Communications, the Media, and Propaganda

views updated


Thomas C. Wolfe

"Communications" has long been a subject of interest for historians of European societies: from the printing press to the Internet, technologies of communication have had a decisive impact on the politics, government, economies, and cultures of Europe. This essay will provide a framework for thinking about this enormous topic by discussing three distinct but related issues. First, it will make the obvious but important point that any history of communications relies on an idea of what communications "is." Historians have often—usually implicitly—understood communications as primarily a product of technology, something produced by a machine. But in recent decades social scientists have begun to argue for more anthropological understandings of communications, ones that stress how any act of communication takes place within a prior matrix of cultural meanings.

Second, it will present in compressed form what communications scholars have stressed when they look at the broad sweep of European and Western history. Such an account will be necessarily partial, but the goal is less to present a synoptic vision of historians' understandings than to view some of the dominant themes in modern history in light of communication as a cultural and social practice.

The third part of this essay will address an argument made by a number of philosophers and critics, that "communications" is by no means simply an academic subject, separated off behind the dense walls that seem to divide the present from the past, but is rather a crucial part of our present. Media institutions are intimately bound up with many of the predicaments that European societies, as well as those societies all over the globe shaped by "Western" ways of life, are facing today. Here we will consider just one of these predicaments, the problem of the public. Since the seventeenth century, the public has been a key idea in the evolution of democratic societies, and in order to think about the vicissitudes of the contemporary public, it is indispensable to have some idea of how the idea of the public appeared in Europe in the early modern period and what happened to it in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the European context, this history is particularly relevant now, as the leaders of the European Union seek to create a European public as the foundation of the single European state.


If there is a foundational understanding of communications that has guided the research and thinking of many historians, it is that communications involves the transport of a message from a sender to a receiver. The message traverses time and space more or less intact, sent on its way by a mechanism that fixes language in mobile form. The history of communications thus addresses the evolution of means by which messages have been fixed and moved across time and space. This is a familiar history centered upon inventions and the inventors, businessmen, and patrons who developed and promoted them. In the temporal scope that is our interest here, the printing press stands out as the first in a long line of such machines, a line that culminates today in the latest software offered on the World Wide Web.

Many writers have argued that this model of communications is simply too narrow, and that communications history should not be a subfield of the history of technology. They stress that communication in its more general sense is a phenomenon of culture, and therefore communications history is in fact cultural history and should integrate the insights of anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies into its analytic vocabulary. For example, Armand Mattelart uses the term "communication" to denote broad social processes involving "multiple circuits of exchange." The objects exchanged include not only messages but also goods and people that together form a continuous kind of cultural "flow." This expansive definition makes the study of communications a vast field on which a multitude of seemingly disparate objects are mapped and related to each other, like the Suez Canal and the utopian novel, nineteenth-century German anthropology and theories of naval power.

Another contemporary French writer, Régis Debray, criticizes the message-based model not for being narrow but for being simply mistaken. Building on the insights of many linguists and anthropologists, he argues that messages should not be considered as things separate from the social and cultural networks from which they emerge. Instead of being instantaneous, interpersonal, and peaceful—traits implied by the sender-message-receiver model—communication should be reconceived as acts of transmission that are historical, collective, and conflictual. The simplest text is but a moment in a historical process: no single person is ever the "author" of any message; rather, the message is the product of the social worlds to which individuals belong, worlds that are organized in terms of hierarchy and unequal power. Authors are certainly one part of the creation of messages, but it is a mistake to see them as the sole or even the most important part. Debray, like Mattelart, seeks a greatly expanded role for communication in organizing and in fact grounding our approaches to history, for the historical discipline's internal division in terms of military, diplomatic, social, and intellectual history is, he thinks, itself an artifact of the predominance of the sender-receiver model. The separation between social and intellectual history is particularly problematic: ideas and the social contexts that produced them are for Debray not separable, distinct phenomena; both need to be conceived as parts of the most concrete, material processes. "The Enlightenment," for example, "is not a corpus of doctrines, a totality of discourses or principles, that a textual analysis could comprehend and restore; it is a change in the system of manufacture/circulation/storage of signs" (p. 19).

