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Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

Author: John Durham Peters
Publisher: Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999
Review Published: February 2004

 REVIEW 1: Scott Campbell
 REVIEW 2: Christopher Lucas
 REVIEW 3: Malcolm Dean

In Speaking into the Air, John Durham Peters shows that since the late 19th century, Western civilization's ideal of communication has been a merging of human minds in order to achieve perfect understanding -- even a union of souls that allows for perfect love. This ideal is a grand one. In fact, according to Peters, it is dangerously lofty and leads to chronic frustration and feelings that communication is continually breaking down. Peters advances the argument that, rather than thinking of communication as the union of self and other, it is more useful to regard it as the recognition of and respect for otherness. According to Peters, communication should be approached with the understanding that perfect union is impossible. That is, we will never be able to remove the "otherness" that obstructs this union (nor should we), and therefore, we ought to recognize and embrace otherness while striving for responsibility, fellowship, and empathy. Peters explains, "Communication, if taken as the reduplication of the self (or its thoughts) in the other, deserves to crash, for such an understanding is in essence a pogrom against the distinctness of human beings" (21).

The book's underlying message about the un-traversable chasm between self and other is both solipsistic and sanguine at the same time. Peters illustrates the solipsistic side when he points out,
    Our sensations and feelings are, physiologically speaking, uniquely our own. My nerve endings terminate in my own brain, not yours. No central exchange exists where I can patch my sensory inputs into yours, nor is there any sort of "wireless" contact through which to transmit my immediate experience of the world to you. (4)
Although this perspective accentuates the inherent aloneness of being alive, Peters finds an optimistic angle. Invoking principles of pragmatism, Peters notes that while language fails to completely join self and other, it is "the most reliable means of persuasion we know. Though language is a dark vessel that does not quite carry what I, as a speaking self, might think it does, it still manages to coordinate action more often than not" (21-22).

Peters develops his argument through dialectic, with dialogue (i.e., spiritual connection) on one side and dissemination (i.e., broadcasting) on the other. He uses Socrates as a vehicle for illustrating the ideal of communion through dialogue and Jesus as a means for explicating the merits of dissemination as model for communication. Peters explains that "Socrates sketches an ideal of communication that retains force to this day: souls intertwined with reciprocity" (43). Socrates' predilection for complete connection through dialogue is perhaps most visible in his critical evaluation of writing as a means of communication. In the Phaedrus, Socrates criticized the written word because he found it incapable of supporting the reciprocity needed for true love. In addition, Socrates warned that written messages can easily be distorted and may reach recipients for whom they are not intended. For Socrates, communication should be regarded as a form of communion that is highly intimate and selective, and dialogue is the only way this can be achieved.

Jesus' parable of the sower serves as a model for an alternate ideal of communication -- dissemination. The sower broadcasts seeds everywhere. While most of those seeds do not fall on receptive soil, they are distributed widely without concern for selectivity. Like these seeds, Jesus' message is also scattered widely, available for harvesting by anyone with open ears. Peters explains, "In a mighty display of self-reflexive dissemination, Jesus concludes, Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!" (51).

Peters argues for dissemination over dialogue because the latter is doomed to disappoint while the former is more democratic. According to Peters, "the parable of the sower celebrates broadcasting as an equitable mode of communication that leaves the harvest of meaning to the will and capacity of the recipient." He further notes, "Though much is thrown, little is caught. And the failure of germination is not necessarily something to lament" (52). In other words, one-way communication is not necessarily bad. Peters illustrates this perspective with the concept of gift giving, reminding us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

While the core message of Speaking into the Air is a call for a change in our mental model for communication, Peters does not completely abandon dialogue. He explains, "A life without individuated interaction (dialogue) would lack love; one without generalized access (dissemination) would lack justice" (59). His warning is that without the principles of hospitality, forgiveness, and love, reciprocity can be just as harmful as it can be helpful to the communication process.

Although the notion of communication as soul-connecting dialogue did not take root until the late 19th century, Peters traces the intellectual history of this ideal back to the ideas of Saint Augustine from early Christianity and John Locke from British empiricism. While their writings are situated in vastly different contexts, both Augustine and Locke bemoaned the fact that all of our thoughts and experiences are fundamentally private. We communicate to share with others, but we cannot share our thoughts and experiences directly because they are mediated by signs and symbols, mere proxies for what is in our minds. Augustine and Locke dreamed of a communion of spirits, allowing for people to see into each other's hearts and minds. According to Peters, these dreams helped feed the notion of dialogue as a paragon for communication because of Augustine's influence on intellectual history and Locke's role as an architect of the structure of the English language. In fact, Locke was one of the first to use the term "communication."

According to Peters, the dream of unmediated communication is reflected by a 17th century fascination with angels. The communication of angels was regarded as pure and direct, unfiltered by the obstacles of the flesh. Peters suggests that the removal of these obstacles became a driving force behind modern communication technologies. Peters points out that telecommunication was anticipated as early as 1641 by Bishop John Wilkins, who wrote a book expressing ambition for privacy and speed in communication across long distances. Wilkins regarded bodily instruments, such as eyes and ears, as tortoiselike compared to the direct connections made by angels, and noted that angels were also free from the hindrances of time and distance. This ambition for pure communication appears in Katz and Aakhus' (2002) Apparatgeist Theory, advanced to explain patterns in adoption and usage of mobile phones and other personal communication technologies. According to Katz and Aakhus, these patterns are influenced by a desire for the pure communication discussed in Peters' book.

