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Rebecca Cullen
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 6
May 27, 2020 5:40 pm  

Hello all, or perhaps 'hilloo, darlings', to Conversation 3.

This conversation starts with a warm welcome to these four stunning papers, connecting different points in literary and telephonic history. In Jordan Moore's paper, lengths of wire trail across the 'waste lands' of David Jones's World War I poetry, and we 'mind the wire' accordingly, while telephones are instruments of connectivity and disruption within a spectrum of attention in Jessica Gray's exploration of telephones in Woolf's Night and Day. Matt Helm takes us to interwar Berlin to reposition the aurality of the telephone, placing it in conversation with the visual nature of Isherwood's camera lens, while Don Sillence asks us to 'pick up' the repercussions of AI technology alongside the need for energy to maintain the networks of increasingly selective and reworked memory held in our handsets.

My initial reaction on listening to these papers is also telephonic, trying to find ways in which they are in dialogue with each other, or whether they might be eavesdropping. My opening question then is addressed to who is on the other end of the line, perhaps behind these papers themselves, asking whether the speakers of the papers, or their listeners, found anything here which rang a bell?

 


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Don Sillence
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 16
May 29, 2020 3:44 pm  

>>> You can ring my bell. Twice.

Hi Jessica, Jordan and Matthew (and Rebecca, hey, thanks for bringing us together; also, hey, maybe, Nicholas, Will and Imogen, again!),

All fabulous talks; and thx.

 

To start with Rebecca's question about how we are in dialogue with each other (or eavesdropping; I'm always annoying my students with the provocation that the main thing they do on the internet is spy on/creep on people - as their SM feeds do not visibly register their glances, only their performative acts; of course, the machine sees and knows all - when and where you hover the mouse or your fingertip, how long it takes you to click or tap, how often, etc.)... I think my initial reaction (to Rebecca's initial reaction) is to engage with the idea that we can behave 'telephonically' towards each other (so, like Nicholas's argument in Conversation #2 that the book form can be read telephonically; conversationally, dialogically) and maybe extend that thinking through the talks here.

 

Matthew and Jessica, your talks reminded me of Imogen's in Conversation #2 and made me wonder about the relationship between dialogue and narration in novels (and how it played out in terms of phones as mediums (/apparatuses) and metaphors in novels of the 30s (and since?)); which leads me to ask:

(i) do we think that the earlier novels of the '10s and '20s may have seen the device/behaviour as intrusive (relative to an uptake timeline) and then, thereafter, conducive?
(ii) is there perhaps an analogous shift in the concerns and metaphors in the literature and culture towards/regarding the cordless in the '60s, the mobile in the '70s and '80s and the smartphone in the '90s and '00s? Cluelessness and class differences give way to freedom, possibility, social mobility, etc. (and then collapse back into interiority and social distance)?
(iii) our tendency is to see the narrative (/events/background) as fixed (/real/realistic) and the dialogue to be revealing of 'character' (in terms of their ability to 'carry on a conversation', so... effective connection vs. miscommunication) and thus fluid/falsifiable/fallible; but maybe the value of the figuration of the tele/cell/phone in the 20th C. is that it actually reveals events to be a matter of perspective and interpretation whereas (the scripting of) dialogue is maybe, in a way, more reliable ('we say what we mean', 'speak our truth').

(I can't really footnote anything here but I think a study of phones, dictaphones and hearing aids in David Lynch's Twin Peaks would probably bear this out...)

 

To pause for a minute, Matthew (if you're reading this), I'm struck by your thoughts on Isherwood and wonder if I and Will have missed a (fairly obvious, 'bumptious') trick with Forster; to quote (I'm told) Kermode, here is “a world in which what may now seem fairly trivial sexual gestures carry a freight of irreversible significance”; then there's Isherwood and Forster reading Maurice together (“all those books [about Forster] have got to be re-written. Unless you start with the fact that he was homosexual, nothing’s any good at all”) and I wonder if The Machine Stops is just an elaborate yearning to come out of a closet (/hexagonal cell) he felt trapped in (Kuno: "Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further: it was then that I called to you [Vashti - his mother] for the first time, and you would not come."; the 'phonecalls' in TMS are striking in their resonance of the difficulty of 'coming out' to one's parents...).

