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Avital RonellEdit

Ronell is Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee and a Professor of German, comparative literature, and English at New York University, where she directs the Research in Trauma and Violence project. Ronell's work is largely a mixe of philosophy and critical theory. She received her Ph.D. in 1979 (Germanic languages and literature) from Princeton University.

The Telephone Book: Technology-----Schizophrenia-----Electric Speech [1989]Edit

Review from the New York Times Book Review, 6/3/1990:

THE TELEPHONE BOOK Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. By Avital Ronell. Illustrated. 466 pp. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press. $35.

The phone rings, calling us, like a metaphor calling its tenor to its vehicle, to our new, disembodied condition - abstract and invisible - on technology's ever-expanding circuitry. We no longer live in a place; we are stationed at a node, more permanent than we are, whereon intergalactic space is closer to us than our phoneless neighbor. Our listing in the telephone book, with its unarticulated thematics of destination, as Avital Ronell puts it, identifies us. And compromises us. We are all become transmitters and receivers: of information, of money, of sentiment, of power, of consolation and alarm.

So what does it mean, to pick up the phone, to answer the call? This is the subject, ostensibly anyway, of this rhetorically provocative and typographically dazzling book, which the author, inscribing herself in that society of inventors of whom she speaks, calls, perhaps in irony (is the derivation from the Greek phonein or the Irish fawney, which gives us phony? - she blurs the two throughout), a biophony.

Like the notable deconstructionists who fill what she calls her yellow pages, Ms. Ronell, who teaches comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, trusts imagery more than argument, poetic intuition more than traditional modes of critical discourse. Sheltering our hopes in the neighborhood of poetry, she wants her book read more as a work of literature than one of analysis or philosophy, and indeed she does have a gift for the sparkling epigrammatic one-liner. Her structural metaphor is not so much the phone book as a telephonic switchboard with its multiplex routings, implicit operators behind the scenes, party lines and crossed lines, jammers and scramblers, static, recorded messages, sudden disconnections. Her previous book was on Goethe's remote control writing experiments, Dictations: On Haunted Writing. And here too her switchboard is haunted by ghostly voices, from Martin Heidegger's uncanny Dasein (being), through the hearsay of psychoanalysis and the inner voices of the schizophrenic, to the pop spiritualism of the telephone's inventors, Thomas A. Watson and Alexander Graham Bell.

The call one first receives, however, is from the University of Nebraska Press's eye-popping typography, bright and showy as a vaudeville act. The product apparently of the creative coupling of Richard Eckersley, the designer, and Michael Jensen, the compositor, with the author listing herself as the switchboard operator, it is quite spectacularly a contributor to, commenter on and even sometimes adversary of the text. So much does it submerge the text at times that it is as if Dr. Frankenstein's monster (primitive prototype of and electrical first cousin to the telephone, we are told) had swallowed up his creator, or as if Watson, instead of agreeing to come here as ordered by Bell in that famous first call, had run off with Bell's telephone to use it for his own purposes, one of his communications with departed spirits perhaps.

More or less the shape of an elongated telephone note pad or personal address and phone list (perhaps it should have been bound at the top instead of at the side), The Telephone Book offers Directory Assistance (the table of contents), A User's Manual (author's foreword, first of two), Conference Calls (quotations from other writers), Priority Calls (midtext appendixes of a sort) and yellow pages with a Classified section (footnotes) and Crisis Hotlines (index) and a Survival Guide. All are part of the titling metaphor, of course.

