Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 6#2/3 1 jan 1991

the Telephone Book

The telephone rings. Yes? Telephony originates from this hesitating acceptance. Taking a call means making oneself answerable. This is the point of departure for The Telephone Book, produced by Avital Ronell. To whom or what are we listening? In the extracts below Ronell presents the first ear that made the leap to the medium of telephonics. According to Ronell communication is not an activity without engagement. Placing a call = getting disconnected. There's no such thing as a free call. In the back of this Mediamatic you will find a review of The Telephone Book.

Delay Call Forwarding...................

..........And yet you're saying yes, almost automatically, suddenly, sometimes irreversibly. Your picking it up means the call has come through. It means more: you're its beneficiary, rising to meet its demand, to pay a debt. 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. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?
The project of presenting a telephone book belongs to the anxiety registers of historical recounting. It is essentially a philosophical project, although Heidegger long ago arrested Nietzsche as the last philosopher. Still, to the extent that Nietzsche was said to philosophize with a hammer, we shall take another tool in hand, one that sheds the purity of an identity as tool, however, through its engagement with immateriality and by the uses to which it is put: spiritual, technical, intimate, musical, military, schizonoid, bureaucratic, obscene, political. Of course a hammer also falls under the idea of a political tool, and one can always do more than philosophize with it; one can make it sing or cry: one can invest it with the Heideggerian cri/écrit, the Schreiben/Schrei of a technical mutation. Ours could be a sort of tool, then, a technical object whose technicity appears to dissolve at the moment of essential connection.
When does the telephone become what it is? It presupposes the existence of another telephone, somewhere, though its atotality as apparatus, its singularity, is what we think of when we say "telephone." To be what it is, it has to be pluralized, multiplied, engaged by another line, high strung and heading for you.


Following the sites of transference and telephonic addiction we have had to immigrate in this work to America, or more correctly, to the discourse inflating an America of the technologically ghostless above. America operates according to the logic of interruption and emergency calling. It is the place from which Alexander Graham Bell tried to honor the contract he had signed with his brother. Whoever departed first was to contact the survivor through a medium demonstrably superior to the more traditional channel of spiritualism. Nietzsche must have sensed this subterranean pact, for in the Genealogy of Morals he writes of a telephone to the beyond. Science's debt to devastation is so large that I have wanted to limit its narrative to this story of a personal catastrophe whose principal figures evolved out of of deceased brother. Add to that two pairs of deaf ears: those of Bell's mother and his wife, Mabel Bell.
Maintaining and joining, the telephone holds together what it separates. It creates a space of asignifying breaks and is tuned by the emergency feminine on the maternal cord reissued. The telephone was borne up by the invaginated structures of a mother's deaf ear. Still. it was an ear that placed calls. and, like the probing sonar in the waters, it has remained open to your signals. The lines to which the insensible ear reconnects us are consternating, broken up, severely cracking the surface of the region we have come to hold as a Book.
Even so, the telephone book boldly answers as the other book of books, a site which registers all the names of history, if only to attend the refusal of the proper name. A partial archivization of the names of the living, the telephone book binds the living and the dead in an unarticulated thematics of destination. Who writes the telephone book. assumes its peculiar idiom or makes its referential assignments? And who would be so foolish as to assert with conviction that its principal concern lies in eliciting the essential disclosure of truth? Indeed, the telephone line forms an elliptical construction that does not close around a place but disperses the book, takes it into the streets, keeping itself radically open to the outside. We shall be tightroping along this line of a speculative telephonics, operating the calls of conscience to which you or I or any partially technologized subject might be asked to respond.
The Telephone Book, should you agree to these terms, opens with the somewhat transcendental predicament of accepting a call. What does it mean to answer the telephone, to make oneself answerable to it in a situation whose gestural syntax already means yes, even if the affirmation should find itself followed by a question mark: Yes? No matter how you cut it, on either side of the line, there is no such thing as a free call. Hence the interrogative inflection of a yes that finds itself accepting charges.
To the extent that you have become what you are, namely, in part, an automatic answering machine, it becomes necessary for questions to be asked on the order of, Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, or accounts for the taxes it appears to impose? Its reception determines its Geschick, its destinal arrangement, affirming that a call has taken place. But is precisely at the moment of connection, prior to any proper signification or articulation of content, that one wonders, Who's there?

