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Media, Culture & Society

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Broadcasting and schizophrenia


John Durham Peters
Media Culture Society 2010; 32; 123
DOI: 10.1177/0163443709350101
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Broadcasting and schizophrenia


John Durham Peters
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA, USA

I
In December 2005, a woman named Colleen Nestler convinced a judge in
Santa Fe, New Mexico to put a temporary restraining order on the television
talk show host David Letterman that would require him to stay at least three
yards from her at all times. She blamed Letterman for mental cruelty and for
causing her sleep deprivation and bankruptcy over a 10-year period. As Nestler
explained in a somewhat disordered statement, she began sending him
thoughts of love when his show moved to CBS in 1993, and he responded
in code words & obvious indications through jestures [sic] and eye
expressions. At one point he even asked her to marry him in a promotional
spot saying, Marry me Oprah. Oprah had become my first of many code
names, she explained. As time passed, the code-vocabulary increased &
changed, but in the beginning things like C on baseball caps referred to me,
and specific messages through songs sung by his guests, were the beginnings
of what became an elaborate means of communication between he and
myself (Auslander, 2005). Lettermans exasperated attorneys responded that
he had never even met Nestler and had already had enough trouble from
stalker fans, including one who tried to kidnap his child.
This passing incident (the judge soon rescinded the order after widespread
derision) raises a number of questions about the communicative form of
broadcasting and its relation to everyday life. What would a restraining order
on an electronic proxy look like? What would three yards mean for someone
on air? Can we even use the term relationship for the one-sided bond
between fan and celebrity? What kind of communication system allows for
Media, Culture & Society 2010 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New
Delhi and Singapore), Vol. 32(1): 123140
[ISSN: 0163-4437 DOI: 10.1177/0163443709350101]

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such a massive imbalance between two parties utter involvement and utter
ignorance? What does it mean to meet or know someone at all? Why does
Ms Nestlers notion of an elaborate means of communication with a TV
personality seem bizarre? Since it is not unusual for lovers to develop a
code-vocabulary of intimate terms or TV personalities to employ intimate,
chatty, one-on-one ways of speaking, what was the precise nature of her
mistake? How did it become normal for media personalities to simulate
interactive talk, but pathological for a member of the audience to hear their
words as a personal response? What is, in short, the implicit line between
madness and rationality that is encoded into the form of broadcast talk?
Ms Nestlers mistake was to ignore the contradiction between broadcastings
address (interpersonal) and distribution (mass). Though celebrities talk in
personal styles apparently addressed to one or a few, their performances
generate revenue according to statistical algorithms aimed at populations,
not individuals. Her affair with Letterman lacked a corrective cynicism or
knowingness about the nature of the television apparatus. In this article I
explore the peculiar ways that the practitioners and audiences of broadcasting
had to learn to think about impersonal and interpersonal address, pushing
media history into the rich and under-explored field of psychiatry. Foucault
gave us the maxims that each age gets the form of madness it deserves and
that every form of madness is a parody of the reigning form of reason.
Pathology reveals normality. In the same way, each format or technology of
communication implies its own disorders. Madness shines a bright light on
hidden assumptions about communication.

II
The classic name for audience engagement with media personalities, parasocial interaction, was coined over 50 years ago by two University of
Chicago sociology professors, Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, in a 1956
article. The seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and
performer they called a para-social relationship, and para-social interaction
was the simulacrum of conversational give and take between the two roles.
Though they paid most attention to the psychology of fans, they were clear
that media performers actively put on interactive styles. Every attempt
possible is made [by broadcast institutions] to strengthen the illusion of
reciprocity and rapport in order to offset the inherent impersonality of the
media themselves (Horton and Wohl, 1956: 220). Media personalities spoke
dialogically to people they didnt see, hear, or know, and audiences became
friendly with spectral figures who entered their homes and lives.
Things went awry only when people failed to distinguish the two parallel
circuits. It is only when the para-social relationship becomes a substitute for
autonomous social participation, they warn, when it proceeds in absolute

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defiance of objective reality, that it can be regarded as pathological (Horton


