So, this blog has gone neglected (ignored, honestly) for a few years now (and they’ve been a crazy few years). I didn’t live up to my expectations for what I wanted this to be. But I’m ready to give this another shot, to try and hold myself accountable for making my often random musings public, to engage my own scholarship in ways I encourage my students and colleagues alike to do. So…
I’d like to start (over) with a brief musing that began as a conversation with my partner while watching the most recent Apple keynote announcing the iPhone 7. During this keynote, Apple announced it removed the auxiliary input (aka the headphone jack) from the latest release of their iconic smartphone. However, this post is not about Apple. It’s not about the decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone. Instead, this post is about the rhetorical significance of a material object Apple is attempting to declare obsolete via this decision: the headphone wire.
Portable headphones are a wonderful invention. And make no mistake, wireless headphones can save time, energy, and entanglement, particularly when physical activity is involved. But headphones serve another important function: they are a public deterrent. They communicate a very specific message – do not bother me. To be fair, headphones aren’t the only public symbol that someone wishes to be left alone, but I would say they are the most ubiquitous, consistent, and convenient one; they are hands-free and remain (relatively) out of the way of everyday business. While over-ear headphones can be easily spotted, wireless or not, I find their size problematic for commuting; they simply take up too much room in a bag. In-ear headphones are super commute friendly, but they are easily unseen. Thus, the wire does the communicative work. And as a woman, this simple object, the wired headphone, is even more important. It’s my one consistent line of protection against the barrage of men catcalling me, harassing me, trying to holla at me, etc. You get the idea. It’s not a fool-proof method for avoiding unwanted attention, but it works damn well.
When looking at the headphone wire as a rhetorical object, I can’t help think of the recent pushes towards object oriented ontology, new materialism, and other variations on the theme objects shape meaning. In the Lacanian sense, the wire is an important actor* in a complex social network of meaning-making. It communicates a message and contributes to, in this case, a potential non-interaction. That is, by communicating a simple “do not bother me,” the headphone wire is a meaningful contributor in staving off a physical interaction. Thus, we see that this wire is vibrant in Bennett’s conceptualization. That is, the wire is alive and buzzing with rhetorical potential, actively shaping possible (non)interactions before they even/ever happen.
From where I’m sitting, the rhetorical significance of wirelessness, in this case, means ambiguity at best (are they or are they not wearing headphones – I can’t really tell with that hair/hat/hood/headband/etc. in the way) and increased harassment, and all that comes with, at worst. Without a clear symbol telling the world to leave someone alone, how will people, particularly women, conveniently wear their desire to remain unbothered as a public advertisement?
Now, to be fair, Apple isn’t forcing anyone to use wireless headphones. In fact, they’ve included newly designed wired headphones as well as an adaptor so people can use their current headphones with the new phone, both plugging into the phone via the lightning port. However, this constant push to exist wirelessly overlooks the material rhetorical significance such wires convey. Wires are more than physical tethers to and connections between objects. In the case of portable headphones, a simple wire communicates a simple request – please, just leave me alone. However, for at least a decade now, Apple has been at the forefront of deciding when technology has become obsolete by removing it from their devices, and typically for the better (like the removal of the optical drive from their computers)**; if Apple does it, it’s not long before other manufacturers follow suit. I think Apple may have overlooked the rhetorical significance of wired headphones and the implications of wirelessness in this context. And I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit concerned that when others follow suit (because they will), an important social rhetorical tool will no longer be available for meaning making.
*I know that Lacan made early distinctions between actors and actants, but I think such a divide is counterproductive. From my understanding, Lacan began considering both human and non-human agents of meaning as actors within a given network, which I feel is far more productive and accurate.
**Apple removed the optical drive, better known as a cd/dvd drive, for a few reasons. First, it took up a significant amount of space inside of the computer, limiting the size and/or inclusion of other components, most importantly the battery (in portable computers). Second, it broke. Often. In fact, as I learned from Apple certified technicians, it was one of the most common repairs done on machines. And any time you open a computer to repair it, you run the risk of damaging fragile internal components, even when done safely and shielded from electrostatic discharge. Less repairs = less potential for further damage. Third, cds/dvds were becoming outdated technologies. Taken together, while people still complained about the removal of the optical drive, Apple did actually make the best decision for its users and its technology, even though it was controversial at the time.