From "Ideology" to "Knowledge" and "Power"

Interview with John Fiske, Madison 09/17/1991

by Eggo Müller

authorised version April 1992, 
published in German in: 
Montage/AV, vol. 2, no.1 1993, pp. 52-66 [pdf]


>body as site of contestation


>cognitive theory

>construction of knowledge

>desire to control


>everyday life



>interpretation of texts


>"people" and "power-bloc"


>popular culture

>popular resistance




Mr. Fiske, you have been engaged in analysing and theorising popular culture and television now for years. What is your personal motivation to work in this field?

Well, my studies were in English literature, and I discovered - perhaps a bit late - that although English literature was teaching me a lot of very useful skills, I wasn't very interested actually in literature itself. When I wanted to relax, I'd go to the cinema, or I'd watch television, or if I read a book, I'd read a popular paperback, I certainly would not read literature. So it began to dawn on me that the culture that most people live their lives with, the culture that affects them, that matters most, that they spend most of their time with, is not so called high culture at all, but it is popular culture, mass culture, culture of everyday life, whatever. So that it is a mixture between a personal interest (I can't study anything that I'm not interested in, that I don't enjoy) and the realization that this was the most important form of culture in contemporary society.

Is there a political dimension in your interests?

Always, because I'm a highly political person myself. My motivation, I suppose, has changed over the years. At one time it was closer to a fairly regular Marxist sort of desire to change capitalism. The desire to change is still there, but I don't think now that capitalism is vulnerable to overthrow. It's too flexible, it's too good at doing what it does well, which is maintaining its own power. So I think it's more vulnerable to change on the micro level, change from within, evolution from within, a gradual shifting rather than a revolution.

Ideology was a crucial point in your theory. What is the status of this term in your theory now?

I no longer think that ideology blinds people and misrepresents their social experience and their social identities to them in the way that I used to think that it did. The more I have worked with subordinated social formations, the more I realize how extremely acute and accurate they are in perceiving what capitalism is doing to them. They are not ideological fools at all. And so in my later work I have been much more concerned to try and learn from subordinated social formations what capitalism looks like from their point of view and through trying to understand that, to rethink the politics of popular culture.

Now you use the term "discourse" in your writings. Does this term replace that of ideology or how would you define their relationship?

I suppose the problem with ideology for me is its traditional Marxist use, which is very much a homogenous, top-down way of knowledge. And the more my focus has changed towards how people actually live in capitalism, the more I see that there is an enormous diversity of cultures amongst the subordinate. People live in very different ways, they make very different sense out of the social system that they share. So the first thing that ideology can't do, is account for diversity, and the second thing is to account for what people bring to their lives from their own particular social histories, something that lies outside the reach of ideology. No ideology theory has the room for the people to bring to their lives something that is theirs, that is different. And again, I have become more and more aware of that. So I'm working much more now with notions of discourse, with Foucauldian ideas of knowledge and power, but taking it further than Foucault does, a lot further, by trying to see how there are alternative bottom-up power systems, that contest and clash with the much more homogenous top-down one.

Do you still think of their relation to economic power?

Yes, at one level the unfair distribution of wealth is extremely important, at another level, though, culture is not as economically determined as some brands of Marxism say that it is. And in particular, the strategies of living with and making a different sense of economic deprivation are not determined by the same system that produces the economic deprivation.

Did you learn this from the debate on postmodernism?

No, not from postmodernism. I'm a bit unhappy with much of postmodernism. It seems to me that the only people who have the real freedom to live with a postmodern conciousness are comparatively wealthy. I see very little evidence that the third world lives in postmodern conditions. I see very little evidence that the poor, the subordinated in our society live in postmodern conditions. It's much more, I think, the urban middle classes who live a postmodern life. But having said that, there is something of value in postmodernism particularly in the way that it treats the importance of discourse and image, the way that it denies any direct or determinative effect between reality and the image. This is important to say and to think about, yes, for sure.

I think one could say that the debate on postmodernism has calmed down now. What would you say we should have learned from this debate?

