Every attempt to retrace the history of international communication runs up against three major stumbling blocks, which also risk interfering with the reading of works on this subject.
First, there is the polysemy of the word “communication,” torn as it is between the domains of leisure and work, between the spectacular and the ordinary, between culturalist and technicist visions, or tossed about between a meaning confined to the area of media activity and a totalizing meaning that elevates it into one of the basic organizing principles of modern society. Despite the centripetal force of the media representation of the phenomenon, it is tending more and more to the latter. In proposing to analyze the how and why of the different contents and uses assigned to the concept of “communication,” this book shows what concrete issues were at stake in the various definitions in the course of its history, and why they continue to be so. This history of the concept leads us to conclude that only an analysis placed under the sign of culture can today account for those stakes. Culture is understood here as the collective memory that makes communication possible between members of a historically situated community, creating among its members a community of meaning (the expressive function), allowing them to adapt to a natural environment (the economic function), and finally, giving them the ability to construct rational argument about the values implicit in the prevailing form of social relations (the rhetorical function, that of legitimation/delegitimation). These are the three dimensions of culture that the philosopher Jurgen Habermas brings together under the trilogy language, la/Jar, power.
Next, there is the danger of allowing oneself to be enclosed within the “international,” just as some, at the other end of the spectrum, risk be-
coming immured in the ghetto of the “local.” In succumbing to this danger, one risks subscribing to a determinist conception in which the international is converted into the imperative-just as, at the opposite pole, the exclusive withdrawal into the local perimeter is the shortest way to relativism. There is overestimation of the international dimension on one side, underestimation on the other. All these levels of reality, however international, local, regional, and national-are meaningless unless they are articulated with each other, unless one points out their interactions, and unless one refuses to set up false dilemmas and polarities but instead tries to seek out the connections, mediations, and negotiations operating among these dimensions, without at the same time neglecting the very real existence of power relations among them. This mode of observation and analysis is far from having been the norm in the history of theories of “international communication.” This explains why and how certain conceptions of the international have offered local and national powers a convenient set of justifications for evading their own responsibilities, by shifting them to some faraway supranational determination. Conversely, the dismissal of the international dimension and flight into narrowly defined identities have often been complicit with the most extreme nationalist ideologies of exclusion of the foreigner. This book, in examining the dynamics that have, in every period, given rise to novel relationships between the “foreign” and a given society, may also be read as a history of the concept of the “international.”
The eras of the Pax Britannica, the Pax Americana, or the Pax Sovietica — the era of states inclined to prophetic visions of their own grandeur and the unshakeable affirmation of their superiority — gave rise to the tendency to look at the world from the point from which power radiated outwards. The East-West confrontation has left its imprint in the form of a bipolar division of the planet that fueled the imaginary with a metaphysical contest between the forces of good and evil-at least until the day when the bloc conception crumbled along with regimes thought eternal and omnipotent. And yet the Manichean vision of the planet has not vanished from mentalities. The Cold War had scarcely been buried when a regional war broke out, and this religious conception of grand international oppositions made a spectacular resurgence. The havoc it has wrought is visible even among the most enlightened intellectuals.
But the idea of mediation has begun to defeat the conceptual arsenal of the era of glaciation. Memory is fading of the time when one interpreted the procedures of internationalization as if they operated like a steamroller, a deus ex machina sweeping away everything in its path and succeeding in covering over with its totality all individual and collective life. If we now recognize that each society has the mode of access to internationalization that it deserves, it is because in the meanwhile, the idea has been accepted that encounters and exchanges between singular experiences and the supranational, while often unequal, are also processes, that is, social constructions. The crisis of the grand paradigms that oriented social change and guided the social sciences is the crisis of centrality. And as such it signals the decline of the imperial modes of administering and controlling. The multipolar world that weaves its networks across the planet has made more complex the forms of subordination of some societies to others, some cultures to others, some ways of life to others.
