"Play, Power, and Policy: Putting John Fiske Back into Media Policy Studies"
by Bill Kirkpatrick (Denison University)
You might already be able to guess one of the ways that the title of this paper is misleading: I called it "putting Fiske back into media policy studies," but since media policy studies never fully embraced John Fiske's contributions, putting him "back" into policy is misnomer. In fact, as we are all fully aware, media policy studies has spent the better part of two decades defining itself against John Fiske.
Specifically, there have been four broad strands in media policy studies in the communication field in the last twenty years, and all of them have had little use for the theories of John Fiske, his allies, and his followers. The first strand is the area of communication law, a subset of legal studies that has thrived in law review articles going back more than a century. Policy law studies is, of course, primarily concerned with the development of media case law and occasionally the practical consequences of law and policy. It's useful for critical-cultural approaches to media studies, but reading law review articles is kind of like watching someone play the Sims: it's basically a form of game theory, concerned with how policy plays out among the limited range of players and within the complex rules of the legal ecosystem. By and large communication law has benignly neglected the kind of theoretical critical-cultural work that most of us here do, and they certainly have not taken much notice of Fiske's approach to cultural studies.
The second and third broad strands in media policy studies are neoliberalism and political economy, and of course that has been a much more fraught relationship. Free-market figures on the right such as Thomas Krattenmaker, Thomas Hazlett, and Lucas Powe hate the emphasis in cultural studies on questions of race, class, and gender, the social construction of reality, etc. They mostly dismiss the entire field of cultural studies as a pack of pinko pomos waging a destructive culture war of identity politics.
Political economists on the left gave us the famous McChesney-Fiske wars of the 1990s and 2000s in which cultural studies in general (and American cultural studies in particular) was lambasted for being, at best, irrelevant to the struggle for more progressive media policies and, at worst, actively complicit with the neoliberal and deregulatory philosophies of people like Krattenmaker, Hazlett, and Powe, not to mention Reagan, Bush, Fowler, Clinton, and Michael Powell.. As Henry Jenkins has rightly pointed out, the intellectual and social coalition led by McChesney, whatever its political successes under the banner of media reform, "rests on melodramatic discourse about victimization and vulnerability, seduction and manipulation, 'propaganda machines' and 'weapons of mass deception'" (1). Fiske's ideas about resistance and agency, not to mention his deep respect for ordinary people finding pleasure and empowerment where they can, have no place in their worldview. They are, to put it into a historical trajectory, all Adorno and no Marcuse.
The fourth broad strand in media policy studies is by far the most interesting: critical cultural policy studies, a move into cultural policy studies led by Australian cultural studies scholars, including Tony Bennett and Ian Hunter. Drawing on the later writings of Foucault, in particular Foucault's ideas about governmentality, critical cultural policy studies captures the ways in which cultural policy is not merely concerned with supporting a vibrant cultural life, or protecting cultural markets, or adjudicating the legal and resource claims of the culture industries, but also about maintaining social control and producing governable citizens by instilling loyalty to the state through culture. Media policy is thus about making citizens knowable and, ultimately, manageable: the "conduct of conduct." This approach has led to much terrific work, including a 2002 anthology edited by Justin Lewis and Toby Miller called Critical Cultural Policy Studies (2), that challenges us to think about the instrumentalities of culture in the production of the "well-tempered citizen" (3). (T. Miller).
But even this rich and productive critical-cultural approach has found it either necessary or advantageous to define itself, once again, against Fiske. Indeed, several years before the McChesney-Fiske wars, there were battles within cultural studies that took the form of "policy" vs. "cultural criticism," with Fiske a favorite straw man for discrediting the latter. Tony Bennett, for example, without mentioning Fiske directly, lamented cultural studies' "serious theoretical blockages to an adequate engagement, both theoretical and practical, with the horizons of policy" that he blamed on the "libertarian formulations that have been the worm in the bud of American cultural studies ever since it made its trans-Atlantic passage" (4). And even that key anthology by Lewis and Miller makes only one mention of Fiske in its 376 dense pages, and that is to once again use him as a foil.