The Televisual Metaphysics

Alexander Graham Bell never considered the telephone to constitute a mere scientific thing, an object or even a machine that one day would be subsumable under a notion of technological dominion. His partner, Thomas Watson, wrote of the art of telephony and was a spiritualist who conjured ghosts at nightly seances in Salem. He was, for a time, a strong medium. The telephone's genesis, whose rhizomesque shoots still need to be traced, could have taken root in the dead ear Bell carried around with him and into which he spoke. He carried the ear, it transported him, during one summer vacation spent at his parent's home. Now, the dead ear was lent to Aleck by the Harvard medical institution may have been the other ear of Hamlet's father or more likely, too, of Van Gogh, insofar as ears tend to come in pairs. Or it could have been that of his deaf mother, calling him home. Still, ears rarely are pricked up for stereophonic listening, so that it might be reasonable to assume that one ear suffices for the telephone as well as for the purpose of invention. The ear of the other is not the other ear, the one excluded from the partial headset that seems eternally to await its fitting unity. Perhaps this division in the set of ears could be clarified by swimming. When crawling, one ear is submerged under water - since we are regressing to a beginning this is as good a place to start as any: with the crawl, then, one hand tends to be extended and one ear submerged into a place of resonant silencing. This cooperation of the ear and the trace-making hand produces a momentary disruption of the metaphysical sensorial apparatus (which relies more steadily on the ear-mouth, hand-eye complicities). In the meantime, the other ear exposes itself to the "outside," making itself capable of hearing the din of a different register of noises, which it receives before turning down. It exchanges places vaguely comparable to outside and inside with the other ear. In this way, at first sight, it would appear that the ears are indeed operating stereophonically, attending to double sonic events, receiving and shutting out, responding to varied calls of air and water pressures. Sometimes an inmixation of the two distinct states can take place, as for example, when the ear retains water. This generally becomes noticeable on land. However, while they are surely attuned to different waves or channels, it is by no means clear that the ears are not operating as one monophonic unit. For it would be entirely within our range to suppose that the submerged ear deepens the listening capacity of the periotic one, rising above the water like a periscope that hears. The Ear above water perceives free-floating transmissions which are unmuffled by the underwater terrain. Does this mean that the silenced ear cannot hear? Since the headset works, it cannot be determined that a condition of pure deafness is in fact induced. Nor would it be possible to state with conviction that because the telephone normally isolates a single ear, one does not hear. On the contrary, the deaf ear lends itself to the listening ear, creating a chamber that in turn invites the submarine self or a subconscious to tune in the call. One ear alone does the work of receiving the call, even though ears often come in pairs. One ear goes down into the abyss while the other exfoliates to the Open. It is not clear what the other, latent ear is doing. This somewhat disjunctive pair is not as such dialectizable: there is not a third ear to resolve the issue, though Hölderlin is said to have found a third eye. Or if there should be a third ear, which of course there always is the ear of the state, for example, the operator, or the ear of the other it acts as a second ear to the collapsible pair of ears. Unlike the mouth, the ear needs a silent partner, a double and phantom itself.

Birth of a Telephone

As with shoes, the telephone, or a schizophrenic, Alexander Graham Bell, was not one, but a pair. lf it was necessary to obscure the fact that otten he was on the receiving end of the coupled phenomenon, then the dynamics of the conception will have already been given over to misunderstanding. In the famous inaugural sentence, the first fully intelligible grammar transmitted electrically, Bell conjured up Thomas A. Watson with a commanding utterance. The first legendary sentence will have been a perlocutionary speech act of the kind that has been ordering us around the circuits of telephony: "Watson, come here! I want you!" The command attracts different registers of interpretive valency a mother calling to a child perhaps, as in Heidegger's evocation of Nietzsche in What Is Called Thinking? Come forth, manifest yourself Wat-son, cut the lines that separate us but whose wound enables me to command your arrival, your destination and destiny. Appear, turn this call into a phenomenal image.

