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Friday, June 18, 2021

RIP Janet Malcolm

 Janet Malcolm - one of the four angels of the 70s and 80s, with Joan Didion, Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick - is dead. Damn. One of the few essayists who I read on name only - if it was by Malcolm, I read it. The NYT remembers her for the line about how journalist's practice an immoral profession - that burns them up. Of course, in the age of neoliberal BigMedia, we see them more as minions of the billionaires. Still, we can honor her as being the founder of modern cancel culture. From the beginnning, the the big male poobah - in this case, Joe McGuiness - never got cancelled. The poobahs piped us into every neoliberal disaster, every foreign policy cul de sac, every moral panic, and they keep going.

But I didn't read her for her moral judgements so much as her unobtrusive, fascinating style - her rare ability to make the question into a narrative. God bless her.

This - this is is just greatness. I didn't always agree with Malcolm's conclusions, but I always concurred  with her ambiguities. 

When I did interviews for Publishers Weekly - and a few other places - I quickly found that the tape recorded transcript was rather like the overt level of the dream in Freud's theory. Although, unlike Freud, I was not aiming at the sublinguistic generalities of the latent level. Rather, I was looking for the mid-level, in which contextual clues are inobtrusively injected for the reader's comprehension. That's why I grew pretty discouraged with tape recording. Much better to scribble your pickup from the source on a sheet of paper. Your pickup was the story. Phone interviews I always found particularly difficult, because the pickup involved an embodied person, not just a voice. The most sinister interviewee I ever encountered, via phone, was Edward Teller, the Dr. Frankenstein who "invented" the hydrogen bomb. But I couldn't insert the sinisterness of his voice, couched in my ear, because it was a matter of vocables as much as signifiers. Anyway, wholeheartedly endorse this part of the essay: "The transcript is not a finished version, but a kind of rough draft of expression. As everyone who has studied transcripts of tape-recorded speech knows, we all seem to be extremely reluctant to come right out and say what we mean—thus the bizarre syntax, the hesitations, the circumlocutions, the repetitions, the contradictions, the lacunae in almost every non-sentence we speak.
The tape recorder has opened up a sort of underwater world of linguistic phenomena whose Cousteaus are as yet unknown to the general public. (A fascinating early contribution to this field of research is a paper forbiddingly entitled “Countertransference Examples of the Syntactic Expression of Warded-Off Contents” by Hartwig Dahl, Virginia Teller, Donald Moss, and Manuel Truhillo [Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1978], which analyzes the verbatim speech of a psychoanalyst during a session and shows its strange syntax to be a form of covert bullying of the patient.) But this world is not the world of journalistic discourse."

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