Welcome from the Chair
Welcome to Conversation Two: Scrambled Messages. I’m delighted to be chairing this panel as the papers here intersect a number of my own interests (both the writers mentioned and also the kinds of feelings and epistemological fantasies at work in literary representations of tele-technologies). I want to open the discussion by thanking our contributors for this wonderful collection of — to borrow the telephonics of each of our speakers — ‘interceptions’, ‘evocalisations’, ‘intimacies’ and ‘interlocutions’. I was particularly interested in the ways in which these papers corresponded to one another around the gendered intimacies and anxieties effected by or at work in engaging the telephone. I notice that the title of our session — ‘Scrambled Messages’ — speaks both to the way in which the scrambling of telephonics might involve forms of un/intelligibilities, and urgency. But to scramble also means to get through or into a place or position, to strive or struggle either for mastery, or for a share of something. Listening to these papers, the political potential of the telephone is on the line and this potential is both affective, and gendered. What does this mean for how we feel about the telephone? I’m thinking here both about the call of the phone to us as writers, theorists, critics, but also wondering about the contingencies of that call — do our feelings about the phone tell us something about the generative potential we imagined for and from the phone? how are telephone affects mobilised by twenty-first century cell/mobile technology? And if we are nostalgic for the twentieth century telephone are we also nostalgic for its novelty, for a kind of technological disruption out of which new ways of thinking, feeling, being might be imagined? I want to thank, again, our contributors for their thinking through the telephone. This forum is open until June 5th for you to comment on the papers, ask questions of the speakers, or indeed for the contributors to speak to each other.
Karen - thanks so much for your insightful comments and questions. I was really pleased to find, when I listened to the papers one after the other, the little echoes you mention – that they spoke to each other, as it were. I was particularly moved to find the shared resonance between Christine Brooke-Rose’s listening shell/shell listening that Natalie referred to and Bowen’s whorls or roar of the listening shell that my paper refers to – these rather ancient emblems that call up so much about tools and techniques in literary listening!
I think that the gendered aspect of anxieties around engaging with the telephone are really important (so thank you for raising this) and are particularly acute in a work like To the North, in which the female protagonists’ trajectories are seemingly arranged around a constellation of moments of romantic connection and in which questions of agency are really raised by the forms and manners of communication with which they enable such connections. I find the way both women engage with others, as opposed to their actual engagements, is really telling and is where a lot of their identification, characterisation and subjectivity takes form. In using the telephone, we witness the mobilisation of their exterior and interior selves to communicate, their agency at work. Ironically, telephone communications in the novel take place entirely outside of the workplace. Although Emmeline works at the travel agency, the telephone is something personal, part of her private social life, and when the telephone, unanswered, unanswerable, begins to haunt her during her work day, the boundary dissolve makes her deeply uncomfortable. I wondered whether Natalie and Beatrice wanted to comment a bit more about the relationship between telephony at work/social or personal telephony for their writers, as both seem to have a really interesting coalescence in their work?
Either way thank you to all contributors for some really brilliant perspectives and thanks again Karen for starting the conversation!
>>> Listening in... AKA 'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...'
‘The movement away from theory and generality,’ remarks Annandine in Iris Murdoch’s novel Under the Net, ‘is the movement towards truth. All theorising is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular.’ It is a case that one can find reproduced a thousand times in the annals of modern literary commentary. […] Theory is one thing, while art or life is another. One scarcely needs to point out that Annandine’s statement is a theoretical claim in itself. […] It would also be interesting to know how any human situation could be unutterably particular and still prove intelligible.
Terry Eagleton, The Event of Literature (2012, p. 14)
Hi Natalie, Beatriz, Imogen, Nicholas and Andrew,
Thank you all for sharing your work with us. It is always tremendously exciting and moving to me to hear and feel the enthusiasm and depth of empathy of others for their own fascinations and others' lives. As part of Conversation #2, I'm also increasingly cognisant of the role and experience of telephony in the lives (and working lives) of women in the Hello/Conversation #1 discussions (and, of course, the generational and gendered experiences of all technology, really) and don't want to intrude on what is clearly a critical materialist moment/momentum (or, as Imogen perfectly summarises it, how the "sustained problematisation of communication opens up space to analyse the depiction of women’s subjectivity and autonomy, in an age ‘decentralised’ by its vast relay of communication systems").
