The Phone, the Father and Other Becomings: On Households (and Theories) that no longer Hold

Bell, Vikki. 2001. The Phone, the Father and Other Becomings: On Households (and Theories) that no longer Hold. Cultural Values, 5(3), pp. 383-402. ISSN 13 [Article]


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"Preamble: Modes of engagement The reader may engage with this article in several different modes. It could be approached in straightforward, if quirky, sociological mode as an exploration of the idea that the literature on post-divorce arrangements and step-families, and especially literature that attends to children’s contact with their non-resident fathers, can be re-read in order to consider the issue of contact via communication technologies (predominantly the telephone but also other forms of communication), a form of parent-child contact not captured in the ways that ‘contact’ is measured in present studies. Of interest in itself, perhaps, this point of entrance opens up onto further questions about the management of human affect, and how rearrangements in lines of affect have reverberations beyond those captured by an Oedipal model, insofar as they are not about contact and severance but are various kinds of displacement for all involved. In particular, I am concerned here with the rearrangement of affect for the fathers as their role becomes dispersed, shared and intermittent, a set of problematics that also includes the various ways in which the very body of the mother is removed or circumvented. On a second level the article speaks to a different literature, in that it is an elaboration of the notion of the network as a dispersed hybrid that entails both human and non-human entities, within which any absolute distinction between human and non-human is to be problematised but, I wish to argue, without losing the specificity of human interaction, that is, the questions of human emotion, human desire and human ethics. This elaboration moves toward a critique of the very ubiquity and endless utility of the network idea through the suggestion that its appeal may conceal moments and movements where more unexpected effects are taking place. Indeed, I suggest that there may be some twists in the familial dynamics of ‘households that no longer hold’, where some selected thoughts from a reading of Deleuze and Guattari, specifically around the notion of ‘becoming’, may lead one to read other stories than that proffered through the master trope of the network, ones that are maybe closer to some of the original impulses behind actor-network theory. And thirdly, the article may be engaged as a reflection on contemporary ways in which familial life is governed in contemporary Britain. The family as both a site of economic arrangements and a site of the arrangement of human affect-sexuality-reproduction, are held together and in tension through forms of contemporary government of the family. Contemporary rationalities of familial morality seek to make its members responsible parents without intervening to the extent that they would seek to make them responsible spouses , seen here in the implication that fathers' economic responsibilities for children are not co-extensive with their emotional connections to women. As opposed to any other familial figure – such as the pater familias or the mother of Donzelot’s thesis – who may have been the link between family and government, it is through the promotion of the figure of the child that familial life is presently and predominantly governed. It is my contention here that it is through the promise of non-government that a notion of an ethical parent (it is predominantly the non-resident father who is being targeted here) is promoted, whose duties to his children and his nation-state should mean that the former should not need to be dependent upon the latter. Alongside other policies that seek to simultaneously promote familial life and paid work-life through the notion of the ethical citizen, and the attendant judgements of those dependent on welfare state provision (see Rose, 1999), contemporary policies surrounding the household that no longer holds expose the various and contradictory modes by which families are ‘made up’ within contemporary regimes." (Excerpt, opening paragraph).

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Made available with permission from publisher. The definitive version is available at


Families; Non-resident fathers; Communication technologies; Phones; Ethics

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Date Deposited:

22 Mar 2007

Last Modified:

29 Apr 2020 15:28

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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