Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Let us be human. –
Four words. Laß uns menschlich sein, in the original text (Culture and Value). What does Wittgenstein mean? Are we not human, but should be? Is something prohibiting us from being human? Are we already human, but we insist on confirming our nature? Is “human” functioning here as a noun, or as an adjective? Are we to behave humanely to one another? To animals? To everything? Furthermore, what is “human”? The simplicity of Wittgenstein’s comment is deceptive in only a way that Wittgenstein could ever intend.
We who practice in the Humanities face a difficult challenge today. No longer can we put dogmatic faith in the universal standard of the human. If modernism (or modernity) has taught us anything, it is that history has left humanity behind. Yet we maintain our profession as being “the Humanities”; we insist that we study the art and culture of humanity. In addition, we profess humane action and behavior, the ethical treatment of others. Even amidst the rapid development of technology and the onset of the digital age, we seem to resist abandoning this category, and have introduced the controversial field of the digital humanities. We are relentless humans in a relentlessly nonhuman world. We cling to this identity, refusing to cast it aside. But what is this identity? Is it something that we are; or is it something that we make?
Let us be human.
How can we “let” ourselves be human?
I. The Inhuman
Ambivalence toward the human is a popular attitude these days. Several critics and philosophers have put forth convincing and, sometimes, antagonist theories of the human and humanism. Among them, N. Katherine Hayles and Cary Wolfe have produced some of my favorite work: How We Became Posthuman (1999) and What is Posthumanism? (2010), respectively. While much of the debate circles around a kind of ontology of the posthuman, my primary interest lies in what I perceive to be an epistemology of posthumanism. That is, I figure posthumanism as a gradual development, an epistemological shift, in which humanism becomes self-conscious in a structural sense. This gradual awakening invites a singular, startling question: what does it mean to be human? Furthermore, as we become aware of ourselves as human, we also begin to realize that something else lingers in the liminal spaces, along the borders of our being. Something unknown and unthinkable.
This idea came to a head in Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966):
Man and the unthought are, at the archaeological level, contemporaries. Man has not been able to describe himself as a configuration in the episteme without thought at the same time discovering, both in itself and outside itself, at its borders yet also in its very warp and woof, an element of darkness, an apparently inert density in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught. The unthought (whatever name we give it) is not lodged in man like a shriveled-up nature or a stratified history; it is, in relation to man, the Other: the Other that is not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality […] In any case, the unthought has accompanied man, mutely and uninterruptedly, since the nineteenth century. (326-7)
Foucault claims that in order for us to know what “man” is, we must also have some concept of what it is not. Thus, the very birth or invention of “man” entails the simultaneous invention of something else: non-man, the unthought, the inhuman. In The Order of Things we encounter the epistemological emergence of the posthuman itself through Foucault’s identification of that (poststructuralist) shape and figure which is opposed to the human. Of course, in typical poststructuralist tradition, we cannot maintain these categories, and they are not identified in order to be maintained; rather than oppose the human to the inhuman in order to reinforce the former, poststructuralism exposes the arbitrariness of the division between the two.
Posthumanism asks us to go one step further. It asks us to see how the human is always-already inhuman. The inhuman is the dissonance that eviscerates the human from the inside.
In many senses, posthumanism adopts a polemical position. It maintains that the human, as an institution of Western Cartesian rationalism, can only ever be an instrument of exclusion. Jean Baudrillard (1976) asserts that the human, and humanism, has inspired an entire history of racial prejudice: “Racism is modern. Previous races or cultures were ignored or eliminated, but never under the sign of a universal Reason. There is no criterion of man, no split from the Inhuman, there are only differences with which to oppose death. But it is our undifferentiated concept of man that gives rise to discrimination” (Baudrillard, Symbolic 125). This racism is only possible with recourse to the human – anything that falls outside the purview of Man (i.e. white, Western, liberalist-capitalist, male) is thus excluded to another sphere, the realm of the inhuman. The inhuman thus offers a revolutionary position, but at the same time remains exiled.
