September CommQuote: “Desperate and Daring Acts of Dignity”

phoneair“In dialogue with the dead, infants, pets, or the distant, the speaker must hold up both ends of the conversation. The call must contain or anticipate the response. Our communication with the dead may never reach them, but such elliptical sending is as important as circular reciprocity. It would be foolish to disparage communications that never leave our own circle as only failures…Dialogic ideology keeps us from seeing that expressive acts occurring over distances and without immediate assurance of reply can be desperate and daring acts of dignity.” —Speaking Into the Air, p.152

So writes John Durham Peters in his magisterial classic, Speaking Into the Air (University of Chicago Press, 1999) which takes a gently contrarian view of communication via mis- and failed communications (“Miscommunication is the scandal that motivates the very concept of communication in the first place,” he observes in the book’s Introduction, p. 6)).  This concept is beautifully enacted in a recent episode of This American Life, Episode 597: One Last Think Before I Go about a phone booth in Japan where people (thousands so far) who’ve lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake sit and talk on a disconnected phone to their departed loved ones.

I go back to Peters (always the recommendation), “Indeed all mediated communication is in a sense communication with the dead, insofar as media can store ‘phantasms of the living’ for playback after bodily death” (p. 142) and “The two key existential facts about modern media are these: the ease with which the living may mingle with the communicable traces of the dead, and the difficulty of distinguishing communication at a distance from communication with the dead.” (p. 149)