Communication Models and Social Theory

In developing communication models, our broader theories of societal organization both aid and constrain how we might perceive the transmission/communication of information. As Carey points out, there is a reciprocal relationship between models of communication and the ways in which we actually communicate: “Models of communication are, then, not merely representations of communication but representations for communication: templates that guide, unavailing or not, concrete processes of human interaction, mass and interpersonal” (14) and “Our models of communication, consequently, create what we disingenuously pretend they merely describe” (15). This creates a circularity by which the representations we create become the real upon which further representations are made (generally, ones that reinforce the earlier representations). As such, in representing society as “a network of power, administration, decision, and control” (16) we create society as a network of power, administration, decision, and control. This leads Carey to take a stance against communication models based on “power,” “trade,” and “therapy,” and instead to assert the importance of “aesthetic experience, religious ideas, personal values and sentiments, and intellectual notions” (16).

In so doing, Carey appears to stand against not only information theory’s “transmission model of communication” (developed for militaristic and commercial purposes), but also the reigning social and critical theories built on the foundations of Marxism (power and trade) and psychoanalysis (I assume this is what he means by “therapy”). While I am tempted to agree that these aspects might be emphasized to the exclusion of others, it’s almost as if Carey suggests that overlooking unequal “relations of property, production and trade” would simply make them go away; as if collectively pretending the world to be just would make it so. This brings up a problematic aspect of theorizing that the real is nothing other than our representations of it. Should we then go back to Plato’s Republic, banishing illogical representations in order to create a logical reality? Carey, of course, is a fan of representations Plato would find illogical, but it appears perfectly possible for someone with a more Platonic sensibility to suggest as much.

In addition, I’m conflicted over Carey’s emphasis on “aesthetic experience, religious ideas, personal values and sentiments” (16). While I’m sympathetic to the re-emergence of questions of aesthetic value, recently re-reading Benjamin’s “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” raises some concerns over Carey’s elevation of the aesthetic over the political. For Benjamin, this was the essence of Fascism, aestheticizing political propaganda in such a way as to short circuit critical reception (think “Triumph of the Will”). In addition, are these aspects of social life not entirely intertwined with the economic order? How might we develop a model of communication that includes all of these forces—social, economic, political, psychoanalytic? Current models appear too reductive. Might we instead draw from complexity theory and create a more ecological model of communication where these forces—sometimes converging, sometimes diverging—are depicted within a complex system, rather than the sender-message-receiver model?

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. English Language edition. New York: Schocken, 1969. Print.

James Carey, “A Cultural Approach to Communication” (from James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Revised edition. New York and London: Routledge, 1989. )