It's hard to say. If I can take up your first point first, that certainly in the English speaking world a lot of the postmodern debate has been in high art, a lot of postmodern theory is concerned with literature, architecture, painting. Popular culture has figured less, with the one exception of MTV. If anybody wants to talk about postmodern television, they go straight for MTV. So may be TV theory has not lerned all that much. But some of the things that I think I have learned from postmodernism that are useful are that organization, organizational factors like genre, like period, like modality, are always of top-down discipline, and that when the people use television, they will very frequently break these discliplinary concepts, these organizational concepts. But the Baudrillardian view of the resistance of the masses, which is that the people can consume the signifiers, consume the images, but send the meanings back and not consume them, is helpful in my view only up to a point. It doesn't go far enough, because what it doesn't do is to say what the people do with the signifiers  they have torn away from the ideological signified. But the process doesn't stop there, they then go on to do something with them, and what they do with them is not postmodern at all. They relate them very securely to their immediate conditions of existence, to the immediate conditions of their everyday life. There is no infinitely deferred meaning in the lives of the people, there are very securely grounded meanings in the conditions in which they live.

In your latest writings you have introduced the term of everyday life. What is the theoretical status of this term?

Again it's a strand of French theory that has not been taken up as eagerly as some other French theories running from Henrie Lefebvre's pessimistic view of everyday life, through to the much more invigorating one of de Certeau. But it also connects with the whole French "Annales" school of history, the recovery of the history of everyday life, and the way that the people struggle to maintain some control over their immediate conditions of existence, to enlarge their sphere of control within a much larger sphere of power which is outside their control. The point of contestation between these two forms of power, power over the immediate conditions of one's life, and the power of the large determinative structures, this is the contestation of everyday life.

So your term of everyday life doesn't come from sociological phenemonology?

Well, Lefêbvre of course connects with the sociological tradition. The trouble with the phenomenology that I'm used to, which is mainly American rather than European, is, that it doesn't have a model of a struggle or contestation for signifiance; it simply says, if it happens, it's important. But all my work derives from Marxism. I couldn't be what I am if I hadn't grown up through Marxism. I don't think that I'm a Marxist now, but Marxism is deeply inscribed in the way that I think. And where I differ from phenomenology is that I put things into a relationship of social struggle and contestation, whereas they use a much more liberal pluralist view of society, which I don't find a very convincing one.

You model everyday life as a source of power and resistance. Where does this power come from?

A very good question. I don't think anybody has properly theorized this. Bakhtin suggests that in some way the opposition to power very close to nature, that it's close to a human nature that is connexed with the rest of nature, that the more civilizing powers have actually grown away from. De Certeau doesn't theorize it very much at all, but when he does, he again tends to use natural metaphors. I'm moving much closer, I think, to extending Foucault's theory, which is that resistance derives from alternative ways of experiencing the same social order, and that is that the people only survive through developing the ability, the power to control their immediate conditions of existence. Take the most extreme example, slavery in the States. More recent studies of slavery have shown more and more, how even under these extreme conditions of extreme subordination the slaves managed to make their own sense, their own meanings, to control little bits of their existence, and gradually to extend this control. So I think it comes much more from the alternative experience of the same social order.

Speaking of Bakhtinean theory: Isn't there a difference between theory of a society clearly separated into two different classes and thinking of modern capitalist societies?

Yes, it is, and I think when we use people like Bakhtin or even Bourdieu, we need to be flexible. What I find useful in them is not so much their work on, as you say, different classes, but much more upon how their work, deriving from different classes, shows how contestation is engaged in. And I find even more useful Stuart Hall's formulation of the difference between the "power-bloc" and "the people", where neither the "power-bloc" nor "the people" are objective social classes, but are agencies of social interest that are quite fluid.

And do you think of "the people" and the "power-bloc" as entities or is it a theoretical concept?

They constitute a theoretical concept. They don't exist as social categories, but as opposing social interests that different social categories will align themselves with or against for different purposes at different stages of history, for different spheres of their own existence. A working class man can align himself with the interests of the power-bloc in his gender politics and align himself with the interests of the people in his class politics, so that it's fluid and shifting sets of allegiances that structure the contestation rather than social categories, whether those social categories are ones of class, of race, of gender, of age, or what have you.

