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Reviewed by:
  • Materialities of Communication
  • Hugh Kenner
Materialities of Communication. Edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer. Translated by William Whobrey. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. Pp. 447. $52.50 (cloth); $17.95 (paper).

Twenty-six contributors, twenty-five papers, all but five of them translated from German versions originally published in two other collections. And maybe that’s the problem. The book wasn’t envisaged till most of it had been offered, in a void of intercommunication? I don’t see that a coherent review is possible, so little has there been any pressure on the contributors to agree about which needs, voids, common knowledges, are perhaps being addressed, entered, talked about, filled, repaired. The virtue of much-maligned “subjects,” e.g. French Literature, is that they do tend to coerce such agreements.

Lacking agreement, we get sentences like “Logocentrism, to be sure, like the Cartesian ghost in the machine another skeleton in the Western closet, was nailed to the cross” (3). So a ghost can be a skeleton, and a skeleton can be crucified (and “Cartesian” is a sort of smear because the “ghost in the machine” phrase was originated as late as 1949 in Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind), and as for “Western,” don’t tell me they’ve no such spooks in Singapore . . . . I’m quoting from an introductory essay by one of the editors (Pfeiffer), to which I’d turned hoping to learn something about the book’s scope. Much tempted, I’ll now spare you further clunkers.

The contents? Four sections. (1) On Media and History; examples, Hieroglyphics, Print, Nietzsche’s Typewriter. (2) Sounds, Colors, and their Nonsemantic Functions; examples, “Dissonance” in Music, Rhythm and Meaning, Cy Twombly’s Straying Signs. (3) Embodiments and the Limits of Signification; examples, Travel Writing (“My traveling is an event of the pen”), The Body Thinks: The Immune System and the Process of Somatic Individuation. (4) Communication Systems and their Discontents; examples, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Talking about AIDS, A Farewell to Interpretation. [End Page 192]

Not a Book, it’s more like a random hand-grasp. You’ll have to browse. Myself, I was especially arrested by the immune system analogy. Since it can’t know the Bad Bugs till it’s met them, but meeting them is fatal, we need a better analogy than the Cool Gunman. “The dance between the immune system and the body . . . allows the body to maintain an ever-changing and plastic identity over the course of its life throughout various confrontations. The establishment of the system’s identity is a positive task and not a reaction against antigens” (282). So the immune system has “a learning mechanism” (282). Just so, well-taught poetry students learn both how to reject and how to embrace.

Hugh Kenner
University of Georgia, Athens

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pp. 192-193
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