Communication, Media, and Identity: A Christian Theory of Communication
A few decades back, Walker Percy told the parable of a Martian who, upon visiting our planet, is overwhelmed by how much humans talk. After asking about all the gabbing, the alien receives a cross-disciplinary bibliography on linguistics and speech physiology and information theory. “’But wait,’ says the Martian, ‘What about the actual event of language? The central phenomenon? What happens when people talk, when one person names something or says a sentence about something and another person understands him?’”1 It is tempting to answer the question with a conversation-stopping shrug. How do you explain the central phenomenon when it is defined in so many different ways? Thus communication doth make Martians of us all.
Robert Fortner ’s 2007 book Communication, Media and Identity does not deny the bewilderment entailed in talking about talk. But he does offer us a definition of the central phenomenon: “Communication is a dynamic, symbolic process by which people in dialogue construct the meanings and share the emotions through which they understand, value, and live in society, and by which they both behave and justify their behavior” (emphasis Fortner; 18). Admittedly, this is prose made more for dissection than pleasurable reading. But then, Fortner proceeds to do just that, breaking down and expounding on the definition’s components. Copiousness is, in fact, a chief rhetorical virtue of his book, a quality that suits his ambition to provide a comprehensive Christian theory of mass communication. What he offers is a kind of GoogleEarth view of mass communication, a metatheoretical perspective framed by the twin beliefs that human communication is given and modeled by God.
The book is deeply tensioned. It purports to be almost presumptuously innovative, and yet often it reads like a literature review. It critiques information theory endlessly and yet is itself information-dense. It propounds an aesthetic view of communication, but only by communicating in highly technical and sometimes turgid prose. Perhaps these tensions are due to audience complexities. On the one hand, Fortner addresses fellow communication scholars long familiar with the literatures he cites. On the other, he addresses evangelical media practitioners, who have either ignored theory altogether…or… unreflectively adopted an obsolete theoretical perspective (the so-called hypodermic needle model) to justify the enormous sums that we invest in attempting to get the gospel out to the world (xii).
Trying to talk to both groups, sometimes Fortner fails to address either, falling instead into organizational arbitrariness or even redundancy. It is hard to know where his argument will go next, and when it arrives, the reader may suffer déjà vu. That said, my favorite quality in Fortner ’s writing is that he seems always to be thinking aloud, casting about eagerly for whatever analogies and articles lie closest at hand.
Communication, Media, and Identity is a difficult book to summarize. The Table of Contents is a series of themes and variations that looks like an editor ’s post hoc attempt to give the book a systematic appearance: “Communication as a Relational Activity,” “Communication through Technology?” “Communication as If People Mattered,” and so on. If anything, the virtue of the book lies not in its attempts at linearity, but in its perpetual back-and-forthness between talk and tools, reflection and experience, theology and theory. The oscillatory motion of the book generates numerous conversation-starters; I will discuss three: (1) that communication theory is theological; (2) that faith and theory meet between extremes; (3) and that aesthetic attention makes room for faith in the conversations of communication scholarship.
First, Fortner insists that all communication theory is theologically informed:
Theoretical assumptions may take account of religious explanations (God created), or may ignore or deny them (man is self-made without divine intervention or the result of natural evolutionary processes). All such assumptions, however, emerge from basic ontological positions (26).
This insight, a cousin to Calvin’s doctrine of the seed of religion, helps Fortner to locate assumptions across communication theories and then to counter them with claims of his own: that communication is a gift from the Creator, that it confronts us with our own limitations and depravity, that it enables love for God and care for neighbor. Fortner draws these assumptions out of biblical narratives—Adam’s naming, Abel’s murder, Israel’s exodus—an approach that helps to ground his theory-building in the lifeworld of human experience. It also offers the tacit encouragement that careful Bible-readers reasonably may expect to be able to understand and critique all discursive experiences.
