Introduction: Events and a Metaphor

The following material is is the introduction to John Fiske's book, Media Matters: Race and Gender in U. S. Politics, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1996. It is an excellent look at the key events in American politics in the early 1990s. He focuses on the events that became media events, such as the O. J. Simpson trial, Murphy Brown's single motherhood, and the Thomas hearings. For our course the introduction below provides helpful background on these events and what it means when they become media events.


In its review of 1992, Life called it "a year dominated by a presidential race, a firestorm in L.A. and a single mom named Murphy.'' The election of the president of the United States and the costliest urban uprisings in this nation's stormy history would conventionally be considered historic events, but the birth of a baby to the unmarried heroine of a sitcom hardly appears, at first sight, to be of the same order of significance. Yet, four months earlier, Time had made the same editorial judgment. In May 1992, Murphy Brown's single motherhood was thrust into political prominence when Vice President Dan Quayle identified it as symptomatic of the causes of the L.A. "riots" (see Side- bar: Dan Quayle, p. 68). In August, the actress Candice Bergen won an Emmy for her portrayal of Murphy Brown, and in her acceptance speech thanked the vice president for helping her win it. Time used Murphy as the peg for a story on the Republican attack on "Hollywood's liberal elite," and strained a simile to bring the Los Angeles "riots" into the discussion: "The gang-stomping of Dan Quayle at the Emmy Awards ceremony two weeks ago resembled a Rodney King beating by the Hollywood elite."

While viewing the unanimity of Time and Life with the skepticism appropriate to the knowledge that Time, Life, and Murphy Brown are all owned by the same company, I, like they, view those events as key indices of a crisis in the structure of feeling in the United States. Unlike periodicals, however, a book does not need to confine itself to arbitrary periods such as a calendar year, so I look back a little further than they, to the fall of 1991 and the Clarence Thomas--Anita Hill hearings, as a result of which Clarence Thomas won a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and Anita Hill became a rallying point in the struggles of women and African Americans toward equality.

This book charts some of the cultural currents as they swirled and eddied around these "media events." That last phrase raises one of the questions that runs throughout: Can we separate media events from nonmedia events, or are all events today, or at least the ones that matter, necessarily media events? The editors of Life and Time made no editorial distinctions among the heroine of a sitcom, major urban uprisings, and the election of the first Democrat president in twelve years. Indeed, it could be argued that Murphy Brown's baby was more directly influential in the social and political currents that put Bill Clinton in the White House than were the L.A. uprisings, for the Democrats were almost as silent as the Republicans on the racial and economic problems of the inner cities. As a media event, Murphy Brown's baby was as real as Anita Hill's humiliation or Rodney King's beating.

Events do happen, but ones that are not mediated do not count, or, at least, count only in their immediate locales. Rodney King's beating was a media event. A few months after it, a Black motorist in Detroit, Malice Green, was similarly beaten by cops until he died. His beating was not videoed, and though it mattered intensely in its own immediate conditions, in the final analysis it counted for less than Rodney King's--and the difference lay in the mediation.

Anita Hill's (officially unproven but widely believed) sexual harassment by her boss, Clarence Thomas, consisted of a few dirty remarks and pressure to date; objectively, it was far less oppressive than that suffered by millions of working women. Yet mediation made those remarks into the political volcano of 1991 while far worse cases went ignored, except, of course, by their victims. Murphy Brown may have been a fictional single mother, but her debate with Vice President Dan Quayle over "family values" in the l990s was mediated by press and TV across the nation, and the absence of any "real" (i.e., nonfictional) event behind the mediated one did nothing to reduce the reality of the media event that the debate became.

The term media event is an indication that in a postmodern world we can no longer rely on a stable relationship or clear distinction between a "real" event and its mediated representation. Consequently, we can no longer work with the idea that the "real" is more important, significant, or even "true" than the representation. A media event, then, is not a mere representation of what happened, but it has its own reality, which gathers up into itself the reality of the event that may or may not have preceded it.

This use of the term brings it close to Baudrillard's ideas of hyperreality and the simulacrum, both of which are "implosive" concepts. Implosion refers to the collapse of the organizing differences that were characteristic of a stably structured world. So "hyperreality" implodes the binary concepts of reality and representation into a single concept, and the simulacrum similarly merges the "copy" with the "original," the "image" with its "referent." Baudrillardians could argue with some conviction that the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings were hyperreal: there were no "real" Senate hearings that television then represented; the way that people behaved in them and the conduct of the hearings themselves was televisual. Had there been no television, the hearings would have been different. Their reality included their televisuality.

