The death of the letter
On Friday a journalist friend rang looking for some comments about the death of the letter. The story grew out of reports of a sharp decline in the use of snail mail, and having already spoken to historian Les Carlyon and linguist Sue Butler, both of whom had made the usual noises about the loss of a form which has allowed us to communicate complex thought and emotion for many generations, he wanted a literary perspective on the question.
Before I go any further I should say that I agree, at least generally, with the remarks by Carlyon and Butler which are quoted in the article. The letter is a remarkable form, not just because of its capacity to record the feelings and impressions of the moment for posterity, but because it is a form that has always been as much about a process of self-creation and exploration as communication.
In a way that shouldn’t be surprising. The act of writing isn’t simply about putting thoughts down on paper, it’s about a process of thought. And, as a result, the process of writing a letter allows us to explore thoughts and ideas we might not be able to express or even access in everyday life. Indeed in a very real sense, writing letters is less about communication than the creation of a self through the act of writing. Usually these selves are freer, smarter, sometimes they’re something like our best self, more often they’re versions of our everyday self which only find their true expression on the page. It’s a process you see at work in the correspondence of writers such as Philip Larkin or Flaubert, both of whom were capable of being scatological and filthy with one friend, and considered and thoughtful with another. Or in the epistolary relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, a relationship in which both revealed aspects of themselves they concealed from everyone else.
But the thing that struck me while I was talking to my friend on Friday, was that despite the passing of the letter, these are exactly the same processes one sees at work when people blog, or tweet, or even update their Facebook statuses. In all cases they’re projecting versions of themselves outwards, and in so doing engaging in the same processes of self-invention that once went on in correspondence. The only real difference is that they’re doing it in public, or at least semi-public.
Obviously there’s nothing particularly radical about observing that technology is altering our notions of identity. But it does suggest that the usual anxieties provoked by the passing of cultural forms and institutions are at least partly misplaced in this context.
More importantly though, it’s a reminder that the transition from the written letter to email isn’t simply a story about changing technology. It’s part of a much larger story about the way technology is redefining the boundaries between our public and private selves. It’s not a neutral process by any means, and its effects can be seen in the increasing anxiety about the management of confidential information, in the arguments about the use (and abuse) of surveillance technologies, and even in the rise of celebrity culture. But it’s also a story that’s as much about possibility as decline, something which can be obscured when one concentrates on only one aspect of the story.