenges the production and legitimacy of truth and knowledge by calling into question what official history erases, represses, denies or excludes. Counter-history is “effective” in that it is functional in giving articulation to a multiplicity of voices, understandings, and experiences that official history tries to silence in its homogeneity. Counter-history reveals the embodied experiences and truths of the disempowered that have been omitted from the official record. As such, it highlights the ways in which events, objects, statements, are never self-evident, but are always interpreted, articulated, and put into particular contexts. In doing so, the objectivity of official history, as the production of institutionalized knowledge, is undermined and shown to be the ideology of the dominant groups that govern society. Counter-history not only reveals alternative ways of knowing and subordinated experiences, it also illuminates the material, economic and technological disparities for circulating information between groups. Counter-history is never as strong as the dominant history, nor does it seek to replace the dominant history as the only truth of the world; rather counter-history works to be “effective” as it is constructed and operates to provide documentation and testimony to subjugated positions in society. As a result, the contestation between official history and counter-histories is one which always one that cuts across social, cultural, and political-economic realms of society.

The formation of knowledge or counter-knowledge, the ways that people understand themselves and their social relations, is always a matter of constructing a set of meanings. Since facts are never self-evident, knowledge is always a process of production in the interests of a group situated within a social system of power relations. Facts are resources that are linked together—articulated—within specific social contexts for particular ideologies, politics, and practices. This process requires a constant and ongoing articulation, disarticulation, and re-articulation of facts in the construction of knowledge. Since facts are always open to disarticulation and re-articulation, we can see how the classes that dominate social relations attempt to dominate the production of meaning/knowledge. Writing a counter-history/counter-knowledge requires “stealing” or the re-articulation of facts for the interests and effectiveness of a group’s social location. Groups that challenge those dominant meanings and rearticulate them in a counter-knowledge is what enables those groups to assert and attempt to preserve identities of their own self-definition and self-understanding.

By thinking about how constructing these alternatives are both intellectual and political endeavors, we can then start to think of strategic ways of deploying this information, as we forge alliances across different groups and publics who are invested in collective social change and social equality.

[1] Burawoy, Michael. 2005. “For Public Sociology.” American Sociological Review. 70(February): 4–28)

For Fiske, change in entertainment media and change in news media both help to shape the “structure of feeling” and the political climate of the country. As you note in your introduction, “According to Fiske, culture is always political.” So, the current debates around race are taking shape alongside struggles for more inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry, not to mention real breakthroughs in terms of the representation of race — From Scandal to Empire, from Fresh Off the Boat to Master of None. So, what tools does Fiske offer us for thinking about the interplay between news and entertainment?

I think there are two parts to this line of questioning. First, the debates around race and diversity, and second the interplay between news and entertainment. As Fiske argued, culture is political, in that the production of meaning is always a contested site of social struggle through which the social order can be reproduced, but also questioned, critiqued, challenged, and changed. This is central to Fiske’s intellectual project of cultural critique.

The current debates around race and representation, both in terms of the ways that racial identities are portrayed and presented, and in terms of the sheer numbers of people of any particular group that are represented. So in this sense, I would see Fiske as pointing not just to the content of the performance, whether or not the character reinscribes some stereotype, but rather to the pressing political shift in terms of recognition. The Oscars were a breakthrough in terms of social and political pressure applied to the awards in a way that is unprecedented. Issues of diversity are not new, but the shift in our culture, such that they are now part and parcel of movie awards is front-page news and on the public agenda in a way I don’t think we have seen before. This defines something new, some shift in the “structure of feeling” in terms of how we as a society see ourselves and how the issue of diversity, in terms of recognition and validation, around the sheer numbers of people making cultural contributions can no longer be silenced or marginalized. Furthermore, the quality and popularity of minority dominated TV programs and films, also speaks to a shift in the fabric of society. To me this speaks to a new configuration of multiculturalism, a shift in terms of how we think of diversity on many levels of social life. I think this is very important for us to reflect on, given that when I was at Berkeley as an undergraduate in the early 1990s, multiculturalism, and the possibility of requiring a course of study on the topic was the political issue of the day.

There were strikes, sit-ins, protests, coming from both the left and the right, all over the possibility of having to take a course on multiculturalism. Now I teach courses on multiculturalism. It has become institutionalized. In fact my students today have grown up in an era where multiculturalism wasn’t something to be fought for, it is something that they take for granted (at least in terms of its rhetoric). In fact, I would argue that the issue of diversity and multiculturalism is one that is reconstituting the very social organization of society. Only through making multiculturalism central to both our thinking about society, and central to our politics, can we hope to gain any purchase on achieving social cohesion and reducing, if not eliminating, the mechanisms that structure societies in inequalities.

