The death of the letter?

The death of the letter?

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘The death of the letter?’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Is the letter now either dead or in terminal decline because of the impact of new digital technologies and forms of communication? Clearly, new technologies and hardware, including the cell phone, laptop and tablet with accompanying software innovations, have impacted on both the form or structure and the content of epistolary exchanges between people who are separated from each other. For some, the conclusion is drawn that letter-writing is at its end, and as a means of communication is either dead or else in terminal decline.

2. If this is so, then Whites Writing Whiteness and other projects concerned with letters and letter-writing would be in the curious position of witnessing the extinction of a genre with a history almost as long as social life itself. But if the letter is not at its end, then what effects are digital forms of communication having? And is the letter actually so important, or are there more fundamental aspects of epistolarity that might even be enhanced by the changes presently occurring?

3. These and related questions about ‘the death of the letter’ have become familiar, with an interesting literature discussing the composing arguments. The key ideas here can be usefully rehearsed around five important points which focus on definitional features of the letter seen to be undermined by recent developments. These concern (i) the importance or otherwise of genre conventions and the porous boundaries of the letter, (ii) the propelling factor of absence, (iii) the time/space distance basis of the genre, (iv) its draw in providing a simulacra of presence of the writer, and (v) the materiality of epistolary traces.

4. However, the changes and departures involved are not actually entirely new, and there been many earlier signs of the ends of the letter. In an article on this topic presently in the review process for a journal, this contention is explored regarding the late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters of feminist writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner, the first century New Testament letters of St Paul, first and second century letters by Roman legionaries, some World War 2 love letters, early twenty-first letters exchanged between mathematicians, and student emails received during 2012/13. The signs claimed to portent ‘the death of the letter’, the article argues, can be found across the examples discussed; and while ‘the letter’ in the narrow sense may (or may not) be dead, the ends of the letter more broadly conceived in terms of ‘epistolary intent’ and ‘letterness’ are nowhere in sight. Discussion here will however focus on the four definitional features.

5. The core of the ‘death of the letter’ arguments is that, while in situations of absence people used to keep in touch primarily by letter-writing, the letter has now been superseded as a key means for doing so. A number of pieces of research have shown that when people now need to keep in touch, only rarely do they write letters and instead mainly use a combination of email and text with the telephone. From this has come a very literal reading of what ‘the letter’ is, treating the prevailing conventions (opening salutation, formal address of someone, message with standard syntax and punctuation and layout, pre-closing, and closing with signature) as definitional. Because many fewer letters are being written, at least in high technology parts of the world, this is taken to demonstrate if not ‘the final death’, then considerable malaise. This, however, focuses on the current conventions of form, rather than what letter-writing is fundamentally about, and ignores the much more fundamental features of ‘epistolary intent’ and ‘letterness’.

6. The fundament of epistolary exchanges is ‘epistolary intent’. This involves the intention to communicate, in writing or a cognate representational medium, to another person who is ‘not there’ because removed in time/space from the writer, with the hope or expectation of a response. The ‘standard letter’, sketched above, is a fairly late arrival on the epistolary scene, for its conventions, including a precise address, dating with days and months as well as years, in the handwriting of the person sending the message, the certainties of arrival, fixed addresses where letters are delivered, are largely eighteenth and nineteenth century and rich north in origin. However, the components of epistolary intent, both within and detached from the letter and its conventions, can be traced millennia earlier, and still flourish now.

7. ‘Letterness’ refers to another notable characteristic, so notable it is a kind of definitional feature although difficult pin down because concerning the porous character of the letter and its ability to morph into other forms. The letter developed out of a variety of other kinds of communication – edicts about what was un/lawful from kings and emperors, public announcements carved on steeles, officials sending official communications, letters patent, banknotes ‘promising to pay the bearer on demand’, scientific reports in letters and so on – and writers of letters often draw on or mimic such other genres.

8. The letter has its origins and purpose in situations of absence, where people who are separated want to communicate with each other, with separation in time/space and absence perceived as definitional. However, the second ‘death of the letter’ argument suggests that new digital forms of communication such as text, ‘instant’ messaging and push email are characterised by immediacy and are vitiating such separations. The related argument is that these are to all intents and purposes synchronous forms of communication (akin to the face-to-face and talk) and very different from the asynchronous (time/space separation) characteristics of the letter.

9. Absence is most often positioned as fundamentally definitional of the genre and in these arguments it is treated in a very binary away, seeing migrant letters as the core example, otherwise with people perceived as being in situations of consanguinity. In fact, when letter collections are looked at en masse the majority of ordinary letter-writing is the product of interrupted presence, as punctuations of and bridges between face-to-face meetings, rather than signifying permanent or semi-permanent absence.

10. As this suggests, the letter has marked temporal aspects, with the intervals between writing and receiving seen as definitional in character. However, the third ‘death of the letter’ argument is that a fundamental change in time/space compression occurs in digital forms of communication, with the temporal order and interrupted temporal rhythms of epistolary exchanges having in effect been dissolved. But this is an overly presentist view of speed and its impact. For instance, in Britain the mail coach, the 1d post, the international telegraph and the postcard were successively seen in ‘death of the letter’ terms, because the time for consideration and reflection which the earlier slow speed of written communications required had been overturned. In fact, immense upsurges in ordinary letter-writing occurred around the successive introductions of these developments.

11. In addition, ‘very quick’ is not the same as, and is being mistaken for, instant and synchronous. Although digital forms such as text, ‘instant’ messaging and push email certainly involve time/space compression, there is not time/space dissolution, with the separation at the root of epistolary intent still existing, albeit with the communications involved arriving with considerable rapidity and permitting similarly rapid response.