and Wohl, 1956: 223). They follow with a footnote about a fan of the early
talk show host, Dave Garroway, who moved to Chicago, opened several
charge accounts as Mrs Dave Garroway, and tried to occupy his hotel room
before a detective agency persuaded her to return home. (Midwestern media
personalities named David seem to attract this sort of thing.) Mrs Dave
Garroway, however, did not just defy objective reality every participant
in a fictional world does so to some extent; rather, she violated the rules of
reading mediated communication. Sane people are supposed to know that no
message is ever meant for a single individual in broadcast talk, but she heard
Garroway talking to her personally.
Chicago sociology was always friendly to the notion that fantasy was a
potential part of any face-to-face interaction, and Horton and Wohl are
clear heirs to a tradition that goes back to Cooley, Park, Mead and Blumer.
Internal projection, dialogue or conversational rehearsal were all normal
parts of symbolic interaction. Horton and Wohl do not explain why they
chose the prefix para, but it at least shares a prefix with paranoia. In
paranoia those people out there are my enemies; in para-social interaction
they are my friends.
The term probably owes something to psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivans
(1970 [1944]: 245) notion of parataxic distortion, in which actual and
fantasy people exist side by side in the minds of schizophrenics. Sullivan, the
founding editor of the interdisciplinary journal Psychiatry, in which Horton
and Wohls article was published, and another heir to Chicago social thought,
considered such distortions to be continuous with normal relationships but
dangerous if the line between reality and fantasy was lost. He called
psychiatry the study of interpersonal relations, and, according to the Oxford
English Dictionary, coined the term interpersonal in 1938. Sullivan (1953:
18) apologized for the apparent tautology of interpersonal interaction, but
he was one of the first to see how important that specification was. That forms
of interaction exist besides the interpersonal is something a sensitive observer
of communication practices around 1938 might notice. The notion of a
distinctly interpersonal zone is a historical latecomer. We needed to set it
apart only in a cultural environment populated with thriving species of hybrid
address sponsored by radio and other media of mass communication.
One of the most astute points made by Horton and Wohl is that sex, perhaps
the most normatively interpersonal act humans do, is a prime resource for
creating quasi-personal relations with audiences. Sexual suggestiveness is used
probably because it is one of the most obvious cues to a supposed intimacy
(Horton and Wohl, 1956: 2245). Two of their examples reverse the gender
dynamics of the two Davids. Instead of the typical profile of feminized or
juvenilized fans, Horton and Wohl point to two forgotten episodes in the annals
of American broadcasting aimed at a lonely crowd of men. The Lonesome Gal
was a radio show from 1947 to the mid 1950s, starring Jean King, a failed

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Hollywood actress. Aided by a microphone specially designed to pick up her


whispers, vocal nuances and breathing, her shtick was a sultry monologue
delivered from her couch on which she sat alone in her nightgown. She spoke
to the nations lonely-hearts one by one, calling them Muffin and Baby in
singular direct address. By gathering data from Chambers of Commerce
around the United States, King made her show even more intimate by
mentioning circumstantial facts peculiar to each town, and, at the peak of her
popularity, she made an exhausting number of customized recordings each
week (Dunning, 1998). Using an intimate style to hide radios disseminative
logic, she invited her listeners to engage in the solipsistic reverie of being her
sole addressee. Her listeners were to engage in the willing suspension of the
knowledge of their co-listeners. Twos company, threes a crowd. Her task was
to carry a person-to-person message through a medium that was prone to
scatter. Like early wireless telegraphers, she was trying to get a broadcast
medium to carry (the illusion of) a point-to-point message.
Horton and Wohls second example was a short late-night TV spot called
Count Sheep featuring the actress Nancy Berg. The spot ran weekdays at
1 a.m. on WCRA-TV in Manhattan and was sponsored by a mattress company.
It featured Ms Berg in a negligee, doing or saying slightly screwball things, and
finally popping into bed. Her manager explained her success by her beauty and
a unique skill: Sometimes, she doesnt say anything out loud, maybe shes
thinking what youre thinking (Horton and Wohl, 1956: 224). Berg could
suggest a telepathic contact with viewers. When early 1950s radio and TV
personalities pretended to send thoughts of love over the airwaves, nobody
said they were crazy. As long as the flow goes in one direction, everything is
fine: stars may wink into the camera and sigh into the microphone, but the
reciprocal flutters of the audience must stay confined in their homes.
In their belief that communion with broadcast figures is an intensification
rather than distortion of normal face-to-face dynamics, Horton and Wohl
differ sharply from other scholarly conceptions of the simulation of personal
connection via mass media. Frankfurt School critics such as Adorno and
Lowenthal saw the promotional rhetoric of especially for you as a kind of
ideological trick, a cognitive mistake in which foolish audiences were goaded
into overlooking the statistical nature of broadcast address. Other Marxists
such as Brecht or Enzensberger noted that the constitution of broadcasting as
a communication system of few speakers and many listeners stigmatized
those who dared to talk back; the task, they thought, was to create equal
access to the means of communication by making broadcast consumers into
broadcast producers. Normality was tied to a power imbalance: people with
access to the means of communication may solicit intimacy from their
audiences, but woe unto those who thought the broadcast world actually
interacted with them. A third take on audience participation in the social
relations of broadcasting is found in media events research, which sees the
possibility of travelling into the world inside of radio or television as a rare

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but real ritual occasion (Dayan and Katz, 1992). In contrast to the Marxists,
Horton and Wohl see para-social interaction as (mostly) healthy; in contrast
to Durkheimians such as Dayan and Katz, they see it as (mostly) routine.
Determining the significance of the oddly monological dialogue at the
interface of broadcast media and their audiences has been one of the core
tasks of media theory since the 1930s and 1940s.

