Part 1—Gong-show at The New Yorker: Janet Malcolm has had a major career. In truth, that's the heart of the problem.
Today, at age 83, the long-time star of The New Yorker has written a lengthy profile of TV's Rachel Maddow. The profile appears in the magazine's current edition, packaged for public consumption in two different ways.
On-line, the profile appears beneath this easy-reader headline:
"Rachel Maddow: Trump’s TV Nemesis"Is Rachel Maddow "Trump’s TV Nemesis?" In fact, Malcolm's profile doesn't devote its major focus to establishing any such claim. We'll take a guess:
That seems to be a dumbed-down, easily-processed framework, designed for the rubes on-line.
In hard copy, where the magazine's extremely bright subscribers dwell, the profile carries a different set of headlines, creating a different framework. This is the way the profile is framed if you carry the magazine around in your smart little hands:
THE STORYTELLEREven after reading the profile, we can't say we're entirely sure what that implied promise is supposed to mean. That said, Malcolm goes on and on in her profile about Maddow's "extraordinary storytelling," her "acute storyteller's instincts."
How Rachel Maddow constructs a narrative.
"How Rachel Maddow constructs a narrative?" We can't really say that we know why the hard-copy headline says that. But fairly early in the profile, Malcolm says she's handing us a "lesson in comparative narratology," a largely unknown department of learning at which Malcolm seems to feel skilled.
Rather plainly, Maddow's transplendent storytelling is meant to be the focus of Malcolm's piece, which goes on and on, and on and on, and helps define the existential problem with which our world is now faced.
That said, what the heck is narratology? We're receiving a lesson in the comparative form of the art. What is the art in question?
Rightly or wrongly, narratology is one of the world's less recognized fields of study. According to the Nexis archive, the word has appeared only five times in the New York Times in the past ten years, and never in the Washington Post. Two of the usages in the Times could be scored as mocking.
That said, let's be fair! Narratology has long been a subject of substantial study among the Dylanesque jugglers and clowns also known as the savants and eggheads. Just to give you a rough idea of the sweep of the field, the leading authority on narratology offers such pensees as these:
Narratology is the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception. While in principle the word may refer to any systematic study of narrative, in practice its usage is rather more restricted. It is an anglicisation of French narratologie, coined by Tzvetan Todorov (Grammaire du Décaméron, 1969). Narratology is applied retrospectively as well to work predating its coinage. Its theoretical lineage is traceable to Aristotle (Poetics) but modern narratology is agreed to have begun with the Russian Formalists, particularly Vladimir Propp (Morphology of the Folktale, 1928), and Mikhail Bakhtin's theories of heteroglossia, dialogism, and the chronotope first presented in The Dialogic Imagination (1975).Is narratology really derived from stucturalism and semiotics, as the Britannica claims? In a sense, but not as such! At any rate, the current New Yorker offers a gong show-inspired lesson in the comparative version of same.
The origins of narratology lend to it a strong association with the structuralist quest for a formal system of useful description applicable to any narrative content, by analogy with the grammars used as a basis for parsing sentences in some forms of linguistics. This procedure does not however typify all work described as narratological today; Percy Lubbock's work in point of view (The Craft of Fiction, 1921) offers a case in point.
In 1966 a special issue of the journal Communications proved highly influential, becoming considered a program for research into the field and even a manifesto. It included articles by Barthes, Claude Brémond, Genette, Greimas, Todorov and others, which in turn often referred to the works of Vladimir Propp (1895-1970).
Jonathan Culler (2001) describes narratology as comprising many strands "implicitly united in the recognition that narrative theory requires a distinction between 'story,' a sequence of actions or events conceived as independent of their manifestation in discourse, and 'discourse,' the discursive presentation or narration of events."
The Russian Formalists first proposed such a distinction, employing the couplet fabula and sujet. A subsequent succession of alternate pairings has preserved the essential binomial impulse, e.g. histoire/discours, histoire/récit, story/plot. The Structuralist assumption that one can investigate fabula and sujet separately gave birth to two quite different traditions: thematic (Propp, Bremond, Greimas, Dundes, et al.) and modal (Genette, Prince, et al.) narratology. The former is mainly limited to a semiotic formalization of the sequences of the actions told, while the latter examines the manner of their telling, stressing voice, point of view, transformation of the chronological order, rhythm and frequency. Many authors (Sternberg, 1993, Ricoeur, 1984, and Baroni, 2007) have insisted that thematic and modal narratology should not be looked at separately, especially when dealing with the function and interest of narrative sequence and plot.
As noted, Malcolm has had a major journalistic career, stretching through several well-known controversies. Her best-known work, a pair of long New Yorker essays which were published as a short book in 1990, begins with a claim which, by any normal interpretive standard, is baldly absurd on its face.
