Milne, Letters, Postcards, Emails

Milne, Esther. Letters, Postcards, E-mail: Technologies of Presence.


In Milne’s introduction, she outlines that her book explores the ways that communication technologies—the letter, postcard, and e-mail technologies—facilitate often intimate relations with people despite the writers’ physical separation. She takes as her central concepts the idea of presence and how these technologies often facilitate different kinds of presence. She specifically looks to the ways in which such presence is both intimate and disembodied.

            In terms of disembodiment, she notes how writers are often not present in body, and yet the body still plays a particular role in these communications: “In the course of communication by letters, postcard, and email, readers construct an imaginary, corporeal body for their correspondents (drawing on and in part reworking their interlocutor’s self representation). At times, subjects believe the body imagined in these exchanges is more real, more expressive of the writer’s emotions and soul, and this belief may be threatened by the actual body encountered in face-to-face communication” (2). This imagined presence through the means of communication technologies is the focus of her book: “Presence is a term that need not refer always to material, corporeal presence. Rather, presence is an effect achieved in communication (whether by letters, postcards, email, for example) when interlocutors imagine psychological or, sometimes, physical presence of the other” (2). As she writes presence necessarily depends upon “the complex interaction between cultural practices and technological infrastructure” (2).

To make this concept more legible, she begins with a discussion of how some communication technologies have been understood under framework of time-space compression; however, she notes that it is not yet clear the role that old technologies like the postal service play in the time-space compression in facilitating networks of intimacy and connection at distance. It has typically been the case that new technologies are seen to have altered our experience of time and space “and unsettled the boundaries separating person, communities, and nation” (4); however, looking to old media/technology, she makes the claim that such networks also facilitate a kind of virtual or cyberspace. If the basis of cyberspace “lies in the form of communication technology where the body is absent” then some common understandings of epistolary culture fit in here.

For letter writing, this kind of cyberspace or imaginary/virtual presence is a fundamental features of letter writing. Writers often both perform the self through letters while their performance is also constantly interpreted: this facilitates the invention of an image of one another “without the need for the visible presence of the other, and then react joyfully to their own creations” (9). Of course, this mode of presence involves disembodiment which, comes in two flavors: disembodiment referring to the desire to relieve oneself of the body and disembodiment in terms of eclipsing the material technologies of communication. Toward this latter point, we can note Richard Lanham’s concept of looking through where the goal of such writing is to offer a direct link between writers, aligned with the time-space compression framework.

“Letter writers may refer to heir physical bodies and contexts in order to convey a sense of presence, relevance and aliveness to their interlocutor. But nevertheless, selective ‘quotation’ of this ‘body’ can sometimes provide the foundation for an implied or imagined ideal body that eclipse the real, corporeal body of the writer” (15).

Turning to intimacy, Milne writes that “intimacy is perhaps always ‘virtual’” (16): or, in other words, if we think of the virtual as a kind of discourse involving both performances and interpretations, then intimacy functions likewise: intimacy is developed through an interface of discourse.


Chapter 4: “The self-conscious air of the reproduced”: Postcard History

As with the theme of the book, Milne considers the ways that postcards function as a technology of presence, despite arguments that see the standardization of postcard media eradicates presence, individuality, and intimacy. In fact, as she argues, the standardization of postcards opened the practice up to a wider ordinary writer while also providing both individuality and intimacy in a new forms.

She begins by looking at the precursors the postcard, much in the same vein as Bazerman’s discussion of the letter as ur-genre. She starts with the common practice in the 18th century of sending playing cards in order to call upon others to visit or to call. By the mid-18th century, we begin to see cards manufactured for the purpose of “notifying those with whom on wished to make contact” (94). These cards, as Milne writes, were often collected and displayed: these were publicly displayed in order for visitors to see with whom the family kept among their social circle and made suitable impressions (see: Hall). Calling cards, thus, were part of a highly sophisticated and complex system that helped families and individuals mediate their social relations “according to the varying degrees of intimacy that were desired” (96). As such, we can point back to Milne’s argument that intimacy is always virtual in that it is always mediated by a discursive system involving materials, etiquette, language, and agents (including servants who delivered the calling cards).

