Distant Communications: The Conference and its Future

Rachel Bynoth and Ellen Smith, Bath Spa University and University of Leicester

In the middle of July 2020, just after the end of the first lockdown in the UK, we met by chance at a postgraduate online conference thinking about distance. We had so much in common: one examining expressions of anxiety in familial letters of the eighteenth-century, the other notions of identity and family in British-Indian families in the nineteenth-century. From here, the Distant Communications project was born.

What does it mean to communicate across distance, across time and space? And how have societies engaged with distant communications over time, from the Middle Ages to the present day? Our conference came from a desire to place distance at the forefront of historical enquiry. While our experiences of the pandemic and lockdowns is culturally unique to our own time, space and place, people have faced separation and distance for the span of time, at the very least through the separation of death.

At the Distant Communications conference, which took place online in July 2021, we welcomed scholars from around the world to probe these timely questions about what distance is. Across the two days there were intense and invigorating discussions, considering which materials we use to bridge different types of distance, from geographical to temporal, emotional to generational. Throughout, attendees enjoyed panels covering a range of historical periods, topics, and locales, that interrogated distant communications from the perspective of various sources, such as Facebook networking, suicide letters and the telegraph, to name a few. They worked across disciplines, using approaches drawn from social and cultural history, but also material culture studies, communication studies, and art history, to understand how humans sustain dialogue, sometimes asynchronously and sometimes even beyond the grave, at a distance.

The hub for the distant communications project and organising the conference via website platforms, Youtube, and Zoom. Screenshot taken by the authors: https://rachelabynoth.wixsite.com/distantcomms2021

A few weeks before the main conference, Professor James Daybell provided a lively online keynote seminar that introduced the concept of ‘technologies of separation’, predominantly from an epistolary angle. Through his exploration of the multi-faceted nature of letters as objects-in-motion, as transactional currency, and emotional scripts, he proposed the need for a history of separation. While Professor Daybell is already currently working on this much needed history, this concept is one which this project continues to build on, through a consideration of multiple narratives and perspectives.

Many papers moved beyond correspondence and used ideas about temporality and materiality to understand how other types of objects operated. To our delight, Dr Kevin James and Andrew Northey brought a nineteenth-century visitor’s book to our attention as a unique form of distant communication that created a fraternity of travellers. The participants and audience members were impressed by James and Northey’s interpretation of the way this object manipulated distance over time. Another unlikely communicative form was introduced to us by Dr Robert Matej Bednar who suggested how roadside shrines constructed spaces across which the living and the dead could continue to communicate.

Indeed, throughout the conference, speakers questioned the idea that death is the ‘ultimate distance’ and used case histories like shrines, suicide letters and will and testaments to understand the channels that humans sustain between life and death, in their quest to overcome mortality. Such objects warp and shrink distance, allowing people to preserve relationships, family structures and communities, even beyond death. Other papers continued to push at the boundaries of what distant communications are and can be, demonstrating the diversity of technologies of distance and separation that both build upon and diverge from the epistolary form. We even had Liz Wan arguing that children were objects of negotiation and communication, through their role as intermediaries between their parents.

We were also joined by two exciting keynotes at the conference itself. On day two we were given an exclusive glimpse into the exciting work emerging from the Leverhulme-funded project Social Bodies in British Letters, 1680-1820. Their panel, led by Professor Karen Harvey, Dr Sarah Fox, and Dr Emily Vine, took us through their initial thoughts into the processes of embodiment in eighteenth-century correspondence. They argued eloquently that bodily and spiritual care was disseminated through letters at this time. But they also suggested that letters reflected and projected the physical deterioration and ageing of the correspondents over long periods of separation. Last but certainly not least, Dr Mark Ravinder Frost provided our final keynote to bring the conference to a close. His pre-recorded presentation took us on a multi-media journey across the British Indian Ocean, tracing the circulation of Asian enlightenment ideals and materials through steam, rail, and print networks in the nineteenth century. He offered a necessary de-centring approach to the distant communications paradigm, thinking about technologies of communication and the politics of ideas outside of a Eurocentric framework.

A socially-distanced Distant Communications in-person meeting: emerging from Zoom. Photograph taken by the authors.

Without the support of our sponsors, the conference could not have navigated the challenges of COVID-19 as successfully as it did, and it certainly would not have brought to light the innovative and cutting-edge work of PGRs and ECRs. We thank the Social History Society, the Royal Historical Society, and the AHRC-funded Midlands4Cities DTP, for their generous grants and sponsorship of the conference. We had three prize categories, all voted for by the conference attendees. We received a huge 93 responses for our three paper prizes and were able to gift the winners, Dr Justin Gage (ECR prize), Darren Reid (PGR prize) and Liz Wan (Lightning Talk prize), monetary awards and book vouchers, as well as bestow them with the knowledge that their papers captivated and wowed their respective audiences. We congratulate all the early career winners on their success.

Distant Communications is not over. If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the stark reality of how we manage and navigate distance and separation in everyday life. We want to continue these conversations and process them into scholarly research. We are planning publications that bring together the speakers we heard from this summer, and on this we hope to release further information soon. But most importantly, we have already ticked a very necessary and significant item off our post-conference to-do list, which was to finally meet up in person after over a year of work together via a computer screen. Our scholarly partnership is fully representative of the distant communications paradigm we’re investigating, but we were certainly happy to reach out of the Zoom world for an afternoon…


About the Authors:

Rachel Bynoth is a final year PhD student based at Bath Spa University and Cardiff University, funded by the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership. Her doctoral research examines expressions of anxiety within remote relationships across the lifecycle, through a case study of the Canning Family letter network, 1760-1830. Her research interests include social, gender, political and emotional histories between 1700-1945. She is IHR History Lab Seminar Co-Convenor and has just submitted an article for review on female distance learning through letters in the late eighteenth-century.

Ellen Smith is an AHRC Midlands4Cities DTP-funded history PhD researcher under the supervision of Professor Clare Anderson at the University of Leicester and Dr Kate Smith at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis is titled ‘Communication, Intimacy and Creativity: Reconstructing Family Life in Colonial South Asia through Letter Forms, 1857-1929’. Her work explores the social and cultural history of the British Empire, particularly the connections made between Britain and India through familial correspondence over the long nineteenth century. She is also IHR History Lab Seminar Co-Convenor with Rachel.

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