Yet another group of historians has approached communication in culture by examining the connection between the dominant mode of communication in a society and the state or condition of consciousness of the members of that society. They work from the premise that the ways human beings experience themselves is in part a function of the nature of the communication mediums that define and connect them to their world. The Canadian writer Marshall McLuhan raised these broad questions most artfully and philosophically in the 1960s and 1970s, arguing that the history of media is the history of the transformation of the senses, first as space and time are overcome by writing and print, and then as new forms of presence are created by radio and television.

In terms of the long historical terrain that is our subject here, historians of communication and consciousness have described two significant shifts in Europe over the course of the last five hundred years. The first was the gradual movement from orality to literacy that occured in the modern period, and the second is the shift beginning in the twentieth century from print to visual culture or to a culture of the image. Historians of the transition from orality to literacy, such as Walter Ong and Michel de Certeau, have suggested that the printing press and the growth of communities based on literacy brought a qualitatively new kind of power to European societies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The capacity for imaginative thought and expression ceased to be conceived as being closely bound to and in some sense a part of nature, and became viewed as the possession of a creative self who writes from outside nature. Certeau suggests that printing involved the "discovery" of the blank page, upon which early modern scientific systems of astronomy, anatomy, and even music, could be written. This transformation made the concepts of imagination and creativity core cultural values for European civilization, and at the same time entailed a distancing from nature, from God, from an "enchanted" state in which all creatures were connected with each other in a harmonious universe.

With regard to the second transition mentioned above, a number of scholars have suggested that electronic technologies are today reshaping our consciousness in ways as profound as the print revolution reshaped the consciousness of Europeans centuries ago. In contrast to the disenchantment of the world caused by the systematizing nature of print, observers like the sociologist Michel Maffesoli today perceive the outlines of the reenchantment of the world, based on the ability of contemporary media to create new communities of faith. He argues that all kinds of cultural signs—industrial, personal, political, artistic—everything that is circulated as meaningful units of human culture, are taking the form of icons, of sacred images, which illustrate and concentrate belief, trust, and passion. He suggests that it is in the nature of the blank video screen to bring forth the proliferation of images and icons in the same way that it was in the nature of the blank page to demand systematic accounts of natural phenomena. The implication is that people are coming to know themselves and the world as images rather than as objects or ideas developed in the course of grappling with systems preserved and elaborated in print.

It is obvious that historians of communication and consciousness speak in a very different register from historians who study the details of communications technologies and the pace of their adoption in various societies. Social historians remind us, for example, that the movement from orality to print to image did not involve the supplanting of one medium by another, but rather the addition or overlaying of one by another. Similarly, they criticize simplistic claims about a second transition from print to image by arguing that electronic technologies since the nineteenth century have above all disseminated the printed word; in fact the computer and the Internet have brought about another print revolution, in which anyone with a personal computer becomes a printer and publisher. This is not quite fair, however, since at the heart of the interests of historians of consciousness is not the fabrication and circulation of the printed word but rather the creation of a subjective and affective power that shapes how readers and viewers interpret the world. Electronic technologies that transmit words and images have obviously not destroyed print, but they suggest that the printed word has itself become more powerful as an image than as a conveyor of verbal meaning. Paradigmatic examples are the ubiquitous logos of corporations, sports teams, and of commodities themselves.

A further point should be made concerning the messiness of the very concepts of orality and literacy. In the first place, anthropologists who have studied oral societies and historians who have studied the evolution of literacy in Europe show convincingly that neither orality nor literacy exist in any kind of pure state readable from the historical record. Members of oral cultures have many more means for knowing the world than simply what is told to them by their elders; these cultures encode knowledge in the nature world they inhabit as well as transmit meanings in the "written" form of art and design. Literacy is an equally difficult object to discern in the past. Even though the literacy rate has been a standard gauge for at least two centuries to mark the progress or stage of advancement of a society, historians remind us that the measurement of literacy is an extremely complex problem. Can we accurately call those farmers of an English county in the eighteenth century who managed to scratch out their name instead of simply marking an X in the parish register "literate"? In addition, they caution us against too rashly extrapolating literacy from the presence of educational institutions. There is little evidence, for example, that many young peasants in southern Italy who went to school for eight years at the end of the nineteenth century actually learned to read.

