::fibreculture:: NEW BOOK: Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of presence

Belinda Barnet BBarnet at groupwise.swin.edu.au
Mon Apr 5 23:19:01 CEST 2010

Announcing a new book from Routledge: Esther Milne, Letters, Postcards,
Email: Technologies of Presence (Routledge, 2010).


Contemporary accounts of the impact of electronic, digitally networked
cultures often construct an apocalyptic narrative of decisive shifts and
abrupt breaks: the new technology arrives, it seems, out of nowhere,
sweeping away the old and ushering in the new.  In response to such
accounts, Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence argues
that the relation between old and new communication systems is more
complex than allowed in current media theory.  Narratives of change are
dramatically complicated by the striking continuities between different
communication systems.  In this original study, Esther Milne focuses on
one of these continuities, specifically a fantasy of presence that, she
argues, pervades the socio-technical representations of letters,
postcards and emails.

What are the enabling conditions for presence to function as a
technological and rhetorical strategy across distributed communication
platforms?  To address this question Milne explores historically the
symbolic and material representations of presence through three media
sites: a networked postal community of nineteenth-century letter
writers; postcard correspondence of First World War soldiers; and a
contemporary email discussion list.

Although a number of writers have productively historicised the
socio-critical formulations of presence, telepresence and co-presence,
these phenomena have usually been confined to representations within
electronic media. (eg Coyne, 2001; Glotz et al, 2005; Goldberg 2000;
Hjorth, 2005, 2007;  Ito, 2005; Lombard and Ditton, 1997; Mitchell,
1999; Murphy, 2000; Ryan, 1999; Sconce, 2000; Sheridan, 1992; Sobchack,
1994). What remains under-examined is the extent to which older
technologies, such as the postal service, also enable an experience of
intimacy, immediacy, immersion and presence.

Furthermore, when epistolary scholars have investigated the production
of presence through literary or aesthetic formations, they have limited
the focus to a discrete site: either the letter as a ‘real’,
historical artefact (eg Decker, 1998) or the letter’s representational
deployment through fiction and art (eg Kauffman, 1992) . In contrast,
Milne traces the affective configuration of presence through empirical
data; material bases; and rhetorical structures, to demonstrate the
interrelation between imagined presence and notions of intimacy, privacy
and disembodiment.

Although the correspondents of letters, postcards and emails are not,
usually, present to one another as they write and read their exchanges,
this does not necessarily inhibit affective communication. Indeed, this
study demonstrates how physical absence may, in some instances, provide
correspondents with intense intimacy and a spiritual, almost telepathic,
sense of the other’s presence. While corresponding by letter, postcard
or email, readers construe an imaginary, incorporeal body for their
correspondents that, in turn, reworks their interlocutor’s
self-presentation. In this regard the fantasy of presence reveals a key
paradox of cultural communication, namely that material signifiers can
be used to produce the experience of incorporeal presence.

List of Figures
1: "The Conscious Presence of a Central Intellect": British Postal
2: "The simple transcripts of natural feeling": Signifiers of Presence
in Epistolary Practice
3: "Ghosts of all my impertinent letters": Presence in Crisis
4: "The Self-conscious air of the reproduced": Postcard History
5: "A photo of the ship that I am now on": Signifiers of Presence,
Intimacy and Privacy in Postcard Correspondence
6: A Brief History of Electronic Mail
7: "In my sickness": Constructing Presence on the Cybermind Discussion

About the Author:

Faculty of Life and Social Sciences, Swinburne University, Melbourne,
Australia. She researches the history of networked postal communication
systems and celebrity production within the socio-regulatory contexts of




More information about the Fibreculture mailing list