Gendered Information Networks and the Telephone Voice in Shaw's Pygmalion and Village Wooing

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Date: Spring 2018
Publisher: University of Texas at Austin (University of Texas Press)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,626 words
Lexile Measure: 1530L

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KEYWORDS: BBC, English language, elocution, phonetics, standardization, telephone, voice

This article considers women's contributions to the work of linguistic purification through their enforcement of the "telephone voice," a strict method of articulation taught to switchboard operators. Situating George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and Village Wooing in their technological climate, it argues that these plays imagine the new experience women might have with language in a telephonic world while also searching out a mode of acoustic inscription modeled on the telephone voice that might narrow the gap between script and performance.

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PRIOR TO THE ADVENT OF SOUND reproduction technologies, "pure" English was disseminated via the theater. Andrew Elfenbein explains that in the eighteenth century, plays educated audiences in proper English by creating "an in-group of characters who used correct English and an out-group who did not" and by structuring "minimal pairs," or "small phonemic differences that produce differences in meaning," between the language use of the in-group and the out-group (76). As sound technologies began to actualize the promise of orthographic standardization, the stage gave way to the page as the best means for constructing linguistic otherness and spreading standardized English. One playwright in particular, George Bernard Shaw, looked to acoustic inventions for a way to reconceptualize both the printed script and the performed play. Such ruminations on the doubly mediated nature of his genre--both text and body, live image and sound--along with his desire to produce a written text that could effectively prescribe the exact method of oral delivery, particularly inform two of his works, Pygmalion (1912) and Village Wooing (1933). Shaw explores in these two plays how the voice of the Romantic Mother--that ideal, originary orality so crucial for a patriarchal literary tradition--does not in fact dissipate, as Friedrich Kittler seems to suggest, with women's increasing access to inscription. Instead, it still polices the articulations of speakers through flesh-and-blood women. For after the invention of the telephone, women became the mouthpieces of empire, disseminating linguistic standards through their adherence to and reproduction of standard English (or what would later become known by its telephonic moniker, "BBC English"). Pygmalion and Village Wooing trace the desexualization of textual production, with the male-female relationships they depict imagining the new experience women might have with language in a telephonic world.

Pygmalion, a narrative of auditory training similar to that required for switchboard operation, sees the "emancipation of women" as hampered by the imperial communication network's repression of the female body and its so-named "hysterical" discourse. Village Wooing, on the other hand, envisions a reconciliation of the sexes in the new battleground of inscription, presenting textual production in the discourse network of 1900 as a machinic coupling--a marriage of mechanized speaking and writing, phone and gramma, letter and numeral, best effected through the technology of the telephone. Here the noise of the network is celebrated as generative: written and spoken language that is deconstructed into its component parts and then kept in circulation, constantly shifting between type and voice, code and language, offers a model for literature and drama alike--one that embraces the weighty materiality of language to explode the boundaries of normative sensory experience. Attending to the representation of the female voice and male textual production in these plays reveals how modernity not only desexualizes inscription; it also mechanizes the gendered work of linguistic colonialism.

The Gendering of Telephony in Britain and America

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, concerns over the degradation of the English language led to increased efforts at linguistic purification. English experts envisioned prescriptivism not only as mitigating the threat of linguistic adulteration but also as producing a national consciousness based on an untainted originary language. Although often written out of histories of the English language, women contributed both the ideological justification and the educational apparatus for the imperial work of speech standardization. On the one hand, attempts to purify English relied on the fantasy of a feminized, chaste linguistic body, a "mother tongue" not subject to degradation. On the other, as Kittler explains in Discourse Networks 1800/1900, women were largely responsible for disseminating the newly oralized alphabet and its preferred method of propagation, phonemic reading. Whether by offering material for metaphorization or by serving as linguistic disciplinarians, women were heavily enmeshed in what Adam R. Beach terms Britain's "'internal' cultural imperialism" of speech standardization--a nationalist-cumimperial project whose goals included ensuring the longevity of the English literary canon and the dominance of English as it was exported to the colonies (118, 118-19). As Beach details, eighteenth-century English experts believed their language needed to be "controlled and contained" in order to "perform its function as Mother--that is, giving birth and rebirth to the English literary canon in an easily accessible language for the common reader of the distant future" (128). In the Romantic and Victorian eras, women engaged in acts of linguistic reproduction by schooling their children in the ABCs, their voices enforcing prescribed pronunciations. But with the introduction of sound reproduction technologies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their work of linguistic purification extended into the workplace, the aura of the maternal voice dissipating into telephonic data flows.

Indeed, perhaps nowhere is the centrality of women to the technological program of linguistic purification more apparent than in the development of what came to be known as the "telephone voice," a prescribed way of talking that enhanced comprehensibility by following specific rules of intonation, accentuation, inflection, emphasis, and pacing. No scholar to date has situated women's participation in early telephonic communication systems in relation to speech standardization. However, the two were inextricably linked--and in ways that both bear out and complicate Kittler's argument about the discourse network of 1900. Kittler suggests that the modernist discourse network witnessed the dissipation of the aura of the maternal voice. While that may be true, the shift from alphabetizing Mother to transcribing women did not mean that women's speech was no longer policed. In fact, quite the opposite: with the introduction of telephony, female telephone operators--or "hello girls," as they often were called--advanced the work of speech standardization through their creation, modeling, and enforcement of the telephone voice. This enterprise demonstrates the interrelatedness of Britain's civilizing mission, linguistic prescriptivism, and gendered information systems. In their participation in early telephone networks, women bolstered the imperial fantasy of a purified English that would resist corruption when transported across distances.

