Culture Machine, Vol 1 (1999)

CM1999 Article: Fornäs

Life After Death of the Text

Johan Fornäs

In the beginning of cultural studies as we know it, and more generally of the cultural turn in the human sciences, there was text, but since texts seemed to be transparent carriers of lived experiences and social relations, they tended themselves to remain invisible as such. Then, with the structuralist critiques of culturalism, all became text in a much more emphatic sense: there seemed to be nothing else in the world. In recent years, there has appeared a backlash tendency to get rid of textual mediations in order to revive lived reality in its absolute immediate presence. As textuality once exterminated subjective and objective realities, now there are efforts to kill the text and dance on its grave.

I do not want to join either of these conceptual cleansings. Instead, my plea is for the contaminating notion of mediation as a necessary basis for cultural studies. This is no radically new idea, but neither are its adversaries, contrary to their own self-images. Purifying attacks on complexly mediational forms of understanding – particularly but not exclusively in structuralist streams of thought – often make use of the recurrent romantic trope of radically breaking free from tradition, including the tradition of modern thought itself.

At the first Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Tampere, two years ago, Lawrence Grossberg stood here, arguing for a total break with modern thought. His arguments have since been published in a series of articles, including one in Angela McRobbie’s anthology Back to Reality? (1997) and another in the very first issue of the new European Journal of Cultural Studies. He advocates ‘getting out of the modern’, away from the combined modern logics of mediation and temporality, into a ‘productive’ and ‘spatial’ materialism which is ‘defined by something other than the logics of modern thought’.2

Such rhetorical gestures of totally new beginnings have themselves very old historical roots, as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur once emphasized: ‘Critique is also a tradition. I would even say that it plunges into the most impressive tradition, that of liberating acts, of the Exodus and the Resurrection’ (1981: 99).3

The intensified experience of one’s own time as radically different from all earlier history is inherent in the modern condition itself. Efforts to push this experience to its extreme is a long-standing tradition of the modern era: a tradition of self-reflexive modernity critiques within modern thought itself, from romanticism to postmodernism. Grossberg actually inherits the trope of skipping all the old stuff and reaching directly to the true, essential real from an established stream of modern thought, including Nietzsche, Deleuze and Rosaldo. Their language of radical reorientation, of ‘stepping outside’ what has hitherto been and of critically examining modernity itself, is a typical trait of the self-understanding of modernity. Modern thought is full of fresh beginnings, which usually start by critically reconsidering tradition, tracing its genealogy in order to find its mistakes. This results in a typical inner tension between starting anew and rethinking: rehearsing history in order to forget it, combining reflexive self-thematizations with revolutionary gestures. Grossberg cannot escape this tension, and neither can I, only try to be aware of it. If the total break would be possible, that detour through tradition would be unnecessary, but that is not the case. The effort to jump out of tradition (even the tradition of modernity) immediately leads right back into precisely that same modern tradition.

After all, this is probably not as devastating as it may first sound, since this very tradition is particularly rich in inner contradictions that open critical spaces for opposition and change. But the effort to escape history (tradition, modernity or time) remains a problematic branch of modernity, since it tends to freeze into a system of totalizing stereotypes that prevent creative conflicts of interpretation from developing. This wish tends to exterminate useful inherited insights while giving rise to a vengeful return of the repressed, often in monstrous forms – or as a farce.

A whole series of old problems turn up in new clothes in Grossberg’s recent texts. I will here focus on the attempt to finally escape the interpretive spirals of meaning, which is widespread and shared by several others today. Mediation as a key concept in cultural studies is basically contested from two sides. In a reductionism of absence, structuralist positions have reified textual autonomy in relation to both subjects and contexts, both of which are subordinated or reduced to it, and thus annihilated.

This has induced a sort of backlash in the form of a series of attempts to murder the text instead, in order to regain space for either subjective experience or social reality, sometimes by advocating a return to the roots of culturalism in Hoggart and Williams. A reductionism of presence strives to abolish mediation in favour of ideas of direct routes to external or internal reality. In such an antitextualist cult of immediacy, a recourse to real subjective experience or hard social facts seems to escape any need for interpretive practice.

In the first case, the textual labyrinths of language games effectively close all roads to social or subjective reality. In the second case, textual and interpretive mediations are perceived as unnecessary detours from the straight road to immediate presence and experience. Against both these threats, I here want to defend the centrality of mediation in cultural studies.

