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Author: Stuart D. Hobbs
Title: John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2001

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Source: John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication
Stuart D. Hobbs

vol. 4, no. 1, April 2001
Article Type: Book Review

John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

Stuart D. Hobbs

  • Peters, John Durham.  Speaking into the Air:   A History of the Idea of Communication.  Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 1999.  X + 293 pp.  Appendix, index.  $26.00 / £18.50 (cloth), ISBN 0-226-66276-4.  $16.00 / £10.50 (paper), ISBN 0-226-66277-2

John Durham Peters, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa, has written an iconoclastic essay on communication that challenges conventional ideas on the topic.  He rejects the therapeutic and technological models that dominate the field in favor of a pragmatic vision in which the goal of communication is not limited to the successful transmission of interior feelings or ideas but is the creation of the beloved community.

Peters' history is very much in the history of ideas mode.  He does not use the jargon of postmodern literary theory, and in that sense, the work will no doubt strike some as old-fashioned.  Certainly, in the early chapters, in which he picks a few essential texts from famous figures and discusses them at length, the work seems straight-out of the back issues of the Journal of the History of Ideas.  The first chapter, for example, presents an extended discussion of Plato's Phaedrus contrasted with a selection Jesus's parables.  This chapter is less about history and more about setting the rhetorical stage for the rest of his argument.  Among the other notables Peters discusses are Augustine, Locke, Hegel, and Marx.  His discussion of Hegel has the virtue of being perhaps the clearest explanation of that notoriously abstract philosopher's thought I have encountered.  Peters views Hegel through the lens of pragmatism, however, leading me to suspect that other interpreters may not accept or even recognize this Hegel.

Peters hits his stride when he gets off the beaten path.  In a fascinating section, Peters reveals the parallel developments of telegraphy, phonography, and spiritualism.  The technologies of the communications revolution enabled communication at a distance, both of space (in the case of telegraphy) and of time (in the case of phonography) that was strikingly similar to the spiritualist quest to communicate with the dead.  Journalists referred to the rappings of the Fox sisters as a "spiritual telegraph" while the alternate name of mediums, human channeler (i.e., a channeler of messages between the living and the dead), gave broadcasters the term "channel."

In a wonderfully iconoclastic section, Peters makes Herman Melville's famously taciturn character, Bartelby, a hero of communication (157-160).  Bartelby, it will be remembered, was a copyist in a lawyer's office who suddenly took to answering all requests with "I would prefer not to."  When pressed to enter into a dialogue about what was bothering him, he said, "I would prefer not to."  Perhaps surprisingly for a communication theorist, Peters cheers Bartelby's uncommunicative communication.  For Peters is a genuine pluralist.  He values a person's right to silence as much as his or her right to communicate.  Dialogue is fine, Peters says, in a swipe at therapeutic ideas, but if it refuses to accept the rejection of dialogue it becomes a tyranny:  "Dialogue's supposed moral nobility can suffocate those who prefer not to play along" (159).

Readers of this journal will be curious about what Peters says about computers and communication.  Actually, he says very little.  One reason he does not engage recent debates very deeply is because, he maintains, the debating points have already been stated.  The positions staked out about communicating through the Internet are not different from those outlined in the past.  Indeed, Peters' key purpose is to suggest a new way of looking at communication in general that moves us beyond the past (though it is, as we shall see, a view rooted in history).  For example, in a discussion of radio, he points out that practitioners originally conceived of the medium as a means of point to point communication and as such a "public forum in which everyone could take part" (208).  This understanding of radio as a tool for expanding democracy paralleled much early discussion about the Internet.  Radio, of course, came into its own as a commercial broadcast medium.  By the late 1990s most talk and enthusiasm about the Internet centered on ".com's," suggesting a similar trajectory for computer communication from a tool with potential for civic betterment to commercialism.

Peters reserves special contempt (albeit genial contempt, for Peters is invariably irenic in tone) for the Turing Test.  Computer scientist Alan M. Turing, it will be recalled, set the agenda for artificial intelligence research with his model of a "game" in which a person in one room communicates through a keyboard with someone or something in another room.  Turing defined the goal to create a machine so "intelligent" that a person could not tell whether he or she was communicating with a human or a machine.  "This," says Peters, "is a fantasy of communication without bodies" (234).  He notes that Cambridge University, where Turing worked, was "the historical center of interest in the ether and psychical research in England" (234); artificial Intelligence and spiritualism are linked in surprising ways.  He implies that Turing's own anxieties about living in a homosexual body in a homophobic society led him to privilege disembodied intelligence over a fuller appreciation of embodied humanity.

Peters' concern with the physical (as opposed to the psychical) properties of communication is the key to his answer to the "problem" of communication.  For almost all thinkers about the topic focus on communication as a problem.  For communication theorists, the central issue to overcome is the "failure to communicate" as the tag line from Cool Hand Luke has it (and which is quoted once, as is probably obligatory for books of this kind and then, mercifully, not belabored).  For Peters, the failure to communicate is the starting point for real communication.  "That we can never communicate like the angels [i.e., perfectly]," he says, citing William James, "is a tragic fact, but also a blessed one" (29).  Because interpretation is always necessary between communicators, there is the "possibility of interaction" (268). "The question should be," he concludes, "not Can we communicate with each other?  But Can we love one another or treat each other with justice and mercy?"(268).  Peters says we should accept our finitude, the reality of pluralism, and the opaqueness of language rather than search for perfectionism in dialogue or precise forms of expression.  Indeed, Peters says "most of the time we understand each other quite well; we just do not agree" (269).  Peters rejects idealist notions in favor of accepting an imperfect world and pragmatically seizing the opportunities provided by that imperfection.  The heroes of this book are John Dewey, Charles Sanders Peirce and James (as well as Bartleby, Søren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges, students of "imperfect" communications).  Peters' work can be seen as a part of the revival of pragmatism launched by, among others historian Robert Westbrook and philosopher Richard Rorty (only the latter is cited here, and only in passing).

What seems clear to me from Peters' analysis is that the idea of "communication" is the contingent historical outgrowth of individualist, technological modernism.  Solipsism is the great fear of communication theorists, who, along with idealist philosophers, imagine individuals isolated in private rooms trying to reach out to others in similar private rooms and wonder how communication is possible.  This model seems to have gained currency among philosophers as the European bourgeoisie actually experienced the solitude of private rooms.  Such privacy was all but unknown in rural and village life, and even in bourgeois culture, private bedrooms for each child, for example, are largely a twentieth century development.  What Peters hints at but does not fully develop, is that the "problem of communication" is the unintended consequence of privacy and individualism as developed in the last two hundred years.  The social history of communication is an issue that Peters could profitably have developed, and one can only hope that in future he will turn his iconoclastic eye to that topic.

Stuart D. Hobbs

Ohio Historical Society