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Jesús Martín-Barbero

Jesús Martín-Barbero: The combined forms of the media

Researcher turned Latin America into the laboratory of an original communication theory in a globalized world

Eduardo CesarThe huge, 870-seat auditorium of the Memorial da América Latina center was packed to full capacity on Monday afternoon, August 17. Many young faces were glimpsed in the darkened auditorium, and this was quite astonishing: it was difficult to figure out at first why so many of them had willingly decided to come to the opening session of the Fórum Permanente dos Programas de Pós-Graduação de Comunicação do Estado de São Paulo, Forum of Post Graduate Programs in Communication, an event that was, to say the least, not that amusing for the restless youngsters. It should be noted that 14 of the 34 post graduate programs in communication that exist in Brazil are based in São Paulo. The people in the audience did not display any signs of impatience as they listened to speeches by the panel members. However, the real expectation that dominated the auditorium was related to the keynote lecture by professor Jesús Martín-Barbero, the topic of which was communication in the present.

Barbero began his lecture and soon threw an epistemological question at the audience, on “how to research communication today.” He mentioned the modern concept of uncertainty and its roots in fuzzy logic; then he went on to Merleau-Ponty and the latter’s disbelief in the laws of history, stated in 1956, together with the statement that history can only be reflected on ambiguously. Then, the speaker dwelled on the fear that the latest concept of information, namely, genetic information, has aroused in us.

The professor went on to address communication research methodologies based on structuralism, Marxism and functionalism, to then focus on the special ecosystem in which contemporary man sees and is seen (something akin to the ‘third surrounding’ of Javier Echeverría or the ‘media bios’ of Muniz Sodré). He focused on the field of image in all its forms, on the specific field of communication no longer extensively based on a set of means and devices that were transformed, undone and redone ‘right before our eyes,’ and analyzed the special attention given to the Internet and the computer, both of which have brought something ‘radically new’ to the history of mankind. This “something,” Barbero says, can never be compared to the printing press, the airplane, or to any other machines that were instrumental to the occurrence of the best-known technological revolutions and comparable, according to Roger Chartier, to the invention of the alphabet. This is something so radical that it has reached the point of creating a profound generation gap. “We are in the midst of a crisis. The old is dead and we still don’t know what is ahead of us,” Barbero said, bringing Gramsci to the audience.

On the previous day, he had already told Pesquisa FAPESP that the means and the genres that the means produce are being re-invented in the light of the interface between television and the Internet, interaction and contamination that destabilizes the discourses of each means of communication and creates what he refers to as “the half-breed forms of communication.” These are rather incoherent forms that act transversally in all the means of communication.

This 72-year old man, is “a Latin American citizen, born in Spain” in Avila, as introduced by Maria Immacolata Vassalo Lopes, coordinator of the University of São Paulo/USP’s post graduate program in communication. Barbero chose to live and work in Latin America when he was a young man, when Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, “was a very sad place.”

Author of many books, among which is the classic “Dos meios às mediações: comunicação, cultura e hegemonia” (published by Editora UFRJ, 5th edition, translated by Ronald Polito and Sérgio Alcides), “Ofício de cartógrafo: travessias latino-americanas de comunicação na cultura” (published by Edições Loyola, 2004, translated by Fidelina González) and “Os exercícios do Ver: hegemonia audiovisual e ficção televisiva,” written in collaboration with Germán Rey (published by Editora Senac, 2004, translated by Jacob Gorender), Jesús Martín-Barbero has a doctorate degree in philosophy from the Université de Louvain and a post-doctorate degree in anthropology and semiology from the École des Hautes-Études in Paris. His outstanding professional curriculum includes the creation of the Communication Sciences Department of the Universidad del Valle, in Colombia, later on re-named School of Social Communication, and his teaching and research activities at the following universities: Complutense de Madri, Autônoma de Barcelona, de Guadalajara and at Mexico’s Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, School of Anthropology and History. In the second half of 2008, he was a visiting professor at USP’s School of Arts and Communication/ECA. At present, he is a professor and research coordinator at the School of Language and Communication at the Universidade Javeriana de Bogotá. Below are the main highlights of the interview (the full version is available on the site

