Eric Prenowitz – Telephone Hang-ups

 ‘With the help of the telephone he can hear at distances which would be respected as unattainable even in a fairy tale’


At the beginning of Hamlet, Hamlet gets a call from his father. It’s a little like VoIP, in fact, skype or facetime, and god knows I can relate to this in some detail: there’s quite a bit of initial difficulty working out the technicalities of the set-up. It seems the search function isn’t optimised, for instance, because the call comes first to Marcellus and Bernardo, then Horatio, before the ghost finally gets Hamlet on the line. And you’ll note the microphone is off during those first attempts, though the camera seems to work. ‘By heaven I charge thee, speak’, is Horatio’s first attempt to get things rolling. But the charges are reversed, apparently, and the ghost vanishes. ‘Tis gone and will not answer’ notes Marcellus dejectedly. The next time it comes on, it spreads its arms and seems to gesticulate without a word (‘It spreads his arms.’). Horatio again asks it to speak – well, he begs it or commands it to speak. He does this five times in quick succession, I know these words by heart: ‘Speak to me… Speak to me… O, speak!… Speak of it… Stay and speak’ (I.1 130-9), but no such luck. Then Marcellus proposes his technical skills and pokes about with his partisan, but again to no avail: the screen goes blank. So instead, they set up a complicated old-fashioned relay system, like one of those semaphore telegraphs from the French revolution – which also involved observation towers and watches round the clock – from Francisco to Bernardo to Marcellus to Horatio and only then to Hamlet.

But before he even gets word, there’s a funny scene of mixed messages and crossed lines that turns on what it means to see, and to see without seeing. Hamlet hasn’t yet seen the ghost of his father whereas Horatio has, and he comes to tell Hamlet what he saw. But before he can transmit the message, Hamlet asks him why he has come to Elsinore from Wittenburg, the university town where the two had been studying abroad together before lockdown. Again there’s some confusion around the question of seeing. ‘I came to see your father’s funeral’ (I.2 126), Horatio replies. He came to see the funeral, but as well as the funeral, he’s seen the ghost. In a kind of melancholy play, Hamlet pretends to doubt Horatio’s motivation: ‘I think it was to see my mother’s wedding’ (128). In this way, without actually saying it, he conveys to Horatio his conviction that something is amiss, if not yet exactly that the time is out of joint, at the very least that the timing has been rushed (‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral cold meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables’ (180-1)). But it’s again a question of seeing, in this case not-seeing, of wishing he hadn’t seen what he did see, i.e., the wedding: ‘Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven/Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!’ (182-3).This is an odd thing to say, not only because of the apparent oxymoron ‘dearest foe’, and even if the word ‘dear’ can mean ‘dire’, the promiscuity is too great to absolve it of the implication that love and hate may somehow go together. And of course it’s not clear how to interpret a situation in which you meet your dearest foe in heaven: presumably it’s good to find yourself in heaven, but you might then expect your foe to be in hell. So you must be terribly torn: would you prefer to share heaven with your enemy, which would singularly sap it of its appeal, or vacate the premises and relocate to the other place? It must be this impossible, truly hellish choice – and Hamlet is the prince of impossible choices – that constitutes Hamlet’s hell’s hell.

Thus it is that in the very next line, Hamlet doesn’t meet his foe in heaven, but he sees his father: Hamlet: Methinks I see my father; Horatio: Where, my lord?! Hamlet: In my mind’s eye, Horatio. This is funny because Hamlet chides Horatio for the naive realism of his interpretation: Hamlet doesn’t literally see his father, of course, that would mean believing in ghosts: he was using the verb ‘to see’ metaphorically, he was think-seeing (‘Methinks I see’). Seeing in his mind alone. The vision he has of his father does not depend on an external stimulus, and one of the messages here about Hamlet is that his mind has no lack of internal stimuli vying with those from the outside world for his attention.

But in fact the joke’s on Hamlet, because in reality, the reality of the play’s diegetic world, Horatio actually has seen Hamlet’s father’s ghost. So the roles are flipped: it turns out the mind’s eye metaphor, in principle the rational explanation, in which someone who is really and truly absent, in fact dead, is brought to consciousness through an entirely internal process of memory, is on the side of a kind of fantasy, phantom seeing, whereas the actual ghost is in fact the hard reality of the situation. But from the perspective of the audience, the ghost and Hamlet and Hamlet’s mind’s eye are all of course theatrical fictions: one can’t even talk about them without believing in ghosts, without ‘seeing’ ghosts, in fact. In other words, there’s no simple inside or outside of fiction. Hamlet’s right, but he’s wrong, but he’s right. And while realism is therefore naïve, as Hamlet suggests, one can only affirm this in the name of some higher, more complex reality where there is no non-fiction. A mind’s eye is always in on it, whenever an eye sees anything.

In a sense, the ghost is superfluous to the larger structure of the play. It’s a little bit of magic and dramatics, a touch of explicit fiction, if I can put it that way, in a play that otherwise avoids the staging as such of fantasy or fiction. There are no witches’ prophesies or magic potions, as if the play’s unspoken premise were that it can only explore the extreme limits of human being by keeping to a realistic frame. Even the play within the play serves a rational project: it is effectively instrumentalised by Hamlet as a kind of analytical tool. Not at all a mystical revealer of preordained destinies or higher truths, but a little psychoanalytic session aimed at provoking an abreaction.

But in another way, the Mousetrap is a repeat performance, an attempt to get a second opinion, a confirmation via another connection. Here, it’s not from the afterworld that Hamlet receives a call, but from the inner world, the agenbite of inwit, or the conscience – but unconscious – of the king. Because Hamlet both believes and doubts the ghost: he wants to see his uncle’s guilt with his own eyes. However, this isn’t an option. The play can only catch a glimpse of the unconscious of the king by converting its secrets into a manifest symptom. Another sort of phone call from the other side.

Before going any further, allow me to cut in here and take another line. Indeed, I’ll be taking, or taking note of, a number of more or less literary phone calls, phone-call tropes and metaphors. Like the metaphor itself, already a kind of telephone linking two words at a distance. It’s surprising what a telephone can do.

A telephone, technically – though exactly what technics or technicality is, is one of our questions – the telephone is a transducer: it converts one form of energy into another. There are lots of different kinds of transducers. A photovoltaic cell is a transducer, as is a lightbulb: one converts light energy into electrical energy; the other does the reverse. Energy is notoriously difficult to define; it’s not really a thing at all, but whatever it is, energy is measurable, as a numerical quantity, and crucially, this quantity is conserved. It follows that a transducer’s energy output must vary, quantitatively, as its input varies. Which is to say that you can always consider any variation in the input energy to be a ‘signal’; a useful transducer accurately reproduces in the output signal some variations or characteristics of the input signal.

Such a transducer produces what is sometimes called a non-native signal representation. If you vary the electrical signal going to a light bulb by turning on and off the switch, this electrical signal will be converted by the light-bulb-transducer into a variation in the light signal that it emits. You may not think of your use of the lightbulb as a signal; you may not be consciously sending a message; maybe you’re just reading a book late at night, but the transducer doesn’t care. This circuit is effectively a Morse code transmitter, an optical telegraph. Similarly with a microphone—an electronic amplifier—and—a loud speaker, i.e. a telephone: the signal conveyed by the sound wave is transduced by the microphone into an electrical signal, which is then amplified, and then transduced back into a sound-wave-signal by the speaker.