By all evidence, "I want you" suggests that desire is on the line. Whether issuing from the political or the private sector, the desiring command inches you toward annihilation. It emerges from what is not present-at-hand; thus, "I want you" phantomizes you. I want that which I do not possess, I do not have you, I lack you, I miss you: Come here, Watson, I want you. Or this may echo the more original call of a male god, a god that is not full, since he is full of resentment, jealousy, suspicion, and so on. He calls out, he desires, he lacks, he calls for the complement or the supplement or, as Benjamin says, for that which will come along to enrich him. The god is at the controls but without knowing what he controls until the Other – still lacking – answers his call. Where the call as such suggests a commanding force, the caller, masked by the power apparatus, may in fact be weak. suffering, panicked, putting through a call for help.

We suppose that the phonetic inscription has been rendered faithfully. Yet nothing guarantees that. being telephonically transmitted, one is not asked to hear double, to open both ears, stereophonically, in order to grasp the homonymy of a great command: Come, hear: SCHMAH! While this does not quite present the same difficulties as the Shakespearean folio, whose variations have to be discerned or left multiply dictated, the unavailability of a primary script frees a language into the air whose meaning beyond the fact that it constitutes a demand, remains on shaky, if any, ground. In any case, it is the coming of the other that first enlists or clairaudience, as Joyce calls it, the rejoining other who was presumed to be second, secondary, a shadow of an ear receiving the electric command. The first proper name that the telephone was to call out was: "Watson." Pregnant with this other, the telephone also engages a resuscitating resurrection: "Watson, arise !" At once unborn and corpse, the Other is made answerable to the call.

He himself offered the utterance as an instance of emergency calling, a kind of sensibility of disaster which traverses the telephone wire sentenced in this call for help. The telephone, which was until that moment somewhat ill behaved, had refused to carry out an order, but in the heat of the moment, just as Bell accidently spilled a burning chemical on his lap, the telephone cried out, responding in effect to a master's distress. The telephone's opening sentence let through a burning body's call for help. It is necessary to look to the figure of an assisting other in order to grasp what it was the telephone was calling to in the recorded moment of its birth pang. It is necessary, because the telephone has never forgotten the one to whom it carried the first lesson of what is missing, broken, or in pain. An accident cleaved the original words of what Watson calls the art of telephony. However, by the time this sentence was produced, the telephone was itself old enough to come up with an intelligible sentence, old enough to rearrange Watson on the receiving line, for the telephone experimented with this couple, regularly changing its positions, making it difficult to determine who was the sender, who the recipient – who, in other words, was responsible for its birth. Earlier, on the hot June day of 1875, Watson had already given vent to a sound-shaped electric current, claiming some credit for himself:

One of my transmitter reeds stopped vibrating. I plucked it with my fingers to start it going..... That delicate undulatory current, which at other times had been drowned out by the heavy intermittant current passing through the receiver Graham Bell had at his ear, had been converted by it into a very faint echo of the sound of the transmitter reed I had plucked. Probably nothing would have come from the circumstance if any other man than Bell had been listening at that moment The twang of that reed that I plucked on June 2, marked the birth of one of the greatest modern inventions, for when the electrically carried ghost of that twang reached Bell's ear his teeming brain shaped the first electric speaking telephone the world had ever known.

These are the words which Watson committed to paper in his autobiography, almost mischievously entitled Exploring Life, for Watson was a man of irony, as his writing reveals and the ghost which he sent to Bell's ear suggests the directions his explorations took. The history of their complicity carries with it the probability that more than one ghost reached Bell's ear that day, but we shall keep them hidden away momentarily in order simply to note that there is nothing sure about who gave whom the first emission, whose ears were receptively opened to which ghost that continues to inhabit your inner ear. Watson, who was also a poet, had "plucked it with my fingers to start it going. " He claims the birthright. it would appear, and commences a certain paternity suit for the twang of the reed that "I plucked on June 2,1875, (which) marked the birth."

It is perhaps more delicately indicated than I am allowing, but which we can gauge the urgency of the preliminary transmissions that were made. By now, having heard out Heidegger we also understand that listening, a pose Watson attributes to Bell, is not a mere modulation of withholding passivity. It belongs rather to a long lineage of inwardness touched off perhaps by Rousseau's selfgathering energetics of stillness which, in the Rêveries, he names far niente, the nothing that is doing. The attentive heeding of far niente, its ontological currents, are still at issue here. Thus it remains probable that "nothing would have come from the circumstance if any other man than Bell had been listening at that moment." The one who waits in silent receptivity lends an active, and not reactive, ear. However, this attribution, as with many that follow, is double-edged, since Bell is shown consistently to be a deficient listener, the prize pair of ears belonging instead to Watson.

