For Moriarty’s “Field”: Or, Doctors versus Detectives
January 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
The aesthetics of failure is masculinist beauty of wilting stamen. More than womb-envy, more than limits punctured by lightning, the hope of glamour in transference’s making across. In vision – not as sight, which is merely confused with the “is-ness” of sight’s adequation, the relegation to measurement – there is completeness. The mistake of confusing vision with sight creates metaphor, a flawed creature. Let us think of Doctors, not all the way back to the Greeks for the moment, but to the medieval creation of the specialist who embodies the attempt at secularization. Perhaps the Plague Doctor is a good figure with which to begin.
This familiar and chilling image reappears strangely reminiscent in the Mad Magazine’s comic Spy vs. Spy, which satirized the Cold War. Compare:
The mask becomes the face itself.
While it is jumping the gun a bit to move from detective to spy, the increasing ambiguity between forces of good and forces of evil become intensified during the Cold War. We see this in conspiracy literature — Thomas Pynchon, The X-Files, and of course, Twin Peaks. Perhaps The X-Files is the ultimate example of Doctor’s versus Detectives, but what’s apparent at the end of the show’s narrative is that although the two can be lovers, they can only do so at the expense of their son, and thus the family. Romantic love transcends the conspiracy-authored nation-state and the nuclear family.
In Twin Peaks, the story is much darker, as Agent Dale Cooper’s purity is corrupted and he turns on Annie Blackburn. The intertextuality between X-Files and Twin Peaks is amazing sometimes, especially David Duchovny’s appearance as the cross-dressing Denise Bryson. More relevant, however, is Major Garland Briggs (Don S. Davis), who worked for Project Blue Book in Twin Peaks and played Agent Dana Scully’s father in The X-Files. Scully’s father’s death opens up the possibility for life after death and communication with the beyond which shifts Scully’s rigid scientific character. This benevolent father plays foil to Agent Mulder’s father, the “Cigarette Man” who was responsible for not only alien conspiracies, but also the death of President Kennedy.
The Cold War and the alien conspiracy operate on two levels of “otherness:” one geographic and nation-state oriented, the other metaphysical and more radically other. Yet as The X-Files progresses, we see that hybridity becomes a possibility. It is the true conspiracy though: in The X-Files, hybridity is bad. This concept gets carried over into Cylons in the recent version of Battlestar Galactica. Increasingly, the inability to distinguish between humans and hybrids unveils a larger, mystical and godlike force as the source of life unifying Cylon and Human. Otherness finds a way of losing its radical nature. Liberal democracy maintains its ability to expand and transform by appeal to a higher power. We will see if people start fucking zombies on The Walking Dead, but surely in 2013 it’s okay to fuck a vampire. This is all recent TV though. What about doctors? Symbols? Visions?
I think of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus:
Cut is the Branch that might have grown full straight
And burned is Apollo’s laurel bough
That sometime grew within this learned man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practice more than heavenly power permits.
I think of Goethe’s Faust:
Once more you near me, wavering apparitions
That early showed before the turbid gaze.
Will now I seek to grant you definition,
My heart essay again the former daze?
You press me! Well, I yield to your petition,
As all around, you rise from mist and haze;
What wafts about your train with magic glamor
Is quickening my breath to youthful tremor. (3)
With hubris Faust and Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau tamper with divine nature. They try to acquire or adopt some secret divine power while their counterpart adopt a more subjective witnessing to the power. They seek to unveil the truth but not to master or appropriate. Sherlock Holmes and Fox Mulder need the mystery in order to survive…their work gives reverence to the mystery. I have had a longstanding fascination with the Doctor Bernard Rieux in Albert Camus’s The Plague. He is one of those seemingly flawless characters, but then again he is the one telling the story. Still, the prescription to gather one’s angst in defiance seems like a piece of medical advice, like exercising to ward off depression. Melancholia, we know, is the modern disease.