Jean-François Lyotard (1989) projects the inhuman even further, insisting that the human itself betrays its own inhumanism through its technological being: “Any material system is technological if it filters information useful to its survival, if it memorizes and processes that information and makes inferences based on the regulating effect of behaviour, that is, if it intervenes on and impacts its environment so as to assure its perpetuation at least. A human being isn’t different in nature from an object of this type” (12). Lyotard’s comment blurs the line between the natural and the artificial, suggesting that the human body does not need robotic prostheses or enhancing drugs to become an artificial/technological apparatus. If we wish to describe the technological as artificial, then the human body is already artificial; or, should we choose to come from the other direction: technology is nothing more than a natural, evolutionary development. John Gray (2002) puts it simply: “If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors” (16). Posthumanism breaks down these hierarchies, dissolves these divisions.
The inhuman appears as a figure that drains the human from the human; it subtracts what the human purports as its essential substance. Let us put forth the following claim:
1. Posthumanism implements figures of the inhuman in order to put the human in a context of which it is not an epistemological center; that is, posthumanism proceeds, in all its efforts, with the modern knowledge that the hierarchies we use to navigate the world are dangerously one-sided. Therefore, if posthumanism constitutes an epistemological shift, then it cannot simply be a theory of the way in which we talk about things. It must be implemented at the level of practice as a way in which we do things: business, medicine, scientific experimentation, etc.
II. The Human
The posthuman, then, is not a zombie, a cyborg, or an alien per se; these are images of the inhuman. The posthuman is the epistemology that makes room for these categories on a level that is equal with the human; and along with such fantastical categories, we must also make room for flora and fauna, bacteria, viruses, the microbes and creatures of the sea floor, et al. Posthumanism entails an ethics of the treatment of others, including animal others.[i] In order to accomplish this, we have to embrace an epistemological view that displaces the human from its throne as the saviors and protectors of all life. In other words, we have to rewrite the narrative of human existence; or, even more difficult, acknowledge the absence of any narrative in the first place.
One of the most difficult points for many to accept regarding posthumanism is its displacement not only of the human, but of the universalism of what many believe to be the central aspect of the human: namely, its conscious ability to craft a self, an I. Through the use of this central, first-person narrator (the human being), we devise stories about our place in the world; narratives about ourselves, the narrators. Posthumanism asks us to acknowledge that not only is this narrative an illusion; but it also asks us to acknowledge that our consciousness is an illusion.[ii] While much has been done in the realm of cognitive science, an earlier and far more speculative tradition interrogates the stability of human consciousness: the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his private language argument.[iii]
Wittgenstein does not attempt to prove that interior experiences are not real, or even that mental processes are not real. He would almost certainly say that they are; however, Wittgenstein is interested in demonstrating that inner mental processes are not necessary for communication to take place:
[…] the difference between a broken and an unbroken tooth I can exhibit to anyone. – For the private exhibition, however, you don’t have to give yourself actual pain; it is enough to imagine it – for instance, you screw up your face a bit. And do you know that what you are exhibiting to yourself in this way is pain and not, for example, a facial expression? And how do you know what you are to exhibit to yourself before you do it? This private exhibition is an illusion. (311)[iv]
Wittgenstein’s argument puts forth two important points: first, if communication occurs between two individuals, it need not be substantiated by any mental process; and second, while mental states exist, it is impossible to indulge in a private language through which one communicates her own mental processes to herself. Stated simply, the immediacy a person has to her own mental processes precludes the possibility of communicating them to her own mind. The entire event is too sensational, or experiential, for meaning to take any kind of priority.
