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Utopian Discourses Across Cultures

Scenarios in Effective Communication to Citizens and Corporations

Edited By Miriam Bait, Marina Brambilla and Valentina Crestani

The term Utopia, coined by Thomas More in 1516, contains an inherent semantic ambiguity: it could be read as eu topos (good place) or ou topos (no place). The authors of this volume analyze this polysemous notion and its fascination for scholars across the centuries, who have developed a variety of visions and ways to explain the «realization» of utopian discourses. The experts in the fields of sociology, political science, economics, computer science, literature and linguistics offer extensive studies about how utopian scenarios are realized in different cultural contexts.

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The Utopia of CommunicationThe Myth of Communication as a Positive Value

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Federico Boni

The Utopia of Communication

The Myth of Communication as a Positive Value

1.  Introduction: Communication, utopia and myth

This chapter aims to investigate a particular kind of utopian communication: the idea of communication as a positive value. In order to understand how communication can be framed within the context of utopia, it is important to remember that the history of communication itself (interpersonal, mediated and mass-mediated communication) is full of cultural, social and political utopias and, in particular, technological utopias. Communication studies have been characterized by the traditional binaries of communication versus miscommunication, and utopia versus dystopia, which are embedded within communication theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (from the social constructivists to the pragmatists; from information theory to the psychological models).

Further, it is important to understand exactly what is meant when we talk about communication, utopia and myth.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of definitions of communication. The first sees communication as a process by which A sends a message to B; accordingly, this message has an effect on B. The second type of definition sees communication as a negotiation and exchange of meaning; messages, people and society interact to produce meaning. While the aim of the first type of definition is to identify the stages through which communication passes so that each one may be properly identified and studied, the second type focuses on the relationship between constituent elements required for meaning to be produced within a cultural and social context.

From a sociological point of view, communication is a very particular kind of social interaction. The most comprehensive typology of the main forms of interaction was proposed by John Thompson (1995). According to his model, the main three types of interaction are face-to-face, mediated and mediated quasi-interaction. In face-to-face interaction, the actors involved in the interaction are present, which affords the possibility of using a variety of symbolic cues. Under mediated interaction, we have communicative processes such as letter writing or telephone conversations, and of course all the types of computer-mediated communication. The defining characteristic of mediated interaction is the use of ← 27 | 28 → a technical medium, which narrows the availability of symbolic cues and makes individuals more dependent on their own interpretations and contexts. Finally, the mediated quasi-interaction is the communicative process established by the traditional mass media, based on a monological interaction.

For our analysis of the utopia of communication, a useful point of reference is Karl Mannheim’s (1976) classic sociology of knowledge. His emphasis on the ‘concreteness’ of utopias means that utopian thinking is considered as an active social force affecting the transformation of societies. Mannheim frames his concept of utopia within the theoretical framework of the sociology of knowledge because he argues (indeed, in a very sociological fashion) that the history of ideas should be seen as the history of their uses. Thus, the argument is that utopias do not impact history as abstract ideas but rather have an effect through the concrete use of those ideas by individuals, social movements, institutions, etc.

Far from an everyday and commonplace understanding of utopian thinking (where utopia is seen as wishful thinking), Mannheim turns utopia into a situational and socially conditional concept. As we will see, utopian (and dystopian) thinking about communication are conditional at least at a discursive level, given that we define ‘discourse’ as ‘language in use’, that is, language used in some context, for some purpose. If discourse is what we create when we use language in social contexts, it is possible to see how a linguist’s definition of discourse as ‘language in use’ might relate to a social theorist’s definition of discourse as ‘a social construction of reality’, a ‘form of knowledge’. In the end, this whole process is actually a communicative act, a kind of performative ‘speech act,’ and in this way, communication becomes the method through which we can construct utopian (or dystopian) discourses about communication itself in a self-reflexive process of social construction of reality.

