Intercourse with ghosts: Kafka was perfectly right

“Wie kam man nur auf den Gedanken, daß Menschen durch Briefe mit einander verkehren können?”

Franz Kafka wrote this sentence in his “Letters to Milena” in 1922.  It translates to English approximately like this:

“How on earth did one get the idea that people could communicate through letters?”

What a deep thought. Check out the beginning of his writings here: http://www.medientheorie.com/doc/kafka

You might think that taking just one sentence out of context is not a correct way of referring to a text. Well, here is a longer quote around the same thought:

“Die leichte Möglichkeit des Briefeschreibens muß — bloß theoretisch angesehen — eine schreckliche Zerrüttung der Seelen in die Welt gebracht haben. Es ist ja ein Verkehr mit Gespenstern und zwar nicht nur mit dem Gespenst des Adressaten, sondern auch mit dem eigenen Gespenst, das sich einem unter der Hand in dem Brief, den man schreibt, entwickelt oder gar in einer Folge von Briefen, wo ein Brief den anderen erhärtet und sich auf ihn als Zeugen berufen kann. Wie kam man nur auf den Gedanken, daß Menschen durch Briefe mit einander verkehren können?”

I refer to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letters_to_Milena, where you can find an English approximation of the quote above:

“The easy possibility of writing letters must have brought wrack and ruin to the souls of the world. Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.”

Almost 100 years later, we can add to Kafka’s insight that we meanwhile have intercourse with a lot of other ghosts, too: Global companies collecting every character we type on some keyboard in connection with global positioning data, or national security agencies of various countries doing exactly the same. Who knows, who else is among all the ghosts out there, while I am writing this text. How about Twitter, WordPress, Facebook.

Let me conclude:  “How on earth did one get the idea that people could communicate through letters?”

Postscriptum: The idea for this posting originates from reading Byung-Chul Han’s “Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen”, published by Matthes & Seitz, Berlin.

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