NOTES TOWARD A PHENOMENOLOGY OF E-MAIL: IMPERSONALITY, NORMATIVITY, INSERTABILITY
The question is: in e-mailing, are we speaking to anyone other than the electricity? In outdoing ourselves, have we finally outdone ourselves? Or does the impersonality (of the e-mail situation) contribute to a heightened, indeed auspicious, sense of self, quite in line with Romantic prophesy? I think of Novalis, who wrote: "The world must be romanticized", where
Might a modern "exponential" self-heightening take root in such "exponential sequences" as are enabled by the polycentric distributive network of electronic transmission?
I have asked around, done field-work: the question is found interesting.4 Everyone has something incisive to say about e-mail, a degree of enthusiastic engagement whose other side is concern (Sorge). This concern ranges from the atomizing effects on the psyche of persons who spend most of their lives on e-mail [See TEXTS FOR STUDY: 1,2] to the small degree of protection against prying eyes which e-mail enjoys [See TEXT FOR STUDY: 3]. A statistic from the New York Times suggests the importance of our object: "According to Forrester Research, the number of e-mail messages sent per day in the United States will grow to 1.5 billion by 2002."5 If one puts one's ears to the ground, one can already detect the rumbling of silicon walls. Engineers, as you know, are worried that the increase in the capacities of silicon chips is by no means unlimited. Despite the remarkable increase - the exponential heightening - in the powers of relay of each successive generation of chips, this process is limited: at one point surges of information will shatter one-molecule-thick silicon walls.
Before continuing to speak of pathetic, social, and moral issues, I want to venture a phenomenology of e-mail, do the "thing" before its interpretation.
The Phenomenology of E-Mail
1. Can one speak of a certain impersonality (of situation) abetting the healthy narcissism of the subject? Talk of the benefits or defects of "impersonality" in such cases is two-sided. Imagine the subject addressing his computer screen in near-isolation: he is allowed to play the sovereign, protected spectator of his own actions; his situation is psyche-enhancing. In another sense, his situation might be socially alienating: there is no provision in it for hugs. [See TEXT FOR STUDY: 1]
In the ordinary way in which university people are involved in e-mail, this narcissistic effect (self-heightening) is increased by the involvement of e-mail in a higher-order project. The new university life is more than ever an operation on the computer. One sits at the computer, endlessly varying e-mail, text, and Internet. Certainly I do, and it is very much how I conceive of my duty and my purpose while in my office. If there is also the factor of my responsibility to my students, it is easy for me to re-key this factor as the requirement that I produce with the help of the computer an innovative program of instruction. Indeed, I am responsive to the office in charge of promoting the use of internet and e-mail instruction at my university. It is called "The Place," and I have duly placed all my courses on the Web. This entire setup evokes Heidegger's reflections on an age of technology, one that constrains a universal "Bestellbarkeit" - a (re)placing of entities "on order" as our dominant mode of relating to them, a state of affairs itself underlain by an enabling universal "Bewegtheit," i.e. the readiness of entities to be replaced, to fall into a placeless standing stock ("Bestand") without apparent prejudice to their identity.6 It is true that teachers such as myself must still appear in the classroom from time to time to help answer the questions we have posted on the web (this says nothing against the thesis of universal "Bestellbarkeit"/"Bewegtheit"). But more and more my presence in such situations is otiose. My more nearly habitual stance, or seat, is that of the e-mailer.
2. E-mail goes out (I shall come to this shortly), and e-mail comes in: it comes in as something between a letter and a summons. It is just the welcome thing, then, for office-desk-sitters with pliant consciences, ready to be distracted for the sake of the electronic Other from the great work in which they are engaged. But in that distraction, there is pleasure, of course - and pleasure, too, in writing as such, and with an a priori tentativeness, so one can't be scolded as much for not writing well. Contrast Kafka's important diary entry for 1910: "How do I excuse my not yet having written anything today? In no way (mit nichts)... I have continually an invocation in my ear: `Were you to come, invisible judgment [Gericht]!'" The e-mailer writes.
