Annotated Bookshelf: The Telephone Book

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Let’s leave it to Ronell: “Why the telephone? In some ways it was the cleanest way to reach the regime of any number of metaphysical certitudes. It destabilizes the identity of self and other, subject and thing, it abolishes the originariness 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 destinal alarm, and the disconnecting force of the telephone enables us to establish something like a maternal superego” (9). That handful of aims ends up a mouthful, a fearful earful, and having finished the book (the authority of which, mind you, was just undermined), ears are left ringing by the “nervous text, made up of jolts and multiple disruptions, clandestine destinations and disseminating yours…the already nervous text starts when the telephone rings” (74)—and how interesting that Ronell’s achievement (which I will quote without miming) came upon the swan song, the last rings of the traditional telephone. In the first half of the text, Ronell treats “the telephone [a]s a synecdoche for technology” (20), underscoring theoretical implications of its unnoticed prominence in everyday communication. Utilizing (especially) Heidegger and Derrida—though with assists from Freud and Lacan along the way—Ronell suggests that the emergence of a self is in response to the collect call of technology, an Other that remains unseen, unclear, unknown (caller ID/id notwithstanding). “The essential not-thereness of the subject as self or Other makes the telephone possible but also leads the telephone to raise the question of which system is speaking when the telephone speaks, simultaneously translating while emitting sound waves” (153). Despite the lengthy discussion of the telephone as “[o]bject of art or object of technology, object of a sustained hysterical fantasy—yours and mine—or thing of inmixation, telecrypt, or, in all cases, partial object: we have still not connected to the telephone its principal (over)determinations” (202). As such, in the book’s latter half Ronell turns her attention to the intention of Bell and Watson, inventors of the telephonic system, in whom she discovers the “somewhat occulted foundations” (99) and schizophrenic origins of the telephone, superstitions and oedipal complexes built into the technology’s design and still echoing today online, dial tone or not. The result is that “[d]esire has been rerouted, computerized, electrocuted, satellited according to a wholly other rhetorical order. And thus the field under investigation, whose floodlights are power-generated by schizonoia, ought to concern the engulfing transformation of the human subject into a technologized entity…To plug in the electrical currency of the epochal shift it becomes necessary prior to any reading of the desire that called forth prosthetic gods, to undertake an exploration of the extent to which we have become effects of technology. Because it is entirely possible that reading such a desire is already programmed by the technology in question” (109f.)—which is to say, the anthropos has been technological and prosthetic to its core ever since Prometheus, if not before.

Let the phone ring:

“For [the call’s] benefit, and to render oneself answerable, one drops what one is doing, what one has been, and becomes what one is: a priori and automatically indebted. One responds to its manifestations like a hypnotized thing, replaying the automatic listening device…The call, it would seem, tears into us with the authority of a suddenness, a resolute event which can neither be subjected to a will nor to a string of predictable determinations. The call, erupting as a kind of violence perpetrated against a destinal projection, is thus essentially out of control, arriving only to mark the out-of-handedness that befalls a planning ‘we ourselves’.” (30f.)

“Telephonics imposes the recognition of a certain irreducible predecence of the Other with respect to the self…the telephone appears to have procured a subject who in a Lacanian way, may well be headless, but only because the technoid headset doubles for a head that is no longer entirely there. The effects of the assumed apparatus ineluctably reach out and touch the very concepts of subject and Other—the trace ‘itself’ already tending toward the thingification of the Other. And yet, if the telephone has emerged as a source of epistemic inauguration, as origin of a new deconstitution, then this is only partially true and so, false.” (82)

“The telephone, within language, entrusted to transference and translation, is to be plugged in somewhere between science, poesy, and thinking. Inasmuch as it belongs, in its simplest register, to the order of the mechanical and technical, it is already on the side of death.” (84)

“The somewhat occulted foundations of psychoanalysis and telephony in magic require further study. In historico-technocological terms, this means a look at the mostly subdued feminine underside of technological desire, whose emblazoned tongue has in part been turned down. The call for technology may well be figured in the feminine, by which we also understand man’s feminine repressed.” (99)

“It is no longer a question of adducting causes to the telephone, assigning its place, and recognizing in it a mere double and phantom of an organ…Put through the body-slicing machine, the telephone will have become an organ without body…The ear, eye, even skin, have been divested of authority as they acquire technical extension and amplification in Media. All this belongs to our subject. But the radicality of the transaction takes place to the extent that technology has broken into the body.” (109)

“This is not so much an interpretation of schizophrenia, as schizophrenia is made to read technology’s omphalos.” (122)

“When you or I get on the line to a schizophrenic you do not know who is there, who is speaking; in fact, one has the feeling that no one is there, and like Ophelia, the no on that is there or not gives you the sensation that she is not a person. Her ‘word salad’ seems to be the result of a recording, registering a number of quasi-autonomous partial systems striving to give simulcast expression to themselves out of the ‘partial assemblies’ or ‘partial systems’ (quasi-autonomous ‘complexes,’ ‘inner objects’), each of which as its own little stereotyped ‘personality’ (molar splitting). Their being is dystonic, there is a lack of an overall ontological boundary.” (147)