Second, as far as the ongoing interplay of news and entertainment, we have seen nothing but an ongoing erosion since the time of Media Matters. As Fiske argued, media have fundamentally changed our social relations in contemporary society, to the point where we can no longer rely on a “news” event vs. “entertainment” event distinction. When news and entertainment blur, distinctions of truth and false, real and unreal, objective and subjective distinctions become increasingly difficult to maintain. While I agree with Fiske that we cannot succumb to a pessimistic viewpoint that society has completely “imploded” into the “hyperreal” where the world is nothing but images, I do feel at times that we are getting closer and closer to that implosion. While I try and teach my students the forms of cultural literacy and cultural analysis that Fiske taught us, I see less and less “critical” in the ways those students interpret media and the ways they put those interpretations to use in everyday life. As a result, the analysis of media events, and the kind of cultural literacy and critical analysis Fiske advocated for, becomes ever more important in helping us negotiate these cultural shifts in society today.

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.




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

 You describe Media Matters in your introduction as a “diagnostic framework” for understanding contemporary cultural politics. What do you mean by this and can you provide some examples of what a diagnosis might look like? What symptoms might we identify and what conclusions would we draw as we think about the way the world has changed between when Fiske wrote this book and now?

I take the concept of diagnostic thinking from the political philosopher Hans Sluga, in order to show how Fiske explores the social terrain.[1] As such, I think we can see Fiske as a diagnostic thinker who seeks to understand the contemporary reality in which we live—the structures of feeling—the shifts in the social, economic, and cultural spheres of life that have opened up a multiplicity of understandings, perspectives, and ways of life that are not always compatible and congruent. In this sense he explores he racial, cultural, gender, and economic “illnesses” that are riddled through the social body, as well as offers practical modes of intervention into that illness, so that we can come to understand what is ailing us.

Media Matters offers us a diagnostic framework to unearth the cultural currents that give rise to the politics of everyday life in the media events that momentarily crystallize them. This diagnostic illuminates the ways media events can reaffirm top-down hegemonic or ideological positions, but also opens those positions up to interrogation.

By doing so, this expands our notion of the political by demonstrating how media events are never straightforward. They are always in need of analysis. Media events must be analyzed in terms of their specific contacts, and how different social positions in society render them intelligible and meaningful. Ultimately, media events reveal the complexity of social life and the social inequalities within which our contemporary society is structured.

I also think of diagnostic thinking in terms of what I consider to be the fundamental question that Fiske was always asking throughout his work—what’s going on society?—so the diagnostic approach in which one looks for symptoms, connects us to the dissection of media events. How do we treat them?

In looking at the events of Media Matters and today, there is an uncanny resonance. Once again we are thinking through an uprising in a poor African American neighborhood. As we look at the events of Ferguson, Missouri, we should ask if things really changed so much? Or are we seeing some issues of structural inequality in American society and the consequences of them when the community is pushed over the threshold?

In addition, with Antonin Scalia’s death, we are now in the political upheaval of appointing a Supreme Court Justice, as we were with Clarence Thomas back in the time of the events in Media Matters. It is hard not to think how prophetic the book is in looking ahead to what we see today.

We are at a moment when many are looking back on the period this book documents to try to understand the present moment — from a second Clinton seeking the White House to docudrama series revisiting the O.J. Simpson case. What would you hope a young person learning about the 1980s for the first time in an undergraduate class might take from Fiske’s account of this key moment of political change?

I think there are number of things that we need to consider here, most importantly the “Reagan Revolution” defined by a reactionary moral conservatisms the withdrawal of the state and social programs, the privatization of institutions, the notion of the trickle-down economy, his hostile anti-communist attitude towards Russia and the Cold War, which led to the massive military build up, the notion of “Star Wars” missile “force field” defense system—and the beginning of massive rates of incarceration. These are just a few of the issues I would hope students reflect on now.

Thinking of today, once again we have an actor, in this case Donald Trump, rather than Reagan who is now seeking the Presidency. To go through all these issues would be a course onto itself. But it is hard not to think how this whole nexus of interconnected issues shaped the world we see today. In fact with Trump, we see a resurgence of many of these issues, in terms of social panic around Islam and the rabid anti-immigrant sentiments parallel to the social panic around the Soviet Union and the rabid anti-communist sentiment of the day.

The withdrawal of the state that was occurring then has given rise to neoliberalism today. This unfettered economic logic has eroded social services and infrastructure, and has perpetuated massive economic inequality, to the consequences we have not even begun to understand.

