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Web of life. Intersecting Metaphor and Pattern

Potentialities, Expectations and Capacities of media and technologies
Maria Lucília Marcos


Web of Life. Intersection de métaphore et modèle. Potentialités, attentes et capacités des medias et des technologies
It is true that from nature (phusis) to history, man has always needed mediation, inventing mediations and devices: gestures, drawings, words, utensils, gods, images, technology, art, concepts, war, law. Man separates and divides in order to connect and cross. The term ‘commons’ (material and immaterial) is closely linked to ‘communication’: being, doing, making something ‘common to many’. Mass media, like the Internet, should be ‘human-centred’ rather than ‘corporate-dominated’. «The commons-based Internet is only possible in a commons-based society» (Fuchs, 2011: 336), and this is a multi-faceted task, not just political or technological, for which communication sciences should also contribute.

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Index terms

Palavras chaves :

bem Comum, mediações, Web of Life
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“Just as variations in climates and soils foster the development of different sizes of communities, so do the characteristics of different forms of communication facilitate different scales of political and social organization in terms of how many people over how large a territory can be included easily in the same communication system. Just as the hacking of a new path through a mountain range or the building of a canal through an isthmus typically encourages a significant shift away from the longer routes between two locations, so do inventions like the telegraph, telephone, and e-mail encourage people to decrease and alter their use of travel or letters as a means of personal and business communication. Medium theory also suggests that the widespread use of a medium may stimulate different modes of thought. Print literacy, for example, may encourage abstract, linear thinking, whereas television viewing may encourage concrete, nonlinear thinking”
(Joshua Meyrowitz, 2008: 653)

  • 1 Human Ecology, The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 1-15, July 1936.
  • 2 Anchor Books, Random House Publishers, 1996.

1The human life is shaped significantly by the web metaphor. In the sense of Robert Ezra Park (Chicago School of Sociology), who applied the principles of Charles Darwin “web of life” and “struggle for existence” in plant and animal communities to the study of human communities: “The web of life, in which all living organisms, plants and animals alike, are bound together in a vast system of interlinked and interdependent lives, is nevertheless, as J.A. Thompson puts it, “one of the fundamental biological concepts” and is “as characteristically Darwinnian as the struggle for existence”1. More recently, Fritjof Capra, physicist and systems theorist, wrote The Web of Life2, describing interrelationships and interdependence of psychological, biological, physical, social and cultural phenomena.

2Indeed humans have the capacity for many different forms of culture and social organization, but most patterns tend to be shaped through a kind of a web structure. Interacting with environment, interacting with each other and interacting with human innovations are constrained through reciprocal movements and tensional forms of typifications and variations. The web metaphor influences different modes of thinking, of feeling and of acting. That gives us a shareable world, from a flux of events into a meaningful social or political community.

3That’s one of the reasons why we cannot ignore the relevant contextual dimensions of communication, such as the way we understand, memorize and integrate information and knowledge and thereby the way we process experience. That means we must sketch how a cross-disciplinary approach may benefit from some philosophical analysis and from a lot of developments in the human and social sciences fields.

4Storytelling, speaking, writing, e-mailing and with whatever devices we may use (gestures, drawings, words, utensils, images, technology, gadgets, art, concepts…) – men separate, connect and cross. And, for sure, we have different ways of answering the question “what do those devices to us or for us?” Do they present one-dimensional and instrumental or critical and complex models about ways of thinking, feeling and acting?

Relation matters

5The story of the construction of the Tower of Babel, as described in the Book of Genesis, besides staging the mythical origin of the diversity of languages and cultures, is also a powerful inspiration for the understanding of some structural features of human experience, as the archaic decisions that still today condition us: moving and traveling (extra-vagance, ex-odus, ex-otic, ex-orbit); inhabiting (mark, inscription, line, territory, connection, map, stay, home, leave); doing (transforming, weaving, constructing, destroying); using (matter, materials, things, utensils, instruments, objects); naming (identifying, calling, appropriating); celebrating (life, glory, death, party); distinguishing (planes, worlds, statutes, separations, interruptions, relations).