But how far can we extend the domain of transduction? This is not just any question, there’s a bit of reverb here or an echo effect, because to begin with, transducers are all about extending domains. Can transduction, itself, be transduced? Does it have any pre-given limits? Am I really talking about the same thing if I talk of transduction in language or literature? Can one meaningfully transduce between two regimes of transduction? Am I being too fast and loose with this word ‘transduction’? I may be violating certain limits, logical or otherwise (‘a transducer converts one form of energy into another…’), but one of my hypotheses here is that this is a risk that can never be properly contained.

Where does transduction end? Does it? We may even be moved to retool the whole concept of transduction in the name of something like an originary transductiviy that constitutes the very states between which transduction is by definition understood to operate. To re-think transduction in this way as a primary, not a secondary, phenomenon would imply a twisting of classical logic: I think of it as being similar – is this therefore a transduction? – to the way Judith Butler talks of gender as an imitation without an original: this is illogical in terms of the old logic she is precisely aiming to displace, since the very definition of ‘imitation’ depends on there being a pre-existing ‘original’ that the imitation subsequently imitates.[2]

Where does this leave us?

Let’s begin with language. Who’s to say transduction is not already at work between signified and signifier, between mind and body, between body and voice, just to limit ourselves to those traditional oppositions? Or between homophone and homophone for that matter?

As a means of communication, language is a crude transductive substitute for telepathy. In the sense of thought transference, telepathy would involve a native signal representation, as ideas here would be transferred directly into ideas there with no intermediary steps. But in fact, ideas never leave heads. The only thing that’s ever communicated by spoken language is phonemes – sound waves – from vocal cords to eardrums.

If I could, but I can’t, I’d show you here Saussure’s drawing of this language communication circuit, which I’ll interpret as follows with a little interpolation in terms of transduction: an idea in one speaker’s mind is transduced into a set of electrical motor nerve signals transmitted to various elements of the speaking apparatus, from the lips to the diaphragm, where these nerve signals are transduced into the movement of various muscles, which is transduced into the movement of air in the sound wave, which is transduced into the movement of the other speaker’s ear drum, which is transduced into a nerve signal in the auditory nerve, which is finally transduced back into the idea. We’d be lost without transduction.

I’d like to start with some transductions myself, traducings no doubt as much as translations, between several different regimes, several media, several elements or disciplines. Several languages or several cultures, perhaps. I’m referring in part to the infamous ‘two cultures’ theory of creative human endeavour, since we’re here at the Science Museum, and since one of the things our collective title, telepoetics, speaks of is a certain passage between science, or technology, on the one hand, and literature, broadly speaking, on the other. I mean the ‘two cultures’ of C.P. Snow’s crabby rant on the superiority of science over the humanities, basically. That said, the question of technopoetic relations, of the possible transductions between science and the humanities, clearly has a renewed urgency today, and I’d like to return to it from a somewhat different angle. And from a certain distance.

I should say, from the outset – full disclosure – that I am myself a trans subject in this regard, a little like Theseus, or Orlando, a kind of S-to-H trans body, science to humanities. Yet for me the transition is not an event that happened once and was over, but rather a process that leaves its traces everywhere for me to read. So I’m happy to find myself back, as it were, at the Science Museum, somewhere between science and literature.

One of the things that oriented my shift was my reading of T. Kuhn’s book on ‘scientific revolutions’, and his depiction of scientists as basically the subjects of a reigning paradigm.[3] He uses this word to refer not to a grammatical pattern or example, but to an intellectual model or a theory that’s also a kind of ideology, a world-view which scientists necessarily learn and to which they inevitably if unconsciously pledge a kind of fealty. It’s a necessary fiction, as is the broader Enlightenment fiction of science as the accumulation of ever more truths, of always-increasing knowledge. Kuhn helped me put my finger on this strange storytelling that science engages in about its own project: and from this perspective, the humanities suddenly seemed so much more rigorous in the way they considered what it is they do. …

This points to a fundamental division between science and the humanities, one that Snow couldn’t see: while the sciences continue to function according to what is in essence an Enlightenment project, dependent on and committed to the values of truth and objectivity, notably, despite the complications thrown up in 20th century physics, for instance, the humanities have been forced to radically rethink their relationship to the Enlightenment heritage – which doesn’t necessarily become less important for them, but more ambiguous, demanding a relentless and endless critical engagement.

I looked recently at Snow’s little 1956 sketch of ‘The Two Cultures’, published in the New Statesman, and I was struck by his traditional and traditionally heteronormative gendering of the science/humanities divide.[4] For instance this: ‘There is a touch of the frontier qualities, in fact, about the whole scientific culture.’ There is nothing sexual, arguably, about a frontier, but these ‘frontier qualities’ surely have a whiff of machismo, of a phallocratic ideology aimed at conquering and domesticating the untamed or the unknown. But in an odd twist, Snow continues, about this ‘scientific culture’: ‘Its tone is, for example, steadily heterosexual.’ This is a fascinating choice of words: presumably he is opposing the heterosexual sciences with the queer humanities. No doubt there’s a question of frontiers involved here: the heterosexual men of science know what’s what and who’s who, they are good at taxonomy, the scientific method of divide and conquer, whereas for the queer humanities there are no clear lines, no fixed laws, no certainties. ‘The difference in social manners between Harwell and Hampstead, or as far as that goes between Los Alamos and Greenwich village, would make an anthropologist blink. About the whole scientific culture, there is an absence – surprising to outsiders – of the feline and oblique.’ Here again, Snow uses strongly gendered, if indeed slightly indirect, markers: it’s dogs vs cats and the direct vs the oblique.

But I was also struck by his off-hand, and so symptomatic, dismissal of psychoanalysis as a ‘false alarm’ (‘….’), because psychoanalysis is precisely the kind of hybrid, frontier-challenging, difficult-to-place project he ought to be open to, in his quest for some intercourse between science and the humanities.

Indeed, one of the reasons for the stubborn importance of psychoanalysis, and the invention/discovery of psychoanalysis as it happened in the history of the world, is that it is itself a new, unprecedented kind of project in this regard, a hybrid or rather a trans project – not a transitional object, if that designates a step along a fixed teleological path, but an irreducibly trans movement of thinking and doing between science and the humanities.

Here is Freud’s famous description of his own transition, which remarkably, he wrote very early on, in discussing one of his case studies in the book he published with Joseph Brueuer in 1895, ‘Studies on Hysteria’ – and I have to say I can’t read this without immediately substituting ‘woman’ or ‘man’ for ‘psychotherapist’ and ‘neuropathologist’, though I’m never sure in which order. Freud writes:

‘I have not always been a psychotherapist. Like other neuropathologists, I was trained to employ local diagnoses and electroprognosis, and it still strikes me myself as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science.’ That’s what Freud wrote, but here’s the translation I can’t get out of my head: ‘I have not always been a woman. Like other men, I was trained to employ rational thought and brute force, and it still strikes me myself as strange that my work should seem effeminate and that, as one might say, it lacks the virile stamp of masculinity’! Freud continues: ‘I must console myself [so he’s consoling himself for doing literature when he should be doing science] with the reflection that the nature of the subject is evidently responsible for this, rather than any preference of my own’[5].  Thus Freud shirks responsibility for falling into literature by appealing to a twisted determinism: it’s not me, it’s my object that dictated my preference.

