(Editor's Note: Carolin Aronis presented her paper, "Letters, Newspapers, and Communication with the Dead: Practices of (Im)materiality," at the National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia in November 2016. TheIntelligencer asked Dr. Aronis to tell us more about why she is researching this topic, what it means and why it's important.)
By Carolin Aronis
Colorado State University
Opening the popular newspapers in Israel on days of national tragedy such as war, terrorist attacks, wildfires and alike, one usually finds next to the common hard news items framed texts that look like opinion pieces but are actually strange letters addressing people who died at the covered event. The letters open by the first name of a dead person. These texts tell in the second person to the deceased relatives and friends, in personal and emotional language, their deep longing to him or her, what happened at the event that caused their death and what happened after it, including the terrible void and sorrow that dead addressee have created by his or her leave. Many of these letters close with promises to the dead—some make certain requests to watch the living from above and to wait for them before uniting again. The letters end with warm and loving words, and a personal signature. These letters, strangely enough, are not brought to the newspaper from another context, as republishing a text that has been written and read in a funeral or Memorial Day, but the discussed letters are purposely written to and for the publication in the newspaper.
For the last two decades, these letters have become an Israeli journalistic genre for the coverage of national tragedies. While approaching the dead through electronic media technologies (telegraph, television, telephone, internet, etc.) is a historically and currently known phenomenon in Western culture—writing to the dead by using an integration of interpersonal and mass communication technologies (e.g., letter and newspaper) provide media scholars with some additional and essential thinking about the field.
It positions meaningful issues in the intersection of written technologies, inter-mass communication, death and recipiency. My work, which I would like to introduce here, deals with the rhetoric and “operation” of these letters.
The first letter I found was of a mother writing to her baby who died due to a failure in a baby food company in Israel (known as the Remedia Affair, 2003). I studied this case for my master’s thesis, looking at the journalistic discourse about mothers, and of mothers, in the public construct of blame, among others—of the mothers that did not nurse their babies. However, this letter (“They Murdered You, My Baby”), which was published on the cover page of the most popular newspaper in Israel, at first reading brought tears to my eyes, and it kept “bothering” me. It initiated something special in the newspaper, and attracted me as a reader in a different way than other journalistic items. It is said that from every M.A. thesis one can produce one to two academic articles, and I was willing to open a new direction with this letter. I dealt previously with holocaust witnessing and the gaps of space and time along with the unreachable dead. I found in this letter some of these aspects. I also found some unexpected intimacy in a mass medium and I was willing to study and understand it.
During the last few years I kept thinking about the reasons for this genre to emerge and the functions it serves—regarding the writers, the newspaper, and its readership. These inquiries lead me to additional questions about what these letters can tell us regarding the role of newspapers in our society and in our media environment; what is the character of rhetoric the letters build with challenges of materiality and the missing addressee; and what kind of communicative acts these letters establish with the newspaper readership and with the dead addressee. All those focuses represent different aspects that lead to understand the essence of mass communication, and especially journalism—either generally or particularly—through another point of view than it is customary in studies in the field.
I would like to introduce a paper I presented at the latest National Communication Association convention in Philadelphia, and to shortly discuss issues of im/materiality within this case. The title of my presented paper, in the Media Ecology Division, is “Letters, Newspapers, and Communication with the Dead: Practices of materiality and immateriality.” I am thankful to John Dowd (Bowling Green State University), the NCA division chair who made me notice how relevant my work is to Media Ecology, which is all about mediums and matters themselves. A first draft of this paper was presented in a seminar of the 2015 Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS) as “The Practice and Materiality of the Jewish Death.” The seminar, which was thought provoking for me, was led by Sean Burrus, an archaeologist and a Jewish studies scholar, and it was my first foray into areas of matters and materiality with this case study. During the last few years, and parallel to others’ studies, I have conducted research about balconies as urban communication media in the Mediterranean city.
Moving to Colorado few years ago, I started to be immersed in the scholarship of spatial and material rhetoric thanks to connections I made with Greg Dickinson (Colorado State University) and John Ackerman (University of Colorado Boulder). Yet, it was an exciting move for me in bringing matters and the material into the analysis of letters, journalism, and the intersection between communication, life and death. And it was not surprising that some of this move also found an anchor at the media ecology scholarship that usually look at the medium more than at its message, giving more emphasis to the material act of communication.
I figured out that in several aspects these letters written to the dead are material and immaterial at the same time. In their content, they are based on material and immaterial rhetoric when they relate to the actual body and environment of the writer—some letters include descriptions of the writers’ tears, their shaking body, the wet keyboard or the view that is seen from the window next to the desk. At the same time, the letters describe the absence of the dead addressee, its immateriality—the orphaned chair, the memory of the touch, the disappearing smell from the dead’s clothes, and the dead’s essential non-existence—various of things that represent void and absence.
In addition, as in any technology of communication, both the letters and the newspaper hold messages that have material performance—printed words, photographs, the paper itself—but represent immaterial messages: emotions, information, requests, things that one cannot necessarily feel with his or her senses. The contradiction or the relation between material and immaterial is at the very core of communication and media. Especially with written technology, and even more so with technologies of mass communication as the newspaper, there is a significant gap between the place and time of the writing act and the reading act. In this case, the writers and the addressees are just an abstract idea for each other, not tangible people. The writer does not know to where his text will arrive if at all, readers and the action of reading, as Walter Ong brightly explains, are never known to the writer. In the case of letters written to the dead and published in the newspaper, the unknown addressee is intertwined with the dead, the non-existent reader, or with substitute “eavesdropping” readers, who might read the letter, but it does not address them directly. The unknown destination of the letter/newspaper is intertwined with the unknown realm of death.
While examining the actual rhetoric of the letters and their journalistic frame (performance) in the newspaper, I considered also the materiality that is embraced in the notion of letter and newspaper, as they both represent a geographical movement, or as can be adopted from Marshal McLuhan – a certain “paper route.” The notion of a letter evokes in our mind the material route of the paper, the envelope with its stamp, a mailbox, the transportation through spaces, and the waiting in another mailbox. The notion of the newspaper evokes the printing process and the distribution to everywhere and anywhere (paraphrasing Jeffrey Sconce’s definitions). The materiality and immateriality are also part of life and death, of existence and non-existence.
Following the axis of materiality–immateriality that stands in the heart of both media and death, I address these issues in my paper and explain the nature and rhetorical practices of the latter and newspaper technologies—together and separately—and how their reconstruction of this communicative act seems to bridge between the realms of life and death.
This case study could be viewed through several prisms of journalism research. It demonstrates the growing populism of the newspaper, especially in competing with electronic media. It demonstrates the ordinary voice in the shaping of the news, even to a point where the source speaks for itself, almost without any mediation of a journalist. It also demonstrates a change in the language and topics of the news – instead of writing about facts that happened in the past, this genre creates an illusionary situation, in present and future tenses. Additionally, the case demonstrates the newspaper as a site for mourning and remembering, and of course reminds the tight relationship between the historical emergences of the newspaper letters exchange.
This project will hopefully produce three published articles (the first one is in an R&R procedure) and in the future a book about letters written to the dead and mass communication.
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Dr. Carolin Aronis received her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Department of Communication and Journalism. She is currently teaching at Colorado State University and previously was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the past, Dr. Aronis worked as a journalist. For further interest/information please write to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com