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1933 __ « The Telephone »
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)
Comment : The five texts following “Lodgias” [in « Berlin Childhood »] amplify the ambivalence of the introductory text by contrasting the infernal and messianic moments of the child’s life-world. They are organized in a circular sequence, with the text “The Telephone”, which evokes as the central childhood drama the œdipal confrontation with the father, placed in the center of the group. The child experiences the telephone as his “twin brother”, with the same fate in store for it as for himself. Both are initially subjected to the father’s violence : a second Zeus, he threatens the whole world with thunder and lightning through the medium of the telephone. However the telephone, at first banished to the darkest corner of the hallway, “like a legendary hero exposed to die in a ravine [...] makes its regal entry into the cleaner and brighter” rooms pf a younger generation; and the son too succeeds in eluding the father’s domination, by allying himself with the new technology. He abandons himself willingly to the voice from the telephone. It nullifies all “consciousness of time, duty, and purpose”. Like Kafka’s land-surveyor K., who on the evening of his arrival in the village telephones the castle and hears mysterious sounds that cast a spell on him, so the author of “Berlin Childhood” lets himself be lured out of everyday life by the telephone. His confused escape from the order of the paternal world certainly leads to his failure in practical life, but also guarantees the hope for a “regal entry” into another, better life. (Bernd Witte, “Walter Benjamin : an intellectual biography”, 2nd edition, p. 140, 1997)The Ear of Technology - So far, I have argued that the ear of Benjamin’s corporeal self is both distupted by noise and accesses mnemonic images through it. We have seen, too, that these mnemonic images are not stable but haunted by the echoes and traces of specters that keep returning. If we can now read the “Berlin Chronicle” as a double otoboigraphy, then a specific narrative image of noise penetrating the ear should illuminate this double encoding. In keeping with the text’s auditory obsessions, this image is the telephone. Benjamin here anticipates what the work of such critics as Kittler, Schneider, Laurence Rickels, and Avital Ronell has shown, namely, that the modern self is no longer an a priori of the technical media with which it comes into contact but is in important ways constructed by them. The significance of the telephone first emerges in the “Berlin Chronicle”. Benjamin later takes it up again, reformulated and stylized, under the heading “The Telephone” in the “Berlin Childhood”. [...] If the telephone inaugurates a new form of perception and consciousness, altering codes and information channels, Benjamin registers this transformation in the experiences of the Berlin child playing at the threshold of the centuries and a medial paradigm shift. The telephone, then, as a dialectical image of the noise that penetrates Benjamin’s ear, utlimately remains suspended or deffered as a legible phenomenon. It disturbs the corpus while at the same time promising to a trigger of memories. To understand, first, the mnemonic qualities with which the telephone becomes invested, one may register that the first sentence of Benjamin’s passage - “it may be a matter of the construction of the apparati or of memory” - links the machine to the mnemonic realm. This link is made by the surprising conjunction “or”, which signals equality or interchangeability between the apparatus and memory. Likewise, the distant echoses continue to resound in the realm of memory. And even though the telephone’s noise may not yield “my consciousness of time”, it is capable of conjuring fragments of memories in the child’s mind. This why, for instance, Benjamin so distinctly remembers his father’s telephonc business partner, Herr Altgelt, as someone “whose name has stayed in my memory”. We recall here that Benjamin develops the concept of autobiographical memory not in terms of a full recollection of what one was, but rather as a medium through which the past of a corporeal self may be explored. Indeed, memory, for Benjamin, is the medium of experience just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried. This material aspect of a corpus’s recollections suggests that what is at stake for the archaeological mnemonist is the meticulous recording of the space of a memory object, that is, “to designate precisely that site in which the researcher got hold of it”, as we read in “Excavating and Remembering” (4:400). [...] Indeed, the telephone may act as a powerful hallucinogenic. As Benjamin states in a related autobiographical passage for his “Drug Protocols” : « First (moderate) laughing fit on the telephone. After the conversation, strong effect of the trance; to be noted : The telephone is not located in Benjamin’s room but in the adjacent apartment; in order to get to that room, one must pass through a third. Joël wishes to remain in the room where he spoke on the telephone, but he is very uncertain. » (6:571). And as Benjamin’s friend, Ernst Joël, writes of the same experience : « After the telephone had been used, Fränkel could be expected in about 20-30 minutes. We left the telephone rooms and passed through the room with the development of the writing » (6:574). Joël