The archaeology of concepts doubled with that of facts undertaken in this book finds its justification in the relative void in the history of communications. Forgetfulness of history is, in fact, one of the recurring traits in thought about communication. This forgetfulness explains, for example, why for so many years the debate over the media was polarized between the “apocalyptic intellectuals,” who denounced the media as bearers of “the end of culture,” and the “integrated intellectuals,” who celebrated the same media for their “modernizing” virtues. Both sides, unwittingly, gave new validity to the myth of the media’s omnipotence, until the day when the ever more massive presence of the media in society provoked a crisis in the minds of many intellectuals who had taken refuge in the lofty solitude of creation, forcing them to question the elitism of certain positions they held, often without bothering to consider the viewpoint of the mass of consumers and users. This amnesia was equally at the origin of economistic illusions and excesses that attributed to networks and technologies of electronic communication miraculous powers to restructure economies and rebuild consensus-the democratic transparence of the informational agora discovered at last.
It is only recently that one has begun to sense, in many parts of the world, the need for a critical history in this field. For the moment, though, historical research is manifested mainly in the form of a return to national histories, while the international is still left by the wayside. This new consciousness of the necessity of finding historical roots converges with an awareness of the need to establish an epistemological reflection in this scientific field that is still young and uncharted. The field is also disturbed by the noisy clamor of the ephemeral, one piece of information eclipsing another, a situation that makes the intellectual feel guilty for refusing to be converted into a media pundit appearing live to discuss every event. The infatuation in the 1980s with the notion of communication as progress and the escalating predictions of technological innovation led many to believe that history could be done without. Geopolitics quickly took its revenge on a speculative geoeconomics that, disconnected from
the real world, thought it had become autonomous. Consequently, the enchanted discourse on communication has grown old and wrinkled, although it would be the height of temerity to celebrate its demise. In any case, it is up to us to decide whether this questioning will go further. “Communication” has indeed become too important for the future of relations among cultures to go on deferring its reappropriation by ordinary citizens.
A third and final danger: Can the reader or the author of an international history escape the ethnocentrisms lying in wait on all sides? This comes down to asking: From what socially and historically given territory can one speak of these phenomena at the dawn of the third millennium? It is difficult to avoid this question at a time when some celebrate the fifth centenary of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, or the “encounter of two worlds,” while others, with respect to the same event, commemorate the fifth centenary of the “birth of a historic system of injustice” and pay homage to the memory of victims of “one of the largest pillages and genocides in human history.”1
This is a question that in the 1950s already preoccupied the European intellectual Elias Canetti, who was born in 1905 in Bulgaria of Sephardic Jewish parents, studied in Zurich, Frankfurt, and Vienna, and became a refugee in England in 1938. In his key book, Crowds and Power, in which he analyzes “national ideologies” and their influence on the theoretical apprehension of the foreigner, he wrote: “One must stand apart, a devotee of none, but profoundly and honestly interested in all of them. One should allow each to unfold in one’s mind as though one were condemned actually to belong to it for a good part of a lifetime. But one must never surrender entirely to one at the cost of all the others.”2
The formidable growth in the means of communication and the instances of contact between cultures that has come about since the 1950s has not changed the problem in the slightest. It has merely extended it to the frontiers of the world-system by multiplying the number of actors who try to resolve what risks remaining an enigma for a long time to come. With the rise of the multiethnic and multicultural challenge faced by societies throughout the world and with the ensuing threat of withdrawal into narrow identities, we are reminded, in the first years of the 1990s, that history has not granted the idea of “nation” an unequivocal meaning, and that different “nationalisms” have very different political and cultural meanings.
In these times when, more than ever, we should protect ourselves against an ethnocentric quest for collective identity, there is no better way to do so than with the words of the Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges:
To set up a worldwide organization is no trifling enterprise…. Twirl, who had a farseeing mind, remarked that the Congress involved a problem of a philosophical nature. Planning an assembly to represent all men was like fixing the exact number of Platonic types-a puzzle that had taxed the imagination of thinkers for centuries. Twirl suggested that, without going farther afield, Don Alejandro Glencoe might represent not only cattlemen but also Uruguayans, and also humanity’s great forerunners and also men with red beards, and also those who are seated in armchairs. Nora Erfjord was Norwegian. Would she represent secretaries, Norwegian womanhood, or-more obviously-all beautiful women?
Would a single engineer be enough to represent all engineers - including those of New Zealand?3
Declaration by intellectuals of Spain, the United States, and Latin America assembled in Mexico City, January 6-7, 1991.↩︎
E. Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart, New York, Viking Press, 1962, p. 169.↩︎
J. L. Borges, “The Congress,” The Book of Sand, trans. N. Thomas di Giovanni, London,Penguin,pp.21-22.↩︎