Welcome to conversation 1
Diletta De Cristofaro here, I'm a Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham and I'll be chairing this conversation.
I wanted to welcome you all and thank our speakers for their contributions, which I'm really looking forward to hearing!
Please feel free to kick off the conversation in this Q&A section if you've already had a chance of tuning in and listening to the papers. The discussion is open until 5th June.
Dear Thomas, Stefana, Alasdair, and Mara,
Thanks for your presentations. A couple of questions for Thomas and Mara.
Thomas, it was amazing to read your translations, to be introduced to these poems. I am struck by the conversations embedded within them. In the second, "Telephone," I kept returning to the exchange, "— Are we to be parted for long?/I asked, in inarticulate longing./ — Yes, — you vaguely replied — yes, /forever, my beloved, forever." Given that this dialogue is supposedly between the narrator and (his) mother, I couldn't help but think of the origin story of the telephone proper -- a device for re/calling the dead mother. Is it possible Nabokov was also referencing said mythology? Along similar lines, consider the final line of "On the Telephone": "like a shadow from the depths of time." Put differently, could you reflect more on the telephone as un/dead media across these poems; about the telephone and "haunting" (to consider Sarah's opening remarks)? On a possibly related note, how does landscape figure into the first two poems you cite in your talk?
Mara, many thanks again for your presentation. Could you speak more to "the biases inherent in the normal sampling," perhaps related or not to the "frequency of details inherent to New York City" in screenings and tests? I am interested in possible reckonings with a range of Englishes, regional accents, as well as information about parallel histories of "telephone testing poetry" in locations other than the US and Europe.
With best wishes to all,
>>> Hanging on the telephone, then hanging up when you get the answering machine.
Hi Thomas, Alasdair, Stefana and Mara (and, parenthetically, Elizabeth),
I really enjoyed all your papers very much and thank you for sharing them.
Starting in reverse order, Amy's question for Mara prompts me to also ask about the impact of 'the mathematical fantasy of average English speech' and 'what counts' as hearing/speaking/speech norms/preferences. As we know from Benedict Anderson (pp. 134-135), print effectively produces not only national identities but a defining of national accents, dialects, linguistic purposiveness. If using a certain set of prompts trains the listener/user/community (and I do think the image of Mrs Maisel - love this show, Elizabeth! - at the switchboard is a good way of thinking about how certain kinds of phone 'manners'/performativity is not only learned by/in cultures but also embedded in the technologies that produce them - that the machinery is built to reflect/reify certain tones/speech/and linguistic practices; 'the poetry of telephone testing' becoming an everyday practice) then what do you/we think of the impact of global trends (e.g. TikTok, YouTube, Twitch) in terms of creating not only globally shared languages but 'accents'?
I realise this isn't your topic area here (although your New School talk on the telephone and its arguments on standardisation/personalisation at Bell made me think of this; see below) but the example I usually use is the AI influencer Miquela (check out her phone 'use' in 'Speak Up', for example; see below). Theoretically, an AI influencer would be able to replicate communication not only in a 'local' language but reflect personal and interpersonal communicative practices too; at which point, does this not turn biases in 'normal sampling' inside-out, to have a machine respond to your individual perspective? Considering your argument on aurality also made me think of Walter Ong's insight in terms of what he (old school) calls 'secondary orality'(he and McLuhan have a different sense of digital and electronic but close enough - digital oral culture; 2015, again, pp. 133-134):
"Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture — McLuhan’s ‘global village’. Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are groupminded self-consciously and programmatically. The individual feels that he or she, as an individual, must be socially sensitive. Unlike members of a primary oral culture, who are turned outward because they have had little occasion to turn inward, we are turned outward because we have turned inward. In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing."
Lastly, thank you so much for introducing us to that snippet of the Pierce poem in your New School talk (any chance you have the whole thing?); I include the portion here for everybody's reference (and, of course, link below):
But how many times have I sat through a conversation
Which would have been boring if I had heard both sides,
But was really tough because all my host said was yes, yes, yes.
I have known men in the hall to run like startled
Harts (is that the true poetic figure?)
When their bells jangled. I have known beyond that
Men to rise from conference when a distant distinctive
Tinkling claimed them, and run glassy eyed and fated.
John R. Pierce, unpublished. [One of the PCM guys; fascinating.]
Unreal. In some ways, we in this conference are playing a game of 'telephone' (more problematically known, where I come from, as 'Chinese Whispers'), where we're passing snippets of information and ideas and building upon them, while trying to maintain the overall message. In the spirit of this, your '30 minute dial-a-lecture' reminds me of the band They Might Be Giants, who used to (and still) provide a dial-a-song option that patrons could pay for (long before Patreon).