The upshot is that we have four major trends in media policy studies over the past 20 years—the legal, the neoliberal, the political economic, and the critical-cultural—three of which mostly or wholly reject Fiske and one of which ignores him altogether.
The strange thing about this is that, when one actually goes back and reads Power Plays Power Works (5) or Media Matters (6), one is struck by how frequently and powerfully Fiske talks about media regulation, how thoroughly he weaves political economy into his analysis, how fluently he invokes concepts like governmentality. And this brings me to the second way in which the title of my paper is misleading: we cannot put Fiske back into media policy studies, because he was there all along. Seeing this, I was reminded of my favorite anecdote about Fiske. As a new graduate student in 1997, I heard about the McChesney/Fiske debates and asked John about it in the elevator in Vilas. I said something like, "So am I right that you and McChesney are in an argument?" John replied with a characteristic twinkle, "No, not quite. I'm not having an argument with McChesney; he's having an argument with me."
So why this neglect of his contributions, even among those with whom he shares so many theories and concerns? I think there are several reasons, but I'll just list two main ones here. First, it is partly Fiske's own fault. Fiske never called attention to the fact that he was doing policy analysis as part of his work; he never put his ideas into terms that policy scholars could recognize as policy analysis. I'll talk about why I think that is in a minute, but it's worth pointing out that in Power Plays, for example, there are only three mentions of "policy" explicitly, all of them incidental or by-the-way. Although there are more uses of the actual word "policy" in the text of Media Matters, they are again largely incidental, for example mentioning welfare policy, etc. Fiske analyzed media policy without talking about media policy, and I think that has led to a misrecognition of his importance in this area.
The second main reason that Fiske's contributions have gone largely unappreciated is that he rarely addressed the "official" policy sphere, and you can look long and hard before you find him mention the FCC, the NTIA, spectrum, the fairness doctrine, or the number of lobbyists working for AT&T. He mostly skipped the institutional analysis of funding, regulation, and the like, and went straight to the political and social analysis of media policy as it is actually lived. In "Popularity and the Politics of Information," for example, Fiske contrasts the popularity (in all of Fiske's senses of the term) of tabloid news with the unpopularity of official news (7). It is one of the articles that I return to again and again: a brilliant analysis of how information policy and the political economy of news production play out socially and culturally in a stratified society. It's a classic of media policy analysis, yet it easily goes unrecognized as such because Fiske doesn't use the word policy, doesn't feel the need to rehearse at length the influence that economic elites exercise over the mainstream media, and cares about the sense that ordinary people are making of their lives instead of paying lip service to populism on his way to demonizing the corporations.
In putting Fiske "back" into media policy, then, we have to put him back into a place he never was and yet has always been. We need, in other words, to better recognize the ways in which Fiske's work fits within media policy studies, but also to forcefully argue for the ways in which media policy studies still needs what Fiske has to offer.
With that in mind, I'll use the rest of my talk to discuss what I see as some of the key problems facing the field of media policy studies now and the ways that Fiske's work helps, if not resolve them, at least begin to think about them differently and hopefully productively.
The first problem in current media policy work is how to correctly theorize the relations between the top-down application of power and bottom-up resistance or agency. Political economists such as McChesney fixate on the top-down might of regulators and media conglomerates and undervalue bottom-up agency, while neoliberal free-marketeers see only bottom-up consumer agency and remain willfully blind to the pathologies of corporate power. We can safely set aside both of those perspectives as incomplete. More interesting is within the critical cultural policy studies field, where Tom O'Regan identified a dichotomy in how Foucault gets invoked: a split within critical cultural policy studies between what O'Regan calls Foucault the libertarian and Foucault the theorist of governmentality (8). In the latter group I would put Bennett, Hunter, and Nikolas Rose, who are strongly concerned with the application of power through specific rationalities and technologies of culture. But as Lawrence Grossberg has pointed out, this approach risks privileging the late Foucault of governmentality to the point of advancing a kind of all-purpose "ur-concept of micropolitics" in which anything and everything is seen as regulating the conduct of conduct. This overstates the case slightly, of course, and I want to reaffirm my respect for the work of Bennett and others. But I agree that O'Regan and Grossberg are onto something in observing that theorists like Rose miss the early Foucault's "particular and peculiar sense of agency" (that is, Foucault the libertarian) in which people contribute to the creation of a discourse that no one individual or group controls (9).
