I had meant to post these remarks some weeks ago, but tropical storms and travels got in the way. What follows is a rough recapitulation of my remarks in the the haunting seminar two weeks ago. I began by riffing on a few clips from the often overlooked classic horror film, Black Christmas, also known as Silent Night, Deadly Night, which was released in 1974.
I highly recommend that readers see the original before its remake appears in late 2005, which will undoubtedly have to contend with the trouble of the caller-id box (I am led to wonder if the uncanny vocalics will arrive via the internet, television, or not at all).
The film is about a Phi Kappa Sigma house terrorized over Christmas Break by a prank caller known variously as “the moaner,” “super-tongue,” or “Billy,” who so named because of an uncanny a-bill-ity to speak in many voices quickly, and sometimes inaudibly.
There are five phone calls in the film, which transition from the obscene to the creepily psychotic. What begins as an unwanted tonguing of the ear in the first call turns into the cunning-lingus of an interior dialogue in the final four. The charismata of some repressed interiority.
Unlike the slasher films that this film inaugurates, the killer is not discovered by the end of the film. But we do know where he hides: inside. We the spectators know that the girls do not know that the hideous phone calls are coming from the house. The film is therefore a pedagogy of the uncanny, of the internalized and familiar alien, the parasite, the ear-hugging counterpart of Ridley Scott’s face-hugging alien that implants. Only here, the mind or mental scene is the womb and inhabitable space of uncanny occupation. In other words, the horror is at home, in me, the alien is inside. We are the Other, or rather, the Other subtends us.
Black Christmas is about abortion.
I mean abortion here in many senses, and perhaps the most fundamental being that of the jettisoning of speech, the vocalic baby. Avital Ronell reminds about Freud’s lament for his son in Civilization and Its Discontents: the prosthesis of the telephone is a surrogate for the child that Freud tells us we have lost because of the technology of, what else, the railroad! That is, like long-distance traveling, the telephone represents the autoamputation of feet (and remember, the killer need not go anywhere once he is inside, but he is nevertheless presumed outside when he calls.) In other words, the uncanny thing about this film has everything to do with the presence of the human voice and the announcement its body is absent. At the level of formal association, we are talking about castration here: at the moment of symbolic entry, the body is gone forever. “Billy, what you mother and I want to know is, what have you done with the baby?”
Well, the baby has been aborted (remeber the “spirit of 73!”). This is key: the baby is a fleshy object of barter—-indeed, a part-object. Freud reminds us the baby is interchangeable: the penis, the feacal stick, and money. Biology is bartered away in the symbolic. There is no reconciliation; the cogito is haunted by the body. That is the price (and the forced choice) one pays for self-consciousness.
Try as one might——there is no discernable reason for the murders. Of course, from a Freudian vantage there is a rhyme, however. The most we can piece together is a melody in a minor key. The killer identifies himself as Billy, and he and Agnes have done something horribly wrong. Billy’s parent figure wants to know what he and Agnes have done with the baby.
The psychotic caller is clearly haunted, and reacts violently, to young, nubile women. To the right of receptive plumbing. The possibility of conception is punished (again, a theme of most slasher pictures in general: teens fuck, then get whacked).
In this respect, the super-tongue moaner is just one or two vocal chords away from those golden-tongued, pro-life fanatics on free-speech alley at LSU.
Of course, as a social symptom, Black Christmas is a commentary on the medical abortion debate. Roe v. Wade was settled just one year prior, and the news media were ablaze with the so-called “Spirit of ‘73”; the film is an index of social anxieties about the uncanny of childbearing (the alien inside that we must domesticate). In reference to Peter—-the creepy, priggish, high-strung and temperamental boyfriend–and his double, the psychotic moaner, we have the consequence of certain knowledge too: death and psychosis.
This is to say, if I know absolutely, if I am certain, I can kill others and myself.
There is, then, a moral pedagogy here, even in the ecstasy of the slash (note I riff again, there is the bar of the pre-symbolic subject; as Camper Van Beethoven has sung on its melancholic lament to His Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart: “Never go back”): it is much much easier to kill people, or to legislate what they can and cannot do with their bodies, when you are deadly certain that you absolutely know. For example, when you know with certitude the point at which life begins, what qualifies as life, vouchsafed by the inestimable gift of God’s word.
So, in respect to this film I’m saying that we cannot know the motive of the murders, even though we can know it as an index of larger social issues. In the diagetic space, by virtue of the telephone, we can also know this: FIRST, the association of the feminine with passivity; SECOND, the passivity of answering the call; and THIRD, the productiveness of reception, otherwise known as hospitality.
Let me go backwards, beginning with hospitality as an openness to the visitation of the other—-something which we discussed some weeks ago. I direct you to the passage on your handout.
