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Monthly Archives: October 2016
Content warning: Contains in-depth discussion of True Detective and the various acts of violence, sex that occur therein. So avoid if you’re not into that.
There’s a lot about the first season of True Detective which would fall into the latter category outlined in the title, in my opinion. I’ll be speaking mostly in a thematic sense here, the technics of the show (cinematography, colour palette, music, etc.) are all pretty solid. But I’m a negative soul with more of an eye for theme than formal characteristics, so I’m staying focused on what I’m good at talking about. In approximate order, the top three uninteresting things about the first season of True Detective follow.
I. The Case
The case is completely uninteresting. The engagement with urban myth and various episodes of moral panics which afflicted the U.S. in the 80’s and 90’s (satanically inflected murder, child sex abuse scandals (obviously I, in this case, am speaking about the ones that didn’t happen rather than the ones in which the Catholic church was involved)) seemed promising, and likely to provide an way into examining ‘the American underbelly,’ which the opening credits, in tandem with the musical stylings of The Handsome Family, of course, do a stellar job of suggesting. Its execution however, is far more mundane. How many times have we seen a unerringly correct investigative genius, be doubted time and time again, each time merely postponing the moment of his coronation? These scenes are played out, and it’s a shame that so much of the show is taken up by them.
II. The Philosophy
The most identifiable stylistic characteristic of the show, is the extended car ride scenes, in which Rust and Hart (Woody Harrelson) discuss man, man’s place in the universe, their deeply held values, etc. There’s something very staged and undergraduate-y about these Deep Meaningful Conversations, in which Harrelson has the unenviable position of having to defend good ol’ small-town America values, of which he is hardly the embodiment (he has affairs with younger women, he’s beaten up young men in jail cells with knuckle dusters) while being aware of how destructive these values can be, having been exposed to the boy’s club groupthink of the police department.
These popular representations of philosophical discourse are the reason why people think studying philosophy in university are like the conversations you get into at gaff parties where you take turns posing the other the question, ‘Yeah, but what is life maaan?’, while it’s really about people discussing, endlessly discussing, for the length of books discussing, the difference between existence and ex-istence. Frederich Nietzsche is the only Frederich Nietzsche. Rust’s bro-nihilism, references to people as ‘sentient meat,’ and castigating them for being easily led into evangelical Christianity is very new atheist blogger-y, and could have been woven more subtly into the show, rather than having Rust and Hart embody these opposed positions. Which brings me to the last least good thing about the first season of True Detective.
III. Moral Binarism
The show extends the car’s moral universe outwards, and in this schema we see the difference between the bad (the killer) and the good, which is everything and everyone else. This isn’t to say that our heroes aren’t flawed, of course, but to have a hero that is anything other than anti in some way wouldn’t make sense in today’s milieu. tis standard. But even though Rust and Hart are conceptualised in shades of grey, the show aims homogenises them back vanilla when the murderer is confronted in the final episode’s showdown. This is achieved by making the killer
1. a redneck (meaning also, poor, uneducated, stupid, fat, creepy, etc)
2. a paedophile.
4. a practitioner of a voodoo/santería composite.
5. a practitioner of incest (non-penetrative it should be noted, in contrast to our heroes)
6. a dog abuser
I could go on and on. Everything about the guy, his tattoos, the illegible writings on his walls, when this character is onscreen, signifiers of evil proliferate endlessly. Rust may be a prickly outsider, but he is good. Hart may be an insensitive serial adulterer, but he is good.
This mystifying banal equivalency is underlined in Rust and Hart’s last conversation. Rust outlines his belief in the show’s final scene that the world is reducible to one essential narrative, a notion that he has come due during a near-death experience:
Rust: It’s just one story. The oldest.
Hart: What’s that?
Rust: Light versus dark.
Hardly needs to be said that this wouldn’t have been a belief of his earlier in the season, wherein he would have been more likely to say that if the world even had a story in the first place, it would be one of the same undifferentiated mass of dark against dark. He has come to a kind of philosophical nuance, albeit a True Detective version of nuance. Hart answers that it seems as though the darkness has a lot more territory, continuing the trend of both men taking on the other’s characteristics as the series continues. It is Hart who notices the new paint job on the house and essentially leads to our heroes finding the killer. Hart has ingested Rust’s bro-nihilism, and his eye for investigative detail, which he ostentatiously lacked in the show’s earlier episodes. It also Rust who provides a re-joinder to Hart’s newfound taste for pessimistic analysis.
Rust: You’re lookin’ at it wrong, the sky thing.
Hart: How’s that.
Rust: Well once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.
This ‘things are getting so much better all the time’ note on which the series concludes brings together the success of our heroes and the show’s essential thesis, two killers down, the battle for good continues.