Baudrillard's theory of hyperreality and the simulacrum lacks a dimension that I consider crucial, that of struggle, and I turn to a theory of discourse to supply it. Discourse is an elusive term, for it refers both to a general theoretical notion and to specific practices within it. At the theoretical level, "discourse" challenges the structuralist concept of "language" as an abstract system (Saussure's langue) and relocates the whole process of making and using meanings from an abstracted structural system into particular historical, social, and political conditions. Discourse, then, is language in social use; language accented with its history of domination, subordination, and resistance; language marked by the social conditions of its use and its users: it is politicized, power-bearing language employed to extend or defend the interests of its discursive community.

Discourse analysis differs from linguistic analysis in focusing on what statements are made rather than how they are. The discursive analyses of this book, then, are not concerned with tracing the regularities and conventions of discourse as a signifying system, but with analyzing what statements were made and therefore what were not, who made them and who did not, and with studying the role of the technological media by which they were circulated. Discourse can never be abstracted from the conditions of its production and circulation in the way that language can. The most significant relations of any piece of discourse are to the social conditions of its use, not to the signifying system in general, and its analysis exemplifies not an instance of that system in practice, but its function in deploying power within those conditions. At this level, then, discourse is the means by which those conditions are made to make sense within the social relations that structure them. It is structured and structuring, for it is both determined by its social conditions and affects them. The discourse of capitalism, for instance, is a product of capitalist societies, but the form that the discourse is given shapes the present and future development of them.

Discourse also operates at a lower level on which a number of discourses put discourse-in-general into practice, and this is the level where it can be most particularly analyzed. Here discourse has three dimensions: a topic or area of social experience to which its sense making is applied; a social position from which this sense is made and whose interests it promotes; and a repertoire of words, images, and practices by which meanings are circulated and power applied. To make sense of the world is to exert power over it, and to circulate that sense socially is to exert power over those who use that sense as a way of coping with their daily lives.

My account of discourse so far is deeply indebted to Foucault, but the material complexities of the events in this book require me to go beyond his theorizing. He was concerned with the dominant discourses by which power was applied in post-Renaissance Europe, but the contemporary United States is a far more highly elaborated and socially divers)diversified society than any that he studied, so its discursive circulation is more complicated, more contradictory, and, in particular, more contestatory than the discourses that he analyzes. His work describes discourse as a technique of power in a monodiscursive society. The contemporary United States, however, like most late capitalist nations, is a multidiscursive society, as it is a multicultural one, and any analysis of its culture must be as concerned with discursive relations as with discursive practices. It must uncover the processes of discursive contestation by which discourses work to repress, marginalize, and invalidate others; by which they struggle for audibility and for access to the technologies of social circulation; and by which they fight to promote and defend the interests of their respective social formations.

Here, and throughout this book, I use the prefix multi in opposition to forms of the word plural in order to distinguish my perspective from that of liberal pluralism (though I do use the word liberal, albeit with some reluctance, to refer to the more progressive positions within mainstream society). Multidiscursivity and multiculturalism do not exist within the permissive and ultimately consensual structure of differences that is envisioned by liberal pluralism. Dominant social formations and their discourses are constantly trying to control, restrain, minimize, and even destroy social, and therefore discursive, differences. The social diversity that is both the outcome and the origin of multidiscursivity has to be fought for, sometimes viciously. Multidiscursivity can occur | only in a structure of inequality, and its interdiscursive relations are typically, therefore, ones of hostility. For Foucault, also, discourse was a technique of inequality, but it was not a terrain of struggle, whereas for me it can be nothing else: because discourse is a social product with political effects in a society of inequalities, it always has the potential to be turned into a site of struggle.

The way that experience, and the events that constitute it, is put into discourse--that is, the way it is made to make sense--is never determined by the nature of experience itself, but always by the social power to give it one set of meanings rather than another. There is a nondiscursive reality, but it has no terms of its own through which we can access it; it has no essential identity or meaning in itself: we can access this reality only through discourse, and the discourse that we use determines our sense of the real. Although discourse may not produce reality, it does produce the instrumental sense of the real that a society or social formation uses in its daily life. But though this nondiscursive reality may never be accessible in its own terms and never has an essential identity of its own, it nonetheless remains a necessary concept, for it reminds us that any event can always be put into discourse differently. We can know an event only by putting it into discourse, so an event is always continuous with its discursive construction, but it still always contains the potential to be differently constructed. This continuity between event and discourse produces a "discourse event" or "media event," not a discourse about an event. No discourse event is ever complete in itself but always carries traces of the other, competing, discourse events that it is not. No piece of reality contains its own essential existence; equally, it cannot dictate the discourse into which it will be put.