III
Though mediated communication is as old as writing, and mass
communication goes back to the dawn of civilization, weirdly addressed
messages have mushroomed since the late 19th century. Paddy Scannell is our
best guide to the uncanny communicative structure of modern broadcasting,
especially its effort to incorporate interpersonal genres of talk. The task of
broadcast programming was, he argues, to develop forms of talk that strive to
approximate the conditions of face-to-face chat. Radio separated the context
of speaking and the context of listening. Its historic problem was to create
forms of discourse that detain or entertain people who do not have to listen.
Radio was a set of sound-protocols designed for eavesdroppers. Since
overheard speech does not always make sense to those who are not parties to
the context, radio pioneers learned to design formats for virtual participation
by the absent. They created sociability through the ears and conversation
without interaction something historically reserved for madness or religious
experience. Despite their accumulated size as measured by ratings, radio
listeners were invited to feel themselves not as part of a vast public assembly
but as a small group of listeners at home. Broadcastings reach was vast, but
its voice was chummy. A mass audience did not mean an audience of masses.
Broadcasting institutions actively adopted styles and strategies of talk that
wooed audiences with bonhomie and chit-chat. Horton and Wohl (1956: 219)
provide a quotation from Dave Garroway:
Most talk on the radio in those days was formal and usually a little stiff. But I just
rambled along, saying whatever came into my mind. I was introspective. I tried to
pretend that I was chatting with a friend over a highball late in the evening. I
consciously tried to talk to the listener as an individual, to make each listener feel
that he knew me and I knew him. Strangers often stop me on the street today, call
me Dave and seem to feel that we are old friends who know all about each other.

In a conceptually ambitious essay, Scannell (2000) argues that broadcast talk


reveals something deeper about human life: what he calls for-anyone-assomeone structures (see also Scannell, 1996: 24). First, he argues, such structures are not unique to speech and other semiotic matters: they are rooted in
the nature of selfhood and time. Second, a for-anyone structure is open in its
availability and indifferent to ownership or use. Pens, plants, toasters and the

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weather do not interact with individuals. The sun shines on the just and the
unjust. Many things have this quality of generous and open impersonality, and
there is a certain moral lesson here, he notes, of love for the public world. A
for-someone structure, in contrast, targets specific people. Eyeglasses, passports, shoes, email accounts, or intimate talk typically belong to someone in
particular. Third, broadcasting is a communicative structure that mediates foranyone structures and for-someone structures. Its communicative form speaks
to people as individuals, but its scale of distribution is theoretically nationwide
or global. To listen to radio or watch television normally is to engage in an
interpretive process of being included and excluded at the same time.
Each one of us experiences what we read or hear or see as if it spoke to each one
of us personally. But that does not mean it spoke only to me. Each one of us knows
that just as it speaks to me it speaks to millions of others at the same time, now. We
do not treat what we read and see and hear every day as if it were a purely personal
matter. I do not internalize the output of the media as I might a well-loved song or
poem which I commit to heart in order to own it for my ownmost self. To the contrary. (Scannell, 2000: 1819)

Scannell does not exactly say how we know to perform this discount. If
broadcasters had to learn to speak into a studio microphone as if they were
speaking to one person, what was the parallel historical process by which
listeners and viewers learned to interpret what seemed personal as impersonal?
How did audiences learn the art of ignoring the appeals for individual engagement that come over the air? How were people socialized into accepting
non-reciprocity while being addressed conversationally via the mass media?
The would-be lovers of Letterman, Garroway, King or Berg all mistake the
ministrations of media performers as for-someone structures. Whether mad,
duped or normal, such people fail to discern broadcastings unique communicative form, hearing its you as singular rather than plural (perhaps modern
Englishs blurring of singular and plural forms in the second person pronoun
you abets the confusion). Or perhaps such audiences work too hard,
expecting broadcast talk to enable intimate (one-on-one) relations instead of
the sociable (threes company) relations that Scannell thinks are its norm.
Whatever the answer, his schema is clearly an implicitly normative device for
distinguishing rationality from insanity. How we take broadcast personae is a
measure of mental health. Broadcasting, despite all appearances, is not an
interpersonal medium.

IV
In her belief that she could send thoughts of love over the air to David
Letterman, Colleen Nestler picked up a dream that goes back to the dawn of
radio technology in the late 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s, every major

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physicist involved in the development of radio flirted with the notion of


