True Detective: It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World, pt. 2

I started to say True Detective (HBO original series) is gold ore and then to pursue a metaphor of finding something of value in an impure original form.

But one of the two main characters is named Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) so I will say instead, True Detective is iron ore and we can find something of value—something tarnished, yes—in an impure original form.

I want to start with the tarnished, the rust, that few people have confronted.

Emily Nussbaum sees True Detective through the lens of all that it fails to achieve:

Like many critics, I was initially charmed by the show’s anthology structure (eight episodes and out; next season a fresh story) and its witty chronology, which chops and dices a serial-killer investigation, using two time lines…

On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.

The women in the episodes, Nussbaum explains, are “paper-thin”; they serve as women often do in art made by men—as props, as symbols, as embodiments rendered meaningful only in the context of the men who gain most of the attention when the camera isn’t focused on the bared curves of women titillating and pleasing those men (and the audience, mostly men, we may assume). “Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life,” she recognizes.

I think Nussbaum’s explication is important, not to set True Detective aside, but to mine that rust from the ore. I think there is much here of value—even conceding the entrenched failures of men making art as if women truly and inevitably are “paper-thin,” “a simple prop to occupy [their] time.”

Many people have noted that about 5% of pop culture is brilliant and the remaining 95% is trash. From production value to acting, True Detective aspires to that 5%, and I think it is often successful.

Even (maybe especially) with the mind disengaged in rational ways, each episode is mesmerizing for the senses.

But if we approach the series as a work of collaborative art (director, write, actors) that necessarily involves the viewer as yet another collaborator, we may find that True Detective is a tale possibly subtitled “It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World.”

Yes, women are cheated in (and cheated on) this narrative from HBO, but women are cheated in (and cheated on) the real world also. Children too are central in the series, often as the victims they are in real life also.

And if we are to decide whether to applaud True Detective for its often soaring craft or to denounce the series for its cliched and tone deaf paternalism, misogyny, and chauvinism, I think we must also start with genre—not just what the series is about but what form this series is taking to shape that tale.

Taken for its commitment to form, True Detective is noir fiction, a genre itself both illuminating the sexism of the human condition and flawed because of the sexism of the human condition entrenched in the genre.

“Noir fiction has attracted some of the best writers in the United States (mostly) and many of its aficionados are among the most sophisticated readers in the crime genre,” explains Otto Penzler. “Having said that, I am constantly baffled by the fact that a huge number of those readers don’t seem to know what noir fiction is,” adding:

Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.

Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.

And there is Rust Cohle and his partner Marty Hart—deeply flawed men blinded by their lusts and trapped between justice and injustice.

Are there better ways to do that story? There was Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, and Bruce Wayne/Batman endures—both of which are examinations of that exact dynamic of justice/injustice and flawed men.

Either these are archetypal characters and narratives or evidence that the paternalism of film and literature have imposed these characters and narratives onto the world by sheer force.

But as I watch the series (as of this writing, the sixth episode), I have been reminded of John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, a literary and complex novel that searches the human soul as well as the landscape of justice and injustice, as this excerpt shows:

His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark.

-Isaiah 56:10

In late August, 1966, the city jail in Batavia, New York, held four regular prisoners, that is, four prisoners who were being kept on something more than an overnight basis. Three had been bound over for trial; the fourth was being held, by order of the court, until the County could administer a psychiatric examination. The identity of this fourth prisoner was not yet known. He seemed to be about forty. He’d been arrested on August 23rd for painting the word love in large, white, official-looking letters across two lanes of Oak Street, just short of the New York State Thruway. As the police were in the act of arresting him he had managed to burn all the papers in his billfold (dancing up and down, shaking like a leaf), and he refused to say now a halfway sensible word about himself, except that he was “an anarchist, a student.” His face was slightly disfigured by what looked like a phosphor burn — the kind men get in wars. Whether he was actually a student (he was an anarchist, all right) there was no way of telling. He seemed too old for that, and there was no college in Batavia; but the town was not large and they knew he was not from there.

The Sunlight Dialogues is hard; it demands a great deal of the reader in terms of time as well as concentration.

I think the same of True Detective in the sense that we must not take the work on face value only, we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized, and we must not see the “paper-thin” women as endorsements, but mirrors of the very real ways life remains a man’s (hostile) world.