Racial difference is, for example, part of reality, but at the same time, its "reality" is a product of the discourse into which it is put. There is a discourse of racism that advances the interests of whites and that has an identifiable repertoire of words, images, and practices through which racial power is applied. But we must remember that this is not the only way in which racial difference can be put into discourse, though it is the dominant way in white supremacist societies. At a lower level still, one that we might call a "subdiscourse" that works through a subset of the discursive repertoire, we can trace its particular application through, for instance, the animalization of Black men. Officers of the Los Angeles Police Department described Rodney King as "bearlike," and they referred to other African Americans as "gorillas." The blows of their truncheons were the same discursive repertoire put into behavior instead of words (in the official discourse of the LAPD, however, these were not "blows" of "truncheons," but "strokes" of "batons"). Discourse does not represent the world; it acts in and upon the world.

Discourse, then, is always a terrain of struggle, but the struggle is never conducted on a level field. The dominant discourses, those that occupy the mainstream, serve dominant social interests, for they are products of the history that has secured their domination. Discursive struggles are an inevitable part of life in societies whose power and resources are inequitably distributed. They can take as many forms as the ingenuity of the people can devise, but we can catalog the main ones:

The struggle to "accent" a word or sign, that is, to turn the way it is spoken or used to particular social interests: The image of Murphy Brown holding her baby awkwardly may, when "spoken" in a liberal accent, mean that mothering involves social skills that have to be learned, but, when "spoken" in the conservative accent of Rush Limbaugh, it means that single mothers are unnatural.

The struggle over the choice of word, image, and therefore discursive repertoire: The events in Los Angeles could be put into discourse as "riots" or "insurrection" ("uprising," "rebellion," "revolution"). Each word has a set of appropriate images to go with it in a discursive repertoire that makes a particular sense of the events that serves particular social interests and that has particular material effects. The "riot repertoire," for instance, is easily articulated with the discourse of criminality, with the effect of using trials and punishment of individual rioters/criminals as the way of resolving the crisis.

The struggle to recover the repressed or center the marginalized: A discourse produces its own meanings and represses others. The "family values" discourse in which the argument between Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle was conducted repressed or marginalized issues of race and of sexual orientation, and the discourse of "senseless rioting" repressed the organization and political purpose behind the attacks on businesses.

The struggle to disarticulate and rearticulate: Discourse not only puts events into words or images, it also links, or articulates, them with other events. By calling the hearings a "lynching," Clarence Thomas disarticulated them from gender behavior in the workplace and rearticulated them to racist behavior in history and thus changed their meanings. The mainstream media articulated accounts of firefighters being attacked by "rioters" with words and meanings of them as public servants; Black Liberation Radio, however, articulated these accounts with instances of the tardiness of white firefighters in responding to fires in Black neighborhoods that resulted in unnecessary deaths.

The struggle to gain access to public discourse in general or the media in particular--the struggle to make one's voice heard: Some Black women saw that Anita Hill was breaking their silence, and they fought to use the opportunity to "speak" that she had opened up. African Americans in Los Angeles used the uprisings as a form of loud public speech, and exploited as far as they could the access to the media they provided.


Discourse is the continuous process of making sense and of circulating it socially. Unlike a simulacrum, discourse is both a noun and a verb, it is ever on the move. At times it becomes visible or audible, in a text, or a speech, or a conversation. These public moments are all that the discourse analyst has to work on, but their availability does not necessarily equate with their importance: discourse continues its work silently inside our heads as we make our own sense of our everyday lives. Though discourse is used privately and individually, it remains inescapably social, so those who share discourse are likely to form social and political alliances, for they will share broadly an understanding of the world and the way that their interests can best be secured within it.

We use discourse, then, both to form our sense of the social world and to form the relations by which we engage in it. In the realm of social relations, discourse works through a constant series of invitations and rejections by which it attempts to include certain social formations in its process and exclude others. Discourse offers continuous but unequal opportunities for intervention, and discursive guerrillas are key troops in any political or cultural campaign.

