Hiring in various kinds of “security” has increased exponentially in recent years, from jobs in cybersecurity and private security to prison guard and border patrol employment. Cop shows have proliferated accordingly, though they have long been a television staple, including those that portray police corruption. The trope of the “bad lieutenant” is well trod, doesn’t shock, and arguably serves to affirm police as a whole, the pervasiveness and militarization of whom are, historically speaking, relatively new. Excepting perhaps The Wire the locus of such plots does not critique the existence of policing but rather inevitably concerns the personal risks taken by specific, heroic detectives who endanger themselves when they begin to uncover criminality internal to their organization. Even the episodes about corrupt higher-ups resolve in the conviction of a few individuals, “a few bad apples”, while, true to the individualism of contemporary “realist” storytelling, the institution of policing, reformed, purified, and purged, remains intact. What’s taken for granted, what’s unthinkable on these shows, is to question the need for police at all.
The televisual violence of policing has an aesthetics, an art history, that revolves around the singular figure of the smarter detective, the one who is exceptional at solving mysteries and who is himself something of an exception, as well as a mystery, managing against all odds to remain ethical in a corrupt system and imaginative in a reductive one.
To watch detectives uncover a plot in a realist detective drama—with diagrams, pictures, graphs and notes on whiteboards—is also to watch the writer construct one. The detective is the writer, trying to hash out meanings, causes, and relationships. And because the genre requires it—because these are detectives—there must be something to be detected: an empirical explanation; something to be found out. Every episode rewards the detective, and the viewer, vicariously detecting, with resolution.
The evidence is retroactively obvious in these storylines, showing how most plotters get caught. Either because they are too linear in their thought, or there’s some detail they haven’t considered, some anamorphic shred of being they’ve left lying around, the smoking gun of their humanity that is also a sign of their crime.
That form of narrative arc which must resolve conflict typically entails microcosmic changes for individuals only and otherwise a return to business as usual. Storytellers who are interested in transformation as a subject in and of itself, who are interested in macrocosmic phase shifts, use irresolution as method.
A recent spate of television shows posit the radical transformation of collectivities, of multitudes, of societies and not just of individuals. These transformations are brought about by the advent of inexplicable, supernatural incursions upon physics, and therefore upon character’s senses of normalcy. Not only do the stories thwart closure, new holes, new aporias proliferate so that even if one narrative knot is finally untied and straightened out, a new one appears. The collective is at stake in these shows precisely because there is no one person who can “solve” the mysteries that best and bedevil them all, even if there are ad hoc collaborations, small crews who hold pieces of the puzzle.
The events they confront are as disturbing as irresolvable poems, as opaque as ancient parables, generating multiple interpretations and hypotheses among them and their viewers. Unlike poems, these events are so destructive they are impossible to ignore, for example in The Leftovers two percent of the world’s population disappears while in Stranger Things a kind of portal opens to an alternate universe which looks and feels like a hell realm, that is, like a food poisoned gut or an encroaching, leaking superfund site, such as Hanford, impossible to contain.
The conceit that structures these shows is the idea that another, inexplicable world is very near, in fact right next to us, which sometimes leaks into or violently interpenetrates ours, but is largely imperceptible. Why are these worlds so hard to see, to understand? When they do become perceptible, what are the reasons? These questions, the search for the reasons as to the relative perceptibility or imperceptibility of near worlds, constitute the mysteries that propel such stories.
Stranger Things and The Leftovers seem to express a sense of not just world crisis but genre crisis. It is as though the appearance of, the presence of the irresolvable circularity of parable within the always-resolvable linearity of realism is traumatic, as if it is the discovery that realism is not real, or no longer real, or never was real that is so unbearable. Of course, it isn’t that the real is subjective, as our president believes, rather it is that the real is not determined by us.
If Stranger Things and The Leftovers have traumatically illegible experiences as their subject, Sneaky Pete and Patriot provide a different kind of encounter with questions of legibility, lawfulness, and legitimacy. On the surface, these shows are about a con artist and a spy respectively. But both are really about improvisation.
The shortest distance between two points is a line, but if you’re being tailed, you should swerve. Hermes, a con artist’s tutelary spirit, trickster and cattle rustler, robs Apollo and literally throws the older god off his tracks by walking backwards. Only after an act has been repeated, or told of repeatedly, that is, once it has been storied, does it become more widely thinkable, and thereafter no one trying to shake their pursuer can count on that technique. To get clean away, the pursued must think of, do something no one has thought of, or at the very least something that their pursuer will not think of, which requires theory of mind: the understanding that others have minds, and the empathetic, or cunning in this case, ability to imagine what goes through them. Efficiency—factory logic, highway logic, industrial logic, Euclidian geometrics—will get them caught, because sensible linear plots can be retrospectively plotted—paraphrased, pinned down, defined—just as easily as clumsily plodding plots. In this sense, efficiency becomes inefficient. Anselm Hollo, an early poetry teacher of mine, once said that the true poem can’t be paraphrased. The one who hopes to get away must become a poet in Hollo’s sense. They must become hard to graph, to chart, they must be deft improvisers, geometers of irregular, chaotic, disorderly and changing shapes. The character, Marius/Pete, of Sneaky Pete is such an improviser. If to watch, say, Detective Endeavor or Hercule Poirot uncover a plot is simultaneously to perceive writers plotting a story, to watch Marius/Pete improvise is to encounter composition as explanation, to quote poet of the present tense Gertrude Stein. At every turn in the road, at every moment, Marius/Pete must compose/explain himself anew. He must be himself entirely, and be entirely someone else.
