Speaking into the Air A History of the Idea of Communication
by John Durham Peters
University of Chicago Press, 1999
Cloth: 978-0-226-66276-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-66277-0 | Electronic: 978-0-226-92263-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226922638.001.0001


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


John Durham Peters is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa.


Introduction: The Problem of Communication

The Historicity of Communication

The Varied Senses of "Communication"

Sorting Theoretical Debates in (and via) the 1920s

Technical and Therapeutic Discourses after World War II

Chapter 1. Dialogue and Dissemination

Dialogue and Eros in the Phaedrus

Dissemination in the Synoptic Gospels

Chapter 2. History of an Error: The Spiritualist Tradition Christian Sources

Christian Sources

From Matter to Mind: "Communication" in the Seventeenth Century

Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism

Hegel on Recognition

Marx (versus Locke) on Money

Kierkegaard's Incognitos

Recording and Transmission

Hermeneutics as Communication with the Dead

Dead Letters

Chapter 5. The Quest for Authentic Connection, or Bridging the Chasm

The Interpersonal Walls of Idealism

Fraud or Contact? James on Psychical Research

Reach Out and Touch Someone: The Telephonic Uncanny

Radio: Broadcasting as Dissemination (and Dialogue)

Chapter 6. Machines, Animals, and Aliens: Horizons of Incommunicability

The Turing Test and the Insuperability of Eros

Animals and Empathy with the Inhuman

Communication with Aliens

The Gaps of Which Communication Is Made

The Privilege of the Receiver

The Dark Side of Communication

The Irreducibility of Touch and Time

Appendix: Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-sublibrarian)