Ordinary language is all right.
One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.
Thinking about the difficulty of putting things into words has reminded me of something I wrote a few years ago, probably while trying to justify to myself some risks I had taken, not long before that, when teaching an aesthetics course that was heavy on prosaic efforts, by me and my students, at just listening and trying to talk about what we heard:
'Our concepts get their content, their life, from the inferential relationships they bear to one another and from those objects in the world to which we apply them. In contrast to the methodically articulated concepts of science or the ready-to-hand concepts of everyday life, the concepts of art are blunt, unwieldy instruments with which most of us are ill-practiced. We're more used to letting the objects speak for us, letting them stand in for what we might say about them. We share a song, point at a picture, utter a few words, and let nature take its course. We might be content to let the rest go unsaid, felt or experienced or undergone rather than fully, explicitly known, as long as we find some rough agreement about which objects it is that we share, or who it is we share our reactions with. Or we might revel in art's capacity to speak privately to us or induce membership in a select circle of people who understand one another without needing to say it all. As we move from feelings, habits, and tacit understandings among the like-minded, anchored in particular objects, to unmoored talk about art at the broadest scope, we’re liable to do an injustice to our actual lives with art, our actual concepts, for all sorts of reasons. This is one reason criticism, the actual practice of criticism, is essential for doing aesthetics well. It's our means for making art fully available to our philosophical reflection.'
I suppose I was in an apologetic frame of mind: apologetic on behalf of 'us', on behalf of what we ordinarily do with music, before we come to the crucial point for aesthetics, of putting what we do into words. So I wanted to leave room to acknowledge natural reasons that we may say little, may be less articulate than elsewhere, may find ourselves at a loss for words when challenged to say more about objects which are after all only partially ordinary, only akin in qualified ways to the other things, and other people, we deal with in everyday life.
I guess I usually want to leave that room because I'm skeptical about what happens when it's crowded by all the ways in which people are all too ready to have something to say—ways I associate with aesthetics, with criticism, with informally or formally institutionalized culture. You can learn something from these, even learn something about your own responses to a thing, learn something about yourself. But they're too loud, too fast. They too often keep us from being able to, to be patient enough to watch and listen. Criticism—by others, so what we have a hard time not thinking of as official criticism—insinuates itself too easily into what we do with art. It has so much to say; we feel like we can barely say anything.
I don't usually associate that particular sort of speechlessness with sublimity, maybe because I think more about efforts we have yet to make to put things into words, than about limits to our ability to do so (at a Tractarian extreme, say). But it's occurred to me recently that I might.
I've been circling around my television project for about a year, since I first had some ideas about how get some old notes about some TV shows going somewhere while contesting Cavell's attempt at writing about television as a medium, in 'The Fact of Television'. I was struck by how much trouble he had affirming that TV was worth anything at all, considering his insistence in the first chapter of The World Viewed that film is distinctive in demanding consideration, by 'serious' people, of the interest taken in ordinary films by ordinary ('typical') people: 'you do not really like the highest instances unless you also like the popular ones. You don't even know what the highest are instances of unless you know the typical as well' (p. 6). Or considering the arguments on behalf of Hollywood remarriage comedies (aka screwball comedies) as, let's say, party to philosophical conversation and serious moral reflection about ordinary lives, in…
… Pursuits of Happiness ('… there is something beyond our distorting of the value of the good films closest to us that keeps them inaccessible to us as food for thought. It lies in the dilemmas I was invoking in calling upon Emerson's appeal to the common and the low, and his and Thoreau's passion for the near, claiming their affinity with my philosophical preoccupation with the ordinary, the everyday. The dilemmas concern what I called taking an interest in one's experience. The films that form the topics of the following chapters are ones some people treasure and others despise, ones which many on both sides or on no side bear in their experience as memorable public events, segments of the experiences, the memories, of a common life. So that the difficulty of assessing them is the same as the difficulty of assessing everyday experience, the difficulty of expressing oneself satisfactorily, of making oneself find the words for what one is specifically interested to say, which comes to the difficulty, as I put it, of finding the right to be thus interested. It is as if we and the world had a joint stake in keeping ourselves stupid, that is dumb, inarticulate. This poses, to my mind, the specific difficulty of philosophy and calls upon its peculiar strength, to receive inspiration for taking thought from the very conditions that oppose thought, as if the will to thought were as imperative as the will to health and to freedom' (pp. 41–42))
… or in Cities of Words ('… when I thought about these eminent [moral] theories [i.e., deontological or teleological] in connection with the lives depicted in the grand movies I had been immersed in, the theories and the depicted lives passed one another by, appeared irrelevant to each other. Yet these lives seemed and seem to me ones pursued by thoughtful, mature people, heavily in conversation with one another about the value of their individual or joint pursuits. I could not understand my interest in them as unrelated to moral reflection. I claim for these films that they are masterpieces of the art of film, primary instances of America's artistic contribution to world cinema, and that their power is bound up in their exploration of a strain of moral urgency for which film's inherent powers of transfiguration and shock and emotionality and intimacy have a particular affinity' (p. 9)).
