Relays. Literature As an Epoch of the Postal System

Bernhard Siegert
Transl. by Kevin Repp
Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA., 1998


Towards the end of his life, a most bewildered Franz Kafka asked Milena Jesenskà, how one could have thought of the idea, that “people can communicate through letters.” To answer this question while keeping the perspective of the improbability of communication, this book turns to the history of the postal service and the technical communications media, respectively, but not in the usual way of cultural or ecomomic histories but through the premises of the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Since the processes of legitimation, which turn literature into a discourse of truth and (male) writers into authorities that rule by words over the desires of (female) others, consist most of all of processes of transmission and of creating networks, means of communication belong to the constituing conditions of literature. Authors have to be post masters. Siegert suggests therefore a new kind of writing literary history, that maps the history of literature onto a history of communications media. It locates the apriori of the discoursive power of literature in a beyond of interpretation, which is its materialities of communication in a very literal sense.

The book is divided in three main parts: The first reconstructs the postal conditions of classic-romantic literature, which are first of all the invention of postage in the seventeenth century, that transformed postal systems into a service which is meant to be used by the population (instead of the prince alone), and second the sexualization of letter writing which was introduced by Gellert in the middle of the 18th century. This transformed the reading of letters into interpretations of intimate confessions of the soul. Goethe then turned this new ontology of the letter, established by his teacher Gellert, into a logistics of literature. In this he was supported by the princes of Thurn und Taxis who granted him with a postage privilege. The letters that Kleist wrote to Wilhelmine von Zenge finally reveal how literary authorship was constructed around 1800 by means of postal logistics with the precision of an engineer.

The second part analyzes the innovations of the 19th century that brought up the end of a postal era in which individuals could communicate through letters and in which literary works could live off such a communication: Rowland Hills post office reform and the invention of the stamp, the Universal Postal Union that subjected letter writing to an ecomomy of media and its a priori uniform standards, the post card that subjected letters to the standards of printed matter, the electrical telegraph and the telephone that surpassed literature by its effects of speed, economy and analogue signal processing. Thus, post card, typewriter, telegraph and telephone are the historical media aprioris of modern literature.

By a close reading of Kafkas’s letters to his fiancée, the typist Felice Bauer, Siegert finally demonstrates in detail, how postal logistics of love and authorship work in the era of modern postal systems and technical media. Thereby the correspondence is deciphered as a “war of nerves”, that is waged on Bauer by means of all available techniques and conditions of transmission with the aim to reconstruct authorship beyond the historical limits of man.