The Letter

The Letter is a medium of communication. The letter is usually intended for only one recipient and written for an audience of the directed person. Sometimes we have letters which are ‘open’, a recent example of this is from Stephen Fry. Where an audience of the thinking public are also witness to the content of the letter.


Chris Bateman wrote a blog post recently about the way in which social media is changing the pre-established norms of blogging. As there is less of a ‘bloggosphere’ as there used to be, media like Huffington Post, or major news services with comments pages and open columns like Guardian’s CIF seem to merge the established print media with online media, as well as its interactivity. Bateman gives a suggestion of models to keep blogging communities going.


When I was thinking about Bateman’s suggestions, there is an implicit or explicit (I can’t tell which) implication of two things:


  • Explicit claim: We should keep the blogging communities we have established in lieu of the more interactive and diverse media outlets out in today’s internet age

  • Implicit claim: There is something worth preserving in the medium of blogging as it is construed


Bateman invited some reactions to his post, in a way I am reacting to what was written, but on the other hand not replying to it at all (I call this the Adorno response) in the terms he has set it. To get back to the original point of my post, lets start thinking about letters again.


Letters have been an invaluable historical resource for scholars in philosophy. Descartes’ had extensive letters from his publisher, and through his publisher, a network of critics, which included Thomas Hobbes, on his ‘Meditations’. The letter has been of interest in personal correspondences as well, in instances where there has been philosophical import as well as a telling amount of personal insight into either of the writers also. It has recently been in blog discussion of a series of letters between Mercuse and Adorno on the 60s student activists. This serves as social document, historical and intellectual document and records of a life.


Of course there are other mediums these days. I know of friends who have little conversations through the medium of tumblr posts and hashtagging, there are short and not always sweet messages through twitter, which effectively serves as the equivalent of a world wide IRC where everyone is invited and there are no proper admins (yet). There are of course IMs. Most of the emergent forms of contact are much more immediate than the letter, and give much more of a sense of ephemerality to them. That said, I am reminded of an romantic couple who once said their IM conversations should one day be the thing of published prose, due to the juxtapositions of romantic messages to a sudden shift to banal topics.


The blog in the age of instant transmission, served as a more enduring form. The blog served as preserving the vanguard of media such as the essay, the discussion, the panel, the contrarian response. I like blogs. I like the diversity of them. Like paper, they can be hidden, sometimes burned away though not as easy to forget them as so much of online content is archived these days. Blogging has more potential for bringing diverse audiences than the printed essay, blogging can communicate many different things. I follow a blog from an olympic weightlifter who talks about her diet and social life or being starstruck meeting celebrities; I follow fitness blogs; I follow blogs about cancer.


Then there are blogs which serve as a lightning focal point, although not intentionally so or even with such initial pretensions. Leiter Reports has reached its 10th year and has brought about discussion of issues which have framed academic philosophy from within and without. When I think about the blog (as a genre) and its future, I think about the letter. I suspect most contemporary philosophers will have letters, although I’m more certain many philosophical correspondences have occured through emails or facebook messaging. I wonder if things like that might be studied in the future for some kind of exegetical import.


I have a few friends with whom I prefer contacting them through long emails. We write in essay length format to talk about ourselves, things on our mind, and general insights. I have one blogging friend who I have encouraged to document some of her experiences through the medium of blogging, so that our conversations have had a much wider audience. I don’t think the letter has died, or will die. There are still people who will have pen pals, still people who will write letters. Or it might be that the notion of letter writing and correspondences may be superimposed upon emailing, or through the blog. Likewise, blogging does not have social media and a changing online climate to worry about, it will change in some way to account for it.


When I think of the letter I think of how immensely informative and insightful letters are in historical philosophy: such as the correspondences between Leibniz and Clarke; Frege and Russell; or anyone Kant or Adorno corresponded with. Letter writing is not lost, it’s just different now. I’d be interested in seeing what emergent forms arise.



One thought on “The Letter

  1. Michael: This is a wonderful addition to the dialogue concerning “extinction of blogs”. Of course, the point of elevating one’s regret at the passing of things into something mythological (‘the future catastrophe’) is to evoke just a hint of moral horror, and invite people to respond to it.
    I loved my letter writing years, and wrote profusely. Neither email nor social media has quite the same quality of experience, yet I find myself unable to choose the time-inefficient letter over the efficacy of digital communications. The blog cluster for me sustained something of the practice of letter writing in digital form, which I cannot claim for my other exchanges within social media. Hence my regret – and an opportunity for exploring the discourse further…
    I’ve taken the liberty of linking this in from “Prototypes for Blog Revival” –

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