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Stanley Corngold


Everything [...] is now "ultra," everything transcends... [überbieten], irresistibly, in thought as in action. No one knows himself any longer, no one grasps the element that sustains him and in which he functions [...]. Young people are stimulated too soon and then torn along in the whirlpool of time; wealth and speed is what the world admires and what it strives for; trains, express mail, steamships and all sorts of communicative facilities are what the civilized world aims at in outpacing itself.


The novelist Wright Morris, urging me to get an electric typewriter, said that he seldom turned his machine off. "When I'm not writing, I listen to the electricity," he said. "It keeps me company. We have conversations."

Saul Bellow2

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

to romanticize is nothing other than an exponential heightening. In this process the lower self becomes identified with a better self. Just as we ourselves are part of such an exponential sequence.3

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

is actually an intercourse [Verkehr] with ghosts.... How did people ever get the idea they could communicate [verkehren] with one another by letter! One can think about someone far away and one can hold on to someone nearby; everything else is beyond human power... Written kisses never arrive at their destination; the ghosts drink them up along the way. It is this ample nourishment which enables them to multiply so enormously. People sense this and struggle against it... .

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

Television [read: e-mail, SC] has the perfect charm to suit a style of affectless dandyism that now flourishes among the prospering intelligentsia of the West. It is the thing you can always be `with,' without being of it.

David Bromwich7

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.

10. Insertability

"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.

"The nation's obsession with the Internet is causing many Americans to spend less time with friends and family, less time shopping in stores and more time working at home after hours, according to one of the first large-scale surveys of the societal impact of the Internet. In short, "the more hours people use the Internet, the less time they spend with real human beings," said Norman Nie, a political scientist at Stanford University who was the principal investigator for the study. Mr. Nie asserted that the Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation in the United States, raising the specter of an atomized world without human contact or emotion.

"That conclusion is certain to prove controversial because some online enthusiasts contend that the Internet has fostered alternative electronic relationships that may replace or even enhance face-to-face family and social connections. "This is not a zero-sum game," said Howard Rheingold, author of Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Addison-Wesley, 1993). "People's social networks do not consist only of people they see face to face. In fact, social networks have been extending because of artificial media since the printing press and the telephone....

The Stanford study, in turn, details how the Internet is leading to a rapid shift away from mass media. The study reported that 60 percent of regular Internet users said they had reduced their television viewing, and one-third said they spent less time reading newspapers....

"No one is asking the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going to live in." In the past Mr. Nie has been the author of studies on the decline of American involvement in political and community organizations. He said that while much of the public Internet debate had been focused on the invasion of privacy, little study had been done of the potential psychological and emotional impact of what he said would be more people "home, alone and anonymous."

[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."]

Mr. Nie, a co-author of the [Stanford] study with Prof. Lutz Erbring of the Free University of Berlin, contended that there was no evidence that virtual communities would provide a substitute for traditional human relationships. "If I go home at 6:30 in the evening and spend the whole night sending e-mail and wake up the next morning, I still haven't talked to my wife or kids or friends," Mr. Nie said. "When you spend your time on the Internet, you don't hear a human voice and you never get a hug."

In August 1998 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University reported that people who spent even a few hours a week connected to the Internet experienced higher levels of depression and loneliness. In contrast to the Carnegie Mellon study, which focused on psychological and emotional issues, the Stanford survey is an effort to provide a broad demographic picture of Internet use and its potential impact on society. "No one is asking the obvious questions about what kind of world we are going to live in when the Internet becomes ubiquitous," Mr. Nie said. "No one asked these questions with the advent of the automobile, which led to unplanned suburbanization, or with the rise of television, which led to the decline of our political parties.... We hope we can give society a chance to talk through some of these issues before the changes take place," he said.

Americans overwhelmingly use e-mail as their most common Internet activity, according to the Stanford researchers. Moreover, the report found that most Internet users treated the network as a giant public library, albeit with a commercial tilt....

Some critics strongly disagree with the researchers' assertion that the Internet is leading to a new form of social isolation. "It's true by definition that if you're spending more hours hitting the keyboard you're not spending time with other people," said Amatai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University. "But people do form very strong relations over the Internet, and many of them are relations that they could not find any other way." Mr. Nie disagrees, arguing that today's patterns of Internet usage foretell a loss of interpersonal contact that will result in the kind of isolation seen among many elderly Americans. "There are going to be millions of people with very minimal human interaction," he said. "We're really in for some things that are potentially great freedoms but frightening in terms of long-term social interaction."

