Blog Post

Hollowing 'I' in the authorship of letters: A note on Flusser and surveillance

Although the 24-hour news cycle has recently moved on from Snowden and  surveillance to cover the latest set of unfortunate circumstances on Capitol Hill, there are some points I would like to make regarding the role of surveillance in the further dissolution of any sense of a human author that might underlie the use of ‘I’ in a written communication. Much of what is discussed here focuses on the idea of the author as presented by Vilem Flusser in ‘Does Writing Have a Future,’ in a chapter about letters. For purposes of clarity, I’ve relied on cryptographers’ lingo to describe two communicators (Adam and Bob) and one eavesdropper (Eve). As a final introductory caveat, I’ve taken emails to be technologically analogous to written letters, with one major distinction being the facility with which one email can be sent to multiple intended recipients.

Much in the same way that Meyer-Schonberger (2011) argued that the default setting of memory in the digital age is no longer forgetting, we seem to have reached a point where the default setting of written communication is no longer dyadic, or even (n)adic where multiple recipients are intended. Instead, and assuming that email has functionally replaced the written letter at the level of formal interpersonal communication, we must assume that written communication is (n+x)adic where n = (author + number of intended recipients) and x = an unknown number of electronic eavesdroppers.

Flusser  argues that personal written communications are one of the few forms of writing that are intended to convey a personal understanding of the author, not of the written artifact the author produces. I am myself when I write to my friends, and in reading my letters and emails, my friends reconstruct my self-representation as they know me. Personal affiliation amends what Foucault called the ‘author function’ (Foucault, 1969) in such a way that the author behind the ‘I’ becomes perceivable. When we increase the number of implied readers to whom a letter’s author is not personally known (represented as x), we’re reducing the identify of the author, stealing bit by bit the interpersonal, communicative functionality of a letter. I, the author known personally to you, the reader, become less myself through the interpretive forces of the unknown quantity (x).

Personal communications were once one of the only written refuges of identity, where ‘I’ referred to the author in his/her direct relation to an intended recipient. In an age where surveillance is the default setting, ‘I’ becomes even hollower on the page than Barthes, Foucault, and all the rest claimed. Moreover, its hollowness is not benign and static, but ambivalent and ephemeral, filled up by correlations to myriad points of myriad types of data at the touch of an (xkeystroke) button, rendering the author nothing more than a predictable set of patterns defined by second-hand empiricism. In a communication intercepted by (x), my ‘I’ becomes further estranged from me, as if its existence on an inanimate screen weren’t enough, and replaced by the construction of an ‘author’ unknown to (x). Thus, through surveillance, it is as though the author of an interpersonal communication is reduced to something less than a person, something artificial, constructed, and somehow hollower. As a side effect of surveillance, the author of a letter or email becomes as fictive and a priori as the author-function found in a novel.


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