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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A Whodunit Without a Who



I am going to propose … a concept of being-there and existence without making the slightest reference to anything like consciousness, experience or human reality.
Alain Badiou, Second Manifesto for Philosophy (2011, p. 44)


Stanislaw Lem’s The Investigation (1959)

What if the world isn’t scattered around us like a jigsaw puzzle—what if it’s like a soup with all kinds of things floating around in it, and from time to time some of them get stuck together by chance to make some kind of whole? What if everything that exists is fragmentary, incomplete, aborted, events with ends but no beginnings, events that only have middles, things that have fronts or rears but not both, with us constantly making categories, seeking out, and reconstructing, until we think we can see total love, total betrayal and defeat, although in reality we are all no more than haphazard fractions.[...:]The mathematical order of the universe is our answer to the pyramids of chaos.

The reviews of this novel by a Polish master of science fiction do not fully grasp what Lem attempts in this experimental novel, which is to attribute cause without human agency. Lem’s ontologically insecure police procedural The Investigation is a whodunit without a who. Two key examples of this in the novel are: a statistician, Dr. Harvey Sciss, offers a statistical model for the disappearance of dead bodies (statistics is not about single incidents or individual subjects but about series and groups) and the mysterious encounter of the Inspector Gregory at night in an arcade, where he confronts a stranger advancing towards him. Does it make one think of Lacan’s mirror stage? Perhaps, but the mirror stage is about the construction of identity—subjectivation, if you will, whereas this episode is the opposite, about desubjectivation—the experience of self as other, defamiliarization (cf. Viktor Shklovsky), where the incidents are stripped of human agency and identity is desubjectified.

The case proves to be impenetrable for the police inspector who is disturbed by what appears as the lack of human agency in the case of dead bodies being disturbed or disappearing:

In fact it appalls me, it’s absolutely inhuman. Human beings don’t work that way. Human beings make mistakes, it’s in the nature of things that they miscalculate from time to time, make mistakes, leave clues behind, change their plans in the middle of everything.


The inspector’s worldview and way of working is challenged. His view of existence is falling apart. Perhaps Alain Badiou, a philosopher who is also a novelist, has the key:

“Existence” is not a specific predicate of the human animal.
             (2011, p. 44)
            
Recall G.K. Chesterton’s metaphysical thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), featuring Lucian Gregory, an anarchist poet, and a Scotland Yard inspector called Gabriel Syme. In Lem’s novel, the statistician is called Sciss. This suggests: scissors, from Latin caedere, “to cut,” influenced by scindere, “to split,” and evokes abscissa, “x coordinate,” a term by which a point is mapped on a system of axes. Does Sciss’ statistical hypothesis represent an incisive cut, a disorienting split, or a new way to map reality for Gregory?

*

A Subject Without Consciousness

With nowhere to turn, isolated and lost, Inspector Gregory turns in on himself:

The day faded quickly, so quickly that the displays in the shop windows were soon being lit up for the evening. The street narrowed. Gregory found himself in a district of the city which hadn't been rebuilt since the Middle Ages. It was jammed with dark, clumsy old buildings, most of them sheltering brand-new modern shops that sparkled unnaturally like transparent glass boxes.

Gregory turned into an arcade, amazed that the thin layer of windswept snow at its entrance still hadn’t been trampled. A woman in a red hat stood nearby looking at some smiling wax manikins dressed in evening gowns. Beyond her, where some square white floodlights brightened the concrete walk, the arcade curved slightly.

Walking slowly, hardly conscious of his surroundings and whereabouts, Gregory brooded about Sciss’s laugh. What exactly had it meant, he wondered. It had to be significant. Despite appearances, Sciss didn't just do things for effect, although he was certainly arrogant enough, and consequently it followed that Sciss must have had a good reason for laughing, even if he was the only one who knew it.

Farther up the deserted arcade a man was walking toward Gregory – a tall, lean man, whose head was nodding as if he were talking to himself. Gregory was too busy with his own thoughts to pay much attention to him, but he kept him in sight out of the corner of his eye. The man drew nearer. Three shops turned off their lights for the night and the arcade suddenly became darker. The windows of a fourth shop were covered with whitewash because of a renovation in progress, and the only lights still visible were a few glittering displays in the direction from which the man was approaching.

Gregory looked up. The man’s pace slowed, but he kept coming, albeit hesitantly. Suddenly they stood facing each other, no more than a few paces apart. Still engrossed in his thoughts, Gregory stared at the tall male figure before him without really seeing his face. He took a step; the man did the same.

“What does he want?” Gregory wondered. The two men scowled at each other. In the shadows the man's broad face was hidden; he was wearing his hat pushed down on his forehead, his coat was somewhat too short, and his belt was all askew, with its end twisted loosely around the buckle. There was certainly something wrong with the buckle, Gregory thought, but he had enough problems without worrying about that too. He moved as if to walk past the stranger but found his path blocked.

“Hey,” Gregory began angrily, “what the. . .” his words faltering into silence.

The stranger. . . was himself. He was standing in front of a huge mirrored wall marking the end of the arcade. He had mistakenly walked into a glass-roofed dead end.

Unable to escape the disconcerting feeling that he was really looking at someone else, Gregory stared at his own reflection for a moment. The face that looked back at him was swarthy, not very intelligent, perhaps, but with a strong, square jaw that showed firmness, or at least so he liked to think, although more than once he had decided it was only pigheadedness.

“Had a good look?” he muttered to himself, then turned on his heels in embarrassment and headed in the direction he had come from.

Halfway up the arcade, Gregory couldn’t resist an irrational impulse to turn and look back. The “stranger” stopped also. He was far away now among some brightly lit, empty shops, heading down the arcade, busy with his own affairs in his mirror world. Gregory angrily adjusted his belt in its buckle, pushed his hat farther back on his head, and went out into the street.

In another disorienting cut, Gregory is invited to a late-night discussion at the Chief Inspector’s home, where they discuss the Lapeyrot case in Paris which is a case of folie à deux. This psychiatric syndrome, coined by the French and called shared paranoid disorder in contemporary psychiatry, occurs when one person is dominated by another to the point of losing his identity and submissively following the dominant person.

The Investigation is set in a London in which the inspector seems to feel more and more estranged. Mostly set in the dark of night and the fog of London, the novel is full of references to appearances, surfaces … glass doors, reflections, gazes, glare of lights, light falling on images, photographs, maps … partially illuminating … illusions, simulacra …

Badiou again on negation, the multiple and the conscious-less subject:

For my part … the determination of the concept of existence is conditioned by something like negation as well as self-differing. Ontologically, this is for me, the question of the void – the empty set. Phenomenologically, it is the question of negation in the various senses this can take in (classical, intuitionist and paraconsistent) logic and as applicable to the appearing of a multiple if one measures the degree of identity between this and its negation in a world. But I will plot these connections without any relation whatsoever with the conscious subject, and even less again with freedom. (2011, p. 45)

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