Peters, John Durham. (1999) Speaking Into The Air – Reading Notes

Main Argument

Communication is a modern notion, developed in the nineteenth century and he argues that it has not been studied enough.  Peters traces the evolution of ideas around communication throughout history and extrapolates their wider social, political, philosophical and religious implications.


What is communication and what does the term mean? “Divisions between self and other, private and public and inner thought and spoken word” (pg. 2).  There is an inherent dualism within the concept of communication – 1. it is a bridge between two souls (telepathy) or 2. It is an impenetrable gap/chasm wrought with mistakes and breakdown (solipsism).  Peters examines how communication has been defined historically, academically, across different disciplines and throughout different languages:

  1. Communication as partaking (as in communion)
  2. Communication as transfer or transmission
  3. Communication as exchange

There are two aspects to communication: 1. getting your message to the receiver (dissemination/transmission) and 2.  Ensuring your message is understood by the receiver (interpretation/communion).

Chapter 1 – Dialogue and Dissemination

Socrates – Dialogue Jesus – Dissemination
As told by Plato in the Phaedrus As told by Matthew, Mark, Luke in the Parable of the Sower
one-to-one, selective (careful) one-to-many, democratic (but wasteful)
The sender can clarify meaning The receiver makes his own meaning
Eros (targeted oneness) Agape (for all/otherness)

The Phaedrus

The Phaedrus is more about love and soul-to-soul communion than about orality vs. script.  It prefers direct dialog over written dissemination which is uncanny.  Dialog is back and forth so the receiver can ask questions to clarify the intent of the sender.  Unlike oral communication, the written word is the disembodied spirit of another person.  Writing is a sexual act where the writer is active and the reader is passive, thus the writer exerts his control over the reader.  Writing is promiscuous because it can be consumed by anyone.  Even if the author is no longer living, his words still live on and so we are communing with the dead (necrophilia?).

Synoptic Gospels

The parable of the sower – he freely disseminates his seeds (unlike dialogue, which is selective) in a democratic manner.  The audience can interpret the meaning any way they like – and it may differ greatly from the sender’s original intent. “Parables are marked by uniformity in transmission, and diversity in reception” (pg 52).  Through it is distributed democratically it can be wasted if it falls on deaf ears.

Peters concludes that dissemination/broadcast is more natural and effective.

Chapter 2 – History of an Error: The Spiritualist Tradition

This chapter explores spiritualism which views communication as immaterial contact or, shared consciousness, between two distinct people/spirits.  This concept was only articulated in the late nineteenth century but it was long in the making.

Christian Sources (John, Saint Augustine)

Emphasis on spiritualist (spirit-to-spirit) communion as the ideal form of communication.   True communication transcends body and language and flows directly from one spirit into the soul of another – this does not require a medium.   Augustine illuminates the duality of human communication – it relies on the sound of a word (body/flesh) to convey the meaning of a word (spirit).  Divine communication between God and angels is perfect.  Human communication is flawed because it depends on the medium of words/sound.

Seventeenth Century (John Locke)

Communication is reliant on speech and language.  Locke saw communication as “the sharing of ideas between people.”  Communication is not the act of speech, but the successful result of that act.  Communication is no longer seen as material, it is now mental.  Shift from physical transmission to mental (telepathy).

Nineteenth Century

Development of vocabulary and imagery around communication.  Romantic spiritual discourse is not the ideal – it is trespassing on another’s private thoughts and can be used for control and persuasion (Mesmerism).   This is our critique of media today.  With the invention of the telegraph, signals became invisible and intangible, more like the spiritual/supernatural word.  Wireless (telegraphy and radio) became the way to commune with the angels.

Chapter 3 – Toward a More Robust Vision of Spirit

Hegel debunks the spritualist notion of communication as shared consciousness.  Content (message) cannot be separated from form (medium). Is this the first appearance of “the medium is the message”? (Pg. 111)  Focus on human subjectivity and the importance of subjects to the universe.  Communication is a “political and historical problem of establishing conditions under which the mutual recognition of self-conscious individuals is possible” (Pg. 112) (is this humanism?) Meaning is public, not psychological.

Marx (versus Locke) on Money, Kierkegaard –

Chapter 4 – Phantasms of the Living, Dialogues with the Dead

In the mid-nineteenth century, the photograph overcame time and the telegraph overcame space. (Innis – time-binding vs. space-binding media)  Recording media such a photograph and phonograph allowed the dead to remain amongst us and speak to us as though from the grave.  The telegraph is communication without embodiment, and messages are shared via invisible spiritual (electrical) signals.


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