wireless thought-transference. In Britain, Lord Rayleigh, the leading
acoustician of the late 19th century, J.J. Thomson, the discoverer of the
electron, William Crookes, the inventor of the cathode ray tube, and Oliver
Lodge, the inventor of the radio coherer, all took an active interest in what
was called psychical research. Heinrich Hertz, the key figure after James
Clerk Maxwell in the practical application of electromagnetism, had a briefer
flirtation with psychical research, but the German-speaking world took an
equally active interest in such matters (Hagen, 2001), as did thinkers in
France, Italy and the United States. Electromagnetism revealed spooky
actions at a distance, as Einstein put it. It is hard for us to re-enter the
intellectual world in which mental and material radiation swam through the
ocean of the ether, the putative medium for gravity, light, heat, sound,
electricity and magnetism and thoughts. The key notion was that just as the
ether gave to physical processes an immaterial or even spiritual foundation,
so it manifested the physical reality of mental processes.
Since 1882, the name for this latter idea has been telepathy. Its point-topoint transmission from mind to mind was explicitly modeled on the telephone
(Siegert, 1991), and early research on wireless transmission, in turn, aimed to
create the physical and psychical conditions for the ethereal transmission of
thoughts. William Barrett, an Irish physicist, mathematician, and founder of
the British Society for Psychical Research, was one of the first to see the brain
as a potentially wireless electrical transmitter. The brain, he wrote in 1882,
might be regarded as the seat of radiant energy like a glowing or sounding
body (quoted in Luckhurst, 2002: 76). Oliver Lodge, who is better known in
radio history, ventured the idea that brain was to mind as wire is to electricity,
that is, a conducting medium for something less tangible. From the idea that
the brain produces an electromagnetic halo it followed that these echoes might
be readable. The notion of the psychical broadcasting of thoughts is coeval
with the physical broadcasting of electromagnetic signals. It was a strange but
pervasive idea around the turn of the century that meaning could be transmitted
and received. The name for this process was communication.
One of the obvious problems with such cerebral radiation was what came
to be called tuning. Edwin J. Houston, an American electrical engineer who
later helped to found General Electric, claimed in 1892: An active brain may
be regarded as moulding the ether around it into thought waves that are
spreading outwards from it in all directions waves which Hertz has so
beautifully demonstrated as resembling the vibrations which produce light.
Such waves would proceed outwards in all directions and affect other
brains on which they fall, provided that such brains are tuned to vibrate in
unison with them (Prof. Houston , 1892). Each brain was a broadcasting
station, beaming subtle radiations outward like an aurora borealis.
Alexander Graham Bell followed up in 1893 with an appropriately
telephonic solution for the tuning problem.

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Imagine two persons, one thousand or ten thousand miles apart, placed in communication electrically, in such a way that, without any spoken word, without soundingboard, key, or any bodily movement, the one receives instantly the thoughts of the
other, and instantly sends back his own thoughts. (Moffett, 1893)

Abandoning the faint but unreliable utopia of wireless thought communication, Bell tried to hook up brain-waves to wires. His plan was to outfit remote
partners with electrical helmets that would catch and send their thoughthaloes by wire. As it happened, nothing came of the plan: Bell found it easier
to put voices in communication electrically than thoughts. In the subsequent
success of telephony and failure of telepathy we learned something about the
difference between signals and significance. Signals can be packaged and
sent by media of transmission; significance cannot.
Though telepathy is still held by many as an ideal vision of what
communication could or should be, it received its decisive critique by the
pragmatist theologian Ernest William Hocking in 1912. First, without any
possibility of communicating with the person face to face we would never
be able to determine a thought-messages source. We would receive strong
but untraceable impressions from unidentified senders. Telepathy would
actually be less efficient than talking since any thought-message would need
a personal confirmation a voice, face or address to label it. Second, if
minds were so permeable, the first draft of every thought would fly out and
become audible in its raw state to anyone. Thoughts would lack any gestation
and public mind would be an inchoate brown noise. Thus Hocking praises the
obstacles to thought transmission. The resistance of Nature to the expression
of a thought is not the resistance of a wholly hostile medium; detention is a
spiritual condition for health and viability, not a physical condition solely
(Hocking, 1912: 2569). In a world without rest from the assault of others
thoughts, without checks to the contagion of communication, we would never
be able to tune out the pandemonium of other minds. (If it is bad to be captive
to someone elses choice of music or embarrassing when your stomach
rumbles, imagine the din of the collective unconscious!)
Writing in 1912, Hocking is current with the chief problems of wireless
telegraphy. His two critiques of telepathy involve the questions of station
identification and interference. This was also the year of the Titanic disaster
and the absurd bungling of radio messages around it. Wireless operators,
picking up a jumble of messages from various ships in the North Atlantic
without being able to determine their source, spliced them together into a
conflicting collage of news reports (Heyer, 1995). (We should note that collage
as an artistic practice a kind of visual analogue to the uprooted news of
wireless was also invented in 1912 by Braque and Picasso. Many avant-garde
artists in the period played on radio as a giant nuthouse [Gallo, 2005: 130]).
At least W.T. Stead, the radical journalist and spiritualist, was attentive enough
to send a mental wire of his demise from the sinking ship, which a correspondent
claimed to have received before the news was official (Luckhurst, 2002: 139).
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The Titanic disaster was the epitome of the etheric bedlam of the air-waves,
as contemporaries called it, a term nicely linking wireless transmission
with a classic trope of madness. So much for the ethereal angels of
perfect communication.
In response, the US Radio Act of 1912 sought to end the aerial confusion
by licensing stations, fixing wavelengths, designating call letters and requiring
clear station identification. The Act marked the end of the wireless imagination
of thought-transference and the start of disciplined airborne signals. It laid
the groundwork for the great normative division of labor in 20th-century
communications: person-to-person talk on secure channels and broadcast
dissemination on open ones, that is, telephony on wires and radio via wireless
(a division long since crumbling). Subsequent radio regulation in the US
would clarify two kinds of messages and channels: broadcasting to all and
common carriers for single recipients (Peters, 1994: 1249). Thus the state
backed the idea that messages intended for-anyone and for-someone
should be distinguished. Explicit by the time of the Communications Act of
1934 was the idea that the public sphere (media) should be criss-crossed by
many voices; implicit was the idea that the private sphere (mind) should
speak in a unified voice. (A diverse bourgeois public sphere called for a
coherent bourgeois subject.)
A plural public and a unitary self were for much of the 20th century the two
official options for rational agents, the norms of sane communication.
Deviations were pathologies: a single voice in media was totalitarian; many
voices in mind meant madness. A monopolized public was the danger of
fascism; a pluralized self was the danger of schizophrenia. In other words,
broadcasting was for impersonal discourse, and telephony for personal. The
dream of telepathy (as a kind of wireless telephony) crept to the cultural
sidelines and gradually faded like the term the ether for the airwaves. But it
lived on in psychiatry.
V
At the same time that physicists and psychical researchers were dreaming up
ways to send signals (and thoughts), psychiatric patients started to experience
telepathy as a pathological symptom. Emil Kraepelin, born the same year as
Freud (1856), was the great classifier of mental illness and was the first, in 1897,
to identify schizophrenia. He called it dementia praecox (premature dementia).
Eugen Bleuler gave the disease the name that stuck in 1908 and schizophrenia
has since had a tumultuous definitional history, with disorders of thought and
disorders of affect being the two main options. But schizophrenics have
always described their troubles in terms of the sensory dislocations of
electrical media. Kraepelins patients complained of telepathy as well as
perception of voices in their own bodies, and magical, magnetic, electrical,
physical, hypnotic forms of remote control [Fernwirkungen], which are sent
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through all sorts of machines, telephones, galvanic batteries, sympathetic