The work of switchboard operation offers a test case for Kittler's claims about the new status of women in the discourse network of 1900. Although early telephone users were largely businessmen, the labor of telephony quickly became a woman's domain. Initially employing adolescent boys as operators, British and American telephone companies soon deemed them unfit for the occupation because they often were discourteous to customers, abruptly ending calls or refusing to patch customers through as requested. Michele Martin explains that "as the industry developed... telephone companies started to hire women for operator work, asserting that their personalities were 'better suited' to the work. By the end of the 1880s, almost all telephone operators were women" (52). From the perspective of company executives, what made women particularly adept at telephone work was their patience, meekness, and politeness--their ability to soothe male callers made irate by the sometimes unreliable new technology (Green 53, 58). April Middeljans suggests that "telephone companies romanticized the operator as an angel of the wires, a handmaiden whose discipline oiled the gears of men's business without restructuring traditional social spaces" (38-39). Despite working outside the home, the "angel of the wires" retained the mythic purity of the middle-class Victorian white woman--an image the telephone companies were forced to reconcile with her role as technological medium. This fraught position is well captured by Marcel Proust in In Search of Lost Time, in which the narrator provides the following characterization of female telephonists: "We need only ... apply our lips to the magic orifice and invoke... the Vigilant Virgins to whose voices we listen every day without ever coming to know their faces" (3: 174). As Proust recognizes, despite the portrayal of female switchboard operators as "Vigilant Virgins," constant connectivity left them at risk for moral degradation. In their work to create a telephone operator identity that would appeal to white middle-class businessmen, telephone companies overemphasized the operator's femininity and gentility, downplaying in turn her vulnerable position as the nexus of male speech.

Despite the telephone industry's claims otherwise, its employment of female operators did in fact restructure the private and public realms. Women who made it through the training program had the potential for a promising career, with pay increases and perhaps the eventual promotion to chief operator, a supervisory position that involved regulating other employees' performance--including that of male workers. Female telephonists sometimes even received higher wages than their male counterparts (Green 59). Thus, although periodicals circulated stories of working-class operators attracting wealthy husbands with their voices, there was sometimes little incentive for them to marry. As Sylvester Baxter decides in "The Telephone Girl" (1906), "the telephone girl who does not marry... has no reason to look apprehensively to the future" (239). Often she rejected marriage, preferring instead to retain her position as the intermediary of a vast communications network--wedding wires and joining together male callers in a telephonic alliance.

Perhaps more than any other technology, the telephone naturalized prescriptive attitudes about proper speech. (1) The disembodied nature of wired communication encouraged a heightened attention to vocal properties. Externalized and distributed throughout the telephone network, the voice becomes a fetish commodity, forcing users' attention to the "external" qualities of their speech--components like enunciation, intonation, accentuation, inflection, and pacing. This normativizing of speech practices occurred under the guise of "intelligibility." In his 1907 piece in Harper's Bazaar, John D. Barry ascertains that "the fundamental principle of all speaking" is that "every element of every spoken word should be distinct and intelligible" (4). For him, improving one's voice "keep[s] our common language really common"--"common" enough to conduct business efficiently (3). Although he presents speech standardization as a democratic endeavor, he ultimately enforces a linguistic hierarchy: "We can probably agree on what our ideal speech ought to be: English, without a localizing accent, in which every syllable is pronounced that should be pronounced, in which every word is clearly expressed, and every thought given its full value" (3). By recasting speech standardization as an egalitarian project meant to streamline business practices, the telephone industry furthered the imperial work of linguistic purification.

The telephone companies' efforts to enhance clarity of communication along the wires coalesced in what came to be known as the "telephone voice," a mode of speaking taught to operators that followed specific rules of articulation. On the surface, this method of speaking was encouraged to ensure messages were transmitted accurately. However, the telephone voice, with its machinic reproducibility, was also devised to draw attention away from the human element in the communications network--the telephone operator, who detracted from the industry's goal of transparency of medium. As Martin establishes,

before the adoption of the automatic switchboard, [operators] were
essential to making connections between subscribers, but as "human
mediators" whose activities could delay or intrude on the privacy of
telephone calls, they were obstacles to the development of the
telephone service sought by the companies. (50)

At first, guidelines for the telephone voice dealt only with the correct tone operators were to use. But by the late 1880s, industry executives had begun formalizing operators' vocal training, regulating the tones and vocal inflections used for communication with subscribers as well as with fellow operators (Martin 92). To further standardize the operators' voices, they published pamphlets that delineated the telephone voice, the first of which was L. B. McFarlane's 1892 Rules and Instructions for Operators, a manual circulated by Bell Telephone Company (Martin 69). As described in this training manual and elsewhere, the model telephone voice was characterized by the following qualities: a low tone, marked enunciation, and a rising inflection that was modulated to express sympathy when faced with a frustrated subscriber. Women who were selected for telephone work were sent to training schools, where they learned to standardize their voices according to the industry's guidelines. Required to take voice, breathing, and sometimes even singing lessons, operators had their bodies and their speech subjected to sharp scrutiny (Green 69). They were taught to "repress any personal feelings in their voices" and to cultivate a clear, low tone (Martin 94). As Walter B. Swift discusses in "Speech Training for Telephone Operators" (1919), "a small number of sentences are given to the girls to memorize, and they are required to repeat these few sentences over and over until they can enunciate them clearly" (124). Another writer describes how "an operator is taught to say 'five' not only with a long 'i' but also with a strong V,' and to place special stress on the second 'n' in 'nine,' almost as if it were spelled 'nien'" (Kelly 53). Yet the voice's disciplining did not end with the training program, for as Martin notes, the chief operators were "told that regular operators should master their voices, and that [they] should 'check' them" (92). The scrutiny of operators' bodies and speech was so relentless that many workers experienced nervous breakdowns (Green 79-80).