That Natalie on Brooke-Rose, Beatriz on Spark and Imogen on Bowen all circle the confluence of modernism/wartime/and the increasing role/strength of women's voices... echoing down the line... speaks to each other and for itself.
I do want to address something that Imogen raises about modernism here (the good and the 'leaky') that is also covered in Nicholas/Andrew's Cixous reference (the second of the conference), the idea of 'literature, itself, as [an act of] telephony', that is, as an act of connection and communication where the medium/technique brings itself into the conversation of author and character and reader ("this opening [...] is the book calling"; much as dialogue functions in the form/format of the novel, if I understand Imogen correctly: "to achieve a meaningful connection with another person or to maintain self-identification in the midst of one").
In this sense, communication is opposed (suspended? supplanted? supported?) by the quiet where no-one speaks (and I'm also here thinking of Elizabeth's talk and its reference to 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' by Raymond Carver, which ends: "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."; compare this to: "Cecilia, dedicated to the act of listening alone, would rather hear the pumping of the own blood in her ears than the vast ocean, caring not whether the sound is meaningful, only that she can identify in its echoing.")
The telephone, like all communicative mediums, exactly like the novel and the poem, is as dedicated to its quiets, its hang-ups and drop-outs, awkward pauses, and so on, as it is to its formal purpose (of communication); only in its performative enactment do we become conscious of its (/our) weakness, breakdowns, temporality and frailty, our inability to speak/capture ourselves.
With this in mind, Nicholas, your 'knotted' phonecalls with your mother (and supervisor) also reminded me of Clifford's thinking (below; and Terry's argument, above) - the specific and the particular - in which the only way to understand the world is through the 'high window' of our own lives, the 'peculiar and difficult mingling of voices' by which all memory is also a form of mourning (and the reverberation/loss of 'voice'):
"What the ethnographer is in fact faced with except when (as, of course, he must do) he is pursuing the more automatized
routines of data collection is a multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit, and which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then to render."
Clifford Geertz, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, p. 10
"One can stay, as I have here, within a single, more or less bounded form and circle steadily with in it. One can move between forms in search of broader unities or informing contrasts. One can even compare forms from different cultures to define their character in reciprocal relief. But whatever the level at which one operates, and however intricately, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them."
Clifford Geertz, Deep Play, p. 453
P.S. Can anyone unpack the 'triple bind' for me?
Four great papers. I have a broad question which could apply to any of the papers, especially the first three - so, a question for Natalie, Beatriz, and Imogen. Can you see ways in which the telephonic anxieties and fantasies are inspired by or linked to the literary influences on Brooke-Rose, Spark, and Bowen? The question came to me with Natalie's paper, since the title of the poem, 'Symbol', suggests a reference either to that theoretical idea or to the literary school, and because what you're describing sounds so Poundian, and Eliotic - or is there some source in medieval writing? But I'd be just as curious to hear any similar thoughts with regards to Spark and / or Bowen. Thanks.
In Imogen's talk, the following sentence really got me thinking - "the telephone is the medium through which its characters attempt to organise their lives". It reminded me of two very famous uses of telephones theatrically - in A Streetcar Named Desire and in An Inspector Calls. In ASND, the phone is symbolic of the lack of communication between Stella and Stanley, and also of the lack of help presented to Blanche due her degrading mental health. Tennessee Williams himself came up with the term 'plastic theatre' to describe certain props in his plays, and I believe that this concept would stretch out to the phone - taking its abstract ideas of miscommunication and making them much more blatant. In AIC, the phone is almost a character in the play itself - it's used to teach the Birlings a severe lesson, almost trapping them in a sort of purgatory until they realise their wrongs.
