John Fiske and the Resilience of the Popular Economy

In 1987, John Fiske defined the theory of popular economy to discover how popular culture evolves from those who would consume the products of mass culture.  His theory can be found in the final chapter of his book Television Culture that deals with the medium of television (Fiske, 2011/1987). The popular economy theory describes a bottom-up economy that is primarily driven by the subordinate classes who consume the products of mass culture in ways that resist the meanings and ideology offered to them by a dominant class (the producers of mass culture). The Fiske theory tackles the rise and fall of popular culture.

Fiske analyses television shows as texts to assess the altered levels of meaning that various social and cultural backgrounds will add or subtract to the intention of the production content (Fiske, 1987/2011). Fiske maintained that individuals are of diverse backgrounds and they would use their needs and pleasures to interpret each text in a unique fashion. The Fiske theory was originally critiqued for not being expansive enough to apply to all popular culture and some may have originally thought his ideas too simplistic. Writers like Michele De Certeau, Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Raymond Williams all influenced his media scholar principles and theoretical premises. According to one of Fiske’s most loyal students, media studies scholar Henry Jenkins (2016) the popular economy theory has endured and persisted with time and is well used to promote and understand the rise of popular culture throughout mass culture production.

Figure 1 Television Culture by John Fiske

The popular economy theory argues that the dominant producers of the elite diminish and ignore the conflict required in a process of constructing popular culture within a capitalist society. Equally, the forces of the culture industry ignore the creativity and complexity by which a subordinate class views the commodity structure (Fiske, 1987/2011). Fiske recommended that media scholars observe the lives of ordinary persons. Specifically, he asks for an examination of the variety of ways that ordinary individuals struggle to affirm aspects of their needs and cravings through their relationship with mass created culture (Henry, 2010). He believed that each variation of society and cultural background will interpret each mass-produced commodity in unique ways to suit their own needs and pleasures.

By rejecting the popular 20th-century notion of an audience of innocent, impressionable and unthinking persons, Fiske would not believe that the audience automatically accepts messages of ideology that are imposed upon them by the culture industry. His theory is the direct antithesis of the effects model known as the hypodermic needle theory proposed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2002/1944). Fiske created a unique view of an audience made up of diverse consumers with valid attitudes, opinions, and beliefs that accept only the messages that add meaning to their lives.  

By comparison, Fiske wrote about the two different economies of television: the financial economy and the cultural economy. The financial economy of commercial television is focused on production and creating programming that will attract a higher level of audience ratings. The audience is seen purely as a commodity to be sold to advertisers for a profit. The cultural economy is centered on the consumption of television programming that determines which texts become popular and which texts will eventually turn into industry flops. In the cultural economy, the audience becomes producers of meanings and pleasures through signs and symbols (semiotic) and may naturally take evasive moves to resist the ideology of the culture industry. It is through the cultural economy that popular culture will develop. The financial economy becomes impotent to predict the ever-changing moods and preferences of the masses and how they might reuse the resources of the financial economy to create texts of their own (Laughey, 2010).   

A real-world example of the popular economy occurs when scrutinizing the mass culture product of blue jeans. Since the end of the 19th century, the cultural meaning of blue jeans has advanced from a practical efficiency product of outdoor physical work to a fashion product of the leisure class. Jeans transmit multiple meanings to diverse users of the product including representations of informality, casualness, unisex and classlessness (Fiske, 1989).

Figure 2: Punk subculture created their own holes in jeans

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, blue jeans were used by the subordinate classes as a uniform of choice, symbolizing rebellion and liberation. Jeans are a perfect example of excorporation, the process whereby mass cultural commodities like blue jeans are remade into one’s own cultural products (Fiske, 2013/1987). Blue jeans were embroidered upon, painted on, dyed and cut up into pieces to create brand new denim products such as bags, and vests.

In the 1980s blue jeans were appropriated by the fashion industry and made into the popular designer label products bearing extravagant price tags. The subordinate punk music subculture used the resources of designer jeans to create diverse meanings and imitating the act of natural wear, by artificially cutting holes in the legs and forcing fading with bleach. The trend grew until the fashion industry incorporated the look into a fashion statement. They popularized the mass movement and invented new tools to help create artificial wear by using laser cutters and abrasion sanders. The jean artifacts resembled true subversion, but only as an imitation. By marketing in conjunction with counter-culture symbols, a popular allure for worn out jeans was created. The irony is that the middle class and elite masses who purchase the jeans-with-holes no longer recognize the original meaning of rebellion. Paying someone to pre-destroy new clothing is the ultimate act of privilege and mass consumerism in a popular economy (Fiske, 1989).

