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.
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