To Be Understood and to Understand

Here’s a task for today. I’m going to share two paragraphs from an essay called “A Cultural Approach to Communication” by James W. Carey. As you go through your day, keep tabs on how you communicate and how others seek to communicate with you. When are you, and others, using transmission? When are you, and others, using ritual?

The transmission view of communication . . . is defined by terms such as “imparting,” “sending,” “transmitting,” or “giving information to others.” It is formed from a metaphor of geography or transportation. In the nineteenth century but to a lesser extent today, the movement of goods or people and the movement of information were seen as essentially identical processes and both were described the the common noun “communication.” The center of this idea of communication is the transmission of signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control. It is a view of communication that derives from one of the most ancient of human dreams: the desire to increase the speed and effect of messages as they travel in space.

The ritual view of communication . . . is old enough . . . for dictionaries to list it under “Archaic.” In a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” and “the possession of a common faith.” This definition exploits the ancient identity and common roots of the terms “commonness,” “community,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared belief.

I first heard about these terms (and James W. Carey) in a Tweet thread from Jay Rosen, who introduces some political implications as his thread unfolds. Here’s his first tweet:

I am trying something new today. This thread will introduce you to an academic concept that scholars of media and communication have found useful: the distinction between “transmission” and “ritual’ views of communication. Let’s see if i can bring it alive for you. Ready? 1/— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) February 14, 2019

Regardless of whether or not you share a belief in all the nuances of Rosen’s presentation of the terms, I think it’s an interesting exercise to catalogue the types of communication you both deploy and receive. Afterwards, you may find yourself moving from information to insight to action; you might find yourself making some deliberate changes in your own efforts and in the efforts in which you choose to participate, i.e., how you seek to be understood and how you seek to understand. It’s worth a shot, and if nothing else, new categories help us to see with new eyes, at least for a little while.

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