E-mail is also easy on the conscience for being performed with the same mechanical-muscular gestus employed in writing that great work or the odd letter to the President or the letter ostensibly advising a colleague's promotion but in an esoteric sense NOT... One needn't leave off typing to write, so one has the impression that one is still in the sphere of one's great work. Also the sense that in mailing it fast, you get a reply faster - and that's what you want - don't you? - because there's pleasure in the round again, but conscience says: "And the great work?..."
Kafka, who was a telecommunications hound (three letters to Felice and a telegram was an ordinary day) would have drowned in it. And the kisses in his letters to Felice and to Milena would indeed have been drunk out, before arriving, by the ghosts who populate cyberspace. "Writing letters," he wrote to Milena
It would be very interesting to decide whether a Kafka on e-mail would otherwise have written novels and fragments too. For he, very much in the spirit of Goethe's apercu (motto, above), was bent on graphically, scriptively outpacing his inspirations, and only works written in a single thrust ("in einem Zug") were good enough to count.
3. E-mail is marked by swiftness of execution. In its construction it most resembles the typed letter that is thereafter faxed or mailed, but with a difference: the typed letter requires a sheet of paper of its own. If you want to type a letter, you have to insert (and thereafter remove) a fresh sheet of paper in the barrel of the typewriter. On the other hand, the blank "page" or screen of the word processor is always at hand. (Computers turned off in the midst of text-composition revert immediately to this "page" or screen on being turned on again).
The superiority of the typed (and thereafter mailed) letter might consist in the greater solidity of the product: the recipient receives hard copy. But this advantage is countered by the ease with which the recipient can print out the e-mail and hence convert it to hard copy. In this way the recipient of e-mail gains a certain increase in autonomy vis-à-vis the typed letter writer: the printed version of the text that the recipient holds in his hand in the first instance is the typed letter just as the mailer has sent it; in the second instance, the recipient is free to determine font, font size, and the kind of paper he wishes to read it on. The printed e-mail can be made more pleasing or impressive by the recipient; the reader of the typed letter has only that and no other object before him. Thinkably, the e-mail recipient could print out e-mails in a font appropriate to a mood - "I'm in that Georgia 12-point regular sort of a mood" - print them out on expensive paper of his own choosing and read them as letters in the bar or in the bath. But, note, here one is determining the material context of the letter oneself, writing oneself the letter, in part: the true situation of the written letter is not reproducible.
For his part, the e-mailer himself maintains an autonomy higher than that of the letterwriter 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 e-mailer gets the spelling of "Yokohama" right, but the recipient will not be able to detect where and when the author of the e-mail has stumbled. I make this point on the assumption that mistypings might, like misspellings, reveal significantly repressed velleities, impulses, and trains of thought. The e-mailer is proof against unsuspected and unwished-for revelations.
Printed e-mails will in any case more nearly resemble typed letters (through the resemblance of typefaces) than they will written letters, which have a more strikingly personal physiognomic character. They reveal more, which redounds to the authority of the handwritten letter writer, assuming that is what he wants: to show himself and even to reveal himself. Hence, the appropriateness of handwritten letterwriting when the recipient is someone whose benevolence one can count on or even wishes to evoke by the putative charm of one's letter. Hence, the universally-agreed on appropriateness of the written letter where the matter is personal and of the typewritten letter where the matter is official and industrial. I don't need to dwell on this obvious point, which is confirmed by printed letters that seek to suggest a personal interest in you, the consumer, by simulating an inked-in signature.
E-mails are extraordinarily easy to execute once one has learned to type; margins are automatically established (one need not hit the "Return" key); typos can be tracelessly eliminated; the keyboard is electronically assisted for ease in typing without the distracting hum of the motor of the electric typewriter. And the correctness of one's work (and one's pleasure in good work) is aided by the presence at all times of the screen, of the visual simulacrum of the letter. To a greater extent than the letterwriter, one is invited as e-mailer to read the letter one is writing as one composes it: the e-mail letter writer is like the e-mail letter reader even as he writes. Everything points toward a merger in the situation of e-mail letter writer and e-mail letter reader. In a more literal sense, the e-mail 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) with what he intends to write. This factor is intensified by the near-simultaneity of the act of (finishing) writing, sending, and being read.
