Cooperative communication plays a fundamental role in theories of human-human interaction--cognition, culture, development, language, etc.--as well as human-robot interaction. The core challenge in cooperative communication is the problem of common ground: having enough shared knowledge and understanding to successfully communicate. Prior models of cooperative communication, however, uniformly assume the strongest form of common ground, perfect and complete knowledge sharing, and, therefore, fail to capture the core challenge of cooperative communication. We propose a general theory of cooperative communication that is mathematically principled and explicitly defines a spectrum of common ground possibilities, going well beyond that of perfect and complete knowledge sharing, on spaces that permit arbitrary representations of data and hypotheses. Our framework is a strict generalization of prior models of cooperative communication. After considering a parametric form of common ground and viewing the data selection and hypothesis inference processes of communication as encoding and decoding, we establish a connection to variational autoencoding, a powerful model in modern machine learning. Finally, we carry out a series of empirical simulations to support and elaborate on our theoretical results.