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There are two traditional approaches to communication: transmission and ritual. The transmission approach views communication as “conveying information over a distance for the purpose of control” whereas the ritual approach views it as “a representation of shared beliefs” (Carey, n.d.). The traditional approaches are viewed as “counter posed” views of communication as none of the approaches contests what the other has to offer. However their insights into the process of communication have given rise to a new cultural approach to communication where communication is defined as “a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed” (Carey, 1988, pp. 23-24). This approach helps in understanding the existing communication processes in a disarmingly simplistic manner which makes it a wonderful experience. The objective of this essay is to analyze the cultural approach to communication with the help of a communication process, in this case, dance. This essay attempts to describe the process of cultural approach to communication with the help of dance as a communication process. Dance was chosen for the case study because it is a social and culturally significant process. Most people have an “intuitive” understanding of dance, even from different cultures, but what they lack is the ability to explain it to others in terms of a communication process.
In his book Experimence and Nature, Dewey claimed that the “of all things communication is the most wonderful” (1939, p. 385). However, the everyday activities like conversations, giving and receiving instruction, sharing of information, entertaining others and getting entertained which are collectively termed as communication (Carey, 1988, p. 23) are routine activities. They happen so often and are so redundant that they are almost trivial and stop receiving our attention. There is nothing wonderful about these activities unless there is “excessive masochism” like a brilliant opera or a sensational news item. Such wonderfulness is rare which leads many communication scholars to term day-to-day communication as a “common and mundane human experience”. However, Carey does not subscribe to this view as he believes that Dewey must have meant something deeper when he termed communication as the “most wonderful thing”. According to Carey, communication appears mundane as people focus too much on trivial aspects that they forget the awesomeness in it. In his cultural approach to communication, Carey proposed to make communication appear problematic by inversing the relationship between realism and symbolic forms. Carey used the term “symbolic process” which creates reality to explain the wonderfulness in communication.
By the term “symbolic process”, Carey meant a representation for community ideals in the material forms. The material forms or symbols can be artistic expressions like song, dance, plays, painting or journalism or scientific subjects such as anthropology or biology. The common belief among majority of people is reality is primary and symbolic representation is secondary. This means that there is an all encompassing reality which does not change, what changes is the peole’s perception of reality which they represent through an artistic expression or scientific subject. For example, a painter who is pessimistic and sees everything which is wrong in the society is likely to produce ‘darker’ paintings because it is his perception of reality. The cultural apporach however counters this belief by contesting that the symbols are primary. The symbolic process creates reality or as Kenneth Burke says “reality is the signs of words”. Carey argues that there is no single reality which is all encompassing, rather reality is brought into existence by multiple symbolic processes going on in the universe at any point of time. For example, a news item (symbolic process) may lead people to act in a certain way which will create new reality. This reality is different for different people and thus reality is not “a given”.
Dance is a non-verbal communication process which is social and culturally significant. Most people have an intuitive understanding of dance which helps them in evaluating dance from various cultures. There are several genres of dance from classical ballet to popular dance forms, from ritual dance to forms of sport such as figure skating. Different forms of dance are prevalent in different parts of the world such as classical ballet in Europe and ritual dance in Asia. Each culture has its own unique element in dancing, for example, association of musical instruments such as drums with dancing in most of Africa. A common understanding of the important elements of dance across cultures is thus important to understand the communication process.
There are several attempts made by researchers to define dance in their cultural context. The Webster’s Third International Dictionary defines dance as “rythmic movemement having as its aim the creation of visual designs by a series of poses through space in time and executed by body parts with a certain temperament and purpose” (Kurath, 1960, pp. 234-235). According to Hanna, the concept of series of poses stands good in traditional dance categories such as classical ballet and ritual dance, however fail in modern dance forms such as Tharp in which the dancers’ bodies just keep spiralling and there is no distinct series of poses (1987). which stand good in their own cultures but fail in their understanding of cross-cultural elements.
Keali’inohomoku (1972, p. 387) defines dance as an “affective mode of expression which requires both time and space, employs motor behaviour in redundant patterns which are closely linked to the definitve features of musicality”. According to Hanna, this definition is too limited as dance can occur without expression of emotions. Moreover, redundancy is not a feature of many dance forms and they often have a unique beginning and climax. The association of musicality with dance is very limited in scope as music and dance are two separate activities and need not happen together. In fact, several dance forms such as figure gymnastics take place without music.
