A Republic of Letters
The salon was the central institution in which the philosophical discourse of the Republic of Letters was developed, where the debates of the “philosophes” were adjudicated by the figure of the salonnière, the host, who set the rules of conversation and the order and manner of contributions.1 These grand living rooms were subject to the etiquette of polite society, established by women, rather than the all-male code of the academy or church. The salons were a meeting place, and intellectuals would travel to attend these gatherings. The conversations begun in the salon would then be extended through the exchange of handwritten letters, which could travel great distances and engage new voices in the debates as the ideas within them circulated. These letter exchanges became a form of publishing and the salonnière would often be the one to distribute copies of significant letters to her network.2
This Republic of Letters, with the salon and salonniére at its centre, gave rise to radical ideas that could have restructured society entirely—including dramatic changes to relations between the sexes and the structure of the family. However, this was replaced by a masculine intellectual culture that excluded women when the project of the Enlightenment came to be carried out politically.3 As soon as this project became more fully “public,” it excluded women and with them the most radical potential of salon culture and its affirmation of distinctions: social value based on the difference of each contributor, cultivated through discourse, rather than birthright.
Although the dominant history of the Republic of Letters is of men of letters, there are some important historical studies of a network of early modern women of letters, who were engaged in intellectual debate amongst themselves, and with men of letters.4 They had formally structured relationships, like, for example, Marie de Gournay’s role as Anna Maria van Schurman’s mère d’alliance:5 her chosen intellectual mother, her mentor, who guided her learning and helped her establish herself in the Republic of Letters in the seventeenth century.6 This is paralleled in how salonnières trained their successors.7 These women contributed to many intellectual debates, and among their topics was the importance of women’s education and freedom to participate in culture and politics. Although history and archives have largely omitted the extent of women’s participation in the Republic of Letters, over the last 300 years, many female scholars have acknowledged their models from previous generations, creating a genealogy of female scholarship that is documented not in the main history books, but in the ongoing, transgenerational, transnational Women’s Republic of Letters.8
One of the reasons that these women have been omitted from the canon is technological: early printed monographic works have been valued over relational correspondence, as many historians have only considered printed works “published” when, really, the dominant form of publishing in the early modern period was in the form of handwritten letters.9 Handwriting is always situated: like the voice, it is unique and not tied to identity but to the unrepeatable singularity of the writer—in an exchange of letters, the distinct hand of each party makes the signature at the bottom mostly unnecessary. And the hand of the writer shows the embodied affect of her or his words, and in the letter those words are always directed to a particular recipient, the contents always a response to the previous letter.10 Thus, the ideas that are produced in the exchange cannot be said to come from either party, but from their relation.
Given the central role that the salon and handwritten letters have played in the development of feminist networks and ideas, this history needs to be (re-)valued as the model for a feminist future, in which the potential that arose in the salons is realized. This potential for restructuring the relation between public and private, and thus the relations between the sexes, and also the role of difference in politics, arose in a space governed by women. One way to create this feminist history-future is to renew one’s participation in the Women’s Republic of Letters using the technology of handwriting. This ensures that the relationships, dialogues, and ideas that begin formation in exceptional encounters are continued and fostered. And it is a way of creating a network that is limited neither by distance, nor by technologies of communication that hide the embodiment of language.
Feminist artist Åsa Elzén and I began a dialogue on the importance of letter writing to feminist politics some time ago, and the proposition that follows is an elaboration of strategies Åsa developed in other artistic projects that explore the performativity of letter writing.
Åsa articulated that the way to become a part of this Republic of Letters is:
— To write letters by hand to those with whom you have had important encounters, and also to those whom you wish to address.
— Reply to any letters you receive.
— During a feminist meeting or group project, set up a daily delivery service organized by the group, for the group, to facilitate a meta-discourse on the event, and to create a space within which one-on-one conversations can flourish.
Both Åsa and I have been drawn to the format of correspondence, because it is a practice of self-invention through relation, where that relational condition of selfhood is foregrounded and acknowledged. And, as an independent form of publishing, it is a method of distributing feminist ideas, regardless of the values and institutions that usually determine what becomes public—and what being public entails in the first place.