In On the Origins of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin sees Hamlet as the predecessor to the Trauerspiel par excellence because Hamlet is prince, martyr and intriguer in one. Hamlet introduces the character of the self-absorbed Melancholic who has lost a signifier to stabilize meaning. Benjamin argues that the Truerspiel (Mourning-play) is a secularized version of medieval mystery plays. In its secularization according to Benjamin, the Trauerspiel loses all drama of salvation, ends with a stark finitude removing all sense of hope, including eschatology and parousia (second-coming). Nevertheless, the plays remain historical while lacking a sense of progress and causal sequencing as well as a sense of motivation.
Benjamin arrives at this by distinguishing between symbol and allegory. For him, symbols are organic totalities with a stable relationship between the sign and the signified. For example, the King is the earthly symbol for the divine God. In allegory, according to Benjamin the symbol is demystified, fragmentary, and the relationship between sign and signified is unstable. If in earlier plays, the prince was a sovereign head of state occupying God’s authority on earth in a court setting characterized by rationality and order, in the Trauerspiel he becomes a tyrant and the position of protagonist is reoccupied by the Machiavel-martyr who is an intriguer or plotter the likes of Iago, Polonius and even Hamlet himself.
According to Benjamin, the setting and time loses classical unities of time and place and the court takes place in mythological time, which is “found” rather than invented or causally progressive. The plot becomes strangely spatialized according to the “plotting” of the intriguer who is not a sovereign but a puppet-master whose arbitrary or contingent schemes manipulate the crown through artiface, playing on passions, vices, creaturely corruption and fallen-ness. The Trauerspiel is characterized further by an emphasis on ludic play and absurd violence. One gets a sense that Benjamin also had something like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in mind.
Jarry being a paragon of avant-garde aesthetics laughs at the seriousness of Tragedy by invoking pataphysics, the science of imaginary solution to all problems. Pere Ubu is the masculine absurd failure of modern aesthetics. This pulpy character is absorbed into the “assault on culture” of William Burroughs in characters like Clem Snide, from “Freeland,” in Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine. Burrough’s corrupted agent gets absorbed into stateless globalization and crass commerce of the metaphorical “junk,” as opposed to the more optimistic state of “soma.” Burroughs’ detective is bleakly consumed by consumption…there is nothing left to be witnessed; the detective is subject to the persecution of immanence…there is no law to be before, just traffic.
Junk works like Plague. Antonin Artaud, in The Theater and Its Double, writes of the Plague that has attacked Europe at different points: “…the only two organs really affected and injured by the plague, the brain and the lungs, are both directly dependent on the consciouseness and the will […] the plague seems to manifest its presence in and have preference for the very organs of the body, the particular sites, where human will, consciousness, and thought are imminent and apt to occur” (21). For Artaud, the avant-gardism attacks the plague that manifests as “civilization”; for Burroughs and the writers who follow in his wake, this amounts to “a total assault on culture.”
For some, this assault itself is just swallowed by the one-dimensionality of commerce; for others the assault can maintain a mystical martyrdom. I think that if it is to be something similar to the latter (and I’m imagining Burroughs as the grim reaper right behind me about to put his hand on my shoulder), it cannot be in that worn-out appeal to transcendent life that makes humans and Cylons all products of the same deity; rather, it must be in seeing the glow of immanence through vision and not metaphor. It seems their must be something different than masculine failure in avant-garde aesthetics.
To fail is to trip, to fall.
Is to fall in love a failure?
There is a beautiful moment at the end of the first season of the new Doctor Who, where Rose Tyler saves the Timelord Doctor by merging with the innards of the TARDIS time machine. In saving Rose’s human form from the immensity of Time, the Doctor is transfigured. I have yet to finish out the new series and I remember little of the old one from when I was younger, but there seems to be something nice there there concerning transcendence.
If the Doctor has figured as a stable source of rationality for the enlightenment –showing the dangers of too eccentric rationality when straying with hubris — the detective has been a witness and devotee of Truth in a universe where the truth becomes less and less accessible. Nevertheless, the detective remains a kind of initiate into the Mysteries. Both become disembodied or transfigured in late twentieth-century / early twenty-first century work. I’m thinking of Jack, the Doctor and central character of Lost — a narrative of the post-death experience, Doctor Who, the Timelord with a special love for humanity, and imbecile detectives / agents in Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA and Laird Hunt’s The Impossibly.