Possession is nine-tenths of the law…

I’d like to (selfishly) direct my post towards a question Lacan poses in his seminar, given it has direct implications on my final paper: “For a purloined letter to exist, we may ask, to whom does a letter belong?” (57). The immediate gut reaction is, of course, the recipient, but Lacan complicates the question by posing, “Might a letter on which the sender retains certain rights then not quite belong to the person to whom it is addressed? or might it be that the latter was never the real receiver?”

The letter in Poe’s story passes through a chain of holders: the Queen, the Minister, Dupin, and ultimately the Prefect. But, as Lacan highlights, holding a letter is distinct from ownership, and to extrapolate that chain of holders beyond the bounds of the original story, the letter must have been held by at least the original owner before it was delivered into the Queen’s hands. But how was it delivered? If it was carried by any intermediary, does that person have any claim to ownership?

I find this question endlessly complicated and fascinating in the era of networked communications because the tools and services that facilitate our communication DO make (both implicit and explicit) claims to ownership. As we shift from material means of communication and towards digital messages, the flimsy notion of holding a letter erodes even further. I don’t “hold”  any of the messages that I’ve sent or received through iMessage or Facebook. I can access them, but I certainly do not own them. Apple and Facebook could make a stronger claim to ownership than I can. They can determine whether I can continue to access them. They can determine whether I can reply to them. They can take the contents of them and, within the exceedingly broad terms of the end user license agreement, more or less do whatever they want with them: delete them, share them, analyze them.

The status of the intermediary–the one carrying the communication–has become far more pronounced with the rise of the internet. The old days of the dutiful postman carrying the sealed envelope through rain, sleet, or snow are gone, replaced with a new status quo in which even the wax-sealed pretense of privacy or secrecy can no longer be maintained, offering an unprecedented level of access and knowledge to the lowly courier. If, as is the case of the Queen in Poe’s story (and Elizabeth in our readings for last week), a “figure of grace and sovereignty cannot welcome even a private communication without power being concerned,” what happens when the institutions of power suddenly become concerned in all of our private communications (58)?

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“The Student of Epistolarity’s Blog Response”

In the salutation of “The God of Love’s Letter,” Cupid wishes the recipient[s] “Health, Love, Intimacy” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). This is seemingly at odds with the opening of the exordium: “We make it publicly known that complaints . . . have been made before us” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). There is an immediate tension birthed by the proximity of the words “intimacy” and “publicly,” which mirrors the tension of the issues at hand. “Intimacy” belongs to a private sphere and one of the central concerns of the text is the collapsing of the boundaries of private (feminine) and public (masculine) which gives way to “intimacy” becoming a public affair, wherein it ceases to be intimate. What is curious is that de Pizan herself seems to transgress the accepted boundary between public and private as she is woman intent on engaging in a public debate and employing a private genre to address public concerns.

This early portion of the exordium is marked by reference to the state, courtly love, and honor – all gendered concepts relating to public relations. I wonder to what extent de Pizan must labor in her exordium not only to secure the good will of her audience, but also to establish her bona fides, i.e. is the adoption of the “clerkly” discourse a means for her not only engage critically with the public (read: male) literary debate, but also a means of establishing her right to be part of it in the first place? This concern for demonstrating a belonging to the masculine literary discourse community is perhaps evidenced in subsequent sections of the letter (Narratio? Do we get one?) by the classical, biblical and romantic literary references which are threaded throughout. Similarly, the martial metaphors including “throw[ing] down the gauntlet” and “captur[ing] a weakly fortified” perhaps function as a radical appropriation of the language of a masculine discourse to signal that she deserves a place within it.

It is curious that she employs the formal conceit of adopting the persona of Cupid to engage with her audience. Scholars of the Roman de la Rose – which she critiques – have argued that Jean de Meun’s allegorical characters function as cover for him to make claims that would otherwise have adverse repercussions – the dream vision genre helps in this regard as well. This formal conceit of deflecting ownership via adoption of a persona is in some ways echoed in the creation of an artificial commentary. As the editors point out, de Pizan produces the verse, gloss and allegory portions of “The Letter from Othea.” What is perhaps worth noting is that the author is attempting to create an artificial distance in the context of the commentary process, in which she mimics the practice of medieval authors commenting on ancient texts (de Pizan 30), but that this distancing is perhaps intended to create the illusion of objectivity, i.e. the formal conceit is meant to strengthen the arguments. Again, I wonder if the excess of allusions and references to literature and philosophy function as barrier removal for a female writer in this period. Similarly, I wonder if composing the verse and then providing commentary is meant to signal that she – as a woman – is more than capable of engaging in the work of not only one but three authors at the same time. 

In the spirit of feminist discourse, I will end with a series of questions rather than statements of fact. Feel free to engage with the above or what follows. How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” with the adoption of a persona? How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” and “pretending” and contemporary gender theory – is there a productive conversation to be had regarding de Pizan and “performativity?” Does the excess of references function as a sort of textual “drag.” In a public setting, is “intimacy” subsumed into politics? Derrida points out in The Politics of Friendship that the notion of a “private enemy” is nonsensical. Is the same true of a “public intimate?” What do we make of a public letter (this is unlike Ovid in that it is a literary appropriation of the genre which is in some ways functioning like actual letters)? Is de Pizan giving the object of her ire a taste of their own medicine by by having Cupid make the private – I’m assuming anonymous – complaints of individual women public?  I didn’t get to “The Letter on the Prison of Human Life” in this post, but what do we make of the public / private concerns of the letter, and the collapsing of these within the context of communication between women? Was anyone able to link these readings to the framework from Excommunication? See you all on Tuesday.