The present definitions stand good in their limited cultural context, but fail when applied to diverse cross-cultural dance forms. These definitions of dance are limited in their understanding of important elements of dance across cultures. They either incorporate unnecessary elements (such as transcending utility in Kurath’s definition) or leave out important elements (such as culturally patterned sequence in Keali’inohomoku’s definition. Hanna attempts to bridge this gap in cross-cultural understanding of dance by establishing four criteria which must be fulfilled for an activity to be termed as dance i) purposeful, ii) intentionally rhythmical, iii) culturally patterned sequences of iv a) non verbal body movements, b) extra ordinary motor activites, c) motion having inherent and aesthetic value (Hanna, 1987, p. 19).
To analyze dance from a cultural approach to communication, Carey’s notion of communication, that is, ‘reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed’ has to be evaluated in the context of dance. While dance is influenced by a culture, it also creates a culture (producing reality) of its own. Like any other artists, dancers vie to be unique in their art by incorporating unique steps in their movements which are not necessarily influenced by their culture. A prime example will be Michael Jackson who influenced a new fashion and dance culture of his own throughout the world with his unique steps. Jackson’s dance works have lasted in the memories of viewers in the forms of records beyond the actual dance situation. This has influenced thousands of youngsters to copy Jackson which has ‘produced reality’ by creating a form of dance and even fashion which previously did not exist.
Once the reality has been produced, the creators look to maintain the reality in the wake of new generations who might find it “problematic” by creating rigid rules and regulations. This ‘maintenance of reality’ is visible in popular dance forms such as classical ballet. Brinson (1991) observes that the national dance culture in elitist Europe has often rigid formality and artificiality which forces the dancers to be within the realm of existing reality. The dance schools and theatres impose this rigidity on students of dance which can be viewed as an effort to maintain reality. It has been moderately successful in some cases. The traditional Indian dance forms such as Bharatnatyam and Kuchipudi are said to have retained their original form after even centuries of their origin despite many external modernizing pressures.
In most cases, however, the new generation finds the existing dance forms too ‘problematic’ and seek to incorporate newer changes (repairing and transforming the reality). A prime example can be Isadora Duncan who worked towards loosening the restrictions on classical ballet and formed a modern dance tradition known as Twyla Tharp. In most cases, however, the repaired reality is caused due to cultural (external) changes. In Duncan’s case, the rise of theatre dance and vaudeville created an appropriate condition for her to introduce changes to the classical and more rigid form of ballet. This contradicts with Carey’s notion that transformation in reality will happen due to symbolic process. In the case of Twyla Tharp and most other modern dance forms, the symbolic process has happened due to transformation in reality or cultural changes.
This can mean two things. One of them is that Communication, as many scholars claimed, a “most mundane experience” after all. This means that most of the communication around us is a representation of the reality and not the other way round as Carey theorized. Only on rare activities with “excessive masochism” can it influence the reality. This was the case with Jackson and Duncan as both were wonderful exponents of their art that they were able to influence a whole new reality due to their lasting effect on people’s memories.
A more plausible explanation can be that communication acts as representation of reality and for reality at the same time depending upon the point of view. Borrowing from Bakhtin’s concept of Intertextuality, an artist’s work results from an influence of multiple inner voices and yet is completely different from any other artist. Taking this concept into the dance forms, a dancer plays two roles in communication process. He is not only influenced by existing cultural phenomenon which determines his purpose and patterns, he also influences the actual culture through his unique rhythmical patterns which are independent of cultural influence. So a dancer is not only influenced by reality but also creates reality at the same time. The magnitude of his role depends upon the ability of the artist and external conditions prevailing. This explains the case of Jackson and Duncan satisfactorily.
The purpose of this essay was to evaluate the effectiveness of Cultural approach to communication using dance as communication process. Dance can create new reality and maintain it. But the changes in reality (repair and transformation) often happen under the influence of external conditions. It was found that Carey’s notion of symbolic processes creating reality is one-dimensional. It assumes that symbolic processes are the origin and reality is a manifestation of it. However, it was revealed that symbolic processes play a dual role of influencer and influenced at the same time. This opens the question of origin of symbols and reality. It can form the scope of future studies on cultural approach to communication.
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