The death of the letter? Letterness and the many ends of letter-writing

The death of the letter? Letterness and the many ends of letter-writing

For the full version with all research data of the shortened discussion here, see: Liz Stanley. 2015. The Death of the Letter? Epistolary Intent, Letterness and the Many Ends of Letter-Writing. Cultural Sociology, Vol. 9(2) 240–55.

1. Letter-writing, including proxies such as notes, telegrams and cards and recent developments such as text, Twitter and email, is the form of cultural production that has involved and continues to involve more people than any other. ‘Ordinary writing’ has been a continuing feature in many cultures, with illiteracy or functional literacy little bar to engaging in letter-writing and reading, with both often communal activities. Also and perhaps counter-intuitively, most archives, particularly non-specialist depositories, are replete with ordinary writings; and most collections, whether of ‘ordinary’ or elite families and individuals, overwhelmingly contain letters).

2. However, clearly, new technologies and hardware, including the cell phone, laptop and tablet with accompanying software innovations, have all impacted on the form and also the content of epistolary exchanges between people separated from each other. As a consequence, is the letter now dead, made redundant by new technologies and digital forms of communication like email, text and ‘instant’ messaging which enable much speedier communications to bridge absence? For some, ‘letter-writing may be about to come to an end’. However, has the letter perhaps witnessed earlier ‘deaths’ because of the impact of once-new technologies, but survived these? If the letter is not dead or dying, then what effects are digital communications having? And is the letter actually so important, or are there more fundamental aspects of epistolarity that might even be enhanced by current new developments?

3. These and related questions about ‘the death of the letter’ raise interesting points concerning the impact of digital communications on contemporary forms of letter-writing . However, although they indicate important developments that are changing some aspects of epistolarity, they do not substantiate ‘death of the letter’ claims, for the epistolary intent at the root remains and new forms of letterness flourish. The examples discussed in support of this are late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters by feminist writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner, the first century New Testament epistles of St Paul, first and second century letters by Roman legionaries, some World War 2 love letters, early twenty-first exchanges between mathematicians, and student emails received during 2012/14.

4. What these examples show is that it is by no means so simple as, ‘once there was the letter, now the letter is dead or dying’. From early on, departures from the conventions of form and content can be found. Some express the porous character of the epistolary form and the inventiveness of letterness, while others bring new practices and new forms of epistolarity into being. And so, what of ‘the letter’ and questions of genre and genre assemblage?

5. Genre conformity, porous departures from the normative and new departures have co-existed over time, and of course the existence of departures requires the existence of (changing) conventions. There is, as the discussion has shown, evidence of variability in forms of letterness and mixtures of anti/conventions stretching from the first to the twenty-first century. However, epistolary intent has persisted and, the signs strongly suggest, has become enhanced in the recent period, although via accretion by slow accretion the processes of genre assemblage have eventuated in different prevailing conventions at different points in time.

6. Some aspects of this are connected with individual and group customising of the form in which particular epistolary exchanges occur. Aspects of the letters of St Paul regarding their mode of address, the ways in which blessings are given, as well as their bridging of the written and face-to-face, come under this heading. Other examples include Olive Schreiner’s early 1870s ‘feast or famine’ circumstances when no sooner did the post arrive than it had to be replied to, and my father and mother’s wartime innovations, which retained epistolary intent and letterness alongside the absence of the letter as such. The particular material form of the Vindolanda tablets, wooden rather than wax because of local circumstances, also comes under the heading of customising, while their content demonstrates the situational aspects of the form of and departures in epistolary exchanges. The ‘brothers and comrades’ emphasis in many of these exchanges and particularly the strongly performative character of many Roman Vindolanda letters is relevant here, as is their mixture of the epistolary and face-to-face.

7. The existence of normativising trends is also clear, with technological, personal, contextual and situational changes becoming incorporated and made more or less consonant with what existed before. Olive Schreiner’s letter-writing practices, for instance, altered their rhythms according to changes of place, and quickly accommodated to technological developments. The exchanges between my parents, which had never occurred pre-war, accommodated both their particular circumstances and the externally imposed ones of compelled absence and the military structuring of place. And whatever the personal inclinations of the university students, their written engagements with ‘authority’ in situations of perceived necessity were also normativised, but in the direction of conformity to ‘the letter’ in its standard formulation.

8. However, what is certainly not being argued is that nothing has changed. All the examples discussed provide 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 ‘change’. But there are some developments associated with digital communications technologies, discussed earlier, which do seem to indicate significant departures, and these are now returned to.

9. Compression in time/space has been a feature of all the new communications technologies mentioned, 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 which ordinary letter-writing was a part of but, except in specific 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 the brevity is seductive.

10. The ‘death of the letter’ debate tends to conflate time and 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. Succinctly, there is still a ‘here and now’ of writing and ‘there and then’ of reading, with significant changes to the relationship between ‘now and then’ but not ‘here and there’.

11. Nonetheless, there is 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 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.

12. It is not only the speed of possible exchanges that is involved here. Surely the more significant development is that, through a tacit mutual consent, the form is being used for writing of different and more equalising kind which – ‘ U 2’ – approximates to functional literacy kinds of writing and reading. The enormous upsurges of email, text and ‘instant’ messaging, the brevity and stripped-down character of these messages, the toleration of mistakes and omissions, and the coming together of speech-like synchronous forms and asynchronous written ones, are producing a major extension of writing as an everyday quotidian activity as an important if unanticipated result of developments in digital communications. The strongly evident persistent desire for connection across time and space and the ways in which digital technologies are used both to transform and to enhance this is surely remarkable and fascinating. Epistolary intent is fundamental to the ways in which people seek to communicate in circumstances of absence/interrupted presence, and the inventiveness in how they use digital communications to do so is helpfully seen in letterness terms as indicative of the porous and morphing ways in which this intent is made manifest.

13. Perhaps the appropriate conclusion to draw is that, while the letter may be ailing, new digital forms of communication are enabling the expression of epistolary intent in a wide array of ways, with letterness taking new forms around the time/space compressions involved. However, while time compression is ‘real’, that concerning space is not. Perhaps in the longer run new forms of epistolarity that make more of an impact on space as well as time might come into being, and so it might really be a matter of ‘watch this space’.

Last updated: 23 December 2017