Let me come back to the term of everyday life again. I think that is the site where you locate the term of pleasure. What does it mean theoretically, isn't it a very vague term?

It's a slippery term, it's a difficult term. I don't think I have dealt with it satisfactorally at all. But why I think it's so important is that firstly pleasure is a strong motivation. And I don't just mean it in that Freudian sense, but that if an activity, whether it be political or social or what have you, doesn't have an element of pleasure, then people aren't going to engage in it. And one of the problems with left-wing theories is that not only have they not had a theory of pleasure, they have not actually offered much pleasure themselves. The left has been so puritanical that it's not surprising that people haven't wanted to go along with it. So, I think, trying to understand pleasure that is motivational, that is working towards a progressive or at least confrontational view of the social order and distinguishing this from the sort of ideological pleasure that is the bait or the hook of hegemony, is, I think, very important. We also need to understand that in some way pleasure connects with and is part of our bodily physical experience, it's not purely mental; all the theories of popular resistance in one way or another ground that resistance in the body of the people.

So you think that there is a kind of natural force in the body?

I think the body is a very powerful site of contestation. Who owns and controls the body and its behaviours, which set of social forces controls the body, is probably a more important issue now than ones of ideology and consciousness, because consciousness follows from the body rather than, as ideology theory would have have it, vice versa: the body is secondary to conciousness. I would now reverse that.

Speaking of consciousness, let's change to another theoretical branch, that of cognitivism, probably the leading paradigm in the next years. How would you describe the relation of your theory to cognitivism?

In some ways they are fairly parallel, in other ways they diverge in emphasis. Where they are parallel, I think, is that the right sort of cognitive theory and my approach to popular culture, both give ordinary people a degree of agency. They see them as active, as doing something, and not simply as subject or passive, and that seems to me a very important similarity. Where we differ, I think, is more on the level of emphasis. For me the important agency of the people is performed and traced socially. For cognitivism the important agency is mental. And I don't think the two contradict each other at all, except, I suppose, the one doubt I have about some cognitive theory is that it pushes towards human universals, and it suggests that the universal human ways of processing information are what is most important. For me, if it's a universal, we take it for granted. What matters is the different ways in which that universal is put to work in different social conditions at different moments of history. So again, it is a difference of emphasis. But I have read some cognitivist psychologists, particularly in mathematics, who are now, it seems to me, doing very interesting work on situated cognition. For instance, a young scorer in a bowlingteam could perform accurate, rapid calculations when bowling, in the context of everyday life, but, when asked to perform what the researchers thought were identical calculations in the abstracted world of a classroom, he couldn't do it at all. Housewives in supermarkets make very accurate and rapid calculations of weight-price value in their heads while they hold the cans or look at them on the shelves. When asked to do these in an abstracted generalized way, again, they can't do it. So that sort of cognitivism, that situates and says that the part that matters is the immediate conditions within which the process works, is the one that I find very attractive, and I think is very similar to a lot of the work that I'm doing.

You do think of media reception as conscious processes and not as unconscious ones?

Well, not entirely conscious. The notion of popular agency that I work with is that people can recognize their social interests, not necessarily articulate them, not necessarily be fully conscious of them, and can also work to promote those interests. So I'm not quite sure that consciousness is the most productive concept, because it suggests a level of self-reflection and articulation that often popular experience doesn't deal with. Popular experience is often not self-reflective in that way. So I'm not sure that the distinction between conscious and unconscious is a very important one, when it comes to dealing with this.

I raise this question because Noël Carroll rejected both ideology theory and psychoanalysis, arguing that both don't think in terms of consciousness.

As I said, my divergence from ideology and psychoanalysis, in some of the ways they have been used, may parallel this, but it's not quite the same. I don't think agency, which is the word I would use rather than cognitivism to oppose ideology and psychoanalysis, works in the way that Caroll's opposition does. Although there are similarities, in that I believe agency can be rational, can be conscious, can be intentional, but isn't necessarily. And again, I suppose, one of the other differences is that I don't belive in the free rational agent. And I think there are still traces of this enlightenment rationalism in Caroll's model, whereas I would put my emphasis much more on the particularity of social positioning, the particularity of political and social factors, within which agency is exerted.