relations by invisible enemies (Kraepelin, 1899: 1734). By telepathy,
Kraepelins patients seem to have meant the feeling of having thoughts
implanted or removed from ones mind as if by cerebral radiation. He and his
patients faced the very same universe of brain-waves carried by electrical
devices as the early radio physicists. Telepathy was the hope of the physicist
and the dread of the mentally ill.
Telepathy run amuck is the subject of one of the most famous of all case
histories in psychoanalysis, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1988 [1903]) by
Daniel Paul Schreber. As Hagen (2001) convincingly shows, Schrebers fantasies
owe much to wireless technology and the now outdated ether-physics, with its
dreams of combined thought- and signal-transference. Schreber, the mother of
all radioheads, feared that his gender-bending body was being penetrated
and reshaped by rays and radiation sent as word-nerves from a gnostic deity.
His bizarre fantasies were a distorting mirror of the world of early wireless,
something that he, as a learned man (a judge and legislator) and reader of
contemporary physics, was fully acquainted with. Schreber shows the nightmare
of what complete mental transparency could be.
These early patients complained, essentially, of a lack of a filter. Their
mobile mental broadcasting units lacked tuners or off-switches. Ever since,
the electrical media have given psychiatric patients much to work with.
Determining the mixed cultural and biologic causes of mental illness is a
vexed question (Hacking, 1999; Sass, 1992: 35873), but there is clearly some
kind of elective affinity between broadcasting and schizophrenia. The weak
form of their link would be to say that the media provide the mentally ill with
ripe metaphors for playing out their delusions. Certainly the mentally ill can
offer great insight by taking media discourse and its promises seriously. They
have the special gift, or curse, of defamiliarization. With voices vanishing
into the void or echoing forever, thoughts and pictures being implanted in or
extracted from heads, voices commenting on actions, and influencing
machines exercising remote control over bodies, psychotic delusions constitute
a shadow history of electrical communication in the 20th century. An even
stronger claim is that modern communications in some way constitute or
make possible schizophrenia (see Kittler, 1993 [1984]). While bipolar disorders
seem to be found throughout human history, the cluster of symptoms we call
schizophrenia was not known before the 19th century. Madness, media and
modernity have something deep to do with each other (Sass, 1992), and much
work remains to be done.
During the 1960s, broadcast metaphors became standard in the psychiatric
diagnosis of schizophrenia, just as telepathic ones took off decades earlier.
Here is one of the first definitions of thought broadcasting, a key first-rank
symptom of schizophrenia (Mellor, 1970: 17):
The patient, during the process of thinking, has the experience that his thoughts are
not contained within his own mind. The thoughts escape from the confines of the
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self into the external world, where they may be experienced by all around. There
is usually a secondary delusional explanation for this phenomenon which may
invoke the use of telepathy, television, etc.

