I, Phone: Subjects on the Line [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was asked to deliver a paper at GRACLS 2016, the annual graduate student conference hosted by the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas-Austin. This year’s theme was the Extrahuman, and seeing as Avital Ronell was our keynote speaker, I chose to pick up where I believe she left off in The Telephone Book, updating her text for a texting age. Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return when further along in my dissertation project:


I, Phone: Subjects on the Line

Yes, yes—doubly yes—I did undoubtedly, though teeming with much doubt, begin this paper on the phone on the phone, thumbing through an article or two and swiftly putting down those ideas a generous audience might put up with. (Put down or upload, they amount to the same here, for as I will come to, phones today are too all-encompassing to act as effective compasses, providing too many directions to offer sure direction, if they ever could.) Of course, in due course, I was intermittently and interminably interrupted by the hardly silent hum and thrum of my pixilated notepad, its high-pitched pings and dings and things of that nature calling my concentration away from my task. Just as hysteria had supposedly become legion during Europe’s late nineteenth century—the wandering womb being the original-if-forgotten “organ without body” favored by fledgling psychoanalysts—or as schizoid modalities had broken out following the breakdowns of interbellum modernism, our digital epoch has added on another clinical diagnosis: ADD, or APPLE-DISTRACTION-DISORDER. Notably missing from my roll call of 8-bit notifications, however, was the rollicking ring of the receiver, that familiar-cum-infrequent series of repeating oscillations now more often than not replaced by an echoless ding-sans-dong (and I pinky promise to return to that missing dong in the Q&A, should anyone so desire). The singular chime, which has come to signal the death knell of the telephonic bell, has become all the more typical, which is to say that users prefer by far today texting over talking, or sending a SnapChat to actual chitchat—much to the chagrin of Carly Rae.

Who calls today? we might ask, our question carrying overtones of Heidegger’s ontological interrogation alongside more prosaic concerns with the shifting uses ushered in by and with the development of first simply mobile and now so-called smartphones—the disputed term here being not whether my iPhone is “smart,” but to what extent it remains a phone when the phoné has been displaced; for if the voice no longer retains its nominal prominence, then do we have in our pockets and purses only phony phones? and have we ever spoken to anything other than a phony phoné on the phone? It is not difficult to imagine that in a few years time, that original telephonic capacity itself will go the way of the 3.5mm jack, gone as quickly as lightening, the everyday incursion of voices during the last century supplanted by a digitally enabled schizography (to hijack an early neologism of Jacques Lacan’s). All of this is admittedly rather hyperbolic, and my aim here is not in the least to nostalgically bemoan the e-clipse of some original telephone bequeathed us by grand Ma Bell, nor to lament the loss of a voice that in truth never entirely belonged to either end of the telephone line, and especially not to forewarn apocalyptically of some sort of cellular Skynet looming on the human horizon. Such technophobic philippics—as with their flipside, the transhumanist encomium—too easily suggest a straightforward and reliable distinction between human being and “our” media, offering up a timeline wherein emergent technologies cut clear breaks with past subjectivities. At the same time, in light of digital diffusion and in the light of our glowing LCD screens, who can still ignore the significance of modern technology on how we speak to and of one another, how we define our relationships and ourselves? While the writings of, say, a Walter Ong or an Eric Havelock on consecutive paradigms of orality and literacy might in the final analysis turn out too schematic and dramatic, while human being and technology are from the first ontologically indissoluble, the manifest difference between speech and writing, between calling and texting, the effect of the medium on (or in or as) the message entreats us to reevaluate the call of modern technology broadly and, more specifically, that of the telephone as we trace its transformation from a tool of vocal communication to one that is not (just) one.

avital-ronell-2015-1Already a quarter of a century ago, when it cost little more than a quarter to place a call at a payphone, when there were such things as payphones outside Doctor Who—though at nearly a grand a pop, every smartphone is effectively a payphone (messaging rates may apply)—in her monograph on the machinery (mono because it spoke in only one ear at a time), Avital Ronell suggested that the telephone offered “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 is itself unsure of its identity as object, thing, piece of equipment, perlocutionary intensity or artwork” (9), at once an “object of a sustained hysterical fantasy—yours and mine—or thing of inmixation, telecrypt, or, in all cases, partial object” (202). We get hung up when we attempt to pin down the telephone, situated as it is somewhere between the invocatory and the oral drives, split between the caller and the receiver, this unceremonious phantom medium that, when it rings, regardless from where or whom, quickens the subject into response-able being as in that moment “one drops what one is doing, what one has been, and becomes what one is: a priori and automatically indebted” (30). When it rings, it spurs; or, said otherwise, the telephone makes us as it makes us wise to the other—yet we cannot decisively say what it is precisely because the telephonic umbilical serves as a condition for the possibility of saying whatsoever, we cannot readily place the telephone (mobile or not) because it functions extimately, within a middle register, uncannily welcoming long-distance charges into the immediate familiarity of our homes. Despite its inconspicuous ordinariness and because of its constitutive commonality, the telephone discloses “a certain irreducible precedence of the Other with respect to the self” (82), a primordial nonpresence that always already splits the subject and renders human being as an answer to the call of the Other.

