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Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication / Edition 1

Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication / Edition 1

by John Durham Peters


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Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication / Edition 1

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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226662770
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/01/2000
Edition description: 1
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 653,782
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Durham Peters is the María Rosa Menocal Professor of English and of Film and Media Studies at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt

Speaking into the Air

A History of the Idea of Communication

By John Durham Peters

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-66277-2

Chapter One

Dead Letters

Nautch joints are depressing, like all
places for deposit, banks, mail boxes,
tombs, vending machines.-Nathanael
West, The Day of the Locust

Strangely enough, little research in media history has been done on the
original context of communication that is most explicitly hermeneutic:
correspondence by letter. Media historians are beginning to take the post
office seriously as a key site for understanding the development of
communications. The cultural history of the mails is a remarkably rich
source for philosophical visions of the varieties of communicative

The notion that the mails involve delivery of a private, specifically
addressed message was late in evolving. The current division of genres
between personal and public correspondence did not exactly exist in the
eighteenth-century newsletter in England and the colonies. The "familiar"
letter was distinct from the newsletter, the forerunner of the modern
newspaper, but both could be edited for and by the public. Newsletters had
very high pass-along rates; theywere meant quite literally to circulate
among readers who would handwrite additional notices in blank spaces left
for that purpose. In a similar way, personal letters in the United States
at least could be raided for publication in the newspaper or at least for
postmaster-led discussion. Some postmasters in the colonial period
apparently freely quoted in their newspapers from love letters and
personal correspondence. Not only was content open to stray eyes, but the
receipt of mail was itself public because local post offices in the United
States routinely kept logbooks on who purchased postage for what mail,
since payment was typically made by the recipient rather than the sender
before the 1850s. Hence not only were local postmasters well informed on
local reading habits, they were privy to much of the news locally in
circulation and often monitors, even censors, of what newspapers local
postal patrons would read and what mail they would receive. The post was
not a secure channel. Letters then were more like postcards today-both
privately addressed and publicly accessible.

Jacques Derrida has famously argued that all mailed correspondence has the
implicit structure of a postcard, that the attempt to restrict the
reception of a message to one recipient is always undermined by the
scatter of all textuality. His argument is historically possible, and
striking, however, only under a certain postal system: the historically
recent convention of mail as a secure private channel. Since the
mid-nineteenth century, postal practices in North America and Western
Europe quite explicitly sought to contain the potential for straying
missives by giving senders private control over their letters and making
the address circuitry much more focused. The key innovations that took
place in the two middle decades of the century made the modern private
letter possible. The first postage stamp appeared in 1840 in Great
Britain, bearing a portrait of Queen Victoria. No longer did one need to
see a postmaster to pay for carriage, marking a key step toward
impersonality in access. In the 1840s adhesive postage stamps appeared in
the United States, first as local, private issues, and in 1847 the first
national stamp was authorized by the United States Congress. The first
United States patent for envelopes was issued in 1849. By sealing off
contents against inspection, envelopes gave letters an entirely new aura
of privacy. In 1851 Congress, perhaps motivated to secure linkage with the
Pacific Coast in the wake of the 1849 gold rush, passed a flat rate for
all letters, not graded for distance as some early rates were. In 1856 all
mail in the United States had to be prepaid (as opposed to COD, or cash on
delivery), and a registered mail service was founded to help prevent the
loss of valuables (perhaps in response to the dangers of the Pony
Express), though it was rarely used. In 1858 street drop boxes, introduced
in London in 1855, were first used in the United States.

By the late 1850s, then, it was possible to mail a letter sealed in an
envelope, paid for with a prepurchased stamp, and dropped into a public
box. "No longer did the sender have to come under the scrutiny of the
receiving postal employees." No sentinels guarded the gates to the system.
Confidentiality was now possible-a necessary precondition both for the
censorious work of Anthony Comstock and for the long history of American
mail bombing from late nineteenth-century anarchism through the so-called
Unabomber. Here, then, we have a system of public communication, connected
to every address in the nation, that allows for the conveyance of private
messages in sealed packages. Mail, the circulation system of writing and
other lightweight cargo, was no longer locally inspected to the same
degree. Stamps, envelopes, and drop boxes made the individual sender in
principle sovereign over the letter. The post office had thus achieved
something quite like what Augustine or Locke wanted for language: to make
an inherently public and plural signifying system into one governed by the
private will of the sender. The post office, by accommodating
sender-imposed restrictions on receivers, had transformed letters from
creatures of dissemination (polygamous address) into creatures of apparent
dialogue (tight coupling).