The latter passage—which I quote especially because it shows Cavell's self-consciousness about the apparent extravagance of the claims he makes on behalf of what were, I guess, considered relatively unimportant films—comes from what is also his best attempt to articulate 'Emersonian moral perfectionism', which is meant to be non-elitist. The first few pages of The World Viewed, a book which presents itself as a kind of apology for the idea of treating film as an art, even invoke Tolstoy's 'What is Art?'! So how is this degree of solicitousness about ordinary lives and their ordinary loves compatible with what, to me, is an only-partially-surmounted disdain toward television and its audiences, on display in 'The Fact of Television'?
I fear (because it means yet another handful of books to work through before I even have a clear picture) that the answer ultimately has something to do with Emersonian perfectionism, but working through some of Cavell's aesthetic/critical writing in more detail has made me wonder what exactly the costs or conditions of his typical conclusions in them are.
By 'typical conclusions', I'm thinking of the way that the works he reads, as he reads them, seem always to come around to directing hard questions at their audience members, questions only they themselves can consider and answer about the state of their individual lives—and answer, usually, not in words but with something like 'conversion', acting or living differently. Here are five examples of this kind of interpretative conclusion, which I guess I can call an 'implicative remark':
1. 'What I reveal is what I share with everyone else present with me at what is happening: that I am hidden and silent and fixed. In a word, that there is a point at which I am helpless before the acting and the suffering of others. But I know the true point of my helplessness only if I have acknowledged totally the fact and the true cause of their suffering. Otherwise I am not emptied of help, but withholding of it.' ('The Avoidance of Love', p. 338.)
2. 'Shall we blame Beckett because he cannot keep still? Then blame Hamlet because he cannot keep going? Why won't somebody stop us, or start us? Perhaps we've got something to complain about, and maybe it has to do with our efforts first to create and then to destroy our Gods. Nietzsche said we will have to become Gods ourselves to withstand the consequences of such deeds. Camus said we will never be men until we give up trying to be God. Que voulez-vous, Monsieur? Which do you pick? —We hang between.' ('Ending the Waiting Game', p. 162.)
3. 'The writer keeps my choices in front of me, the ones I am not making and the ones I am. This makes me wretched and nervous. My choices appear as curiosities, and to be getting the better of me. Curiosity grows with every new conjecture we find confirmed in the words. It seems all but an accident that we should discover what they mean. This becomes a mood of our acts of reading together: it is an accident, utterly contingent, that we should be present at these words at all. We feel this as the writer's withdrawal from the words on which he had staked his presence; and we feel this as the words' indifference to us, their disinterest in whether we choose to stay with them or not. Every new clarity makes the writer's existence obscurer to us—that is, his willingness to remain obscure. How can he apparently so completely not care, or have made up his mind, that we may not understand? This feeling may begin our almost unbearable sense of his isolation. Did he not feel lonesome? We are asking now. And then we find ourselves, perhaps, alone with a book in our hands, words on a page, at a distance.' (Senses of Walden, pp. 49–50.)
4. 'He is at an end of the words at our disposal; his spade is turned. And the thing that cannot be said cannot be shown; nothing here is secret. What is now before us, unapproachable, is now to be acknowledged or to be avoided, now to happen or not to. Poetry, it is said, is making, say work. That ought not to be taken as an answer to the question of what poetry is, but as an incitement to consider the question; and first the question what poetic making or work is. An essential of the work before us is the teaching, or exemplification of what work is (Emerson's work; let us say philosophical work)—of what it is about our work, and our ideas of work, that keeps the things we most want to happen from happening.' ('Finding as Founding' in This New Yet Unapproachable America, pp. 113–14, reading Emerson's 'Experience'.)
5. 'The sequence is a kind of summary epilogue, gathering together the characters as well as the themes of the production we have witnessed. if this production had merely copied rather than absorbed to its own purposes the tradition of eighteenth-century comedy which it consistently invokes, this sequence would serve to beg our pardons for any offense, celebrate the timely conversion of a miscreant (The Marriage of Figaro) or his timely riddance (Don Giovanni), and permit the cast jointly to ask our blessing with our hands. Instead, the Marquis speaks alone, in confusion, to, not for the cast; they face him, their backs to us; and they file away from us, in clumps, as if their production had not been concluded but been interrupted. As if to declare: this production has from the beginning had no audience, none it has not depicted; no standing group of spectators will have known what they were watching.' ('More of the World Viewed', p. 220, reading The Rules of the Game.)
In my experience, coming upon just one of these can be startlingly clarifying: you think that it really does put the work being read into words, really does apply to you, really does confront you with something about yourself, your failure, your fixity, your fear, your indecision, your inaction, your ignorance. The purest, for me, is #3, about Thoreau. With it in mind, I've since taught Walden, and felt a little irregular trying to insist upon exactly that quality of the book that is supposed to make its readers—my students—feel wretched (which I think says something about the specific way these remarks work, or don't).