Discourse is socially rooted. It provides a social formation, or alliance of formations, with ways of thinking and talking about areas of social experience that are central in its life. The struggle over whose discourse events should be put into is part of the reality of the politics of everyday life. The discursive patterns of domination, subordination, and contestation are where the weaving of the social fabric is politicized.

An informing metaphor of this book likens culture to a river of discourses. At times the flow is comparatively calm; at others, the undercurrents, which always disturb the depths under even the calmest surface, erupt into turbulence. Rocks and promontories can turn its currents into eddies and countercurrents, can change its direction or even reverse its flow. Currents that had been flowing together can be separated, and one turned on the other, producing conflict out of calmness. There are deep, powerful currents carrying meanings of race, of gender and sexuality, of class and age: these intermix in different proportions and bubble up to the surface as discursive "topics," such as "family values" or "abortion" or "Black masculinity," and these discursive "topics" swirl into each other--each is muddied with the silt of the others, none can flow in unsullied purity or isolation. Media events are sites of maximum visibility and maximum turbulence. The hearings, the uprisings, and the debate were such sites. They are useful to the cultural analyst because their turbulence brings so much to the surface, even if it can be glimpsed only momentarily. The discursive currents and countercurrents swirling around these sites are accessible material for the analyst to work upon: from them s/he must theorize the flows of the inaccessible and invisible currents of meaning that lie deep below the surface, and that will never be available for empirical study. Their invisible movements and workings must be theorized from the visible, because this inaccessible level typically carries the most significant connections between the points of visibility.

Like any metaphor, this one has limits. Within them it may be useful in representing culture as the constant circulation and recirculation of discursive currents, in emphasizing their intermingling and the muddiness caused by silt from one floating inevitably into the others. In describing the emergence and submergence of discursive topics it recognizes that invisibility does not mean absence. Finally, it invites us to think of fluidity, of constantly changing conformations that are not random, not free of topographical determinations-- rivers do flow in certain directions and not others, they are confined within limits, and certain social formations have privileged access to their banks and their waters.

Here we begin to run up against the limits of the metaphor. The naturalness of a river can imply an inevitability in flow and counterflows, can reduce media events to tourist spectacles that people watch from the safe distance of specially constructed viewing platforms (or media representations)risking only a dousing with spray if the wind blows from the wrong direction. In other words, the river metaphor can reduce or even eliminate political intervention, social agency, and discursive struggle. The topography of a river may be the metaphoric equivalent of the structuring or determining social conditions within which the processes of culture have to operate, but, unlike rivers in nature, cultural countercurrents and eddies are produced as much by motivated, intentional, and interested interventions as by natural conditions such as rocky outcrops or fallen trees. People build dams, sluice gates, and irrigation channels in attempts to turn the flow of water to the advantage of their own social formations, and away from the advantage of others.

Although the river metaphor may be useful in representing culture as the constant process of discursive circulation, recirculation, and countercirculation, it is less effective in representing the struggles and contestations that are the driving forces behind this process and that make it not natural but political, not inevitable but directable, if only within limits.

A media event, then, as a point of maximum discursive visibility, is also a point of maximum turbulence (in calm waters currents are mostly submerged). It also invites intervention and motivates people to struggle to redirect at least some of the currents flowing through it to serve their interests; it is therefore a site of popular engagement and involvement, not just a scenic view to be photographed and left behind. Its period of maximum visibility is limited, often to a few days, though the discursive struggles it occasions will typically continue for much longer.

As I write this in the spring of 1993, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas are still figures of contestation (this week's Newsweek has an article by George Will claiming to unravel "Anita Hill's Tangled Web," and in doing so to reclaim some of the ground that she and her supporters "won" from the right); the repercussions of the L.A. uprisings show no signs of lessening their intensity (last night I watched a PBS documentary on Los Angeles after the riots, the second Rodney King verdict was handed down only a couple weeks ago and is still the subject of wide discussion, and the trial at which Damian Williams and the L.A. Four + were found not guilty of the main charges in the beating of Reginald Denny is still a few months ahead); and with the loss of the election, Dan Quayle has become less visible, and the ripples of his debate with Murphy Brown are subsiding, but they have not died (the March issue of the Atlantic screamed in huge headlines on its cover, "Dan Quayle Was Right," and the religious right is working hard to recover ground that it lost when Murphy "won" the debate).