This is an argument that sounds a lot like what Freud ends up saying about Leonardo da Vinci in his famous article on de Vinci’s ‘childhood memory’. This is not, in fact, an insignificant example here, because not only does Freud clearly identify with da Vinci to an extraordinary extent (…), he seems to identify in particular with da Vinci’s ‘double nature as an artist and as a scientific investigator’[6]. But of course it all has to do with his sexual orientation, or should I say ‘preference’. It turns out preferences are complicated things. You might be irresistibly attracted to literature even while your preference is for science. Allow me to cite here the extraordinary contortions Freud goes into so as to explain da Vinci’s preferences. Freud describes a very peculiar way in which a man can, as he says, ‘become a homosexual’. He writes: ‘The child’s love for his mother … succumbs to repression. The boy represses his love for his mother: he puts himself in her place, identifies himself with her, and takes his own person as a model in whose likeness he chooses the new objects of his love. In this way he has become a homosexual.’ But for Freud, he’s a homosexual in name only, if I can put it that way. He may have sex with men, but that’s immaterial in Freud’s schema: this brand of male homosexuality isn’t really homosexuality at all: the man has simply identified with his mother and fallen in love with himself. He’s not a man having sex with other men, but his mother having sex with him!

Freud continues: ‘what he has in fact done is to slip back to auto-erotism: for the boys whom he now loves as he grows up are after all only substitutive figures and revivals of himself in childhood – boys whom he loves in the way in which his mother loved him when he was a child’. (100). But Freud goes further still, because the narcissism is itself only a figure for his undying love for his mother. Here’s Freud again: ‘By repressing his love for his mother he preserves it in his unconscious and from now on remains faithful to her. While he seems to pursue boys and to be their lover, he is in reality running away from the other women, who might cause him to be unfaithful’ – unfaithful, that is, to his mother! He may seem to pursue boys and indeed have sex with them, but in reality, that’s not what’s happening at all. He only runs into the boys, and incidentally has sex with them, because he is running away from the women whom he might otherwise have sex with. Having sex with the boys is actually a way on not having sex with the women. And more than anything else, more than any preference for the boys, he mustn’t have sex with those women because that would signify being unfaithful to his mother!

I can never read this without laughing. You can practically hear Freud panting as he runs away from what he’s running straight into, or maybe not so straight after all. It’s a real performance, all in the name of keeping a safe heteronormative distance between desire and identification. But even so, this logic is so profoundly queer that it basically leaves all options wide open when it comes to preference, desire, identification, who’s who, who has sex with whom and why.

So when Freud, under the evident pressure of a kind of science-envy, ‘consoles’ himself, as he says, with the suggestion that his ‘preference’ isn’t in fact his preference, I can’t help giving him a pass with a knowing nod. Nonetheless, at some level Freud realised that psychoanalysis is a trans science, a certain kind of technopoetics in fact.[7] And it’s significant that the scientific project itself, as such, his properly scientific project, is what pushed him into a literary or poetic mode. I think it’s critical to take this unresolved hybridity seriously: that psychoanalysis is a new kind of thing, neither simply science in the traditional sense, nor simply literature.

For me, this resonates with my own ‘transition’, my own personal scientific-literary ‘revolution’. And since I’m basically talking about the history of science, it’s worth noting that there’s a way that Kuhn’s theory of history is strikingly Hegelian: history as a kind of continuous, indeed unrelenting if temperamental progress, despite the famous but thoroughly dialectical ‘revolutionary’ discontinuities that gave his book its title. In any case that, I presume, is how Kuhn saw his project. So while I’m not sure he would have taken to the label, I certainly see Kuhn as the history of science’s Hegel, with scientific progress happening despite and indeed thanks to the revolutionary breaks on the level of mind, if I can put it that way, or spirit, to give it a Hegelian resonance. In Kuhn’s terminology, this progress in the realm of mind or spirit translates into the succession of scientific theories or paradigms, each one eventually replacing the one that precedes it according to a logic of sublation whereby the new paradigm doesn’t simply expand on the old, but reconfigures the frame of interrogation, changing the questions as well as the answers. But if Kuhn was the history of science’s Hegel, he was succeeded, in the history of the history of science, by his own Marx. By this I mean Paul Galison, who essentially flips Kuhn on his head, and looks at the materiality, the tools, of scientific work to tell essentially the same story, with generations of researchers each indoctrinated  into and invested in the use of certain tools, experimental techniques and interpretative procedures that are eventually replaced, in a chaotic and discontinuous break, with a new generation of tools and their researchers.

Admittedly I’m storytelling here, rather than presenting the results of objective analysis, though I’ve been careful to cite Freud saying there’s no clear, fixed limit between the two. And in any case this narrative of progress-via-dialectical-interruption/sublimation, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, in which the opposition, that is, the heterogeneity between the terms (thesis/antithesis), however antagonistic and radical the difference, is inevitably recuperated into the greater story of progress, does sound familiar. It suggests to me a deconstructive critique: in a 1982 interview, Derrida describes what he calls ‘Hegel’s dialectical machine’ as a ‘machination’ by which ‘frontal critiques always let themselves be turned back and reappropriated into philosophy’[8]. This is the traditional philosophical characterisation of history as Derrida describes it in a somewhat later text, as ‘one of continuous progress, despite the revolutionary break’[9]. Derrida goes on to say that this is ‘what is most terrifying about reason’, reason, that is, traditional philosophy, the western metaphysics that he set out to deconstruct. Derrida wasn’t against progress, far from it[10], but the naïve blind lockstep march of Hegelian or Marxian progress was too much a story of the reappropriation of the same, a kind of progressive thrift, funeral baked meats coldly furnishing marriage tables as if nothing had happened. He was interested in the possibility of ‘another history: a history of paradoxical laws and nondialectical discontinuities, a history of absolutely heterogeneous pockets, irreducible particularities’ (442). He’s imagining here a history that’s genuinely out of joint, but it’s also the only history in which something might actually happen.

But time is short, as well, and if I could, to draw towards a conclusion, I’d show you some images of telephones, as well as some paragraphs or passages and even some telephone signifier fragments. I’ll settle for a series of virtual exhibits.

Exhibit 1:

My first exhibit would be A.G. Bell’s early telephone prototype that’s actually in the Science Museum, where you can see the hole one speaks into, the drum that’s the first transducer, converting the sound wave into a vibration in the leather membrane, and then the electromagnet’s coil of wire and the metal arm attached to the centre of the drum that vibrates, a second transducer that converts the movement of the arm near the coil into an analogous movement of electrons in the wire. The process happens in reverse at the other end to convert the electrical wave back into a sound wave that someone can hear.

