5.22.2010

Email is Phatic

It recently occurred to me, for no particular reason, that today more people write, on a more frequent basis, than before. Of course, I know nothing of history so I made that up. In any case, the accuracy of the claim is not important.

What's important is that people are writing to each other, and often. Suddenly, I saw this exquisitely, impossibly vast network of conversations — between new friends, old friends, co-workers, co-workers forging new modes of conversing, parents, old girlfriends and boyfriends, new flirtatious possibilities, acquaintances from here and there.

And, what's so mind blowingly amazing, is that this network exists for each one of us, alone — our "sent" and "in" boxes trace more than just a lot of conversations. It traces an enormous multiplicity of modes of conversing — differing rhythms, tones, moods, grammars.

I love the different ways different people wind themselves into language and onto their computers and into an email. The little flourishes — ellipses, m-dashes, undulating punctuation or a lack therefore — the speeds, the diverse senses of protocol. Sometimes, we can hear someone so clearly through an email — hear them making the words, forming thoughts, their breathy deliveries, their gutturals, the way a smile inflects a word, emphatics, pauses, tics.

It's not that emails express us. Or, rather, it is to say that how and what we email necessarily expresses us, even if that expression is discontinuous. Sometimes, you find yourself surprised by someone's email manner. Are they really so curt? Or are you reading the way someone not used to writing trying to wind himself into words? I love what reading someone's email for the first time tells me about that person: it is symptomatic of an entire relationship to language and expression in general.

In any case, we hear email. Email is auditory. But it's more than just that we hear the words (as we can say that of all written language). It's that email correspondence has much of the formal structure of a conversation. Email, like face to face conversing, can be quite fast and hence tends to be actively engaging. In emails, we write questions, reference things written — or said — earlier. We refer to imminent events. For the most part, we don't provide a litany of stories or facts as we once did in paper mail.

And yet email is written. Of course it is. Which means we see it, not hear it. And it means it enjoys the incredibly odd temporality of writing. For instance, if you're standing in front of me, or on the phone, and say, "Hi," it's more than likely that I'll say "Hi" back within a second or three. But in email I may respond in an hour, a day, a week, or more.

Now take this rhythm of this one email — you say hi,I say hi back stretched over days — and see all the different rhythms of all your email conversations. We each hold multiple conversations at the same time, each at its own speed.

Email doesn't just mark time, it is of time. The paper letter, on the other hand, marks a discrete point in time. An email letter is a moment within a continuous exchange, always and already. To write an email is not to monologue but to engage and be engaged, simultaneously.

We don't write truly declarative emails because email is fundamentally between. Its structure, like a conversation, is akin to standing directly in front of someone: the lines of communication are open, all the time, even if unused.

Email is formally phatic. It is the perpetual "um" of the electronic hum. Email, in its very structure, keeps lines of communication open — the lines are open as long as electricity flows. If I have your email address — or could ascertain it —, there is an open channel between us.

Sure, one could say that's true of paper mail. After all, can't I just write to you if I know your address? Well, yes, I can write to you but it is not as easy to write with you. To write an email is always already to write with.

4 comments:

filigree said...

I love writing emails with too many ellipses and other non APA 5th approved use of punctuality... Personality/individuality showing? Or, is the use of ellipses an expression of my act(ing)/shtick?

I agree that email has an odd temporality. Maybe that has to do with power? If I don't respond right away then...I might have more power than the other.

pierre daud said...

about godard movie and reality, podalydes movie from why not production (they produce desplechin an jacques audiard) is very usefull.

perhaps, the fact that pleasue is something slow is also important in their movie... Hope to see la tournée de amalric, and make an eloge of it on this place...==

to finite, thx to animate the blog daniel! I am steel working on itunsU on rhetoric 10

Hope my post may be usefull

dude said...

this probably explains why people were so upset when gmail suddenly made public via "Buzz" the people they most email.

Vlad said...

yes...email of course is great, new and it's a new way of going.....but.......Can a woman put a drop of parfume to the email that her beloved can smell it? Can you in an angry state rend the email on a millions of pieces? or burn the email? Can you put a small flower to the email? or take a love-email and wear it near the heart?

The email is small...it can be big, actually it can be infinitely big 'cause it's electronic and doesnt use any pen or paper. But what happens when the person receives big or at least bigger than average email? He wouldn't read it, or wouldn't read it all and carefully. What happens when the person checking the email? He has not plenty of time to do that...it's a quick process: open browser -> login to mail -> check the new -> and if there're important ones -> answer a few strings..... and all.. when person comes to an internet club - he orders an 1 hour of time or less "to check the emails". Now email is like a chat..but with a big big big ping :)

Email usually takes a 1 moment, a 1 question to answer, a 1 thing...It's isolates all other things from life. You see the "Email's topic" and you know about what a problem will be this email. Otherwise the regular mail, if man writes to a friend, it's hard to write about only 1 topic :) like Marshall Mcluhan in "20/Photograph" (is it from Medium is the Message?") says that photography isolates single moments in time and TV camera doesnt, TV camera provides the contour, the iconic profile and the transparency.
Maybe and a regular mail provides a brief description of a many life moments, thoughts, etc.. and the email isolates just one :)