Welcome to Conversation 5
Hi fellow conference callers. My name is Phil Leonard, Professor of Literature & Theory at NTU and the switchboard operator for Conversation 5. Many thanks to Annabel, Tyne, and Laurent for three fascinating papers - and also to Sarah and Sam for organizing the symposium. Please post here your questions, thoughts, and observations for our panelists. The forum will be open from today until 5 June.
Thanks, Phil! What a fantastic group of papers.
Annabel, Tyne Daile, Laurent – thank you again. All of your papers make me think about how, in some of the work that you consider, ‘the telephone’ is associated with conveying the voice, suggesting this is a technology that operates only in relation to the phoniness of the phonic. How important are other sensory connections to and exchanges with the phone – how are the haptic (touching, holding, dropping) and visual (looking, watching, reading) also part of the telephonic interruptions that you discuss? You all mention these, but I’d be interested in hearing more…
I would say that in many technologies, the phonè inevitably holds a privileged relationship with the graphè, let alone in writing/literature, where the visibility of written signs makes up for a certain kind of absence of the voice - and this sensory connection is certainly at stake in Cixous's 'handling' of the telephone, as well as those with whom I connected her in my paper. But this more 'natural' phonographic/gramophonic kinship can also be extended to the haptic insofar as the telephone's abolition of distance - what I called in Heideggerian fashion the 'dis-tancing of distance' - effects a kind of touching: the interlocutor's voice touches my ear (at least in a traditional/handheld device). There is also of course the connection between the digital and the haptic, the former being the virtual implementation of the latter as it were, and both are involved in touch-sensitive appliances.
Annabel - Thank you for this fascinating paper. I think our papers work really well alongside each other and reach similar conclusions through different paths! It was interesting to hear that the electromechanical switch originated due to fears of switchboard operator partiality - this partly explains previous efforts to turn telephone operators into machines! It strikes me that the absence of the operator in Memento Mori in fact fails to guarantee impartiality (e.g. the telephone addresses each character with different voices, from kind to sinister). Do you think this the result of the characters' confirmation bias, or is Spark perhaps playing a prank on technological positivism, suggesting that technologies are always necessarily partial because they are operated/designed by humans? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts!
Thank you for this, @laurent, and for your rich and provocative paper. Your reference to the haptic here reminded me of Derrida's question in 'Envois': 'who would deny that we can touch with our voice - close or far away, naturally or technically, if could still rely on this distinction, in the open air on the phone - and thus, even to touch the heart?' And of course, Cixous and Derrida are always touching on the telephone. This seems to chime with a number of the other papers that we have heard, where sound touches from a dis-tance in such different ways (from the clanging of saucepans in Amy Sara Carroll's 'Teletechnopathic' to the soft tapping in Vahni's helpline call). One of the aspects of this event that I have most enjoyed is the sense in which different voices touch me down the line.
I also wondered if you could say some more about telephony and speed (or, rather, slowness)? I'm thinking in particular of what Cixous refers to as the 'slowness-speed' in Hyperdream or the 'slowness inside the speed' in 'Writing Blind'.
Very very interesting talks today!
Annabel's talk instantly reminded me of the Miss Marple-esque 'nosey' phone operator. I found myself imagining what today's society would be like if we still had operators. Celebrity gossip would be even more readily available - tapping into the President or the royals' phones would offer so much information that 'commoners' aren't privy to. And we'd lap it all up, just like how villagers would have lapped up the gossip that operators found through listening in to phone calls - Doctors calls, affairs, broken down marriages. All that jazz!
Also, on a slightly unrelated point, Annabel's quote " the voice is only a very indirect cause of the death" reminded me of the Inside Number 9 episode 'Cold Comfort'. Steve Pemberton plays a helpline operator, offering his support to lonely people, or those who have personal problems that they'd like advice for - it all takes a turn, however, when Steve's character believes that he could be involved in the death of a young girl that had called the helpline for advice. Things get much, much worse... but I won't spoil it. It's a very good (but disturbing) episode. I'm not 100% sure why I was reminded of this episode, but it's worth a watch.
Tyne talks about the idea of poetry being 'overheard', and I really like the inclusion of this concept. It's like overhearing a conversation between the soul and paper, a very intimate and private conversation. Her idea of privacy as being quite the opposite also struck me. Sometimes you tend to forget that you live in a surveillance state, and that your idea of privacy is, in reality, not very private at all!
