Substituting Bodies – Mediation of Love and Eroticism in the Love Letter and New Media

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

See relations at Aarhus University

Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam - Lecturer

Love and desire feed on absence, on longing, while it constantly and simultaneously tries to diminish the distance by different means. Media may, according to German art historian and media theorist Hans Belting, be seen as technical or artificial bodies designed for substituting bodies through a symbolic procedure (Belting 2006, 306). This paper will suggest that love letters work as substitutes for bodies; that the lover in her/his burning desire for presence animates the letters, as Belting would say, and feels a presence both during writing, reading and in the indexical materiality of the actual letter. However, the wish for presence, immediacy and transparency in epistolary exchanges is (of course) illusive. Blanks in and between the love letters give room for projection; the image of the beloved provided by the letters is a construction rather than a transparent transfer. Taking Franz Kafka’s letters to Milena and James Joyce’s letters to Nora as main examples (but drawing on an archive of more than 3500 love letters, written and collected within the last 20 years, covering four European nationalities), this paper addresses the rhetoric of the love letter – its different purposes, ways of communication, and meta-reflections on writing, media, absence and presence. The paper will address how love and the beloved are mediated in the articulated desire and longing of love letters. And finally it will reflect on what it means for communication of love and desire that the media landscape has changed and that it now, instead of traditional letters, are media technologies as SMS, email and Skype that are used in order to overcome of the bodily absence between lovers. In What do pictures want? The lives and loves of images (2005) J. W. T. Mitchell writes about pictures as “vital signs”, not signs for living things, but signs as living things (Mitchell 2005, 6). With a notion from Belting this symbolic act can be called “animation”, defined as “an innate (and learnable) ability of our bodies to discover life in inanimate images” (Belting 2012, 188). Lovers want transparency when they Skype; typically they will try not to focus on the computer screen and its two-dimensional mediating interface. The screen is what Mitchell would call an “object” – “the material support in or on which an image appears”. In this situation the object is only a necessary evil. The body that animates the lover is the image on the screen. However there are other sorts of animation, where our relation to the medium is not just one of negligence. When we for instance caress a photo of our beloved, when we carry it in a medallion close to our breast, treasure the handwritten letter, or clench the mobile phone with mails, pictures and messages at night, then it is because we let the medium become a body; a prosthesis for the beloved. We animate the “picture” consisting of “object” and “image” in total.
2 Jul 2015

Event (Conference)

TitleMateriality of Love
Abbreviated titleMOL
LocationUniversity of Silesia, Institute of English Cultures and Literatures


ID: 95763216