Sep 12, 2009

Communication or Culture?

My field is cultural studies. So I looked forward to reading Carey's "A Cultural Approach to Communication." Half-way through reading, I thought it seemed very familiar and it finally hit me - "things can become so familiar that we no longer perceive them at all" - he is describing communication the same way we do culture.

He defines culture as: "a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed." Usually, culture is relegated this role. It dictates our mindsets, worldviews, values, beliefs, ways of expression, dressing, manners, eating, - both how we perceive the world and what constructs the world around us. (Thus why it seems invisible until one is thrust into another culture.) Communication could be seen as the or an instrument of culture, but Carey pushes it a step further.

As a postmodern, he easily makes the claim there is no ultimate reality, rather that communication itself constructs and perpetuates reality, that is is through understanding and using of symbols. However, what are these symbols? Here, he seems to have left the idea of communication as an oral or visual construct. Does anything that conveys meaning then fall under this purview? If clothing conveys a message (and surely we in America know that well), does that make it a piece of communication instead or as well as a cultural artifact?

While yet later playing it down as usually a simple set of daily activities, this mundaneness yet highlights the sheer vastness of his claim. Everything can denote meaning or contribute to a perception of reality. As Prof. Hayden said in class, even a TV demonstrates political influence. Does this mean everything is therefore communication?

When I took Intercultural Communication in undergrad, there was a story related in my textbook. A young couple wanted to marry, so their parents had a dinner together. When they left, they knew the woman's parents didn't agree with the marriage. Yet they didn't discuss it at all. The answer: they were served a food combination that didn't match, indicating the parents found the couple a poor fit.

Communication is not always explicit, but it is intentional. This would be my key. As a Christian, we talk about how nature proclaims the glory of God. Yet this is a different form of communication - it is neither human-initiated or controlled. Carey would disagree with me as we (Christians) are the ones giving that meaning, but rocks 'communicate' that they are hard and sharp by breaking skin. The labels or words we use to explain this are communication. The fact of it in and of itself is not. Correspondingly, when and where and why we go to places and look at things and think thoughts, yes this says a lot about us, but I would not call it communication unless we try to turn around and perpetuate it.

Still, Carey had a very valid point about communication - in that it teaches/informs what it is meant to display. This is because knowledge is not neutral - the very act of transmission/perception colors the knowledge. Americans find this idea repugnant, with a very great insistence that objecivity is not only possible, but somehow easily attainable. (I agree with Carey that culture as a concept is weak in America, but rather because of its elusiveness. America has so many diverse markers, it is far easier to make out sub-cultures than the overarching culture, which is more prevalent in values and beliefs that are that much harder to see.)

America sincerely believes in today's world that increased communication, dialogue, is the answer to all problems. But until it realizes just how deep communication penetrates, the lens that shape even the shades of meaning we attach to words, this communication will go from blind eye to untuned ear and be mere babble.

1 comment:

  1. Hello!
    I'd like to make a comment on your last paragraph. I would agree that increased mediation is the underrated solution to many conflicts, especially ethnic violence. However, as you suggest, communication is far deeper than dialogue, and permeates cultures in unimaginable ways.

    For example, the conflict in Cyprus, that will hopefully be solved through mediation in a manner that satisfies both the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, is not solely dependent on dialogue. Though dialogue is the likely solution to peacebuilding and peacekeeping, communication forms penetrate the societies, deepening the stark contrast between nations. Mediums displaying opposing currencies, languages, and even dance traditions divide the nations.

    Thus, I agree with your hypothesis that communication and dialogue alone is not the definitive method through which conflicts will end. Rather, a combination of mediation and cultural sensitivity are perhaps a better combination.