This leads me to Stefana's talk (which also covered some of Thomas's topic area, in the lovelorn figures of Vladimir and Vera, namely...) regarding the phone as an instrument of negotiating love and relationships and sex (which, depending, on the decade and culture, are coidentical or coinciding, at least).
As I think we could (and should) probably do a whole conference on the discourse of 'chat', being left on read, (joining and leaving) group chats and calls, drunk dialling/sexting/phone sex/emoji use (or 'eggplant' as my children like to say)/being on call 24/7, and so on, I don't have much to ask, Stefana (loved it!), but wanted to draw your attention to Blondie's cover of 'Hanging on the Telephone' and then make the argument that songs using phones as their primary metaphors are predominantly about romance and sexuality vs. almost any other reason... because the songs are about a lack of communication which, in the case of sexuality, is a constitutive Lacanian/Zizekian lack. I also wonder which songs you thought illustrate emerging phone etiquette and what they mean, socially, moving forward? (For example, 'New phone, who dis'; see below.)
Alasdair, I really enjoyed The World Question Centre video/argument ("Which questions have disappeared? [...] I ask to explain everything. [...] How to fall in love with a phonecall. To present the opportunity of possible response is the exhibition.") and wanted to ask if you knew where the MM quote was from ("An immediate assimiliation of consciousness would bypass speech in a kindof massive extrasensory perception...")?
(Also, if you haven't watched the video, conference-goers, OMG, check out Byar's hat - worth the price of admission alone!)
If you haven't seen the video, check out 57:20-58:58 where he explains the project (the video just repeats itself after the first hour) and, Alasdair, I think it's worth looking in-depth at 37:00-40:00, 50:00-50:37, and 52:21-54:38 for the purposes of examining telephonic miscommunication (and the theorisation of prank calls).
This also made me think, Thomas and Alasdair (and Will), about the place/role/shared metaphor of McLuhan (and Lacan) wherein the content of any medium is always another, prior medium in terms of the modernist fascination of catching the message in mid-flight (and, often, importantly, the failure to do so). McLuhan (who I love) wrote as much nonsense as justice, IMO (e.g. 'cool media', the laws of media' etc.), but is spot on here - what is our sense of the content of telephony where the medium itself is no longer primarily about making phone calls?
Txtspk, Emoji, Memes and GIFs, selfies and challenges; this is the first generation that I'm aware of in the scheme of human history where the 'phone(tic)' code (the internal language, lingo, patois) changes all the time, daily, because they never know 'who's listening' (which also explains the millennial/generational obsession with irony). Thoughts?
MM (and Mrs. Maisel and Miquela)
TMBG vs. Blondie - Hanging On The Telephone vs. the Harley Quinn version (T/F/A?)
AM: The World Question Centre
(The other) MM Quotes: Phonetics vs. Phones
No Chinese scribe or reader could make the mistake of ignoring the form of writing itself, because his written character does not separate speech and visual code in our way. But in a world of phonetic literacy this compulsion to split form and content is universal, and affects non-literary people as much as the scholar. Thus the Bell Telephone Laboratories spend millions on research but have never even noticed the peculiar form that is the telephone and what it does to speech and to personal relations. As an expert in prints [William] Ivins became aware of their difference from the printed books in which they appeared. This in turn made him aware of the great difference between printed and manuscript books. At the outset [...] he draws attention to the dimension of repeatability built into the phonetic written characters, in order to stress the same dimensions of repeatability as it is found in pre-Gutenberg block printing of pictures from woodcuts [...]. (TGG, pp. 77-78)
It is almost uncanny that the modern telephone booth should also reflect another aspect of the medieval book world, namely the chained work of reference. But in Russia, until recently quite oral, there are no phone books. You memorize your information—which is even more medieval than the chained book. But memorization presented little problem for the pre-print student, and much less for non-literate persons. Natives are often bewildered by their literate teachers and ask: "Why do you write things down? Can't you remember?" (TGG, p. 92; vs. Chapter Twenty-One of UM, 'The Press')
Telephone is a cool medium or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. (UM, Chapter Two)