John Markoff


You have read the survey: here is a more intimate, though similarly equivocal report, from Ms. Maia Szalavitz, who asks, "Can We Become Caught in the Web"?

"I was immediately hooked by a world where what you write - not how you look or sound - is who you are. It had definite appeal to someone who has always found socializing difficult. And as a writer, I even had an advantage. My style online is conveyed by my sentences and syntax, not my fashion sense or physical appearance.

"But there are some serious problems with an online existence. If you aren't careful to limit yourself, you can start to find human contact frightening - even phone calls become scary. Computers do what you want for the most part, but life outside is noisy, unpredictable and crowded. Seeing friends comes to seem a chore; getting groceries an unwanted adventure.

"The repetitive nature of online tasks - checking e-mail, searching for data, sending replies - has a soothing, ritualistic quality, somewhat like preparing and using drugs. The Net also offers druglike distractions: engaging in flame-fest arguments with people you will never meet, discussing topics you love but rarely get a chance to share in real life. You write, but don't feel isolated as your words generate near - instant responses. The sense of connection - whether true or false - is compellingly attractive...

"My boyfriend and I use a chat program that allows us to see what the other is writing as we type. We usually spend at least an hour a day communicating this way. Many couples who live together don't spend that much time `listening' to each other."10

[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.


Manufacturers of software are at work devising such systems as "Tumbleweed" and "Hushmail" to insure the privacy of e-mail. "The extreme vulnerability of this type of communication" is no secret.

"The common analogy among industry executives and analysts is that e-mail is as secure as a postcard, but even that may be giving e?mail too much credit.

"When a message is sent, it can make a dozen or more stops along the Internet as it travels to the recipient's desktop. At each of those stops, it is typically copied, with the duplicate message stored on a server - the technological engine that runs any Internet operation.

"Once a duplicate e-mail message is stored, it is subject to security breaches or mishandling by the employees of the company or organization that operates the server. Furthermore, the courts can force Internet service providers to retrieve messages if they are deemed relevant to a case."

Bob Tedeschi, The New York Times11

[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.]


When the stakes are litigation and not pleasure, you can only hope that the jury has taken a course in digital hermeneutics.

Andrew Piper

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.

"A generally fertile field for misunderstanding by e-mail takes place (in my experience) in relations between professors and their e-mail-digerate graduate student charges. The risk is is even more sharply marked in the case of male professors and female graduate students. Given constraining legislation, at least in the U.S., making the creation of a "hostile environment" punishable, not only by the agency of university justice, the Office of the Dean, but by civil courts, in which juries are inclined to award complainants damages proportional to the quantity of milk in the offending professorial cow, female graduate students today tend to be litigiously - alert to a degree unheard - of in the past. A professor who comments on the work of a student by giving it a "C" can scarcely be held to contribute to an auspicious learning environment between them - right? And so hasn't the environment to that degree become more "hostile"? And one wonders about the reason for the wretched phenomenon of grade inflation! But I must not amplify... I am not after all writing you an e-mail.

"A woman graduate student, married and with a small child, a person with whom I have enjoyed a reasonably productive learning situation (I am on her doctoral committee) and with whom I have had sushi-lunches, from time to time, for which I automatically pay, sent me, in advance of such a luncheon, a third-person e-mail without comment: in it the editor of a reputable literary journal sends her an e-mail-version of a formal letter announcing that he is accepting an essay of hers for publication. Delighted with the news, I answer the student's e-mail with another e-mail, as follows:

"`Hey! I call that WONDERFUL! Sushi's on me this time. Enjoy your bliss. - Bravo!'

"Vigilant readers will have immediately grasped the fatal blunder in this message, and the marker of the deep (and litigable) hostility it conceals. It was, of course, promptly detected by the student, who sent this e-mail in reply:

"`Thanks for being moved to excess,' she writes; `but, as we say at home, eat your food, don't wear it.' And down below, at the bottom of her e-mail, this reference, this truncated version of my previous message: `On Fri, 17 Dec 1999, Paul van Pein wrote: "Sushi's on me this time."'

"Behold the special perplexity of being insulted on e-mail, a machine, one thinks, that has been invented for one's convenience - : this sentence from my letter had been decontextualized for emphasis, the joyous exclamations of praise extracted and deleted into cyberspace.

