Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mass Culture is Not (The Walking) Dead Yet (Also, a Defense of Fan Studies) [Core Post 1]

Disclaimer: Apologies for going way over the word count, everyone. Text looks much shorter when composed in Blogger's interface than in a word processor! Oops.

The most striking thing I noted about one of the core arguments proposed by Gitlin and followed-up on first by Newcomb and Hirsch, then later Hendershot, is that it's a familiar one. I'd encountered it before through Fredric Jameson's Marxist reading of popular culture found in "Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture," which was published the same year as Gitlin's article: 1979. Jameson agrees that it is probably impossible for mass culture to truly subvert hegemonic ideology; instead it appears to engage with alternative or radical ideologies by offering dialogue and contradiction, but ultimately reifies the status quo, because commercial culture must support the continuation of the commercial systems that allow it to exist in present form. As Gitlin says, "Commercial culture does not manufacture ideology; it relays and reproduces and processes and packages and focuses ideology that is constantly arising both from social elites and from active social groups and movements throughout the society" (253). Jameson would add that the sum-total of the ideological product must be less than that required for social revolution--it's a zero-sum game between the hegemony and the subaltern that ends in strategies of containment.

Hendershot's more recent suggestion that the "mass" is being replaced by the "niche" in contemporary popular culture would certainly complicate this model, but I have to disagree with the perspective that "in a niche-viewing environment...viewers tend to gravitate to content that matches their preexisting interests" (what about hatedoms?) and "Narrowly targeted niche TV....[leaves] little room for the old cultural forum ideal of ideas in conflict" (205-6). Though we have greater diversity (and "niche-ification") of both content and audiences than ever, contemporary popular culture also boasts some of the most-watched shows in the history of television, like The Walking Dead, which (like all zombie fiction) is unironically about mass culture itself. The masses are, perhaps, more alive and well than they should be.

Many popular shows continue to reach mass audiences, and the ones that do continue to introduce just enough subversive elements to make them interesting before ultimately reifying the dominant ideology. Breaking Bad criticizes the war on drugs by positing a situation where a normative, white, heterosexual family man (the conservative "everyman" figure) is given justified cause for subverting the law and traditional American family values alike--a journey on the wrong side the normative that we, as the audience, are invited to find pleasure in. But to counteract the likability of our drug manufacturer, we have a likable DEA agent brother-in-law. Just as Father Knows Best did with feminist career choices, we're presented with a milieu of conflicting perspectives on the drug war throughout the series--smoking marijuana may be not-so-bad, but Skyler still doesn't want her child doing it; relatively likable people get into "harder" drugs to their detriment; the war on drugs is necessitated by the evilness of those involved in the trade (though some are perfectly nice folks too). Breaking Bad allows folks along a wide socio-political spectrum to enjoy the show, but ultimately ends with Walter White's self-destruction, placing it firmly in the camp of reifying traditional values. Though we were invited to enjoy imagining doing so, no, we should not all go out and become drug kingpins. Status quo reified, we have not overthrown the war on drugs yet. Zero-sum game.

But the canonical text of Breaking Bad is only half the story. All of these authors agree on one point: reading is a dynamic negotiation of meaning that is largely under the control of the audience, both individually and collectively. I find it interesting, then, that none attempt to read fan responses to popular works, given what seems to be consensus that reception studies could provide critical intervention in understanding the changes and history of dominant ideology. Popular texts themselves can tell us a great deal about hot topics in public consciousness just by virtue of being widely-read, but we must turn to fan studies if we hope to gain more nuanced understanding. Only then can we see that Skyler is a widely-hated character (a fact that invites multiple complex readings, from conservative anti-feminist perspectives to anti-conservative ones, sometimes with messy simultaneity: "Why won't she just shut up and support her husband in subverting the dumb war on drugs?"). Fan works routinely rewrite or comment on ideologies of popular texts in ways that tell more about the ways the text was actually received than studying the text itself ever could: what does the prevalence of slash shipping (fannish readings of canonically straight characters as queer) among fans of Supernatural tell us about how different audiences read the notably masculine and heteronormative text? What do we make of Fifty Shades of Gray, the Twilight fanfic that nearly outstrips the original story in popularity by sublimating Twilight's conservative eroticization of abstinence into a "BDSM" sex-saturated narrative? Navigating the differing politics of feminine sexuality alone between the two works (and their own respective fandoms and hatedoms) would be a complex undertaking both massive in scope and potentially quite fruitful to the project of providing, as Gitlin wants, "a satisfactory account of how audiences consciously and unconsciously process, transform, and are transformed by the contents of television," or media more generally (253). Yet only a few have attempted such projects, and these projects rarely seem to get the attention they deserve.

This is not to suggest that fan works, as non-commercial responses to commercial products, are necessarily more culturally subversive (though they have more room to be if they like). My point is that just like commercial culture, they relay, reproduce, process, package, and focus ideological discourse. Only by reading them can one know which specific pieces of this discourse are of interest to whom, in what ways, and--hopefully--why.

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