This condensed account of concepts of communications has been necessary to make the point that the historical study of communications includes a vast number of disparate topics and approaches. What follows will draw from a number of these approaches in order to describe how the printed word became the chief solvent for breaking down the institutions of medieval society and the constituing medium for modern social and cultural forms.


Scholars of communications have contributed a great deal to our understandings of the major turning points in the broad sweep of European history. In particular they have furnished insights that help us understand two of the most important issues that historians have debated for several centuries: first, the dissolution of the medieval world and the rise of early modern society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, second, the later transition to the modern world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From the perspective of communications scholars, these questions concern the revolutionary impact of print on medieval society and secondly the place of media in the establishment of industrial, democratic, and capitalist states since the consolidation of absolutist regimes in the eighteenth century.

As to the first transformation, there is broad historical consensus that the invention of the printing press was one of the most significant events of the early modern era. While books had of course existed since antiquity, they were both expensive and rare, and they circulated within relatively small circles of the clergy and nobility. Yet by the middle of the sixteenth century, so many books, pamphlets, chapbooks, ballads, newsletters, newsbooks, and corantos (single-sheet collections of news items from foreign sources) began to appear that the scarcity of books seemed to contemporaries a thing of the distant past. Printed material poured from presses based on Johannes Gutenberg's design at a fraction of the cost of manuscripts, and these inexpensive books were adopted into the rapidly expanding networks of marketing and distribution that constituted the commercial revolution of the early modern period.

We can summarize the social impact of this process by saying that it enabled communities of print to compete with and eventually supplant the communities of kin and faith that comprised medieval societies. Most dramatically, these new kinds of communities founded in and by print challenged prevailing conceptions of religious faith and political governance. Printed works were sources of beliefs, arguments, and claims to fact that reconfigured the bonds of belonging to social, cultural, and political collectivities. Print made possible new forms of communities based not on social and cultural rituals but on the basis of agreement with views first put forth in printed form and then referenced in other texts. Books not only gave factual claims durability and longevity but also gave speed and momentum to ideas, as they were passed from hand to hand and from generation to generation. Contrasting accounts of reality could endure over time and be taken up by new readers, who then became new articulators of argument and belief. People separated in time and space could base their relationship on the stability of identical copies of texts, and through the printed word could feel a new kind of bond and imagine a new kind of sympathy.

In the area of religion, the Reformation—the central religious, political, and cultural event of the early modern period—can only be fully understood by noting the ways the leaders of the reform movement constructed radically new forms of Christian community by exploiting the unique characteristics of print. Cheaper Bibles, collections of sermons, and prayer books enabled Protestant theologians to construct a style of worship based on direct access to the word of God as it was preserved on the printed page. Access to the divinity was no longer dependent on or a function of interactions with the human representatives of God on earth, who according to the reformers were members of a corrupt hierarchy, but was there for all those who could read. This was an early modern instance of a phenomenon that historians of communications have noticed repeatedly in the modern era: new forms of communication circumventing established hierarchies and thereby eroding the legitimacy of traditional institutions. In short, the printing press made possible a new kind of religiosity that absorbed and transformed existing religious institutions and ideas.

The printing press and the communities of print it made possible had an equally decisive impact on another major process in European history, the consolidation of the nation-state as the dominant political unit of the modern era. This appearance also dates to the sixteenth century, when the late medieval system of fluid political units based on the fluctuating fortunes of aristocratic families and alliances began to weaken, to be replaced by a system of nation-states. Scholars of communication have argued that the key trait of this new political unit was its dependence on networks of print culture that gave this abstract idea immense power. Historians of nationalism have referred to this new kind of cultural and political entity as an "imagined community"; they argue that any nation-state is above all an idea endlessly replenished by texts that restate and redefine its power over its "readers." In terms of the evolution of this idea, the scholar-bureaucrats of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gave European nation-states existence by disseminating in identical copies authoritative descriptions of these new bounded territories. They began in the seventeenth century to study the inhabitants of their territories; they began to think of occupants of territory as populations and went on to measure and decipher regularities and consistencies in matters of birth and death rates, agricultural production, and trade. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the romantic movement produced writers whose philosophical essays, novels, plays, and poetry described the profound emotional tie between a state and its people, a tie so enduringly strong that it produced the virulent nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In their works, nation-states became entities that, like people, suffered and triumphed, had ineluctable fates and unavoidable destinies. Other kinds of texts gave meaning to the nation-state as the bearer of political power; elite segments of society formed around the consumption of print began to think of states as possessing their own "national" interests that demanded brilliant statecraft on the part of leaders as well as the most noble sacrifices on the part of citizens. Viewed through the lens of communications, the entire history of national cultures and conflicts emerged because of the imaginary identifications made possible by print.

