On February 12, 1985, the libertarian Cato Institute published its Policy Analysis No. 47, “The Last Dinosaur: The U.S. Postal Service.” The author was James Brovard, now a columnist for USA Today, once hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “the roving inspector general of the modern state.” 1 “The United States Postal Service is probably the worst managed and one of the least honest corporations in America,” Brovard fulminated on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday 37 years ago. “One innovation after another has failed as the Postal Service struggles to enter the 20th century. … Americans are suffering a gradual extinction of mail service.” Elsewhere in the article, he complains,
The U.S.P.S. still delivers mail roughly the same way it was delivered in ancient Greece, when Herodotus coined the phrase, “Neither snow, nor rain, not heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” 2
I did not know this motto derived from Herodotus. But in thinking about these photographs of mailboxes by Tim Davis — these valiantly analogue receptacles for stubbornly analogue forms of correspondence — I had wandered, predictably, into a digital info-cascade. First a contributor to uspsblog.com explained that “the phrase comes from book 8, paragraph 98, of The Persian Wars by Herodotus, a Greek historian. During the wars between the Greeks and Persians (500 – 449 B.C.), the Persians operated a system of mounted postal couriers who served with great fidelity.” 3 Later, I found myself watching the video for Laurie Anderson’s 1982 breakout hit “O Superman (for Massenet).”
You don’t know me
but I know you
and I’ve got a message
to give to you…
In the video, Anderson translates the lines in which she quotes Herodotus/the Postal Service into ASL, doubling her android-esque persona by appearing in both the main shot and an inset. She wears her signature whited-out sunglasses. At another point, her mouth glows from within, as if her gullet had become the synthesizer or the screen.
When love is gone
there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone
there’s always force.
And when force is gone
there’s always mom.
I stayed with Anderson a while. Interviewed by The Guardian in 2016 regarding the genesis of the song and its counterintuitive dedication to the French Romantic composer Jules Massenet, she explains that “O Superman” was written in 1979, in the aftermath of the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Tehran.
A helicopter and a plane crashed in the desert. We were left with dead bodies, a pile of burning debris and the hostages nowhere to be seen. So I thought I’d write a song about all that and the failure of technology. I’d just heard this beautiful 19th-century aria by Massenet that began: “O sovereign …” It was a prayer to authority, which I thought was interesting. 4
All this feels right. The mailboxes, as Davis photographs them, do read as prayers to authority uttered in banged-up object form. The authority in question is not really the post office. As Brovard testily pointed out a generation ago, the service is too beleaguered to wield statist clout. But the mail remains a vector by which more confident institutions assert financial and legal sovereignty. It’s hard not to imagine that these slots and boxes receive mostly bills and ads, the occasional jury summons or tax packet. The prayer for publicly sanctioned connectivity remains legible, nonetheless. Anderson, in the early days of personal computing, at the beginning of the end of the alleged American Century — right around the time when Brovard claimed the mail was dying out — turned herself into a messaging robot. Davis, in the twilight of public services funded by small-d democratic government, when neighbor-to-neighbor anomie is arguably as acute as it’s ever been, insists on the distinction of every person who has scrawled or painted or stenciled or bought stickers to spell out their name. The subjects are inanimate, yet these are portraits. And because civic space is composed of interconnected participants doing sympathetic things in different ways, the portraits are collective as well as individual.
The authority in question is not really the post office. The prayer for publicly sanctioned connectivity remains legible nontheless.
Davis began photographing mailboxes in 2010; he now has more than 100 images. The group presented here comes mostly from upstate New York, though specimens are included from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Georgia, Florida, California. “They say a lot about housing,” the photographer observes. “Most Americans don’t own their own homes and these mailboxes, often overlain with multiple residents’ names, show the amazing diversity in our country. … They tell you who lives there in a way that is fairly shockingly revealing, in a time when anonymity is so prized; they represent a sense of porousness between the invisible interior of a home and the public.” 5
Such attention to the kinds of shelter available to people in regional cities and down-market villages is central to the project. Davis is exquisitely sensitive, also, to the changes language undergoes when it becomes part of a picture. Inside the visual matrix of a photograph, each written character enacts a proxy body language. This is especially true when words are handwritten. But, because Davis looks so carefully, it happens with mass-produced letters too. Consider the single hand that has listed each member of the Martinez Hernandez clan, including a Martinez Vasquez and a Hernandez Cruz (in-laws on both sides?). Or the two kinds of halfhearted manual effort made to paint the turquoise door and to register the occupancy of Japal and Singh behind it. “Doesn’t live here” someone has warned in careful half-cursive on someone else’s envelope. Is this writer Gary King? Or is he the long-gone addressee on the solicitation preprinted by some for-profit charlatan “Personal & Confidential”?
When Davis notices mailboxes, he is following the contours of economic and social space, and such real-world materiality is obviously basic to old-fashioned mail delivery. The ideal of couriers who can’t be stayed, who persevere despite adversity even if they’re delivering catalogues and birthday cards, is moving because it speaks to dedication and efficiency, dependability in the realm of public good.
Yet like Anderson before me, I find my thoughts about communication floating off toward the extra-human. A Matter is just a person who thought the bluebird box was pretty. Still, for a minute I fantasized that this location in what Davis calls “the divinely named Coxsackie” in New York could be home to an avatar of materia prima, primal Nature living upstate like anybody’s grandma. I understand that the box wrapped back onto its faux white-picket-fence post beside the cemetery must belong to people across the road in Marlboro, in Ulster County, New York — although the illegible address and silver bandage do make it seem that spirit mail might be dropped off here. Once VACANT has been named, its occupancy might be permanent.
If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.