The Nation’s Body!

In some follow up research (clicking through Wikipedia drunk) I discovered that, in, the original version of Whose Body?, Peter is quickly able to discern that the corpse in the tub is not Sir Reuben because the corpse is not circumcised. The publisher balked at such a crass reference and so Sayers changed it. What I am interested in is the way in which the body- as mass, as shredded tissue, as flesh evacuated of any agency-gestures towards a post-war understanding of the subject.

I’ll start with Freke’s thesis on the affective/psychological dimensions of humans as being embodied. Anger, fear, even Peter’s post-war trauma could, theoretically, be surgically removed. This thesis isn’t really all that different than the operating logic of the fiction we have read up to this point; namely, that all matters of human experience are more or less observable or, at least, able to be deduced through rational observation. However, to see it articulated as a kind of scientific theory, that to be ‘human’ is to be not much more than a somewhat complicated sack of meat, comes off as macabre. Why?

The novel’s attention to post-war trauma might offer a rubric. The war, we often claim, marks the end of a sentimental/romantic discourse of the self and nation. If this is true, it did so partly through the images and narratives of heaped corpses, bodies riddled with bullets dangling from barbed wire and other horrors that so immediately reminded the viewer of the fleshy materiality of the self. These were bodies thrown at each other for little purpose beyond an imperial/aristocratic pissing competition. Not people, really, but an expendable resource, like ammunition.

Sayers seems to be reckoning the ethical implications of the detective genre in its easy appropriation of the dead body as a vehicle for narrative. Peter’s own ambivalence about his hobby is telling. He likes the hunt as an abstraction, but once consequences come into play he feels uncomfortable. This coheres interestingly to the larger question of the body in the novel. Is there anything more than the clever shuffling of femers and fingernails or is it, as Freke implies, just material, just gross, having no real purpose beyond a kind of corporeal inventorying?

It’s hard to know what to do with Reuben’s corpse (unless, of course, you’re Freke) because he is such a marked figure. New Rich, Capitalist, Jewish- what is the relation between these and his death and dismemberment? My inclination is this: both ‘new rich’ and Jewishness are characterized in popular discourse as a kind of rudeness, of deriving no authority beyond their immediate material situation. The ‘new rich’ have no ‘history’ to fall back on; neither, in a way, do the jews, who are seen to maintain power through canny manipulation of markets and loans. It’s a socio/racial theory not dissimilar to Freke’s. I had a hard time figuring out how Sayers was falling on this: were those signifiers useful for her when cutting him up? Or is it a comment on the way in which ideology itself works onto the body- here, quite literally.

The position of the author

“A device aimed at the ‘eradication … of competitors’,” Moretti writes. “A device designed to colonize a market niche” (208). But designed by whom? Who is doing the aiming?

Not the authors themselves, it would seem: Moretti’s account makes it clear that Conan Doyle, at least, did not really know what he was doing when he began to employ clues that were more visible and necessary to the plot—he was only trying to burnish the heroic “myth” of his central character (215). His intention was decidedly not to craft a device that would (eventually) relegate his fellow writers of detective fiction to the ash heap. In what sense, then, can we say that this is what Holmesian clues are “aimed at,” or “designed to” do?

Moretti is working, it must be remembered, from a fairly odd comment that Benjamin makes of Baudelaire, in which the poet is imputed to possess a peculiar canniness (“his deep experience of the nature of the commodity”) that prompts him to innovate poetic form in certain specific and tactical ways designed to “devalue” the existing schools of romanticism and classicism (211). Moretti’s model, it seems, wants to generalize this rather extreme state of affairs to explain the conduct of all authors operating in a literary marketplace—only without authorial intention. Instead, we get a Darwinian theory of random mutation, in which the devices duke it out in a game of literary survival, but the authors who deploy them are ignorant of the consequences of their formal choices, the relative significance of choosing this or that device. This is perhaps a key difference between Moretti’s evolutionary model and Cohen’s model of “position-taking,” the latter of which feels like a more informed act, taken on the basis of one’s understanding of the literary field and of the “problematic” it poses.

