Garnet C. Butchart, Embodiment, Relation, Community: A Continental Philosophy of Communication. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019; 199 pages. ISBN: 978-0271083254.

Reviewed by Kurt Pabst, University of Alberta.

“The Evening Visitor,” a painting by Jean Paul Lemieux, adorns the cover of Garnet C. Butchart’s book Embodiment, Relation, Community: A Continental Philosophy of Communication. In sombre shades of grey, the painting depicts a lone, faceless figure with a cat-eared hat floating on a wintery plain. While this might seem an odd choice for a book on community, relation, and human communication, it proves quite apt. For with Butchart’s text, we are dealing with a work of—not on—philosophy, a fact that prefigures the signifying function of the painting: like the owl of Minerva who takes flight only at dusk, the evening visitor is the philosophical encounter.  

In this sense, as philosophical encounter, the work comes off as quite daring. As Butchart admits, the perspective he develops here is “outside” and “marginal” to mainstream thinking about human communication, particularly the Anglo-American approach and its fidelity to mechanical transmission models and the metaphysical notions of the subject they support. (21) Touching on such topics as communication and the impossibility of non-communication, communication and/as immunization, bodily presence and dis-integration, and law and human community as being-with, Butchart encourages readers to think communication beyond the segregationist logic informing the sender/receiver models favored by the Anglo-American tradition. (141) “Although language enables speech and writing as vehicles for idea transmission,” he writes, “communication must also be understood ontologically, as fundamental to being human.” (63) Embodiment, Relation, Community moves towards such an understanding by exploring human communication “from the bottom,” from its philosophical foundations, as a phenomenon not simply of utility but one “loaded with the bond of community.” (3) 

As an award-winning scholar who holds an associate professorship at Duquesne University, the arc of Butchart’s publishing career can be read as prepping the field of Anglo-American Communication Studies for just such an encounter. Early works of cultural criticism and social theory explore contemporary applications of semiotics and communicology, while revealing a polished grasp of the Lacanian conceptual apparatus. The coming encounter was signalled in 2012, with the publication of an anthology, co-edited with Briankle G. Chang, titled Philosophy of Communication. Butchart followed this with the publication of two articles. While one uses psychoanalytic theory to conceptualize the epistemological problematic organizing the field of communications theory around a humanist/anti-humanist dichotomy, the other uses Jean-Luc Nancy’s method of “semiotic phenomenology” to explore issues in the relation between language and community. Significantly, both appear in revised versions as the first and fifth (final) chapter of the work presently under review. If the 2012 anthology announces the philosophical encounter, then Embodiment, Relation, Community stages it. 

“The goal of the research presented in this volume,” writes Butchart, “is a philosophical description of human communication in its law-like, immunizing function within a social formation, a mode of enabling and limiting individual expression that also contains and curbs the potential for collective conflict.” (117) In presenting the results of this research, the work engages with a well-curated line-up of thinkers—Jacques Lacan, Giorgio Agamben, Roberto Esposito, and Jean-Luc Nancy—all of whom have been selected on the basis of “the attention they pay to the materially binding intersection of language, subjectivity, and communication—that is, the phenomena and human experiences of embodied communication communities.” (9)

In surveying Butchart’s argument, two interrelated questions emerge. First, he asks what is happening within a field like Communications Studies at the moment of its turn in/to philosophy. Or, stated differently, at what point does it become necessary for the field to give itself up to a philosophical re-articulation? Second, the question arises, what does Butchart mean by contemporary when he speaks of a contemporary Continental perspective? Answers to these questions might be gleaned from a consideration of the way the work divides itself into two main parts that fall across its seven chapters (an introduction, five core chapters, and an epilogue). 

The first part, which unfolds across the introduction and first two chapters, considers what justifies treating communication as an object of philosophical investigation. For this justification, Butchart looks at the epistemological impasse characterizing the field of Communication Studies. While it is conceptually convenient to imagine this impasse as that which captures and diverts contemporary thinking about human communication into dualistic discourses (such as humanism vs. anti-humanism), Butchart is clear he has no desire to rehearse the “worn out debates” upholding such binary conceptions. (12) Rather, his focus is on that which seems to open and sustain the divide and which he refers to as the field’s “unfinished history.” (13) Significantly, he locates this opening in the ambivalence within the field towards one of its fundamental presuppositions, the impossibility of non-communication, stating “[t]he fact that this presupposition has not yet been determined to be either completely true or false . . . indicates its continued relevance to the development of ongoing philosophical inquiry.” (13) As such, Giorgio Agamben’s concept of ban figures predominantly in this first half. It allows Butchart to reenter the space of interpretation enveloping the presupposition and rethink it in ways that go beyond strictly epistemological concerns. Specifically, the ban of language (and its association in Agamben’s thought with a certain conception of sovereignty) does two things: first, it brings to the fore the semiotic, and therefore, embodied dimension of human communication in the law-like experience of its injunction (one cannot not communicate); second, it introduces the logic of exclusive-inclusion into thinking about human communication. Together, these open up human communication to a more thoroughly ontological exploration of its dimensions. In the second half of the book, these considerations unfold. Here Butchart uses Roberto Esposito’s concept of communication as immunization as a pivot between Agamben’s notion of ban and what becomes the central category of his ontological description of human communication, the concept of being-with as elaborated in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy. In the end, Butchart offers a compelling and elegant re-interpretation of the field’s epistemological problematic as an ontological description of communication as a fundamental condition of intersubjective existence, the having-to-be-with others in community.   

