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2006 05 03
Angle of Incident - 2

By Gary Michael Dault

When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual…
W.H. Auden, “In Memory of W.B.Yeats”.

I published a book in 1989—my favourite object among all the stuff I’ve scribbled over the years—called Cells of Ourselves. It consisted of fifty drawings by Canadian artist Tony Urquhart which I had culled from about a thousand, all fifty of which had something or other to do with the idea of a cage or enclosure. I remember propping each drawing up on my desk at the end of the day and writing one prose-poem-like text for each of them until, fifty days later, I had a fifty pages of writing which, proceeding parallel to Tony’s drawings, generated a sort of floating narrative about confinement, restraint, hindrance and cessation.

I mention it now only because it is becoming increasingly apparent when I’m out in the world, away from the haven of my study, that there are new pockets of containment everywhere I go, new cells of partition and exclusivity: men and women are once again enclosed in the cells of themselves, the cells this time being, of course, cell phones.

I do not offer this spread of cellular living as a newly observable phenomenon—cell phones have been entirely too much with us for a long time now—but there does appear to be a strange new cellular behaviour going on out there (well, I think it’s strange anyhow) that demonstrates, in an increasingly aggressive and even hyper way, the degree to which the cell phone has become a sort of Soma-for the ear, a space-generating, or at least carapace-generating device.

I notice this most on streetcars. For cell-phone users, the streetcar is the new phone booth. On any average day, on any average streetcar route in Toronto, you’ll see (hear, rather, since, for some reason, they’re always behind you) a myriad of people talking on their phones at full and indeed often ear-splitting volume—something just a little bit more restrained (but only a little) than a full-blown bellow. It happens, of course, on buses too, but since I’m scarcely ever on a bus, I haven’t noticed. It doesn’t happen on subways because the undergroundness of the subway more or less (duh) precludes it. Which is one of the few things I’m beginning to find attractive, by the way, about subways.

How unself-conscious cell-phone users are! They yell at each other in banshee voices most of us would reserve for the beach or the baseball stadium. Clearly none of these one-sided conversations are supposed to be private—or intimate. You listen, perforce, because it’s impossible not to. And this is clearly accepted by cell-phonies as newly conventionalized behaviour, since none of them ever seems to notice you listening and, fixing you with the flinty stare most intrusion seems to generate, asks you what your fucking PROBLEM is? You’re simply supposed to listen, I guess.

And I do. I suppose it’s becoming conventional simply to tune out the other person’s cell-conversatione: to create, or help to create a private, inviolate space for them. I just can’t seem to do it. I listen. Even when the talk is moronic—and it nearly always is. Most of it seems to consist of endless global positioning: “I said I’m on the streetcar, and I’m just coming to Church Street now…” or “I’m at Bathurst and Dundas and I’ll be there in about ten minutes” or “We’re just heading down into the Spadina subway station, so we’re probably going to be cut off…”

So yes okay I guess it’s everyone’s civic right or something to talk when and where (and at whatever volume) they want to. But it’s my right as well, is it not, to choose not to have to live within the sonic bubble of somebody else’s auditory space? And yet the only way I can escape the pseudo-intimate chit-chat generated by others (and I have yet to overhear, by the way, what struck me as a really necessary mobile phone call) is to stop the streetcar and get off. Which is not usually a viable option.
And so I ride along on a sea of babble, irritated, cell-phones ringing to my left and to my right (too many of them ring out a raspy, irritating little version of the Ode to Joy from the Beethoven Ninth), people shouting their hellos at full blast, and settling down thereafter to miles of inanity to which I am reluctantly privy.

CODA: Last week, while browsing about in art galleries in preparation for my weekly art review column in the Globe, I came across what I consider to be a consummation-devoutly-to-be-wished for the cell-phone: a young sculptor named Laura Moore had put together an exhibition (Peak Gallery, April 19-29) that served as part of her MFA thesis at York University. What made the show so fresh was the fact that Moore was sculpting not portrait busts or second-hand Henry Moores (the young artist is no relation to the English master), but rather the techno-chachkas of our time: the exhibition consisted, therefore, of AA batteries and 9-volt batteries carved from marble, and a USB, digital voice recorder, analog tape, computer mouse and (and this is what warmed my heart) a cell phone all carved from soapstone. A soapstone cell phone! A fossilized, mineralized, cell-phone—like some bauble tossed up on some future archaeological dig! How good it was to hold this dense, blessedly mute phone-shaped stone in my hand! How deeply silent it was!

Gary Michael Dault
[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 05/03 at 11:35 AM

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