The importance of print communities to the process of secularization that steadily eroded medieval institutions and worldviews has led many writers to argue that the print revolution set Western civilization on a course of unending and limitless progress, and in the middle of the twentieth century many argued that for the rest of the world to join us on this path, they had to develop modern systems of communication. Progress depended on doing away with traditional forms of community and making new ones, and the European historical record showed there was no better solvent than print.

Scholars of communications have shown, however, that there is another side to this story. If it is possible to gloss the exit from the medieval world as unequivocally progressive, it is difficult to maintain that optimism in the face of another cultural entailment of print, which we might summarize with the observation that after the printing press, everything becomes a matter of opinion. The printing press made possible the growth of an international community of scholars dedicated to establishing the truth of their opinions by means of observation from experience; but it also made possible the establishment of a mode of social conflict in which communities of belief fought wars of words that led with depressing regularity to wars of cannons and bullets. No social group could defend itself or seek power for itself without the articulation of heresies and orthodoxies. In this sense the printing press early on took its place as one of the most effective weapons in European history.

The earliest manifestation of this new kind of conflict can be noted again in the sphere of faith. The Catholic Church's attention to threats to its authority posed by heretical texts of course predates Gutenberg, and yet it viewed the flood of written material that began in the sixteenth century with mounting alarm. The church felt an urgent need to keep back this tide of heretical texts from both inside and outside Christendom, and so promulgated more and more decrees defining and monitoring heresy in all its varied forms. The church paid attention to both the ideological side of things, enlarging the elaborate bureaucracy that scrutinized texts for the opinions they held, and the social side, increasing the surveillance of printers, booksellers, and authors who were in a position to organize the creation and circulation of heretical texts. Thus we should remember how this new Protestant form of religiosity was itself influenced by the new kinds of responses it elicited on the part of the established religious authorities. There is nothing like being called heretical to give power to a text.

But scholars of communication have argued that this ambiguous and conflictual quality of print had its most enduring effects in the field of politics. The most famous early example of this was the upheaval in English society beginning in the 1640s that lasted for over four decades, culminating in the revolution of 1688. This was the first major political conflict in Europe in which the question of the control of print became itself a point of political debate and contestation. Beginning in the 1640s, pamphlets and broadsheets became the vectors of sustained political criticism of the monarchy, and the monarchy in turn introduced measures to control print, measures that bear striking similarities to the Catholic Church's innovations of the previous century. This restriction provoked John Milton's essay of 1644, Areopagitica, which attacked the Crown's action as an unjustified curtailment of a fundamental right. This essay has been read as a document founding the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, although some scholars of communications history have pointed out that other readings are possible, ones that see Milton's text as itself partisan politics cloaked in high principle. Whatever Milton's own contribution to these events was, the upheavals in seventeenth-century English political life demonstrated how the printing press created new patterns of political conflict.

The English revolution was thus the first instance of what appears as a repeated pattern in the course of modern European history. First print helps to destabilize traditional political arrangements by fostering revolutionary actors who literally create their own forms of political power through print. Next these actors succeed in taking power, and as part of their new and more just vision of rule, they proclaim the liberalization of the sphere of print. Oppressive restrictions of the past are with much fanfare lifted and an era of freedom is inaugurated. But in the course of time the new regime generates a new opposition who themselves organize around print; clandestine networks of readers form, repressive measures are enacted, and the sphere of print becomes again a terrain of political conflict. Finally, what was once a revolutionary regime is denounced by new actors as traditional or feudal, a revolutionary situation emerges, and the cycle begins again.

