Session 5. Going Postal: Networks, Affect, and Retro-Technologies

2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group

“cruising in the ruins: the question of disciplinarity in the post/medieval university”


Thursday, Sep. 20th 3:15 – 4:45 pm

Session 5. Going Postal: Networks, Affect, and Retro-Technologies

McLeod A.318/B.320, Curry Student Center

Co-Organizers: Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University) + Eileen Joy (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Co-Presiders: Jen Boyle and Eileen Joy

This session will examine the question of network affects, specifically in relation to (re)turns to outmoded communication technologies, such as the postcard and the cassette mixtape. In what ways do these supposedly outmoded forms of communication serve as important switching stations or branch offices for affective-communitarian postal systems that participate in what Derrida would say is both a lack and an excess of address (The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond)? What is the historicity of various ‘postal systems’ (both real and imagined) and their relation to affect, as well as the ways in which they engage in what Derrida termed ‘postal maneuvering,’ where we see the entangled operations of ‘relays, delay, anticipation, destination, telecommunicating, network, the possibility, and therefore the fatal necessity of going astray’? How to think more strategically about the temporal lease-dates of certain ‘postal systems,’ especially in an age when the acceleration of everything has become so profound (such that, whereas celluloid cinema, now in its twilight, had a good run of over 100 years, DVDs have come and will likely be gone in less than 20 years, and the printed book, somehow, hangs on after 500 years)? How might we better explore how specific, networked engagements with older communication technologies (pre-Internet and even premodern) enable valuable ‘virtual’ spaces for what the social theorist Scott Lash calls ‘aesthetic reflexivity,’ and what affective communities and sub- or extra-institutional spaces might be crafted through networks relying on (re)turns to outmoded technologies, such as the letter, the book, the coded message, and so on?

“I nevere dide thing with more peyne / Than writen this”:Letters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

  • David Hadbawnik (University of Buffalo, SUNY)

Post By a Thousand Cuts: Hotel of Magical Thinking

  • Wan-Chuan Kao (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

Sir Orfeo in the Gutter: Repurposing an Old Story Through Found Objects

  • Emily Russell (George Washington University)

Return to Sender: Tracing the Ephemeral Networks of the Disputed 2009 Elections in Iran

  • Nedda Mehdizadeh (George Washington University)

A Miltonic January

  • Ahmed S. Bashi (Artist-Artifacter: YouTube Channel +

David Hadbawnik, “I nevere dide thing with more peyne / Than writen this”: Letters in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde

Book II of Troilus and Criseyde finds its main characters suspended in a state of desperate pining, for Troilus, or indecision, for Criseyde, prior to their eventual affair. To help move things along, Pandarus suggests Troilus write to Criseyde (2.1005-06); this initiates an exchange in which all three characters—or four, if we count the narrator—play carefully balanced roles. In a significant departure from his source in Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, Chaucer’s narrator largely summarizes the contents of the letters, since “To telle al how, it axeth muchel space” (2.1071). He instead heightens the poem’s attention to the composition and reception of the letters for both characters, as well as problematizing the role of Pandarus as potential author/meddler—not only does Pandarus offer to write Criseyde’s letter for her, but as Sheila Delaney suggests, there seems to be some ambiguity over whether he is delivering or authoring letters from Troilus. It would perhaps be too obvious to say that Chaucer doesn’t reproduce the letters because he’s not interested in their contents, in the same way he’s not interested in providing battle scenes that have been depicted elsewhere. But what does he want to show? I argue that by focusing our attention on the writing, then receiving and reading process, Chaucer wishes to expose and explore the gaps in language that the poem is famously concerned with. How does a word change depending on who says (or writes) it; how do differences in time, location, intention, alter and impact a word’s meaning? We can trace these questions through the particularities of Chaucer’s main characters as they are depicted composing and exchanging letters. For the purposes of time, for this paper, I will focus largely on Criseyde, and discuss the scene of the initial letter delivered to her by Pandarus, and her response. I will then share the results of my attempts to reconstruct Chaucer’s drafts of letters from several characters, via new software being developed at UB.

