Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Fate of Letters

What will soon become of historical scholarship when the access to personal letters becomes impossible? How can one write social and cultural histories or genealogies when the documents on which ideas are worked out, like correspondence between colleagues, is digitized (e.g., email) and without a paper trail? It would be impossible, for example, of writing a history of beginnings of psychoanalysis, such as Eli Zaretsky's brilliant Secrets of the Soul, without the important hand-written messages between Freud and his associates (Abraham, Jones, Jung, Adler, Ferenczi), where ideas emerged and sometimes waned without ever being printed in a book or article. How could one access, if one were interested in, say, the cultural turn in geography, the interpersonal correspondence between scholars if their epistolary relations are locked in the black boxes of personal computers and opaque networks?

In his analysis of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard understands part of the epochal shift of so-called "postmodernism" to be that moment when forces of information become centripetal, privatized, and consolidated into inaccessible spaces. While Lyotard's analysis may be laced with a hint of hyperbole, the very real threat to a more robust scholarship (and by that I mean the production of stories around the human condition) is of deep concern.

There has already been writings on the fate of libraries when they are digitized, particularly what is partly conceived as a loss of the library aesthetic. What is meant by this is the potential loss of strolling through a library aisle, and happening on books that are beside, on top of, or underneath the book you are looking for, not to mention those books that happen to catch an eye when one happens to walk up a wrong aisle or those books serendipitously placed on a cart near an aisle end. It is this tangible, perhaps supraliminal experience that is overcome when actions are determined by algorithms--such as the results that emerge on an Amazon or Google search. Of course, I am not trying to evoke an apocalypse; standing libraries will not be fossilized anytime soon. But I am more concerned with the expected ways in which one initially seeks out information in the first instance, not the fate of institutions, like libraries. In other words, the question is whether the library search becomes secondary to access knowledge and histories, treated pejoratively as a necessary chore if one wants to offer a nomothetic thesis on a social condition.

In sum, it is hard to see how email is going to make it into Selected Writings and Letters of So-and-So. Instead, it might just prove to be a starting point for another nostalgia industry, an industry recalling the good old days of the pen-in-hand, the stamping of an envelope, and the wait of receiving a response on an idea one took to the time to write down.

On the other hand, perhaps journal articles should turn into letters. Perhaps a journal should be started called Letters, where people can submit their feelings and thoughts around the unconscious, or the development of new conceptions of space in 1906, or the philosophy behind "giving an account of oneself." Perhaps, we should start a movement based on patience in letter writing, of working thoughts out slowly, of avoiding the keyboard. Which, of course, would mean journal would be, above all things, hand-written and with a paper-trail.

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