By analyzing discourses, we are able to argue that certain ways of representing communication processes have become ‘naturalized’, so that people no longer recognize them as incorporating a political or ideological stance. The discursive pattern is a clue to what is taken as simple common sense on a particular issue (in our case, communication), and the repetition of the pattern means that it will continue to be common sense.

This leads us to the concept of ‘myth’. Our use of this concept is far from the anthropological meaning, where ‘myth’ refers to a narrative that offers explanations of why the world is as it appears to be, and why people act as they do. Our use of the concept is closer to the semiotic understanding of the term, where ‘myth’ refers to an unarticulated chain of associated concepts and discourses by which members of a society understand certain topics. Its prime function is to ← 28 | 29 → make the cultural natural, which is a distinctive feature of ideological discourses. The ideological productivity of naturalization is that circumstances and meanings that are socially, historically, economically and culturally determined (and hence open to change, as they are the result of signifying struggles) are experienced as natural, that is, inevitable, timeless, necessary, unarguable (Barthes 1973).

The concepts of discourse and myth are useful tools because they help us be attentive to the distinct uses of language and communication. As discourses and myths, utopias are contextual and situational and are therefore expressed and used in a number of different articulations. In the struggle between utopians and representatives of the existing order, those articulations are contested, and differing, even contradictory interpretations are produced.

2.  The Utopia of Redemption

In his book L’Utopie de la communication, Philippe Breton (1992) traces the origin and development of the notion of the utopia of communication to the growth of cybernetics during and after World War II. Breton argues that the idea of communication is not modern, as it has existed for centuries. What is new and truly modern, however, is the manner in which it has expanded to encompass the entire intellectual landscape by the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first.

Born of various attempts to formulate theories of command and control in weapons systems in the effort to win World War II, cybernetics provoked an incredible theoretical explosion that led to speculation in fields soon removed from the context of war. Breton argues that the computer was a counterpoint of the atomic bomb, a kind of moral redemption of the bomb: the theorists of information theory and cybernetics were the same people who worked on the creation of the deadly weapon. The information age, which was in force during the second half of the twentieth century, was marked by a struggle for redemption and purification between Good (the new utopia of the democratization of communication brought by the ‘information age’) and Evil (the world of war where this utopia was born).

Nevertheless, the relationship between war and communication persists, especially in the age of electronic mass communication. The structural relationship between war and media presents forms and patterns that vary depending on the kinds of conflict and actors involved. A common theoretical assumption is that the wars that took place in the media era represent the failure of McLuhan’s prediction. Foreseen more than 40 years ago, McLuhan argued that since the war in Vietnam, we have entered the age of the “TV war”, where the audience, from their homes, “participate” in each stage of the conflict (McLuhan and Fiore 1968). On ← 29 | 30 → the contrary, we can argue that war, in the age of media representation, is negated through the use of linguistic and discursive rhetoric; furthermore, the very representation of the conflict is heavily censored, with restriction – and sometimes the impossibility – of its visibility.

Another theory is about the structural relationship between war and media, where this relation must be understood as a flow of information on – and a representation of – the conflict, but also as an organic connection between the media system and the political and military powers. Thus, the media can be understood as a means of communication between politicians and citizens, but also between politicians and diplomats, and between military strategy and public opinion (the so-called ‘media diplomacy’, see Cumings 1993).

From the point of view of the media discourse strategies, another theory is the ‘mediatization of war’, a concept which has to be defined and analytically explored. The concept of the ‘mediatization of war’ refers not only to the relationships among war, the media and political and military systems that we have seen before, but also uses media languages and codes to define and frame war (Malek and Kavoori 1999). In this sense, it is necessary to include in the definition of media the modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), which account for the contemporary communication technologies more accurately and realistically. As a matter of fact, information technologies play an important role in the very emergence of the forms contemporary conflicts take. The cycle of war is fulfilled within an IT logic, from remote sensing (surveying territory from the satellite) to ‘photo finishing’ (photos taken after a raid). This ‘visual’ nature can be seen within media discourse strategies, which tend to minimize the prices of war in terms of human lives, through an ‘aseptic’ representation of conflict. It is aseptic, and thus surgical, just like the very definition of wartime activity in Western countries, by using representational strategies that are precise and abstract.