 

I mean, in one sense it's probably entirely beside the point, but to return to Rebecca's question - 'the night is young and full of possibilities', as Anita Ward sang disco(-ursively) in 'Ring My Bell' (which was ostensibly/originally intended to be a song about telephony but became something more/else), and, in closing, reminds me of Isherwood's other close friend Auden's great lines (average poem) about Freud:

he would have us remember most of all
to be enthusiastic over the night,
not only for the sense of wonder
it alone has to offer, but also
because it needs our love.

 

Goodnight, spies (in the house of love).

 

Notes:

https://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/150/1870.xhtml#:~:text=By%201900%20there%20were%20nearly,and%205.8%20million%20by%201910.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring_My_Bell
https://poets.org/poem/memory-sigmund-freud
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q4hM25uGbs
https://newrepublic.com/article/76235/the-prose-and-the-passion
https://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machine-Stops.pdf


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Thomas Karshan
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 11
May 29, 2020 4:34 pm  

Such a high standard of papers - thanks, all of you. I learned so much from each of them.

My question for Matthew about his brilliant paper on Isherwood, is, whether he could say a bit more about what he thought Isherwood was doing in balancing the two sides of Goodbye to Berlin: the celebration of Bernhard's telephonic networked identity and the satire of Sally's telephonic babble? 

About Jordan's paper, can I ask about the relationship between the buzzing and the sense of communion? there's great writing here about how the chain of communications ground the soldiers and help them feel at home; also about mishearing, voices coming around corners, etc. Are the two the opposite of one another? or is there some subtler alignment?

Don - I wondered if you could develop a bit more, in relation to AI voice-calls, the implications of that Lacanian idea about the meaning of one's utterance only becoming clear when it returns home?

Jessica - I'd be very interested to hear more about how this piece fits into your work more generally about women's work in the period. How did the telephone, and its (dis-)connections fit in with that?

 

 


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Matt Helm
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 3
May 29, 2020 6:56 pm  

@tkarshan

Hi, Thomas, I appreciate your question! While I did not get to talk about it as much as I wanted to, one of my main motivations in zeroing in on Isherwood’s telephone-play is to re-invest his pre- gay liberation texts with political significance. Taken together, the “passive” camera formulation, Isherwood’s expatriation to the United States, and the novel’s obfuscation of its narrator’s homosexuality have contributed to a critical consensus that (early) Isherwood was a politically disengaged writer. I found that tapping into Goodbye to Berlin’s telephone conversations allows us to read past the Isherwood narrator’s surface-level “passivity” or “voyeurism” to overhear an incisive political critique – not just of interwar Berlin but of homophobic England as well.

When we think of Goodbye to Berlin (or even the movie/musical Cabaret), we immediately think of Sally and her larger-than-life spectacle. However, I do not think that Sally’s ironic camp appeal is where Goodbye to Berlin begins and ends. The text does not (only) celebrate Sally, but it also critiques the camp impulse to languor in what is horrible and unchangeable about the world and about politics. I think that Bernhard and Sally’s chapters, both being structured around telephone calls, invites us to compare Isherwood’s treatment of the two.

I do not see Bernhard’s chapter so much “celebrating” his telephonic networked identity but as memorializing him in some way – Isherwood takes his conversations with Bernhard and archives them in the literary form. The Isherwood narrator dutifully records conversations that bewilder and befuddle him because they point toward Bernhard’s fundamental unknowability – here, the text is articulating something of an ethical philosophy in these moments. Taken together, the two telephonic chapters in Goodbye to Berlin show us that the medium is perhaps only as good (ethical, politically redolent) as those who use it. The telephone, like literature, can be put toward frivolous or profound ends. As Goodbye to Berlin demonstrates, there is room for both the frivolous and the profound in the same novel.