But is that the case? As Rust says himself, ‘we didn’t get ’em all.’ The show aspires towards a frank scepticism regarding the élite, another fundamental in any given popular artefact today, and it is suggested by the unerringly correct Rust that ritual murders have been carried out by governors, senators, and covered up by sheriffs who were rewarded with cushy jobs and promotions, a class of which Sheriff Steve Geraci is the representative. These guys never face any repercussions, but fat, all-round weirdos LeDoux and Errol Childress have their brains blown out without any due process. The men seem to have been publicly feted for doing both. This is the conventional set-up for anti-heroes, they break the small rules, right to an attorney, etc. in order to enforce the more important ones. But in doing so, the wider societal indictment of True Detective is stymied. With the killers dead, there’s no scope for prosecuting the golden circle who benefitted from turning a blind eye, let alone the 1% who actually committed child sacrifice on film. Rather than following through, the starched-shirt class escape, and we have two broadly similar scapegoats for the crimes of a wider community.
I’ll include two bonus things that are not interesting about the show.
IV. The absurd action sequence, and the fact that Rust couldn’t think of a better deep cover disguise for Hart than a Pink Floyd t-shirt.
V. Anything that isn’t Matthew McConaghey really
This post will begin, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a disclaimer. Any attempt to conclusively map Jacques Lacan’s theoretical network of the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic onto my own notion of textual ontology, is likely to fall short, or fall to the kind of failure that Louis Althusser’s attempts to hybridise Marxist theory and Lacan’s psychoanalytic framework was prone to. Althusser incidentally neglected to take account of the Real, perhaps because of the difficulty involved in understanding it. But this is to perhaps miss the point, none of these categories can be expected to give a full account of themselves, let alone phenomena that they could be mapped to. As Malcolm Bowie puts it:
each of these three orders is singularly ill-equipped to be a guarantor or even a responsible custodian of Truth. The would-be truth-seeker will find that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real are an unholy trinity whose members could as easily be called Fraud, Absence and Impossibility.
This is not because Lacan’s theories are incomprehensible, I don’t believe that they are. But if they’re not, they’re just about to cross that boundary. The difficulty of applying these to the act of literary criticism, let alone the apprehension of literary style, has to pass over, to some extent, the degree to which Lacan was engaged in formulating a particular mode of clinical practice. Most of his seminars and lectures, as they appear in the collection Écrits at least, are motivated by the act of analysing a particular patient, partially subverting the popular notion of these French theorists fecklessly knocking back the absinthe while stewing themselves on the divan.
As the polemic aspects of his seminars make clear, Lacan was acutely aware of what we might call the Californian School, which had taken Sigmund Freud’s writings, in a commercial, lifestyle-oriented direction, which aimed to ‘heal’ the subject, de-fragment their psyches and ‘cure’ them of their neuroses. Lacan was horrified by the anti-intellectual tendencies of this school, as well as its simplistic ideation of ‘the ego,’ the actualisation of which the Californian school, and some other French analysts who should know better, took to be the aim of the psychoanalyst. Lacan’s writings, if we could treat them monolithically, therefore aim to complicate the notion of the ego, and undermine our sense of ourselves as a single, complete, individual subject.
The irony of this is that what is probably Lacan’s most well-known contribution to psychoanalysis, the mirror stage, has come to represent this very same tendency of egocentric psychoanalytic thought. The mirror stage is the point at which the human subject, in their first or second year of life, will understand themselves, in simplistic terms, as a singular being, or an autonomous self. It should be noted that no actual mirror is required for this to take place, it can occur in as simple a gesture of the baby moving their arm or something. Some might mistake this moment as something to be celebrated, the moment of the subject declaring itself, or developing a sense of mastery over its own body, but this would be an error. Instead, the mirror stage inscribes the tragic condition of the human subject, as it is not the ego that they identify with, but an ego-effect or Imaginary of the self, which now exerts power over them. In his words:
What is involved in the triumph of assuming…the image of one’s body in the mirror is the most evanescent of objects, since it only appears there in the margins.
This identification is a prelude to the subject’s fall into the Symbolic, an ever-extending network of exchanged meanings in consistent flux. This Symbolic order functions in much the same way as Ferdinand de Saussure’s theories regarding differential economies of signification. As we all know, no signifier (word or image) can be said to truly mean anything. If they do convey sense, it is in the distinction that exists between them and other signifiers, i.e. a tree is a tree because it is not a cat. This ego-effect instantiated at the mirror stage plays much the same role, and as a result it is fragmented, indecipherable and unknowable, as it is wrought out of milieu composed of everything that we understand it not be; it is how we, and our desires, remain mysterious and imperceptible, even to ourselves.
