U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice and the Future of the Intellectual Past, Part Seven

George Tooker, “Landscape with Figures,” 1965-66. 

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

In this series of posts, I have raised questions about the ramifications of the decline of letter writing for both professional and personal life. Paper correspondence has traditionally played a vital role in both realms and thus in the study of them. My rumination turned from worries about the gap in the historical record that seems destined to result from the shift to electronic communications, when it comes to traces of the meandering of thoughts and the feelings often implicated in them, to a celebration of what letter writing offers for the development of the inwardness potentially necessary for the deepest forms of human connection.
                                                                                                
I uttered a little moan of lamentation, received thoughtful responses from long-trusted and newfound kindred spirits who assured me that I am not alone in my longing for the real, and even managed to stir James Livingston to write a guest post on my quixotic concerns. My job is done here. Almost.

Before returning to the professional side of things in this last post in the series, I feel compelled to add a couple of concluding refinements or caveats to my case for letter writing over email, bearing perhaps more on the personal than the professional, though these are often so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.

1. Electronic communications are better than no communications at all–when there should be communications. This standard of what “should be” is a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the quality of communication is, of course, directly connected to the participants’ understanding that when there should be silence there is silence. This is one of my main points of letter writing. Electronic communications as now used and advertised rest on the assumption that nonstop connectivity–a matter of quantity–is enlivening rather than potentially soul-deadening. The tradition of letter writing presumes life-generating silences, a question of quality.

2. The matter that reigns supreme in correspondence, from the recipient’s point of view, is who exactly is doing the communicating. For all the importance I have placed on form, in its intimate association with content, the principle that trumps it is the identity, unique and interchangeable, of the voice uttering the words. Perhaps I wouldn’t go so far as to say that The Messenger is the Message. But then again, I could be persuaded. As the saying goes, “My kingdom for a horse”: I could imagine trading a lifetime of paper correspondence that circled the globe for one emailed sentence, depending on just what was said and who said it, even though I have been arguing that every little thing involved in the manner in which our communications are conveyed actually does make a difference. The assumption of the technological revolution seems to be that all of the glorious niceties–the feel of the paper between our fingers, the thoughts that might occur between receiving a message and sending a response–are unnecessary peripherals, mere tokens of inefficiency, distractions. Perhaps I am just saying that, since The Message is Not the Only Message, that hypothetical sentence might be far less likely to be formulated in the first place in a world absent letters. That it is now via email, if indeed it is, might just be a case of living on borrowed time. Our imaginations, which can perhaps so far keep the inner life alive despite the wholesale daily assault on it, might be pushed to the breaking point any day now.

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A last word about email communications and the workplace. I am part of the last generation of scholars to work in an academic setting before email took over entirely. For a few years in the early to mid-nineties, as I entered the professoriate, grateful for all that I thought it might offer, email was not part of life. Kept to a bare minimum, essential messages were typed on memo stationery (usually by our secretarial staff, now preoccupied with other tasks, such as endless reports for the administration), photocopied, and placed in our mailboxes in the History Department. Other essential information was conveyed at the occasional department meeting and nonessential announcements simply posted on the bulletin board, for the moment when one was actually seeking such information. Students brought their questions to office hours. If a colleague wanted to convey something, it was common to do it on the phone or…novelty of novelties…in person. I’m not trying to claim it was a golden age. But there was a kind of simplicity to the rhythm of our work lives. I admit to knowing a pace and structure that left room for rumination, freed us up for the flow of ideas. It was never written or said and did not have to be, but the senior professors might as well have chiseled it unmistakably in stone: an intrinsic part of this particular job, part of what made it so unlike so many others, was that it left you to yourself. What were you presumably doing? Something along the lines of digging down into a deep well you were assumed to be adding to daily through reading and thinking, and coming up with what you needed there in order to teach and write. It was a given that the kind of work we do necessitates a certain state of mind and even, dare I say it, personal dignity or meditative decorum–one deliberately resistant to the rapacious haste of mainstream business and street life, voracious consumerism and other knee-jerk, time-cramming self-entertainments, celebritydom unstrung, and all the other forms of deafening interference that care to come a-buzzing and a-crackling along.

In just a few years as email invaded the workplace for historians has changed: dismal job market, shrunken history departments, humanities crisis, yes, and less commented upon, perhaps in part because of these very things, the sometimes nauseating taste of what remains. One need not adopt the fallacy of technological determinism to observe that the mere introduction of electronic communications into departmental matters changed things. This mode of communication, of course, lent itself beautifully to the further intrusion of the marketplace into every last aspect of higher education. Email allows administrators, upper management, to get the maximum productivity from their workers, if you define productivity by punching the time-clock. Inherited internal standards of productivity seem to me to be in tension with the new presumption of continual connectivity and the instantaneous response. Where once those on sabbatical were unreachable, they can now be in contact anywhere in the world around the clock. In a more everyday example, when a professor was not in a classroom or office hours, he or she was left alone to do work that was assumed to be important.

I am willing to grant that there are some workplace matters, the quickest handling of which is a great mercy. Email may indeed be a more desirable alternative to some kinds of meetings, a blessing in disguise. Even there, though, it is questionable what came first. Didn’t the increase in academic bureaucracy and administrative tasks of all kinds come first, thus making email look like a much-needed time saver? And doesn’t the widespread welcome of email on the grounds of efficiency actually obscure a rather deep cynicism about human interaction? For the short run, it is great to be relieved of having to meet with difficult colleagues in fields notorious for a dearth of social skills. In the long run, though, workplaces characterized by minimal expectations for human interaction seem like something out of a George Tooker painting. Have we lost our ability to become disturbed by the rather shocking realities of our own lives? By resorting to email for everything without making clear distinctions and making use all of the arts of differentiation at our disposal, don’t we daily recreate a world in which even people working steps away from one another choose to use email rather than make eye contact, stop by in person, or pick up the phone at risk of hearing a human voice? I’m just asking.

The use of technology for departmental and other such professional matters, is here for the time being, anyway. But that is not the main issue here. For our purposes what I am most concerned about is separating our more substantive correspondence from this soul-chilling medium and form, electronic mail of the business-like variety. The resort to email for everything–the combination of necessary academic workplace uses with the desire to keep in touch with colleagues at one’s own institution and beyond–threatens to make the differences less perceptible. Others have written about how email does away with tangible signs of a particular correspondent and correspondence, marks of their irreplaceability. We can’t let this happen, can we? By going along with it, aren’t we giving our assent to the leveling of all kinds of communications and thus of all kinds of relations, including those most intellectually and personally meaningful? Doesn’t this threaten to bring everything down to the same low level of importance, coating even the most striking colors and glints–the real treasures of human interaction embedded in our very words to one another–in a stomach-turning wash of business-like, toxic-sludge gray?

As I said, I’m just asking.

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