Operators were not the only ones expected to assimilate to the telephone voice; the general public was also pressured to adopt it. Martin addresses how "advice on the voice to be used over the telephone was also given to subscribers. It was claimed that there was an interplay between the subscriber's voice and the use of the telephone: using the proper voice gave a more satisfactory quality of communication, while regular use of the telephone improved the voice of the subscriber" (95-96). As Martin's statement reveals, the acquisition of the telephone voice was depicted as a way for users to perfect their voice. Interestingly, this policing seems to have been gendered, with female voices receiving the most negative attention. In a 1905 article published in the Christian Observer, a writer decides that "the frequent use of the telephone is having an excellent effect on the feminine voice, in causing it to be so modulated that the shrill and often nasal tones... become much less noticeable" ("Telephone Voice" [1905] 19). The author further instructs callers to "use a talking voice, pitched low, and... endeavor to enunciate as distinctly as possible" ("Telephone Voice" [1905] 19). Using the same gendered language, another article cautions readers that "a strained, high-pitched voice does not carry over the telephone wire as well as a low one" ("Telephone Voice" [1910] 1042; emphasis in original). Publications such as these firmly locate the telephone within the broader project of speech standardization, aligning it in particular with the new elocutionary science. For as Martin notes, elocution lessons were often aimed at women, whose voices typically were considered too high-pitched and nasal (91). Yet they also suggest, as Katherine Biers has previously identified with regard to secretarial work, that new media's renegotiation of women's symbolic function in the discourse network of 1900 was more complicated than Kittler's neat theorization would have it. (2) In the case of telephony, although real women were given access to the technologies of discourse, they somewhat retained their imaginary status in their vocal abstraction. For despite their tendency to reject traditional narratives of domesticity, female telephonists engaged in a particularly troubling form of self-policing: themselves subject to extreme forms of linguistic control and using this training to discipline the speech of other women, switchboard operators participated in their own specularization, ensuring that the One Woman retained her functionality in the new media-technological order.

Eliza the Operator

A linguistic outsider who never lost his Dublin accent, Shaw maintained an ambiguous commitment to speech standardization. On the one hand, he claimed to reject the notion of a "pure" English language. In a letter to the famous elocutionist Henry Sweet dated 2 February 1911, he declares, "There is no such thing as a standard pronunciation. There is no such thing as an ideal pronunciation" (Shaw, qtd. in Conolly xxxix). And in a radio talk titled "Spoken English and Broken English," he instructs his audience: "There is no such thing as perfectly correct English[;] there is presentable English which we call 'Good English.'" While Shaw insisted that one cannot speak English perfectly, he was a staunch supporter of phonetic and orthographic standardization as a means of narrowing the gap between speech and writing. His will stipulated that his trust be used to form an alphabet of forty-eight letters so that it could be written phonetically without the use of distracting symbols (Smoker 19). Moreover, Shaw served on the BBC's Advisory Committee on Spoken English from 1929 to 1942, becoming its chairman in 1930 (Conolly, "Shaw" 59; Ducat 190). First led by the poet laureate Robert Bridges, the committee purported to determine standard pronunciations for radio broadcasts (Conolly, "Shaw" 59). However, its goals were intertwined with the broader project of the purification of the English language. In the July 16, 1926, issue of the BBC's official publication, The Radio Times, the committee admits that it was formed with the explicit intent "to maintain and protect 'the purity of our spoken language'" (Conolly, "Shaw" 59). Further, as Vivian Ducat suggests, by circulating a didactic pamphlet called "Broadcast English," printing phonetic spellings of controversial words in The Radio Times, and recording a program called Broadcast English for use in Britain's public schools, the committee enforced a standardized English for the public as well as for broadcasters (186). According to L. W. Conolly, "During its thirteen years of operation the committee published seven pamphlets with 9,000 pronunciation recommendations, pronunciations which in most cases became standard English usage" ("Shaw" 62). Shaw's assistance in the development of BBC English and an improved phonetic alphabet makes questionable his assertion that there are not "ideal" or "standard" pronunciations. It is likely that as a committed Fabian socialist, he embraced Britain's speech standardization project because of its promise to lessen the gap between social classes. (3)

Late nineteenth-century innovations in sound reproduction technologies called attention to the relationship between voice and class. McGinn notes that "voice and accent provide an instant recognition of place, and therefore caste, for the listener, that recording technologies now bring into sharp relief" (20). As we have seen, the telephone in particular encouraged linguistic policing under the guise of ensuring "clarity of communication." According to Stephen Inwood, after the rejection of his first novel, Immaturity, Shaw himself worked in London as a "telephonist" (though not as an operator) for the Edison Company from 1879 until it merged with Bell Telephony Company to become the United Telephone Company in 1880 (140-41). His job entailed "travel[ing] the streets of the East End trying to persuade householders to allow the company to erect poles, wires, and insulators on their houses or in their gardens" (Inwood 141). After six weeks in the role, he resigned, only to get promoted to a supervisory role (Inwood 141). It is likely that because of this work experience, he came to see the telephone both as a reason and a means for standardizing one's speech. Despite his insistence that he was not interested in speech norming, Shaw published a letter in The Times on January 2,1934, that explained: "Wireless and the telephone have created a necessity for a fully and clearly articulated spoken English quite different from the lazy vernacular that is called modd'ninglish. We have to get rid not only of imperfect pronunciations but of ambiguous ones" (Shaw, qtd. in Ducat 191). Here he attributes his desire to remove "imperfect pronunciations" from the register of spoken English to the requirements for successful telephonic communication. It would seem that Shaw embraced the "telephone voice" as a means of promoting equality between the classes--though an equality achieved on the upper-middle class's terms.

