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Disclosing Being – On Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson

By Cornelius Fitz.

Disclosing Being - On Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality by Fredric Jameson

Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (Verso, 2016)

“You’re looking for narrative… parcel the evidence, establish a timeline, build a story day after day.” This is the brief summary of the nature of detective work given by Martin Hart, one of the detectives investigating the murder of a young girl in the first season of True Detective. In stark contrast to such pragmatism is his partner Rust Cohle, a self-confessed pessimist in the Schopenhauer tradition, although Nietzschean nihilist is a better fit. Faced with corpses and crime scenes, Rust continually confronts the meaningless of existence. After looking at photos of female cadavers for 14 hours straight in search of a clue, he postulates how “each one” was “so certain that their sensory experience constituted a purpose, meaning”, so certain that they were more than just a “biological puppet”.  For Rust, these photographs flatten human ontologies, disclosing them as contingent matter whose consciousness was equally contingent. He mocks the “desperate sense of entitlement” of the ego which looks out at the stars and says “surely all this is for me”, and labels the expectation of a light at the end of the tunnel an “ontological fallacy”.

The TV show thus establishes a dialectic between this nihilism and the police procedural’s narrative formation for crimes that initially appear random. Hart’s notion of story-building resonates as a form of meaning-making and its inherently object-oriented aspect, “parcelling evidence” as though parcelling the non-human actants in a network of human and non-human interrelations. It therefore feels appropriate to borrow this term actant from the terminology of the French philosopher Bruno Latour, founder of Actor-Network Theory. Latour’s still-emerging theory has influenced other contemporary post-Kantian concerns regarding objects and our relationship to them, specifically the philosophical fields of Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism.

Martin Hart’s narratological ideas regarding detection did not receive any of the speculative enquiry that the many nihilistic statements made by his partner did, but it is just as ripe with ontological considerations for the work of a detective. True Detective allows us to consider where the profession of detective might overlap with these ontological and metaphysical concerns, but other exemplar from the crime genre could serve just as well. Now, as if intuiting this, the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson has written a book with some of these sorts of examinations, his specific focus being on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels.

Chandler was uniquely positioned to offer something new in his noir fiction: privately-educated in Britain as a child, he was as an outsider looking in on the American language. Jameson suggests he thus viewed it as an object, a tool that he taught himself to become handy with, unlike his native pulp-writing counterparts. The consequences of this for his style are important to Jameson, and a central theme is how, for Chandler, action was never the intended pivot of his hard-boiled detective fiction. Instead, what he believed that the reader (and he as a writer) really cared about was “the creation of emotion through dialogue and description”. This comes out in his letters, which Jameson quotes from generously, as he does the novels. Even those lacking complete familiarity with them can not only glean the points he makes but will be minded to seek out the novels.

The small length of Jameson’s book adds a tightness to its arguments and the style is often Chandler-esque: words are not wasted, literary observations are pin-sharp and there are some wry aperçu. Winningly, Jameson occasionally employs the genre’s rhetoric, so his theorising becomes the pursuing of “lines of enquiry”, a “procedure”, etc. It’s touches like this that make Jameson such a joy to read, as well as the density of ideas to be found in what could appear to be a pretty skimpy text. The difference between the two, of course, is that Jameson’s critique comes embedded in the historical materialism of Marx, albeit one that today has noticeable object-oriented and Heideggerian elements.

Jameson says reductio ad absurdum that Chandler’s novels are “first and foremost descriptions of searches”. How, then, can this be satisfying? This is the “shill game” at the heart of Chandler’s fiction, a duplicity that would be a crime in itself were not the circuitous dance on which the reader is led so well done. The plot always revolves back round to the beginning, because these are the only solid characters the reader has. The “diversionary” search plot has to sketch its incidents and personages so sharply because they are never encountered again, and yet they remain “like glimpses through a window, noises from the back of a store”. This secondary plot is where most of the action takes place and it is here that the detective maps the totality of the novel’s social space, those “unfinished stories, unrelated activities going on in the society around us simultaneously with our own”. Since the plots are variations or “permutations” on a limited number of options, the murder and its solution are not what Chandler is giving us: some cheap intellectual puzzle to solve. Jameson believes that of far more importance is the seemingly peripheral secondary plot of chance encounters in the two zones of LA: the shabby non-places of offices, hotel lobbies, what Jameson calls “the dimension of the interchangeable, the inauthentic” where humdrum lives are eked out; and, in stark contradistinction, the exclusive and secluded world of wealth – the vast estates, private clubs, luxury hotels and gambling ships “anchored beyond the three-mile limit”. What Jameson believes Chandler does in his novels is substitute “the experience of space” for that of “the temporality of problem solving”.