Another example of the popular economy is illustrated by the television sitcom. The popular texts of sitcoms normally are produced using a formulaic family cast and setting. The sitcom has undergone significant changes over the years, usually as a direct reflection of subdominant resistance (Garrison, 2011). The idea of the sitcom revolved principally around a city-dwelling nuclear family in 1950 and quickly changed to the family of the suburbs in the 2nd iteration. Sitcoms made changes to bring new meanings and pleasures to the masses who likewise were moving to the suburbs.  

Sitcoms have been reformatted to feature meaning for the diversity of the audience and the idea of the family structure has been adapted to include single and widowed parents, African American, and Asian families, and gay families raising children. As societal norms change across time in diverse ways, so has the format of sitcoms recalculated toward the resistant audience base. Audience preference for a family that more closely resemble their own force the popular texts to evolve and change. Although the over-arching formula of the sitcom remains static, the culture industry sameness has incorporated throughout time the needs and pleasures of the audience.                     

Figure 3 Family sitcoms The Addams Family August 14, 1964

Fiske argues that television is not neutral and its success in the financial economy depends on serving diverse interests (Fiske, 1987/2011).  As technology and society changed, so do the needs and pleasures of the audience. Fiske could not have predicted in 1987 how modern viewers demanded the ability to select and record a huge amount of preferred texts to be viewed at the time and place of their discretion. Nor could he have imagined the development of the diverse variety presented through the portals of TIVO, Roku TV, and Netflix technology.

Large media corporations now monitor and surveil the entire breadth of the audience preference and create popular texts based on surveillance data. The audience can fast-forward through advertisements. Viewers can use additional technology screens to participate in interactive gaming and/or to critique texts in real time. No matter the progress television has made through technology, the Fiske argument about television culture remains valid and evidence-based. It is still the primary place where the elite of the culture industry are forced to encourage cultural differences and accept the insecurity of their own authority (Fiske, 1987/2011).

The reader is reminded by Fiske that where there is power, there is always the possibility of resistance and that resistance will reform into the next phase of counter-culture. Predictions can be made about a revolutionary trend that will cover the artificial holes in blue jeans with windowpane plastic representing the abstract peak from the communal critics. Likewise, predictions regarding television sitcoms may include atypical families and the cultural settings an audience has yet to demand. Pushed by continued persistence and resistance, the subordinate is empowered to steal elements of the dominant culture and use them for their own, oppositional and subversive interests (Fiske, 1987/2011).             

References:

Fiske, J. (1989). The Jeaning of America. In J. Fiske (Author), Understanding Popular Culture (pp. 1-21). Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Fiske, J. (2011). Popular Economy. In J. Fiske (Author), Television Culture (2nd ed., pp. 312-330). Abingdon: Routledge. (Original work published 1987)

Garrison, L. T. (2011, October 24). The Evolution of the Sitcom Family (New York MagazineMedia LLC. Ed.). Retrieved from https://www.vulture.com/2011/10/the-evolution-of-the-sitcom-family.html

Henry. (2010, June 16). John Fiske: Now and the Future (MIT Center for Civic Media: Creating Technology for Social Change, Ed.). Retrieved from https://civic.mit.edu/2010/06/16/john-fiske-now-and-the-future/

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. (2002). The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. In G. S. Noerr (Ed.) & E. Jephcott (Trans.), Dialect of enlightenment: Philosophical fragments (pp. 94-136). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1944)

Jenkins, H. (2016, June 09). Tracing the Roots of Media Literacy: Raymond Williams and John Fiske [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2016/06/tracing-the-roots-of-media-literacy-raymond-williams-and-john-fiske.html

Laughey, D. (2010). Consumerism and everyday life. In Key themes in media theory (2nd ed., pp.169-193). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Image Attribution: Figure #1: Creative Commons – Erkännande-Ickekommersiell-Inga bearbetningar; Image Attribution Figure # 2: Photo by Freestock.org on Unsplash; Image Attribution Figure # 3: This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in the United States between 1924 and 1977 without a copyright. Wikepedia Commons, ABC Television August 14, 1964. 

Written by Mitchell Evans, 2019

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