Stop telephoning me!/ Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh (I’m busy)
Lady Gaga - Telephone
In 1989, philosopher and literary scholar Avital Ronell published The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Her book examines the history of the telephone and, perhaps, as reviewer Craig Saper ponders in the literary journal SubStance, ‘functions more as a switchboard than a book… Whether one likes or dislikes Ronell’s switchboard has less import than what it might provoke and what lines it opens for exploration… what are the implications of all this horn blowing?’
To coincide with the 20th anniversary of its publication, The Foundry Theatre in New York commissioned poet and translator Ariana Reines to write a play inspired by Ronell’s work. Upon its staging at The Cherry Lane Theatre, the play won two Obies (Off Broadway Theatre) Awards, and in 2017 was finally published as a book, Telephone.
In addition to the many literary attributes which qualified Reines to create a play from this work, Reines was a student of Ronell’s at the European Graduate School in Switzerland. Her mother, a doctor, is also schizophrenic. Ronell’s book asks: ‘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?’ Reines has taken the call.
Reines’ Telephone carries her own characteristic poetic voice and style even in its auditory scene setting, but most notably in the foregrounding of the almost painfully intimate dialogue. Given that this is a play, the structuring of the book subverts the function of the original text. From Ronell’s long philosophic investigation, Reines distills the subjectivity of key historical players into direct exchange.
The book jacket makes 21st century reference to that thing that we still call “the telephone” but which we so rarely make a call from. By placing a smartphone on the cover, immediately Reines places herself in a generational juxtaposition to the work of Ronell, which is snaked through with an umbilical coil of 1980s telephone cable. Has Reines cut the cord?
ACT ONE: Watson + Bell
You said Watson come here I want you…
I wonder whether. Whether machines ever feel lonely for the people they were fashioned to assist.
Watson - Telephone
By all evidence, “I want you” suggests that desire is on the line.
Ronell -The Telephone Book
The first act takes place as a telephone discussion between Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson, who—it seems—is in love with him. The men repeatedly refer to themselves as Socrates, a scholar whose historical tradition encourages learning by means of cooperative argumentative exchange.
Throughout the call, Bell and Watson consistently ‘miss’ one another in conversation. Bell makes scientific proclamations, while Watson considers the potential paranormal activity happening on the lines in the middle of the night. The scene reminds us that although the telephone made it possible to transport our speech across the world, we can still utterly misunderstand the nuance of what our conversational acquaintances mean and feel across the ether.
In this act, Bell’s invention can be seen as a remedial product: his mother was almost deaf, his father taught elocution to the deaf, and Bell himself taught at deaf mute schools. Both of Bell’s brothers died of tuberculosis. During their conversation, Watson reveals that he has lost his son despite the invention of an iron lung. In this failure to absolve themselves by invention, it is revealed that technology cannot always solve the fragility of our humanity. Ultimately, we are still alone.
ACT TWO: Miss St’s Hieroglyphic Suffering
The telephone itself gives way … to the telephone, sorry! Even that is old world now. As is the tone. So consider the woman in the phone, not only the phone in the woman. Play her back as a séance, and a plea, plied for your pleasure. Mobile phones off!
Exhibition text – KW Institute for Contemporary Art
This spring, artists Rosa Aiello, Elif Saydam, Mark von Schlegell, and Anna Zacharoff presented a new production of the second act of Telephone—‘Miss St’s Hieroglyphic Suffering’—to accompany the Judith Hopf exhibition Stepping Stairs at Kunst Werke in Berlin. In the gallery interpretation text, it is stated that ‘Hopf makes a humorous reference to the way we depend on our devices and the growing tendency to perceive them as part of our bodies.’
At KW, the stripped-back play gave little context to the larger narrative of Telephone. It was performed quietly in the centre of a large attic room with the audience arranged either side of the stage floor. The stage area delineated narrator and musical producer from performers by a single long wall. On one side, a cast of three women whispered into a single microphone, sometimes almost unheard by the audience.
POSSESSING A PORTION OF THE UNIVERSAL IS AS GOOD AS POSSESSING ALL BECAUSE SPEECH IS SILVER SILENCE IS GOLDEN NOW I AM STILL SOCRATES Miss St - Telephone
We found that Miss St. had been inhabited by voices on the line, which spoke to her and through her. One woman presented herself as a very important person. She wore a trenchcoat and gossiped about being a spy, being rich, being in charge, although at times she seemed to be in an institution. This second act was based on the testimony of ‘Babette S.’ a patient of Carl Jung who claimed that she was being constantly disparaged by invisible telephones.
ACT THREE: Lovers
A Well. What did you mean. Last night. When you said you felt weird. silence
B I just felt. Beholden to you.
Anon - Telephone
The third and final act of the play relates a set of contemporary, probably mobile, conversations between couples and family members. This act brings to the fore the necessity of the actual voice and the affective state of hanging on the line—where we can read the pauses and the silences therein. The act includes a letter from Alexander Graham Bell to his then-fiancée Mabel Hubbardas an activating piece of background material, transposed into the present as a voicemail message: ‘You seemed to me to be drifting away from me—so far away—with Visible Speech and ever so many things between—and I almost despaired of ever reaching you.’
In re-writing The Telephone Book, Ariana Reines distills Ronell’s theory and places her own poetic approach in juxtaposition to it. Here, Reines connects the line, and the voices of the text are activated through her. As such, Telephone presents a worthwhile addition to her poetry collections, for fans of Mercury, The Cow and Coeur de Lion.
I’m calling to say that ‘I love you, too’ doesn’t cut it, darling.
Ronell to Reitman - Title IX complaint
One need only consult the literatures trying to contain the telephone in order to recognize the persistent trigger of the apocalyptic call. It turns on you: it’s the gun pointed at your head.
Ronell - The Telephone Book
In 2018 Avital Ronell was subject to claims of sexual abuse and stalking by former doctoral supervisee at NYU, Nimrod Reitman. In the litigation documents Ronell is particularly indicted for her use of tele-communicative technology in the form of insistent calls into the night and florid sexual emails to her graduate student.
The case has become a scandal online with ex-students and professors weighing in on either side. In a move that was seen to attempt to absolve Ronell, colleagues and peers including Judith Butler and Chris Kraus (writer of the introduction to Telephone), responded defiantly in public letters that Ronell must be entirely blameless. Kraus in particular claimed that: ‘Those outside this world don’t seem to realize that Reitman - or any Ph.D. student at NYU - is hardly an innocent.’ The case continues.
TELEPHONE was published in 2017 by Wonder
Emma Balkind is a Teaching Fellow in Visual Culture at Edinburgh College of Art at The University of Edinburgh.
Kraus, C. (2018). Dialing : Back : Darkness. Theory Illuminati
KW Institute for Contemporary Art. (2018). Ariana Reines: Telephone Miss St’s Hieroglyphic Suffering
KW Institute for Contemporary Art. (2018). Judith Hopf: Stepping Stairs
Lady Gaga. (2010). Telephone (feat. Beyoncé). Polydor Group
Ronell, A. (1989). The telephone book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr.
Saper, C (1991). SubStance, vol. 20, no. 1, 1991, pp. 134–136
Supreme Court of the State of New York. (2018). Nimrod Reitman against Avital Ronell and New York University - Title IX Complaint