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Extra channels

In the following, I would like to clarify the connection between channel and context and concomitantly the difference between metachannel and parachannel.

Paul Kockelman urges us "to notice the fundamental similarity between codes and channels" (2011: 725) but instead of that purported fundamental similarity points out the contrast between them. I argue that context, or objects and states of affairs (Bühler 2011[1934]: 35), demonstrate a closer relationship to channel than to code.

This is largely because the first three fundamental relations, sender or subject, context or object, and receiver or addressee, belong to Bühler's original organon model while code, contact and message, which were previously implicit in the organon model, are made explicit as additions to the model by Jakobson (1985[1976c]). Thus the most productive approach would be to pair a component from the original organon model with an additional component in the language functions model. When you add Jakobson's extra components to Bühler's original model, the contact component is very naturally positioned between the sender and receiver and opposite of the context (or objects and states of affairs). In fact, before channel was brought out as a separate component it was implicit in the "states of affairs": you cannot point to an object and capture another's attention through this signal without there being a transmission medium, a channel, through which the signal could be conveyed.
The connection between channel and context also makes a lot of sense when they are replaced by circumlocutions: context can be understood as verbal context (context in this sense amounts to co-text, the verbal material surrounding the given utterance); and channel can be understood as nonverbal situation, the physical surroundings (environment) and the medium through which communication occurs. There are of course problems with these definitions; the most problematic issue at present day is the lack of consideration for newer forms of communication. Dipti Kulkarni, for example, went through great pains to interpret Jakobson's "physical channel" as attention and "psychological connection" as interest and agreement (Kulkarni 2014: 119). Although this is a suitable reduction for her purposes of studying phatic utterances in instant messages, it does consciously avoid the question of what is "physical" in computer mediated communication. But since it's such a difficult issue to tackle, I'll leave it be for the moment.

I'd much rather like to suggest a solution through an expansion of the channel component by turning to other, older, approaches. Thus, I would identify the "physical channel" aspect with the possibility of a metachannel, or a physical "channel of observation" (Cherry 1977[1957]: 91) connected to an object-channel (the speech-circuit between A and B). And while the concept of metachannel has existed on the worn pages of 1950s communication theory, I would like to step on thin ice and suggest the concept of parachannel as the concomitant of "psychological connection". This addition is based upon the pronominal "verbal persons" aspect of the original organon model; namely, that Bühler's subject, addressee and object were originally the first person I, the second person you and not only the referential object it but also any third person he, she and they.

In other words, when referring to a third person, that person is "objectified" in the very narrow sense of being the object of reference. Jakobson notes that the third person is understood as the "nonperson" in some linguistic traditions (Jakobson 1981j: 786), but in my interpretation that third person is non-existent only in the given communication situation. I think this is a very important point, as the people we discuss, whom we reference, quote and make casual remarks about are very often real people with whom we have had some communicative contact before. When Jakobson writes that the context of the message must be graspable for the addressee, then it is implicit in this statement that if the referent of a message is a person then the addressee should know who that person is. This is how one arrives from the understanding of verbal context as an assemblage of interrelated utterance to the connection or relation between context and channel: that the combination of these factors constitutes the social context of communication.

Thus, when the third person observer who "listens in" on the speech-circuit between A and B, then he, she, they or it becomes a participant in the social situation. Communication in public space is rife with potential metachannels. For example, while walking in a park and discussing literature with a friend, any passer-by may catch fragments of the discussion and glimpses of the interaction. Every security camera set up in that park is a potential metachannel. The third person may also be an observer-participant in the communication system, as when in a group discussion two people get into a heated debate while the rest of the group is listening in and has the option to interfere at any moment.

The third person in the parachannel on the other hand is not present in the social situation but is present as a trace in the social context of communication, as when talking about him, her, they or even it. The third person is not present and cannot interfere, but his or her influence is reverberating through the communication system, by either the sender or receiver, or preferably both, being acquainted to the third person or because the sender just had an interesting chat with that third person and is now trying to relay the information to the second person.

The definition of parachannel would amount to something like an existing, pre-existing or potential communicative contact between the sender and/or receiver with a third person who is known either to the sender and/or receiver. In short, the metachannel refers to a third, fourth or n-th participant in the communication system, while the parachannel refers to a third, fourth or n-th person who is not a participant in the given communication system, but is the object of discussion and known to any given participant in the communication system.

It should be noted that the para- ("beside, beyond") in parachannel is here understood as a communication channel that is in some way distinct from the object-channel and not reducible to the metachannel. An example may be in order. Let's say that there is a social situation in which two persons meet up, exchange pleasantries and begin discussing what is happening in their lives while strolling in the park. The channel that connects these two people, A and B, is the object-channel (if they were to discuss rainclouds then then that would be the object that their channel is about). When they walk past an elderly man, C, sitting on a parkbench, they inadvertantly open a metachannel for C to listen in on their conversation (unless they restrict the metachannel by becoming quiet while passing C). Then one of them, say A, remembers that a mutual acquaintance D called earlier to inform A about something and urged A to inform B as well. This is the curious case of the parachannel: an earlier communicative contact (between A and D) becomes the object in current communicative contact (between A and B).