Exhibit 2:

I’d also show you some images of Bell’s original patent application, with a lovely drawing of this apparatus[11]. But one of the things that is evident from the application is that the invention of the telephone is actually the invention of a system for analogue signal representation, and that the long-distance communication systems that preceded this invention all relied on a crude form of digital encoding. Morse code is the prime example, based as it is on the binary ‘dit-dah’ system – something not to be confused, despite the quasi-homophony, with the Derrida system. A morse code transmitter is a transducer, of course, converting a physical movement of the hand into an electrical signal, but it was the process of double transduction of sound itself into an electrical signal, without having to encode it in digital form, that was so revolutionary about the telephone. There’s a kind of irony here in that while the invention of the telephone was the invention of a system of analogue signal representation, today’s smartphones are possible thanks to a return to digital technology.

Exhibit 3:

There’s a famous controversy over what, exactly Bell invented or patented, how much of the idea he begged borrowed or stole from others. It’s a ripe example of the irreducible ambiguities in drawing a line between invention and communication, basically, intertextuality and plagiarism, whether the author/inventor is a god or a shaman. Bell called his device a telephone, in English, using a hybrid or compound word that fittingly also came to him largely from elsewhere, from afar, transduced and in fact translated from the German and/or the French.

The prefix tele-, as a simple marker of distance, the ‘at-a-distance’ of the telephone, telegraph or television, carries with it a reductive, binary ideological thesis: it presupposes that we know what distance is, what it is to be far or near for that matter, and above all that the two must be mutually exclusive. As it turns out, this is precisely what the telephone in fact deconstructs – but I’ll come to this in a moment. In the meantime, let me note a telling symptom of ‘tele’ in translation: in British English and culture, ‘tele’ became the familiar designation of the television, not the telegraph or the telephone, whereas the equivalent nickname or term of endearment for the telephone is of course the ‘phone’: the television is called the ‘telly’ and the telephone is called the ‘phone’. I’m not sure how to interpret this, but aside from the obvious etymological alternative – with the telephone ceding the qualifier of distance, tele, to the television, as if the sound of the voice, phoné, already by itself implied a conquering of distance – I note that the open vowels of ‘telly’, and indeed of the American ‘TV’, are more… ‘telegenic’ (and the word telegenic is itself an incredible coinage), at least in an American sense of telegenicness if not telegenesis epitomised by the wide toothy smile. Whereas the closed ‘o’ of the ‘phone’ hides the teeth. And indeed it’s as if this were the difference between suckling (‘O’) and biting and chewing (‘E’), two stages of infantile orality and incorporation as relation to (eating) the other. But the O of the phone is also more sonorous, resonating deep in the body, and breathy, as if mimicking a life-giving breath… I suppose this maps out a question of alternative geneses, the telegenic marking a genesis from afar, whereas phonogensis would be a kind of aspiration, inspiration or expiration, a mouth to mouth suscitation of life-giving breath before speech, before the symbolic or even the image…

One more thing I hear in the ‘phone’, but not in the ‘telly’, is the fricative ‘ffff’, which is a kind of unarticulated white noise, as opposed to the discrete quanta of the staccato ‘t’ and the ‘e’ of telly. This uninterrupted white noise on the side of the telephone raises the question of signal to noise ratios, and everything that goes along with it: the relation of the telephone to analogue technology, and the promise of digital technology or ideology to eliminate noise, or dramatically increase this ratio, but most importantly to separate the signal from the noise, via a digital system of encoding. So this rings a bell, so to speak, we’ve heard it all before: the eagerness to purify the signal from the noise, to liberate the ‘information’ from the medium of communication, the signified from the signifier, to use Saussurian terminology. My goal should be clear: a deconstructive critique of this opposition, paying attention to the ways signal and noise can’t be disentangled. In other words, while the onomatopoeia can be taken as the ground-level linguistic example of analogue transduction, were the sign of the thing resembles the thing itself, or rather insofar as it problematises the separation between ‘use’ and ‘mention’, as Austin says, between saying something and doing it, I would argue that the same thing transpires in what is casually called the digital archive or sign. …

So there’s the fricative ‘ffff’ in the phone, but also the dreaded nasal ‘nnnn’, for me an ever-present haunting of my electronic youth, returning on occasion in the form of a certain ghostly tinnitus, this insidious ‘nnnnn’ that I can never hear as anything but a failure of the ground, a lack of earth, the sixty-cycle, or, again, in translation, the fifty-cycle hum of mains power lines that parasitizes all high gain DC circuitry. Parasites: in French, it’s precisely this buzz, or a crossed line. Here, in the Hnnn of the ‘phone’, the parasite is indeed part of the ‘signal’.

Exhibit 4:

My fourth exhibit is another telepoetic device, Freud’s telephonic take on the psychoanalytic cure. Freud famously described the analytic situation as a telephone call. It comes in a somewhat technical text, his ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis’ of 1912. The analyst, Freud says, ‘must turn his own unconscious like a receptive organ towards the transmitting unconscious of the patient. He must adjust himself to the patient as a telephone receiver is adjusted to the transmitting microphone’[12].

To tell the truth, this technical description of an analytic session as a telephone sounds a little odd to me, as if a bit of dreamwork had slipped in there, a condensation of two technologies or a displacement from one to another: because this telephone sounds a lot like a radio, with its receptive organ that must be turned towards the transmitter and adjusted to receive the signal. Freud is generally careful with technical details –it’s hard to imagine he was unfamiliar with the difference between telephone and radio transmission– so one can only conclude that the chimerical quality of the apparatus he describes here is significant: the two unconsciouses seem to communicate to each other via a kind of ham radio system – we might call it a Hamlet radio – that’s at the same time person-to-person, and in a certain sense always collect – charge, discharge and reverse charge. Either way, we recognise here the double transduction, the transformation of sound into electrical signals at the speaker’s end, and then the transformation of the electric wave back into sound waves and the listener’s end.

That said, there is another key operation on either side, the transformation of the message between the conscious and the unconscious minds, and that’s where another layer of transduction or encoding comes in. In fact it’s clear that in the ‘person-to-person’ call, the people are the two unconsciouses, that communicate to each other through the two conscious minds and the speaking/hearing organs. So the roles are effectively reversed; the repressed are having a giggle, and getting something across, at the expense of their ostensible repressors: these unconsciouses are making use of the conscious minds they have at their disposal as convenient radio-telephonic devices. Because as we know, the unconscious itself, if I can put it that way, in its ‘native’ latent content, has no need for special codes, for condensation or displacement. The unconscious knows exactly what it wants.

The trouble, which is to say the repression and the censorship, and the sole impetus for the work of producing the distorted, encoded manifest content, comes from the conscious mind, or the ego and the superego, and it’s simply to outsmart this censorship that the unconscious has recourse to the telephone, I mean to dreamwork, to hysterical ‘conversion’, to parapraxes, body language, the work of the signifier and any number of other devious ways of communicating its contents without being caught. So the two unconsciouses, that of the patient and that of the analyst, which Freud thus describes in a kind of tele-radio-phonic communication without the interference of the conscious minds, are not in fact communicating ‘directly’, if such a thing is conceivable, but only through the distorted or transformed – the transduced – forms of some manifest contents: some condensed and displaced signifiers or symptoms. But in a sense all unconsciouses speak the same language: they know the code, or at least the code’s code, so when the analyst’s unconscious it properly tuned to the patient’s, it isn’t side-tracked by the distortions: it has no trouble transducing the manifest content back into its corresponding latent elements.

