Popular Entertainment & the Chinese Public Sphere

A review of Entertainment and the Public Sphere: The Convergence of Popular Culture and Politics in China’s Public Sphere and Cyberspace, by Jingsi Wu.

In recent years, there has been wide discussion about the possibility that entertainment media and cultural citizenship form an alternative public sphere. This argument is based on enriching the Habermasian public sphere by viewing or reading (popular) entertainment media as a means of engaging in rational, critical public discourses, seeking a common understanding and resolution to public affairs (pp. 2-3). This approach reverses the traditional perspective of the public sphere, which emphasizes the role of rational and face-based programs in forming an open and democratizing society. However, there are still many controversies about how entertainment or tabloid media could lead to a rational debate and form a functional democratizing society especially if their content is full of trivial, emotional, sensational discourses or stereotypes.

Although there already are many examples to prove these possibilities, such as research on cultural citizenship and popular media or attempts to rethink the public sphere (Peter Dahlgren, “Doing Citizenship: The Cultural Origins of Civic Agency in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 9, 2006, pp. 267-286; Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Craig Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992, pp. 109-142; Joke Hermes, “Hidden Debates: Rethinking the Relationship between Popular Culture and the Public Sphere,” Javnost – The Public 13, 2006, pp.27-44), Jingsi Wu proposes a critical approach and brings substantial evidence to prove that by bridging aesthetic experiences and people’s everyday sense-making of their social life, the entertainment media helps shape aesthetic public spheres as an extension of the political public sphere (p. 7). The author conducted an analysis of Super Girl (SG), a popular singing contest program in China which aired on Hunan Satellite TV from 2004 to 2011 (pp. 8-10), and argued that in a strictly controlled political system, entertainment media could foster and enrich public participation and provide rational discussions which might not be possible in normal life (pp. 8, 16). This project also engages with the work of Ronald N. Jacobs, who defines civil society as “all of the places where individuals gather together to have conversations, pursue common interests and occasionally, try to influence public opinion or public policy” (“Civil Society,” in John Scott (ed.), Sociology: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 27; see also Ronald N. Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley, The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Wu thus suggests how to retrieve civil society in popular media in post-socialist China (pp. 10, 12).

In Chapter 2 the author moves on to examine the aesthetic discourse in the online sphere. She reviews mainly two sets of literature: entertainment media and politics, as well as new media and the public sphere (p. 23). The former focuses on the argument of entertaining programs as a gateway to traditional news (pp. 26-27), while the latter emphasizes the internet as providing a more open, free and diverse space, with less censorship of public discussions (p. 39). For example, according to Wu, Henry Jenkins’ research (especially his Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006) presents important evidence about what “people are actively doing with the media texts, rather than what the media are doing to the audiences” (p. 23, original emphases). Jenkins’ empirical evidence documents new media and transmedia programs in which audiences build knowledge and collect intelligence online. The perspective of cultural citizenship has already pointed out the limitations of the institutional definition of citizenship that guides much of traditional scrutiny concerning media and politics (p. 28). Wu thinks that cultural citizenship has re-conceptualized the definition of citizenship in two respects, namely the affective aspect of being a citizen and the making of an everyday citizen (p. 29). In the literature review, the author also responds to many critiques about fragmentation, meaninglessness, stereotypes in online discussions or entertainment media by referring to the research of Stephen Coleman (“Connecting Parliament to the Public via the Internet,”  Information, Communication & Society 7, 2004, pp. 1-22), Harry Weger and Mark Aakhus (“Arguing in Internet Chat Rooms: Argumentative Adaptations to Chat Room Design and Some Consequences for Public Deliberation at a Distance,” Argumentation & Advocacy 40, 2003, pp. 23-38) and Lincoln Dahlberg (“Rethinking the Fragmentation of the Cyberpublic: From Consensus to Contestation,” New Media & Society 9 , 2007, pp. 827-846) to place emphasis on an interactive, diverse and radical democratic model of public sphere online environment (p. 42).