I would like to start this interview by asking you about communication in this day and age. What does communication mean, in your opinion?
There are basically three ways of focusing on communication in our Latin American world: the first two were in opposition. We based ourselves on the hegemonic view that two U.S. researchers created at the end of the Second World War. This hegemonic view was based on a deep misunderstanding: a telephony engineer called [Claude] Shannon had the gall to refer to a book on information transmission economy as the general theory of communication, that is, how to make the transmission of information as silent and as short as possible, therefore with the least possible redundancy. This proposal by a telephone engineer was manipulated by [Harold] Lasswell and [Paul] Lazarsfeld, and was converted into a major theory of communication. When I went back to Colombia in 1973, after my doctorate studies, I entered the field of communication and found him involved with this information transmission concept – well, in light of everything I see, communication is found in the ways people communicate on the streets, at home, in church, in the park – this was entirely unrelated to the proposed idea of the transmission of information. So, I entered this field like “a donkey into a cacharrería” (hardware store), as we say in Spanish.

But when Lasswell and others formulated this proposal, wasn’t it clear to them that there was a huge gap between the theory proposed for engineering purposes and what was going on in the field of human communications?
Shannon thought about his object. Lasswell and Lazarsfeld were the ones who set the trap for us; they started studying the major phenomena of public opinion on the basis of this theory, such as for example, the massive propaganda to convince American mothers to accept the idea of their sons going to Europe to fight in the war against Hitler. This was the first study, which was soon followed by other studies based on this concept of caller/receiver, source, channel, etc. This was what fitted into the scheme. In my opinion, the worst thing was identifying communication with transmission, which is a totally mechanical concept. Therefore, the two researchers proposed a concept that would later on be referred to as instrumental; the means was an instrument. Soon thereafter, the Marxists fell into the same trap, with a weak notion of the means to manipulate awareness.

How did you get interested in communication after you came back from France in 1973, having concluded your doctorate studies in philosophy?
It was a combination of the scenario and of circumstances. First, the scenario: I came back to Colombia, totally in love with contemporary philosophy. I had studied under Paul Ricoeur and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; in my opinion, the latter is the foremost Western philosopher of the 20th century – not [Martin] Heidegger or [Richard] Rorty. He inverts the Western view because he includes the body as the main topic of philosophy. But there was no university in Bogotá that would allow me to go down this path – I would have been obliged to continue talking about Aristotle, ethics, etc. As for the circumstances, my wife was studying communications at a recently established college. It was a small, private university, which had hired a group of lunatics who had read some things by Roland Barthes, by Lévi-Strauss and wanted to do something, even though at that time they didn’t exactly know what they wanted. I spoke to these people, lent them all those books they wanted to read and other books as well – two boxes of books that had arrived from Europe by sea. They invited me to open up a new field of research at that university. I accepted and organized a two-semester course on linguistics, a two-semester course on semiotics, and a two-semester course on esthetics. And now comes the second circumstance: how to apply in different ways that which we had obtained from information. But there I learned that studying communication meant studying the means of communication: the press, radio – very little – film, viewed as an art form, and television, which was regarded as the – hooker from the street,– so to speak. At that time, the leading TV networks in Latin America aired totally American programs during prime time; that was a time when everybody was spouting that discourse on cultural empire, etc. etc. In short, we had to deal with modern, contemporary means and the study of such means was basically done in two ways: the political economy of the means and the ideological reading of the messages.

These were ways proposed by Marxism, structuralism…
Yes, these methods proposed how the dominating ideology dominated. This always seemed very narrow-minded to me, because we already know that the dominating ideology is the ideology of the dominating class and that the dominating class dominates in whichever way it can. Sometimes it dominates through repression, as was the case, for example, in the Andean countries in 1977, leading to events that resulted in the creation of the Associação Latino-Americana de Pesquisadores de Comunicação/Alaic, Association of Communication Researchers. Indeed, when [Héctor] Schmucler organized the I Latin American Meeting of Communication Schools at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (UAM-Xochimilco), in Mexico, I gave a lecture there that influenced my entire life. Because I said things that I believed were elementary but were really blasphemy, both for our functionalists and for our structural Marxists.