Peters transitions from the 17th century anticipation of telecommunication to the influence of 19th century spiritualism on the ideal of dialogue. Peters links a proliferation of spiritual activities in the 19th century to a "romantic mist" surrounding discourses of communication during the time. Practices such as mesmerism, hypnosis, and séance became prevalent as people searched for new ways to overcome the barriers to pure and direct communication. However, these practices were not embraced by all. Peters explains, "The state of being in mesmeric unity with another could be not only a vision of mental harmony but also a nightmare of loss of self to another's will" (89). Peters points out that deep suspicions of hypnotic control have re-appeared in criticisms of the "spell that dictators and admen cast on their audiences via film, radio, and television" (93-94). Nineteenth Century spiritualism is the beginning of a long history of innovations that invoke "the dreams of angels and mesmerism, without . . . being able to satisfy them" (103).

The inability of technology to satisfy dreams of angels is a major theme in the book. Peters provides several examples for how new ways of recording and transmitting offer opportunities for communication breakdown from a dialogic perspective. Distance and death are two major obstacles that 19th century communication innovations were designed to overcome. The telegraph, and its subsequent cousins the telephone, radio, and facsimile, managed to overcome the barrier of distance, yet fell short of attaining pure connection because they transmit only duplications of the self, coined "phantasms of the living" (141). The phonograph made strides toward communication with the dead through recording, but again it only offered a duplication that repeated itself over and over, never available for reciprocal dialogue. The shortcomings of new media to bring us closer to an angelic form of communication highlighted "the futility of the effort to commune spiritually with beings who can only be read hermeneutically" (143).

Peters explores the ideas of many thinkers in his historical journey through the meaning of communication. For example, Peters contends that Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard opened new doors for thinking about public and private spheres of meaning. The writings of Marx and Kiekegaard could be applied to the viewpoint that public meaning is corrupt. Hegel offered a different perspective when he advanced the tenet that the self requires recognition of the other in order to exist.

Hegel's principle lies at the heart of Peters’ call for a re-thinking of the meaning of communication. Peters argues that we are constantly seeking recognition of ourselves when communicating with others, and that we are let down when we see other instead of self. Speaking into the Air is a pragmatic, interesting, and well-grounded plea for a view of communication that values recognition and respect for otherness. Peters asserts, "The other, not the self, should be the center of whatever 'communication' might mean" (265).

Treating reciprocal dialogue as unique rather than ideal places mass and mediated communication in a new and much more positive light. It even offers new opportunities for the way we think about and treat animals. Communication as dialogue with animals is considered impossible because of how different they are from us. However, viewing communication as recognition of those differences makes the impossible possible, which could lead to a greater sense of humanity and empathy.

Speaking into the Air would be a useful book to include in a course examining communication technologies. As noted, there is a direct theoretical connection between the 17th century notion of pure communication and Katz and Aakhus' Apparatgeist Theory. There are indirect links that can be established to theories of other communication technologies as well. For example, the desire for pure connection resonates with Short, Williams, and Christie's (1976) theory of Social Presence, Sproull and Kiesler's (1986) lack of social context cues hypothesis, and Daft and Lengel's (1984, 1986) Media Richness Theory. Together, these theories are regarded as the cues-filtered-out perspective (Culnan & Markus, 1987) because they attribute less personal communication in mediated settings to a lack of nonverbal information. Media richness theory views face-to-face interaction as the standard when considering the richness capacity of other media. With a focus on psychological closeness, this theory and the others mentioned here bear consistencies with the ideal of dialogue. The intersections among Speaking into the Air and theories and research of new media would make excellent topics of discussion in a graduate course.

Overall, Peters' Speaking into the Air is a valiant and well-researched effort to change the way we think about communication. One criticism may be that it is laden with religious history, metaphors, and characters. However, religion has played an important role in shaping our perceptions of communication, and Peters does a brave job of not shying away from these influences in his exploration of the history of the idea of communication in Western society. This book offers valuable insights that can be harnessed in teaching and research of communication theory, new communication technologies, and new media.

Culnan, M.J., & Markus, M.L. (1987). Information technologies. In F.M. Jablin, L.L. Putnam, K.H. Roberts, & L.W. Porter (Eds.), Handbook of organizational communication (pp. 420-444). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Daft, R.L., & Lengel, R.H. (1984). Information richness: A new approach to managerial behavior and organization design. In L.L. Cummings & B.M. Staw (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior (Vol. 6, pp. 191-233). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Daft, R.L., & Lengel, R.H. (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science, 32, 544-571.

Katz, J.E., & Aakhus, M.A. (2002). Perpetual contact: Mobile communication, private talk, public performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: Wiley.

Sproull, L., & Kiesler, S. (1986). Reducing social context cues: Electronic mail in organizational communication. Management Science, 32, 1492-1512.

Scott Campbell:
Scott Campbell is an assistant professor in the College of Communication, Hawaii Pacific University. He is currently investigating cultural differences in perceptions and uses of mobile telephony and non-normative uses of mobile phones in public settings. Scott is also writing a book about theoretical and cultural implications of new communication technologies. Scott reviewed Perpetual Contact for RCCS.  <SCamp10343@aol.com>

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