Mission: to explore levels & problems in communication
@ K. 1998 07 18

For starters, I repeat my 1963 statement on the subject.

I feel — both instinctively and rationally — that communication has been and will be the triumph of our race: communication with oneself, others, with one’s culture, past fact and future possible, communication sympathy with the universe — that joy is the coming to consciousness of living reality — that my own joy is maintained most intensively by a proximity with literature and by writing what and when I must. This proximity must be maintained by reading, teaching, writing, publishing — whatever. I feel that I have learned a great deal and one of the most joyful responsibilities of wisdom is education. Thus, education it will be, in any or all of its forms.

I add merely that by 1982 my novel By the Hair of the Comet [q.v.] was dramatizing communications as not at all reliable but partly illusory.

No human being can really understand another.

Graham Greene

Naturally, you haven’t read it, because naturally, such a view is not publishable in these modern times: it remains invisible even as you blink at it.


Communication by Gregory Bateson & Jurgen Ruesch, Norton, 1968.

Some communications are easy.

Whee! Whew!

Hey, gorgeous. Nice day!

Whoa, man: nice car!

These examples represent the highly phatic nature of much human discourse. They’re primarily emotional and concern basics common to most — sex, lust, admiration, creature comfort — relationships.

Hey Joe: you got gum?

This is an example of how a language as complex as English can be adapted into a simple creo that even children of unrelated language groups can master quickly. A vocabulary of a few hundred words and any highly truncated grammar will do.

American GIs learned this around the world, especially during and following WWII. Here the “Joe” is generic: the ragamuffin means any GI. Even the “gum” isn’t necessarily specific. The kid will be happy if he gets a coin instead or perhaps a proposition for his sister.

Other communications are more problematical.

Ooo, that’s beautiful!

If a woman is the subject, it’s easy to agree. But what specifically has been communicated? Perhaps the speaker is referring primarily to her shape. One listener, agreeing, might understand the reference to be to the whole package and how it’s put together: style, including fashion, as well as shape. Another might agree based solely on her auburn hair.

If the subject is a painting by Cézanne, the speaker still might find agreement. One listener might agree based solely on the matter of the painting: it’s a still life with fruit, glass vessels, fabric … he likes fruit. Another might agree solely out of fear of appearing crass: it’s a painting — paintings are supposed to be beautiful. What does he know? Another might agree based solely on how many shades of color are gotten from a strictly limited palette. Still another might be considering nothing more than the flattening of the space, taking it to be a witty contribution to the dialogue about perspective that’s been going great guns since the Renaissance. His buddy, thinking they’re one, may merely recognize twentieth-century orthodoxy, started by Cézanne. The listener whose aesthetics have developed no further (in relation to the chronological “development” of Western painting) than Poussin or David may merely wrinkle his nose.

Cezanne still life

If the subject is a mathematical formula, most listeners will close their ears (if they hadn’t already fled before the comment was made).


There’s nothing phatic about that instruction. Now the content is specific and unambiguous. Not only must the nurse know the scalpel from the other operating room instruments; she must know that it must be sterile, that it must be handed to the surgeon immediately, not once she feels like it, that it must be handed to the surgeon in a certain way, handle first, into his reaching hand like a relay runner passing the baton. She won’t be around long if she just holds it up any old way as she waits for him to look up and reach for it.

We’re #1.

This statement is wholly phatic. It has no other content whatsoever. The “we” has meaning. So does the contraction of “are.” The “number” has nothing to do with arithmetic or number theory. Neither does the “one.” It has to do with the imagined place of the group in the universe. It has to do with God’s favor. All unverifiable in any objective way.

Jesus loves me.

Americans are generous.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Now we’re in the Gordian Knot. If you need an explanation, I’ll offer several when I come back. Meantime, Gregory Bateson’s book of the same title covers the subject with awesome completeness: from the chemical and electrical communications of biology to the high level kind I’ll continue to deal with.

Communication Scrapbook

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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