Anne Archer – Passing the Call

This introduction from the Head of Heritage and Archives at BT (a Crossed Lines partner) welcomes you to the symposium and introduces listeners to the collection. Drawing on material in the archives, it includes some advice from 1923 on the correct way to ‘pass’ a telephone call.

Anne Archer is Head of Heritage & Archives at BT with previous roles at Lloyds Banking Group and the British Museum. She has been a Trustee of the Business Archives Council since 2016, a charity which promotes the preservation and use of business records of historical importance. Anne has an interest in digital preservation and was a Board Director of the Digital Preservation Coalition between 2013-16, where she chaired the sub-committee on Advocacy and Communications. At BT, she collaborates on a number of academic projects, including Crossed Lines with Dr Sarah Jackson, modules with Central Saint Martins and Royal College of Arts, and various collaborative doctoral partnerships. 


Elizabeth Bruton – What we talk about when we talk about telephones*

This brief introduction will discuss the Exchange section of the Science Museum’s Information Age gallery, exploring the history of telephony in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth century.  Dr Bruton will use objects in the gallery and complementary objects in the Science Museum’s online collections to talk about how we talk about and display telephones, their user experiences and history.

Dr Elizabeth Bruton is Curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum.  Her pronouns are she / her. She has previously held roles at Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre; the History of Science of Museum at the University of Oxford; and the University of Leeds.  She was recently lead co-editor and article author of a peer-reviewed special issue of Information & Culture: A journal of history on the history of women in British telecommunications, published in February 2020. Dr Bruton is a committee member of the IET History of Technology committee, the IEEE History Committee, and the Defence Electronics History Society (DEHS) and was previously a committee member of the Society of the History of Technology (SHOT) and the British Society for the History of Science (BSHS).  Her research interests include the history of communications, gender history, military history, museums, and archives – see https://nmsi.academia.edu/ElizabethBruton. She blogs at https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/author/elizabethb/ and https://geekin9f.wordpress.com/

* With apologies to Raymond Carver


Vahni Capildeo – ‘Rinse and Wring the Ear’: Reflections on being in long-distance conversation

This critical/creative piece takes its title from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poem ‘Spring’, which begins with a sense of the fullness of presence and innocent participation in that fullness. It will consider long-distance communication in terms of a state of perpetual invitation. Telephone calls are both ‘full’ and ‘empty’: even when the interlocutors meet in person in between or after their conversations, they cannot be said to ‘catch up’. What dynamics of intimacy, boundaried and transgressive, grow when one is aware of the fixity of one’s own speaking body while hearing the sounds of a different environment, perhaps a different time zone, around the other’s speaking body? What is the border between truth and lies in maintaining or creating ‘presence’?

Dr Vahni Capildeo FRSL is Writer in Residence at the University of York and a Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast. Their practise-based research focuses on silence, expanded translation, and embodied multimedia collaboration. Recent work includes Odyssey Calling (Sad Press, 2020) and Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019), completed during a Douglas Caster Cultural Fellowship at the University of Leeds.


Amy Sara Carroll, with Ricardo Dominguez and Césaire Carroll-Domínguez – Teletechnopathic

In New York City, sheltering-in-place is a pandemic privilege. We have been Zooming in and out of our classrooms, meetings, workshops, studio visits, rehearsals; in and out of ourselves since late March 2020. In between – at home-as-family, determined to stay healthy – we’ve reflected on evolving configurations of digital and healthcare divides in the United States and beyond. Composing short plays per Oulipian experiments and the Byron-Shelleys’ ‘haunted summer,’ we’ve challenged one another to write (in) parallel universes. Spring forward! A modified method of Brechtian alienation: isolate acts, zip them together as loose conversation-records. Our first play, focused on balconies, number-crunching, speculative futures + histories, is forthcoming in Imagined Theatres; our second for this gathering, considers the (anti)poetics of Covid-19 teletechnopathic communication.

