Guest Column

Semioticians at Conferences of Communication Studies

By Eduardo Neiva

From 19 to June 23, 2006, the International Communication Association (ICA) held its 56th Annual Conference in Dresden, Germany. Cautiously phrased to be wide enough to cover almost anything under the sun, the theme of the meeting was “Networking, Communication, and Research”. As a result of the ever-growing prestige and importance to the field of communication studies of the International Communication Association, it was no surprise that the ICA’s Conference program turned out to be a volume of 286 pages in small print, listing and offering numerous presentations, panels, and conferences.

It was – of course – impossible for anyone to attend the simultaneous sessions of the 21 divisions and interest groups of the meeting. The list of divisions and interest groups is bewildering diverse, and rather long: Information Systems; Interpersonal Communication; Organizational Communication; Intercultural and Development Communication; Political Communication; Instructional and Developmental Communication; Health Communication; Philosophy of Communication; Communication and Technology; Popular Communication; Public Relations, Feminist Scholarship; Communication Law and Policy; Language and Social Interaction; Visual Studies; Gay, lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies; Intergroup Communication; Journalism Studies; Ethnicity and Race in Communication; Game Studies.

Not different from many classificatory grids, the separation of divisions and interest groups is arbitrary. Although – for example – the problems of visual studies may appear to be intermittently and objectively different from communication law, the Babel of overlapping interests and concerns does not lead to an intelligible and productive dialog among researchers and scholars. That problem is not exclusive to the 56th Annual Conference, but a structural issue of communication studies, and most specifically to the manner in which divisions and interest groups are usually defined; or rather loosely conceived. Take – as an instance – the definition of the Mass Communication division and compare it to Popular Culture: The participants and members of the Mass Communication division share an interest in messages transmitted in the mass media, while the ones who participate in the Popular Culture division are concerned with the products and effects of entertainment for mass audiences. The impression is that this is house made by ad hoc additions, built without any reference to a master blueprint, indeed any kind of plan or order.

Coming Out of the Labyrinth

It is unproductive to dwell here on the archeological reasons why the state of communication studies is one of such disarray. The reasons are multiple, and they extend from the history of the discipline – which was not the same in the US as in Latin America, or in the British world, and Asia and Africa – to contemporary institutional choices that have established and developed the graduate programs of the discipline. While it is unpractical to wipe out all that has been done so far, this does not mean that one should accept the conceptual chaos and complacency that plague the field of communication studies.

Compare what happens in biology with communication studies. The astonishing unity and the growth of contemporary biological thought is closely related – not just to its funding – but also to how precise the field defines its object of study, and how the state of research – varied as it is – follows the long shadow of its object. All biological programs of research are attempts to define what is life, considering it in the interactive terms of multiplication, variation, and heredity, so that organisms can grow, survive, and reproduce (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1999). All that biology does nowadays is in reference to this conceptual goal. Its unity and vitality has nothing to do with an ethereal, vague, and unwarranted – as well as conformist – Kuhnian paradigm. Like all the humanities and the social sciences, communication studies is splintered into methodological ghettos and ideological assumptions that exclude one another, thus leading to endless and useless turf wars. We are either indifferent to each other, or at war over models and methods of interpreting the variety of social and psychological aspects of communication. Without a clearly defined object, it is inevitable that there exist overlappings of boundaries and concepts in the field of communication studies.

Being so, what to do? And, moreover, how and who could show an alternative to this intellectual quagmire? Let us begin determining the precise object of communication studies. Unfashionable as they are nowadays, unjustly charged with a naïve, unidirectional, and one-dimensional conception of communication acts, Shannon and Weaver began their classic paper “Introductory Note on the General Setting of the Analytical Communication Studies” – collected as the first part of The Mathematical Theory of Communication – defining what is meant by the word communication: “all the procedures by which one mind may affect another.”(1974: 3).