@tkarshan Hi Thomas - thanks for raising this! In terms of influences on Bowen's telephones, Proust would be the writer that really comes to mind! We know he was a major figure for her and his writing on telephones is really brilliant (vol 2 and 3 of Remembrance of Things Past) - Sara Danius analyses it particularly well in The Senses of Modernism also!
@karenschaller – Thank you for getting the discussion started! I think affect can play an important role in our engagement with the telephone. In The Hothouse by the East River, we see that Paul’s ontological security is based on his need to perpetuate affective bonds that never came to fruition due to his death during WWII. His policing of Elsa’s motherhood – he complains that she is not caring towards her family – certainly results from this sense of nostalgia and fear that Elsa’s toughness will expose their existence as a fantasy (there are echoes here of Avital Ronell’s depiction of the telephone line as maternal chord, which in this case Elsa refuses to maintain). But I think Spark overall sees the telephone as a critical – rather than emotional – technology, which encourages thinking at times when characters are being carried away by their feelings – we can see this at play in The Hothouse by the East River, as Elsa’s ‘scrambling’ of the line acts as a call for reality. Spark was in fact a fairly unsentimental writer (see for example, her essay ‘The Desegregation of Art’, in which she discusses the ethical role of satire) and like other women in her generation was sceptical of the crowd feeling advocated by the social movements of her time, adopting instead a deeply intellectual and individualistic point of view (Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough offers a superb discussion of women intellectuals & unsentimentality during this period). I don’t think I’m fully answering your question here, but I hope this provides some food for thought!
@imogenfree - Thanks for raising this point! I think it’s interesting to compare Spark’s two (very different) telephonic experiences as part of her PWE work. The Allied bomber call is disturbing because it constitutes Spark’s connection to the ‘real war’, allowing her to know the worst in order to be prepared to mislead the enemy. It is also structured by code-names and stock phrases such as ‘Shall we go over?’ which reflect its bureaucratic nature. So we could say that the scrambler telephone here brings national history to bear on individuals. In contrast, her telephone exchange with the Foreign Office (via Colin Methven) is much more personal and unstructured – from individual to individual, rather than from nation to individual – and as such allows scope for friendship. Spark was a very cosmopolitan writer who lived in Africa, UK, US and Italy, and as such the telephone was instrumental for maintaining affective relationships with her family and friends. But professionally, she was always a bit wary of the telephone – she feared unwanted direct voice communication impinging on her – and decided to replace her telephone with a fax machine so that she could discriminate among messages!
@tkarshan - Thank you – this is a very good question. Spark admired Eliot and in the early 1950s she wrote a review of The Confidential Clerk, which was very well-received by Eliot, and started writing a study on him. At this time, she had started taking dexedrine, which brought about hallucinations. The words of Eliot’s writing started jumping around and rearranging themselves into crosswords and anagrams; Spark was convinced that Eliot was trying to communicate to her via secret codes and became fearful that he was prying and watching her. Of course, these hallucinations were visual rather than auditory, but I think their content points back to her work at the PWE – Spark’s biographer, Martin Stannard, calls them ‘metaphysical black propaganda’ – and forward to her association of sound technologies with paranoid suspicions of thought-insertion and thought-broadcasting (Andrew Gaedtke discusses this is in Modernism and the Machinery of Madness). There is certainly a sense that sound technologies allow external content to reach the mind and therefore provide opportunities for manipulation and deception.
I have a question for Natalie Ferris which relates to my reply to Imogen above. I've been thinking about the potential of telephony to bridge the national and the personal in Spark and the following quote from Remake (Brooke-Rose's fictionalised biography, in which she refers to herself as Tess) reflecting on her Bletchley Park experience comes to my mind: 'On the other hand, experiencing that same war as pure information on teleprints, index-cards and maps, well-protected in the peaceful Buckinghamshire countryside, helps to turn Tess into a detached intellectual, never experiencing the grime, the cold, the heat, the suffering, the corpses, the landmines, the tanks, except anodyned in newsreels.’ (108) Can the 'wireless voice' ever transcend the 'detached intellectualism' Brooke-Rose describes here? And if so, does her poetry - formally or thematically - offers any insights on how? Thank you!