The most conspicuous events that conform to this pattern are the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In all these cases power flowed to those who organized themselves around print most effectively, articulating the most persuasive case against what they considered a stifling autocracy and establishing the most passionate conviction for change among their circles of readers. In both these cases, regimes that understood the proliferation of opinions in print as dangerous to the stability of the state were brought down by actors whose specialty was the dissemination of argument and belief in print. After these revolutions, the problem of tolerance and difference emerged again, as the revolutionaries attempted to control the very conditions that had made their seizure of power possible. In the French case this led to the autocracy of Napoleon, and in the Soviet case to the autocracy of the Communist Party. The harsh policies of these new governments then generated their own forms of critical, revolutionary politics, which themselves generated new instances of print insurgency. In this light, the print revolution was at the same time the propaganda revolution, for it was in the early modern period that idealism, censorship, and propaganda became welded together to form the unique cultural alloy that we still refer to today as "politics."

And yet an even stronger definition of propaganda is possible. Some writers have argued that the ambiguous legacy of the printing press is best seen not in these dramatic moments of revolutionary upheaval, but rather in the evolution of daily life over the course of the last three centuries. Sociologists like Jacques Ellul have argued that propaganda—the dissemination of one-sided messages intending to convince the reader or listener of the rightness of the sender's interests or opinions—is best understood as a cultural force whose ultimate effect has been to create distracted, decentered, unthinking publics, unable to tell the difference between philosophical principle and naked self-interest. The printing press was not primarily a vehicle of progress or upheaval, but rather the primary instrument by which powerful groups supplied common people with a steady diet of permitted thoughts. Ellul inverts the entire Enlightenment narrative of progress and improvement and sees the modern period as that era when Western societies gave themselves entirely over to the forms of unfreedom that derive from the sea of slogans, jingles, and images that compel us to behave in ways consonant with the powerful.

We do not have to look hard for evidence that seems to support this strong view of propaganda. In the first edition of Richard Steele's Tatler of 1709, the author writes that he is providing the paper for "the use of Politick Persons" because they, "being Persons of strong Zeal and weak Intellects," need to be told "what to think" (Steele's italics). The same view is unabashedly acknowledged by Edward L. Bernays, one of the pioneers of advertising and public relations in the United States, who had immense influence on the development of these disciplines in Europe. Bernays wrote in Propaganda, his 1928 primer of public relations, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country." Between these two writers was two centuries' worth of institutional growth dedicated to perfecting communications so that the people would act as they were told.

While this is certainly another "strong" view, polemical and critical of the way capitalist industrial societies took shape in the nineteenth century, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that propaganda is less a political than a cultural fact in European history. From the civil religion of the French Revolution and its postrevolutionary incarnations in the programs of Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte to the establishment of advertising agencies as essential institutions in capitalist, democratic societies beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the rise of mass political parties in the early twentieth century and their post-World War II versions today, the expansion of propaganda is unmistakable. For Ellul, who fought in the French Resistance and experienced firsthand the Nazi control of French journalism and broadcasting, it is imperative to realize that the term "propaganda" should not be restricted to the political programs, publications, and press of fascist or totalitarian regimes, but that it accurately captured the way that order is maintained in any modern state. No social or political group could constitute itself without propaganda, nor could it survive without engaging in intense propaganda struggles with other groups.

Ellul's argument was particularly disquieting in the context of the Cold War, when two political and economic systems appeared to be locked in mortal conflict. And given this struggle, his point that both Soviet and Western societies lived in conditions of unfreedom because in both the individual is conceived as an empty vessel to be filled with the interests of the powerful was not particularly welcome. Some concerned observers even took Ellul's history of propaganda as a prophetic kind of warning because in the 1960s the new technology of television was beginning to appear in both Western and Eastern parts of Europe as an even more efficient disseminator of messages than print. Television, after all, created a new social kind of interaction, an immediate but mediated copresence, in which the voices of the powerful could be heard in your own living room appealing directly to your thoughts and manipulating your emotions.