But once you read Cavell make this sort of remark often enough, you can start to suspect a pose or a trick. A thing. A tic. A line, his line. Which is not to say that it is a pose. It's just, I think, that the way in which the remarks come about (and the consistency with which Cavell is able to bring them about) has a tendency to leave you uncertain about their justification. Given that they often seem meant to focus, condense, a more extensive experience stemming from a reading of a text or a viewing of a film, perhaps that evanescent quality is to be expected, to a certain degree. And there's certainly one remedy there: try harder to achieve, say, the experience of 'continuous presentness' that Cavell says is demanded of the audience of King Lear ('Avoidance', p. 322), with the idea that fuller clarity about the import of the remarks he directs at us will follow. But this being criticism, or philosophy, you want the reasons, too, and though they recede they seem not to be detachable from the remarks that implicate us. (I do think it's fairly obvious that most of these reasons will embody a kind of implicit or ordinary-level reception-theory of the midcentury sort that he would sometimes cite—without directly applying it—as influential on his thinking, say Iser or Jauss, it's just that dealing with such a theory in its 'ordinary' form is not readily accomplished.)
This first became acute for me while I was trying my hand at writing about Homicide around a year ago. I don't think I was trying to force it, but I was a little too automatically trying to write as a 'we'. And it sounded false to me. I had the knack of saying things in 'we' form, but it felt like the show itself undercut me (just count the different times when characters say 'we' in the pilot episode, and consider the particular quality of disbelief they seem to say it with). And not only that, but something about its being television—a few things, actually—seemed falsified to me by my saying 'we', almost as if in the case of television certain comfortable fictions about relationships between critics and audiences could not be maintained.
This sent me back to The World Viewed, to 'The Fact of Television', and ultimately to the essays on Shakespeare and Beckett in Must We Mean What We Say? because I wanted to be able to say something about television as a medium, in particular about the ways in which it supported saying 'we'. For a long while I've had the idea that in written media, there are certain distinctive ways in which a word like 'we' can or can't be said effectively, but in interpretative contexts those constraints seem loosened to me, or at least observed laxly in practice. —Yet apparently (so my dissatisfaction with saying 'we' about Homicide suggests) there are things that make it work or don't, depending on the medium, or the work, or something.
One thing that seems evident from Cavell's aesthetic writings is that he derives some support for his 'implicative remarks' not just from the works but from their media. Perhaps you could say he 'reads' each medium as part of the reading of the work. At least half of part II of 'Avoidance' seems meant to underwrite his claim, in support of the reading of Lear from part I, that 'in failing to see what the true position of a character is, in a given moment, we are exactly put in his condition, and thereby implicated in the tragedy' (p. 313)—underwriting effected by an interpretation of how we are said to 'confront' the figures on a stage which is formulated in terms of a knot of contrasts between real and fictional (pretended, acted) 'presence' (pp. 326–337, esp.). In 'Waiting Game', the analogue is a discussion of Beckett's 'own way of putting the audience in the position of the actors… [or] the characters' (p. 157) in terms of our differential exposure to what is now 'happening' onstage (it's happening to them, not to us: that's all). Nearly every page of The Senses of Walden goes in some way to maintaining the right kind of tension needed to ask, and understand the answer to, the question of how 'a book' could change our lives, could make us or help us change them. And Cavell's answer invokes the familiar sort of isolating effect, this the one achievable in Walden's medium: in the paragraph following passage #3 from above, about finding ourselves 'alone with a book in our hands', he continues (about Thoreau), 'alone is where he wants us. … He is facing out the problem of writing altogether. His writing has not attained itself until it has completely absorbed the responsibility for its existence, i.e., for calling upon his neighbors; in the present case, until it is absolutely still, without assertion, without saying anything that requires his reader to take his word for what he says.… "I have not attained to obscurity" means that the I, the ego, has not disappeared' (pp. 50–51). Left alone with the book from whose words its writer has withdrawn (p. 49), hence left to place ourselves in the world (p. 53), we're tasked with 'an endless realization of our separateness' (p. 54).
(… a draft, ca. January 2014)
There was a moment, an extended moment, during my younger years when I could see 'criticism' as a form of exuberance, as a spontaneous overflow of one's interest in and involvement with a work of art (or with anything, really); as a continuation of the impulses that led one to pour again and again over a page, to talk up a record to one's friends, to ask questions which one could only try to answer by putting them to the work by oneself. —In other words, there was a time when criticism was enjoyable to me. Also a time at which my enthusiasms for what seemed naturally to call forth criticism from me also seemed sufficient to push beyond criticism to something like advocacy. I was taken with the project of effecting apologies for the critically neglected; basically, the project of saying to academia, or to high art circles, whoever was institutionally hostile or predisposed not to understand or just not to listen, that low art or popular art was just as worthy or valuable or just as meriting of attention and critical discussion. —Just as much an expression of who we were and a repository of our hopes, anxieties, of the energies that stood to transform our lives, if released by intimate engagement with their sources.
