U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Livingston on Lasch-Quinn’s Letter-Writing Series

[Note: Please see the four prior installments (here, here, here, and here) of Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s “Inarticulate by Choice” series for background. – TL]
By James Livingston
I am gratefully bewildered by Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn’s essays on letter-writing.  That is a polite way of saying I don’t know what she’s talking about.  Or rather, I don’t (yet) see the problem she wants us to address.  My bewilderment derives, to begin with, from her conflation of the inner life and letter-writing, on the one hand, and the implicit elegy that derives from that conflation, on the other.  But it’s more complicated than that.  The inner life as such here derives its dignity from its correlation with resistance to oppression from external forces—in our time, the encroachments of the Internet, in another time, the intrusions of necessary labor.  That’s a cool rhetorical move, or it’s the kind of political sleight of hand that congratulates us for retreating from the world as it is.
The prayers, work songs, and aspirations of slaves and other subaltern peoples are surely instances of inner lives lived outwardly, but they’re not letters.  Why, then, equate letter-writing and the inner life of the subaltern?  I can think of only two answers.  First, us letter-writers are under siege—our subjectivity is at risk.  Where once slaves and workers had to salvage some sense of self from an intellectual space apart from what they were forced to do every day, us later, more literate types have to carve out an analogous space from where we can claim cognitive autonomy.  Second, us letter-writers need this autonomy because our purchase on the political imagination of our time is virtually nil—and so we must wait for posterity to validate out claims.  The private space created by this republic of letters harbors a public, political future. 

But are we “unthinkingly” rushing to “embrace whatever computer salespeople want us to”?   And even if we were, does that mean the art of composing a letter has been eclipsed?  Didn’t Walter J. Ong and his disciples (McLuhan et al.) teach us that new modes of communication change the cognitive status and the political import of inherited modes, but never obliterate them?  Is letter-writing necessarily demeaned by its alternatives?  Or is it actually enriched by the challenge of these alternatives—as Lasch-Quinn’s beautifully crafted epistles would suggest?
I guess I represent those “echoes of the usual, exhausted post-post modern” critique, the “alleged” 2.0 version.  But then I read this question from Lasch-Quinn, and I have to ask, didn’t Jacques Derrida, the poster boy for the post-modern sensibility, spend his adult life addressing it?  Didn’t Michel Foucault as well?  Come to think of it, didn’t John Dewey? 
“What if practices like letter-writing are not just signs and reminders that the inner life is real, but are preconditions of it, the very materials and means from which the inner life is forged in the first place.  Or, barring that, what if they tend to produce interiority, of a particular kind, nature, or quality . . . ?”
Yes, most emphatically, What if subjectivity (character, selfhood, etc.) is the result of practices, not their presupposition?  Then our questions become, not What is it we have lost, but How has this so-called inner life been produced, When, and Where?  Our question is then no longer epistemological, it’s historical.  Instead of how do we know what we know, it’s what have we said we’ve known, and why did we believe it?  What social, cultural forms determined the different contents of our interiority?

Letter-writing surely produces a kind, nature, or quality of interiority. But in the grand scheme of things historical, it’s not yet something we need to mourn. So far, I’d say, it’s nothing to write home about. Unless I see from the return address that Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn has sent the letter.

One Thought on this Post

  1. “Letter-writing surely produces a kind, nature, or quality of interiority. But in the grand scheme of things historical, it’s not yet something we need to mourn.”

    I’d simply like to interject that your characterization of Derrida confuses me. On the one hand, you are certainly correct that Derrida spent “his adult life addressing” the relationship between writing and subjectivity. On the other hand, I think it’s misleading for you to appropriate Derrida for your argument that letter-writing is “not yet something we need to mourn.” For Derrida, any interiority, any notion of the self-presence (center, inner, internal, domestic, etc.) of meaning in the mind of the reader or writer is always-already different and deferred. For him, mourning is all that a subject does. The deconstruction of (self-)presence always-already weeps. Granted, this weeping is also the production of meaning (of the “so-called inner life”). Nevertheless, to not properly acknowledge that for Derrida the work/performance of mourning accompanies the (de)construction of meaning (and vice-versa) is to misrepresent his critical project to your readers, don’t you think?

    -Gregory Jones-Katz

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