continues : « When this happened, I assumed that the two would discuss the experiment in the hallway or the telephone room. This thought was immediately extended : they would talk about me, especially my personality. Then I heard steps distancing themselves and a soft clinking. Now I saw how Benjamin, holding a candelabrum over to him » (6:577). While the telephone in the “Berlin Chronicle” is disruptive, the telephonic experience is linked in these related texts to hallucination. The telephone is addictive, and the user is manipulated to want to remain in its immediate orbit. At the same time, the telephone is linked to paranoïa (“they would talk about me, especially my personality”). As a cultural hallucinogen, the telephone can, as it were, disrupt consciousness and render the subject’s desire for control over the technological apparatus an impossible dream. And in “One-Way Street”, the otos that writes its biography turns into an empty “ear that has lost the power of hearing” (W 447; 4:90). (Gerhard Richter, “Walter Benjamin and the Corpus of Autobiography”, 2000, pp. 176-181)
French comment : “Parmi les textes d’”Enfance Berlinoise”, « Le Téléphone » illustre un tel rapport à la technique [l’aspect mythique du passé récent est lié à un défaut particulier de la société moderne]. Objet mythique comme chez Proust, le téléphone récemment apparu sème la terreur dans l’appartement en troublant non seulement la sieste des parents, « mais aussi l’époque de l’histoire du monde au milieu de laquelle ils faisaient cette sieste ». “La voix qui parlait là” a la toute-puissance du mythe : « Il n’y avait rien qui adoucît la violence étrange et inquiétante avec laquelle elle fondait sur moi. Je souffrais, impuissant, qu’elle m’arrache le respect du temps, du devoir et des résolutions, annula ma propre réflexion, et comme le médium qui obéit à la voix de l’au-delà s’empare de lui, je cédais à la première proposition qui me parvenait par le téléphone. » (Rainer Rochlitz, “Le Désenchantement de l’Art - la Philosophie de Walter Benjamin”, p. 213).
Original excerpt : « Here the immediate party was perhaps a certain company of building contractors, one of whose board members, Herr Altgelt, filled the role of partner in countless telephone conversations with my father, and whose name has stayed in my memory. [...] Leaving aside mealtime conversations, it was only the telephone that intimated to us the occult world of business and traders. My father telephoned a great deal. He, whose outward manner seems to have been almost always courteous and pliable, possessed perhaps only on the telephone the bearing and decisiveness corresponding to his sometimes great wealth. In conversations with mediating agencies the energy not infrequently grew vociferous, and the “serious side of life”, which cas embodied tangibly in my father’s activity, found in the altercations with the telephone operator its true emblem. The telephone first came into use during my childhood. I have therefore known it nailed in some corner of the corridor, whence, shrilling form the darkness, it augmented the terrors of that Berlin apartment with the endless passage leading from the half-lit dining room to the back bedrooms. It became a truly infernal machine when my school friends phoned during the prohibited period between two and four. [...]It may be a matter of the construction of the apparati or of memory - it is certain that, in their echo, the sounds of my first telephone conversations inhabit my ear differently than today’s. They were nocturnal sounds. No muse announced them. The night from which they issued forth was the same one that precedes any true birth. And the voice slumbering in the apparati was a newborn one. Down to the day and hour, the telephone was my twin [“war das Telefon mein Zwillingsbruder”]. I was allowed to witness how it left the denigrations of its early years behind. For when the chandelier, the fire-screen, and the indoor palm-tree, the console, the small round table, and the bay window balustrade, all of which at the time were prominently displayed in the front rooms, had long since withered and died, the telephone, like a legendary hero once abandoned in a mountain gorge and leaving the dark corridor behind, made its royal entrance into the cleared up and lighter rooms which were now inhabited by a younger generation. The telephone became a consolation for the new generation’s loneliness. It signaled to the hopeless ones, who were ready to leave his bad world behind, the light of last hope. It shared the bed of the deserted ones. Now that everyone awaited its call, the shrill voice that it possessed during exile sounded muffled. Few of those who use the apparatus know about the devastations that its appearance one caused families. [...] »
Source : Benjamin, Walter. (1933-38). “The Telephone”. In “Berlin Childhood around 1900” (Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert”, Trans. by Howard Eiland. (p. 49). Harvard University Press, 2006.
Source : Benjamin, Walter. (1933-38). “Le Telephone”. In “Enfance Berlinoise vers mil neuf cent” (Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert”, 1932-1938, IV, 1, p. 385 (dernière version de 1938).
Source : Benjamin, Walter. (1932). “Chronique Berlinoise”. “Berliner Chronik”, VI, p. 465, In “Écrits Autobiographiques”, trad. Chr. Jouanlanne et J.-F. Poirier, pp. 241-328. Paris : Christian Bourgois Éditeur.

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