I have really enjoyed all papers in this panel and I'm delighted to be in such good company!
@karenschaller Thank you so much for these generous opening notes and for raising some compelling points. I was particularly taken with your reading of 'scramble' -- it made me think of a verb Brooke-Rose constantly returns to in her fiction and critical work, to 'grope'. We 'grope' Brooke-Rose claimed of her circle of contemporaries, as a way of communicating what it was to experiment in writing. To grope is to use the hands in feeling, touching, the appraisal of something with which one is unfamiliar, to search space, seek signs. The result, however, is often the need to possess the other, of 'brasing, graping and plucking about', in which something is ultimately grasped. Of, as you note Karen, to strive or struggle for the mastery of something. This tension plays out at every level in Brooke-Rose's work -- from echoes and repetitions in sound, to themes such as travel and translation. Although telephones do not feature to any great extent in her work, the telephonic -- of the transference of meanings, conveyance, the need to grasp at meaning, to tune into echoes or hidden signs -- is a key concern.
And I'm delighted to be a part of such an excellent panel, and to think about these themes in the company of these compelling papers by my co-presenters. I'll no doubt have more questions for you all as the week goes by... (and certainly for @imogenfree as I have been thinking about Bowen a fair bit in recent months and I very much enjoyed your paper).
@tkarshan, Afternoon Thomas -- thanks so much for this perceptive question. I'm fascinated by the extraordinary range of Brooke-Rose's literary influences (between different languages, cultures, historical periods), and the ways in which literary/theoretical discourses later became structuring devices in her novels from the 1960s onwards. It's really interesting you raise Pound here, as Brooke-Rose often noted Pound (along with Beckett) as crucial to her sense of the writer as an 'echo-chamber'. This derived from her reading of the Cantos in particular; both authors and readers were to be radically situated and receptive to phonetic resonances, linguistic 'cross-references and ideogrammic shortcuts', to words and forms coming over the air (pertinent in context of this conference, and this plays out later in her extensive use of punning and patterning in novels such as Between  and Amalgammemnon ). She argued in the 1960s in articles in the London Magazine and the TLS for the continued relevance of Pound's 'incomprehensible causal collage work' (even claiming it to be the only poetry comprehensible to a 21st century readership) and went on to write a guide intended for students, A ZBC of Ezra Pound (1971).
And yet, yes -- at the time of writing 'Symbols' in 1947, she was reading medieval literature and philology at the University of Oxford and beginning to develop an acute sense of the grammatical structures and theoretical discourses that might aid her reading and attitude to form (she writes engagingly about this period and the importance of form in her collection of essays Invisible Author). She continued this work throughout the 1950s with a doctorate on metaphor in medieval French and English lyrics and romances (and she notes reading Kenner, Davie, Saussure, to aid her reading of form/syntax/metaphor, and Saurrute would become very important). What's particularly intriguing to me here, in terms of influence, is the gap between the writing of the poem 'Symbols' in 1947 and its publication in 1958 as a stanza in the poetic sequence 'The Island of Reil'. The year 1958 is something of a jumping off point for Brooke-Rose, in both creative and critical terms -- as well as this long poem and her second novel The Sycamore Tree, she published an influential defence of the 'anti-novel' in the London Magazine and her scholarly study The Grammar of Metaphor was well received by the press and in academic circles. So it is a decade marked by a curious blend of medieval influences - alliterative line, dream visions, complex rhyming schemes, allusions, and contemporary influences - the 'breaking of forms', a 'self mocking purpose', 'mathematical style', 'ordinary things in an incredible context'. And of course her wartime work -- decryption as critical practice! But Beckett looms large here. I'd love to see more criticism that explores that connection in detail.
And Beatriz -- that's such an excellent question! I'd like to do a little digging for something before I get back to you (not presently with my books so it's a little trickier than usual!) -- but more very soon!
