Wednesday 14 September 2011

N is for Noir

Mean Streets: Noir and Progressive Fiction

Guest post by Mark Harding

It's a Noir World, My Masters
Noir has a lot going for it. It's got traditional genre strengths, engagement with the news headlines we see daily and as far as postmodernist critics are concerned, noir is the new black. For the sort of politically engaged, inclusive and progressive fiction championed by TFF, surely it's the perfect form?

I am, of course, going to disagree.

I'm not saying noir doesn't have good uses, especially in short fiction, but as the core ingredient for the progressive fiction of the future it is too blunt a tool; inherently conservative, pessimistic and falsely individualistic. To take a metaphor from homoeopathy, it's a poison that has to be diluted extensively if it is going to do the patient any good.

I'm going to pick on Richard Morgan's novels for most examples. This isn't because his work is right-wing (the opposite, in fact) but because his acute understanding of genre pushes noir to its logical conclusions. And I may be accused of unfairly spending print space on the negative aspects of noir and glossing over the positives. But that's because the positive arguments are pretty well documented and if I don't stick to summaries this little blog spot will turn into a dissertation!

There are three strong claims for noir as a progressive genre:

1. The Romantic.
“The story is this man's adventure in search of a hidden truth” (1)
There he is, the hero (though, it is sometimes a she) walking through mean streets, fighting against overwhelming odds to champion justice against corporate or criminal empires. Beneath his armour of violence and cynicism, he's a good man. (Kovacs in Altered Carbon, gives his fee to save Irene Elliott's daughter. Dammit, he even cures his sleeve's smoking habit!) The noir hero can't change the world but he can touch lives, find the hidden truth, bring some justice to an unjust world. He may only win small successes, but they burn like torches in the night.

2. The Zeitgeist
“Broken Britain” (2)
In real life the Western democracies have turned into a noir novel. Living in Britain, it is striking how much consensus there is for this view. Even at business conferences it's quite common for middle managers and small business owners to shoot the breeze by discussing the latest example of the endemic corruption of the pillars of our society. Surely noir is the only appropriate way to describe the world we live in?

3. The Postmodern
“I am a nothing but a replicant” (3)
It seems a truism that every student of advanced film studies believes that noir, particularly noir expressed through 'vampiric' combination with other genres – the Gothic, and especially science fiction – is engaging at the deepest and truest level to represent the postmodern experience. The key influence is the Lacanian theorist Slavoj Zizek (4), who argues that noir, amongst other things, is the expression of:
The evaporation of authority of the institutions that define coherent social meaning. Once social meaning has gone, the only engagement the individual can have is with the experience of pleasure.
The paradoxical slide between our knowing of self and our 'real' self. (We are all replicants, like Deckard in Blade Runner.) Nothing can be trusted: certainly no institution, and not even oneself. (For example, in Richard Morgan's Woken Furies, where Kovacs is being hunted to destruction by his own younger self.)

Compelling arguments. But each of them has an evil twin. And I'll argue that ultimately, the dark glasses of noir are incompatible with even the faintest glimmer of hope.

“Rugged individualism”
The trouble with the Romantic view as played out in a noir setting is the conservative pessimism of the world view. The hero of noir is on his own. No one can be trusted. Concepts like family, home and community are empty phrases (Sylvia Harvey, via 5.) Deviation from these ideals is punished, yet there is a Catch 22 implication that they are impossible ideals. From the point of view of the PI's 'hard boiled' vision of the 'real world' -- the vision where the 'hidden truth' is seen – aren't such phrases as 'community' merely empty words? We're just animals on our own, fighting for survival. Only the exceptional individual (noir subject) can dispense justice. (More on the noir subject later).

As Margaret Thatcher remarked: “There's no such thing as society.” So how can there be a better one? (6)

“It is the world you and I live in” (1)
The attraction of the Zeitgeist argument is the implied claim that noir is holding up a mirror to the real world. And sure, scales have to be removed from eyes, but there is the so-easy temptation to start accepting the world of noir, not in the spirit of satire but of lazy fatalism. This is how the real world is: you can't change it, give up.

A thousand film producers can't be wrong
If the film critics are right, and noir is a major genre in the mainstream film industry, it's almost a guarantee that is it conservative. (That is, supportive of society's controlling interests and power structures.)

“The noir subject” (4)
It is easy to mistake the attention paid by Cultural scholars such as Zizek to noir as approbation. It isn't. Analysis is not commendation. Zizek himself is troubled by the erosion of social meaning that he finds best exemplified by the noir vision. If Zizek is correct about this aspect, then that is all the more reason for progressive fiction to find another way forward.

Now, it is true that noir can be produced by artists with clear leftish sympathies, such as Bigelow's Strange Days and Morgan's Kovacs novels. But the implication of the postmodernist argument is that noir's capacity to be progressive is necessarily limited.