Amy Sara Carroll’s books include SECESSIONFANNIE + FREDDIE/The Sentimentality of Post-9/11 Pornography, and REMEX: Toward an Art History of the NAFTA Era. Currently, she teaches literature and creative writing at The New School in New York City. In Autumn 2020, she’ll join the Literature Department at the University of California, San Diego. Ricardo Dominguez, a founding member of Critical Art Ensemble and an associate professor in the Visual Arts Department and a Principal Investigator at CALIT2/QI at UCSD, is cofounder (with Brett Stalbaum, Carmin Karasic, and Stefan Wray) of Electronic Disturbance Theater, an artivist collective that developed Virtual-Sit-In technologies in solidarity with Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico. With other members of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0 (Carroll, Stalbaum, micha cárdenas, and Elle Mehrmand), he coproduced the Transborder Immigrant Tool, a cellphone app replete with poetry designed to lead users to water and safety sites on the US side of the Mexico-US border. Césaire Carroll-Domínguez is a screenwriter, director, filmmaker, actor, and playwright. He currently attends the New York City School of the Arts as an eighth grade drama major. In Autumn 2020, Carroll-Domínguez will begin high school at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts as a film major.


Natalie Ferris – The ‘Wireless Voice’

‘I am just an echo-chamber myself’ (Christine Brooke-Rose, 1970)

In the decades after leaving Bletchley Park, Christine Brooke-Rose was troubled by the intrusions of noises or voices. This became particularly irksome during immersive periods of writing. As one friend recalled, ‘One of her more neurotic habits was to bury the telephone in cushions to deaden its ring when she wanted to write undisturbed. Then she would parcel the whole thing up into a net and hang it on the door handle so that it was physically impossible to answer it in time.’[1] She could not trust herself to ignore the telephone’s call, as seduced by the unknown communication lingering at the end of the line – the ‘wireless voice’ – as she had been many years previously in Hut 3.[2] This short paper will tap – both creatively and critically – into Brooke-Rose’s ‘wireless voice’, to ask larger questions of the technology used to transmit signals, in telegraphy and radio broadcasting, and of the radical potential of voices unloosed and disconnected from circuits of understanding. A recurrent mode expressed in her early writing, this disembodied voice negotiates interference and misinformation, searches inscrutable terrains for answers, meanings, idioms it cannot locate, and yet persists in the attempt through the calculated cross-cutting of words, images, and sounds. What new potential was there for a voice that could elude immediate understanding?

Natalie Ferris is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. She is presently researching dynamism and deception in twentieth-century art, design and letters, and finalising her monograph, Abstraction in Post-War British Literature 1945-1980, for publication in 2021. She has previously published on artists and authors such as J. G. Ballard, Christine Brooke-Rose, W. S. Graham, Ana Hatherly, Allen Jones, Anna Kavan, Ben Nicholson, Herbert Read and Germaine Richier. She co-founded the Christine Brooke-Rose Society in 2014.

[1] William Foster, ‘Experiments in Writing’, The Scotsman, 5 December 1970.
[2] A drawing in her archive on the back of a 1955 review portrays an ecstatic union between woman and handset.


Stefana Fratila – Left On Read: Telepoetics of the Disembodied Voice

My creative paper explores the possibilities of telepoetics through an analysis of narrative arcs within song lyrics from the 1990s until present day. Certain storylines from only two decades ago would lose their dramatic functionality if the characters simply owned cell phones— consider the climactic encounters and chases through airports so typical of rom-coms i.e., Love Actually, or sitcoms like Friends. Replacing these story arcs, the cell phone ushers in a whole new selection of problems, like the phenomenon of being left on ‘read’ or activating ‘Do Not Disturb’. In these ways, the telephone fundamentally recasts our experience of narrative space. It is a device capable of both altering the stakes of connection, loss, and exchange as well as a transporter for the voice and feelings of its users. In a time when our phones serve as a proverbial lifeline, song lyrics both poeticize and archive our longing for one another through the medium of telephones and, more specifically, the disembodied voice. Through analyzing a selection of songs from the past three decades, I trace the ways that they sample the affective structures of landline and mobile telecommunications. I argue that in these instances, the telephone—ultimately a sound emitting device—operates as an instrument through which songwriters and lyricists graft poetic narratives. Furthermore, I examine how music and song lyrics are uniquely positioned to mark the transition from landlines to pagers to flip phones to cell phones to smartphones. The telephone simultaneously serves as a trajectory-shifting prop as well as a historical artifact for how we socialize and exchange discursive blows via auditory exchanges.

Stefana Fratila is a Romanian-born composer, artist and writer based in Toronto, Canada. She is also a DJ and co-founder of crip rave™ collective, an event platform showcasing crip-identifying talent and prioritizing Sick, Crip, Mad and Disabled body-minds within safer and more accessible rave spaces.


