Monday, February 22, 2010


"Boy, the way you blowin' up my phone /won't make me leave no faster. /Put my coat on faster, leave my girls no faster. /I shoulda left my phone at home, /cuz this is a disaster!" Beyonce/ Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga's recent masterpiece, "Telephone" in which, seeking refuge from the mundaneity of modern existence in the hermitage of the rarified atmosphere of the nightclub, (hence: "Cuz I'm out in the club, /and I'm sippin that bubb, /and you're not gonna reach my telephone,") she abjures repressive urban modes of behaviour that would render her a salve to the whim of an electronic calling device, ("Not that I don't like you, /I'm just at a party. /And I am sick and tired /of my phone ringing"). This remarkable piece best encapsulates the despondency and bankruptcy of urbanites everywhere who labour under the jackboot of technology. Her refusal to countenance her boyfriend's "blowing up" of her phone is the first act of resistance against the tyranny of the techno-terrorists. Her impassioned plea: "Stop callin',/ stop callin', /I don't wanna think anymore!" truly is the liberation cry of the intellectually over-stimulated whose manifesto is the search for a simpler life, where one can, in leaving their head and heart on the dance floor, divest themselves of the fetters of dysfunctional long-distance relationships with unattractive men and seek nirvana in a mindless state of non-being, and what's more, it almost rhymes. According to Lady Gaga, one knows when they have attained such enlightenment when they emit such epiphones of fulfilment as: "Eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh, eh/ Stop telephonin' me!"
In many respects, Lady Gaga's hapless boyfriend only has himself to blame. As the august goddess relates, "You shoulda made some plans with me, /You knew that I was free. /And now you won't stop calling me; /I'm kinda busy." This is divine punishment for arbitrary exercise of power. In actual fact, technological liberation also signifies a corollary gender liberation, as symbolized not only by the rejection of the phone/phallus, symbolic of a repressive, patriarchal society, but also by its discrediting. In Lady Gaga's world, the telephone/phallus, is "breaking up" while its corresponding place of reception, is "not in service". Of course, this is a far cry from the unemancipated previous, where hapless damsels lay wait by their device and lamented with ABBA: "Ring, ring,/ I stare at the phone on the wall/ And I sit all alone impatiently /Won't you please understand the need in me/ So, ring, ring, why don't you give me a call."
Telephone," is a most evocative chanson, simply because we have all been there before. The mobile telephone is now an indispensable part of our lives. Many are the enduring friendships I have formed in Greece as a result of the novelty, or lack thereof of my mobile phone. If anything, they fill the pregnant pauses and latent lacunae that crop up occasionally in conversation and threaten to sunder the already strained efforts in civility of persons who have absolutely nothing in common with each other. In such instances, one invariably whips out the mobile phone and scrolls through it, praying desperately that a friend will sms, or call or do something to relieve the tedium of actually having to relate to the person next to you. In the context of a date, it is a surefire signifier of failure, though the incidence of dating couples smsing each other while sitting opposite each other on a table requires much comment. An alternative school of thought holds that the receipt of sms's during a date serves to remind the prospective mate not to take their quarry for granted, as they are also being stalked by other predators. This is the central premise behind Kesha's noteworthy musical masterpiece 'Tick Tock:' "I'm talking - pedicure on our toes, toes/ Trying on all our clothes, clothes/ Boys blowing up our phones, phones." Here repetition serves as a memory aid. The devil finds work for idle hands and in all these instance, the mobile telephone acts very much like a komboloi.
Greek mobile telephony is fascinating in its own right, especially given that it defies linguistic trends. In modern, bankrupt, European Union Greece, the tendency is not to assimilate western loanwords but to reproduce them wholesale, in the Latin alphabet. In the case of the SMS however, we have the surprising addition of the diminutive suffix, denoting a certain affection for the said electronic message, thus: «Στείλε μου ένα Σεμεσάκι,» or, in a tantalising hybrid: «SMSάκι.» While Txtgreek is mystifying, we can be thankful we are not Arabs or Chinese, whose dextrous use of the Latin alphabet to find phonetic equivalents is an art in its own right.
You are judged severely upon your choice of phone in Greece. I remember the look of scorn upon a friend's face when, looking at my phone she inquired: «Είναι τάτς;» It took me several minutes to comprehend that I was being asked whether mine was a touch phone, and my response, that I did not really know, caused her to sigh in disapprobation, upon which time she picked up her own state of the art i-phone and proceeded to text laboriously for the next half hour. Now I don't mind the act of texting, but when the sms tone hits the ear and you see the recipient smirking, one invariably wants to be let in on the joke. Of course, to request this is impolite and a whole labyrinthine world of etiquette has developed to address the privacy implications of mobile phones. It is usually circumvented by over-enthusiastic friends who will snatch the phone out of your hands, in order to be included, with dubious results.
One balmy summer evening, when the moon was so low that it appeared to be dissolving like an aspirin in the lake at Ioannina, conferring panacea upon all, a friend sought assistance in writing a rebetiko song about sms's and the lack of their return. His particular lament is one that touches the hearts of millions: In the beginning of his relationship, he and his sms-mate exchanged thousands of sms's, reducing him to economic penury. As the relationship progressed, however, her sms's became fewer and fewer, as his, in his panic increased, in the hope that the sending of an sms would provoke a response. In the end, he was given to smsing his friends, on the slightest of pretexts, because he missed receiving sms's and further he hoped that in the mass of their bemused replies, one of hers would be caught within the net. It was not, and all he received for his pains was a curt telephone call, asking him never to bother her again, in Greek words similar to those expressed by lady Gaga. His particular despondency came from the fact that as he had lost his telephone and replaced the sim-card, he had not an enduring record of their brief electronic idyll. Whatever happened to the love letter, he asked despairingly. This was the inspiration I needed. The first verse of the song, which requires work, goes as follows: «Σου έστειλα ένα ραβασάκι/ και συ κακούργα, ούτε ένα σεμεσάκι.» Apparently the rap version plays merry havoc with the rhythm.
There is a hierarchy of smsworthy recipients. Singles and unwed couples indulge in the pastime frequently whereas those who live together generally abstain. Schools of thought maintain that it is impolite to sms older generations, even technology literate ones, simply because mobile telephone celebrates the cult of now and of youth and older generations are partakers of this merely out of charity. Yet members of this generation can be particularly techno-savvy. Last week I received an sms from the mobile of no-less an august personage than the Serbian Metropolitan of Australia, Irinej. It read: 'Kali Sarakosti, a blessed Lent!" Brilliant marketing! Not only is one reminded that fasting starts forty days before Easter, but would it not be disrespectful not to make good his wishes?
During this Lent, I am going to attempt the impossible and refrain from sending sms, in order to contemplate the higher things in life. After all, Arcade Fire are probably on to something when they sing: "Since you've gone away/I never know just what to say/ Cause I like cars more than telephones/ Your voice in my ear makes me feel so alone."

First published in NKEE on 22 February 2010