For example…
This sentence: what if, instead of thinking of communication as being domination, we thought of domination as a communication process? Because Gramsci had taught me that there are two kinds of domination. The first kind is the brutal repression, with tanks, and so on. And I gave an example that I have kept with me forever: this domination is like the relationship between the soldier’s boot and a cockroach. The only possible relationship between the boot and the cockroach is a crushing relationship, and the cockroach has to flee. But Gramsci also taught us the notion of domination as hegemony, and hegemony is comprised of complicity, seduction, fascination. And something else that we have to think about is “what, in those who are dominated, works to the benefit of the dominator.”

That must have been a scandal!
Yes – they began to say that, as if it weren’t enough to exploit people, I also wanted to put the blame for domination on those poor souls. So I told the audience that the problem with communication was precisely the fact that the means had been crushed, in the downfall that had been produced to explain its functionality in economic terms. And the analyses of messages and of discourses had been inferred from this economic explanation. But I would like to be fair: this is closely related to the progress of the theory of dependence in the development of social thought in Latin America. In my opinion, the theory of dependence is very complex, but a significantly less complex concept was applied to communication.

In other words, resorting to the theory of dependency to understand communication and how the related means function resulted in an impoverishment of the scope of the theory itself.
Yes. I have always considered Paulo Freire as being a key author of the theory of dependency. I wrote a short book – that has not been translated into Portuguese – that was part of a Latin American book collection called “La Educación desde la Comunicación.” This booklet has a chapter from my thesis on the concept of communication that was similar to something Paulo Freire had written. In my opinion, Freire has to be included in the history of the means of culture; Latin American studies cannot disregard him, because he is the person who has aggregated the notion of the complicity of the oppressed, who perceived daily life in a phenomenological manner. I had the privilege of meeting many of the people who created the theory of dependency, Teothônio dos Santos, for example, and their concept of the economy was much less economy-like, much less positivist than that of the exponents of this theory who are in the field of communication. In short: the first concept is communication with transmission, and the second concept is the means viewed from an impoverished point of view, because the issue was economic policy and the analysis of the message. In short, this is what could be done at that time.

And what about the third communication concept, which has not been mentioned yet?
Well, I have stopped fighting to introduce the idea that mass communication is broader than the means, and the means cannot be reflected on only from the point of view of the economy and of ideology; therefore, major mediations were made on the basis of historical formats and cultural matrixes. So we entered the contemporary world. In short, a battle was fought between the positivist concept and another much more phenomenological-anthropological concept, which involves Nestor Canclini and all the people that forced the entry of this new vision as of October 1983 – a key date. This new vision was triggered by a meeting between those who studied communication and those who studied political sciences, literary criticism and art. The meeting was sponsored by the “Conselho Latino-Americano de Ciências Sociais/Clacso” Latin American Social Sciences Council in Buenos Aires, at a very important moment of Argentina’s return to a democratic regime.

jesus221EDUARDO CESARSo new ideas were developed then, which ended up in the book you wrote in 1987, “Dos meios às mediações.”
These ideas had surfaced seven years before. I had stayed at that small university – where I had gone in 1973 – for a year and a half. And then the Universidad del Valle in Cali, the most progressive university in Colombia, invited me to set up a communication sciences department. I created the department, which included studies on social sciences, economics, sociology, and political sciences. I invited some of the leading sociologists, political scientists, and historians in Colombia to be part of the faculty. We prepared an academic curriculum that would allow social scientists to reflect on and do research on the means, the processes and the practice of communication. I went against everything that was being taught in all the schools of communications – including the schools of journalism, advertising and public relations. This upset them and ultimately resulted in a crisis that blew up at the Ministry of Education. The crisis happened because the director of the institution, who was responsible for the Ministry of Education’s approval of academic curriculums, was enchanted by the curriculum and had decided to defend it. The academic curriculum was approved! What I am saying is that the second phase of the department was a very important one. The press in Cali was awful, so I catered to the students, who asked me for music and film courses. Cali was the city of salsa, a city were movies were made and still are! Nearly fifty percent of the students studied music at the conservatory but people were really interested in radio, related to music and popular reality, and in movies. And so I created such an explosive combination that I was nearly lynched at the first meeting in Lima, held to create Alaic. I was one of the three guest speakers at that meeting, together with a Chilean speaker and a Peruvian one,. Actually, I spent 10 very isolated years in Colombia. I would travel to Brazil, to Argentina, to Mexico, to the United States, but in Colombia everybody ignored me. Colombians were on the warpath against me.

