Wednesday, April 4, 2007

One Cannot Not Communicate

A message today on CRTNET, the official listserv of the National Communication Association, brought the news that Paul Watzlawick passed away at his home in Palo Alto, California, at the age of 85. According to an International Herald Tribune obituary, the scholar and psychotherapist died on Saturday. He was affiliated with the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, and Stanford University Medical Center.

His passing should not go unremarked.

In psychology circles, he was known for breaking with Freudian psychoanalysis, after having studied at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich. A native of Austria, Watzlawick became known in the United States for his brief therapy, a behavioral approach that often involved reverse psychology, "reframing," and stepping outside of the system. I am not certain, but I believe he made famous the nine dot problem as an archetype of creative problem solving, which later became the basis for the idea of "thinking outside of the box." He emphasized the need to look at relationships rather than individuals, pioneering family therapy and the kind of approach that later was associated with the concept of co-dependency.

In the field of communication, his work was foundational, a synthesis of logic and mathematics (along the lines of Russell and Whitehead), the study of language and symbols, psychology and the study of relationships, cybernetics and systems theory (Gregory Bateson was a major influence on his work), and communication. He provided a basis for communication theory that served as a paradigm from the late 1960s on. It seems to have faded a bit in recent years, due to the turn away from psychology and towards cultural studies, but his was a communication paradigm that was far from exhausted. And he remains central to the study of relational communication, family communication, and interpersonal communication. Moreover, his work is more relevant now than ever, in the age of the internet, digital technologies, and the like.

Watzlawick's influence can be seen in the work of Kenneth Gergen, noted especially for his well known work The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. And while Gergen took Watzlawick's perspective into the postmodernist realm, Watzlawick himself championed a constructivist approach that didn't throw the baby out with the bath water, that maintained a firm distinction between the construction by communication of meaning and value, and the objective existence of concrete, physical reality, as understood by science (along the lines of his fellow Austrian Karl Popper's fallibilism).

Paul Watzlawick's work was required reading in the first semester of Neil Postman's doctoral program in media ecology, and was used in other classes as well (Postman and Watzlawick admired each other's work). Watzlawick's distinction between analogic and digital forms of communication, which paralleled Susanne K. Langer's contrast between presentational and discursive symbolic forms as discussed in Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, reinforced the idea that different modes of communication are differences that make a difference, in form, function, and meaning. And Watzlawick's distinctions between different levels of communication, between metacommunication and communication, between relationship and content, and between going outside of the system and staying inside of the system, all are consubstantial with the distinction between medium and message. His work is essential, therefore, to understanding how media ecology applies not just to technological mechanisms, but also to human communication and to face-to-face interaction.

Here are some books of his worth checking out that are still in print:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes coauthored by Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson. This is his most important work, required reading in Neil Postman's media ecology doctoral seminar, and foundational for the field of communication.

Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution coauthored by John Weakland and Richard Fisch. This is also important in laying out a theoretical foundation derived from set theory, the theory of logical types, and systems theory. Also used in the old media ecology graduate program, and popular with therapists and counselors.

The Situation Is Hopeless, but Not Serious (The Pursuit of Unhappiness) is lighter reading than the other two, but a fine supplement.

The Language of Change: Elements of Therapeutic Communication is a more professionally oriented work, like Change.

And no longer in print, but also worth looking at:

How Real Is Real? is a very accessible anecdotal introduction to Watzlawick's constructivist approach. I used it as a supplemental reading for introductory communication classes for many years.

Ultra-Solutions: How to Fail Most Successfully is another light supplement, much like The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious.

Munchhausen's Pigtail, or Psychotherapy & "Reality" is much like Ultra-Solutions and The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious, but a bit more substantial being a collection of lectures and essays.

And Watzlawick also edited an anthology:

Invented Reality: How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? is all about the way we construct reality intersubjectively, through our communication with each other.

Watzlawick is best known for his "first axiom of communication," namely that "one cannot not communicate." This is a formulation comparable to Korzybski's "the map is not the territory" and McLuhan's "the medium is the message," and was a shibboleth repeated religiously in introductory communication courses and texts. The idea is that all behavior functions as communication, that even a decision to remain silent has meaning value, that inaction sends a message as much as action does. In fact, silence, inaction, and treating someone as if they do not exist is the most powerful message of all, one that Watzlawick refers to as disconfirmation (a concept I incorporated into my essay on The Sopranos). In sum, communication is a matter of behavior, not intention.

In this sense, Watzlawick may be gone, but he continues to communicate. Through his scholarship, and the published works he has left us, he cannot not communicate.

And one cannot not recognize his contributions to media ecology, communication, psychology, cybernetics, systems theory, and many other fields and disciplines. One cannot not recognize his contributions to human knowledge and understanding. And one cannot not say that he will be missed.

1 comment:

Jeff Winke said...

I appreciate your comments on Paul Watzlawick and have been so detached from Communication academics that I didn't know he had passed on untl I read your blog entry. But his truly fresh ideas have stuck to the ribs of my brain like a good bowl of oatmeal.