family watching television

The Bardic Function

Introduction

Think about the television programmes you watched growing up. Did the cartoons teach you important social skills and values, such as friendship and tolerance? Did the shows provide models of behaviour that you could follow in your own life and help you construct your identity?

There is no doubt television plays a significant role in shaping our attitudes and beliefs. News programming and documentaries provide viewers with perspectives on issues and events, dramas and comedies can impact the way we see ourselves, and sports broadcasting continues to be one of the most popular forms of entertainment around the world. Even quiz shows reinforce the culturally important codes of competition and success.

Fiske and Hartley (2005) argued television “functions as a social ritual” because we all gather around the screen to reinforce our beliefs and practices. They compared this custom to the way medieval audiences gathered around the talented bards to hear their stories and songs about heroic deeds, courtly romances, and mythological tales.

That is why they coined the term “bardic function” to describe television’s role in the transmission of language and culture.

Bards and Television

Fiske and Hartley identified seven qualities shared by bards and television.

Mediator of Language

The bard functioned as a “mediator of language” who used the “available linguistic resources of the culture” to create versions of the audience which reinforced the dominant ideology. Their complex rhythms and lyrics entertained the listeners in the same way the images and narratives on television now resonate with the viewers to help them make sense of their identity.

diagram showing the bardic function
Bards and Television Transmit Stories

Culture

Instead of satisfying the “internal demands of the text” or some sort of authorial intention, the structure of their messages is shaped by the “needs of the culture”.

Socio-central

Fiske and Hartley believed the bard was at the “centre” of their culture. They also drew attention to how television was “one of the most highly centralised institutions in modern society” which broadcast the main concerns of the day.

The Oral Voice

The fourth comparison is the mode of address. Society often places value on print-literacy, but bards and television connect with the audience through stories of ordinary life and pleasures. You just have to watch and listen.

Positive and Dynamic

The storytelling mode of bards and television “constantly strives to claw back into a central focus the subject of its messages”. The next time you watch a nature programme, listen out for the narrator stressing certain qualities found in the animal kingdom which reinforces our own dominant ideology, such as gender roles and the nuclear family.

Myth-making

Roland Barthes argued signs have two orders of signification: the denotation is the literal interpretation of the sign while the second order, or connotative meaning, refers to symbolic or cultural meanings. For example, the Eiffel Tower is transformed from a simple structure into a symbol of French national identity. Or he word “rose” may denote a specific type of flower with certain physical characteristics, but it may also connote ideas of love, beauty, and romance due to its cultural associations.

Many of these cultural ideas and values are taken for granted as if they are natural or inevitable.

Bards and television use these myths in their messages. The audience may not always be aware of the cultural connotations being articulated in the stories, but the signs are shaping our values and ideologies.

Conventions

Since bards and television rely on these mythologies, the signified is determined by the conventions of the culture rather than some external and natural reality. Their messages are full of common sense.

The Bardic Function

Fiske and Hartley (2005) also offered seven functions performed by “the television medium in its bardic role”.

To Articulate

The first function of television is to “articulate the main lines of the established cultural consensus about the nature of reality”.

To Implicate

The next function of bards and television was to “implicate the individual members of the culture into its dominant value-systems”.

To Celebrate

Bards and television are also supposed to “celebrate, explain, interpret and justify” the actions and behaviours of the “culture’s individual representatives”.

To Assure

The fourth function was to “assure” the culture through the use of reaffirming myths. This could be by positioning the audience to view a particular behaviour as deviant or another social group as a threat. By creating a moral panic, for instance, television elevates the status of the dominant culture.

To Expose

Sometimes, the message was critical of the culture. By exposing the “practical inadequacies in the culture’s sense of itself”, the bard and television are promoting a new ideological stance.

To Convince

Bards and television “convince the audience that their status and identity as individuals is guaranteed by the culture as a whole”.

To Transmit

The final function is “to transmit… a sense of cultural membership”.

From Broadcast to Broadband

Hartley (2009) wondered if the “cultural function” of television had been affected by new digital technologies. Could the bardic function concept take account of self-made media and “consumer productivity” on sites such as YouTube?

Broadcast television was characterised by the clear boundary between the professional producers and their audience. Television was the “broker of knowledge for the family”. However, in the post-broadcast era and the mass amateurization of media production, anyone with a phone can “sing” and publish their narratives online for everyone else to interpret.

Is television’s bardic function challenged by interactive and participatory media? Hartley thought professional storytellers had three options.

The Taliesin Function

Taliesin was a Welsh bard famous for his verses on the natural world and the virtues of Welsh culture. Some people believed he possessed magical powers, including the gift of prophecy and the ability to shapeshift. Hartley is suggesting professional producers can ignore the amateurs and continue to develop inspirational and magical programmes, especially if the “top-down” business model generates profit.

The Gandalf Function

Perhaps the bards can become guides rather than the “sage on the stage”, sharing their wisdom and using their skills to assist the productivity of the storytelling system.

The Eisteddfod Function

The third option is more likely. Amateur and professional bards will operate in the same system with opportunities for collaborations which extend the capability of the storytelling system. The name refers to the Eisteddfod tradition – a Welsh cultural festival that dates back to the 12th century. The festival provides a platform for Welsh speakers and artists to come together and share their poetry, music, dance, and drama. Of course, the stories often feature political and social issues, with many performances addressing issues such as the environment, human rights, and Welsh independence. It is a vibrant and energetic festival where amateurs can participate – just like our social media platforms.

Conclusion

In his introduction to the second edition of Reading Television, Hartley (2005) noted how “television was routinely analysed for outcomes that were known in advance to be negative”. The cultivation theory, for example, suggests there is a link between heavy users of television and their beliefs about violence in the world. Psychologists were more interested in analysing deviant behaviour rather than exploring television’s role in society.

Fiske and Hartley’s original work in 1978 was one of the first books to consider television as the “principal mechanism by which a culture could communicate with its collective self”. Many researchers now consider television to be a socialising agent, teaching the audience cultural practices and accepted behaviours. We see representations on the screen which help us construct our own identity. That is the “bardic function” of television.

Hartley, J. (2009): “TV Stories: From Representation to Productivity”.
Fiske, J. & Hartley, J. (2003 [1978]): “Reading Television”.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!