"Plainly, I had pressed a concealed button and provoked a little jet of accumulated venom: according to my correspondent, who, being on e-mail, could now dispense with the normal courtesy of greeting and valediction, the thrust of my congratulatory message had actually been to vaunt the fact that it was I who had paid for all our previous lunches. With my writing `The sushi's on me *this time*,' I was held to be alluding with coarse irony to the fact that our lunches had always been on me.

"Have I made this clear? According to her reading, the thought that would have been foremost in my mind and my reason for writing her was the fact that our sushi-lunches had always been my treat and that I evidently minded this and was now ready to wear my displeasure like a shield and wield it like a club. A more-than-hostile e-mail environment!

"Now, my actual point, if I'd had much of one, would have been the light-hearted mock-complaint that since `sushi had always been on me,' I was robbed now, on the occasion of great good news, of the chance to say emphatically and non-ironically: `Sushi's on me *this time*.' Clearly, the more prudent form of my original e-mail message should have been:

"`Dear Ms. ABD so-and-so: More than ever, I should like to perform the gesture of saying that "Sushi's on me this time," though I hesitate to say even this much, because it might imply an awareness on my part, which you might construe as hostile, that in the past it is I who have paid for our lunches. So please accept my assurance that it would never have been anything other than a pleasant thought for me - if I had ever had such a thought - that I had paid for our lunches in order that you might conveniently discuss with me the regress of your dissertation and unrelated concerns and that I will remain pleased to the same degree if, in future, you will accede to our little ritual according to which it is I, not you, who pays the $5 or so it costs to fill you full of hamachi-sushi.' But this is not the customary diction of e-mail.

"What I am setting down calmly now, as you might imagine, was for me at the time a cause of acute distress. And feeling that I simply had to reply (by e-mail, of course) - a gesture futile, no doubt, but called for at the time as a way of defusing this turbulence - her hostility and my anxiousness - in alluding to the moral postulate of her family life (you recall: `Eat your food, don't wear it),' I wrote:

"`Thank you for the warning. I had been prepared to come dressed as a shashlik.'

"Only time will tell - and after you've read Lingua Franca - whether a professor of politics at an eminent urban university has subsequently been hung out to dry or have his shashlik air-cured, as it were: `Shashlik,' as you no doubt well know, is based on the Turkish `sis' [cedilla at bottom of both `s's'] meaning `spit,' `skewer,' `shaft,' or... well, enough said about the `defective hermeneutic' of e-mail. It's evidently not something one should try out at home.

"NB. Oh yes, by the way, I meant to add that on the way to Kennedy that evening, upon my recounting to my wife the distressing incident of the sushi-on-me, she remarked, `If you said the sushi is on you, then the woman was right to say, "Eat it, don't wear it." Get it... the sushi is on you.' Aha! So sometimes metaphors can be taken literally, and so the evil of miscommunication goes deeper than e-mail."

Paul van Pein


Compare email to the phonograph.

"The phonograph was treated as a dictation machine for a decade after Thomas Edison invented it in 1877. Cylinders of recorded music were first sold in 1890. But in 1901 the cylinder gave way to the disc, and the rest is in the grooves. Recording preserved music that would have vanished into the air, and it changed practically everything else that was related, from the length of songs to the way they were performed, learned, sold and savored. It catalyzed a century of mind-boggling musical invention in blues, jazz, show tunes, country-and-western, gospel, salsa, soul, rock, hip-hop and all their subgenres, along with international idioms from bossa nova to juju to reggae. The immediacy and portability of recordings established a new, intimate relationship between performers and listeners, while ideas bounced around the world, leaving no style completely pure."12

[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:

"The technical structure of the archivizing archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media.

"This means that, in the past, psychoanalysis would not have been what it was (any more than so many other things) if e-mail, for example, had existed. And in the future it will no longer be what Freud and so many psychoanalysts have anticipated, from the moment e-mail, for example, became possible. One could find many clues other than e-mail. As a postal technology, the example undoubtedly merits some privilege. First of all because of the major and exceptional role (exceptional in the history of scientific projects) played at the center of the psychoanalytic archive by a hand-written correspondence. [COMMENT: One will wonder, however, what is specific to Freud in this?] We have yet to finish discovering and processing this immense corpus, in part published, in part secret, and perhaps in part radically and irreversibly destroyed - for example by Freud himself. Who knows? One must consider the historical and nonaccidental reasons which have tied such an institution, in its theoretical and practical dimensions, to postal communication and to this particular form of mail, to its substrates, to its average speed: a handwritten letter takes so many days to arrive in an other European city, and nothing is ever independent of this delay. Everything remains on its scale.