Abstraction itself, along with stylization, is an element of the mediatization we are defining: according to an established media logic, the rhetoric of conflict focuses on some image-symbols, which sterilize and stylize the war. This is certainly a targeted discursive strategy, but this is also part of an established routine practice, typical of media language. An important aspect of the mediatization of war is that it is connected to concepts of ‘personalization’ and ‘narrativization’. Personalization concerns not only the enemy, but also the victims. This can be seen in the paradigmatic individual stories that give a name and a face to the masses of refugees shown on TV. Again, the dramatic narrative formula that amplifies individual stories belongs to the media logic used in ‘reality television’. ← 30 | 31 →

Finally, the concept of the mediatization of war acknowledges the role played by the new media, mostly by the Internet, in the new wars. The theoretical importance of the entrance of new media into the relationship between media and war is obvious with regard to the possibilities of communication and information (either interactive or not), but mostly with reference to the agenda-setting process (McCombs et al. 1997). Hypertextual information sources maintain few to none of the typical forms of presentation used in traditional media, leaving the user with the task of selecting and hierarchically ordering news and information.

3.  The Utopia of Communication as Democracy

In Breton’s analysis, the social theory that emerged from communication theory can be seen as an ideology that clearly reiterates some of the principal elements characterizing the utopian thought of nineteenth-century socialist thinkers. From the notion of small communities to that of the absence of social hierarchies, communication theory in its form as social philosophy and social theory puts a modern face on old utopias.

Further, as mentioned in the previous section, the very thinkers who championed cybernetics and communication as a means to win the most dreadful war in human history – people like Norbert Wiener – then turned around and presented communication as a means to end all wars. It is paradoxical that the very means of contemporary communication are so closely connected to warfare, as we saw in the previous sections. The transparency of human relations that communication supposedly fostered would bring a permanent end to the possibility that the dark secrets of genocide could be reproduced in the shadows, hidden from the sight of society at large and shielded from public opinion.

The utopia of transparency of communication is one of the most enduring discourses and myths in our contemporary age. Electronic and digital media (television and the Internet) are seen as ‘windows’, an image that relates the idea of mass and personal communication to the idea of openness and transparency. Endemol’s Big Brother is one of the most interesting metaphors depicting television’s openness towards the world, where we can find the utopian element of television as an open (reversed) window and the dystopian element as ‘prison as entertainment’, which involves the deliberate sequestration of participants in contained spaces. In fact, Big Brother essentially mirrors the contemporary social experiment in which neo-liberal economic doctrine is extended indiscriminately into the fabric of intimate life. When the self is experienced as a media commodity, the modern project of ‘openness’ loses its way, and the dream of transparency is turned into a nightmare. ← 31 | 32 →

After all, the idea of communication as democratization can be linked to classic political liberalism, its conception of individual freedom and the idea of public sphere. In this sense, the mythical utopia of communication as the process of democratization represents the reinterpretation of liberalism in the context of the information society, media society, and, later, network society. The democratic utopia of communication constructs a vision of a society in which new media and all new forms of communication technology would open up a way towards the ‘polis’, the democratic community of equal individuals. These new information and communication technologies would facilitate the direct participation of people in political and social debate, as well as in decision-making, without the control of the bureaucratic state. This utopia is characterized by a nostalgic return to the concept of ‘community’, without realizing that the very concept of ‘community’ is at the same time an inclusive and exclusive one, including few and excluding many from the communicative process.