Wittgenstein’s private language argument holds consequences for humanism because it removes an important component from the process of linguistic communication: the liberal humanist subject, or self. Self-based theories of communication posit atomic subjects, comprised of centered selves, communicating interior thoughts and mental states. Wittgenstein challenges this assumption by demonstrating that interior mental states are not the origin, or the directing principle, of linguistic communication. Communication takes place externally, and is comprised less of originally intended meanings than of socially constituted meaning.
Foreshadowing later cognitive science, poststructuralism, and posthuman theory, Wittgenstein levies a serious criticism at traditional humanism. Proceeding from the private language argument, we discover an increasingly skeptical philosophical tradition that takes humanism as one of its central targets.
The human is, above all else, an idea; a sublimation that is also an effect of highly evolved conscious organisms. The human does not precede consciousness, but is the product of a consciousness organizing its interests and values. Furthermore, consciousness does not precede language, but emerges as a side effect of language-using bodies. The human is thus twice removed from the organism which adopts this as its name; the only ontological status it holds is as a creation of thoughtful minds that have already entered into consciousness and language. It is an image that has been retrospected into the past as an originary point, but it is actually the effect of conscious organisms.
Put as simply as possible: the human is a fiction, a story we tell ourselves about what we are.
This does not mean in the least that the thing we take to be human – this body and blood, this nexus of nerves and limbo of limbs – is not real. We, as organisms, are very real, materially real. The idea that we craft of ourselves, however, the narrative that organizes itself around the human, which then takes the position as a beginning (origin) and an end (telos), is not real despite its existence as fantasy. It is the greatest fiction ever conceived in the history of humanity. And now, we arrive at a second claim:
2. The history of humanity is not the same thing as what I have been calling the narrative of the human, although they are related in an interesting way. The history of humanity signifies a predominantly (multi)cultural discursive institution that provides literal explanations of the course of humanity throughout the world over millennia; these explanations can mythological or scientific, but they are always believed (at the time of their creation, by at least one person or another) to be literal. The narrative of the human must be constructed and retrospected prior to any history of humanity. However, upon its construction (which occurs collectively and yet unconsciously), it is viewed as happening within human history. The human preexists its own history, and yet it can only be seen to occur, or develop, within its history. It is thus located, paradoxically, both within the course of human history (as that which human history is supposedly about), and external to human history (as that which must necessarily precede any conception of a history that is about humanity). The human, as an institution of evolved consciousness, appears to us as a miracle because it functions only as paradox.
III. The Posthuman
The human is a grand narrative, told again and again throughout recorded history, manifesting in our institutions, our events and moments, our literature and our lives. Wittgenstein tells us all we need to know: we must “let” ourselves be human. We must tell ourselves that we are human. The human only makes sense as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and yet we perceive it as something tangible and universal; something which exists concretely as an original point. However, if we actually attempt to explore our past, we would find that the human has no origin. In the parameters of deep time, or geologic time, the boundaries that frame the human are frighteningly arbitrary. Culturally, we ignore this aporia of our past, this absence of origin, because to confront it is to acknowledge a horrifying truth: that our story makes no sense, and that we are already far from “human.” So we maintain our limits, our borders and our boundaries. We maintain the thought of the Outside.
The human only makes sense against the backdrop of what it is not.
The Wikipedia page for posthumanism is remarkably short, although it includes numerous links to other sites. It is also nested under the broader category of Humanism, which raises some concern over their relationship – the “-post” being more confusing than illuminating, in my opinion. Does it mean “after,” “beyond,” or something entirely different? While its most obvious meaning would seem to be chronological in nature, I don’t find that this makes much sense. If the human only makes sense against the backdrop of what it is not, then the inhuman must present itself along with the human; they appear simultaneously. As Foucault tells us, the unthought (the space of the inhuman, in my reading) has accompanied man since his birth, or invention. The inhuman is not a recent phenomenon, birthed from the 20th-century tales of Lovecraft. It is one with the human, equally arbitrary and constructed: it is the other side of the border, that which constitutes the human in its finitude.
