social animal 2

“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.


roger said…
ps - damn, this post is confusing! What I meant to emphasize was the idea that the human predator is distinguished from the prey by the fact that the human reads the signs, and the prey does not - a narrative that advances until the signs detach and pursue the prey autonomously, which gives the chalked "M: such power. But that narrative is in conflict with another, a narrative not of solutions but of frights, in which the prey actually can read the signs. As the hunter tracks the prey, so the prey can track the hunter. This couple, this narrative and counter-narrative, can be read into the theory of the social animal. Or at least that is what I'd like to do.
Anonymous said…
LI, one of the things that I found really striking and important in your previous "social animal" post was the question of PANIC, and your underscoring the panic affect on Crusoe of the footprint.
And the panic-affect is pretty much the question in M as well isn't it? The affect of panic on the social animal, on the social "bond"?
(Obviously, one thinks of the date and milieu of M.)

But there is also another affect rather strangely at play in M - that of happiness! During the sequence where M and the girl - his prey - walk about the city, are they not happy?

roger said…
Amie, the girl is. I think Lorre plays Beckert as a man who is always between panics. There's a famous scene in which he makes faces at himself in the mirror, which contrasts with the mirror scene that shows him the fatal M. Reflection is a bad thing for him. Here, I would say we are approaching a twist in the predator/prey relationship - the prey being defined as he who unconsciously leaves the sign of himself. Of course, he always has the possibility to be a predator, which he is to the little girls, and so perhaps we should say he achieves a calmness here, but later in the movie, when he gives his confession, he is prey all the way through - his predation on the girls is the result of the voices in his head, who ride him.
P.M.Lawrence said…
What impressed me most in M was what seemed an obvious allusion in M's defence speech to Luther's famous "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders" (it doesn't show in the English subtitles), with all its implications for that stance on conscience and morality.
P.M.Lawrence said…
Oh, and the "immer rennen und rennen", of course.
"M: such power. But that narrative is in conflict with another, a narrative not of solutions but of frights, in which the prey actually can read the signs."

I read once that 90% of the deer killed during deer hunting season in NY state are killed before 8 am on the first morning. The article - might have been in the New Yorker - ending something like "but the deer don't know it's [such and such a date]". I thought, oh that's a good movie; they do know; they've figured it out; they're prepared now.

anyway, love that eco-ginz holmes book, and think, speaking of doctors and signs and whatnot, you would love this book (apologies if i mentioned before, its one of these i am constantly noodzhing people about) by Laura Otis called Membranes which connects fiction by doctors of this period, and the development of microbe based medicine, with the political rhetoric of microbes/foreign intruders making the state and society ill, and how these come together in holmes' stories.
roger said…
Wow, LCC - thanks for the recommend. I have to check that out!

You know, lately in the West, they've been having a cougar problem. The cats are returning, and they aren't averse to a little human veal, and they are very smart about tracking and attacking. Relatively small cats, but all muscle and teeth. Sorta grotesquely, I am fascinated by this.