Thursday, May 22, 2008

More on "Outlawyers": A note on inadequacy

In its immediate context, an affirming statement . . . but imagine Anton Chigurh wearing this. Image found here.

I was distracted by yesterday's posts and so didn't get around to posting this: Apologies for not earlier acknowledging Zunguzungu's kind mention of a post of mine here. His post (about which more below) is of the sort that makes you wish that your own work were worthy of mention there but you feel that maybe a little merit-by-association accrues to yours thereby via that mention. Anyway, some people have found their way here via that post and his cross-post over at The Valve. If you're here via those routes, welcome.

Zunguzungu's post, titled "You Know Who I Blame? The System!: The Wire, Barack Obama, and Omar for President," indeed covers all that and more: it ends up being a meditation on a version of the American archetype of the Rugged Individualist as embodied by Omar, who is Barack Obama's favorite character on The Wire. After noting some affinities between such characters and my idea of the Outlawyer, Zunguzungu gets to his post's central claim:

[A] true American is someone who makes his own justice.

In this sense, Indians are never the real villains of cowboy movies (and The Wire is not innovative in encouraging us to sympathize with the state‘s enemies); exactly because of the inevitability of their deaths, Indians could even become a figure of romantic attachment, valued almost precisely because every death seems to signify a step forward for progress. No, the real villain in Westerns, gangster movies, noir, and Mafia films is the same villain as in The Wire: “institutions” or an even more amorphous “the system.” And you don’t have to dig very deep into The Wire’s dvd commentaries or interviews with the creators to discover a very basic and overriding cynicism about the possibility of positive reform; as David Simon put it (in a quote I got here), The Wire “overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.” These failures are, again and again and again, attributed to “institutions.”
I've not seen any episode of The Wire, but the bit here about "institutions" and The System being villainous made me think back on my Outlawyer post and No Country (and, for that matter, McCarthy's work generally) and realize that the Outlawyer doesn't find the System villainous. Rather, it's the System that finds itself inadequate even to articulate, let alone deal with, the parallel universe that is the code of the Outlawyer.

More below the fold.

In the novel, though not the film, Sheriff Bell says something to the effect that it's not that the people he's dealing with disrespect the law--it's that "they don't even think about it." Exactly: even disrespect for the law would signify a tacit admission that the System, ideally, will ultimately judge their behavior. In McCarthy's take on things (as I quickly survey his novels in my mind), the System is so ignored as to be finally rendered irrelevant and thus inadequate, impotent, pitiable: a neutered villainy. We, too--those of us who say the System still has relevancy--are to blame for this in McCarthy's mind because we collectively pay little more than lip-service to the notion of relevancy. It's a reiteration of Nietzsche (and, in her own way, Flannery O'Connor): "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him." Perhaps it's this that lies at the heart of McCarthy's works' power: the realization that he may just be right about this and, holy you-know-what, what the hell are we going to do about it?

This theme is most forcefully given expression in Blood Meridian, chiefly in this cheery little homily by judge Holden:
Here there can be no special pleading. Here are considerations of equity and rectitude and moral right rendered void and without warrant and here are the views of the litigants despised. Decisions of life and death, of what shall be and what shall not, beggar all questions of right. In elections of these magnitudes are all lesser ones subsumed, moral, spiritual, natural. (Vintage paper edition, 250)
Because language is expressive of Systems (in case anyone cares, if I have an a priori theoretical point of reference, it's Structuralism), language, too, will be found inadequate in the face of that which occurs beyond our Systems' abilities to account for them, as I've tried to get at before. To circle back to something I noted in the Outlawyer post: this inadequacy of language is analogous what I was getting at with regard to the near-absence of a soundtrack--a film's world's language, its unspoken road-map for the viewer regarding how to respond to what s/he sees--in No Country. Or, as I put it to Lynnea the movie-lady as we talked about No Country at graduation this past Saturday, compared to other Coen Brothers films (which, according to Tim Blake Nelson in the "making of" featurette on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? DVD, look as though "they've been directed within an inch of their lives"), it's as though No Country "has no director." I meant that as a compliment, by the way.

None of this is to say that finding a System inadequate is always a bad thing, as my choice for an image for this post indicates, I hope. Indeed, as part of my project over at Domestic Issue I'll be fleshing out the claim that, if squinted at in a certain way, the term "New World" is a potential undoing of the the ultimate System, History (as embodied for my argument by the term "Americas"). Historicizing certainly has value for the establishing of immediate contexts, but too often (certainly in literary studies and, perhaps, in our politics as well) the tendency is to become emsnared by that past to the point that everything, no matter the point in time, seems a perpetual Present--to miss the very particulars that the goal of historicizing was to reveal to us in the first place: "'Twas always thus." What is bad about finding a System inadequate is if we have no adequate substitute for the inadequate one:
"Will there be something else?"
"I don't know--will there?"

UPDATE: As it happens, 3 Quarks Daily, almost exactly on point, has posted this poem by Czeslaw Milosz.


aaron said...

At the risk of playing tag-back, I've now responded to your post!

I should admit, though, that I've managed to ignore the thrust of your post in mine. I need to read Blood Meridian, I think. But it occurs to me that one of the reasons my thinking on the Wire doesn't seem to quite cross circuits with yours on McCarthy is the the term "evil" doesn't really exist in the Wire, and can't (everyone is a rational actor acting in accordance with their social position). Whereas my sense of McCarthy (derived largely from you) is that evil is precisely the key term. Does that seem right?

John B. said...


Welcome, and thanks for the comment.

Something that I remember thinking but forgot to include in this post was my realization that in McCarthy, the collapse of these systems into either impotence or irrelevance is that, in the absence of a more-or-less-generally-agreed-upon notion of Right, there goes the notion of Wrong as well: the essence of judge Holden's remarks in the passage I quoted. Thus, in McCarthy's novels (well, Blood Meridian for sure and No Country, there are no villains. Chigurh certainly gets talked about by Bell, the novel's moral center, but in a tone of what in the Old Testament would be called awfulness (as in "full of awe," though not in an affirming sense).

(I think)