There are similarities between the metaphor of culture as a river of discursive currents and Raymond Williams's concept of a "structure of feeling," particularly when set in his theory of dominant, residual, and emergent cultural currents. He coined the phrase to refer to what it feels like to be a member of a particular culture, or to live in a particular society at a particular time. It is a necessarily diffuse concept, because it stretches seamlessly from the realm of the subject to that of the social order. It encompasses the formal political processes and institutions of a society, its law courts, its workplaces, its military, its schools and churches, its health care system, as well as its more informal ones, such as the family and everyday social relations in its streets, stores, and workplaces. It includes the arts and cultural industries, sports and entertainment, and, at the micro level, the ordinary ways of talking, thinking, doing, and believing. It is, then, a large and amorphous concept that fits well with other concepts in his thought that appear so generalized as to be almost platitudinous: "Culture is ordinary"; "Culture is a whole way of life."

There is both value and danger in thinking at this level of generality as well as at the more detailed level on which most of this book operates. It is useful to be able to turn to a concept that enables us to ask whether living in the United States under Clinton "feels" different from the experience of living here under Reagan or Bush. The notion of a structure of feeling asks us to trace ways in which, for instance, the facts that the new surgeon general is a Black woman who promotes condom distribution in schools and that the attorney general is a white woman who believes that the roots of crime are to be found in people's social conditions rather than in their morality might affect, if only indirectly, the "feeling" of "being American." It points to one possible dimension of the difference between the verdict of the first Rodney King trial (the police found not guilty) and the verdicts of three similar ones--the second Rodney King trial (two policemen found guilty), the Malice Green trial (police found guilty), and the Damian Williams trial (defendants found not guilty of the main charges). These differences can be explained in part by differences in the legal strategies and skills of the lawyers, in part by local social conditions (the authorities in Detroit immediately condemned and suspended the officers involved in beating Malice Green, as their counterparts in L.A. did not), and in part by the social composition of the juries; but we might also wish to ask, at the highest level of generality, where links do not exist in empirically traceable form, whether what went on in the jurors' heads and what went on in the national electorate were not in some way connected. If they were, the concept of a changing structure of feeling allows us to theorize the connections. The change in administration occupying the White House may be one indication of such a change, but is neither the cause nor the effect of it. Changes in something as complex and diffuse as a structure of feeling do not occur along simple lines of cause and effect. Similarly, we must not take Clinton's electoral victory as a sign that the change has occurred--it has not, though I believe one is in progress.

Change is not experienced or felt equally at all points in the structure, nor is any change that is felt necessarily in the same direction. The danger of the notion of a "structure of feeling" is that of homogenizing and universalizing, and of smoothing over the struggles that go on within it. We may need to conceptualize it as an - unstable aggregation of smaller-scale structures of feeling by which different social formations relate differently to the larger one. Rush Limbaugh's conservative men "feel," for example, differently about their social identities and positions than do Murphy Brown's "today's women" (see chapter 1). ("Today's woman" was used by the vice president [see Sidebar: Dan Quayle, p. 69] to identify and denigrate a particular formation of women-- those white professional ones whose liberalism he considered to be undermining "family values.") But though each social formation may experience the general structure of feeling differently through their own differently structured I ways of "feeling American," each is still part of the same more general structure, and neither Rush Limbaugh's nor Murphy Brown's can be understood from outside or experienced from within except in relation to the other.

Change also occurs at different speeds at different parts of the social structure, and meets differently solid reactionary forces. It is, thus, a messy ongoing business, not a rapid revolutionary one. At any point, to return to our river metaphor, certain currents may dominate the flow; others that once dominated still carry residual traces of what they once were; and yet others that were weakly confined to the margins or depths are gaining strength, and preparing to emerge and challenge the dominant ones. The religious right and Rush Limbaugh are examples of strong residual currents, "today's woman" is a strong emerging one, perhaps by now a dominant one, and each struggles with the other to dominate the cultural flow. The Bush campaign overestimated the strength of residual currents and, late in the day, tried unsuccessfully to swim out of them: Clinton's campaign harnessed emergent currents such as those of youth, or sexual orientation, and swam on them to the White House.

The media are crucial in the social circulation of discourse and thus play a formative role in social and political change. But in general, our public discussions of this role tend to be critical: at times they criticize the low level of political involvement of the average U.S. citizen and blame the media for it; at others they charge the media with increasingly inadequate and superficial coverage of political concerns, of excluding many issues of high political import and of repressing minority or oppositional voices. All of these charges are well based, particularly when they are directed at the mainstream media's coverage of foreign affairs, of economic policy, and, to a lesser extent, of activity in Washington.

