Circuit of Culture and the Preferred Reading.

The Circuit of Culture is a theoretical framework developed by Du gay and others (1997) in which a circuit of five points is completed in analysing a cultural text. ‘Text’ in this context refers not just to written documents but includes other cultural artifacts such as televisual or radio productions. The five points in the circuit are: representation, identity, production, consumption and regulation. From the perspectives of these five interrelated points we can examine the processes of production, interpretation and use of cultural artifacts.

David Morley (1980) highlighted various power structures within and outside cultural texts. Power structures outside texts, such as class, gender or ethnicity, often influence audience response, while power structures within texts produced by media institutions may tend towards a ‘preferred reading’ or ‘preferred meaning’ in line with dominant values. This preferred reading may struggle with other possible meanings within a text.

In order to illustrate the concept of ‘preferred reading’ and to use the Circuit of Culture approach to analyse a specific cultural text I have chosen an interview by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese resistance group Hezbollah, on the Russia Today television station (there is a link to a video of the interview at the end of this piece). I have chosen this particular interview as it is a multi-layered discourse in which the lives and beliefs of the participants perhaps play a much greater role than the actual immediate text, and the political agenda of the media carrier, Russia Today (RT), is intrinsic to this discourse.

I terms of the Circuit’s first stop, representation, Assange’s show, The World Tomorrow, for which the interview was conducted, begins with a dramatic montage of still images and video footage that remind us who Julian Assange is and he tells us that ‘we’ are on a ‘quest for revolutionary ideas that can change the world tomorrow’. Footage of Assange addressing a large crowd of his supporters lets us know that we are dealing with figure with a popular following and video of the electronic tag on his leg, along with references to his detention without charge for five hundred days, posits him as a victim of unjust political detention. Although Assange says that ‘we have exposed the world’s secrets’, the clear reference to the United States on two occasions during this dramatic introduction clearly sets the tone for the following interview and says as much about Assange’s political agenda as it does about that of the carrying broadcaster, Russia Today, which we will look at in a little more detail when we examine this cultural text under the Circuit’s next heading of ‘Identity’.

The dramatic introduction gives way to footage of Assange preparing for the interview and stating that his ‘guest’ is joining them from ‘a secret location in Lebanon’. The emphasis Assange puts on the word ‘secret’ heightens the sense of drama and in effect references a shared ‘secret’ between Assange and those who like to think they are ‘in the know’, that secret being that Sheikh Nasrallah is a likely target for Israeli assassination and has to keep his whereabouts secret. The irony of someone like Assange, whose life’s work is releasing secrets, himself revelling in the secrecy of the encounter perhaps adds a dialectical aspect to the overall discourse.

Once the interview begins we see an all-male cast of Assange, two interpreters (although we are not made aware they are both interpreters until near the end of the interview) and the Hezbollah leader speaking via a video link from his secret location. The fact that the interviewee, Assange, is speaking towards a computer monitor is not concealed and the whole technical aspect of the interview is very much on view, perhaps as some form of symbolic openness to match the supposedly radical or revolutionary nature of the interview itself. Nasrallah himself appears before a blue background with Hezbollah and Lebanese national flags indicating his dual role as Hezbollah leader and Lebanese patriot. He speaks Arabic which is translated into English by the interpreters. His cleancut native attire adds to his sense of gravitas.

It is clear from the frequent framing of Assange in a considered, thoughtful, pose that this interview is very much about him as well as the Sheikh and Assange’s addressing of Nasrallah by his first name adds a sense of intimacy and radical confraternity that indicates a non-textual discourse that has little to do with the actual questions being asked or answered. In fact Assange comes across as a slightly stilted interviewer and to some degree in thrall to someone who is an iconic figure in the minds of many Westerners who regard themselves as radical. The questions he asks probably tell us as much about him as Nasrallah and he misses a great opportunity to explore what is central to Nasrallah, his faith, in order to pursue his own atheist agenda by questioning the Hezbollah leader on his attitude to the ‘totalitarian concept of a monotheistic God’. The fact that Assange describes his own question as ‘very provocative’ perhaps also reveals as much about himself as the answer to the question does about Nasrallah.

The interview itself ends with laughing and goodwill all around with the interpreters finally being introduced, not by name, because, to be blunt, they are ancilliary to a show that is as much a vehicle for Assange as it is a forum for interviewing interesting people. I’m sure the Hezbollah leader is a far more interesting person than portrayed through the lens of Julian Assange’s particular world-view.