Reading Pygmalion, his famous story of the linguistic acculturation of a cockney flower girl, against the backdrop of the telephone's history offers a way of understanding Shaw's attitudes regarding elocution, sound reproduction technologies, and the state's standardization of bodies and language, particularly those of the lower class and of women. Eliza Doolittle's situation at the beginning of the play mirrors that of a prospective telephone operator, who needed to "purify" her voice in order to secure the job. She informs the phonetician Henry Higgins that she would like to be a lady in a flower shop, "but they wont take [her] unless [she] can talk more genteel" (30). (4) Both positions require the adoption of the more "civilized" standard English, which is achieved through the mediation of sound technologies. In Higgins's home, these include a phonograph, a laryngoscope, some organ pipes, some lamp chimneys for singing flames, a set of tuning forks, and a telephone (26, 19). For Eliza to obtain some degree of financial independence, she must, like the switchboard operator, use these technologies to throw off the yoke of her "kerbstone English"--"the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days," as Higgins frames it--which she does, learning to speak "with pedantic correctness of pronunciation and great beauty of tone" (20, 70; emphasis in original). However, despite her intensive vocal training, Eliza, like the female telephonist, becomes in many ways more entrenched in the restrictive patriarchal system. As Eliza discovers, standardizing her voice "disclasses" her, making her monetarily dependent on her male "managers." She laments, "If I only could go back to my flower basket! I should be independent of both [of] you.... I'm a slave now, for all my fine clothes" (123). Although she talks like a duchess, she is still subservient to Higgins, forced to retrieve his slippers and place his meal orders. (5) By presenting her social metamorphosis as only partially accomplished through linguistic purification, Shaw reveals how speech standardization by itself is not enough to close the gap between the classes--nor, contra Kittler, does women's newfound access to connective and storage technologies automatically accomplish a complete equalization of the sexes.

Shaw imagines in Pygmalion how the mechanization of the female voice, rather than liberating individual women from the simulacrum of the Mother, entails both a suppression of the female body and its "noise" and an eroticization of the chaste, originary voice of the Woman. Avital Ronell speaks to the telephone's role in the specularization of women when she writes: "When mourning is broached by an idealization and interiorization of the mother's image, which implies her loss and the withdrawal of the maternal, the telephone maintains this line of disconnection while dissimulating the loss, acting like a pacifier" (341). Switchboard operators, then, disguise the loss of the Mother in the modernist discourse network by continuing to serve, at least superficially, as the ideal "prop for the male ego" (Biers 134), while also challenging this construction through their subversive regulation of discursive production. Shaw alludes in Pygmalion to the dynamically ambiguous position of the female telephonist, neither pure imago nor mere signifier of sexual difference. Like the telephone operator, Eliza triangulates male speakers (Higgins and Pickering) and connects distant locales (England and India). Indeed, a crucial but rarely mentioned detail of the play is that Higgins was going to India to meet Pickering, and Pickering was in London from India to meet Higgins, when they are brought together by Eliza's "kerbstone English." Additionally, throughout the play, Eliza provides the men with a means to exchange phonetic knowledge--and without having to leave the comforts of the English home. Pickering discloses that while training Eliza, he and Higgins "work together at [Pickering's] Indian Dialects," creating linguistic knowledge that Pickering hopes to export to the colonies (77). Eliza's role as the nexus of male speech elicits concern from Mrs. Pearce and Mrs. Higgins, both of whom worry about the propriety of her situation.

Because of her vulnerable position and her access to male discourse, Eliza is subject to linguistic and bodily scrutiny. Mrs. Pearce regulates the flower girl's physical hygiene, insisting, "You know you cant be a nice girl inside if youre a dirty slut outside" (42). However, to best serve Higgins and his coconspirator, Colonel Pickering, Eliza must suppress her body to become pure phone, maintaining the men's relationship without interference. The purification of Eliza's language is bound up with the phoneticians' desire to communicate with each other without obstruction--to achieve transparency of medium by diminishing the presence of the necessary "hello girl"--for the interference of the female mediator would occasion a break not only in communication but also in the male psyche predicated on the continuity of discursive production and reception. As John Durham Peters posits, "The breach in telephonic communication... is marked as an erotic failure, squeaking impotently into the air. Such an attempt at 'communication' is at best a situation of hermeneutic rupture, two sides barred from each other by some deep distance" (200). To minimize Eliza's "interference," Higgins and Pickering must contain the "noise" of her emotions--or what Kittle, via Freud, might have read as an effort to invalidate the language of hysteria. Despite the fact that Shaw only phonetically represents Eliza's dialect in her first few lines, assimilating her speech into a legible English, her cries defy this standardization: "Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!" (20). Their refusal to be contained in a normative orthographic system underscores their disruptive nature. Higgins repeatedly "deprecat[es] her excessive sensibility," pointedly referring to her voiced emotions as "noise" (14; emphasis in original). Moreover, he encourages Eliza to repress her feelings at the same time that he gives her grammar lessons:

PICKERING (in good-humored remonstrance)

Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings?

HIGGINS (looking critically at her)

Oh no, I dont think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about. (Cheerily) Have you, Eliza?


I got my feelings same as anyone else.

HIGGINS (to PICKERING, reflectively)

You see the difficulty?


Eh? What difficulty?


To get her to talk grammar. The mere pronunciation is easy enough. (37)

Correct speech is figured here as more than the phonographic playback of model sounds; it is the unfolding of eloquence in real time, which is accomplished through instruction in both grammar and elocution. To "talk grammar"--a deliberate satire on Higgins's part--is to discipline the voice, to combat the interference of sense-less sounds through the syntagmatic production of logos. For the voice, as Jorge Sacido-Romero and Sylvia Mieszkowski reiterate, echoing Lacan, "is not that of the guarantor of meaning but, on the contrary, that of the leftover of the signifying process itself" (10). In that regard, to support the fantasy of a purified phone, the voice must be policed for evidence of its connection to the bodily real, a surveillance accomplished by grammatical and linguistic prescriptivism. Thus, in his depiction of Eliza's oral/aural disciplining, Shaw uncovers how telephonic communication in the early twentieth century is predicated on the purification of the female voice. His portrayal reveals the gaps in Kittler's theorization of women's discursive production in the wake of analog media--gaps perhaps resulting from the latter's focus on women's use of technologies of graphic inscription. Nearly three-quarters of a century before the publication of Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Shaw ascertains how linguistic purification--now in the form of technologically mediated elocution lessons rather than the oral alphabetization of the mother--continues the censorship of women's language and their desire, forcing them to retain the acoustic specularity of the One Woman in order to facilitate male communication. That Higgins and Pickering's censorship of Eliza is a success is evident from the way they forget her existence by the end of the play. In the scene that drives Eliza from Higgins's house, Pickering and Higgins have an extended conversation about her performance as if she were not in the room when, in fact, she is. Higgins and Pickering almost create & phone devoid of the "noise" of the (female) body--that is, until Eliza rebels.