But these political arenas, important though they are, do not constitute the whole of political life. There are other arenas (sometimes not recognized as political by media commentators and political scientists) that span the continuum from subjectivity (the politics of identity) to social relations. These arenas include the intensely domestic politics of gender, race, class, and age that are central in the politics of everyday life, and in them the mainstream media cannot be charged with inactivity. Dan Quayle knew this when he attacked Murphy Brown, and the Republicans knew this as they campaigned against "Hollywood's liberal elite," which, in their eyes, was leading the nation away from its traditional (i.e., Republican) values. They were correct in identifying the centrality of the media in these "internal" politics and correct in recognizing the connections between them and the official politics of Washington and the campaign trail. They were wrong, however, in modeling these connections as ones of cause and effect: Hollywood's alleged liberalism did not cause the Republicans' electoral defeat. But if Hollywood was more liberal than the Republican party, and if its representations of liberal values had increased during the Reagan and Bush presidencies (an unproven assertion), and if the film and TV industries had continued to prosper (an unarguable assertion, despite their numerous flops), then these conditions may be symptomatic of the fact that Hollywood was better able to swim with emergent currents in a changing structure than was the Republican party.

In making this point, I do not wish to imply that the media are passive--far from it. The sitcom Murphy Brown was active in promoting and circulating the discourse of "today's woman" and active in the choice of that discourse and the rejection of others. But it did not originate that discourse: "today's woman" would be part of today's social reality had Murphy Brown never existed, for the sitcom's heroine "figured" a social and political identity that long preceded her and will long outlast her. Murphy Brown strengthened the public presence of that identity, inflected it in certain ways, and, in embodying it, made it more powerful in people's imagination. Murphy Brown's popularity was not just the result of the creative skills of her creator, Diane English, and her performer, Candice Bergen, but of their ability to give form and presence to a discursive current and the social identity it produced.

This same current also produced Anita Hill and Hillary Rodham Clinton as different figures of the same social identity and the connections between figures such as these are some of the ways by which the internal politics of entertainment can flow into the external politics of voting. The political domains of international affairs, the economy, and the internal politics of everyday life swirl into each other in the general politics of a nation's structure of feeling. This is why the media matter, for their alleged inadequacies in the first two are more than compensated for by their incessant activity in the third.

There are conjunctural links among Murphy Brown's victory over Dan Quayle in the "family values" debate; Anita Hill's victory in the public arena, despite Clarence Thomas's one in the Senate; and the fact that the majority of women voted for Clinton and men for Bush. I do not wish to imply that there is a perfect match between program preferences in the media and political preferences in the polling booth, but I do believe there are significant overlaps. Political programs and media programs are both produced within the same historical conditions, and similar currents can be traced in the popularity, or unpopularity, of each. Politicians are like advertisers (and therefore media producers) in that both need to get their messages to an audience, at fumes the largest possible, at others, and increasingly, the most accurately targeted possible. So voting demographics do show patterned similarities to audience demographics. The same discourse will serve both political and media personalities to push similar buttons in similar audiences, for discourse is a feature of a social formation, not the invention of an individual, however public or prestigious CNN described people's behavior during the L.A. uprisings: "At stores that are looted, it's almost like a feeding frenzy, they pour in, grab what they want, and run out.... it seems as each hour passes, the strength of the masses grows--people realize that they can get away with something, so they do". Pat Buchanan, opening the Republican convention, said, "The mob had burned and looted every building on the block but one, a convalescent home for the aged. And the mob was headed in to ransack and loot the apartments of the terrified old men and women inside". The politician and the news reporter were using the same discourse ("mobs" and "masses" out of control) to press the same panic buttons in audiences with significant overlaps. Rush Limbaugh (and the defense lawyers defending the LAPD officers used a similar discourse to prove that Rodney King's behavior caused the police behavior, and that he directed his own beating. These are all examples of "topdown" discourse: it was top-down discourse, too, that Dan Quayle used in his "family values" debate with Murphy Brown. But Murphy's response put "family values" into a discourse that spoke for and with those in the "nontraditional" families that Quayle was attacking. Similarly, Oprah Winfrey allowed members of Buchanan's "mob" to talk on her show and thus contested the top-down discourse of Buchanan and CNN. Both Murphy and Oprah, of course, advance women's interests in a way that Buchanan and CNN do not.

