Speaking into the Air
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Speaking into the Air

A History of the Idea of Communication

John Durham Peters

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eBook - ePub

Speaking into the Air

A History of the Idea of Communication

John Durham Peters

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Communication plays a vital and unique role in society-often blamed for problems when it breaks down and at the same time heralded as a panacea for human relations. A sweeping history of communication, Speaking Into the Air illuminates our expectations of communication as both historically specific and a fundamental knot in Western thought."This is a most interesting and thought-provoking book.... Peters maintains that communication is ultimately unthinkable apart from the task of establishing a kingdom in which people can live together peacefully. Given our condition as mortals, communication remains not primarily a problem of technology, but of power, ethics and art." —Antony Anderson, New Scientist "Guaranteed to alter your thinking about communication.... Original, erudite, and beautifully written, this book is a gem." — Kirkus Reviews "Peters writes to reclaim the notion of authenticity in a media-saturated world. It's this ultimate concern that renders his book a brave, colorful exploration of the hydra-headed problems presented by a rapid-fire popular culture." — Publishers Weekly What we have here is a failure-to-communicate book. Funny thing is, it communicates beautifully.... Speaking Into the Air delivers what superb serious books always do-hours of intellectual challenge as one absorbs the gradually unfolding vision of an erudite, creative author." —Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer

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Informazioni

Anno
2012
ISBN
9780226922638
ONE
Dialogue and Dissemination
In certain quarters dialogue has attained something of a holy status. It is held up as the summit of human encounter, the essence of liberal education, and the medium of participatory democracy. By virtue of its reciprocity and interaction, dialogue is taken as superior to the one-way communiqués of mass media and mass culture. In 1956 the psychiatrist Joost Meerloo voiced a complaint against television that recurs like the locust with every new medium: “The view from the screen doesn’t allow for the freedom-arousing mutuality of communication and discussion. Conversation is the lost art.”1 Leo Lowenthal likewise singled out the media: “True communication entails a communion, a sharing of inner experience. The dehumanization of communication has resulted from its annexation by the media of modern culture—by the newspapers first, and then by radio and television.”2 Media, of course, have long served as scapegoats for worries, many of them quite legitimate, about unaccountable power or cultural debasement. Criticism of the media for perpetuating structural inequalities and spiritual tawdriness is both perfectly fair and urgently needed. But such criticism ought not to overlook the inequalities that exist outside media or the tawdriness that fills our hearts unbidden.
To blame media for distorting dialogue is to misplace pathos. First, media critique has bigger fish to fry: the concentrations of political economy and the inherent list to perversity in human appetites. Second, media can sustain diverse formal arrangements. It is a mistake to equate technologies with their societal applications. For example, “broadcasting” (one-way dispersion of programming to an audience that cannot itself broadcast) is not inherent in the technology of radio; it was a complex social accomplishment (see chapter 5). The lack of dialogue owes less to broadcasting technologies than to interests that profit from constituting audiences as observers rather than participants. Third and most important, dialogue can be tyrannical and dissemination can be just, as I will argue throughout this chapter. The distortion of dialogue is not only a form of abuse but one of the distinctive features of civilization, for better and for worse. Distortions of dialogue make it possible to communicate across culture, across space and time, with the dead, the distant, and the alien.
The strenuous standard of dialogue, especially if it means reciprocal speech acts between live communicators who are present to each other in some way, can stigmatize a great deal of the things we do with words. Much of culture is not necessarily dyadic, mutual, or interactive. Dialogue is only one communicative script among many. The lament over the end of conversation and the call for refreshed dialogue alike miss the virtues inherent in nonreciprocal forms of action and culture. Life with others is as often a ritual performance as a dialogue. Dialogue is a bad model for the variety of shrugs, grunts, and moans that people emit (among other signs and gestures) in face-to-face settings. It is an even worse normative model for the extended, even distended, kinds of talk and discourse necessary in large-scale democracy. Much of culture consists of signs in general dispersion, and felicitous communication—in the sense of creating just community between two or more creatures—depends more basically on imagination, liberty, and solidarity among the participants than on equal time in the conversation. Dialogue, to be sure, is one precious part of our tool-kit as talking animals, but it ought not to be elevated to sole or supreme status.
Rather than survey contemporary dialogians (a term to rhyme with theologians) and their intellectual roots—the various liberals, communitarians, Deweyans, Habermasians, radical democrats, plus occasional postmodernists and feminists (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, these) who prescribe conversation for our political and cultural woes—my plan in this chapter is to sketch a deep horizon against which to set contemporary controversies. In staging a debate between the greatest proponent of dialogue, Socrates, and the most enduring voice for dissemination, Jesus, I aim to rediscover both the subtleties of what can count as dialogue and the blessedness of nondialogic forms, including dissemination. The rehabilitation of dissemination is not intended as an apology for the commissars and bureaucrats who issue edicts without deliberation or consultation; it is to go beyond the often uncritical celebration of dialogue to inquire more closely into what kinds of communicative forms are most apt for a democratic polity and ethical life.
Socrates and Jesus are the central figures in the moral life of the Western world. Their points of contact and difference have long been debated. They were both ironists or counterquestioners; martyrs whose kingdom was not of this world; teachers from whom we possess not a single word unrefracted by the interests of their disciples; and consequently personalities whose historical actuality has aroused enormous puzzlement and interest. Both of them taught about love and the dispersion of seeds, but to different effects. “Socrates” in Plato’s Phaedrus offers one horizon of thinking about human discursive activity since then: the erotic life of dialogue. Parables attributed to “Jesus” by the synoptic Gospels provide a countervision: invariant and open dissemination, addressed to whom it may concern. These two conceptions of communication—tightly coupled dialogue and loosely coupled dissemination—continue today. The Phaedrus calls for an intimate love that links lover and beloved in a reciprocal flow; the parable of the sower calls for a diffuse love that is equally gracious to all. For Socrates, dialogue between philosopher and pupil is supposed to be one-on-one, interactive, and live, unique and nonreproducible. In the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (I take up John later), the Word is scattered uniformly, addressed to no one in particular, and open in its destiny. Socrates sees writing as troubling delivery and cultivation: his vision is sender oriented. The question for him is the care of the seeds and their proper nurturing, not what the recipient might add to the process. Jesus, in contrast, offers a receiver-oriented model in which the sender has no control over the harvest. The pervasive sense of communication disturbance in the twentieth century, I argue, finds a wellspring in the Socratic privilege of soul-to-soul connection and an antidote of sorts in Jesus’ sense of the necessary looseness of any communicative coupling.
My aim here is to contrast two Grundbegriffe in communication theory, dialogue and dissemination, as they have since taken historically effective shape in European thought. The focus is not the historical Socrates or Jesus but rather the afterlife of these figures in specific texts written by their canonical disciples, Plato and the synoptic evangelists. Plato may have invented much of Socrates as he lives today, and Jesus of Nazareth’s doctrinal originality may fade once placed in the context of first-century nascent rabbinical culture, but my focus is the intellectual and moral shadow those personages have cast, not their precise historicity. In the fusion of horizons I hope to orchestrate, the point is less to illuminate Plato or the Gospels than to let them instruct us, by their distance and familiarity. Thus we may discover what it might look like if we took communication theory seriously as an open field for reflection.
Dialogue and Eros in the Phaedrus
Nominating Plato as a source of communication theory might seem simply an act of grasping for a noble lineage if the Phaedrus were not so astoundingly relevant for understanding the age of mechanical reproduction. There is a partial precedent for this argument.3 Eric Havelock has argued that Plato’s work should be read against the transition in Greek culture from a dying world of orality to a nascent one of literacy. Since then many have taken Socrates’ critique of the written word at the end of the Phaedrus as prophetic of worries about new media more generally, including recent tectonic shifts in forms of communication.4 Walter J. Ong, for instance, has argued that Socrates’ complaints about writing—that it diminishes memory, lacks interaction, disseminates at random, and disembodies speakers and hearers—are similar to late twentieth-century worries about computers as well as fifteenth-century concerns about printing.5 The deprivation of presence, in one way or another, has always been the starting point of reflection about communication, and the Phaedrus has taken its place as the Platonic text most likely to be studied by those interested in media today.