Another significant development during this time to me, certainly defining my youth, was the rise of MTV as a cultural watershed. Here we have the full commodification of culture as spectacle. While commonplace now, maybe even irrelevant now, but then the cutting edge of music, fashion, even news, all packaged into a glossy visual medium that was nothing but advertisements. While primarily for tapes, videos, CDs and other music related commodities, MTV became the direct to consumer conduit for shaping the rise of a hyper-consumer society and the “branding” of products in ways that connected them with music stars, actors, and TV “personalities.”

I’m not sure that I can say enough about the role of MTV in shaping an entire generation, in turn completely redefining the cultural landscape, and through its indoctrination into cultural consumption, the economic landscape as well.

Your publisher placed an image of the #blacklivesmatter movement on the cover of Media Matters, and in many ways, this is the appropriate choice. Fiske describes in that book the kinds of demographic shifts (especially around race and ethnicity) which are having such an impact in today’s politics, he describes a range of “media events”, such as those around Clarence Thomas, Rodney King, and O. J. Simpson, which would become the focal point for discussions around race, class, and competing notions of the truth, and he predicts that we will see a steady stream of such “media events” moving forward. How might we use this book to make sense of some of today’s struggles around racial justice?

The Ferguson unrest, with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August 2014, and the months of unrest that followed, weighed heavily on my mind during my conceptualization of the introduction to Media Matters. I kept asking myself, what needed to be written for this politically charged book, in so far as it questioned and undermined the hegemonic perspectives of race, class, and gender in terms of the specific deconstructions and reconstructions of these specific media events?

In the spring of 2015 I put together a panel for the Pacific Sociological Association meetings with the Dean of the law school at UC Irvine and my colleague Bryan Sykes in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society. I titled the panel “Questions of Social Justice: Ferguson, Missouri and Beyond” I argued that the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York demonstrate how racial inequities in our judicial system erode perceptions of fairness among communities of color and reinforce beliefs that accountability and justice are reserved for white victims or individuals of higher social status.

Given the growing race and class stratification in employment, education, housing, and criminal justice, the purpose of the panel was to question notions of institutional legitimacy, accountability, and social justice around the unfortunate, untimely, and unnecessary deaths of young men of color. It was in constructing this panel and getting my two colleagues on board that the introduction to Media Matters took shape.

In preparing the introduction for the panel and my presentation, I began to sketch out how Ferguson was a “media event” in that it structured our view of who and what we are as a society. As a media event, Ferguson became a highly visible spectacle dominating the public consciousness and conversation. The uprising in Ferguson became a serious flashpoint where the underlying currents of racial inequality in social life boiled over into the mainstream of society. Like L.A. and Rodney King, we were able to look into the deep anxieties, conflicts, and contradictions in society that are often passed over in mainstream media or excluded from official channels of information.

What is most important is not the event itself, but the struggles that exist underneath the events, which continue on long after any one media event occurs. While the social clashes exposed in media events could lead to a political pessimism, instead they are opportunities for public debate and social engagement.

As flashpoints of cultural struggles, media events are also potential points of political intervention and political contestation opening up points of dialogue in the public sphere. I think the framework Fiske offers us, which allows us to see the multiplicity of perspectives, and the deep conflicting interpretations as to an event’s meaning and significance is essential for today’s politics and our struggles for racial justice.

While media events are highly temporal and fade as others occur and take their place in our public consciousness, we can pursue social movements around issues of racial justice by keeping those truths alive and part of public discourse. I think that movements like Black Lives Matter is doing just that, as they connect cases of police violence and the killing of young African American men across the country, showing us that the shooting of Michael Brown is not an isolated incident, but rather is a systemic problem through the country, one which demands our immediate and ongoing attention if we are to effect serious change in the way that we police society.

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.





[1] Sluga, Hans. 2014. Politics and the Search for the Common Good. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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.


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.


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.


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.




What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview with Ramzi Fawaz (Part Three)

You discuss the “queerness” of certain superhero characters — notably the Fantastic Four. In what senses are you using this term and what does it capture about these characters and their relationship to the dominant construction of American family life during this period?

I use the term queerness broadly to describe modes of being in the world that thwart the direction of presumed heterosexual desire and life outcomes, including monogamous romantic coupling, marriage, and reproduction. The terms strikes me as an incredibly powerful and compelling descriptor of comic book superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s because these characters’ stories focused so intently on the ways that misfit, outcast, and mutant superheroes constructed alternative kinships, struggled with competing romantic desires, found themselves more invested in relationships with other outcasts (as opposed to traditional marriage and romance), and often sidelined the goal of reproduction for other practices of world-making.

