What do we need to have in common if we are to communicate with each other?

Regular readers of this site know that Believer1, alias Mrs Acilius, is a sociologist.  Lately she’s been spending time with a school of thought called Symbolic Interactionism.  American social theorist George Herbert Mead is usually named as the founder of Symbolic Interactionism.  The Believer has shared with me some claims that Symbolic Interactionists make that she finds problematic.  For example, Mead defined communication as something that occurs if and only if one person sets out to elicit a particular response from another person and then sees that other person respond in that way.  So, if I tell you a joke in order to make you laugh, I have communicated with you if and only if I have seen you laugh.  When she reads this sort of thing, the Believer transforms into the Disbeliever.  Could anyone really use the word “communication” only in this very narrow sense? 

blogger-in-computer1The November 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture includes a number of pieces that remind me of Symbolic Interactionism.  The highlight of the issue is Chilton Williamson’s column.  Williamson seems to have a Mead-like sense of the limits of communication.  Williamson finds fault with the mass media, not only for being controlled by corporations and other self-interested bureaucracies, nor for showing political biases in one direction or other, but precisely because they are massive.  Williamson writes:

[T]he mass media of today are capable only of lies.  Or, to put it another way, they are incapable of speaking, or transmitting, truth, including the so-called facts… The media have nothing worthwhile to say because the audience they address is, by definition, a mass audience- that is, in terms of genuine human communication, no audience at all.  Both the right and the left, Republicans and Democrats, have been denouncing media bias for generations.  Media bias, they claim, prevents the people from having the true facts about public life, and thus makes democracy unworkable.  But really the situation is the same no matter which side runs the show.  The media represents the massed mental power of the corporate world, political as well as business, and that power is the power of the Prince of Lies.  “In this age of democracy,” John Lukacs says, “[the] intrusion of mind into matter tends to increase.”  This is because mind intruded into matter becomes mere matter- in other words, mere product.

Williamson contrasts the USA that Alexis de Tocqueville described in 1831, where “Americans lived and breathed the politics of their towns, their states, and their country,” and where political debate was the usual mode of conversation among men, with our version of the same country:

Today, Americans assiduously avoid discussing politics in social situations.  Their political conversations occur almost in hiding, among family or like-minded associates, or one-way– nightly, in the privacy of their dens in front of the television set- as Hannity and Beck reinforce their own opinions: remote and unanswerable presences, but reassuring ones.  It is all a bit like watching pornography.

How do those of us who find Hannity and Beck anything but reassuring respond to this situation?

The homogenized, disinfected, carefully controlled, and apparently neutral and anodyne content sustained by the mass media, by denying notice to, and access by, minority opinion, quite naturally ensures that dissenters develop progressively hostile, extreme, and unreasonable opinions and ideas and resort to the relatively unregulated internet to express them.  Unlike the official media, the web is a bedlam of raw personal opinion, but here lack of constraint has the same result as overconstraint: suspicion, uncertainty, and resentment… The unpleasant truth is that every writer needs an editor, albeit an honest editor who is as well an individual and a human being, not a corporate automaton.  Ultimately, unrestrained populist babble is no more reliable than the corporate monotone that pretends to inform us about the shape and content of the modern world we inhabit.  

The products mass media bring to the market less and less resemble tools through which we can look at the world, more and more take on the character of accessories with which we decorate ourselves.  Williamson quotes Jean Guéhennoc, who wrote that “the ultimate stage of democracy by media will be reached when political debate no longer has any influence on actual decisions but on the collective perception that a people has of itself.”  It may seem superfluous, but Williamson follows this quote with a reference to Barack Obama, elected by a people overwhelmingly opposed to his predecessor’s policies of war in Asia and bailouts for Wall Street, who has used his office to expand wars and bailouts alike. 

How have we come to this desperate pass?

Short of either a nuclear winter or a global-warming summer that destroys much of the natural world and civilization along with it, the media will dominate what remains of that civilization for as far as the human eye can see.  The media are no plot but a technological excrescence that was not designed overall but incrementally, and according to technological and financial, rather than human, logic.  There is the problem.  Mass communications are destructive because they claim to communicate without doing so, and the reason they cannot communicate is that human communication multiplied by scores of millions of times is impossible.  To address everyone at once is to address nobody at all. 

For Williamson, communication among human beings means connection among human beings.  A charismatic speaker may be able to form some kind of connection with a large group, but even the most charismatic speakers are limited in the kind of connection they can form with such a group, and thus with the kind of message they can communicate; “Christ Himself appears to have limited his audiences to 5000 people, while saving His choicest teachings for private discussions with the Twelve.” 

