National image in the age of fragmentation

Since the 1990s, with the development and the spread of the Internet technology, human beings have entered the Age of Information. One of the most prominent features of the Age of Information is what is often termed “fragmentation.” As pointed out by the celebrated American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler in his The Third Wave, this is the age of fragmentation, characterized by the fragmentation of the information, the fragmentation of the audience and the fragmentation of the media. In this era of highly developed Internet information, fewer and fewer people would be willing to purchase a newspaper or a magazine just for the sake of reading a particular article, or wait in front of the television in order to learn about a latest event that makes the news. The way in which information is provided on the Internet makes it much easier and much more convenient to have access to information. Such revolutionary changes in the way information is communicated have significantly undermined conventional media’s channels of information dissemination. In addition, information communication based on online communities is burgeoning. However, the fact is that, despite this massive amount of online information, the information is distributed in a fragmentary and random manner. In particular, the community of younger generation can have access to an infinite variety of information sources ranging from portal websites, social media and blogs to forums which allow them to complete their information selection and acceptance through an act of reading which is akin to that of consuming the fast food. The development of the microblog and WeChat in China has further contributed to the information dissemination in a fragmented fashion.

Alvin Toffler once remarked, “An information bomb is exploding in our midst, showering us with a shrapnel of images and drastically changing the way each of us perceives and acts upon our private world.”3 As the information in our modern society becomes increasingly complicated and diversified and as the application of new media technology has introduced increasing fragmentation into the way information is communicated and received, for the audience, the sources of information have become increasingly diversified. It is now virtually impossible to have access to effective and comprehensive information from any single source. Rather, one tends to integrate all the information from a multitude of sources in order to develop an overall judgment. For example, in 2011, a major earthquake happened in Japan. The information that the majority of people received came from social media, microblog, information transmissions from mobile phones, portal websites and even video websites. Such a diversity of information sources created different information contents which ultimately formed a network of information in the mind of the audience concerning the earthquake in Japan. By combing and integrating all the information, people came to arrive at an overall impression about that major earthquake that happened in Japan.

The changes in the way information is transmitted have, in the meantime, also brought about changes in people’s cognitive process - the gradual piecing together of fragmented items of information has come to characterize the entire process of information reception. Based on this principle, we can infer that a person’s understanding about the image of a particular nation is also fragmentary, filled with sensory impressions. The understanding is based on the knowledge and information about a particular facet of that nation and it is a process of assembling and assimilating fragmentary information which is then reorganized into a whole. This process is also a process of semiotic cognition. Based on the hypothesis of the theory of symbolic interactionism, the American semiologist George Herbert Blumer demonstrated that the image of the organizational behavior is produced as a result of the “continuous” interactions among multiple units of symbols. This is because information determines the formation of signs, but the source symbol governs the formation and the transformation of the image.4 This is what happens when we talk about the United States. Whenever we mention the United States, we tend to associate the United States as a country with the heroes in the Hollywood blockbusters and with their heroic ideals and deeds of saving the world. This would convince us that the United States is a country of optimism, vigor and vitality, a country of freedom. This principle of association also applies to France. Whenever we mention France, we often associate it with a delicious and grand French-styled dinner, plus mellow grape wine. This would lead us to conclude that France is a country of romance and leisure. In the process of communication, some fragmentary appearances would be accorded an indexical, typical significance, a significance which enable those appearances to acquire a strong metaphorical and symbolic dimension. As a result, the discrete and individual phenomena come to be generalized and, through the metonymic mechanism, are turned into universal generic cases. The image of an individual as the other is also generalized into the typical image of a group as the other. As a result, when perceiving a single or an individual image, people are directed, on the basis of the presumed meaning, to the group image that this individual image represents.5 As a matter of fact, such a fragmentary way of perception is also the kind of relationship constructed by the metalanguage based on the equivalence principle of metonymy. Such a relationship would gradually become finalized and fixed in people’s minds, leading to a mode of perception in which one thing is made to stand for another and the part is made to represent the whole.

According to the gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, everybody perceives things in accordance with certain principles of organization, including the holistic and closure tendency, which refers to “the most holistic form that the perceptual impression presents in accordance with the environment.”6 It implies that, in perceiving things, all the senses of a person have the strong tendency to automatically make holistic what is incomplete. “This holistic disposition indicates that there is a tendency of inference in the perceiver’s psychology, that is, to try to make a form which is incomplete and which has a gap to seem psychologically complete. That is what is called the closure disposition.”7 Although this theory in gestalt psychology primarily uses people’s perception of configurations as illustrations, such a perceptual system also exists in the process of mankind’s understanding about other objects. It informs man’s entire cognitive system. In our social intercourses, the impressions that other people form about us tend to come from their integration of various details that they pick up. They form complete impressions by expanding their cognition from the part to the whole. As a matter of fact, this principle also remains valid for people who develop their impressions about a given nation. For the majority of people, it is impossible for them to go personally to that particular country to form their understanding about it. People’s knowledge about that country comes, almost always, from the interpretation and the judgment of discrete items of information. People tend to construct and improve their understanding about the overall image of a nation on the basis of certain media coverage, the occurrence of a specific event, or even a story re-narrated by someone else. In this way, a complete impression comes to be developed. According to gestalt psychologists, the things perceived by an individual are larger than what that individual actually witnesses with his physical eyes. In any human experience of the physical phenomena, every component part of the experience is related to other parts and the reason why each part is unique and special lies exactly in the fact that it is correlated with other parts in one way or another.8 According to this theory, our perception of the whole consisting of all the individual parts is always larger than the individual parts themselves, thus conforming to the principle that a perceived object is always larger than what one actually sees with his or her eyes. The reason for this is that, in our subconscious, we are always aware that every individual component is somehow “connected with other components.”

Based on the foregoing analysis, we believe that the so-called national image is an audience’s comprehensive impression about a particular nation, which is the result of the integrated communication based on fragmentary information and individual icons.

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