I have been rereading Making Sense of Men’s Magazines co-authored by Peter Jackson, Nick Stevenson and Kate Brooks, and I am typing up some notes here. (Here is proper review of the book.) I have actually had the book since 2003, but at first glance and second thought it didn’t really seem that useful to me. However, I am now going to use it in my dissertation to construct my enabling ‘straw-person’ argument regarding what Jackson, et al. term “media sociology”.
The “men’s magazines” in question are so-called ‘lifestyle magazines’ such as FHM, Loaded, and Maxim. As the title of the book implies they carried out focus groups with everyday readers of the magazines to understand the ways they made ‘sense’ (or ‘meanings’) of the magazines. They also interviewed some of the editorial staff associated wiht the magazines and did ‘close readings’ of the magazine texts. There are a number of convergences with my project looking at the role of magazines in the cultural industry of contemporary modified-car culture in Australia. There are also a number of sharp divergences. The biggest single problem with the book is that they somehow believe by asking what ‘men’ think of the ‘men’s magazines’ that they are not being “morally judgemental”, which they believe is a good thing (11-12). To find out what is going on with your car, you go to a mechanic. To find out what is going on with the media, you go to a media researcher. The media researcher may look at the media machinic assemblage (market + media + externalities +…), just like the mechanic looks at the car, but the mechanic does not (normally) ask the car wghat is functioning and how it is functioning, because although the car may have a very nifty in-built computer that logs all errors and so on, that car has not done a trade in mechnics or spent years gaining experiecne to be able tofigure out how it functions itself!! Why do media researchers feel inclined to believe asking parts of the machine how the machine operates is going to have any other outcome?
All in all I find their work troubling. Here it is in point form:
1) They make a distinction between these ‘new’ so-called “general interest” men’s magazines and the “interest-based” magazines in the older or traditional men’s magazine market. They seemingly base this distinction on a single article from Campaign, 29 August 1986. [Not sure what Campaign is??? Anyone??] They write:
Little more than a decade ago it could be confidently asserted that ‘men don’t buy magazines’, apart from pornography or special interest magazines on sports, photography or motoring. (pg 2)Â
I find this distinction problematic. Pornography is special interest(!) and ‘general interest’ is ‘general interest’ in name only, and the discursive construction of ‘general interest’ as some sort of universalising category applicable to ‘masculinity’ in general is very hard to accept. Why is the pursuit of a ‘new lad’ identity not considered a special interest like motor cars, sport, or fishing? There is something of a commercial and cultural industry coup in the transformation of the constitution of identity (‘life’) into an explicit and universalising consumerist project. Do all men buy so-called men’s magazines? No, they do not. The “men’s magazines” are part of an assemblage organised around the interests of the masculine consumer market within the cultural industries. This ‘masculine consumer assemblage’ is perhaps more explicit in its ‘special interest’, that is the ‘new man’ or ‘new lad’ (for the British) or ‘new bloke’ (for the Australians) than some of the other interest-based magazines. There is no way such magazines could ever be accused of trying to sell their magazines to anyone else besides their masculine consumer target market.
2) There is an affective dimension to the magazines that the researchers only half note. Here I am referring to the ‘joke’ of ironic boorish masculinity or, rather, the general ‘tone’ of the magazines. They write:
Through a close reading of a selection of stories in FHM, XL and Maxim, we suggest that the adoption of an ironic mode of cultural commentary serves to subvert political critique, with those who object to the predominant (sexually objectified) ways of representing women easily dismissed as missing the point, much as feminists have previously been described as ‘humousless’.
Throughout the book, in fact, we take a sceptical approach to the alleged irony of magazines such as Loaded, arguing that their tone of ‘knowing’ sexism may serve as a way of deflecting potential criticicsm. […] The tone of magazines such as Loaded can therefore be thought of more critically as a means of handling the contradictions of contemporary gender relatins where older-style patriachal relations are crumbling but where men may still strive to maintain conventional poer relations between the sexes. (pg 20)
I can not find my copy of Difference and Repititon (from the “Introduction”) at the moment and it is getting late, so I shall quote from here:
Deleuze calls irony â€œascending towards the principlesâ€ of moral law, which means â€œchallenging the law as secondary,â€ challenging its authenticity, protesting its illegitimacy and usurping of an â€œoriginal power.â€ He contrasts this with humor, â€œdescending towards the consequences,â€ where one â€œfalsely submitsâ€ to the law, mocks it, and thereby is able to â€œtaste pleasures it was supposed to forbid.â€
There are various measures of humour and irony within a given situation or happening. There isn’t much more I can say about that… however, quite simply, a joke may be used to differenciate a group so it maintains its consistency. A particular affective tone operates much the same way. The researchers didn’t get it, because they simply didn’t get it. Instead of looking to critique the deployment of alleged irony (their argument I somewhat agree with), look at what the tone of the magazines does within the assemblage. What does it do?