Reified immediacy

Grossberg thinks that ‘cultural studies, as it moves outside the determinations of modern thought […] must escape culture […] to describe, understand and project the possibilities of lived material contexts as organisations of power’ (1997: 31). The advocated road to ‘escape the modernist logic of mediation’ and develop ‘a non-mediational theory of culture’ (Grossberg, 1998: 76), goes through a rejection of all that interpretive textualism which ‘erases the real’ (1998: 74). Cultural studies is instead defined as ‘a context-specific theory/analysis of how contexts are made, unmade and remade as structures of power and domination’ (1998: 68). Is this meant to exclude the study of texts? In what way would this be different from, say, social studies? Is it not necessary for any definition of cultural studies to keep the specificity of culture in focus, not least in order to be able to show its wide-ranging importance for general processes in society and life?

If ‘culture is not simply a matter of meaning and communication’, then why would that be in any way ‘simple’, and even if culture is about more than communicative and meaning-making practices, is it not always at least precisely that? I agree that ‘cultural studies should hold on to a more contextual notion of discursive practices and effects, locating both texts and audiences within broader contexts that articulate the identity and effects of any practice’ but find the following formulation more problematic: ‘Rather than asking what texts mean or what people do with texts, culture studies should be concerned with what discursive practices do in the world’ (Grossberg, 1988: 75; my emphasis). In my opinion, cultural studies keeps on learning from texts, even when this interpretation makes detours through an explanatory analysis of how they function. What texts do is certainly as important as what they say, but what makes the discursive work of texts specifically cultural is that it is mainly fulfilled precisely by their signifying force of saying something to someone. The power of culture is anchored in a capability to induce meaning, which makes interpretation the clue to critique.

Grossberg ends up wanting ‘a more materialist and contextualist notion of cultural studies as the study of "all the relations between all the elements"’ (1998: 77). Again, this systemic view is highly modern. And once again, virtually all and nothing is included in such an abstract notion. It seems to contradict the simultaneous romantic insistence on the value of affectual immediacy, which is abundant in his texts. This results in a paradoxical combination of super-structuralism and super-sensualism, a fascinating ambiguity that results precisely from the collapsing of mediations, whereby immediacy is reified into the dead and empty structure of discourses, which are in turn seen as meaningless, mechanical agents.

This specific turn is peculiar to Grossberg, but there are other voices who have recently joined the anti-mediational choir. Sociologists have called for hard social facts, ethnographers for embodied and lived experience, and historians for material evidence of such past experience. The recipes they propose diverge, emphasizing either the phenomenology of lived experience or the quasi-positivist factuality of social or economic structures, and the demand for more ethnographic fieldwork is not obviously compatible with a demand for longer historical perspectives. Such contradictions should not be erased in order to construct a homogenous camp out of highly diverging positions. But there is a common thread in some of these recently voiced critiques: the urgent wish to get rid of textualist labyrinths by rejecting interpretation and mediation in order to return directly to the social reality of ‘real’, basic facts of life, whether they are thought to reside as lived experience in living people’s actions and minds, or as material forces in the institutional power structures that frame them.

Angela McRobbie in an anthology called Cultural Studies in Question thinks that feminist cultural studies have lost sight of ‘lived experience’ (Ferguson & Golding, 1997: 170), and she advocates saving the ‘three Es’ – the empirical, the ethnographic and the experiential – from the attacks by three influential ‘anti-Es’: anti-essentialism, poststructuralism and psychoanalysis. In a similar vein, the historian Michael Pickering, in his new book History, Experience and Cultural Studies (Pickering, 1997), goes back to Wilhelm Dilthey’s romanticist hermeneutics of immediate lived experience as an antidote to poststructuralist textualism in cultural studies. It is hard to believe that cultural or historical studies would manage without a theoretical understanding of how culture and history are already textualized, not only by literary theorists but in the very minds of those ‘ordinary’ people who are its actors.4

Intersubjective understandings and lived experiences are constituted through expressive forms, and can only be reconstructed by means of detours through textual interpretations. This insight does not imply any surrender to (post-)structuralism, leaving us ‘ineluctably locked inside texts upon texts upon texts’ (Pickering, 1997: 232). While there is no way around textuality, this textual way need not be any self-enclosed labyrinth, if better hermeneutic models are used than those offered by various structuralist theories.

The Anglo-American tradition of cultural studies is severley hampered by an unhappy wavering between contradictory extremes. The critiques of text-fetishism contain a grain of truth, but they do tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater, by denying the continuing central importance of textual mediations and interpretations in cultural studies. The problems with reifying textual theories are not solved by reverting to a romantic cult of immediacy. This evil circle of repeated wavering between sensualism and structuralism can only be broken by carefully elaborating the concept of mediation. I will here briefly mention some elements in such a mediational cultural studies.

