The Sweetness and Light of a Postmodern World
March 8, 2001
Communitarianism is a philosophy of active communal participation and reflection in the daily affairs of life, which seems to make it flexible enough to deal with both the particular and the general opportunities and consequences of living for the individual and the social group of which he or she is a part. Dialogic in character, Communitarianism seeks intertextual narratives of individuals not framed by, but indelibly part of, their communal experience. In the development of a system of communication, Communitarianism avoids all perceived constructs of domination by focusing on pluralism of experience, language, culture and identity. Not setting the agenda for particular modes of discourse but recognizing that each comprises a thread of the fabric of societal existence strengthens the bonds of community and creates greater cohesion between otherwise fragmented enclaves of ethnicity and class. Majid Tehranian posits that "the communitarian school of 'another development' has called for the media to be employed instead as instruments for endogenous rather than exogenous development by focusing on:
modes of communication and development relying on both traditional and modern
media; (2) horizontal rather than vertical communication channels; (3)
appropriate technology rather than costly and complex high technology; (4) rural
rather than urban biased programming; (5) preservation of indigenous cultural
and national identity and pride. (302)
think these are exactly the ideas that require implementation in today's world,
and what I hope to accomplish in this second integration essay is a defense of
Communitarianism as a philosophy of hope for humankind's communicative
relationships with one another on the local and the global levels of perceived
and applied consciousness.
idea of Communitarianism grants a certain cohesion to the body of these texts
that deal with paradigms of domination and social discourse. Tehranian argues
that the post-Cold War, postmodern world has been conceptually recast in terms
of its development process as the distinctions between first, second and third
world countries are replaced by the ethnic, regional and class divisions within
each country (274). American
society, therefore, can no longer be seen as "developed" in comparison
with Kenyan society, for instance, but as comprised of elements that are also
underdeveloped and developing. A
failure to act on this realization has led the United States to embrace the idea
of creating a global village, the making of which Ang demonstrates "can be
rewritten as the transformation, or domestication, of non-Western Others in the
name of capitalist modernity, the civilization which was presumed to be the
universal destiny of humankind: global spatial integration is equated with
global social and cultural integration" (195).
Given this, I feel that we do need a new model of communication to
replace the transmission model of dominance and to account for disparities we
can no longer afford to ignore under the previous models of global domination
that pitted the first world against the second in competition over the third.
The rural worker in Kansas has more in common with his counterpart in
Botswana than he does, for example, with the urban businessman in New York.
Recognizing that fact, there is no reason why the particular interests of
any given person should not transcend the political, cultural and linguistic
boundaries of any given state or nation in order to maximize efforts to achieve
authenticity in personhood. According to Tehranian,
If we define
discourse as the symbolic processes of exchange of meaning to negotiate reality,
the coding and decoding systems in this process assume a central position in
developmental processes. Public
discourse, whether mediated or unmediated, may thus be viewed as the social
struggle for the definitions of reality and hegemonic interventions to
replicate, reform, or transform it. (300-1)
greatest hegemony, of course, is that which does not oppress the dispossessed
but works within its own paradigm to maximize the benefits of a given culture so
that everyone has equal access in the furtherance of what must necessarily
become social goals. Counterhegemonic
struggles will cease once the dispossessed are possessed of the same fruits of
the vine as enjoyed by the elite and the elite will profit by the social
stability this engenders. Call me
there are indeed forces capable of working to prevent the dispossessed from
achieving the benefits of their own society is evidenced by the way in which the
popular media can be used to manipulate public opinion, meaning the opinion not
of the elite but of the masses. Maxwell
McCombs and Donald Shaw demonstrated what they called agenda-setting in a 1972
content analysis of the written and visual media in place during the 1968
presidential election. Following
their analysis, they conducted a survey of or 100 undecided voters in Nixon's
second presidential campaign and found "an almost perfect correlation"
between the issues the media emphasized and the opinion of the people surveyed
(Zhu 88). I would not go so far as
to attribute blame to the media itself as the media is often funded and directed
by its sponsors. It is the
corporate world, then, that decides what issues should be addressed and what
other issues should not be through its alliance with the political
infrastructure. That which is good
for business, then, is portrayed as good for America, and it is that which is
bad for American corporate interests becomes problematized in the media.
Zhu and Blood carry this point further by stating that "the media
accomplish th[eir] agenda-setting function not by directly telling the public
that one issue is more important than another, which has proven to be
ineffective; instead, the media signal the importance of certain issues by
giving these issues preferential treatment, such as more frequent coverage and
more prominent positions" (90). Following
the logic of Ellsworth Toohey in Ayn Rand's The
Fountainhead, the media assume that if they just told the public what it
should believe, the public might not believe them, but if they control the
limited resources of space and time in print and programming, they can
demonstrate the public concern by the amount of attention they assign to it and
the lack of attention other concerns end up receiving thereby.
a world of limited media resources some voices cannot be heard while others are
heard disproportionately. Van Dijk explains that
dominant groups, or
elites can be defined by their special access to a wider variety of public or
otherwise influential discourses than less powerful groups.
That is, elites have more active and better controlled access to the
discourses of politics, the media, scholarship, education or the judiciary.
They may determine the time, place, circumstances, presence and role of
participants, topics, style and audience of such discourses.
Also, as a form of 'topical access', elites are the preferred actors
represented in public discourse, for instance in news reports.
This means that elites also have more chances to have access to the minds
of others, and hence to exercise persuasive power.
elites, conveying their interests through a transmission model of communication,
which places the authority in the mouth of the sender, end up dictating their
interests and goals to the masses. The
dispossessed or unheard masses come to accept as their worldview that which they
perceive through the voices that they do hear.