4. Normativity. He 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 e-mail writer's screed, especially as, in literate communities, it tries out neologisms. (A recent spell check, reacting to my phrase "semiosis of cities," the title of a conference planned by the Department of German at Princeton, proposed "samosas of cities.") The contrast heightens the e-mailer's sense of the normativity, the unmistakeableness of what he is writing.
5. Safe Inter(dis)course
E-mail offers a major modern instance of "intimacy with strangers." Here, I shall be taking as my point de repère live conversation, even conversation by telephone. In e-mail an intimacy of sorts is produced in the absence of immediate visual, tactile, olfactory experience of the Other. Nothing of his or her sensory context, in the act of exchanging information, is known.
Indeed, it is more than that the other's context is not known; knowledge of it is not wanted. Such ignorance is the tendency of the medium: the other's context is reduced and absorbed into an act of reading imputed to be identical with one's own act of reading on the screen what one is writing from the keyboard. I stress this apparent homology of the writing and reading situations in e-mail. The ease and swiftness of the medium produces the sense that one is speaking to the other. Hence, with the sense that whatever one says can be sorted out, one speaks/writes quickly, one speaks/writes out of feeling. The other's environment is reduced to his or her act of reading oneself, the writer; the other's physical presence is, as we say, "immaterial" - and with it, his or her capacity to alter the act of enunciating as it is being performed. No raised eyebrow, no smile of complicity, no gesture of recognition of the unspoken, no marker of agreement or disagreement, while this "conversation" is taking place. No chokings, sputterings, drops into "accent." No hemming and hawing, no variations in the rhythm of delivery.
On the other hand, the e-mail recipient has the right to stop the conversation cold without a trace of formality or constraint; and the reason for the stoppage can then remain entirely hidden. Has the other politely bowed out, fallen down dead, or, worse... switched off his computer? People do generally point out that one hard thing about e-mail is knowing how and when to stop exchanges without giving offense.
All these features refer to the defining contextlessness of e-mail, mute stimulus to the assumption of pseudo-immediate understanding, of transparency: we deal with the global internet variation of a Rousseauvian transparence du coeur. The openness of E-mail is an openness to being misunderstood; it is a medium constitutively, egregiously prone to miscommunication.
6. Place and Placelessness. Not to whom does one write but where to does one write? One writes e-mail to an address; but unlike Tokyo - and, according to Kafka, in his very first diary entry, unlike Prague - where your inability to give an address a local habitation and a name can lead to your feeling lost and confused (my e-mail address contains "@princeton," true, but others read only: "@compuserve" and "@aol.com"), nonetheless, in the case of e-mail, unless the other's server is down, you, with your message, will always arrive at his site. We are dealing here with the phenomenon of the decoupling of address and place. The address identifies a so-called "site," but this "site" has no topographical features, in does not enclose the recipient of your message in a distinctive way.
The placelessness of the e-mail addressee (and indeed he may be reached through this address quite independently of his empirical situation, one which you as sender cannot discover even if you'd try: Is he in Sofia or in London, where he said he'd be? or is he on the beach or in the bath somewhere or studying sea otters, north of the South Pole?) - this placelessness, part of an intended ignorance of the recipient's context, leads to a further disidentifying of the other, contributes to the promiscuity of the enunciation. The only feature we can safely attribute to his place is that it contains a computer, and the only place-bound act we can reasonably impute to him is that he will turn on his e-mail today and sit in front of his keyboard and his screen.
This leads to a certain negative knowledge about the recipient (although the point I am about to make is somewhat in flux, due to the advent of microcomputers, of palm- not laptops): your addressee is reading your e-mail sitting in front of a computer screen; he has not waited to take his favorite seat at the local tavern before unfolding it and spreading it out on the bar; she is not reading it in her bubblebath or compulsively opening and closing it on the subway on her way to work.
The reading situation of the other is not as various as are the velleities of his or her mood: they are (more or less) restricted by the industrial apparatus he or she needs to read you. I stress that this factor is fading with the growing portability of computers: this extreme restriction on the local placelessness of the reading act belongs to Early High e-mail; a new sort of monstrosity of portableness is afoot. You will be able to read your e-mail while jogging along the canal, while ordering a drink at the bar, while sinking into your bubblebath, etc.