This changed. Obviously because of graduate school, though I do not think, now, that it would be too worthwhile to trace those particular causes. What changed was that it all started to seem like work. The project of criticism became work, partly as my conception of faithful and effective criticism deepened and outstripped my achievements as a critic and my sheer ability to perform criticism (to read closely, to read widely, to take in a form in a moment's glance, to fix the salient details of a whole and let them set the frame for discussion). It also became work as the objects of criticism started to seem like tasks themselves, not enjoyments or allurements or obscure expressions or reflections of self, but as sites of labor. —Nothing not requiring toil, patience, studiousness.
This must have something to do with my change in habits round about this time, which I date roughly to that beginning of graduate school—I mean the change in my reading from being basically a completist practice to one in which I could never stay long with one book, never see one through, never maintain the patience or discipline or interest or enjoyment to continue my reading on through to the end. Obviously there is no necessity to do so, but one consequence is that I also thereby deprived myself of the subsidiary effects of reading wholes; of training my habits of thought, of acquainting myself with the ways writers had of solving their problems, of coming through with satisfactions I hadn't seen coming.
What changed really was that my needs for pleasure changed. My desires changed. I became more insistent, somewhere behind my eyes, that this was not what I wanted, that something else not yet seen, something different, was the true form of my satisfaction in thinking. —That different stories, that a different crystallization of words, different forms, would give me the satisfactions that I thought somehow to expect from the act of reading. —Presaged in all my years of sitting alone with a book, of being caught up imaginatively, of being moved from book to paper or screen to talk about what I had read, of it being suggested by teachers and authorities and culture in general that there was something yet to be written which would arise somehow from what I had read and from what I had yet to write (and hear, and see, and feel).
As ease of enjoyment eluded me more and more the act of reading itself came more and more to seem like work, and the act of listening more and more to pass through my life as a sometime pleasure most times silent—an unending sequence of missed opportunities for thought. It started to seem like the things I was spending my time with would not become investments of my time, not investments I could ever receive returns on, unless I put work into them. —And as work, something that in a sense I did not want to do: was made to do by the necessities of life or the world (gotta get those publications, gotta make a name, gotta be known, count), something elicited from me from the outside or imposed upon me by worldly circumstances. These were investments I wanted to make, in a sense. But perhaps also investments that I did not know how to force—in the way that you cannot hurry growth, cannot make natural expression a continuous demand without stifling it, quieting all expression. —There are natural silences, too.
And so my critical impulse subsided, or was redirected, or went underground. In the meantime it diversified, found many more things to touch, things for me to be moved by. —But at the same time that I was less moved; less able to be moved. —As if, at least, I were storing up obscure memories, traces, of my experiences so that channels might be formed in which later feelings might run their course. (If.)
But now what I am feeling is that enjoyment and criticism are at odds. That seeing criticism as work, and seeing the objects of criticism as calling for work, has the effect of pushing out one of the most important things about art or anything like art, that it be a pleasure, freely enjoyed, a realm of play, relaxation, interest freely pursued or declined, that it be a place opposed to work. There should always be something about art that prompts the suspicion: Don't you have something to do? —And the answer, 'Probably, but this is all I want to do'. I would rather do this. Who wouldn't? Why should I do anything else unless I have to—unless someone makes me? (The defiance of someone with a record collection, with 100 pages to go.)
'Work' seems to me to be the key term here precisely because so many of the usual conceptions of the value of art in philosophy or in criticism turn art into work; turn our time with art into time in which we're working, or could be working, or ought to be working. —This is so with any conception that basically treats art as a source of knowledge (because once knowledge is on the scene, there's work of a scientific or skeptical sort to be done, a task: validation). It's also so with any conception that sees art as an organon of ethics or politics, in essence, of moral improvement or social reform. Wherever morality is made to be relevant, a tinge of obligation colors everything that might otherwise be enjoyment, free play, spontaneous interest. And though they needn't be, at least not always and everywhere, morality and work seem to be related. What I must do in a moral sense is something which in many instances I do not want to do; so it is like work. What I must do in a moral sense is something needful, something which will maintain or preserve or restore something which might diminish or disappear if not for me; or something which requires my assistance, my contribution, if it is to be (restored to being) good.
(This line, connected with morality, is an old criticism. There is something that risks being petulant about it. I do wonder if it could be more artfully framed in terms of ethics rather than morality, in terms which, by making it less necessary that a kind of necessity is being attached to art, would also make it seem both more natural and more provocative that art could not have to do with the constellation of values associated with ethics. —Art as a real danger, but thereby a real risk. Genuine enjoyment as a risk.)