Technological changes in the possibilities of community in information societies have been accompanied by radical philosophical rethinking of the meaning of community and association (see Nancy 1991; Agamben 1993). The concept of a ‘virtual community’, like the very concept of utopia, is seen as inherently flawed if it is based on existing modes of interaction. Cameron Bailey argues that the vision of the Internet as an ideal democratic community in the mold of the Greek agora “contains its own ideological dead weight […]. Like the democracy of the ancient Greeks, today’s digital democracy is reserved for an elite with the means to enjoy it” (Bailey 1996: 31). We should ask whether or not the Internet possesses enough stability for the ongoing recognition of members of Internet ‘communities’ and the stability of their own sense of self. Further, it is quite difficult to refer to this new media scenery as the formation of ‘communities’ because it is based on a very vague acceptance of the word ‘community’, given that ‘social networks’ such as MySpace have over 100 million members.

The perverse effect of this typically utopian view is the systematic denial of conflict, which is demonized, reduced to the only dimension of violence.

Another discursive and mythical utopia of communication as a positive value is that of the ‘networked society’, which is linked to the idea of the ‘web’ and the ‘net’.

The ‘cult of the network’ is historicized by Armand Mattelart in his The Invention of Communication (1996), in which the French scholar argues that the different utopias regarding communication ‘invent’ the very different concepts of ‘communication’, thus creating the discourses and the myths that frame both the theoretical and common-sense thinking about communicative processes. ← 32 | 33 →

In Mattelart’s opinion, every technology involved in “the multiple circuits of exchange and circulation of goods, peoples, and messages” was a technology of communication (1996: 34). For example, the Saint-Simonian conception of a communication technology, the ‘cult of the network’ as Mattelart calls it, was broad enough to include a network of railroads and an advertising network, along with networks of journals, banks, and industrial fairs. In a very fascinating way, Mattelart argues that the contemporary rhetoric about a communication revolution was the ideology (and the utopia) of the whole of historical capitalism. Further, he makes a clear case about the depth and breadth of the pattern of ideologizing communication as an agent of social revolution.

Mattelart organizes his argumentation around four histories: (1) communication technology as producing social flow (rational fluidity / enlightened state administration; market fluidity / liberal political economy; evolutionary fluidity / Darwinian social theory); (2) place (world’s fairs, Fourier’s Phalanstery); (3) space (national and imperial, linguistic and cultural, religious and military); and (4) norm (of a psychological and physiological social individual, of a market consumer). Mattelart employs a definition of communication technology that includes the whole circuit of exchange, adding the exchange of materials and people to the exchange of signs and data. By employing this historical perspective, he makes the argument that this utopic ideology has been a force in recent centuries, not just in recent decades.

Nevertheless, it is true that the recent democratization of access to Internet tools promotes a significant intensification and acceleration of the trend of circulating exchanges, transactions and practices of creating or adapting-appropriating existing cultural content to redistribute this content once it has been transformed. Mass communication assumes a new meaning in this context, as new forms of communication are emerging: alongside interactions between individuals (telephone and email) and a growing amount of group communication (chat, forums and discussion lists), new patterns are emerging. Thanks to new social media, individuals can achieve instant visibility and can speak to the masses on a global scale. These phenomena become particularly visible during terrorist attacks or natural catastrophes: bloggers are the first to broadcast the first information and photos (taken with their mobile telephones) from the scene of the event. Moreover, we are witnessing the intrusion of amateurs into the world of professional journalism. Web 2.0 ushered in an era of communication of the masses, but also communication by the masses, for the masses. In light of this trend, the view of the majority assumes new importance regarding the authority of experts. Some media elites may be shaken by this explosive informational trend. ← 33 | 34 →

All this has made it possible to reach a new level in the paradoxical realization of the utopia of universal access to knowledge formulated by some of the Internet’s founding fathers. This utopia is paradoxical because this explosion of knowledge in the spread, distribution and creation of information (e.g. texts, photos, music and videos) may, at the same time, induce a feeling of incompleteness on the part of heavy users, with its invitation to the frantic and infinite search for information that is constantly being updated, and to which information can always be added, creating an infinite, ongoing search without end.

