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)?