There is a problem of authority. Perhaps because authority is really the fundamental currency to which people try to convert art when they make their apologies for it, their appeals to consider its value alongside cognitive or ethical or political values. The apologist must in effect establish that art does have authority, and (being authority) that it ought to be recognized. And it is somehow in the nature of this authority, of its manner of being possessed or wielded or of operating, that it must be heeded, paid attention to, that it requires a kind of sustaining of attention. Something art is in the business of commanding, and criticism is in the business of directing, focusing. In any case, the strategy opted for is to cast the involvement with art as one which is ethically colored and thus demands a kind of ongoing commitment, a not-shrinking-away-from. It is insisted: you must not avoid art; you avoid art at your own peril, or at risk of neglecting the suffering of others, the suffering of the world, at risk of being blind to yourself, deadened to your ownmost feelings, dead to life, closed off to possibility.
Authority is associated with what you must do; who you must listen to; who gets to say. (And thus so many traditional problems for art, as in Plato: problems that turn on who is really speaking—characters, historical figures or legends, gods—and on how they're doing it—too powerfully, mysteriously, uncannily. As in Wordsworth; as can seem to crack open ordinary language to get at the grammar of words like 'I' in poets like Creeley.)
It is thus closely connected to work as we ordinarily know it because the conditions of work are largely conditions under which authority is unequally distributed. (Emerson: 'We do not like your work'.)
(… a draft, ca. April 2013)
'Just burned a few eggs': oh, that's charming.
'Just burned a few burgers': do you not have any sense?!
A notion of responsibility may also help me address one of my core problems in accounting for Homicide, the distinctively self-conscious quality of its performances. Not its actors' performances, so much as its characters' constant performance—which seems so rare a quality on television that I generally feel at a loss as to how to deal with it, and not just because I have little feel for how to talk about acting. It would be wrong, I think, to simply call this quality actorly or theatrical, even in the case of an extreme like Pembleton. That would be to misidentify the tactical character of so much of the performance done in-show. And it moves constantly: on, off(ish), high, low, broad, acute, up, dropped (for a moment of truth or business or relative honesty). This is not exactly unprecedented, on cop shows in particular, where lying suspects, lying witnesses, and professionally/dispositionally mendacious cops are usually shown engaging in dishonesty as is consistent with the premises of the whole genre, if not always for more than melodramatic purposes. (It takes some art to raise this kind of lying to a source of real drama.) But on Homicide it is as if, I don't know, most everyone—suspects included—is allowed by the others a certain degree of continual self-masking or auto-prevarication as a condition of their working or living together in their world, so long as it doesn't impede the ultimate aims of their work. Or even perhaps more than that: guilty suspects still have their own performances, generally, and they are not, as a condition of the narrative's closure, compelled to give them up just because they have been revealed as or have even admitted to being the killers. This may leave them appearing defiant, or unrepentant, distant somehow, still confined within themselves or their lives, but not in the doomy manner of a typical witness-stand confession or a resigned decision to take the deal on Law & Order, where the defendant becomes, in an instant, one of the condemned. On Homicide, perhaps, hardly anyone is in that sense condemned. Is shown to be, at that stage, to the others, or to us. (Condemnation comes later.)
I generally think of this poem of Brecht's when I suppose that there is a special quality to the acting on Homicide:
ON EVERYDAY THEATRE
You artists who perform plays
In great houses under electric suns
Before the hushed crowd, pay a visit some time
To that theatre whose setting is the street.
The everyday, thousandfold, fameless
But vivid, earthy theatre fed by the daily human contact
Which takes place in the street.
Here the woman from next door imitates the landlord:
Demonstrating his flood of talk she makes it clear
How he tried to turn the conversation
From the burst water pipe. In the parks at night
Young fellows show giggling girls
The way they resist, and in resisting
Slyly flaunt their breasts. A drunk
gives us the preacher at his sermon, referring the poor
To the rich pastures of paradise. How useful
Such theatre is though, serious and funny
And how dignified! They do not, like the parrot or ape
Imitate just for the sake of imitation, unconcerned
What they imitate, just to show that they
Can imitate; no, they
Have a point to put across. You
Great artists, masterly imitators, in this regard
Do not fall short of them! Do not become too remote
However much you perfect your art
From that theatre of daily life
Whose setting is the street.
Take that man on the corner: he is showing how
An accident took place. This very moment
He is delivering the driver to the verdict of the crowd. The way he
Sat behind the steering wheel, and now
He imitates the man who was run over, apparently
An old man. Of both he gives
Only so much as to make the accident
intelligible, and yet
Enough to make you see them. But he shows neither
As if the accident has been unavoidable. The accident
Becomes in this way intelligible, yet not
intelligible, for both of them
Could have moved quite otherwise; now he is showing what
They might have done so that no accident
Would have occurred. There is no superstition
About this eyewitness, he
Shows mortals as victims not of the stars, but
Only of their errors.
His earnestness and the accuracy of his imitation. He
Knows that much depends on his exactness: whether the innocent man
Escapes ruin, whether the injured man
Is compensated. Watch him
Repeat now what he did just before. Hesitantly
Calling on his memory for help, uncertain
Whether his demonstration is good, interrupting himself
And asking someone else to
Correct him on a detail. This
Observe with reverence!
