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Laughey Ch 9 (Consumerism)

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University of Ottawa
Patrick Mc Curdy

Laughey Chapter 9: Consumerism and everyday life Introduction • Theories of consumerism o Media texts and products are considered to empower as well as, if not more so than, exert power over consumers o Texts and products may contain meanings, such as profit motives, but we also create meanings from what we consume • Critique: o It is a matter of debate merely to define who and what media audiences are, given that they are – unlike, say, theatre audiences – geographically dispersed and therefore invisible  Shaun Moores (2000): It ‘becomes harder to specify exactly where broadcasting’s audiences begin and end o Relationship between media consumption and production  Fiske and de Certeau position consumers either in resistance to or untainted by the media and cultural industries  Jenkins, Silverstone, Abercrombie and Longhurst consider consumers to be producers themselves  The clear-cut distinction between media consumption and production no longer holds firm, and this is facilitated by new communications technologies like the internet that provide media-literate individuals with the tools to encode – not only decode – their own mediated messages by creating websites, etc. Fiske: Consumer resistance • Consumer resistance: o Popular culture is made by the people, not produced by the culture industry o By ‘the people’, he does not mean a homogeneous ‘mass’ of passive individuals but a fluid, heterogeneous formation of productive consumers who embody ‘a shifting set of allegiances that cross all social categories’  This explains why advertisers waste so much money trying to target particular demographic groups o The people cannot entirely decide what is advertised to them or what products are offered to them by industries under the dominant influence of white, patriarchal capitalism  We can choose not to watch a television programme or not to see a film, but we cannot choose what we want to watch on television or at the cinema • Consumers make popular culture because they determine what becomes popular • Cultural products become popular when they ‘carry contradictory lines of force’ that provide scope for alternative, resistant readings, which in turn allow the people to make meaning and pleasure from them • Whereas Hall’s Encoding/Decoding model emphasizes the power of dominant ideologies to impose preferred readings of media texts (the dominant code) upon audiences, Fiske suggests that Hall’s oppositional code is not the exception but the rule o Audiences routinely resist and reinterpret the preferred meanings of media texts such as celebrities and pop songs • Two kinds of resistance: o Semiotic resistance  Succeeds in constructing oppositional meanings from texts, o Evasive resistance  Escapes any constraints of meaning within texts by producing pleasures that override such meanings • Two economies of television: o The financial economy of commercial television  Focused on the production of popular programming that will attract high audience ratings and, subsequently, substantial advertising revenue  The audience is nothing more than a commodity in this financial economy – a statistical category (say, ten million people mostly aged 18–35) – that can be sold to advertisers in return for profitable revenues o The cultural economy of television  Centered on the consumption of programming that essentially determines which programmes become popular and which become short-lived flops  The audience is no longer a mere commodity but, rather, a producer of meanings and pleasures through semiotic and evasive forms of resistance o • Media texts are produced by both media industries and audiences, depending on which of the two economies we locate the texts in, but the cultural economy is the ultimate producer of popular culture o The cultural economy is the key point at which the discursive relationship between media industries and audiences transforms a text into either a success or a flop o The financial economy cannot determine outcomes in the cultural economy o Producers in the financial economy can decide to withdraw an unsuccessful television drama if ratings – governed by audiences in the cultural economy – are low, or they can commission a new series if ratings are high, but they cannot predict the ever-changing moods and preferences of the cultural economy • Example of consumer resistance: Video gaming o Video gamers are less interested in searching out resistant meanings against dominant ideologies, but instead experience resistant pleasures in intense bodily action and concentration o Gamers become authors of their consumption, performing their bodies in sophisticated enactments that produce intense displays of emotional, orgasmic release – losing themselves in the game – which constitute ‘moments of evasion of ideological control’ o Such intense pleasure threatens the financial economy of popular culture, not least, by internalizing desire in bodily practices rather than external, cosmetic products • Critique: o Jim McGuigain attacks Fiske’s celebratory perspective on consumer resistance, ‘never countenancing the possibility that a popular reading could be anything other than ‘‘progressive’’’ o Fiske’s theory of consumer resistance panders to the populist jargon of free-market cultural industries that also insist on empowering consumers, but only – implicitly – those obedient consumers who purchase the products that are supposed to empower them o