When was your first contact with Latin America?
In 1963, when I was a professor of philosophy in Spain, I went to Colombia on an exchange program for teachers. In Colombia, I came into contact with that divine, crazy period, the times of the theology of liberation, etc. The Christian-Marxist debate was very strong in Colombia, indeed this was true of the Church in all of Latin America, and I was asked to work for a Christian foundation, to start a debate magazine. So I witnessed the Camilo Torres process, a discussion about the guerilla, the debate at the national university, we translated the texts of [Louis] Althusser etc.

But why was a Spaniard with a degree in philosophy seduced by Colombia and by Latin America?
First of all, the Franco regime was horrible; it was very sad and very strict. I was born and raised in Ávila, a small town near Madrid, and I was lucky that my childhood friends came from there. This group of friends imported records from Latin America – they really enjoyed that kind of music, so similar to the Andalusian music, which was our music, because the Franco regime used Andalusian folk music as the national music of Spain. In the early 1960’s, I was waiting for a scholarship to go to Paris for my doctorate studies, when I heard that there were job openings for philosophy professors in Colombia. So I went. I stayed for five years, and experienced the passionate adventure of creating a space for Christian-Marxist debate at the university.

Going back to theory…
Just to conclude, the second approach to communication among us is the Latin American version of what we heard was going on in the United States and Europe, that is, the functionalism of the United States translated into Marxist functionalism. Eliseo Verón wrote a famous text called “O funcionalismo marxista.” But let’s go back to “Dos meios às mediações.”

The book makes an effort to go back to the early 20th century to look for the basis of radio soap operas, of Latin American cinema. How is the dialogue between theory and the history of communication processed?
When I was writing the introduction to the fifth edition, I realized that I had written the book for the field of social sciences. That is, communication was taking on such proportions that it would become something major and I wanted to transform communication studies. In Latin America, the notion of communication studies had been conveyed as something very technical. In the book, I position the great debate on popular culture, then I show how this issue was studied and, in the third part, I talk about Latin America within the political history of ‘popular’ communication. That is, I explain how historical populisms reacted under Getúlio Vargas, Perón, Cárdenas etc. These men were able to perceive, in their own way, the potential of creativity, of citizenship in the urban masses.

How does your theory move forward to deal with the concept of communication after the 1990’s?
The ideas expounded in the book began to spread among students through a research project on soap operas in Latin America that I had coordinated at the end of the 1980’s. I traveled to Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. I read many books about Brazil. In fact, I was asked to write a paper which I presented later on at the IV Intercom; the name of the paper was “O que os estudos de comunicação na América Latina devem às ciências sociais brasileiras.” Communication studies in Latin America are indebted to Octavio Ianni, Milton Santos, Renato Ortiz, Roberto da Matta, the compilation “O Nacional e o Popular na Cultura Brasileira,” with various texts on Brazilian culture written by various authors. But the research project I am referring to is the research project that specifies how Latin American scholars had read my book. That is, they read on from the time they discovered the subject, the actor of the process, who is the receiver. In other words, the discovery was that the receiver reacted against the positivist view!

So when Immacolata goes to the home of a soap opera viewer in Brazil, she follows the same path.
Immacolata introduced Brazil to the perspective of studies on mediations to enable the understanding of the entire process. It was no longer an issue of “on one side, politics…”, “on the other side, the audience;” we could not reflect on all of this at the same time. The study on soap operas benefits from my contribution to attribute a value to the subject. The subject of communication is not the means, but the relationship. What the means say is not important; it is important to know what people do with what the means say, with what they see, hear, read… That’s the change. And this is what I had produced, what I had proposed. The soap opera will be like a demonstration of my theory – the importance of popular culture is there, of the popular genres to understand the means, to understand communication – and the way to start studying the local context; in the case of that catechism-like Marxism, the ideology was the same in Europe, in the United States and in Latin America.

jesus3-300x1991EDUARDO CESARIn the transition from the 1990’s to the present, I would like to hear about the criticism of your friends in the sense that perhaps the time has come to go back to “from mediations to the means.”
I answered my two friends’ criticism in the preface to the fifth edition.