Passages of meaning

Culture is symbolic communication of meaning, with a capacity to bridge or mediate between human beings situated in multi-dimensional social contexts. This mediation necessarily goes through sensual-textual embodiments of meaning in flows or webs of works, created by signifying practices and appropriated by acts of interpretation, in everyday lifeworlds or in specialized spheres of science and art.

Media mediate, as cultural tools of communication.5 All culture and communication is in fact already doubly mediated. First, by material embodiments, texts or artefacts that act on bodily senses. Second, by socially organized and historically developed symbolic systems in which interpretive communities are inscribed as they construct meaning with reference to forms of expressions and genres.

Certain instances of culture and communication are further mediated in a third way, namely, through some technical apparatus that is produced by socially organized cooperating human beings. Such mediated communication in the common and narrow sense of the word makes more visible the dialectics of transgression and distanciation, understanding and explanation, appropriation and exteriorization which is actually inherent in all communication and culture, but less obvious in so-called direct face-to-face interactions. Written words, audiovisual broadcasting and the Internet all constitute different forms of mediation, and all of them in various ways highlight how mediation is able to connect people only through mediation by some third textual element, whether this consists of printed letters on a paper, electromagnetically formed images on a screen or vibrating airborne sounds. Internet discourses often paradoxically tend to revive the romantic ideology of presence, as if communicating on the Net were an unmediated connection between minds. This only shows the strength of that ideal of communion that remains a goal – neither fulfilled nor abandoned, always a task that is dialectically undertaken by way of the multidimensional mediations that constitute culture as a specific dimension of the human world.

A new Swedish research project is called ‘Popular Passages: Media in the modern space of consumption’. In this five-year project we are five researchers who will ethnographically study those media that circulate through an urban shopping mall in the Stockholm area. Instead of choosing ethnography before textual analysis, we will make ethnographies of texts and interpretations of spatialized passages, to investigate how meaning is born and transformed in such practices.6 Acknowledging the importance of empirical studies of social practices should not lead anyone to abandon the insight of the equal necessity of textual interpretations, since human practices are always impregnated with meanings, just like all meanings are products of socially contextualized practices. Ethnographical data are nothing without interpretation, and no ‘respect for the voice of the Other’ can release the researcher from that responsibility. To retreat from interpretive understanding is, virtually, to make ethnography meaning-less. Cultural studies does not simply copy people’s lived practices and meaning-constructions. Such a view is widespread, though, also within social anthropology with a positivist or empiricist inclination. Like all human sciences, ethnographers have to enter into the conflicts of interpretation and make their own meaning-constructions, in dialogue with their informants.

Cultural studies thus has to interpret textual meanings. This is not the whole of what has to be done, but it is the crucial core task. The life of texts that is culture takes place on four interconnected levels: materiality, form-relations, meaning and application (or use).7

Grossberg’s effort to escape mediation and focus on either immediate affective presence or ‘all the relations between all the elements’, is trapped between the first and second of these levels. That last phrase cannot easily be reconciled with the wish to capture sensuous immediacy, and remains only a part (however necessary it may be) of the more complex mediational flow that constitutes culture. This calls for a hermeneutic cultural theory that also includes the third level, that of meaning.8

Within that level, cultural phenomena involve triadic interactions between texts, subjects and contexts. Different strands of cultural theory and cultural studies put their accents differently within this triangle. The internationally dominant cultural studies of Britain and the United States have often been marked by an incapacity to catch the dialectic tension between all three sides. When texts, subjects and contexts meet, something intrinsically new is produced, as all three poles are transformed by being provided with dimensions fed from this ongoing intersubjective, social practice. This gives texts their meanings, as people link material forms to some kind of references, reading them as pointing to something outside themselves, thus making the physically absent mentally present. It also lets subjects develop their individual and collective identities, by producing in interaction with surrounding others, the cultural identity-positions with which they identify. In mediated action, people use texts as cultural tools to create collective and individual identities.9

The same triadic encounter finally develops contextual settings into ordered social worlds that systematically frame social action and cultural mediation.

Texts, subjects and contexts are both differentiated and connected in these communicative acts that are the focus of cultural studies. None of the three should be reduced or subordinated to the others. Subjects and contexts are not texts, neglecting contexts is as mistaken as is thinking of texts as simple vehicles for interacting minds. In interpretation, they develop as separate poles while being simultaneously brought together in a creative process that shapes meanings, identities and social worlds. Cultural studies is concerned with the triadic mediation of texts, subjects and contexts. This might sound abstract enough, but it is certainly less abstract than a formula such as ‘all the relations between all the elements’. And though the fascinating tensions between meanings and non- or not-yet-meanings are of focal interest for cultural studies, as it studies processes where meanings arise, it makes no sense to exclude culture or interpretation from its scope.