Richard Morgan, with his acute insight into the structures of genre, provides a brilliant example. Market Forces (published before the final book of the Kovacs sequence) is an example of, I suppose, capitalist-noir. It is a perfect illustration of the implicit career track of the noir hero. The Zizekian transgressive jouissance (4) hero, Chris (who like many a noir protagonist is ruthless but nice to his 'pets') is successful enough to get promoted out of his equivalent of PI status near the bottom of the heap. (“He is a relatively poor man or he would not be detective at all.” (1)). Once he's no longer the underdog he switches sides and joins the oppressors. And why not? From the outlook of the characters, the 'real world' of the novel can't be beaten so he might as well join them. (Even though, ironically, Chris' job in 'conflict management' is about changing the world.) The novel could have been written to exemplify Zizek's thesis.

The knock out
It seems to me that the knock out blow for noir as a progressive literature is that the genre can't survive the presence of optimism or hope.

Richard Morgan again. The concluding novel of the Kovacs noir franchise is Woken Furies. At the end of the novel, the revolutionary Quellists are given resources and weaponry that exceeds the current technology. The balance of power has shifted: they have the possibility of overthrowing the ruling despots and making a better world. And once there is hope, noir implodes. The final section of Woken Furies isn't noir: it can't be. From the point of view of noir, hope is a foolish fantasy. But what if there is evidence to support hope? And once hope is admitted, noir can't come back; if the Quellists failed now the only possible result would be the inaction of despair – another option closed off to noir within the terms of its genre.

I'm not saying noir can't satirize and warn, and I'm not saying issues of solipsism, self identity and similar omphalos gazings aren't worthwhile. But as a genre to spearhead the progressive literature of the future, noir is seriously hampered. Noir is too blunt a tool. Too simplistic. Too reductive. So hard boiled it's boiled away the complexities of real life where humans can still have loyalty to more things than their pay-packet.

Is there hope?
Of course. Look at the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel that should be noir, but doesn't share the smell. This is because the novel constantly emphasises community. The characters swim in a society of friends, lovers, contacts – there are even institutions that are motivated by idealism. Separation from the delights of Swedish society is a temporary aberration to be remedied as soon as reasonably possible. (Even Lisbeth Salander has lovers and friends.) (7)

There's nothing inevitable about noir. It's inherent solipsism may sit nicely with the critical studies of postmodernist theorists, but from the perspective of the philosophy department, a world view based on Lacan's interpretation of Descartes is just as paradoxical as any other. It has no claim to precedence. To pick an obvious example, Lacan's view of self-identity is founded on the Cartesian tradition of the Cogito (4), but this tradition is equally balanced by the tradition of the critique of  'private language' founded by Wittgenstein. A tradition based (conveniently, for the thrust of my argument) on the community that is logically required for language to work at all.

One development has been to blend-in (dilute) noir effects by placing it as one genre amongst many. Multi-genre mash-ups as Jeff Noon's Pollen and Hal Duncan's Escape from Hell! are able to appropriate the dark knowingness of noir in progressive, questioning work in which community is emphasised. These works aren't noir but they're happy to spin off it.

For myself, I'm confident that writers will not only continue to evolve this type of approach, but will also invent brand new genres as required. The methods may differ, but there will always be a need to truthfully picture a world that has the possibility of change for the better.

Notes and references
1. Raymond Chandler. The Simple Art of Murder. (London: Vintage Books,1998)

2. Quote from David Cameron, UK Prime Minister.

3. Slavoj Zizek. Tarrying with the Negative.

4. In essays such as 'The Thing That Thinks': The Kantian Background of the Noir Subject. Slavoj Zizek claims that the truest expression of noir is when (mis)appropriated by other genres. (Key examples being films such as Blade Runner, The Matrix, Total Recall.) Zizek uses modern culture to illustrate Lacan's concepts about the growth and self-definition of the individual. Lacan's concepts also extend into the social sphere. Thus, 'reality' is seen as dependent upon social institutions (called the 'Big Other'). If the 'Big Other' has no traction, then Lacan's notion that it is only the pleasure of transgressive jouissance (orgasm) that can be known and valued by the individual also takes on a social dimension. The nearest a postmodern society has to cohesive institutions is the pleasure (jouissance) of mass entertainments such as sport and Hollywood (and in the case of Market Forces, executive car battles).
Zizek examines noir in the context of Lacan's model of the growth of the individual in Cartesian terms. The Cogito ('I think, therefore I am') is seen as a foundation. But a foundation that contains implicit dilemmas for the consciousness of self.

5.Via Steve Macek. The Political Uses of the Neo-Noir City

6. The conservative emphasis on the individual implies that people live the way they do through choice. There are no greys. If the world is a dark place it is because each individual has chosen to make it so. The view contains the paradox that each individual can only gain from enlightened behaviour if they all do: as a society.

7. The horrific massacre in Norway happened after I'd written these words about a fellow Scandinavian country. Anders Breivik is an appalling example of 'the loner'.

1 comment:

  1. Some very good points in here, Mark. We've argued in several of the posts in this series that awareness of community and society are valuable in progressive speculative fiction (e.g. my point in Dystopia that the role of people and humanity and community as a remedy to dystopian government is as important in a story as the evils of the totalitarian rulers in question). A strong hero is all very well, but without a support group to plug into, no hero is going to last very long out there. (I believe there'll be more discussion of that same point on Friday, but I won't pre-empt my colleague there.)

    Congratulations, by the way, on what will almost certainly turn out to be the most footnoted post of the month!