To some Westerners the written or printed word has become a very touchy subject. It is true that there is more material written and printed and read today than ever before, but there is also a new electric technology that threatens this ancient technology of literacy built on the phonetic alphabet. Because of its action in extending our central nervous system, electric technology seems to favor the inclusive and participational spoken word over the specialist written word. Our Western values, built on the written word have already been considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio, and TV. Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic. There is the further circumstance that, during his more than two thousand years of literacy, Western man has done little to study or to understand the effects of the phonetic alphabet in creating many of his basic patterns of culture. To begin now to examine the question may, therefore, seem too late. (UM, Chapter Nine)
The very nature of the telephone, as all electric media, is to compress and unify that which had previously been divided and specialized. Only the "authority of knowledge" works by telephone because of the speed that creates a total and inclusive field of relations. Speed requires that the decisions made be inclusive, not fragmentary or partial, so that literate people typically resist the telephone. But radio and TV, we shall see, have the same power of imposing an inclusive order, as of an oral organization. (UM, Chapter Twenty-Five, 'The Telegraph')
The typewriter and the telephone are most unidentical twins that have taken over the revamping of the American girl with technological ruthlessness and thoroughness. Since all media are fragments of ourselves extended into the public domain, the action upon us of any one medium tends to bring the other senses into play in a new relation. (UM, Chapter Twenty-Seven, 'The Telephone')
(Alasdair, you might also be interested in MM's 'The Brain and the Media' pp. 58-59 ('matching' vs. 'making' meaning; the discarnation where our communications are separated from our actual bodies and become cultural 'noise' in the Shannon-Weaver model) vs. LOM, pp. 5-6 artists as antennae, then 86-91; see also his weird Tetrad on Telephony, a Counterblast-like-moment of LOM, pp. 152-153)
thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions about these Nabokov poems.
I actually hadn't thought that the 'Telephone' was a dialogue between with the poet's mother but with a lover; but given that we have it on the back of a letter to his mother, you have a point. I still am not sure what the inspiration may have been for these poems - that is to say, which other literary or non-literary writing about the telephone Nabokov might have read. It's possible he knew about that story of the phone being a device to contact one's dead mother. There is something of this quality in the chapter of Speak, Memory about his mother.
On the broader question of haunting, of voices rising up from the dead, I think of the lines I quoted from VN's letter to Vera about how when he speaks to her on the phone it comes out completely wrong, and how he needs to talk to her as wonderfully as we only do with people long dead - as if our communication is with the dead is usually the only authentic communication; but that one's communication with one's beloved may be modelled on this. I'm reminded of the passage from Eliot's Little Gidding - 'For the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living'. Your point is well taken, and Nabokov would develop the ghostliness of 'On the Telephone' into a section of his first novel, Mary, in which it is described as being like having conversations with someone in the fourth dimension. I think that for Nabokov, as for Dostoevsky (and Bellow, another Dostoevskian), a mind is made up out of the buzz of conversations with the dead and the living, all cross-hatched. It's more that the medium serves as a metaphor for that; I don't see VN as a Kittlerian techno-determinist in the way that Joyce and Pynchon or Will Self (in his first talk at this conference) were or are.
On the landscape in those poems ... as I say, I think Nabokov marvels at the distance the voice traverses but that in 'Telephone' there is the sense that the poet, in pursuing his or her vocation of interrupting the message, must abandon the strong walls of civilization and accept the role of the wanderer; a role that will later in Nabokov transmute to that of the trickster. I also think it's significant that the poem, and the telephone, traverses not only fields and rivers but also crumbling cities - that is to say, it passes across and effaces civilization as well as nature.
thanks for the many useful insights in your response. On the specific question of >> what is our sense of the content of telephony where the medium itself is no longer primarily about making phone calls? << do you mean 'when the medium itself is no longer about exchanging information, or 'having a conversation'? I don't know if you've listened to Will Self's plenary yet, but he says something there about how he used to hear his father leaving phone messages as if he were signing off letters. I like the idea of a sonic letter travelling down the phone, but it seems to me that the content of phone conversations between lovers, which I am just old enough to remember, depended in large part on the management of tense and exciting silences, with nobody being sure who - or whether - to break them. Unreadable silence, of a kind which wouldn't have been possible if the other person was actually there, was a possibility of the medium, lodged halfway, as it was, between the illusion of presence and the realisation of absence. What do you think?
