Review: Seventh International Conference on Culture and Communication, Philadelphia, 1989.
Part I of this series was published in Continuum v.1, n.2, 1988. In that review I lamented the lack of strategic direction of the Conference held in 1986. A similar strategic silence was evident amongst contributors and participants in the October 1989 conference. However, although the conference was even more fragmented this time, some glimmerings of concrete activism percolated through some of the sessions. This was in spite of, rather than because of, the way the conference was organised. A conference spanning three floors of a plush hotel in downtown Philadelphia with no central meeting space is hardly likely to facilitate interaction - let alone have an impact on democratic social movements .
The Culture and Communication Conference (CCC) draws together academics working in interdisciplinary fields, including anthropology, media studies, philosophy, literature, cultural studies, journalism, film and so on. Its aim would seem to be the cross-fertilisation of communication and cultural concepts between disciplines. Its deliberations are mainly of ~ theoretical nature with applied examples.
Over 300 participants from Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, Israel, Hungary, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa contributed papers. The disciplines represented included communications, cultural studies, journalism, film, marketing and management, anthropology and ethnography, sociology, medicine, literature, divinity, speech communication, history, psychology, philosophy, politics, rhetoric, language analysis, museumology, development studies, education, theatre, telecommunications, etc.
Both the content and spectrum of the CCC conference were remarkably extensive. Theoretical topics included communication theory, perspectives on 'critical' communication research and methodology, philosophy of science and the influence of Stuart Hall, formerly director of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, on critical cultural studies. Most of the papers read were applications of cultural studies and/or communication theory. Particularly well represented were papers on communications/media and public policy, news and ideology, and interpersonal communication/interaction. Other sessions covered national communication, eg., Soviet TV, cinema in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, among other areas. Gender issues were strongly represented, as were sessions on music, popular culture, ethnographic film, advertising and so on.
CCC offers a variety of paradigms and methodologies, not all compatible with each other. This sometimes led to heated exchanges between people coming from different theoretical (and political) positions. One of the most disappointing sessions was on Soviet media . Clearly, the speakers had never been near the Soviet Union, could not speak Russian and had difficulty in answering questions. The session was partly retrieved by a member of the audience who did know the answers.
Activism was found in Sean Cassidy's talk on "Mindbombs in the News: A Case Study of the Media Strategy of Greenpeace". He outlined the history of Greenpeace's interaction with the media and how they represent Greenpeace's agenda. The reference to "mind bombs" explains journalist Bob Hunter's (later chairman of Greenpeace) theory of how to use the media to affect mass consciousness. The journalist background of several of the organisation's founders was responsible for Greenpeace's international image. The creation of this image is discussed in terms of the following questions: "what happens when journalists dump objectivity for advocacy?" "How can journalism routines be exploited to gain access to the mainstream media?" And most important, "what are the dangers of 'playing the media's game'?" Cassidy was refreshingly aggressive throughout the conference and challenged and chided everyone, every premise and demanded responses about why academics were not putting their theories into practice.
John Lanneman's "Toward Critical Interpersonal Research" politicised interpersonal communication theory, notorious for its lack of class analysis and social contextualisation. He argued that as a study of the social construction of interpersonal communication scholars must deal with the political dimension of interaction. This necessitates an understanding of how power relations at the micro-level of interaction interpenetrate with macro-social structures. He exposed the ideological foundations of current interpersonal communication research as hiding the play of power and difference and thus limiting the field to the uncritical reproduction of existing social forms.
John Fiske was present both in person and in terms of discussion in many of the sessions on critical theory and cultural studies. In the latter he came under attack for not engaging in political praxis, unlike his British colleagues whose project is geared towards contesting Thatcherism and providing the intellectual groundwork for socialism. That such criticism occurred in a number of sessions was in itself significant as this kind of combative position seemed to mostly absent from the 1986 conference. But too often, it seemed to me, Fiske was assumed to BE 'cultural studies' in the United States, if not the world. This misconception is a factor, no doubt, of his incredibly prodigious publication and journal output and the fact that Fiske has spanned three continents in his appointments. Fiske, a Briton, who moves between the United States and Australia, represents one strand of cultural studies - but a crucial perspective to be sure. I believe this popularising of the field to undergraduates through his clear and accessible writings should be recognised and that cultural studies, though emanating from the metropoles, has a capacity for regional inflection and conjunctural historical development that makes it far more dynamic, flexible, nuanced and praxis oriented than other approaches to the study of society. Fiske is himself a product of this flexibility and his terrain of struggle is surely the educational environment. An examination of the average American journalism program which sustains journals like Journalism Quarterly shows that he and cultural studies have yet to impact on American positivist journalism departments and positivist hegemony.
