Communications and Metacommunications

by Jacques Demorgon

« Communications and metacommunications » by Jacques Demorgon, in Storrie T., The Evaluation of Intercultural Youth Exchange, Dynamics and problematics of intercultural exchange. III. Communications and Metacommunications National Youth Agency, Leicester, 2000, pp. 59-70

Tr. De L’exploration interculturelle, by Jacques Demorgon, Communications et métacommunications, pp l39-157, éd. A. Colin. Chap. V. Langues et communications. Les Métacommunications.

Auf Deutsch :  Peter BOBACK, Übersetzer : Interkulturelle Erkundungen: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer internationalen Pädagogik, Campus, 1999

  • 1./ In OFAJ Exploratory and research programmes
  • 2./ Situations requiring metacommunications
  • 3./ Contents, forms and directions
  • 4./ Metacommunications as radical critique of all communication

1./ In Ofaj Exploratory and research programmes

we have regularly noted that everyone is caught in a sharp dilemma. Eithe one is content to remain in the registers of politeness, discretion, fair play, cordiality, trying to get around, stop or minimise anything which looks like being a ‘problem’, in which case there can be no common research on misunderstandings, prejudices, identity or clashes of interests. Or, on the other hand, such researches are generally judged desirable and valuable, in which case each person must learn to get a certain distance on his or her own automatic reactions and behaviours, in practice and in thinking, deriving from particular social, regional and national identities, etc.
This distancing is a fundamental characteristic of life itself, of individual and collective consciousness. At its most sophisticated, this distancing can be called a ‘meta-function’. The preposition ‘meta’ from the Greek means ‘after’, ‘beyond’ or ‘above’, with the idea that there will be a transformation of some kind. The term is not unknown, occurring, for example, in ‘metaphysics’, ‘metamorphosis’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘metastasis’. As one can see, it always means:

  • that one is chronologically situated after an event, a fact or a statement; 
  • that one will logically place oneself outside, above or beyond; and 
  • that this will transform realities because one will come at them differently, comparing them relatively, resituating them indifferent configurations which will give them forms and meanings until then not perceived.

An international and intercultural encounter cannot properly happen if everyone, during the encounter, remains at his usual level of habitual existence, experience and development. It can only happen if circumstances, accidental or pedagogically instituted, lead the participants to bring into play, however little this may be at the start, their own ‘meta’ functioning. This functioning has its roots in everyday, even biological living; one mustn’t think of it therefore, however psychological it may seem to be, as something very rare, complex and mysterious.

Even with unicellular life, irritability is a first elementary distancing. Sense organs respond to messages from the environment. Smell, touch, taste, awareness of needs, remain closely attentive to the environment. Hearing and sight can allow reception of messages over long distances. From the retention and analysis of such messages, reasons are deduced to modify behaviour. Retroaction, feedback, is already this ‘after’ or ‘beyond’ function. One can speak of ‘positive feedback’ if current patterns of behaviour are reinforced, or ‘negative feedback’ if behaviour patterns are interrupted or modified. The awareness of physical distance through certain of our senses then allowed us, with the development of the brain, to discover a new kind of distance, that of analysis, of being able to further treat messages from the senses, producing our representations through thought, images and language. The ‘meta’ function is located precisely at the level of these representations and the exchanges that we make with them with ourselves and with others. It is a distancing brought into play (by one person or a group) regarding their representations and their modalities of exchange of these representations.

Think of participants attending an international stage. They bring a whole baggage of personal behaviours, of social, regional and national origins. Confronted with different perceived representations and behaviours from foreigners, they may pause a little before deciding to maintain, suspend or modify some of their own behaviours. But things don’t remain at this first point of internal personal decision. In small groups, the participants note that certain representations which they exchange are not always in accord and can signify different things for the others, having different roots and configurations for different people. If the exchange gets sufficiently beyond the superficial or the formal, developing more openly and more familiarly, they will note difficulties in their communications.

In these circumstances, metacommunication is that indispensable distancing from the spontaneity of the exchange in order to pursue the analysis further. It can lead participants to stop and consider their affirmations or negations, either too rapid or brutal, to reflect on how their thinking is constructed, on all the differences bound in with languages, ideologies and cultures. Together they are led to work at the level of metacommunication. It’s a situation which is both relatively banal and at the same time rare. Banal, because it happens fairly often in those international exchanges which have to some extent been thoughtfully developed, that metacommunication will come into the frame. Rare, because it is not easy to continue without evoking at ever deeper levels questions relating to the attachment of participants to their social, regional and national identities.

