in the Age of Media, Computers, and Internet
NOTES TOWARD A PHENOMENOLOGY OF E-MAIL: IMPERSONALITY, NORMATIVITY, INSERTABILITY
IMPERSONALITY. The emailer maintains a higher degree of autonomy in the matter of message control: his mistakes in typing letters from the keyboard can be tracelessly eliminated. It might take a half-dozen versions before the emailer gets the spelling of "Yokohama" right, but the recipient will not be able to detect where and when the author has stumbled. I make this point on the assumption that mistypings might reveal repressed velleities, impulses, and trains of thought. The emailer is proof against unsuspected and unwished-for revelations.
NORMATIVITY. The correctness of one's work (and one's pleasure in good work) is aided by the presence of the screen, the visual simulacrum of the letter. One is invited as emailer to read the letter one is writing as one composes it: the letter writer is like the email letter reader even as he writes. Everything points to a merger in the situation of writer and reader: in a more literal sense, the email letter writer can expect to be read just as he has written: after all, he has already continuously checked the identity of what he is reading (on the screen, while composing) against what he intends to write. This factor is intensified by the near-simultaneity of the act of (finishing) writing, sending, and being read.
The emailer entertains with greater right a sense of his writing as a norm; this shows up vividly if and when he bothers to spellcheck. The spellchecker throws up absurd misreadings along the way as it fails to understand the normal sense of the emailer's screen, especially as, in literate communities, it tries out neologisms. (A recent spell check, reacting to my phrase "semiosis of cities," proposed "samosas of cities.") The contrast heightens the email letter writer's sense of the normativity, the unmistakeableness, of what he is writing.
INSERTABILITY. While it is true in principle that one could write or type any amount of associated information into a letter--illustrate a point about "the middle voice," for example, with long quotations from Owen Barfield & Julia Kristeva; include portions of a letter received from a third person of interest to an argument--the ease of inserting long and varied texts into the email at hand makes email, in this respect alone, a qualitatively different phenomenon. Insertability is enabled by communication between windows: what you bring up into the window of Netscape (the home page, for example, of Bulgaria Airlines; or the Gutenberg net, which is well on the way of offering the totality of German literature; or today's "New York Times," including its visual and aural material), as well as what you bring up of any and all previously written or received emails-- from Mssrs. Kiossev and Kovachev, for example; or the text of your own books and articles in the making; or (something of) colleagues' books and articles or your favorite photographs of Paul Klee's *Zwittermaschine* or your dog dancing the samba, can be inserted in the heartbeat of a mouse into your email and sent with lightning-speed to be replied to (you may or may not hope) with the same degree of fullness and concern by your respondent also with lightning-speed. The capacity of amplified and accelerated communication is immeasurably vast. But I shall be addressing in my talk the narcissism of this enterprise.