James Carey: A Critical Reader

Eve Munson

Catherine Warren

A volume of this kind is long overdue. While James Carey has come to be recognized as one of the most creative and influential thinkers in communication studies and journalism, he has also been "curiously underread" (p. xiii). The general lack of awareness of the depth and scope of Carey's work is due, at least in part, to the way in which his work has been published. His prolific writings have been scattered over a bewildering assortment of journals and collections. This dispersion of his written work is attributable to a deep and abiding curiosity about a broad range of issues as well as to a generous willingness to fulfill requests by others to address particular questions. "When someone asks him to write something," as Carey explains, "that's when he writes" (p. xiii). Rather than producing research monographs or book-length studies, he has largely devoted himself to writing essays, book chapters, speeches, commentaries, and reviews. This has meant that Carey's writings -- his admirable collection Communication as Culture notwithstanding -- have largely been inaccessible; readers have been obliged to sample his work in bits and pieces and have not been able to engage with his ideas in relation to his wider vision of culture, communications, and journalistic practice.

This volume goes a long way towards correcting this situation, as it makes available 10 of Carey's essays spanning almost three decades (1969 to 1996), as well as a "conversation" with Carey on journalism history ("Putting the World at Peril") that was originally published in 1985. The chapters in the text reflect his wide-ranging concerns, including the history and practice of journalism, the impact of communications technology on public life, the history of media and communications study, the politics of academic life, and postmodernity. These writings have been grouped into five parts: "The Origins of Media Studies," "Journalism History," "Journalism and Democracy," "Technology of Journalism," and "James Carey's Academy." Each of these sections is introduced by a scholar influenced by Carey, and has the aim of "consider[ing] his work and how it has affected the development of media studies" (back cover). Carey's concluding "afterword" to the volume ("The Culture in Question"), as he puts it, seeks to "let a cat or two out of the bag concerning some of the subjects threaded throughout the essays: culture, ritual, technology, the postmodern, and journalism" (p. 309). The final section is a comprehensive -- and badly needed -- bibliography of Carey's writings from 1960 through to 1995.

The volume succeeds in its goal of making available a rich assortment of Carey's work. It underscores Carey's almost unrivalled mastery of the art of writing graceful and passionately argued essays, dealing with vital and important issues of our day. It not only demonstrates the breadth of his interests, but also charts the shifting currents of his thought -- from reflections on civil rights and the state of media and journalism studies through to more recent interventions on issues such as identity, nationhood, postmodernism, and political correctness.

While the editors have assembled a fine collection of Carey's work, their selection of essays in relation to his wider oeuvres can be called into question. Most notably, the volume is heavily weighted towards Carey's contributions to journalism; six of the eleven chapters fall into this general area. Moreover, the essays overlap considerably in both theme and content and do not readily fit into the parts of the volume to which they have been assigned. While these writings serve to highlight Carey's involvement with the history and practice of journalism in the United States, their prominent role in the volume has come at the expense of not including a more complete representation of his important work in the history of communications and communications theory. For instance, the editors might have made available his rigorous and probing essay on communications analysis published in 1990: "The Language of Technology: Talk, Text and Template as Metaphors for Communication." The volume also fails to capture the extent to which Carey's thought has been affected by his engagement with Canadian communications writings, particularly that of Harold Innis; none of Carey's extensive and influential writings on Innis found their way into the volume. This is both surprising and disappointing, for as John Pauly notes in his discussion of Carey's essay on Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan (in the introduction to part 1 of the volume), Harold Adams Innis was "standing offstage in this debate" (p. 9). It is unfortunate that the editors consigned Innis to the shadows of the text rather than placing him on-stage where he belongs.

Above all, the volume largely fails to live up to its promise as a critical reader. While it offers a reasonable selection of Carey's writings, it neither problematizes his work nor goes very far in opening it up for debate. This shortcoming is rooted in the editors' general introduction as well as in the separate introductions to the five sections written by five scholars influenced by Carey's work (John Pauly, Michael Schudson, Carolyn Marvin, Jay Rosen, and G. Stuart Adam). In discussing Carey's contributions, none of them really take off their gloves; each seems to treat his / her assignment as one of contributing to a Festschrift rather than to a critical collection. Indeed, as Carey evidently confided to the editors when the text was in preparation, "the scholars' introductions that open each of the five sections ... were too flattering" (p. ix). It would have been more in keeping with Carey's celebration of debate and discussion had the contributors not simply shown their appreciation for his work but, rather, had provided commentary of a more critical and contentious nature. For instance, it is striking that the work of Carey presented in the volume has an almost exclusively American focus and orientation. Indeed, Carey notes in his afterword that the essays of the volume "represent an increasingly strange brand of that increasingly discordant project," namely, "cultural studies." He terms this version of cultural studies "ethnocentric" in that "the object of study is ... that of an absorbingly strange formation, American culture" (p. 309).

Carey's absorption in the study of his own culture has allowed him to provide nuanced and incisive commentary on its traditions, practices, and institutions. But it might be asked whether the fruits of this self-acknowledged ethnocentric labour have come at the expense of accepting all too readily the sustaining myths about American democracy. It is the acceptance of this ideologically charged frame of reference (and a commitment to help realize its promise) that may underlie Carey's tendency to hermetically examine America in relation to its foundational domain assumptions rather than to its evolving place in the world. This has meant that he has largely overlooked the question of how the development of the United States has been inherently linked to internal colonialism, a resolute commitment to assimilationism, and a strident cultural imperialism fuelled by both jingoism and a good measure of xenophobia. Had issues such as these been raised and debated in the volume, a much more critical reader of Carey's work could have been produced.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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