Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fellowship of Communication

Among this week's readings, James Carey's "A Cultural Approach to Communication" really struck a chord with me. I admit that before I read his piece, I thought of communication in the transmissive sense: defined as "imparting, sending, transmitting, or giving information to others." I liked his explanation of how this definition developed in relation to geographical distance and the spread of empire (which of course hearkens back to last week's readings about the historical basis of communication). I also liked the way he connected transmissive communication to the American experience--movement in space to leave the old world and discover the new, which we kept doing via westward expansion all through the nineteenth century. Our previous readings haven't presented the study of communication from the American perspective, and it was useful to link its definition with our country's history.

Carey rightly recognizes, however, that the transmission definition of communication is not a complete one. He presents a second definition--a ritual view of communication--that really piqued my interest because of the way he integrates religion.

I survived sixteen-plus years of Catholic school, including four years at a Jesuit college, and we naturally did a lot of talking and writing about religion and faith. Carey states that the ritual definition of communication is "the maintenance of society in time; [...] the representation of shared beliefs." I found this view very easy to relate to, having learned quite a bit over the years about the ritual of the mass and the roots of fellowship, both of which he touches on later in his explanation. He compares ritual communication to "the sacred ceremony which draws persons together in fellowship and commonality." While this view is not overtly religious (nor should it be, in order to win acceptance in a secular society), it does favor the more personal, the inner workings of us as individuals and as members of society. For example, I appreciated Carey's example of how the act of reading a newspaper is very different in the ritual view than in the transmissive view. Newspapers in the transmissive definition are seen as conveying and imparting information to readers, and not much more. In the ritual view, on the other hand, Carey compares newspaper reading to "attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed." I never would have compared reading the Washington Post, or any other newspaper, to attending a mass, but upon reflection I agreed that he has something here. When we read the paper, we actively participate in and experience the emotions of the stories' subjects, whether it's the happiness that comes from our favorite sports team's victory or the heartbreak of a family who lost one of its members in a Middle East bomb strike. We are integral parts of our society through the shared medium of news, and communication as a whole. We share our lives with each other through that medium, not unlike the ritual of being at a mass or other religious service and sharing fellowship with others.

News as a form of communication connects us to other people on a very personal level, and in reading it (or watching it, as the case may be), we participate in a fellowship of being human. Language, the basis of human communication, makes this fellowship possible; without it, our world would cease to exist.

1 comment:

  1. After reading Carey's article, I was puzzled by the newspaper metaphor. But, after reading your synopsis, I do understand more clearly where Carey derived this similarity from. So thanks!

    Although news stories can create a sense of shared identity or experiences among readers, I agree more with the transmission theory of communication. Perhaps it is the lack of a steady religion in my life, but I find that communication carries a message, rather than a story. To me, communication isn't like a mass, but rather a vehicle through which I receive knowledge and information, which is, unfortunately, often biased and manipulative.

    I would argue that communication, especially in the Third World, is the most direct and influential medium through which one can gain popularity and control. During my time in Kenya, I witnessed the indescribable influence of the media to rally opinions and behaviors; the ritualistic influence of the media was less evident to me.