The posthuman does not place greater emphasis or concern on the inhuman, nor does it lessen the importance or value of those organisms we call “human.” In a very recent online piece, Reza Negarastani argues that inhumanism should be seen as an effort to widen the institution we call humanism: “Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of enlightened humanism” (“The Labor of the Inhuman”). Where Negarastani uses inhumanism, I choose posthumanism; but I feel our goals are the same (as are the goals of posthumanists such as Hayles and Wolfe): namely, to expose the arbitrary and exclusive parameters of humanism and to attempt a widening of those parameters, to reinscribe the human into a more egalitarian position within the world. As Derrida once remarked, we cannot do without metaphysical categories and concepts – they infiltrate and (some might say) infect our being. But other creatures exist in mutually symbiotic relationships, so why might we not embrace the concepts that claim us?
In a very strong sense, Deleuze was the premier deconstructionist; not Derrida. Derrida acknowledged the permanence and permeation of metaphysical concepts, but encouraged a constant awareness of them. Deleuze’s endorsement of anti-interpretation would have all parameters melt away, every boundary and definitive limit bleed into a Body without Organs. Deleuze was, beyond all doubts, the true anti-humanist. Derrida certainly clings to a brand of humanism; but it is what we might call (along with Negarastani) an enlightened humanism. A strongly self-reflexive humanism. A humanism that grants its entitlements to all things.
Thus the final claim (for now…):
3. If posthumanism is an epistemological shift, then it does not constitute a disintegration of boundaries, concepts, and definitions. It merely endorses a wider frame, a newly-conceived set within which to place the human, and an eternal commitment to the questioning of the definitions we deploy.[v] In a sense, this stance takes us back to Wittgenstein and what his successors have deemed “ordinary language” (and Derrida, in some sense, might be considered a part of this group). Let us continue to speak, but let us be conscious of the words we choose. Let us be critical. Let us expand our awareness to others whom, one hundred years ago, our ancestors might have derided and exiled. Let us look closely at our institutions and perceive how they might liberate some while imprisoning others. Let us be mindful of the things we condemn as dangerous and threatening, and closely consider the source of that purported danger. Let us be always skeptical, and let us be always speculative. Let us be inquisitive. Let us mean, and let us matter.
Let us be (post)human.[vi]
Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: SAGE, 2012. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 2002. Print.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991. 8-23. Print.
Negarastani, Reza. "The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: the Human." E-flux. 2014. Web.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.
-. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
[i] The question of animal ethics is at the heart of Cary Wolfe’s work on posthumanism.
[ii] This has been the task of several recent efforts by cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind. Two of the most successful contributions to this line of thought are Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One (2003) and Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991).
[iii] Debate still occurs over Wittgenstein’s intentions with this argument, as well as which aphorisms from Philosophical Investigations constitute the argument. For one of the most influential contributions to this discussion, see Saul Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982). For my own purposes, I will proceed based on a personal (and somewhat substantiated) reading of Wittgenstein’s work.
[iv] All numbers for Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations correspond to aphorism, not to page.
[v] There is some controversy to this declaration, I am aware. Specifically, it calls to mind the ongoing debate over questions of cultural identity, especially racial identity: are we to maintain racial difference and celebrate it (the problematic tone of multiculturalism); or are we do dissolve race entirely and surpass it as an institution (the equally problematic tone of post-racialism)? I have no answer except to insist that we remain mindful of this issue.
[vi] Fortunately, if we believed N. Katherine Hayles, we already are.
Monday, March 10, 2014
The title is excerpted from a line in HBO’s True Detective. I included it here for two purposes: first, it’s a fantastic quote that I happen to agree with; and second, it has profound implications, which I will briefly cover now. If meaning is historical, then this must lead us to the conclusion that meaning is neither a) objective, in the sense that it cannot be found in reality as it exists external to our own minds, but neither is it b) subjective, in the sense that it cannot be reduced to the singular intentions of an atomic individual. However, this does not mean that meaning is illusory. It is very real – but it exists on a plane, or in a manner, or functions among us in such a way that it is neither absolute (or universal) or individually created.
