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Reception Theory and Communication Theory

Numerous books and essays have already been produced about 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 a certain reaction from critics, fellow writers and philosophers, or governmental authorities. However, this method is unsatisfactory, especially when we apply Sartre’s own standards.

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 into 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 very much 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 the author’s and the readers’ fundamental choices, as a function of the situations in which author and readers find themselves. Sartre’s approach requires both a psychological and a sociological understanding of the reception process.

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 amongst the other philosophical journals, and the field in which Sartre operated and in which Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were 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 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 gone through processes of constitution and personalization, acts, either alone or—most often—in groups. Communicating is a very important way of acting, not at least for intellectuals. Sartre and the communication theory share the view that to communicate is to act: “la parole est action.”[9] So did John Austin in his 1955 lecture series How to Do Things with Words and later John R. Searle. Both taxonomies that Austin and Searle developed[10] are compatible with Sartre’s theory. When Sartre reproached Flaubert and the brothers Goncourt 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 clearly understood as a form of acting.

Acting in groups always involves communication. Communication is almost always bidirectional. The unidirectional look as analyzed in L’être et le néant is less typical than the communication Sartre described as concrete relations such as masochism and sadism in ch. 3 of part three of L’être et le néant. What 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 deliver messages to his readers: “délivrer des messages à ses lecteurs”[11]. Both, Sartre and communication theory focus on the message rather than the text. Depending on the situation (the “context” in the language of communication theory), the same text can have a different meaning, that is, the messages can be different. We can distinguish between precise, concrete messages (e.g. “I have a video conference at 9 a.m.”) and “meta-messages” (e.g. “according to Marx, class struggle is the engine of history”). Meta-messages form the core of what Jean-François Lyotard called the meta-narratives (méta-récits) in his 1979 work La condition postmoderne.

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. Important errors can be when the sender decides not to send a message and 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 are a considerable number of important works that Sartre did not publish during his lifetime. As for the second case, Sartre was 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]

What Sartre specifically supplies to better understand causes of 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 the process of coding and decoding, temporality is present in all its three dimensions—past (constitution), present (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, whereas the wording in philosophical and political texts did not always testify to great care. Sartre was also quite 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 in between.

Only in rare cases do sender and receiver communicate directly with each other. In this context, communication theory introduced the concepts of repeaters 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 that have the capability to jam, such as governmental or religious institutions that enact laws and religious norms, and social taboos.

AS we can see, communication is a highly complicated process. It is not surprising that the number of errors in communication are high. Since Sartre’s thinking was highly controversial, his reception is characterized by many distorted and failed messages. And this also affected the meta-messages and the narratives about Sartre.

[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