While the above discussion has argued that "communications" has a central place in both the positive and negative "grand narratives" about the modern era, another history cuts productively between these two polemical views, one that has provided a framework both for thinking about the past and for formulating approaches to contemporary political life, a history that takes up the evolution of European institutions as well as the shaping of consciousness by technologies of communication. This is the problem of the "public," one of the most intricate issues in Western culture, and a concept deeply bound up with the development of communications. If the Renaissance meaning of the word "public" still owed much to to the classical sense that referred to the male landowners of a given city-state gathered together to discuss public (i.e., their own) business, the early modern sense of the term was wrapped up in new forms of publicity, that is, in the new means of making something public in print. In the seventeenth century "the reading public" came to refer to the collectivity of readers who consumed the periodicals and newspapers available in the coffeehouses, taverns, and inns of Europe's major cities. Some historians have suggested that from this early reading public and from the discussions carried on in print about pressing issues of the day a "public sphere" came into being, an institution that was, according to Jürgen Habermas, absolutely vital for the creation of popular government. Print became a "place" where individuals could gather for the purpose of applying their reason to matters that affected them all. Crucially, the anonymity of print levelled all social differences so that arguments could be examined outside of the context of social hierarchy and status, and it enabled the emergence of a procedural base for democratic practice: the early newspapers and periodicals instructed the growing groups of literate businessmen, lawyers, bureaucrats and teachers how to deliberate about their own interests, how to consider the implications of social and political problems, and how to compromise.

The complicating factor present at the birth of this early modern society of letters was capitalism, and more specifically the tension between the survival of the medium—the newspaper or periodical itself—and the state of the cultural institution, the public sphere. In the early modern period, the public sphere was sustained by publications that were erratically published and short-lived, and by printers/writers/publishers who were often harassed and prosecuted by the authorities. Paradoxically, however, the ephemeral nature of these early newspapers gave vitality to the nascent public sphere as new printers and publishers joined the ongoing discussions, staking both their careers and their often meager resources on the growth of this peculiar public that constituted itself in the act of reading.

The problem, according to historians like Habermas, was that journalism and the entire public sphere became corrupted by the transformation of these publications into business enterprises that sought profits before they sought the public good. The public sphere was invaded by private interests to such a degree that by the end of the eighteenth century the stereotype of journalists as venal, self-interested scribblers who sold themselves to the highest bidders was fixed in popular culture. The public sphere's transformation was furthered with the industrial revolution and the growth of Europe's cities in the first half of the nineteenth century, when papers became intertwined with the promotion, advertising, and distribution of a style of life based on the consumption of leisure goods and experiences. The problem was not only that the public use of reason took a back seat to the production of propaganda. Just as serious was that the strategies that newspapers used to compete with each other in the crowded, competitive sphere of periodicals ended up distorting readers' perceptions of the world. According to Richard Terdiman, print media was another site where we can note the imprint of the commodification of everyday life: in the press the world was broken up into the briefest items that were strewn across the page without order or reason, in exactly the same ways as early department stores jumbled together dresses and umbrellas, wallets and underwear. The readers of these mass newspapers were shown a world without order and were offered nothing to help them supply order to it. The readers no longer constituted a public but were rather treated as a mass whose opinions were to be supplied and whose consumption was to be molded.

Such a history of the public sphere does not aim to provide a full account of the development of journalism as a profession, much less the development of political institutions in democratic societies. It says nothing, for example, about other public spheres that appeared in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like the proletariat public sphere formed by guilds, trade unions, and other working-class organizations. Neither does this story attend to the complex role played by women in both the formation of the public sphere and the processes that supposedly led to its transformation. The history of the public sphere is more like a framework that provides a useful starting point for thinking about the development of Western societies in the modern era, and it is a history that emerged again after World War II as particularly relevant to the task of rebuilding European societies. The question faced by European leaders in 1945 was how to give democracy a deep and enduring foundation so that the cataclysm of total war would never happen again. Propaganda systems and institutions were to be destroyed and broadcasting was to be decentralized; the press was to be democratized, and television was to serve the public as a new kind of pedagogical tool, teaching the viewing public Enlightenment values of tolerance, compromise, and respect.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, many European intellectuals were still waiting for the creation of a responsive and effective public sphere. They argued that while the two sides in the Cold War held conflicting views about property and the creation of wealth, in one respect they were unmistakably similar: governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain had no interest in fostering the appearance of informed, active, and concerned publics. Governments in Eastern Europe refused to allow any kind of open political space in which the public's voices could be heard, and in Western Europe, postwar governments substituted economic priorities for political ones. Political debates were to be managed by technocratic experts, while the public devoted its energies toward consumption and the creation of national prosperity. By the 1980s, however, the postwar consensus was exhausted, and the public sphere appeared again as a useful idea with which to map out social change. The power of the idea was demonstrated most immediately in the revolutions in Eastern Europe of 1989, where socialist governments were brought down by groups claiming to act in the name of the public. The terms "public sphere" and "civil society" became catchwords of new governments in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, and in the West too new groups appeared that shook up the conservative social landscape of the 1980s. Green parties challenged the political orthodoxy that states existed above all to foster economic growth; antinuclear activists challenged the common sense of international politics; and, in a considerably more ambiguous development, groups on the radical right appeared who villified the conservative, materialistic middle class with the same racist and violent messages used by the Nazis half a century before.

