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Carey - A Cultural Approach to Communication

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1/4/13 CHAPTER 1 A Cultural Approach to Communication1/ CHAPTER 1 A Cultural Approach to CommunicationJames Carey (from Communication as Culture)When I decided some years ago to read seriously the literature of communications, a wise mansuggested I begin with John Dewey. It was advice I have never regretted accepting. Althoughthere are limitations to Dewey–his literary style was described by William James as damnable–there is a depth to his work, a natural excess common to seminal minds, that offers permanentcomplexities, and paradoxes over which to puzzle–surely something absent from most of ourliterature.Dewey opens an important chapter in Experience and Nature with the seemingly preposterousclaim that "of all things communication is the most wonderful" (1939: 385). What could he havemeant by that? If we interpret the sentence literally, it must be either false or mundane. Surelymost of the news and entertainment we receive through the mass media are of the order thatThoreau predicted for the international telegraph: "the intelligence that Princess Adelaide hadthe whooping cough." A daily visit with the New York Times is not quite so trivial, though it isan experience more depressing than wonderful. Moreover, most of one's encounters withothers are wonderful only in moments of excessive masochism. Dewey's sentence, by anyreasonable interpretation, is either false to everyday experience or simply mundane if hemeans only that on some occasions communication is satisfying and rewarding.In another place Dewey offers an equally enigmatic comment on communication: "Societyexists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist intransmission, in communication" (Dewey, 1916: 5). What is the significance of the shift inprepositions? Is Dewey claiming that societies distribute information, to speak rather tooanthropomorphically, and that by such transactions and the channels of communicationpeculiar to them society is made possible? That is certainly a reasonable claim, but we hardlyneed social scientists and philosophers to tell us so. It reminds me of Robert Nisbet's acidremark that if you need sociologists to inform you whether or not you have a ruling class, yousurely don't. But if this transparent interpretation is rejected, are there any guarantees that afterpeeling away layers of semantic complexity anything more substantial will be revealed?I think there are, for the body of Dewey's work reveals a substantial rather than a pedestrianintelligence. Rather than quoting him ritualistically (for the lines I have cited regularly appearwithout comment or interpretation in the literature of communications), we would be betteradvised to untangle this underlying complexity for the light it might cast upon contemporarystudies. I think this complexity derives from Dewey's use of communication in two quitedifferent senses. He understood better than most of us that communication has had twocontrasting definitions in the history of Western thought, and he used the conflict betweenthese definitions as a source of creative tension in his work. This same conflict led him, notsurprisingly, into some of his characteristic errors. Rather than blissfully repeating his insightsor unconsciously duplicating his errors, we might extend his thought by seizing upon the samecontradiction he perceived in our use of the term "communication" and use it in turn as a1/4/13 CHAPTER 1 A Cultural Approach to Communication2/ for vivifying our studies.Two alternative conceptions of communication have been alive in American culture since thisterm entered common discourse in the nineteenth century. Both definitions derive, as withmuch in secular culture, from religious oirigins, though they refer to somewhat differentregions of religious experience. We might label these descriptions, if only to provide handypegs upon which to hang our thought, a transmission view of communication and a ritual viewof communication.The transmission view of communication is the commonest in our culture–perhaps in allindustrial cultures–and dominates contemporary dictionary entries under the term. It isdefined by terms such as "impaffing," "sending," "transmitting," or "giving information toothers." It is formed from a metaphor of geography or transportation. In the nineteenth centurybut to a lesser extent today, the movement of goods or people and the movement ofinformation were seen as essentially identical processes and both were described by thecommon noun "communication." The center of this idea of communication is the transmissionof signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control. It is a view of communicationthat derives from one of the most ancient of human dreams: the desire to increase the speedand effect of messages as they travel in space. From the time upper and lower Egypt wereunified under the First Dynasty down through the invention of the telegraph, transportationand communication were inseparably linked. Although messages might be centrally producedand controlled, through monopolization of writing or the rapid production of print, thesemessages, carried in the hands of a messenger or between the bindings of a book, still had to bedistributed, if they were to have their desired effect, by rapid transportation. The telegraphended the identity but did not destroy the metaphor. Our basic orientation to communicationremains grounded, at the deepest roots of our thinking, in the idea of transmission:communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for thecontrol of distance and people.I said this view originated in religion, though the foregoing sentences seem more indebted topolitics, economics, and technology. Nonetheless, the roots of the transmission view ofcommunication, in our culture at least, lie in essentially religious attitudes. I can illustrate thisby a devious though, in detail, inadequate path.In its modern dress the transmission view of communication arises, as the Oxford EnglishDictionary will attest, at the onset of the age of exploration and discovery. We have beenreminded rather too often that the motives behind this vast movement in space were politicaland mercantilistic. Certainly those motives were present, but their importance should notobscure the equally compelling fact that a major motive behind this movement in

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