Regional inflections of cultural studies occur and were presented at the conference by those of us from other countries. My paper, co-authored with Eric Louw, entitled "Communication Models and Struggle: From Authoritarian Determinism to a Theory of Communication as Social Relations" was presented in a session entitled "Reform, Resistance and Communication". We criticised conventional models of communication and provided an overview of communication theory which is emerging out of the anti-apartheid Mass Democratic Movement. As such, the paper intercepted theoretical debate at the Conference centred on the examination of critical communication and cultural theories. Simultaneously, we examined the implications of this popular theory for academic practice and drew attention to the need to rethink conventional assumptions about academic practices, course content and the relationships of academics with classes, groups and communities beyond the academy.
We were followed by Eveline Lang on "Embodied Discourse of the Discontent: Nonviolent Direct Action as Strategy for Social Change". Lang explored Gandhi's strategy of passive resistance as a practical means of inducing social change, where powerlessness is transformed into mutual empowering. The communicative patterns thus arising are therefore a movement towards an arational domain, a domain which stands over and against the social system being transformed. The two papers elicited a lot of debate about the nature of resistance in South Africa and on how and why Gandhi, whose social praxis continues to inspire and guide passive resistance campaigns in South Africa, developed his ideas while living under and opposing apartheid.
Rather than plod through the program as a whole, I will now concentrate on three different presentations.
In a session titled "Research in Visual Communication" two of the papers were heavily criticised by the audience because of invalid epistemological and theoretical assumptions which continue to bedevil aspects of communication, specifically media effects research. This session underlined just how isolated some academics are from critiques of effects research, and continue to attempt to apply 'scientific' methods to the measurement of viewer responses.
One author had travelled all the way to Kenya in East Africa to assess whether an isolated tribe with no previous exposure to movies could interpret a short videotaped narrative on their own activities. Two others tried to measure viewer interpretations of 'analogical editing' - the use of one image as a 'comment' on another image to which it is related by a conceptual or visual similarity. Both of these papers, which represented a prevalent trend in the conference, used 'scientific' methods: that is, control and experimental groups, to 'measure' responses and interpretations. But, as was forcefully pointed out at a variety of sessions by scholars from the interpretative and cultural studies paradigms, film or video messages are far too complex to be analysed as if they were merely chemicals in a test-tube.
Semiotically, linguistically and in terms of pragmatics (reception theory), it is not possible to identify variables within cinematic or video images. Even in linguistics, the nature of the 'smallest unit' is hotly debated. Therefore, variables cannot be easily controlled or manipulated in experimental semiotic situations. And, as was counter-argued scholars should not assume that the scientific method was universal to all disciplines. The researcher in Kenya, for example, was unable to explain why she hypothesised that the remote African tribe would not be able to interpret visual messages. Neither study's research methods were able to separate out questions about 'story' from issues of 'form' or therefore just what was being measured. Another problem was that despite numerous studies on the topic of media effects, no incontrovertible evidence yet exists that sophisticated skills are needed by 'illiterates' to interpret visual images. This point was made unstintingly by Cal Pryluck of Temple University. I offered the example of a Bushman who, watching a film about his clan, talked to the people imaged on the screen. When he asked why they didn't respond the linguist told him to look behind the screen. When the man returned to the front, he had a sheepish grin on his face and laughed at his mistake. His learning of how to 'read' a film took less than a couple of seconds.
