Peters, John Durham

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Peters, John Durham


Education: University of Utah, B.A., 1981, M.A., 1982; Stanford University, Ph.D., 1986.


Office—Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa, 125 BCSB, Iowa City, IA 52242-1498. E-mail—[email protected]


University of Iowa, Iowa City, assistant professor, 1986-92, associate professor, 1992-2000, professor of communication studies, 2000-2001, F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor, 2002—. Exchange professor to Catholic University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, 1990; Leverhulme Fellow, University of London, 1999-2000. Speaker at conferences.


International Communication Association, National Communication Association.


National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1995-96; Fulbright Foundation fellowship, 1998-1999; James A. Winans-Herbert A. Wichelns memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address, National Communication Association, 2000; American-Scandinavian Foundation Lectureship Grant, 2002-2004; Hebrew University Jerusalem Center for Advanced Studies Fellowship, 2004-2005.



Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1999.

(Editor, with Elihu Katz, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff) Are There Any? Should There Be? How about These?, Polity Press (Cambridge, England), 2003.

(Editor, with Peter Simonson) Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (Lanham, MD), 2004.

Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 2005.

Contributor to books, including As … Stances on Theory, edited by Gregory J. Shepherd, Jeffrey St. John, and Ted Striphas, Sage (Thousand Oaks, CA); Communications, Transportation, History: Rethinking the Legacy of James Carey, edited by Jeremy Packer and Craig Robertson, Peter Lang (New York, NY); and Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Andrew Calabrese and Colin Sparks, Rowman & Littlefield (Boulder, CO), 2004. Contributor to periodicals, including Journal of Communication, Media, Culture, and Society, and Critical Review: A Journal of Books and Ideas. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication has been translated into Bulgarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Chinese, Macedonian, and Ukrainian.


John Durham Peters's book Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication attempts to pinpoint the origins of modern ideas of communication, and to illuminate the reasons why many people in modern times feel that their communication does not result in connections. In exploring his subject and making his points, the author draws on material from a wide range of sources, including accounts of communication with angels, attempts to communicate with animals and creatures from outer space, the Synoptic gospels, and the works of writers and philosophers such as Karl Marx, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and René Descartes.

In Peters's opinion, problems with communication are a natural result of the many possibilities that communications open up for humans. He believes that the very urge to talk at all is rooted in something problematic, and restates this thesis frequently throughout the book. He reflects on the difference between disseminating rhetoric and having a meaningful dialog, examines the dynamics of self and other, and offers guidance through the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Another theme is the role of the body in human communication, and the ways the lack of embodiment, in the age of digital communication, may transform human understanding of messages and concepts. Noting the density of the material in a review on the National Communication Association Web site, Frank E.X. Dance commented: ‘It is a book that demands a regimen of short readings and long thoughts. There is much in Speaking into the Air of use to media ecologists interested in media transformation as well as to the human communication theorist.’ Dance concluded: ‘Speaking into the Air is provocative in its conception, well written and elegant in its execution. I recommend the book as an example of craftsmanship in writing and dedication in scholarship."

Peters's book is well-written, providing ‘a welcome break from the jargon-muddled work of many academics’ writing on the same subject, commented a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Noting the very wide range in the author's references, the reviewer approved of the author's emphatic message that the high-speed, high-volume form of communication typical of the modern age has actually increased feelings of failure to communicate. Peters's insistence on the need to reclaim ‘authenticity’ in communication is a key element of his work, which the Publishers Weekly writer praised as ‘a brave, colorful exploration of the hydra-headed problems presented by a rapid-fire popular culture."

Durham and Peter Simonson edited the book Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968. This collection brings together the work of sixty-eight writers whose works collectively show a concern with the effects of mass communication. Mass Communication and American Social Thought supports the notion that the ability to use mass communication has been useful and at times beneficial for mankind, as in spreading important information. It also points out, however, the ways in which mass communication has been used to whip up support for wars and other potentially unpopular government actions, as well as encouraging meaningless consumerism through advertising. Arranged chronologically, the essays show the development of mass communications and the concerns that have been expressed about it throughout its growth. During the Enlightenment, the liberation of humanity and the universal access to knowledge were ideals. Mass communication could have furthered these goals, and as radio and television were developed, many progressives hoped that these would be the means to reach the Enlightenment ideal. Instead, radio and television were largely taken over by advertisers and have been criticized for wasting their potential. Mass Communication and American Social Thought is a ‘splendid collection,’ stated Tony Osborne in Communication Research Trends.



Choice, March, 2000, J.A. Lent, review of Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, p. 1292; December, 2005, D. Schaefer, review of Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition, p. 738.

Communication Research Trends, March, 2007, Tony Osborne, review of Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919-1968, p. 37.

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, October, 2000, Jeffrey Sconce, review of Speaking into the Air.

Journal of Communication, March, 2001, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 200.

London Review of Books, July 20, 2006, ‘Boutique Faith,’ p. 22.

New Scientist, December 4, 1999, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 50.

Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1999, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 83.

Reference & Research Book News, February, 2000, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 146.

Technology and Culture, October, 2000, Derek Vaillant, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 795.

Times Literary Supplement, May 19, 2000, review of Speaking into the Air, p. 32; August 19, 2005, ‘Watch What You Say,’ p. 31.


National Communication Association Web site, (October 26, 2007), ‘John Durham Peters Wins NEH Fellowship"; Frank E.X. Dance, review of Speaking into the Air.

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Peters, John Durham

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