It is thus my conviction that just like the two rumours of the death of the subject and of reality were considerably exaggerated, so is the recent counter-rumour of the death of the text. Instead of fleeing mediation, cultural studies need to pass through it, on several levels. This may be a detour that often leads astray, but there is no straight and direct way to the world through the field of culture. Cultural studies need to choose instead the long and winding interpretive detour through symbolic forms to the self, to others and to social reality.10

Against cynicism, I claim there is such a road that is not firmly closed – against romanticism, that it necessarily goes through mediations.

Cultural studies should be as mediational and communicative as is culture. In order to make rich and strong interpretations, it has to mediate dialogically between areas of knowledge that are elsewhere developed in separation, instead of breaking loose from all others in solitary reductionisms.

I’ll end this manifesto for a communicative cultural studies in a truly crossroads spirit by rephrasing a much more famous, 150 year old slogan:

– Cultural researchers of all countries and paradigms, communicate!


1. A much longer version of this text, with considerably extended arguments, is offered in Fornäs (1999, forthcoming).

2. Grossberg (1997: 16,19; cf. also 1998).

3. Cf. also Koselleck (1979/1985) on the modern time experience.

4. Cf. Ricoeur (1985/1988: 158f) on the prefiguration of human action, life, society and history, as a basis for the configuration of texts and their refiguration in acts if interpretation

5. ‘[C]ulture, in the anthropological view, is the meanings which people create, and which create people, as members of societies’ (Hannerz, 1992: 3). ‘[M]edia are machineries of meaning’ (1992: 26f).

6. Drotner (1994) argues well for a media ethnography that incorporates textual dimensions of everyday reception in order to overcome increasingly untenable dichotomies. Also Gripsrud (1995) writes in defence of textual interpretation as an indispensable element in studies of the social practices of media audiences.

7. See further Fornäs (1995). The term ‘application’ derives from Gadamer (1960/1990: 313). Cf. also Paul Ricoeur (1985/1988: 157ff).

8. The semiotics of Charles S. Peirce (1940/1955: 74ff) is here exemplary, as it clearly connects what he calls Firstness and Secondness (cf. materiality and form-relations) with his Thirdness (related to meaning). Compare also Jacques Lacan’s model of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. The problem is when theories do not manage to include the mediationality of the third level, which never erases the first two ones but cannot be reduced to them and remains the defining key to what specifically is culture.

9. Cf. Ricoeur (1990/1992) and Wertsch (1998).

10. There are of course also a lot of important cultural studies work that does emphasize the importance of textuality and mediation, including the argument for the centrality of textuality in Mowitt (1992), Drotner (1994), and Gripsrud (1995) and the similarly crucial focus on mediation in Negus (1996), just to mention two such works.


Drotner, K. (1994): ‘Ethnographic enigmas: ‘the everyday’ in recent media studies’, in Cultural Studies, 8:2, 341-357.

Fornäs, J. (1995): Cultural Theory and Late Modernity, London: Sage.

Fornäs J. (1999, forthcoming): ‘The crucial in between: The centrality of mediation in cultural studies’, in European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 2.

Gadamer, H.G. (1960/1990): Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik, Tübingen: Mohr.

Gripsrud, J. (1995): The Dynasty Years: Hollywood, Television and Critical Media Studies, London / New York: Routledge.

Grossberg, L. (1997): ‘Cultural studies, modern logics, and theories of globalisation’, in A. McRobbie (ed.): Back to Reality? Social Experience and Cultural Studies, Manchester / New York: Manchester University Press, 7-35.

Grossberg, L. (1998): ‘The cultural studies’ crossroads blues’, in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 1:1, 65-82.

Hannerz, U. (1992): Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning, New York: Columbia University Press.

Koselleck, R. (1979/1985): Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McRobbie, A. (1997): ‘The Es and the anti-Es: New questions for feminism and cultural studies’, in M. Ferguson & P. Golding (eds): Cultural Studies in Question, London: Sage, 170-186.

McRobbie, A. (ed.) (1997): Back to Reality? Social Experience and Cultural Studies, Manchester / New York: Manchester University Press.

Mowitt, J. (1992): Text: The Genealogy of an Antidisciplinary Object, Durham / London: Duke University Press.

Negus, K. (1996): Popular Music in Theory: An Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1940/1955): Philosophical Writings of Peirce, New York: Dover Publications.

Pickering, M. (1997): History, Experience and Cultural Studies, London: Macmillan.

Ricoeur, P. (1960/1969): The Symbolism of Evil, Boston: Beacon Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1981): Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences. Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1985/1988): Time and Narrative, Volume 3, Chicago / London: University of Chicago Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1990/1992): Oneself as Another, Chicago / London: University of Chicago Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1998): Mind as Action, New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press.