By Richard Hink
Most contemporary social theory and communications research looks upon the Twentieth Century as the period during which ‘modern’ technological society in the Western world came of age. This body of research tends to conceptualize the post-war political economic arrangement in Western Europe (and North America) as a monolith, with equivalent experiences of modernity on either side of the Atlantic (partially because of its juxtaposition alongside the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states).
Modernization theory held that the experience of this particular group of societies was the yardstick against which the development of all others was to be measured. This view ignores the experiences of Spain (and, for that matter, Portugal) during the post-war period. Broadly speaking, both of these countries shared the European humanist values and ‘modern’ tradition that, according to the official narrative, came under attack during the period between 1936 and 1945, even though how these societies experienced modernity has never been properly fore-grounded in the Anglophone academy.
Indeed, the communications and social theoretical research that addresses the “developed world” after World War II has barely mentioned it. Whether this is a symptom of a general, long-standing European indifference to those on the southern side of the Pyrenees or a practical consequence of relatively fewer Spanish-speakers in the mainstream English academy (see Schubert 2004), the gap in the research is wide and presents us with an opportunity to re-construct Western European “modernity” using theoretical frameworks that are related to—but substantively distinct from—the dominant Northern European traditions with which we are familiar.
I believe that the theory emanating from the losing side of the struggle against totalitarianism presents new analytical challenges for our understanding of modernity. My research program is both a communications project and, within that context, a novel approach to an intellectual and ideological history of the Spanish Civil War. Scholars have long documented the important role played by mass media, journalists, and foreign correspondents serving in Spain during the conflict, particularly as it relates to international public opinion about the Civil War. A large body of work is also available on the interplay between the different ideological factions in the conflict, especially the anarchist and communist camps (see Marichal, et al.). Yet much of this work still remains infused with a romantic sense of republicanism at the brink, and scholarship exploring the potential applications of this historical conjuncture to contemporary media studies does not exist. Central to my project will be a re-reading of the work of José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), Spain’s best-known modern philosopher. While some in philosophy, Hispanic studies, and literary circles have addressed his work, it remains virtually unexploited for its social theory and communications content. Ortega’s concept of vital reason (reason grounded in the historical “project of life”) can be applied in contemporary media studies as a less abstract, less universalistic framework for understanding modern technological society than is typical of both critical theory in the Frankfurt School tradition and in studies of the philosophy of technology.
My project will address those shortcomings: What competing theories of society did intellectuals and opinion leaders posit in the mass media circulating during the conflict? How did these differ from other Western European discourses at the time, and can they be brought to bear upon our current ideological environment? How was the experience of losing the struggle reflected in the critical work of exiled intellectuals after General Franco’s victory? How does the work of these individuals, particularly José Ortega y Gasset, differ from the Northern European critical tradition, especially the work of the Frankfurt School? While I cannot yet answer these questions, I argue that they are extraordinarily relevant to the current lines of research being explored in communications and social theory, particularly those dealing with critiques of globalization, the role of media in society, and the interplay between identity and ideology in liberal democracies.
This project’s significance lies in the ability of Ortega’s framework to connect the media, ideology, and technological society to everyday thought and the practice of citizenship—components of his “project of life.”