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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

"Communication is a trouble we are stuck with," John Durham Peters writes in his 1999 book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (263). The prevailing tone of what we might call cheerful fatalism is perhaps the most interesting aspect in this idiosyncratic text. On the first college term paper I ever prepared, the professor wrote a margin note that has stayed with me: "Your discussion is a strange mix of optimism and pessimism." I remember the note vividly, not only because it was the first I had received from a professor, but also because I did not know how to interpret it. Was that positive or negative? Should I feel proud or abashed? Instead of pursuing the matter, I filed the comment away in my mind like a worry stone where it resides to this day. So, it was with an unfolding sense of curiosity that I read Speaking into the Air and began to realize: this discussion is a strange mix of optimism and pessimism.

Communication, as a concept and discipline, is a trouble that has stuck with John Durham Peters for many years. Although much of his work has centered on the role of mass communication studies within the field of communications, Peters returns in this work to his long-standing concerns about communication itself. In 1986, in an admittedly provocative article, Peters calls for the field to "acknowledge the conceptual uselessness of the word" (Peters, 1986, 551). His position has modulated over the years, but in Speaking into the Air he produces both a thought-provoking revisionist work on the philosophy of communication and a sustained critique of what he calls the "dream of communication," that is, the notion that most difficulties in human societies could be resolved if the right means and techniques of communication could only be found. The recognition in this assertion that every era has its "new media" fetishes is where Speaking into the Air will most engage theorists of technology, cyberculture, and the information society. The book traces hopes and fears attached to communication by thinkers ranging from Plato to Alan Turing and institutions ranging from Christianity to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Through the centuries, Peters argues, the dream has been just that, a kind of wish fulfillment. Communication breakdowns are "a permanent kink in the human condition" (29). The "gaps of which communication is made" (as he has elsewhere described them) are not cause for dismay, however, but a "felicitous impossibility" that is the basis and occasion for all of our efforts to cooperate, compete, and otherwise, in his words, "make worlds" together (29).

Speaking into the Air will be frustrating for historians and communication scholars who value more traditional approaches. The introduction does contain an excellent capsule history of communication studies as it developed in the 20th century, from its origins as an abstract problem for political thinkers and then, as the field was institutionalized, bifurcating into "technical" and "therapeutic" discourses that took as their object cybernetics/informatics and human relations, respectively. For this section alone, the book would make a good addition to an upper division or beginning graduate student course. Otherwise, the book does not offer much original or primary material, nor does it describe any new research techniques. We can only surmise the authorís politics, since the touchstones of critical studies, race, gender, class, and so on, play no significant role in his argument. Speaking into the Air is instead an intellectual provocation. The prose is fluid and surprisingly witty; the author has a talent for the aphoristic phrase. I suspect even the most skeptical readers will find themselves reaching for a pen to write down a few pithy expressions.

The book's six main chapters are best described as a genealogy of communication, a loose rhetorical "history" with a post-structural bent, rummaging through cultural artifacts and the works of natural and political philosophers for prevailing attitudes about communication over two millennia of Western civilization. Peters is not interested in the story of communication, the word, but rather the affinities between eras, all grappling with the problem of human contact. His sources are eclectic and the net is cast wide. When the author draws upon figures as diverse as Jesus, John Locke, and Hegel, traditional rhetoricians and historians may bemoan his failure to contextualize these thinkers in their proper time and place. However, as Peters notes, he is choosing to focus on thinkers and times from centuries past, not because they were key figures in the field of communication (although after reading this book you may find that to be an error), but because, as he says, "they are good to think with" (4).

In Chapter One, "Dialogue and Dissemination," Peters picks up an argument that will be familiar to readers who know his past debates in communication journals. The "holy status" of dialogue within the discipline has been a favorite windmill for the author and others to tilt against, although, contrary to how some critics have responded, I do not think Peters would privilege "mass" over "dialogic" or any other form of communication. What he is posing is less a question to the institution of communication studies than a philosophical query to the scholars themselves or anyone who reads his words. This chapter creatively casts the query as an exchange between the ideas of Socrates and Jesus (or more precisely, the three synoptic gospels), with Socrates standing in for the ideal of fruitful dialogue (and the horror of writing and other "mediations") while the Gospels demonstrate the value and efficacy of the promiscuous dissemination of ideas. These represent the ends of the rhetorical continuum. But for Peters, the face-to-face/mediated binary is misleading if one accepts that all communication is mediated. "Face-to-face talk is as laced with gaps as distant communication" (264), he writes, not merely by the (considerable) problem of language in all its forms but by the more fundamental problem of how we as speakers can know our own selves or the fate of our attempts to communicate. Indeed, he will argue, we cannot, and the grit of this fact has kept us busy polishing our ideas about communication for centuries.

