James Carey and Stuart Hall

by Joseph Reagle

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In A Cultural Approach To Communication , Jame Carey (1989) distinguishes between the transmission and ritual perspectives of communication. He characterizes the transmission view as, "‘imparting,’ ‘sending,’ ‘transmitting,’ or ‘getting information to others" (1989:15). The ritual view is characterized as "’sharing’, ‘participation’, ‘association’, ‘fellowship’, and ‘the possession of a common faith’" (1989:18). He argues that a ritual view 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 beliefs" (1989:18). But isn't an expression for the purposes of representing solidarity information? Is this distinction over-drawn? In this short essay I will attempt to reconcile Carey’s communication perspectives within Stuart Hall's framework.

In Encoding/Decoding , Stuart Hall argues that communication entails the translation of a historical event into a story as part of the communicative event. Hall's model of communication is most easily understood via its two cardinal points: an encoding of a message by a sender which is then decoded by the recipient. (Carey is seemingly more concerned with communication’s role in a larger social realm.) "In a determinate moment the structure employs a 'code' and yields a 'message'; at another determinate moment the 'message', via its decodings, issues into the structure of social practices." (Hall 2001:168) Of course, the contextual meaning structures of the sender's and receiver's social and economic relations are not identical. "What are called 'distortions' or 'misunderstandings' arise precisely from the lack of equivalence between two sides of the communication exchange." (Hall 2001:169) Yet, much of the intended meaning might be perceived if there is a sharing of codes between the sender and recipient, some of which are so common, achieving a near-universality, that they become naturalized (Hall 2001:170).

So then, how might the line that Carey is attempting to draw be understood within Hall's framework? A helpful bridge is Luhmann's understanding of information: once information is expressed it is no longer information per se; it has exhausted itself. Though, this "automatic mechanism does not exclude the possibility of repetition" (2000:20). Repetition itself is a form of meta-information that can be interpreted as indicating the value of the repeated (now) non-information. Consequently, Carey seems to be arguing that the ritual view focuses on the communication of this meta-information of commonality, instead of novelty.

However, Luhmann alone is not sufficient for reconciling Hall and Carey. First, Carey's text contains some caveats on the difference, and an ambiguity regarding control I cannot completely resolve. Second, Carey and Hall each collapse concepts that could be rendered as distinct: ontology, decodings, and meaning.

On the question of the distinction between the transmission and ritual perspectives of communication Carey himself includes some caveats. First, this difference is not one of opposing forms, but of a perspective or "view." In fact, Carey (1989:20) notes that the ritual view is more closely associated with European scholarship. This cleavage might even be generalized to the differences between the Continental school of "semiology" (Saussure and Barthes) and the Anglo-American school of "semiotics" (Morris and Rommetveit). Furthermore, Carey (1989:21) writes:

Neither of these counterposed views of communication necessarily denies what the other affirms. A ritual view does not exclude the processes of information transmission or attitude change. It merely contends that one cannot understand these processes aright except insofar as they are cast within an essentially ritualistic view of communication and social order. Similarly, even writers indissolubly wedded to the transmission view of communication must include some notion ... of ritual action in the social life.

However, I can not yet reconcile a distinguishing characteristic of these two views: control. Carey's very definition of the transmission view depends upon it, "Communication is the process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people" (1989:15). On the other hand, "The ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in the time" (1989:18). How could the transmission of a friendly telegraph be considered a form of control, but not the maintenance of social order?! It's difficult to determine. But, if one put asides the confusing use of the term and instead refocus on the process of communication one can find much similarity between Carey and Hall.

Carey defines communication as, "A symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed" (1989:23). What Carey means by reality here is "a more substantial domain of existence" layered upon a "real world of objects, the events, and processes that we observe" (1989:25) . While Hall does not explicitly address the ontological issue of objective and constructed reality, his theory clearly presumes "historical events" and that a sign "possesses some of the properties of the thing represented" (2001:169). (Rommetveit (1968:Figure 8) is more explicit on this point and includes within his model a domain of objects and events, people's cognitive representations of that domain, word meanings, and encodings.)

As mentioned, Hall notes that certain codes can be so pervasive that they, "appear not to be constructed ... but to be ‘naturally’ given" (2001:170). He cautions that this does not mean that no codes have intervened, but they have been profoundly naturalized . These naturalized codes constitute a dominant cultural order . Carey (1989:24 ) agrees:

"There is a truth in Marshall McLuhan's assertion that the one thing of which the fish is unaware is water, the very medium that forms its ambiance and supports its existence. Similarly, communication, through language and other symbolic forms, compromises the ambiance of human existence ... the activities we collectively called communication ... are so ordinary and mundane that it is difficult for them to rest our attention"

And while Carey does not explicitly consider alternative decodings/readings of messages, he does write of different (co-existent) maps that simplify/abstract objective reality creating different symbolic realities (1989:28).

This then, is how I interpret Carey's ritualistic communication in Hall's framework:

Within this fairly complete translation between the two authors, a final subtle difference becomes more clear: Carey's optimism regarding the dominant cultural order. As already noted, maintenance of the social order seems to be a good thing. Carey links ritualistic communication with sharing, fellowship, and communion. But Hall’s model acknowledges the hegemonic potential of the dominant encodings, and permits negotiated and even oppositional decoding/reading.

Carey locates control in simple transmission; Hall in the ritual/naturalized. Carey actually considers the ritual function of maintaining the social order through "dramatic action" (1989:21) but chooses not to engage with a radical critique. Instead, he concludes, "but social life is more than power and trade ... it also includes the sharing of this that experience, the religious ideas, personal values and the sentiments, and intellectual notions -- a ritual border" (1989:34).

My conclusion is that ritualized communication should not go unexamined, but that naturalized meanings need not always be suspect.

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. Hill and Wang, New York, NY.

James Carey. A Cultural Approach To Communication . Routledge, York, N.Y., 1989.

Stuart Hall. Encoding/Decoding . Media and Cultural Studies, Durham and for fans Kellner (eds). Blackwell, MA, 2001. (Originally published as 'Encoding and Decoding in Television Discourse' in 1973)

Luhmann, (2000). The reality of the mass media. Stanford Press, Stanford, CA.

Morris, C. (1946). Signs, Language, and Behavior . George Braziller, New York, NY.

Rommetveit, R. (1968). Words, Meanings, Messages . Academic Press,, New York, NY.