Speaking into the Air

"Guaranteed to alter your thinking…For Peters, the concept of communication has evolved in tandem with its technology, leaving us chasing a moving target rather than closing in on a fixed ideal. Original, erudite, and beautifully written, this book is a gem."—Kirkus Reviews

"Peters…writes with good form and style in a welcome break from the jargon-muddled work of many academics who tackle the idea of communication…A brave, colorful exploration of the hydra-headed problems presented by a rapid-fire popular culture."—Publishers Weekly


An excerpt from
Speaking into the Air
A History of the Idea of Communication
by John Durham Peters

Dead Letters
Nautch joints are depressing, like all places for deposit, banks, mail boxes, tombs, vending machines.—Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust

Strangely enough, little research in media history has been done on the original context of communication that is most explicitly hermeneutic: correspondence by letter. Media historians are beginning to take the post office seriously as a key site for understanding the development of communications. The cultural history of the mails is a remarkably rich source for philosophical visions of the varieties of communicative experience.

The notion that the mails involve delivery of a private, specifically addressed message was late in evolving. The current division of genres between personal and public correspondence did not exactly exist in the eighteenth-century newsletter in England and the colonies. The "familiar" letter was distinct from the newsletter, the forerunner of the modern newspaper, but both could be edited for and by the public. Newsletters had very high pass-along rates; they were meant quite literally to circulate among readers who would handwrite additional notices in blank spaces left for that purpose. In a similar way, personal letters in the United States at least could be raided for publication in the newspaper or at least for postmaster-led discussion. Some postmasters in the colonial period apparently freely quoted in their newspapers from love letters and personal correspondence. Not only was content open to stray eyes, but the receipt of mail was itself public because local post offices in the United States routinely kept logbooks on who purchased postage for what mail, since payment was typically made by the recipient rather than the sender before the 1850s. Hence not only were local postmasters well informed on local reading habits, they were privy to much of the news locally in circulation and often monitors, even censors, of what newspapers local postal patrons would read and what mail they would receive. The post was not a secure channel. Letters then were more like postcards today—both privately addressed and publicly accessible.

Jacques Derrida has famously argued that all mailed correspondence has the implicit structure of a postcard, that the attempt to restrict the reception of a message to one recipient is always undermined by the scatter of all textuality. His argument is historically possible, and striking, however, only under a certain postal system: the historically recent convention of mail as a secure private channel. Since the mid-nineteenth century, postal practices in North America and Western Europe quite explicitly sought to contain the potential for straying missives by giving senders private control over their letters and making the address circuitry much more focused. The key innovations that took place in the two middle decades of the century made the modern private letter possible. The first postage stamp appeared in 1840 in Great Britain, bearing a portrait of Queen Victoria. No longer did one need to see a postmaster to pay for carriage, marking a key step toward impersonality in access. In the 1840s adhesive postage stamps appeared in the United States, first as local, private issues, and in 1847 the first national stamp was authorized by the United States Congress. The first United States patent for envelopes was issued in 1849. By sealing off contents against inspection, envelopes gave letters an entirely new aura of privacy. In 1851 Congress, perhaps motivated to secure linkage with the Pacific Coast in the wake of the 1849 gold rush, passed a flat rate for all letters, not graded for distance as some early rates were. In 1856 all mail in the United States had to be prepaid (as opposed to COD, or cash on delivery), and a registered mail service was founded to help prevent the loss of valuables (perhaps in response to the dangers of the Pony Express), though it was rarely used. In 1858 street drop boxes, introduced in London in 1855, were first used in the United States.

