Interpreting and Reinterpreting the Political Significance of Popular Media: The Importance of Seeing from a Range of Perspectives

AuthorMarcus Schulzke
Publication Date01 Dec 2017
Political Studies
2017, Vol. 65(4) 930 –946
© The Author(s) 2017
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DOI: 10.1177/0032321717693028
Interpreting and Reinterpreting
the Political Significance of
Popular Media: The Importance
of Seeing from a Range of
Marcus Schulzke
Studies of popular culture have elucidated important insights about the extent to which politics
is constructed by entertainment media. Nevertheless, I contend that when it comes to studies of
security discourses in entertainment, researchers are too preoccupied with categorising texts as
either ‘critical’ or ‘affirmative’, depending on whether they seem to support or challenge militarism.
I argue that work on popular culture should be more attentive to the polysemic character of texts
– that is, their openness to multiple readings. From this perspective, studies which are directed at
finding critical or affirmative meaning are valuable, but they only uncover a narrow range of the
possible interpretations texts may receive. I substantiate this with examples of ostensibly critical
films which have been appropriated into military culture and ostensibly affirmative videogames
which include critical themes. Giving greater attention to polysemy broadens research possibilities,
especially when it comes to identifying how popular media are politically meaningful.
entertainment, security, film, videogames, popular culture
Accepted: 20 November 2016
Popular media perform a wide variety of political functions, affirming or criticising gov-
ernment policies, celebrating or condemning military operations, praising or demonising
political actors and, in general, constructing the experience of politics (Bleiker, 2009;
Ciută, 2016; Dittmer, 2010; Grayson et al., 2009; Schulzke, 2014, 2015). Popular media
are particularly important when they reflect on issues relating to security as they identify
potential threats, characterise enemies, invoke contested values and reflect on the concept
of security itself (Dixit, 2012; Schulzke, 2013a; Valeriano and Habel, 2016). Research in
Department of Politics, University of York, York, UK
Corresponding author:
Marcus Schulzke, Department of Politics, University of York, York SO10 5DD, UK.
693028PSX0010.1177/0032321717693028Political StudiesSchulzke
Schulzke 931
this domain has been effective in critiquing problematic conceptions of security and show-
ing how popular culture discourses are mobilised to support real policies. For example,
studies have traced the links between fictional endorsements of torture and enthusiasm for
it in practice (Danzig and Salek, 2012; Tenenboim-Weinblatt, 2009; Van Veeren, 2009) or
between fictional reflections on 9/11 and the Bush administration’s rhetoric throughout the
War on Terror (Birkenstein et al., 2010; Croft, 2006; Martin and Petro, 2006).
The importance of popular media in the security domain is reinforced by the heavily
speculative nature of security/insecurity. Many of the security challenges influencing poli-
tics in the ‘real world’ are ethereal and based heavily on risk calculations – probabilistic
assessments of potential events which may or may not happen and which are managed
without much certainty of what effect these efforts have or whether predictions are accu-
rate (Rasmussen, 2006; Shaw, 2002; Spence, 2005). Insecurity arises from abstractions
like terrorism or from largely invisible adversaries using cyber weapons, drones and hid-
den bombs. Even when threats have concrete manifestations, they may be poorly under-
stood and provoke endless speculation about why they exist and how they are manifested.
Popular culture intercedes in this informational vacuum to provide some sense of certainty
(real or imagined) that we have clear answers about the nature of security risks and are able
to defeat them (Holland, 2011).
Research on popular culture and security has made enormous progress in theorising
the intersections between media and politics, yet I contend that the literature suffers
from a fundamental limitation that must be addressed to accurately characterise popular
culture’s political significance. Much of the research focuses on developing critical or
affirmative readings – showing that texts support or challenge a particular understand-
ing of security or a potential threat – without giving adequate attention to alternative
I argue that research on popular culture and politics should give greater attention to the
various different (and sometimes contradictory) interpretations that texts can sustain.
This demands a greater awareness of polysemy – the possibility of reading texts in mul-
tiple different ways. It is important as an interpretive exercise in its own right, yet it
becomes even more valuable when we attempt to account for the political significance of
popular culture. Here, the salient research question is not what the right interpretation of
a text is, especially if correctness is derived from authorial intent, but how the text imbues
politics with meaning. To be clear, I am not suggesting that existing interpretations of
popular media are incorrect. I assume just the opposite – that these are valid interpreta-
tions which are well-supported by the available textual evidence. My contention is not
that existing interpretations are wrong but that they are incomplete insofar as most only
identify a narrow range of potential interpretations.
By emphasising the importance of polysemy and how this contributes to uncovering
the political significance of popular culture, I hope to advance the effort to develop
stronger methodologies for evaluating the political dimensions of popular culture and
images more broadly. There are three advantages in giving greater weight to polysemy.
First, focusing on a narrow range of interpretations of a text limits our search for the role
popular media have in political life. Capturing the political significance of popular media
depends heavily on understanding how media are interpreted and what drives perspecti-
val variations. Second, acknowledging polysemy and building it into the research agenda
opens the possibility of not only studying the various themes which run throughout a text
but also theorising how audiences fit these themes into different constellations of mean-
ing. Polysemy provides an opportunity for understanding what ideological orientations or

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