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Reception Theory and Communication Theory

Numerous books and essays have already been published on the reception of Sartre’s work and thought. Most of them follow the classical scheme of historiography: Sartre wrote a text that is confronted with reactions of critics such as fellow writers and philosophers, or governmental authorities. However, this method is unsatisfactory, especially when Sartre’s own standards are applied.

Sartre conceived author and reader as creators of a work on a par in Qu’est-ce que la literature? Sartre thus largely anticipated Hans Robert Jauss’s highly influential reception esthetics[1]. For both, the process of creating a literary oeuvre ends only with its reading by the readers.[2] According to Jauss, referring to Hans-Georg Gadamer's Truth and Method, it is the readers who ultimately decide the fate of a book. Jauss brought to the discussion an aspect the classical historical method of reception theory has mostly overlooked: the importance of the reader for the outcome of the reception process. While Jauss focused almost exclusively on the reader, Sartre treated author and reader on a par. To understand the reception of a work, we must understand both the author and the reader. And understanding, according to Sartre’s own regressive-progressive method, means that we must understand fundamental choices of the author and the readers as a function of the situations in which author and readers find themselves.

In the last nearly forty years, the studies of the reception of Sartre’s work and thought have seen several innovative approaches based on sociology. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, Anna Boschetti’s book Sartre et “Les Temps Modernes”[3] describes Sartre’s habitus, the position of Les Temps Modernes among other journals, and the field in which Sartre operated with Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty as important players.

Other sociological approaches have been developed by Randall Collins and Patrick Baert. In his book of more than a thousand pages, The Sociology of Philosophies[4], Collins focuses primarily on personal networks such as acquaintances and master–pupil ties. In the case of Sartre, he emphasizes the importance of his old friends from the ENS time, new friends like Camus, and, more interestingly, philosophers living in France who had at least a certain background in Germany such, as Bernard Groethuysen, Emanuel Levinas, Alexandre Koyré, and Alexandre Kojève.

Patrick Baert has even devoted an entire book to Sartre: The Existentialist Moment. The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual [5]. In his seminal essay, Positioning Theory and Intellectual Interventions, he emphasizes the importance of “the range of rhetorical devices which the authors employ to locate themselves (and position others)” and that an intellectual intervention “does not have an intrinsic meaning as such; it acquires its meaning in a particular setting”[6], including the author’s status, position, and trajectory. Each of these sociological approaches has its merits. Their main shortcoming is that the reader is even more forgotten than in the case of classical historiography.

The idea of resorting to communication theory may seem strange at first. C. E. Shannon’s first paper was entitled A Mathematical Theory of Communication and was published in the Bell System Technical Journal in 1948.[7] Except for the first three pages, the essay consists entirely of mathematics. Warren Weavers introduction entitled Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication in their joint 1964 book The Mathematical Theory of Communication is more readable[8].

Nevertheless, Sartre and these founders of communication theory have much in common. Not only for Shannon and Weaver, but also for Sartre, communication is central to his thinking. Sartre’s philosophy is essentially action theory based on certain psychological and sociological concepts. The situated subject, having undergone processes of constitution and personalization, acts, either alone or—most often—in groups. Communicating is a very important way of acting, not least for intellectuals. Sartre and the communication theory share the view that communicating is acting: “la parole est action.”[9] This understanding is also shared with the speech act theory of John Austin, as first presented in his 1955 lecture series How to Do Things with Words, and of John R. Searle. Both taxonomies that Austin and Searle developed[10] are highly compatible with Sartre’s understanding of what communicating means. When Sartre reproached Flaubert and the Goncourt brothers for not speaking out against repression at the time of the Paris Commune, he was implicitly calling on all other writers to become politically committed, not with guns, but with words: speaking was understood as a form of acting.

Acting in groups always involves communication. Communication is mostly bidirectional. The unidirectional look as analyzed in L’être et le néant is less typical of communication than the relations Sartre described in chapter 3 of part three of L’être et le néant as concrete relations of masochism and sadism. An important aspect that Sartre made clear with his analysis of the look is that communication need not be verbal, but can also be nonverbal.