Williamson would likely be unimpressed with some of the other pieces in this issue.  For example, Clay Reynolds writes an article “On the Death of Newspapers.”  Reynolds points out that newspapers put information and features in front of us that we could find elsewhere only if we knew to look for them.  He several times mentions the fact that the battery on his laptop often runs low, and reminisces about ways that newspapers have added texture to life in years gone by.  Williamson’s lone remark about newspapers is a reference to Albert Camus’ definition of modern man as a creature who “reads the newspapers and fornicates.”

Several pieces about Quebec express nostalgia for the social condition of that province circa 1952,  when a sort of agrarian theocracy rode high there.  Agrarian theocracy is the Chronicles crowd’s favored mode of social life, I should mention.  Indeed, if I were to summarize the magazine in a sentence, that sentence would be “This magazine laments the decline of the peasantry.”  Editor Thomas Fleming closes his column about the decline of Quebec into urbanized secular modernity with this paragraph:

Religious and historical symbols are more potent than might be imagined.  They are cultural talismans that work magic.  Driving into Quebec, visitors have to go by the Parliament building, which flies only one flag, the Fleurdelisé.  It is the flag of Quebec, the ancient royalist fleur-de-lys, set within a cross.  Since Quebec has the status of “a nation within a nation,” we can say that it is the only Christian national flag in North America.  Quebeckers may be eager to abandon their religion and their history, but in preserving the symbols they have given their descendants something to remember.

As their name suggests, the Symbolic Interactionists agree that “[r]eligious and historical symbols are more potent than might be imagined.”  I doubt that many of them would go so far as to claim that symbols “are cultural talismans that work magic,” but they would be inclined to agree that we are formed as individuals by the systems of symbols in which we have been initiated, and that it is through those systems of symbols that communities structure themselves and work to shape their environments.  Also, I doubt that many sociologists, social psychologists, or cultural anthropologists who work within Symbolic Interactionism would share the Chronicles crowd’s tendency to judge the well-being of society by the godliness of its peasantry.  Very modern-minded, Symbolic Interactionists.

One other piece I’d mention is by Luc Gagnon, the Paris correspondent for the Quebecois Catholic journal Égards.  These sentences intrigued me:

By the 1970s, the French Canadian identity was in crisis.  Although the PQ government force-fed the population with French, it was little concerned with the quality of the language.  The PQ had successfully made French the sacred cow of Quebec, but it did not defend Quebec’s culture, its tradition, its history, or its Roman Catholic religion.

Phrases like “the quality of the language” are extremely vague, and we are used to hearing them in meaningless reactionary grumbling.  In this passage, however, Gagnon follows it by specifying his meaning.  When Gagnon says that the form of the French language the Parti Québécois promoted was low in quality, he means that the Parti did not promote French as part of a program meant to cultivate the godliness of the peasantry, but rather as part of a program to (in his words) “establish a secular modern state defined by ‘civic nationalism.'”  The Parti was in fact trying to hasten the decline of the peasantry and of the forms of godliness Gagnon would recognize.  Since the Parti’s overall program was aimed at the abolition of those things which Gagnon considers to be the source of human dignity, it could only degrade the Quebeckers as human beings, and its language policy could only debase the French they speak. 

(photo credit)


  1. cymast

     /  October 23, 2009

    I’d say the Symbolic Interactionism definition of communication is extremely limited.

    Quebec/religion/communication- my MIL often tells stories of growing up in Montreal and attending a French-Canadian Catholic school. The Catholic schoolgirls were told what to think and believe and any hint of non-conformity was swiftly and harshly punished. They were hit with a ruler if they were caught looking across the fence at the boys. Protestants were in league with the Devil.

  2. acilius

     /  October 23, 2009

    I suppose the Chronicles crowd would get misty-eyed with nostalgia at your description of your M-i-L’s upbringing.

  3. cymast

     /  October 23, 2009

    Funny you should mention Misty! She’s a Naughty Schoolgirl, ya know . .

  4. cymast

     /  October 23, 2009

    Oh yeah, to answer the title- a shared history, real or imaginary.

  5. acilius

     /  October 23, 2009

    I’d forgotten about Misty! I hope she’s still doing well.

  6. cymast

     /  October 23, 2009

    She’s hanging in there considering the economy and an epic website meltdown.

%d bloggers like this: