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pluralism and polysemy

In the early 1970s British cultural studies researchers, starting with Richard Hoggart, recognised that audiences for 'popular culture' were capable of recognising meanings and interpretations that were not intended by the producers of the culture. Such thinking was in the wake of Roland Barthes' dramatic proclamation in 1967 of the 'death of the author', by which he meant that readers of a text, or viewers of film and TV, create their own meanings regardless of the intentions of the author or producer. Jacques Derrida later drew attention to meanings being as much about what is absent as much as what is depicted.

The possibility of alternative interpretations was termed 'polysemy'. Subsequent British cult studs (including Peter Dahlgren, John Hartley, Henry Jenkins, Julian Lewis and Janice Radway) specifically looked for the way the 'working classes' created alternative 'readings' of popular culture. These have shown that TV news 'is replete with meanings that escape from or contradict the ideological control that the news format attempts to impose. This plurality of meanings is, of course, not a structureless pluralism, but is tightly organised around textual and social power.' (Fiske 1987)

Until the 1980s such researchers thought that much popular culture was so heavily 'loaded' that there was only limited scope for non-intended readings. However in Britain and America many people under 30 (and a significant minority of older people) have become increasingly adept at 'deconstructing' the intended messages of advertising, news programmes and newspapers. One aspect of this is the widespread cynicism that this age group has for the purveyors of news and, predictably enough, the political activities associated with so much of this 'news'.

If 'polysemy' carries the sense of more-or-less intentionally 'subversive' (or 'oppositional') alternative interpretations, 'pluralism' is a less emotive way of referring to the possibility (indeed, probability) that events can be seen in quite different ways depending on prior cultural assumptions. For example, academic archaeologists and historians have, over the last ten years or so, begun to wake up to the recognition that their 'privileged' views of the past may be widely different to popular perceptions. For example, American or Australian native peoples have a very different values about the past (especially appropriate ways of dealing with human remains and certain 'sacred' artefacts) than is traditional for archaeologists. Likewise archaeological sites as disparate as Catal Huyuk in Turkey and Stonehenge in England are 'interpreted' in quite different ways by modern pagans than they are by archaeologists, leading to some passionate debates. Sadly folklorists, even those interested in contemporary legends, have yet to get beyond recognising that folklore may create polysemic responses, other than perhaps the recognition that there may be ambiguity about whether the teller of the tale believes it or not.

The terms 'polysemy' and 'plurality' derive from different academic disciplines. They overlap considerably but, when a distinction is made, 'polysemy' usually denotes some degree of intentionally 'subversive' alternative interpretations whereas 'pluralism' merely acknowledges that interpretations are relative to cultural preconceptions, so different cultural starting points naturally lead to different interpretations (and some of these may be very different to the 'dominant' cultural view, or 'privileged' academic interpretation).


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003


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