Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 Avital Ronell 1 Jan 1991

The Telephone Book

The Telephone Book. Technology Schizophrenia Electric Speech AVITAL RONELL, University of Nebraska Press (pub), 1989, ISBN 0-8032-8938-3, English text.pp. 465


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Only the mentally disturbed pick up a telephone book as if it is a fascinating publication and begin to read. They undoubtedly manage to fish messages out of the streams of text. To them, the printed database is not a reference work, but a well of signals. Its functional use is reversed: the telephone book is no longer an aid in phoning someone up; we, intently reading, are phoned up ourselves. We do not disturb another, but get disturbed ourselves.
This twist, which is typical of any schizo-analysis, is the foundation of Avital Ronell's Telephone Book. Those who like to make connections better put Ronell's book down. It provides scarcely a hard fact on the history of this technology. In contrast to German media theory :à la Kassel, Ronell doesn't really contribute to the 'prehistory of technical media'. To her the telephone is not a communications weapon to be fired at the Other. The Telephone Book doesn't fit so well into the genre of narrative psychoanalysis on liaison officers who are merciless in their object choice (as described in Theweleit's Buch der Könige (Book of Kings) or literati who experiment with new notation systems (as in Kittler). The telephone resists any kind of smooth unfolding, interrupting as it does, screaming for immediate responses. It breaks up any hope for historical coherency or continuity because in a sense it has no history. To Ronell, the telephone is an utterance we have to respond to. She does not philosophize from the acting subject that picks up the handset and dials the desired number. In her ears telephoning is a question of answerability. Her question is, what does it mean to answer the telephone? She describes the transcendental predicament of accepting a call. By concerning herself with the passivity of the one who waits, who is taken by surprise from outside and comes into an unstable situation, she breaks with the myth of the exchange and dialogue which telecommunication claims to make possible. Attention can thus shift to the voices outside which come into contact with us against our will. We sharpen our ears and listen to the static on the line (that in the future, with ISDN-fiber optic technology, will probably disappear and be replaced by other random noise). Static has this wonderful semantic range of meaning, explains Ronell in a enlightening interview with the American magazine Mondo 2000. Parasitic noise and random eruption has always been a constituent part of language but a part that's been kind of obliterated.
Ronell's method is one of merciless deconstruction and disorientation. This goes back to the approach of Freud, who used slips of the tongue and the ravings of hysterics as material to describe the 'normal' mental state. It is necessary to take a detour because we can never get the unconscious itself immediately on the line. The accidents generated by the machine of the unconscious are characteristic of the unconscious itself. in this logic. The Telephone Book offers no immediate way out and even strongly resists a simple, swift reading. The User's Manual warns, The Telephone Book is going to resist you. Dealing with a logic and topos of the switchboard, it engages the destabilization of the addressee. Building on Derrida's Carte Postale and the Anti-Oedipus of Deleuze/Guattari, Avital Ronell writes in a style that bears no resemblance to academic interpretations or rip-offs of French theory. To the mix of German quotes, statements with French sentence constructions and psychoanalytical terms, she adds a literary quality, which causes the reader to stumble over the final text. There is no such thing as a free call, Communication is a traumatic act – and readers of The Telephone Book will not soon forget it.
In the first section, philosopher/ rector Heidegger gets a phone call in 1933 from the Storm Trooper Bureau, by which he is given to understand that he must give his (Jewish) teacher Husserl the push. Heidegger accepts the telephoned order and carries it out. Ronell takes this crucial moment in the history of philosophy as a starting point for her writing. Why did Heidegger accept this telephone conversation? Although the telephone is a black spot in his oeuvre, in Being and Time he does indeed write about the can: If we analyze conscience more penetratingly, it is revealed as a can. Calling is a mode of discourse. The conscience has a telephonic character for Heidegger. It is a voice that calls out of the blue.
In What is Called Thinking? Heidegger goes into this more deeply: The call is precisely something which we ourselves have neither planned nor prepared for nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done so. 'It' calls, against our expectations and even against our will. We are not so much required to see this 'outside' as a person who is calling to us: The call undoubtedly does not come from someone else who is with me in the world. The call comes from me and yet from beyond me and over me. Like the conscience, technology is swamping us: man of himself cannot control it. Seated at her switchboard Ronell sets up a conference can among the theorists S. Weber, Fynsk and Borch-Jacobsen in order to break open Heidegger's closed circuit. They bring the category of the Other into the game: The relation to the Other is structured in terms of call and response. The meeting with this Other is not noncommittal, but even violent in essence. It is accompanied by thrownness, fascination, vertigo, anxiety, guilt. The teleconference wonders how the Other undergoes this ('what' or 'who' undergoes this overwhelming. disappropriating experience of the Other as the source of its 'own' nullity ?). Heidegger cannot switch over to the other side of the line, and thus cannot answer the question In what sense is He/she/it the bearer of 'nullity'!
As opposed to Heidegger's self-addressed envelope –
Dasein's collect call to itself – Borch-Jacobsen sees the call as a gift that surpasses your initiative, indebting and obliging you before you can undertake my decision. Ronell does not present such different positions from Heidegger's in order to expose a fascist core in his thought. Like her tutor, Derrida, Ronell crawls into Heidegger's language and effortlessly interweaves his insights on the voice character of the conscience with quotes on the phony character of the other.
