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Review of  Discourses of Men's Suicide Notes


Reviewer: Elizabeth M Wright
Book Title: Discourses of Men's Suicide Notes
Book Author: Dariusz Galasinski
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 29.3405

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Review:
SUMMARY

Galasiński’s “Discourses of Men’s Suicide Notes: A Qualitative Analysis” seeks to elucidate the general discursive landscape and communicative functions of suicide notes as a genre, and men's suicide notes specifically. The most important goal of this research monograph is to lay the groundwork for linguistic analysis of suicide notes and establish an analytical precedent, as this publication is the first of its kind, to Galasiński’s knowledge. It primarily identifies narrative structures in suicide notes, how they are constructed linguistically, and what social factors (e.g. masculinity, fatherhood, etc) might be driving them. Galasiński focuses much of his energy on cataloguing and characterizing these thematic structures necessary for further linguistic analysis.

Galasiński analyzes notes retrieved from the Polish Corpus of Suicide Notes (http://www.pcsn.uni.wroc.pl/), which contains 614 suicide notes authored between 1998 and 2008 (Galasiński 2017:23). Galasiński addresses only the male authored notes (n=456) in this study. Each chapter explores a central thematic or narrative element present in the corpus, provides characteristic excerpts for each, and postulates how the linguistic representation of which could speak to the state of the author.

The introduction functions mainly to situate the current study ideologically as it relates to prior literature on suicide and to elucidate the goals of the book itself. As Galasiński notes that, to his knowledge, this is the first study of this nature, an as such he aims to 1) identify how men construct the elements related to suicide linguistically 2) examine subject positions constructed discursively by the authors and 3) explore the discursive construction and position of the note itself. A secondary goal of this book is to challenge (and reject) many theories widely accepted in suicidology and psychology regarding the purpose, content, and meaning of suicide notes, instead suggesting that suicide notes operate within a narrative structure and serve a discursive function that does not necessarily speak to the condition of the author.

Chapters 2 and 3 seek to define and explore the portrayal of suicide itself within the notes. Chapter 2, “The Gift of Suicide: Stories of the Ultimate Solution,” closely examines one prevalent narrative: suicide constructed as a gift to family and loved ones. The chapter provides excerpts exemplifying the characterization of suicide as a gift, of the author as a giver and helper, and of addressees (typically family and close friends) as benefitting from this ‘gift’. Chapter 3, “Ambiguities of Suicide: Stories of Reason,” explores the discursive methods in which authors construct rationality, both within themselves and of the decision.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 look at the discursive construction of suicide itself in the notes. Chapter 4, “Suicide: The Act Outside of Discourse,” notes that the act of suicide itself is often elided and not explicitly mentioned in the notes themselves. Chapter 5, “Men Who Kill Themselves: Identities in Suicide Notes,” explores possible linguistic expressions, constructions, and projections of masculinity and fatherhood, finding discursive structures and narrative themes that parallel many facets of masculinity. Chapter 6, “The Note: Exercise in Timing,” discusses the construction of the present tense and reality of the notes.

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the construction and characterization of the future within the suicide notes. Chapter 7, “See You Later: Non-finality of Suicide,” explores the discursive construction of suicide as non-finite, with both the addressees’ lives and the author’s presence often continuing into the future. In the same vein, Chapter 8, “Instructions: Narratives of Continuing Control,” examines the possible continued construction of masculine roles into the future, where the author themselves will not be present.

EVALUATION

I would like to begin my evaluation of Galasiński (2017) by stating that this research fills an important gap in the current literature on suicide, both in linguistics and related sociological fields, such as suicidology. It also seeks to dismantle a number of commonly held assumptions, particularly in the fields of suicidology and psychology, concerning what a suicide note can tell researchers about the deceased and what functions suicide notes actually serve. This book sits at the crossroads of multiple disciplines, and as a pioneering study for this particular inquiry, it must be able to provide a base of knowledge in a way that other studies of comparable size and scope do not.

By and large, this book completes what it set out to do; it provides linguistic evidence that contradicts many held assumptions on what suicide notes contain, what they can say about an author, and on the mental state preceding the act of suicide itself. While only tangential to linguistics, these interdisciplinary presuppositions must be addressed before well-founded work on suicide notes can be entertained and carried out.