David Hadbawnik (University of Buffalo, SUNY)

Wan-Chuan Kao, Post By a Thousand Cuts: Hotel of Magical Thinking

At the turn of the twentieth century, foreign visitors to China could purchase postcards with photographs or illustrations of Chinese tortures (Les Supplices Chinois) and mail them home. This particular artifact (fig. 1) from 1912 depicts a man being executed by linchi (凌遲 “slow slicing,” or death by a thousand cuts). Photographs of linchi, such as those on postcards, would leave Georges Bataille horrified and ecstatic, as he confesses his obsession with the “young and secutive [jeune et séduisant] Chinese man.” Bataille’s insight into the commingling of horror and ecstasy, pain and pleasure, is here faciliated by a postal system from the East; in fact, he completes this geo- and temporal-circuit of love.

The linchi postcard invokes, for me, the image of cannibalistic Mongols in Matthew Paris’s thirteenth-century chornica maiora (fig. 2). (Are not illuminated chronicles postcards from the past?) One of the achievements of medieval Tartars was their efficient postal and lodging system. Marco Polo, in his Travels, notes the lavish hostels that play host to foreign ambassadors and merchants in the fabled city of Cambalac. Radiating from the imperial center is a network of post-stations that serve the messengers in the Great Khan’s efficient postal system. At every post, called yam, is a “palatial hostelry” worthy of royalties. And like Polo, Gaspar da Cruz was later fascinated by China’s postal network and described its horses as “swyfte of foote.” But while missionaries traveled through post-stations, European writers moved Serra—as Cathay, as Tartary—away from history and into romance. Spenser’s Tartars dwell in Fairy Land, and Ariosto’s Ruggiero rides a griffin, evocative of Chaucer’s flying brass steed, “sopra il gran Quinsaí.” Shakespeare’s Puck, like postal couriers, moves “swifter than arrow from the Tartar’s bow.” In the eastward drift that collapses historical, racial, and geographical differences, trade is sublimated into fetishes, and Cathay is transformed into an imagined community of Orientalized courtliness. Oberon, in Huon de Bourdeaux, grants Arthur “all the fayryes . . . of Tartare.” When Milton’s Adam surveys “Paquin of Sinæan Kings,” the quest for the Northeast Passage has end in prophecies of modern imperialism—in fairies’ bower.

The photocard depicting linchi is a form of magical thinking, or rather, magical feeling. Bataille’s responses—as envois—are symptomatic of his impulse to collapse medieval technology of hagiography (with its figurations of eroticized saints in pain) and modern dispositif of enchantment. The young Chinese man on the 1912 postcard is a courier of history: his is a dismembered body of the cannibal, the messenger, the fairy, the criminal, and the saint. Curiously, the Mongolian yam was also understood by Western travellers to mean a “Manager of Postal Relay Stations.” The term is therefore both a body and an architectural structure. Bataille’s young man is yam; his postcard is hotel consciousness compressed, stamped, and delivered.


Emily Russell, Sir Orfeo in the Gutter: Repurposing an Old Story Through Found Objects

Found magazine and its partner blog celebrate the sense of wonder we often experience when a fragment of someone else’s story unexpectedly crosses our path. Sometimes these pieces take the form of a love or hate note, an old and crinkled photograph, or even a grocery list – but whatever they are, something about getting a glimpse into the life of a stranger makes us want to create stories around the found object. What we do as literary critics is in many ways motivated by the same sense of wonder. We tell tales about narrative networks and social assemblages, repurposing these narratives and, like the notes, photos and lists featured in Found, the stories we work with are always intercepted stories. They may carry with them traces of anticipated recipients but they are always rerouted, redirected, retold, reworked, re-imagined, repurposed.

Through notes, lists, photos, and postcards, I retell the story of Sir Orfeo, a Breton Lay about asking whose queen is abducted and transported to a fairyland where she becomes a part of the fairy king’s human collage. I do this in order to think about narratives as found objects – intercepted fragments of other networks that often inspire a sense of wonder and lead to the creation of new narrative networks. Sir Orfeo is a tale that is a self-conscious repurposing of several stories; in fact the narrative begins by alluding to the copious network of oral stories that have already been intercepted, translated and transformed through retellings. This project does not take the form of an essay but is instead a collection of objects and while I use these objects to construct a particular type of narrative, I also rely on the power of wonder that accompanies the found – the intercepted, interrupted, unexpected – to move this project beyond what might be possible through a more normative format and open it up to a myriad of other narrative possibilities.