Thank you Natalie, Beatriz, Imogen, and Nicholas and Andrew for this excellent panel. I have a quick question and comment for Beatriz: I wondered if you have a translation of the extraordinary scrambler phone sample appended to your talk? It was fairly indecipherable to me, except perhaps for some counting! In Hothouse Spark refers to a special knack needed to filter out the noise; do you know what the listener's strategies were? Spark also calls the jangling scrambler sounds 'harrowing' (which is surprisingly visceral, and seemingly conflates the content of the message with its form), but I wonder if she also actually relished the chaos – or rather her ability to perceive words take form out of the chaos. This calls to mind a moment in Loitering With Intent when the narrator, Fleur Talbot, cannot make a call because the local switchboard is broken, and the man who operates it is distraught: '"The board's asunder," bellowed the boy. I liked the phrase and picked it out for myself from the wreckage of the moment, as was my wont.' Technological (and immediately postwar, societal) crisis is welcome fuel for the writer. The quotation resonates also, I think, with Natalie's sense of language as emerging for Brooke-Rose, in the wake of her war work, from inscrutable or fissured terrains, and that brilliant image of Brooke-Rose's torn manuscript, taped up to recover the language of the brain and aphasia (another form of a circuit put asunder).
Thank you all for some excellent papers! A couple of questions, if people are around to answer them.
Beatriz, I found your paper really interesting; I'm not sure if you're working on Muriel Spark's Memento Mori as part of your thesis at all, but I wondered if you might have any thoughts on this novel and how it's portrayal of telephony may or may not relate to, or contrast with, the texts you discuss in your talk?
Imogen, thanks for a really thought-provoking paper. I find it intriguing that To the North focuses on the telephone as a device mainly used by characters in their private social lives, considering Emmeline's work in the travel agency (as you say in your comment above!). This is quite possibly too speculative a question, but I wonder if you have any further thoughts on this, and what it might say about Bowen's thoughts on telephony and/or Emmeline's work?
Anyway, thanks again all for a great panel!
@jess Hi Jessica - Thank you very much for this question! I really enjoyed your paper and it actually really got me thinking about why Emmeline's work does not utilise the telephone! I think it's partially due to Bowen's quite wilful separation of the two strands of connectivity at work in the novel - forms of communication and modes of transport. The two are evidently frequently interwoven in reality and both represent the 'decentralising' force (discombobulating, distracting, overwhelming) that intense forms of interconnectivity can have i.e the hazy feeling of taking several trains in a short space of time and not knowing where you are in (Cecilia in the first chapter), or the hyper-attention (that you really deftly handle in your paper) that the telephone can command. And yet, Emmeline largely admonishes communication/information technology in her work, which involves the organisation of the transportation of people across distances. Their first stenographer is completely useless and their second is too overwhelming a force of organisation - she has 'tentacles everywhere', and Emmeline and her colleague Peter can't actually handle or achieve anything without her assistance, they're out of the loop of her system. The telephone is used to at work in other Bowen novels, of course, for war work and espionage in The Heat of the Day - but I think the main subject of To the North is arguably the difficulty of achieving connections with others, that you don't allow to characterise your entire self, nor stifle your own self-reflexivity. I think Emmeline eschews technologies of information in favour of technologies of energy and of movement - she frequently wishes in her personal life that there were other ways of communicating than conversation...
Anyway, it is a tricky question and one that bears thinking about further! I think there's so much interesting work to be done (and that is being done) on women's work and technology (I would be really interested to find out more about your own work in this area!) but there's also a lot to be said about the way women's subjectivity and communication is handled in novels characterised by their romantic plots, like To the North.
@beatriz Thanks again for your excellent question! This is something I've also been thinking about. I suppose much of Brooke-Rose's work plays with this tension -- particularly her novels of the 1960s-1980s -- in which 'voice' or narrator are sort of ambient, diffused across intersecting theoretical discourses, specialist vocabularies or unknown languages, or even distorted or refocused in structural devices such as ellipsis, to introduce a degree of obliquity or 'detached intellectualism' to her fictions of campus life, professional travel, social-political conflict, curious medical conditions. However, much of this was an attempt to draw the reader closer. This could verge on the bristly ('All power to the reader, yes, if he's prepared to read') but was primarily a generous act ('I still think that people should take pleasure in reading, that it is up to the writer to write in such a way as to direct the attention of the reader to the richness of the possibilities of language').