4.  The Utopia of Effective Communication

There is another way in which the communication made possible by new media is paradoxical: with Web 2.0, many scholars observe the return to the ‘old’ patterns of interpersonal communication in the form of ‘word of mouth’.

Word of mouth is a ‘pass-along’ process of interpersonal communication, a ‘social diffusion’ that has particularly powerful effects, especially in its ability to influence people as messages are ‘passed’ and transmitted from person to person. Based on the traditional model of the ‘two-step flow of communication’, under which media messages are mediated through interpersonal relationships, word of mouth includes face-to-face discussions as well as so-called ‘word of mouse’ online interactions taking place on social media. Word of mouth can be considered a new utopia of ‘effective communication’ with which it is possible to achieve new kinds of communication possibilities by using a very old communication tool.

Broadly speaking, word of mouth is considered one of the most common and influential channels of communication. In general terms, it can be considered the main feature of interpersonal communication. The first channel of word of mouth is face-to-face interaction, but we can have word-of-mouth communicative processes with different technologies of communication (e.g. by telephone or computer). As such, word of mouth includes literal interpersonal communication, or face-to-face conversations and discussions, as well as mediated communication and the so-called ‘word of mouse’, that is, online interpersonal communication.

Word of mouth is a communicative process that focuses mainly on face-to-face and mediated interaction, but its importance stems from its ability to connect interpersonal communication to mass communication (Thompson 1995 – see Introduction).

In fact, since the beginnings of communication research, the most relevant studies and theories of mass communication have shown that studying the media inevitably entails studying the processes of word-of-mouth interpersonal communication. The works of Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz have clearly indicated ← 34 | 35 → the importance of interpersonal interaction, even if we want to investigate the social effects of the media. In an early study which focused on the analysis of the motivations and the ways in which political opinions are formed (in this case, the panel comprised six hundred voters of Erie County, Ohio, during the 1940 presidential campaign [Lazarsfeld et al. 1948]), the findings were quite interesting: the effectiveness of mass communication is deeply – and causally – linked to processes of interpersonal communication. Lazarsfeld speaks of a “two-step flow of communication” to illustrate the role of the mediation of “opinion leaders” (people with a good level of information, in direct contact with the media) between the media and other individuals of the public. The effects of the media are thus only a part of a broader process, namely personal influence. This assumption was taken up by the same author in a subsequent search, conducted by Katz, which focused on consumption (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). The findings confirm the hypothesis of the ‘two-step flow of communication’, showing that interpersonal communication has a greater degree of flexibility in the face of the resistances of the receiver compared to mass media. If, in a communication process, the credibility and the reliability of the source affect the influence of the message, then it is likely that the impersonal source of the media is at a disadvantage compared to the reliable sources of interpersonal relationships.

The role of interpersonal communication is also irreplaceable as a source of information, albeit not a primary one. In a study of how the news of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy reached the public, Bradley K. Greenberg (1964) showed that many people had been informed of the event not directly by the media (e.g. radio, TV, newspapers), but by friends and acquaintances (who, of course, had heard the news from the media). In more general terms, it would seem that face-to-face interaction is particularly important in acquiring both the most groundbreaking news, along with news more related to the local context or to specific personal interests.

Further research on word of mouth has shown that the main effects of this kind of communication impact individuals in two key ways: awareness (informing people that a behavior exists, or that a fact has occurred, as in the cases shown above) and persuasion (word of mouth can change opinions about whether something is right or worth doing, or a particular party or political leader is right or worth voting for). Word of mouth can also influence the social identity of individuals associated with a particular party or behavior, which may, in turn, affect the likelihood of interest or vote.

