Marc Holthof on Fri, 18 Sep 1998 08:45:54 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Leave your message after the beep

Leave your message after the beep
On the right to stupidity, the art of forgetting and the Bolero 100
By Marc Holthof

>From the notorious interview with Martin Heidegger that appeared after the
philosopher's death in 'Der Spiegel' (May 30, 1976) Avital Ronell quotes
the following extract in The Telephone Book:

"Der Spiegel: 'So you finally accepted. How did you then relate to the
Nazis?' Heidegger: '...Someone from the top command of the Storm Trooper
University Bureau, SA section leader Baumann called me up. He

Heidegger, recently appointed rector of Freiburg University, answered the
Nazi call/ing. A telephone wire connected the great philosopher to a
criminal regime. A 'call' became a 'calling'. On May 1, 1934 Heidegger
became a member of the NSDAP 'Gau Baden'. His number was 3125894.  But
just suppose. By way of a modest anachronistic thought experiment.=20
Suppose Heidegger had had an answering machine. Suppose SA section leader
Baumann had gotten the following message: 'This is Martin Heidegger. I'm
not home right now. Please leave your message after the beep.' What would
have happened then?=20


"Even granny was surprised by the Bolero 100's many functions. Its compact
and elegant exterior belies this answering machine's astounding capacity
to record over 30 minutes of messages. The Bolero 100 stays safely within
everyone's budget and proposes a memory function to save personal messages
for you and your family. The 'space-guarding' function allows you to
monitor the goings-on in the answering machine's vicinity. The Bolero
100's primary asset is its sonic guardian, a distress call that's
automatically transferred to a number of authorized persons (identified
via a secret code). This way you can feel safe and restrict incoming calls
to insure granny's afternoon nap" (Christmas promotion for Belgacom's
Bolero 100 answering service).=20

An answering machine is a handy gadget. Even when you're not home you can
still take that all-important call and listen to its playback at your
leisure. Nothing (the occasional technical glitch notwithstanding) is
forgotten, everything is carefully recorded. If we're to believe the
national phone company, parents are even using the machine to leave spoken
messages for their kids or significant others. Say goodby to those
scribbled Post-it notes on the refrigerator. Urgent family matters -
"Don't forget to take out the trash" or "I won't be home tonight" - will
henceforth be conveyed by the memory function on the answering machine.=20
More serious messages - like the classic "went out for a pack of
cigarettes, be right back" or actual suicide notes - are likely to go the
same way.

Time of the individual

The answering machine's biggest quality is that it succeeds in separating
the owner's personal world from his professional life. As long as you
don't listen to it, your answering machine will isolate you from the
outside world. The telephone has the nasty habit to intrude into your
private life at those most unconvenient moments. The answering machine
'softens', sidetracks such intrusions. An answering machine guarantees its
owner's right to privacy.=20

The answering machine's greatest theoretician is probably Benjamin
Constant (1767-1830). In his Histoire abr=E9g=E9e de l'=E9galit=E9 Constant=
characterizes our modern times as 'l'=E9poque des individus". Tzvetan
Todorov wrote a wonderful book about this liberal thinker who is gradually
being rediscovered. Constant was not just the author of Adolphe: he was
also one of the most important political thinkers of the early nineteenth
century. After the French revolution the state, corporation and/or family
can no longer impose their will on the individual, Constant notes.=20
"Instead of being enslaved to the family...every individual now lives his
own life and demands his own freedom". Constant was enough of a crystal
ball-gazer to come up with an astute political analysis some two hundred
years ago that is still more than relevant for our contemporary democracy.

Constant's political thinking, argues Todorov, is at once a synthesis and
transformation of the work of two important eighteenth century French
political thinkers: Montesquieu and Rousseau. They respectively embody the
principle of the separation of power and the sovereign people. In his
Principes de Politique (1806) Constant tries to reconcile the views
expressed in Montesquieu's 'L'Esprit des Lois' with Rousseau's 'Contrat
Social', the separation of power with the sovereign people.