But then the connection gets broken, again and again. It is followed by a whole series of dots... long lines that look like morse code... while pages... inflated words... blocks of text torn down the middle... The modernist typography asserts itself and ensures that the biophony (which Ronell wants to write) becomes audible. To make it perceptible that technology has 'being' in its grip, the closural sovereignty of the Book must be cracked open. According to the manual, the idea is that you will become sensitive to the switching on and off of interjected voices. Respond as you would to the telepnOne, for the call of the telephone is incessant and unremitting. When you hang up, it does not disappear but goes into remission. This constitutes its Dasein. There is no off switch to the technological. The design of this book is decidedly uncontemporary. It stays away from the fashion of the (esthetic) visual presentation of the text and the deformations which have become possible through modem digital manipulation techniques. The composition remains noticeably close to the text and, strictly speaking, functions to support the content. The reader who manages to keep his/her mind on the text is already making so many strange leaps into the dark, that the unconventional design, strangely enough, is not distracting. So fused together are content and form.
The speculative telephonics which Ronell practices somewhere between science, poesy and thinking does not view the telephone in a technical sense, as a network of wires and radio links. The linear lines which would suggest a chronology do not come close to approaching the phenomenon telephone. We'd better call her writing pure media philosophy which has no object and seeks none. The telephone has no identity. Is it an object? Is it an artwork? Is it a replicant or some sort of celestial monstrosity to a voice that's absent, a disembodied voice, a godlike intrusion? Neither is it a machine, according to Ronell, for it is at times 1ive'. Rather, it constitutes part of a technosphere, in which the objects are interchangeable interfaces that get eliminated in thought. I'm less interested in the instrumentality or 'tool-ness' of mediatic incursions than in the relation to a hanucinated exteriority that these reflect, the place where the distinction between interiority and exteriority is radically suspended and where this phantasmic opposition is opened up, Ronell explains in the Mondo 2000 interview.'
As trophy for a forgotten instinct the telephone affords us access to the dark flirts with the life/death opposition and receives the voice of an absent person. The most susceptible to this quality of telephoning is the schizo, the demonic operator who can connect with everything. Ronell rereads Freud, Jung and Laing for the telephonic content of their psychoanalyses and deals with the case of Miss St.. who interpreted her voices as invisible telephones.
This black reading of the dark side of communication is in stark contrast to the white transparency which Baudrinard attributes to the slick. operational surface of the obscene media. I only have to pick up the telephone, he writes in his Fatal Strategies, and there it is, the whole marginal net grabs onto me, beleaguers me. Finally I no longer know what I want, so saturated is space, so great is the pressure of every thing which wants to make itself understood. The 'ecstasy of communication' the media are now in has no dark side for Baudrillard. His emphasis on 'total connectivity' leads to totally different conclusions than Ronell's 'will to rupture' which pushes forward disconnection as a constituent property. We can descry no voices in Baudrinard's emptiness. Heidegger's speaking is listening to the language which we speak: Ronell embroiders on this and makes telephoning an introverted and repetitive activity (we say again the saying we have heard). One might rightly wonder to what degree the telephone can be counted as part of 'the media'. It is often not listed along with other media - and it is not so in Heidegger only . The telephone surpasses the calculus of technological representations. The babble-machine has such an a priori character that as a part of the building site, 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.
The second part of The Telephone Book deals with the birth of the telephone. without lapsing into historical writing. As in the case of the philosophy and psychoanalysis discussed. we are required to be informed in advance about Alexander Graham Bell's family perils and his painstaking preparations. and then let ourselves be carried along through Ronell's schizo-version of the first telephone sessions. The logistic male couple of Watson and Ben is exceptionally accommodating when it comes to an occult explanation of the telephonic phenomenon. The baby they bring into the world is in accordance with Ronell's introverted technical opinion, for them above an a private affair, which has nothing to do with secret commercial or military objectives. Watson may have been the first convinced person actually to listen to noise. The electric speech which they were the first to listen to was a natural continuation for both of the previous medium, the dancing table, and hypnotized the public, which included many schizos who were called up by the telephone to come over (The telephone calls the callers).
It is in this segment on the 'invisible mouthpiece' that The Telephone Book really gets going: the typography goes crazy, blurs, shifts, sets down crooked blocks, prints sentences on top of each other, compresses and rips lines apart. The art of telephony (Watson) finally precipitates in a text which desires to reach no one, disturbed by noise and misunderstandings. Schizo-analysis has now definitively taken the place of philosophy a statement which comes across in the beginning as theoretical, but towards the end is converted into truly random text and takes you along on a dizzying trip through the noise. Until you hang up the receiver. The first telephonists found it difficult to hang up. They often forgot to put down the phone. The same happens to the reader of Ronell's Telephone Book.

translation LAURA MARTZ