However, there’s a further step to the process here: the analyst must be made consciously aware, at some point, of this content. Freud says interesting things about this as well, in effect that since the analyst’s unconscious is never a neutral, objective receptor, but always has its own biases, repressions or hang-ups, the analyst must know his or her own unconscious very well in order to be able to apply a corrective filter to the materials received through this receptor, a little like the noise-cancelling technology in higher-end headphones. So the full telephonic system of the patient-analyst relation involves at least three moments of transduction: from the latent content into the manifest content (the symptoms, etc.) at the patient’s end, and then from this manifest content back into its latent equivalents by the analyst. It is the analyst’s unconscious that does the work here, but then, in a further step, the analyst, with a correction to account for the his or her biases, is able to in effect listen in on the conversation – a further transduction.

One more word about this double transduction in the analytical situation: the so-called ‘fundamental rule of psychoanalysis’, to which the patient is subjected, the injunction to free associate, that is the not just counter-intuitive but on the surface of it clearly vain if not archly ironic injunction to repress any repression, to censor any censorship (il est interdit d’interdire), to refrain from consciously judging and editing whatever comes to mind, has its equivalent counterpart in the ‘evenly distributed attention’ that Freud prescribes for the analyst. These again are in effect the two telephonic transducers that are necessary at either end of the exchange for any exchange to take place. But paradoxically, they work by inhibiting any further transformation of the already transformed content. There is something odd about these bookended injunctions: not just that they represent a conscious effort to let the unconscious express itself, but most of all that they depend on an apparent naivete about the power of the unconscious, as if the shifty work of the unconscious suddenly ceased when its disguised thoughts became manifest in their distorted form. Because the unconscious must still be at work even in any selection made by the conscious mind of what to verbalise and what to silence, and this work must itself be analysable. So the fundamental rule does not ask for an elimination of inhibition or censorship: after all, everything that comes into one’s mind from the unconscious, during free association or otherwise, does so only as the product of the transductive encoding of the dreamwork or its waking equivalents. In other words, there is no simple opposition between inhibition and access, between distorted representations and the actual latent contents. And since the fundamental rule can’t prescribe uninhibited access to the unconscious, it settles for uninhibited access to the inhibited contents.

Exhibit 5:

So the telephone, as a transductive communication technology, is like analysis, which is to say that transduction is like the unconscious, or rather the unconscious is structured like a transductive device, but there’s more. Here’s a well-known passage from Proust that involves a remarkable telephone analogy. It’s in the second part of the second volume of the Recherche, ‘In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower’[13]. The narrator is in love with Albertine, but she’s inaccessible or unresponsive, ‘indifferent’, as he puts it, to his advances. So he develops a complex strategy to seduce her, or at least to attract her if not entrap her, a sort of antinimical or antiphrastic strategy for drawing her in, that involves quite a bit of repulsing her. He invites over Albertine’s friend Andrée every evening, pretending he is in love with the latter whereas he’s only in love with the former. ‘I pretended to prefer Andrée,’ the narrator says. The next sentence is about his feelings for Albertine, which are not a simple matter: ‘Love begins, we want to remain, for the one we love, the unknown person she can love, but we need her, we need to touch not so much her body as her attention, her heart.’ So love itself is a kind of teletechnology: of course you need to remain unknown because knowing kills love, a commonplace Freud also took as given, so that’s already a kind of distance necessary to love’s embrace. But there’s also the loaded question of physical proximity, of haptic intimacy: as if love calls for an intimacy even greater than the intimacy of bodies: a tactile intimacy with the loved-one’s attention or heart – and indeed we suspect that the one precludes the other, i.e. that the heart is accessible to the touch only when the body isn’t. So here’s the narrator’s trick: ‘We slip into a letter a spiteful remark [une méchanceté] that will force the indifferent one to ask something nice of us, and love, following an infallible technique [une technique infallible], tightens, with an alternating movement, the gear mechanism [l’engrenage] in which we can neither not love nor be loved’. So there’s a radical dissymmetry of love, a non-reciprocity, which dictates the narrator’s antiphrastical strategy of seduction, and effectively deconstructs any simple opposition between proximity and distance, attraction and repulsion, love and hate, love and self-interest. It’s interesting, furthermore, that this happens thanks to a mechanical ratchet mechanism, whereby these ‘alternating’ and thus opposite movements of the apparatus in fact contribute to the same continuous progression, we might call it Hegelian attraction, producing an uninterrupted, ever-increasing ‘tightening’ of the paradoxical bond.

In their encounters, the narrator makes a show to Andrée of his lack of interest in Albertine and her family. ‘When I spoke of Albertine to Andrée I affected a coldness by which she was perhaps less deceived than I by her apparent credulity.’ So you can see already the double calculation, the reverse reverse psychology, of an impossible communication at an irreducible distance (between me and you, my mind and yours). And of course this can’t be avoided as soon as signs are liable to mean the opposite of what they mean, when ‘I hate you’ means ‘I love you’, for example. Naturally, this antiphrastic doubling is an obvious problem for communication: how will you know what anything means if words can mean the opposite of what they mean?  Aren’t words supposed to help get an idea across? But as Freud points out, in effect, it’s also a great boon to communication, to any communication. And notably to the communications of the unconscious, confined as it is by an active repression, and thus a censorship, past which it can only slip, like Odysseus clinging to the sheep’s wool, at the cost of a kind of crafty transduction, an encoding whereby its signs mean something different from what they mean. And it wouldn’t take much from here, to propose that this liability that’s also a boon is something intrinsic to language itself.