Both Montesquieu and Rousseau were keen to improve government. For
Montesquieu it didn't really matter who's in power: the king, the
aristocracy or parliament. It only matters how power is exercised. Every
form of power is legitimate as long as that power is limited by laws
and/or another source of power. Executive power, legislature and judiciary
should balance each other out. This comes down to what is - rather
incorrectly - described as the 'separation of power'. In fact Montesquieu
is talking about a redistribution, a balancing of power. If and when the
powers are balanced, this will automatically lead to a fair and tolerant
regime. In dictatorships both individual and collective, by contrast, the
different powers are grouped together. Montesquieu (who died in 1755) is
obviously not a republican or a democrat. His only ideal - the British
monarchy - is a meritocracy: in his view the people are "unable to make
their own active decisions" (De l'Esprit des lois XI, 6). The people
should be represented and presided over.=20

Rousseau develops a different reasoning in his his 'Contrat Social'. Not
the way in which power is exercised matters but who exercises it. The
sovereign people should itself decide according to which laws it wants to
live. Sovereignty equals the exercise of the will of the collective. This
collective will always take precedence over the individual will.=20

Benjamin Constant accepts this postulate of Rousseau's: power should be
the expression of the will of the people. Given the regime of terror
during the French Revolution, however, he adds one condition he borrows
from Montesquieu: power is not only legitimized by those who exercise it
but also by the way it is exercised: it should never be unlimited. Even
the sovereignty of the people, the collective will, should be practiced in
moderate fashion. Constant chooses neither the liberalism of Montesquieu
(which can be undemocratic) nor the democracy of Rousseau (which can be
totalitarian). Instead he opts for a liberal democracy. He limits the
power of the people and in so doing protects the individual from the
arbitrary ruling of the collective: "A people that holds all the power is
more dangerous than a tyrant", he concludes. The people's sovereignty
should only come into force within certain limitations. Even when it's
just one individual who doesn't agree with the others, those others should
not have the power to impose their will (especially not in private
matters). The sovereign people should respect the individual's freedom.

The right to stupidity

John Stuart Mill upholds a similar principle in his Considerations on
Representative Government (1861). He agrees that a society should
guarantee the freedom of its citizens. Minorities should be protected from
the majority. His conclusion is still extremely relevant for our
contemporary media society: "Like the whole of modern civilization,
representative governments are inclined towards collective mediocrity". To
put it bluntly: the first and most important (but seldom spoken) principle
of any democracy is the right to stupidity. Everyone, no matter how stupid
or blunt, has the same unalienable democratic rights guaranteed by
universal suffrage. You don't have to take an IQ-test before you elect a
representative. And that's the way it should be: it's the democracy
stupid! The scenario changes though when this unalienable democratic right
to stupidity becomes an obligation to be stupid. In light of the political
and social polarisation provoked by the Dutroux case it seems quite useful
to confront those few legalists =E0 la Montesquieu and those many populists
=E0 la Rousseau with a sane voice like that of Constant or Mill. Yes: the
separation of power is a political-judicial fiction that hides a lot of
judicial corporatism. No: the people's sovereignty is not the solution to
all problems. Democracy does not equal "all power to the people". The
biggest advantage of liberal democracy the way it was conceived by
Benjamin Constant is that this kind of government is not only democratic
but also guarantees a strict separation between the public and the

Freedom, to Constant, is everything that gives the individual the right to
do and withholds society the right to forbid. Freedom is insured by the
separation between public and private. This separation between public and
private is perhaps the greatest achievement of the French Revolution:=20
neither antiquity nor the ancien r=E9gime knew the difference. Neither at
the bottom nor at the top of the social pyramid (Louis XIV even turned his
taking a pee into a public event). It is precisely this separation that is
threatened by today's media society: the public has intruded into the
private through communication technology: first the press and the
telephone, later radio and especially television. In lifestyle magazines
and on television the public camouflages as the private to insure its
domination of the individual, to take away his freedom and make him
conform to those norms and standards imposed by the media. The private is
threatened with destruction, everything becomes public. Hence the strange
alliance between media hype on the one hand and moral indignation about
the Dutroux case on the other hand, between a moral call to arms and the
latest ratings. Both parties have but one goal: to impose the dictatorship
of the collective onto the private sphere. And all this in the name of the
people's sovereignty and (a strikingly narrow interpretation of)
democracy. What we need - now more than ever - is an answering machine, an
efficient form of protection against the public's increasing nosiness.

