the persistence of letters

john potts: esther milne, letters, postcards, email: technologies of presence

postcard, Dear Father…

postcard, Dear Father…

postcard, Dear Father…

WHEN, IN THE OLDEN DAYS, PEOPLE USED TO WRITE LETTERS TO EACH OTHER, HOW DID THEY IMAGINE THEIR CORRESPONDENTS? TODAY, WHEN WRITTEN COMMUNICATION PROCEEDS VIA EMAIL, SMS, FACEBOOK, TWITTER AND OTHER FORMS, HOW DOES THE WRITER CONVEY A SENSE OF SELF, AND HOW IS IT RECEIVED ON THE OTHER END? THESE ARE THE SOME OF THE QUESTIONS EXAMINED BY ESTHER MILNE IN LETTERS, POSTCARDS, EMAIL, A THOROUGH, SCHOLARLY STUDY OF MEDIA FORMS AS “TECHNOLOGIES OF PRESENCE.”

Central to Milne’s book is the concept of presence; she helpfully offers a working definition of it early in the first chapter: “Presence is an effect achieved in communication…when interlocutors imagine the psychological or, sometimes, physical presence of the other.” The concept is inherently paradoxical, as Milne demonstrates with a degree of skill and subtlety. As she explains, presence “is aligned with the concepts of intimacy and disembodiment,” yet it is achieved via material technologies such as the postal service or email system. The fundamental paradox is that the sense of presence depends on the absence of the other; the “absent body” in correspondence means that “communication partners are not physically present to one another.” Milne is particularly adept at teasing out the implications of this paradox in her historical study of communications from the origins of the postal network to Twitter.

This historical approach is achieved through detailed analyses of a series of correspondences across the centuries. First is a network of British letter writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including a correspondence of over 700 letters between Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford. Milne first surveys the beginning of the British postal service before providing a close account of its mechanisms and the types of communication it made possible. One feature emerging from this epistolary correspondence is a longing for “unmediated converse,” that is, for a transcendent presence of the other without the need for the mediating material form of the letter. Yet at the same time, these letter writers thrive on the absence of their correspondent; these prolific senders of letters rarely meet each other in person. Here again is the “strange paradox indeed” of disembodied presence, which Milne traces throughout her study.

The next stop on the journey is the postcard, originating around 1865. Milne sees this media form as the transitional phase between old-fashioned letter writing and email. Communication on postcards was truncated, written quickly and dispatched; these were messages of the
everyday sent by ordinary people rather than the literary middle class. The messages on postcards were also potentially public, at least to anyone who came across them. Yet Milne demonstrates, through a close reading of 140 cards sent by the Australian soldier William Robert Fuller to his sister from the battlefield of WWI, that intimacy, and hence the presence of the writer, could be conveyed by the postcard. This section of Milne’s historical survey, however, is under-developed in comparison to the studies of the letter and of email.

To this latest stage on the journey, Milne devotes considerable energies. She sketches the origins of the internet, investigating claims of its military origins before settling into an examination of presence in email communication, using the list Cybermind as source of examples. The immaterial nature of digital information adds a further twist to the presence/absence paradox, yet Milne uncovers the persistence of the desire for presence in the digital age. This is the theme of her book: that over a 200 year period, spanning different media technologies and distribution systems, the longing for the presence of the other has endured. Milne counters the idea that the progression from letters to emails entails a new distance and loss of personal warmth, by pointing to the abundant evidence of intimacy in email correspondence. She argues that “despite the potentially disruptive, interactive and theatrical nature of email discussion lists, subjects are able to express feelings of intimacy, warmth and affection for one another.”

The strengths of Milne’s book lie in its supple treatment of complex ideas. She is careful in analysis, aware of the pitfalls of overstated theorising, such as claims for ‘revolution’ in media, or the supercession of old media forms by the new. The historical perspective is enlightening, bringing a depth to the study of communication. Claims for the newness of high volume email communication are placed in perspective, for example, when it is remembered that in 18th century London the mail was delivered up to 12 times a day. Milne’s detailed analysis of correspondences made using letter, postcard and email are a valuable feature of her book.

There are weaknesses, however, mostly derived from the book’s origins as a PhD thesis. These are most apparent in the overly dense referencing of secondary sources and the unnecessarily guarded qualifications (“arguably” is used far too many times when stating a position). Some of the long excursions into media history are tangential to the main argument, so that the book becomes bogged down in peripheral details of the pre-history of email or the speed of mail coaches. These rather fruitless excursions come at the expense of some other considerations, which are strangely absent for much of the book. For example, Milne does not discuss the differences between writing a letter by hand and word-processing an email until near the end of the book, and then only by quoting another theorist. Yet surely handwriting—unique in each case—is a major contributor to the specific sense of presence generated from letter writing.

Similarly, Milne mentions only in passing that emoticons were invented in 1979 in response to the “loss of meaning” in computer-mediated communication—but again she makes nothing of this media-specific development. Part of the difficulty here is the reluctance by many academic media scholars to appear ‘technological determinist’ or media determinist—yet considerations of this type are necessary to some degree in this area of study. At least Milne does not succumb to the spurious ‘metaphysics of presence’ arguments perpetrated by Derrida and his followers, although their influence does obscure her theorising at times. Overall, Milne’s arguments are insightful and persuasive, leading us through a 200-year fascination with presence.

Esther Milne, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence, Routledge, New York, 2010

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 20

© John Potts; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2010