(The mad often use reason vigorously to support their madness.) Various
versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of
psychiatric categorization in the United States, list thought broadcasting as
a key indicator of schizophrenia, along with thought insertion, comment or
echo, passivity (i.e. remote control), etc. The list of first-rank symptoms is
based on the work of the influential German psychiatrist Kurt Schneider,
who helped to sharpen clinical definitions of schizophrenia by restricting it
to severe psychosis. Writing at mid century, in an era noisy with sound
technologies, his first-rank symptoms emphasized auditory hallucinations.
Thought broadcasting seems to have entered English-language psychiatry as
a happy mistranslation of his term Gedankenausbreitung (diffusion of
thoughts), which does not have the same media connotation in German.
Since patients are not always precise and psychiatrists are not always
interested in media metaphors, thought broadcasting is not always
consistently defined (Koehler, 1979). Usually it means that ones thoughts
are being sent abroad from a leaky brain like a broadcast transmission for
all to hear. (A closely related first-rank symptom is that of thoughts
becoming audible.) But it can also mean that actual radio and television
stations serve as occult dispersers of ones thoughts. As one patient reports
(Anonymous, 1996):
I believed I only had to think something and it would be transmitted over radio and
television. For example, I remember being scared of getting into a conversation
and argument with radio commentator Barry Farber in New York when I disagreed
with him; I felt as if my thoughts were being broadcast during the long pauses
between his sentences.

This patient took the para-social invitation seriously or figured out how to
pull off the Brechtian project of gaining access to the means of broadcasting.
He acted as if he stood in communicative parity with media celebrities.
Faces and voices, sounds and images flying invisibly through the air in an
overlapping jumble of channels modern electrical media have a psychotic
core (Hagen, 2001: 132). A 1990s case involved a Mr Simpson who had the
delusion that his apartment was the center of a large communication system
that involves all three major television networks, staffed by multiple people
and costing millions of dollars. His neighbors were actors, hidden cameras
monitored his actions, and aerial machines intruded upon his thoughts. When
he is watching TV, many of his minor actions (e.g. going to the bathroom) are
soon directly commented on by the announcer. His neighbors operated two
machines. One inserted harassing voices into his head many times each day,
suggesting what stocks to buy, for instance. The other was a dream machine
that put erotic dreams into his head (DSM-IV-TR Casebook, 2002: 102).
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Mr Simpsons persecution anxieties resemble mid 1990s broadcasting with


its three networks; large, expensive technology; stock market reports; and
adult content industry. But he inverts the funnel of broadcast discourse,
acting as if he were its subject rather than object. The violation in his mind is
that a public apparatus focuses on a single person, perversely switching its
format from one-to-many to many-to-one. In short, Mr Simpson acted as if
his first name were O.J. For the privilege of being the subject of mass
attention like a celebrity he forfeited his claim to private life. The 1998
film, The Truman Show, also played on the delusion of celebrity grandeur, of
living in a hellish media bubble.
Thought broadcasting is usually distinguished from another first-rank
symptom called delusions of reference, the technical term for Colleen
Nestlers complaint, which involve reading broadcast messages as personally
addressed: the person believes that certain gestures, comments, passages from
books, newspapers, song lyrics, or other environmental cues are specifically
directed at him or her (DSM-IV, 1994: 275). Here what psychiatry treats too
innocently as the environment is the repertoire of modern media. Thought
broadcasting is a disorder of transmission; delusions of reference are a
disorder of reception. In one, the brain is felt to broadcast thoughts; in the
other, broadcast programs are ripe with personal messages and meanings.
Both have to do with boundary confusions in the context and addressing
of messages. In thought broadcasting a for-someone (for-me) structure,
consciousness, becomes for-anyone; in delusions of reference a for-anyone
structure, the airwaves, becomes for-me without the mediating as-structure
that is so important for Scannells argument. One takes the private
(thought) as public (broadcasting); the other takes the public (broadcasting)
as private (thought).

VI
Celebrities engage in institutionally sanctioned forms of excess: money, sex,
drugs and styles of communication. Broadcast celebrities are ritually permitted
to carry on schizophrenic discourse. (The mentally ill, Goffman argued, lack
just this permission.) Celebrities are trained to monitor every single gesture
they make as if it were rife with potential significance, to address sound and
image machines in jumbled takes that can be edited later, and to speak to
absent strangers as if they were friends. If someone in my living room spoke
like David Letterman does on the air I would think they were crazy. As we
know from conversation analysis, everyday talk is exquisitely tailored to the
intricacies of local situations. But media personae fail to engage contextual
contingencies at a rate that would be considered psychotic if they did it in
person. Lettermans delivery is utterly blind to the ostensive circumstances of
its reception. It is automatic, undeviating, unresponsive and auto-involved.

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Though brilliantly witty, he violates conversational maxims of relevance and


sincerity at every turn. What Goffman (1959) called alienation from interaction
applies to the situation of broadcasting as well as face-to-face talk. If it can be
disabling in everyday talk to consider the system of communication too closely,
in media reception it is essential.
Psychosis, in other words, is not limited to the receiving end of broadcasting.
At the center of 20th-century culture sat machines, radio and television, that
dispensed legitimized schizophrenic discourse. (In a different way telephone
discourse also breaks conversation into two schizoid halves that meet only in
an imaginary space; see Ronell, 1989.) Celebrities are, as Fred Turner suggests,
sane schizophrenics, whose successful media performance allows or
requires them to violate communicative norms. For Gregory Bateson (1958),
schizophrenia was precisely the inability to separate the relational from the
content level of communication. He developed this idea at the height of the
broadcast era, though he never to my knowledge studied the schismogenesis
found in the asymmetrical couplings of broadcasting. Celebrities systematically
confuse content and relational levels to an extreme degree. They invite us
into as many impossible situations as anyone, but most of us know how to slip
out of their double-binds.

