Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/27/2011

Is this the party? Telephones and mourning loss

In 1951 our family moved from Kearney, Nebraska, to Scottsbluff. That move was no more or less traumatic than any such move for any six-year-old. I remember clearly the house on 4th Avenue in Scottsbluff into which me moved and where we lived for four years. It’s a perfectly unremarkable white frame house, and it fits perfectly into the unremarkable neighborhood it was (is—as of 2002)part of.

In that house I learned to use the telephone. We had a “party line” (no, not the official lies of the Republicans).  Our telephone line was connected with someone else’s. Our number was 388J and theirs, 388X. We lifted the receiver and an operator said, “Number, please” (sometimes it was a member of our church, and she would say, “Hello, Harold,” after that). She’d connect us with the number we wanted.

If someone from the “X” household was already talking, we had to wait— we could tell when someone from the other household picked up their phone while we were talking. Sometimes, if we waited too long to put the phone down when an “X” person was talking, they would say curtly, “I’m on the line!” Lily Tomlin’s “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” on Laugh-In kept the system alive in memory.

The telephone system was hardly “secure.” If one wanted to say something private, one didn’t do it over the phone—operators and the “X” family could easily listen in on scandalous news.

Sort of the Facebook of the ‘50s.

Ten days ago, I bought an iPhone.

It’s a pain in the neck! It is as mysterious as our first rotary phone. How could you connect to another phone without someone making the connection? And I’m absolutely certain someone somewhere knows everything I do on my iPhone, like the “X” people. Especially if I use it for Facebook (which I won’t because I can’t figure out what I pay extra for). And “texting” me is pointless. I can’t figure out how to find a text, much less read it. I won’t respond because that keypad is way too small for my thumbs—or eyes.

Today. . . it is technology that expresses the dream of the transformed world. Few people any longer look forward to a world in which hunger and poverty are eradicated by a better distribution of the wealth that already exists. . . Intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops will feed the hungry; economic growth will reduce and eventually remove poverty. . . the clear implication of such technical fixes is that we might as well forget about political change. Rather than struggling against arbitrary power, we should wait for the benign effects of growing prosperity (1).

Ah! Yes. Technology will transform the world! The handmaiden of the mega-corporations.  Technology, the new religion. And not only the new religion, but a new way of looking at the world. Today’s technology (the iPhone and its competitors  are a chief constellation in a universe of technological gadgets) is either the continuation of the life of science, or a new chapter. I don’t know which. Steven Gaukroger’s discussion of the role of science as both a form of religion and the basis of modern thought is fascinating not only for his insight into the way we moderns, postmoderns, and postpostmoderns think about science and technology (recall, for example, pharmaceutical  R&D, and the almost daily presentation to the world of “new generations” of communications equipment) but for his drawing on historical documents to come to his understanding.

Quoting Beatrice Webb, the (perish the thought!) socialist founder of the “London School” of economics, he asserts that scientists were in the late 19th century  (are now?) the leading intellectuals,

that it was they who stood out as men of genius with international reputations; that it was they who were routing the theologians, confounding the mystics, imposing their theories on philosophers, their investments on capitalists, and their discoveries on medical men; whilst they were at the same time snubbing the artists, ignoring the poets, and even casting doubts on the capacity of the politicians (2).

Think The Social Network starring Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg, now consultant to the President.

My nostalgia for the telephone operator is real, not because I want to return to the “good old days.” No, I mourn what I have lost. My belief system, my understanding of how the world works and how I fit into it, is gone. That Scottsbluff kid in 1952 disappeared along with “number please” or “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” Tomlin’s question is not necessarily a joke. When I learn to text, will you, the recipient, be, in fact,  the party to whom I am speaking? Or will my technology speak to yours?

I am skeptical. I am a skeptic. I have come to a place of almost complete doubt about the religion on which I counted as that kid in Scottsbluff. On the other hand, I don’t trust either politics or science/technology to help me understand my place in the universe. I mourn my loss of belief and connection. But I have begun to see mourning as necessary. It is not defeating. It is not depressing. And I dare not “get over it.” It is a part of my consciousness. Remaining attached to loss, the loss of people I have loved and the loss of ideas I have depended on

. . . is to discern a human longing for connection and meaning; to embark on the work of ceaselessly mourning these losses is to discover the conditions that govern the possibilities for interpersonal relationships [and communication about them]. . . What mourning offers, then, is a way of living our skepticism about the possibility of a meaningful engagement with society and others without giving ourselves over to melancholy isolation or nihilistic chaos (3).

As Tammy Clewell explains Stanley Clavell’s understanding of mourning, it is a necessary part of remembering.

Clavell warns that, “Despair and a sense of loss are not static conditions but goads to our continuous labor.” Our labor is to remember because we live in a time in which “transcendental securities have irretrievably disappeared.” But he insists on “allowing the loss of such securities, the very loss that skepticism clarifies, to inform present understanding, conditioning the way we pose questions and derive answers.” Our labor is our mourning, our remembering.

Henry David Thoreau, says Clavell, wrote from a sense of loss. He says,

Like any grownup, [Thoreau] has lost childhood; like any American, he has lost a nation and with it the God of the fathers. He has lost Walden; call it Paradise. . . The object of faith hides itself from him. . .  [but] he is on [its] track. He knows where it is to be found, in the true acceptance of loss, the refusal of any substitute for recovery (4).

Mourning is not nihilistic, but it is necessary. We can’t expect substitutes to recover our losses. We must accept and mourn them. The iPhone cannot replace, “Number, please.”
(1) John Gray, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Cambridge: Granta, 2004 (50–51). Quoted in Gaukroger, Stephen. “Science, religion and modernity.” Critical Quarterly 47.4 (2005): 1-31.
(2)  Webb, Beatrice. My Apprenticeship. London: Longmans, Green, 1926  (83). Quoted in Gaukroger.
(3) Clewell, Tammy. Cavell and the Endless Mourning of Skepticism. ANGELAKI: journal of the theorelical hurnanities 9.3 (December 2004).
(4) Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden: An Expanded Edition. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1992. Quoted in Clewell.


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