As are the typographical innovations: Symbols replace words. Callers speak across the distance of empty white spaces. Words tip, hang, explode, lose and recover legibility, overlap one another like crossed phone lines, take the shapes of telephone parts or squirt from enlarged braces like milk from a breast (the Bell nipple is being discussed), get crossed out, are doubled and reversed and magnetized, jam up or scatter and sprawl. During a nervous breakdown, all the o's are boldfaced, puncturing the page like scatter shot, and as the schizophrenic personality splits so do the lines, fragmenting so much in the end as to become isolated words and phrases all but disconnected from their syntax. When, through his autobiography, Bell's assistant, Thomas Watson, speaks, his voice is distorted, the letters expanding and contracting as though leaking in over experimental phone lines. A wet boldfaced stream trickles down through a paragraph on Freud's theory about primal man's taming of fire by urinating on it. This is entertaining for both the primal man and the reader. At the end, when static and disorder threaten to overtake the text, the typography too seems to lose all sense of form or pattern, imitating collapse. Fade out. Static. Broken connections.

Because technology, which is dehumanizing and is linked to terrorism and the occult (it amplifies, intensifies, passes down death sentences while keeping the body in custody - Ms. Ronell wants to put a stop sign before technological machismo), is the general topic of this high-tech production, electric speech merely its on-button, the technology of bookmaking is also exposed and challenged: a typesetter's galley head turns up in the middle of a page, words like galley and extract appear in margins, line spacings are indicated but not followed. To crack open the closural sovereignty of the Book, Ms. Ronell explains, as though whooping it up for a feature act, we have feigned silence and disconnection, suspending the tranquil cadencing of paragraphs and conventional divisions.

This exhibition is abstractly interesting (much more so, I think, in a book like William Gass's integrally designed Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, published over two decades ago), often entertaining and pertinent to the telephone's own show biz origins. (As with most early technologies and mind sciences, vaudeville was the research center for communication systems, the author tells us.) But not only does it greatly distract and tire the eye, it occludes whatever sustained statement the text might contain behind all the visual pyrotechnics, suggesting a circus smaller than its posters.

Not that this matters to Avital Ronell. She announces that the book may be disturbing and is going to resist you, thus, in good sophistic style, putting the onus on the reader: if you don't learn to love it that is your own fault. She will follow an exorbitant path: tag along at your own risk. Forget philosophical coherence; true philosophy is process, knowledge is found in the gaps. The reader is asked to stay open to the static and interference that will occupy these lines, to tune her or his ears to noise frequencies and to accept the intentional scrambling. The implication is that the book is so original that only the most innovative typography and disruptive structure will make clear its startling subtleties and render its densities readable.

But in fact the argument, to the extent one can follow such a homeless thing, seems to be that of a fairly conventional academic paper, recognizably party-lined with fashionable Continental voices like Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Perhaps more a series of meditations on a theme (the threat of technology - this has everything to do with death machines - and the madness of Platonic responses to this threat) than a rigorously structured analysis, the book nevertheless contains all the familiar apparatus of quoted sources, chapter divisions, footnotes, bibliography, appendixes, indexes, left more or less undisguised by all the design stunts.

Although the idea for this book seems to have grown out of an interpretive reading of Marguerite Duras's telephonic text, Le Navire Night (which reading turns up as an abruptly inserted Last Call late in the book), most of the first half of the book is devoted to an essentially psychoanalytical examination of Heidegger's call of conscience from Dasein, or being (the call that comes both from me and from beyond and over me). Ms. Ronell attempts to show that this call of conscience is readable in terms of a telephone call, and in particular the phone call that, as a German university rector between the wars, Heidegger received from a Nazi storm trooper ordering him to put up what Heidegger called the Jew notice (Heidegger said he refused, but the line remained open). She also wants to prove that it is more or less indistinguishable from the spooky voices heard by victims of schizophrenia, a disorder Ms. Ronell associates with the rise of modern technology in the 19th century. The implication is that Heidegger's famous Dasein is little more than a madman's fancy and that that fancy should be granted philosophical or prophetic dignity.

Now that, as Heidegger declared, philosophy is over, Ms. Ronell remarks wryly, 'schizophrenia' may be the naming word for the new, ghostly tenants of overphilosophy. Schizophrenics, she points out, mistake words for things. Furthermore, they are apathetic, narcissistic, cut off from reality, incapable of achieving transference; they resemble philosophers.

