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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 the central mystery of our age. Having replaced oracles with cognitive neurotransmitters, rituals with psychotherapy, loyalty to the crown with brand loyalty, we circumambulate the temple of Media, mouthing her latest hits, fearful that we somehow do not "get it."

What "it" there is to "get," how it is gotten, and how it comes to mean something are fundamental questions in modern science. Yet as John Durham Peters writes in Speaking Into the Air, "only since the late 19th century have we defined ourselves in terms of our ability to communicate with one another" (1). Peters continues: "'Communication' is one of the characteristic concepts of the twentieth century" (1). So characteristic that as Peters throws open the dusty curtains of standard media history in this powerful piece of scholarship, he reveals the problem of communication lurking at the center of nearly every intellectual enterprise in Western history. For Peters, "'communication,' whatever it might mean, is not a matter of improved writing or freer self-disclosure but involves a permanent kink in the human condition" (29).

In the book’s 271 pages, Peters, an Associate Professor in Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, manages to survey and parse over two thousand years of philosophy, religion, and culture, beginning with Plato's "Phaedrus," and ending with Stalin, everywhere finding "the pervasive sense that communication is always breaking down" (1). From Marxists, Freudians, existentialists, feminists, anti-imperialists, sociologists, and philosophers of language, Peters exposes the subtle differences of meaning given to the idea of communication in major works. From Wittgenstein to Woolf, from Bacon to Beckett, from Morse to McLuhan, he finds threads of dispute and agreement, all the while demonstrating how fundamental is communication, and the idea of communication itself.

Peters begins with his conclusion: "The ultimate futility of our attempts to 'communicate' is not lamentable; it is a handsome condition" (31). Later in the book, he continues: "Because we can share our mortal time and touch only with some and not all, presence becomes the closest thing there is to a guarantee of a bridge across the chasm. In this we directly face the holiness and wretchedness of our finitude" (271).

In his melancholy romanticism, Peters hews closely to the received story of Western civilization and philosophy. He begins with the Greeks, and quickly moves on to the Gospels. Peters notes: "Nominating Plato as a source of communication theory might have been simply an act of grasping for a noble lineage if the Phaedrus were not so astoundingly relevant for understanding the age of mechanical reproduction" (36). Noting Eric Havelock's argument that Plato writes at the cusp of a dying world of orality, Peters calls the Phaedrus "much more than a compendium of anxieties about technology's effects on human intercourse" (36).

And this marks a crucial turn, for to begin with Greece is to ignore thousands of years of writing from Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China, including poetry and books concerned with communication among humans, spirits, and gods. To the Egyptians, words clearly had demonstrable power, and their veracity was a serious matter, in this world as in the next. The ancient world, too, was literate, and the source of the fundamental ideas in the Gospels, such as the concept of the soul, and its communications, which Peters discusses at great length (Budge, 1967; Goedicke, 1970).

Peters titles his next chapter "History of an Error: The Spiritualist Tradition." From the early Christian vision of soul-to-soul communion to Locke's first sustained philosophical use of the term "communication," Peters traces the roots of semiotic theory to Augustine, ending with Mesmerism and Upton Sinclair's "Mental Radio" (1930). But if the Spiritualist Tradition is an error, it is an error which was firmly defined and communicated by the time of the Old Kingdom and the pyramid builders.

Beyond Egypt, the pre-historical world is steadily yielding its secrets in vast numbers of astronomically oriented monuments and earthworks, and in fabulously sophisticated cave art. While not literate, these societies clearly had communication, and therefore had theories and protocols of communication, not least of which was astrology, which postulated a universal communication of symbols and information (De Santillana & von Dechen, 1969), not unlike the modern concept of the semiosphere (Lotman, 1990). So Peters, in a sense, repeats the Greeks in failing to fully acknowledge the background of their philosophical inquiries.

This is certainly not a criticism, for such is the Story of Western Civilization, as redacted and communicated by generations of academic and religious authorities. Peters goes on to discuss Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard, before arriving at the question of Dialogues with the Dead, and Dead Letters. "The notion that the mails involve delivery of a private, specifically addressed message was late in evolving," he writes, an assertion which must surprise the souls of ancient merchants and kings, who maintained lively personal dialogs across the Middle East, trading threats, goods and negotiating treaties (165).

Peters eventually concludes that "communication is a risky adventure without guarantees. To the question, How can we know we have really communication? there is no ultimate answer besides a pragmatic one that our subsequent actions seem to act in some kind of concert . . . As Charles Sanders Peirce puts it, 'A
sign is objectively general, in so far as, leaving its effective interpretation indeterminate, it surrenders to the interpreter the right of completing the determination for himself'"(267).

So the romantic Peters, in the end, gives way to semiotic theory, which brings us full circle to subjects given short shrift in his first chapter: cognitive science, information theory, thermodynamics. Although Peters notes that "communication is always breaking down," he does not connect entropy with the problem of communication. The index lists Claude Shannon only three times, has no entry for entropy, cognition, or shamanism, or even Buddhism, a tradition profoundly concerned with the transmission of ideas, as witnessed by the standard opening line, "Thus have I heard…" There are no entries for complex adaptive systems, networks, gossip, or nationalism.

"Communication," Peters notes, "is more basically a political and ethical problem than a semantic or psychological one . . . We ought to be less worried about how signs arouse divergent meanings than the conditions that keep us from attending to our neighbors and other beings different from us" (269). But these conditions clearly result from communication and its breakdown. Desperately exploring humanistic solutions, he cannot escape his subject. Exactly how are politics and ethics communicated?

Peters delivers what he promised: a history of the idea of communication. But this is a history drawn from the narrow path of received European intellectual history. You will not find the Mongol hordes defeating Eastern Europe due to their superior communications (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1995). Nor will you find the first printed book (British Library), or the great sagas of the pre-literate world. But you will find many fascinating citations from the pantheon of familiar European thinkers. This is a fascinating book, and you will profit from owning it.

Arquilla, John J. & Ronfeldt, D. F. (1995). Cyberwar and Netwar: New Modes, Old Concepts, of Conflict.

British Library, Or. 8210/P.2. The Diamond Sutra of 868AD.

Budge, E.A. Wallis. (1967). The Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Papyrus of Ani), Egyptian Text, Transliteration and Translation. New York: Dover Publications Reprint.

De Santillana, G., & von Dechen, H. (1969). Hamlet's Mill. Boston: Harvard Common Press.

Hans Goedicke, Hans. (1970). The Report About the Dispute of a Man with His Ba: Papyrus Berlin, 3024. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lotman, Y. M. (1990). Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Malcolm Dean:
Based in Los Angeles, Malcolm Dean wrote the first history of film censorship in Canada. He is currently researching two books on cognition, communication, culture and religion.  <malcolmdean@runbox.com>

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