We might say, using Raymond Williams's terms, that the discourse of "today's women" is carried by an emerging current pushing its way to the center of the mainstream, whereas that of "yesterday's men" is being sidestreamed into a residual one and Rush Limbaugh speaks their dissatisfaction The voting patterns in the 1992 election give some support to this idea. Clinton was sent to the White House by women, by Blacks and Latino/as (with an exceptionally strong endorsement from Black women), by first-time voters and young people, by gays and lesbians, and by lower-income families. All of these groups were, and skill are, trying to emerge from the margins and the depths into which Reaganism had pushed them, to claim places for themselves nearer the center of the mainstream. The two major demographic groups that voted for Bush, on the other hand, were white men and families from the two highest income brackets. Smaller groups who supported him were white born-again Christians (who gave him his strongest endorsement of all) and Asian Americans. Only one-sixth of the voters considered that "family values" were important, and only one-tenth thought abortion was. One-third, however, remembered Clarence Thomas and said that presidential nominations to the Supreme Court were "very important" in determining their vote--of these, half went for Clinton, and only a third for Bush.

Anyone who analyzes change while it is in progress and is foolish enough to predict its direction must be prepared for history to prove him or her wrong. I accept the risk, for I do believe that these four media events--the hearings, the debate, the uprisings, and the election--were sites where Americans struggled to come to terms with, and to exert some influence on, the slow and messy social changes that are inevitable as the United States transforms itself from a society organized around a relatively homogeneous, Eurocentric consensus to a more diverse, multicultural social order. These changes take place at all levels, from the inexorable change in the demographics of our society, through far more contested changes in the regime of power, to incomplete and uneven changes in the structure of feeling. The process is painful but profound, and the United States that emerges will feel very different to its citizens from the United States of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Underlying this book is the argument that, in the cultural struggles that went on around these four media events, we can trace processes of change by which older dominant currents were transformed into residual ones, and emergent ones pushed up from the depths and in from the margins to challenge for a place in the dominant. The events marked the right-wing extremity of the electoral pendulum, and thus provoked a variety of social alliances to speak up against, and eventually vote against, those who had swung it so far.

A change in a structure of feeling involves a change in the proportion of the ingredients that constitute the cultural mix, a change in which of the currents come to the surface and which are submerged. But not all currents change. In the politics of age, gender, and sexuality we can trace visible changes: the election put more women into Washington than ever before, Bill Clinton has put a slew of women and non-Caucasians into powerful positions, and the White House staff is younger and more ethnically diverse than previously. The chapters in this book will trace some of the struggles, the gains and losses, that have been part of these changes and the variety of fronts on which they have been fought for and resisted. The White House and Washington, however, are not the only sites of cultural and political activity, and in many ways are unlike others. A change in administration is abrupt, complete, and visible. No other change is. Most cultural currents are much muddier and any change in them harder to discern. We must not allow the clarity of the change in administration to misrepresent the muddiness of any changes that underlie, nor its high visibility to magnify their extent. Changes in the structure of feeling are less clear, more gradual, and more partial than changes in party government.

Not all currents change: there is, in these early days of the new administration at least, less perceptible change in the currents of race. The strength of the Black and Latino vote for Clinton appears to be more of a reaction against the overt racism of the Republicans than a response to a more positive plank in the Democrat's platform. But less change does not mean less turbulence--far from it. What it means is that the insecurely dominant current of white supremacy has not yet been changed into a residual one by the strongly emerging currents of multiethnicity, and that the turbulence as these currents contest each other's position will be a constant and dangerous feature of our immediate future. Such mainstream turbulence can erupt into violent uprisings such as those that took place in Los Angeles. Other emerging currents seek different channels, such as Black Liberation Radio, an illegal, micro-radio station serving a ghettoized African American community in Springfield, Illinois (see chapters 4 and 5). This book is concerned primarily with the mainstream, but what the mainstream carries depends in part on what other, smaller side streams bear away on their own waters, so I will pay considerable attention to what is said on Black Liberation Radio in order to illustrate what is not said in the mainstream media, and thus to highlight the limits of what is. The currents in these side streams may well gain enough volume and momentum to disrupt the mainstream seriously at some point further down the river. And that point may not lie too far ahead.

 



History 122
Hill/Thomas
HIST 122 Syllabus

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