Why Heidegger? It is Heidegger, she explains, who poses the greatest challenge to those of us who want to shatter the iron collar of fascism's continued grip on the world. (She also speaks of the iron collar of metaphysics and technology's iron-collared intensifier.) It was Heidegger, along with schizophrenics and the occasional poet, who perceived the threat of the engulfing transformation of the human subject into a technological entity. She accepts this, but she has about as much time for his appeal to a more authentic horizon of Being somewhere in the near beyond as she has for Watson's loony table-tapping seances or Bell's communion with his dead brother.

The story of Alexander Graham Bell is what the last half of the book is about, more or less. Bell and Watson, Bell and his deaf mother and deaf wife, Bell and his eloquent father and dead brothers, Bell as an artist, Bell and Helen Keller, Bell and his marvelous invention and its origins in show business and the occult. Thanks to long sections from Thomas Watson's charmingly artless and self-revealing autobiography, things pick up a bit here, in spite of a clumsy suture to the first half of the book, or maybe it was just my own appetite for story, for narrative (material aplenty here for a rousing opera, I thought), being appeased.

But the connection among Heidegger, schizophrenics and the inventors of the telephone is weak. Undelivered promises now haunt the lines. The Bell story slips toward tedium and banality, mere chatter, a birthday call from a dull uncle. The crackling aphorisms fade, the puns pale. New voices crowd the lines. Somewhat desperately, the author seems to be plugging into peripheral circuits as though to save the system - old recorded messages perhaps, logged into unused computer files, but arriving now like static, interference, random noise. Even the appeal to literature is in vain. Bell dies, the book ends.


"To the degree that his concept of technology is blind or lacking, it is guilty of his alliance of power with nazism" (19)

If there is an ontological distinction between Being toward Others and Being toward Things, "Now, what if Others were encapsulated in Things, in a way that Being towards Things were not ontologicall severable, in Heidegger's terms, from Being towards Others? What is the mode of Dasein of Others were to dwell in Things, and so forth? [...] This perspective may duplicate a movement in Freud's readings of the uncanny, and the confusion whirling about Olympia as regards her Thingness.Perhaps this might be borne in mind, as both Freud and Heidegger situate arguments on the Other's thingification within a notion of Unheimlichkeit, the primordial being not-at-home, and of doublings" (24).

Ronell will "open the case on two infinitely non-reciprocal texts, linking Being and Time and the Spiegel interview. Is the call of conscience readable in terms of a telephine call? We suggest this to be the case. More precisely, perhaps, can one rigorously spekaing utter Dasein's anonymous calling in the same breath with the call taken by a historical subject whose identity papers, civil status, and telephone personality name a 'Martin Heidegger'?" (25). Here Ronell makes herself the switchboard receptionist, establishing communication between these two parties.

The child in the hands of the mother learns to answer the call, becomes an automatic listening device: "his ear cannot let go; no desire of whatever modality can henceforth ever suspend this connection" (28)

"For [the telephone'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 things, replaying the automatic listening device of What is Called Thinking? (30).

In Being and Time, the call of the conscience is "shown to possess the character of a telephone call. It brings us to a point that we shall rarely cease making. This concerns the dependency of the Gewissensruf [the call of conscience] on the model of a telephonic apparatus [...] Putting the telephone aside when reflecting upon the call from the SA, Heidegger loosens a bolt in the apparatus of the Gewissensruf. For some reason he did not wish to see how the telephone exemplified and also complicated this call of conscience. This, precisely, is one reaosn to reconsider Heidegger's theory of the call on the basis of the telephone. But because the telephone offers no presence in Heidegger and because it remains hidden as figitive reference, Heidegger's telephone will always be more perverse than it seems [...]" (30).

In Being and Time, Heidegger suggests that we answer the call because we wish to be called--that we return to the calling mother because we want to be brought back ("it reaches him who wants to be brought back"). "Did Heidegger return the call to the SA?" (33).