Fiske can help us with this because he, better than most, was able to hold these two dimensions of Foucault in tension. In particular, in Power Plays Fiske develops the notion of imperializing power and localizing power that represents a powerful framework for thinking through different kinds and directionalities of power, resistance, governmentality, and agency. Imperializing power seeks to extend its reach as far as possible over physical reality, society, and consciousness; it is importantly both discursive power and the application of technologies of governmentality. Localizing power, in contrast, is about controlling immediate social conditions of everyday life including the interior (e.g. social and individual identity), the socio-political (within a social order), the physical and the temporal. What is most productive about this is that imperializing power is not necessarily top-down or "official": power for Fiske is defined by what it does, not what it is. When applied to questions of media policy, then, Fiske encourages us to think not about top-down policy or bottom-up resistance so much as the offensive and defensive applications of power in wars of position over the regulation of culture. Furthermore, the tactics and strategies of localizing and imperializing power are co-constitutive and mutually reactive, meaning that Fiske gives us a productive vocabulary for understanding policy as relational. Media policy is not just top-down regulation by officials, but top-down regulatory strategies responding to bottom-up tactics and vice-versa.
Following from this, Fiske allows us to address a second problem with current policy studies, which is an unhealthy fixation on the "official" policy realm of government officials, regulators, industries, and legitimated representatives of the citizenry. Specifically, there is widespread belief that official media policy is policy full stop, or at least the only policy that matters. But what Fiske shows us is that media policy, however you might care to define it, occurs at all levels of society and in multiple situations of empowerment and disempowerment. In other words, the digital transition is media policy, but so is a parent's rule of "No TV until your homework is done." To take one of Fiske's best-known examples (from Power Plays), the ban on pornography in a homeless shelter, as surely as fining CBS for Janet Jackson's breast, is media policy. But, importantly the practice of hiding Hustler within the pages of Life is media policy as well. Only by considering both can we understand how media is regulated.
Another example illustrates the relational dimensions between official policy and vernacular policy, between imperializing policy power and localizing policy power. During the digital television transition, the FCC issued two $40 coupons per household that consumers could use to purchase digital converter boxes at their local store. But consumers could get the coupons, go down to Best Buy and get converter boxes that they didn't actually need, then return them the next day and get $80 worth of store credit for something they actually wanted. So the FCC had to specify that converters purchased using FCC coupons may not be returned for store credit. But the success of that policy depends wholly on store personnel knowing about it and, importantly, giving a damn, leading to further dimensions of policy formation in the struggle between the imperializing power of store managers and the localizing power of store clerks, and so on. In other words, focusing just on the official "Coupons for Converters" policy completely misses the dynamic and relational nature of how policy is implemented, translated, and lived at different levels, not to mention what such a study of policy can reveal about our culture and society.
I'll mention a third problem with contemporary media policy that I don't have time to delve deeper into, but it's one worth considering and incorporating into our research agendas. Fiske always encourages us to see connections between imperializing power and the body as a site of social control and thus helps us to puncture media policy's illusion of disembodiedness. Official media policy imagines that it is regulating representations, not bodies, that it is managing electromagnetic spectrum, not the movement of people in space and time. Even the theorists of governmentality have tended to concentrate on questions of subjectification and ideology rather than embodiment. But a Fiskean approach would recognize that there are always bodies on this line, both docile and unruly, and that media policy studies needs to better appreciate and account for this.
Fiske thus enables us to broaden our understanding of media policy to see it not as a privileged realm for political and economic elites but as moderately coherent sets of strategies and techniques of imperializing power diffused throughout society, functioning and taking their meaning from co-constitutive relationships with sets of tactics of localizing power. He helps us avoid the mistake that the media reform movement often makes, which is that the only useful knowledges are the knowledges that are useful to the power bloc; he reminds us that counter-knowledges are critical for survival in the short run and social change in the long run, and it is thus a serious problem to equate policy studies with policy reform.