Once a definition of the object of communication is accepted, it does not mean the peaceful end of the discussion of what indeed constitutes and is part of the field of communication studies. The advantage of working from a precise definition of the discipline’s object of study is that it weeds out the accusation – which was raised as early as Plato’s dialog Gorgias – that, by virtue of being concerned with everything, communication studies (rhetoric, Plato would claim) is nothing.

Defining and Reframing the Field of Communication Studies

The definition of the object of the discipline is just the beginning. Therefore, starting from Weaver’s definition, one should admit that the object of communication is strictly relational. Communication is the result of the relationship and the interaction of at least two actors (it does not really matter if the minds are mechanical, animal or human) in a potentially two-way process: one mind functioning as a sender, the other, a receiver. But that is not all: the interaction ought to occur through the exchange of messages and the trading of information in vaster cultural arenas. Communication studies cannot be concerned exclusively with the affecting or the affected mind: it is the study of their relationship through the flow of representations weaving social life. If communication studies were the study of the single affecting and affected mind, it would be psychology; if it were concerned with sets of sender or receivers, it would be the sociology of transmission or reception.

The core notion of Shannon and Weaver’s definition of communication is not the study of Mind A (the affecting, or the transmitting mind) or Mind B (the affected, or the receiving mind), but the investigation on the procedures that generate the relationship between Mind A and Mind B. Then, what are these procedures? Shannon and Weaver’s roll ranges from speech to music, from images to dance; and they also include among the procedures, human behavior. Is it not human behavior part of psychology? That would be an imprecise interpretation for communication studies is concerned with human behavior when acts are employed or conveyed as messages.

Shannon and Weaver’s description of the procedures by which Mind A affects Mind B is stunningly alike the Peircean concept of sign. For Charles Sanders Pierce, “a sign or representamen is something which stands for something to somebody in some respect or capacity (Pierce 1955: 99). Peirce’s notion of sign expands as widely as the hedges of Shannon and Weaver’s idea of procedures, with one definite advantage: semiotics is much more than a strict theory of signs. In the various semiotic frameworks, one finds a complex array of philosophical questions and issues that relate to cosmology, the nature of freedom and creation in both the natural and the human world. These issues can be dealt from the perspective of signs, messages, and their interpretants without losing sight of the object of communication studies.

When semiotics tackles communication processes, communication studies undergoes an implicit – and hopefully later an explicit – redefinition, if not a refocusing of its cognitive interest. Communication studies cannot be excused from dealing with a wider variety of messages (with icons, with indices, with natural as well as social signs) and remain centered on conventional messages, on the symbolic order only, frequently presuming quite wrongly that the communicating minds are blank slates. The emergence and the growing popularity of cultural studies spread out this mistaken assumption. Nowadays, a guiding assumption in quite a number in research papers of communication studies has been that during the process of receiving and delivering messages the social and individual identity of minds is socially construed from scratch, as if no evolutionary legacy ever existed

Socio-centric suppositions of this type are easily falsified from a zoo- and bio-semiotic viewpoint. Traditional sociological explanations will have to be complemented with discoveries and data coming from studies that are adjacent to the humanities. How can communication study dispense with the growing knowledge about the anatomy of the brain, neuro-cognition, animal societies, the evolutionary process, the question of awareness, among so may other topics. If the marriage of semiotics and communication is ever successful and fruitful, communication studies will find its place not just at the center of the humanities but also of life in general. Indeed, from whatever perspective one looks, communication and all aspects of life are intertwined in complex and bewildering ways

I do not think that it would be a sound advice merely to make efforts to add Semiotics to the list of divisions of communication associations. Semiotic approaches and concerns would be confined to another ghetto, a situation in contradiction with the vocation of our field, so clearly stated almost a century ago after Ferdinand de Saussure’s visionary suggestion that the study of signs would become more than the formal study of representations, but mainly and fundamentally the discipline dealing with signs in the mist of human life. With the addition of the contemporary knowledge about animals societies and biological processes, the Saussurian dream can be expanded considerably, and then the merging of semiotics and communication studies will bring to both disciplines a renewed conceptual vigor, capable of facing the daunting intellectual challenges of the years to come.