The Postal System and the Making of German Literary Culture
Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System,
Trans. Kevin Repp, Stanford, 1999
336 pp., $19.95 (paper)
Books that juxtapose topics ordinarily treated in isolation have the potential to highlight relationships that are otherwise overlooked. Bernard Siegertís Relays is a case in point. By linking the expansion of the postal system with the development of German belles lettres, he provides a fresh and provocative perspective on the rise and fall of a distinctive literary sensibility.
Siegert takes as his premise the familiar notion that all communication is mediated. This idea, he contends, is at variance with the longstanding assumption that individuals can communicate with perfect clarity by corresponding through the mail. Siegert traces this assumption to the English Puritans and their intellectual ally, the moral philosopher John Locke. Such a "semiotic Puritanism," Siegert contends, is delusory. The "empire of posted objects" is, on the contrary, "distorted, interrupted, irreducibly nonactual: it is metaphorical" (2-3).
Paradoxically, however, the very act of sending and receiving letters obscures this limitation. Or, as he puts it, in a typically convoluted sentence: "The impassability of the thought that the possibility of letter writing is unthinkable is suspended by the delivery (Zugestelltsein) of representation and cognition and the objectness of the entity" (9-10).
To illustrate his thesis, Siegert documents how German literature evolved in tandem with changes in communications technology. It is in this relationship, he contends - and not in the texts themselves ó that one finds links between writers as otherwise diverse as Christian Gellert, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gottfried Keller, and Franz Kafka.
Siegertís analysis is predicated on a stage model of postal history. From antiquity to the seventeenth century, Siegert contends, postal systems were instruments of imperial administration that were restricted to government officials and confined to a relatively small number of routes. No one assumed that they should provide facilities to the general population - or, indeed, that they would even promote interpersonal communication, in contrast, say, to the transmission of directives on governmental affairs.
Postal history entered a new stage around 1600, when government officials oversaw a "postal reformation." Within a relatively short period of time ó Siegert is a bit vague about dates ó administrators expanded the postal network to embrace the entire territory under their control. Throughout Europe, relays replaced routes. At roughly the same time, government officials began to charge postage and establish fixed schedules to encourage correspondence. If you could pay the postage ó an important caveat, which Siegert underplays ó you could now maintain a correspondence with anyone in the land.
The establishment of this new kind of postal system had far-ranging implications. Most obviously, it encouraged correspondents to treat letter-writing as a kind of literature. In addition, it helped to create the modern political subject: both by encouraging individuals to express their subjectivity - often for the first time ó and by subjecting them, as postal patrons, to the authority of the state.
The reconfiguration of the postal system culminated in the establishment of a territorial postal monopoly, an innovation, Siegert contends, that originated in Prussia in 1715 (53). For around a century, writers took advantage of the facilities the postal system provided to transform correspondence into an art form. This process began with the poet Christian Gellert, who Siegert credits with inventing the private letter, a genre that he regards as central to the rise of modern individualism. And it reached its apogee with Goethe, whose brilliant correspondence made him the "master signifier" of the "epoch of the postal system" that was known as literature (62).
The next stage in postal history began in 1840, with the letter-rate reductions in Great Britain that have come to be known as penny postage. These reforms were soon adopted throughout Europe, making it possible for virtually anyone to emulate Goethe by transforming letter-writing into an art form. (Goethe, it turns out, had long before enjoyed a comparable advantage, having secured from postal administrators the right to send and receive his correspondence free of charge.) Penny postage is ordinarily characterized as a landmark in the emergence of popular democracy. For Siegert, however, it hastened the collapse of a distinctive literary sensibility. By transforming the post office into a closed, self-referential system staffed by professionals trained to treat letters in bulk, it undermined the fruitful, even if ultimately erroneous, conceit that letter-writing could facilitate true communication. The telegraph, the telephone, and various other technological innovations, including carbon paper, only made matters worse. Particularly unsettling was the expansion of access to women and the blurring of gender distinctions that this entailed. With the "distribution of all discursive functions of the postal system to both sexes," Siegert explains, the "Age of Goethe" came to a close (133).
Siegertís argument may well stimulate scholars to reconsider certain chapters in the history of German belles lettres. It is, for example, intriguing to read an account of German literature that traces the origins of individualism to the eighteenth century, and where concepts like "romanticism" and "nationalism" nowhere appear. There is, in addition, much to ponder in Siegertís brief survey of communication theory, particularly if it is read in conjunction with more cosmopolitan accounts, such as John Durham Petersís Speaking Into The Air (Chicago, 1999).
More problematic is Siegertís treatment of postal history. Public access to postal systems was by no means new in 1600, raising questions about the character of communications in the preceding centuries. One wonders, for example, about Siegertís implicit conflation of the imperial postal systems of antiquity with the corporate postal systems of the Middle Ages. Recent scholarship suggests that the Thurn and Taxis post, in particular, was considerably more dynamic than Siegertís framework would seem to allow.
Additional problems are raised by Siegertís treatment of the postal systems of early modern Europe. Prussia was not the first nation to institute a postal monopoly, having been preceded by almost a century by England and France. And at least a few ordinary people had begun to write letters prior to the advent of the penny post; had they not, after all, the epistolary novel could not have emerged when it did. It is also important not to forget that letters were by no means the only, or even the primary, class of materials that postal systems conveyed. Missing from Siegertís account is any sustained discussion of the literary implications of the postal conveyance of newspapers, magazines, and government documents. This omission is particularly startling in the case of Prussia, where, as historians have long stressed, the government lavished a variety of privileges on the press.
Perhaps the most puzzling feature of Siegertís argument is his unsympathetic account of penny postage. It was, after all, not until after the mid-nineteenth century postal rate reductions that ordinary people began for the first time to correspond routinely through the mail. For this reason, some scholars have gone so far as to label the following decades ó roughly, the period between the 1840s and the 1870s ó the "golden age of letter writing" (Peter Wosh, "Going Postal," American Archivist 61: 228). Only if one defines the literary canon in narrow and conventional ways, as Siegert does, is it possible to overlook the cultural significance of this remarkable development.
These caveats, however, should not overshadow Siegertís achievement. Historians and literary critics have long been quite absent-minded about the mechanisms by which documents of all kinds ó including letters, newspapers, and government documents ó got created and transmitted. Relays is an imaginative exploration of some of the literary implications of this theme. Few studies of modern print culture provide a more suggestive treatment of the role of the postal system as an agent of change. Like Walter Ong, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Harold Innis, and the many scholars who have followed Marshall McLuhanís dictum that the "medium is the message," Siegert helps us to see how communications technology has shaped the pattern of the past.