The Mother of the Phonetician

Eliza's ability to adopt the pure voice usually attributed to the Romantic Mother--her "A-a-a-a-a-ah-ow-ooh!" exchanged in time for the sonorous "Ah!" (116)--indicates that sound technologies that subject the voice to scrutiny do so to reproduce the Mother's fantasy of originariness. However, Shaw discerns that the very technologies meant to guarantee the Woman's ideality ultimately undermine their endeavor by designating the maternal voice as artificial. His representation of Eliza demonstrates how in the modernist discourse network, what supports male textual production is not Nature but the white noise of the machine. Higgins's externalization and purification of Eliza's voice enables him to create an automaton similar to Edison's Tomorrow's Eve in Auguste Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's eponymous novel. Kittler explains how in the 1886 novel, "[a] 'copy of Nature' is created, which is more perfect than the original in both mind and body, and which will thus 'bury' nature," the perfection of the automaton signaling the impossibility of the Woman (Discourse Networks 347; emphasis in original). Similarly, Eliza's technologized speech overreaches in its precision, causing her authenticity to be called into question. In an added scene in the 1941 text, Eliza and her teachers attend a party hosted by an ambassador and his wife, who have enlisted Nepommuck, an unauthorized prodigy of Higgins's, to subject their guests to linguistic surveillance, identifying which partygoers are using a mode of speech that is discordant with their origins. Higgins's own Eve "walks like a somnambulist" through the crowd, mechanically discoursing in standard English so well that Nepommuck reports to the hostess that Eliza "is a fraud" (85, 86). The Hungarian phonetician decides that Eliza could not be English because she speaks it "too perfectly" (86). He reasons, "Can you shew me any English woman who speaks English as it should be spoken? Only foreigners who have been taught to speak it speak it well" (86). In a Shavian turn of irony, Eliza's pure English is so impeccable that it ostracizes her further: once an outsider only in class, she is now labeled an outsider in nationality--a suspected illegitimate princess at least, but a foreigner nonetheless. Her automatic speech even produces anxiety in the hostess, who identifies in her perfect English the fruits of overzealous phonetic training. By presenting the mechanized female voice as displacing the One Woman in her formidable eloquence, Shaw marks the end of the discourse network of 1800.

Shaw further depicts how the reproducibility of the maternal voice disturbs the unity of the One Love. Kittler accounts for this shift by suggesting that whereas in the era of Goethe, textual production is seen as the "erotic union of script and voice," the mechanization of inscription desexualizes it (Discourse Networks 352, 199). As Kittler gives it, the differentiation of women wrought by technologies of inscription shows the discourse of love to be vacuous and limited, the product rather than the source of writing. In Pygmalion, Shaw challenges the originariness of the Woman by granting Eliza a limited storehouse of signifiers. As Higgins exclaims, "You will jolly soon see whether she has an idea that I havnt put into her head or a word that I havnt put into her mouth" (113). The mechanized Eliza signals the shift into "a domain of discourse that, since Edison, no longer knows love"--or only a platonic love, a sexless love of equals (Kittler, DN 351). Despite the insistence of audiences, actors, screenwriters, and directors alike, for Eliza and Higgins there can be no R/romantic marriage--no fruitful union of female voice and male pen--to close out the "Romance in Five Acts," (6) for the technologization of inscription has given women equal access to the stylus, granting them "pedagogical authority over discourse" and ending the "differentiat[ion of] authors as engravers and women as the writing tablets of nature" (Kittler, DN 353, 351). It is for this reason that Higgins, who has only engravings on his wall--"no paintings," the stage directions indicate--cannot tolerate love and confines himself to perpetual bachelordom (26). As he says, "[Women] might as well be blocks of wood, I might as well be a block of wood" (45; emphasis in original). Both sexes are now the writing tablets of nature, subject to the sexless inscription of the machine. Shaw thus reveals men and women to be in verbal and textual competition, no longer working together on the production of one (male-authored) text. Intelligent, refined, and pen always in hand, the woman in the modernist discourse network--perhaps best figured by Higgins's own mother, who opens or closes most scenes "at her writing-table as before" (102)--desexualizes artistic and scientific inspiration. In fact, Shaw goes one step further than Kittler in wondering, quite provocatively, whether the aural mechanization of women shifts the semiotics of gender so that men are constructed through their receptivity to female discourse. After all, Higgins's main function is to "take down [Eliza's] words" (14). In Shaw's figuration, once the prized interpreter of the voice of Nature, man has become, in the discourse network of 1900, a feedback loop for the endless circulation of women's language--a role that grants him some corrective power to be sure, but that reverses his position in regard to inscription nonetheless.

