The Media and the Evolution of Publicness


Without a public audience, we do not have media.  Communications may be initiated but if there is no audience, there is no need for a tool to mediate between the sender and receivers.  This week’s readings focus on the evolution of the concept of the audience or “the public.”  Each scholar attempts to pinpoint the specific factors that led to the development of a public consciousness within post-Enlightenment European society.  Due to the limited space, I will focus first on the commonalities amongst the articles and then focus more specifically on each author’s argument and underlying assumptions.

All agree that in pre-Enlightenment society communication was, for the most part, conveyed by word-of-mouth from person to person due to the fact that society was structured according to feudal hierarchies, travel was onerous, and the vast majority of the population was illiterate.  However, with the Enlightenment came social, political, economic and technological changes that created the conditions for ordinary people to think beyond the confines of their parish and their direct circle of acquaintances and to begin to see themselves as part of a larger public community.  Although it was certainly a combination of many forces that ultimately allowed this public consciousness to evolve, each of our scholars’ points to their own specific causal factors.

Habermas (1989 [1962]) attributes the rise of the public sphere to political factors.  He points out that people gathered in groups to discuss common interests and reach a common opinion to which they held the state accountable. But as Fraser (1992) points out, Habermas’ argument assumes that the male, bourgeois public were the public, when in fact there are many publics within any society.  I would argue that the majority of the working public had little time to devote to debate in public coffee houses after a 14 hour work day and so the majority of society’s views would have been dangerously underrepresented.

Thompson (1995) traces the development of the printing press and examines its affect on the transfer of power from the traditional religious and dynastic authorities to a more fully informed public.  Anderson (1991 [1983]) too, focuses on the impact of the printing press but more specifically identifies the printers’ use of common “nation” languages, as opposed to regional dialects, as the impetus for national public awareness.  However, I would argue that if common language causes common national identity, then all pre-industrial Latin speakers (regardless of their geographical location) should logically also have shared a national identity.

The most unconvincing argument is Carey (1992), who asserts that modern communication evolved as a result of the printed word and its use in Christianizing the new world in the 16th century.  My objection to his argument is that Christianization and Christian ritual practices were commonplace long before the 16th century.  Not only are the crusades an example of such Christianizing missions but one can even look all the way back to the first few centuries in which a small group of Jesus followers somehow managed to spread their message throughout the European continent without the aid of any 16th century technology.

Where I do find Carey useful is in his sociological emphasis on the “ritual view” of communication in which communication is not just the transmission of messages, but rather the experience of communicating, sharing and collaborating in community with others.  This has never rang more true than in our current state where social media extends mass media broadcasts so they can be commented on, shared, liked, Dugg, tweeted and otherwise experienced within community.  For this reason I find Carey’s notion of participatory communication the most useful framework for analyzing modern communications.

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