Imogen Free – Telepoetic desire & techno-heartache in Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North (1932)

Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North (1932) is a novel preoccupied with telephony – it the media that represents its protagonists’ will for ‘connective sociability’: a practice of ‘connecting in order to connect, connecting in order to stay connected, at a distance’ (Trotter, 2013). The telephone functions in the text as a medium for romantic connections, but it is also the technology that stages and represents love’s disappointments. This paper will examine how the telephone’s vast and pervasive networks within the novel skew its power dynamics, overriding ‘the boundaries that separate one person from another, creating mysterious and uncontrollable relations of dependency’ (Ellmann, 2003). It will argue that the practice of using the telephone informs but also disrupts lovers’ narratives of one another – as their call fails to reach the desired person, is picked up by another woman, or whirrs unanswered. Building on work by David Trotter and Maud Ellmann, the paper will propose that Bowen’s literary depiction of the telephone and the resulting techno-heartache her protagonists experience stages an exploration of the technological and authorial mediations of romantic communication in the period. It will argue that it does so by enacting realistic connections and disruptions in the developing dynamics of dialogue, which are informed by, and in turn inform, the future of telepoetic desire.

Imogen Free is an AHRC funded first year PhD student at King’s College London, researching modernist women’s writing, communication technology and the politics of aurality (1930-1956). She has delivered papers on feminist approaches to modernist women’s writing at international conferences and is the author of the article, ‘“Outside the Machine”: Stasis and Conflict in the work of Jean Rhys’, due to be published by Women: A Cultural Review this June. While working at present on sound in literature, she is interested more widely in 20th century women’s literary responses to technology and science.


Jessica Gray – The Interrupting Telephone in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day

The telephone, or ‘telephone bell’ that is frequently referred to in Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, interrupts. The emphasis on the telephone making itself heard in Woolf’s novel underlines this disruption, making clear that the technology distracts. In this text the telephone is particularly made mention of in the context of the office in which certain characters work to campaign for women’s suffrage. The pattern of the workday and one’s labours are, then, altered by the presence of the telephone, which demands the kind of task-switching abilities which are often associated with our own contemporary moment, and how we work alongside modern technologies.

In this paper I will conduct close readings of the telephone interrupting the workday and conversation in Night and Day. I will note certain characters’ use of the telephone as a metaphor to indicate connectivity, as they position themselves as being at the centre of ‘an enormous system of wires, connecting us up with every district of the country’. This connectivity, I will suggest, is at times valued; but Woolf also subtly suggests the issues that might arise from such connectivity, including how technology can distract and disrupt our attention. I will compare this to early twentieth century worries about attention and distraction brought on by technologies and the urban environment, drawing parallels between this and anxieties in our own contemporary moment about the apparent loss of our ability to concentrate.

Jessica Gray completed her PhD at the University of Kent, titled ‘Office Girls in Turn-of-the-Century Fiction: Work, Technology and Everyday Modernity’. Specialising in late Victorian and early Modernist literature, she focuses upon the representation of women’s work in fiction and has published articles on writers including George Gissing, Henry James and Dorothy Richardson. Interests include theories of (and anxieties about) attention, technology and literature, and emotional labour.


Matthew Helm – ‘Oh, hilloo, darling!’: Telephonic Representation in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

Criticism of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) often takes on an implicit techno-media studies approach, given the narrator’s opening metaphor: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’ (1). Scholars are so wrapped up in refocusing Isherwood’s camera, and debating its political efficacy, that they fail to account for the novel’s acoustic ecology. Therefore, I situate the novel within the proliferating mediascape of the 1930s, more specifically, I focus on the novel’s representation of telephony. The telephone evokes questions about queer erotic connectivity, the ethics of answerability, and Nazi surveillance. Formally, the telephone places an unprecedented emphasis on characters-in-dialogue – in fact, back-and-forth phone calls determine the shape of the novel itself. In emphasizing the importance of the novel’s telephone-play, I also hope to complicate critical narratives about Isherwood’s political acquiescence.

Matt Helm is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa. He studies 20th-21st century American literature with an emphasis on queer literary celebrity and style. He hopes his work on Christopher Isherwood and the telephone represents the first steps of a dissertation about the queer uses of media technology in literature. 