The Fantastic Four is a brilliant example of the queerness of superhero comics in the 1960s because it depicted four heroes who’s family bond is a chosen kinship (two of the characters are bound by blood but they are orphans). The four become a family both because of their shared experience of being mutated by cosmic rays, but also because of shared ethical values and investments.

The flexibility of their kinships allows them to pursue relationships of affinity and common cause with all manner of life in the universe so that, within the first decade of the series publication, the characters had made allies and community throughout the cosmos. Finally, because queerness references questions of intimacy, sexuality, and kinship, it allows us to talk about how comics successfully projected new kinds of bodily fantasies through these categories, and by making the superhero more vulnerable to human needs and desires.

There has been a concerted effort by Marvel in recent years to diversify their cast of superhero characters, thus we have a black Spider-man, an American Muslim Ms. Marvel, an all-female superhero team, a female Thor, in comics and the emergence of Jessica Jones and Agent Carter on television. In what ways is this push to diversity an outgrowth of the developments you discuss here? In what ways are the underlying approaches to diversity different?


Ultimately, I think the difference between today’s diversification of characters in Marvel Comics versus the diversity presented in 1960s and 1970s comic book worlds is a distinction between the goals of representational diversity on the one hand, and the investment in exploring the problem of difference on the other. In other words, the mere expansion of different kinds of characters—women, ethno-racial minorities, the disabled etc.—is distinct from the project of exploring how people are different from one another and what they do in response to those differences.

Certainly, the creative world-making of 1960s and 1970s comic book production involved an expansion of the representational diversity of superhero characters—including the introduction of African American, Native American, and international casts of characters and increasing numbers of women superheroes—but this diversification took place within a broader ethos of exploring difference, encountering a range of people throughout the universe, and responding to their unique worldviews.

There are many elements of today’s increasingly representational diversity that are compelling, but this push lacks a fundamental attentiveness or interest in the problem of difference—that is, how people negotiate the fact of their differences from one another—which leaves the diversity of contemporary superhero characters flat and, frankly, boring. I discuss the distinction between these two models of diversity at length in a piece I wrote for Avidly the LA Review of Books blog:

What is interesting about a character like Jessica Jones, to take one example, is not simply that she is a woman superhero, but that she is different than most superheroes in the Marvel Universe because she doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to use her powers for a broader ethical mission. She is, at core, a good person, but she doesn’t have grandiose visions of her own heroism.

This is a difference that matters, in a sense, because it means her motivations, investments, and actions are guided by totally different criteria than most of her fellow superhumans in the Marvel Universe. Her gender plays a role in this difference and significantly shapes how she views hero work, but it isn’t the single or most important variable in the formation of her character.

The series explores the multiple articulations of her difference from other Marvel heroes, including but not limited to her gender, and paints a beautifully complex, gritty, and sometimes unpleasant portrait of this deeply divided character. Her series, then, addressed a substantive difference while also diversifying the ranks of superhero comic books. This is the kind of diversity I find compelling, what I would call true heterogeneity, and that I argue superhero comics championed in the 1960s and after.

Ramzi Fawaz is Assistant Professor of English and Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at UW Madison. His first book, The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics won the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Fellowship Award for best first book in LGBT Studies

What Kinds of Difference Do Superheroes Make?: An Interview of Ramzi Fawaz (Part Two)

What roles do formal aspects of comics play in your analysis? Is your book primarily about ideological change or does it also help us to understand the visual strategies of comics as a medium?

Perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls of comics scholarship has been the tendency to separate formal innovation in the medium from social and cultural context. Some scholars have sought to produce universal theories or concepts for explaining how the formal mechanics of comics function, including the movement and flow of sequential panels, various conceptual uses of “the gutter” (the space between panels), the spatial arrangement of narrative, and so forth. While such efforts are valuable for understanding how the medium works in a broad sense, they cannot explain how particular formal qualities of comics get articulated or linked to distinct ways of knowing, seeing, or understanding the world at particular historical moments (or for specific creative projects).

In other words, it’s one thing to explain how the movement of panels across space conveys the passage of time in a comic strip, but wholly another to show how this movement across space is deployed for a variety of different purposes in different kinds of comics, graphic narratives, or works of art. For example, in action and superhero comics the temporal movements across space might signal speed, intensity, or action, while in a graphic novel about AIDS in the 1980s it might signal the deterioration of the human body under the strain of illness across time.

In my book I stress the fact that comic book creators in the 1960s and after actively articulated the formal qualities of the comics medium to new kinds of values and ideals related to the image of the outcast or mutant superhero: for example, the expanded scale of global and intergalactic adventure these heroes engaged took advantage of the idea central to comics art that anything that can be drawn can be believed. In other words, creators realized that if they presented readers with a massive double-page collage of a distant alien planet, readers would believe it; or if they drew superheroes shrinking to the size of a molecule, that would be believable too.