As in Augustine and Locke, the ideal of two distant selves brought into
contact via some medium also opened up new dangers and problems of
miscommunication, specifically of lost letters. Walt Whitman was one of
the few not to be alarmed at the specter of missent missives and the
unattainability of a secure channel for communication:

I see something of God in each hour
of the twenty-four, and each moment
In the face of men and women I see
God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the
street, and every one is sign'd by
God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for
I know that wheresoe'er I go
Others will punctually come for ever
and ever.

Whitman expresses the older wisdom of dissemination: a letter written to
one is written to all. Why search so wistfully, he might ask with Emerson,
when the whole universe is a letter? The moral lesson of the friends of
dissemination, from Emerson through Derrida, seems to be to live ethically
and joyously without any assurance of secure channels. All our
communications, like everything else, are subject to the interruptions of

The pathologies unique to the person-to-person ideal are illustrated
wonderfully by "dead letters." In 1825 the United States Postal Service
started a Dead Letter Office for sorting and collecting mail with address
problems, though the practice of opening undelivered letters had been
authorized by Congress during the Revolutionary War. A recent estimate has
fifty-seven million items annually ending up in this office. The question
why undeliverable letters should be "dead" leads to the heart of my
argument. With the poststructuralists and pragmatists, I find the vision
of communication as private correspondence proposed by Augustine, Locke,
and Mesmer ill conceived. Signs are always open to eavesdropping and what
Socrates in the Phaedrus called kulindeisthai, tumbling abroad. Signs are
fundamentally public, that is, capable of multiple junctions of meaning.
But not all meaning is by the same token equally public. The source of the
privacy of meaning lies not in the interior sovereignty of the mind to
arrange meanings at will, but in the mortality of the sender. The pathos
of dead letters is not that minds fail to share the meaning of signs but
that mortal beings miss getting in touch. The problem of communication is
not rupture between spirits but letters that never arrive. It is not a
noetic problem (relations between minds); it is an erotic one (relations
between bodies).

The ghoulish metaphors start with the term "dead letters" itself. The Dead
Letter Office is often called "the morgue of the mails" and "the limbo of
undeliverable mail." Limbo is the place of oblivion where the souls remain
who cannot enter heaven owing to incorrect addressing (such as lack of
baptism). With lost letters, the disposal of the dead becomes critical. An
1852 article on the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., describes a
room in the General Post Office where "a body of grave, calm men ... deal
with these mortuary remains" (92). They sort the letters and consign most
to the flames after removing money, jewelry, or other items of value.
Apparently their charge was not to read the letters for "information" of
value, but only to search for enclosures. Only in the case of obviously
valuable enclosures were efforts made to return to sender, a policy in
contrast to those of the United Kingdom and France. Hence, the article
continues, a letter "contains a lock of hair-nothing more; valueless in
the hard, unromantic judgment of the law" (93). A lock of hair, of course,
was a standard Victorian memento of the dead. In Poe's "The Premature
Burial," a bereaved lover goes to his beloved's grave "with the romantic
purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing himself of its
luxuriant tresses," only to find that she is still alive. That this
purpose should be "romantic" tells us much about the way the age was half
in love with easeful death and gives added pathos to the way the Dead
Letter Office serves as a vast crematorium of the dead and their personal

Enclosures of value are sorted into two categories, "money and minor," the
latter including articles "that may be either intrinsically of worth, or
presumed to be so, to their owners" (96). Every three months the
accumulated letters are "solemnly burned" at a place outside of the city,
like the biblical Gehenna, "no human being but their writers knowing how
much of labor and pain has been expended upon them, thus to perish by fire
and be exhaled in smoke" (94). Dead letters stand in for the oblivion of
the dead. The symbolic association of the letter and the body is as least
as old as the Torah. Dead letters are, in an Augustinian mode, emblematic
of our mortal state, prone to become lost in transit. The trope of dead
letters clearly plays on the Christian idea that the letter without the
spirit, like the body without the spirit, is only a corpse.