In Moretti, the author sits uneasily: though officially disavowed, authorial intention continues to be invoked rhetorically as an explanatory gesture throughout the essay (e.g., “Conan Doyle’s rivals are still trying to find something better” –222). Even Cohen, however, whose model would seem to demand some kind of stock-taking of what authors themselves believed they were doing, seems to disregard this kind of evidence: she mentions “contemporary aesthetic theory” as “useful for establishing the coherence” of a text’s aesthetic logic, but not an author’s diaries, memoirs, non-fiction writings, or correspondence (23).

To phrase this as a question: what ought to be the status of the author’s own intentions in these kind of models, which are in some sense concerned to plot the ‘moves’ of literary gamesmanship (and to what degree is this ‘game’ a metaphor)? I keep coming back, in this regard, to the intention that Moretti ascribes to Conan Doyle—to choose “the myth of Sherlock Holmes” over the decodable clue—largely because the former (though Moretti treats it as an unfortunate mistake) seems actually to be a far more plausible explanation for the popularity of the Holmes stories, especially when we expand our temporal frame to include the whole of the 20th century, right up to the present. Why has Holmes so drastically outperformed later sleuths like, say, Christie’s Poirot, in terms of film and television adaptations? Does anyone really believe that Holmes has remained dominant because his clues are more decodable? Or is it simply character: the greater investment of audiences in this figure of the moody, imperious addict-genius (Dr. House, etc.), over Christie’s plump, fussy Belgian? Even within the scope of the 1890s, the level of care that Conan Doyle paid to establishing the eccentricities of his character seems to be a distinguishing feature of the stories worth considering. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.


10/1– Canon Making and the (Sherlock Holmes) Canon: Thoughts on Moretti

Moretti certainly does love his trees and I find his analysis of clues in detective fiction curious indeed. (213) It’s specifically interesting for an amateur Sherlockian to see how the Holmes stories have been divided, and where the most popular stories fall in such an arrangement: it’s hardly surprising to find the enduringly popular “The Red-Headed League” has clues that are present, necessary, visible, and decodable, but virtually nobody cares about, remembers, or likes “The Five Orange Pips,” which has 3/4 of these markers (its clues being visible but not decodable). This analysis got me thinking about why specific detective stories (Holmes stories or others) become popular and/or endure when, as Morretti notes, if you remove stories from his tree in which clues are present but are not visible, “we lose half of the Adventure of Sherlock Holmes” — and, what he doesn’t note, many of the most beloved and well-known of those stories. (214)

I love this notion that “Conan Doyle stumbled upon clues while he was working at something completely different, which was the myth of Sherlock Holmes.” (215) I think this certainly explains well the endurance of Holmes stories, which are not always great mysteries in their narratives; so much of the draw of the Sherlock Holmes stories seems be the personality of Holmes himself, which makes clues that are used in the stores not as decipherable signs for reader but “attributes of the omniscient detective” so effective. (216).

And yet, despite the reading audience’s love of the detective’s seeming omniscience, we like stories in which they fail. “A Scandal in Bohemia,” chronicles one of Holmes’s few failures to achieve what he sets out to do for his client– and the story was wildly popular in its publication and continues to be one of fans’ favorite Holmes stories to date. So what’s going here? Is it just schadenfreude? Probably not, considering other cases in which Holmes fails his clients (like “The Five Orange Pips”) are not at all popular. So what makes us like “A Scandal in Bohemia” so much? Is it Irene’s own sleuthing? (The only thing better than an underdog amateur detective is a female underdog amateur detective who’s not even a detective per se).

Of course, some may argue that these “failures” are not failures at all; while Holmes might not succeed in achieving what he sets out to, he nevertheless solves the mystery presented (where is Irene Adler keeping the photograph?) and he does so using clues (what does she do when the call of fire is raised?). I’d be curious to cross reference Moretti’s tree of clues and their usages with the popular Holmes stories to see the relationship between the popularity of individual stories and the clues (and type of said clues)  they employ–or don’t.

Last (tangentially related) thought:  Moretti’s trees (and graphs, and maps) are a fascinating way of looking at data, but what do they do for us as literary scholarship and analysis? I  believe the work he’s doing is telling us something, but is it literary theory? And in a STEM-centric age, does such quantifiable analysis threaten the perceived legitimacy of doing literary analysis the more subjective “old-fashioned” way?