Thomas Karshan – Vladimir Nabokov on the Telephone

In this presentation, I will read and discuss my translations of two hitherto unknown and unpublished Russian poems by the young Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Telephone’ (May 23rd, 1921), and ‘On the Telephone’ (October 11th, 1923). Both are accounts of phone conversations between lovers.
In the first and simpler of these two poems, Nabokov’s imagination dwells upon the forests, rivers, and cities crossed by the separated lovers’ voices, and in a final, shockingly modernist image, describes the downward bells of the telephone poles as ‘monstrous lilies-of-the-valley’, defamiliarising the technology of the telephone line and the communication it effects.
In the second of these poems, Nabokov plays on the ‘bee-like fog’ and ‘humming’ of a bad line: the poet thinks he has heard his lover say she is going to shoot herself, and speaker and addressee are reversed. The poem itself becomes a crackling line of mishearings: the mouth of the phone receiver is also the mouth of a pistol, the clap it makes as it is slammed down the clap of a gunshot. Yet the possible violence of miscommunication is also the space of poetry: the hum of feedback on the line is also the fertile hum of the poetic bee-swarm.
I will conclude by linking these two poems to two of Nabokov’s novels, Mary and Lolita, and to his more widely distributed use of the image of the undelivered letter, showing his broader interest in interrupting communication and imagining his way into messages suspended mid-flight. What is hidden by the message and by technologies of communication, in the broadest sense?

Thomas Karshan was the President of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society from 2019 – 2020. He is the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play (OUP, 2011), Nabokov’s Collected Poems (Penguin / Knopf 2012), and co-translator of Nabokov’s first major work, the neo-Shakespearean verse-play The Tragedy of Mister Morn (Penguin / Knopf 2012). He has recently finished co-editing On Essays: Montaigne to the Present, due to be published by OUP in the summer of 2020. Among other things, he is working on a project about undelivered letters in modern writing. He also has interests in nonsense and play, on which he teaches specialist undergraduate and graduate modules at the University of East Anglia, where he is a Senior Lecturer and runs the MA in Modern and Contemporary Writing.


Beatriz Lopez – Muriel Spark and the Scrambler Telephone

From May to October 1944, Muriel Spark was employed by the Political Warfare Executive (PWE), a secret service created by Britain during the Second World War with the mission of spreading propaganda to enemy and enemy-occupied territories. At Milton Bryan, Spark ‘learned to use the “scrambler” which was a green-painted telephone on which a continual jangling noise made interception difficult’, forcing the receiver to ‘listen “through” the jangle.’ (Spark 2009: 152) The scrambler telephone, a symbol of secure speech amid the eavesdropping anxieties of war, lingered in Spark’s imagination and went on to feature in her novels The Hothouse by the East River (1973) and The Abbess of Crewe (1974). Drawing on the history of the PWE (Delmer 1962), the literary and cultural history of the telephone (Ronell 1989; Kittler 1999; Trotter 2013) and the biography of Muriel Spark (Spark 2009; Stannard 2009), this paper will explore the ambivalent representation of the scrambler telephone as both a solution to the problem of security and a technology in constant danger of decryption during the Second World War. Using examples from the aforementioned novels, I argue that Spark uses the scrambler telephone – an instrument ‘heavily jammed with jangling caterwauls’ (Spark 2018 [1973]: 50) – as a metaphor for the simultaneous desire and revulsion evoked by direct voice communication, highlighting concerns about the boundaries between self and other, as well as the private and the public in an increasingly mediated world.

Beatriz Lopez is a PhD candidate on the project ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda and British Culture’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, UK. Her thesis explores how Muriel Spark’s work for the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) may have influenced the representation of rumours and deception in her literary work. Her research interests include post-war British literature, Scottish literature, the cultural history of the Second World War and gothic studies. She has presented her work at international conferences in the UK, Spain and Switzerland, and her journal article, ‘Muriel Spark and the Art of Deception: Constructing Plausibility with the Methods of WWII Black Propaganda’, is forthcoming in The Review of English Studies


Laurent Milesi – (H)allophonies: Cixous and Others on the Line

The call of this communication is to address some phonic genealogies of fils (wires, sons) and pronominal mash-ups scattered across Cixous’s texts, which will be made to connect in turn to other (allo-) texts (Derrida, Joyce, Freud, Heidegger). Of particular ‘appeal’, or appel, will be the faunic dimension of Cixousian writing, using textual close-ups as relays or connecting points throughout. At the end of this trunk call involving for example the telephone and the elephant, the distance implied in tele- may well have returned (the call) or inverted, in Heideggerian fashion, into proximity, a closeness between subjects and their shared tele-pathies through the affective power of a tele-phono-graphy…