This conundrum could lead us down a path similar to the one trodden by Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose Philosophical Investigations is profoundly concerned with the operations of language. After turning away from the strong, mathematically informed positivism of his dissertation, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein set off on a far more speculative brand of intellectualism that has had a tremendous impact on the “post”-modern cynicism sometimes referred to as “relativism.” Wittgenstein was not a relativist, however, nor is his Philosophical Investigations – but all this is merely a convoluted way of saying that the complex problem of meaning can take us down a difficult path of trying to understand, via language, the very ways that language functions and how it came to be. Such an attempt is fascinating to read, but it is not what I am primarily concerned with at this time.
What I am concerned with – and what the writers of True Detective are concerned with – is identifying and critiquing the process of meaning-making. As a television show, True Detective is most interesting to me because it is materially aware of itself as a narrative; that is, its content actively speaks to the construction of its form. “Nothing in this world is ever solved,” mutters Rust Cohle to his more traditional partner, Marty Hart.[i] Cohle not only evokes the difficulty of forensic investigation, but more importantly he evokes the concept of the retroactivity of narrative.
When we typically think of solving a mystery – in our normative, acculturated manner – we tend to think of something that makes total sense but remains unseen, or hidden from us. The point of the investigation is to retrieve this hidden meaning, which exists in fact prior to the investigation itself. The investigation is, for all intents and purposes, a retrieval of lost meaning. This is how many people also approach the act of reading itself: it is something that already means something complete, unified, total, but that must be retrieved, or put together, by the reader. The illusion in this approach lies in the belief that the meaning precedes the act of reading – or, that meaning preexists its discovery (or recovery, in an even more ideological sense).
In his fantastic work of literary criticism, Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks challenges this traditional approach to notions of reading and meaning; and, even more appropriately, he uses the example of detective fiction to make his point. Recalling one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales, Brooks argues that Doyle reenacts the procedure of reading itself as a retrospection of meaning back onto a series of events that have already occurred. Meaning, in this alternative conception, does not reside in things, but must be interpreted into them by the detective-reader: “all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life.” When Rust Cohle mutters that nothing is ever solved, he is acknowledging the illusory nature of meaning as something to be discovered, or recovered; rather than the uncovering of a hidden secret, Cohle admits that nothing is ever “solved” because, in the most literal sense, there is nothing to be solved. The procedure of forensic investigation, like the act of reading, is not a process of discovering meaning but of actively making it.
At this point it is important to emphasize that meaning is not thereby reduced to the interpretation or emotional response of a singular reader, an argument that has been successfully dismantled and is often referred to as “the affective fallacy.” The complex act of reading – like the act of writing, and like the act of investigation – is a social one. It cannot exist without a culture, or a collective. If it could, then it stands to reason that individuals could harbor private languages; but this too has been dismantled by Wittgenstein himself, and later by Saul Kripke, in what has come to be known as Wittgenstein’s private language argument:
[The] difference between a broken and an unbroken tooth I can exhibit to anyone. – For the private exhibition, however, you don’t have to give yourself actual pain; it is enough to imagine it – for instance, you screw up your face a bit. And do you know that what you are exhibiting to yourself in this way is pain and not, for example, a facial expression? And how do you know what you are to exhibit to yourself before you do it? The private exhibition is an illusion.
To be brief and simple, the notion of private language constitutes an immediacy that precludes the possibility of communication occurring at all. The claim to private language rests upon the illusion of an interior expression taking place.
