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.
Hi all, what fascinating papers, really inspiring. Thanks Sarah, great question, not sure I’ve really got an answer. But I guess the jury’s still out on what the effect of all the ‘connectedness’ will bring us, good and bad all mixed up. The mobileness of the mobile phone is interesting too: it’s not just giving you access to so much material, data, and people, etc.: after all you could have a box fixed on the wall like the old phones, or just a connected computer (not to mention what used to be called a library), that would have all that powerful connectivity. But it’s an additional thing to be able to walk around with it, and I think this, along with the strange tactile, haptic interactions we have with the thing, really changes the relation even if it seems like a secondary question. It implants itself physically and mentally in us in a way that’s very bizarre.
So at the very least there’s the double valence of smartphones: giving you more control and these amazing new abilities, and yet at the same subjugating you to its powers. All the talk about multi-tasking: so much more efficient, but at the cost (apparently…) of loss of attention span. But of course it’s also the invention of new mixes of certain presences with certain absences. It’s true that ‘multi-tasking’ was originally a computer term not for literally doing several things at the same time, but for the ability of the cpu to stop one process in the middle and pass on to another and so on: this meant a great increase in efficiency. So to use the term for people is to impose this computer metaphor on them. And it’s not at all the ‘cognitive dissonance’ of thinking different or contradictory things at once, but hashing thinking up into arbitrary fragments and shifting between them. Of course this can itself be super interesting, puts a stress on the shifts, the juxtapositions, but in any case it’s not a superficial adjustment…
Re. wiretapping, the ‘tentacle of the telephone’ in the private space (Sumner) and the ‘fickle operator’ (Williams – I love the image of ‘returning bodily to our surroundings after an absorbing phone call’!), this is all also strongly autoimmune, the turning in on us of the thing that’s in principle there to open out our world…
What a rich, subtle paper. It's so fertile, isn't it, this idea of the implicit author being tacitly characterised as a switchboard operator ... and then, as I take it, working from here, that individual characters - and all people - are under threat of seeing themselves as merely the site of voices being channelled through them by some such switchboard; and then by this last idea that the reader of Momento Mori may come to internalise the function of operator - and not just one whose job is to channel voices securely but also to switch back and forth between belief and doubt. Did I get all that right? there's a lot there. I wonder a) if you wanted to say anything more about how all this fits together, and b) if you have any views about how Spark will have arrived at these remarkable ideas and strategies, whether via literary or other influences or through some other sequence of imaginative thought?
thanks for your terrific paper. I was intrigued by your link of the 'Daddy' implicitly addressed by Plath with Foucault's confessor, who elicits speech but also is in a position of power. Can I ask: do you see Plath's poetry - and maybe some of the other poets you discuss here or are interested in - as almost wishing, and needing to be eavesdropped on by the very powers they seek to abjure?
les vôtres, c’est à vous?
Hi Annabel, Tyne Daile, Laurent and Eric in the order I heard your presentations, and Phil,
As always (or almost always), I very much enjoyed these presentations.
Annabel, I particularly appreciated the confluence/contrast between the Kermode 'prank call' story and your excellent critical reading of Lake and Sparks, culminating with the "play of fabulation" in Memento Mori. What distinctly separates the prank from the 'authentic' postcritique, I wonder?
Or is it just a matter of being in on the critique?
In this vein, I also found your argument about the origin of 'phony' to be fascinating as it reflects on arguments I've made (and seen, here, in other conversations) as to whether our textual analysis is best served looking back (where words come from) or forwards (how we use them, or, where they're going, I guess).
Not that I suppose we have to decide, or, as you put it, remain suppositious subjects. Sooner or later the future becomes the present and we'll see how it all shakes out.
Thx to all,
P.S. I am not sure when I last saw so many Cixous scholars in the same place (McLuhan, Woolf, Joyce, Proust were perhaps slightly more predictive texts). In recognition of the moment, I wrote you a poem (please find attached)
Laurent, Annabel - thanks for your replies and thoughts. Interesting to see that Eric's paper echoes what you discuss - both the grounding of the call and the idea of touching or telephoning ourselves. I'm currently gathering thoughts together for a project on connection with earth/the earth - you've given me much to think about.