However, this should not be. McQuail
the media are widely
expected to serve the 'public interest' or 'general welfare', whether by design
or not. This means, in practice,
that mass media are not the same as any other business or service industry, but
often carry out some tasks which contribute to the wider and longer term benefit
of society as a whole, especially in cultural and political matters, over and
above their own ostensible organizational goals.
For this reason, the media can legitimately be held accountable for what
they do, or fail to do, even against their own free choice.
being the case, the media have a responsibility to aid in the resolution of
societal disparities, since that is most securely within the realm of what would
be considered the public interest or general welfare.
To maintain a system that thrives off a vertical hierarchy governed by
its elite that expects those in subordinate positions within the hierarchy to
wait patiently for its benefits to trickle down to the dispossessed is an
injustice not only to the welfare of the poor, but also to the humanity of the
rich. Capitalism, properly so
called, relies on human capital as the means by which its achieves economic
ascendancy. That the interests of
its human resources are not being met by the system of which they are the
determining factor is counterproductive. Ang
advances this point by declaring that "the global village, as the site of
the culture of capitalist postmodernity, is a thoroughly paradoxical place,
unified yet multiple, totalized yet deeply unstable, closed and open-ended at
the same time…capitalist postmodernity [i]s a chaotic system, where
uncertainty is a built-in feature" (194).
If complacency engenders inertia, then uncertainty and unrest must
engender its opposite, which is revolution, or an incessant counter-hegemonic
struggle against the forces that keep it from resting.
What prevents this revolution is the normalization of the status quo
through media archetypes constructed to make the day laborer in East St. Louis
think that one day he (or she), too, will own a piece of America.
the media sells the public, then, is not the American dream, but a pipe dream,
that an employee's earning six dollars an hour making shoes that he or she will
not then be able to afford at the end of the shift is the same as owning a piece
of America. The media's concerning
itself with maintaining the interests of the status quo in a postmodern society
is, thus, the same as blinding itself to the global realities illustrated
earlier by Tehranian, who views communication "as the process of exchange
of meaning by verbal and non-verbal signs operating through cosmologies,
cultures, contents, and conduits" and development "as the process of
increasing capacity of a social system to fulfil its own perceived needs at
progressively higher levels of material and cultural well-being" (276).
Under these definitions, a developing nation is not one that rises in
hostile economic competition against both its own people and its neighbors, but
one that caters to the needs of its people through, to extrapolate, first
listening to the voices of which those people are comprised. These voices are at
the least an indelible part of a common human culture; yet, it is culture,
as such, that is failing under the weight of its inability to be understood.
"It is the failure of communication that we should emphasize," states Ang,
"if we are to understand contemporary culture.
That is to say, what needs to be stressed is the fundamental uncertainty
that necessarily goes with the process of constructing a meaningful order, the
fact that communicative practices do not necessarily arrive at common meanings
at all" (198). These common meanings are the true foundations of democracy, which
Tehranian argues, "is government by discussion and consensus-building"
(277), not government by fiat and oppressive colonization of its peoples' minds.
Communitarianism provides us with an answer of how to change the system
to meet our personal goals and still have the opportunity to achieve our
national aims by generating an interdependent community based on the progressive
needs of its constituent cultures through a focus on the emancipation of its
discourse practices. In short, we
need to learn to love one another.
is needed in this new model of communication, then, is universal access to a
plurality of previously unheard voices that will train the public on how to hear
them. Meyrowitz argues that
"everyday behaviour is susceptible to change by new media of communication
because social roles are inextricably tied into social communication.
Social identity does not rest in people, but in a network of social
relations. When social networks are
altered, social identities will change," for, "in any given social
period, roles are shaped as much by patterns of access to social information as
by the content of information" (58-9).
I think that the Internet is among one of the first new ways to provide
both access and multiperspectival content for those who can afford to interest
themselves in its use. This does
not mean, of course, that interpersonal face-to-face communication will be
damaged through its first being filtered through cyberspace.
Thompson contributes to and qualifies this argument in stating that
the historical rise
of mediated interaction and quasi-interaction has not necessarily been at the
expense of face-to-face interaction. Indeed,
in some cases, the diffusion of media products has provided a stimulus for
interaction in face-to-face situations in the way, for instance, that books in
early modern Europe were commonly read aloud to individuals who had gathered
together to hear the written word, or in the way that television programmes
today can serve as a focal point for discussions among family or friends.
But the growing importance of mediated interaction and quasi-interaction
does mean that social life in the modern world is increasingly made up of forms
of interaction which are not face-to-face in character.
would add further that they at first do not have to be and that mediated forms
of communication can serve as bridges across natural cultural and linguistic
barriers. We are moving into an age
where universal access to multiperspective content is becoming increasingly
possible, but the digital divide is becoming with the same rapidity increasingly
greater. McQuail adds to this concern that such "worldwide conglomeration
leads to fears of loss of creative independence and of cultural diversity.
It may make it more difficult for a society to choose and implement a
media policy of its own" (241).
These points indicate what will become more apparent in the next decade
as the elite and the masses try to find ways in which to 'hear' one another
through the layers of distance that lie between them. Humankind is a palimpsest upon which there is still much to
write but beneath which so much has already been written as to shroud its
meaning from itself. Tehranian
explains, "the processes of human communication may be thus viewed as a
series of multiple, interlocking, layers of consciousness, rationality,
narratives, and communication genres that can be correlated with the discursive
practices as [monitoring of action, rationalizing of action, de/constructing of
action, and inter-acting]" (293-4). A
communitarian approach is one way to begin the process of removing those layers
and restoring humankind to its common dignity and, to its namesake, humanity.
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