Review: Active Audience: A New materialistic interpretation of a key concept in cultural studies, Huimin Jin. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag 2012. 179pp.
Why are Chinese scholars interested in active audience theories that hark back to the 1980s and 1990s? In an exchange in Active Audience, David Morley comments to author Huimin Jin, Prime Professor at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing:
“As I understand your argument, you are suggesting that we face a move from a ‘producer society’ to a ‘consumer society’, that the concept of the masses’ (as mobilized in the Frankfurt School’s work) is a characteristic of what you call a producer society and that popular culture is then, conversely, associated with the consumer society. From that premise, if I understand you rightly, you see ‘active audience theory’ as being to do with the extent to which, in this thing called the ‘consumer society’, people have more choices… I think that’s a problematic form of historical periodization and one which is characteristic of a certain type of sociological approach”
Imported in the wake of the reception of British Marxist Cultural Studies of the Birmingham School the core notion of the active audience emphasizes the independence of meaning from any authors intention as texts, images and film are received and reinterpreted in different contexts. Stuart Hall was a key figure in developing an “encoding/decoding model”. The idea comes out of the 1960s social psychology of Raymond Bauer who pitted the “obstinate audience” against simplistic sender-receiver models. On one hand, the active audience is an independent collective which does not respond in a mechanical manner to the explicit messages of mass media but always reflects, comments on and attempts to interpret messages. They “actively” decode messages and meanings. On the other hand, the resistance offered by the active audience has proved a poor buttress against imperial and commercial ambitions.
Jin follows David Morley’s model as a critique of the assumptions of the determinism of technologies and media and the passive, duped audiences often presented by Frankfurt School writers in their critiques of Nazi propaganda. What is most fascinating about the book is its shift away from communication theory to consider the everyday context which shapes the reception of information. In doing so, while carefully following Morley’s lead, the book is genuinely new in its use of Husserl’s phenomenology of the “lifeword” and a Heideggerian approach to being-in-the-world which emphasizes the ways people reflect on their world and make it meaningful for themselves. Jin draws on his broad experience in German intellectual history to move from the discursive, which is generally involves abstract representations, to root the discussion in the real. For me, this everyday reality, spans both the actual here-and-now “concrete” fabric of life and also its “virtual”, intangible elements such as trust, community and society that frame our understanding of communication. This turn to everyday world and away from the pure context of texts or, for example, a television broadcast, reflects Prof. Jin’s status as the preeminent interpreter of Confucius in China today.