And with surprise
Observe, if you will, one thing: that this imitator
Never loses himself in his imitation. He never entirely
Transforms himself into the man he is imitating. He always
Remains the demonstrator, the one not involved. The man
Did not open his heart to him, he
Does not share his feelings
Or his opinions. He knows hardly anything
About him. In his imitation
No third thing rises out of him and the other
Somehow consisting of both, in which supposedly
One heart beats and
One brain thinks. Himself all there
The demonstrator stands and gives us
The stranger next door.
The mysterious transformation
That allegedly goes on in your theatres
Between dressing room and stage – an actor
Leaves the dressing room, a king
Appears on the stage: that magic
Which I have often seen reduce the stagehands, beerbottles in hand
To laughter –
Does not occur here.
Our demonstrator at the street corner
Is no sleepwalker who must not be addressed. He is
No high priest holding the divine service. At any moment
You can interrupt him; he will answer you
Quite calmly and when you have spoken with him
Go on with his performance.
But you, do not say: that man
Is not an artist. By setting up such a barrier
Between yourselves and the world, you simply
Expel yourselves from the world. If you thought him
No artist he might think you
Not human, and that
Would be a worse reproach. Say rather:
He is an artist because he is human. We
May do what he does more perfectly and
Be honoured for it, but what we do
Is something universal, human, something hourly
Practised in the busy street, almost
As much a part of life as eating and breathing.
Thus your playacting
Harks back to practical matters. Our masks, you should say
Are nothing special insofar as they are only masks:
There the scarf peddler
Puts on the derby like a masher’s
Hooks a cane over his arms, even pastes a moustache
Under his nose and struts a step or two
Behind his stand, thus
Pointing out what wonders
Men can work with scarves, moustaches and hats. And our verses, you should say
In themselves are not extraordinary – the newsboys
Shout the headlines in cadences, thereby
Intensifying the effect and making their frequent repetition
Speak other men’s lines, but lovers
And salesmen also learn other men’s lines, and how often
All of you quote sayings! In short
Mask, verse and quotation are common, but uncommon
The grandly conceived mask, the beautifully spoken verse
And apt quotation.
But to make matters clear: even if you improved upon
What the man at the corner did, you would be doing less
Than him if you
Made your theatre less meaningful – with lesser provocation
Less intense in its effect on the audience – and
—The issue, then, is the nature of the modulation of responsibility for one's everyday performance of self.
—Somewhere, there, too, in the way the show fuses its comic and tragic and procedural elements via its focus on responsibility, lies its answer to the 'televisual' artistic problem of accounting, internally to itself, for its own character as an ongoing concern. The oft-felt futility of never being able to do enough, the hilarity of having to keep doing it that way.
—I had been thinking of responsibility on Homicide thematically, or in terms of how its obviously essential interrogation and confession might function to articulate its thought about responsibility. That covers obvious elements of the show's structure—the anxieties surrounding open cases on the board, say, and the overloading of effects derived from 'the box', with partners watching each other, squadmates and Gee watching interrogators, etc.—but I had been overlooking just how much responsibility structures the dramatic exchanges, down on the level of conversation. 'I'm the primary', they say, of course, constantly, and with Bayliss as the newbie and viewer proxy at the show's outset, assigned the Adena Watson case, it's liable to seem as if 'being primary' is primarily a matter of shouldering a responsibility imposed from above or from the outside, even if it has its moments of assertion—Bayliss to his squadmates, which when it finally comes draws slight smiles from them—or moments of organizational absurdity, as when Bayliss blows up at Barnfather for leaking information about the case, then is forced to kowtow despite being in the right on just that principle (which Bayliss cites as such, a principle), that responsibility rests with the primary. But partners, permanent or temporary, also wield this claim as they contest back and forth about how to work, essentially to fend off criticisms of how they work. There's an element of the personal suffusing every such interaction, in a way that you can rarely see on Law & Order, where streetside case-talk is more squarely deliberative or zetetic and disagreements almost never rise to such a level that an individual detective feels he has to go it alone. On Homicide, partners or squadmates will often sound more like they're saying to a primary detective on a case: 'I don't like the way you're doing things', 'you're going about this all wrong'. 'You're wrong', they almost say, not about anything, but wrong as a person (i.e. 'you are a wrong person')—or rather, as a detective, the job title that Bolander modulates easily into an honorific, partially withheld, as he enunciates it over and over again while addressing Munch in the first episode, to goad him into solving the long-open Jenny Goode case: 'De-tec-tive Munch'.