VII
Since its emergence in the late 19th century, the concept of communication
has been shadowed by the specter of madness. In a sense madness is what
Amit Pinchevski (2005: 170) calls the corroborating contrary to
communication, and if one had to point to recurrent scenes in modern culture
of communication breakdown, schizophrenia would take first place. The
psychotics private world of symbolic (non)sense has long been regarded as
the epitome of blocked communication the hell of private meaning, as
opposed to the sanity that is in part defined by reference to a horizon of
intersubjective commonality. The original meaning of autism [Autismus] as
defined by Bleuler was the barricade of incommunicable meaning conjured
by the schizophrenic (Pinchevski, 2005). Just as telepathy presented a utopia
of sharing, autism presented a dystopia in which sharing was impossible. The
philosophers of the late 19th century called this latter condition solipsism, and
the electrical engineers called it failure to reach syntony (radio contact). It
was the counterpart to telepathy. The dialectical pair of schizophrenia and
autism has been in play ever since.
Cross-cultural study shows one thing specific to our conception of madness:
the notion of the private ownership of thoughts. A surprising number of
diagnostic criteria and symptoms for schizophrenia hold across cultures. One
study explores the translation of diagnostic concepts into Iban, a language
spoken by an agricultural people in Malaysian Borneo. Symptoms such as

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auditory hallucinations readily transfer from European psychiatry into Iban oral
poetry. Thought disorders, in contrast, are understood as speech disorders by
the Iban: there is no cultural model of other beings knowing your unspoken
inner thoughts. There is a cultural model for disorders of the privacy of speech,
not thought (Barrett, 2004: 97). The body in Iban culture can be invaded by
foreign objects guided by magical spells, but not the mind by foreign thoughts
since the Iban lack our norm of mental privacy. An interview between
the ethnographer and a woman named Umang, who had suffered from
psychotic episodes, takes a rather comic turn when he probes her about
thought broadcasting:
Me:
Umang:
Me:
Umang:
Me:

Do people at large know your thoughts, even when you dont speak?
Yes, they know the thoughts that I have broadcast (put about).
Ah, how do they know if you dont talk?
Thats because I have told them previously.
Oh. You have told them previously. (Barrett, 2004: 979)

The inquiry grinds to a halt as the ethnographer realizes that disembodied


thoughts apart from speech are not a relevant category. The tables are turned:
the ethnographer asks about the crazy notion of spreading naked thought
broadcasts, while Umang embodies good sense! In the classic ethnographic
mandate, we cosmopolitan readers become strangers to ourselves and have to
rethink what we mean by person, mind, thought and sanity. To imagine
thought broadcasting as a pathology at all requires us to assume that thoughts
are private property enclosed in heads that are opaque to other people.
While there are clearly organic factors in mental illness, there is also clearly
something quite insane in our cultures supposition that communication should
be personal mental sharing. Perhaps schizophrenics are not the ones who
violate the ideal of communication as the sharing of thoughts; they are the ones
who take it most seriously. They show us what it would be like to live in a
delirious world without walls. Association with others would be the angelic
bliss of instant transparency and the cacophonous horror of having no place
to hide. Delusions such as thought broadcasting are the hidden truth of the
ideal of perfect communication. Liberated from all barriers, communication
would be indistinguishable from madness. Everyone, instantly, could perceive
our half-baked private thoughts and feelings. Telepathy would be bedlam. The
mad do not violate norms of communication; they show us what it would mean
to take seriously the project of transmitting our unique funds of mental meaning.
They somehow didnt learn to abandon the promise of a personally meaningful
world. (In this madness is a distorted index of justice as well.) Mind-reading,
longed for as a release from what Hocking called the detention of thought,
might well be a curse.
Sanity may be the practice of interpreting communication dully in knowing
how to reject the claim that everything is significant. Schizophrenias
hermeneutic is too hot. Its disorder is not that things are evacuated of meaning,

