Postal Systems, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Aesthetic Solidarity


Miami University [Oxford, Ohio] is hosting a wonderful conference from April 20-21, 2012 on Network Archaeology, featuring some really eminent network and media theorists, such as Alan Liu, Jussi Parrika, Richard John, and Lisa Gitelman, and what really caught my eye about this conference was its emphasis on polychronic historicities and the re-orienting the temporality of network studies:

This conference will bring together scholars and practitioners to explore the resonances between digital networks and “older” (perhaps still emergent) systems of circulation; from roads to cables, from letter-writing networks to digital ink. Drawing on recent research in media archaeology, we see network archaeology as a method for re-orienting the temporality and spatiality of network studies. Network archaeology might pay attention to the history of distribution technologies, location and control of geographical resources, the emergence of circulatory models, proximity and morphology, network politics and power, and the transmission properties of media. What can we learn about contemporary cultural production and circulation from the examination of network histories? How can we conceptualize the polychronic developments of networks, including their growth, adaptation, and resistances? How might the concept of network archaeology help to re-envision and forge new paths of interdisciplinary research, collaboration, and scholarship?

I see this conference as a wonderful opportunity to have some engaged conversations between modernists and premodernists over the historicity of networks, communication technologies, media, and the like. For myself, it presents an opportunity to write a conference paper about something which I’ve been very fond of and devoted to over the years but have had no occasion to write about — Tiny Mix Tapes — and to also keep thinking about a perennially favorite subject of mine: affective communities. Ultimately, I’ll turn this paper into a “dead [love] letter” for punctum books’s Dead Letter Office book series. For now, I’ve written a paper abstract, which I share with everyone below, and I would really appreciate anyone’s help with any helpful tips and references, whether relative to media and network studies, or the role of the genre of the envoi in medieval poetry.

I should also say here that a big impetus for this paper idea, as well as the Dead Letter Office book series, has been the current situation of the U.S. Post Office, which, thanks to the internet and other shipping competitors, appears to be an institution on the wane, and while I myself have [like many people, I'm sure] stopped writing and mailing handwritten and typed letters and cards, and pay my bills online, etc., I don’t want to see the Post Office disappear. I think it would be sad not to have a U.S. Post Office or traditional “mail” and stamps, etc. [and that's pure nostalgic thinking, of course], but this also got me thinking about the ways in which supposedly outmoded forms of communication might re-appear as possible mechanisms for subversive “correspondence” communities, and also about the ways in which older and newer communication forms might combine and give rise to new post/al networks, which is something that just happens to interest us here at punctum books! [On this point, see also Craig Saper's forthcoming Intimate Bureaucracies.]

Postal Systems, Affect, and Going Astray: Aesthetic Solidarity

I’m pretty sure my therapist is going to give up on me soon, and it’s my fault. I need some songs to listen to while resigning myself to being depressed forever.

—theme for a tiny mixtape, requested by James

Somethings that you pretend to like so a boy will love you end up giving you more than that boy ever could.

—anonymous postcard sent to Frank Warren at PostSecret

This paper will examine (or raise) the question of network affects, specifically in relation to (re)turns to outmoded communication technologies, such as the postcard and the mixtape, as seen especially in the hybrid media ventures of Tiny Mix Tapes, where semi-anonymous users request “cassette” music mixes through invented themes such as “unrequited love, 1980-1988,” “I made you fall in love with me but now I’m not sure what I want …,” and “I feel disconnected from my friends, families, and even body: the world is an interesting place,” and also PostSecret, a “community art project,” where people anonymously mail in their somewhat shameful or embarrassing secrets on hand-made postcards. This paper will argue that both Tiny Mix Tapes and PostSecret serve as important switching stations or branch offices for affective-communitarian postal systems that participate in what Derrida would say is both a lack and an excess of address (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond), similar to the medieval envoi, which was very prevalent in medieval troubadour lyric: a short stanza or set of brief stanzas appended to the end of a poem to address an actual or imaginary person outside of the poem itself, which poem then became a sort of postcard as well as a static-ridden telegraph machine (because split between two registers of address).

Ultimately, what I want to explore here is both the historicity of the “postal system” and its relation to affect, through the medieval envoi, as well as the ways in which the mixtape and the post-secret (as intra-temporal envois) engage in what Derrida termed “postal maneuvering,” where we see the entangled operations of “relays, delay, anticipation, destination, telecommunicating, network, the possibility, and therefore the fatal necessity of going astray” (The Post Card, p. 66). This paper will also explore how the specific, networked engagement with older communication technologies (pre-Internet and even premodern) enables a valuable “virtual” space for what the social theorist Scott Lash calls “aesthetic reflexivity,” whereby it is possible to critique (through play) various power/knowledge structures, while also allowing oneself to be spontaneously traversed by others’ emotions, which traversal then becomes a valuable form of queerly im/personal solidarity.

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