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Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4: Peter Berz 1994  


Bernhard Siegert, Relais: Geschicke der Literatur als Epoche der Post, Brinkmann & Bose, Berlin 1993

A minor numerical event: as from the 1 July 1993 five-figure postal codes are in force within the area served by the German Federal Post. The new system is part of a comprehensive postal reform promoted by the greatest mailing action in the history of the German post office: free mailing of 40 million postal code directories.

Postlight - the universal cushioning label of our software age - is being used by such a well-known enterprise as the post as an advertising gag. After all, letters are the most human form of communication, especially following the replacing of all the tricks by uniform, newly standardized postal codes. Basic imperial rule: always sufficient numbers in reserve. Present and future underlings of a media concern by the name of post will therefore have to submit to the question put by managing director Dr. Klaus Zumwinkel, a question so humanly moving: What would life be like without a curious glance in the letter box, without a short chat with the postman? (Das Postleitzahlenbuch (the Postal Code Directory), The German Federal Post, Postal Service (pub), pp. 5 and 10 following).

The reader of a book recently brought out by the Berlin publishers Brinkmann and Bose begins to realize other things about Dr. Zumwinkel's 1000-year postal empire (..such a long history ... incentive enough for those 500 years to be followed by another 500). The friendly postman takes on rather a different appearance when, in 1912, he is visualised by a postal subscriber from Prague: ...'' I always see the outstretched hand of one of Berlin's sturdy postmen who, if need be, would force the letter upon you even if you offered resistance. You can't have enough assistance when you're dependent.

Relais (Relay) by Bernhard Siegert, the media, discourse and literature archaeologist from Bochum, begins at the point where the postmaster general and public-relations-manager remain silent: with the polemos of the couriers instead of the chat with the postman, with postal obligation'' and postal powers, with the post's media-theoretical crime thriller -- full of clues and without the slightest chance of escape.

Just like Siegert's numerous essays (e.g. on the postal collapse of the Roman Empire, on the medial and psychiatric history of the telephone, on the aerial warfare history of photography or the denunciation of post boxes), his book reveals new, undreamt-of horizons of media analysis; media archaeology from the point of view of postal transmission.

His archaeology makes use of the tool boxes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Friedrich Kittler, and it is amazing how new and well-sharpened their instruments are when they return from Siegert's postal media archaeology. An event which should be equally momentous for media theoreticians, discourse analysts and deconstructivists. (As a directly plausible consequence of this, Brinkmann and Bose continue a media-theoretical part of their publication programme with the issuing of Relais, a programme which began with former alphabetical shooting stars of the Gutenberg galaxy, the publication of the writings of Alan Turing (+ diskette), the German translation of Derrida's Carte Postale and Friedrich Kittler's Grammophon Film Typewriter)

The horizon opened up by Siegert's media archaeology starts out from a precise analysis of the state of postal matters: in the storm of all the mailing actions of postlight, the epoch of transmission as the epoch of the post comes to an end. isdn, acording to Siegert, the return of telegraphy as the universal code, is the substitute for all paths of transmission and for all time(s) of transmission by means of calculating time. Along with this the classical disposition of the post is dropped. It becomes a private media supplier, as only private industry can provide both technology and the network.

The end of postal transmission means that the post appears as a completed epoch. Siegert's narrations, from the human stories to the ghost stories of the post, see this epoch with an archaeological x-ray glance down to the skeleton of its passing medial materiality: postage, uniform stamps, postcard, telegraphic and telephonic transmission technology, along with the conditions for the connecting of all these technologies. Relais demonstrates how each of these often unobtrusive (if not secret) technologies of transmission - first before and then with 'technical' media in the narrower sense - produces closed historical orders: orders of knowledge, orders of sex, textual orders, state-run, imperial, discoursive orders.

The book works - from the view of film technology in the style of Foucault - with historical cuts or, from the view of information technology, simply with relay: 1751, 1837, 1870, 1913, dates for the publication of new postal medialities. However whereas Derrida picks up the edges of postal texts as texts, Siegert begins with historical medial materialism: the accounts of the folding of notepaper, of mail-days, of chartering, of registering, recorded delivery or a momentous postal act by the name of postage. From the state of the letter Relais can therefore decipher the historical state of the transmission technologies of an epoch.

In the Baroque period the state of letters is therefore just as far away from human communication as in Kafka's violent postman. Letters are an ensemble of 'outside references' and they act through combinatory tableaus of a precise number of addresses and occasions for writing. This changes at the end of the 18th century. From letters comes the intimate medium of an alpha-bête which has become subject (as may still be imagined nowadays by postal advertising: Postal Code Directory, photo on page 10!).

This individualisation of written correspondence around 1800 is, according to Siegert's book, not a nostalgic recollection but the medial basis of a highly-modern cultural control unit which, since Foucault, can be named man. Foucault decodes it from the order of knowledge and Kittler sees it emerging from a pedagogy of speaking/writing/reading between mother-speech and the civil service: Siegert deduces it from the simple, medial fact that this man writes private letters.

'Human communication' in endless streams of letters is the media technology of an epoch of literature. The question as to mankind can however no longer be answered from the history of literature or ideas, but by questions of postage i.e. who pays, the sender or the addressee? Does the state pocket the postage? Does it rise proportionally to distance or does it fall? Are there reductions for certain consignments? Are there postage privileges for certain subscribers?

Media policy can be pursued by postage namely around 1800 i.e. stimulus, guiding, distribution of the written word, at the state of the epoch. Moderate postal taxes increase the number of consignments, stimulate in state-controlled channels an inexorable obsession with communicating - and at the same time raise the state income. Falling postage costs with increasing distance, postage cuts for certain consignments, or even postal exemptions for certain persons - those are, according to Siegert, the medial facts of an order of knowledge called man, of a new type of power which controls its underlings by stimulus instead of by forbidding speeches.

