defend

How do we want texts to remember or represent us? When I received the transcripts of my interview with Albie Sachs, I realised, a bit late, that in my drive through a cloudburst and soaking dash to her flat in Kenilworth, I had forgotten to ask the person who transcribed the tape, a pleasant young woman with a toddler in a high-chair, to make what Albie had called a ‘robust’ transcription. Accustomed to working for linguists, she had instead transcribed whatever she could hear, including every um and ah, and every repetition thereof, and every phrase repeated in variations as we felt for the right meaning. Albie’s speech, recorded thus, is not surprisingly crammed with such flourishes, but mine is even worse. The sentences are often incoherent. We are talking about the past, so sentences shift tense half-way through, or are left dangling, incomplete. Ums and repetitions increase with the emotional charge of what is being said. And yet, in Albie’s presence, I had understood every word he had said, and he, presumably, had understood me.

I had been sitting further from the microphone, so my words had been hard to make out and were pretty garbled in the transcription. The typist’s procedure appeared to have been to type out whatever she understood and to phonetically transcribe whatever she didn’t understand, then let the spell-checker take a stab at the result. There were a few bizarre errors, like we justified apartheid instead of we just defied apartheid, which called everything else into doubt. I re-checked the transcript against the tape, then spent hours removing the ums and ahs and tidying up the language, putting in words which only someone intimate with the context could have heard. But after this I was still unsatisfied, especially with my own contributions. These utterances still seemed incoherent, or did not fully convey the meaning I had thought I was making, or was perhaps making with my body and gestures. And yet now these utterances were to go out into the world in the form of the text, as orphans without their father to defend them.

Needless to say, I rewrote my own few interjections in Albie’s monologue and cut the rest. Everybody wants their utterances, should they appear in a text, to be edited to formal correctness, because once orphaned, they no longer enjoy the mutual assent of being a part of a conversation, a meeting of minds enacted through the meeting of bodies. The living logos of the spoken word depends on the living presence of the other, and the promise of understanding that the meeting of embodied minds implies; so in a strong sense, the logos is the meeting of minds through the encounter of bodies. The speaker’s capacity for defending his statements (for, as Plato has told us, he is their father) makes all spoken utterances somewhat contingent, but it also places speech in the realm of power relations. Presence – the attitudes, gestures and expressions of the body – seals these relations and supervises the meaning of words to a large extent, but presence cannot be coded into a text. The textual utterance must defend itself.

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