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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5 thoughts on “Possession is nine-tenths of the law…

  1. Great question to focus on, Tim. It seems especially relevant in an age of private and government e-mail servers. I think one helpful way to approach this question of ownership is to consider Lacan’s meditation on the meaning of “purloined,” which refers to a “setting aside” or the term Lacan prefers, “detour.” He doesn’t seem to like Baudelaire’s translation of “volée,” because “stolen” doesn’t capture his understanding of the letter, specifically as it operates as a “pure signifier” within the symbolic chain of language. Because this chain has an order, a letter can be “detoured” but it will “always arrive at its destination.” To some extent, I think this means that the letter’s “owner” is less interesting to Lacan than the fact that the letter will eventually reach its destination, which is not always the addressee – and in fact, could be the sender herself. I guess this means that we could be the final destination for Hilary’s e-mails:)

  2. On the topic of ownership, authors and adreessees could we get to the bottom of the question of the authorship of the titular letter. During and after my first few readings of the story, I assumed the letter was authored by the queen. The main reason being that a letter she wrote herself would be the most difficult to deny. Then I read Tio’s blog where he seemed to assume the queen was the adressee. I didn’t notice any evidence for this assumption, but rather than challenging it I went back to the text and this line stuck out “During its perusal she was suddenly interrupted” which led me to presume that I had been mistaken and she was the adressee. Now Alex seems to be reading the Queen as the intended sender, which I suppose would make the perusal a proof reading? Or is this perhaps something open to interpretation? Its interesting that this distinction is of little difference to the story, but is vital to analysis.

  3. This is a really smart and fun post. Frankly, I have been stumped regarding how I might respond. I began to try to think the ideas at play in the text vis a vis contemporary communication scandals. Lacan offers that “if the use of the letter, independent of its meaning, is obligatory for the minister, its use for end of power can only be potential, since it cannot become actual without vanishing in the process” (63). This is quite confusing. I wonder if he means that for the letter to have political power that the minister can wield, the letter must vanish, or if rather, the meaning here is that if the letter was made public that it would lose all of its power. If it were to become “actual power,” i.e. if he made it public, the minister would no longer have the power to effect politics (there is a suggestion that he controls the queen somehow with the threat of publication, no?). All this said, I wonder how the situation varies depending on whether you are a “public” figure such as a public servant or a more (albeit not completely) private figure such as someone working in the private sector.

    Alex, isn’t there also a joke about “purloined” as “setting aside” or “to the left” and the fact that the letter was in plain sight?

  4. Yes, I think that possession is a central element. And there is a distinction. There is possession of the letter, and then there is possession of what the letter says. One a letter is stolen, it can be given back. However, once a piece of information is stolen (or purloined), then it can continue to spread and multiply, and mutate. Gossip is a kind of currency that has no limit. Therefore, is it more important to find the letter, or to make sure nobody else finds the information within the letter? What is the chief challenge? Also, does anyone think that Lacan is writing in an ironic style, twisting his analysis when he could plainly reveal conclusions? Or, is each digression necessary to an end?

  5. I’m struck by the term “intermediary,” which I’m at this moment reading as, ‘mediator of mediation,’ or ‘media between media.’ I think this is an interesting way to frame a discussion between Excommunication and Lacan. It seems to me that Excommunication theorizes mediation as an aspect of meaning, whereas for Lacan mediation is an aspect of symbols and objects.

    In Excommunication, Hermes carries the message, but as I recall, his status as messenger is more symbolic than bodily. That is, his carrying-across of the message is more of a metaphorical way to describe the transmission of meaning/message, rather than a metaphor for the body of the postal worker.

    Lacan, by contrast, specifically refers to “communication [which] is not transmissible in symbolic form” to ground his analysis (35*).This communication exists with reference to objects. Lacan might therefore argue that Excommunication’s theorization of Hermes is constituted within the symbolic order of Hermes-Iris-Furies, rather than by the object of the letter. (Similarly, “letter” is located within the symbolic order of text-image-network.)

    For this reason I wonder whether the term ‘intermediary’ can be equally applied to postal worker and internet. The post office has also long held the power to censor and suppress mail, in the name of the state. But it’s easier to understand the post office than the internet. One is paper, ink, and a postal worker carrying it from place to place. The other is electrons, microchips, buried cables, network administrators we’ll never see…I think the questions of privacy that the internet raises correspond to the obfuscated nature of e-communication; we struggle with our capacity to hide, because e-communication is a hidden object. But this has also led to a whole new realm of encryption – BitCoins, Tor, etc.

    It seems we are tuning into the role of the first and second ostriches/glimpses. I wonder what the third would make of our situation?

    *Sorry, these page numbers will be different than yours – I’ve been reading out of a really helpful critical edition…

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