6Myth of origin par excellence: from an unblemished origin to a founding blemish. Men look up, they raise their gaze and crave reaching the skies, they challenge the gods, are punished, languages are scattered, cultures diverge, diversity is born, confusion reigns. Translation and lost in translation. Dispersion, travel, pilgrimage, quest. But because the land is finite, dispersion brings new encounters and reunions. History. Politics. War. Cosmopolitanism.

7In fact, as they cannot infinitely disperse, men live alongside others. Kant, in the “third definite article for a perpetual peace” says the “cosmopolitical law should be imposed as a condition of universal hospitality”, not as a matter of philanthropy but as a matter of political law. Hospitality means the right of every foreigner not to be treated as an enemy when arriving in a country; one cannot act with hostility if he remains peaceful. It is a right to visit or stay (right of resort), it is not a right to be invited (right of the guest), it allows all men to volunteer to be part of society because of the common ownership of the land’s surface. The more or less close relations between the peoples of the earth have spread universally and, as a result, an infringement of the law in any place of the earth is resented everywhere. For this reason, the idea of ​​a “cosmopolitical law” should not adopt capricious and eccentric conceptions and preferences, which should have no place in law-making. Instead it should lay down all the necessary complements of an unwritten code that lays down civil and individual rights, bearing in mind the public rights of men and thus the perpetual peace that we wish to approach continually (cf. Marcos, 2008).

8In Kant, the reflection on politics and law resonate the notions of universality’ and ’universal validity’, both charged with logical and metaphysical meaning. The condition of reason is therefore dialogic: it only reaches its unification and reconciliation through conflicting views and interests. The dialectics of reason and its antinomies are the manifestation of this essential condition of a reason that only accepts its unification and reconciliation through the recognition of difference and autonomy; in short, by recognising the condition of freedom.” (Santos, 1994: 607)

9Today, in the transition between the International Law anchored in the XIX century model of the Nation-State and a New Cosmopolitan Order, advocated and carried out by multilateral institutions and continental alliances, an universalism’ in the strict sense is pursued, in which the rights of each part are settled in relationships based on mutual recognition. Moreover, cosmopolitanism is envisioned as the announcement of a future hybridizationof different cultures (cf. Bhabha, 2004).

10It is true that from nature (phusis) to history, man has always needed mediation, inventing mediations and devices: gestures, drawings, words, utensils, gods, images, technology, art, concepts, war, law. Man separates and divides in order to connect and cross. The idea of ​​human” is a corollary of the idea of ​​“experience” and of the idea of ​​“world”, or rather, of the idea of ​​experience of the world”. To experience the world is to receive disordered and heterogeneous impressions and have the possibility to build an order; it is the invention of meanings in that chain of events that creates new meanings; it is the staging of events and things, the implication of what we are, building a world from reality.

11But no experience is absolutely ‘natural’ in man. The apprehension of outward signs and the emotional and intelligible connections we build with them, are made through language, are all mediated by some language. The practical and symbolic dimensions intersect permanently without priority or primacy of one over the other. One example is the ancestor cult of death, in which technical and symbolic enact the inevitable passage (“to bury” and “to be in mourning” are phenomena deeply inscribed in what we are). This crossing is so decisive in the humanly possible experience, that one cannot dismiss it and speculate what the human world would be without technique or language. Man is not something to which technique and language are added, just as there is not a “before emotions”. Emotions, language and technique, as categories of what we call reason, form the backbone of the human and any search for a zero point is, thus, doomed to absurdity. Therefore, it seems acceptable to give up the search for such a missing link between the ‘yet not human’ and the ‘already human’.

12“It was by playing and inventing imaginary worlds that we learned to speak and it’s still playing with language, constructing discourses that describe phenomena and events that actually occurred or imaginary events, that, throughout our lives, we constitute our experience of the world(Rodrigues, 2003: 17). Language is used to invent and represent the world, assigning meaning to things; it articulates events in time, developing narratives; it creates fictions, exceeding the referents from reality through discourse. And, in the process, the subject assigns meaning to himself, articulating his own life in a narrative identity, dreaming and projecting in the future. In this point, the anthropological, historical and hermeneutic approaches are very close.