One of the main features of word of mouth is the source. People tend to listen to more credible and reliable sources, or those that come from sources considered ← 35 | 36 → to be trustworthy or to have expertise in a certain area, such as political issues. Thus, what should be stressed here is the importance of the strength of the ties (friendships or acquaintances, that is, strong or weak ties). On the one hand, strong ties may have a greater impact and stronger effects because people tend to trust them more, since they know more about their interests, tastes, lifestyles and behaviors. On the other hand, people generally tend to have a greater number of weak ties, or acquaintances, so the overall influence of these individuals may be stronger. While word of mouth from similar people may have a greater impact (because, for instance, their tastes and political views are similar), word of mouth from individuals who are less similar may offer access to different information and alternative views and perspectives.

Traditional research on word of mouth in political communication has focused on small groups (especially primary groups) and small communities in local contexts. A study conducted by Lenart (1997) investigated the spread of name recognition of candidates seeking the 1992 U.S. Democratic presidential nomination in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary election. The study demonstrates the comparative influence of media exposure and interpersonal discussion. As the author argues, interpersonal communication depends on the logics of media coverage, in both complementing and strengthening media effects when they are strong, and substituting for media effects when they are nonexistent.

In discussing the role of the mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation, McLeod, Scheufele and Moy (1999) focused their study on community integration in mass and word-of-mouth communication, showing that viewing television news had no direct impact on political participation, but it did have a certain effect on more institutional and conventional forms of participation. A few years after, a study conducted by Scheufele (2002) focused on the idea that interpersonal discussion among citizens is the ‘soul of democracy’ (an idea that, as Scheufele argues, has been treated almost as a truism in mass media and interpersonal communication research), showing that while it is generally true that interpersonal discussion of politics is a key precursor of political participation, the relationship between hard news media consumption, interpersonal discussion of politics and political participation is a complex process. While consuming hard news media has a great influence on political participation, this effect is more evident for people who talk to others about politics than for those who do not. Scheufele et al. (2004) focused on different settings for primary discussion networks (the workplace, church and volunteer groups) and their effects on political participation, showing that the social setting where citizens discuss politics is an important predictor of political participation. For example, discussion ← 36 | 37 → networks in volunteer groups had a great impact on recruitment, thus demonstrating that discussing politics frequently in this setting is directly (and positively) linked to political activity. Conversely, the impact of conversational networks in church and workplace settings on participation was only indirect. Another study focusing on word-of-mouth communication, media exposure and political participation (Sotirovic and McLeod 2001) examined how communication patterns mediate the influences of values on political participation. According to the authors, individuals’ efforts to think about news and search for additional information and perspectives has a modifying effect on what people get from the media. The more people integrate information from various sources, the better they understand the political world, which ultimately has a positive effect on political communication.

In this vein, scholars argue that powerful political campaigns are not only those that inform and persuade, but also those that motivate further interest and talk, thus confirming Carl and Duck’s (2004) previous conclusion that “a person is more likely to be influenced by messages that stimulate discussion between the individual and his or her groups of significant others or associates” (26). Voters use oral communication as a tool while making a decision and getting opinions from their social circles.

With the advent of social media, word-of-mouth communication has gained more attention. The ‘online’ version of word of mouth, known as ‘word of mouse’, includes all new channels of the digital media, such as chat rooms, blogs, newsgroups, Facebook, Twitter and social media websites in general. Research on word of mouse differs from traditional research on word of mouth because electronic word of mouth can be easily accessed, linked, and searched. Compared to traditional word of mouth, online word of mouth has the potential to be far more influential and make a greater impact due to its speed, convenience, wide reach, and the absence of face-to-face pressure and intimacy. Furthermore, by using search engines such as Google, it is possible to seek out the opinions of strangers, an opportunity which is quite rare in traditional word of mouth processes. Finally, electronic word of mouth provides opinion leaders with a more efficient means of disseminating information, and facilitates the searching of information for opinion seekers.