Such a wholly other, which persists as a hole of alterity within the divided self, resists capture politically, psychically, linguistically, and so cannot be totalized and reduced to a specific, knowable object; hence the telephone, as a part object or organ without body, is in conference with a long-distance party line of other others, like the feminine and the Frankensteinian, the addict and the idiot. Rather, for Ronell “the telephone is a synecdoche of technology,” both “lesser than itself but also the greater” (20), a part (itself perpetually partial, at no time total) standing in for a broader symbolic network of contemporary AT&T: Automatic Tropes and Technicity. The telephone assists us in naming the unnamable Other of technontology, it helps us to expose the underlying cables and technical bugs, the extrahuman elements that coil through the hollow core of human being—and yet: What becomes of the collect call of the telephone following the flowering of cellularity? do the philosophical and tropological functions of the telephone differ when the medium itself functions differently? what vibrations are felt in the wider web of our hyper-mediated world, our digital enframement, once the phone stops ringing and its umbilical wire has been cut? We must ask these questions concerning technologies—none of which are reductively the question, as if there were just one to ask, and just one to ask about—out of neither a reactionary nor provincial moralism, some backwater or blackforest neo-Luddism, but instead to trace the topological displacements and condensations of the mutating medium’s psychosocial effects as it mobilizes a technological unconscious, intensities all the more compelling when we reproduce the habitual ignorance that the phone has historically enjoined (by dint of its long-established unpretentiousness in kitchens and living rooms, its anonymity echoed now by our orthodox aphonia). Consider here the phenomena of phantom vibrations, when you become alarmed by the hallucinatory feeling that your phone just buzzed: More than an indicator of the telephone’s interruption of the line between subject and object, do we not sense these sudden intrusions into the schizobody as a psychopathological reminder-and-remainder of that which is tying us to the Real of foreign contingencies, the illusory perception serving as a symptom of the return of the repressed, all the more formidable for being forgotten?

With the loss of the voice today like a pandemic of technolaryngitis, our smartphones have at the same time compensated with an augmentation of our visual and tactile senses, often in combination, as with Pokémon Go, which requires players to train their bodies as much as their Bulbasaurs while its augmented reality synthesizes our subjective viewpoint with objective game data; this is a far cry from Peter Sloterdijk’s too cynical claim a decade ago that the age of the online world picture “only offers the continuation of the telephone by visual means” (“Cell Block” 103). While lines yet need be laid tracing the twenty-year period between the release of Ronell’s The Telephone Book during the twilight of dial tones and the first iPhone—which effectively rang the death knell for telephone books for the general public—the advent of smartphones transformed the frame of our emerging media ecology by organizing a newly dominant rhetorical order that has “rerouted, computerized, electrocuted, [and] satellited” our psychosocial discourses and desires (109). My claim here is not to suggest that the technologized subject in some way splits an independent line off from “the” history of human being, for the split subject is always already on the line, never off the hook, made response-able insofar as we are hooked on telephonics. Rather, as Ronell has so disruptively demonstrated, ever since primordial Prometheus the anthropos has been fundamentally prosthetic; accordingly, to track the topological curling of the telephone cord at our core, we might call the iPhone the modern promethean preorigin of our contemporary digital Dasein, supplying (and demanding of us) for this epochal mode of Being a different kind of Apple and another sort of byte.

tumblr_ndy80un0ct1qaqx8xo1_500Through elision of phoné, part-object-cause of desire, and tactile conditioning of the schizobody, like that other modern Prometheus, the iPhone with its miniscule “i” offers us a paradigm of being more machine than man (contrary to common usage, here I mean Victor-the-inventor, not his “unfortunate and deserted creature”: The death-drive-toward-knowledge of the former transforms the scientist into an answering machine for the alchemical algorithms of Cornelius Agrippa, an automaton of rationalism to contrast the romantic yearning of his Miltonian monster). Or, more to the point: Do not iPhones signal, weakly by design, the continued computer colonization of the subject, the substitution of digitally operated dial tones by a hyper-dexterous digitality, a shift in value from the communicative affordances of the phone to the nigh unaffordable smart, and the overall displacement of hauntology-at-a-distance (tele) by the egospheric cellular? In itself, to be clear, this is all well and good, a sign of little more than typical technological progress, as in Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the content of any medium is always another medium,” technoprogeny a material accretion atop and a topological deformation of its ancestor—the monster is also named Frankenstein and thinks of little else than his “unfeeling, heartless creator.” Yet as the recent legal battle over the classification of the Internet as a telecom utility and its protection under telephone regulations clearly demonstrates, complications arise when we continue to treat legally and economically, rhetorically and psychologically, technologies that are effectively computers as devices only nominally still telephones; in doing so, we disavow our digital enmeshment and its unconscious psychosocial effect, as if nothing had changed, the cables of the Other buried beneath too much earth to cross any other way (and to an extent, do we not see such a lapse taking place already in The Telephone Book, the style and performance of which were made possible, and thereby reflect more, not the handset that connected authorial-Dasein-and-designer, but the layout and typographic freedom of the computer?).

Camera yet calendar, newspaper yet notepad, personal trainer yet personal assistant: If we are still to call the iPhone a synecdoche today, then it is so not because it continues to constitute a single part within a wider technological totality, but because it contains that totality within itself as digital possibility, including for the moment a final vanishing trace of the voice. As it exists now, however, within the realms of the political Symbolic and our everyday Imaginary, when (as McLuhan says) “official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old,” and so “[w]e approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old,” the iPhone (and digital media broadly) aligns more closely to the paradigmatic logic of metaphor rather than metonymy, functioning as a signifier of nonpresence and substitution. Who needs a camera or a calendar, newspaper or notepad, personal trainer or personal assistant today when deep in you pocket they each stand by in app-sentia, waiting to be called up from (what Saussure labels) the “virtual mnemonic series” of the device’s programming? Having located our mobile phones along language’s metaphorical axis, with Roman Jacobson we might here speak of a cultural aphasia that fails to realize contiguities, with Lacan the dominance of drive over desire, or with Julia Kristeva a potential for transgressive poetic resistances, though such considerable considerations must be put on hold until a future project; for now, I have attempted merely to trace the call—or rather, the always already missed call—of the iPhone, placing a bug on the line that divides subject and prostheses, self and other, “I” and phone.

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