But it is a little troubling how few of Fortner ’s narrative reflections carry the suggestiveness of genuine discovery. His readings of Holy Scripture are helpful in that he shows how frequently biblical writers either address or model important aspects of human communication. But are his biblical appeals serviceable correctives for and alternatives to contemporary accounts of human communication? Sometimes I think so. At times, though, I fear his hermeneutics does a better job of confirming the findings of critical theorists and dialogic ethicists than of offering a heuristic account of human communication. Granted, we should expect to find in the Gospel some confirmation of what other theorists have already worked out. But should we not also expect to find in the Gospel the gifts of surprise and gentle subversion—even of those theorists with whom we agree? If we do not, is not a Christian theory of communication in danger of abetting that most devastating of all secularist retorts—the shrug?
I wonder what Fortner would say to the secular theorist who says, “Okay, you win this time. You have caught me—again!—assuming theology at the back of my theorizing. But who says every theorist has to theologize? It is conceivable that a theorist will come along some day who, for one reason or another, is wholly innocent of ontological assumptions.” In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor worries about this Rorty-like dismissal. Accordingly, he mounts a “transcendental” defense of ontological frameworks that searches out “how we actually make sense of our lives,” and tries “to draw the limits of the conceivable from our knowledge of what we actually do when we do so.”2 This makes me wonder if instead of insisting, “When you theorize, you theologize,” Fortner should say, “Without theological horizons, you are not likely to be as humane a theorist as you want to be.”
Now, for trope number two: for Fortner, faithful theory emerges between extremes. His reflections on the relationship of personal identity to community influence, for example, avoid radical individualism on the one hand and radical constructivism on the other. His chapters on technology’s impact on human relations avoid technological determinism on the one hand and technological neutrality on the other. His constant critique of information systems theory does not deny that, on the other hand, there is information to convey. There is great purity of heart in this commitment to the middle way. But as wise as moderation sounds, it can become a prosaic tyrant, whose fearsomely symmetrical edicts forbid all things paradoxical and ironic. What of the Proverbist who tells us in one aphorism to answer a foolin his folly, only to follow that up by the counsel not to answer a fool in his folly? What of Jesus who says that for us who are in, but not of the world, identity can only be found by losing it? What of Paul who warns against trying to please people instead of God, only to explain elsewhere that he seeks to be all things to all people? Does fidelity to Holy Scripture require us to be forever searching out the Aristotelian middle way? Might not wisdom lie in a perpetually oscillating focus between polarities? Or, if that seems too jittery, what about Michael Polanyi’s counsel to engage polarities in a “from-to” relationship: we indwell one in order to reach towards another?
The last trope I have selected to discuss gives me a chance to express appreciation for Fortner ’s conviction that we would understand communication more faithfully if we understood it more aesthetically. This is not quite the Dostoevskian claim that beauty will save the world. But the chapter “Communication as Art” does foreground “issues of form, technique, content, meaning, morals, and audience” in order to show how aesthetics corrects for instrumentalist notions of communication (144). (Rhetoricians may wish that Fortner had also spent time talking about the ways that communication reforms aesthetics.) I believe his aesthetics highlights also the inescapably artistic and even performative quality of our everyday lives. Sociologists like Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst (Audiences), as well as media critics like Thomas de Zengotita (Mediated), insist that our lives are so pervaded by the mass media that we are toggling forever between performance and spectatorship.3 Instead of despairing (as Zengotita does) that our performative identities diminish our agency, Fortner characteristically strikes a middle ground between admitting that we are always playing roles and honoring the distinctness of each soul. Laudably, his book makes it difficult to dismiss the performances of our various daily roles as inauthentic communications. Perhaps Walker Percy’s Martian, if confronted today by the central phenomenon of our species, would ask not so much about its essence as its ephemera. Come to think of it, Fortner ’s book seems well-suited for aliens of all sorts who are curious about the odd relationship of structures and surfaces in human communication.
Cite this article
- Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 14.
- Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: the Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1989), 32.
- Nicholas Abercrombie and Brian Longhurst, Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination(London: SAGE, 1998). Thomas Zengotita, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Livein It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005).