9/25 — The Curious Case of Inspector Boltanski

In a liberal-capitalist society, where equality before the law often fails to perform the necessary legitimation of hierarchy, fictions like those of Doyle call in the detective as someone who can act, in a state of exception, outside the law, in order to save that very law from its own contradictions. This is the case that Boltanski makes against the detective. Boltanski acts, as Holmes does in Boltanski’s reading of him, in the service of an assumed moral order. Like (his reading of) Holmes, Boltanski’s mission is not to punish the guilty party (detective fiction) for its crime, but merely to present a rational demonstration of its guilt. Critique and ratiocination are both ‘finalities without end’, disinterested rational operations that want to exist only for their own sake.

In this investigation of the myth of the detective, Boltanski falls into a kind of unawareness typical of his model for the analysis of myth, Lévi-Strauss. Like Lévi-Strauss (and his ilk,) Boltanski doesn’t realize that to analyze the myth is to retell the myth.

As I tell it, this myth is not about the detective bringing the abnormal back to normalcy. The detective, rather, is himself the anomaly. The ‘rationality’ of Holmes and Dupin is fascinating precisely because they are human characters, with fleshly bodies. As such their commitment to operating via a bloodless rationality, and nothing else, is really the defining quirk of antisocial, ‘diseased’, and ultimately sad people. Holmes’ request that Watson write only of the rational steps in the case, and not of its entanglement with embodied humans, human emotions, is a request typical of this strange, alienated, and nearly friendless man. There is a reason that The Sign of Four opens with a cocaine injection — it foregrounds the fact that, without more earthly characters like Watson and Mary to suggest social, humanly meaningful outlets for his ratiocination, Holmes will inevitably destroy himself.

If Boltanski’s reading operates according to an ‘autonomous’ reason similar to that of Holmes, perhaps Watson is a better model to use in our writing about detective fiction. Rather than demonstrating the detective’s guilt in committing the crime that is the liberal state, perhaps we can write in a way that gives the ratiocinations of his diseased mind an embodied and human meaning, pulling him away from the brink and back into the social world.

9/25- Ginzburg’s Clues and Individuation

Ginzburg’s “Clues” feels like a great detective caper itself, twisting and turning through short histories of art forgeries, medical dissections, criminal fingerprinting, and some good, old-fashioned ear fetishizing.

The conclusion reached is that the clues emphasized in the first detective stories, the details that lend insight into the habits, traits, and personalities of complete strangers, come from the need for individuation in an increasingly  obfuscating and systematizing urban society. Ginzburg locates  Sherlock’s and Dupin’s extremely useful, if not critically important, abilities within a time period of growing geographic and social mobility, class struggle, criminalization, and anonymity. Such ability, like that of the forgery-spotter, the doctor, and the crime records keeper (close enough), restores a certain integrity and knowability to the social order. It imposes a perception of reality onto a shifting world where what is bad/illegal/diseased is not clearly distinct from the good/moral/healthy.

I’d like to trace this argument onto our continually evolving understanding of what modernism is. Tracing the individual and his distinction from /attachment to society is one of the goals of literary representation, and each loosely-lumped-together literary movement defines this relationship differently.  High modernism maps the individual consciousness NOT on the his lofty goals and godlike infinitude, nor by direct access to his innermost thoughts and emotions. Rather, what matters is the person’s seemingly inconsequential traits: their morning routine, whether or not they’ll buy flowers themselves, the memory of seeing their sister on a swing, what they do on the toilet, etc.

I’ve used The Actor’s Studio as an example of these noteworthy nothings. After a usually substantial interview with a noteworthy actor, James Lipton always closes the show with a questionnaire that was probably (not) developed by Proust. As if learning what Al Pacino’s favorite noise is would lend us any more insight into the person as a professional or as a man! And yet, somehow… it does. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that’s an illusion that in our culture, we’ve learned to curate our tastes and habits as if this were the key to our individualities.

“The Sign of Four” opens with Sherlock drugging himself because to rid himself of “the dull routine of existence.” Without the act of deduction, Sherlock must resort to cocaine to be in his “own proper atmosphere,” to “reach mental exaltation.” Otherwise, he exists not only in stagnation but in self-negation, much like the rest of the masses whose existence passes by unnoticed in the modern world.