The emergence of the Internet and of online social networks has led to a self-organizing propagation process that recalls the dynamics of an epidemic, a ‘cascade of influence’. On the one hand, this new form of the ‘information cascade’ allows citizens to voice their opinions, and it mobilizes communities and voters around their candidates. On the other hand, new participative media have changed the way elections take place by allowing politicians to reach new audiences with new ‘viral’ forms of political marketing. In addition to this, electronic word of mouth ← 37 | 38 → is likely to change collective and political behavior by transforming traditional ‘old’ social networks, which are normally limited in size and scope, into networks potentially composed of millions of individuals.

5.  Conclusions

In the preceding sections, we have seen that the ‘dialogical’ model of communication – that is, the model of interpersonal communication – is considered the most effective form of communication, adding positive value to communicative processes. To move towards a conclusion, it is worth arguing that this isn’t always true. According to some scholars, the myth of ‘good communication’ is attainable through the old model of mass-mediated communication, the ‘one-way’ model. In the sensible link of thought, ‘good communication’ (communication as a positive value) is based on the dialogical model: there must be no secrets or locked doors between communicators. Each should be fully, genuinely and sincerely open to the other.

In his book Speaking into the Air (1999), John Durham Peters identifies two great models of communication: dialogue and dissemination. Each is a principle and a practice, and their exemplary practitioners were Socrates and Jesus. Socrates’ model is a ‘love model’ of communication, a love connection between two people, both of which are alive and present to each other. The ideal (utopian) human relationship is the fusion of both. Socrates, Peters tells us, argued that insemination is more virtuous than dissemination. Insemination is to implant the seed in another where it will bear fruit. Dissemination is like the sin of Onan who spilled his seed upon the ground. It is wasteful to scatter seed, for there is no guarantee that the seed will bear fruit. Cast in these terms, Christ’s method of communication appears scandalously inefficient.

Jesus’s discourse and methods stand in sharp contrast to those of Socrates. Both are exemplified in the parable of The Sower; a story with a message told to a large crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Instead of the Socratic one-to-one dialogue, a form of two-way communication, we have one-way communication between a single speaker and an anonymous mass of listeners. The story of the sower makes explicit the significance of communication as mass dissemination or broadcasting. The sower in the parable scatters his seed indiscriminately. Some, as Jesus tells it, fell on stony ground and were picked up by the birds of the air. Some fell among thorns and were destroyed. Some fell on shallow soil and grew quickly but soon withered and died. And some fell on fertile ground and yielded a good harvest; thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold. It is, of course, a parable about parables – Jesus’s own account of his way of spreading the Word. ← 38 | 39 →

Peters, then, offers two paradigms of communication; one a dialogue of intimacy and reciprocity, the other of indiscriminate mass dissemination. It is a contrast between the personal and impersonal, individual and social, present and absent, embodied and disembodied relationships. Today, we generally take the intimate paradigm as the norm and see the impersonal paradigm as deviating from the mark. But it is rather clear that Peters prefers non-reciprocal, one-way communication. And he shows – quite convincingly – that the idea of ‘communication’ (the invention of communication, as Mattelart would put it) emerged from a late Victorian cultural milieu combining spiritual mysticism, scientific experimentation, and popular fascination with communicating with souls and angels, and exchanging messages with the dead. Modern modes of communication – photographs, phonographs, telephones, radios –resulted in “a new kind of quasi-physical connection across the obstacles of time and space” (5). In a culture fascinated with paranormal phenomena, these technologies produced new sites for the ghostly presence of disembodied others, and inspired reflection on the mysterious channels of communication. Peters reveals the irony surrounding new technologies of communication that reactivated primal doubts about the division of the mind and body and chasms in communication.

