Monday, March 10, 2014

“Vision is Meaning. Meaning is Historical”: HBO’s True Detective – Part I

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.  


  1. thank you for intriguing explanation. I have a more prosaic interpretation of vision is meaning, meaning is historical. That is what we are going to be/do (vision) is how we make sense (meaning) of Our past (history). This is both a collective (socially constructed) and individual process. All in all what Cohle argues is that there is path dependency on what we can be/do in the future.