By the late 1850s, then, it was possible to mail a letter sealed in an envelope, paid for with a prepurchased stamp, and dropped into a public box. "No longer did the sender have to come under the scrutiny of the receiving postal employees." No sentinels guarded the gates to the system. Confidentiality was now possible—a necessary precondition both for the censorious work of Anthony Comstock and for the long history of American mail bombing from late nineteenth-century anarchism through the so-called Unabomber. Here, then, we have a system of public communication, connected to every address in the nation, that allows for the conveyance of private messages in sealed packages. Mail, the circulation system of writing and other lightweight cargo, was no longer locally inspected to the same degree. Stamps, envelopes, and drop boxes made the individual sender in principle sovereign over the letter. The post office had thus achieved something quite like what Augustine or Locke wanted for language: to make an inherently public and plural signifying system into one governed by the private will of the sender. The post office, by accommodating sender-imposed restrictions on receivers, had transformed letters from creatures of dissemination (polygamous address) into creatures of apparent dialogue (tight coupling).

As in Augustine and Locke, the ideal of two distant selves brought into contact via some medium also opened up new dangers and problems of miscommunication, specifically of lost letters. Walt Whitman was one of the few not to be alarmed at the specter of missent missives and the unattainability of a secure channel for communication:

I see something of God in each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the face of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.
Whitman expresses the older wisdom of dissemination: a letter written to one is written to all. Why search so wistfully, he might ask with Emerson, when the whole universe is a letter? The moral lesson of the friends of dissemination, from Emerson through Derrida, seems to be to live ethically and joyously without any assurance of secure channels. All our communications, like everything else, are subject to the interruptions of contingency.

The pathologies unique to the person-to-person ideal are illustrated wonderfully by "dead letters." In 1825 the United States Postal Service started a Dead Letter Office for sorting and collecting mail with address problems, though the practice of opening undelivered letters had been authorized by Congress during the Revolutionary War. A recent estimate has fifty-seven million items annually ending up in this office. The question why undeliverable letters should be "dead" leads to the heart of my argument. With the poststructuralists and pragmatists, I find the vision of communication as private correspondence proposed by Augustine, Locke, and Mesmer ill conceived. Signs are always open to eavesdropping and what Socrates in the Phaedrus called kulindeisthai, tumbling abroad. Signs are fundamentally public, that is, capable of multiple junctions of meaning. But not all meaning is by the same token equally public. The source of the privacy of meaning lies not in the interior sovereignty of the mind to arrange meanings at will, but in the mortality of the sender. The pathos of dead letters is not that minds fail to share the meaning of signs but that mortal beings miss getting in touch. The problem of communication is not rupture between spirits but letters that never arrive. It is not a noetic problem (relations between minds); it is an erotic one (relations between bodies).

The ghoulish metaphors start with the term "dead letters" itself. The Dead Letter Office is often called "the morgue of the mails" and "the limbo of undeliverable mail." Limbo is the place of oblivion where the souls remain who cannot enter heaven owing to incorrect addressing (such as lack of baptism). With lost letters, the disposal of the dead becomes critical. An 1852 article on the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., describes a room in the General Post Office where "a body of grave, calm men...deal with these mortuary remains" (92). They sort the letters and consign most to the flames after removing money, jewelry, or other items of value. Apparently their charge was not to read the letters for "information" of value, but only to search for enclosures. Only in the case of obviously valuable enclosures were efforts made to return to sender, a policy in contrast to those of the United Kingdom and France. Hence, the article continues, a letter "contains a lock of hair—nothing more; valueless in the hard, unromantic judgment of the law" (93). A lock of hair, of course, was a standard Victorian memento of the dead. In Poe's "The Premature Burial," a bereaved lover goes to his beloved's grave "with the romantic purpose of disinterring the corpse, and possessing himself of its luxuriant tresses," only to find that she is still alive. That this purpose should be "romantic" tells us much about the way the age was half in love with easeful death and gives added pathos to the way the Dead Letter Office serves as a vast crematorium of the dead and their personal effects.

Enclosures of value are sorted into two categories, "money and minor," the latter including articles "that may be either intrinsically of worth, or presumed to be so, to their owners" (96). Every three months the accumulated letters are "solemnly burned" at a place outside of the city, like the biblical Gehenna, "no human being but their writers knowing how much of labor and pain has been expended upon them, thus to perish by fire and be exhaled in smoke" (94). Dead letters stand in for the oblivion of the dead. The symbolic association of the letter and the body is as least as old as the Torah. Dead letters are, in an Augustinian mode, emblematic of our mortal state, prone to become lost in transit. The trope of dead letters clearly plays on the Christian idea that the letter without the spirit, like the body without the spirit, is only a corpse.