I hope that provides some clarity about what I see Isherwood doing by contrasting Bernhard and Sally’s uses of the telephone. Slightly unrelated, but Isherwood also does some interesting stuff with the gramophone in Goodbye to Berlin, indexing the rise of fascism as a kind of cacophony infecting the streets of Berlin – just another political warning that Isherwood embeds into the novel’s soundscape.


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Matt Helm
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 3
May 29, 2020 10:19 pm  

@dr-don

Here's a few thoughts in response to your own.

(i) do we think that the earlier novels of the '10s and '20s may have seen the device/behaviour as intrusive (relative to an uptake timeline) and then, thereafter, conducive?

I would need to do some reading around 10s/20s novels to be able to make any kind of generalization like this. However, one novel that comes to mind immediately is Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), where the phone for Irene more immediately registers her annoyance at Clare Kendry's intrusion into her life and more abstractly the ineffability of this thing called race.  

(ii) is there perhaps an analogous shift in the concerns and metaphors in the literature and culture towards/regarding the cordless in the '60s, the mobile in the '70s and '80s and the smartphone in the '90s and '00s? Cluelessness and class differences give way to freedom, possibility, social mobility, etc. (and then collapse back into interiority and social distance)?

Here, I think of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), where the Vonnegut narrator refers to himself as a telephoner and even from time to time takes a break from his role as omniscient narrator to “plug into” the action of the scene and converse with characters over the wire.

More recent works like Adiche’s Americanah (2014) seem to echo the form and function of a smartphone – the novel switches between excerpts from blogs and emails, is super concerned with what it means to connect in a globalized world, and even has an extra-textual life online.

Again, none of these are fully formed thoughts (and certainly not enough to make an argument about an entire decade on), but they do seem to suggest that as telephonic technology shifts so too does its metaphorical use in literature.

To pause for a minute, Matthew (if you're reading this), I'm struck by your thoughts on Isherwood and wonder if I and Will have missed a (fairly obvious, 'bumptious') trick with Forster…

I definitely think it is possible to read Forster’s short story in terms of queer erotic allegory! After all, it is desire that prompts Kuno to go to the earth’s surface and to leave the closet-like space (only to return thanks to the many white worms).


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Don Sillence
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 16
May 30, 2020 2:46 pm  

@matthelm

 

Hey, thanks for getting back to me. The arguments were probably more a provocation than anything else; I mean, it would be interesting to know exactly how and in what ways phones/telephony were introduced into various cultures/texts at various points and then how they slowly became integrated and then, effectively, invisible within those cultures/texts (assuming that telephony is not particularly different from any other form of communication/technological device/practice/uptake; and here I am, still surfing the web on the information superhighway etc. tubes etc.). And we probably could and should get someone to look at that because it would fascinating to know if novels/poetry/literature were either more or less attuned to that pattern (than any other media, for example; in radio plays or the cinema etc.). 

 

On the other hand, as I suggested regarding the gay subtext/queer erotic allegory (love it) of TMS, it's probably (for me) a bit beside the point. Both Will and I (and presumably most readers of TMS) are struck by Forster's pathos and potency for our socially mediated time (and now all media is, in effect, socialised... and also dangerously privatised/governmentalised etc.) but the point (for me, at least; Will and I appear to disagree about time) is that Forster's warning is only useful if we heed it; otherwise it's merely interesting.