13This inseparability between experience and language lies not only at the level of what we call ‘communication’. The inseparability is more radical: it is on the exercise of one’s emotions and cognition that humans inhabit and are inhabited by language. Each and every figure of the world, and any self-consciousness, is operated through links articulated in symbolic thinking. And even at a level prior to conscious meaning, before the name, where drives are located and articulated, one can speak of a non thetic semiotics, unpropositional, but one that operates through the figures of metaphor and metonymy. Such a semiotic level precedes the symbolic level, which will articulate the positions of significance within open combinations, the thetic phase or phase of enunciation, which already requires the separation between subject and object in the frame of a symbolic space, the logic space of dialogue. In these two levels (one before representation and the other being representation itself; the semiotic level and the symbolic level) is always through the game of articulations that experience unfolds. And to articulate is always, first and foremost, to engage in the game of language.

14Thinking about the implications between human experience and language turns the classic distinction between nature and culture unintelligible. The chaotic drives and disordered emotions begin to be articulated before meaning is formed, but nonetheless under the impulse and influence of an intersubjective dimension. The stage prior to birth and birth itself are events marked by a double inseparable rhythm: the biological and the empirical (emotional, environmental, social, cultural, economic, technical ...). One is not born nor grows on neutral territory. The intersubjective world, structured by language, co-structures the subjective world of each one of us. The senses are inscribed in the body and the body radiates senses; between the body’s semantisation and the somatization of the senses, there is a tremendous work done through language, in its various modalities. Such work blurs the distinction between inside and outside and even the skin cannot be thought of as a boundary or threshold anymore.

15In another perspective of our analysis, we could join G. H. Mead (1934) in saying that the self is not a substance but a process, “an integral part of social organization that links individual roles, converting them into social attitudes. Mead became interested in the process of constitution of the self, or the soi, weaved in interpersonal relationships which are the source of self-consciousness. Communication processes - from simple gestures with no intention to communicate, to the level of intentionally of significant gestures and the use of signs or symbols charged with a conventional meaning - determine the construction of personal identity. Signification stems from dynamic social interaction and it is in this relationship that symbolic language appears, as a common language, despite the lack of uniformity in the interlocutors’ reactions.

16There isn’t a deterministic mode to reduce human language to a strictly biological reaction to stimuli, but the understanding of symbolic language as a possibility to collectively organize actions and build new visions of reality and partake in common projects. The self is socially constructed through mutual adjustments and by using the capacity to think through other people’s points of view, a thesis that clearly opposes the idea that individual consciousness is the origin of meaning. For that reason, the most vast and universal community is, to Mead, language, the community of those who communicate.

17It is necessary to clarify the idea of the inseparability between experience and language. If by the use of language we understand ‘to make public what one feels or thinks’ or ‘to transmit one’s inner self’, we make the mistake of thinking that there is an inside, previous to the intersubjective world of exchange, and an outside, the world of communication. This common error - more often repeated than desirable - assigns an instrumental role to language, as a tool for externalizing one’s interior. The boundary between inside and outside would then be drawn between silence and speech, a boundary that language would violate by bringing the ‘soul’ to the word and which silence, in turn, would protect by returning ‘soul’ to its mystery. This instrumental view of language would make each of us a shell closed upon itself, disregarding the relational dimension of the human. This dimension builds subjectivity and is not established by the subjects only at the time they interact.

18Language therefore possesses this instituting character of the human world. Man has a world (Welt) that exceeds the environment (Umwelt), because he was ‘awakened’ of his animal destituteness. Heidegger emphasizes the importance of ‘boredom’ and ‘anguish’ as operators in this awakening and opening to the world. But it’s also Heidegger who says that: «Man speaks. We speak when we are awake and we speak in our dreams. We are always speaking, even when we do not utter a single word aloud, but merely listen or read, and even when we are not particularly listening or speaking but are attending to some work or taking a rest. We are continually speaking in one way or another.» (Heidegger, 1959: 3)

19Language is not, then, just a communication tool. The human world is established by language and is composed of nature, things, meanings, emotions, affections, speeches. Between materiality and meaning, the world emerges as life’s horizon. The sharing of voices, such as the sharing of desires, is ordered in language, as intersubjective sharing of the world. From this perspective, one can say that there is a communicational a priori in language, because it’s possible to speak of ”a logic of the relationship" as a condition for the possibility of the human. In this perspective yet, language is not an instrument of thought nor communication is an instrument that language uses for its own externalization; it’s not possible to trace a ‘before’ and an ’after’ between thought, language and communication, but we perceive them as essentially intertwined.

