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The Purloined Email in the Haunted University: tracing the constitution of the Academic as Subject within the digital symbolic

Cate Thomas
Kingston University

‘I sent a letter to my love, but on the way I dropped it
Someone must have picked it up and put it in their pocket’
Rhyme from a UK children’s playground game

‘…we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be, or not be, in a particular place, but unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes.’
Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’, Jacques Lacan


This paper forms part of a larger project which focuses on the nature of what it is to be a digital Academic. Whilst much work has been carried out on issues connected with online teaching and learning, and particularly with student experience of, attitudes to and behaviour in being an online learner, the re-constitution of the Academic Subject in the digital university has been little discussed.  We are at an historical point when the online ‘crisis in authorship’ undermines scholarly authority for academics as researchers and a move to social constructivist influenced student centred, collaborative, pedagogic practice undermines the traditional authority-position of the academic as teacher. Against this background the question of who the online academic now is, and how that former unified, authoritative pre-digital self is now being overtaken by a less stable, fixed or definable Subject is key to our understanding of how the digital University differs from the ‘analogue’ institution.

This paper concentrates specifically on the constitution of the Academic Subject within the domain of email discourse in the digital University. It draws on the concepts of how a symbolic circuit is traced by a moving letter, introduced by Lacan in his discussion of Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’ (Lacan 1956). In doing this, it explores how such psychoanalytic concepts might usefully help us consider the constitution of the digital Subject in the circulation of email letters, within the context of the online University


The use of email is such a central part of the daily business of work for academic staff in Universities, that the Times Higher recently ran an article guiding academics on the best way to use it effectively, so that communication would not be in any way confused or confounded and so that Academics could represent themselves clearly (Swain 2006).

In this paper I posit the notion that email exchanges constitute part of an endless circulation of unfixed knowledge, where the impossibility of truth, let alone clear communication, becomes foregrounded. Within this the Academic self is constituted in a number of ways: through email chains of signification; through the multiple and interconnected gazes of the viewers; through the transformation of distinctions between public and private; and through the permanent, haunting nature of the electronic archive.

Email exchanges form chains of communication, whose significance alters according to the receiver, and complex multiple meanings are generated as the growing chain is sent from one receiver to the next, with the identity of the receiver forming part of the signification process and altering and re-configuring the meaning of previous utterances further down the chain. Like Poe’s circulating letter which changes the nature of the relationships between actors within the drama as it moves around, an email repositions its readers in relation to the sender and the various senders and viewers throughout the email chain. Traditionally, one way the Academic as Subject is constructed is by their writing and by responses to what they have written, but the email chain is an interesting twist on this concept. The control of the ‘publication’ is outside the agency of the Subject and the destination which the letter reaches may not even be known.

The gaze of the viewers/readers and what they see, or what they do not see with the ‘blindness of the seeing eye’, is the next area considered in this paper. It considers the notion of email as a drama about being seen, about masquerading, evading and performing for the gaze. The Subject is constituted by the gaze of the reader, and as the emails continue on their symbolic circuit, the gaze becomes increasingly complex, multiple and partial. This contrasts interestingly with more traditional performance by Academic Subjects on the Lecture stage or in the debate and discussion of the Seminar.

Email has the status of being simultaneously intensely private to the point of secrecy, being sent invisibly to the receiver’s password protected inbox, for their eyes only, and also being potentially public, as it can be easily forwarded to anyone, anywhere, at the click of a button. Drawing on Derrida’s ideas of the transformative nature email has in de-stabilising the notion of  public/private, the paper goes on to consider the significance for this in the constitution of Academic selfhood (Derrida 1995). As the Subject is constituted by the gaze of the reader(s) in the previous point discussed, so are they unable to know the extent to which that gaze is public.

Finally, the paper considers the impossibility of losing, forgetting or dying implied by the nature of the electronic email archive is considered. Like the unconscious or like Poe’s missing letter, in the email archive, whilst it may be displaced, nothing is ever lost. It is Freud’s ‘Wunderblok’ or ‘mystic writing pad’ for the 21st century. The permanence and  duplication of what seem on the surface to be transient utterances are considered in the context of how the Subject is shaped by these traces and ghosts, which, in the words of the previously mentioned  Times Higher article may constitute ‘a hastily written missive that may come back to haunt you.’


Derrida, J. (1995) Archive Fever. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lacan, J. (1956) ‘Seminar on the Purloined Letter’ trans Jeffrey Mehlman. In The Purloined Poe, eds J.P. Muller and W. J. Richardson (1988). Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, pp 6-27.

Swain, H.(2006) ‘Be aware of the paperless trail’ Times Higher. 9 November, pp54-5

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updated 24 January 2007