Frow – 9/17

Frow´s conception of genre particularly excites me for the possibilities it opens up for historically informed reading. One question that often bothers me in literary interpretation is how to close the gap between our own experience of a text and the experiences of its initial readers, in order to better understand how texts can be said to “function” in their original historical environments. Frow´s description of genre as “a historically specific pattern of organization of semiotic material” and his emphasis on genre´s relationship to social setting provides interesting ways of approaching this problem (80). If genre “mediate[s] between a social situation and the text which realises certain features of this situation, or which responds strategically to its demands,” then genre also provides a way of theoretically linking texts to their historical contexts (14-15). Given the historical mutability of genre, a good deal of the extra-textual information activated by older genres has probably been lost, changing the ways we read older texts. If we can find ways of recovering this extra-textual information, perhaps by reading contemporaneous texts of the same genres or by giving due attention to a text´s physical setting, like the Graham´s Magazine issue, we can reconstruct the social situations to which these texts respond and perhaps come to a better understanding of the “work” these texts do in these lost situations.

“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” provides an interesting example of this; persistently anthologized as “the first detective story,” it is very difficult to read or think about without bringing in our own assumptions of what a detective story is and does. This may be useful to a certain extent as a way of understanding how this still-popular story functions in today´s cultural environment, but if we want to understand the text historically, following Frow, we wouldn´t consider it a detective story at all, since there would have been no generic framework or “schema” of implied knowledge associated with that genre on which the story´s initial readers could draw when interpreting it. Instead, we would read it against the genre of the Graham´s Magazine story, whatever contemporaneous sensational genres might be activated by the story´s provocative title, etc. We would also be able to reconstruct in some measure the readerships of these genres, the demands these readerships make upon them, their general rhetorical stances toward these readers, etc.–in other words, their “social settings” as I think Frow would understand them. Through its engagement with these non-detective genres, we could come to a better understanding of how the story responds to this immediate social setting. I wonder how much our understanding of the story would change.

Blog Post for 9/18

When John Frow states that a more productive view of genre is to understand it not as strict classification but as “a more reflexive model in which texts are thought to use or to perform the genres by which they are shaped” and as a model that prioritizes “participation without belonging” (25), he immediately prompts me to think of new ways to analyze critical consensus when it comes to genre. What makes some works better participants in a genre than other texts?

For example, one can say that a text that passively replicates the conventions of a genre is less dynamic—even less good, if one is inclined to make judgments—than a text that participates in multiple genres or challenges and perhaps even changes the parameters of the genre with which it is interacting.  By this metric, True Detective’s first season, which dabbles in philosophy and cosmic horror tropes while nodding to established detective fiction conventions and commenting on religious mores, is a more dynamic text than, say, Law and Order, which follows a set pattern and does not do much to reinvent what police dramas can do. To Law and Order’s credit, it admirably performs the traits of the genre in which it participates: there is little chance of tuning into an episode and mistaking what is on the screen for science fiction. Thus, Law and Order may be the stronger detective show. Or not. Upon further reflection, then, I realize Frow’s definition of genre might not work best as an evaluative measure and works better as a method for describing texts and their relationships to each other. That is just fine because too much of a thought process that pits texts’ performances against each other leads to someone asking how well a text belongs to a genre, and then suddenly everyone is back to rigid categories.  Still, I do wonder how much of a factor a text’s ability to move beyond or between genres plays in determining how “good” it is. Should it even be a factor?

In addition to contemplating the critical possibilities of Frow’s definitions, I would like to consider his clever illustration of genre cues. Genre cues “act rather like context-sensitive drop-down menus in a computer program, directing [a reader] to the layers and sub-layers of information” that correspond to what an addresser and an addressee are trying to accomplish (84). His comparison lets the reader partake in the very process Frow is describing. The reader, who presumably has used a computer before, learns by doing and activates (or awakens) what Walter Kintsch might call a knowledge node upon mentally visualizing a dropdown menu. Having called upon that activated node of computer knowledge, the reader applies existing context to understand Frow’s term and thus alter the mutable “background of encyclopaedic knowledge and beliefs” that helps readers form new associations (85). Fortunately, Frow picked an accessible knowledge framework. Had he picked anything substantially more complex than a dropdown menu, his point might have been lost on me.