The core of the communicative act is the message that the sender sends to the receiver. Sartre wrote that the writer’s task is to convey messages to his readers: “délivrer des messages à ses lecteurs”[11]. Both, Sartre and communication theory focus on the message rather than the text. This is what Sartre and communication theory have in common with hermeneutics and what distinguishes them from analytic philosophy with its focus on the text. The distinction between message and text is important because it is the prerequisite for analyzing whether the message, as conceived by the sender, has actually reached the receiver.

With regard to messages, a distinction can be made between precise, concrete messages (e.g. “I have a video conference at 9 a.m.”) and more abstract “meta-messages” (e.g. “according to Marx, class struggle is the engine of history”). Meta-messages summarize the many concrete messages sent and received in a few concise words. In the context of reception theory, meta-messages—hereafter referred to as “messages” for short—are of particular interest. In connection with these messages, we are interested in questions such as the content of the messages and their context within a certain narrative, but also whether the received messages are identical with the sent ones, because this is obviously not always the case.

Communication theory provides us with a system and termini technici for the various aspects of the communication process. First of all, the communication process is understood as a process that begins with encoding and ends with decoding of a message. In both sub-processes, “errors” can occur. An important kind of error is when the sender decides not to send a message or the receiver refuses to receive the message at all or in an appropriate form. The first case of the sender not sending a message is of particular relevance to Sartre, since there is a considerable number of important works that Sartre did not publish during his lifetime. As for the second case, Sartre made it clear that the sender cannot force the reader to receive a message. A work is merely an appeal by the author and the reader is free to receive a message or not.[12] Of even greater importance is that kind of error that falls in the category of “misunderstandings”: the message is received, but the content of the received message does not match the content of the sent message.

What Sartre specifically supplies with regard to errors is a model of how to understand sender and receiver. According to his regressive-progressive method, an individual is to be understood as someone who has undergone repeated processes of constitution and personalization. While the process of constitution refers in particular to a person’s upbringing, the process of personalization is reflected in the human being’s fundamental choice (“choix fondamental”). In order to understand the process of encoding and decoding, we have to examine the past of the persons involved applying methods as used in history and sociology and the persons’ fundamental choices applying methods as used in psychotherapy and as proposed in Sartre’s own “existential psychoanalysis.” In such an analysis, temporality is present in all its three dimensions—past (constitution), present (current situation) and future (personalization).

A second important concept of communication theory is that of “channels”. This concept is of particular importance because Sartre masterfully played on various channels, from visits and lectures, books of philosophical and literary content, theater and film to essays and interviews in newspapers and journals, even television and radio broadcasts. Sartre was well aware that each channel has its own laws. He wrote very carefully when producing literature, while the wording in philosophical and political texts did not always testify to great care. Sartre was also aware of the peculiarities of each form of literary language. It is known that he differentiated between poetry and prose, stating that in poetry form is more important and in prose content is more important. Less well known is his distinction between theater and film. He declared film to be the ideal vehicle for the representation of psychological processes and theater for the representation of philosophical ideas, with novels and short stories falling somewhere in between.

Only in rare cases do sender and receiver communicate directly with each other. To better describe the processes, communication theory introduced the terms "repeater" and "noise." “Repeaters” amplify the signal and forward it to other persons. Important repeaters in our context are translators, stage and film directors, publishers and producers, journalists and critics, as well as professors and teachers at universities and schools. Each repeater goes through a process of decoding and encoding and each repeater is a potential source of errors. “Noise” has to be distinguished from repeaters. Those that produce noise are trying to jam the transmission of a message. In the case of jammers, we must distinguish between official organizations with the capability of jamming, such as governmental or religious institutions that enact laws and religious norms, and social taboos.

Communication is a highly complicated process, prone to errors. Messages may not be received or only in a distorted form. Since Sartre’s thinking was highly controversial, his reception is characterized by many distorted and failed messages—the more controversial messages are, the higher the number of errors to be expected in the communication process. On of the core tasks in any text dealing with the reception of ideas is to search for messages that failed to be conveyed or were received only in a distorted form.