Perhaps this work’s biggest contribution is that it provides an accessible overview of suicide notes; it catalogues the linguistic forms suicide notes take, the themes and topics which characterize them, and the apparent roles they serve (e.g. goodbyes, reassurances, etc). Not only does Galasiński break down the Polish Corpus of Suicide Notes thematically, he provides varied examples of what was characteristic of a particular theme, but also what was atypical of the corpus and what kind of linguistic structures and meanings were absent from the corpus altogether. He does this for not only linguistic and discursive constructions (e.g. subject roles, future constructions, depiction of the act, apology) but also for topics seen in the corpus (e.g. family, mundanities, money), among other things. This publication gives shape to the Polish suicide note, its discursive and social role, and what functions they actually serve for both authors and readers.

With that said, I believe there are a few underlying issues with the analyses undertaken in this publication, and by extension, many of the conclusions. Due to the nature of the research, it must address a number of intersectional issues and topics, and thus is unable to fully delve into any single topic or analysis.

One theoretical concept central to this publication is masculinity; the book itself is an analysis of men’s suicide notes, and not suicide notes more broadly. Galasiński calls on masculinity frequently to draw conclusions and to understand linguistic and thematic elements present in the corpus, and how they might reflect the author navigating what is, in some understandings, an inherently emasculating act. For example, he connects the use of imperatives (e.g. pay off the car loan) to the need to retain familial control, which he interprets as a performance of masculinity.

However, the analytical structure of the study itself does not allow for Galasiński to draw any quantifiable conclusions about the construction and effects of masculinity, nor the degree to which it is present in individual notes and the corpus as a whole. Galasiński looks only at male-authored notes, and thus does not establish a baseline of what characterizes Polish suicide notes more broadly. The study cannot with any certainty claim causation, as the effects and presence of masculinity are something that is relative (e.g. male-authored notes use more masculine narratives) and there is no possible comparison to the larger sample of both male- and female-authored notes. Many of the features examined and purported as materializations of masculinity by Galasiński simply cannot be proven as such using this analytical structure, nor can any idea of the degree to which masculinity plays a role be gleaned.

In addition, Galasiński does not clearly delineate what masculinity means in this text. There is no discussion of what masculinity means to Polish men (as all the notes were penned by this particular demographic), nor of whether masculinity is constructed and perceived differently in, say, continental Europe, as most of the theories Galasiński grounds his concept of masculinity in stem from American scholars who speak mainly of American masculinity (e.g. Judith Butler). Because masculinity is socially constructed, it is realized different from culture to culture. There must be some discussion of Polish masculinity, even if it does not differ in any significant ways from the gender frameworks Galasiński builds off for the conceptualization of masculinity present in this text. For example, is suicide perceived as emasculating in Poland, and might it be perceived differently in Poland than in the surrounding countries?

Of course, Galasiński’s interpretations should not be discounted; although the conclusions he draws from the corpus are not verified against the entire corpus, they just simply need to be grounded in a clearer understanding of Polish suicide notes. The analyses presented by Galasiński offer important insight into the possibilities and methods of the performance of masculinity in suicide notes, likely generalizable across western cultures.

It should also be noted that the inquiry undertaken here is quite zoomed out; more often than not, the analyses focus on the presence of narratives or themes rather than on any particular linguistic constructions or lexical items. The nature of this work is instead large-scale, focusing on cultural discourse rather than utterance-level or above discourse analysis.

Galasiński (2017) is an important publication that lays the foundation for the future study of suicide notes. It clearly delineates linguistic and discursive features of the corpus that are characteristic of the genre. More importantly, as this work presents a comprehensive cataloguing of suicide note features, it is able to challenge long-held assumptions on the nature and purpose of the suicide note. Arguing that suicide notes are social texts which must fill certain roles, they are less insightful for the psychological study of suicide than previously assumed. While this work does not itself carry out extensive linguistic inquiry, it does prepare the field for such studies, and provides a framework within which to work.

REFERENCES

Galasiński, D., Discourses of Men’s Suicide Notes. London: Bloomsbury, 2017
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Elizabeth Wright is a masters student studying sociolinguistics at the University of Kentucky. She is currently researching punctuation use in Twitter as a (socio)linguistic variable. She hopes to pursue a career researching the mechanics of linguistic variation, particularly in digital media.

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