Tommy, thank you for this fabulous talk and for sharing the unseen translations of Nabokov, which are gorgeous! I particularly enjoyed Nabokov’s (in your translation) equivalences between the devices of lyric poetry (the ‘I’, the Coleridgean aeolian harp), and those of the phone. Nabokov’s ‘lilies-of-the-valley’ called to mind Robert Frost’s rendering of the candlestick phone as a flower held by a stalk (‘The Telephone’). And thinking about Nabokov and Aikhenval’d’s account of the poet as a device for listening, Jack Spicer claimed the ‘poet is a radio’, through which s/he tunes into ‘soupy static’. This is contra the phone, which is more ‘direct’:
‘I’ve never gotten any poet but Lorca, which was just a direct connection like on the telephone. Which wasn’t the poets of the past but was Mr. Lorca talkin’ directly [. . .] I think when you pay attention to tradition like Eliot does, you get into all sorts of the most soupy static that you can possibly have, so that you don’t know what is your reading of English literature and what is ghosts.’
Could we talk about a tradition of lyric poetry conceived in terms of telephony? Your comment about the aeolian harp has made me wonder if such a tradition would then not be limited to post-19th century, with the invention of the phone. It could have anticipated it.
I was very interested by Mara's talk, as someone who is hard of hearing myself. It's well discussed amongst audiology specialists that tonal hearing tests are inaccurate - in fact, my own audiologist gave me a paper on how SIN tests (speech-in-noise) tests are much more accurate at reproducing the circumstances during which the HOH community struggles in their day to day life (I've linked this down below). It got me thinking about live poetry talks and readings, and I know Ilya Kaminsky is particularly vocal about this. Most talks are presented in a way that assumes everyone will be able to understand poems as they are read. Unfortunately, it can be very hard to concentrate on the meaning of the poem if all of your brainpower is directed solely at trying to hear it. This is why many deaf/HOH poets feel excluded from being able to attend such events, and has led to calls for events to offer printouts for those who require them. A few people seemed to have a problem with this, saying that reading it would detract from the magic of being able to hear the poem as the poet intends it to be read. I just wanted to ask, what does everyone here think about this?
Another addition to Stefana's talk could be the Tom Walker song 'Leave a Light On':
"Just a phone call left unanswered, had me sparking up
These cigarettes won't stop me wondering where you are"
Again, it's adding to this idea of the normalisation of hyper-connectivity and the ability to be able to know where anyone is at any one particularly. Of course, when the level of connectivity begins to dip, people get worried, because it's not normal for them to be so out of connection with someone else. In the song, the singer is concerned about his friend, worrying that they might have overdosed because they're not replying to his phone calls. This also links a little to Tom's talk, about the
phone almost being used by the woman in Nabokov's poem as a weapon with with to commit suicide. It shows the power of communication and miscommunication.
https://www.hearingreview.com/hearing-loss/patient-care/evaluation/audiologic-considerations-people-normal-hearing-sensitivity-yet-hearing-difficulty-andor-speech-noise-problems - the paper I talked about in my response to Mara's talk
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glfTU-LjE50 - A lyrics video to the song Leave a Light On by Tom Walker
Literally - we do not use phones to make phonecalls. We use it to check social media, Google things, pay for things, play games, date, etc. It is a conversation, broadly speaking, but in many ways disconnected and distracted from each other ('taking turns'). I did listen to Will's talk (and enjoyed it) and signed off my message to him the same way he remembers his dad doing (which, I guess, is weird, now that I've addressed doing it). And yes, I too am old enough to remember silence/s and how they make meaning.
Hot. Unlike being 'left on read' which drives young people (meh) crazy.
MM argues: "Our illusion of 'content' derives from one medium being 'within' or simultaneous with another. [...] Multi-screen projection tends to end the story-line, as the symbolist poem ends narrative in verse. [...A] simultaneous syntax eliminates the [...unneeded/unheeded] medium [...]."
(McLuhan, 'Counterblast', 1970, p. 24)
Obviously I disagree with his take on the symbolist poem; nonetheless the idea that all text/culture is an endless series of nesting dolls where the new genre/format still speaks with the language/metaphors of the last is a pretty standard McLuhanian (?) argument. My point (generally) is that AI removes the problem of simultaneous syntax, updating our cultural references in real-time.
Which you can also see in young people and their 'changing of the code'.
(LOL. All conversations with lovers are also with mothers.../parents/the dead. Probably. I think the neo-Freudian interpretation is that they do, if you do...)
I really like yr. translations BTW.
There is so much good work out there in the "do artifacts have politics" (Winner) tradition on the biases embedded in telephones and other electroacoustic equipment/signals, from Anne McKay's chapter on gender and amplification in Technology and Women's Voices; to Tina Tallon's recent article on the making of "shrillness"; to a recent post by Jonathan Sterne on the constraints of VoIP. And I've published on this topic with regard to cochlear implants.
