Is it or isn’t it? On orders, lists and letters

Is it or isn’t it? On orders, lists and letters

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2019) ‘Is it or isn’t it? On orders, lists and letters’ Whites Writing Whiteness and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1. The fascination

1.1 Fascination with the point at which other forms of writing become letters, or the converse and where letters reach a point of beginning to become something else, is perennial. As a result, it is difficult when something is presented as a letter not to stand back and consider, is it or isn’t it? Also, there are different ways in which something might be, or might not be, a letter; it’s curious that there are so many differences while clear patterns and regularities also exist. Such things differ enormously, then, which adds to their interest. They are tricky, so think hard about them!

1.2 Genre boundaries are complicated if not demolished by recognising how quickly a range of representational forms can morph into or out of being a letter. Their letterness aspects can be there or not there, depending on how they are thought about. So it all turns on the key question of, ‘is it or isn’t it?’. Consider an example.

2. The Emagusheni document

?Losiblo ?ryaneni
16th November 1882
Dear Sir
Will you please oblg lend [sic] me one blanket green or black the value ten 10 and flask of gin that value ­ 12 one lbs Coffee ?4 lbs sugar send one shillings ?cap for sugar I will make Right as soon
yours very truly
?Cumblan ?goto ?go ?Seokin
^{& ^send^ one lbs ?raise}^

[Gallagher 95/11/2/6]

2.1 At the time this document was written, McNamara was a part-owner and storeman of the Emagusheni trading station, located in what was at the time called Pondoland. Its papers or a significant part of them are now in the Gallagher collection in the Killie Campbell Library, Durban, with another part in the Cape Archives in Cape Town.

2.2 Many of them are similar to the document above, for which both a photograph and a transcription have been provided. Ignore the difficulties in reading/ transcribing some words, there is enough there to go on.

2.3 Is it, or isn’t it, a letter?

3. The cases for defence and prosecution

3.1 The case for the defence: Ignore the fact that the writer was only functionally illiterate and recognise that this is a communication written and sent by one party to another person as its addressee, who was in another place.

3.2 There is separation of time and distance. There is the place it was sent from, and the date on which it was written. There is a signatory. There is a named addressee. There is a communicative message. A response is expected. Surely nothing more is needed in terms of a defence? It is a letter! Plain to see! It meets all the basic criteria of what a letter is.

3.3 The case for the prosecution: No need to even mention the functional literacy, this is just a red herring. The document is a communication written and sent by one party, while the addressee is irrelevant as the whole point and purpose is to order goods. The fact that this is McNamara is not relevant, it could be any storeman.

3.4 This document is in fact an order for goods with the writer’s shopping list provided within it, and the signature is there to demonstrate that payment will be made by that person, presumably known to the storeman, in due course. There is no necessary relationship between the signatory and the addressee.

3.5 The message is not part of a communicative exchange but is an order for goods in a context in which delivery, not ‘a reply’bin the letterness sense, is a necessary expectation because of distances and weights. The address is for delivery purposes. No reply of a letterness kind is expected, then, just the sending of ordered goods. The prosecution case is proven!

4. Curious hybrids

4.1 Which is the most convincing view? The document clearly has letterness aspects. The document clearly has the signs of being an order for goods plus a list of these. Which predominates is a matter of interpretation, not an incontrovertible ‘already there’ fact.

4.2 But why treat it as one thing to the exclusion of the other and position these as though stark binaries when they closely intersect with each other? It might be curious, this hybrid, but that is how it is. Hybridic trickiness is a rule, not an exception. Things are both straightforward and not at one and the same time.

5. PS

5.1 Thinking about the list in the document is interesting in its own right.

5.2 Consider what has been ordered – a blanket in specific colours, gin, coffee, sugar and rice. These are all things which people would not have produced themselves. Another way round to express this is that, although educated and literate and familiar with the conventions of letter-writing, this and other customers of the trading station were not ordering basic foodstuffs to be supplied, but different kinds of luxury items. So presumably they remained involved in agricultural and/or pastoral activities that provided them with the basics, but were able to generate cash sums of money that enabled them to buy quite expensive things.

5.3 The trading station‘s customers, then, are likely to have been peasant farmers or sharecroppers who were producing for a market as well as subsistence. And if so, quite a number of them were women going by the formalities of their signatures.

Last updated: 11 January 2020


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