But to address your q more directly (!) -- in terms of the potential of the 'wireless voice' to transcend a detached intellectualism in these early poems. I suppose in the paper I was trying to illustrate the ways in which the poem does precisely this -- that this voice, with no one origin and no one destination, comes closer to an experience of life lived in the wake of war. And that the painful realities of frontline warfare were beginning to reveal themselves in those encountered in everyday life. In its polyvocality and emphasis on sensory perception, it is an attempt to weigh the lasting psychological toll of modern warfare. And how was Brooke-Rose herself haunted? There is no redemptive arc in the poem -- meaning is created only in the carefully tuned balance between elements and sounds, disparate though they may be. In light of @imogenfree 's compelling paper, this makes me think of Bowen's sense of a time born on a 'rising tide of hallucination'.
(Sidenote: I'd recommend looking up the poem 'Today the Acupuncturist' [published in TLS, 1963], written following a long period of convalescence. It's excellent and bridges some of her earlier work with that of her later)
@awilliams – Thank you for your comment & question! You can find a clear voice recording of the scrambled sample here: https://www.cryptomuseum.com/crypto/voice.htm (it’s the first set of samples – analogue rather than digitally-encrypted – though comparing both is also quite revealing). I’m afraid I am not sure what the listener's strategies were – I assumed users would simply train their ear through practice, but I am hoping to look a bit more into this. I’ve struggled to find information on how the scrambler operated (perhaps it is still shrouded in secrecy?) – but I think a history of the scrambler telephone would be a great project for someone! And I do agree with you on Spark’s relishing of chaos – I think she perceived the world as a mystery whose ultimate meaning escapes us and she tends to satirise those who assign facile explanations to difficult existential questions (see, for example, her derision of Job’s comforters as ‘interrogators’ who are simplistically looking for the 'reason' of Job's suffering). I think she finds in technology a great vehicle for exploring inscrutable experiences such as scrambling/disconnecting the line; just when we think we are in control of the telephone, it somehow eludes us. And your point regarding Brooke-Rose is very compelling and does resonate with Spark, but I think Brooke-Rose is overall more interested in linguistic configurations, whereas Spark is fascinated by the mechanisms of storytelling and how stories can be made to look credible (this reflects the nature of their roles at the PWE and BP, I think!).
@jess – Thanks, Jessica! I’m working on Memento Mori as part of my thesis, but there is already a lot of existing scholarship on the role of the telephone in this novel [e.g. Nicholas Royle’s ‘Memento Mori’ in Theorizing Muriel Spark (2002), Amy Woodbury Tease’s ‘Call and Answer: Muriel Spark and Media Culture’ (2016) and Elizabeth Anne Weston’s ‘The Comic Uncanny in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori’ (2017)] so I felt I didn’t have much to contribute. But most importantly, I think Memento Mori approaches the telephone from an ontological perspective (a key preoccupation in Spark’s early writing), whereas I am more interested in exploring the political potential of disrupting the line, which comes to the fore in her later novels of the 1970s. I am intrigued as to why Spark decides to revisit her wartime experiences at this particular time – it may have to do with the fact that an autobiography of her propaganda boss (Sefton Delmer) was published in the 1960s or perhaps the surveillance cultures of the Cold War & Watergate reminded her of her PWE work... I’m hoping the archive will provide some answers! But it’s worth noting that the scrambler telephone only appears in the two 1970s novels I've discussed, which points to Spark's interest in the telephone as a political instrument.
Thank you for your reply, @nlferris25! I really like the idea of the 'wireless voice' acting as a bridge between frontline warfare and everyday life, and will definitely look up 'Today the Acupuncturist'.
Thank you everyone for the wonderfully rich dialogue that has happened here in this forum, and thank you again to our speakers for their stimulating papers.