Mechanical anamnesis

You can rightfully ask yourself if the answering machine hasn't become an
'anamnetic' device. For those of us with no Greek: anamnesis is the act of
remembering. In the Orphic-Pythagorean tradition this meant remembering
earlier lives one had lived in a different form of being. In Meno and
Phaedros Plato interprets anamnesis as the remembrance of the world of
immortal Ideas. In a clerical context it means remembering your deepest
sins in the confessional. Freud offers yet another interpretation and
talks about remembering a repressed past (either spontaneously or under
hypnosis).  All this - remembering a past life, a world of Ideas, a
repressed past - is synoptically resumed by one push on the rewind button
of the answering machine. A mechanical anamnesis takes place, your earlier
life, reality itself, catches up with you. Switch on the machine and
reality comes back to haunt you. This annoys the owner of an answering
machine. After a nice quiet day the whole storm awaits you on a compact 30
minute tape courtesy of the Bolero 100.


The Bolero 100 is a mechanical stand-in for Orphic mysteries, Platonic
introspection, catholic confessionals and Freudian psychoanalysis. At the
same time the answering machine allows the owner to postpone the
anamnesis. To forget as long as possible. To shut out the world - not that
of an earlier Orphic life, Plantonic Ideas, clerical sins or Freudian
reality but the everyday telephonic life. Amnamnesis is remembering but
remembering after a massive, traumatic, otherworldly forgetting. What do
you remember from your earlier life, the immortal Ideas or all that
repressed carnality that explodes onto the psychiatrist's couch or in the
confessional? Nothing or not a lot. This way the answering machine also
fuctions as a forgetting machine, an attempt to delay reality, to 'move'
or 'timeshift' it into oblivion. While the VCR moves time recording
fiction, the answering records and delays reality itself. It's a
forgetting well in which we dare not look. For the time being at least.=20

The art of forgetting

The ancient art of remembering was first and foremost an art of
forgetting. In his 'De Oratore' Cicero enlightens us on how the art of
memory first came into being. During a feast at which he is invited to
give a speech, the poet Simonides is suddenly called outside. During his
absence an eartquake takes place and the roof of the banquet room crashes,
leaving the host and all his guests buried under the rubble. The bodies
are mutilated to such a degree that the family members who have come to
collect their dead are not able to identify them. Fortunately Simonides
remembers the exact seating of the guests at the dinner table and is thus
able to identify their bodies. Simonides became the inventor of the art of
memory because he had (re-)constructed his memory in an orderly fashion.=20
His artful remembering inspired numerous orators to construct their
speeches as mental images in an imaginary building, images they could
'walk through' in their minds so as not to forget anything.

This anecdote marks the beginning of the art of memory that took off
during antiquity and the renaissance. What Cicero implies but doesn't
mention because it seemed so obvious at the time, was that Simonides'
remembering was preceded by a huge, dramatic, momentous forgetting of
everything that came before the remembering: the earthquake, the disaster
that provided total amnesia and made it impossible for relatives to
recognize their brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. The art of memory
relies on, presupposes an almost complete forgetting. A kind of collective
'instant Alzheimer's'.=20