"Wildlife on Film: A Neglected Tradition", by Derek Bouse, evoked an intensive discussion on the ideological nature of wildlife movies which continue to anthropomorphise and romanticise animals in the face of extinction and environmental degradation on a massive scale. The author argued that no theory yet exists to guide the making or watching of wildlife films and that animal locomotion remains the central impulse of movie makers, the first moving pictures of an animal being a horse running. Wildlife films tend to be genre hybrids, incorporating documentary, comedy, drama and cartoons and animation. The author argued that wildlife films had begun as science, then became entertainment, moving back to scientific explorations, and that the 'wildlife genre' reflected these concerns. There is now also an emphasis on human interaction with animals, eg. Gorillas in the Mist. But, the classical entertainment film centres on the life story of a single animal, using the Disney format. So, it was argued, Bambi could probably be described as the archetypal 'wildlife' movie. This had serious implications for environmental movements as wildlife movies obscured the facts of ecological destruction by industry. And, as industry funded much of this production, this source of finance brought with it its own censorship mechanisms.
Edward Hall's paper, "Context and Communication" dealt with his theory of 'high' and 'low' context cultures which explains misunderstandings between nations, business corporations and individuals from different backgrounds. This theory is presented in his book Beyond Culture. 1 Hall contrasted the respective practices of American and Japanese business cultures. Competitive Americans who come from highly specific, individualistic, linear and narrow low contexts have difficulty relating to high context Japanese business people who work in teams by consensus in a "sea of information". They share rather than privatise, connect rather than fragment, and work together in lateral relationships rather than engaging in conflictual hierarchical relationships. This kind of inter-national/inter-ethnic comparison led me to ask whether Hall was aware that his work was being used by some South African apartheid communication scholars in a racist way; ie. 'whites', 'coloureds' and 'Asians' simplistically identified as a 'high context' culture, with 'blacks' being 'low context', or through urbanisation and personal characteristics, moving toward a 'high context' culture. 2
In Hall's theory, high and low cultures overlap in different interpersonal situational contexts depending on exactly what messages or interactions are being transacted. In other words, Hall does not assume a linear progression between the two kinds of contexts. The one is not necessarily 'urban', the other 'rural', the one 'white' the other 'black'. Thus, whether the interacting groups are urbanised or not, or have different colour skins, is not really the issue. This theory was not intended by Hall to be applied unproblematically to whole 'nations', 'cultures', 'groups' or 'races'. Hall was unaware of South African applications of his work, but the discussion did prompt the accusation from an American that his theory was inherently racist. The ground for this accusation, which had some support from sections of the audience, occurred because Hall himself tended to use examples based on 'national' differences, which could be seen to be polarising Americans vs Japanese, or 'blacks' vs 'whites', as in South Africa.
The accusation of racism resulted in an uneasy silence, and a refusal by Hall to engage his accuser. The "awful silence" identified by someone in the audience was broken by another panellist who tried to explain the silence in high context-low context terms, that Hall's response was a low context one which tried to get rid of the problem by ignoring it and classifying it out of the realm of acceptable academic debate (a high context response). The problem with Hall's theory as a whole is that it ignores economic processes and ties its explanation of social and interpersonal misunderstandings to manifestations of cultural difference only. Class, exploitation, domination, politics and other factors are suppressed, as is the case with Groenewald's use of Hall. The theory is thus capable of racist appropriation, even if this was never intended by Hall.
Overall, the conference was disappointing. No plenaries at which to discuss issues of common concern, or even to identify whether such commonalities existed, were held. Those secure in their positivist beliefs probably left oblivious of criticisms made against them. The Fiske bashers may have gone home still ruing his supposed hold over cultural studies. Those who talked about "The Good Parts: Positive Thinking About Pornography" probably went to bed happy that they had infuriated the feminists, antagonised the politicos and dismayed the moralists. And the all out battle between Brian Winston and the Lacanians is probably still reverberating in the corridors of the Hershey Hotel in Philadelphia.
Keyan Tomaselli acknowledges a grant from the Human Sciences Research Council which enabled him to attend the Conference. The opinions expressed, however, are his alone and not those of the Council.
1. E. Hall, Beyond Culture (Anchor Books, 1977).
2. See eg. Groenewald, H.J. et al., "Communication in South African Society: A Perspective on the Future". In Marais, H. C. (ed), South Africa: Perspectives on the Future (Pietermaritzburg: Owen Burgess, 1988).
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