Monday, August 07, 2006


After my last post, an attempt to apply the notion of 'the aesthetic anxiety' to communication studies, I realized I'd largely ignored some of the major differences between how poetry and communication studies operate. I would like to address this with a typology.

It is possible to imagine that the strategies employed by a range of actors in a discipline will be shaped largely by the structural position of that discipline within the larger social field. I suggest that we can understand some of these strategies in terms of heteronomy and autonomy, and in terms of high stakes and small stakes. It's a classic 2x2 grid, for those inclined to think in Robert Mertonian terms.

So, I'm sayin' this: communication has, as a field, largely been identified with what could be called high stakes heteronomy. It is heteronomy because, instead of defining its own terms, the field is much more likely to fit itself into existing institutional structures. The field's successes have largely involved institutional accomodation. Whatever successes communication has had, they have largely come from high-stakes heteronomy. I think this is what leads the field to define itself institutionally, as John Durham Peters describes in his still-relevant 1986 article "Sources of Intellectual Poverty in Communication Research." It's what communication has done well. We have done a good job of finding the needs for our own discipline. The question is whether or not the field will ever parlay this increasingly prominent institutional standing into something more intellectually challenging and cohesive (and some would argue that cohesion may be the enemy, anyway).

Poetry, meanwhile, experiences the aesthetic anxiety because it involves low-stakes autonomy. Poets have a tremendous amount of freedom to say whatever they want. There is a substantial amount of autonomy. It is 'low stakes' because this freedom does not translate into power. They have been granted an island, and though they have free range on this island, they have few inroads to the high stakes games of centralized power. To be blunt, they own their own irrelevance.


Blogger Archambeau said...

True dat. Double true.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

So: if poets revel in their freedom but fear they are irrelevant, do communications people suffer an equal but opposite anxiety: reveling in their connection to power, but fearing that they may just be one or another version of a monkey on a string, the other end of which is held by someone with a lot of money?

1:57 PM  
Blogger pravdakid said...

I think it's safe to say that some (not all) communication scholars feel this anxiety. It's tempting to say that some comm scholars don't see the institutional constraints of what they do, so thoroughly do they identify themselves in terms of the field.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:56 PM  

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