Dispatches is aware of the criticism circulating on social media regarding its posting of the Nathaniel Mackey/Barrett Watten Exchange. The primary criticism is based on the proposition that no private emails should ever be circulated or published without permission of the correspondents, and that to post the emails between Mackey and Watten without asking permission constituted a grave violation of the correspondents’ privacy, not to mention email courtesy. Permit us a few words in our defense.
Everyone seems to think that they know what “personal correspondence” means. But is it simply any mail exchange between two people? A million exceptions immediately pop into mind, from the letter my MP just sent me in response to my compliant, to the email exchange I had with the tech support woman at Go Daddy. One on one, but not personal, and not subject to privacy restrictions. OK, say it’s mail between two people who know each other. Well, it depends on the content of the conversation, doesn’t it, and the context established at the outset. If one party is copying the mail to a list of friends and the other party knows it, objects to it, but carries on with the conversation, is that a violation of some sacred email trust?
This exchange began as a public event initiated by Barrett Watten. He posted the opening instigation, a critique of a review of his recent book, on his publicly accessible FB page. The exchange became widespread with numerous participants. Once you do that, it doesn’t matter if you later delete it; it is public. Everywhere. Forever. That’s why you are not supposed to post things that you might later have second thoughts about. If you don’t know that, you shouldn’t be on Facebook. The entire first half of the exchange is a copy of these public posts. At some point, in the midst of an exchange with Nathaniel Mackey, Watten decided to delete the Facebook thread and informed Mackey that he wanted to continue on email.
The other half of the exchange are emails that were widely and publicly distributed with Watten’s knowledge if not his assent. They directly continued the conversation Watten initiated on Facebook and that he interrupted by deleting the Facebook thread. Some people feel quite strongly that “private” email shouldn’t be circulated or published without permission. But there was nothing private about this exchange, notwithstanding Watten’s move to take it underground and ditch the witnesses and other participants. These are not “private” texts. They operate completely outside any framework of intimacy. They reveal no sensitive or personal information about anyone. There is nothing here that in any way compromises any of the parties involved.
To go dark was not a move toward more intimate conversation. On the contrary, it was a political move, a gesture of radical exclusion. Watten’s only motive (and he admits it) was to shut out the community that had been actively participating in and developing the debate over poetics. Mackey must have felt that an important community conversation actively involving a number of people on Facebook was being “privatized” in order to exclude the community, to hide it from them and prevent them from participating. This act is not protected by claims of that the ensuing emails are “personal.” It was an attack on the community of participants. Mackey’s response was to defend the community and its access to the ongoing work it had helped develop and was part of. It was the same conversation a number of people had invested time and thought in. This was no private exchange of intimacies. To try and impose the rhetoric particular to intimate correspondence onto this very public and political event is either careless or duplicitous. Watten chose to exclude the community, Mackey chose to include it. This difference itself is important enough to require the entire conversation to remain available. And if you think that doesn’t have to do with important issues of poetics, then your understanding of poetics is pretty dismal.