Eric - thanks for your really interesting paper. I very much like the idea that the unconscious is structured like a transductive device. Are you also thinking about transduction in the context of electrophysiology and the transmission of energy from one cell to another? Do we need to consider transduction as a viral exchange, or does this lead us into potentially problematic linguistic and conceptual territory (contamination, disease, genetic degeneration, corruption by 'the foreign', and so on)?
Picking up on the discussion about the compelling, yet ambiguous power of the smartphone - and leaving aside in passing Bernard Stiegler's reflection that the more we rely on technologies to do the work of our traditional memory for us, the more we run the risk of 'becoming stupid' (his quasi-Deleuzian 'concept') - I would like to offer a few practical insights into the prevalence of its use here in China, so much so that one could almost run one's whole life without leaving one's sofa...
Apart from the ability to use apps like WeChat (an all-in program combing Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, instant transaction services of all kinds and many more applications) or Alipay to settle all financial aspects of our everyday lives and take care of our social needs, the awe-inspiring work that so-called 'mini-apps' (i.e. mini-programs that can be built/installed into these phone apps) have done during the COVID-19 pandemic has to be mentioned (and experienced to be believed). In particular, soon after my family and I had to return to Shanghai from our aborted winter holidays, towards the end of January, our HoD (my wife and I both work at SJTU) started circulating via WeChat one of those mini-apps through which daily collection of health- and movement-related info was centralised for the customary 15-day quarantine period (ditto for the children's school). All these data, establishing whether you were infected, suspected or healthy, no doubt alongside countless other such programs deployed for other public institutions as well as GPS-tracking data, were in turn built into a mini-app that via WeChat or Alipay would provide you with a 'health code', a green one having then become necessary to enter all public buildings (banks, transport hubs, etc.). This also allowed another such applet to be developed which would tell you whether you were in the vicinity of anybody infected of suspected of COVID-19. (All this incidentally helps explain why China, but also other Asian countries that deployed a comparable array of sometimes toned-down versions of such IT provisions, managed to contain the infection fairly rapidly, certainly when compared with what one sees in to many other countries - a word to the wise is enough here.)
There are of course lots of questions and issues one could derive and ask from the above - and some of these, for e.g. in relation to data protection, would be expressed and answered differently whether you asked 'westerners' or Asians on this (my) side of the Himalayas (to oversimplify) - but the idea I wanted to float is that of one feeling more intensely 'wired' into a wider network, not simply the more accepted view that the smartphone has become one of those prosthetic 'explants' that relay and extend our (sense of) selves. Telephony in China, the way it is implemented structurally and systematically at all levels, has given us a sense of radical interconnectedness not encountered anywhere else.
Hallo Laurent! I realise I’m calling you very late. So late it might be early, I’m not sure. But the line’s about to be cut in any case. So I’ll try to be télégraphique, the way one speaks on the telegraph, if not lapidary. Telephonographic. Naturally I’m delighted to be one of the Vierges Vigilentes, the shadowy priestesses of the invisible (dixit Proust), maybe even a standardiste, but you are really the absolute master not just of le combiné, and all its infinite combinations, but above all of la combine! I was even going to say: tu es combine-né, i.e., you have a nose not just for the language-trick, as you put it, the number, but the racket! Your own luminous black market or dark web of threads drawn between idioms, through words, the ‘Multiplication and division ad infinitum of transmitters-receivers, who call each other themselves collect, in a collective call in sum’, is breathtaking. Nice image for our intense remote/extimate conference as well. I love your reverse-engineered telephone in which the echo would precede and precite the ‘originary’ voice, your teletextuality and your allophony (no longer the alpha-bête, or all so phony, or even Hello Honey! but the aleph-honni qui mal y pense). I’m with you. I don’t know about getting married (se marier), but I’m sure we’re going to have fun (se marrer) – like a whale on (in?) the elephant!