His con artistry is highly motivated. He’s trying to save both his own life and that of his brother. The moment he is released from jail his life is threatened by a psychopathic crime boss and his minions, forcing Marius to take on a false identity. Acting fractal, Giovanni Ribisi performs the role of Marius, recently released from prison, who performs the role of Pete, recently released from prison. Pete is the long lost relative of a family who Marius successfully cons (he’s a great actor) and precipitously moves in with. All unknowing, Pete’s family, thinking Marius is Pete, become his beard, their home his hideout.
There is no script handy for Marius, only Pete’s attributes, fragmented narratives, and prompts to collage together. There’s no score for him, only melodic tightropes on which to balance over abysses. It’s helpful that the real Pete, with whom Marius shared a cell, was a gregarious, repetitive extrovert who furnished Marius, on the lookout for material, with stories. And it’s essential that Marius has a strong capacity for theory of mind. The near enemy of empathy, is, of course, the con: businesses with employees who have strong theory of mind get richer than businesses that don’t. Once he gets Pete’s confessional refrains under his belt Marius can improvise. Improvisation is a way of doing research into his character, who the other characters know more about. He is also a simpler soul than Marius, which makes him easier to become than if Pete were more complex. Even his name is simpler, a direct, monosyllabic and even silly sound as compared with the unusual, multisyllabic, and lyrical name of Marius. Marius can easily pretend that the blanks where Pete’s memories are inaccessible to him is a result of ordinary human forgetfulness and/or Pete’s particular dimness, and thereby learn things about “himself.”
But when these blanks land Marius blindfolded inside the trunk of Pete’s cousin’s car, he has no basis for understanding this as anything other than being caught by his pursuers. When it turns out to be a prank on the part of his “cousin”, he doesn’t hide his rage. He mines his trauma like a method actor thereby becoming even more realistic.
We root for Marius/Pete and admire his desperate gambits not because we want to identify with a liar, but because we too must wager without having all the information or knowing what the outcome will be. The jazz musician and scholar Vijay Iyer puts it this way: “We are all called on to improvise every day, all day–invoke this and it will open pathways in your thinking.”
If his pursuers do finally trump (if never outwit) the solitary con, it is because, like the state, they have a monopoly of violence. Their game is rigged, a hierarchical bureaucracy of bosses. As the autonomous card sharp is to anarchy, so “organized” crime is to state violence.
Insofar as Marius/Pete of Sneaky Pete, recycler of discards, user of the throw-away and master of the feint, survives a game whose rules are always evolving by means of a relentless font of improvisation, he has a compatriot in a singular purveyor of state violence, the spy John, antihero of the perfectly named show Patriot. John’s immediate superior also happens to be his father, a high ranking agent. John follows his father’s orders right off a figurative cliff, into a spree of nonsensical killings. Our attention is drawn, by the title of the show, to the common root between patriarchy and patriotism, in the filial pater. Both father and son are functionaries of the dysfunctional, fragmented, drama-riven patriarchal nation-state. As such, their tasks don’t add up, are reckless, destructive, and soul devouring. The discrepancy between ostensible heroism, and the absurd stupidity of their murderous errands is driving John mad.
Every time John kills someone, it turns out to be a mistake, both because it’s always a mistake to kill someone, and because although he is trained to be an assassin, John is at heart a bard, finding open mics wherever he goes so he can unburden himself safely, singing about what he’s up to, if never speaking of it, as he travels around sorrowfully murdering people and assuming false identities at his father’s behest. Singing is a safe way to tell the truth while concealing it, hiding in the open. Poetry and song are the only ethical experiences left in John’s life, and depression a natural response to the fatal stupidity of his tasks. The lines between military family and crime family, between boss and crime boss, are blurred; here the family is patriarchy’s original black site.