I dare say that those who trash Freud haven’t read him meticulously. I think that that’s what my whole work tries to address: the need for re-ambiguating areas that need to be thought about. Freud’s fundamental insights are actually, as someone like Shoshanna Felman will have shown, very feminist, very subversive. He was persecuted. He was, and continues to be, treated like shit. Also by masculinists, writers and men. Philosophers think he’s a pansy. Only gays and some outrageous feminists like Freud. . . . Nietzsche is a more difficult case because he’ll rant and rave against women. And before you know it, he’s turning around, and he’s a woman. His ear was inseminated by a woman, with his great thought, the eternal return. She’s the father of his thought, he claims . . . He’s the womb. . . . What happens when men hysterically rant and rave, and yet nonetheless identify themselves with women, creates a far more complicated mapping than one can grant. Throwing away Freud and Nietzsche can produce a ghetto of fairly homogenous feminism.
The point here is ostensibly a defense of Freud—-principally his many charged writings on the question of woman, that is, “what do women want?”—-by detour of Nietzsche: both men welcomed insemination despite appearances. But I think the more important, underlying notion is this: despite their superficial hubris, both men were productive because of their passivity and openness to something beyond their control. For Freud this was, of course, the unconscious, and for Nietzsche, well, I’m not so sure but it has something to do with power and will. Regardless, Freud and Nietzsche let themselves get fucked. They are pansies.
So why the telephone, then? The telephone demands a similar receptivity as a technology; it makes us open; it opens up. This is why the shit of all telephonics, telemarketing, is possible, and also why, just like email spam, telemarketing will always live to dispense nothing. I’ll get to the theoretical point Ronell would want to make here shortly; but first, if the telephone subjects us to the call of the Other, then we arrive at my . . .
SECOND point in reverse, the passivity of answering the call. The mere gesture, “Hello? Hello? Who is this?” is at some micro-level a beholden-ness to the big Other, until it becomes, comfortably, just another other, another brother or sister or bum, on the other end of the line. The almost abject passivity of actively answering the call is comedic upon first sight: The sorority sisters (whom we cannot call Scissor Sisters; that moniker belongs to gay men singing in the falsetto), the sorority sisters temper their fear with laughter:
Sister One: “He’s expanded his act.”
Sister Two: “Can that be more than one person?”
Sister One: “No, Clare, that’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doing their annual obscene phone call.”
And sister One urges the phone sex onto some more sexually repressed sorority down the row (you’ll recall she is the character who likens the numeric exchange to a blow job, as if to say, “call me sometime”). Like all horror films, at first blush the Other is just another; he is with certainty fixed as disposable. And how does the fastest tongue in the West respond to being so fixed? In regular voice, with the threat of death: “I’m going to kill you.”
Seeing phoning is not the same as hearing it. The sonorous seems less fixed, more present, and therefore, more potentially violent. The comedy of PASSIVITY is not so funny with the assignment of gender: despite the fact that genders are structures, and therefore, social performances, the feminine and masculine are assigned an indelible, impossibly restrictive signifier. Men call, women answer. For Love and Rockets: “The telephone is empty,” sings Danial Ash, “now I realize the time.” In a lysergic haze, the telephone tells us nothing–or it teaches us nothing is there, in dialtone. The promise of communication, and Peter’s observes, is the dial-tone (an it it haunts all sorts of spirits). But in the end, like the phallus, it is nothing at all.
AND SO WE ARRIVE, then, with the association of women as the passive receiver (woman ARE the phallus; while men desire to possess it). The association is initially obvious with mention of what is perhaps the most obscene word of them all: cunt. Of course, the origins of this word were not always obscene—at least when we consider its proto-Germanic rooting in the “hollow place” (the root term of “ku”), as well as the preeminent philosophy of that hollow place of categories which actively stamps and stains the world in the key of transcendental (there is a hymnal: “I come, I come, Immanuel . . . .”). Curiously, insofar as the phone is the mediating prosthesis, the obscenity is centered on orality, not the barter of genital intercourse (Lacan tells us that there is no sexual relationship anyway).
Avital Ronell, whose work is the topic of my lecture today, says that she decided to write about the telephone as an object that is less and more than itself because of her ethics of reception. As a writer, she identifies with the switchboard operator, letting the calls come through as the calls themselves decide to do; the agency here is not hers, but belongs, well, to the letter. Like Avery Gordon, she opens herself to ghosts, this time, though, the materiality of language itself. She occupies, as she puts it, the position of the feminine, refusing the phallic creed of absolute knowledge. She would be, unlike Sister One, more like sister Three: receptive, not so sure that she knows who the caller is, but she takes him deadly seriously. She advocates an Derridian ethic of hospitality, but in a way that stops short of not being able to judge.
So, I have opened with this mini-meditation in order to vivify the stakes of responsibility within an ethic of hospitality. The risk of hospitality and heeding the call (to conscience, to the Other) is that you may get someone threatening to kill you–or worse, as was the case with Heidegger and National Socialism, you might get the call of Legion, a topic we will take-up again with the topic of charismata and exorcism.
Black Christmas teaches us that the Other may not be so singular as we are wont to assume. By extension, this would be the true of the individual who heeds the call too. The telephone explodes. It is synecdoche for the self/Other dialectic in the field of electricity, symbolic of “autoamputation,” as McLuhan puts it. An interrogation of its uncanny effects confronts us with our deepest fears about the Other, and helps us to frame yet again the ethical challenge of technology. Today we begin our investigation of gadget love and loss, the dominance of gadgetry, the phallus, the telephonic dildo.