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Let your soul escape: send a postcard this summer

‘The politics of postcards’ is not a common topic of conversation or academic study but as the summer approaches,  my mind is turning to how I can continue to write about politics from the seaside, campsite, or dreary ‘Bed & Breakfast’ hotel. Could the humble postcard possibly offer a yet under recognized outlet for political expression? A 6” by 4”’ inch canvas on which to turn political writing into an art form?

To talk of postcards in a vaunted age of ‘digital democrats’ and ‘24/7 instant communication’ might appear somewhat antiquated, even quaint, but the resilience of the postcard as a political medium, as a mode of mass communication, in both developed and developing countries around the world, suggests that there is something quite special about this form of interaction.

“Everyone loves to get a postcard!” my mother used to say as she encouraged, coaxed, and forced me into writing countless postcards to friends and relatives during family holidays around the United Kingdom.

To understand ‘the politics of postcards’, however, and specifically what endows them their special qualities as both an expressive act and an act of expression, there is a need to look beneath their physical form, their instrumental value and their mass-produced messages. An argument could be made – indeed, will be made – that the deeper value of postcards and their political significance lies in the nature of the writing they commonly capture and in their … simple brevity. To write a postcard is therefore to unwittingly strip down one’s thoughts and engage in a possibly more honest and direct form of writing. The paradox here is that if politics is defined through the dominant contemporary lens of negativity, then political writing would itself be automatically associated with mendacity, falsehoods, and half-truths. To make this point is to work within the contours of George Orwell’s famous essay of 1946, ‘Politics and the English language’, and his argument about political language making ‘lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ Orwell sought to encourage concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness, and in many ways the brevity of the postcard encourages honest precision.

Put slightly differently, the paradox of postcards is that their physical form promotes straight talking (possibly, straight-writing), and through this, arguably offers a more honest and engaging account: ‘Weather poor, hotel terrible, having a good time, missing you loads.’ The argument, first developed in French by Blaise Pascal in 1657 and later popularised by Mark Twain in a letter of 1871, that it can take longer and be harder to write a shorter letter than a longer one, speaks to the demands of stripping down one’s thoughts and clarifying one’s arguments; far easier to avoid such strenuous and potentially risky endeavours by hiding one’s views within a sea of knowledge claims, counter-claims, and caveats.

 Could the humble postcard possibly offer a yet under recognized outlet for political expression?

The link between this argument, those of Orwell, and contemporary scholarship is provided by Michael Billig’s caustic Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (2013), but my argument here is really about the manner in which postcards by their very nature command a certain sense of clarity and precision, possibly even honesty, and certainly a sense of timelessness. This may not, of course, be the case in relation to modern mass-produced political campaign literature for the simple fact that they are neither written from one person to another, and nor do they have any subjective or personal quality. They are thin and shallow pieces of card. They are an element of modern machine politics that too often focus on telling you what is ‘wrong’ with the opposition’s candidates or other parties, and too little about what is ‘right’ about the actual sender of the card.

The same might be said for the pre-printed postcards distributed by a vast range of special interest organisations and pressure groups to their members on the basis that, with the addition of their signature, they should be dispatched (first class) to the relevant politician. This represents a significant shift in the use and abuse of political postcards as they were traditionally used to promote a specific argument, candidate, or vision rather than as a tool of political warfare within an increasingly grubby form of ‘attack’ or one-dimensional politics.

We might, then, separate political postcards into many a number of discrete forms. There are Big ‘P’ political postcards of the sort sent by candidates and parties, which in modern times tend to be blunt, impersonal, and cosmetic,. and may, However, as a result, these may form one small element of a wider story about the rise of disaffected democrats, critical citizens, and the professionalisation of politics.

Although apparently precise and direct in terms of tone and style, I am confident that Orwell would have much to say about these Big ‘P’ political postcards and their murky relationship with the English language in terms of honesty. Against this one can imagine a second category of small ‘p’ political postcards that may be written from a mother to a son, a daughter to a granddaughter, or from one friend to another as a means of nourishing and demonstrating the existence of a relationship. These will be warm and personal and offer a degree of emotional depth or meaning – even if it is just of the ‘Weather poor, hotel terrible … missing you loads’ variety. The important point, however, is that they remain ‘political’ in the small ‘p’ sense of the term due to the manner in which they convey information and feelings, while also brokering a relationship. Postcards in the small ‘p’ sense are therefore an element of ‘everyday politics’ by which we make sense of the world around us and interpret change. (The absurdity is that political parties increasingly try to use technology in order to increasingly personalise their campaign literature, to make their Big ‘P’ postcards look and read like a small ‘p’ postcards from a friend or neighbour.)

Postcards frequently allow souls to escape. There is a therapeutic quality to writing in general, and in particular writing postcards, which stems very much from the traditional context in which they were written. Postcards are generally written on holiday when the author has space for reflection away from the pressures of day-to-day life. It is this notion of ‘headspace’ or ‘distance’ – rarely acknowledged but vital for the genre – that arguably gives postcards their personal – indeed, political – value. The small ‘p’ postcards tend to be conceived and born from a position of personal and professional distance. The fragments of thought, the messages between the lines, the issues left unspoken, the achievement of closeness while acknowledging separation, make the postcard if not a great neglected literary form then definitely one worthy of appreciation.

Featured image credit: art hanging photographs by pixabay. Public domain via Pexels.

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