Proust’s narrator continues, about Andrée’s reaction to his feigned disinterest in her friend: ‘She made a show of believing in my indifference to Albertine, of desiring the closest possible union between Albertine and myself. It is probable that, on the contrary, she neither believed in the one nor wished for the other. While I was saying to her that I did not care very greatly for her friend, I was thinking of one thing only, how to become acquainted with Mme. Bontemps [Albertine’s aunt], who was staying for a few days near Balbec [where the narrator is currently located], and to whom Albertine was going presently on a short visit.’ So the narrator is concocting a strategy to get close to Albertine by befriending her aunt, who is staying nearby, because he knows Albertine will be visiting her soon. He continues: ‘Naturally I did not let Andrée become aware of this desire, and when I spoke to her of Albertine’s family, it was in the most careless manner possible. Andrée’s direct answers did not appear to throw any doubt on my sincerity. Why then, on one of these occasions, did she blurt out suddenly: “Oh, guess who I’ve just seen – Albertine’s aunt!”?’ It’s this ‘just’ that sticks in the narrator’s mind, ‘I’ve just seen Albertine’s aunt’, ‘J’ai justement vu la tante à Albertine’ ; it’s this adverb justement that interrupts him, as we’ll see, like a telephone call. It can indeed mean ‘just’, as it’s translated here, ‘guess who I’ve just seen’, or ‘I just saw Albertine’s aunt,’ but there’s more to it in this case, because it seems to suggest a continuation of a previous conversation or thought-process, as if she’s saying something more like this: ‘funny you should mention her, I just saw her aunt the other day’, or : ‘as it so happens I saw her aunt just the other day’, etc. But in fact, the narrator has precisely avoided talking about Albertine, so there has been no significant previous line of conversation about her – at least consciously, at least according to the explicit, verifiable, objectively observable dimension of the conversation. The narrator continues: ‘It is true that she had not said in so many words: “I could see through your remarks, tossed off as if at random, that you were thinking only of how you could become acquainted with Albertine’s aunt”. But it was clearly to the presence in Andrée’s mind of some such ideas, which she felt it more becoming to keep from me, that the word ‘just’ [justement] seemed to point.’ So the word, justement, seems to the narrator to be linked [semblait se rattacher] to the presence in Andrée’s mind of an idea that’s the opposite of what she appears otherwise to be saying; the word seems to betray an otherwise unexpressed suspicion of Andrée’s that the narrator in fact thinks the opposite of what he says he thinks. And it’s interesting that the narrator, who does indeed think the opposite of what he says, at least according to his own account, should attribute exactly the same antiphrastical subterfuge to his interlocutor here. The actual presence of this adverb in Andrée’s sentence is interpreted as proof of the presence of an unexpressed thought in Andrée’s head (so it is expressed without being expressed) that contradicts what Andrée actually says.

And finally we have the telephone analogy, in which this little word justement is equated with what we might call body language and with the telephonic transmission of the human voice: ‘It was of a kind…’ the narrator says, ‘it’ being this word justement in Andrée’s sentence, ‘It was of a kind with certain glances, certain gestures which, although they do not have a form that is logical, rational, directly elaborated for the listener’s intelligence, reach him nevertheless in their true signification, just as human speech, converted into electricity in the telephone, is turned back into speech in order to be heard.’

This word justement in Andrée’s sentence is in the same family as certain glances or gestures, the narrator says – and note already that there are family relations between these different modes or technologies of telecommunication (i.e., certain words, certain glances or gestures and the telephone) just as there is a family relation between Albertine and her aunt. These family relations are themselves somehow telephonic, producing their own kind of attraction from afar. Now these glances and gestures can’t be deciphered by the addressee’s ‘intelligence’, as the narrator says, since they have no rational, logical form ‘directly’ constructed for it. We might be tempted to substitute ‘conscious’ for ‘rational’ and ‘logical’ here, in a psychoanalytic transcription of this passage. But if they are devoid of a conscious message, this doesn’t mean they are meaningless, for they have in fact been converted into something like symptoms or parapraxes, indirect, coded symbols of an unconscious message. They say something without saying it. So even spoken language, a word uttered in the presence of an interlocutor, can constitute a kind of telephone call in this sense.

Exhibit 6:

Telephones, what we now call telephones, have of course proliferated to an almost unimaginable extent across the world today. There is significant variation depending on the country or region, to be sure, but nonetheless, something like two thirds of the planet’s human beings own a mobile device. Phones are like an invasive plant or a pandemic, in fact, they seem to know no limits as they domesticate the globe. But they do something similar on the individual level, they enter, in relation to their owners, into a kind of mind-and-body intimacy unlike even glasses and clothing and jewellery: some five billion humans now have a telephone implant, a telephonic prosthesis, which is to say a semi-detachable (but only semi-detachable) telephonic partial object, we might say each their own telephallus. So at a time in history when so many humans are thoroughgoing telephone cyborgs, it’s interesting that we hardly even telephone anymore: we have and I would say we are telephones, and in this way there’s some distance between the telephone and the conventional notion of the phallus which is understood to be an either/or binary proposition, but we no longer telephone. It’s as if the verbal form of ‘telephone’ had paradoxically fallen into obsolescence in our ever more ‘connected’ culture. We poke at it constantly, and we talk about it quite a bit, but not so much on it or into it.

For me this is pretty odd, because I use the telephone a lot, or rather I mention it, in class, and I’m not sure whether this is a case of use or mention, in fact it often seems like my only example, when I want to talk about deconstruction: it’s the most pedagogically economical example I know, and it goes a bit like this: the telephone is a deconstructive technology in the sense that it deconstructs the classical oppositions between presence and absence and between proximity and distance. It does this by separating the voice from the body: the result is an intense, extreme intimacy of the speaker’s voice with listener’s ear even though the two bodies may be far apart. Yes, intimacy is the word, but between a voice and a body, the peculiar and particularly affecting quality of a voice lodged within one’s ear in a manner that would be impossible in the presence of the bodies. And the point here, the pedagogical utility of this example in thinking deconstructively, is that once you think the telephone in this way you can never go back and think there’s a simple opposition between proximity and distance, presence and absence: it is no longer a question of comparing more or less distance, but different mixes of certain presences and certain absences. Class over.

Exhibit 7:

Except for a little deconstructive addendum from Proust, again, on the telephone: here he is, in Le Côté de Guermantes, describing the effect of talking to his beloved grandmother on the phone for the first time: ‘Suddenly I heard that voice which I mistakenly thought I knew so well; for always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely; but her voice itself I was hearing this afternoon for the first time’[14]

This is important: the telephone is not simply a poor substitute for an encounter in the flesh with his grandmother, shorn as it necessarily is of her physical presence: in fact the telephone offers an incalculable advantage: it is only on the telephone that he actually hears her voice. The physical presence of her body when they talk face to face, and of her face in particular, is actually a hinderance to hearing her voice.

However, there’s a further complication here: let me re-read the phrase: ‘always until then, every time that my grandmother had talked to me, I had been accustomed to follow what she said on the open score of her face, in which the eyes figured so largely’. When the narrator is listening to his grandmother talk to him in the physical presence of his grandmother, he doesn’t so much listen to her as he watches her, he watches her face and in her face above all her eyes. There is a stress here on the visual relation, rather than the oral, seeing more than hearing, and seeing the eyes, of all things, in a kind of mise en abyme reflected reciprocal visibility, even though these are explicitly situations in which the grandmother speaks to the narrator. This is also, of course, in these person to person conversations, an effect of transduction, as the verbal exchange is transformed into a uniquely visual relation. However this insistence on seeing and the eyes happens within a startling metaphor: his grandmother’s face is an ‘open score’ on which the narrator follows, with his eyes, a musical performance. Having a conversation with his grandmother is like going to a concert, but a concert at which he pays attention above all not to what he hears, but to the score that he can see. So on the telephone, which does not allow him to follow along with the score, he hears the music for the first time.