"But the example of E-mail is privileged in my opinion for a more important and obvious reason: because electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal. It is not only a technique, in the ordinary and limited sense of the term at an unprecedented rhythm, in quasi-instantaneous fashion, this instrumental possibility of production, of printing, of conservation, and of destruction of the archive must inevitably be accompanied by juridical and thus political transformations. These affect nothing less than property rights, publishing and reproduction rights....

"... Archival technology no longer determines, will never have determined merely the moment of the conservational recording, but rather the very institution of the archivable event. It conditions not only the form or the structure that prints, but the printed content of the printing: the pressure of the printing, the impression, before the division between the printed and the printer. This archival technique has commanded that which in the past even instituted and constituted whatever there was as anticipation of the future."

Jacques Derrida13

[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..." ]


"By the time Kafka began writing love letters to Felice and Milena [in the 1910s and 20s], the new bureaucracies of rail ministry and postal service were firmly in place. Before the mid-nineteenth century, neither Germany nor Austria had a rail ministry, and their postal services were housed within the Verkehrsministerium (transport ministry). In other words, before the 1850s, traveling bodies and traveling letters - or, in the official Austrian jargon, Personenbeförderung (human transport) and Nachrichtenübermittlung (information transmission) - were administratively united. The eventual bureaucratic separation of body from information brought with it, by the turn of the century, another, more physical separation: bodies and messages no longer necessarily traveled in the same vehicles. Indeed, with the invention of pneumatic mail, the telegraph, the telephone, and the wireless, information often no longer used traditional vehicles at all. People stopped speaking of `traveling by the night mail,' and began to imagine that trains, and later, automobiles, were the exclusive province of human bodies.

"Such technological and bureaucratic changes led to new ways of thinking about the body's relation - or non-relation - to transported information. According to Kafka, the world was divided technologically into two groups: the technologies of human presence (train, automobile, aeroplane, etc.) and the technologies of absence (postal system, telegraph, wireless, etc.) (BM 301-2). The technologies of presence, Kafka suggests, promote `natural,' - that is, physical - `intercourse' between humans, while the technologies of absence sponsor a disembodied ghostly intercourse (Verkehr)" (223; BM 302). Kafka's `love' letters to Felice and to Milena document his ambivalent relationship to these two types of technology and their corresponding types of intercourse... . On the one hand Kafka desires the `natural' intercourse sponsored by trains; on the other hand, he passionately wants to continue writing letters. For most of the correspondence, Kafka chooses the later. He is `made of literature,' as he once told Felice, and thus would rather read his `lovers' letters than touch their bodies (letter from August 14, 1913). Telegrams and express letters become his instruments of love. Railway trains, conversely, signify the pleasure of physical intercourse but also the terror of the end of writing."

John Zilcosky14

[COMMENT: Imagine all of Kafka's letters lost in the susurrus of cybernemospace, compacted into an... Odradek].


"Hitler's dictatorship was the first dictatorship of an industrial state in the age of modern technology, a dictatorship which employed to perfection the instruments of technology to dominate its own people... By means of such instruments of technology as the radio and public-address systems, eighty million persons could be made subject to the will of one individual. Telephone, teletype, and radio made it possible to transmit the commands of the highest levels directly to the lowest organs where because of their high authority they were executed uncritically. Thus many offices and squads received their evil commands in this direct manner. The instruments of technology made it possible to maintain a close watch over all citizens and to keep criminal operations shrouded in a high degree of secrecy. To the outsider this state apparatus may look like the seemingly wild tangle of cables in a telephone exchange; but like such an exchange it could be directed by a single will. Dictatorships of the past needed assistants of high quality in the lower ranks of the leadership also - men who could think and act independently. The authoritarian system in the age of technology can do without such men. The means of communication alone enable it to mechanize the work of the lower leadership. Thus the type of uncritical receiver of orders is created."

Albert Speer15

[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
© E-magazine LiterNet, 10.02.2000, № 2 (3)