Laurent Milesi is Tenured Professor of English Literature and Critical Theory at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Until July 2017, he was Chair of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. His major areas of interest and expertise are in (post)modernist fiction (Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon) and poetry (Pound, Olson, Duncan, contemporary American poetries), ‘French Theory’ (in particular the thought of Jacques Derrida and the ‘critifiction’ of Hélène Cixous), and theories of the postmodern. More recently, he has branched into game studies and ‘Digital Theory’, working at the intersection of theories of technicity, the virtual and the digital, digital cultures, ludology and media studies. He is currently completing a long-standing monograph, titled Non-lieux: Jacques Derrida and the Ethics of Writing, whose aim is to reassess the role of deconstructive ethics in relation to a sense of place (lieu) and displacement, and to Derrida’s strategies of writing.


Mara Mills – Read Verse Out Loud for Pleasure: The Poetry of Telephone Testing

This talk traces the history of the Harvard Sentences – ‘Read verse out loud for pleasure,’ among others – which make up the standard lists of spoken words for testing electroacoustic equipment since the 1960s. Such sentences date to the interwar period, when researchers in the Bell System began using speech as a tool to test both ears and telephones. This research, part of a broader quality control program for the expanding telephone system, included tests on topics such as minimum and maximum frequency thresholds, masking, and binaural sound perception. To this end, Bell engineers developed phonetically balanced word lists, syllabic testing lists, test sentences, articulation indices, and phonographic speech audiometry recordings. In the 1940s, moreover, these speech tests helped establish the ‘percents of usable hearing’ for insurance companies and the American Medical Association, embedding telephonic values within the national standards for normal hearing. After World War II, this Bell System work was extended by the Harvard Psychoacoustic Lab, whose own version of phonetically balanced test sentences was broadly recommended by the IEEE in 1969, for testing things like microphones and hearing aids as well as telephones. The Harvard Sentences have subsequently been picked up in technology journalism, and recycled into found poems and automated poetry generators, where their evocative signification obscures their standardized sound and the biases inherent in their ‘normal sampling.’

Mara Mills is Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, where she co-founded and co-directs the Center for Disability Studies. She is a founding editor of the journal Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. She has co-edited a special issue of Grey Room on ‘Audio/Visual’ as well as the anthology Testing Hearing: The Making of Modern Aurality (forthcoming July 2020 from Oxford University Press). Her book On the Phone: Hearing Loss and Communication Engineering (forthcoming from Duke University Press) argues the significance of phonetics and deaf education to the emergence of ‘communication engineering’ in early twentieth-century telephony. This concept and set of practices later gave rise to information theory, digital coding, and cybernetics—along with new electroacoustic tools and a revised understanding of human speech and hearing. Mills is currently working on the history of optical character recognition and, with Jonathan Sterne, she is co-authoring a book titled Tuning Time: Histories of Sound and Speed. Her mother, Cynthia Mills, was Palo Alto Operator Number 63. More information can be found at her website: maramills.org


Alasdair Milne – The World Question Centre: Television and Telephony as a Space of Appearance

James Lee Byars enunciates into an invisible loudspeaker telephone: Could you present us a question that you feel is pertinent with regard to the evolution of your own knowledge? Dialled-in interlocutors from around the world share a singular pondering with the studio audience.
In 1969 Byars gathered ‘a heterogeneous group of intellectuals’ together in Belgium; both in person and via telephone link.[1] Seated in a circle and adorned in pink robes, the congregation included John Cage and Jean Toche, amongst a selection of Byars’ friends and acquaintances.[2] The performance that followed, The World Question Center, although its ritualism might suggest otherwise, was not a clandestine assembly. It took place in a television studio, and was broadcast globally, on mainstream television.
This presentation proposes an examination of this performance as an oralised practice of networked listening. Privileging the process of questioning over answering, of vocality over material apparition, I will consider how discursive ritual can conjure an Arendtian space of appearance, and how this might affect our understanding of presence and embodiment.[3] An early experiment in what Kris Paulsen terms telepresence, The World Question Centre introduced viewers to the possibilities of communication technology for experimentation in collective knowledge exchange.[4]

Alasdair Milne is writer and editor currently completing a research masters in Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research focuses on questions of friendship, the interpersonal and technologies of mediation.

[1] The World Question Centre, M HKA Ensembles <http://ensembles.mhka.be/events/the-world-question-center?locale=en&gt; [Accessed February 2020].
[2] Ibid.
[3] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London: University of Chicago Press, 1959).
[4] Kris Paulsen, Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017).