In your writings are, maybe, not more than traces of a model of the superstructure of society, for instance when you say that the distribution of semiotic power in texts is distributed as social power in society. That seems to me to be like a theory of reflection.

I see what you are saying. As I was saying, my whole intellectual development is through Marxism. I have been called a post-Marxist. Maybe I am, but it doesn't mean 'post-' in the sense of rejecting everything you have gone through. That's the path you have travelled, and, of course, its traces remain inevitably. Yes, I'm still uncertain, finally, how much validity there still is in Marxist analysis. I think there may be more than I sometimes grant it explicitly. So I don't think that the struggle for meaning in texts is a reflection of the social struggle, I think, it's part of it. I don't want to say that one takes priority over the other, but I would say, when pushed, that the social  struggle over material conditions can not occur if people can't struggle over the meanings of those conditions. If they can't make their sense, their own sense of their material conditions, there is no way they can begin to contest them materially. So that if there is a base-superstructure dichotomy in my thinking - yeah, I can see traces of it - the hierarchy of those two, if anything, is reversed. I would say that certainly in terms of changing capitalism, meanings proceed material conditions - if pushed to it. I dearly would like to formulate a much more organic relationship between the two. But I certainly would not say that material conditions determine meanings or precede them.

Let's come to the field of interpretation. How to analyze or to interpret texts after having said all this.

The first thing, obviously, is that there is no such thing as a single meaning of a text. The second thing is, that interpretational criticism is part of the struggle for meaning. Interpretation is not a neutral, a naive, or an objective act. It is part of the process, so that we need to be explicit that the way in which we are interpreting is a politicized and theoretical way, and that it contests other ways. So I will then say that the text itself then should be seen as a resource, a semiotic resource...

Has it meaning or not?

It has potential meaning. I think this is a very important discussion to engage in. The text may prefer certain meanings over others, it may put limits, it may bound its potentiality. On the other hand, it may not or may not establish its preferences and boundaries very effectively. Through analysis of the text we may arrive at quite the wrong interpretation of what its boundaries are. The ways that people use the text quite often surprise the academic critic and the academic analyst. For me the important thing is, rather than trying to understand what the text is, is trying to understand how people use it, how it works rather than what it is, how it is put to work rather than what it is, and how different social formations will try to put texts to work quite differently. Of course, the industry will try to put texts to work economically, to produce audiences that they can sell. But the people in their different formations will try to put texts to work in quite different ways, so that for me, rather than the text being something, a text is something that social formations try to do things with, and it's what they do with it that is more important than the text itself.

So it is not useful to concentrate analysis on texts? Do you always have to consider reception?

One certainly can't concentrate on the text in that old fashioned aesthetic sense of the text as a self-contained art object, complete in itself. Texts are always put to work socially. They are a very important part of the social circulation of meaning, which is how I define culture. But they are not the only part of it. They are very important in commercial life as well, in fact in any form of life. Texts are always bought and sold, they are always part of the way that money circulates socially as well, and one has to look at that side of it. So what I'm wholeheartedly against, is the isolation of the text, the extraction of the text from its economic-social circulation and the treatment of the text as a thing in itself. That, I think, doesn't work at all. But don't then push me to the other extreme and say that I think the text has no value at all. I think the text must be analysed, a lot of my work analyses texts to try and reveal the potential that people are using in them, rather than to say this is what the text actually is or says.

Do you think that identity is involved in any reading?

Yes, I think identity is very much involved, but I don't want to think of identity in terms of individualism, but identity as a social construct, as the relationship between the social formation and the individual. That's where identity is, and that's very much involved not only as a way of producing certain readings of the text, but equally importantly certain readings of the text are used to produce identity. There is a mutual relationship between the identity and reading.

Don't you think that reading, for instance, generic texts may be just an intellectual pleasure without involving identity?