Experience and mediation

20Language institutes experience, on the one hand, and betrays it, on the other. The intersubjective network that sustains our relationship with the world, along with nature’s own flow, causes a permanent displacement of the ‘happening’, so that what we call ‘events’ are moments of centralized vision of an unceasing moment. “An event, even if brief, is prolonged (…)”. An event is inseparable from idle periods, said Deleuze (interview to Libération, 1988), speaking not about language in general but about the language of media – that only show the beginning or the end of the event because they seek only the spectacular.

21“The event is inseparable from idle periods” and, for that reason, doesn’t coincide with the fact but, rather, with the concept. Idle periods are “instants of the distinguishing practice of thinking, made of captures and displacements, differentiations and collages of the nomadic and erratic multiplicity of the signs of reality (...). It is the happening, in its unlimited process of generation of the different, of what is irreducible to an identity, of what escapes the regime of the reason of the prevailing majority”.

22These Deleuzian considerations about the language of media could be applied, to a certain extent, to the enunciations of language in general. The plane of discourse is the only capable of accompanying the movement of intensities, the multiplicity of “affections, perceptions and concepts” which infinitely create difference. It is in feeling and thinking that language engenders the differentiating production of experiences. But when ‘say’ becomes ‘said’, thematization and categorization appear, that is, the capture of language in cristalized forms, more or less frozen. The ‘theme’, in this sense, betrays the rizomatic unfolding of the world. A necessary betrayal, quite certainly, but nonetheless reductive. Writing is the mark of that process that converts ‘say’ into ‘said’, in the ambiguity of a language where propositions are constantly submitted to the erosion of the ‘unsaid’, the (infinite or humanly infinite) mobility of ‘saying, unsaying, resaying’.

23This complex process of crystallization and erosion is a characteristic of modern experience. “Modern” not only in the sense of what we call modernity (i.e., the last three centuries) but also in the broadest sense of the evolution in sapiens’ rationality. The different modalities of connecting with the world that were rehearsed by man – marks and graphisms (a “writing before writing”); engravings, drawings and sculptures (an “art before art”); myths , rituals and magic, religion, philosophy, alchemy and science; forms of socio-political organization, the organization of space and time - and the rate of abandonment of nomadism and the invention of sedentary lifestyles - created links between man and world, forming a field of eruptive and disruptive forces, divergent and often opposite. A tensional force field – a conceptual category that is also worked, for example, in physics, concerning the effects that affect bodies when they are subjected to a given voltage.

24The Neolithic Revolution shaped the human experience through interactions henceforth permanent, which mobilize different devices of connection with the world or mediation devices. The idea of a “field of media” exceeds, in this sense, the set of mass media - press, radio, television and the internet. There is a ‘web of life’ prior to those media and, more remarkably, long before digital networks. A ‘web of life’ formed by relations of discovery and invention, as well as social relations of cooperation and conflict that result from the progressive rationality of experience. It is social interaction, as the network that permanently generates new experiences, that induces thinking about the “paradoxical” relationship between communication and experience, as so involved dimensions that overlap one another. Since the Chicago School until the present day, the most interesting and complete (unavoidable) theoretical model is that which focuses on social interaction, intersubjectivity and dialogism as the possibilities of the human.

25Using a Deleuzian language, one could say that the collective agencydistributes curves of enunciationand “curves of visibility" which determine knowledge, power and subjectivity”, the three major instances defined by Foucault. These curves are multilinear and impose regimes of enunciationand regimes of light”, they “allow speech" and allow vision" along lines of shifting and variable force that determine modes of rationality” and modes of existence”. Applying this perspective to communication means that there are no “communication universals” but possibilities” and regularities”, open and on the verge of becoming. Interactive patterns (lifestyles) but nonetheless producers of singularity.