Jordan A. Moore – ‘Mind the Wire’: David Jones and World War I Telephony

This paper conceptualizes the telepoetics of David Jones’ World War I epic, In Parenthesis (1937). Telephony was an influential technology for British modernist poets like Jones, whose poetic invention was defined by experiences on the Western Front. But telecommunications remain uncharted in In Parenthesis—a notable lacuna considering it is one of modernism’s most important war poems.

Captain of the 115th Brigade Wyn Griffith described the telephone as the ‘life-blood’ of Britain’s intelligence at Somme. Yet, as dramatized in the recent Oscar-winning film, 1917, the Western Front was also pulsing with telephonic failure. In Parenthesis’s account of the Battle of Somme captures this tension, immersing the reader in a soundscape of disruptive military communications. One the one hand, telephone wires carry important war orders and news among the trenches throughout the epic, on the other hand, they are ‘buzzing’ with poor connectivity and spreading gossip among soldiers. Jones also bears witness to telephony’s materiality; broken lines threaten to mute communication and create physical obstacles in the trenches. ‘Mind the wire’ is one of the epic’s enduring refrains.

How does Jones’s poetics simulate WWI telephony? Introducing In Parenthesis, Jones says, ‘This writing is called “In Parenthesis” because I have written it in a kind of space between […] the war itself was a parenthesis.’ How is telephony a form of parenthesis, and how might tenuous or failed warfare communications be a hermeneutic model for modernist war poets like Jones? Tracing In Parenthesis’s telepoetics along these lines charts new terrain for geographical approaches to the telephone in literature and, more broadly, sparks discourse surrounding warfare communications and modernist poetry.

Jordan Moore is currently a writer for the University of Michigan and a forthcoming Ph.D. candidate at Durham University’s Department of English Studies. His dissertation is titled: ‘T.S. Eliot and the Poetics of Spatial Modernism.’ Jordan researches Modernism and modernist conceptions of space, with a particular interest in historical-geographical approaches to poetics and poetic form. He holds an MLitt in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of St. Andrews.


Eric Prenowitz – Telephone Hang-Ups: Homophones, Telefauns and other Technopoetic Communications

Technologies of telecommunication are not a recent invention: there’s writing, of course, and an uninterrupted line from the beacon fire relay that brings news of the fall of Troy at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon to the ghost who opens Hamlet, from the antebellum grapevine to A.G. Bell’s telephone prototype, and right up to the breathless talk of a recent analogue to digital transition. I’ll point out that the invention of the telephone was in fact the move from a digital to an analogue technology. I won’t hesitate to put forth a linguistic analogue to this transition despite the obvious hermeneutic circle doing so entails. I’ll talk about transduction of various sorts, starting with that between the ‘two cultures’ as C.P. Snow called them, one scientific and the other literary, broadly speaking. About my own transition in this regard, and revolutions in the history of science on which it in part turned. While the historiography in question may involve a radical critique of the self-narrative of continuous progress on which the scientific project depends, it nonetheless reinforces the same metaphysical presuppositions that have always undergirded science. And so the telephone arises as a deconstructive technology par excellence in that it so unambiguously puts the lie to the ancient and stubborn idea that the spoken voice depends on the physical presence of speaker to listener. In the process I’ll consult Proust dialling up Freud on telephonic transducers as metaphors for the poetic work of the signifier and/or the unconscious and Cixous on the telefaun. If the signifier also thinks, then there must always be analogue effects of the digital, and vice versa.

Eric Prenowitz is a Lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. He has translated and published widely on the work of Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, including The Selected Plays of Hélène Cixous (2004) and Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996), complete with translator’s note. His research interests include cultural and critical theory, sexual difference, psychoanalysis, creative and critical writing, ‘French’ thought/letters, poststructuralism and its long prehistory, postcolonial theories and practices, translation, animals, mnemo-tele-technological supplements and radical performativities. He is the Executive Editor of parallax, a journal of critical theory and cultural studies.


Nicholas Royle – ‘B-r-ring!’

This talk takes the shape of a telephone conversation between Nicholas Royle and Andrew Bennett regarding the figure of the mother in relation to the telephone. Focusing on Royle’s Mother: A Memoir (2020), it seeks to explore the idea that, in the context of telepoetics, the mother is always on the line.