In her case study of Super Girl (SG), Wu describes how SG fostered public discourses among the viewers in their own sense-making civic life (p. 48) which supports the hypothesis of her project instead of the two more commonly-used opposing views: SG as a mass culture product which challenges elite culture and SG as a mere promoter of the producers’ commercial interests rather than democracy. In terms of methodology, in Chapter 3 the author collected samples from newspapers articles from the People’s Daily electronic database and Hunan TV’s Super Girl forum. The author identified three themes around which to carry out deeper analysis: selection and political values, manipulation and social concerns, and general cultural concerns. Through these three themes and a thick description of how they are developed (p. 56), Wu searches for an aesthetic public sphere by engaging with daily public discussions and audiences’ aesthetic experiences on online forums in China. Additionally, she aims to understand how the informal public sphere (online forum) infiltrates the official public sphere (official mainstream newspapers) and how the latter monitors and responds to the former (p. 58).

Chapters 4 to 7 focus on data analysis. Jingsi Wu employed two main methods in order to collect the data: news coverage from mainstream newspapers, and discussions on online communities. In Chapter 4, Wu describes the complicated voting system and participants’ activities which was helpful for understanding the social context and program design of SG. She also discusses the power struggles and negotiations between the producers’ survival skills, the government’s rules and the participants’ reflections. However, in SG the needs of the general public (p. 83), as well as the desire to represent the ordinariness of ordinary people (p. 76) are the most important political values for voting. Surely, there are also manipulations of SG’s judges and the voting system but this is similar to the working of politics itself. The participants or young entertainers also learned and were aware of the process of “aesthetic” public discussions and power negotiations.

In Chapter 5, manipulation and social justice are the main topics of discussion. Although SG was not the first talent show in China, audiences reflected on the manipulation of the competition process within the general society. The author found that “discussions about manipulation beyond the show were linked to formed social stereotypes and sentiments about the rich and powerful in China that reflected the general society’s anxiety about the rising powerful social classes” (pp. 111-112), along with the competition discourses between the official public sphere (newspaper coverage) and the informal public sphere (online discussion). In Chapter 6, the author discussed the weakness of Chinese TV production, the economy of cultural industry and the future of China’s music industry through the coverage analysis and online discussions of reality TV and talent shows in China. Finally, the development of cyberspace and its associated phenomena, including political liberalization, and Chinese netizens’ culture in China are the main concerns in Chapter 7. In the last chapter, Wu reflects on the whole project based on “a strong program of cultural sociology that contends for the autonomy of culture and is particularly attuned to common cultural resources and structure where human discourse converges” (p. 204). In other words, the author tested the possibility of an aesthetic public sphere in China by examining public discourses organized around entertainment experiences and circulated in the official public sphere. At the same time, she was successful in proving the central arguments of cultural citizenship and aesthetic public sphere (p. 209).

Overall, this is a valuable work, especially in examining the development of cultural citizenship and aesthetic public sphere in authoritarian China, which provides an important response to Western academic analyses of China’s condition. This dissertation has two significant contributions. One is the fact that it supports and enriches the theory of cultural citizenship and the aesthetic public sphere particularly in a non-democratic nation; the other is the fact that it uses the case study of Super Girl which was the first time that Chinese people, particularly young people, could vote directly and their decision could influence the process as well as the result. The author goes beyond the two opposite arguments (manipulated commercial environment vs. true voting and democracy experiences) to give us a deep description of the social context and interaction among different competitive narratives along with the discourses between online forums and official newspapers. This work is also an exploration of how Chinese young people are immersed in entertainment media but have learned to enlighten their free-will to debate, discuss and vote publicly without fear.

Dr Hsiao-wen Lee
Lecturer
University of West London
hsiaowentw@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Newspaper articles from the People’s Daily electronic database and Hunan TV Super Girl forum

Dissertation Information

University at Albany, State University of New York. 2011. 224 pp. Primary Advisor: Jennifer Stromer-Galley.

 

Image: The hosts and Six finalists during a 2005 national round event of Super Girl in Changsha, Hunan. Wikimedia Commons.

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