Messages, Meanings, and Culture: Approaches to Communication Criticism

Malcolm O. Sillars

Communication criticism is an aspect of communication practice not often mentioned as a sub-field of communication in its own right. Obviously we are not dealing here with the criticism that neo-marxist analysts of communication may favour as a way of "reading" the big, wide world. Instead, Messages, Meanings, and Culture deals with message-analysis activities wanting to interpret and evaluate messages, especially speeches, but also all sorts of other messages, from the TV image to the language of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "A communication critic seeks to make an argument that interprets or evaluates the messages to which the individual or society is exposed," Sillars states early in the text.

Indeed, communication criticism is not often seen and studied as such in communication programs. More often, we find it embedded in classes on general approaches to understanding communication, or in classes as varied as Sociology of communication, Deconstruction of information messages or Research methods.

Obviously thinking of a semester-long survey course on communication criticism, Sillars divides his 245-page text into 10 chapters. He starts with a chapter on definition and a chapter on methods of analysis and then launches into eight chapters summarizing the available approaches to communication criticism. In these eight chapters, three are on traditional or "common-sense" approaches (accurate interpretation, formal criticism, neoclassical criticism); the remaining five deal with critical approaches sometimes thought of as approaches of "deconstruction." It is in these chapters on approaches that Sillars focuses on the cultural dimension of criticism that the book title implies. Indeed that is where he underlines the importance of culture and cultural colouring in semiotics, value analysis, narrative analysis, and especially ideological criticism.

The author does not favour one approach over another. On the contrary, he openly expresses his support for pluralism in the field which "means both combining useful insights from different approaches and choosing different approaches in different situations." The book does not explore the possibility of an integrated theoretical approach to communication criticism. It definitely stays at the level of the intellectual approaches of criticism which have been the more fruitful over time. This can be regretted, as the major problem communication scholars face today (and have faced for some time, indeed) is the absence of an integrated theory of communication. Too much is done in a compartmentalized manner favouring the survival of old intellectual traditions and delaying the emergence of such a theory.

The chapters are all organized on a pedagogically sound format: beginning with a short systematic examination of the assumptions underlying the approach being discussed and then, discussing the approach itself with examples to help the student understand. But the assumptions underlying the approaches are sometimes too hastily treated and hence do not convey the full analytical capacity of each approach.

The author does not, however, spoon-feed the material to the student. On the contrary, the style is precise, learned, and tight. Anyone beginning to deal with critical and cultural analysis of communication messages should definitely examine Sillars's book and ponder over each of the approaches he presents in his complete survey of the sub-field.

The book may experience difficulty nevertheless in finding its niche in most university programs as, in style and look, it does not address itself to first-year undergraduates but, in its survey- like content, fails to provide the more senior undergraduate students with the depth of concept analysis for which one would naturally be looking at that stage of studies. Furthermore, the book does not come with exercises, study texts or instructors' manuals as "most teachers of communication criticism have individual preferences for texts they wish to study" (p. ix).