Nicholas Royle teaches English at the University of Sussex. He is author of many works, including Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind (1991), Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (1994, co-written with Andrew Bennett), E. M. Forster (2000), Jacques Derrida (2003), The Uncanny (2003), How to Read Shakespeare (2005), Veering: A Theory of Literature (2011), An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Fifth Edition, 2016, with Andrew Bennett), and Hélène Cixous: Dreamer, Realist, Analyst, Writing (forthcoming). He has also published two books formally classified as ‘novels’, Quilt (2010) and An English Guide to Birdwatching (2017). His recent memoir, Mother, was published by Myriad in May 2020.

Andrew Bennett is Professor of English at the University of Bristol. His contributions to the study of literary telephony include ‘Elizabeth Bowen on the Telephone’ in Patricia Juliana Smith and Jessica Gildersleeve, eds., Elizabeth Bowen: Theory, Thought and Things (Edinburgh UP, 2019). With Cambridge University Press, he has published Suicide Century: Literature and Suicide from James Joyce to David Foster Wallace (2017), Wordsworth Writing (2007), Romantic Poets and the Culture of Posterity (1999), and Keats, Narrative and Audience (1994). His other books include Ignorance: Literature and Agnoiology (Manchester UP, 2009), The Author (Routledge, 2005), and Katherine Mansfield (Northcote House, 2004). He has co-authored three books with Nicholas Royle: An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (5th edn., Routledge, 2016), This Thing Called Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing (Routledge, 2015), and Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel (Macmillan, 1995).


Will Self – Picking Up

Picking up the phone and opening the conversation, Will Self will discuss the dialectical relation between telecommunication technologies and human psychopathology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, tapping in to the role of the phone in producing the state we’re in….

Will Self is the author of nine novels, six collections of short stories, three novellas and eight works of non-fiction; he is a prolific journalist and a frequent broadcaster. His works include How the Dead Live, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel of the Year 2002, The Butt, winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction 2008, Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2012, and Phone, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. His memoir Will was published in 2019 and was described in the Observer as ‘Darkly angelic prose … a joy to read’. His fiction has been translated into over 22 languages, and he contributes to publications in Europe and the US as well as the UK.


Don Sillence – Therefore, Send Not To Know For Whom The Phone Rings…

At the Google I/O 2018, Sundar Pichai unveiled the latest addition to Google Assistant, a piece of programming that allowed users to make phonecalls in the Assistant’s ‘voice’ ‘seamlessly in the background’. On a call to an unsuspecting hairdresser, the artificial intelligence (AI rebranded as an IA,’intelligent assistant’) mimics human speech patterns and seemingly effortlessly chooses between multiple options on behalf of their user. This heralds a tipping point in telephony, where non-human agents are set to become the primary entity with which future humans will endeavour to communicate through and with. In this way, they bring into being/becoming the terrible promise of E.M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) in which humans learn to communicate with each other almost exclusively through screens and instant messenger (‘pneumatic post’) and become increasingly isolated; or, to reverse in advance the logic of Howard’s End, published the following year, ‘Only disconnect’.

Dr Don Sillence is an independent scholar, currently working and teaching in Media at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia. The recipient of a number of awards for his research (on the historical and prospective relationships between modes and genres of literature and practices and experience of literacy) and extensive and innovative teaching practice, he is currently completing a book on the contemporary problematic of Utopia. This ranges from Doomsday Preppers and post-apocalyptic zombie mythology to the mutating, chimeric sexuality witnessed in the 2018 trending of Bowsette on Pornhub and the structural fantasy of the 1980s as the last stable cultural identity/fantasy for post-millennial audiences.


Tyne Daile Sumner – Poetry, Privacy, Paranoia: (Wire)tapping into the American Dream

By the 1950s in America, open-plan, split-level housing, combined with the widespread introduction of large glass picture windows, had put the ideological power of looking at the forefront of collective consciousness. At the same time, Americans became increasingly aware that communication technology, so promising in what it appeared to be able to deliver, could be employed to manipulate ideology and culture. The point at which massculture and technology in America coalesced with a growing surveillance society was in relation to a widespread shift from the focus on ‘overseeing’ to that of ‘overhearing.’ This paper takes the lyric poem, a form which has always been associated with overhearing, as a vehicle for exploring the ways in which the privacy paranoia that characterises discourse around wiretapping today actually began with the introduction of the telephone into 20th century America. Indeed, American Lyric poets found a productive site of analysis and imaginative possibility in the arrival of the telephone, with many constructing elaborate metaphors that compared the phone’s cord, mouthpiece and wires to uncanny or natural phenomena. Three poets of the generation, Robert Frost (1874-1963), Florence Ripley Mastin (1886-1968) and Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), for example, would have been fully aware of the complex politics of intimacy and communication surrounding the introduction of the telephone on a large domestic scale as well as the paranoia around the potential wiretapping ushered in by this new technology. By using the lyric to explore the intersection of technology, surveillance, and literature, this paper offers new scholarship to the field of modern American poetry as well as that of telepoetics.