Talking about leviathans and what you say about tracing apps, and autoimmunity, as well as transduction as viral exchange, it is striking how to stop the transmission of the virus, the apps have to literally mimic the infection: the ‘contactless’ transmission of information, a counter-virus counter-pandemic, that’s the only means of contact tracing…
@tkarshan – thanks very much for your great questions. I’m in the early stages of developing these ideas, and my interest in the literary hoax call (as mediated, or not, by an operator), and its capacity to foreground the reader’s own suspension between positions of scepticism and credulity, emerges out of my wider curiosity about the relation between technology, pseudoscience, and perceptions of remoteness. For this paper, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of interpretative strategy called for when technology fails to live up to its promise to ‘conquer remoteness’ (paraphrasing Heidegger). I see the operator in Spark’s fiction as a compelling figure for reflecting on this – on the ways in which the reader must navigate their own ‘switchboard’ status, on a hermeneutic spectrum – and at the same time as pointing to historical dimensions of the technology crucial to understanding Spark in context. @laurent helpfully picked up on the importance of technological development according to wartime expedients (which Friedrich Kittler takes to determinist extremes); this is where I would begin in answering your question of how Spark arrived at her strategies in the novels I discuss. Spark’s war work at Milton Bryan (which @beatriz brilliantly details in her paper) sensitised her to the telephone’s potential for propagating hoaxes, and so provided a model for testing the fragile contract between author and reader, both involved in sustaining or undermining a fictional world.
Something I didn’t have time to discuss in the paper, but which perhaps provides a missing link between the midcentury operator, the hoax, and questionable claims to abolish remoteness, is Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry From Kensington (1988), which features the pseudoscience of radionics, popular in 50s Britain, in which a ‘black box’ supposedly heals sick patients at a distance. The workers of this box were called operators (the obvious connection with telephony or radio apparently lending their quackery technoscientific credibility), but Spark’s narrator, a literary editor, is attuned to naïve fantasies of transmission. Tellingly, she says the box is ‘as devoid of any functional possibility as one of those children’s telephones which they go through the motions of dialling a number and talking, but never get anywhere.’ There’s a lot more to be said here on psychopathological responses in the period to technologies that mediate remoteness, including those of surveillance (which @tynedaile touches on in an absorbing way) – but my response has already grown long enough!
@laurent – the Malraux sounds an excellent figuring of how the vagaries of the switchboard can unsettle ontological (and political) positions – I’ll look forward to reading it, and thank you! Your reference to such technology in wartime reminds me also of Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) (which incidentally also describes a radionics ‘black box’ like the one I mention above) where the semi-autobiographical Pinfold suffers a prolonged psychotic episode on a ship that has been converted from military to passenger use. At one point Pinfold considers whether his auditory hallucinations are being broadcast by a faulty switchboard installed when it was a naval vessel; another voice speaks to him like a telephone operator. It’s curious that these hallucinations tap into a resurgence of wartime paranoia around state surveillance – the telephone is haunted by its uses in military contexts.
@nlferris25 – thank you so much for your note on Kurt Schwitters’ poem, which I hadn’t come across – another thing to add to the rich reading list coming out of this symposium! I’m with you on the problematic gendering and stereotyping of the telephone operator in so many literary representations. This is getting quite far from the telephone, but your observation on wartime intelligence work recalled for me the story of Barbara Roxby who worked in the wartime Code and Cypher Production unit that took over Mansfield College, where I’m currently teaching. Amongst other things, they created code books printed on presses at the college’s library. Roxby’s experience is outlined on the Bletchley Park website (link below); note the tongue-in-cheek first verse of a poem published in their in-house magazine:
At Mansfield College, Mansfield Road,
We labour, making many a ... ssh.
Two hundred girls, all shapes and ages
And ten strong men all wise as sages.
Our time is nearly up, so this conversation will soon become a dropped call. Panelists, everyone - thank you very much for your contributions. If you have any final thoughts or comments then please do post these soon. If you're able to make the Teams drink and chat at 6pm (UK time) then it would be great to see you there. If you are planning to make it along then please contact Sam Buchan-Watts so that we have a sense of how many will attend. Better phone him up first. Number? Yes. Twentyeight. No. Twenty. Double four, yes.