Chapters Two through Five are the heart of Speaking into the Air. The 19th century is the setting for each, the crucial period in which Peters locates the origins of modernity's vexed relationship to the concept of communication. Many writers have treated the 19th century as a turning point in the relationship between communication, culture, and modern, technological societies (see, for example, James Carey (1988), Harold Innis (1951), Stephen Kern (1983), Friedrich Kittler (1999), Carolyn Marvin (1988), Leo Marx (1964), Armand Mattelart (1996), and Jonathan Sterne (2003)). Peters acknowledges that it was not coincidental that the "dream of communication" emerged at the same moment as "new media" such as the Post Office, electric telegraph, and photography. However, Peters' approach differs from other critical works by centering on the philosophical, political, and spiritual discourses of the times and how they expressed varying attitudes toward the nascent "dream."

Chapter Two, "History of an Error," examines the spiritualist tradition (and its refined cousin psychical research) which emerged most forcefully during the Victorian era, promising the possibility of soul-to-soul communication from beyond the grave. The allure of interpersonal clarity, to speak what could not be said in person or in life, would become a hallmark of the spiritualist and psychical traditions. Yet, the author notes, whether the messages arrived by telepathy, etheric transmission, spirit photography, or cryptic messages from a sideshow medium, they were rarely conclusive or satisfying. Obstacles to communications remained.

If interpersonal drama is the subject of Chapter Two, the grand proscenium of politics is that of Chapter Three, "Toward a More Robust Vision of Spirit," which focuses on how communication preoccupied the philosophical and political discourse of Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard. Peters finds in the work of these thinkers recognition of the intractable problems of inter-subjectivity and social organization. In very different ways, he suggests, they all avoided the metaphysical excesses of spiritualism and saw that modern life would create problems that dialogue, as a "meeting of souls," could not solve.

In Chapters Four and Five, "Phantasms of the Living, Dialogues with the Dead" and "The Quest for Authentic Communication," the "new media" revolution of the 19th century receives more direct attention. The ability to send mail or record and transmit messages by telegraph, phonograph, photograph, and radio expanded and confused people's relationships to each other (whether living or dead, he notes). New media forms resulted in an unavoidable proliferation of mediations, or in Peters' colorful borrowing from Kafka, more ghosts. "Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts" (139), he writes. Extra bodies, extra images, and extra words began to populate people's lives, demanding not always to be "heard," but to be known and understood nonetheless. The result was a modern relationship to communication that is "fundamentally more interpretative than dialogic," characterized by growing anxieties about "authentic" communication (150). Peters calls for our liberation from "authenticity" and "the moral tyranny of dialogue" that is supposed to guarantee it (160). The "bridge" of authentic communication is a mirage, indicating an illusory path across the abyss we sense between self and other. By the end of the nineteenth century, Peters suggests, the successes and failures of new forms of remote contact and the spiritualist tradition had established two visions of communication that have lingered -- the promise of erasing the distance between bodies (and souls) and the threat of ultimate interiority if communication fails, a terrorizing solipsism in which every message is just a message in a bottle. For knowledgeable readers of these chapters, the Janus-face of communication will be less interesting than the continuities Peters finds between eras. This was a period, after all, when even the Post Office could be sexy. Despite the efforts of moralists such as Anthony Comstock to contain the erotic possibilities of the post, the author writes memorably, "any means to link bodies will be erotic to some degree . . . any mailbox was an orifice in the body politic capable of coming into figurative contact with any other" (173). Peters never lets us forget that communication has always been as much about the movement of bodies and desire as minds and representation.

In Chapter Six, "Machines, Animals, and Aliens," Peters traces this vision into the 20th century -- the century of cinema, television, cell phones, and the internet. Amid these new(er) media and their promises, he sees our grasping toward the dream of communication extended to the very limits of communicability, in the modern concern for the language of animals, Alan Turing's apocryphal tests of machine intelligence, and SETI. For Peters, each of these, most especially SETI, is an "allegory of faith" in which the ostensibly objective and scientific has replaced the voices of the dead sought by psychical researchers in the 19th century (249). They express the same struggle against the "pervasive sense of communication breakdown" (255). Peters seems to find a beautiful futility in these efforts, which point less to a thirst for scientific knowledge than to a desire for self-realization through contact with the ultimate other. "The huge barrier here," he writes, "is the strangeness we never see: our own faces. We haunt ourselves like aliens" (256). The argument may seem fanciful. If, however, we place the pathos of scientists reaching for communication with whales and alien races against that of families riven by violence or modern nation-states and fundamentalist Islamic groups that seem incapable of finding a common language or future, it begins to feel more trenchant. Truly, who would blame us for seeking aliens when alienation feels so intractable on the local scene? For Peters, though, there is no vinegar without honey. He rejects the pathos of communication by shining his light on the remarkable feats of making do that are everyday life. For him, there are no aliens or non-aliens, only "others" with which we have been more or less successful in our efforts to cooperate.