Exhibit 8:

In a sense, writing is already a telephone: say you and I are illiterate: I speak to a letter-writer; you receive my letter and take it to a letter-reader who reads it to you: you won’t hear my voice, exactly, but who knows? Maybe you will, to some extent, maybe you’ll hear my voice in the construction of the sentences, in the vocabulary, in the idiomatic expressions, in the phrasing, in the linguistic tics, etc. What’s in a voice, after all? But even if I can write without moving my lips and you can read without moving yours, and even if my writing is very different from my speech, there’s still some kind of hearing and listening happening at either end: it’s said that one’s ears, unlike one’s eyes, can’t be closed voluntarily, but it’s deeper than that: no doubt some writers hear language more than others, some writing is more oral, more actively engaged in its writing with the oral dimension of language, but in any writing, whether the writer wants it or not, the signifiers speak to each other. This may not be the whole of the work of the signifier, but it’s an irreducible part of it. Writing is always already the telephone. The converse is true as well: as soon as there’s writing, no spoken language is ever entirely without writing, never is it uninfluenced by writing: in a sense it is always also written.

Exhibit 9:

I’d like to finish with a passage in a book by Hélène Cixous, her first great cat book, Messie, published in 1996[15]. It’s in a chapter called ‘From my menagerie to philosophy’. The narrator, who is probably part-human, part-cat at this point, and refers to herself as ‘My life and myself’, makes a distinction between two kinds of challenge she faces: ‘we encounter extraordinary difficulties and extraordinary easinesses [facilités]’ (108), she says. These challenges can be separated, more or less, into those faced by the body and those faced by the mind, or rather, on the one hand, the obstacles presented by ‘space’ and the ‘physical world’ (which are easy) and on the other, what she calls the ‘intellectual’ ordeals or tests [épreuves] of the ‘university civil economic police’ (109) (which are difficult).

In fact, things are a little more complicated than this, a little more non-dualistic, or non-binary, because what I just called her ‘body’, is in fact the ‘soul of [her] body’, (‘l’âme de mon corps’, 108). So there are distinctions within distinctions, a little like the deconstructive telephone that obliges one to think of the different mixes of proximity and distance (for instance, an extreme, pure proximity of the voice that’s only possible in the absence of the body). Here the distinction between the bodly and the intellectual isn’t at all invalidated by the fact that the body in its most bodyish state can have or be a soul, a soulbody. Cixous’s narrator writes: ‘on the level of space and the innumerable obstacles that the physical world places in my way I can count absolutely on the soul of my body’. (108). I should add that what’s in play here, at some level, is also the human-animal relation or binary, the radical deconstruction of which is, to put it somewhat reductively, the project or cause of this book. So this ‘soul of my body’ that overcomes with ease, with ‘extraordinary easiness’, whatever physical obstacles it encounters is, on the surface of things, more on the side of the cat, the narrator’s cat than the narrator’s human, if I can put it that way. But there is a communication here, a telecommunication that makes child’s play of obstacles, including those that separate, or seem to, the animal reign from the human: one senses that this ‘soul of my body’ is also something shared, in some way, by both bodies.

In any case, for the physical obstacles, there’s no problem. However, ‘faced with the innumerable intellectual challenges that the university civil economic police inflict upon me, it’s a catastrophe. Within days on foot from the obstacle, I am already lost wandering suffocating’. (109). One of these intellectual trials arises when someone asks her ‘to respond to a question that begins with ‘what is’”, or simply to ‘respond to a Whats’, a ‘Questceque’ (109). This is the French interrogatory qu’est-ce que, ‘what is’, actually formed of four words, ‘what is it that’, que est ce que, separated by a space, a hyphen and an apostrophe, but here mashed together in a single word, a noun in fact, masculine singular and capitalised: un Questceque.[16]

One day, the narrator says, she heard ’a handsome scholar respond to the enigma ‘Whats-Poetry’’ with the answer: ‘Poetry is a hedgehog’ (110-11). She’s very impressed, and she has a ‘marvellous vision’ (111) in which the hedgehog gives birth to a prairie which in turn gives birth to an admirable dead woman who names the hedgehog Ceres, among other things. But the narrator nonetheless concludes that ‘poetry is a hedgehog’ is not long enough to make a conference paper. There follows a scene of virtual interrogation in front of her colleagues, where she blurts out that it was her choice to become a civil servant, that is, a university teacher. Here’s the scene: ‘”Stop!” said my interior angel. But I couldn’t stop. ‘With my talents and my strength, I said, I could have become Prime Minister or head of government’, I said despite myself, and I hit the brakes just before king. “And if I didn’t, it’s because the only thing that counts for me is poetry” I cried’ (112). She doesn’t say ‘I could have been a scientist’ any more than she says ‘I could have been king’, but we’re not too far off.

However, when she is asked a page later to present a paper on the topic: ‘But whats poetry?’, all bets are off. All sorts of complications ensue, but finally she joins the waiting students, sits in the circle and she continues – she insists that she continues even though this is the first thing she says to them on the subject of ‘Whats poetry’: ‘It’s the way my cat and I have resolved the question of the telephone. How can we telephone each other?’ (114) So in the end, not only is philosophy this little animal Questceque, that is, the question itself, as Derrida also points out, ‘What is…?, but the question of poetry is intimately related to – and by – a certain telephone.

How can we telephone each other? ‘Comment nous téléphoner?’ How can we telephone ourselves? This reflexive formulation doesn’t make clear whether the reflexivity happens between or within ourself/our selves. So this too, this little sentence, is a telephone effect, opening the question of the distance or proximity between us, between me, between me and you. There follows a reflection on ‘the need to telephone’ that I fear could be read, hastily, distractedly, as somehow essentialist, whereas it’s at least the opposite. The narrator says: ‘The need to telephone has always existed because it’s a vital need to call back the mother’ (114-15), un besoin vital de rappeler la mère, a vital need to rappeler, to call the mother back, to return her call, to remind oneself of the mother. Note also that this returned call addresses the mother, but also one’s mother, the expression la mère here not having only the abstract implication that ‘the mother’ has in English as if it’s a universal generalisation. Le besoin de rappeler la mère is also simply the need to call one’s mother back. The text continues: ‘And all mammals carry the trace of the first telephone cord.’ That the telephone cord should be an umbilical cord, or that the umbilical cord should be the originary telephone cord, is perhaps not a new idea[17], but it takes on a new twist here, if not a kink, in that umbilical cords don’t just link children with mothers, but mammals with other mammals, and for instance humans with cats. You might take this to be an example of mammal-centrism – what about birds, or reptiles or fish? It is true that any connection, any telephone connection, any bond or any cord necessarily excludes as it joins: and in more ways than one. In what I have said up to this point, I have stressed the way the telephone deconstructs the proximity/distance opposition, and in general how within interpersonal relations, any intimacy depends on a simultaneous distance. There is no pure presence of me to you, nor any pure absence for that matter. But this is clearly also true with regard to all the others, the third parties: love is exclusive, telephone and umbilical cords are exclusive, even if there’s always destinerrance, even if there may always be someone else listening in.

However, while it is therefore true that any connection is simultaneously exclusive, this particular example, the link that links ‘mammals’ to each other in that they bear a ‘trace’ – that is, a little bit of writing – of the first ‘telephonic’ link to ‘the mother’, arises here clearly in a move to radically undermine any anthropocentric exclusivity and privilege. Humans and animals are of the same ‘family’, as Proust says of words and gestures, among other things, because they share a ‘cord’. And a telephone.

