Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture

December 4, 2008

My history degree was rigorous and traditional. The pendulum of curriculum swung between militarism and diplomacy. The disconnection between popular culture and history was stark and obvious. Some "worthy" films by Eisenstein or Lang were watched as a history-lite introduction to revolution and war, but popular music and television, let alone fanzines and ephemera, were excluded. Ruthlessly.

At this time, I secretly augmented my reading of Paul Kennedy and A. J. P. Taylor with the early works of John Fiske. He agitated the relationship between producers and consumers. He probed texts not sources, audiences not authors. He was not worried by Wagner or Battleship Potemkin. Trained by Terence Hawkes in Cardiff, Fiske gained his greatest fame in Australia and the US, where generations of students owe him a wide and yet unpaid scholarly debt.

One of Fiske's students was Henry Jenkins, who is now head of comparative media cultures at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: a thriving department whose members blog, podcast, vodcast, conference and write. A productive researcher in this hothouse of popular cultural research is Grant McCracken.

When reading McCracken's expansive Transformations, many early Fiskean inflectives are present. Resistive readers work against "dominant culture", but digitisation has helped McCracken's argument in ways that Fiske could not have imagined. Blogs, Second Life and user-generated content have given McCracken the textual fodder to extend Fiske's ideas and provide the evidence that never seemed rigorous enough to confirm Fiske's theories, hypotheses and abstractions.

Transformations is an expansive book with an enormous project. Beginning with the maxim that "entertainment is dead", he asks what ideas and agendas will emerge in its place. While this question is not fully answered, there is much discussion of "agency" and "participation". On this journey, he argues that "entertainment culture" has been replaced with a "transformational" one. In recognising the changes to media industries and fans, he counters the "dumbing down" discourse by logging the increased sophistication of popular culture.

He confirms with a flourish: "Individuals who once submitted to the blandishments of entertainment are now interested in something more active."

The book's unifying argument is that "when consumers become producers, one of the objectives of their creative activity is the construction and multiplication of new selves". At its most basic, Transformations explores how, as contexts change, identities change.

The book is uneven, but provocative in its unevenness. Those interested in identity politics and popular culture will find much of relevance and importance. The textual examples offer useful case studies for undergraduates and the overarching argument will provide a productive node of dialogue and debate for postgraduates.

The problem in the book is - not surprisingly - the relationship between capitalism and the academy. It is also the crack at the base of much popular cultural studies: either we mouth the elitist biases of the arts establishment or become cheerleaders for The X Factor and the market economy.

Transformations is often sucked into the latter, but effectively critiques the former. But the validation of "expansionary individualism" can create justifications for hyper-consumerism, environmental damage and a disconnection from (perhaps old-fashioned) collectivised politics. Significantly, the "transformation" in the title refers to individual identity, not to wider social change. Perhaps that is the great difference between Fiske and McCracken. Fiske was never satisfied with the individual text or audience member. He wanted a meaning that arched beyond the self. It is a commitment and legacy that we need to remember.

Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture

By Grant McCracken. Indiana University Press. 464pp, £39.00 and £13.99. ISBN 9780253350725 and 219572. Published 1 July 2008

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