And I remain committed to mining the rust from the ore in this show because we remain faced with much the same in the real world we fail to excavate and then re-imagine each day.

True Detective is flawed as is the human condition. We can do better in both, but not by giving in to the nihilism of the noir that is both creation and mirror.

It’s still a man’s (hostile) world, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Many Closets, One Fear: How Not to Be Seen

This starts with caveats and clarifications so please be patient.

I am white, male, and heterosexual—by the coincidences of my birth, many of my defining characteristics place me in the norm of my culture and combine to bestow upon me through no merit on my part a great deal of privilege.

Below, then, I am making no claim that the closets I have suffered and that others suffer share some sort of ultimate equivalence even though they share the crippling power of fear. I remain deeply angered at the scars of racism, sexism, and homophobia that linger in my country that claims to be a beacon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I remain deeply angered at the scar of poverty that flourishes in that same country wrapping its crass consumerism and capitalism in the flag in order to continue to ignore inequity.

But as a privileged person, I too understand the weight of the closet and the paralysis of fear so I am venturing into this not as a pity party, not as navel gazing, and not to make some grand claim that I know what it is like to be the daily victim of racism, sexism, or homophobia, what it is like to be homeless or hungry.

I don’t.

This, however, is a place to offer a few words about the intersections that may at first not seem like intersections at all: Jason Collins coming out of the closet, the Boston Marathon bombing, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and other “no excuses” schools.

“Stones can make people docile and knowable,” writes Foucault [1]. “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure—thick walls, a heavy gate that prevent entering or leaving—began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (p. 190).

Here, Foucault is being literal, confronting the culture of control that is housed in social institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. But I want to consider the enclosure of the metaphorical closet before coming back to the role of the brick-and-mortar school below.

My privilege built on gender, race, and sexuality (all elements of my being I have not chosen, but essentials of whom I am) has contributed to my existential angst of coming to recognize throughout my life the equally important aspects of my Self that are distinctly outside cultural norms.

In my late 30s, I began to experience panic attacks, notably ones not directly associated with an event but attacks that were, as best as I can describe them, the manifestation of a war with myself. The attacks came upon me any time I tried to sleep, relax, and this was when my Normal Self let down the guard enough for the real and true me to begin to fight for the surface.

Again, I don’t want to belabor my personal struggles, but I do want to emphasize that the human condition is fraught with closets of many kinds that are joined by fear.

My closeting has always been an existential one: I have never felt the sort of normal response to religion that others appear to embrace (a powerful closeting condition in the South), but even more profoundly, I recognize my worldview as completely out of kilter with almost all other humans. It has created for me an often overwhelming sense of alienation.

What often is left unspoken is that it is in the moments of conflict between who we truly are and who we are expected to be that we feel self-conscious, we imagine that all eyes are on us, judging us, recognizing us for who we truly are in order to banish us from the community. For me, it is the never-ending ritual of “Let us pray…” or that split second when someone says something and everyone else nods in agreement while I calculate the damage that would be done if I said my piece. Both of these seem trivial to me in the text I just typed, but the cumulative effect of this daily, I think, must not be discounted—particularly as it occurred in my childhood and youth.

Closets exist because humans come to recognize two forces—who we truly are and who the World around us demands that we be. If who we truly are doesn’t match the demand, we often gather the stones to build our closets because above all else we are afraid of not being accepted, not being loved, not being cherished for who we truly are.

Even in our moments of such recognitions, we reach out for someone to join us:

I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The closet, then, is a place to hide, how not to be seen. However, the human condition involves a drive not only to be seen, but also to be accepted, embraced. This has been profoundly demonstrated in Jason Collin’s own words about his motivation for confronting his sexuality within the exponentially judgmental worlds of social and athletic homophobia and normative expectations for being fully a man.

This tension between being seen and not being seen is at the center of Foucault’s culture of control: “This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable mechanisms….The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly” (p. 191).

Constant surveillance, then, achieves two ends: The power and coercion of normalizing (control, obedience), and the creation of anxiety, fear, where neither are warranted: “The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (p. 195).

