« Al notes on Kester | Main | Stephanie Bardin on Mattelart »

The Invention of Communication

Armand Mattelart
Translated by Susan Emanuel

Armand Mattelart is professor of information and communication sciences at the Universite de Haute-Bretagne, France.  He is the author of Mapping World Communication and co-author of Rethinking Media Theory, both published by the University of Minnesota Press.


Contemporary communication studies tend to be confined to the area of mass media.  This prevents us from discerning the current transformations that are taking place in our modes of communication.  As a remedy to a history caught in the obsessions of the present, Mattelart has, “situated the long process of (communication’s) invention at the moment when a field of practical and theoretical knowledge began to take shape around the notion of communication as a system of thought and power and as a mode of government,” (xi)

Introduction: Flow, Bond, Space, and Measure

Mattelart’s archeology of knowledge about communication is organized around four parallel histories.  The first deals with the domestication of flows and of a society in movement.  The second history he examines deals with the issue of the place occupied by communication in the conception and creation of a universal social bond.  Thirdly is the history interested in space.  Finally is the emergence of the individual who can be calculated, the “man-as-measure.”(xiv)

The Society of Flows
The Paths of Reason

The beginning of communication as a project and a realization of reason came from the ideal of the perfectibility of human societies according to Mattelart.  This first began around the communication routes necessary in forming a national space.  Mattelart uses 17th and 18th centuries as an example.  He states, “ In Vauban’s time, the absence of a fluid and coherent system of communication was still a major obstacle to the organization of a French national space.” (6)  Vauban considered river navigation to potentially be twenty-five times more economical than land transportation to this end.  Although Vauban’s canal work did little for a domestic market, it was later seen as the birth of the star-shaped network that would mark networks that come later.

In 1669 the Ponts et Chaussees was entrusted with the building and maintenance of bridges, roads, canals rivers, and ports.  In 1738 the policy of road systems was formulated.  In 1744 large-scale topography made its appearance.  According to historians Yves Chicoteau and Antoine Picon, “the eighteenth century considered in effect, that prejudices were born of isolation, whereas Reason fought them by making possible the coming together of individuals.”(11)  In the 19th century the problem of the measurement of longitudes at sea was finally resolved, bringing with it not only “automatic machines to measure time”, (15) but also would mark the history of thought about calculation.  Mattelart takes us back to the 1700’s when Marcello Malpighi imported the word “network” into science, and Isaac Newton would bring the word system into philosophy and “revolution into politics.  Despite an omnipresence of the organic metaphor in the analyses offered by an early political economy, the network remained outside the language of the living.

The Economy of Circulation

In 1758 philosopher –economist Francois Quesnay published his Economic table, Explanation, and General Maxims of economic government in which he offered a macroscopic and materialist vision of the economy.  “Circulation was seen as double, just like that of blood.  One circuit exists between nature (the land) and man; the other between the three social classes that compose society.” (27)  Quesnay believed that only by guaranteeing circulation would wealth be perpetuated.  The reformer Turgot made circulation his mission.  Under his management a new system for graveling roads was invented and applied.  More importantly, however, Turgot protested against forced labor.  This lead to a debate with the minister of justice, which was the first in history in which the problem of communication was posed in terms of inequality and social injustice.

With the telegraph came the “vast enterprise of rationalization and mastering space.”(47)  Although the use of the telegraph was oriented toward an obsession with internal security, revolutionary thinkers placed all their democratic hopes in this first means of long-distance communication.  By 1855 the country would be covered with the longest telegraphic network in the world.  Eventually access of the telegraphic service would be given to railroad companies, commodity markets, press agencies, and the public.  The telegraph played a determining role in the invention of steam locomotion.  “The development of the operation of railways could not really become possible …until the electric telegraph, whose aid arrived at the right time and has constantly gone hand-in-hand with steam locomotion.”(51)  In 1825 military engineers approved the term “network” to designate the connections among fortifications, subterranean galleries, and routes of communication.

The Cross Roads of Evolution

Scot Adam Smith (1723-90) stated, “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is anywhere directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.” (54)  Although Smith was not the first to speak of the principle of the division of labor, he was the first to use it to build a scientific system.  He made the connection between a pin manufacturer in Normandy and a search for the general laws of nature as they operate in the economy of nations.  The English school of classical economics would relay, correct, and adapt Smith’s analyses. 