But on the subtopic of test sentences, designed to calibrate this equipment, context enabled a listener to correctly guess words that might otherwise not have been heard--however the context (in this case) would mostly have been familiar to New Yorkers. And creating lists of sentences that represented average frequency distributions of English speech sounds presented another set of problems--namely when this distribution was estimated based on things like printed newspapers, or eavesdropping on east coast U.S. telephone lines.
With regard to the consequences of measuring speech hearing in the field of audiometry, in the forthcoming published version of this talk I discuss things like the "speech banana" (named for the shape on a tonal audiogram of the region of sounds in the English speech range) and the ongoing problem of revising this tool for other languages.
More to be said, but that's the beginning of an answer to your great question!
Thank you for the link to that article! Because hearing and deafness are "umbrella" categories they include a great deal of internal diversity with regard to experience and diagnosis alike. For instance, tonal audiograms might not capture "deafness" resulting from tinnitus; at the same time, people with identical audiograms might identify in very different ways from one another.
I'm picking up this morning on the thought-provoking comments from Rose, Don, and Sam - and wondering if there is an answer in common to all three ideas ... not sure but:
in ref. to Sam's question - maybe there are two ideas which may overlap in fruitful ways - a) that the poet is as much a listener as a speaker or writer: to be a poet - whether as an Aeolian harp or as a phone mechanism, or as telegraph poles - is to be one who can pick up messages on the air; and b) that the poet can form a direct 'telephonic' connection with a previous poet (like Spicer to Eliot), and in doing so pick up a lot of static from the voices of the past, the ocean of dead poets. And that can be a kind of hyper-connectivity, as Rose nicely puts it ...
On the first point - such a good question? I think this idea is so important, so profound - that we terribly trivialise poetry when we call the poet a writer. A poet is as much a gifted ear as a mouth. I associate this idea so much with the Romantics, English and German, with their sense of the poet as an underground observatory, with an ear hungry as a shark (Keats) but am not sure if it predates them. I don't know. Randall Jarrell implied that Pope had this thought when he quoted the line from the Dunciad - 'The spider's web, how exquisitely fine / Thrills at each touch and lives along the line' - as Pope's description of his own poetry, thrilling at each touch - though here it is not so much the poet as the *poem* that listens beautifully.
Thanks so much to Don for that just wonderful quotation from McLuhan. You may disagree with McLuhan, but I find sympathetic the notion that all 'content' is an illusion produced by the overlapping of media; what a beautiful idea. I do think Nabokov - just on the way out from being a Symbolist poet when he wrote the poems I have quoted, but still under the spell of Russian symbolists such as Blok - would have found it deeply sympathetic. And the same may be true for the 'addresser' or 'addressee' - when I feel myself spoken to, I am always impersonating another addressee - thus I talk to my lover but clothed in the ghostly memory of my mother, who is the ghost of some one or some thing else. And that chain may feel like life, which makes its breaking like death - In relation to Rose's point about the Tom Walker song and the Nabokov woman using the phone as a pistol to commit suicide with ... in a way isn't that always implicit in the phrase about a line going dead?
Nice one; nailed it. We are all ghosts haunting life and the line goes dead. Perfection. ❤️
(P.S. I'm 100% behind Marshall on the point of content being recycled/rearticulated by new mediums; I just think his all-or-nothing approach - "the symbolist poem ends narrative in verse" - is like saying opera is over or Tuvan throat singing. He's got that classic twentieth century attitude towards genre/knowledge where the contents are defined by what it says on the outside of the box. The 21st century argument - why are there so few developing (/mass) genres; answer: the digital technology/interface produces (mass) personalisation and specialisation and... so... the medium is literally the message... and/also/always/already we now have access to this extraordinary archive of global culture, so we're probably going to play with that for a while - suggests more of a 'party line' vibe.)
Thomas - I am echoing others here, but I really enjoyed your translations of these poems and wondered if you may have plans to collect and publish Nabokov's early poetry? Thanks for a great paper!
thanks for that. Well, I hope to publish these translations in the context of an article. At the moment all of Nabokov's poetry that has been translated (as well as his verse written in English), can be found in the volume I edited. But there are many hundreds - if not thousands - of untranslated Russian poems, mostly from 1916 - 1930; and indeed that's just the published ones. There are also dozens if not hundreds of Russian poems which he never published, including the two in my article and - for instance - a long Pindaric Ode 'Olympicum', on the Olympic Games. It would be great if someone did one day want to publish a translation of some or all of these, but I don't think it will be; for one thing, my Russian is nowhere near good enough. But a great opportunity if you know anyone with excellent Russian and a gift for verse translation.