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Living by Signs, Songs and Speeches : INTERNATIONAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF COMMUNICATIONS (Oxford University Press and the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania: $350; 4 volumes, 1,913 pp.)

June 11, 1989|Norman Corwin | Corwin is a visiting professor at USC's School of Journalism. His last book was "Trivializing America." and

There are surprises in this encyclopedia. One expects articles on hieroglyphs, folklore, institutions, literacy, diplomacy, media, symbols, propaganda, religious codes, photojournalism--but Clothing? Coins? Eyes? Smell? Gossip? Tourism? Terrorism? Hair? Physical space between people? Muzak? Pornography? Rumor? The urinal as an art object? The song repertoire of the brown thrasher? The tympanal organs of locusts?

It turns out that there is nothing antic about such entries. They are all legitimate, they all belong, and so many essays are downright fascinating that one is tempted to read the volumes incrementally, in one's sweet time, from all four covers to all four covers.

Considering that communication is universal and basic to all animal species, that writing is 5,000 years old, that half a millennium has passed since Gutenberg; that film, radio, television, microchip and satellite have produced a communications revolution that is still expanding, it is hard to believe that there has not been an encyclopedic work in the field until now.

International Encyclopedia of Communications, hereinafter called IEC, is a beauty. Most of it, anyway. It is printed in two colors, generously illustrated, arranged both alphabetically and topically, consistent in style, never loose, never digressive, never argumentative. It is also resourceful, responsible, at times a bit scant, but sure of its ground even then. The tone is cool, clear, precise and preponderately academic, reflecting the makeup of its 442 credited contributors: 369 professors, scholars, lecturers, archivists and curators; 19 researchers; 30 executives from media; 10 publishers and editors, 3 film makers. All under the editorial chieftancy of Erik Barnouw, America's foremost historian of broadcasting and documentary film.

Major areas of international communications are covered--ancient, modern, interspecies, nonverbal, linguistic, literary. The work is an omnium-gatherum of the best sort: It takes in media, education, print, broadcasting, advertising, computers, religion, theater and hundreds of other subjects, going into areas both familiar and exotic in its nearly 2,000 pages.

While IEC is sound enough to satisfy discriminating scholars, it also invites mining for nuggets, and that can be sport. Take for example the aforementioned species of brown thrasher, which, like most birds, communicates by song. Studies have turned up "an individual" endowed with "an enormous vocabulary" of more than 2,000 documented different songs.

Under Funerary Art we learn that in certain medieval Christian rituals, it was the custom to disperse parts of the body by burying the heart in one church, the bowels in a second, and the shell of the body in a third. Three distinct monuments were erected, and this worked out nicely for a clergy which benefited from threefold endowments, one per burial of each section. (I was reminded of a Mark Twain observation: "In a museum in Havana there are two skulls of Christopher Columbus, one when he was a boy and one when he was a man.")

There are 10 different entries for Eyes, including animal signals, body decoration and "proxemics" (a word coined in 1963 by an American anthropologist to describe "cultural patterning of mutual sensory involvement of people in face-to-face encounters"). Two volumes earlier, we are told that in ancient Sanskrit dramaturgy, there were 36 stylized signs and movements of the eyes to indicate "complex correspondences, moods, and states of mind, universalized in the direct experience of the competent Sanskrit audience."

It is to a competent international audience that IEC is addressed, and the product more than meets the corresponding obligation to be competent itself. Though occasionally certain articles may be pushy on coinages and words not yet admitted to unabridged dictionaries ( dystopian, cantometrics, dipromity, actanial, ethnopoetics, addressivity, fotonovela, phasmatrope ), there are small grounds for complaint, since all these and other high-flown terms are amply explained and nobody gets hurt.

Occasionally the writing is not only informative but judicious, as in a definition of pornography which perhaps surpasses anything yet formulated by a court: "Pornography defines erotic desire by isolating it from the contexts of medicine and scientific rationality as well as from aesthetic analysis; thus it slips through the categories of thought that we use to organize our knowledge and culture. And yet it has become, at least in Western countries, part of the public agenda, a matter for commissions and public inquiries, confirming the observation once made by the French historian Foucault that we are the only civilization in which officials are paid to listen to people talk about sex."

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