I particularly like the map of the mediations in the preface and also this excerpt [pages 16 and 14, respectively]: More than substituting it [politics], radio or television mediation began to comprise, to be part of the plot of discourses and of political action itself.?
So what do I propose with the map? I know that the means are increasingly becoming protagonists. Television is no longer simply an aid to politics; television is politics itself; politics happens on television, there are fewer streets for politics. The preface had first been written in 1998. I accept my friends’ proposition by saying: “investigation will no longer comprise the cultural matrixes of communication; it will comprise the communicative matrixes of culture […].” Of course the personal computer was the trigger behind this change, but a question comes up here, a draft to understand what I was proposing. I ask: “How can one deal with the social and perceived complexity that comprises communication technologies, their transversal ways of being present in daily life, such ways ranging from work to games, their intricate forms of mediation of knowledge and politics, without giving in to the realism of that which is inevitable, produced by the fascination with technology, without being trapped by the discursive complicity of the neoliberal-rationalistic modernization of the market as the sole organizing principle of society as a whole. This technological knowledge – given that the driver that motivated class struggle has disappeared – has allegedly led history to find its substitute in the avatars of information and communication?” This, to me, is change. This is what places us in the present.

Thanks to cable TV, programs from various countries, especially from the United State, are being increasingly viewed by the Brazilian middle class and, I imagine by the middle classes in other Latin American countries. Concurrently, we have the phenomenon related to the expansion of access to the Internet. In Brazil, 65 million people access the Internet.
Nearly 35% of the population.

What does this change in the configuration of the communicative matrixes of culture?
On my new map we see: time, space migrations, flows. So the mediations become transformations of time and transformations of space starting from two major axis, that is, migrations and flows of images. On one side, we have the great population migrations, which have never been as great as now. On the other side, we have the virtual flows. We have to look at both in conjunction. The flows of images and information, go from north to south, the migrations go from south to north. Then there is the time compression, the compression of space and here I re-create two contemporary fundamental mediations: identity and technicity – I have adopted this latter word not out of snobbishness but rather because a French anthropologist, André Leroi-Gourhan, a contemporary of Marcel Mauss, has shaped the concept that technique among – primitive peoples is also a system, and not merely a set of tools. I link technicity to that which is moving in the direction of identity. For example, the number of adolescents that create a character for themselves is quite impressive. I conducted a research study in Guadalajara on adolescents’ access to the Internet and verified that a huge number of girls from the ages of 15 and 16 had created a male identity for themselves to write to women in Sweden. When the girls’ mothers found out about this, they couldn’t believe it – they would say: “that’s not my daughter.”

This is an open field for experimentation and invention.
Yes, the “I” itself is the field for experimentation. Therefore, the cultural identity issue is going through a huge transformation, based on subjective identity. Because the behavioral paradigms, the behavior paradigms that Parson and Piaget described, do not function. We, the parents are no longer the role models for our children; television destroyed that. Our childrens’ role models are their contemporaries: the gymnasts, singers, actresses, soccer players, these are our children’s behavioral paradigms, their peers. This is why I join technicity and identity on my map; this is why I place rituality and cognition together. I withdrew two mediations from my map – the more social ones, namely, institutionalism and sociality, to replace them with transformation.

So if we place your previous map together with the new terms, we can see the movement that led to the transformation.
We have the key to the changes. The transformation is much bigger than we realize in communication. Basque philosopher Javier Echeverría, in “El tercer entorno,” states that the human being inhabited a natural environment for thousands of centuries. Man was able to survive because of this natural habitat and move on from being a nomad to a sedentary person. After hundreds or thousand of centuries, man created the city. And the city, even its most primitive forms, is the site of political and cultural institutions. This urban habitat is the second environment, linked to such institutions as the family, work, religion, politics. Nowadays we are witnessing the rise of a new environment, the so-called techno-communicative environment.

