It may be physically impossible to keep a secret. “If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips,” wrote Freud over a century ago, perhaps of some calm-faced neurotic drumming anxiety into an armrest. Now that modern fingertips chatter their secrets into laptops and iPhones, the same principle applies. We reveal more than we can control; we communicate information without knowing it or meaning to, often in arbitrary and mundane ways.
Government agents and marketing algorithms exploit this, and so does artist Miranda July. July’s work regularly enlists the Internet; 2002’s Learning to Love You More was disseminated online; virtual chat was prominent, and weirdly poignant, in Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005); the sting of other people’s Youtube videos dominoed the plot in The Future (2011). For her recent project We Think Alone (2013), the artist played at hacking the sent mail folders of 10 variously public personas: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lena Dunham, Kirsten Dunst, Sheila Heti, Etgar Keret, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Catherine Opie, Lee Smolin, and Danh Vo.
She had total consent from the participants, who work in and between the fields of sports, fashion, art, literature, and physics. The contributors rummaged in their outboxes for messages on themes that July prescribed: an email that gives advice, an email about a dream, an email that mentions Barack Obama, an email with art in it, a sad email. July collated the results and dispatched the content to over 100,000 subscribers, weekly, for free, for 20 weeks.
Each installment offers a neat index of the topic at hand. We get to see what people have been saying, for instance, to their moms: “thanks”; “Happy 2012”; “tell dad”; “I need you”; “it should be fine.” And we get to see how they say it: in full or clipped sentences; with salutations or without; signing off with variations on “love,” or not at all. July’s sample is too small and too skewed to derive sweeping universal insight, of course, but the trends that surface are still curious. The emails “about something you want,” identify a range of longings, from an impossible family reunion to the eggs of a small Chinese bird—and all outsource the work of description to attached images and linked videos. Are words so useless to describe wants? Or are those words just too private to share with a mass audience?
In an era before email, Edgar Allan Poe crafted an entire detective story, The Purloined Letter, around the multiple apprehensions of a single correspondence. But despite the letter’s starring role, we never learn what’s written in it. We never get to pore over the clues of its punctuation, or relish the offhand details of the life it writes. The letter moves from character to character, and we follow the path of its displacement; Poe’s 19th-century plot is built entirely on the premise that a letter can be in only one place at a time.
This logic expressly does not apply to the digital: emails have a radically different relationship to movement and sacrifice. Copying, pasting, and forwarding functions make any given email an almost effortlessly renewable resource. It takes so little work to revive missives from the past, to multiply them, to reach masses with them. And so it is that the characters of July’s narrative can send to us what they have already sent to others. But what eureka is there without displacement? If the sharing is so easy, and the choosing so considered, what was risked for this project? What has been changed? Intention. Plan; purpose.
Etymologically, intention is physical, and implies direction. To intend something is to stretch toward that thing: a foot intends a stair, an arm a cab. Emails move toward interlocutors that legal disclaimers call our “intended recipients.” In We Think Alone, the senders’ intendeds are sometimes censored, sometimes famous, sometimes recurring, sometimes themselves. They are the negative space of each email, and they shape the communication far more specifically than do the nebulous audiences of tweets and Facebook posts. We think alone, but toward each other; we think different thoughts for different destinations.
Intention is also what’s original in a world of infinitely replicable information. An email is the same in all the inboxes and outboxes it visits; there is no real original. But there are original intentions, and We Think Alone invites its participants to tamper retroactively with theirs. The process is as easy as it is mysterious. Does resending an old email deflate its original impact? Does the past stand imperviously by while its messages get rerouted?
These questions were thematized to particularly compelling effect in the group of emails that arrived with the subject line “an email you decided not to send.” After the first salutation (“Hey z.,”), a single line charges. “Sitting home and remembering the good times when you still liked me.” It starts so casually and snaps into such a volta, managing in 12 words to fold the present and the past bitterly, impossibly, together. The line is a writer’s—Keret’s—but it’s not just the writing that’s powerful; the context affords a similar crush of perspective. We confront all at once the impetus to write the line, the will to refrain from sending it, and the choice to share it with strangers as something unsent.
The “strangeness” of the audience, of course, is relative, and varied. Some subscribers may know the contributors intimately. Keret’s “z.” may even be among us; we can’t know. As July assured in the project’s first week, via Twitter, “If ur my enemy & r afraid 2 sign up b/c u think I'll SEE u: Don’t worry. I can’t figure out how to search the names.” And it feels fitting that we—the newly intended recipients— remain anonymous. As Freud would agree, that’s another thing about intentions: we can’t know ours or understand how they work any more reliably than we can control what of our secrets our fingertips tell.