The ideal of global and cosmic encounter between mutants, misfits, and freaks across all manner of differences then, was materialized through a formal scaling upward of the visual field of comic book art. Similarly, the space between panels, which commonly denotes movement across time, was used to underscore the mutating and shape shifting qualities of this new generation of superheroes: a hero that appeared as an ordinary human in one panel, might appear on fire in the next, invisible, encased in metal, solid rock, or altogether not there.

Ben Morphs into The Thing

Creators exploited this visual trope by making the transition between different embodied forms appear ever more strange, vivid, or intense in order to underscore a variety of bodily transformations that were indicative of the diversity of modern superheroes. In and of itself, of course, the ability to visually depict change across the space of multiple sequential panels is nothing new as a formal trope in the comics medium; rather what was new in the 1960s was the linking of that formal trope to particular instances of bodily transformation. I try to highlight these moments to show how form was one vehicle through which creators expressed a new set of values and creative or imaginative ideals to their audiences.

What roles did comics fandom play in tapping into what you are calling popular fantasy? Would these texts have been as significant on their own terms without the larger conversations and debates they provoked amongst fans?

The significance and cultural power that superhero comics had in the late 20th century would have been severely limited without the existence of a vibrant fan community. This is not to say that the comics would not have been popular or subsequently worth studying, but that their public, social, and cultural dimensions would have been intensely circumscribed. Simply put, fan communities made a form of mass culture (the mass produced superhero comic book) into a form of American public culture (a shared object of collective concern involving a range of participants).

By responding directly to comic book content, using their collective influence to transform the ideals and creative innovations of comics, and participating in a variety of public dialogues about the meaning, nature, and value of superheroes and their medium of origin, fans made superheroes matter, both figuratively in the sense of their significance or social value, but also literally by encouraging the actual material production of more superhero stories across time.

I see fans as neither simply the catalysts for, nor the pure consumers of, superhero comics, but as central participants in the production and circulation of the imaginative worlds presented in their pages. Whether or not Stan Lee or Jack Kirby intended to make a statement about feminism when they introduced the character Sue Storm as the Invisible Girl in The Fantastic Four, it was readers who brought the character within the orbit of feminist debates, demanding a more significant presence for the character in the series, disagreeing with those who believed women superheroes were weak or useless, and underscoring the values of gender diversity in comics. Fans allow us to move our attention away from questions of authorial intention towards shared practices of meaning making, which I believe is a far more compelling and substantive way to understand what role comics have played in our culture.

Dissertation Chapter 3 Resized Figures 1

Given the dramatic ideological reworking of the superhero you describe between its origins in the 1930s and 1940s and what it would become in the post-war period, what accounts for the persistence of this genre over time? Why did not the earlier configuration die out as has to a large degree happened to the western or the Musical?

First, I believe superhero stories remain compelling because of the extraordinary range of ways they can be told. The Western and the Musical both had very long lives (and they are certainly not “dead,” though they may have lost their exceptional popularity), but they were often fixed formulas with a limited number of permutations.

Superhero stories are broad because the genre is less defined by a distinct narrative structure than by a figure, a person with unusual or exceptional abilities, who can be placed in an endless set of scenarios. Until or unless we simply cease to have bodies at all, in a rapidly technologically advancing society fantasies of bodily capacity or superhuman ability will continue to be a key site where we imagine, work through, or grapple with both the limits and possibilities of humans’ ability to influence the material world.


At the same time, the specific popularity of the superhero in media like film and television has a lot to do with special effects technology; the mere fact that we can now visualize some of these formerly drawn fantasies as though they were “real life” on screen is one driving force behind big-budget film adaptations of superhero comic book stories. In the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the technical ability to choreograph and film large numbers of people in synchronized dance was one motivation (among others) for producing these films.

The long gap in superhero filmmaking between the original Superman and Batman movies and the more recent film adaptations of superhero stories that started with the 1999 release of the first X-Men film had much to do with the failure of special effects technology to adequately capture the full extent of different superheroes’ abilities. With recent advances in special effects technology that allow for the visual representation of such abilities, these movies have exploded in popularity.


At the same time, during an extended period of intense national crisis, it makes sense that a figure that can easily be articulated to physical and military power has taken a hold on the American imagination. Since so many of these movies are quite literally expressions of technological power—the power to represent superhuman power itself—they often jettison the egalitarian political values of their comic book counterparts for epic stories of Manichean conflict between superhuman champions. They are essentially fantasies of technological superiority in a chaotic world.