In a way, we might read Butchart’s project as an attempt to shed new light on how we understand the relation between philosophy and its subject matter. As the evening motif suggests, philosophy comes on the scene post-festum. “When philosophy paints its grey in grey,” goes the Hegelian adage, “then has a shape of life grown old.” (OPR, 16) Evening, however, takes on a different connotation in Butchart’s philosophy of communication, because it is “the unfinished history of human communication study” (in assuming the form of an epistemological deadlock) that prompts the encounter. (13) Rather than allude to “a shape of life grown old,” the Evening Visitor invokes the untimeliness of philosophy in order to draw attention to its propensity to show up uninvited, albeit not entirely unexpected. 

Thus, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the place and function of philosophy vis-à-vis a particular field of study like human communication. In fact, I regard this as one of the book’s primary strengths, that alongside and in conversation with the details of its argument, the work invites readers to reflect more broadly on the nature of philosophy in terms of its relation to the different fields from which it draws its content. Butchart is himself cognizant of this aspect of the work when he writes of his resistance to offering a definitive definition of philosophy of communication, wishing instead for such things to remain “open,” such that this openness might then function “as an invitation to thinking.” (22) This invitation bestows on the work its unique persuasiveness and is what allows it to work against the tendency to regard the movement from (communication) theory to philosophy as absolute. In this way, the work practices what it preaches, so to speak. As an example of the logic of exclusive-inclusion espoused by, but also at work in Butchart’s text, neither theory nor philosophy retains the definitiveness of their initial points of departure, each having become unsettled—opened, as it were, toward thinking—in their encounter with the other.  

Opening the text is a brief but fascinating discussion of fraud and the legal threshold for its prosecution. Butchart uses his opening remarks to introduce readers to the jumping off point of his philosophical description, namely, the contemporary academic dis/consensus on human communication and its possibility. To be guilty of fraud, it is not enough to be in possession of forged documents (to unwittingly have received and passed off counterfeit currency, for instance). Crucially, it is the intent to defraud that must be established in order to secure a conviction. Therefore, a person is guilty of fraud who knows they are perpetrating a fraud. Within the crime of fraud, then, there is an example of the very possibility of communication. Communicative contact between subjects (exposure to the other) presupposes the possibility (and in the instance of fraud, the actualization) of a process of communication internal to each subject, i.e., self-consciousness. Hence, the impossibility of non-communication for subjects.

In the positivism of the Anglo-American tradition, the fact that one cannot not communicate grounds a metaphysical concept of the subject as a rational, autonomous speaker-subject. But as Butchart goes on to consider in the first chapter, the same premise also supports the anti-metaphysics of the Continental perspective (hence the epistemological impasse). Representative of this is Jacques Lacan, who approaches language not as a neutral medium but as the site of the subject’s alienation and perpetual disfigurement. Failure to make oneself clear nonetheless makes one thing clear—as rational agents (or split-subjects), one cannot not communicate. As linguistic creatures, meaning saturates even the silence of speaking subjects.  

With this, Butchart reads the field of Communication Studies’ “unfinished history” in the fault line of its epistemological problematic. Like stress fractures, once these internal tensions appear, they force the field into open opposition with itself over how it understands its object. This process makes the encounter with philosophy not only possible, but also necessary. Communication Studies is unable to secure the actor at the heart of its analysis, the communicating subject. The turn to a philosophy of communication, then, becomes clear when regarded as the form of the resolution of a problematic structuring the shared field of contemporary Communications theory. 

As to the second question posed above, it is important to note that while Butchart locates himself within a Continental philosophical framework, he situates himself at a point of tension internal to that framework. “One way to view this tension,” he writes, “is as a . . . working within the relation between two distinct intellectual traditions”: the linguistic paradigm of poststructuralism on the one hand, and phenomenology on the other. (8) Butchart, however, rejects the notion that this tension points to a previous “break” within the Continental tradition, suggesting instead his argument be read as exhibiting the “combined remnants of both” currents. (8) In this way, he is able to avoid falling back on the binary logic governing the epistemological impasse characterizing the study of human communication, while still being able to make productive use of it. The end result is a fascinating exploration of the ontological basis of communication in terms of Agamben’s logic of exclusive-inclusion, Esposito’s conception of immunization, and Nancy’s consideration of community in terms of the Heideggerian inflected category of being-with. Taken together, each permits the consideration of human communication as embodied experience, that is, as contact, co-being, and co-exposure. (147) By “contemporary” Continental perspective, then, Butchart means the tension between “thought of the linguistic” and “thought of the material,” a tension he sees as internal to the living Continental philosophical tradition. (7)

The accolades of the back cover hail the work as “indispensable,” as “the future of the field.” High praise, indeed, and not without justification. But the future of which field, Anglo-American Communication theory or a European-inflected Continental philosophy of communication? The question is less trivial than it seems. As much as the work can be said to distinguish between communication theory and a philosophy of communication, its real aim—the philosophical encounter/exposure—is to unsettle the distinction itself. What Butchart offers is not so much a work that traces the boundary between theory and philosophy, but one that might best be described as the opening of communication theory to the contaminating exposure of a contemporary Continental philosophical perspective. 

Embodiment, Relation, Community is a philosophical investigation of human communication aimed at resolving the epistemological problematic presented by Communication Studies’ inability to deal adequately with the longstanding problem of the impossibility of non-communication and the destabilizing effect of this problem on the communicative subject. More specifically, Butchart resolves this longstanding problematic with  an ontological account in which the possibility of human community in communicative practices is laid bare. Any academic, student, or philosopher with even a modest interest in either Communications Studies or the range of fields intersecting or adjacent to it will find Embodiment, Relation, Community a worthwhile read. Caught as we all are in the fray of communication, one could easily lose track of the times, were it not for the untimely arrival of the evening visitor.

Additional Works Cited

G. W. F. Hegel (2008), Outlines of the Philosophy of Right, tr. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press).