So, how can we make these theories, an amalgam of psychoanalytic discourse and theoretical linguistics pertinent to the reading of a literary text? Well, if we elaborate embroider our sense of the position of the reader somewhat, and transpose it into Lacan’s terms, we might be able to make something productive of the model. He saw the unconscious as not only constructed through language, but by the laws that govern our understanding of language, which explains his dependence on linguistics. We might quarrel with Lacan’s somewhat reductionistic take on the mind’s processes, and many did. The dead end that structuralist linguistics presented was too much for some, and Jacques Derrida gave him a sidelong rebuke once or twice but thereafter both remained too proud to overtly respond to the other. One could at least accept the fact that even if the unconscious isn’t structurally analogous to language, it must be outlined in these terms in the therapeutic encounter. Thereby, the repressions and other operations of the mind remain literary and rhetorical tropes.
One of Lacan’s concern in egocentric psychology was that the analysand was being overwhelmed and projected onto by the ego of the analyst, who, Lacan also believed, was insufficiently analysed themselves in the process. The myopia of both patient and analyst should be equally subject to these techniques, making the therapeutic process truly dialectical:
He communicates to the analyst the outline of his image through his imploring, imprecations, insinuations, provocations and ruses…as these intentions become more explicit in the discourse, they interweave with the accounts with which the subject supports them, gives them consistency…the analyst, who witnesses a moment of that behaviour, finds in it…the very image that he sees emerge from the subject’s current behaviour is actually involved in all of his behaviour.
In the apprehension of a literary text, I think, we see a similar process. Any given reader is driven to exert mastery over the textual materials; as we run our eyes over every word, we wish to understand them, to make them submit or yield themselves up to us. When they do not, we become frustrated. In pursuit of meaning, we also bring our own preconceptions, the discourses of which we are composed of and determined by; only very specific segments of the text’s meaning will be accessible to any given reader. To give an example, a reader of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway who is familiar with London’s topography, will come away with an acute sense of the novel’s landscape, and substantially more detail about Mrs. Dalloway’s position in the social hierarchy of the society of her time than someone who is not. This latter reader, from Paris say, who is familiar with impressionist painting, might notice a certain tendency in Woolf’s prose, to emulate the impressionist style of ambiguous expression, distorted subject and object relations and the use of interior sensibilities to depict reality. In this way, both readers are reading the same book, but very different ones at the same time.
And of course, both these readings develop their own momentum, and move irrevocably towards a certain conclusion. We notice phenomena that accord with our perspective, and gloss over material that contradicts it, especially when outlining an argument in a paper or blog post, as these media require demonstrative examples, rather than lengthy quotations. In this way, we come to identify with a textual imaginary, reminiscent of the ego imago of the mirror stage. Unbeknownst to us, the text is readily circulating through the Symbolic, iterating diffuse and infinitely referential meanings which are created and disbarred in our act of reading. In this schema, the Real would correspond with the unread sections of the text, that which is inaccessible or missed in the act of reading. It is important to say that the Real does not correspond to reality, Lacan means two very different things when he uses these words. In this case, I cannot give a direct example, as this would be antithetical to the notion; it’s slightly impossible to literalise as a phenomenon.
As a prose stylist in his own right, Lacan favoured digression, paradox and wordplay. Incoherence, excess, wordplay, these compose the lexicon of the experimental psychoanalyst. He praised James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake for its supposed capacity to access the language of pure signification, without offering any footholds for the reader; in apprehending his style we are confronted with the impossibility of tracing the turning over of signifiers. This is perhaps a simplistic view of the Wake, but it nevertheless allows us to develop an idea of what we should be looking for when we interpret our novels, not merely pursuing similarity, or seeking in it our own reflections; such is the role of the naive positivist; not the serious interpreter. A unified textual style or meaning is therefore a consolatory myth, one which we erect as a buttress agains the impossible, overwhelming quantity of meaning which confronts us when we read a novel. But this is perhaps the point. Lacan’s sense of the ego depends on paranoiac knowledge and networks based on exclusion. Our very ‘selves’ are just images; our personalities alienated responses to indifferent forces.
A bit male-heavy, but nevertheless, very good series of short lectures on the topic of academic history and its relationship with politics in the age of mass-media. Contributions are good and brief.
Been listening to these very good panels History Ireland magazine have been uploading of live panels on particular topics. Here’s one on the Somme which goes into the mechanics of warefare, its legacy and representation.
Kevin Barry’s great. Here’s one of his being read by himself for the New Yorker.
Interesting conversation with Christopher Ricks about his new, extensively annotated edition of Eliot’s poetry. The London Review of Books thought it was too annotated, but it’s good to hear his perspective.
He also gives out about post-modernism, but hey, nobody’s perfect.