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  • The Invention of Communication*
  • Aristotle Tympas (bio)
The Invention of Communication. By Armand Mattelart, trans. Susan Emanuel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Pp. xvii+349; notes/references, index.

Focused as he is on the “long nineteenth century” (French Revolution to World War I), Armand Mattelart is not explicitly interested in why the hippie utopianism of the 1960s and 1970s nurtured the visionaries of the communication technology of the 1980s and 1990s. Yet his reader cannot fail to notice the astonishing similarity between Silicon Valley and the smooth transformation of Saint-Simonianism from a utopian Parisian intellectual fashion of the 1820s and 1830s (preaching industrial associationism, universal love that reaches beyond, not against, social distinctions) into a certain ideological force—the force that, in the name of creating a universal bond, propelled the visionaries of the communication networks that were indispensable to the cultural hegemony and imperialistic geopolitics of capitalism.

In Mattelart’s opinion, every technology involved in “the multiple circuits of exchange and circulation of goods, peoples, and messages” was a technology of communication (p. xiv). For example, the Saint-Simonian conception of a communication technology, the “cult of the network” as Mattelart calls it, was broad enough to include a network of railroads and an advertising network, a network of journals and a network of banks, a network of canals (Suez, Panama) and a network of industrial fairs.

Recent case studies of the history of media technologies (telegraph, telephone, radio, and television) have already challenged the assumption of the spontaneity of the association between the development of communication technology and revolutionary social improvement. Synthetically presented, these studies call our attention to a historical pattern of unjustified technological enthusiasm that was indispensable to the initial establishment of media technologies. The originality of The Invention of Communication is that it invites us to think of this pattern as having a broader and deeper history. Against the customary historiographical split between an earlier industrial revolution and a more recent communication media revolution, Mattelart finds that the contemporary rhetoric about a communication revolution was the ideology of the whole of historical capitalism.

Abandoning a mediacentric perspective leaves us with an enormous object of study: “avenues of communication networks, of long distance transmission, and the means of symbolic exchange, such as world fairs, high culture, religion, language, and of course the media” (p. xiv). In response, Mattelart organizes his argumentation around four histories: communication technology as producing social flow (rational fluidity/enlightened state administration, market fluidity/liberal political economy, [End Page 694] evolutionary fluidity/Darwinian social theory), place (Saint-Simonian network, world’s fair, Fourierist phalanstery), space (national and imperial, linguistic and cultural, religious and military), and norm (of a psychological and physiological social individual, of a market consumer). These four histories are not isolated. I read Mattelart as experimenting with interpreting the same history from four different angles.

The shift from a mediacentric perspective does much more than simply offer us a fresh delineation of the domain of the history of communication technology. Since Mattelart employs a definition of communication technology that includes the whole circuit of exchange, adding the exchange of materials and people to the exchange of signs, his historiographical orientation calls for a de facto rearrangement of the whole territory of the history of technology. This is why his book merits the attention of all historians of technology. In addition, in The Invention of Communication students can find a textbook providing them with a synoptic and synthetic historical account of technological change.

Mattelart makes a clear case about the depth and breadth of the pattern of ideologizing communication technology as an agent of social revolution. He convinces us that this ideology has been a force of recent centuries, not just of recent decades. He could perhaps be clearer about the cause of this force. Mattelart is satisfied with simply stating that the history of communication technology forms a paradox as the “logic of emancipation” goes hand-in-hand with the “logic of constraint imposed by a social and productive order” (p. xvi). There would perhaps be no paradox if Mattelart had not interpreted Karl Marx as a theorist who underestimated the importance of communication technology (pp. 100...

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