12. The letter’s simulacra of presence character has been one of its most widely remarked upon aspects, with its power for the recipient being that, across absence, it bears many traces of its writer, such as their handwriting, their touch on the paper, sticking of stamps and sealing of envelopes. But the fourth ‘death of the letter’ argument for discussion is the claim that there is as an absolute difference between the letter and paper and the electronic form that epistolary communications can take, with such traces of touch and presence absent from these.

13. More prosaically, in fact many standard letters lack simulacra of presence aspects. Between familiars, for instance, letters need not include personal address or signature. And more generally, letters are now mainly typed (or word processed), not hand-written, and frequently sent as file attachments with e-signatures. In addition, the digital form also produces simulacra of presence aspects. These include, in sending, the use of emoticons, personalised sign-offs, and can be accompanied by photographs or other adornments; and in receiving, they are often saved, and saved per person, again with personalised things like photographs of the sender attached.

14. The letter has also been definitionally associated with its material ‘words on paper, paper in envelope’ aspects, with these ensuring it can be re-read and saved and passed on by recipients. This in turn means letters can survive, be bought and sold, and consequently have historical afterlife and availability for researchers. But the fifth ‘death of the letter’ argument suggests that electronic media have introduced a major difference here, because of the absence of the material form.

15. Digital communication is however a supremely material medium involving large amounts of hardware, including computers, cell-phones and tablets, requiring software platforms that structure and help shape in very material ways the communications that can be engaged in, and being reliant on electricity or proxy-forms such as batteries. Also, an array of traces remains and can be made material. Websites stay in existence long after hosting sites may have vanished; email is ‘there’ and can be recovered; and text messages are similarly ‘there’ and available. And for all these, people can and do engage in their own forms of archiving, some of which involve printing out and making as material and ‘words on paper’ as the conventional letter.

16. These ‘death of the letter’ arguments raise interesting and important points concerning the impact of digital communications on contemporary forms of letter-writing and the ordinary writings that people use to keep in touch in situations of interrupted presence, as well as sometimes more permanent absence. However, although they indicate important developments that are changing aspects of epistolarity, they do not substantiate ‘death of the letter’ claims. The epistolary intent and letterness at the root remain intact and indeed expanded, although they are largely unexamined in the debate about ‘dead letters’.

17. But of course it is by no means so simple as, ‘once there was the letter, now the letter is dead or dying’. From early on, departures, often radical departures, from the conventions of form and content can be found. These may represent alternative and new practices, or simply be expressions of the porous character of the epistolary form and the inventiveness of letterness. However, clearly ‘old’ and ‘new’ have co-existed over time, and of course the existence of departures requires the existence of (changing) conventions, no matter how complexly these might be responded to. There is, then, evidence of variability, letterness and mixtures of anti/conventions stretching from the first to the twenty-first century, where epistolary intent is concerned.

18. However, what is certainly not being argued is that nothing has changed. There is considerable evidence of change, of small shifts and modifications and also of larger technological and other factors impacting on not only ‘the letter’ but also perceptions and deployments of letterness. To say that impact is patchy, that the effects differ in different circumstances and for different people, and that things become normativised, is, after all, no more than to say ‘social change’. But there are some developments associated with digital communications technologies, discussed earlier, which do appear to indicate significant departures. These are now returned to, against the backcloth of the greater complexities of the letter, epistolary intent and letterness discussed earlier.

19. Compression in time/space has been a feature of all new communications technologies impinging on epistolary exchanges, from the ox-waggon to the pony cart to the railway, the steamer, telegraph, 1d post, rapid deliveries, postcard and telegram. These have been accommodated, leaving the letter alive, and each time with the sense that communication was quicker, arrival more certain, and the form impacted on. Such changes have occurred in a context of relational exchanges, of which ordinary letter-writing was a part but, except in particular circumstances, not the whole, and with the face-to-face and interrupted presence rather than permanent absence being key to most. However, while the time/space compressions that now exist – round-world exchanges in seconds – may not be different in kind from previous ones, they are in degree; and although time passes and elapses, its brevity is seductive.

20. The ‘death of the letter’ debate tends to conflate time/space; but although time spans have been greatly diminished in digital communications, this is not so for separations of space and place. Consequently, although reach has been enormously enhanced in temporal respects, in spatial terms it remains fairly unchanged (visual forms such as Skype or Snapchat appear to impact on this, but do so as precisely simulacra of presence, not actual presence). Succinctly, there is still a ‘here and now’ of writing and ‘there and then’ of reading effect, with significant changes to the relationship between ‘now and then’, but not ‘here and there’.

21. Nonetheless, there is that temporal compression, of diminishing time between writing and receiving, and this is clearly underpinning a sense that an ‘in touch’ ontology is developing, in fact has already developed for many people, perhaps by means of the cell phone and text messaging even more than other platforms.  The exchanges of text messages can concern the monumental, although the indications are that it is the interrupted presence and ordinary life communications that are favoured, of making arrangements, fixing meetings, requesting information or help, and generally oiling the relational wheels.

22. It is however not only the speed of possible exchanges that is involved here. Surely the more significant development is that, through a kind of gigantic mutual consent, the form is used for, even though it does not require, writing of different and more equalising kind which approximates to functional literacy kinds of writing and reading. The enormous upsurge of email, text and ‘instant’ messaging, the brevity and stripped-down character of these messages and toleration of mistakes and omissions, and the coming together of speech-like synchronous forms and asynchronous written ones, is producing a major extension of writing as an everyday activity, with epistolary exchanges of letterness kinds the most significant feature of these.

23. Perhaps the appropriate conclusion to draw is that, while the letter may be ailing, letterness is emerging phoenix-like from the flames to renewed digital life. In the longer run new forms of epistolarity impacting on space as well as time might come into being, and so it might really be a matter of ‘watch this space’. And how curious that would be!

Last updated: 20 December 2014


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