The Dead Letter Office deals with the materiality of communication, not its supposed spirituality. It is the dump for everything that misfires. The need for it to exist at all is an everlasting monument to the fact that communication cannot escape embodiment and there is no such thing as a pure sign on the model of angels. Further, the contrast between items that are "intrinsically of worth" and ones of worth only to the owners reveals the ways that shared histories can in fact fill in the meaning of signs. The sense of familiar letters is often peculiar to the parties and not generalizable to those not privy to the code and history. Like the body, dead letters underscore the inalienability of certain sorts of meaning. A human finger to a torturer is just a piece of meat: but to its possessor it is a potential poem, violin song, or caress. In this way private letters are like bodies, objects of immense value that, when detached from their proper setting, are almost utterly useless: my glasses and my eyes, my shoes and my feet, my notebooks and my brain. To me these things are almost infinitely precious; to almost everyone else they are almost infinitely worthless. The disproportionate value of the body to its owner and to anyone else is the firmest proof that not all meanings are public and general.

Recognizing that they might possess invisible treasures, the Dead Letter Office advertised items and held periodic auctions. In surveying the lists one faces a spectacle of what Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, briefly transfixed before the window of a pawnshop, calls the "paraphernalia of suffering." At an 1859 auction, for instance, a main item was jewelry, including no fewer than 504 rings, "many of them plain gold wedding rings." All the packages were sealed, however, so that participants had to wager blind. An 1875 auction boasted a sixty-page catalog of items that had accumulated since 1869. It advertised "8,600 different articles sent through the mails, but unredeemed," including jewelry, books, engravings, charms, corn-crushers and corn-huskers, glasses, needlework, asthmatic fumigators, toothpicks, baby clothes, rosaries, poker chips, crucifixes, and the wings of a bat.

Here the private system of the mail spills its guts. No longer understood as a system of moving items that might be used by any number of recipients in addition to the intended, the postal service's new confidentiality of address allows the trappings of private meaning to pile up. Dead letters reveal the indecipherability of private history. The items accumulated at the Dead Letter Office are hieroglyphics, a lost language both sacred and ghastly, that surely would speak to someone somewhere but is a sealed book to us. They are bodies without spirits to breathe life into them. In a similar way, the morgue itself is filled with personal effects—human bodies—precious only to loved ones. The contents of the Dead Letter Office are melancholy props of an enormous dereliction, that of the unclaimed dead, the unredeemed. As the narrator in "Bartleby" appends in epilogue:

Dead letters! Does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out of the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. (64-65)
The narrator wants this reverie to stand as an explanation of Bartleby's malady and, by extension, the fate of all of us who wait for the visitor who never comes, concluding: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!"

The letter that never arrives: What could better suggest the pathos of communication gone awry? The tunes my wife hums inside her head; the dreams I forget on waking; the conversations children have with their "air friends" when they are alone; the sound of the heartbeat in my ears as I lie upon the pillow; the smell of mammoth meat frozen a mile deep within the glacier; the letters in the pockets of the kamikaze pilot; what the sirens sang to the rowers in the belly of Odysseus's ship; what the colors look like beyond violet and below red; what the jawbone felt under the dentist's drill while the nerve was numbed with Novocain; what great works died in the trenches of World War I; what the color, humidity, and temperature are within the thing-in-itself. It is easy to mock such questions as repetitions of the old conundrum whether there is a sound when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, but what is the meaning of the letter burned in the Dead Letter Office whose writer does not know it is lost and whose recipient does not know it was ever sent?


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 165-171 of Speaking into the Air by John Durham Peters, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

John Durham Peters
Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication
©1999, 304 pages
Paper $17.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-66277-0

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