Relais: Destiny of Literature as Epoch of the Post (1751-1913)

By Esther Leslie, 26 September 2008

The book jacket of 'Relais...' , sports a picture for a 1920s design for a dual purpose object: a letter box backed by an identical letter bin. Chillingly, this graphic insinuates how close missives always come to being trashed. Bernard Siegert's 'Relais...' , a series of theses on postal anxieties, investigates such interferences of communication: the fact that letters might never arrive, that their meanings might remain inaccessible, too encrypted or, that, perhaps, on arrival, letters might dismissevely get binned.

Letters, according to the advertisements, are meant to keep parted people in touch. The claim appears innocent. Siegert's book upends this alibi of the post, to reveal other less humane reasons for the postal principle during its162 year-long 'epoch' (1751-1913). For the Enlightenment scholars who oversaw the emergence of the postal system, language is equated with communication, communication with understanding, and understanding with humanity. The hidden agendum of such rationalist assertions is revealed by the author. The 'epoch of the post' is accomplice to the generation of individuals as recipients of letters - postal subjects, subjected in general. Happily for Siegert, key developments in postal technologies, such as the penny post, franking machines, printers, sticky envelopes, are initiated by utilitarian and disciplinarian Rowland Hill (i.e. a perfect subject for the Foucauldian (gaze) and his family. Fellow utilitarian and panopticist Jeremy Bentham and early computer inventor, Charles Babbage, also make appearances in mail history, transposing onto postal systems their disciplinary machines, run according to functionalist, rationalist. standardising, abstract principles which increasingly bracket out unaccounted for unpredictabilities.

From 1750 B.C.. to the Baroque period letters are instruments of communication solely for royalty, rulers and the military. After this period the postal system becomes institutionalised through the granting of permissions to noble houses and suchlike to carry private letters, fragments of inter-personal communication. British rulers are precocious in the perfection of regulated postal systems. In 1591, in response to an increasing flow of private correspondence, Queen Elizabeth initiates the collusion of Royalty and the Mail, proclaiming that each and every letter must pass through state channels. By the end of the 18th century, a definite 'individualisation of written correspondence occurs' and letters become vehicles of intimacy: the exchange of personal details, autobiographic revelation, declarations of love. The postal principle becomes interminable. In demanding reponses letters demand constant exchange. The epoch of the post creates subjects entwined in networks of communication. The stimulation of inter-personal communication becomes a new type of power brokerage. The engendering of addressees is seen to be synonymous with the manufacture of individual bourgeois subjects. For Siegert, this does not signal the emergence of an authentic communicating individual as subject, but rather signifies an early stage of a highly modern cultural control unit, called man, who mediated a fantasy of individuality through this very act of composing private letters. The letter becomes metaphor for the individual self. Siegert quotes Goethe, to whom and from whom letters were exempt from postage fees, making him the ultimate addressee/ addresser. Goethe declares letters the most consummate affidavits. They represent a record of one's most internal feelings, one's biography, one's selfhood. For Siegert such an apparently humanising function is, indeed, just part of the perfecting of oppressive mechanisms. An anecdote exposes fantasies around the generation of senders and recipients and the universalization of the postal system: Harriet Martineau equates the invention of the door slit and cheap pre-paid postage (initially recipients paid for letters) with the aversion of violent revolution, because of their effective encouragement of the circulation of ideas which humanise the masses and engender domestic affections. Once telegraphic technology is available, in Britain post-Peterloo, its potential is shown to lie in a very real organisation of power; the enabling of governments to transmit orders to local authorities for purposes of insurgency suppression. For Siegert, language and communication are forms of power, and the postal system is a specific historical instance of the organisation of power.

Siegert is interested in the physical forms of transmission technologies. Material details are analysed, such as how note paper is folded (thick pergament, unable to be folded or concealed necessitates/ coincides with publicness, an openness of communication; thin foldable paper, enables privacy, secrecy, although of course not thereby negating the possibility of interception). The physical state of the letter and its transmissibility makes it possible to decipher the historical and social implications of postal technologies. Significant is also the networks of relations that surround transmission technologies - i.e. the tariffs charged, the introduction of universal postage rates, the process of recorded delivery. Who pays, sender or the addressee? Does the state take the postage fees? Should all sent items cost the same? How should the rates be set - by distance or weight? When are letter boxes invented and how does it come about that they manage to colonise every door and many street corners, thereby making the injunction to communication possible and inescapable? How and when are address forms standardised? The stamp is one marker of standardisation. The postcard represents another example: s stamp for writing on, it represents a deconstruction of the letter, in its reduction of the materiality of communication to its naked, public economy. Further losses of postal intimacy are signalled by the postcard with pre-printed text and pre-existent picture, made standard size. Siegert sees the postcard as the 'virus of the world post', decisively excluding all postal intimacy. If the pillar box made the nation the neighbourhood, and was erected, along with the letter slit and the sticky envelope in order to eliminate time-wasting, the inauguration of the world postal system in 1874 further homogenises, shrinks or negates space and geography. Stamp, postcard and world post system are shown to be the deconstruction of the humanist 'thought that people can use letters to communicate with one another' (Kafka). These technologies infringe the intimate nature of the discourses of the letter and the novel: leading toward the public nature of the postcard (deconstruction of the letter), while the expansion of automaticized printing enables the omnipresence of the newspaper and pamphlet (the death of literature) - available on mail order.