2./ Situations requiring metacommunications

In international and intercultural exchanges, difficulties of communication are more severe and more numerous. Recourse to metacommunication is therefore even more necessary. In our OFAJ research, we have noted that there are three recurring situations in which metacommunications occur. In the first place, metacommunication often occurs when it becomes necessary to go beyond verbal communication, falling back on a whole range of other modes of communication (drawing, photography, mime, improvisation …), either with or without words.
Secondly, communication difficulties remarkably can suddenly appear, not between national groups, but within a national group. Normally, national groups try and agree their meanings before turning to the other national groups. Often these attempts to agree within national groups only partially succeed and sometimes not at all. And indeed, it is not at all evident that the French are easily going to agree on the meaning of ‘citoyen’, or the Germans on the meaning of ‘heimat’. Metacommunication is here faced with a reconsideration of the play and evolutions of what is signified by one inadequate signifier, the single word itself. Problems of codification, of semantics and of definition are raised. As Korzybski, founder of general semantics has written, ‘the map is not the territory’ and, by the same token, words are not the things signified.
Thirdly, a whole series of other communication difficulties, arising during international exchanges, result not so much from questions of meanings but from the ways in which the different people organise their inputs. Their different contributions may not be comparable one with another, given differences in sources and origins, internal sequential logic and conclusions, argumentation and points of view.

In these three general situations, we could say that communication is largely bound to fail since the participants are not really speaking of the same things. Only their metacommunication is liable to allow them to explore what is happening. Let us take an example to illustrate the first point. In the case which we are going to consider, the representation of the facts is not organised by each national group according to the same temporal sequences.
What is cause for one is effect for the other. Thus, for reasons fundamentally to do with boosting notions of their own identity, French participants, when looking at German history, can very easily begin with the Nazi period. They very rarely attempt to understand this period better by coining at it from preceding periods in history. In this way, they geopolitically represent to themselves and present to the others a very specific Germany unrelated to a wider European and international history. Conversely, while Germans will sometimes organise their reasoning by relocating the Nazi period within European and international contexts, most prefer to deal directly with the period after Nazism to avoid the wounds and taboos in the memory of their history. Plainly, the sequence of events in this exchange are not organised in any similar way. As regards the next two points, research allows us an important and general remark here. We suppose too often that our communications can always be juxtaposed and are comparable. This generates considerable difficulties, even polemics, which wrangle on before fading inconclusively. The exchange of points of view in international encounters can only promote mutual understanding when the exchange is clearly pitched at similar levels. For example, it’s not possible to put on the same level information and moral arguments, information and commercial arguments. If, in treating the questions of friendship or of violence, one indiscriminately mixes the different levels of persons, groups and nation-states, one will never make progress.
One must at least become aware – and only metacommunication allows us this awareness – that our communications cannot simult-aneously be very precise, very rigorous and very general.
If I speak of a whole nation, or a fortiori of Europe or of the world, I will never be able to speak with the same precision as with more limited matters such as the behaviours at a given moment in a stage of such and such a participant, or this or that passer-by in the street. Between these two extremes, there is a whole range of possibilities from the most limited, about which we can be precise, to much vaster questions which cannot yield the same kind of results. 