I suppose, it may be for intellectuals, but quite frankly I'm not very interested in intellectuals. But then, of course, one thing that Bourdieu teaches us is that the high bourgeoisie distance themselves from their own culture in a way that proletarians never do, who are always engaged with it. So, I think, identity is much more important in popular culture, maybe, than in academic culture.

Don't you think that there are fan groups, very highly specialized in their genre?

Oh, certainly, a very specialized knowledge, but also a high degree of identity invested in that, in the fan group, oh yes! They will often identify themselves, "I am a such and such fan". Again, you see, I don't think that identity is individualistic, it's in that interface between one's sense of who one is, rather than the top-down sense of who 'they' want us to be, the interface between that and the social relations that one wishes to engage in. Fandom always is this complex mix between that sort of community of fans and the identity of those who comprise that community.

If you say identity is always involved, don't you make your focus too narrow? I see in some of your analyses the tendency to have binaric oppositions, the question of gender for example. You model a text along this opposition, while in your theory you say that in our capitalist societies there are no more such simple oppositions?

I see what you are saying. It is very important theoretically to maintain this notion, but it's actually extremely difficult analytically to trace everything that is going on in any one instance. And, yes, I suppose, because it is easier to make a clear point in an argument, I often do extract particular forces from a circumstance rather than trying to see everything together. I'm trying to figure out ways of analysing moments of culture, encounters between texts and people, that do give greater regard to this sort of complexity.

Because if you have these oppostions you have a kind of superstructure ...

Theoretically, I know the advantages of breaking away from binary oppostions, but in practice it is extremely difficult not to think, write, or talk in a way that isn't at some deep level still informed by binary oppositions - it may be a fault of my writing, it may be a fault of our particular western culture. This way of thinking is so deeply sedimented, it's remarkably difficult to break free of it. Another side of me is that I'm not sure that we ought to. I think if these binary oppositions, these opposing forces are the sort of common sense of society, if they are the way in which people experience the conflicts of their everyday life, then, maybe, they ought to form the structure of analysis that goes along with them. It is a very, very difficult debating question that one, an important question, but very difficult, I think.

You have another such binary opposition in one of your latest texts, the distinction between the commercial and the popular. To my opinion it tends to be normative. Shouldn't popular culture be theorized always as a mixture of different forces?

Yes, but I think the mixture is an opposition of interest, and that commercial interests and popular interests are different. What I don't say is that this is a piece of popular culture and this a piece of commercial culture. What I say is that this cultural commodity is where the cultural struggle between the interests of commerce and the interests of the people occur. So I don't think we are very different there. I think popular culture is always muddied by the commercial culture that it's made out of. So, I say it's a struggle of interest.

But, again, isn't the popular in itself a mixture of different forces or powers of dominating and being subordinated? If you take popular films like "Star Trek"...

Yes, the texts themselves like this are always contradictory, they have always got opportunities for people to use them quite differently, but I don't think the interests of the people are conflicted or contradictory in the same way that the texts are. The interests of the people, I think, are, while still being complex and historically convoluted, I think one can say, that they have interests that do differ from those of industry, that do differ from those of the bourgeoisie. They may be extremely difficult to pin down. But as a theoretical model the muddying occurs in the contestation between commercial interests and popular interests. But at either end of the spectrum while there is obviously not purity, one can be clearer in the distiction between the two sets of interests. In practice, if you look at particular instances, you will always find both forces at work there contesting each other, always. 'The people' are composed of very complex sets of forces, but the opposition between their interests and those of the power-bloc has a core of binary simplicities to it.

On which problems are you working now?

On the ways that knowledge is constructed and circulated, different forms of knowledge, different ways of knowing the world, different ways of knowing oneself. Texts play a part in this, but only a part. I'm again obviously using knowledge in a Foucauldian or post-Foucauldian sense, where it is connected with both power and pleasure. And what I'm interested in, more than Foucault, is the points of control, those specificities, particular moments, when different knowledges and the power that they bear come into contestation. So I want to take fairly abstract systemic notions of knowledge and then try and see exactly how they work in very particular circumstances and how knowledge is put into practice in particular circumstances.