On the basis of such stimulating postal materiality, poet government officials are also able to implement their educational programmes: establishing an educational state, an empire of the world spirit, which is, from A to Z, a postal empire. Letters from functionaries to women reading them, letters from intelligent women to men having read them concerning their understanding etc. - the books on which the spiritual empire is built up are, from Gellert via Goethe to Kleist, Brentano and Novalis, 'distorted love letters'. Their media technology is, according to Siegert, as effective as it is simple: printed matter to intelligent women goes at reduced rates, and letter postage can, as necessary, slip under the threshold of consciousness. Female readership is authorship at a reduced rate.

Siegert can provide complete circumstantial evidence of this and finally ends up with the sensational discovery of a special case of postage privilege: Relais page twenty-eight.

The end of human communication and postal privilege is brought about by another media-technical trick, the stamp, agent of a new epoch of postal transmission. Subsequent to Rowland Hill's simple and democratic idea of having postage paid firstly by the sender, secondly in advance in the form of small pieces of paper worthless after use (prepayment), and thirdly according to a standardized rate for all distances, the standardized communication of standardized subscribers results from the post of writing subjects.

Post boxes, letter box slits, envelopes, postmen as the resulting inventions of prepayment and one-penny-post, create a media system of 'permanent contact'. Postage which has been paid before a word has been written, post boxes without opening hours, letter box slits where it doesn't matter whether the addressee is at home, away or deceased: postal communication begins to work on its own. Its standards are machine standards and man has already begun to step down. At this point Siegert narrates not only history but histoires: one fine day Father Babbage and Father Benthem come to deposit their children in a well-known London boarding school ...

However the standards which begin with the stamp appear insatiable. The stamp is the epicentre of several waves of standardisation: from standard postage to standard size, from the postcard as a stamp for writing on; from the standard size to the standard text, the postcard with pre-printed text; from the standard text to the standard picture, photography for writing on. Holiday greetings from around the world are, for the merciless glance of the media archaeologist, merely the completion of the standard of all standards: the world post or union postale universale. For when, as a result of the stamp, postal transmission systems do not count distances and negate space, the postcard, the end of all postal intimacy, can become that which it is according to Siegert's ingenious analysis: virus of the world post.

The third section, third relay of postal media archaeology, appears where technical media cross in the narrower sense the fortunes of the post i.e. where telegraphy and telephony do away not only with the space but also with the time of transmission.

From their military beginnings as optical telegraphy via the introduction of electrical telegraphy to telegraphy as a mere subset to telephone cables, Siegert's postal history of telegraphy pursues the effects of a medium which, instead of transmitting data carriers i.e. paperpaperpaperchatter, transmits 'information itself'. By means of coding, the messages of telegraphy become transferable, beyond space and time. As state postal monopolies acquire the military technology of telegraphy, they are therefore able to build new empires on their networks: following world spirit and world post, the unit of a colonial empire.

After all it is at the technical and historical intersection of telegraphy that the transfer from graph to phone comes directly from the inhuman channels of the post. When a tape of telegraphic dots and dashes is played mechanically, Edison thinks he suddenly hears a voice, telephone does not begin with the imitation of human voices but as manipulation of the data material. The first telephones of telegraph constructor Bell are therefore used without delay for the physiological laboratory analysis of the partial object voice.

The telephone overturns postally supported orders, not least the cultural switch point of the sexes. Women, who are no longer readers but operators, couriers without king, simply no longer want to understand letters and letter books. They have become employees of the post which is to reach them, specialists in operating and connecting information machines - typewriters with telephones with parlographs with adding machines.

For authors and cultural technicians of the flood of letters there is only one thing left in this state of postal transmission technology - ghost communication: poets and civil servants of human communication turn into postal strategists with a single chance of survival: getting the post itself and only the post off the ground as a media compound system in all channels.

As is known, Franz Kafka is the master and victim of this communication with ghosts, and with continually new developments Siegert elicits from his postal practice the most unexpected revelations on the functioning of postal media compound systems. The analysis instrument for this is an editorial innovation: the edition of the famous Letters to Felice, an edition uniquely suited to the media and paranoiacally-critical, would namely have to edit letters, postcards, telegrams in the order they came before the eyes of those waiting at home instead of according to the date of their dispatch. The implementation of this programme can be seen in Relais for a test period of a fortnight.

At the end of the short experiment, Siegert can have the result put on record; postal transmission under the spell of technical transmission and storage media performs nothing more than simply transmission itself. All letters, express mail, registered letters, telegrams, completed phone calls, phone calls yet to be made in Franz Kafka's postal battle with the shorthand typist Felice Bauer, form a network of messages which overtake each other, catch each other up, undermine, foil, obliterate each other. Postal freebooters, whose only content is undeliverability, revolving to the rhythm of collection times, delivery times, transportation times, electrical times between two national postal systems k.u.k./k.k. and Preussen. They make postal communication that which post itself once means: w.a.s.t.e..

You can hear a certain Mr. Schnabelowski gabbling about sheer foolishness on such channels and telling of the unredeemed ship sailing around on the ocean from time immemorial. When it encounters another vessel some of the sinister crew come along in a boat and kindly request a packet of letters to be taken aboard. These letters must be nailed firmly to the mast otherwise misfortune will befall the ship (...). The letters are addressed to people unknown, or those long since deceased, so that occasionally the late grandson receives a love letter sent to his great-grandmother who has been in her grave for a hundred years. And at the other side of this electric ocean is waiting with siren epochal laughter one of the hundred cover addresses of a hundredfold book: Oedipa Maas and the whole lot.

translation ann thursfield