3./ Contents, forms and directions

Communication cannot be reduced to a matter of codes. Communication precedes codes, engenders, uses and maintains them, and transforms, subverts or abandons them. It isn’t the code which constitutes communication but the reverse: it’s communication which constitutes the code. But how does one challenge established codes in order to rediscover original communication? By involvement in a common and problematic situation, a situation which causes problems which the participants are obliged to resolve together. If the communication is both imposed by the situation and desired by the participants, it then becomes a matter of finding the codes best adapted for the communication, adapting them as necessary, or even inventing them.
For example, there are those silences, those apprehensive moments of truth, during which one can almost hear the desire (or the lack of it!) to communicate. At such moments in cultural exchanges the forms adopted (the use of space and time, with relationships established) can allow work of a certain depth. Translation here is not necessarily a help; indeed it can usurp communication per se, substituting itself entirely for it.
Other remarks are pertinent here. It is important, for example, that those who do not wish to communicate, either in a particular way or in general, should not be pressured to do otherwise. Non-communication of this sort is perhaps their only way to communicate and this should not be denied them.
To deny this form of communication, to disguise it or mask it in some way, perhaps even to deplore it, is to lose sight of the objective, the promotion of communication, and to settle for the simple reproduction of a ‘good’ meeting where institutional and personal formulae are merely reproduced, where the real exchange is rejected for an appearance of it.
By the same logic, communication is firstly (and always in new situations) necessarily also incomprehension. What founds the reality of communication is the reality of shared problematics. In everyday life, as well as in OFAJ stages, when language becomes a fundamental obstacle to what people imperatively want to communicate, there is recourse to gestures and mime. But these cannot be decoded by the persons to whom they are addressed unless they have some idea of the situation to which they can refer and from which these gestures and mimes draw their meaning.
Decoding is only possible if both parties to the communication can refer together to the same situation, but this possibility is not so frequent as one might think. Even within the same national context, social, regional, age and sex differences can mean that it is not easy to refer to common situations. In international and intercultural encounters, participants find themselves deprived of references to the national life of the other. This is further compounded by the fact that all the codes which constitute a national culture have been evolved from problematic historical situations more or less known or forgotten by those whose culture it is, of which they will, however, have a confused intuition about which they certainly couldn’t be explicit, nor even perhaps could they refer to it. As the ‘outsider’ who meets them won’t have access to this intuitive reference, how might communication be possible between them, if not by meta-communication in a fairly deep exploration of historical perceptions ? Let us take as an example, to help us push further forward, an opinion voiced by Herder, the German 18th century writer, on which others in their turn have expended a lot of ink: ‘A prejudice in its time is a good thing, because it makes people happy. It recalls them to their centre, ties them more solidly to their roots, makes them flourish more in accord with their own character, more ardent and consequently happier in their inclinations and their objectives. In this regard, the most ignorant, the most prejudiced nation is often the best placed : desire for immigration or travels abroad is already illness, suppuration, unhealthy fleshiness, intimation of death.’ (Herder, J. G., 1774).
In Franco-German exchanges, when prejudice is under discussion, it is often easier to avoid any attempt at metacommunication concerning this opinion of Herder’s. Or alternatively, another common reaction is that both French and German participants agree that it is scandalous, prudently suggesting perhaps that this is only the particular opinion of Herder himself. Or again, perhaps a French subgroup will use it to bait a German subgroup. In this way, some French participants will choose to close their eyes and others to point the usual accusing finger. But in both cases, while all the while claiming to be against prejudices, they give evidence of their own prejudice. And in so doing, they pass completely to one side of a fundamental international and intercultural issue: the antagonism between the universalism which engenders imperialism and the will for a national specificity which engenders nationalism and racism.
Whenever, in Franco-German exchanges we touch upon the history of France and Germany, serious recourse to meta-communication is always necessary. It requires us to be prudent and it allows us to perceive and interrogate deeper, more hidden threads within history. Commenting on the passage from Herder, A. Finkielkraut (1986) opens up for us an approach for international and intercultural reflection: ‘Thirty years before the battle of Iena and the Napoleonic occupation, Herder had begun the fight back against the preponderance of French rationalism with the announcement of this good news: there are no general values, only local values and chance principles … and every pretension to universality reveals the will to power of a particular civilisation which wants to assimilate the others and impose its law. The cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment was thus turned back to its national origins and accused of compromising human diversity by profaning the individuality of peoples.’ Herder died in 1803. Bonaparte became Napoleon a year later, and in the years that followed, we had Austerlitz, lena, Friedland, Eckmuhl, Wagram, the names of avenues leading from the highly prominent Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Finkielkraut continues:

‘Awakened by contact with the invader, the national consciousness rejected those universal values for which France carried the flag. The traumatism of the Napoleonic conquest was accompanied and prolonged by a radical criticism of the principles which underlay it: universality was nothing more than the alibi for imperialism. In reaction to the French invasion, the idea grew that the spiritual mission of a people was to cherish its difference, marking out its own domain and not to follow general principles … To be German was the aim and the destiny from which one could not deviate … It was the birth of the Volkgeist, of that « singular, marvellous, inexplicable, unutterable » national spirit which Germany was dazzled to discover in its past and which she proudly pitted against the parched abstractions of the modern age … The Volkgeist burst beyond the frontiers of the Germanic world. All of Europe laid hold of it for its best and for its worst… the springtime of peoples and the obsession with ethnic purity … the struggle of little nations against vast empires and the barbarous affirmation that nothing existed beyond the collectivity. This key idea gave back dignity to the losers in dynastic Europe, but it also heralded that new way of thinking which « leads from humanity through nationality to bestiality » and which in the 20th century plunged Europe into the abyss.’

