Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Notes on "The Telephone Book"

Avital Ronell

b. 1952, currently professor at New York University

Studied with Derrida and translated many of Derrida’s texts to English

The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech

(1989) University of Nebraska Press

Through the University of Nebraska Press Ronell met Richard Eckersley (b. 1941– d. 2006) – who collaborated on the book’s design, specifically through the use computer-designed typography (the first book he designed on the computer).

The book begins with a warning “The Telephone Book is going to resist you. Dealing with a logic and topos of the switchboard, it engages the destabilization of the addressee. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to read with your ears. In addition to listening for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness - in a word, you are expected to stay open to the static and interference that will occupy these lines.”

Ronell’s book investigates “the call.” “Accepting a call.” (Ronell 13) Calling or responding to it. The “transcendental predicament of accepting a call.” “To whom or what are we listening?” (medimatic)

As a brief aside, much of the book focuses on Ronell’s investigations into Heidegger, and his relationship to National Socialism, his accepting a call, the “transfer of power.” (15) Ronell describes that “Later, Heidegger would locate himself at a remove from National Socialism by linking the movement to technology. … Heidegger wants to mourn technology, but it proves to be unmournable as yet, that is, undead and very possibly encrypted.” (16)

This moment, Heidegger’s involvement in Nazism as “the worst moment in the history of technology” (16) requires a deep investigation, an inquiry into the call itself. As Ronell explains in The Telephone Book: “You don’t know who’s calling or what you are going to be called upon to do, and still you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order.” (Ronell 2)

As a result, Ronell’s text sets out to destabilize authority:

“In some ways [the telephone is] the cleanest way to reach the regime of any number of metaphysical certitudes. It destabilizes the identity of the self and other, subject and thing, it abolishes the originaryness of site; it undermines the authority of the Book and constantly menaces the existence of literature. It is itself unsure of its identity as object, thing, piece of equipment, perlocutionary intensity or artwork … it offers itself as instrument of the dentinal alarm, and the disconnecting force of the telephone enables us to establish something like the maternal superego.” (Ronell 9)

Eduardo Kac in “Aspects of the Aesthetics of Telecommunications” describes Ronell’s text as “[oscillating] between orality and writing in the connections and reroutings of a metaphorical switchboard.” Kac considers her text to be an experimental artwork, similar to the experimental work of artists since the late 1970s who have used the telephone as a source of inspiration.

As Diane Davis tells us in the introduction to “The Uber Reader,” Ronell proposes that “… given the complexity of its destination and destiny, there will be no way to know for sure that a call has been put out, or that it’s meant for you, that you are the one called.” … “in the telephone book, Ronell boldly [proposes] that any call, including the “call of conscience,” could be a kind of prank call.”

The chapter we read is titled “The Returns: The Dead – AGB” where AGB is of course Alexander Graham Bell, Bell being the central figure of Ronell’s investigation.

The chapter begins with “emergency supplies to dress the wound” … what wound is this? The wound of technology? Of distance, of disability?

Ronell uses the chapter to circle Bell’s invention of the telephone (the founding of what we can broadly define as telecommunications) as the result of Bell’s desire to “invent an enabling machine to make the dead hear the vibrations of the air.” (329) A primal desire for phantasmal voices that extends not only from the death of Bell’s brother but from Bell’s obsession with the “deaf,” defined as those who cannot hear ... a population Ronell distinguishes into the prelingual deaf and the postlingual deaf: “for those deafened postlingually, the world remains full of sounds even though they are ‘phantasmal.’” Whereas the prelingual deaf, according to Ronell, are denied entry into the Symbolic, both occupy a position “unable phenomenally to hear the Other.” (328)

Ronell claims that Bell’s central interest is not the functional repair of a hearing mechanism, but the production of a phantasmal connection to the Other. A mechanical repair of death. Connecting again to what is lost. Ronell claims “Bell was not as such a scientist or technologist. Rather, he was an artist of the beyond …” (323).