As the post–Cold War era has unfolded, however, the resurgence of the public sphere seems to have been of brief duration. Since the 1980s there has been a decisive push in a number of Western European states to privatize formerly state-run media institutions. These transnational media conglomerates tend to conceive of the public as a vast amalgamation of different market niches, while the major political parties turn steadily toward the American model of politics as entertainment heavily dependent on the orchestration in media of public debate and discussion. By contrast, in most Eastern European societies television remains under state control and in moments of political crisis is fought over as the only instrument that can guarantee political survival, as it did for the Russian president Boris Yeltsin on more than one occasion. Clearly the public sphere is still only a framework, valuable above all because it insists on a connection between the nature of a society's communication system and the quality of collective life lived by its citizens.

This essay has provided a sense of the diversity of ways to think about the history of communications in European societies, but it has also suggested how thinking about this history is a matter of some urgency, especially in the context of the remarkable social and technical transformations underway at the beginning of the twenty-first century. From advances in Internet and satellite technology that make more and more parts of the world visible and audible to other parts, to the steady progression of media mergers that produce enormous international conglomerates, communications institutions will continue to shape the lives not only of Europeans but of everyone who takes up media forms to explore the world around them. We participate in it, we observe it, but to change it we need to know how to think about it. And here histories are crucial.

See alsoThe Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation (volume 1);Printing and Publishing; Literacy; Journalism (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. 2d ed. London, 1991.

Burchell, Graham, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, eds. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago, 1991.

Certeau, Michel de. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, Minn., 1986.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

Curran, James, Michael Gurevitch, and Janet Woollacott, eds. Mass Communication and Society. London, 1977.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York, 1994.

Debray, Régis. Media Manifestos. London, 1996.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Translated by Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner. New York, 1965.

Febvre, Lucien, and Henri-Jean Martin. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450–1800. Translated by David Gerard. London, 1997.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Hall, Stuart. "Encoding, Decoding." In The Cultural Studies Reader. Edited by Simon During. 2d ed. London, 1999. Pages 90–103.

Hall, Stuart, et al., eds. Culture, Media, Language. London, 1980.

Jansen, Sue Curry. Censorship: The Knot That Binds Knowledge and Power. London, 1991.

Lefort, Claude. The Political Forms of Modern Society. Cambridge, Mass., 1986.

Lippmann, Walter. The Phantom Public. New Brunswick, N.J., 1993.

Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York, 1922.

Maffesoli, Michel. The Contemplation of the World. Minneapolis, Minn., 1996.

Mattelart, Armand. The Invention of Communication. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Minneapolis, Minn., 1996.

Mattelart, Armand. Mapping World Communications: War, Progress, Culture. Minneapolis, Minn., 1994.

Mattelart, Armand, and Michèle Mattelart. Rethinking Media Theory. Translated by James A. Cohen and Marina Urquidi. Minneapolis, Minn., 1992.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. New York, 1969.

Ohmann, Richard. Selling Culture. London, 1996.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London, 1982.

Schramm, Wilbur. Mass Media and National Development. Stanford, Calif., 1964.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Translated by Michael Eldred. Minneapolis, Minn., 1987.

Smith, Anthony. Books to Bytes: Knowledge and Information in the Postmodern World. London, 1993.

Stephens, Mitchell. A History of News. London, 1988.

Terdiman, Richard. Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France. Ithaca, N.Y., 1985.

Williams, Rosalind. Dream Worlds: Mass Consumption in Late Nineteenth-Century France. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.

About this article

Communications, the Media, and Propaganda

Updated About content Print Article


Communications, the Media, and Propaganda