John Stuart Mill wrote of England’s maritime situation in 1848, “But few who have not considered the subject, have any adequate notion how great an extent of economical advantage this comprises; nor, without having considered the influence exercised on production by exchanges, and by what is called the division of labor, can it be fully estimated.”(58)  Renewal of thought on the division of labor came in England from two authors: Edward G. Wakefield and Charles Babbage.  Wakefield added to the division of labor the idea of cooperation; simple cooperation is the union of several workers who help each other in particular labor situations.  From this, Wakefield constructed a theory and practice of the management of territory in colonies, advocating “systematic colonization.”  Mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage’s contribution to the conceptualization of the division of labor is connected to the history of information - computing machines.  Babbage observed that the division of labor allows the classification of workers according to their capabilities.  The concept of division of labor theorized by Adam Smith combined with another theoretical tradition, which was discussed around the conceptual pair of growth and development arising from the life sciences.  Auguste Comte’s project was to build the foundation of a social physics modeled on the biological approach.  Comptean positivism and its organic theory of society would exercise a profound influence on future theoreticians of communication.  “We must overlook the greatness of the step made by M. Comte… apart from the tenability of his sociological doctrines. His way of conceiving social phenomena was much superior to all previous ways; and among other of its superiorities, was this recognition of the dependence of Sociology on Biology…” stated Herbert Spencer in The Study of Sociology in 1873.  However, Spencer confessed that the word “sociology” was the only thing he had borrowed from Comte.  Both Spencer and Comte adopted an evolutionary perspective, but Comte marks his break with the philosophers of a theological and metaphysical bent, and lets it be understood that observation of social phenomena must prevail over sensory experience and logical methods as well as the search for general laws.  Spencer creates his “social physiology “ by taking up the mechanical model of energy physics.  Spencer’s framework for interpreting The Origin of Species, would foster a social use of Darwinian theory that moved in the direction of a sociological evolutionism.  Darwin himself wished for such a cross-fertilization.  Eric Hobsbawm writes, “the theory of evolution by natural selection reached out far beyond biology… It ratified the triumph of history over all the sciences, though ‘history’ in this connection was generally confused by contemporaries with ‘progress’.”(79)

Utopias of the Universal Bond
The Cult of the Network

In the development of the vision of society-as-organism Claude Heri de Saint-Simon’s ideas provide an essential link.  Pierre Musso notes that, “The philosophy of Saint-Simon, appearing at the start of the 19th Century after the French Revolution, assembled symbolic images of the body as a state, identified with an equivalence between the organism and the network, and mobilized them to develop a theory of administration thought of as transition/mediation between social systems: the celebrated passage from the “government of men” to the “administration of things.”  Saint-Simon transferred the vision of combinations and entanglements from anatomy to the social, from the natural organism to the social organization as the production of an artificial network.  Saint-Simon embraced the cause of the “industrialists” who were “the real center and home of civilization,” inciting them to gather, mobilize, and make history.  “Hope our nation’s sons, that / the hand that breaks our curse / Braids the network of industry / That will embrace the universe,”(96) sang Saint Simonian songwriter Louis Vincard in 1835.  The Saint-Simonian model included a belief in progress and a belief in the approaching advent of a “Universal Association” that would come about for some through the intervention of technical networks of free trade in commodities and ideas, and for others through networks of social solidarity.  Saint- Simonian doctrine would become part of the natural landscape of great interoceanic projects and in the construction of rail lines.  However, the Saint-Simonians with Michel Chevalier at their head would become carried away with the idea of Universal Expositions.  As Walter Benjamin would point out in 1939, “The Saint-Simonians foresaw the development of world industry; they did not foresee class struggle.  This is why, with respect to participation in all industrial and commercial enterprises toward the middle of the 19th century , one must recognize their powerlessness in matters of concerning the proletariat.”(111)

The Temple of Industry

The first international industrial exposition in history took place in London in 1851.  It was housed in the Crystal Palace.  However, although England may have been the first to internationalize the formula of the industrial exposition, France was the inventor.  During the first half of the 19th century, ten such events were organized in Paris.  The 1849 Exposition was meant to be international, but it met with opposition from manufacturers and chambers of commerce who were not ready for foreign competition.  Due to such boundaries that stood in the way of trade the emergence of the “industrial exposition” came about.  Here nothing was sold or bought.  Industrial machines were exhibited and the means of production used to manufacture them.  “In this way, exhibitions sought to promote technological innovation, bring industry closer to society, and stimulate industrial patriotism and simple national pride.”(115)  At the beginning of the century, the national industrial exposition included only four sections: mechanical arts, chemical arts, fine arts, and textiles.  In 1867, the Universal Exposition in Paris would include ten groups and ninety-five classes of exhibits.  From the first Universal Exposition on these events became a site of international agreements.  These congresses and conferences were informal until 1878, but that year they would become official.  “In 1878 thirty-two international congresses met at the Paris Exposition; in 1889, no less than sixty-nine, including scientific congresses…congresses by professional or amateur activity… congresses on social issues… congresses on peace, currency, the study of colonial questions, consumer cooperatives, artistic property, industrial property, the protection of works of art and monuments and the conservation of popular traditions.”(125-126)  In 1889, the general chronicler was concerned about the drift toward “amusement”.  The same year bore witness to gaudy attractions from the United States in the form of giant posters of Buffalo Bill with his “redskins” covering the walls of Paris.  The path of the ascetic apprenticeship to progress, work, and high culture which was untouched in the 1870’s now entered into conflict with the undisciplined uses of festival and leisure.