But the cards’ function to represent the individuals who had sent the message becomes a common feature between calling cards and postcards—which is why its included as a precursor. But Milne points also to the carte-de-visite which was a postcard with a portrait which emphasized further the way that these cards performed identity: “the carte-de-visite photography was promote for its ability to ‘capture likeness rapidly and cheaply, for purposes as identification and documentation’” (100). Milne doesn’t mention this, but there also seems to be a direct link between this practice of portraiture and using selfies. But the carte-de-visite’s visuality offered a means of promoting intimacy between distant ancestors: future generations would be able to keep these portraits present, collapsing time and bringing history to the present.

One of the key anxieties about postcards, however, was its public face. Some noted during this period that the letter—with its enveloped messages—was a more private venue and thus should be reserved for intimacy and love; however, as the practice of the postcard indicate, postcards were used for intimate, personal message despite its publicity. This seeming disjunction between the public-ness of the format and the privacy of the message prompts Milne to argue that “privacy is performed rather than existing as a real empirical substance” (108). She continues, “like ‘intimacy’ or ‘empathy’ it exists at the level of emotion and expression and is ac complex cultural linguistic, philosophical performance. This, of course, runs counter to commonly held view that privacy is an objectively verifiable state of affairs and is socially, legally and technologically instantiated” (109).

In her concluding remarks for this chapter, she notes that the uniform design—standardization—of picture postcards was a key element to why it succeeded as an epistolary form: it’s standardization increased the desire to write since users are able to use the picture—and its selection—as content of the letter. And more, the postcard’s attachment to location allowed users to draw out and articulate a connection to themselves and the image (and the landscape) by writing/articulating these connections in the content of the notes. Thus, Milne argues that the postcard may have, in fact, increased the writer’s presence in their environment while also with their intimate relations with others

Chapter 5: “A photo of the ship that I am on”: Signifiers of Presence, Intimacy and Privacy in Postcard Correspondence

Continuing from the arguments she closes with in the previous chapter, she notes that the postcard—while compromising the traditional privacy of epistolary communication—did indeed facilitated intimacy, immediacy, and presence, despite arguments to the contrary. In fact, as she notes, those who warned against the epistolary privacy of the postcard often overlooked the ways that other epistolary communication were often made public. For instance, there was a possibility that government officials could open envelopes and read your material or that your recipient would circulate your note to unintended recipients. As such, “privacy is a historically contingent and culturally determined term” (118).

She also returns to the idea that the growing popularity of the postcard with the ordinary and everyday writer was that the note’s rigid constraints made writing a note more accessible for writers with little education (which also contributed to why the postcard was frowned upon by the educated class). But also noteworthy was the way that the postcard practice was not as time-consuming. A traveller can “merely buy a picture postcard at each station, scribble on it a few words in pencil, and post it. This enhances the pleasure of travel” (120). As Milne writes, the selection from “the sheer volume of images available” is an act of writing, itself and, a such, provides an opportunity for individual expression. This idea becomes further emphasized in the “Quick Fire” postcard where a writer ticks off selections on a pre-written note. The process of selection provides some degree of individuality, but, as Milne writes, particularly during wartime, “the material fact of communication itself [is what] established a sense of presence and individuality” (121) since it often noted when a man was still alive. Postcards, thus, were a literally sign of life.

However, Milne notes that the acontextual use of these “Quick Fire” cards was frowned upon: one must consider the context when deciding on what kind of message to send.

Finally, Milne notes that postcards provide an opportunity to scrutinize the claim that the material conditions of media—the technologies of inscription and transmission—“will effect patterns of communication and social relations within a specific culture and historical period” (123). “Technologies of communication are not transparent or neutral conduits for ‘content’ but actively shape the form, semantics and ideology of that content…Changes in the configuration or wrapping of language alters the way the subject processes signs into meaning” (123).


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