Summary: John Storey’s Cultural Studies and the Study of Popular Culture, “Chapter 2, Television.”
By Jennifer Lowry
Storey begins this chapter by stating: “Television is the popular culture form of the twenty-first century” (9). He breaks the chapter up into four parts: “Encoding and Decoding Televisual Discourse,” “Television Talk,” “Television and ‘The Ideology of Mass Culture’,” and “The Two Economies of Television”.
Encoding and Decoding Televisual Discourse
In the first section he describes Stuart Hall’s “Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse.” Hall argues that there are three moments that televisual discourse must pass through in order to make meaning (9). The first moment is the point at which the media professionals portray a “’raw’ social event” (10). At this point the media professionals have the power because they are in control of “how the ‘raw’ social event will be encoded in discourse” (10). The second moment occurs after the “’raw’ social event” is in the “form of televisual discourse” and the “formal rules of language and discourse are ‘in dominance’” (11). Essentially, the event has been produced in a discourse (encoded), presented in television and now is in the hands of the viewer to interpret its meaning (decoded). This is where the third moment occurs, in the process of the audience decoding the message (‘raw’ social event). “If the event is to become ‘meaningful’ to the audience, it must decode and make sense of the discourse” (11) but the information that is decoded is not always what was encoded. This is where the concepts of dominant or preferred code take place. If the audience is not privy to the dominant code, the decoding of the message will not take on the meaning intended.
David Morley in ‘The Nationwide Audience” tested Hall’s model “to see how individual interpretations of televisual texts relate to ‘social position’” (14). Morley broke decoding into three categories: dominant, negotiated, and oppositional. He determined that social position determines access to different discourses and therefore, social class position is not the only determinant of decoding. Experience also influences interpretation of text; Morley argues that television viewing is a domestic activity, which inevitably plays a role in the interpretation process.
Since television viewing is a social act, television leads to social conversation as evidenced by Dorothy Hobson’s research in Crossroads: The Drama of a Soap Opera. Hobson argues that television interpretation is also influenced by culture and experience, the message changes depending on the viewer’s culture or prior experiences. Television and real life can merge through interpretation, “viewers are able to use events within television narratives to explore issues in their own lives; issues that might otherwise remain too painful to speak about openly in public” (23). Television allows people to distance themselves from the problem by speaking about it in the form of a fictional character or story (25). Hobson argues that women especially use television as a means for social interaction.
Television and ‘The Ideology of Mass Culture’
Dutch Cultural critic Ien Ang came to similar conclusions in her research about the prime time soap opera Dallas. She found that viewers went through a “selective process, reading across the text from denotation to connotation, weaving our sense of self in and out of the narrative” (26). While the viewers may not have everything in common with the characters of a television show, they are able to recognize “fundamental things in common: relationships and broken relationships, happiness and sadness, illness and health” (26). Based upon the information gathered in her research, the viewers are separated into four “reading positions” which Ang calls “the ideology of mass culture” (28).
Popular culture is the result of capitalist commodity production and is therefore subject to the laws of the capitalist market economy; the result of which is the seemingly endless circulation of degraded commodities, whose only real significance is that they make a profit for their producers (28).
The first group is those who dislike the programme: since the programme is mass culture, the group dislikes it. The second group is those who like the show and still “subscribe to the ideology of mass culture (28). But in order to do so, these viewers read the show through irony. The third group is the fans who “find it necessary to locate their pleasure in relation to the ideology of mass culture; they ‘internalise’ the ideology; they ‘negotiate’ with the ideology; they use ’surface irony’ to defend their pleasure against the withering dismissal of the ideology” (29-30). The final group is “informed by the ideology of populism. The core of this ideology is the belief that one person’s taste is of equal value to another person’s taste” (30), meaning that it is open to individualism and that judgments should not be made against others.
The Two Economies of Television
The final section of this chapter discusses John Fiske’s idea that “cultural commodities – including television – from which popular culture is made circulate in simultaneous economies: the financial and cultural” (32).
Financial economy: “concerned with exchange value”
Cultural economy: “primarily focused on use – ‘meanings, pleasures, and social identities’” (32).
Fiske uses the example of the show Hill Street Blues that was sold to NBC and sponsored by Mercedes Benz.
In the cultural economy, the series changed form a cultural commodity (to be sold to NBC) to a site for the production of meanings and pleasures for its audience. In the same way, the audience changed from commodity (to be sold to Mercedes Benz) to a producer of meanings and pleasures (32).
In this context the audience has power since the production of meaning and pleasure is more difficult to come by than the production of wealth. The producers of television are not always able to predict what will sell (32) giving the consumer the power. Different cultures will also view the same program in different ways, often using it to its own purpose. Fiske uses “the example of the Russian Jews watching Dallas in Israel and reading it as ‘capitalism’s self criticism’” (33).
According to Fiske, “resistance to the power of the powerful by those without power in Western societies takes two forms: semiotic and social” (33).
Semiotic resistance: concerned with meanings, pleasures and social identities
Social resistance: concerned with transformations of the socio-economic system (33).
Popular culture is a “site of struggle” operating mostly in semiotic power (33). “Semiotic resistance – in which the dominant meanings are challenged by subordinate meanings – has the effect of undermining capitalism’s attempt at ideological homogeneity” (33).
Who really has the power in the reading of television? While the audience obviously holds the power in interpretation, the producers are the ones who determine what is on television in the first place. Is what we interpret really our choice?