The essays, and the book, were called The Journalist and the Murderer. We'll visit Malcolm's baldly absurd opening statement before the week is done.
Concerning a separate matter, two different juries in the 1990s found that Malcolm had invented quotes about the subject of a profile, a bad sport who decided to sue. In the autumn of 94, the New York Times reported the second verdict, while recalling the first:
MARGOLICK (11/3/94): A jury in Federal District Court here may have finally ended the long-running saga of Janet Malcolm and Jeffrey M. Masson. It ruled today that while two of five disputed quotations Ms. Malcolm attributed to Mr. Masson in a 1983 profile of the psychoanalyst in The New Yorker magazine were false and one of those was defamatory, none were written with the recklessness required for libel.Did two juries draw such conclusions? That doesn't necessarily mean that their conclusions were true!
The verdict, from a panel of seven women and one man, culminated—and may well conclude—nearly 10 years of litigation in which the case reached the United States Supreme Court once and juries twice, consumed a fortune in legal fees and triggered a debate over what constitutes quotations and the license reporters may take with them.
In 1993, another jury concluded that Ms. Malcolm had fabricated the five statements attributed to Mr. Masson and that he had been libeled by two of them. But it deadlocked on damages, with some seeking to award Mr. Masson (pronounced MAY-sun) $1 million and others deeming him so sullied by his braggadocio that he could not be further damaged. That led Judge Eugene F. Lynch of Federal District Court here to order a second trial.
This time, after three days of deliberation, the jury found that only two of the quotations were falsified and only one was defamatory.
That said, just five days after that Times report, Newt Gingrich's pseudoscandal-fueled Contract With America turned the House of Representatives over to the GOP for the first time in forty years. While Rome was burning, our greatest journalistic institutions were otherwise consumed.
Out of all this turmoil and tumult came Malcolm's reputation as one of our headiest brainiacs. As recently as 2013, a writer at Slate was headlining her as "the country’s best magazine writer."
Today, as Malcolm scrapes 83, we hardly need a duly empanelled jury to help us reach a verdict on her work, and by extension on the upper-end journalistic elite whose lazy, bumbling, fatuous conduct has finally brought us, after all these decades, across the river and into the land controlled by Donald J. Trump.
We hardly need an American jury to reach a verdict on Malcolm's current work and, by extension, on the judgment and acumen of the gaggle at David Remnick's New Yorker. If you can read the first three paragraphs of Malcolm's doting profile of Maddow without thinking that Malcolm seems to be out of her head, we'd have to suggest that our nation's existential peril tracks directly back to you, perhaps to your tribal loyalty.
Janet Malcolm is a major fan of Rachel Maddow—more specifically, of the transplendent storytelling on Maddow's eponymous show. In the first paragraph of her report, she makes some claims about Madddow's on-air wardrobe. These claims seem to contradict Maddow's persistent representations about her frumpy, $19 blazers. They also seem to be claims which Malcolm can't know to be true.
Whatever! So far, so pointless and silly! But after that, in grafs 2 and 3, Malcolm proceeds to the text we've posted below. If you can't see, or at least suspect, that something is badly wrong here, our nation's spectacular, dangerous failure leads straight back to you:
MALCOLM (10/9/17): Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona. She is onstage, certainly, and makes no bones about being so. She regularly reminds us of the singularity of her show (“You will hear this nowhere else”; “Very important interview coming up, stay with us”; “Big show coming up tonight”). Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent.How big a fan of the Maddow Show is this fixture of upper-class Manhattan establishment "journalism?" This big—she says she's so mesmerized by the TV star's performance that she "stays and dumbly watches the commercials" instead of doing something more useful when the multimillionaire corporate star takes her commercial breaks.
As I write this, I think of something that subliminally puzzles me as I watch the show. Why do I stay and dumbly watch the commercials instead of getting up to finish washing the dishes? By now, I know every one of the commercials as well as I know the national anthem: the Cialis ad with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace, the ad with the guy who has opioid-induced . . . constipation (I love the delicacy-induced pause), the ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance in which the woman jeers at the coverage offered by a rival company: “What are you supposed to do, drive three-quarters of a car?” I sit there mesmerized because Maddow has already mesmerized me. Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV. “The Rachel Maddow Show” is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest. It permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.
As a result of this mystification, Malcolm says she isn't a fan of Maddow alone. She's also a fan of the constipation ad which frequently airs, especially of the "delicacy-induced pause" she especially loves.
She says that she has memorized the Cialis ad, along with all the rest of the ads, which she sits and "dumbly watches" each night, waiting for Rachel to reappear.