Tyne Daile Sumner, Ph.D. (The University of Melbourne) is a Research Fellow, consultant and Digital Humanities specialist in the Digital Studio, Faculty of Arts at the University of Melbourne. Her research operates at the crossroads of poetics, surveillance and big data. She has published peer-reviewed essays with Bloomsbury Academic and Australian Literary Studies on topics such as surveillance, censorship, poetics and twentieth-century American media. Her forthcoming monograph, Lyric Eye: The Poetics of Twentieth-Century Surveillance, will be published with Routledge in 2020. Tyne is also a consultant at the University of Melbourne, where she works at the intersection of Higher Education, digital innovation, place and Humanities. She has advised on a wide range of digital place/space projects within Higher Education, with a particular emphasis on data ethics, belonging and sustainability.


Asiya Wadud – ‘Our distress calls like urgent plovers’: On Syncope

Through a series of prayers, invocations, and hymns, Asiya Wadud’s Syncope eulogizes those crossing the Central Mediterranean, including those who perished on the ‘left-to-die’ boat in 2011. In this talk, Wadud will read from Syncope and will respond to questions from Sarah Jackson regarding the role of the ‘call’ in relation to those attempting to cross a border.

Asiya Wadud is the author of Crosslight for Youngbird (Nightboat Books, 2018), a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. Her other collections include day pulls down the sky… a filament in gold leaf , written collaboratively with Okwui Okpokwasili (Belladonna/ Danspace, 2019) and Syncope (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019). No Knowledge Is Complete Until It Passes Through My Body is forthcoming from Nightboat Books. Asiya teaches poetry to children at Saint Ann’s School and occasionally leads an English conversation group for new immigrants at the Brooklyn Public Library. A member of the Belladonna Collaborative, her work has been supported by the Foundation Jan Michalski, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Danspace Project, Brooklyn Poets, Dickinson House, Mount Tremper Arts, and the New York Public Library, among others. Recent work appears in e-flux, BOMB Magazine, Chicago Review, Social Text, FENCE, and elsewhere. Asiya is a 2019-2020 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Artist-in-Residence and also currently a writer-in-residence at Danspace Project.


Annabel Williams – Smooth Operators: Hoaxes, Switchboards, and Midcentury Fiction

In the telephony of midcentury literature, the switchboard operator tends only to materialise when there is a problem: crossed wires, unanswered calls, a broken line, or a troublesome hoax. Yet in Britain the conversion of manual to automatic telephone exchanges spanned many decades, meaning that until the mid 1970s (and beyond for certain kinds of call) ‘hello girls’ had been plugging in to the lives of subscribers, mediating, monitoring, and disrupting communication. With a focus on Muriel Spark’s fiction and Carol Lake’s Switchboard Operators (1994), this paper wires the operator into the critical conversation, examining the literary tropes that emerge where the gatekeepers of dialogue become themselves part of the narrative. Spark invokes the operator at moments where a truth is radically undermined, and notably where a hoax or fraud threatens ontological security. Attention to the operator and their role in routing (in both senses) truth, I argue, sheds new light on the play of irony and fabulation in Spark’s work, and prompts readers to reflect on our own interpretive practice as mediators, operator-like, between scepticism and credulity. Now that smartphones multiply the possibilities and frequency of hoaxes and misinformation, what can Spark’s smooth operators tell us about navigating the phony calls of the present?

Annabel Williams is a lecturer in English at Mansfield College, Oxford. She is currently completing her first monograph ‘Off-stage a war’: Cosmopolitanism, Travel, and Late Modernism, which examines the hybrid forms of travel and war writing that emerged in response to geopolitical crises in the 1930s and 1940s. She has published in Modernist Cultures and Textual Practice, and has an article forthcoming in Twentieth-Century Literature. Her next project, Remote-Control Culture: Minds, Machines, and Modern Anglophone Literature, explores a modern culture of remote control through writers including Anna Kavan, Muriel Spark and Arthur Koestler, and asks how autonomy is to be understood in an age where the distance between minds, machines and bodies is under constant re-evaluation.