The Communitarian City

In an unfinished text begun in 1623, Francis Bacon imagined an ideal city based on science, The New Atlantis.  This first work of science fiction resembles the Atlantis imagined by Plato.  In this New Atlantis is the refusal of the foreign, “the prohibition on communication with the outside, the imposition of a strict secrecy, and with major restrictions placed on the movements of its insular inhabitants.”(134)  The Utopian Charles  Fourier took the opposite position to Bacon’s communicational closure.  “The street galleries are a mode of internal communication… At each extremity of this spacious corridor there are elevated passages, supported by columns, and also attractive underground passages that connect all parts of the phalanx and the adjoining buildings.  Thus everything is linked by a series of passageways…”(135)  Walter Benjamin said that “the innermost origin (of the Fourierist utopia) lay in the appearance of machines …the phalanstery was to lead men back into relations in which morality would become superfluous.  Its highly complicated organization resembled machinery.  Fourier represented collective psychology as a clock mechanism.”(139) What also brings Etienne Cabet and Morelly together is a shared view of the positivity of the sciences and technology.  “Machines are a good in themselves, since they relieve the worker by augmenting production… OF all social systems, the community is that which most facilitates great and powerful machines, because it is the one that most concentrates all the intellectual and material strength of a great nation… innumerable machines will be in vented, and everything will be done by machines…”(143)  Englishman Samuel Butler (1835-1902) went so far as to say that there is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness.  This leads us to the paranoid world of Russian naval architect Yevgeny Zamyatin who was obsessed with “the programmed, dehumanized universe, the air-conditioned hell.”(157)  Zamyatin’s “We” is a body with a thousand nameless heads, where each individual is represented by a number and enjoys being a molecule.  The others are ourselves repeated a thousand times.  This certainly places Zamyatin at the oppositional end of utopias of the ideal city.

Geopolitical Space
The Hierarchization of the World

In 1884 the International Meridian Conference took place in Washington.  Twenty-five countries decided to align themselves on Greenwich to reckon a universal time.  Fernand Bradel defined the concept of “world-economy” on the basis of a triple reality: a given geographical space; the existence of a pole serving as the center of the world; and intermediate zones around this pivot, with large marginal areas , which find themselves subordinate to and dependent on the needs of a center that dictates the law.  The relations of domination between center and periphery would be etched into the very networks of national communication within dependent zones.  Distortion was also the rule in the relations the U.S. established with the periphery.  “In 1882, a U.S. network first reached El Paso.  The great neighbor to the north was then on the second phase of construction of its railways, that is, the phase following territorial implantation and whose aim was to build ‘systems’ by means of interterritorial connections, so as to unite trade centers with sources of national wealth.  In Mexico, however, intraterritorial communication was not on the agenda…”(174)

Symbolic Propagation

The objective fixed for the Roman Catholic Church by Gregory XVI was to envelop the earth in a network of missions.  In 1804 Napoleon stated, “My intention is that the Foreign Missionary Society of Paris be reestablished; these secular priests will be very useful to me in Asia, Africa, and in America; I will send them to gather information on the state of countries.  Their robes protect them and serve to conceal political and commercial designs.”(181)  Under pope Gregory XVI was a violent plea against the notion of Freedom of press. Propagation was part of the discourse of those who made the struggle of languages political, economic, and cultural.  In 1883, the Alliance Françoise, a national association for the propagation of the French language in the colonies and abroad was created.  The Alliance was a private association, but it was created with the knowledge and approval of ministries of public education and foreign affairs, and with the cooperation of the government.  This allowed it to accomplish “what the state could not always undertake without other states’ taking umbrage.”(187)  At the origin of their initiative was the balance of linguistic power in the world.  According to Herbert George Wells, French and English would surely be the languages that would impose themselves along with possibly German.  When the Alliance Francaise began to weave its networks however, the contrast was great between this cultural strategy of market penetration and the commercial policy adopted by the German Empire.

