Communications and the State: Toward a New International History
International Communication Association Preconference
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 20, 2015
Sponsor: ICA Communication History Division
Organizers: Gene Allen and Michael Stamm
In 2004, Paul Starr remarked that “Technology and economics cannot alone explain the system of communications we have inherited or the one we are creating. The communications media have so direct a bearing on the exercise of power that their development is impossible to understand without taking politics into account, not simply in the use of media, but in the making of constitutive choices about them.” Alongside Starr, historians have produced a vibrant new literature detailing the constitutive role of the state in the making of communications and the constitutive role of communications in the making and unmaking of states and empires. Indeed, communications – and the industries, infrastructures, and cultures that take shape around it – has been integral to state-related projects ranging from empire building to liberation movements and “great leaps forward.”
Though the range of state activities affecting and structuring communications is vast, it is possible to identify four broad themes in the literature: the state as communicator, the state as a regulator of communication, the state as a creator and/or subsidizer of structures of communication, and the state as an object of critique by citizens and subjects.
On the first theme, in the earliest days of print, state-building monarchs used the medium to celebrate their victories, minimize their defeats, and administer increasingly complex relationships with their subjects. Today, communications remains a key strategic function of all governments, whether democratic or authoritarian. How have these functions evolved over time? How have they been used by different kinds of states and regimes at different times? The communication practices and requirements of, for example, the modern welfare state are very different than those of the pre-Revolutionary French monarchy. The state in a democratic society communicates with its citizens differently than a colonial regime does with its subjects.
Along with attempts to shape public opinion, the state also restricts and regulates communication. In democracies, this leads us to histories of licensing, censorship and other forms of repression and to histories of radical or revolutionary communication in opposition to the state. It also directs us to histories of regulatory institutions, legislation, court decisions and the myriad other ways that communication organizations have negotiated with states over access to public resources. Many of these issues have arisen in nondemocratic and colonial societies as well, though they often involve different strategies, tactics, and outcomes, and sometimes direct and violent repression.
Third, scholars have been broadening our understanding of the state’s role in creating communications networks and institutions. For example, Armand Mattelart has emphasized the importance of physical infrastructure, beginning with the systems of roads and canals constructed by the mercantilist state in the 17th and 18th centuries, in organizing communicative space. Richard John’s work on the US Post Office has been similarly influential in generating work on the state subsidy of information networks in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some scholars have taken a global and comparative approach to this theme, for example Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini, who recently extended their influential work on comparative media systems to include nonwestern societies. Others have interrogated how communication has been structured through the actions of supranational entities such as empires, international copyright or telecommunications conventions or agencies like UNESCO.
And finally, many scholars have examined how audience members, ordinary citizens, or colonial subjects have understood, interacted with, and responded to the state’s presence in their lives as it pertains to communication. Recent historical studies have examined such subjects as pirate radio, alternative journalism, media reform movements, public protests, court cases aimed at expanding or protecting the right to free expression, and forms of everyday resistance such as graffiti and public art. To many people in democratic societies, state power has not been seen as coincidental with justice or legitimacy. Opposition to colonial rule has often (justifiably) been more directly confrontational, though in postcolonial societies the idea of a new state can be seen as a path to emancipation. We seek to understand the various critiques and activist projects that have been generated as people communicate alongside or against the state.
Ultimately, the aim of this preconference is to bring together scholars studying diverse time periods and geographic areas with the goal of drawing conclusions about the state as an active element in the making of communications in general, rather than in one particular nation or another. We are also interested in what happens when communication systems reach across state boundaries and in historical formations that have important commonalities with states, such as alliances, kingdoms, juntas, and more.
Abstracts of 300 words (maximum) should be submitted no later than 15 November 2014. Proposals for full panels are also welcome: these should include a 250-word abstract for each individual presentation, and a 200-word rationale for the panel. Send abstracts to Gene Allen. Authors will be informed regarding acceptance/rejection for the preconference no later than December 15, 2014. In an effort to facilitate informed discussion of papers, the organizers will have the papers for this preconference posted online. For this reason, full papers will need to be submitted no later than April 15, 2015.