"The other, not the self, should be the center of whatever 'communication' might mean" (265), Peters writes in his conclusion, which is short in length and short on prescriptions for the dilemma he uncovers. At a minimum, he hopes that those who think about communication will not be blinkered by the mechanisms by which communication is attempted -- be they language, telegraph, telephone, or internet -- for until the abyss between self and other is recognized we will remain disinclined to lean toward equal opportunity empathy for the other. Communication is "sooner a matter of faith and risk than of technique and method" (30). If there are irreducible quantities in the human condition, Peters finds them in "touch" and "time." He professes that "No profession of love is as convincing as a lifetime of fidelity," and yet presence and duration are still not a bridge across the chasm between souls (271). There is no verification in communication, unless it is the feeling that we are getting along okay, for the moment. In this conclusion, Peters acknowledges his borrowing from both the optimism of the pragmatist philosophers, for whom the effort to communicate was its own reward, if not always a guarantee of success, and the pessimism of the anti-modernists, for whom the effort to communicate was just fine, so long as you didn't expect too much to come of it. For Peters, the most important qualities in communication are not success and failure. They are beyond measure: forbearance, love, and mercy for the other in his or her efforts to communicate with you.

The theorists that inform this work make uneasy bedfellows, except, as Peters acknowledges, for their shared negation of the interiority of language. In this unease, I could not help but sense the specter of Foucault, Habermas, and their legendary spats. An extended consideration of the pairing of pragmatists and anti-modernists will require a more facile theoretical mind than mine, but by trying to loose public sphere theory from its normative view of dialogue andtaking at times a rather sanguine view of power in discourse it seems to me that Peters risks losing touch with politics altogether. Not every work of cultural criticism need be political, of course, but without this discussion the book may begin to feel like a kind of placation of, rather than an alternative to, the dominant threads of communication theory. It would be interesting to see Peters try to resolve this theoretical quandary more directly, especially if the ideas of Wittgenstein were more included. The obscurantist German pops up in several places through the text and each time his assertion of uses over meaning in language, of forms of life over structure, are used in support of Peters' argument. Peters does not return to Wittgenstein in the conclusion, though. Perhaps, like others, he believes Foucault's ideas cover the same epistemological ground, but Wittgenstein, in my limited reading of him, shares an interesting affinity with Peters: his agnostic politics, his insistence on the partiality of communication, and his feeling for the puzzling fact of our getting along nonetheless.

Speaking into the Air has big ambitions, as do most revisionist projects. In fairness, I think it is a rare scholar these days who subscribes as whole-heartedly to the "dream of communication" as Peters seems to assert. Communication journals do see examples of work that is modest, particular, and pragmatic. Moreover, Peters seems to throw himself off the cliff of Romanticism at times, as in Chapter Six, which ends with an odd coda on the utopian qualities of life in a pod of dolphins. He fairly may be challenged: what of it? How does this help me write the policy, the script, or the code? Such questions may miss the point of this work. In the past, Peters has written of the need for scholars to eschew their priestly role of thinking and writing within the commandments of their chosen field and take up the role of prophet, accepting the risk of writing their own visions and speculations. In Speaking into the Air, he has taken his own advice. He comes by his ambivalence fairly, I think, recognizing that communication is part of the high stakes game of human history, a game that ends badly as often as in glory. "The face of the other is a strong force," Durham Peters writes, and one senses that by his use of the term "Force" he is not speaking politically or sociologically, but in the language of fundamental physics, of the Forces that bind (and destroy) universes. We had better get used to it: Communication is a wild card.

Carey, James. (1988). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Innis, Harold. (1951). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kern, Stephen. (1983). The Culture of Time and Space, 1800-1918. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kittler, Friedrich. (1999). Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Marvin, Carolyn. (1988). When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Electrical Communication in the late 19th Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Leo. (1964). The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mattlelart, Armand. (1996). The Invention of Communication. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Peters, John Durham. (1986) Institutional Sources of Intellectual Poverty in Communication Research. Communication Research, 13, 527-570.

Sterne, Jonathan. (2003). The Audible Past. Durham, NC: Duke Universitty Press.

Christopher Lucas:
Christopher Lucas is a PhD candidate in the Department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include electrification and rise of the culture industries, technology in U.S. media institutions, and radio and television history. He is currently working on a history of cinematographer's societies in the post-war period.  <clucas@mail.utexas.edu>

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