James Carey (from Communication as Culture)
When I decided some years ago to read seriously the literature of communications, a wise man suggested I begin with John Dewey. It was advice I have never regretted accepting. Although there are limitations to Dewey–his literary style was described by William James as damnable–there is a depth to his work, a natural excess common to seminal minds, that offers permanent complexities, and paradoxes over which to puzzle–surely something absent from most of our literature.
Dewey opens an important chapter in Experience and Nature with the seemingly preposterous claim that "of all things communication is the most wonderful" (1939: 385). What could he have meant by that? If we interpret the sentence literally, it must be either false or mundane. Surely most of the news and entertainment we receive through the mass media are of the order that Thoreau predicted for the international telegraph: "the intelligence that Princess Adelaide had the whooping cough." A daily visit with the New York Times is not quite so trivial, though it is an experience more depressing than wonderful. Moreover, most of one's encounters with others are wonderful only in moments of excessive masochism. Dewey's sentence, by any reasonable interpretation, is either false to everyday experience or simply mundane if he means only that on some occasions communication is satisfying and rewarding.
In another place Dewey offers an equally enigmatic comment on communication: "Society exists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication" (Dewey, 1916: 5). What is the significance of the shift in prepositions? Is Dewey claiming that societies distribute information, to speak rather too anthropomorphically, and that by such transactions and the channels of communication peculiar to them society is made possible? That is certainly a reasonable claim, but we hardly need social scientists and philosophers to tell us so. It reminds me of Robert Nisbet's acid remark that if you need sociologists to inform you whether or not you have a ruling class, you surely don't. But if this transparent interpretation is rejected, are there any guarantees that after peeling away layers of semantic complexity anything more substantial will be revealed?
I think there are, for the body of Dewey's work reveals a substantial rather than a pedestrian intelligence. Rather than quoting him ritualistically (for the lines I have cited regularly appear without comment or interpretation in the literature of communications), we would be better advised to untangle this underlying complexity for the light it might cast upon contemporary studies. I think this complexity derives from Dewey's use of communication in two quite different senses. He understood better than most of us that communication has had two contrasting definitions in the history of Western thought, and he used the conflict between these definitions as a source of creative tension in his work. This same conflict led him, not surprisingly, into some of his characteristic errors. Rather than blissfully repeating his insights or unconsciously duplicating his errors, we might extend his thought by seizing upon the same contradiction he perceived in our use of the term "communication" and use it in turn as a device for vivifying our studies.
Two alternative conceptions of communication have been alive in American culture since this term entered common discourse in the nineteenth century. Both definitions derive, as with much in secular culture, from religious oirigins, though they refer to somewhat different regions of religious experience. We might label these descriptions, if only to provide handy pegs upon which to hang our thought, a transmission view of communication and a ritual view of communication.
The transmission view of communication is the commonest in our…