Laurent's talk was really interesting to listen to. I'm a French student hoping to study the language at university, so to hear about the relations between French homophones was absolutely fascinating!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_Comfort_(Inside_No._9) - the Wikipedia page for the Inside Number 9 episode I mentioned. It does contain spoilers, obviously, so if you're planning to watch it (it's only around 25 minutes long), try to avoid this link!
I wonder if I could continue @roseb's comment about the experience of the surveillance state, after @tynedaile's compelling account of the mid-century American poem as coterminous with the legal frameworks and experience of privacy and overhearing.
@tynedaile, could you talk a little more about those developments and (psycho)pathology? You touch on this with “schizophrenic perspective ..." , and later refer to the dilution of authenticity as a 'disease'.
I wonder if I could bring in @nlferris25 here, for her beautiful account of Christine Brooke-Rose's poem 'dedicated to aphasia'.
@sarahj First of all, in H. C. for Life... Derrida associates Cixous, who is 'on the side of life [vie]', with speed [vitesse], as well as vision (cf. for e.g. pp. 60-61) - so much so that Ginette Michaud (who coined 'vietesse' in her reading of Derrida's first book-length tribute to HC) and I once had a conference panel on the network of relations between distance, power, speed and touch in the book. See also, still in HC... (pp. 46-47), the fascinating and dense passage from FirstDays of the Year.
Now the speed-slowness connection, not picked up by JD as far as I can recall, is both more tenuous and tricky to analyse. In 'Writing Blind', if anything, it is associated with telegraphy, with what HC records of her inability to keep up in writing with the speedy flow of language as it presents itself to her, which leads to different speeds (and slownesses), shortcuts (shorthand), 'acceleration(s)' (which JD also examines in HC...). These changing rhythms of the voice is also what the Hyperdream passage you evoke conjures up, and such bursts of speed are also at work in her writing - unfortunately I don't have my copy of OR, les lettres de mon père with me but I seem to recall one such memorable f-alliterated (not unlike the excerpt from FirstDays of the Year referred to above) sequence which dashes along in between stops and starts. So, in short, if slowness there is, I would locate it more on the side of telegraphy than telephony, but this is a tentative reply...
Thanks @laurent. This also makes me think of On Touching, where Derrida connects 'the kiss of the eyes' and 'the self-touching-you' with speech, the telephone, the letter, and e-mail. All of these engage in the dis-tance of distance that you describe, but also reveal the impossibility of auto-affection.
Hello. Thank you very much Tyne and Laurent for your absorbing presentations – I'm delighted to be a part of this panel – and many thanks all for the helpful thoughts and questions.
Phil – the telephone in Spark ceases to be present as a sensory thing for as long as the conversation is happening; it's often in the moments when a call ends that the body becomes aware of itself in space (and so also of its uncanny dividedness between states and locations in the course of the call). I think it's productive to think about the haptic here in terms of vestibular sense and proprioception, of the body's orientation in space, rather than the tactile – and this is partly what I'm getting at with the example of the already-dead caller in Hothouse, who is shaken (further) out of his body by the broken phone connection. His experience is an extreme figuring of how a phone call simultaneously disembodies and anchors us. The heft and hold of a phone grounds the body: the voice has to be directed into the receiver and so on. Perhaps the electrical sense of grounding is important here too: early discourse around telephony often conflated nerves and electric wire (echoed in McLuhan), and overworked telephone operators reported feeling electric shocks in their ears, which Andreas Killen has written about. Does the voice of the Other act like a current that alters the body's charge, as well as its balance and sense of space? I think my overall point here is, somewhat at odds with the Heideggerian de-severance of dasein, the making farness vanish, that a phone call can estrange the body from itself, making our remoteness within ourselves more apparent. I think of Will Self's description of the intimate touch of the stranger's voice licking around inside one's skull; that voice also passes through the ear canal necessary to our sense of balance . Surely there's a corresponding (dizzying?) reflex away from that invading voice, and from the skull which has become a stranger to itself?
Beatriz – I found really compelling your point about the scrambler 'noise' becoming a tool in Spark for satirising her characters' delusions; there is a pleasing consonance between our conclusions here! Your question about the bias inherent in technology makes me think of notorious instances of AI technology reproducing the blind spots of its designers, though I don't think this is Spark's point with the telephone in Memento Mori. Rather, the text is the technology held up for suspicion, along with our reading practices. The 'hoax' calls are the catalyst for the reader to begin suspecting our impulse towards suspicion, i.e. we can no longer chase clues and closure as we would in a normative detective story.