Found Magazine Blog

Post title: Sentimental Razor

Emily Russell, George Washington University

Nedda Mehdizadeh, Return to Sender: Tracing the Ephemeral Networks of the Disputed 2009 Elections in Iran

The Disputed Election

On June 12, 2009, nearly 40 million Iranians voted in what would become a historic presidential election. On the following day, the Iranian government claimed that they had completed tallying all hand-written ballots and, as a result, could announce that incumbent candidate, Ahmadinejad, had secured another term as president. Following this speedy turn-around, the Iranian people spilled into the streets: many in support of Ahmadinejad’s “landslide” victory and many more in opposition. News outlets were inundated with stories, and the Iranian government, claiming that the media had exaggerated citizens’ reactions, expelled reporters from the country’s borders. The opposition responded by flooding Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the like to reach out to the global community. Their stories first centered on demands for a recount. But as the Basiji militia forces cracked down, demonstrators shared stories of violence and asked for help from abroad. As the opposition force grew louder, the Iranian government became more severe, ultimately revoking their citizens’ access to technological avenues of communication and silencing their voices. The guiding questions for this essay are what happens to a movement – like the opposition movement of the 2009 disputed elections – when technology fails?1 What happens when the immediacy of a message, which can traverse thousands of miles across borders via the world wide web, is rendered immobile? In what ways can the political movement keep its message in circulation? Tracing the presence and effectiveness of Iran’s opposition movement is difficult – at times, impossible – given the restrictions of  free speech or publication within Iran. This paper will attempt to excavate, however, various, unconventional modes of communication – including rumored slips of paper that alert people to assemblies, messages written on banknotes or graffitied on city walls, as well as signs held at demonstrations. These ephemeral networks point to affective bonds and solidarity that not only invoke Iran’s recent history of the 1979 revolution but also recalls and returns to its ancient past within literature and culture.

Nedda Mehdizadeh, George Washington University

Ahmed Bashi, A Miltonic January

This project explores the question of subjective projections of affect (mimetic communication through assumed codes of ‘glass-feelings’), self-hawking within the agora (for the shy Great Poet, too wise to more than mug [a] just-self-reflexivity; as well as for another, always formally precedent, entertainingly all-too-foolish), which I assert, has NOT necessarily been reconstituted since the beginning of language-like systems’ first commercial emergence (an always as-it-were Postal System); but instead bases its retroactive viability on a heartless communicability– within always metricizable, algebraicizeable traveling-salesman Space– of potential measures and a likely candidate for an algebra– of such so-constituted spaces– the Pricing-Scheme of the Stamp (philatelically AND AS franked), and its “Face;” shared auratic solitude, whose aura factors its paradox. The Past by this account, and especially the Great Past– has lost its voice. Icons are always silent. What is peculiar for my two test cases, is their having “talked themselves hoarse;” it’s not clear how to establish Silence was ever _sought_ or ever, on the other hand, _escaped_. I think my little project (no more than a humble comment) could fall under the stated ?retrospecting networked engagement?- category. The actor in the improvised piece becomes the ventriloquist’s dummy of John Milton’s regime of poetic publicity. _Not without_ his new mod dummy’s straight-jacket. The internal dissonance of two public spectacular quasi-theological practices (poetic truth and a “good time”) to my tastes IS somewhat weak; SO weak that the “clash” could only happen as _camp_. Youtube is an (exactly) un-/over-addressed epistolary system; it is hard to believe that one could confide in the notion of a Canonical residue to the English/Western tradition, without accepting the “Greatness” of Milton… but the recuperation of _Electivity_ that potential NET engagements with Milton’s (posed private) text can work to restore, might show (if no more than) that there’s _always_ a “nothing new” on which the sun will shine. But– as always– I’m (merely) rehearsing the Daodejing.

Ahmed Bashi, Artist-Artifacter, YouTube Channel