josh blog

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.

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23 Feb '16 04:51:10 AM

(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.

22 Feb '16 05:35:42 PM

Back to ordinary language!

21 Feb '16 09:32:21 PM

'Don't think, but look!' —Done best when you've got something to look at.

20 Feb '16 09:41:57 PM

So, like, duh. Of course.

20 Feb '16 09:41:15 PM

'Hey Joni' starts with its chorus. That's why it is the way it is.

20 Feb '16 12:24:33 AM

'Part of the reason I want the word "read" is, I feel sure, recorded in its history: it has something to do with being advised, and hence with seeing. But part of the reason also has to do with an intimation that I am to read something particular, in a particular way; the text, so to speak, has a particular tone and form. The form is a story, a history. You can tell who someone is by describing him and saying what he does for a living, etc. If you know the person, understand him, your knowledge will consist in being able to tell his story.'

—Reading as against telling; telling only once read, as against telling for, or telling without asking. Compare:

'… the human individual, to win freedom, must be something that can fight for recognition, which now means, vie with its incorporated interpretations of itself for a voice, for the leading voice, in its history…'

(Telling and being told.)

20 Feb '16 12:12:08 AM

'… myths, or fragments of a myth': i.e., of a story, a history. —A remark which cuts across or incorporates the figurative. Which designates the realm of the figurative, via an allegorizing of 'our words' ('the topic of our attachment to our words is allegorical of our attachments to ourselves and other persons'), as that whose stories are not believable ones, not as histories are. But they may still be 'our' not-believable stories.

19 Feb '16 06:43:27 PM

'… In the course of the seventeenth century, however, the derivative nature of the transcriptions contained in one's commonplace book came to seem increasingly problematic. Writers newly confident about the idea of individual authorship consequently disparaged the reliance on commonplace on others and diagnosed it as compensation for their lack of originality. Jonathan Swift's narrator in his Tale of a Tub (1704) snipes at what is perceived to be dilettantism: '… what tho' his Head be empty, provided his Common-Place-Book be full…' Furthermore, the commonplace books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to consist largely of trivial matter copied from contemporary sources. Oliver Goldsmith indicates in An Enquiry into the State of Police Learning in Europe (1759) how far these works had fallen from favour: 'the generality of readers fly from the scholar to the compiler, who offers them a more safe and speedy conveyance', his or her 'lazy compilations' supplying 'the place of original thinking'. The role of the commonplace gradually diminished in importance: from the study of carefully organized ideas as universal bases for argumentation, it became little more than the collation of a stock of neatly packaged aphorisms, principally ornamental and often trite. By the nineteenth century, even the most resonant or useful of classical commonplaces were seen simply as undistinguished cliché. Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Clichés charts this fall from grace. Cicero's fluctus excitare in simpulo becomes the proverbial 'storm in a teacup'; behind the common 'you're a rare bird' once lay Juvenal's rara avis in terris, nigroque simillima cygno ('a rare bird upon the earth, and exceedingly like a black swan').

So commonplaces became private—a contradiction in terms. In fact more often than not, as Roger Chartier has observed, the author of a commonplace book '[was] also its addressee'. And it turns out that this change in habit was bound up with a more profound development. A sea change in understanding, as well as a change in practice led to the decline of concepts such as 'rhetoric' and 'commonplace' into today's pejorative terms. The connection between rhetoric and logic–the appeal to the probable—came under threat in the seventeenth century with the growth of the idea of neutral, scientific truth. The desire to persuade came to seem at odds with the pursuit of such disinterested truth. The authority of existing commonplaces, passed down in the schools from the first classical philosophers and rhetoricians, waned in the face of both truths held to be demonstrable in nature itself, and those rational scientific formulae that seemed to exist in self-evident abstraction outside any interest or argument.

Both the growth of method and the belief in observable fact contributed to the confidence in individual authority, and hence authorship. Commonplaces were felt to be closed and artificial forms of thinking rather than being open to the reality of the observable world. Francis Bacon approved of commonplaces as an educative resource in principle, but finds no example of them in practice that did not 'carry in their titles merely the face of the school and not of the world', and which did not use 'vulgar and pedantical divisions, not such as to pierce to the pith and heart of things'. The clear alternative was a literal, neutral language—one that carries the face of the world in it—and the perceived need for such a language led to the famous commitment to an 'anti-rhetorical' language, to which the new scientific body, the Royal Society, rashly pledged itself in the late seventeenth century.

Thomas Sprat in writing the first History of this Royal Society in 1677 celebrated the work its members were doing to remedy the corruption of plain speech and spoke of the need for 'one word for every thing'. Not only formal rhetoric, but figurative language itself was a dangerous corruption of natural language: figures of speech were an 'extravagance' at odds with a 'natural way of speaking', 'swellings of style', which should be cut away in order that the 'luxury and redundancy of Speech' should not have a malign influence on the discipline of science. Thomas Hobbes had written similarly a few years earlier in Leviathan that metaphors were devices which 'openly profess deceipt' [sic]'. Their transfer of meaning by way of language played no part in reason, which relied instead on direct demonstration, or at the very most an 'apt similitude [sic (for simile)]'. In the parallel French context, Bernard Lamy, a logician of the Port-Royal school, also criticized the excessive nature of formal commonplaces, arguing that 'il n'est besoin que d'une seule prevue qui soit forte et solide, et que l'éloquence consiste à étendre celle prevue'. Eloquence, the suggestion is, has only attenuated and so weakened the initial solid proof.'

19 Feb '16 06:14:19 PM

'Both Flann O'Brien in At-Swim-Two-Birds and Samuel Beckett in his great trilogy of French novels capitalize on the anti-social quality of literature, the fact that the writer is not speaking, is not drinking, is confronting nobody warming and warming to nobody, but exists shut away in a room setting on pieces of paper word after word… a deed the very antithesis of everything that Irish culture prides itself on being.'