Schizophrenia and TechnologyEdit

Here Ronell runs the rist of aestheticizing mental illness

"...the telephone will have become an organ without body. But 'without body'--what is this? They 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 [...] The somaticizations that a neurotic might chart are little compared with the electric currents running through the schizonoiac body [...] The schizophrenic gives us exemplary access to the fundamental shifts in affectivity and corporeal organization produced and commanded by technology, in part because the schizophrenic inhabits these other territorialities 'more artificial still and more lunar than that of Oedipus' (109).

"Desire has been rerouted, computerized, electrocuted, satellited according to a wholly other rhetorical order. Ad thus the field under investigation, whose floodlights are power-generated by schizonoia, ought to concern the ungulfing transformation of the human subject into a technologized entity" (111).

"In a streaming way, the lines of inquiry are opened with the aid of a hidden telephone, linking up systems of auditory hallucination to they ver concept of voice, which often overlays the voice speaking from different topoi of the self... [...] The primary thought disturbance emerges with a loosening of associations induced by disconnecting interceptors. Schizophrenia seems to disconnect quite haphazardly, sometimes cutting simple threads, somethings an entire group or large units of thought. Due to actions taken by demonic operators, certain connections are simply not made, while others are interrupted or transferred to other posts" (112).

"This may mean that psychoanalysis is particular prey to the complain registered by intesenly suffreing paraphrenics, who are tormented by chatter and by ascertainable forms of auditory hallucinations. Psychoanalysis duplicates this suffering when it draws into itself in an effort to systematize a way out of these fluid channels. To the walls of systemacity erected by psychoanalysis, the schizo responds to the chatter which persecutes him, the vegetal world salad" (113).

"Nonetheless, it can be quickly said of obsessional neurosis, and of that which hosts it as a dialect--hysteria--that their telephone systems appears to be connected in compliance with a different set of rules from those governing dementia praecox, where the disconnective structures take the upper hand" (115).

"It would be entirely possible, therefore, to conceive somatological [metabolic] reordering, we could say, as they body achieves a new interpretation of exteriority toward which it seeks attunement. The form of 'adjustment,' which clincally needs to be read as severe maladjustment, nonetheless happens to respond with excrutiating sensitivity to a felt technologization of a world bionically assimilated--which is to say, by no means fully assimilated, interiorized, freeze-dried, or swallowed. We shall observe presently how easy it is to confuse a schizophrenic with a perfectly well-behaved child of machinelike obeisance. Schizophrenia scrambles the line separating the physiological from the psychological, keeping it unclear whether dementia praecox is due to somatic or psychogenic causes" (117). Jung points out the "superegoical dimension of hallucinatory voices" in that subjects are often corrected by their voices, suggesting that a normative ego-complex isn't totally disabled, but instead pushed aside. Severe illness can give the superego a 'wake-up call' (117).

While Jung considers patients suffering from schizoid symptoms dead to their environment, Ronell is not so sure: "Does schizophrenia not conjugate only with a technologically inflected environment? Is its silence not always the answering machine to the noise of a prior, organizing machine whose function precisely lies in stimulating such a response? Or put less vulnerably, how does it come about that schizophrenia's Vocabulary is so imbued with the ascientific dial tone of technology, no matter what number or which channel you dial? Given the blank spaces, or rather the insufficient material with which Jung fills his understanding of environment, what does it mean to be dead, that is, presumably not alive to this nondetermined environment? Does not the pressure exerted by technology require a rethinking of easy recommendations made by the life science? And if the intrusion os such radical machinery is itself the irreperable Ge-stell, then what permits us to decide that the mute speaker of technologese is dead? Perhaps we are confronted ith a radical answering device, a kind of turned-up mimetological stance toward machined being. But we shall stick to a mere signpost of this possibl emapping, gluing ourselves, as it is said, to the telephone" (120-1).

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