“Submitting to the influence of the considerable scientific progress of the second half of the nineteenth century – Bertillon’s anthropometric measurements, the discovery of fingerprints for the utilization of the police by Galton – the detective novel substituted proof by indexes for proof by witness.”
- Dominique Viart, The imaginary of signs at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Viart’s essay on signs is an attempt, in a brief space, to come to terms with Eco’s claim that the sign existed, basically, as a secondary or minor vehicle for other major conceptual themes (of language, of reason, of logic) up until the beginning of the 20th century. Viart references the success of a new kind of detective novel that traced signs into the past – back to the primary scene of some crime.
There is, of course, no better testimony to the moment in which the eyewitness becomes subordinate to the trace than M, Franz Lang’s film. Of course, the trace and the eyewitness, in correspondence to the law that all opposites shall dance the Moonwalk to a joyous sound played on an ocarina in the black heart of a dead deconstructionist, mutually exclude each other by mutually presupposing each other, and teach the Mosaic law as it came down to Wittgenstein – can your right hand steal from your left hand? (when the Mosaic law was transmitted through Wittgenstein, it came out as a series of questions. Which poses the question, is it possible to create a code of law in which every rule is a question?) But to return to M – you will remember, LI readers, that the eyewitness to Peter Lorre’s child murderer is a blind man. What he witnesses is a conjunction of sounds – the sound of a voice he heard, the sound of a little girl’s voice. The viewer witnesses a ball and a balloon. The blind man tells a fake blind beggar about the man, and the fake blind beggar marks Hans Beckert (Lorre) with the fatal M. Surely more than one Lacanian, orgasming uncontrollably, has had to be ushered sternly out of the movie house whilst watching the famous scene when Lorre turns and sees the M chalked on the back of his coat in the mirror.
Which take us back to Carlo Ginzburg’s essay on Freud, Morelli and Holmes. After cross cutting quotes from Morelli to Sherlock Holmes to Freud, Ginzburg makes his first point like this:
“We have outlined an analogy between the methods of Morelli, of Holmes, and of Freud. We have mentioned the connection between Morelli and Holmes, and that between Morelli and Freud. The peculiar similarities between the activities of Holmes and Freud have been discussed by Steven Marcus (1976:x-xi). 15 Freud himself, by the way, told a patient (the "Wolf-Man") how interested he was in Sherlock Holmes’s stories. When, however, in the spring of 1913, a colleague of his (T. Reik) suggested a parallel between the psychoanalytic method and Holmes's method, Freud replied expressing his admiration of Morelli's technique as a connoisseur. In all three cases tiny details provide the key to a deeper reality, inaccessible by other methods. These details may be symptoms, for Freud, or clues, for Holmes, or features of paintings, for Morelli (Gardiner 1971:146; Reik 1949:24).
How do we explain the triple analogy? There is an obvious answer. Freud was a doctor; Morelli had a degree in medicine; Conan Doyle had been a doctor before settling down to write. In all three cases we can invoke the model of medical semiotics or symptomatology-the discipline which permits diagnosis, though the disease cannot be directly observed, on the basis of superficial symptoms or signs, often irrelevant to the eye of the layman, or even of Dr. Watson. (Incidentally, the Holmes-Watson pair, the sharp-eyed detective and the obtuse doctor, represents the splitting of a single character, one of the youthful Conan Doyle's professors, famous for his diagnostic ability.) But it is not simply a matter of biographical coincidences. Toward the end of the nineteenth century (more precisely, the decade 1870-1880), this “semiotic” approach, a paradigm or model based on the interpretation of clues, had become increasingly influential in the field of human sciences. Its roots, however, were far more ancient.
Remember we started with footprints. Our signs go back to myths, and our myths go back to footprints – as Ginzburg remarks, there is a Chinese legend that the first letters were copied from the track of a wading bird through the sand.
“Or abandoning the realms of myth and hypothesis for that of documented history, there are undoubtedly striking analogies between the hunters' model we have been developing and the model implicit in the texts of Mesopotamian divination, which date from at least 3,000 years B.C. (Boterro 1974). Both require minute examination of the real, however trivial, to uncover the traces of events which the observer cannot directly experience. Droppings, footprints, hairs, feathers, in the one case; innards, drops of oil in water, stars, involuntary movements in the other. It is true that the second group, unlike the first, could be extended indefinitely, since the Mesopotamian diviners read signs of future in more or less anything. But to our eyes another difference matters more: the fact that divination pointed toward the future, while the hunter’s deciphering pointed towards he actual past—albeit occurring a few instants before. Yet in terms of understanding, the approach in each case was much alike; the intellectual stages—analysis, comparison, classification—identical, at least in theory. But only, of course, in theory: the social contexts were quite different. In particular, It has been observed that the invention of writing must have had a great effect on Mesopotamian divination (Bottero 1974:154ff.). Mesopotamian gods had, besides other kingly prerogatives, the power of communication with their subjects through written messages-on stars, human bodies, everywhere -which the diviners had the task of deciphering. (This was an idea which in turn over thousands of years would flow into the image of "the book of nature") And the identification and divination with the deciphering of characters divinely inscribed was reinforced in real life by the pictographic character of this early writing, "cuneiform"; it too, like divination, conveyed one thing through another.”
I seem to be going off track, here, from our original theme – the groove in this record – of the social animal, but this is because one thinks of the hunter and the prey as being, somehow, alone. And that is because we live far from the real hunts and chases. But the notion of the social animal begins not just with language, but with something to tell and some way to tell it. It begins with organization. This is why Pliny’s story of the elephants passing down the herd line an impress of a human footprint should give us a certain shock – much like the shock Peter Lorre gets from seeing himself in the mirror. It is the shock of being prey, not predator. The shock pulls us back.
I’ll try to get to this again, soon.