Communication theory focuses primarily on the communication of individual processes. In order to make this theory more useful for reception theory, an enhancement by the two terms "narrative" and "social role" is recommended. When Jean-François Lyotard wrote about meta-narratives (méta-récits) in his 1979 work La condition postmoderne, he was thinking of meta-narratives that, as Weltanschauungen, explain the world we live in, such as religions, ideologies, and philosophies. Narratives in general can be understood not only as Anschauungen about the world, but also about authors, philosophies, books, etc. Narratives can also contain one or more messages, even at the most abstract level of messages. Although messages play the most important role in reception theory, it should be remembered that they are usually part of a narrative. Narratives are products of history. Usually, several narratives exist simultaneously. Narratives appear and disappear, and they may also be the subject of social and political struggles.

Communication theory focuses primarily on the communication of individual processes. In order to make better use of the possibilities that communication theory offers us for reception, it is recommended to extend communication theory by the two concepts of the "narrative" and the "social role." The concept of narrative became known as meta-narrative (méta-récits) through Lyotard's book La condition postmoderne. As an overarching term, it encompasses not only Weltanschauungen such as religions, ideologies, and philosophies, but Anschauungen in general, including those about philosophers, their thought, and their œuvre. Narratives are characterized by the fact that they can contain more than one message. They are products of history and, accordingly, are subject to the historical process of emergence and disappearance. At a given point in time, there are usually several competing narratives. Accordingly, social and political history can be understood as the history of the struggle of different narratives.

The concept of "situation"—called "context" in communication theory—was one of the concepts most dear to Sartre and his thought. In the situation, the for-itself and the in-itself, unconditional consciousness and conditioned history meet. Every action and communication takes place in precisely —also spatially and temporally—defined situations or "contexts". In order to better distinguish situations, it is advisable to include the concept of social role in the model of reception, because social role exerts a decisive influence on what and how sender and receiver communicate with each other. Adults will communicate with their siblings about different topics and in a different way than they do with their bosses at work. Communication depends very much on the role the sender and the receiver take and the role assigned to them by the Other. This can be seen again and again in the case of Sartre. His communication differed depending on whether he was expressing himself on philosophical or political issues, or to politically very engaged people like John Gerassi and Benny Lévy, or people like Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka.

[1] Cf. H. R. Jauss, “Literaturgeschichte als Provokation der Literaturwissenschaft“ in id., Literaturgeschichte als Provokation, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1970, p. 144-207.

[2] J.-P. Sartre, “Qu’est-ce que la littérature” in id., Situations III, Gallimard, Paris, p. 49.

[3] A. Boschetti, Sartre et “Les Temps Modernes”, Éditions de Minuit, Paris 1985.

[4] R. Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 1998.

[5] P. Baert, The Existentialist Moment. The Rise of Sartre as a Public Intellectual, Polity, Cambridge 2015.

[6] P. Baert, “Positioning Theory and Intellectual Interventions” in Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Sept. 2012, 42, 3, p. 304.

[7] C. E. Shannon: “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” The Bell System Technical Journal, XXVII, no. 3, July 1948, pp. 379–423.

[8] Warren Weaver, “Recent Contributions to the Mathematical Theory of Communication” in: Claude E. Shannon/Warren Weaver: The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Urbana: The Univ. of Illinois Press, 1964, pp. 1–28.

[9] J.-P. Sartre, “Qu’est-ce que la littérature” in id., Situations III, Gallimard, Paris, p. 28.

[10] J. Austin in How to Do Things with Words (1962; verdictives, exercitives, commissives, expositives, behabitives), J. R. Searle in “A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts” (1975; assertives, directives, commissives, expressives, declarations).

[11] J.-P. Sartre, “Qu’est-ce que la littérature”, p. 32.

[12] Ivi., p. 49.

Modell Sender - Receiver