It’s a peculiar form of communication that I seem to have developed over my years as a grad student. I have an academic problem or question—it may be theoretical or practical in nature—and I decide to reach out to my advisor or a trusted friend through email. Initiating the email is almost automatic. I’m probably already on my computer when I encounter my conundrum and it takes only a few seconds to open Mail and fill in the “To:” and “Subject:” lines. However, things slow down considerably after the salutation.
I’m very conscious of the fact that my advisors and friends are busy. I don’t want to waste their time, so I formulate my question very carefully, striving for brevity and clarity. And that’s when things get peculiar, because very often I answer my own question in the process of its careful formulation. Or at least I feel I draw close enough to an answer. Or I realize that the stakes aren’t really as high as I thought. In any case, very often I don’t send the email at all. In effect, I have had a correspondance with myself.
In his lectures on “technologies of the self,” Foucault discussed the centrality of writing to ancient Socratic practices of self care and reflection:
Writing was also important in the culture of taking care of oneself. One of the main features of taking care involved taking notes on oneself to be reread, writing treatises and letters to friends to help them, and keeping notebooks in order to reactivate for oneself the truths one needed. Socrates’ letters are an example of this self-exercise.
There was a time, long ago, when I kept journals and wrote long paper letters to friends. Although I’m rather afraid to look at them now, I remember all the resonances and textures that these exercises drew out of me and my experience of the world. Things that would have remained latent, unexpressed in an almost genetic sense, without the catalyst-medium of paper and ink. Something similar seems to be happening with these unsent emails, as I see my questions and problems reflected back to me in the mirror of the screen.
What seems different is the speed, focus, and utilitarian nature of these email self-queries. They are more pragmatic and work related, more clearly embedded in regimes of discipline and economy. Then again, so am I. It also interests me that, while I think I always knew whether I was writing a letter or journal entry on paper, in this case I begin thinking I am writing the former and end up writing the latter. Perhaps this has something to do with the flexible, seemingly ephemeral nature of the digital. I wonder how many others write to this kind of imagined audience, never hitting “send.”