I began studying a Bachelor of Communication and Media Production at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) in 1982. It was the first year that the program ran. I can remember meeting with the convenor, Dr. Graeme Osbourne, before I started. I was seeking advanced standing for portions of two years of prior (aborted) study in a Bachelor of Arts program at the Australian National University. In a very affable manner, he declined my request, arguing that none of my study in English, Philosophy or Fine Art corresponded to what I was about to learn. At the very outset then, Communication was presented as something alien, as something that drew from the traditional humanities but that described a radically different field of concern. Of course, at that stage I had no interest in whatever the field of Communication represented. My interest was in the Media Production portion of the program. I was particularly keen to gain access to all the photographic, film and video production facilities (informed by some fond dream from my early teens of becoming a film-maker).
Communication studies was then only just emerging as an academic field. It had historical links to the field of Journalism, but described a much broader set of interests. It was ambitious, but also a bit disreputable (hence offered at a College of Advanced Education rather than a traditional university). Our first textbook was John Corner’s Communication Studies – which drew together a variety of relevant readings from, as I recall, sociology, linguistics, cybernetic-style information theory and psychology. The introductory lectures focused upon, among other things, defining communication, tracing the historical development of the information society, and explaining the distinct characteristics of interpersonal, small-group, organisational and mass communication. Apart from the odd interesting reading from a theorist such as Erving Goffman (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) or on the psychology of perception, most of the interpersonal communication stuff was bit dull, involving, for instance, categorising aspects of non-verbal communication (Knapp). Small-group and organisational communication were much worse. Some fairly vacuous stuff geared mainly, it seemed, towards the needs of corporate management. Mass Communication was much more interesting and substantial. It seemed ridiculous to present it as only one quarter of the field when it had much greater historical and intellectual range and much clearer cultural and political relevance. It examined the history of mass communication technologies and their problematic relation to aspects of social change. We considered issues such as printing’s contribution to the European Enlightenment, the role of propaganda in Hitler’s Germany and the implications of the mass panic surrounding Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast. The key conceptual thread involved questioning and making sense of the effects of mass media. We learned how early ‘billiard ball’ models of media influence were replaced by more nuanced conceptions of mediated effects and then by more broadly cultural-ideological approaches that positioned mass media structurally rather than as crudely mechanistic agents.
It is not so much, however, all the details of what we learned that interests me here. Instead, it is the particular way in which the Communication discipline took shape. It appeared in the following terms:
- amorphous – the field of Communication described something difficult to recognise – something opaque and elusive, something that was less an object or domain than an abstract process endlessly subject to metamorphosis. Rather than a self-evident object of study, it represented a change of perspective in which the focus shifted from objects to relations, from substance to the flux of communicative exchange.
- interdisciplinary – related to the above, the question of communication was confronted in a whole range of disciplines and traversed a whole range of disciplinary approaches, from empirical psychology to anthropology, history, art and speculative philosophy. It extended from the hard, quantitative sciences (behavioural media effects research) to the most qualitative (Guy Debord’s critique of The Society of the Spectacle). This was hardly a peaceful space. As a student, you were forced to choose broadly between scientific and critical traditions of Communication research, which largely represented a choice between the US and the European traditions respectively.
- open – although, it had already developed, particularly in the US context, a fairly dull canon of communication models (Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver and the various tedious corrections – feedback arrows and the like), there was nothing neatly settled about the field. It projected a space of contention and possibility. For me, it provided a pathway towards cultural studies, media theory and postmodern and post-structural thought.
I doubt that the discipline can appear in quite the same terms any longer. It appears more well-established and staid, retreating from its earlier sense of risk and creative exchange. Perhaps because of this early experience, which I found very valuable, I have always preferred unstable, self-questioning fields of study. Seems to me that it is less a matter of establishing clearly definable disciplines than of projecting potential disciplines – imagining that they may somehow have coherence, squeezing them for insights and pushing them to collapse. Which suggests a paradox: disciplines are only of any value before they take accepted shape. This would account for my continuing affection for the discipline of Media Arts – its proper space, its boundaries, its traditions and skill sets are all inadequately determined.