The Measure of the Individual

In 1835, the Belgian astronomer and mathematician Adolphe Quetelet wrote, “The average man is to a nation, what the center of gravity is to a body; it is to him that an appreciation of all the phenomena of equilibrium and its movements refers.”(228)  The average man is elevated to the status of a basic unit of a new science of social measurement: “social physics.”  Quetelet’s Essay on social physics was published in the same year as the appearance in French of the word “normalcy.”  Francois Ewald said of the impact of Quetelet’s importance on the emergence of a new art of governing, Quetelet’s importance is to have been a crossroads, a place of intersection, a point of precipitation.  Things still isolated dispersed, and separated were, thanks to him, placed in contact with each other and took on a new form, new developments, and a new future.  Quetelet was the man who universalized probability calculus – which is the universal converter.”(229)  Quetelet’s last book, published in 1871was titled Antropometry, or the measurement of the different faculties of man.  This work staked out the terrain on which a project for anthropometric indexing would flourish in the 1880’s.  About this time (1883)police in France began use of individual cards for locating and identifying criminals.  The banal particulars of detainees were replaced by a summary of anthropometric measurements.  Fingerprinting was soon added to these measurements.  Anew science was born; criminal anthropology.  From individual crime to collective crime, from individual psychology to collective psychology – the path was traced toward “crowd psychology.”  Scipio Sighele’s intention was to stake out his new field of collective psychology by studying the criminal manifestations of that “psychological polyhedron that is the crowd.”  Collective crime has several levels.  “Its simplest form is that born of the association of two delinquents.  Then one moves to the association of malefactors and that of the criminal sect.  And from the sect to the crowd the distance is very short, since the sect itself may also be defined as the chronic form of the crowd, which may then be seen merely as the acute form of the sect.”(244)  In a book by Gustave Le Bon on the psychological laws of the evolution of peoples that appeared in 1894, he had first thought through the psychology of the whole peoples.  “Le Bon’s judgments on the coexistence of races are extremely abrupt.  The notion of “soul of the race,” or, “in other words, the national soul,” the ancestral soul,” is at the heart of his analysis.  Any mixing of races is necessarily disastrous.”(247)  For Le Bon there are superior and inferior peoples and races, and even within superior peoples there exist inferior beings.  The inferior person gains his strength by joining a group, whereas the superior person thereby loses strength. The crowd is a being unto itself.  There exists a “psychological law of the mental unity of crowds.”  A collective soul is formed, which combines with the soul of the race.  Gabriel Tarde shared his own reflections on the topic “The Crimes of Crowds” with participants at the third international congress on criminal anthropology in Brussels.  He was opposed to the narrow conception of collective action defended by crowd psychology, in particular by Le Bon.  The crowd, in Tarde’s view was a social group of the past.  The group of the future was the public.  Tarde’s influence would go beyond anthropology and extend to North American sociology in its period of early development.  After Tarde’s death there would be a long silence in French social science concerning the means of communication and formation of public opinion.  His influence would be felt more particularly on the Chicago School, which would, from 1910- 1930’s, be the foremost center of sociological teaching and research in the U.S.

In the latter part of the 19th century, a need was felt for an expertise for an expertise in kinetics in order to master bodies in movement and improve performance and productivity.  In France instruments to record the work of the muscles was perfected.  This, of course, led to the invention of the motion picture.  The decomposition of time and motion led mechanical engineers to become economists who created a managerial revolution.

The final part of the measure of the individual was the targeting strategy.  “The route that led to targeting audiences followed the twists and turns of a culture more and more oriented to entertainment, addressing the wide majority and manufactured according to industrial norms.”(277)  Marketing and advertising are its core, and America is its breeding ground. 


Mattelart’s take on communication caught me a little off guard.  I was expecting to be presented with more discourse on language, fine arts, and mass media.  This fresh approach to communication, however, dealt more with life sciences, circulation of goods, industry, travel, etc. 

This is truly an historical work, as Mattelart is determined get away from our current conception of communication, which is obsessed with the present.  This historical approach, caught me by surprise as well.  Although Mattelart’s approach is thorough, I found his own personal form of communication a little disconcerting.  His style of writing lacks a natural flow.  Perhaps if his chronological approach was “ironed out” a bit (along a stricter timeline) this would help to resolve the issue.  However, considering the varied and complex systems he has chosen to present, he does a fine job of presenting an interesting approach to communication in its many forms.

submitted by Elli Pollard

References/ Recommended Reading

No references for this section.