From its origin in the late nineteenth century until the present, the postcard has been frowned upon as a form of correspondence that people take to who are “too lazy to write letters.” Critics have suggested that the persistent jocular contempt for a form that was intended mainly to amuse is responsible for the fact that cultural critics have neglected to take the postcard seriously—to study it as a form of propaganda, for example; and that has prevented philosophers, Jacques Derrida excepted, from engaging with the genre.
In its most traditional form, the postcard is a paper card with a view on the front and a space for a short message on the back. Why do we send postcards? Clearly, our intention is not to exchange intensely private experiences. A postcard is not supposed to be sent in an envelope. Do we perhaps send postcards to remind ourselves where we are from, to make sure that we do not lose ourselves completely in the escape of travel? Do we send them to assure the ones we left behind that they have not completely been forgotten? Do we send them to make sure that we ourselves will not be forgotten during our absence? Is the postcard in this sense a form of remembrance and of mindfulness?
Or is it our intention, rather, to let the ones who stayed at home participate in our escape, and share the idyll of our destination? Do we want to offer them, in this case, the possibility to forget? The postcard authorizes a place—but what kind of place? A place that doesn’t really exist: a non-place. The postcard’s message is not simply that “Kilroy was here.” Instead, it authorizes the image of a place. As a form of remembrance, it is thus also a form of forgetting—not just the forgetting of home, but also of the actually existing society of destination. (This is why we are shocked, for example, by the buzzing of the flies in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man: we do not see them, do not even image them, when we behold Alaska from the sky, through the windows of the plane that takes us there.) We know very well that the place of destination is not the utopia represented in the postcard. But in order for the postcard to work, we need to suspend that knowledge and forget. Each time we sign a postcard, we participate in this pretense.
On the basis of these quick reflections, one could conclude that the postcard is an intensely literary-political genre in which remembering and forgetting are intricately connected. As a form of utopia, it keeps open the slightest difference between things as they are and things as they might otherwise be. On the one hand, the linear, text-based alphabetic culture of its back confirms the idyll of the magic-based pictorial culture of its front, thus participating in the postcard’s pretense; on the other hand, the postcard also reveals a chasm of forgetfulness that is shutting its reality off against the world of theoretical knowledge and action. The postcard is thus a form of communication that invites us to imagine, while at the same time revealing a tear in its optic.
Image: Nick Goss, Roadside Picnic, 2010/2011, oil on canvas, 180cm x 300cm.