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 06:45:03 AM

—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.

23 Feb '16 06:30:16 AM

—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.

23 Feb '16 04:57:00 AM

On responsibility:

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.)

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.)