The Detections of Totality builds on existing essays Jameson has written on Chandler (see ‘The Synoptic Chandler’ collected in Shades of Noir: A Reader edited by Joan Copjec, for example). It’s easy to see why Chandler’s novelisation of “the experience of space” in LA remains of interest to a critic whose concerns include “cognitive mapping” and the collapse of a subjective sense of totality in postmodern social fragmentation. Marlowe, uniquely, has access to all these worlds (or to all this worlding, to use Heidegger’s terminology); he guides the reader through the social typologies and class structures of LA – and their worlds become his social space, his “office”. Marlowe is able to do for class what Virgil Tibbs does for race in John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night; the latter’s incendiary mapping of white social space in Wells, South Carolina (Sparta, Mississippi in Norman Jewison’s film adaptation) perhaps inspired by the former’s transgressive forays.

It is worth remembering the book’s subtitle: The Detections of Totality. Totality is a word Jameson has made all his own, although its Marxist roots reside in Frankfurt School thinker György Lukács’ work The Theory of the Novel and the ideological ideas of Louis Althusser: “the Imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.” A fundamental part of the Postmodern condition is how this totality has become absent and unrepresentational; the individual is unable to form a sense of their position in the whole. A disjunction emerges. Jameson examined this aesthetically with recourse to conspiracy thrillers such as A Few Good Men in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: “to think a system so vast that it cannot be encompassed by the natural and historically developed categories of perception with which human beings normally orient themselves.” Here Jameson develops his notion of cognitive mapping, an idea borrowed from the American urban planner Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, in which he examined the mental maps citizens make of their metropolis. Jameson’s usage served to show the disjunction between the city as it appears in the imaginary (ideologically) and as it is perceived by the individual phenomenologically in everyday life. Chapter Two applies these ideas to Chandler’s oeuvre, and, for me, this is the least successful chapter, which is ironic given Jameson’s pedigree here. The writing devolves into the drier, more formal literary criticism of “semes” and semiotics, permutation squares and other critical resources, only eventually forging a cognitive map which extends beyond mere literary configurations to include film noir, principally the film adaptations of Chandler’s novels. Given the subject matter at hand, these pages should have zing and pizzazz, not stale discussions of typologies and permutations squares. Compared to his direct critical descendants like Jeff Kinkle and Alberto Toscano in Cartographies of the Absolute, who attempt to map capital in a range of aesthetics from HBO’s The Wire, visual arts, models to engineering projects and cities themselves, Jameson’s approach can feel rather retrograde at times.

Not so in the final chapter, however. Reading it, I was minded of an article in The Guardian written in 2014 by Giles Fraser entitled Are modern detectives the new priests? Fraser augments his case by drawing attention to the literary canon’s religious detectives: Father Brown and Cadfael. The article, though, is written directly in response to the popularity of the first True Detective season, positing that detectives like Rust and Hart fill a theological lack once occupied by the clergy. Such an idea forms a core narrative strand in the series itself. Tiring of his nihilistic worldview, Hart asks his partner why he bothers getting out of bed in the morning. Rust’s piercing lucidity is such he admits the reason he tells himself, that he “bears witness”, is really a disavowal of the fact that he “lacks the constitution for suicide”. Of course, bearing witness, the only act Rust considers meaningful, is a quasi-religious one. He is also a master of the suspect confession: “Everybody wants confession, everyone wants cathartic narrative… Everybody’s guilty,” he says cynically. Furthermore, in Rust’s apartment, there is a cross above his bed, which piques Hart’s curiosity and receives a typically jaded response: “I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion”, which Rust could be set to enact in his final scenes. The series famously reneges on its bleak Weltanschauung in its closing scene, wherein Rust sees the light and begins talking about the oldest story of all, the biblical one of Good vs Evil, in which the light is winning.

