Assemblage: Janet Malcolm


I’ve been experimenting with textual collages as an essay form. I have been inspired to do so from three sources: the remix culture I’ve come of age in, Edward Said’s call for “contrapuntal reading” (in direct reference to the use of counterpoint in music), and Janet Malcolm’s collages. This issue of Interval., and the next two, are about exploring why I’m interested in assemblage as a narrative approach.

Dodie Kazanjian, reviewing a show for Vogue, describes Janet Malcolm’s art pieces “canny, subtle, exquisitely modulated collages.” The same Janet Malcolm whose decontextualized introductory statement from The Journalist and the Murderer gets passed down through generations of j-school students seemingly to germinate the pre-requisite professional self-loathing.

Hilton Als wrote the catalog essay for Malcom’s 2011 exhibition, Free Associations. Here, Malcolm used archival material sourced from the papers of an “émigré psychiatrist.” Her collages use clippings from case studies, observational notes, with a colour palette of black and white, faded grey ink, aging yellowing paper. Als references Malcolm’s professional background:

Journalists—certainly the smart ones—live with the question of veracity, and the question, always, of what makes a truthful account of anything. Journalism becomes art when the writer dares him or herself to ask if reality itself is a form of fiction.
And just like that, through Malcolm, journalism is elevated once again, discovering new worlds of possibilities for representing the truth, done with an Exacto blade and archival glue. Flat texts become multilayered with so many different interpretations. Intricate handwriting contrasted with the machine font of a 19th century typewriter contrast different technologies of text used in the profession.
We make a decision, with respect to the image, as to whether it is closely relevant to our goals, or whether, instead, it is remote and hence, for us, unimportant. Each image is also evaluated—is it “good” or “bad” for us? Finally, whatever else we do with the new image, we also judge its truth. We decide just how much faith to place in it. Is it an accurate reflection of reality? Can it be believed? Can we base action on it? – Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (1970).
Malcolm intrigues me, beyond her figure in contemporary journalism education, beyond her writing. Like myself, Malcolm is the child of a psychiatrist. We are a strange tribe, affected by our parents’ approach to the human condition. After quitting smoking, Malcolm re-taught herself how to write (and therefore, how to think) again.

In a 2011 electronic interview with Katie Roiphe for The Paris Review, Malcolm quotes her afterword to The Journalist and the Murderer:

The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
In collage, the “I” character is visible in selection, presentation, production – the collagist is evident in the placement of material, in the attachments of items, revealing their tastes, thought processes, selection criteria, in ways the journalist can never – more like, is never supposed to – do.

Fragments of text – phrases, snippets – removed from their original contexts and re-placed in a different environment can reveal new meanings. Relationships, histories, contexts can be revealed and revealing. Sentences that resonate become new points of entry into understanding both the original text and the composite one.

Collage also allows for the combination of seemingly unrelated texts in new contexts. Different, disparate original sources: interview quotes, theory texts, popular culture representations. Or the isolation and re-formation of repeated ideas from one source. Organisation of text is to construct a narrative with all of the traditional elements, or a chronological ordering. It’s an approach that can place in proximity texts that speak to each other in different ways, that exemplify each other, that may contradict, challenge, or even negate each other.

command-c, cut. The etymology of scissor:

late Middle English: from Old French cisoires, from late Latin cisoria, plural of cisorium ‘cutting instrument,’ from cis-, variant of caes-, stem of caedere ‘to cut.’ The spelling with sc– (16th cent.) was by association with the Latin stem sciss– ‘cut.’
command-v, repeat.
xo, n.

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