Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Realities of Reality

I was fascinated by this week's article by James Carey, "A Cultural Approach to Communication". He discussed something I have thought about for a long time, that we create our own realities through communication. His example was that lines of latitude and longitude don't exist in nature, they are human creations. However this can be applied to a myriad of ideas that we take as truth or reality. Political geography is another similar example. There is nothing in nature that dictates the boundaries of states, only what we have set them to be. There are no rules, laws, or even morals in nature (other than the laws of physics I suppose, but I'll avoid those since we're all communications people), only what we as a society have created and disseminated through various forms of communications. Even things that we consider valuable like gold, jewels, and the like are only have value because we have assigned it to them. Gold has no intrinsic worth or use for survival in the wild. I am always curious as to why societies developed the way they did and what it takes to bring about change in them. People often do things because "that's just the way it's always been done", when we just made all of this stuff up and could change it whenever we wanted!
Carey quotes John Dewey in stating that communication is a symbolic process of maintaining, repairing, and transforming reality. As Dewey said, "Society exists not only by transmission by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication." If there was something people wanted to change in society, the way they would have to do it is through communication, in many forms. People often think of communication in very limited ways, e-mails, phone calls, texts, television etc., but in almost everything we do we are communicating. Use your left turn signal and you are communicating to the drivers around you that you'll be turning left. Read a magazine and it communicates to you news, fashion trends, even gossip. The clothes you wear, the way you walk and talk all communicate something to people, even beyond what you might actually say. In the ritual view of communication this is all part of maintaining our culture and society.
Unfortunately in the US we tend to have a limited view of culture. We don't see it as what we do in the whole of society, but generally a frivolous thing that we can take time for after our actual work is done. In this way we also tend to see most activities, technology, and other aspects of life as means to a political or economic end because that defines success for us and we believe that is important. As Carey says, technology is seen generally in terms of its utility for government and trade and therefore that is what we tend to use it for. Education is seen in terms of preparing another generation of workers to continue on the economic and political processes of the nation and so we treat it as such (which can be seen in the marginalization of school activities like art and music which we don't believe are as economically viable). While productivity is important in our modern lives, it would be a refreshing change if we all realized that it is only that important because we have made it so. If we stopped emphasizing economic success as the main (and sometimes seemingly the only) goal of life and career it would become the new reality. Which makes me wonder, if you could make a change to "reality" (do those count as air quotes?) what would it be?

1 comment:

  1. You make a good connection between Carey's point about communication driving our exposure to culture (despite the fact that we often don't recognize it as such) and the "marginalization and music" in schools. School districts often reduce or eliminate music and art classes first when they make budget cuts. Because of this, the next generation of kids may grow up with less appreciation for these disciplines. It follows that they'd be more likely to view communication in strictly verbal terms, perpetuating the emphasis on transmission communication that Carey argues is an incomplete and narrow one. Of course, children get exposure to nonverbal communication in other ways, but art and music can be vital components in deepening their understanding of the world and realizing that that world extends further than their backyards. Again, good connection, and I think it presents yet another reason not to scale back art and music education in schools whenever possible.