Rose – thank you for the link to the 'Inside Number 9' episode, which I look forward to watching! Regarding the eavesdropping operator, what struck me in Carol Lake's Switchboard Operators is the double bind in their instructions to monitor calls by checking that subscribers are talking, but not listen to the conversation. The seems an inversion of Thomas Karshan's description of the poet's role to catch a message 'mid-flight', and to transform and transmit it. The operators must catch the message mid-air but pass it on with as little friction as possible, but of course there is a strong compulsion for them to follow, and shape, narrative, and in this respect they become models for the nosey reader!
@phill I've had On Touching (its many connections between sight, hearing, touching) at the back of my mind, if only because of those passages where JD explains how touching something is indissociable from / inevitably involves touching oneself (nous nous touchons), hence such passages can be read as some sort of Derridean equivalent to the Cixousian meditations on the 'nous nous' in my paper. But then precisely, rather than revealing 'the impossibility of auto-affection', as you put it - cf. for e.g. his example of the on-off of the closing and parting lips when one speaks - I think it is that of pure auto-affection that is at stake, which is slightly different...
@awilliams I thought I'd quickly mention another mid-century(ish) text, on the French side, known for its stunning opening 6-7 pages which plunge the reader in the middle of crossed lines and switchboards during the Spanish Civil War: André Malraux's classic L'Espoir (Man's Hope in English, I think). What's interesting in the fast-paced jumble of calls and pick-ups in this sequence is how hard it is at times to disentangle who calls and who answers, the Republicans or the Nationalists, as (we are told right at the beginning) cities and locations across the county confusedly change sides at this crucial point in the Civil War. This scene is also an indirect reminder how vital technology has always been for any war effort - and in fact that major technological inventions, such as the prototype for what will become the internet (ARPANET), often start as / are linked to military research...
I'm happy that Eric has been able to join us before the close of the event; welcome, Eric, and many thanks for your transductions! I have a number of questions in response to your paper, but I'd like to start by picking up on your statement that 'phones are like an invasive plant or a pandemic, in fact, they seem to know no limits as they domesticate the globe.' This reminds me of what Derrida says in 'Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides': 'Nanotechnologies of all sorts are so much more powerful and invisible, uncontrollable, capable of creeping in everywhere. They are the micrological rivals of microbes and bacteria. Yet our unconscious is already aware of this; it already knows it, and that's what's scary.' I wonder if you could say a little more about technology and autoimmunity? I'm thinking in particular about the potential for the smartphone (like Hamlet) to outsmart itself.
Thanks so much for drawing me into this conversation, @crossedlinesk8. I found all of the papers so rich and engaging -- such an excellent panel.
I will echo @crossedlinesk8 's question above concerning the (psycho)pathology of modern surveillance in @tynedaile 's paper, and the sense by which it has this cunning and often imperceptible reach, much like a disease or virus. I would love to hear more about this aspect. In aphasia Brooke-Rose found the means through which she could explore disconnections and suppressions of cognition, and it remained for her a powerful metaphor related to bombardment of both body and mind during and after the war.
I was also particularly taken with your reading of the article that suggests numerous forms of speech were to 'become as common as cryptograms in telegraphic communications', whereby in order to counter telephone surveillance, citizens were left with no option but to contrive new cryptic forms of speech. I was wondering if you could talk a little more about this? Have you discovered any examples of such a phenomenon? In poetry or elsewhere? I'm particularly interested in forms of artistic/linguistic invention as new analogues of meaning or as eluding surveillance. I also really enjoyed your evocative reading of the final Plath poem - of words overhead thickening atmospheres, leaving behind a permanent stain...
I'd also like to add a note related to @awilliam 's absorbing paper - thank you so much for such a fascinating range of observations. A quick note -- I've been thinking a bit about switchboards/wireless operators and wartime intelligence work, and most of those employed in listening posts were women, who (rather appropriately!) were known as 'Sparks' or 'Sparkers' in naval slang. I think Lisbeth David wrote a poem using the term. I also wondered if you'd come across Kurt Schwitters' rather odd 1942 poem 'Five Girls on the Switchboard'? His wife worked on the M&S switchboard in London for many years. It's a strange -- and unashamedly sexist! -- thing, but perhaps curious in terms of attitudes/stereotypes..
Thank you to all.