26The concept of ‘experience’ has, thus, a remarkable heuristic value. What men say and do, the ‘timeliness’ of saying and doing, stems from processes of sedimentation and fissure, which, to be conceptualized, require a close observation of the actual practices of interaction, involving both impregnation and rupture. But, in addition, any observation is conditioned by modes of thinking reality that project particular focuses of attention. On the one hand, we see what we seek, often even if you want to see what is not there, except in the effects on others and ourselves. On the other, it is advisable to maintain an openness to games, with innovative and surprising variables, in which the ‘new’ bears ‘history’ and refers to an ‘archive’ and splitting lines or emerging plans already known and in the process of destabilization. Within social interaction, different discourses circulate in different regimes of enunciation and ‘to make sense’ or, simply, realizing the ‘sense’ of the social forms, by itself, a complex hermeneutical experience.

27It is this dynamic status of experience that leads to the understanding of ‘mediation’ as a key feature of the human - there is no ‘world’ without confrontation, without the perception of changes and oppositions, without connections and without disruptions. It is this dimension we call ‘history’, or ‘politics’ - in any age and not just in the contemporary era. Since history separated from non-history and named itself, precisely as ‘history’, the human took the form of a ‘writing of the world’, not only towards registration, but especially in the hermeneutic sense – of an interpreted world, appropriated and figured. Mundus est fabula, the famous expression that appears in Descartes’s painted portrayal, has an iconic value that collapses any pretence of certainty about knowing the world. We represent the world through different discourses that intersect in the mediatic field of interaction, according to various devices and interests, as many as their effects and marks – discourses often dictated by public agendas, and other times tempestuous and more intangible.

Digital web

28This non-historicist perspective - which translates the idea that there isn’t, and never has been, such a thing as unmediated experience and that there is, and always has been, a structuring relational logic in the human - cannot overlook how media are inscribed in contemporary existence and how such inscription led to the invention of new models of sociability. The ‘web of life’ now presents more complex, more dynamic and more comprehensive settings - no voluntarism can resist the power of digital technologies, no exemption is possible. And maybe never as today the ambiguity of the Greek word pharmakon (remedy and poison) was so inspiring to translate man’s relationship with technology. “Technology creates various potential effects in society and social systems and these effects contradict each other” (Fuchs, 2011: 324). Contradictions, ambiguities, divides, asymmetries, exclusions.

29Critical media studies draw a dialectical character between theory and practice, between media and society, between opportunities and risks, between dominant groups and dominated groups, between individuals and social structures, between base and superstructure, between reality and alternatives, essence and existence, potentiality and actuality, philosophical theory and empirical research, academic analysis and social movements. “The media are complex and dialectical; society is complex and dialectical” (idem). Therefore, analysis should not focus only on media (even if on the level of production, dissemination and use), but should understand how media are involved in the social whole, in the various subsystems, in the various power structures and micro-powers and forms of domination and violence; understand how these structures shape and are shaped by media; understand who are the actors and what are the resources that affect the processes of domination and resistance, and how they relate with each other and with other structures of society. A critical media theory seeks to understand that essentially political task of a dual modelling, questioning the influence that legislation, civil society and the political struggles have on the creation and use of media and technologies.

30A comparison ​​between accomplished capabilities and social expectations or, better, an assessment of the potential of media in the light of socially established expectations and accomplished capacities (in their limitations and/or weaknesses) allows a sense of what needs to be done for the benefit of men and a complementary perception of what can be done to prevent or minimize the negative potential of technologies. Both on the level of laws and on the level of concrete practices - how can social movements and political groups, fighting to change unjust social conditions, use media and technology to enforce and strengthen these struggles?

31For example, the reification of human beings is a sinister process that can happen at any time. ‘Reification’ has a different meaning of ‘exploitation’, in which characteristics and unique attributes of human beings are used and exploited to the advantage of some others (Honneth, 2008). Reification focuses on humans (and not on objects), who are denied human rights and attributes – an elementary and pre-cognitive level, prior to a cognitive content of rights, where recognition, that allows us to experience each person as the other of ourselves, is abolished and replaced by the treatment as it were an inanimate object, a simple thing that is not in fact. Explaining the “condition of possibility of this suppression of elemental recognition” is a challenge and it requires an effort of analysis. The contemporary practice of slavery (sexual or otherwise), the atrocities of war against civilians (elderly, women, children) or various types of domestic violence, are the routinization of practices of dehumanization and depersonalization and “naturalize” reification.

