On Ringtones

Subject, Hail Thyself

It seems in these days that the ringtone is a lucrative cash source for the music industry with earnings of $4.4 billion in 2005 according to Billboard.  With ringtones taking over the advertising role of singles, many artists have built their careers on the sale of digital doorbells (cf Boy, Soulja).  As well as further commodifying popular music by giving an explicit functionality to what is ideally an aesthetic object, the proliferation of personalized ringtones has changed the way individuals interact with our electronically based society.

It used to be that the telephone ring was an undifferentiated, generic sound.  While  each model of phone certainly had its own specific, peculiar ring tone, each ‘version’ of the telephone ring was an attempted approximation of some theoretical originary ur-Tone.  On some phones this could be represented by a series of clicks, which is perhaps closest to its elemental form as a series of electric pulses.  Nonetheless, this tone (so vexing to, among others,  Mr. Jimi Hendrix on a Long Hot Summer Night), represented — quite literally — a call upon the requested individual.  A summoning, as it were, from the outside world.  As such, the generic tone is a concrete example of what French Marxist theorist and noted wife-killer Louis Althusser called “interpellation.”  In the work titled with poetic alarmism Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, he describes the process by which Society (via its nefarious henchman, Ideology) produces subjects through a process of ‘hailing’.  I’ll let him explain it:

Ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all) by that very precise operation which I have called ‘interpellation’ or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”

Strangled his wife, dude.  Anyway, by responding to the hail, so the theory goes, the individual affirms his or her place within the social structure.  The telephone ring then is a perfect illustration of one of those instances Althusser calls “the rituals of ideological recognition, which guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects.”  By answering the phone, we are guaranteeing our own special place in the massive index of our electronically integrated society.

Now, the personalized ringtone takes this general hail and individualizes it so that the ringtone now serves as a herald of the telephone’s owner.  It becomes a name by which the addressee is hailed.  Yet, since this is an epithet of the individual’s own choosing and not a name imposed by parental tyranny, the ringtone becomes  also an extension of the voice which answers it, even as it borrows the voices of others (more often than not the popular singers of the day, or of days past), voices borrowed for their self-avowed ‘reflection’ of the individual as (self-)defined, crudely one might say, but sincerely nonetheless, by their whims, tastes, and inclinations.

Instead of an interpellation from the outside world affirming the place of the individual within society, the ring tone now serves as a means of differentiation, often invidiously determined by the hi-fidelity and increased polyphony of the tone, a mark of the techno-social system’s beneficence and recognition of the individual.  Far from being the cry of a distant, and, crucially, impersonal system — the impenetrable web of communication lines, the copper mesh that structures our contemporary inter-individual relationships — the ring tone is now the outward declaration of the individual’s primacy within that hitherto rhizomatic system.  Each time the ever-slimming (has our technology become anorexic?) phone sings out its song — our song — it is really announcing the required presence of its owner within the community.  Functionally polyphonic (as well as literally), it calls out “You!” while at the same time crying “Me!”

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~ by Isaac Bickerstaff on April 19, 2009.

6 Responses to “On Ringtones”

  1. Maybe it’s time I got a cell phone. If for no other reason than to take part in the polyphonics. By the way I used to be able to create multiphonics on a euphonium. Yep, I played the euphonium for 8 years. Then gave it up. 🙂
    Good luck to you Mr. Bickerstaff. Keep up the blog.

  2. You played the Euphonium for eight years? For reals?
    Actually, when you think about it, the Euphonium has probably got the best name a musical instrument could have – you know the Serpentine and the Bassoon are insanely jealous of its pretty moniker.

  3. It has been a while since I have been to one of those thump-thump-thump dance clubs, and for that I am a little regretful. I like to think that were I to visit one tonight, that the moment Flo Rida started singing about apple bottom jeans every just-old-enough-to-go-clubbing girl would start desperately searching in her tiny purse for her cellphone. Soon, the actual “ring” of a telephone will be such an obsolete sound that techno artists will be able to sample it for their tunes, and it will seem bold and fresh. I look forward to that day.

  4. Hey Bollman! Good to see you here.

    It seems that the actual “ring” of a telephone is already obsolete. I’ve been trying to get a “telephone ring” ring tone for ages, but when I try to search for one to download, alls I get is a bunch of songs ABOUT telephones.

  5. I actually have my ring tone set to “old phone”. It’s so refreshing.
    Keep up the work on the blog. As usual, intriguing, educational, and gives me an excuse to hit up dictionary.com!

  6. I prefer to set the phone to silent, or vibrate. Even the “traditional” telephone ring sounds like crap coming out of the tiny speaker of a cell phone. Perhaps I’m associating the poor social behaviour that comes with the majority of cell phone users, or maybe I’m around the kids at school too often. It seems the more obnoxious the person, the more obnoxious the ringtone.
    On another note…. now for something completely the same, check this out (it’s actually pretty cool)

    http://www.freemosquitoringtones.org/

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