Neglects to discuss issues of corporate ownership, regulation and technological innovation that have characterized the increasingly concentrated financial economy of television and other media industries in the contemporary era • Recent widespread warfare between the occupying army of major record companies and guerilla fighters – in the shape of illegal uploaders and downloaders of pirated internet music (MP3 file-sharing) – does resonate with Fiske’s theory De Certeau: everyday tactics • Both tactics (consumer practices) and strategies (corporate ones) are types of action that seek to occupy space and time • Strategies operate so that space is successfully won over time, through property acquisition and ownership for instance o These spaces become isolated as places of power (like scientific laboratories) and acquire a panoptic function in tandem with Foucault’s theory of discourse in disciplinary societies • Tactics win time rather than space, for ‘a tactic depends on time’ as it is an action performed within the complex ebbs and flows of everyday schedules o A tactic ‘must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the propriety powers • Example of everyday tactics: Reading as poaching (Speed reading, etc.) o While authors write books with the intention that their every word is read and preferably remembered, in everyday poaching tactics such as speed reading there is a freedom of movement and ‘an autonomy in relation to the determinations of the text’ o Oral  Silent reading. Control  Freedom  Readers, free to make their own meanings from texts, are ‘nomads’ or travellers, not constrained by place (property) in the strategic sense • Literary theory that suggests a text (novel, poem, play, and so on) only begins to have meaning when it is read • An author’s intended meanings are at the mercy of the textual meanings produced by readers • Consumer tactics amount to practices of encoding – not decoding – that determine how texts are made to mean things o Authors and producers also encode texts (strategies) but the encoding of consumers (tactics) transcends this moment of original encoding • The strategies of producers are superior to tactics in their occupation of space – evidenced by their places of production, such as state-of-the-art record studios or huge manufacturing plants – but they cannot control how every- day people play with time and make time for their own tactical practices o Strategies bet on – and win – places; o Tactics bet on – and win – time • Television, like the medieval Church, aims to isolate texts (programmes) from readers (viewers) in order to control their meanings in line with powerful strategic interests, but it is helpless in the face of ‘the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the ‘‘masters’’ ’ o Transgressive tactic: switching channels during commercial breaks • Studies of media literacy aim to explore to what extent media texts are used by consumers – like readers of books – to gain knowledge and learn skills o Media audiences are sophisticated users of texts rather than passive consumers o David Buckingham (1987) found that young viewers of British soap opera EastEnders were highly critical of its implausible storylines and did not confuse its representation of the world with reality  Later found that children were skeptical about the intentions of TV ads, showed awareness of how audiences – including themselves – were targeted, and understood how celebrities were used in advertisements to promote a brand image  High media literacy levels = metalinguistic competencies  Contradicts Postman’s medium theory perspective on the “disappearance of childhood”  Argues that children should be encouraged to use television as a means of developing critical perspectives o Marie Messenger Davies’s (1989) found that children take pleasure in recounting the music and narratives of TV ads, but rarely feel the desire to purchase the products being advertised, which are often forgotten about Textual poachers and fandom • Henry Jenkins rejects the negative stereotype of a fan as a ‘fanatic’ (from which the word ‘fan’ derives) who is too emotionally obsessed by a particular ‘fad’ or ‘craze’ that is usually considered by others to be trivial or even infantile • Jenkins strongly defends fan practices as meaningful pursuits that are both creative and productive • Echoing de Certeau, fans actively assert their mastery over the mass- produced texts which provide the raw materials for their own cultural productions and the basis for their social interactions • Also agrees with de Certeau’s claim that readers are nomadic and freely move from one text to another without permanently becoming immersed in any particular text o Fans, like nomadic readers, are not led – like a dog on a lead – to decode dominant, negotiated or oppositional codes in media productions • A fan is ‘continuously re-evaluating his or her relationship to the fiction and reconstructing its meanings according to more immediate interests’ • Fans, like other consumers, wander away from any preferred meanings in a singular text because they consume texts intertextually – as Jameson theorized – and experience pleasure in these fleeting inter- textual connections • Jenkins suggests two differences between his perspective on fans and de Certeau’s perspective on everyday consumers o Fans interact with each other on a reasonably regular basis – de Certeau’s consumers, by contrast, appear isolated from each other, not least because they are imagined consumers in the sense
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