Paradoxically, like any joke, if you need to ask, then you have already missed it, the humor gets sucked out of the situation! It is the immediate surprise and laughter (supressed or otherwise), shame (for finding it funny, ‘for men who should know better’ (tagline for Loaded at one stage I believe)). It is in the affective dimension of the magazine that the ‘men’ who read it are enabled to become-together, that is, to paraphrase Massumi, the magazines are the transmission of the event and its consumption triggers a particular masculine consumer attunement. The ‘laughter’ of the masculine consumer is differentially repeated in various ways at various times in various places by various readers. Angela McRobbie actually made a very similar point on teenage girls/women and their magazine reading habits as noted by the current researchers: “McRobbie (1991) a negative view of the internal logic of the problem page (characterised by unsisterly individualism) with a more positive assessment of its external logic (how the magazines are read and giggled over collectively)” (ital. added, pg 7).
3) Instead of looking at how magazines fit into broader consumption habits and practices in this masculine consumer assemblage and the affective dimension (largely based on a reactionary ‘ironic’ masculinity) around which it is organised, the researchers bring out the old ‘media sociology’ text book and whack us over the head with some more media-hegemony theory work. Forget that stuff. Forget it!!! The readers are not ‘dupes’, they WANT TO READ THE MAGAZINES!! Why? Because they find them interesting.
If the magazines are part of the ‘media machinic assemblage’, then that means all the editors and especially the readers are also cogs in this machine. The editors or the editorial content does not have to (laughably) transmit ideology or the beliefs of the ruling classes through their work for the assemblage to function!!! They could be doing the exact opposite!!! It doesn’t matter. (Resistance is futile, or, at least, the Borg become assimilated into the Star Trek machinic assemblage.) All that matters is that the consistency of the assemblage is maintained, which therefore maintains the cultural economy which by and large constitute the ‘market‘ (from the cultural economy point of view) or the ‘scene‘ (for the individual participant’s point of view). ‘Market’ and ‘scene’ are two not exact opposites across the producer/circulater-consumer divide.
For example, readers only have to find the humour funny to feel like they belong to and are part of the assemblage, therefore editors need to write funny editorial content. This is terribly simplified and it actually has more to do with the distribution and contraction of differences across the intensive social field. Or, in other words, what the magazine says is important, the reader actually finds interesting. Or, the reader has some level (intensity) of interest and the magazine works towards that interest. It is a symbiotic machinic relation: important/interesting. (The flip side of this you find on various ‘political’ blogs who only blog about that which is ‘important’ in the hope that they will be ‘interesting’.)
4) To tie it back into the first point about special interests. What is the special interest of the masculine consumer? To belong to certain event spaces in certain ways, at work, home, school, sport field/stand, pub, and so on. The materiality of identity has a gatekeeper function. You look like you belong. Money is a good signifier of belonging anywhere. The magazines select (literally, through advertising and advertainment features) commodified signifers of certain event spaces, organise these selections in the pages of the magazine, territorialise these organisations with the potentialities (for belonging) of ‘new man’ or ‘new lad’ affectivities through the affective content of the magazines’ affective discourse (or tone), and then envelop these territories with an abstract machine of the universal category of ‘man’.
The questions I would ask are: Why does this particular media and assemblage emerge at this particular (con)juncture? What does it do? What else does it need to function with (or what are the other components and dimensions of the princplie assemblage of which it is part)? Why do ‘men’ need to believe/feel like they are ‘consuming-living’ a commodified lifestyle in such a way that enables them to belong with other (similarly consuming-living) ‘men’?