Monday, May 04, 2009

Do you save your e-mails?

Would we have Keats' letters, if there had been Internet in Keats' time? Think, we could be living in a world without Negative Capability (hoary as it has become) and the egotistical sublime. Yet, I do not know anyone that saves their e-mails, and there seems to be little cognitive dissonance about this. We know why- though some of us have begun to argue for the potential durability of blogs and web-sites, most currently accept that e-mail communication is ephemeral, a way of expediting other matters rather than an end in itself (as snail-mail letters often were.) What an unfortunate change! If younger poets want to develop a serious relationship with the epistolary form, attitudes towards e-mail will have to change. In this context, Reception Velocity is probably a bad thing- it encourages writers to treat e-mails in a cavalier fashion. Expecting instant gratification engenders a sense that communication can be taken for granted. Snail-mail letters from writers (often to other writers) tend to be discursive; e-mails are comparatively abrupt, and discourse is kept to a minimum.

Yet e-mail is another digital form that has potentiality for development- there is no evidence that e-mail cannot be used as a tool for discursive development. In fact, e-mail offers distinct advantages for such usage- Reception Velocity, if employed properly and not used as a kind of excuse, can manifest as discourses more heated, genuine, and (even) intuitive (born of a fluid context) than the discourses previously developed in epistolary exchanges. As with all the facets of the Internet Theory I am developing, what is required (for my own and previous generations) is a change in attitude- an awareness of the literary past as it applies to the literary present. Generations to come will (I predict) feel less conflicted- continued exposure to the Net from a young age will engender a sense of digital consciousness more thorough and more well-employed than we can even imagine. E-mail text will be a specific sub-genre of speech-as-text, with its own forms, potential permutations, advantages and limitations. There will eventually be a hierarchy of digital forms- how the forms will be placed in relation to each other I have no idea. But that decades of negotiation will take place before these questions are decided (and in literature, thankfully, little is decided with authority anymore) is one reason to begin a serious investigation of digital forms now.

What kind of subject is engendered by e-mail as a digital form? E-mailing, of course, presupposes an engagement with an Other- yet the non-tactility of e-mails abstracts the encounter, brings it into the realm of cognition. E-mails are resolutely private, while blogs are public; yet e-mail lists create the e-mail as a "public sphere phenomenon" not unlike Facebook- the difference is in the performative mode. Status updates on Facebook are expressions of compressed subjectivity; e-mail lists can engender expressed subjectivity, but are more likely to manifest demonstrations of rhetorical strength. They are politicized- the one stands before the many. Unlike writing on a blog, in this context the subject knows that he or she will be heard. People are generally more diligent about opening their e-mails than about visiting blogs- the subject addresses a crowd of known Others. E-mail lists, as textual contexts, do encourage soapbox pronouncements. Yet the circumstances around these utterances are interesting- performed for a group, geographically scattered and (in attendance) disembodied, who are not compelled to listen by the crowd psychologies that might have attended actual soapbox performances.

This can work for or against the speaker- some who would feel compelled to listen by the (physical) crowd will not listen, while others who would be loathe to listen if engulfed in a crowd will allow themselves to listen. That these pronouncements are made to an abstracted crowd can lead to a certain extremity- a disembodied gaze is less of a direct threat. It often leads to a scenario in which the reader feels like a voyeur- this is less the case in more formalized settings, like blogs (though some blogs do have a flair for the outre). Blogs necessitate a sense of responsibility that e-mail lists do not, especially individually maintained ones. Yet e-mail lists offer a guarantee; your words will enter the in-boxes of these people. E-mail lists are good examples of the ideal balance between sameness and Otherness- a crowd you both know and do not know at the same time. They are a kind of digital public square, or a marketplace of priceless commodities. Textual personas are on sale- speech-as-text becomes a mask to reveal, hide, or deconstruct ideologies. Discourse, on e-mail lists, is less likely than the perpetual enactment of competitive ideologies- it is a form that lends itself to the atomization of individual subjects (an audience not needing placation, as on a privately run and maintained blog), through the performance of rhetorical gestures. Yet there is potential here for great comprehensiveness, where Reception Velocity is concerned.

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