Prof. Emevwo Biakolo is a communications expert and teaches at School of Media and Communications, Pan-Atlantic University (PAC), Lekki, Lagos. He started out as an expert in communication and orality, taught and transited to the world of journalism before finally returning to teaching again. He spoke to MARGARET MWANTOK on the thin line between communication and literature and how one enriches the other
What differentiates mass communication from the literary arts, where you came from as an academic?
These disciplines, if we may address it from a disciplinary point of view, they have very close relationship. What we call literature even from a non–disciplinary point of view, writing generally, is something that is communicative in its very nature, and when you move from the disciplinary area again and think about some of the earliest forms of communication after orality, I think the next most important form of communication that is popular in mass communication is writing. You can think about broader forms of communication in terms of non-verbal communication, gestures that people make, which are natural to human beings and you can think about symbolic forms of communication, which exist, for instance, in ritual and religious practices. All these are different forms of communication, but in terms of mass, in terms of something that is codified, something that has an order or a system, particularly like a business system behind it, writing follows speech.
Literature, in the ordinary sense of what is written, is like one of the oldest forms of communication so far. We know, of course, that the actual practice in the form of the journal, the newspaper, this became the most important form of mass communication in the business sense, in the more precise, systemic sense before all the visual forms. So, both in terms of the discipline and in terms of ordinary practice, the relationship between literature and communication has already been very close. If you look at some of those who established and developed communication as an academic discipline, their origin can be traced to literature and they were literary scholars of that field before the incision of communication as a discipline. I, myself, come from that side; literature, philosophy and then, of course, communication.
My practice in journalism, like I told you, was at The Guardian between 1989-1995. My practice was to write articles and participate in drafting editorials and editing letters and so on. All of those practices, for me, were, before anything else, practices of writing. Although it is popular in the broad sense, it was catering to a niche market of the educated people. It didn’t come in form of the Penny newspaper, catering for a mass population. It was served in a niche market of people who were educated and wanted more than just basic news; people who wanted informed and in-depth analysis of what was happening.
So, I found myself in that kind of environment from my personal point of view. So, that kind of background, that kind of relationship with many people in the field of literature, was transited to explain how firm the communication is.
What informed your transition from literature to mass communication?
My own study as a specific academic study was in a relationship between the spoken word and the written word by my doctorate programme and it was on orality and literacy as we call it, dimensions and the characteristics of what is spoken and written. So, in many ways, I was already involved in the speaking and writing as forms of communication. And so when I finished my Ph.D, the following year was when I went to work at The Guardian. I began working part time and I went to full time before I reverted to part time when I went back to the university. Some of the people I was with at that time, people like G.G Darah, for instance, and some other very important writers such as Femi Osofisan, etc, were engaged in popular writing in journalism, firstly because they had an interest engaging the public. It is not enough merely to do this type of academic work, as you do in the university system. If you want a larger engagement, you have to get out of the classroom and engage in the world of the newspaper.
So, the political issues and the social issues actually drove many people from the university system into the purely literal and literary criticism and writing, including some who were poets. It drove them into journalism, and of course once you are in journalism, you’re in the broader side of communication – the media. My interest in communication, broadly, is derived not only from the background in literature but also from the additional background in ethnography and oral literature.
What is the place of oral literature in modern communication?
Even now, the act of speaking is far more frequent than the act of writing. If you study this only in the context, for instance, of oral literature, you restrict a sense of formalise pieces of work such as sounds or oral narratives, or epics, or riddles. If you formalise it in that sense, it will become as if they were divergent phases, but these are acts of communication, these are every day acts. When a person uses a programme, for instance, in conversation or in telling a story or a riddle or anything, it’s an ordinary act of human practice. If you think about this study only in the restricted style of speaking or writing, you are closing the field rather than opening it because it is a much broader field.
How much elements of literary arts are featured in the teaching of mass communication?
Well, unfortunately, there isn’t too much. When I look at our curriculum, for instance, there isn’t a formal literary element. Once you move into the field of communication as an academic field and then the interest in literature in it’s own academic field becomes restricted. And so what we are looking at will be broader models of writing, not only literally writing in terms of style.
The challenge that we have right now is that a lot of attention is being paid to mediated communication, but what we do find is that there is an overwhelming focus on mediated communication rather than every day forms of communication. For instance, conversation is a logic form that exists between a married couple or work mate, friends or footballers. The broadening in my field is important; we need to return to that larger, broader frame of communication, then of course you can see some of it reemerging in terms of a decision media. These forms of communication that were ordinary social communications we can see them reemerging in terms of social media, the interesting thing that we can see there is the marriage between written form and oral form when the phrases that are used, the style, the construction, the grammatical structure and so on and so forth. All of these are elements of replicating ordinary speech in the form of the mediated communication and social media. I’ll like to see a lot of attention paid to the social communication rather than the mediated form that we seem to focus attention to.
So, the role of technology in communication generally, beginning from the printed form, the printed newspaper right until now there’s so much dominance of technology. We can’t reverse it; that’s for sure, but I’ll be more interested in seeing how the book scholars pay attention to ordinary human compositions and other forms of communication besides the mediated form, but I will like us to focus a little more on human dimension rather than on mediation.
I wouldn’t say tools; to me it’s more like a dimension, an aspect of the broader field of communication. Literature, in a certain sense, is part of the broader field of communication.
What you are suggesting is studied under a language. Perhaps, to revolutionise the process you can just study it under communication. People don’t deal with only the written forms of communication but also oral. So, if you have students in the secondary school learning how to communicate, not just learning how to write but in the broader field of communication. It is a big struggle not to teach grammar to African students. In coming to the university, I observed that people are not at peace with grammar; they see grammar as a big challenge and I’ll be looking for a way to solve this in a broader field of communication rather than the written one, distinguishing, for instance, ordinarily practices in the society from specialised practices we have them in the classroom; they are natural forms of communication.