The essential placelessness of the e-mail exchange returns to the sender as well: the recipient of a letter removes his letter from an envelope bearing the indelible mark of the location of his mailbox; the recipient of an e-mail hasn't a clue as to the place of origination of the message.
7. Unsafe Inter(dis)course. All this apparent anonymity can translate into a sense of security and protectedness in the e-mail writer (the assumed security and protectedness of the voyeur) and lead to a loss of inhibition: he writes too swiftly in response to a provocation, he writes too briefly, supplying too little context or explanation.
He writes with assumed indifference to the affective life of the other; or else, given the swiftness of the means to intervene in the affective life of the other, he can attempt to interrupt its flow (by annihilating the delay of the letter): the e-mail arrives essentially as an interruption in whatever one might be doing with the computer, but it is easily, temptingly, absorbed and responded to, because one is already at the computer, in the habitus of the keystroker, writing one's major work - n'est-ce pas?
One writes on e-mail things one would not bother to phone up someone to say (because one wishes to dispense even with the bother of the formality of beginning and ending a conversation appropriately, and one does not wish to be answerable to the other), let alone access the paraphernalia of the institution of letter writing: paper and pen, ink and stamp (imprimatur of the nation in whose postal machinery you are participating), addressing the envelope, licking the stamp, and finding a mailbox (harder and harder to find these days), having remembered to bring the letter with you, and searching for it in your satchel, dropping it into the mailbox, and then opening the lid and sticking your arm into the chute after you have dropped your letter in it to make sure that it has really gone down, with the sensation of an iron lid that threatens to guillotine your hand at the wrist (you feel lucky if you've only escaped with skinned knuckles) - all with the incipient knowledge that the small thing you wished to say, or merely to add, will have lost all conceivable urgency by the time the letter arrives in the hands of the addressee (days, weeks later). But the cheapness (low cost, low effort) of e-mail encourages e-mailing. Considering the effort of writing and sending ordinary letters, one might be disinclined to send short letters and what might be the same thing: trivial letters; the cost-benefit ratio is too great. But given e-mail, one can and will write short and trivial commentaries. Indeed, such messages are less things said than things added (Gore Vidal).8 "It is the prose of `by the way,' where the motive and the result of each communiqué is missing. It lacks a main story, or even a plot. It is just the footnotes" (Andrew Piper). These small additions to conversations or previous e-mail exchanges are again wildly open to misunderstanding through poverty of context. [See TEXT FOR STUDY: 4].
8. Users of e-mail report the sense of the fungibility of correspondent: it does not feel necessary to have a great many e-mail correspondents, because the sort of thing you write to one (good enough) friend tends to be exactly the sort of thing you'd write to another good enough friend. Freud wrote or said, "The condition of happiness is a wife, friend, and professional job of work to do." It's clear, in the spirit of Derrida's recent work in Archive Fever [See TEXT FOR STUDY: 6], that the existence of e-mail and e-mail relations would very likely alter the terms of the formula, perhaps supplying substitutive gratification for each of them, as soon as we have learned to quell the body life, electronically, altogether.
9. The phenomenon of e-mail, as the supersessor of handwritten letters, invites reflection on the situation that Sartre calls "hysteresis," or uneven historical development, the overlapping or overlayering of historical strands. Thus the forward-looking culture of e-mail coincided, for a time, with a flowering of the retro - : expensive fountain pens; but as the former gathers terrific momentum, the precarious coexistence of the material residue of a past truth (the fountain pen) and the virtual immateriality of the new is jeopardized.
"The amplification of the audience for the Bible, owing to Luther's translation, might be compared with the amplification obtained through rock loudspeakers" (Wolf Kittler).9 This amplification is comparable with the amplification of content of the email, owing to the factor of "insertability." Here I am dealing with a term that bears immediately on "the culture of e-mail writing." 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 quotations from Owen Barfield and Julia Kristeva; include portions of a letter received from a colleague and of interest to an argument - the ease of inserting long and varied texts into the e-mail at hand makes e-mail, 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; let alone the sum of the papers contributed to the International Conference on Reading in the Media, Computer and Internet Age in Honor of Wolfgang Iser), as well as what you bring up of any and all previously written or received e-mails, 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 e-mail 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.
