December 28, 2013 Leave a comment
“…the ordinary course of life demands nearly constant efforts to maintain or salvage situations that are falling into disarray by restoring them to order. In everyday life, people never completely suppress their anxieties, and, like scientists, ordinary people never stop suspecting, wondering, and submitting the world to tests.”
Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p37.
His phone rings
as he’s standing by the sink. With attention abruptly turned from cleaning to talking – suds dripping as he reaches across the floor – he picks up the handset.
“I’m really sorry to bother you, but my phone’s stopped working and I don’t know what to do.”
“So how are you calling me then?” he feels compelled to ask, and then instantly regrets its surly impression.
“I’m on a mobile. My son gave it to me, but I barely know how to use it. My proper phone has gone dead.”
In the ensuing conversation the talk maps out the arrangement of this elderly lady’s hallway, the telephone ‘table’ under the stairs, the ‘old style’ composure of this device as a caller, a visitor from outside to be kept at bay, waiting uncertainly in the hallway, not invited properly into the depth of the home. To make phone calls she climbs into the space under the stairs, adjusts the register of her voice. And here is where she is most comfortable calling from, huddled in the cavity, hunched over a rickety G-Plan assembly, amidst a pile of long superseded telephone directories, and a frayed and heavily annotated contacts directory: the sedimented strata of evolved and lost acquaintance.
He suggests she checks the phone socket. Carpet fitters visited her hallway yesterday. Perhaps they tugged the cable loose.
“Take the cover off and look inside.”
From the silence at the other end it is clear that he might as well have said “fire up the warp drive and set course for the heart of the sun”.
Eventually she replies: “No, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.”
From the onward conversation it’s clear that she holds the telephone in some reverence, it’s a magical device that provides a service, but it is not hers to tinker with. The whole assembly is other. She owns a screw driver, a wooden handled one from the last century. It’s lain in a box for years, only ever used for opening cans of paint. It won’t get wielded here. She will call the telephone company instead. She hangs up.
The next day she calls again.
“I’m in a call box” she announces, with some distress. Apparently her mobile has now stopped working too. He asks a few questions to try and ascertain the symptoms of this fatality, but soon realises that this is not what she wants to talk about. Earlier that day she stood in that draughty call box for 40 minutes, eventually getting through to the phone company but getting little sense out of them. There was muzak, there was continual ringing, there was referral between different departments and eventually an undertaking to send out an engineer within the next five days.
He phones the company on her behalf to try and get things expedited. He too waits in an auditory limbo land, marvelling at just how crap the service is (and the irony that you need a phone to report a broken phone). Eventually there’s a connection. Yes, an engineer call is booked, no they can’t (or won’t) expedite for an elderly lady living on her own (unless she declared her ‘special needs’ at the time of signing up with them).
A couple of days later, she calls him again. This time from her home phone, now happily huddled back under the stairs. Her phone problem has been fixed. An engineer called yesterday. He pulled up the freshly laid carpet and carefully traced the phone cable from the socket towards its point of entry to the house. Eventually he found it, the break in the connection: the cable was cleanly and fully severed – cleaved by a carpet fitter’s Stanley Knife blade moving at speed and with force. The engineer held up the two ends, some shock on his face. This wasn’t a knick; this was a full cut through.
“Could they have chopped it without realising?” she asked the engineer – the forensic instinct suddenly to the fore in the hallway, all attention and thought focussed on the moment at which that cable switched from one length to two.
“Oh, they would have known” he replied with theatrical gravity.
Back in the call her spoken thoughts turn to minutiae of the fitters’ moment by moment afternoon residence in her house. She recalls a moment – that seemed odd at the time, but which only now tumbled back to thought because of its emergent significance, when the fitters suddenly went outside to the van, but brought nothing back from that trip. She remembers the abruptness of their departure at the end of the job. In conversation with the engineer (who by then had ascended to a gallant ‘white knight’ in her narrative, contrasting with the opposing figuration of the fitters, now hunched, ruddy and vaguely Neanderthal in the imagery of the story) matters of fault and blame are mapped out. She returns to civilisation both through the restoration of her phone line and in the validation of her anger, vulnerability and sense of having been assailed. No, she didn’t imagine it. This event was real and her feeling of distress and inconvenience proportionate. She felt that she had returned to the world.
Hunting invisible things
In the above event, we find – if we choose to look – an entanglement of the personhood, matter and abstract notions of service. Whilst we do need to pay more attention to (physical) things themselves, we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To talk of a telephone ceasing to work is as much as social situation as it is a technical one. Yes, the existence of the telephone system (and our dependency upon it) is revealed in the moment of its failure, but exploring the thing that is revealed requires more than tracing the cable to the point of its severance. Many things flow from that cut, and many of them are invisible.
As a lawyer my gut response to that telephone call would be a flurry of sentences floating into mind, hovering before my eyes like subtitles to the event and situation beyond. I’d see section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982:
“In a contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of a business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill.”
I’d see paperwork, a pathway to effective arguments – all so many words marshalled as ammunition for a campaign against the carpet fitter. But, that’s me. She didn’t read the situation that way. Perhaps at some vague level she realises that she has some form of contractual connection (and attendant rights) in her relationship with the carpet fitters – but if she does this element is far from mind. Her reaction is more instinctive and driven by an embedded sense of what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and not appropriate and what order and disorder look and feel like. What restores the balance is the reconnection of the phone (an important part of her identity and sense of security) and the confirmation by others (the engineer, the carpet shop) that her dislocation caused by the event was significant to others, not just her.
In her reflection upon the event – in its becalming aftermath – she also sees paper. But she does not reach for the law-makers’ vellum, the call handler’s laminated flow chart or the crinkled job-sheet of the carpet fitter. No, she reaches for her Basildon Bond and her Parker Pen. Such situations – for her – call for a stiff letter, written on her luscious watermarked cream pad. This is her way of completing the stabilisation of the situation, to commit umbrage to paper; to send off a missive. This is what the situation calls for. She invests careful thought in her letter, these things must be said for their own sake. For her they are part of the resolution of this situation.
She directs her volley to: “To whom it may concern” and awaits its return service. But she is doomed to be disappointed. For neither the carpet fitter nor the telephone company are playing the same game as her. For them the situational framing and the modes of engagement are so different, an anonymous instance of generic processes. There will be no parley. This cable, this carpet, this space under the stairs – so much to some, so little to others.
Image source: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/business/industries/retailing/article3886403.ece (NB: generic image, no aspersions intended on the fitter pictured or the carpet co featured in the source article)