The existential angst within the human condition, made more pronounced from within our many closets, confronts the concrete structures recognized by Foucault—hospitals, schools, prisons—but also now confronts a pervasive surveillance that was identified and then normalized itself because of the Boston Marathon bombing—the Brave New World of constant surveillance through smart phones, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and the interconnectivity afforded through the Internet.

The normalizing came in the form of repeated comments from political leaders, law enforcement, and the media that the constant surveillance has now shown itself as essential for our safety—from the (criminal) Other, our mechanisms for the middle-class cocoon.

“Similarly,” Foucault explains, “the school building was to be a mechanism for training” (p. 190).

Building on Foucault’s recognition of the structures within a culture of control, DeLeuze details:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)

And now the intersections among closeted existences, fear, constant surveillance and the Boston Marathon bombing, and the “age of infinite examination” that is education reform built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.

First let’s zoom in to the life of the student, specifically the student marginalized in her/his home and community and then marginalized in her/his school: “a pupil’s ‘offense’ is not only a minor infraction, but also an inability to carry out his tasks,” Foucault explains (p. 194), predating significantly the new norm of “no excuses” school cultures as captured by Sarah Carr’s look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the rise of KIPP and similar charter schools:

The reformers approach students they perceive as disadvantaged in much the same way they do struggling teachers….[L]ow income children must be taught, explicitly and step-by-step, how to be good students. Staff at a growing number of “no-excuses” charter schools…are prescriptive about where new students look (they must “track” the speaker with their eyes), how they sit (upright, with both feet planted on the ground, hands folded in front of them), how they walk (silently and in a straight line, which is sometimes marked out for them by tape on the floor), how they express agreement (usually through snaps or “silent clapping” because it’s less disruptive to the flow of class), and, most important, what they aspire to (college, college, college). This conditioning (or “calibration” or “acculturation”…) starts with the youngest of students. (pp. 42-43) [2]

“The disciplinary mechanisms,” Foucault explains, “secreted a ‘penalty of the norm,’ which is irreductible in its principles and functioning to the traditional penalty of the law” (p. 196). Carr and Nolan, in her ethnography of zero tolerance policies in urban high schools [3], shine a light on how schools and the penal system have merged in the U.S. for “other people’s children”—creating both a school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons.

CCSS and the high-stakes tests designed to enforce those standards, then, are yet a logical extension of the broader purposes of school to control, an institution that “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes[,]…normalizes” through the mechanism of tests:

The order that the disciplinary punishments must enforce is of a mixed nature: it is an “artificial” order, explicitly laid down by a law, a program, a set of regulations. But it is also an order defined by natural and observable processes: the duration of apprenticeship, the time taken to perform an exercise, the level of aptitude refer to a regularity that is also a rule. (Foucault, pp. 194-195)

As well, Deleuze recognizes education is in a contant state of crisis, reform, and standardization, within which schools, teachers, and students can never finish. Our Brave New World of standardization and “infinite examination” is one of international rankings, school rankings, teacher rankings, and student rankings—all of which assure that virtually everyone cannot possibly measure up; number two is perpetually the first loser.

“The power of the Norm appears throughout the disciplines,” adds Foucault:

The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of the ecoles normales (teachers’ training college)….Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. (p. 196)

A culture of control is the antithesis of a community.

A culture of control uses the normative gaze to breed conformity and to excise the Different from the herd.

A community reaches out, lends a hand, opens arms. A community is an invitation to the recognition of the humanity that joins all people despite the diversity among us individually.

Many closets, one fear—this should speak to our hearts in a way that moves us beyond cultures and societies of control and toward a community.

We should also come to see that our culture of control is built upon and perpetuated by a dehumanizing education mechanism grounded in surveillance and fear.

Just as fear is the wrong motivation for embracing the perpetual surveillance created by smart phones, cameras on every street corner, and the Internet, fear is the wrong motivation for how we build our schools.

Ultimately, KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools, CCSS, and the perpetual churn of education reform are the consequences of fear.

Ceaseless school reform is irrational and heartless; it is building closets from the stones of test scores.

Ceaseless school reform creates schools and a society in which we all must find ways not to be seen, fearful if we take the risk to stand as our true selves in that open field we too will be shot down like a punch line in a comedy sketch.

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See “The means of correct training” from Discipline and punish.

[2] Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

[3] Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.