Obvious enough, but I think it also helps explain other elements of the show I've long wondered how to reconcile (in my account, at least: I think they are deeply reconciled in the show, or at least in a perfected state of tension or contrast with one another). For example, the comic subplotting, which more often than not can have its moments in any given case, or can be assigned in any given episode primarily to one set of partners (favoring Bolander and Munch, I think, intuitively, but that might just be false to the evidence). It's often associated with a bit of class- or local-color-based grotesquerie, and not just laterally with, I don't know, Flaubertian studies in human stupidity. But perhaps the key note in scenes or moments like these, particularly where criminals are concerned, is that their very owning up is the funny thing, the laugh line. Second best, the realization by detectives of who is responsible and why. Like Aunt Calpurnia the family-and-friends serial killer (who does it for the insurance fraud), or the rich old lady who kills her verbally abusive husband after being disappointed by his failure to die earlier the same day (resulting in two calls of the same detectives to the same house: exact repetition as comedy gold). There is probably a whole range of tonalities here, and odd ones, as indicated by the way Jimmy, the culprit in the Jenny Goode case, is shown repeating, blankly, over and over, 'I was drinkin… I was drinkin… I was drinkin…'. Not funny, not tragic, not satisfying (though Munch feels satisfied later), not anything—drained of affect, like Jimmy is as he mouths his excuse over and over, to no avail. (He's been found responsible but hasn't taken any responsibility, and becomes, at best, a figure of pity, but not a compassionate sort—the kind that looks away.)
Probably because it's attached to the assignment of ultimate responsibility, this sort of comedy is usually black. A lot of the other humor on the show comes from the constant conversation, mostly between partners. And these too tend to be marked by a kind of preoccupation with responsibility, or with substitutes for responsibility. Fixations. Crosetti is a key character here, at the beginning: he's defined by his constant worrying at the Lincoln and (sometimes) Kennedy assassinations, at 'the power structure', at anything that promises to uncover some conspiracy. The comedy being that he's obsessed with responsibilities which have (a) already been assigned, (b) are not his to assign, except as an American birthright, perhaps, and (c) are imagined as so profound as to seem, perhaps, unassignable by anyone. Later, after his suicide, Lewis' cool distance will be retroactively redefined as his failure to have been responsible for the one he worked most closely with. The motif between Pembleton and Felton, who are not partners but keep being assigned tasks together, is their quarrel over whether Felton is a racist. Bolander is a sad sack, divorced but preoccupied with his responsibility for the failure of the relationship; as the senior partner he projects this back onto Munch, held responsible for not being Bolander's old partner as well as for sundry instances of near-malingering or plain old constitutional unfitness to be a policeman. Munch, with ready-made semi-funny Lenny-Bruce-style rants probably contributed sometimes by Belzer himself, is then characteristically aggrieved or mock-aggrieved by exactly the kinds of things 'out there' about which nothing can be done—thus his habit of berating the television or the newspaper—or about which something should have been done but for all the world wasn't. (Thus, his joke about the Irish potato famine and the plentifully available fish that must have surrounded Ireland.) Howard, like Lewis, is something of a blank compared to the others, and thus seems to have something to do with their self-sufficiency, their concealment of any particular difficulties with responsibility they may have. Thus Lewis' surprise wedding later on is just that, a surprise to everyone. Thus when Howard 'goes home' only to solve a murder, and is reproached by the people there, including a former lover, for having left and vanished into the city and her work, we're to understand that that's just what we usually see when we don't see as much of her there, at work: her having vanished. (Thus her hair, hard to miss but also somehow easy to hide behind.) But in this it seems Howard may be a functional (within the show's dramatic machinery) counterpart to her partner Felton, as his family drama and his divorce and his affair with Russert always tend to intrude into their working relationship, which in terms of the assumption of responsibility would mean that he always has an excess of claiming or owning up to do. Likewise, with Lewis, as Crosetti is replaced by Kellerman, with his own problems. —Not all of this makes for particularly hilarious dialogue, but it does tend to be the site of different modes of comic exchange, I think just because of the underlying nature of the responsibilities being entertained and the relationship to the partner.
When Pembleton tells Bayliss he'll never be a detective because he can't think like a criminal, see things like a criminal, his proof is the difference in what they each see as they drive down the street. Bayliss sees the usual stuff. Pembleton sees everything as if it has his name on it: i.e. as 'mine'.
(Thus, mine to take.)
(From drafts of my TV project, ca. May 2012…)
The show is called Homicide, ambivalently, the name of the phenomenon, and of, let's not say the study of the phenomenon, but of the inquiry into the phenomenon. It is the name of both the act, and the institution of questioning the act. But 'homicide' is the (intentional) killing of one human being by another. Somehow, this means that to work homicide (work Homicide?) is to be concerned with human beings who kill other human beings. Is it to be concerned with why they do, with how human beings could do such things? The detectives themselves are ambivalent about this. Pembleton, seasoned, denies that Bayliss is ever going to learn such things. He counsels him to think like a criminal (which, however, he says is beyond him). One way of hearing this is as advice to think about the acts of a criminal, and the victims of a criminal, as a criminal does. Which perhaps chills one, seems cold: think indifferently of crimes as the ones who do them think of them, as the easy or quick or stupid or thoughtless or enraged way of getting something, making something happen, making somebody go away.
