Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Corporate Condolences & Assignments

[click to enlarge & read]

I don't want to think about this latest letter from the land of corporate condolences, but I'm drawn to moments in it where the prose more resembles New Sentence than business letter prose.

Ron Silliman
, on the New Sentence:

"But note that there is no attempt whatsoever to prevent the integration of linguistic units into higher levels. These sentences take us not toward the recognition of language, but away from it" (82).

For the poet, the New Sentence operates as an intervention; in the business letter, it operates like a pothole. It's not a deliberate axle-breaker, but it sure can damage your chassis. If the letter is not intended to be written in new sentences, the new sentence-effect gives the reader an interpretive toe hold. (Ah, metaphor.)

The first two sentences of the letter assert that the credit card company has learned of my mother's death, putting her name in all caps (lest I forget?), and then asks me to accept condolences. Just as I feel poised to do so (thank you for noticing! thank you for acknowledging my loss!), the next sentence hits me with the hammer force of a non-transition: "Because you're responsible for the estate, we want to provide you with the following information about MARTHA J's account ending in 1962." I was at first confused by the introduction of history into this note; what did 1962 have to do with it? Kennedy was president, we lived in Illinois, or was it Kingston, New York? Then I realized that we had moved from the condolence stage of memo-writing to the business stage. If there are stages of grief, there surely are to the business letters that come in its wake.

If that paragraph sounded New Sentence-y, then the third paragraph better fulfills Silliman's claim that writing good, clear, linearly progressing sentences has something to do with capitalism:

What happens when a language moves toward and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of "realism," the illusion of reality in capitalist thought. These developments are directly tied to the function of reference in language, which under capitalism is transformed, narrowed into referentiality.

For the third is an amazing paragraph, beginning from the following sentence: "Because we understand this is a difficult time for you, it's important to us that this be handled by experts, which is why we've contracted estate specialists to help you with this matter." What do they mean by "a difficult time"? My first thought is that this phrase refers back to their note of condolence. Yes, it's a difficult time, thank you for caring about my feelings, in whatever ugly font you have chosen, with its odd caps and bold face and bullet-points. But as the sentence moves on, I realize the difficulty is more financial than emotional. The experts in question are not therapists or Buddhist monks; they are "contracted estate specialists." Their expertise is not in my emotional state, but in my estate. (They take the "motional" out of e-motional, but leave in the "state," which sounds like "intestate.")

And what am I to do with the way they've written my mother's name? Dare I say I rather enjoy seeing her referred to as MARTHA J, as in "MARTHA J's account ending in 1962" and "MARTHA J's estate"? While she was never called that, it begins to sound like we're intimate friends, talking about our dear departed MARTHA J. We are family, after all. And family is a mixed state, at once emotional and economic. My colleague, Laura E. Lyons, has written eloquently about corporate personhood. You can find the book, Cultural Critique and the Global Corporation, which she co-edited with Purnima Bose, here.

The letter ends, "We're sorry for your loss, and if there is anything else we can do to help you during this time, please do not hesitate to contact us," and is signed by the "Vice President, Member Debt Solutions" of the bank. Where "debt" manifests in all its meanings, an incoherent grenade of possible connotation.

The new sentence is a decidedly contextual object. Its effects occur as much between, as within, sentences. Thus it reveals that the blank space, between words or sentences, is much more than the 27th letter of the alphabet. It is beginning to explore and articulate just what those hidden capacities might be" (92).

The torque between the sentences of the bank's letter cracks open the mask of corporate personhood. The corporate person, represented by said VP of Member Debt Solutions, whose name is--oddly enough--very close to "Good Enough," has offered his emotional support as an entree to asking that I pay my financial debt to him. (That my mother's balance is $0 strikes me as an unconscious, posthumous instance of her wit.) Her and my account is closed, the experts have been cont(r)acted, and the balance will be paid (if not earned, arrived at). We have our solution, and we're not talking chemistry.

Assignment: what are the stages of corporate grief? Enumerate them, then write a flash fiction about at least one of them.

Assignment: Change the font of the letter and describe the change in effects/affects that ensue.

Assignment: write an elegy in which you use the words "information," "account," "creditors," "executrix," and "MARTHA J."

Assignment: use the language you find on this page (or other source of "sympathy resources") to write a poem.


Never mention money the deceased may have owed you. This can be dealt with after the grieving period has passed.

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