Forgetting machine

We tend to forget we forget. That forgetting is enormously important.=20
Remembering is primarily not remembering certain things, selecting,
trimming: forgetting. Museums around the world are characterized not so
much by what they store but rather by what they cannot, will not or dare
not store. They are not so much storage machines as machines for
forgetting. The tape (or the digital memory) of our answering machine we
use time and again. Nothing is permanently stored; messages are recorded
for the moment, to delay time. On a purely technical level the answering
machine is also a forgetting machine. You need to keep all the tapes to
turn it into a memory machine. Which we don't:: we tend to erase. We use
yesterday's tape to record today's messages, and today's for tomorrow's.=20
And we're right to do so. We use our memories selectively and always
forget more than we can remember. The past is a heavy load to carry. A too
heavy load. More than ever we need to destroy surplus information. To use
at least seventy-five percent of all published books to light the stove.=20
To dig deep forgetting wells for useless information. To print books on
extremely acidic paper instead of its acid-free equivalent. To develop
magnetic and digital carriers that 'forget' their recorded information
after a reasonable time. To make all this useless information
biodegradable. Orphists, Pythagoreans, Platonists and Freudians all
attached primary importance to the memory function. The past is
all-important. The Freudians deny that we even can forget: in their book
forgetting usually has some kind of shady, sexual deeper reason. Nietzsche
on the other hand was all for forgetting and re-using the same old tape in
our answering machines. In his Genealogie der Moral he wrote: "Forgetting
is not simply a kind of inertia, as superficial minds tend to believe, but
rather the active faculty to...provide some silence, a 'clean slate' for
the unconscious, to make place for the new...those are the uses for what I
have called an active forgetting..."=20

A condom against reality

"...the call is precisely something which we ourselves have neither
planned nor prepared for nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done
so. 'It' calls, against our expections and even against our will". (Martin
Heidegger in Sein und Zeit, translated by Avital Ronell in The Telephone

An answering machine separates messages from their temporal frame and cuts
them up into sequences of past time (with or without time code). The
answering machine therefore is the ideal instrument for those who refuse
to experience reality directly and want to experience life in playback
mode. The answering machine doesn't actually protect you from bad news but
it does let you choose the moment you want to hear it. Someone's dying? No
problem, just turn on the machine and we can go on pretending nothing's
wrong. Let them die, we don't even know about it! And we don't want to
know either. In this day and age of cell phones and portable computers
there is no valid reason (beside a flat battery or a technical glitch) why
we cannot be reached. And things are going to get worse as Belgacom has
recently decided to link up its phone, cellular and voice-mail services
via a special Duet-arrangement: when you call someone you automatically
get transferred to their cell phone first then to a regular phone and
finally to their voice-mail. So these days if you get an answering machine
you know that the person in question just doesn't want to take your call.=
He does not want to be reached, wants to protect himself against the
intrusions of the outside world. So why bother him then, even with the
best or worst news? Get the message caller: he doesn't want to know.  In
that sense the answering machine is like a condom we use to keep out the
pollution of everyday reality. An even more efficient method of screening
calls is of course 'caller identification', a device that has radically
altered the social behaviour of American households. With caller
identification you see the number of the person calling flash up on the
screen before you even answer the phone. Beter still: by linking this
caller ID to the database in your computer you can create a system in
which you can only be reached by those people who are already in your
address book. This way there's no chance you're going to be reached by a
complete unknown. Secret telephone numbers used to be the privilege of
famous people who just wanted to be left alone. Now every self-indulging
civilian can unfondly remember the days he ever allowed a telephone in the
private environment of his home or inside pocket. In this case pollution
by an alien, threatening telephone is no longer possible. The telephone
has been replaced by the proxiphone (the telephone by proxy). The
telephone becomes a safety device that hermetically seals us off from the
rest of reality.=20

