Notes on the Death of the Postscript

On Monday, I had the pleasure of being contacted somewhat out of the blue by the Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Rosman for a piece she was working on, dealing with the decline of the Postscript (P.S.) in the age of the email.

Rosman’s piece is great, and I highly recommend checking it out. It’s well-written, fun, and quick– and obviously very well-researched. Some of the examples she pulls out are just brilliant.

As is often the case when someone who has spent too much time immersed in the world of academia is interviewed for the media, however, it only contained a bit of the long-ranging (and one-sided and probably overly-long) conversation that we had during the interview. This is an inevitability, not in any way a criticism.

If anything, it’s a positive comment on Rosman’s discernment and ability to mill down into a whole lot of rambling academic geekery to get a nugget of substance out of it.

However, since I’ve neglected this blog for far too long, I thought it might be fun to put up the notes I typed up in preparation for the interview. Just because I do have more to say on the topic, and I already have it written down.

Those with an interest in communications history will probably note that I am deeply indebted to David Henkin’s The Postal Age, and that I come off far more of a technological determinist than I really should feel comfortable being. These are just some hastily typed up notes, with basicly no editing, but I figure there’s no harm in putting it out there, as I don’t know when I’ll have opportunity to revisit the topic, which I started to find more and more fascinating the more I thought about it in preparation for the interview.

Postscripts date back pretty far– I don’t know how far. The OED has some examples that go back to the 1500s and 1600s. I know that they were not uncommon in the 1700s. I asked a couple early Americanist friends, and there’s good examples from the founding fathers, definitely.

But the postscript as we think of it today probably is more properly dated a little later. It gained wide usage as non-business letters became a wide-spread practice in the 19th century– especially after the postal reforms of 1845 and 1851, which greatly reduced the price of letter mail, thus opening up the postal system to much more personal communication for those not of the highest classes.

Most letters before that were letters of business, and brevity and precision were highly valued. But as more people were writing letters, there became a tradition of epistolatory intimacy– people began to write friends and family that were separated by space in a nation where people were more and more frequently uprooted. This also meant that letters became much more a providence of women. Women had already been key to the ties of sociability that kept culture coherent.

Women were very much associated with PS’s– even (especially?) multiple PS’s, in which most of the real substance of the letter could be found. In old business-like letters, the PS’s were reserved for either afterthoughts or emphatic points– things people wanted to highlight the importance of. This continues in epistolatory intimacy, but the INTIMACY was the most important thing. It makes sense in the context of the time that it would be seen as feminine.

These letters were of a script, formulaic. Most personal letters from the mid-19th century started the same way– “Dearest ____, I have taken a moment to take pen in hand and let you know that I am well, and hope that you are enjoying the same blessing.”

Formulas like this let people know what kind of letter they’re reading. They let the reader orient themselves, and give them a guide to how to interpret. Many people, especially older folks, tend to wish they still had the old letter-writing signposts in emails.

But emails were conceived differently.

They were created for scientific and military communication as much as anything else. For this reason they follow the format of the business memorandum, rather than the personal letter. As they were mass-adopted in the 90s for personal communication, people at first tended to borrow the rhetoric of the personal letter, as it was familiar. But different media are biased to different types of communication– look at the way that Neitzche’s writing changed toward epigraphs as he began working on a typewriter, as Freidrich Kittler points out.

Using email to maintain connection and reinforce social ties has a different shape and feel than letters. In the most obvious sense, immediacy replaces length. It is no longer necessary to ramble on about daily goings-on, and no longer feels un-intimate to write brief communications, because we can email back and forth multiple times in the time that a letter would take to get to the recipient, even though the USPS is the most efficient it has ever been at getting from point a to point b. Immediacy is the new length– I know you care not because your email is long, but because it comes quickly. If I get a fast reply from an email, I know that means we are close. I’ve even heard teachers talking about never responding to emails under a certain amount of time, so that students don’t assume the right to instantaneous communication.

I’m also wondering if the fact that signature lines were always present during the time of email’s mass popularization might have something to do with it, although I’m not sure.

There’s something else, too, about the medium– it’s word-processing, rather than typewriting or manuscript. Even in a brief email like the one I sent you this morning, I edit as I compose. I never send out a first draft– that’s for SMS. Writing is shaped by the tools, and I wonder if this might not be in part the fact that a postscript, an afterthought, seems sloppy or lazy in an email. Find the appropriate place to put it in the body of the email! As someone who was first put in front of a word processor in 1986 or so, while still in elementary school, and whose writing level shot up grade levels almost overnight, I would argue that it’s important not to underestimate the effect of word processing on the writer.

Also, as the internet gives us different ways to correspond, different levels of information become appropriate in our emails. I wouldn’t bore most friends with my doings of late in an email, because most of the people I’m close with would know what i am up to because I show up in their Facebook newsfeed or Twitter feed. Thus this sort of information does less to build bonds, and seems more unnecessary– it switches from signal to noise.

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