The name of the show is also the name of the job, and accordingly the show makes its focus the job, and those who work that job. Not, however, in some kind of heightened scrutiny of the lives of those who heroically protect us, or in a morally superior or morally salacious way. Rarely has a show focused so squarely on work as work, on the job, and it seems that it may have succeeded at this precisely because police work is such an unusual job.
Though there is certainly an element of law running throughout Homicide (it appears plainly in the second episode, when the assistant D.A. stops in to harass Howard about the quality of the case she had handed over to him to prosecute, or even in the first episode when Pembleton alludes grimly to the work of the prosecutor in leading his suspect rapidly to the gas chamber), its focus on homicide makes the involvement of the legal system somewhat tangential, an occasional complicating and vexing factor. The focus is on murder, on wrongful killing; and this is almost always taken to be unquestionably wrong, immoral. So Homicide is about human beings as moral beings. As a show about, at least as an ongoing premise driving the recurrence of the show (and the continuation of the job), the commission of homicides, the show is about wrongdoing. But as a show about the investigation of homicides, the show is much more about a much more troublesome aspect of morality: that dimension of it in which we are called to be responsible for others. 'We work for God', says Howard by way of introduction to Bayliss as he wanders in on his first day. 'We speak for the dead', Bolander intones to his partner Munch to try to prod him to close a cold case.
On another show these might be said proudly. You can imagine them being part of a voiceover during the credit montage, laying down the law-and-order, good-versus-evil, light-against-darkness thematics where they are expected to be for a cop show. Howard says it in passing, in wry wonder at something, though what we do not know, as Bayliss moves on and they do not discuss her remark. (Why wonder whether we might have understood what she said better from hearing her discuss it? Because the detectives on this show discuss, endlessly, anything. As Lewis and Crosetti pass from scene to scene, Crosetti's stream of speculation about the Lincoln assassination precedes and announces him and his partner like a leitmotif, even as he momentarily shifts focus to discharge some business in the squadroom. Bolander's anecdote about having sex 'iguana style' catches in Munch's ear and as they keep talking, through the day, about Bolander's love life, Munch can't help but be drawn to the phrase again, which he relishes saying: 'iguana style'.)
But we might speculate. Why wonder at being people who work for God, or at saying that one's job is work done for God?
They seek confessions, moreso than convictions, because the show is so concerned with responsibility for others. Some police may be responsible for preventing crime, for upholding order, but detectives in particular are made responsible for victims on our behalf so that we might punish murderers for their crimes and see that justice is done for families of victims and for the rest of us. They assume the responsibility; and it is accordingly important to them that they be able to hear from the perpetrator that he is the one responsible. In doing so he relieves them of their responsibility.
The assumption of responsibility is subtly apportioned. A crime becomes a detective's case, 'my case', 'my body', 'my crime scene', 'my witnesses', 'my evidence', 'my interrogation', 'my interview'. But it never thus becomes 'my crime'; the wrongdoing, and the legal responsibility for it, remain the perpetrator's. While the perpetrator is unknown the ownership of a crime is thus peculiar. Though in some sense a crime is something which we as a society are collectively responsible for—meaning, something we must respond to, answer to, concern ourselves with, if not accept some of the blame for, for example in allowing our society to come to such straits, or to allow some among us to do so—we certainly do not want to say that a crime is 'ours' prior to identification of the perpetrator. And we certainly do not want to say that the crime is the victim's, though in some cases the victim exerts a strong pull on us when our thoughts turn to assignments of responsibility, as if the obviousness of her owning some part of the crime owes something to the ease with which she could solve our puzzle about responsibility. But before we know the perpetrator, or at least before we have some idea of the perpetrator's possible identity, it can seem as if a crime is just there, just something that happened, an event, not something that anyone can be made responsible for. This is one thing that is horrible about homicide. In particular, about the kinds of homicides which call for detection. One person does wrong, perhaps the worst wrong, to another, who dies. The doer is responsible but cannot be made responsible because no one knows who he or she is, knows that he or she is the one (who should be held) responsible. It falls to us, and thus to the police, and thus to a homicide detective, to find this person. His responsibility is to make him or her claim responsibility for what he or she has done. When this happens then we can feel, and say, that we have borne our responsibility, which one among us (the perpetrator) had temporarily broken.
There is a sense in which this kind of justice, this aspect of doing justice, does not do what one wants. 'It won't bring her back', we hear victims' families, and detectives, say about victims. This can make especially the detectives cynical, resigned. 'It's like cutting grass', Crosetti says when Munch pegs the number of murders per year (rising) around three hundred. One expects that they are more confirmed in this attitude by what they see, by what they know about people, what they learn in the course of their work: the inevitability of lethal violence's eruption out of, and into, even the lives of ordinary people.
Detectives take responsibility for solving crimes on our behalf. This leaves them in the narrower position of not often having much anyone else to turn to to take responsibility for them. They turn to each other, and they turn to their superiors. These prove to be as liable to causing disappointment as any other potential bearer of responsibility.