Two notions of freedom

Benjamin Constant is more than just the perfect liberal, stresses Todorov.=
He didn't just stick to his aforementioned definition of freedom as all
things private the individual can do and society cannot forbid, but also -
like Montesquieu and a long time before Isaiah Berlin - distinguished
between two different notions of freedom. The first is the modern,
negative definition of freedom in the private life; but there's also a
positive one: the freedom to actively partake in the political life of the
land, as was the custom in ancient Greece. In Greek society personal
freedom, however, was of no relevance or value. Constant notes in
postmodern fashion: "The ancients had an opinion about everything. We hold
only a semblance of an opinion on nothing much in particular." We doubt
everything, seem to be lethally fatigued before we actually do anything
and no longer believe in our institutions (Constant noted this trend more
than 200 years ago!). Private concerns have pushed aside all interest in
the public life. We need an injection of the ancient freedom!  Constant
wants two kinds of freedom, that of the 'Moderns' and the 'Ancients'
combined: the freedom of the individual to privately do what he wants,
with the added freedom of publicly participating in the collective power.
This way he hopes to compensate for the negative sides inherent in both
types of freedom. In his famous speech delivered at the Royal Academy in
Paris in 1819 he argues that: "The danger of the ancient freedom was that
it focussed exclusively on the redistribution of social power and
neglected individual rights and aspirations. The danger of the modern
freedom is that we are all too concerned about our personal interests and
tend to neglect our right to participate in the exercise of political
power".  Constant was optimistic nonetheless. He envisaged that people
would only need independence in their daily concerns, activities and
fantasies to achieve perfect happiness. He was - as we all know by now -
wrong. From the king to the cardinal, everyone is stressing the need for
guidance and leadership. People have yet to evolve from the slave
mentality of the ancient r=E9gime and still yearn for the master and the
whip, the God and His commandment. This is - from a purely empirical point
of view - a totally correct assessment. There has never been more
nostalghia for the slave existence under the ancient r=E9gime than with the
most recent batch of free citizens. Contrary to what millenary moralists
and other horsemen of the apocalypse like to preach, what we definitely
should not do is change this sorry state of affairs, fill up the vacuum
public power has left us with. Constant was absolutely right when he said
that: "L'anarchie intellectuelle qu'on d=E9plore me semble un progr=E8s
immense de l'intelligence". Whatever those pamphlets say, you're beter off
hopeless and free than enslaved to some kind of ideology.=20


In 1934 Martin Heidegger got a phone call. "Nach einigen Tagen kam ein
fernm=FCndlicher Anruf", reads the original interview. The call came from S=
Obersturmf=FChrer Baumann. And Heidegger took the call/calling. In
retrospect - in the interview with 'Der Spiegel' - he blamed his ties to
the Nazi party on the telephone. One thing's for certain: had Martin
Heidegger had an answering machine he would have been able to keep the
Nazi influence at bay. Or so he thought. This was in the days before the
answering machine. Heidegger invented the answering machine. Not
Constant's answering machine that installs an important separation between
the public and the private, but that other answering machine: the one
that's owned by those people who want to avoid reality, who will not take
that call/calling. Who would rather stick their heads in the sand than
answer to what they've been asked (by the Fuehrer for example). Who won't
say either yes or no. Leave your message after the beep and we'll get back
to you... in about twelve years.  We know better than that. In R=FCdiger
Safranski's biography we have read that 'National socialism' had already
been the preferred topic of conversation at the Heideggers' mountain
resort in Todnauberg during the early 1930s. Even then Heidegger had
already been convinced that only Nazi dictatorship could save Germany from
that most vicious of cultural threats: communism. Heidegger didn't really
need that call from Obersturmf=FChrer Baumann to remind him: he had always
been a national socialist, if not in his mind then at least in his heart.
Not even the charcoal-colored Bolero 550, the top model in Belgacom's new
line of answering machines, could have saved his soul.


Benjamin Constant, Ecrits politiques; Gallimard, Folio-Essais 1997.
John Stuart Mill, 'Considerations on Representative Government'. In:=20
Utilitarianism; Everyman Library 1993.
Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book - Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric
Speech; University of Nebraska Press 1989.
R=FCdiger Safranski, Ein Meister aus Deutschland - Heidegger und
seine Zeit;  Carl Hanser Verlag 1994.
Tzvetan Todorov, Benjamin Constant - La passion d=E9mocratique; Hachette
Frances Yates, De Geheugenkunst; Bert Bakker 1988.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: