About 20 of us gathered last May to play the postcard game.  I took out a large stack of postcards, more than a hundred of them, collected over many years from various places, and picked one off the top.

“What’s this?” I asked, holding up the card. “A horse,” several people called out. “An Appaloosa horse,” someone else suggested. Good answers, but not quite right; we were getting ahead of ourselves. I kept holding up the card, showing both front and back. “A painting,” came one answer. “A reproduction of a painting” came another. We were getting closer. I kept showing it around. “It’s a postcard,” came the exasperated reply. There was a murmur of agreement.

Here was the first lesson: Learn to see the card before the horse.

 Paulus Potter [ca. 1650-54], “The Piebald Horse.”

“What is a postcard?” The answer seems simple enough: there’s usually an image on one side and text on the other. But before we could talk about the two sides, it was necessary to ask—what holds the image and the text together? Here we have to register the fact that it’s a card, literally a piece of cardboard or a sturdy kind of paper. (It’s possible to conceive of postcards made of other stuff, too.) We usually don’t pause to think about the “stuff” where we encounter words and pictures: pages, cards, screens, whatever.

Are images and texts always made of “stuff”? A few people assented cautiously, perhaps wondering if computers and the Internet have made it possible to liberate images from raw material. A quick discussion dispelled such doubts. Digital technology cannot create images that are fully immaterial: there will always be chips and pixels involved, even if the image itself seems completely unreal. Far from escaping the world of “stuff,” images remain irreducibly material in complex and irreducible ways.

Now we had a starting point for our first set of questions. We would use postcards to help us define images in general and texts in general. Because postcards always combined images and texts, this approach would also allow us to ask how they differ, how they relate, and what they have in common.

I picked another card from the stack and let everybody take a good look at both sides.

What is this? It’s a postcard.

We started with the “back” of the card—as we spontaneously called the text side. In fact we found several kinds of text there:

—a caption (“Série 10, No. 183 / PARIS.. EN FLANANT / Sainte-Chapelle–Interieur de la Chapelle Haute”);

—a producer’s mark (“Edition d’Art YVON, Neuilly-Paris—Reproduction Interdite”); —a message (which included a date, a greeting, a narrative, and a signature);

—an address;

—a postage stamp from Nederlands, which was a kind of image as well;

—a cancellation from the Dutch postal service (noting place and date);

—and a row of marks along the bottom that we guessed was a machine-readable routing code added in the US.

We had to talk about all of that: printing and handwriting, the imprints of commerce and the state, the mixture of media, and then what we did or did not know about how these various elements related to each other. In taking note of these details, we were trying to get our bearings amidst all of the different times, places, and processes marked on the card. The message itself speaks of mobility and change: “i found this postcard at a flea market in paris, modified it in brussels, and am writing to you in the jordaan, in amsterdam.” The stamp was cancelled in Amsterdam, two days later. It arrived in my mailbox six days after that, and we were examining it in the classroom the following day. And so before we could ask what the postcard had to say or show, we had to understand how it came to be here.

That is why we spent a long time on the question of the address. We tend to think that a message is addressed only to the explicit addressee, who is supposed in the best position to say what the message means. But postcards challenge those assumptions. A postcard is most visible, most legible, when it’s still in transit. In order to be addressed and sent to someone, the message must make itself available to others. This simple circumstance—the fact that the message can always be read by people to whom it is not addressed—is not an accidental or irrelevant issue. Everything about a postcard is shaped in light of it.

The messiness of addresses led us to ask: why is there no return address on a postcard? Does it matter if it gets lost? Just as we might say that a message goes astray whenever it falls into the hands of those to whom it is not addressed, we can also say that it gets lost whenever it cannot be traced back to a sender. And if (as postcards demonstrate) such contingencies happen all the time, wouldn’t we have to say that messages go astray and get lost in some irrevocable sense as soon as they are sent? Isn’t this “errance” really the condition of all writing? (I noted that this particular line of inquiry is drawn from a book by Jacques Derrida titled The Post Card.)

These questions provoked some skepticism. Is the postcard really a good model for all other forms of communication? For the sake of argument, I suggested that we could distinguish between two approaches to the problem. On one hand, we can treat every text as a postcard, something promiscuously visible at all times and open to all of the hazards of the journey. On the other hand, we can treat every text as a letter, where the transmission of meaning is supposed to be a private affair, secured at either end by the original intention of the sender and the unique perspective of the designated receiver.

—According to the first view, letters are never more than postcards in denial about their vulnerabilities. The fact that a message is tucked away in an envelope doesn’t make it any more likely to arrive, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee its meaning for any particular reader. The limitations of a postcard are really its strengths: it allows a maximum range of expression without worrying over the proprieties of authorship and interpretation.

—According to the second view, postcards are underdeveloped letters, limited in their range of expression and careless about ensuring that their message gets through. Moreover, their disposable appearance and lack of proper notation means that nobody will take them seriously, not even postal workers. By contrast, letters offer a close resemblance to a face-to-face conversation, adapted slightly to meet the requirements of transmission. If we care about what we have to say, we should aspire to write letters.

I didn’t ask the group to declare themselves “postcard people” or “letter people,” although it was clear that there were partisans of both camps in the room. That became clear when someone suggested that I was the only one who could really understand the full meaning of the card from Paris, because it had been addressed only to me. I admitted that the intended recipient might have some special feelings, but when it comes to questions of meaning or value my response has no special privilege. My response is not the decisive meaning or final destination of the card, no matter how much I might want it to be. On the contrary: their responses as “accidental” onlookers (no matter how various and partial) are equally plausible starting points for our discussion, as we try to explore everything that this postcard has given us to think about.

Now we had to turn over the card and look at the front. We had a caption already: it is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. But we had to look more closely. First, someone noticed odd little yellow birds flying through the scene, then a strange patch of green on the left, and some peculiar reddish strips (looking like fish skin) along the bottom, and then, eyes screwed up, someone else said that there were some weird purplish patches as well. So although “Sainte-Chappelle” was clearly visible on the image, along with “Yvon,” the photographer’s signature, the typical “picture-postcard” view had been disrupted. Several people said that the image had been “manipulated.” The card had “layers,” or rather, it had acquired “depth”—visual depth, because the perspective had been altered by the additional layers, and hermeneutic depth, because we could no longer treat it as a readymade ordinary object. It ceased to be a flat, unified scene and became instead a kind of sculptural collage.

The group was unanimous in saying that they “liked” it, but they seemed anxious to strip away the added layers and talk instead about the “original” image. It wasn’t clear to any of us exactly what had been done to construct this image, but there was definitely something both amusing and unsettling about it. There were many things to notice: that greenish patch on the left looked like a brick wall with a Dutch roofline; one of those yellow cartoon birds seemed to be flying out of a window at an impossible angle; and most strange of all, a purplish photo had been pasted over the brown one, fracturing the perspective and making the space above the high altar seem to ripple.

As we looked more closely, we could begin to make good guesses about how it had been “worked over” or “manipulated” (or “modified,” as the sender had said), but it was much harder to say why. Would it be helpful to comb through the handwritten message on the back for clues about the visual composition on the front? Or is it possible that the two sides are working independently? The idea that the image could be “turn its back” from the text struck us as entirely plausible: the front of the card could function on its own, it was open to all of us, and we could puzzle over it without assuming that the address or the message would solve its mysteries.

At that point, someone simply called it an “artwork,” which seemed to be a way of saying that we would never exhaust the beauty and the complexity of the card.


FOOTNOTE: If we had lingered even longer over the postcard from Paris, we could have asked how we might *research* it—not as a text or an image, but as an artifact, in accordance with the prevailing standards and tastes of literary scholarship. A “history of the book” researcher would start with the publisher of the card, Edition d’Art YVON. An internet search quickly informs us that “Yvon,” whose signature appears on the lower left corner of the front photograph and whose full name was Pierre Yves Petit, started his postcard business in 1919. He began printing in a sepia rotogravure (as this card appears to be) in 1923. The business has not only continued to this day—it became the basis for one of France’s biggest card producers, La Carterie, formerly Hallmark France.  Their corporate motto is: “To Communicate… To Connect… To Celebrate…” A literary scholar could therefore begin to ask how the conventions of postcard photography and the development of printing technology shaped the iconography of French tourism, etc.