Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘A Copy’ Whites Writing Whiteness
www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/a-copy/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.
1. The humongously large Forbes family collection contains, in addition to its thousands of letters received from family and friends and officialdom, a large number of items archivally labelled (and it seems labelled thus by whichever family member originally collated these papers) using the heading of ‘letters dispatched’. However, this part of the collection in fact contains things which are drafts, things which are actual letters received, and also things which might appear to be letters received and (more of them) letters dispatched, but which are instead, as a heading written on some of them proclaims, a Copy. ‘Copy’, it appears, out-trumps the dispatched/received distinction, and it and the untitled ‘draft’ are treated as sort of akin.
2. Jean Baudrillard hovers, uneasily. How is ‘a copy’ to be understood when, as with perhaps hundreds of ‘letters’ here, there is no original in known existence? Also, how to understand ‘a copy’ which is a draft written by one person (eg. Kate Forbes) acting as the secretary or amanuensis of another (eg. her husband David Forbes snr or later her son Dave Forbes jnr) who was the nominal signatory, where only the draft in the ‘other hand’ is extant, and which is also one of the ‘letters dispatched’? These are not simulacra, exactly (can a simulacrum be exact or inexact?), but nor are they ‘originals’ either.
3. However, while what they are not can be partly discerned, what they are remains unclear. Yes, of course they can be given names, indeed they already have them, as drafts, copies, letters dispatched. But these terms leave the ontological puzzle intact. And this is – what are they, how do they relate to letters and letterness, and especially so when an item (a term which evacuates the ontological problem) is a copy, of a draft, of a letter dispatched, but in another hand, which hand is also signalled as having written the ‘original’, but as the amanuensis for another person?
4. Such complications are certainly not specific to the Forbes collection, for versions of them are revealed when contemplating the contents of other collections too. Many historical collections contain letter-books with handwritten or early cyclostyled copies bound into them. Recent collections frequently contain carbon-copies and typewritten drafts and copies. And, Walter Benjamin please step forward, very recent ones raise something fundamental to thinking about ‘the letter in an age of mechanical reproduction’, when that age involves electronic production of a kind coterminous with reproduction. A printed out email has never had ‘an original’, it both is and is not its original self. An email reproduced by electronic means is actually not reproduced, for it remains what it always was.
5. The issue, then, is not just that there isn’t any ‘copy’ here, but that ‘copy’ has become an ontological impossibility.
Last updated: 14 October 2017