I must add, in a similar vein, that although the implicit reference here to umbilical cords may sound like an appeal to biological determinism, it is anything but. Somewhere in the background we can hear not just the old saw that the mother’s love, ‘may be the only true thing in life’,[18] but some suggestion that blood relations, whatever that means (and I recall that we still don’t know, even today), are somehow more determining, and more ‘real’ than all the other relations, elective or inherited. But we know that election and inheritance go hand in hand, so to speak. There is no pre-determined division between the determinism we call biological – a certain inheritance that like all others must also be invented – and all the other fictions, all the other fictional telephone cords. Because this passage very firmly stands on the side of fiction, on the essential and rich, life-giving fictionality of all cords, umbilical or otherwise. So it’s no surprise that we read three lines later that ‘The person who is the mother’, or rather ‘The mother-person’ (la personne mère), can also be, mixing relations and genders: ‘a son a husband a lover [un fils un mari une amante]’ (115).

Now we learn in the intervening sentence that this need to telephone, this need to return our mother’s call, is our need ‘to verify that she is there, only this: that she is living’. Allow me to pause for an instant here on the French word , qu’elle est là: it means ‘there’, but it also means ‘here’. It is all by itself a telephone, and you can be sure it is doing all its telephonic work t/here in this sentence. We need the telephone, or rather we need to telephone – note that it’s not an object that we need, not a noun, but a verb, an active action – we need to telephone our mother to verify that she is : there, but there means here if I’m telephoning, and here means there.

So the communication, this living communication – and the umbilical cord is not only a living means of communication, but let’s say the living communication of life itself – the telephone call serves to verify this, ‘only this’: ‘that she is living’. There is no information, no signal transmitted by this telephone cord other than the living of life itself. And this verifying of life that passes without anything passing over the telephone is also an exchange, a reciprocal gift of life. The narrator continues:

‘That’s what telephoning is, between people who reciprocally give life to each other: Are you there? I’m here. Good, then I can go about my business. – Are you ok? Is your life in good condition? I can travel the world without worrying that my line will be cut? [And the answer:] – My life is in good condition. You can go.’ (115)

We can hear the narrator’s mother distinctly here, on the other end of the line. Note, by the way, that in these exchanges, the linking and the separation, the making of the connection, the verification of life, on the one hand, and the authorisation to go off, to take leave, are not at all opposed. Indeed, they go together.

However there’s a telephonic problem between the narrator and her cat. The narrator asks: ‘But what can you do if you are a person of a race that can’t speak at a distance’ – we can clearly translate this ‘person’, this ‘person of a race that can’t speak at a distance’ into a familiar word such as ‘cat’ –  ‘what can you do if you are a person of a race that can’t speak at a distance when the always urgent need arises to verify life? Here is the solution my cat and I have found: we telephone each other in person. She comes several times a day to give me a little telephone call on my leg, using her own body briefly as the telephone apparatus [pour appareil]; for the number she rubs: everything ok? – Everything’s ok. And she hangs up reassured’ (115).

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, James Strachey (trans.) (New York, Norton: 1961), 38.

[2] Judith Butler, ‘Imitation and Gender Insubordination’, in Diana Fuss (ed.), Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories/Gay Theories (New Yord and London: Routlege, 1991), 13-31.

[3] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).


[5] Sigmund Freud, Studies on Hysteria, trans. James and Alix Strachey (London: Penguin, 1974 [1895]), case history of ‘Fräulein Elisabeth von R’, 231.

[6] Sigmund Freud, ‘Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1957), 11:59-137, 73.

[7] Derrida makes this point forcefully in The Post Card.

[8] Derrida, ‘Almost Nothing…’ 82.

[9] Derrida, ‘Choreographies’, 442.

[10] He supported progress in the abolition of the death penalty, for example.


[12] Sigmund Freud, ‘Recommendations to Physicians Practicing Psychoanalysis’ (1912), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958), 12:111–20, 115–16 (‘Ratschläge für den Arzt bei der psychoanalytischen Behandlung’, Zentralblatt für Psycho-analyse 2 [1912]: 483–89; and Gesammelte Werke, 8:376–87).

[13] Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (In Search of Lost Time Vol. 2), trans. James Grieve (London: Penguin, 2003), 503-4, (A la recherche du temps perdu, II, 280; Moncrieff translation: In Search of Lost Time, II, 587), translation modified. (Quand je parlais d’Albertine avec Andrée, j’affectais une froideur dont Andrée fut peut-être moins dupe que moi de sa crédulité apparente. Elle faisait semblant de croire à mon indifférence pour Albertine, de désirer l’union la plus complète possible entre Albertine et moi. Il est probable qu’au contraire elle ne croyait pas à la première ni ne souhaitait la seconde. Pendant que je lui disais me soucier assez peu de son amie, je ne pensais qu’à une chose, tâcher d’entrer en relations avec Mme Bontemps, qui était pour quelques jours près de Balbec et chez qui Albertine devait bientôt aller passer trois jours. Naturellement, je ne laissais pas voir ce désir à Andrée et quand je lui parlais de la famille d’Albertine, c’était de l’air le plus inattentif. Les réponses explicites d’Andrée ne paraissaient pas mettre en doute ma sincérité. Pourquoi donc lui échappa-t-il un de ces jours-là de me dire : « J’ai justement vu la tante à Albertine » ? Certes elle ne m’avait pas dit : « J’ai bien démêlé sous vos paroles, jetées comme par hasard, que vous ne pensiez qu’à vous lier avec la tante d’Albertine. » Mais c’est bien à la présence, dans l’esprit d’Andrée, d’une telle idée qu’elle trouvait plus poli de me cacher, que semblait se rattacher le mot « justement ». Il était de la famille de certains regards, de certains gestes, qui, bien que n’ayant pas une forme logique, rationnelle, directement élaborée pour l’intelligence de celui qui écoute, lui parviennent cependant avec leur signification véritable, de même que la parole humaine, changée en électricité dans le téléphone, se refait parole pour être entendue.)

[14] Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time III, The Guermantes Way, trans., C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin (revised by D.J. Enright), (London: Vintage, 2000), 149. (Je finis en désespoir de cause, en raccrochant définitivement le récepteur, par étouffer les convulsions de ce tronçon sonore qui jacassa jusqu’à la dernière seconde et j’allai chercher l’employé qui me dit d’attendre un instant ; puis je parlai et après quelques instants de silence, tout d’un coup j’entendis cette voix que je croyais à tort connaître si bien, car jusque-là, chaque fois que ma grand-mère avait causé avec moi, ce qu’elle me disait, je l’avais toujours suivi sur la partition ouverte de son visage où les yeux tenaient beaucoup de place, mais sa voix elle-même, je l’écoutais aujourd’hui pour la première fois.)

[15] Hélène Cixous, Messie (Paris: des Femmes, 1996). My translations.

[16] Note that ‘every Questceque presents itself to my consciousness as a very powerful spectre…’ (109).

[17] It figures in Joyce’s Ulysses, notably.

[18] Joyce, Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1961) 207 [204].