32Media can support social and political struggles against these phenomena of reification, fighting and giving visibility to “this form of oblivion of the elementary recognition” (Honneth, 2008). To combat oblivion and deconstruct reification could well be a positive potentiality of socially committed media but in fact, and quite often, we witness the reverse phenomenon of media potentiating the reification of behaviours and attitudes. The examples are numerous and explicit. In this framework, the methodology of critical media studies needs a triangulation between social theory and empirical and ethical research, since the positive and negative potentialities, the contradictions and conflicts that shape contemporary societies are extreme. Fuchs (2011: 325) suggests four domains of analysis: 1. What role do media take on the accumulation of capital? 2. Are media submerged by ideologies about their own effects? 3. Do media present one-dimensional and instrumental or critical and complex models about ways of thinking and acting? 4. Do media convey potential alternatives for the benefit of all and not just some?

33The search for alternatives undermines the theoretical basis of studies of the discourses that circulate in the media arena with the empirical studies of specific cases and the ethical discussion about society. Only the connection between these three levels of analysis can consistently prepare alternatives to situations of domination, reification and unfair distribution of goods and assets (economic, environmental and cultural). In contemporary societies, with a “hyperpresence” of technologies and with constant changes in lifestyles, the very concept of democracy is increasingly a challenge to critical thinking. For example, the abusive practices of recording and dissemination of images, the instant producing of facts and events, the spread of preconceptions and prejudgments, the continuous invitation for the use of personal electronic gadgets for the manipulation of reality - are invading the public space of an already called ‘viral democracy ‘. The prevailing absence of criteria and limits, in which the notion of ‘product’ - no memory, no affection, no distance, no critical thinking, no filters - weakens social bonds and accelerates new modes of subversion of rights. The viral democracy has become the opposite of a participatory democracy – and responsible citizens must undo this fatality. It must not be so; it doesn’t have to be that way. The term ‘commons’ (material and immaterial) is closely linked to ‘communication’: being, doing, making something ‘common to many’. Mass media, like the Internet, should be ‘human- centred’ rather than ‘corporate-dominated’. «The commons-based Internet is only possible in a commons-based society» (Fuchs, 2011: 336), and this is a multi-faceted, not just political and technological, task, for which communication sciences should also contribute.

34In a recent study, with the suggestive title Misunderstanding the Internet, it is said that:

The growth of the internet has been spectacular. There are now more than 2 billion internet users across the globe, about 30 per cent of the world’s population. This is certainly a new phenomenon that is of enormous significance for the economic, political and social life of contemporary societies. However, much popular and academic writing about the internet takes a celebratory view, assuming that the internet’s potential will be realised in essentially transformative ways.” And to this euphoric vision, the authors oppose some dysphoria: “This was especially true in the euphoric moment of the mid-1990s, when many commentators wrote about the internet with awe and wonderment. While this moment may be over, its underlying technocentrism – the belief that technology determines outcomes – lingers on, and, with it, a failure to understand the internet in its social, economic and political context’ (Curran, Fenton, Freedman, 2012).

35Between uncritical celebration and general suspicion, lies an arduous but necessary road of inquiry, experimentation and evaluation of the potential, expectations and impact of digital networks. The approaches of communication, in constant theoretical and methodological differentiation, stem largely from the technical, political, economic and philosophical transformations. It is not the case of a discipline without a name, a nameless science’, as in Aby Warburg’s words. Theoretically and institutionally, the term ‘communication sciences’ has covered this plurality, constituting a new epistemological paradigm about human experience: relational, interactional and intersubjective.

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1 Human Ecology, The American Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 1-15, July 1936.

2 Anchor Books, Random House Publishers, 1996.

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Electronic reference

Maria Lucília Marcos, « Web of life. Intersecting Metaphor and Pattern », Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [Online], 10 | 2017, Online since 01 January 2017, connection on 26 March 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rfsic.2835

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About the author

Maria Lucília Marcos

CIC. Digital/FCSH.UNL. Professeur Associée Agrégée en Sciences de la Communication. Associate Professor with Habilitation in Communication Sciences. Coordinator of the Master in Communication Sciences. Universidade Nova de Lisboa.

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