Therefore meaning is not private – it does not issue from an individual, even if that individual takes on the task of interpreting a text; but neither is it universal, in which case it would exist in an idealistic crystalline form prior to any conscious mind apprehending it. The communicative kernel, the expressive kernel, the origin of meaning itself – where are we to locate such an ephemeral thing? This is the central concern of True Detective. Cohle understands that humans create meaning, but he also knows that meaning is not individual: “meaning is historical.” Meaning is thus, and can only ever be, a collective operation. Language only arises from the need for communication, as Marx said; and the creation of meaning does not originate with a single person who picks and chooses words that mean certain things, and then tells this to others: for how could a person educate others on what words mean before those others know what words mean? Education of any sort presupposes the embedment of an individual within a collective symbolic network. If we proceed from this juncture, we arrive at a confounding paradoxical axiomatic (does it even make sense to say this?): that is, in order for meaning to happen, for it to emerge collectively, language must somehow precede meaning.
Similar claims are to be found in the poststructuralist writings of Derrida and Lacan. In “Signature Event Context” Derrida argues convincingly that communication evokes the apparent necessity of some sort of arche-writing, or writing that precedes communication. In order for humans to understand one another in a meaningful way, must not the institution for that meaning somehow already exist? Derrida is no mystic (although some may claim otherwise), but he does force a difficult conclusion: the vehicle, or apparatus, for communication must somehow already be there, waiting for us.[ii] Lacan, in an obscure argument that expands the breadth of at least two essays (“The Signification of the Phallus” and “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire”) and multiple lectures, arrives at a similar conclusion: a human subject, at some point in its early development, must pass through the level of the symbolic (social language, perhaps even the most abstract and general version of what Wittgenstein called “language games”). This phenomenon, the biological workings of which are entirely ignored by Lacan, also happens paradoxically. The subject that passes through the chain of signifiers must take up its existence as a gap in the chain, as the locus of the absence of meaning: “The cut made by the signifying chain is the only cut that verifies the structure of the subject as a discontinuity in the real. If linguistics enables us to see the signifier as the determinant of the signified, analysis reveals the truth of this relationship by making holes in meaning the determinants of its discourse.” Not only does meaning occur retroactively, but it only succeeds because of its failures.
As a final example, these odd claims on the paradox and retroactivity of meaning are not isolated to a group of erudite and obscurantist philosophers puttering about in 1960s France. In his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett writes something that sounds oddly like poststructuralism despite his dismissal of the movement: “At this extreme, the communicative intentions that exist are as much an effect of the process as a cause – they emerge as a product, and once they emerge, they are available as standards against which to measure further implementation of the intentions. There is not one source of meaning, but many shifting sources, opportunistically developed out of the search for the right words.” Dennett provides us with what is perhaps the most illuminating explanation of the paradox of meaning, although its origin still remains (and likely will always remain) obscure. Dennett claims that meaning is never complete until the words that are taken to mean that meaning are spoken; in a twist as compelling as that offered by Derrida, your words, which you take to mean what you intended them to, actually mean something else. They alter the meaning itself. Meaning, then, in any abstract or originary sense, ceases to exist in a way that can be communicated. The meaning of your spoken words is only envisioned and retrospected after language arrives on the scene.
What does all this have to do with True Detective? I’ve already said that the show is aware of itself as a narrative, and that it comments on its form in its very content – mostly in the shape of Cohle’s dialogue. Cohle is a cynic (to put it lightly) who has educated himself on the instability and strange nature of meaning: something that is both real and imaginary, but neither subjective nor objective. It is bound up ceaselessly in a feedback loop of sorts; or, if we borrow his own language (which he borrows from Nietzsche), a circle.
This is the first of (hopefully) a brief series of commentaries on the show, which I have enjoyed immensely despite some issues with the conclusion (none of which are major). So much as already been written on this show – between roundtable discussions on The Atlantic’s website to interviews with Nic Pizzolatto himself – that I feel the need to be cautious lest I repeat what others have already said. However, I have felt the need to really emphasize what I feel is a strong awareness that the story has of itself as a story. More than simply a murder mystery, True Detective is a metanarrative in all its grand, postmodern glory. In the finale, Cohle admits as much to Marty: “It’s all the same story […] Light versus dark.” But we must not read this as a total summation of what this season of True Detective has been about.
