“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show
HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.
I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.
It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):
The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:
I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.
It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the I that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.
I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.
The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.
In trying to frame a review of S.D. Chrostowska’s novel Permission, I have repeatedly jammed myself against many of the conundrums that the book’s narrator describes, imposes, chews, digests, and synthesizes for her reader.
I have, for example, just now resisted the impulse to place the terms novel, narrator, and reader under radical suspicion. (I realize that the last sentence carries out the impulse even as it purports not to). Permission, thoroughly soaked in deconstruction, repeatedly places its own composition under radical suspicion.
This is maybe a bad start to a review.
Permission pretends to be the emails that F.W. (later F. Wren, and even later, Fearn Wren) sends to an unnamed artist, a person she does not know, has never met, whom she contacts in a kind of affirmation of reciprocity tempered in the condition that her identity is “random and immaterial.” She aims to work out “an elementary philosophy of giving that is, by its very definition, anti-Western.” Her gift is the book she creates — “Permit me to write to you, today, beyond today,” the book begins.
What I want to measure—or, rather, what I want to obtain an impression of, since I do not claim exactitude of measurement for my results—is my own potential for creatio ad nihilum (creation fully within the limits of human ability, out of something and unto nothing). To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity?
F.W.’s project (Chrostowska’s project) here echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of giving, of the (im)possibility of authentic giving. F.W. wants to give, but she also deconstructs that impulse repeatedly. This is a novel (novel-essay, really) that cites Gilles Deleuze and Maurice Blanchot in its first twenty pages.
Her project is deconstruction; as she promises at the outset, her giving, her writing “is not solid, and does not lead to solidarity.” On the contrary,
it is solvent, and leads, through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work), which meanwhile becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.
“Will it?” I asked in the margin of my copy. It does, perhaps.
After an opening that deconstructs its own opening, Chrostowska’s F.W. turns her attention to more concrete matters. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the F.W.’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of her first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon. We get an overview of our F.W.’s most intimate library—The Hound of the Baskervilles, a samizdat copy of Listy y Bialoleki [Letters from Bialoleka Prison], 1984. We get an analysis of Philip Larkin’s most famous line. Prisons, lunatic asylums, schools. Indian masks. Hamlet. More cemeteries.
My favorite entry in the book is a longish take on the “thingness of books,” a passage that concretizes the problems of writing—even thinking—after others. I think here of Blanchot’s claim that, ” No sooner is something said than something else must be said to correct the tendency of all that is said to become final.”
The most intriguing passages in Permission seem to pop out of nowhere, as Chrostowska turns her keen intellect to historical or aesthetic objects. These are often accompanied by black and white photographs (sometimes gloomy, even murky), recalling the works of W.G. Sebald, novel-essays that Permission follows in its form (and even tone). Teju Cole—who also clearly followed Sebald in his wonderful novel Open City—provides the blurb for Permission, comparing it to the work of Sebald’s predecessors, Thomas Browne and Robert Burton. There’s a pervasive melancholy here too. Permission, haunted by history, atrocity, memory, and writing itself, is often dour. The novel-essay is discursive but never freewheeling, and by constantly deconstructing itself, it ironically creates its own center, a decentered center, a center that initiates and then closes the work—dissolves the book.
Permission, often bleak and oblique, essentially plotless (a ridiculous statement this, plotless—this book is its own plot (I don’t know if that statement makes any sense; it makes sense to me, but I’ve read the book—the book is plotless in the conventional sense of plotedness, but there is a plot, a tapestry that refuses to yield one big picture because its threads must be unthreaded—dissolved to use Chrostowska’s metaphor)—where was I?—Yes, okay, Permission, as you undoubtedly have determined now, you dear, beautiful, bright thing, is Not For Everyone. However, readers intrigued by the spirit of (the spirit of) writing may appreciate and find much to consider in this deconstruction of the epistolary form.
Permission is new from The Dalkey Archive.
Sylwia Chrostowska’s novel Permission—got it in the mail on Saturday. I’d been swimming in the river, in the relentless August sun, for most of the day, and when I got home I just wanted to watch a film and drink some wine and pass out.
But I started reading. And reading. And then I looked up and and I was like fifty pages in.
Here’s publisher Dalkey Archive’s blurb:
Composed of anonymous e-mail messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year, Permission is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgment—but what can be given in words, and what received?Permission not only updates the “epistolary novel” by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.
And here’s novelist Teju Cole’s blurb, from the back of the book (for some reason not posted at Dalkey):
Permission’s central premise (if such a work so soaked in deconstruction could be said to have a center) immediately recalled to me Jacques Derrida’s discussions of the paradox of giving:
To rephrase my experimental question: can I give away what is inalienable from me (my utterance, myself) without the faintest expectation or hope of authority, solidarity, reciprocity? Can my giving be unhinged from a sense of both investment and pointless expenditure?
The first few “chapters” — the narrator’s weekly missives to the unnamed artist — are thoroughly soaked in deconstruction and continental philosophy; this is a novel that cites Blanchot and Deleuze in its first twenty pages. However, the narrator promises that her book, “through its progressive dissolution, towards the final solution of this writing (my work) . . . becomes progressively less difficult, less obscure.”
This promise seems true, as subsequent passages flow into personal memory, reflection—storytelling. We get a brief tour of cemeteries, a snapshot of the narrator’s father (as a child) at a child’s funeral, a recollection of the narrator’s first clumsy foray into fiction writing, a miniature memoir of a failed painter, color theory, the sun, the moon.
Strange and lovely stuff. More when I finish.
“Could You Elaborate on These Things?” — Derrida Talks About “American” Attitudes; Sports an Orange Tan
“One of the Gestures of Deconstruction Is to Not Naturalize What Isn’t Natural” — Derrida Kinda Sorta Almost Defines Deconstruction
Noam Chomsky, Intellectual Elitism, Po-Mo Gibberish, More Attacks on Deconstruction, and Bad Writing Revisited
While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:
“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain [...]“
But Chomsky’s not done yet:
“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones [...] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”
Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)
First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”
So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.
Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.
I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.