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Reviewed by:
  • The Materialities of Communication
  • Eric Dean
The Materialities of Communication, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer; xvi & 447pp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994, $52.50 cloth, $17.95 paper.

In closing this collection, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht outlines the common purpose which makes it more than a random assortment. There has been, as he characterizes it, a theoretical shift in the humanities “from interpretation as identification of given meaning-structures to the reconstruction of those processes through which structures of articulated meaning can at all emerge” (p. 398). He motivates this shift by suggesting that theorists should no longer pursue final and therefore unchanging explanations, but rather should create provocations for changes in perspective. Focusing on the processes through which meaning can emerge—the materialities of communication rather than the insubstantialities of interpretation—stimulates the constant change, the perpetual “renegotiation of self-reference,” which Gumbrecht recommends as the rightful role of theory.

The breadth of these ambitions is reflected in the scope of the collection. There are twenty-five essays from twenty-six writers, predominately German, including two from each editor—a context piece and a separate contribution. The range of subjects is enormous. There is one essay on ancient Egyptian signs and another on how the immune system creates the self it both recognizes and preserves. One touches on Nietzsche’s abortive attempt to save his eyesight by using an early version of the typewriter, another interprets the fall of the Roman Empire as the corruption of the postal system (Egyptian in origin) used to deliver the command, imperium, which constituted the Empire in the first place. The scholarly contexts range widely as well—from sociological communication theory to media history to biology to art criticism.

There are some delightful curiosities the writers bring to light. For example, at one point in “The Early History of German Television,” the authors, M. Elsner, T. Muller, and P. Spangenberg are describing how fantasies about the new technology outran practicalities. They cite an illustration from a 1928 German magazine in which a man is shown lying in bed, “with a fragmented dashboard in front of him—he seems to steer some technical apparatus and, at the same time, to look at a mountain panorama, which is seen from a bird’s eye view on a kind of projection screen. The caption deciphers the illustration for us: ‘Marvels that we might still experience: viewing the world from bed through [End Page 395] television. The apparatus above the bed serves to operate, by remote control, an airplane that carries the filming apparatus . . .’” (p. 117).

In other places too the writing evades the risk of self-absorption implicit, for all its purportedly exterior focus, in Gumbrecht’s theoretical project. Vivian Sobchack, for instance, closes an interesting meditation on film and electronic technologies this way: “Within the context of this material and technological crisis of the flesh, one can only hope that the hysteria and hyperbole surrounding it is strategic—and that through it the lived-body has, in fact, managed to reclaim its existence and against our attention, to forcefully argue for simulation. For there are other subjects of electronic culture out there who prefer the simulated body and a virtual world . . .” (pp. 105–6).

By the end, though, I found myself wondering whether it was really possible to put this diversity together as a whole, whether the purportedly redeeming concreteness of a program focused on The Materialities of Communication wasn’t at odds with the idea that there is much in common among all these different materials. Coeditor K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, may have inadvertently provided the epigraph for the book. “Iago incites Othello to the greatest nonsense,” he writes, “because Othello no longer differentiates between manipulated sensual certainty and credibility” (p. 59). I wonder about a theoretical perspective that calls Othello’s torment his “nonsense,” and I wonder whether the advocates of such a perspective might not be manipulating sensual certainty to perhaps equally bleak, though in this case unintended, ends.

Eric Dean
Chicago, Illinois

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pp. 395-396
Launched on MUSE
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