Since the telephone was expressly conceived as the desire of this couple, I should like to keep the unexplored other on the line, the one who has received so little, but not out of some charitable sentiment, which would be a revolting way to strike an interpretive pose. Rather, we need to pass it in this direction because the telephone chose Watson in a way that strongly determines the factors of its being. As its maker, Watson was also its first servant who saw it to the light of day. Watson's intimate friendship with ghosts should not be undervalued, nor was this overlooked by Bell, whose investment in its conjurings still accumulates a secret interest; let us think of this as a thrust fund that as yet has not matured for the telephone.

The reports indicate ambivalence. Who first made the telephone talk? The conflictual tone we appear to have uncovered in the rendering of the telephone's birth is situated in a subtle hiding place of the autobiography. Yet it hardly stands alone among such utterances, of which a few might be singled out. This is important because the most earnest concept of ambivalence, as described by Freud, is built into the telephone, harboring a double rapport of one to the other in which the other is always wanting or it is from you that the want has been extrapolated a cut of presence has been constitutively lett out, there is something missing, which also, however, makes certain telephonic couplings at all possible. Ambivalence can be read according to various frequencies of desire and horror, channeling the hierarchies that tend to build up when two are on the line. the caller and the called, though these stations do not constitute an oppositional or stable pair. "Pair" is to be understood in the singular, a pair, effecting thus an internal series of controls which may be difficult to master or delimit.

It falls within the norm to assume that Watson ranks second to Bell in terms of the contract that unites them. Nothing seriously disputes this assumption, which Watson himself of course shares. The subject who comes second is sometimes so immoderate in praise and admiration that number one falls into a darkened sphere of projection created by the resourceful suitor. For his part it seems that Watson has pitched an eternalizing space for the primary mover, rendering him immortal rather sooner than he might have bargained for. Early in the autobiography (Chapter 3) Watson has a word to say about his schooling. In the schoolroom we find a microchip of a theory telling us what it means for the young and delicate Watson to be second. A secondplace theory comes on the heels of the sadism that jogs his memory:

"The details of my work in (theschools) are very hazy in mind probably because the work was so uninteresting. I remember chiefly the frequent thrashings the boys got from some of the teachers who seemed to delight in punishing for the least offence. But some of the women teachers I recall were kind and patient with us." Now for a bit of theory: "I was usually second in rank in my classes and never envied the boy who stood at the head for I noticed he was the principal victim when the teacher wanted to show off her pupils to a visitor." Hence number one is depicted as a victim. The ambivalence is built into the structure of the argumentation, for a figure that had been originally presented in a favorable, even admiring light, gets into trouble quickly. This holds for the sentiment beginning "I never envied the boy who stood at the head." Watson's satisfaction with second place takes a grandly morbid turn: "My satisfaction with my rank increased when the boy, who for one whole year had been at the head of my class, died of consumption. It seemed a narrow escape for me and I told my mother on the day of the boy's funeral that the boy ahead of me in the class always died, but that startling generalization was based on that single observation." We can gather now for whom the bell tolls. The unenvied number one who head s the body of which Watson plays a part, is marked for departure, decapitation, uniquely ("this single observation") delineating what always happens. He tells this to his mother, who will be kind and patient with the theory, and who, being a woman, will not punish him forthis statement with a thrashing.

But producing such a startling generalization" for Mother's ears alone – something that has happened only once and forever – really means that you, Watson, have still not begun to narrate a secondary relationship to Alexander Graham Bell, whom you have not yet met. although you are writing your autobiography atter his death. Rather, you are telling your mother, you are telling me, about what happens to number one, the guy ahead of you. the head of the household. The father of the telephone or the father to your existence, the boy ahead of you, is marked for the departure and demise of which you tell your mother As second you are to be the narrating survivor in a narrow escape which you will always be telling your mother, the listening device for the double truth of ambivalence – the receiver of your autobiographical report, perhaps it's sole addressee, the shape and destiny of your reception: history.