How do we capture what meanings audiences make of the media texts laid before them? More impossibly, how do we do this for past audiences who are gone and may have left scant traces behind? These are central dilemmas that have vexed communications studies scholars as we seek to understand the cultural and political work that a host of media texts – films, advertisements, radio shows, television, the web – have done in constituting us as individuals and as groups, and in constituting our society and culture. This essay considers the various sources media historians seek out as we try

to piece together what past media texts meant to audiences now long gone. I propose to take direct issue with one of the long-standing canons in our field: that one cannot, and most certainly should not, infer audience responses and meaning-making from the text itself. Various of us have obviously ignored this canon, while then permitting it to burrow into our confidence about whether we’ve remotely gotten things right. This methodological prohibition stems, in part, from the concern that media historians would mechanistically attribute whatever appeared to be the obvious, dominant, preferred meaning of the media text onto the responses of audiences in a kind of ex post facto hypodermic needle fashion. We can only infer the intentions of the producers, but not the meanings made by recipients of media texts, or so the conventional wisdom has gone. The prohibition also stems from the fact that it is very hard to teach textual analysis. Unlike conducting an effects experiment, learning how to run regressions, or mastering the protocols of the focus group, textual analysis has so far had limited models for how to train people to do it. When I was in grad school, for example, one learned it by osmosis, by reading primarily the historical or literary interpretations of others. So how can a method be a legitimate method if there are not even good protocols for teaching it? And if it’s not legitimate, how can it possibly help us resurrect the meanings made by past audiences from past eras? These positions fail to recognize how much more theoretically and metho-

dologically sophisticated textual analysis has become in recent years, in no small part because of the role cultural studies has played in making our understanding of audiences, past and present, more nuanced. We have come to

appreciate that there are interpretive communities who do different readings of texts (although here we have to be careful not to cast them as monolithic) and we also understand that people develop layered and multiple interpretive repertoires that they bring to bear on media texts. These repertoires may be further inflected by gender, race, class, age, sexuality and geography. Indeed, there have been dramatic changes over the past thirty years in how

historians have thought about past audiences and why textual analysis has become more subtle and careful. First we must begin with the acknowledgment that, within the humanities, until the late 1970s there was an elitist bias against studying the mass media at all, past or present. Echoing the German émigrés Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s assertion that the “culture industries” produced recycled, low culture drivel that made consumers “fall helpless victims of what is offered them”, leading American intellectuals sneered at the mass media, and by inference any analysis of it.1 As the prominent critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in the 1950s, popular culture is

a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and the simple, spontaneous pleasures. The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products.2