Finkielkraut concludes:

‘The will of peoples to decide their own futures finds its substance and its legitimacy in the valuing of the national spirit, nurtured by the notion of a community of shared memories, language and traditions. But, pushed to extremes and radicalised, this same notion makes the rejection of the foreigner a question of survival, if not a moral principle, and very soon calls into question the very notion of humanity itself as it promotes the belief that peoples in their essences are incompatible one to another.


Responding to Finkielkraut’s analysis, Lothar Baier (T982) gives a series of historical clarifications, in particular noting that Herder later repudiated the youthful work cited above. But a fundamental question remains: the complex play between nations uses particularising and universalising ideologies of identity where positions merge, overlap and reverse depending upon the different interests and power relations at any given moment, often leading to violent consequences and tragic results. It is these complex currents, with their extraordinary international and intercultural overlaps and reversals, which underly at a deep level the grave misunderstandings between persons, groups and nations.

4./ Metacommunication as radical critique of all communication

Up until now in discussing metacommunication, communication has been considered as means to achieve an end: to give information or orders; to transmit an emotion; to share questions; to obtain knowledge or reciprocal understanding or cooperative relations, etc.
Metacommunication was an aid towards achieving these aims. But communication considered solely as means can never fully cover the whole function of communication. If human communication could never be thought of as an end in itself, it would forever be at the service of multiple biological and social objectives of our individual and collective lives. We have here an inevitable and continual oscillation between the pre-eminence of life and of communication; we must live to communicate and we must communicate to live.
Herder’s comments can serve again as an example: they are scandalous and paradoxical only if one fails to distinguish between what is of the order of objective knowledge and what is of the order of the existence of individuals and peoples.
Of course, a prejudice is always a prejudice, but isn’t the worst prejudice that of those who think that prejudice can be overcome and that they are themselves nearing this state of grace? This amounts to forgetting that real life, whose limiting and finite structures will never be eradicated by objective knowledge, can at any moment subvert knowledge. Between the primary choice of either the pretension to a universality which becomes imperialist or of a national specificity which can lead to nationalist closure, Herder exalted the second because it was at that place and time momentarily diminished. There is a always a temptation to sort the good from the bad, truth from error, without reference to times and places.
But in international and intercultural historical evolutions, things don’t happen with the logic of theoretical argument. There are real struggles where power imbalances are more than merely a play of language or ideas, and where there is little option but to lend one’s weight to the opposing tendency. It is the failure to know how to enter into the complexity of these international and intercultural antagonisms that allows our countries and our cultures regularly to get caught up in murderous catastrophes, at which occasions we then wish above all to designate the good and the bad, the victors and the vanquished, according to an eternal manichean logic.
The rhetorics of universalising rationalism, or of particularising nationalism, or of culturalist relativism all have their grounded arguments, but this doesn’t mean to say that each, in the concrete historical circumstances which condition their production, doesn’t emphasise certain aspects or downplay others depending upon actual power relations and strategies, or even on the need for survival.
To the extent that we need to live to communicate, life itself is the priority and communication is a means to this end.
For example, a utilitarian perspective ties communication to technical, technicist or even technocratic fields. An economics perspective leads to considerations tied into marketing and financial fields. Or again, in the social field, our communications can be no more than the means of maintaining our hierarchical, tribal or group relations, etc. But in so far as we need to communicate in order to live better, we have to improve, therefore to be critical of, our communications as means, and this, as we have seen, is in the first instance the role of metacommunication. But then, if we’re not careful, we find that we’re treating communication as an end in itself, since our aim is its improvement and not its utilisation. This perspective of seeking to improve communication can perversely become the major objective, laying claim pretentiously to the universality of communication as a kind of absolutism as one has already seen with religion and science. The impossibility of communication as an absolute end in itself is hidden behind false universalisms which mask strategies of power.
But the opposing attitude, according to which communication is more modestly related to ‘means’, can also mask strategies of power. This is why these particularisms, national or other, can easily break the boundaries of their particularities and become widely invasive. One must not therefore withdraw from a metacommunication on the process of improving our communication as means – we need simply to develop also a metacommunication of communication taken as an end in itself. Ultimately metacommunication requires the regulation as well as possible of the continual deviations and perversions of communication both as means and also as an end in itself.

Jacques Demorgon, L’exploration interculturelle, Paris, A. Colin.
Auf Deutsch :  Peter BOBACK, Übersetzer von J. Demorgon Interkulturelle Erkundungen: Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer internationalen Pädagogik, Campus, 1999

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