 

Likewise, the phone. As a metaphor, as a signifier, as a reflection on the culture and society and mores of the text... interesting. But what if, as I suggested above, the phone could also be interpreted/used as an axis by which we reverse the binary thinking of (fixed/real/story/background) narrative vs. (fluid/performative/character/foreground) dialogue so that instead of trapping the meaning of Forster/Isherwood/Auden/Freud/etc. in the past, we let them speak a little (in)to our present moment (more prosaically: in terms of understanding/reflecting on our failure and success at communicating (as individuals, cultures, a species), the (presence/immanence of the) phone allows us to take a step back from the language we use and be a little more aware of the process).

 

Ugh, I apologise if this isn't landing with you. I'm often told that I'm oblique and I know this would be easier (for me) to find the shared/necessary language if we could speak face-to-face. Maybe in the future we will have conferences where people can meet in person...

 

This probably doesn't need solving; it was just a thought. Be well,

 

D

 

(Note: 'to be enthusiastic over the night because it needs our love'; that we have an ethical obligation to explore and expand the discourse, to go into the dark corners, not just to study them but to understand - that is to say, love - them) 


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Rose Brennan
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 7
May 30, 2020 4:01 pm  

Hello (again again),

Jordan's talk reminded me of the military saying:

Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.

Send three and fourpence. We are going to a dance.

about the almost 'Chinese whispers' style game of verbal communication in the trenches. It's why technological methods of communication became much more important and widely used - information was needed quickly, and it needed to be accurate. Face-to-face communication, especially through multiple people in a trench system, could alter the information slightly depending on how the people hear the message.  I do believe that this is still a phrase in use by the military today, but more as a joke than as a warning.


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Jordan Moore
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 1
May 30, 2020 4:17 pm  

@tkarshan

Thomas, many thanks for your question.

If I understand it correctly, you’re asking how can soldier to soldier communications both ground the soldiers yet also be a source of mishearing and disorientation? I believe there is alignment here, and I could have parsed this better in the paper. 

Telephone wires and soldier to soldier communications lines are both sites for mishearing in the poem. The connections I observe, however, are the practices or routines that come from this disconnectivity. Take the buzzing telephone. It may hum with poor connectivity, and we may not hear its message, but it is a familiar and repeated sound for soldiers like Ball. Or, consider the recurring phrase: mind the wire. In contrast to the dislocated voices heard outside of the trenches, the presence of telephone wire locates and organizes soldiers’ voices. Its tenuous connection leads to a communal experience; and this is marked by a ritual expression that is passed up and down the soldier lines. In both, the significance seems to be more in the shared transmission of a message than in its actual content. 

This is one take, but I’m sure there is much more to be said here, and I would welcome any other thoughts! Cheers, Jordan.


Don Sillence
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 16
May 30, 2020 5:18 pm  

@tkarshan

Hi Thomas,

Sure. Most people (in my experience) aren't that into neo-Freudian/Lacanian/Ziekian analysis (which is probably fair enough) but it's a useful tool (whether you believe in it or not). The 'letter always arrives at its destination' is a bit of thinking we can use to talk about the success and failure of communication (practically, pragmatically); here, in the technology/desire of the phone (from a psychoanalytic view, 'things' aren't ever just 'things' because we imbue them with significance (weight, value, feelings, etc.)), we can see highlighted/delineated the experience of people/characters communicating and miscommunicating (or, in my terms, connecting and disconnecting).

 

The analytical approach is particularly useful when you want to talk about why people miscommunicate, misunderstand, lie or obfuscate.

 

Imagine communicating with devices that will not lie to us.

 

(Parenthetically, paradoxically, that's how we train AI - by teaching the truth to one AI and getting it to lie to another until the second AI can tell the difference (GAN or Generative Adversarial Networks); or, as Bateson would say, the difference that makes a difference - the difference here between a one and a zero. Of course, this is a matter of what we mean when we say that something or someone is 'lying', as opposed to being programmed to react to things counterfactually; Ironically (parenthetically, paradoxically) one of the big breakthroughs (in my opinion; although it's all my opinion, LOL) in AI ATM is counterfactual regret minimisation or CRM; sometimes called deep CRM because we use deep neural networks or DNN; people love acronyms. It's counterfactual because it works backwards in terms of starting with the desired outcome and then adopting strategies to preserve access to that outcome/fallback options/stated preferences, what have you.)