Bell was supported in this fascination by his partner Thomas Watson, who was a dedicated spiritualist and spent evenings at nightly séances in Salem, MA. … Witch trials? Perhaps this is one wound that Bell and Watson seek to heal?

The catalyst for Bell’s invention is appropriately the severed ears of a corpse, attained by Dr. Clarence J. Blake from the Harvard Medical School. As Ronell narrates, Bell takes the ears to his father’s residence in Brantford, CT in 1874, and causes them to speak. This was achieved through a small piece of hay, substituted for the bristle of the phonograph, attached to the severed ear, which then vibrated onto a sheet of glass covered in lampblack (lampblack being a kind of dusty coating formed from the collected soot taken from oil lamps).

On this sheet of glass, Bell taught the ear to speak, but also to listen – to embody the electrical organ of speech in death: “In his father’s house he conceived something like a child by a dead ear, conceived with or for his father, which means he as his mother conceived his father’s child …. One membrane with two ends, giving birth to the gift of death …” (334)

This is the birth of electric speech, not only an electric séance, but a new organ: simultaneously the nipple and the labia. “Suction clicks and expulsion clicks.” (348) The body nourished through condensed milk: the vampire, the cannibal.

Ronell illustrates Bell’s interest in this connection between the self and Other through his breeding experiments in 1889: “The experiments take the form of studying the maternal body, which by mutilation and annexation, can be modified into a permanent state of incubation. In this sense AGB initiates a pre-genetic tampering, splitting the nipple in two in order to multiply it, in order to keep the maternal machine going.” (339).

She goes on to say:

“Precisely because the telephone was itself conceived as a prosthetic organ, as supplement and technological double to an anthropomorphic body, it was from the start installed within a concept of organ transplant, implant, or genetic remodeling …” (340).

For Ronell, Bell’s invention must be seen within the path of modern technology, a history she claims is “inseparable from catastrophe.” (341). Here Ronell connects us to the call of condensed milk, a creation of Gail Borden in 1849 to broadly preserve the nutritious properties of meat, or flesh of any kind, in response to his own personal horror over media coverage of the Donner party, a group of pioneers forced into cannibalism to survive their winter stranded in Sierra Nevada in 1846.

Ronell says on page 341:

“The silent pathos of object preservation, linked to food assimilation, discloses a mode of orality which the telephone brings forth. The work of mourning symbolically consists in eating the dead – what Derrida calls the mors, “the bit.” The losses are cut in the telephone, whose ringing repetition denies the death drive in which it nevertheless participates. In its extension to the locality of eating or vomiting, the mors makes the telephone an exemplary simulator of mourning and its disorders. The telephone makes you swallow what is not there. It contains preservatives. At the same time, you spill out a part of yourself that contains the Other; in this way, it is a vomitorium.”

Ronell identifies for us on page 345 Bell’s illustration of the mouth, lungs, teeth, and throat. “’We all know how important it is that foreign bodies should be kept out of the lungs.’ … What we all know is that invading bodies and food need to be controlled, kept at a distance, and that science will let you die.” (344)

Then what do we make of Bell’s apparatus, a telephonic contraption formed from the surviving bodies?

“The temptation always exists to swallow the telephone, to have it internalized.” (346)

The ghosts that accompanied Bell, whose “permanent residence has been registered neither inside nor outside technology” (341), repair a particular kind of wound: to enter again into language with that which we cannot hear.

How then is Bell’s telephone similar to the “Electronic Voice Phenomena” carefully archived by Friedrich Jürgenson (1903-1987)? Like Jürgenson, Bell’s telephone amplifies the undead. Unlike Jürgenson, the voice on the other end of Bell’s telephone is physically embodied. It is the voice that emerges from articulation teaching.

But then Bell reminds us: “learning to speak is like learning to shoot.” (348)

As a result, are we to understand speech as violence? Is speaking the consumption, the attack that enables us to digest foreign bodies? Is speech the cannibal that needs to be kept out?


  1. Thanks Chris, this is wicked.

  2. Yeah, Chris - fantastic presentation loads of ideas came out of it, thanks