Thus, the Mother in the discourse network of 1900 is no longer a monosexualized phantasm but rather a de-eroticized voice that marks its inscriptions graphically--and aurally. Although not a sound-storage technology that physically records the traces of speech as did its direct ancestor the phonautograph, the telephone channels a speech that has been "purified by written language"--a speech that unearths, while attempting to suppress, the white noise occupying the space "between type and its Other" (Kittler, G 27; DN 195). The telephone points to the emptiness of pure sound and image storage and to the structuration of subjectivity "on the line" between voice and body. (7) According to Ronell, it "destabilizes the identity of self and other, subject and thing, [and] abolishes the originariness of site" (9). In Pygmalion, Shaw considers how sound technologies reorganize human subjectivity through Higgins's attempts to form a woman out of image and voice and his subsequent discovery that what lies between image and sound is what establishes her presence. Higgins opens the stream of signifiers: "We'll set her talking: and I'll take it down first in Bell's Visible Speech; then in broad Romic; and then we'll get her on the phonograph so that you can turn her on as often as you like with the written transcript before you" (28). Jennifer Buckley reads this passage as evidence that Higgins conflates Eliza with the phonograph and treats her as "a device with the capacity to inscribe and reproduce sound vibrations, but not to invent, understand, or feel" (35). Consequently, she locates in Pygmalion a phonographic logic, one that offers the playwright the means to record sound, whether in writing or in code, for the purposes of transmitting acoustic information from author to actor without interference (32, 23). But the demand for a written transcript--and multiple transcripts at that--to accompany a sound recording demonstrates the limitations of the phonograph. (8) What is necessary is the movement between speech and writing, vocal and textual inscription--a speech that is actively reshaped by writing. The telephone, with its perpetual circulation of signifiers--never quite "on" or "off," especially with early models--actualizes this fantasy while constituting the subjectivities of the callers, who, because of its "enigmatic splittings of identity and conversation," are forced to confront both self and other on the line (Peters 201). Thus Higgins cannot conjure his Eve from his wax cylinders or his book of photographs: "I cant turn your soul on. Leave me those feelings; and you can take away the voice and the face" (121). The emancipated woman of the modernist discourse network exists at "the interface between branching and specified streams of data" (Kittler, DN 354). As Shaw intimates in his narrative of audile training, this woman operates from an intermediary position best modeled by the telephone girl, whose disciplined and disciplining speech amount to an acoustic inscription that cannot be fully contained by text or image.

In his narrative of linguistic purification, Shaw searches out a means of standardizing the relationship between sound and text in the medium of print (for translation into the sound, image, and movement of performance) and to reconcile man and woman in the reconstituted arena of inscription. The purified speech that Eliza cultivates through the mediation of sound technologies grants her authority over language--so much so that she threatens Higgins with her ability, owing to her superior ear and model voice, to teach phonetics classes. But because she instead enters the marketplace rather than the phonetics lab, her vocal training does not provide her with complete economic freedom. To achieve financial independence, she must learn to wield the writing stylus. Shaw emphasizes in the sequel that Eliza's ability to maintain her flower shop without the monetary assistance of Pickering depends on whether she can effectively fuse speech and type. As such, she and her husband, Freddy, enroll in "shorthand schools and polytechnic classes, learning bookkeeping and typewriting with incipient junior clerks, male and female" (138). Entering the coeducational arena of inscription, Eliza becomes the desexualized writing and speaking machine, even placing handwritten script into exchange, for the sequel notes that Higgins schools her in the art of calligraphy.

Acting as an interface in the commercial system Higgins detests, Eliza, like the turn-of-the-century telephone operator, controls all streams of circulating signifiers. Yet to be viable in the modern marketplace, her telephonic talk requires orthographic supplementation. In this mutually constitutive relationship between voice and type, Shaw identifies a space for a telephonic literature--one that, by circulating sound and text between author and reader, playwright and actor, guarantees the reception of the writer's intended pronunciation. However, Pygmalion only gestures toward the potential for such a mode of inscription. Indeed, it is not until the added 1916 sequel that Shaw suggests a way to resolve the distance between speaking and writing in the automated woman. And the play early on abandons any attempt to write sound. Shaw phonetically represents only a few lines of Eliza's cockney dialect before assimilating it into a written English with which it does not align, exposing a gap between speech and text. The sort of telephonic inscription that Shaw envisioned--a mode of writing that reduces the gulf between writer and reader, text and sound, by keeping in constant circulation aural and graphic signifies--would be better realized in his 1933 play Village Wooing.

The Marriage of Gramma and Phone

One of Shaw's lesser-known plays, Village Wooing, stages the battle of the sexes that results from the mechanization of inscription and attempts to understand how the newfound materiality of language reconciles man and woman, text and sound, gramma and phone. As Peter Gahan notes in Shaw Shadows, the opening action of the play establishes its premise as the confrontation of structural opposites: man (A) and woman (Z), writer and reader, written word and spoken word, and (a pairing unmentioned by him) poet and materialist (153). A is a travel writer who pens the Marco Polo Series of Chatty Guide Books, and Z is a village shop assistant and telephone operator. The two first meet onboard a cruise ship, where Z attempts to trap the aloof A in unending dialogue, and then they cross paths again at Z's rural shop. There the ex-travel-guide writer determines to purchase the business and employ Z, who eventually persuades A to marry her. Their marriage at the play's conclusion--significantly, announced over the wires--suggests a model for Shaw's telephonic inscription. In it, there is no differentiation between writing and reading; there is only inscription, a constantly shifting relationship between type and voice, code and language, along the wires. Put to work for artistic production, the heterogeneous telephone voice gives way to a materiality so powerful that it resists encapsulation in normative sensory experience.

Subtitled "A Comedietta for Two Voices," divided into "conversations" rather than acts, and centering on the female operator's communicative acts, Village Wooing might rightly be called a telephone play. Rather than looking to sound-storage devices for models of inscription, it embraces the connective technology of the telephone. It is structured entirely around the dialogue of A and Z, the latter of whom, like the telephonist she is, insists on keeping the conversations in play by "end[ing] all [her] remarks with a question" (4). The play's opening setting also emphasizes the circulation of communication in the present rather than the retrieval of an archived sound: as Gahan points out, Shaw images the incessant circulation of language between speakers by calling for the dialogue to occur on a cruise ship (Gahan 153)--and a "trip round the world" at that (Shaw, VW 17). In a world of unceasing communication--when Z complains that "people are beginning to talk" about their relationship, A jests, "Beginning! When did they ever stop?" (25)--the telephone presents modern literature with a model for an aural inscription that captures the in-betweenness of the voice and thus subjectivity, the latter being constituted and reconstituted in the present through language. Indeed, rather than being preoccupied with a literature that records sound, Shaw determines to find a script that enhances one's aural memory, one's ability to recognize differences in sounds. In his representation of A, who, despite his lengthy interaction with Z in the first "conversation," cannot remember her voice when he encounters her in the village shop and thus insists that he has never before met her, Shaw suggests that the medium of writing fails to establish this aural memory. Z chastises A: "You never notice anything. Youre always reading or writing. The world doesnt exist for you" (17). Z indicates that the activities of writing and reading disconnect people from the world and prevent them from experiencing it in the present. As a telephone operator, she understands the benefits of an instantaneous connectivity. It is for this reason that she desired to meet the author of the Marco Polo series in person. She explains, "I had so wanted to meet the Marco Polo man and walk about with him in the ruins by moonlight and hear him go on about them!" (15).