Taken as a whole, the Phaedrus is much more than a compendium of anxieties about technology’s effects on human intercourse. The critique of the written word is only part of a larger analysis of the gaps in soul and desire that inform any act of communication. By focusing on the problem of when one should yield to or abstain from a suitor’s entreaties and exalting an erotically charged but disembodied union of souls, “Socrates” explicitly articulates what is implicit in most twentieth-century worries about communication: the fierce longing for contact with an untouchable other. In the Phaedrus the question is not about media, but about love; not techniques, but mutuality. The dialogue’s sensitivity to the wrinkles in new forms of inscription grows from an appreciation of the potential for distance and gaps between people, even in the supposedly immediate situation of face-to-face interaction. The dialogue contrasts modes of distribution (of words, of seeds, of love) that are specifically addressed and reciprocal in form to those that are indifferent to the receiver’s person and one-way in form. Socrates’ critique of writing is part of a larger deliberation on the varying tightness of the coupling between person and person, soul and soul, body and body. For Socrates the issue is not just the matching of minds, but the coupling of desires. Eros, not transmission, would be the chief principle of communication. In this the Phaedrus is far richer than the long spiritualizing trend in the intellectual history of communication theory—the dream of angel-like contact between souls at any distance—a trend that Plato, to be sure, indirectly contributes to.
The dialogue sketches both the dream of direct communication from soul to soul and the nightmare of its breakdown when transposed into new media forms. Both in its dramatic form and in its famous conclusion, the Phaedrus unites the hope of soul-to-soul contact with worries about its distortion. Facing the new medium of writing, Plato was haunted by multiplication, a term that ought to be taken in its double sense of simple copying and sexual reproduction.6 Whereas oral speech almost invariably occurs as a singular event shared uniquely by the parties privy to the discussion, writing allows all manner of strange couplings: the distant influence the near, the dead speak to the living, and the many read what was intended for the few. Socrates’ interpretation of the cultural and human significance of the new medium of writing is governed by worries about erotic perversion; writing disembodies thought, thus forging ghostly sorts of amatory and intellectual linkage. His sense that new media affect not only the channels of information exchange but the very embodiment of the human foreshadows similar anxieties in the nineteenth century, when the concept of “communication” first took its current shape.
In later antiquity the Phaedrus was variously taken to have such central aims as “love,” “rhetoric,” “the soul,” “the good,” and “the altogether beautiful.”7 Indeed, the coherence and central theme of the work have long puzzled commentators, especially given Socrates’ point in it that “any speech ought to have its own organic shape [sōma], like a living being; it must not be without either head or feet; it must have a middle and extremities so composed as to fit one another and the work as a whole.”8 The dialogue’s first half consists of a series of three speeches of increasing splendor on the subject of love, a structuring device reminiscent of the Symposium. The second half concerns, in a much less elevated register, speechwriting or rhetoric, and it concludes with Socrates’ famous critique of the written word. Scholars have adduced a variety of ingenious ways to account for the unity of the dialogue.9 For my part, I read the dialogue as an analysis of communication in its normative and distorted forms that has not yet been surpassed.10 “Great havoc he makes among our originalities,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of Plato.11
All the themes are announced in the opening scene. Phaedrus, an eloquence junkie and impresario of the great speakers of the day—it is Phaedrus who gets the speechmaking rolling and serves as toastmaster general in the Symposium—happens upon Socrates outside the walls of Athens.12 The pastoral setting of the dialogue—with its brooks, plane trees, cicadas, and grass—is described in unusual detail for Plato and is an unusual setting for Socrates, clearly a man of the city (cf. 230d); this is a place of abduction and inspiration, a place to have one’s soul swept away by words or love. When Phaedrus raves about a speech on the subject of love he has just heard that morning from Lysias, a distinguished non-Athenian resident politician and teacher of rhetoric, Socrates’ interest perks up. Phaedrus offers to recite its major points, since he has not yet committed it to memory. But Socrates, who gushingly calls himself a man “who is sick with passion for hearing speeches” (228b), asks just what Phaedrus is holding in his left hand under his cloak. On discovering that he has the text of the speech tucked inside his tunic, Socrates loses interest in Phaedrus’s version when he can have “Lysias himself.” Here, already, the written word is figured as an erotic object, concealed close to the body.13
Socrates thereupon settles down to hear the discourse as a whole, which Phaedrus proceeds to read aloud. The mise-en-scène of the dialogue thus sketches the theme of the transgressive circulation of the written word, its ability to wander beyond the original context of its oral, interactive presence, just as Phaedrus and Socrates circulate outside the bounds of the city. Socrates’ possibly ironic comment about “Lysias himself” being present (parontos de kai Lusiou, 228e) suggests the ghostly way that recording media can summon the absent. It also suggests a preference for the superior playback mechanism of the new medium of recording (writing) over the limited power of memory. The disembodied presence of an absent other turns out to be a theme of the dialogue, and of almost all thinking about communication since; so is the notion that what new media gain in fidelity, they lose by conjuring a new spirit world.
The speech by “Lysias” (a speech whose singular aptness for the purposes of the dialogue is perhaps the best evidence that it in fact is a parody composed by Plato) advances the paradox that a suitor moved not by the “madness” of love but by the calculation of self-interest should be preferred by a youth to one who is genuinely in love. Like the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, the love in question is an affair between men.14 Love is a mania, goes the argument, that can damage reason, friendship, reputation, and health. A coolly rational approach, by contrast, can spare both parties the sorrows of love. The suitor gains the sexual favors of a youth, and the youth gains the protection and counsel of an experienced older man. For young men of the elite classes in this era of Athenian history, the royal road to education (paideia) came through attachment to an older man in the institution known as synousia. Love for Lysias can be distinguished from the concord of the lovers’ souls; it is an instrumental good better handled without any accompanying frenzy.
The speech by Lysias is a rhetorical exercise, perhaps an advertisement of his argumentative powers, consciously contrary to received wisdom but perhaps vaguely reminiscent of views earlier espoused by Plato.15 It celebrates impersonality as a rational way to avoid the madness of love. Erastēs (lover) and eromenos (beloved) should contract amicably, neither being moved by passion. For if love is the sole arbiter of one’s potential lovers, the choice is restricted to the comparative few who also happen to be mutually afflicted. Calculation, in contrast, yields a much greater array of choices of potential lovers. Lysias banishes any vulnerability, passion, or loss from love. He calls for exchange over expenditure.
The dialogue again presents a double drama in which performance and content coincide: the setting of Phaedrus’s reading to Socrates involves an erotic relation as lopsided as that proposed by Lysias. Phaedrus, as it happens, is the intended of Lysias. More specifically, reading for the ancient Greeks was often figured as the sexual relation between penetrator and penetrated. Since reading was almost always vocal, to write was to exert control over the voice and body of the eventual reader, even across distances in time and space.16 To read—which meant to read aloud—was to relinquish control of one’s body to the ...

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