 

Imagine communicating with devices that have access to data that lets them know exactly what you're looking for (like pop-ads clumsily try to achieve now), that can change their voice or tone to match what will work for you. The only reason they will know how to do that is we have spent the last few decades perfecting our data archive (mainly through social media and online shopping); in essence, the letter (/data) we sent is coming back to us (will arrive at its destination).

 

There's a lot more to this but I'm more than happy for you or anyone else to contact me at don.sillence@gmail.com if you're really that interested. It would be impossible to overemphasise the existential threat that AI represents; not because 'it' wants to hurt us but because we, traditionally, have wanted to hurt ourselves/others and have built a tool that can ensure hegemony while giving everyone what they (think they) want.

 

 


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Don Sillence
Joined: 6 months ago
Posts: 16
May 30, 2020 5:27 pm  

@roseb

 

That's how the internet got started too, BTW, when DARPA (military tech) got involved in the idea that the messages (packets of data) had to make it through unscathed.

 

https://www.darpa.mil/attachments/(2O15)%20Global%20Nav%20-%20About%20Us%20-%20History%20-%20Resources%20-%2050th%20-%20Internet%20(Approved).pdf


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Beatriz Lopez
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 7
May 30, 2020 7:46 pm  

Matthew - I think your point about telephony acting as guarantor of ontological presence is really interesting (Annabel Williams also touches on this in relation to Spark in Conversation 5). I was wondering if you could expand a bit more on how Isherwood uses the telephone in particular, and sound technologies more generally (you intrigingly mentioned the gramaphone above!), as a means to criticize/challenge fascism? Thank you for your great paper - can't wait to get hold of a copy of Goodbye to Berlin now!

Jessica - It seems that Woolf was a pioneer of literary representations of 'hyperattention' and I wonder if modernist/late modernist writers more generally also engaged with this notion? I've also been wondering whether 'hyperattention' (e.g. via social media) may have become our new way of asserting our ontological presence - does someone without FB, Twitter or Instagram really 'exist' these days? And if so, how can the novel represent this new way of existing formally? I'm thinking here of Sally Ronney's Normal People, which is based to a certain extent on email exchange, but these seem to be used in an epistolary rather than in a 'hyperattentive' manner... Do you have any thoughts on this? I really enjoyed listening to your paper!


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Matt Helm
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 3
May 31, 2020 9:37 pm  

@beatrizlopez

Thank you! The gramophone features most prominently in the chapters about Otto Nowak (a gadabout male prostitute with a Nazi brother named Lothar) who I hardly touch on in the talk. Here's a great passage that gets at how Isherwood uses the gramophone to index the rise of fascism while staying at the Nowak house: 

Lying in bed, in the darkness, in my tiny corner of the enormous human warrant of tenements, I could hear, with uncanny precision, every sound which came up from the courtyard below. The shape of the court must have acted as a gramophone-horn. There was someone going downstairs: our neighbor, Herr Muller, probably: he had a nightshift on the railway. I listened to his steps getting fainter, flight by flight, then they crossed the court, clear and sticky on the wet stone. Straining my ears, I heard, or fancied I heard, the grating of the key in the lock of the big street door. A moment later, the door closed with a deep, hollow boom. And now, from the next room, Frau Nowak had an outburst of coughing. In the silence which followed it, Lothar’s bed creaked as he turned over muttering something indistinct and threatening in his sleep. Somewhere on the other side of the court a baby began to scream, a window was slammed to, something very heavy, deep in the innermost recesses of the building, thudded dully against a wall. It was alien and mysterious and uncanny, like sleeping out in the jungle alone (148).

