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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 795-796

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Book Review

Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication

Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. By John Durham Peters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Pp. x+293; appendixes, notes/references, index. $26.

To John Durham Peters, "communication" is not a singular process, idea, or set of givens, but a "pathos-drenched question" haunting Western culture (p. 244). In the modern era, Eros--the Platonic yearning for human contact measured through a pure meeting of the minds--has competed with the "suspicion that each of us dwells in a heart-shaped box" (p. 179). Communication technologies fortify desires to reconcile self and other, but experience and human history suggest that this must remain a dream deferred. Speaking into the Air argues that communication studies must move beyond binaries of communication vs. miscommunication, utopia vs. dystopia, and bridges vs. chasms, which are embedded within communication theories of the 1920s (propaganda; semantic reform; modernist/solipsist; social constructivist; pragmatist) and the post-World War II period (information theory and therapeutic/psychological models). Accepting the "felicitous impossibility of contact" as a revelation of difference, and a gift rather than a rebuff, can help us remake our shared world and ourselves.

The idea of "communication" emerged from a late-Victorian cultural milieu combining spiritual mysticism, scientific experimentation, and popular fascination with the communion of souls, the converse of angels, and messages exchanged with the dead. Modern modes of communication--photographs, phonographs, telephones, radios--transcended space and time to produce "a new kind of quasi-physical connection across the obstacles of time and space" (p. 5). In a culture fascinated with paranormal phenomena, these technologies produced new sites for the ghostly presence of disembodied others, and stirred reflection on the mysterious channels of communication. Speaking Into the Air reveals the irony surrounding new technologies of communication that reactivated primal doubts about mind/body splits and communication chasms.

Peters's argument builds upon a rich tradition within American studies and the cultural history of technology whose exemplars range from Leo Marx and John Kasson to Carolyn Marvin and Susan J. Douglas. The introduction and chapters 2, 4, 5, and 6 analyze the emergence of cultural and scientific beliefs of communication processes and effects from the seventeenth [End Page 795] century to the twentieth century. They focus particularly on the idea of communication in the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century United States. These chapters wonderfully situate "communication" within the evocative discourse of technology in American culture. Chapters 1 and 3 offer textual analysis of Plato, the New Testament, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, and Emerson, among others. These readings thoughtfully regroup these philosophical writings around the "problem of communication" in Western thought.

The effect of splitting the book's chapters between an account of America's cultural, technological, and scientific engagement with communication and technology at a specific point in time and close readings of philosophical texts demonstrates Peters's breadth and creative resourcefulness as a scholar. Each chapter is rich in insight and ideas drawing effectively on specialized secondary sources. Each permits a reader to engage the more narrowly historical or the philosophical elements of the book with ease. On balance, however, the partitioning of the book does not allow a satisfying synthesis of its historical and discursive methodologies. One senses one book that wishes it were two.

A second issue is that the introduction promises to "illuminate with some precision the questions--virtual reality, cloning, cyborgs, and global ethernets--facing us at the turn of the millennium" (pp. 3-4). Yet the story breaks off suddenly with radio, and vaults over the bulk of the twentieth century with only scattered stops along the way. A few allusions to the Internet dot the book, but the omission of television, video, and other communications technologies is never explained. Nor is any reference made to the extraordinary social and cultural transformation of the United States between 1930 and the present that generated ferment in the field of communication research...


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