After the Post
Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System,
Stanford University Press, 1999
336 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Bernhard Siegert’s analysis of the modern postal system's development is in many ways an exemplary synthesis of a history of science and a cultural analysis of the institution of literature. In the context of literature, Siegert joins a group of critics often lumped together under the dated and misleading term New Historicism, who examine the frequently forgotten material conditions under which modern concepts such as "novel," "lyric," "character," or "literature" itself emerged. It is impossible to overestimate how radically such work has transformed literary studies.
In the transmission of clay tablets in the sixth century B.C., Siegert observes the earliest manifestations of postal relays, but his study focuses on the transformation of this official system of information exchange into a system of exchange for private messages between individuals. This is a gradual process, but Siegert attends most closely to two particular historical events.
The first occurs in 1806, when Goethe is granted an exemption from postal fees - not only on his letters sent as a member of the court of Duke August, but also on his private letters. This exemption applies not only to Goethe, but to his "friends...readers... and admirers of every possible description" (64). The effect is to validate Goethe’s claims about the moral value of literary exchange, and ultimately to usher in a particular understanding of literature modeled on private expression, transmission, and feedback from the special figure of Goethe: "In a system that posted The Author, all letters unerringly arrived at a universal address: the Inner Person" (68). The literature of inner expression and self-discovery, according to Siegert, is thus inaugurated by the special model of postal exchange around 1800.
The second historical moment to which Siegert attends is the introduction of "penny post" pricing system in 1839 London. Previously, postal rates were determined in many different ways (usually according to distance traveled, even within the city), were frequently paid upon receipt to ensure delivery, and were expensive by modern standards. The penny post was the beginning of the mass delivery system that we associate with postage today, and marks a fundamental transformation in the way the act of posting a letter needed to be imagined. For Siegert, this transformation signals the emergence of a genuine postal system: "The closing of the postal system as a system: this meant that the grounds for the postal system no longer transcended the postal" (108).
As this last passage suggests, Siegert seems eager to find broad, ontological issues at work within the particular historical changes that he describes. Siegert offers his archaeology of the modern concept of literature not so much by examining how letter writing defined models for proper writing - something which has been thoroughly studied especially by historians of the novel. Rather, the postal system intrigues Siegert because it seems to describe the very ontological conditions for the idea of exchange that is fundamental to literature. "Strictly speaking," Siegert writes, "there are in fact no sources for the history of the postal system," a curious fact that he goes on to explain:
After all, documents themselves merely bear witness to historical means of recording: at best – as letters and so on – they were the object of a dispatching to which their margins (addresses, seals, stamps) still testify. But dispatching cannot testify for itself the way recording can....Seen from this perspective, the object of this study might be said not to exist at all, since this object is the principle that gives existence to begin with. (11)
Siegert clearly feels himself to be confronting something more than a simple cultural artifact or episteme; he is face to face with the very concept of "dispatching" and all of its metaphysical implications. These implications are clear in the paradoxical concept of "relay" itself:
Every delay of the dispatch as a necessary interruption of the transmission process for the purposes of sending is a type of interception....Insofar as recording is a form of conveyance that counts with this halt or relay, that is, a poste resante, it is a phenomenon of interception. That a letter always can also not arrive – can be intercepted, purloined – is nothing less than the condition allowing it always to reach its destination" (11-12).
If Siegert’s study sounds a bit metaphysical in contrast to the kind of historicism that he practices elsewhere, the tensions grow more and more evident as the study progresses. On the one hand, Siegert seems to pursue a kind of Foucauldian study of the emergence of a particular historical concept (the postal relay); on the other, he seems interested in philosophical contradictions that will remind most readers of Derridian deconstruction. These methodological influences are frequently at odds with each other. Derrida manages to make seemingly universal claims about différance and language because he so relentlessly inhabits particular texts, which he allows to speak for him. New Historicists generally insist on locating equivalent philosophical contradictions in the conditions of very particular historical moments. Siegert’s seems an uneasy synthesis between historical specificity and broad Derridian sweep.
Siegert falls into the chasm between Foucault and Derrida in large part because of the nature of his topic. Siegert is at his most abstract – his most Derridian – when he is trying to look beyond the classic conditions of the postal system of the nineteenth century and imagine communication today. Siegert describes the postal system after the introduction of the pre-paid penny post as "the first postal system ever to function 'for every possible selection' and not just for letters that had been written (or chosen)." He goes on to explain:
Such a conclusion will seem extreme unless viewed at the most abstract, systemic level. As a history of the postal system, we might have expected Relays to follow the late work of Foucault or that of de Certeau and others who write about everyday "practice" – what are people doing with the postal system? We might think, for example, of the unpredictable forms that "email practice" has taken in the last decade – from advocacy and erotics to insurgency and terrorism – to recognize that identifying the technological and material conditions of the medium is not to identify its cultural meaning.
Ultimately, I think, Siegert’s methological problem arises from his attempt to describe the "post-postal" – what comes after the humanist epistolary project of the classical postal system. It is difficult not to hear an echo of the end of The Order of Things in Siegert’s attempt to describe a kind of post-humanist communications theory: "Human beings have ceased to be the relays of history. And since only what can be posted exists at all, from now on, only the gods or the machines 'know' what is. What is in store for us is a delivery of the mail that forgets about us and builds empires – beyond the brink" (19).
We see exactly this same sort of broadly post-human rhetoric in the current celebration of "cyborg" and cyberspace identities. One manifestation in contemporary criticism of the urge to describe what comes after humanist subjectivity is work that applies information theory to identity and culture. For nearly two decades we have seen critics struggling to apply scientific treatments of pattern and randomness to American literature – Katherine Hayles’s work on Chaos Theory being the best known. Here is Hayles more recently writing on Gibson’s Neuromancer:
Like the landscapes they negotiate, the subjectivities who operate within cyberspace also become patterns rather than physical entities. Case, the computer cowboy who is the novel’s protagonist, still has a physical presence, although he regards his body as so much 'meat' that exists primarily to sustain his consciousness until the next time he can enter cyberspace. (267)
Writers like Gibson and, especially, Pynchon, encourage this sort of interest in pattern and randomness, energy and entropy, and we shouldn’t be surprised that critics like Hayles and Siegert have taken up the challenge and sought to describe information without subjectivity. Nonetheless, such claims about subjectivity sidestep the question of whether individuals can actually experience themselves simply as "pattern." Even if I accept that my life can be described according to larger-scale demographics and statistics – to take a simple example of the "patterns" into which we fit – that doesn’t mean that I will or should think about myself as a statistic. Precisely this clash between system and subjectivity is what writers like Pynchon and Gibson dramatize. Is it possible to jettison subjectivity as the starting point from which these patterns are perceived?
Relays, likewise, raises a fundamental question that it doesn’t consistently address by suggesting that the transformation of communications technology leads naturally to a change in the nature and cultural meaning of that communication. Foucault, in his last period, as well as other critics writing about practice, would encourage us to view these media as sites of cultural performance in which subjectivity continues to be produced. To his credit, Siegert recognizes the need to account for the cultural meaning of technological changes. Indeed, his discussion of the complex interaction between the cultural and material reasons why unmarried women became the prototype for telephone operators is some of the best analysis in the book. But the overarching question of how technological changes shape the cultural institutions that grow up around them only makes tantalizing appearances throughout the study - it never receives a direct treatment. It remains the most intriguing and frustrating issue in the book.
Hayles, N. Katherine. "Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers." Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation. Ed. Timothy Druckrey. New York: Aperture, 1997. 259-77.