As modeled by Z, the modern female reader who becomes accustomed to sound technologies no longer derives satisfaction from the pure storage mechanism of the written word; she desires to hear the voices of the text, a fantasy of presence contributed by the telephone. Moreover, rather than experiencing these voices in person, she wants to access them from her post in the village. She exclaims, "Travelling just destroyed the world for me as I imagined it. Give me this village all the time" (16). Z longs for a telephonic literature that accomplishes in actuality what A metaphorizes: "some frustrated poet ... bring[ing] the Call of the East to dreaming telephone girls" (15). For A this is a gendered transaction. When Z corrects A's use of "telephone girls" for "operators," he responds, "Operators dont dream. Girls! Girls of the golden west" (16). However, the telephonic literature that Shaw envisions challenges sexual differentiation and, therefore, the gendering of reading and writing.

By externalizing the voice and showing it to originate between bodies rather than from the speechless maternal imago, the telephone collapses the difference between man and woman, writing and reading, poetry and materialism. According to Kittler, "The polarity of the sexes in 1800 unified mothers, writers, and feminine readers in One Love, but now two scare tacticians, as hostile as they are equal, enter the scene. The language of man and the language of woman deny one another with the charge that everything said by one side is determined by what is said by the other" (Discourse Networks 202). In the discourse network of 1900, sound technologies make apparent the reality that there is no preexisting maternal voice behind language, only the mutually constitutive interplay of signifiers. By portraying A and Z as engaged in a verbal struggle throughout the play, their dialogue characterized by fast-paced verbal repartee, Shaw depicts this language war between the sexes, demonstrating how, without an originary voice, the speech of one is literally dependent on the speech of the other. Because of the relational nature of language, polarities become meaningless, a shift to which Shaw speaks by positioning class and gender differences as lacking substance. In a profound statement, A (the male character) declares, "I am a woman; and you are a man, with a slight difference that doesnt matter except on special occasions" (5). For her part, the neutrally named Z repeatedly resists As attempts to gender her identity, insisting that he call her "telephone operator," not "telephone girl"; "shop assistant," not "shopgirl" (8,16,19). Additionally, when A meets the operator, he identifies her working class status, yet he is unable to articulate how he determined her difference:

A. I never supposed for a moment that you were [a lady].

Z. But how could you know? How did you find out?

A. I didnt find out. I knew.

Z. Who told you?

A. Nobody told me.

Z. Then how did you know?

A. (exasperated) How do I know that a parrot isnt a bird of paradise?

Z. Theyre different.

A. Precisely. (5)

As assessment of Z is redundant; he labels her "different" but cannot explain what constitutes that difference. With its mobilization of a purified speech, telephonic literature attempts to level class and gender differences by frustrating any effort to structure these differences in language. Z's adoption of the telephone voice--A draws attention to the fact that Z "ha[s] had finishing lessons on the telephone which give [her] a distinguished articulation: [she] can say Th-reee fiv-v-v-v-e ni-n-n-n instead of theree fauv naun" (18)--attests to this process. As she boasts, "The Americans don't know the difference: they think my telephone talk is aristocratic" (8). Thus, although the notion of linguistic deviance is constructed through the work of assimilating nonstandard-English speakers and reinforced by an orthographic standardization capable of accurately rendering dialect, Britain's project of speech standardization, when technologized, undercut the social distinctions undergirding its rationale.

As we have seen, this equality of the sexes revolutionizes the discourse of love. In Pygmalion, Shaw responds to the demystification of Love by presenting platonic relationships as the ideal dynamic between men and women--a desexualized inscription that requires the confluence of script and type. Eliza's mediation between different male speakers--Higgins, Pickering, and Freddy-prevents her from accessing "the closed space of motherhood" (Kittler, DN 354). In Village Wooing, however, Shaw offers an alternate model of union that "re-sexes" the process of inscription and opens up space for a different sort of generation--one that is not filial but rather rhizomatic. Shaw supposes that this fruitfulness exists in the realm of sound technologies like the telephone, as indicated by Z's story of how she became an operator instead of a parlor maid for a great house as her mom had wished: "[My father] wanted me to be a telephone operator. He said there is no future for the great houses and a great future for telephones" (8). Z realizes that the future is not in the crumbling patriarchal systems of production but rather in the coeducational arena of mechanized inscription--particularly in telephony.