Metaphysics closes out Jameson’s book, too. This final chapter is called ‘The Barrier at the End of the World’ – “world” here being the Heideggerian sense of human subjects (Dasein) projecting a “world” outwards onto the foundational Earth. Heidegger, of course, saw Dasein as “the shepherd of Being”, the Christian connotations of which are inescapable. Jameson dips into Heidegger’s ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ essay, drawing on his ontological division of materialist Earth and ideological World, and the “rift” therein which produces works of art and allows a disclosure of Being to human beings. Naturally, Jameson translates these terms into his own critical apparatus, so World becomes History, Earth is now Matter. Who would think that Chandler could become a work of art disclosing Being to its readers? Jameson is the sort of critic who can pull such theoretical gymnastics off, and I only wish more of the book was dedicated to giving a Heideggerian reading of Chandler’s hard-boiled detective fiction. Heidegger, who describes language as “the house of being”, is an overlooked source for literary criticism, and there are serious ontological questions that continually overlap with the aesthetic. Graham Harman, part of the post-Kantian Object-Oriented Ontology school mentioned earlier, has said that aesthetics is first philosophy, an original notion that evokes the philosophical foundations of aesthetic theory to powerful effect. To this end, Harman has written and lectured on Object-Oriented Aesthetics, also known as Speculative Aesthetics, and this would be an exciting direction for future literary criticism to travel in.

Heidegger, however, was antipathetic towards aesthetic experience. In ‘The Age of the World-Picture’ he describes an “essential phenomenon” of modernity being “art’s moving into the purview of aesthetics.” This is problematic because the art work has become “the object of mere subjective experience”, and thus is considered to be “an expression of human life”. Heidegger was crucially aware of the commodification of artworks, wondering whether they “stand and hang in museums and exhibitions” as “the works they themselves are, or are the not rather here as objects of the art industry?” In ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, he mentions how “works are shipped like coal from the Ruhr and logs from the Black Forest”. So when Jameson refers to his ‘On The Origin of the Work of Art’ essay as an “aesthetic”, this seems a poor choice of term, and certainly one the German philosopher would resist.

Still, this is not his main concern here, and there are glimpses of what a Jamesonian engagement with this ontological field might resemble, like when he expatiates on how the social system has a spatial expression in Chandler. He suggests that there is a prodigious “metaphysical” or philosophical expansion of the office per se, whereby people are not their spaces in his novels, but the spaces themselves become a form of character or actant. He then expands this idea to suggest that both death and nature are akin to “spatial concepts” in Chandler, things which “touch on the outer edge of Being itself”. In Farewell, My Lovely, this “barrier at the end of the world” of Being is represented by a white fence, which Jameson finds “the most fascinating and enigmatic object in all of Chandler”. Death is “the non-space of the outer limit”, where World gives way to Matter. Of The Big Sleep, he mentions how “the oil derricks seem to mark the seam between a prehistoric nature and the fitful traces of heroic political history in this social world”. I was reminded of the work Dr Georgiana Banita has done on the ‘Petrodome’ aesthetic of True Detective, where the catastrophic worlding of the Anthropocene petroculture delimits the horizon like a psychic trauma. Another example is when Jameson, summarising the use of meteorology in the novels, suggests they are “a sign of the non-human axis of matter” in them. Finally, Jameson believes this “shill game” of distraction via the detective’s diverting procedures brings us up against “the reality of death itself”, the non-space which cannot be mapped, which escapes any imagined totality, and which eventually undermines all “worlding”, even reading about detectives called Philip Marlowe.

Such ideas show the ontological riches to be mined from considering the worlding of detectives this way, and hopefully Jameson will be inclined to continue this particular line of enquiry further.


Cornelius Fritz

Cornelius Fitz is a writer, teacher, and cultural cartographer, and has reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement since 2010. He was recently awarded the inaugural Verso Prize for work on the speculative aesthetics of human extinction, part of a Masters in Cultural and Critical Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. He is currently looking to place his first novel Dear Old Blood: Notes on a Wittgenstein Noir with a publisher. As well as completing another ‘genre novel of ideas’, in which Sherlock Holmes encounters the problem of his own nonexistence as a fictional entity, he is working on bringing his work on speculative aesthetics to a non-academic audience. He can be found on Twitter as @lapsedhermit.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 6th, 2016.