The cultural turn in International Communication.

Author:Kavoori, Anandam
Position:Critical essay
 
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Mapping an Epistemic

Contexts/Frames

International communication--a field at the interstices of a wider set of debates within/across its antecedent disciplines including sociology, international politics, anthropology, and comparative literature, to name just a few, mirrors all of the anxieties that bedevil those disciplines. (1) These include concerns over globalization (as concept, symptom, and reality), (2) identity politics (as a concept for understanding both experience and structure), and policy formulations (as an agent for determining global structuration and nation-state relations). In addition, it faces problems of its own making, which include bridging an understanding between media structures and media use (3); the place of media in constructs of global culture, (4) and the imperfect relation between political economy(-ies) and media cultures. (5) It has also remained largely derivative, with international communication theories retrofitting models from different paradigms such as dependency and cultural imperialism; world systems, and political economy; neo-liberalism and media economics; transnational ethnography and reception analysis. (6) To this laundry list of complaints the authors add two more--a theoretical ambiguity emergent in borrowing from a wide set of transnational concerns (the geopolitics of violence, the use of popular culture, and the media policies of global corporations, to name just three disparate concerns) without an overarching theoretical frame to locate them, and an epistemic ambiguity emergent in the often overlapping use of terms such as globalization, globalism, cultural imperialism, transnationalism and so forth. (7)

In light of its fractured nature, it is worth asking whether there is a field of "international communication" at all, or just a set of institutional alignments in the Anglo-American academy that labels all scholarship that is outside of the (western) nation as "international." This programmatic essay suggests that there is indeed an engagement that currently underlies the field--one focused on issues of "culture" in a global context, or simply put, "global culture." Writing over a decade ago, Mowlana (1994) called for a conceptual framework for international communication that moves beyond the "sense of international communication as interactions amongst states or policy making elites" (p. 15), and for an increased understanding of a cultural approach to global issues both at the "topical, substantive level, as well as at the epistemological level" (p. 27). In the same time period, Sreberny-Mohammadi (1992) identified the emerging paradigm of "cultural revisionism" as the direction of the future, a future that was still searching for a coherent theoretical shape (p. 119).

Today, that coherence has taken shape, not in the sense of a formal paradigm/ theory (such as cultural studies, cultural imperialism, or postcolonialism) or method (qualitative against quantitative), but rather in the reworking of a set of key epistemic categories around issues of culture. These epistemic categories (which have always been at the heart of international communication) are those of modernism, nationalism, postmodernism, postcolonialism and capitalism. Kavoori argues that these categories are "global frames for understanding/locating culture practices that render visibility to social action; provide order to community formation and rationale for identity articulation. They provide legitimacy to the (global) social order of things and (simultaneously) the motivation to change them" (2006, p. 1). What is suggested here is that the cultural turn in international communication is characterized not by the logic of allegiance to certain schools of thought or theories, but by the sheer empiricality of culture as the site through which these epistemic categories for understanding today's world are being worked through. In other words, this is not an essay where key concepts and theories of a cultural approach, or even competing theories are outlined. Rather, the goal is to map, at a macro theoretical level, how culture becomes/subsumes the epistemic categories identified above. Such a perspective should not be confused with the idea of a monolithic "global culture" (or McDonaldization) spread by the diffusion of mass media, but that different media animate specific relationships within those epistemic categories.

In what follows, the authors first outline the contours of this new understanding of culture followed by a discussion of how specific media forms become global culture--by reworking/animating one or more of the epistemic categories. Given the limitations of space, both tasks are attempted with broad strokes, leaving the task of providing scholarly referencing to the Notes. Needless to add, this is necessarily an incomplete, albeit an important step in thinking through concerns central to the field of international communication today.

An important caveat at the outset--the authors are not offering a catch-all definition for "culture" but suggesting that the term "culture" has now assumed a paradigmatic status--but paradoxically, without a canon. Much like water that takes the shape of its container, culture has become the vehicle through which the paradigmatic/epistemic categories of the modern world are being visualized. Understanding the "how" of this process makes up the "mapping the epistemic" exercise being undertaken here.

Global Culture: Epistemic Connections

The authors begin by outlining how culture takes shape through the epistemic categories of modernism, postmodernism/postcolonialism, nationalism and capitalism.

Culture as modernism (8) assumes the primacy of the institutional and cultural/ communicative practices that emerge within the socio-economic space of European industrial and urban growth, and then becomes transmuted as a mediated vocabulary for cultural and economic development globally. The benchmarks of this fundamentally discursive engagement include those of industrial enterprise, economic valuation, political accountability, and personal freedom. Thus, the construct of culture as modernism retains its traditional use as a category of periodization and its wider use as a prescriptive for socio-economic development.

Culture as postmodernism (9) is reflected in the emergence of not only a new kind of social and economic accounting (culture as consumption) but also a specific semiotic universe (a globally interconnected, rapidly mobile landscape of signifiers) and new vocabularies for cultural mediation (for example, hyper-tourism, micromedia, cybersex). At the heart of this process is the articulation of identity politics (race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity), which is reflexively engaged within the associated realms of technology, performance, cross-cultural transference and regulated violence (across both state and non-state actors).

Culture as nationalism (10) retains both its traditional signifier as the communicative ethos of new states (and those yet to be born) and the emergent values of "renewal" in third world states as they grapple with conditions of global capitalism. At the other end, of the spectrum, this relationship animates the emergence of global ethnicities (e.g., the category of "Asian" or "Latino"), and functions as a discursive touchstone for state mobilizations over national identity (Iraq, Sri Lanka currently; the break up of Yugoslavia in recent memory), and regional "nationalisms" (in constructs like the "Arab Nation").

Culture as capitalism (11) is evident in the emergence of "consumption" as a key category in understanding global (mediated) relations. Capitalism assumes through the cultural value of consumption the aura of inevitability--both in the sense of a globally connected historically contingent matrix of economic and social relations and its current "naturalization" by nation-states for cultural/economic development. Further animating this relationship is the multifaceted presence of capitalist values in a variety of contexts (the "marketplace" of...

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