It is, however, probably at the Circuit of Culture’s ‘Identity’ waypoint that we can learn most about what the preferred reading of this particular cultural text is. I believe that central to an understanding of this is an appreciation of the nature and identity of the Russia Today television station as a state-owned broadcaster, almost certainly highly controlled in its output by the Kremlin. Luke Harding of The Guardian  calls it ‘the Kremlin propaganda channel’ ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/apr/17/world-tomorrow-julian-assange-wikileaks ) and describes Julian Assange as ‘a useful idiot’ in his role within RT. The Guardian would be generally regarded as broadly left/liberal in its leanings and, while Harding’s is an opinion piece, it probably isn’t quite as open to attack as an ideologically driven piece, given where it is published. RT broadcasts in a number of languages and into a large number of countries other than Russia itself.

As someone who likes to watch news channels I have been struck at how politically partisan Russia Today is compared to, for instance, state-run Chinese television stations. It is partisan not so much in the language of its anchors as in the choice of its contributors. Hosts like Max Keiser of The Keiser Report are vehement critics of Western institutions, in Keiser’s case monetary institutions, and their vehemence would probably mitigate against them rising to prominent media positions in Western media. Which is all very well if another point of view is presented and if the same critique is applied to Russia and its allies, but it’s not. Within the Western nations the United States seems to hold a position of greatest critique-worthiness and this clearly determines the preferred reading of the interview by Julian Assange of Sheikh Nasrallah. From beginning to end the ‘hegemony’ of the United States is either explicitly or implicitly referred to. The interviewer and interviewee are both seen as opponents of this hegemony and as such the discourse is as much about the interview itself as it is about what is actually said during the interview, perhaps more so, given the interviewer’s ego-driven questioning. An alternative reality of Russia’s role in support of the Syrian regime is not explored in any way.

At the Circuit’s third point of analysis we find ‘Production’, and, as seen above, the particular circumstances of the interview lead to an unorthodox setting. This setting becomes very much part of the overarching discourse of the immediate text, with the implicit threat from the United State’s main ally in the Middle East, Israel, very much present for the politically literate audience that would, I imagine, constitute RT’s general audience. There is no denying that Sayed Hassan Nasrallah would be a likely target for Israel and having an interviewer who has been detained without charge all adds to a preferred reading of an unjust and hegemonic western Europe and United Sates. The presentation of the apparatus of broadcast probably adds to a sense of fugitive improvisation.

At the Circuit’s fourth stop we find ‘Consumption’ and here we have a large audience, many of whom might not be attracted to Russia Today if it were not for the presence of two such iconic figures as Nasrallah and Assange. Apart from Russian ex-pats, Assange’s show would attract many from the Western world who would regard Assange, and by implication themselves, as radical and challenging of an unjust political and economic system, what they might term ‘the status quo’. They will probably not be too interested in seeing the interviewer give the interviewee a hard and demanding interview and will be more interested in confirming themselves in their own view of the world rather than learning something new. To that end the interview and it’s overarching discourse will confirm them in their acceptance of the preferred reading of Russia Today and, indeed, of Assange.

There will, of course, be some who do not fall into some kind of self-proclaimed activist or radical position and might be more sceptical of the whole exercise. Undoubtedly the presence of the Leader of Hezbollah will also attract a large audience of Muslims and others with an interest in affairs in the Middle East. People with religious beliefs probably found Assange’s efforts to get his revolutionary hero to address the ‘totalitarian concept of a monotheistic God’ as pointless and irritating, but Russia Today will surely have gained some new viewers by having a person such as Sheikh Nasrallah on their station.

The fifth and final point along the Circuit, ‘Regulation’, has significance for the discourse and preferred reading more from an informal than specifically legal point of view. Given the nature of the broadcaster’s ownership and the amount of control the Kremlin appears to hold over output, informal regulation will play a huge part in what RT will broadcast and, as I have alluded to, it is one of the most politically partisan channels to be found on the Sky platform. You won’t find much in the way of critical examination of Russian society but what you do get is a platform for the enemies  or critics of Russia’s perceived enemies, the West and the United States in particular.

In conclusion, there are many ‘realities’ that are not pushed in the cultural text that is this particular interview between Julian Assange and the leader of Hezbollah. While the interviewer does push Nasrallah on the killing of civilians in Syria, a Hezbollah ally, his determination to fit the Arab Spring into a secular, left-wing analysis of revolution and upheaval excludes any examination of the role of religious belief in the changes sweeping through the Middle East. In his clear disregard for a belief in God he totally misses out on an opportunity to engage fully with an important political and spiritual leader. No matter how much Julian Assange might wish it otherwise, belief in God and how people practice and express that belief are far more important to a vastly greater number of people in the Middle East than are Assange’s notions of a supposedly totalitarian monotheism. The fact that it is on a Russian television station that Assange is being given a platform to promote the same ideas that accompanied the deaths of millions under atheist totalitarianism perhaps shows that whether we deal in ‘reality’ or contrived discourse we never seem to learn from history.

Julian Assange interviews Sayed Hassan Nasrallah:

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