Reading + New Pub + Meditations on Communication Studies

This week’s reading for my Repetition seminar was particularly easy (compared with the thicker theoretical stuff we’ve been doing), but I found it quite refreshing, actually. Probably because the authors are quite clever. Anyway, this was a good thing, because next week we’re going to slog through Derrida’s differance essay. That should be fun in its own, perverse way.

In the meantime, I head off tomorrow for Milwaukee for a few days. My copy of My Freshman Year just arrived, so that should make for some good gossipy, and somewhat cheeseball airplane reading. I also finally bought a copy of Shaping Technology/Building Society which I have perennially checked out from the library. I also think I still don’t own Steve Waksman’s Instruments of Desire which is weird since I cite it a lot, teach it, and have about half of it photocopied. I have a whole list of books I love but don’t own. Which is weird, because I’m not exactly shy about buying books.

My latest publication to appear is my first to appear in French. “Pour en finir avec la fidélité (les médias sont des instruments),” Mouvements #42 (November/December 2005): 44-53. Pretty cool. I wonder what I said.

I didn’t actually mention the intellectual content of NCA in my last post. I served on two panels. I was a respondent for a panel on eBay, which had only two authors, but both papers were great and are part of a forthcoming book called Everyday eBay It’s so odd that there hasn’t been much cultural work on eBay and online auctions in general (though one can find endless business analysis and writings by philosophers about “online trust” which is really just a form of administrative research). I also chaired a panel of highly-ranked student papers, which is always cool. They were all well done.

But the thing that struck me was the number of conversations I found myself in about Communication Studies. What it is, why it matters, what’s special about it, how it differs from the other humanities. I think the answer is sociological, rather than substantive (as it is for all disciplines: try making a purely analytical distinction between the domains of anthropology and sociology — you can’t do it!). But so many people are so caught up in this, and I guess the question matters, since it was posed not only at panels I attended but also at lunch with an editor from a major university press. My least favorite solution, though it is favored by several constiuencies in NCA, is a subtractive model, a situation where scholars distinguish Comm Studies from other humanities and social sciences by showing how it’s not history, sociology, literature, anthropology, etc. through rejection of the ideas and methods of those fields. It’s motivated by a kind of shame, since Comm Studies is a less prestigious field (at least in the US; I can’t quite clock its place in the hierarchy of fields in Canada) than other traditional humanities. The effect of this shame is to reproduce itself, since it discourages students and young scholars from pursuing erudition so that they might remain certain that their work is “inside” the field. As I explained to the querying editor, our field is at its best when it goes in the opposite direction, when people take chances they couldn’t take in other fields, and where happy accidents occur in interdisciplinary collisions that are the direct result of the fact that the Comm Studies is unable to police its borders as effectively as more traditional “disciplines” like history or sociology (recognitizing that they too are complex and heterogenous as well). If you look to the best work that Comm Studies field calls “its own,” much of it bears the stamp of that peculiar situation.