This is one of the key reasons why, I think, Fiske avoids the term "policy" in most of his work. The equation of policy with official policy is part of how imperializing control and discipline are exercised. Official policy imagines itself to be about the orderly regulation of society and the judicious arrangement of legitimate interests, but that perception is only made possible by circumscribing the scope of legitimacy in what counts as policy. Official policy cannot recognize the subversion of rules about pornography in a shelter as the homeless men's vernacular "policy" because that would be granting legitimacy to interests within a system that gains its effectiveness from withholding this legitimacy. To define something as "policy" is itself a hegemonic act; it rules other regulatory knowledges and practices out of bounds, irrelevant, or criminal. For example, only an imperializing logic can produce the commons sense that copyright is a "policy" but file-sharing is a "crime." "Policy" is a system of knowledge that sees file-sharing not as vernacular media policy in its own right but as the problem that (real, official) policy must respond to. And, crucially, the system of knowledge within the academy called media policy studies that limits the study of media and cultural policy to official policy, to "useful" knowledge, to "policy-relevant" knowledge, is also part of this imperializing power. By treating the official policy sphere as policy full stop in our scholarship, media policy scholars are complicit in a system of knowledge that disempowers ordinary citizens in its refusal to recognize them as policymakers too. I argue that engaging with Fiske will not only help us better understand media policy, but will also help us better understand media policy studies.
So what scholarly project, in summary, is suggested by putting Fiske back into media policy studies? First, we need to broaden our scope to include vernacular policy, popular policymaking, and an appreciation of resistance and agency as modes of localized and localizing policymaking power. Second, following from that, we need to conduct ethnographies of vernacular policy and the interrelationship of official policy and popular policymaking. Media policy studies has not yet had its ethnographic moment, which limits our understanding of how policy is created and lived at different cultural sites and by differently empowered actors. Finally, we need to reconsider what we mean by "policy-relevant" research and reevaluate the desire to speak to the official policy sphere in and through our scholarship. In particular, we need to critically examine the relationship between media policy studies and media reform movements; they both have their place, but what insights and opportunities have we missed by eliding the two? Echoing Henry Jenkins, media reformers might be good at reminding us of what we're fighting against, but Fiske, with his emphasis on agency and empowerment, reminds us what we're fighting for. It is fundamentally disempowering to reduce policy to the official policy sphere and fundamentally empowering to bring forth those realms of agency and influence over the regulation of media where they occur. Again paraphrasing Jenkins, revolutions gain momentum when people are start to feel more empowered, not when they are at their weakest, and Fiske shows us where and how popular empowerment can occur. For that reason alone, we need to put Fiske back into media policy studies.
(1). Jenkins, Henry. "Why Fiske Still Matters" Flow 2.6 (June 2005). http://flowtv.org/2005/06/why-fiske-still-matters/
(2). Lewis, Justin and Toby Miller, eds. Critical Cultural Policy Studies: A Reader. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.
(3). Packer, Jeremy. "Mapping the Intersections of Foucault and Cultural Studies: An Interview with Lawrence Grossberg and Toby Miller, October 2000." In Foucault, Cultural Studies, and Governmentality. Ed. Jack Z. Bratich, Jeremy Packer, and Cameron McCarthy. State University of New York Press, 2003.
(4). Bennett, Tony. Culture: A Reformer's Science. London: Sage, 1998, 5.
(5). Fiske, John. Power Plays, Power Works. London: Verso, 1993.
(6). Fiske, John. Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics (rev. ed.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
(7). Fiske, John. "Popularity and the Politics of Information." In Journalism and Popular Culture. Ed. Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks. London: Sage, 1992.
(8). O'Regan, Tom. "(Mis)taking Policy: Notes on the Cultural Policy Debate." In Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader. Ed. John Frow and Meaghan Morris. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1993. 192-206.
(9). Packer, Jeremy. "Mapping the Intersections of Foucault and Cultural Studies: An Interview with Lawrence Grossberg and Toby Miller, Ocober 2000." In Foucault, Cultural Studies, and Governmentality. Ed. Jack Z. Bratich, Jeremy Packer, and Cameron McCarthy. State University of New York Press, 2003. 33.