Death to communication

The communication theory seminar is reading the Peters book this week. One of the students has written quite a bit on it, and I wanted to answer one of his recent posts. His entry wanders a bit, and so you’ll have to bear with me wandering back. And though I have framed this as a response, it really isn’t.

Let me begin where he ends. I was a bit surprised, given the morbid fascination with erotic death found throughout, that Peters narrows his interest in Freud to the libidinous nature of communication. Indeed, given it’s phantasmal quality, death seems to be very much the central feature of the communicative act–particularly in the way Peters has conceived of it here. And clearly, Peters is sympathetic to Emerson’s view of communication with the dead as paradigmatical, and extends this to suggest, I think, that communication with an unrecognized “other” is the norm, from which we move away instead of toward.

But there is this effort throughout to try to undo “communication” and “communication theory” even as he builds it. His claim to an authentic history of communication beginning in the late 19th or early 20th centuries seems fairly arbitrary to me. It tends to coincide with some of the narratives of the field of communication, but he never really avails himself of these. Indeed, early in the book he complains of the contemporary paucity of communication theory, so it’s not clear that the conceptualization of communication in 20s or 40s really did much to advance a common understanding of what it is and why it matters, either within the field of communication or within it’s constituent disciplines.

I think anyone who seriously endeavors to make sense of communication theory is inevitably drawn into some sort of a project like this one. In this course and in the following, we look at almost no one who considers himself primarily a “scholar of communication,” and “communication theories” are, with few exceptions, rarely so-named by their authors. The contingent nature of such theory need not be a detriment, but it does entail both a hermeneutic and archeological process that those in other social science disciplines can largely avoid; to their own detriment, in my opinion. On the other hand, it leads to the perennial comment at many of our conferences, “That’s interesting, but it is not really ‘communication.'”

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