The Dead Letter Office deals with the materiality of communication, not
its supposed spirituality. It is the dump for everything that misfires.
The need for it to exist at all is an everlasting monument to the fact
that communication cannot escape embodiment and there is no such thing as
a pure sign on the model of angels. Further, the contrast between items
that are "intrinsically of worth" and ones of worth only to the owners
reveals the ways that shared histories can in fact fill in the meaning of
signs. The sense of familiar letters is often peculiar to the parties and
not generalizable to those not privy to the code and history. Like the
body, dead letters underscore the inalienability of certain sorts of
meaning. A human finger to a torturer is just a piece of meat: but to its
possessor it is a potential poem, violin song, or caress. In this way
private letters are like bodies, objects of immense value that, when
detached from their proper setting, are almost utterly useless: my glasses
and my eyes, my shoes and my feet, my notebooks and my brain. To me these
things are almost infinitely precious; to almost everyone else they are
almost infinitely worthless. The disproportionate value of the body to its
owner and to anyone else is the firmest proof that not all meanings are
public and general.

Recognizing that they might possess invisible treasures, the Dead Letter
Office advertised items and held periodic auctions. In surveying the lists
one faces a spectacle of what Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, briefly
transfixed before the window of a pawnshop, calls the "paraphernalia of
suffering." At an 1859 auction, for instance, a main item was jewelry,
including no fewer than 504 rings, "many of them plain gold wedding
rings." All the packages were sealed, however, so that participants had to
wager blind. An 1875 auction boasted a sixty-page catalog of items that
had accumulated since 1869. It advertised "8,600 different articles sent
through the mails, but unredeemed," including jewelry, books, engravings,
charms, corn-crushers and corn-huskers, glasses, needlework, asthmatic
fumigators, toothpicks, baby clothes, rosaries, poker chips, crucifixes,
and the wings of a bat.

Here the private system of the mail spills its guts. No longer understood
as a system of moving items that might be used by any number of recipients
in addition to the intended, the postal service's new confidentiality of
address allows the trappings of private meaning to pile up. Dead letters
reveal the indecipherability of private history. The items accumulated at
the Dead Letter Office are hieroglyphics, a lost language both sacred and
ghastly, that surely would speak to someone somewhere but is a sealed book
to us. They are bodies without spirits to breathe life into them. In a
similar way, the morgue itself is filled with personal effects-human
bodies-precious only to loved ones. The contents of the Dead Letter Office
are melancholy props of an enormous dereliction, that of the unclaimed
dead, the unredeemed. As the narrator in "Bartleby" appends in epilogue:

Dead letters! Does it not sound like
dead men? Conceive a man by nature
and misfortune prone to a pallid
hopelessness, can any business seem
more fitted to heighten it than that of
continually handling these dead
letters, and assorting them for the
flames? For by the cart-load they are
annually burned. Sometimes from
out of the folded paper the pale clerk
takes a ring-the finger it was meant
for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a
bank-note sent in swiftest charity-he
whom it would relieve,
nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for
those who died despairing; hope for
those who died unhoping; good
tidings for those who died stifled by
unrelieved calamities. On errands of
life, these letters speed to death.


Excerpted from Speaking into the Air
by John Durham Peters
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

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
1. Dialogue and Dissemination
Dialogue and Eros in the Phaedrus
Dissemination in the Synoptic Gospels
2. History of an Error: The Spiritualist Tradition
Christian Sources
From Matter to Mind: "Communication" in the Seventeenth Century
Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism
3. Toward a More Robust Vision of Spirit: Hegel, Marx, and Kierkegaard
Hegel on Recognition
Marx (versus Locke) on Money
Kierkegaard's Incognitos
4. Phantasms of the Living, Dialogues with the Dead
Recording and Transmission
Hermeneutics as Communication with the Dead
Dead Letters
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)
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
Conclusion: A Squeeze of the Hand
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)

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