Monday, August 15, 2011

The After-Life of Forms

In the mailbox today, a THIS IS NOT A BILL form from TRICARE, enumerating X-Rays taken for my mother on June 2. Three columns appear: AMOUNT BILLED / TRICARE ALLOWED / REMARKS. Under REMARKS is the number "106," listed thrice. The claim was processed on 07/09/2011.

And then this:


Action Needed: Please Contact Us

Dear Sir or Madam:

We received information from the Social Security Administration of Mrs. Martha Schultz's death on June 14, 2011. Please accept our sincere condolences for your loss.

We'd like to assist you through this difficult time. At your convenience, please call xxx-xxx-xxxx before August 25, 2011, to confirm we have the correct information and to allow one of our dedicated representatives to help you with updating or changing Martha Schultz's accounts.

Please know that we're here to serve you and provide any support you may need.

Thank you,

H. M.
Manager, Survivor Relations

The paper appears multiply xeroxed or printed, speckled as it is with tiny black dots.

If expressions of condolence are themselves a form, then why is a form containing condolences somehow off-putting, strange? In what sense do they mean "dedication": are their workers dedicated to their work, or are they simply slotted into a particular activity, like dedicated servers? What is the job description of the Manager of Survivor Relations, other than to write these forms within forms? M.H. signed her name once, but I get only a reproduction of it. There's no aura left. The form letter is a knock-off, a mechanical reproduction.

As much as I would like to run these forms through an n + 7 generator, or cut them up in a Burroughs machine, or wryly note the phrase "Catastrophic Cap," I will leave them be. Clearly, our forms outlast us.

Forms of address: "we are sorry for your loss."
Forms of record: "$338.00 total" for x-rays.
Forms that seek confirmation of a record.
Forms that come to my box like ghosts of repetition.

Insurance is not reassurance, is repetition, numerical and pre-existing, like a condition. When the condition takes us, forms--at least for a time--take our place. We await the healing process, or at least a processing of forms.


LB said...

It's like this: death does not negate debt. We know, we know. It's like this: if only there really were a "Manager of Survivor Relations," isn't that what teaching after suffering is, couldn't I go into my trauma class and say We Are All Managers of Survivor Relations? The insult you feel must be the abjection of the "mere" that haunts the phrase: as in, "Don't get mad at me, I have to bill you, and I know it's a terrible time, but you're the bearer of the reciprocity now, you've inherited that, and we know you didn't sign up for it, but there it is, in that long line of things for which you didn't sign up, don't be angry with me." So I think there is aura, but Benjamin never really thought of aura as abject or passive aggressive.... xo

susan said...

LB--dare I say that the form I was most reminded of, oddly, was the U of Chicago rejection note back in the days of the job market for me. It had been xeroxed so many times, it was nearly inscrutable. But it offered no consolation, at least not that I recall!

Jonathan Morse said...

Sometimes, too, forms go uncanny when they slip their disguise. In the early, experimental phase of the euthanasia program for the mentally handicapped during the Third Reich, families of patients who had been killed were sent personalized, individualized letters of condolence. However, the program’s planners had forgotten the German custom of publishing death notices in local newspapers. Once the recipients of the letters of condolence began publishing their death notices, readers could see that residents of the state’s mental institutions were dying in incomprehensibly large numbers -- and apparently in alphabetical order.

In textual terms, the disturbing thing about that was the slippage of genre. A letter of condolence is generally a generic statement, after all: a conventional expression not much more literally meant than the affectionate word “Dear” at the beginning of a letter. It’s a form. We all use such forms all day, every day. They ease us through social transactions and make them painlessly routine. But when one such labor-saving device (say, a letter of condolence) turns out really to be another (say, a mass mailing, prepared in alphabetical order), we lose the thread of readability. To our grief has been added a new fear: the fear that we seem to be forgetting how to read.