Friday, May 28, 2010

Infinite Jest, telephony

“Video telephony” v. “good old voice-only telephoning”:

It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice‐only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice‐only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion — it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio‐only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural‐only conversation — utilizing a hand‐held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (6²) or 36 little pinholes — let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi‐attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine‐groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone‐pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign‐language‐and‐exaggerated‐facial‐expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
Fugue goes back to the Latin fuga, flight: “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed” (Merriam-Webster OnLine). If you can find a phone with a traditional handset, you’ll find, yes, six and thirty-six holes.

comments: 3

Elaine said...

I'm doodling while I read the blog. (wink)

Michael Leddy said...

The art of the fugue! (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself.)

Elaine said...

I bow to a superior wit! wonderful!
Planning to doodle every time I check this blog!

Feel free to retaliate: you-know-what dot elaineinarkansas dot blogspot dot com (and my true identity will be revealed when it opens.)