SPEAKING INTO THE AIR by John Durham Peters


A History of the Idea of Communication
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Guaranteed to alter your thinking about communication. Peters (Communication Studies/Univ. of Iowa) begins this delightful essay by observing that “Only moderns could be facing each other and be worried about ‘communicating’ as if they were thousands of miles apart.” For Peters, the concept of communication has evolved in tandem with its technology, leaving us chasing a moving target rather than closing in on a fixed ideal. It appears unavoidable that human beings divide the world into “me” and “not me” in distinct ways, creating both the joy of a world populated by individual personalities and the frustration of an insuperable barrier to transfers of unmodified meaning from one person to another. Intensifying the quest for “genuine” communication, whether introspectively through therapy or socially through increasingly powerful forms of media, expands our expectations along with our capabilities and can produce a crisis of communication in the midst of an information age. Peters is excellent at finding novel ways to illustrate this continuing “project of reconciling self and other.” The range of options is presented through contrasting the interactive and selective approach of Socrates (dialogue) with the one-way and all-inclusive approach of Jesus (dissemination). The essential association of communication with existence emerges in consideration of spirits and spiritualism in everything from philosophy to sÇances. The scope of communicative ambition is underlined by consideration of attempts to interact with animals and aliens. In the end, Peters concludes that the fears of isolation, which have pushed us to pursue communication as the true meeting of minds, have too often overshadowed our appreciation of what is unique. Touch, the ability to come into direct contact with another being, and time, the expression of our mortality, are “the two nonreproducible things we can share, our only guarantees of sincerity” through which we can “face the holiness and wretchedness of our finitude.” Original, erudite, and beautifully written, this book is a gem.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-226-66276-4
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1999