Don’t you think that this concept is related to the media bios concept of Muniz Sodré?
Yes, that’s right. Immersion is not timely, based on I switch on, I switch off. Just like I’m immersed in nature and in the institutions, now I’m immersed in this third surrounding. I can’t turn the computer on without knowing that I’m being seen. I see, I am seen, there is no way I can prevent this.

It is a totally visible world.
It is a world in which we see and are seen. And we see actively. We produce visibility. We build visibility for ourselves and for the others. So the important idea is the – surrounding,” the new ecosystem. We can no longer talk about communication as a set of means, and the way the means are now they won’t last for more than 10 years. Remember that this is a change in time. We have moved on from the bell in the belfry tower – which would tell peasants in the Middle Ages when they were supposed to get up, pray, eat, sleep – to the radio, to the time for news, to the radio soap opera, music, dedications to newlyweds.. and television has enhanced this.

What is our “church bell” nowadays?
We no longer have one. Time has been released, but concurrently, mobility compresses time – we have increasingly less time. In fact, if capitalism hadn’t gone crazy when the Berlin Wall fell, if capitalism had had a bit of a historical vision, then, instead of producing the crisis we are living in now, it would have created a model in which humanity would be able to work four hours a day instead of eight. But capitalism began to produce money with money, without actually producing anything. So a radical transformation has occurred in relation to time and work time.

But the idea that work time will be reduced seems to have died away at this point.
Yes, because it’s another kind of death. This death is the exit of millions of people from the labor world. The ideal situation of capitalism, while real socialism still existed, was full employment. The idea was inclusion – but now, things have become disconnected and the population just has to find its own means to survive.

010-015_entrevista_163Will your analysis of this employment downturn maintain its pessimism?
In the latest issue of a Brazilian magazine [Cult], Zygmunt Bauman refers to something that I had learned directly from Gramsci. He defines this crisis as being a time in which the old has gone, but the new has not been shaped yet. Therefore, we are living with something which nobody had prepared us for, according to my friend Hannah Arendt; this something is uncertainty. No Marxist or Christian has ever taught us how to live in uncertainty. So, I am living in times of deep uncertainty. It is not the kind of uncertainty that grants me the right to do what I feel like doing because I do not know where the world is going, and so I can afford to dedicate myself to the grand, intellectual, bodily, erotic, whatever pleasures, because nothing is worthwhile. Everything that I believed in has gone out of shape, everything that I believed I knew. I think my uncertainty is not optimistic – it’s hopeful. Do you know what kind of hope an atheist Jew called Walter Benjamin had? The Jews would not have existed without hope. This is what Benjamin said: “We cannot live without hope, but hope is only given to us by the desperate ones.” I see more and more desperate people in the world and so my hope grows stronger. Because these are people who are rebelling, in a certain way – they’re inventing.

How does your philosophical view fit into the field of communication studies?
I realized that I only want to research that which gives me hope. We have to research not only to denounce but also to transform, even if it’s only to some extent. I always resort to a non-written Brazilian theory, the theory of holes, according to which every wall, no matter how solid it looks, always has a hole that someone can make bigger to knock the wall down. I convey hope more and more. I put more passion into what I say every time because this is the only way to make people realize that there is some value in what I say. Passion is contagious – one should not apologize for passion.

In practical terms, which of your research studies takes into consideration this idea of hope?
Two topics do. One topic is technological transformation. I make a provocative relationship: when García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, during his speech he asked if the peoples who had undergone 100 years of solitude would get a second chance here on earth. I now say that my answer to this question is yes. Because that culture which had been despised by the intellectuals of the literate culture, who despised the culture which is comprised of visual culture, oral culture, sounds and gestures – now this culture goes through the Internet and merges in the hyper text. As Manuel Castells said, the computer did away with the separation of the two sides of the brain: the side of reasoning, of debate, and the side of passion, of imagination; these two sides have merged. Imagination is no longer a power held by poets and artists. So I aim at the new technologies because they allow an appropriation which in turn allows hybridization, the mix of the daily culture of the majority with what used to be the culture of the tiny, literate elite. The second topic, the changes in the sensitivities of young people, appears in the title of the book I am working on at the moment: “Sentidos da técnica e figuras do sensível.”