“As if language were armed to the teeth—an uncontrolled thing whose release-controls [shizophrenics] manned. The partial system inverts but structurally maintains the long-distance relay of the fort/da apparatus. The Other in its being-as-not-thereness is never found to be fully retrievable or recuperable. The thing of language is that if it is there to be given, it is to be given away.” (153)

“We have hit an intersection where the lines of public diffusion cross those of more private, nonreferential systems of poetry and schizophrenia. These feed into the telephone that plays chiasmatically on the dimensions of inner and outerspace…It may appear to us as first, harrassed sight that technology has introduced something of a ‘rupture’ into the very modalities of hearing or seeing…Yet here we observe [Heidegger] seeking a form of help from the time-space produced by the new technologies, [cautiously calling upon formulas]…Neither the source of a new insight, nor the site of epochal closure, technology itself answers a call…And yet, while the technological call may be the same, it is not identical with what has preceded it. It amplifies, intensifies, passes down death sentences while keeping the body in custody.” (186f.)

“If indeed, as we suspect, the dwelling is bugged, then this also means that the listening device has been absorbed by the dwelling, nestled compliantly as a constitutive part of parasite, one upon whom the host becomes dependent regardless of intention, drive, or desire. As part of the building site, possibly even preceding it, the way cables have to be fitted and ditches dug prior to any construction, the telephone is inserted too deeply within the oeuvre to be laid on the surface lines.” (199)

“We are on the way to the feminine…Technology in some way is always implicated in the feminine. It is young; it is thingly. Thus every instrument of war is given a feminine name. The feminine, in whose way we are, does not arrive. She is what is missing. Constituted like a rifle, she is made up of removable parts.” (207)

“Whatever the configuration, scrambled or not, of the first telephone receptionist, the problem of picking out the right message still dominates the horizon of telephonality, a fact which no doubt intensifies its functioning as a privileged instrument of splitting for the schizophrenic. The telephone pitches language into its most random allotment.” (252)

“the telephone did not come into being as an effect of some demand or generally articulated desire. It was the cause of the effects which nowadays places it strangely in the locus of effect. It was not the culmination of a teleological movement, a finality, science’s response to an audible demand. The telephone was a private, an imaginary, and a somewhat more perverse conception than you would allow.” (256) … but “The telephone splices a party line stretching through history.” (295)

“Somewhere between an art and a science, the telephone still throws strangely stamped shadows off its primary invisibility. It divides itself among thing, apparatus, instrument, person, discourse, voice. Or rather, as a moment in onto-technology, does it not perhaps offer itself precisely as a nothing so that by putting off access to itself, abstaining or interdicting itself, it might thereby come closer to being something or someone? The telephone coils us around its own lack of assumption, if one understands by this the stranglehold by which it affirms the impossibility of acceding to its proper significance. Noise machine, schizo leash, war-zone shots in the dark, lovers’ discourse or phantomic conference call, the telephone as such is, like the phallus, empty but powerful.” (265)

“The telephone philosophizes with a stammer. It signs a contract with speech only insofar as it breaks with a mellifluous flow and perturbs the easy paternity of logos.” (282)

“Since one of the branches of its genealogical tree link it to the predicament of deafness, the telephone will always be hard of hearing, and thus unhinging. With the deaf-mute, language is cut to the quick. Theories rush in emergency supplies to dress the wound…They suffer an a priori disconnectedness that technology promises to repair, ever trying to rehabilitate the Wild Boy of Aveyron. The deaf, unable phenomenally to hear the Other.” (328)

“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 in a way that the Promethean Frankenstein monster already had foreshadowed…something like the history of positive technology is unthinkable without the extension of this maternal substance into its technologized other: in other words, its precise mode of preservation and survival.” (341)

“Technology, perhaps more so than any other thing except for a certain illumination of a god, is inseparable from catastrophe in a radically explicit way. Cutting lines and catastrophizing, the telephone has been associated with a maternalized force…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.” (342f.)

“the difference between life and death…is the difference that Bell and Watson were committed to making, but from the dimension of an afterlife, which is to say from a paranormal position or a repression of the absolute difference. They argued a far more uncanny projection of the return call that we can perceive through the iron curtain blocking our view from the genealogy of a technological desire, a desire that celebrated techne and participated in a rhetoric pumping the artificial self. Already heterogeneous, the self that speaks into the phone or receives the call splits off from its worldly complexity, relocating partial selves to transmitting voices in the fundamental call for help.” (350f.)

“Desire split off from itself. No mythology of a past totality of self where the telephone teaches desire…Desire does not originate merely in the other, but in the self called by the other. His appeal to her comes from her voice split off through him…a character says upon leaving a foreign planet that on earth we exchange telephone numbers. This supplies the residue of our identity…He accorded the telephonic connection priority over any other constitution of the self and other.” (357)

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.


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