It isn't just Maddow whom she loves! As Malcolm sits there dumbly watching each night, "her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV."
This is the mental world which now obtains at Gotham's world-famous journalistic salon. Are you willing to form the impression that something here seems to be wrong?
Once again, we'll remind you that Malcolm is a major figure within our failing nation's upper-class, upper-end journalism guild. We'll also note that, in these first three paragraphs, Malcolm notes the same basic facts we've long noted about the Maddow Show.
Malcolm has said that Maddow's show is "a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show." She has said that Maddow's show is "TV entertainment at its finest," presented for a specific purpose—presented so "liberals can enjoy themselves" during these grisly times.
Those are precisely the claims we've made about Maddow's gruesome program. Remarkably, though, Malcolm offers these observations as items of praise, not as condemnations or even as complaints.
We're going to spend the rest of the week discussing Malcolm's weird performance in this profile. Along the way, we'll link it to addled breakdowns of other totems of our upper-class "liberal" world.
We'll talk about the endless array of con men who have conned our liberal rank and file, Weinstein and Bloom among them. We'll talk about Remnick, now and then. We'll revisit Maddow's program itself. We'll talk about the way our tolerance for these figures has taken us to our current eve of destruction.
As we talk about these matters, a major star at a major journal will be "dumbly watching" those constipation/Cialis ads. If you still can't see, in the face of this evidence, that something is badly wrong Over Here, then we must say, though not as a moral rebuke:
The world is finally too much with you! You are simply unable to see the deeply dangerous way we liberals have utterly failed.
Tomorrow: "Easily visible from space," and narratologically nuts
Maddow's deceptive spin is comparable with some conservatives, such as Sean Hannity IMHO. For Bob, that's not OK. Bob wants liberals to behave better than conservatives. ISTM some liberals don't mind when their opinion leaders speak deceptively. They just want to win.ReplyDelete
You may be right about Somerby's motivation, but I do think that he spends an inordinate amount of time on Maddow. He's devoted, what, dozens or hundreds of posts to her, as if she is some sort of nexus of liberal media misbehavior. As bad as she may (or may not) be, it seems like an obsession with him. IMHO I just don't see this as the most important fight to be waging these days. And again IMHO it gets tiresome as a follower of this blog. And I feel that, if Somerby is indeed a liberal, he often has a funny way of showing it. Oh well. I hope he gets his wish and Maddow gets toppled from her perch. Then maybe he can move on to something else.Delete
Oh and Hannity gruesome? Check. Liberals "want to win"? Well, duh. So do conservatives...and look at the gruesome lengths THEY go to win. (But you hardly hear anything about that from Somerby the "media critic.")
If Maddow is gone he will start in on Mika.Delete
Was I right? He didn't even wait.Delete
"Did two juries draw such conclusions? That doesn't necessarily mean that their conclusions were true!"ReplyDelete
The purpose of a jury is to weigh evidence and determine truth for legal purposes. So, yes, it does mean their conclusions were true.
In his fatuous way, Somerby absorbed postmodernist relativism at Harvard but never learned about narrative? Here we discover that he not only never took a psychology course but apparently never took an English class either.
With his mocking tone, he disparages the Brittanica explanation of narratological theory and pretends that if the general public hasn't heard of narratology, it must be crap, since the common man already knows everything worth knowing and the rest of effete grandiosity. Phooey.
Somerby has officially transitioned from criticism of the mainstream media to anti-intellectual carping that serves no useful purpose except to stroke his own ego.
Somerby claims Malcolm has no way of knowing what Maddow does pre-show -- it is unclear whether she is unable to count Maddow's jackets or whether she is unable to assess their price (as if women cannot tell Old Navy from designer cashmere). If she did not personally witness that vignette, she could have interviewed Maddow's staff and the show's crew, who undoubtedly noticed what she was wearing in addition to her jackets. But this is just another senseless knock against Malcolm and Maddow. Does Somerby think all reporting is based on first-hand experience and that use of other sources cannot inform a writer's descriptions?
If Somerby considers Malcolm second rate, it would be more honest for him to say so instead of pretending to praise her while presenting snippets about a lawsuit and mocking her references to literature theory. Malcolm probably does understand narratology even if Somerby does not. Many of her readers may also. And if they do, is that so wrong?