The spectral utopia of communicating with the dead is a common feature of all the technologies of communications of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To be sure, communication and media technologies became ‘haunted’ as soon as they were introduced: as Jeffrey Sconce (2000) argues, a fascination with communication developed in both the occult and scientific fields as soon as the new communication technologies appeared. The telegraph merged ‘electromagnetic’ and ‘spiritual’ communication, thus connecting technology with spiritualism and the occult. Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant was also a medium, and Bell himself attended séances; Thomas Edison and Guglielmo Marconi both conceived of the theoretical foundations for their devices as ways to contact the dead. And if radio broadcasts appeared as a mysterious ‘voice from the void’, a way to contact ghosts via wireless, the ‘television ghosts’ created by the eerie images appearing on a TV set during signal interference seemed to bring the spectral world into the home, rendering television the quintessential ‘haunted medium’. The technological ‘medium’ shares the uncanny qualities of the human ‘mediums’, connecting the world of the living with the world of the dead, and the prefix ‘tele-’, used in so many electronic media devices including the television itself, is also attached to ‘telepathy’ and other paranormal phenomena such as ‘telekinesis’ and ‘teleplasm’ (Warner 2006).

Interestingly enough, the television as the uncanny medium is strictly connected with the dystopian and dysphorian Gothic trope of the haunted house. ← 39 | 40 → After all, television is a mysterious device which is simultaneously inhabited by ghostly images of ourselves and it inhabits our homes (Lewdon 1993). If television is “a profoundly domestic phenomenon” (Ellis 1982: 113), then it can create a sense of the uncanny by introducing the unfamiliar to the familiar, thus bringing the uncanny (unheimlich) into the familiar (heimlich) of the home (Lewdon 1993). Just as the heimlich contains the unheimlich, so too does the domestic environment of the home contain the paranormal potential of television. Television is “the ghost in the home” (Lewdon 1993: 70), a communication device which serves as an access point for horror to enter the home (Wheatley 2006), whose very presence in the living room becomes a metaphor for the anxieties and paranoias of the domestic space and family life. Thus, if we consider the Gothic trope of the ‘haunted house’ and the Gothic concerns for the electronic media of communication, we have two different houses, the first being that of one of the most domestic genres (Gothic) and the second being that inhabited by the ghostly and paranormal presence of the television set (Wheatley 2006).

At the same time, we have two different kinds of uncanny presences within the familiar space of the home: the presence of television, and the presence in television, which add a paranormal and ghostly layer of meaning to television’s quality of ‘liveness’.

The fear of the ‘live’ quality of television is connected to the ‘live presence’ of the medium in the home of the viewer; this uncanny presence turns ‘liveness’ into a ghostly and spectral ‘deathness’ which links the television set and content to the unheimlich, the ‘unfamiliar’. Television’s ‘liveness’ assures that what we are watching is happening right now, thus enhancing the utopian illusion that what is being shown is ‘real’. It is important to stress here that ‘liveness’ is seen by many media scholars as an ideology, a utopia, an argument that, as we have seen, can be extended to the claim that television shows us ‘reality’ (Feuer 1983). That of ‘liveness’ is not only a ritual category, as it “guarantees a potential connection to our shared social realities as they are happening” (Couldry 2003: 96–97), but it is probably the longest-standing myth of television’s ontological presence and essence. Vianello (1985) argues that ‘live television’ is a strategy of business practice and domination, a “power politics” which, in spite of the old fears of “Deathness”, is “still alive” (Bourdon 2000) – perhaps as a specter haunting our television sets and our everyday lives.

This dystopian scenario of a very ghostly kind of communication represents the concerns and the anxieties of almost 150 years of electronic communication and nearly 100 years of scholarship on the effects of media. Popular representations of ‘media presence’ offer a fascinating counterpart to the established scholarship on media and communication studies, often letting the ghost of repressed issues ← 40 | 41 → haunt the spaces and the times of the media and of our lives. As we have seen, this dystopian and dysphorian scenario stems from the utopia of communicating with the dead in another dimension. This is the ‘dark side’ of the paradoxical quality of all communication utopias, which began at least with the myth of the Tower of Babel, simultaneously the symbol of a utopia of communication and of the disastrous consequences that followed when attempting to build that very utopia.


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