Crossed Wires: Literature and Telephony
In a letter to Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee (2013) argues that the mobile phone creates significant structural difficulties for the writer: 'If people ... are continually going to be speaking to one another at a distance, then a whole gamut of interpersonal signs and signals, verbal and non-verbal, voluntary and involuntary, has to be given up. Dialogue ... just isn't possible'. The implications of the telephone for the literary text, however, extend far beyond this, and although the effect of the telephone on narrative structure has long been acknowledged by writers such as Coetzee, the wider cultural, political and textual implications of failed and interrupted communication - of crossed wires, phone-hacking and missed calls - remain neglected in literary scholarship. My 20-month research project (equivalent to 16 months FT) addresses this deficiency by exploring the ways that the telephone has been conceived by writers from the 19th century to the present day. Its aim is to think creatively and critically about the co-emergence of the human and the machine by exploring the relationship between telephony and Anglophone literature from across the globe.
The project will result in a monograph, Crossed Wires: Literature and Telephony, which will provide a sustained analysis of the effects of telephony on the literary text. Examining how the telephone has transformed reading and writing practices, it will explore the impact of developing telephone technologies on drama, fiction, poetry and non-fiction by a wide range of authors including Ali (1987), Carson (2009), Cocteau (1930), Greene (1978), Hurt (2016), Shamsie (2009), Spark (1959), Twain (1889) and Waugh (1930). The analysis will pay particular attention to the possibilities for technology to destabilise relations of presence and absence, near and far, and life and death; in so doing, it will draw on critical work by Agamben, Cixous, Derrida, Ronell and Szendy. While considerable research in telephony has been undertaken in media and film studies, its impact on the development of reading and writing practices remains neglected. Moreover, existing studies on telephony in critical theory date back to the 1980s. This monograph is timely; performing the effects of telephony on language and form, it will interrogate the telephone's role and representation in light of recent mobile, cellular and smartphone technologies.
In a culture of heightened auditory surveillance and increased public awareness of the impact of smartphone technologies on public health and modes of interpersonal communication, this research has far-reaching significance beyond the academy. Unique to this cross-disciplinary project is a collaboration with the Science Museum, whose world-class resources include significant collections on global developments in telecommunications, and the BT Archives, the repository of the world's oldest communications company. Building on my experience as an award-winning poet, scholar and broadcaster, and working in collaboration with a range of research partners, this project incorporates a number of innovative activities including (i) an international 'Festival of the Phone' at the Science Museum, (ii) a Dial-a-Poem mobile app developed with the support of the National Poetry Library, (iii) a radio feature on telephony drawing on the collections at the BT Archives and Science Museum, (iv) a new collection of literary resources at BT Archives and online exhibition; and (v) a writing workshop series with the Youth Justice Service exploring forms of creative expression using smartphone technologies. Responding to current concerns surrounding telephone usage (e.g. text-speak, phone addiction, sexting), and contributing to high-profile scholarship in the field, this project brings together creative and critical approaches in order to investigate how our existing use of telecommunications can help us to find new ways of conceiving ethical and creative technological futures.