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The Telephone Book

by Avital Ronell

Warning: If you do not speak "pomo," and do not care to learn, please avoid this book. Otherwise, you'll bay like a hound and ninny like a goat about how pretentious, impenetrable, and down-right stupid it is.

If you take life (and post- modernism) considerably less seriously, AND you love language sadomasochism ("beat me, club me, make me read word salad!") and concrete book art, "The Telephone Book" will blow your mind!

As someone who leans toward the latter, I found this book a lot of fun. I like reading in sub-cultural dialects and this book certainly qualifies. Pomospeak is a language of glamorized intellectualism, an uptight dialect that flirts with a liberated libido. It has become a kind of Glass Bead Game of (de)codings and signifiers. But, as someone who read "Magister Ludi," and dreamt about such intellectual circle jerks, I like a good game of "Deconstruction- ism" now and again.

"The Telephone Book" is a dense and far-ranging study about telephone technology and its resultant psychology. Ronell pieced together a collage of histories, biographies, anecdotes, and schizoanalytic insights about the telephone and its effects on people and society. Her constructed work was then deconstructed by University of Nebraska Press book designer Richard Eckersley. The result is a fully-realized engagement of content and design, readability and playful obfuscation, attraction and repulsion. EVERY page is different, a feat that would have been cost-prohibitive before desktop publishing. Pages twist and turn, are littered with textual "line noise" and cross-talk, and respond visually to their content. Some pages are blank, some backwards, some overprinted. The result is a book that's hard to read, but impossible to resist. It's a knot that begs to be unraveled. Every tussle with it reveals new yarns, new insights. There are tons of interesting ideas hiding beneath the thick post-modern veneer and the electronic text-play. Your enjoyment of this book is dependent on your interest in/tolerance for such stylistics.

(G. Branwyn)



The Telephone Book
Avital Ronell
University of Nebraska Press
1989, 466 pgs., pb, $20.00

Here is the TEXT POPUP for The Telephone Book:

The Telephone Book is going to resist you. Dealing with a logic and topos of the switchboard, it engages the destabilization of the addressee. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to read with your ears. In addition to being asked to listen for the telephone, you are being asked to tune your ears to noise frequencies, to anticoding, to the inflated reserves of random indeterminateness -- in a word, you are expected to stay open to static and interference that will occupy these lines.

Sometimes I absolutely
dance with apprehension
around the telephone, the receiver at my ear, and yet
can't help divulging secrets.
- Kafka, "My Neighbor"

Indeed the call is precisely something we ourselves have neither planned for nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done so. "It" calls against our expectations and even against our will.

There is no off switch to the technological.

OH MOUTH! That trembles through the silvery willow

Q: Are you concerned that your style might make you difficult to understand?

A: ... understanding as such -- thinking one has understood -- is a disaster. It places closural moves on a problem. Right now I'm not on the side of understanding in that simple sense of "Yes, I understand," and that's it. To make things "perfectly clear" is reactionary, stupifying. The real is not perfectly clear.

- Avital Ronell being interviewed in Mondo 2000, #4

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