Series writer Nic Pizzolatto has enjoyed a lot of publicity lately over the fandom surrounding his show. In a recent interview, he substantiates some of what I have said:
And to me, if there's one governing thing in True Detective that encompasses everything that is happening in True Detective, and that the show is telling you — constantly, the show keeps telling you — is that everything is a story. Cohle tells you that who you think you are, your identity, is a story you tell yourself. He tells us that religion and philosophy are stories we tell ourselves. Cohle describes them as cathartic narratives, but in confession he's so good at getting confessions from suspects because he gives them room to create a cathartic narrative. Hart says an investigation is the act of trying to put together a story after the fact, and when he goes over his story in episode 5, you can tell that Hart used to tell himself one story and now he tells himself another story. The show was never concerned with the supernatural, but it was concerned with supernatural thought, and it was concerned with supernatural thinking to the degree that it was concerned with storytelling. So if there was one overarching theme to True Detective, I would say it was that as human beings, we are nothing but the stories we live and die by — so you'd better be careful what stories you tell yourself.
Why this overarching, emphatic insistence on True Detective as being about storytelling? In one sense, it evokes the heart of what is at the Gothic tradition of literature. Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most influential Gothic writers, understood the elemental nature of the Gothic as a concern over meaning and narrative, as evident in his tales of ratiocination (which introduced Auguste Dupin, the prototype to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) and his shorter tales such as “The Man of the Crowd” and “The Sphinx”; all stories that revolve around a mystery, but are far more concerned with exposing how a story is told rather than what the story is telling. However, in another sense, I believe that Pizzolatto is commenting and critiquing a very typical, normative response we have toward not only stories, but the institutions that we surround ourselves with every day, including the institution of investigation (which has since infiltrated countless primetime slots since the success of CSI). Pizzolatto wants us to realize the historical conditioning of the stories we have told (and continue to tell) ourselves. He wants us to come to terms with the material circumstances of our identities, to expose the contingencies on which we have built them.
For this reason, I believe that the conclusion provides an impressive balance of optimism and cynicism. I do not, for my part, believe that Cohle has found God, as some have claimed. I prefer Pizzolatto’s explanation: “I don't think Cohle is ever lying. I just think he wants that ultimate nullity to be true in the way that a born again Christian might want the transubstantiation of Christ to be true, right? It's the kind of thing where if you know this, then you don't have to go around saying it all the time, do you?” To put this another way: if the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are ultimately illusory, then isn’t Cohle’s own story – his insistence on the material conditioning of meaning, or his reduction of the self to an accumulation of sensations that projects a central empowered being – just as illusory? If we as viewers were allowed to see an extra scene – Marty and Cohle ten years down the line – I don’t think we would find them sitting side by side on their front porch, drinking beers and bitching about their wives. I think we would find Cohle very similar in fact to his portrayal throughout the show; but I think we would find in him a deeper consolation and commitment. At its conclusion, True Detective does not give us Cohle’s renunciation of cynicism and/or conversion to some kind of faith (despite what Matthew McConaughey may have read into the script – meaning is historical, remember?); rather, it gives us a portrait of a person who has become disillusioned with disillusion.
A person who can find unwavering comfort in the brutal fact that the universe is ancient, complex, both creative and destructive, both aesthetically pleasing and disgusting, ethically just and unfair, simultaneously mysterious and present, infinite and divisible.
Meaningful, and meaningless.
[i] I apologize for the lack of exact references. I’m recalling my sources from memory.
[ii] Noam Chomsky has voiced an alternative approach which has come to be known as “deep grammar”; that is, the idea that very inchoate forms of grammatical instruction/composition, which are somehow innate, were then developed into more complex forms of speech and writing.