Post exceeds the exchange of letters. Postal technologies, fulfilling their historical mission of subjectivity formation, infect literary forms. Siegert proposes that the novel form is intimately bound up with the form of the private letter - the revelation of intimate details, the personal address. Connections are drawn between the rise of a female readership - the reader as feminine - and the rise of the Romantic novelist, and both are shown to engage in a personal, emotional discourse variously called romance or Romanticism. Love letters and early nineteenth century literature are two facets of a new intimate discourse. Indeed, Siegert claims that the letter, the epistolary novel and the modern diary all emerge at the same time. Examples of letterature include Goethe and the very intimate address of the early nineteenth century novel, or modernist (and postal worker) August Stratum and his stripped down word-efficient telegraphic style of poetry. Kafka's paranoid style is shown to be deeply enmeshed in his obsessions with the post as ghostly form of communication, comprised of ill-boding messages that are forced upon receivers or desperately desired letters which never arrive. Franz Kafka was only truly happy sending his mail, his love letters, by recorded delivery, so as to be sure of their arrival. For him, the post is part of an ever more victorious system of 'ghost communication', along with the telegraph, telephone and radio, all communication technologies which are destined to win out over immediate human communication systems of rail, cars and planes, which bring people together, rather than delivering mere ghostly signs of/by people.

Siegert charts Kafka's various postal practices, through a study of his many love letters to Felice Bauer, a typist from Berlin, who works for a large phonograph firm, and types up writers' manuscripts on the side. That Bauer is a typist puts her in the same class as the large numbers of female telephone operators: all women involved with mechanical discourse-technologies. Siegert relates how Kafka's love letter praxis enacts the end of intimate communication, in a variety of ways. Kafka types his letters, often from his office, because he finds himself able to slip in the process into an ecriture automatique. (The invention of the typewriter is another instance of how in the age of standardised serial production, individuality is only a defect in the machine [c.f. all those criminological tales about typewritten hanging e's etc.] ). Kafka's attempt to tie himself to Bauer through love letters which are typed, and as such remain anonymous because impersonal, fails and Bauer marries a businessman. In the war-period, Kafka, fearful of letter hold-ups by the censor, types his love letters on postcards. Their ease of reading and their publicness should speed up their passage: but the price paid is intimacy. just as public is Kafka's dedication of the novella ' the Judgement' to Bauer, continuing thus the insinuation of literature as letter from man to woman. Kafka's writing is shown to end communication per se: his letters increasingly reflect on the process of writing and the possibility of (not) receiving letters. In the context of a more rapid flow of post (eight deliveries seven days a week in Berlin in 1913), Kafka begins to thematise the possibility of letters crossing in the post and thus negating each other. By Kafka's time, the post is seen to have become a huge, mad, self -referential post-machine.

In the last years of the epoch of the post, the letter participates in a system of potential permanent contact through the increasing automisation of postal communication: prepaid postage, postal rates, letter box slits, anonymous postmen, fixed collection and delivery times. the machine is up and running, but is then technologically outbid. With the invention of telephony and telegraphy not only frustration of the geographical space of transmission are overcome but also delays in the time of transmission. The telephone gives impetus to a new communication science of sound, a phonology, which tears language from the domain of poets, philosophers and literary critics. And it is shown to destroy the love letter, instituting in its place a system in which declarations of love are chargeable by the minute. For Siegert the telephone creates a peculiar feminine discourse without subject. Women enter the labour market (as long as they remain unwed) as telephonists, as exchange operators, with given scripts to utter as responses. In Germany, for example, this script is roughly the subject-evading, impersonal formula 'office here, what is to be done?' Women, their voice frequencies apparently more attuned to telephonic frequencies, had once been the objects of novels' and letters' intimate, secret whispers, and now become operators of a machinery to which they are particularly suited, but which offers them no autonomy or authorship. Women become agents of mechanical media. Simultaneously handwriting, the personal touch, is decisively over, made technologically redundant. The final ruminations in 'Relais' switch to a study of telephonic communication models of the 1940s, especially those devised by Shannon, who introduces the concept 'noise' into communication. Shannon devised an early system of digital encoding, which encrypts messages in binary forms in order to send them. This, which will be perfected by computing technologies, signals the end of the post and the end of literature for Siegert. Human language has become redundant and script, sound and image are all convertible parts of the same code. The end of postal systems is seen to occur in the age of electronic communications, when the machines engage in an artificially intelligent communication, which no longer relies on any sort of human moment to relay (hi) stories.