Remodelling Communication: From WWII to the WWW
by Gary Genosko
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2012
184 pp. Trade, $40.00; eBook, $39.00
ISBN: 978-1442644342; ISBN: 9781442699724.
Reviewed by Jussi Parikka
Winchester School of Art, UK
Gary Genosko’s Remodelling Communication revisits a lot of the stuff that you may remember from your university studies’ introduction to communications lectures. However, a lot of the grounding theories – semiotic and signal based - are here reconsidered in ways that actually make them exciting again. Genosko, who is always such an inspirational writer on communication and media theory and especially Félix Guattari, is able to find fresh insights and passages to Shannon & Weaver, Jakobson, Baudrillard and a range of other theorists. Taking the idea of communication models as the starting point, Genosko does not offer only a history of theory – instead, with subtle nods to the actual graphic notation designs and what it means to think in models and diagrams, he is able to position communication theory as a material, historical escort to media themselves.
What is curious about the idea of communication models – often abstract diagrams of what we would consider material, situated, gendered, dynamic communication events or processes – is how integrally they sit as part of the history and development of technical media. In other words, the increasingly engineered abstractions of technical communications and signal processing and transmission are perhaps itself one “condition” behind the introduction of models that try to pitch in other abstractive forms the event of communication. Shannon and Weaver’s mathematical theory of communication, famous for its preference for non-semantic signal before semantic meanings, is in this sense emblematic of the translations across technics and diagrams. This assumption of the primary abstractness (even if completely material) is not, however, entirely how Genosko sees the way models of communication have worked since WWII. With a meticulous eye for details, he is able through surprising contexts from the seeming fringes of these theories to grasp something fresh about the role of theories. For instance, placing more emphasis on Weaver than Shannon is one such example, especially when picking up on the notion of the “discreet girl” (the telegraph operator) at the centre of otherwise supposedly completely engineering model of communications. The passage from Weaver that Genosko quotes is worth reproducing here too:
“An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram. She pays no attention to the meaning, whether it be sad, or joyous, or embarrassing. But she must be prepared to deal with all that come to her desk. This idea that a communication system ought to try to deal with all possible messages, and that the intelligent way to do this is to base design on statistical character of the source, is surely not without significance for this communication in general.” (Weaver, quoted in Genosko 2012: 37)
As Genosko elaborates, paying attention to such features incorporated as part of the models is a way to account for all that happens at the fringes of formal theories of communication – the dimensions of “gender and hierarchy of power/knowledge” (37), and hence to position such theories historically. In this case, a special reference point becomes the telegraph system.
A similar methodology of attention to the material details part of production of models and theory is evident in other case studies of Genosko’s book. A case in point is how he picks up the various reproductions of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”. What Genosko points out is the most often referenced and read versions of that paper are, however, the shortened reproductions in various cultural studies Readers, which neglects a range of important links within that model. Such include for instance important references to Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital.
Remodelling Communication works gradually through a discussion of the phatic function of communication (Jakobson) to hammer home key points of transmission as change: Transmission is transformation, and hence is best understood itself as transductive event. At least by this point Genosko’s Guattarian way of thinking about media and culture comes clear when he starts to elaborate the multiple materialities (mixed semiotics) of screen cultures – “A television broadcast is an extremely complex and variable event; what’s on screen is but a small part. But when what’s on the screen is a transduced object, it is more than the program that arrives in a relatively porous space whose entrances and exists are monitored; a transduced object enters the mix of a collective assemblage with its coded but open enunciations and competing semiotic transmissions.” (96)
Indeed, through several chapters of readings of classical communication theories, Genosko is able to bit by bit develop his own position that boils down to the concept of “metamodelling”. Besides offering the important points about the graphic form of communication theories (“Still, flatness and rainbow arc-shaped bidirectional flows perhaps herald unknown pleasures”, 117), he articulates the mode of productivity inherent in diagrammatics; this production takes as its cue not signification but a-signification and becomes understood through the notion of metamodelling. Here, the productive aspect of models becomes emphasized with an eye towards the links between models and what they represent. Metamodelling seems “models imbued with the productive and projective force of diagrammatization become metamodels in which functions multiply, semiological and a-signifying signs cross it and connect directly with strands on the technological phylum of communications consisting of interfaces of all sorts between subjectivity and technology, and social and historical forces.” (125) What this amounts to, or promises, is the possibility of media historical specificity in mapping the theoretical terrain of theories of communication. The subtitle of the book promises a time span “from WWII to the WWW” even if actually Genosko stays further from an archaeological analysis. He is a perceptive theorist who is able to breath life to past communication models, and theorizing the idea of “model” in innovative ways.