At this point in Berlin's media history, the city was well known for its gramophonic noise. Apartment dwellers would fill their neighborhoods with sounds from open windows, which even prompted the formation of anti-noise groups who saw the city as full of excessive aggression. In the above passage, Isherwood takes this facet of Weimar auditory culture and externalizes it further. The court is no longer subject to gramophones filtered through individual apartment windows because it has been transformed into gramophone horn itself. As the sound montage unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult for Isherwood to distinguish between the noises from the street below and those emanating from inside the flat. Lothar’s “indistinct and threatening” muttering denotes an increase in this sonic simultaneity: outside a baby cries and a window slams while at the same time “alien and mysterious and uncanny” thuds resound from “the innermost recesses of the building” (148). The flat is not a refuge from the outer “jungle” that is Berlin, but of a piece with it (148). Isherwood’s modernist dictation of white noise of the Wastertorstrasse locates fascism as an all-encompassing peril with no way out. But Lothar’s Nazi affiliations make one thing clear: the noises are coming from inside the house. The Nowaks remain unaware of the ominous sounds circulating in and through their gramophonic courtyard, even as these noises keep Isherwood awake at night. In this way, their obliviousness to the rise of Nazism echoes how a gramophone listener would have to consciously suppresses the undesirable background noise of the machine. The same logic of selective listening, willful ignorance and imagination characteristic of the Nowaks is what has brought Berlin to its current precarious tipping point. So, in a way, Isherwood's use of the gramophone here becomes a critique of political apathy.

I'm glad you're picking up a copy of the novel! It's one of my favorites. 🙂


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Jessica Gray
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 6
June 1, 2020 6:09 pm  

@beatrizlopez

Thank you for an excellent question! I certainly think modernist writers beyond Woolf engage in really interesting ways with ideas that are akin to/versions of hyperattention. Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is really good example of this as her prose enacts the drift of mind between different objects (all those ellipses, the ‘shroud of consciousness’). Georg Simmel’s analysis in ‘The Metropolis and Modern Life’ is also intriguing for considering how the overwhelming stimuli of being in the city affects one’s energies/attitude in a way that is quite different from hyperattention but nevertheless seems to be thinking about attention and how it is impacted by outside sources in interesting ways. And that’s an interesting idea about social media/ways of existing and how they can be represented formally. It’s not a novel but one example might be the film Eighth Grade which is really good at capturing teenage existence on social media in particular; I’d recommend it. Will try and think of more!


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Jessica Gray
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 6
June 1, 2020 6:11 pm  

@tkarshan

Thank you for your question Thomas! This particular paper is a slight deviation from my typical research on women and work but is certainly related. I mainly focus on women office workers, and their use of typewriters and telegraphs. One aspect I’d like to research more in this vein is the extent to which telephone operators are represented similarly to the kinds of women office workers I look at, in that they are often portrayed as conduits for others peoples’ words (rather than creating their own). I’m also interested in this idea of being able to quickly switch between tasks in hyper-attention as being a skill that can also be useful, and how sometimes this is gendered (clichés about multitasking being an example!). Again, thanks for the question!

 


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Jessica Gray
Joined: 7 months ago
Posts: 6
June 1, 2020 6:12 pm  

@dr-don

Some really intriguing thoughts here! I’m not sure I could be confident on mapping how responses to the phone shift and change (both in the sense of intrusive vs conducive and social mobility to social distance), but that is an interesting idea. I do think Woolf displays an ambivalence, in Night and Day at least, where the telephone can be intrusive but can also be a device that connects a collective, or individuals in an intimate way. On social distance I wonder if the film Sorry to Bother You might be interesting as a recent exploration of the telephone’s distancing affects – with distance in terms of class and race established between the protagonist, who is a telemarketer who adopts a different ’white voice’ to appeal to customers? Might not be along the lines of distance you were thinking but came to mind. Anyway; just some vague thoughts – and I now have Ring My Bell very much stuck in my head!


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