By deconstructing language into discrete units of sounds and letters and subjecting them to perpetual circulation, the telephone opens up a space for the reconciliation of phone and gramma, as symbolized by the duo's marriage. Gahan conjectures that "the forthcoming marriage of A and Z, of writer and reader, of gramme and phone, will presumably generate more letters as in Derrida's perpetually signifying metonymy of differance or dissemination" (154-55). In other words, motherhood here is figured as the ongoing recirculation of signifiers rather than filial reproduction. And this textual generation results not from the prelinguistic maternal voice or a speech that purifies writing, but rather from a writing that purifies speech--from a marriage that consummates itself in a bodiless materiality, in the speech sounds traversing the wire. For Z demands out of marriage material satisfaction: "How can I be satisfied when I cant lay my hands on you?" (28). But seemingly her immateriality when she becomes the "pure" telephonic voice would complicate the fulfillment of her desires:

Z. (invisible) Th-reee ni-nnn. Sorry: no such number. Whoommm do you
want? Doctor Byles? One fi-fff. You are through. (11)

Shaw stages the Second Conversation so that every time Z becomes the telephone voice, her body disappears before she speaks:

Z. (vanishing into the post office section) What number please?
White-hall on-n-n-e two on-n-n-e two. I will ring you. (13)

As Shaw imagines it, when the talking machine combines with A, the self-proclaimed "writing machine," the two produce a mode of inscription in which there are not discrete subject and object positions, only fluctuations between the two and the perpetual reconstitution of a speech that is neither pure poetry nor pure materiality (9). Envisioning inscription as between fields--neither wholly phonetic nor wholly graphic, neither entirely written nor entirely aural--Shaw locates in the telephone the model for a new modernist art that attends to the in-betweenness of language and subjectivity--an aesthetic, as A imagines, in which "the world of the senses will vanish" (30).

In the modernist discourse network, it became increasingly apparent that although there is no primary orality--no "speechless transcendental speech" embodied by the Mother (Wellbery xxiii)--the maternal voice is still at work, dispersed throughout a tangle of telephone wires and functioning as the interface of large-scale information networks. This technological climate likely encouraged Shaw to look to the telephone for a means of creating an aural mode of inscription that disseminates a purified English. In Pygmalion and Village Wooing, he considers how telephony provides a model for a new drama that negotiates between page and stage, text and body, to narrow the gap between authorial intention and performed product. In particular, he sees in the telephone voice a mode of acoustic inscription that, both disciplined and disciplining, scripted and yet subversive, cannot be wholly contained by text or image. As explored in these plays, the mediality of the telephone--its recasting of the voice, and thus subjectivity, as always "on the line," circulating between machinic signal and human speech, code and language--opens a space for a modernist aesthetic in which inscription resists encapsulation in discrete sensory fields. This telephonic literature discloses the materiality presupposing the existence of the human voice, a speech always already purified by writing. Finally, he exposes how the imperial work of linguistic colonialism is simultaneously a gendered project--yet one that presents women with an opportunity, if they successfully merge textual and vocal transmission, to control the conditions of their discourse.

University of Iowa Iowa City, Iowa


(1.) Conceived as a device to record and study spoken languages, the phonograph also contributed much to elocutionary science and Britain's project of linguistic purification. Although not linking his comments to speech standardization, Raj Shah highlights how the phonograph in Jules Verne's Le Chateau des Carpathes is used to capture the "pure voice" of La Stilla, a description that recalls Thomas Edison's desire to record and reproduce the famous singer Adelina Patti's voice "in all its purity" (429; Edison, qtd. in Shah 428). As Shah notes, the mechanically reproduced "pure voice" becomes fetishized through the "compulsive listening" it inspires (429).

(2.) Analyzing fictional representations of the crime of Ruth Snyder, an office worker who orchestrated the murder of her husband, Biers reveals how the female typewriter's position in the workplace was much more ambiguous than Kittler deemed it (136). She deconstructs his "too easy assumptions" about women's psychic determination by the machines they operated, "disarticulating the female typewriter's truth from the order of mechanical reproduction as such" (134, 146).

(3.) As Roger B. Wilkenfeld argues in his analysis of naming in Heartbreak House, Shaw was preoccupied with "the presentation of the self in everyday life" and was well aware of how language could be manipulated to create different societal perceptions (327). Bringing this idea to bear on Shaw's interest in phonetics, Jean Reynolds suggests in Pygmalion's Wordplay that Shaw's efforts to fashion a "new speech" were motivated by a desire for inclusiveness (1-3). Emily McGinn similarly acknowledges this potential, writing: "In Shaw's socialist vision for a new British society, he views accent, including his own Irish accent, as a barrier that can be overcome through training. Shifting one's linguistic code has the power to change external perceptions of class making it easier to cross economic and social borders" (21).

(4.) Although many scholarly editions of Pygmalion use the original 1912 script, the Bloomsbury edition that I reference throughout the article uses the 1941 film-influenced text, which, as Conolly explains, is the version that Shaw authorized before his death (Introduction xlix).

(5.) Like Eliza, the telephone operator was upper class in voice only. Despite the telephone's promise of democratizing communication, it more firmly entrenched the existing class structure. As Martin discusses, the relationship between operator and subscriber "did not take place on an 'equal footing,' but was based on class differentiation. Indeed, since most subscribers were from the bourgeois and upper-middle classes, their relationship with the operator was comparable to that of a businessman with his secretary, or a bourgeois woman with her maid: the subscribers considered the operators to be at their service" (99).

(6.) See Conolly's introduction to the Bloomsbury edition of Pygmalion, especially pages xxv-xxix, for a history of the way that the play, despite Shaw's persistent demands, has been turned into a romance between Higgins and Eliza from the very opening night, where Herbert Beerbohm Tree as Higgins decided to improvise by "shoving his mother rudely out of his way and wooing Eliza with appeals to buy a ham for his lonely home like a bereaved Romeo" rather than "occupy[ing] himself affectionately with his mother, & throw[ing] Eliza the commission to buy the ham &c. over his shoulder" as Shaw had instructed him to do (Shaw, qtd. in Conolly xxv).

(7.) Marius Hentea also identifies the link between telephonic communication and the "debasement of language" that marks the modernist discourse network (100). As he argues in his reading of Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, on the telephone, which circulates a language so ephemeral and devoid of feeling that voices cannot be recognized, "language parades its emptiness" (99).

(8.) Buckley explains how Shaw opted to continue using phonetic notation systems rather than gramophone recordings because of the latter's "defects." She notes, however, that "in combination, [the] two inscriptive technologies... might successfully transmit the sound of Shaw's dialogue to a degree that print alone could not" (32).


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DOI: 10.7560/TSLL60102

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A531721267