Somerby apparently thinks reporters should be sticking to story and ignoring plot, fabula not sujet (etc.). Numerous experiments have shown that people organize their own past lives and their observation of others into narratives that include facts to fit a narrative. This is how people naturally think because of our ability to organize multiple pieces of info (past and present) in consciousness and because of our desire to find patterns and meaning in facts. A list of events without summary, conclusion, narrative or meaning is unsatisfying to audiences because we don't think that way. Journalists are taught to do this because of such research into how people think.ReplyDelete
Did Malcolm say that Maddow considers herself to be almost an Eisenhower Republican?ReplyDelete
Beautiful piece, Bob. Thanks.ReplyDelete
Myself, I could never force myself to watch Maddow for more than 5 minutes, but from what I saw I suspect that this is not about any fancy 'narratology' or even a 'sleight of hand'. Just the standard technique: concoct the biggest lie you can, and keep repeating it as often as possible. It's not complicated.
Supply-side economics writ large.Delete
"I could never force myself to watch Maddow for more than 5 minutes":Delete
So you're in no position to judge. Thanks for admitting that in advance, Mao.
Mao, Russia objects to THAAD in South Korea. Does she also object to the pending sale of THAAD to Saudi Arabia?Delete
Here is someone who does mainstream press criticism better than Somerby:ReplyDelete
"You are simply unable to see the deeply dangerous way we liberals have utterly failed."ReplyDelete
Yes. We are all stupid, abject failures. Including you, Somerby. Especially you, since after decades of trying with your venerable blog, you have managed to have zero effect, apparently. Perhaps your time would have been better spent working on liberal causes in your own backyard. But as an exponent of liberal causes, you suck. What else is the purpose of a concerned liberal (your characterization) going public with media criticism but to further liberal causes? In the beginning, you were calling out the bs directed against Clinton and Gore. That served as a positive force for liberalism. Now, you just indiscriminately attack liberal targets with ridicule and vitriol. If liberalism is indeed a failure, then why waste your time on it?
This comment has been removed by the author.Delete
Let's assume you're right and Bob has lapsed into cranking out only totally time-wasting pablum. If that's true, who is the bigger fool, Bob for continuing to crank out postings he may well still believe in, despite your dismissal of them, or you, for spending time prattling on about something, Bob's columns, that you have clearly and unambiguously identified as a waste of your time?
Bob never condemns liberalism, globally, but, instead, finds fault with its big media "leaders," Rachel currently being the most popular, who, again as in Rachel's case, opportunistically make common cause (by declaring themselves to be big fans, etc.) with people like Chris Matthews, who demonstrably played a key part in landing Bush, and now Trump, in the Oval Office. If Bob's attacks really strike you as indiscriminate ones, I'm sorry to say that you have almost completely lost the thread of Bob's larger argument, even though you claim to have been following it for some time.
"If that's true, who is the bigger fool, Bob for continuing to crank out postings he may well still believe in, despite your dismissal of them, or you, for spending time prattling on about something, Bob's column"Delete
Or how about you for wasting your time commenting on my comment?
Somerby needs the feedback...it's called an "intervention." Do you see how much negative feedback he's getting? He's lost it. Very sad. No one can stay on top forever.
And you seem not to see what is quite plain, that Somerby DOESN'T stick to media criticism. He says "liberals are a failure." There's only one way to interpret that. It's great that you're a fan, but you don't get to create a safe space for yourself in the comments section. I would say "go fuck yourself", but I won't.
"Or how about you for wasting your time commenting on my comment?" - Anon 10/11 1:53Delete
I'll go ahead and waste some more time pointing out that Unknown 10/11 1:12 never said it was a waste of THEIR time reading/commenting on this blog...
that was you, Anonymous :)
Liberalism isn't a failure, it's just that we have an extremely weak roster representing the ideology in the corporate media.ReplyDelete
I'm not sure the media should really be representing any ideology at all.Delete
You are so right!Delete
In my view, liberalism is not a failure; on the contrary: it had won. It won big in 2008 (and no wonder), and it was ruling for 8 years. On top of the world. And the result was: puff... Now everyone can see that it's total bullshit. What "Hope!", what "Change!"? Same shit. The king has no clothes. And so now they're panicking, turning to mccarthyist hysteria and what-not, just to distract. That's what's happening, imho.ReplyDelete
Sadly, I think there is truth in what you say. I was wildly disappointed in Obama, though I had supported him strongly in 2008. Apparently I was not alone, since people like Cornell West, who were some of his strongest advocates before the 2008 election, dramatically changed their tune long before 2012, etc.Delete
Pray tell us, Unknown, who did you vote for in 2016? We're on the edge of our seats.Delete
"I was wildly disappointed in Obama, though I had supported him strongly in 2008."Delete
You and Cornell West didn't notice Obama voted for telecomm immunity while a Senator in 2008? You and West are what we call, "slow on the uptake".
Mao, is Russia satisfied with Trump? Strengthening our forces in and around the Black Sea, selling THAAD to Saudi Arabia, threatening North Korea?ReplyDelete
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