11. E-mail: a good or a bad thing? The matter, as an aspect of modern technics, possesses a constitutive ambivalence that resists such judgments. See TEXTS FOR STUDY: 7, 8, which range from Speer to Derrida.
EIGHT TEXTS (for further study)
Social moralists have begun to address the topic of e-mail; here from the New York Times of February 16, 2000, is a "Portrait of a Newer, Lonelier Crowd" (the allusion is to David Riesman's 1950-book, The Lonely Crowd, which popularized the concept of the alienated, anomic mass of pseudo-subjects composing the new American collectivity, the product of an alleged disintegration of family and community-centered life and the ascendance of the media). I shall enfold some of this recent discussion.
[COMMENT. "Home alone," it might be worth noting, is itself intelligible only as an allusion to a mass medium film of that name. The decline of the mass media must not be held to be so great as to prohibit our understanding of its decline. In fact, a good deal of Nie's argument is predicated on an exact re-imagining of the film "Home Alone."]
[COMMENT. "Allows us to see what the other is writing as we type..." The Other types in response to sentences that are not complete. Just as, composing on the word processor, one writes - i.e. produces key-strokes formatting disks that will generate in the physical, quasi-photographic sense the pages of one's next book or article without one's necessarily having thought the thought that one's fingers imprint - so, one reads the reply of one's respondent before one has finished inscribing the thought that one has not quite thought. The Other's response - an "act of typing," text as moving banner - precedes the act of reading oneself.
[COMMENT: Derrida will write of the erasure in e-mail of the distinction between public and private promiscuity/inter(dis)-course (See TEXT FOR STUDY 6.]
Being so bare of context, e-mail spells trouble: I call it its aptitude for "defective hermeneutics." Here is an example communicated to me by a colleague.
Compare email to the phonograph.
[COMMENT: We can expect a globalization of writing styles as one's computer becomes more and more a receiver for the world's e-mails].
Compare e-mail to the Magic Writing Pad:
[COMMENT: It will be interesting to see whether Derrida will actually supply us with a model of consciousness (polycentric, distributed) imposed on us by our dwelling on email, "denn elektronisch wohnet der Mensch..." ]
[COMMENT: Imagine all of Kafka's letters lost in the susurrus of cybernemospace, compacted into an... Odradek].
[COMMENT: Imagine Kafka murdered, like his sisters - murdered on command - by e-mail. We will not escape the constitutive ambivalence of technology.]
1. Cited in Jochen Hörisch, Ende der Vorstellung: Die Poesie der Medien (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1999), 165. Hörisch comments: "This slogan was written - not by some post-modern, graffiti-drunk intellectual desperado on the walls of a ruin in some outlying metropolis but - by none other than Goethe, in a letter from June 6, 1825, to his art-loving friend Zelter." [back]
2. Saul Bellow, "Hidden Within Technology's Kingdom, a Republic of Letters," New York Times (October 11, 1999), p. . [from the Web: "Arts"]. [back]
3. Fragmente des Jahres 1798, Gesammelte Werke, No. 879, vol. III, p. 38. Cited in: Liliane Furst... [back]
4. I am especially grateful for illuminating conversations and exchanges apropos e-mail with five friends: Ackbar Abbas, Jack Greenberg, Jan Mieszkowski, Howard Stern, and Natascha Weisert. [back]
5. Bob Tedeschi, "E-Commerce Report: Increasing the Privacy of E-Mail," New York Times, January 31, 2000. [back]
6. Samuel Weber, "Technics and Theatricality," unpublished paper. [back]
7. Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, David Bromwich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 125. [back]
8. Gore Vidal, Memoir. [back]
9. Wolf Kittler, "The Administration of Letters," a talk presented to the conference Author and Work in the Age of New Media (Princeton University: February 18, 2000). [back]
10. Newsweek (December 6, 1999), 11. [back]
11. Tedeschi, "E-Commerce Report..." [back]
12. New York Times. [back]
13. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 17-18. [back]
14. John Zilcosky, Kafka's Travels: Exoticism, Imperialism, Modernism (New York: St. Martins, 200?), 255-57. [back]
15. Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer, trans. by Richard and Clara Winston (New York: MacMillan, 1970), 520-21. [back]
© Stanley Corngold