I belabor the difference between meta- and parachannel because common-sense notion of what is "meta" could argue that what I call parachannel is metacommunication. That would be true in the sense of diachronic metacommunication (communication about earlier communication) but not in the sense of syncronic metacommunication (communication about current communication). This artificial distinction must be called out when comparing how metacommunication was understood syncronically by Ruesch and Bateson (1951) and how it is understood diarchronically in some strands of translation studies which rely heavily on the communication paradigm (e.g. Nord 2007; Torop 2000).

All this concerns phatics in a unique way. While the Jakobsonian phatic function of language is operative only in the exchange of pleasantries in the initiation, maintenance and termination of communicative contact, para- and metachannels demonstrate how any communication act is in fact situated in a social matrix of metachannels (people who are physically part of the social situation and able to listen in or observe the communication act) and parachannels (people who are referentially part of the communication act and its social context).

On a broader scale parachannels make up what Elyachar calls the social infrastructure. When she specifies that "one can think of sets of channels as infrastructure" (Elyachar 2010: 455), these sets of channels should include not only object-channels (e.g. who knows whom) but also metachannels (e.g. who is known to whom) and parachannels (e.g. who knows someone who knows someone else). By considering these other types of communicative channels it is possible to elucidate the actual network structure of human sociability and arrive at the social matrix discussed by Ruesch and Bateson (1951).

Lastly, a word of caution towards the ontological status of the third person. Connecting channel and context this way has a lot to do with displaced and reported speech. Just like you can quote a nonexisting person like a literary character, you can also refer to people who do not exist in general or even "nonpersons" in the very literal sense (animals and machines are not persons in the strict sense). In this regard the act of "communication" in parachannels is of a questionable status. If I read Immanuel Kant, did he really communicate with me? Ultimately both para- and metachannels could be subsumed under the clumsy notion of unilateral communication. In this sense the metachannel amounts to third-party receiving (the old man on the parkbench overheard the conversation) and parachannel to third-party sending ("Immanuel Kant writes that...", "D called and informed me that..."). In other words, besides situating the communication system in a social matrix of people you know or know about, these notions could also situate the communication system in the cultural matrix of anonymous messages and "made-up" people or characters.


  • Bühler, Karl 2011[1934]. Theory of Language: The representational function of language. Translated by Donald Fraser Goodwin in collaboration with Achim Eschbach. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Cherry, Colin 1977[1957]. On human communication: a review, a survey, and a criticism. 2nd ed. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.
  • Elyachar, Julia 2010. Phatic labor, infrastructure, and the question of empowerment in Cairo. American Ethnologist 37(3): 452-464.
  • Jakobson, Roman 1981j. Retrospect. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry. The Hague; Paris; New York: Mouton, 765-789.
  • Jakobson, Roman 1985[1976c]. Metalanguage as a Linguistic Problem. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings VII: Contributions to Comparative Mythology. Studies in Linguistics and Philology, 1972-1982. Preface by Linda R. Waugh. Berlin; New York; Amsterdam: Mouton, 113-121.
  • Kockelman, Paul 2011. Biosemiosis, Technocognition, and Sociogenesis: Selection and Significance in a Multiverse of Sieving and Serendipity. Current Anthropology 52(5): 711-739.
  • Kulkarni, Dipti 2014. Exploring Jakobson's 'phatic function' in instant messaging interactions. Discourse & Communication 8(2): 117-136.
  • Nord, Christiane 2007. The Phatic Function in Translation: Metacommunication as a Case in Point. Belgian Journal of Linguistics 21(1): 171-184.
  • Ruesch, Jurgen and Gregory Bateson 1951. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: Norton.
  • Torop, Peeter 2000. Tõlge ja/kui retseptsioon ["Translation and/as reception"]. In: Torop, Peeter, Kultuurimärgid [Cultural Signs]. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 16-26.


  1. "When Jakobson writes that the context of the message must be graspable for the addressee, then it is implicit in this statement that if the referent of a message is a person then the addressee should know who that person is."

    This reminds me of the notion of anaphora. When I say "this", it seems like I'm doing some direct pointing to the quoted sentence, whereas if I was to say "he" in this context, odds are that I'm pointing to Jakobson -- although the possibility exists that "he" is pointing to "a person" or possibly to "the addressee." It would, however, be very difficult to stretch "he" to refer to the addressER, because he (or she) isn't mentioned pronominally or otherwise. It seems that if I point to Jakobson, in a way I'm drawing on your previous act of pointing. Since you did not point to the addresser, I can't construct an anaphoristic reference to that person.

  2. Jakobson accounts for anaphora in his treatment of ellipsis (leaving out unnecessary words), which also concerns the (verbal) context. What I'm trying to do with the channel component in this post is a little removed from such linguistic issues, although they are used as a premise for my argument for parachannels. The aim is to tie together Elyachar's infrastructure with a more thorough account of channels and, in one of the next steps, with relationships, metacommunication and the mu-function.

  3. I guess the concern I have is about a phenomenon of phatics within language. Maybe we would call it language-phatic or some other x-phatic. This is based on the bizarre idea, which may still be disproven, that we are simply carriers for the things/beings/entities that actually communicate. The image I have in mind is that mathematics papers -- for instance -- are like bacteria evolving in a petri dish, and human mathematicians are the dish. Language is a virus, and all that. I don't swear by this depersonalized vision, it's only a "hypothesis" of sorts. Looking at it another way, it would be a boost for our phatic theory if we could find it within the relatively simple domain of language. Like the proverbial gun from Act I -- which needs to be fired before the end of Act III.

    OK, to back up my weird theory at least a little, how about this reference:


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