Is there a field where you are figuring out this theory?

Yes, what I'm talking about is - again there are strong binary oppositions beneath it all - in one sense what I'm calling an imperializing knowledge, which is knowledge that I claim to be characteristic of Western-European civilization. It is constantly stretching outwards, it knows no bounds, it doesn't want to recognize bounds, it stretches out to the stars and the galaxy in one direction, and it stretches inwards to the smallest minutiae of our everyday lives in another. It's a constantly expanding imperializing knowledge. Against this there is a diverse variety of knowledges, that I call localizing, which know their bounds, which are bounded by immediate social conditions, which are defensive, which don't wish to extend themselves infinitely over other people, over the physical world, beyond what is necessary to control the immediate conditions under which people live. And again, I'm trying to develop a way of arguing that imperializing knowledges, while they have brought so called advancement in development to society, have also done a hell of a lot of damage, not just damage to the natural world around us, but damage to people, damage to social formations, to societies. On the other hand localizing knowledges have actually done very little harm, they may not have the power to do as much, but that means they don't have the power to do as much damage. So I'm trying to work out a theory that can explain these different forms of knowledge, that can trace how they work and how they are put into practice at points, what I call points of control, to see where we go from there.

Again, do you think of sources, of a basis of these knowledges?

In the draft introduction to the book that I'm writing, for the first time I found myself writing about a human universal. And I think that if there is a human universal, if there is one thing that has made human beings the dominant species on earth, it is the desire to control, the desire to control the physical environment, whether we think of it as our immediate physical environment or the whole of the universe, the desire to control the knowledge of how we know each other, of how we know the world around us; the motivation to control is what has enabled human beings to become so dominant. But having said that, we can leave that happily behind us and say that what matters, what's really important, is how in different social conditions, different historical conditions, this desire to control takes quite different forms between the East and the West, the North and the South, between different classes, genders, races, between so much of what structures our lives. So it is how this desire to control is put into practice, what people want to control, what they think is necessary to control, to produce a satisfactory life for themselves, these for me are the much more interesting questions. So the human universal I can dispose of in a couple of paragraphs. What makes the book is trying to figure out how this is worked out in particular social conditions.

You have been here in the United States for three years. Has your work been influenced by the experience of living here?

Yes, it has hastened the demise of class in my analyses. I mean, you can't get rid of class, it will be always there, but it needs complicating much more. In the American society class plays a very different role from what it does in British or European societies. Race is much more important in America, a much bigger social problem, although it is growing in Europe, of course, and in many ways material deprivation in America is understood by racial division more than class, in that race explains class rather than class explaning race. The two are always closely interconnected. When the basis of your racial thinking derives from a history of slavery, this is a very different historical consciousness of racial difference from a history of colonialism, which is the European base for thinking about race. And while colonialism and slavery are products of the same system they are still different products of the same system, and they do provide a different consciousness, a different sense of how racial differences are constructed. And I suppose again, one of the very big differences is the legacy of recent immigration, that America has been built largely by immigration over the last century, so that ethnic differences, not just ones of race, become extremely important in the United States. The diversities in American society are much more elaborated, much more contradictory than in the European societies that I grew up in and am more used to. So, yeah, I have certainly been changed by the experience of living in this society.

Have you been changed by the specifity of American popular culture and television too?

Yes, in some way. Part of my reason for wanting to come here was because I was so interested in popular culture, and America produces the world's popular culture - in one definition, at least! Yes, that has certainly a lot to do with it, and the sense that film and television and music don't have to defend themselves in quite the way that they often have to in Europe, that they are much more accepted as an integral part of people's cultural lives. You might argue, about what part and whether it is a good or a bad one, but the fact that they are an important, integral part of people's culture is taken for granted here. And you never have to justify them as valid objects of study in the way that you often do in Europe where you've still got to argue for the importance of these crucial 20th century industrialized forms of culture. Can we imagine living the 20th century without film, televison and rock music? They are what explain the 20th century experience for Western consciousnes.