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but that there is too much of it. A C on a baseball cap does not, alas, stand
for Colleen but for the Chicago Cubs. The delusional find it hard to leave
media as common carriers of extrapersonal significance. They imagine they
are celebrities, responsible for calculating the resonance of every little
gesture. Everything buzzes with meaning. Nothing is random: everything is
an event. The signs are all for-me. For the sane, in contrast, significant
events are rare. The stoic assumption that no message, even face-to-face, is
ever really for-me is a healthy ethical and interpretive principle indeed. How
grateful we can then be for those rare marvelous moments of connection!
Signs are inherently public. They are structures that carry something in
common to more than one consciousness (even if it is the same person later
in time). In the realm of signs, there is no such thing as a unique for-someone
structure. There may be dentures that only fit one person, but a sign that only
fits one person would not be a sign. Of course there are signs that only a few
can access, such as the obscure codes that lovers can develop and that fans
may think they share with stars. But the privacy here is pragmatic rather than
semantic, circumscribed usage rather than semiotic secrecy. The meaning is
not private; the access is. Even if you call my name and whisper something
known only to you and me, there is nothing in principle about the message
that could not be received by others. The address may be exclusive, but the
right to interpret meaning is open to whoever possesses the code. Meaning is
not mental.
VIII
Madness, especially schizophrenia, was once at the center of the intellectual
agenda. A wide range of mid-20th-century thinkers such as Gregory Bateson,
Bruno Bettelheim, Gilles Deleuze, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Erich
Fromm, Erving Goffman, Jrgen Habermas, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan,
Harold Lasswell, John Lilly, Margaret Mead, Joost Meerloo, Jurgen Ruesch,
Harry Stack Sullivan and Paul Watzlawick followed Sigmund Freud and Karl
Jaspers in seeing psychopathology as the key to understanding modernity
and communication. The anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and the
general replacement of the talking cure with psychopharmacological
treatment in the past couple of decades have shifted intellectual fascination
largely away from schizophrenia.
So perhaps have changing practices of communication. The impossibility
of communication, a theme central to 20th-century philosophy, literature,
drama, sociology and experience, seems to be losing its pathos. This theme,
like that of schizophrenia, found in broadcasting its natural habitat. As analog
media retreat from our lives, the ghosts have fewer homes to dwell in. As we
network ourselves in searchable social utilities and carry around contact
devices on our persons, the fear of losing touch with others forever seems to

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be withering away. (Except for death, which no one has yet learned how to
cheat.) Media programming and advertising are increasingly personalized.
The divide between interpersonal and mediated communication is blurring.
No longer is speaking into the air considered appropriate for broadcasting but
tragic (or comic) for interpersonal relationships. People now broadcast
themselves on YouTube and accumulate friends in social networking sites.
They walk around in public, talking animatedly to an invisible partner and
nobody thinks they are crazy. Anyone with a music player can simulate the
radiohead experience of having voices and sounds emanating from the center
of their skull. The new regime seems messier and more pragmatic; less
delusional but more socially stunted. Who needs telepathy when you have
texting? Or thought broadcasting when you have Twitter?
Perhaps it is a good thing that we are starting to bid farewell to ideas of
communication that make telepathy and solipsism the options for human
contact, and stigmatize or glamorize those whose thoughts and feelings do
not obey the rules. Telepathy haunted the dawn of broadcasting, and thought
broadcasting and similar delusions haunted its high noon. In the twilight of
broadcasting, when peer-to-peer and one-to-many practices are no longer
neatly divided between wired and wireless infrastructures, Minervas owl is
carrying off a concept of communication that has not, in the end, been very
helpful for dealing with the real madness of the world injustice, inequality
and violence though that concept once did its best to establish a public
space in which we could discuss these perennials. What was once mad or
uncanny is now routine: hearing disembodied voices and speaking to nobody
in particular. The old norm of unitary self and plural democracy personal
telephony and impersonal broadcasting might have it precisely backwards.
Sanity in the self might mean precisely the ability to entertain multiple
voices, just as a healthy democracy might mean the ability to settle on a
single outcome (such as a legitimate election). The task is to pluralize the
one and unify the many.
A final speculation in the twilight of broadcasting: in a world in which
peer-to-peer communications occur via mediated devices as freely as they do
via the flesh, we are facing new disorders of address. Our fate is less the
confusion of the broadcast and the personal than the blurring of the sociable
and the technical. In a digital age, large segments of our species carry out
much of their social lives by machine. Interactive, portable, keyboarded
devices are nudging out audiovisual genres as dominant modes of everyday
communication. Schizophrenias vocal-aural delusions fit with the radio,
television, and telephone, media that were saturated with nonverbal codes and
simulated sociability. Digital media, in contrast, favor data-processing and
logistical convenience over the staging of face-to-face interaction. The it
disease for new media, with their low-affect machine interfaces, appears to be
autism. But that is another story.

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Acknowlegements
For commentary and criticism I would like to thank Jonah Bossewitch, Paul Frosh,
Rubn Gallo, Gina Giotta, Andriy Ischenko, Jin Kim, Ladi Kukoyi, Ben Peters, Amit
Pinchevski, Paddy Scannell, Bernhard Siegert, and Fred Turner, and audiences at
Iowa, Princeton, UC Santa Barbara, USC, and Columbia for comments on earlier versions. No one else is responsible for my opinions. This essay is for Paddy Scannell.

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John Durham Peters is F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of


Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. His research interest is the
philosophy and history of media. He is the author of Speaking into the Air
(1999) and Courting the Abyss (2005). Address: University of Iowa,
Department of Communication Studies, 105 BCSB Iowa City Iowa 52240,
United States[email: john-peters@uiowa.edu]

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