Being depressed and ambivalent, John has a low affect. When forced to lie, he doesn’t even bother to lie well. Unlike Marius/Pete, he doesn’t have to lie believably. He, as an agent of the state, literally gets away with murder. John takes on a false identity in order to become an employee at a company he’ll use as a cover for an operation organized by his father. In one scene he tells the boss at his fake job, who loves tugboats and wants to get to know him better, that his father is a tugboat captain. His “boss” exclaims with happy astonishment. Queried about his mother, John then tells the happy man that she, too, is a tugboat captain, eliciting another cry of joy. The comic effect of this scene is not simply down to the contrast between the guilelessness of his interlocutor’s delighted belief and its patent unbelievability. It lies in watching John get away with not bothering. There’s barely a need to coordinate the resemblance between false stories and true stories when you’re telling someone something they want to hear. He creates a self that, however absurd and improbable, works well enough to keep the ball in the air in an interpersonal situation in which accuracy and morality matter far less to survival than raising your stock in the eyes of the other.
There are different kinds of liars. There are bad liars who are good because they are ashamed of their lies; they get caught by someone sooner than later. If, as Vijay Iyer tells us, to improvise is to open pathways in thought, lies also create traps for the liar, down the road. The good/bad liar unknowingly sets up and then runs into their own blockade sooner than later.
Then there is the liar who only has one lie. They tell it over and over. It is a simple feature, a built-in attribute of their species being. Among these are advertisers, who always only have one message; cuttlefish who dazzle and stun their prey with the same psychedelic light show; and the grouse who feigns a broken leg to distract predators from the nest. Unlike improvisational coyotes, new trick-learning ravens, humpback whales who remix and change their songs, the advertiser, the cuttlefish, and the grouse use the same method over and over to accomplish their rudimentary, binary goals of, respectively, capital accumulation, dinner, and predator evasion.
In all of the above examples of kinds of lying, what is shared in common is that the liar knows they are lying whereas shameless liars delude even themselves, not knowing or caring what the difference is between truth and lies. For them, anything that isn’t an exaggeration is an exaggeration. It is not simple to “catch” these lies because underlying experience can remain honest in the transfer of disinformation as when Marius expresses his anger and fear but in the guise of Pete. The feelings are real.
Our final liar, the liar of last days, the despotic liar, doesn’t need to keep track of his lies. It doesn’t matter if he believes his lies or doesn’t. The lying itself is precisely an expression of that monopoly on violence wherein there is no such thing as getting caught. In this he is the embodiment of that form of post-politics that forsakes the bases, indeed the very reasons for something called politics, or for something called law. Why politics, why law, if not for justice? And how can there be justice without truth?
When a person can’t ever be caught in a lie, no matter how much and obviously they lie, no matter how much they are accused of lying, they’ve forfeited what Wittgenstein called “the liberating word.” Nothing that is said by the despotic liar can liberate. Even if they say something that happens to be true. They don’t so much fool the public as blow so much smoke in their eyes that they soon believe everything and nothing, think that everything is possible and nothing is true, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. Speech becomes like unrecyclable garbage, like the plastic island in the ocean: pervasive, useless, dangerously toxic. You enter The Aleatory Abyss, the title of a recent book by Evelyn Hampton who quotes the above passage from Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism in her prose meditation about, among other things, garbage, politics, broken language, abjection, the ordinary violence of private property, and grief: her friend, a poet named Mark, traveling the country on foot and living outside as a principled response to climate change and environmental crisis was hit by a car and killed the day after the 2017 inauguration. Of course these two unspeakably awful events—Mark’s death and Trump’s election—are really one catastrophe. What has caught the truthful Mark is the same as what has elevated the liar Trump.
In the midst of her grief, Hampton can still notice shreds of the planet here and there. General fraudulence and terrible grief has not eroded it, not entirely: “Language seems broken, unable to hold even the barest meaning, but there is a stand of birch trees I like to see as I drive.” This stand of trees becomes a refuge for her gaze, even a way to be, as she drives to work, a respite, something to meditate on and identify with: “In the morning, the birch trees have the look of having just arrived inside their own lines. They might still smear. Driving by them, I want to be them.”
Interspersed throughout the essay, Hampton grapples with the advent, the spectacle, the meaning of the reality show president which will forever be inextricable from the death-by-car of her dear friend. Here, Trump is like that piece of errant plastic that clings though she tries to cast it off. “Its helplessness reminds me of people.” Garbage world and garbage mouth are symptoms of the same syndrome of carelessness, itself a symptom of depression.
What he says is ephemeral—everything changes, is remanded or contradicted within days—but images of him haunt me. There is one video on YouTube—he is leaving the offices of the New York Times and being booed in the lobby by the paper’s employees, and for a few moments the camera captures him from behind. What I see in those moments are the stooped shoulders of an old, vulnerable man who is puzzled by what is happening to him and who is unable to acknowledge the larger narrative in which he is being cast in a far lesser role than he is able to imagine. In other words, I see a human being, and this disturbs me.
To have a president who believes he need only pronounce something for it to be true and who has, as a direct result of this misapprehension of our earthly situation, been necessarily “cast in a far lesser role than he is able to imagine” is to have a president who embodies and personifies the very particular delusions that deform and weigh down the historical present.
What lies in the abyss between what one is conditioned to expect and desire (an infinite supply of cheap energy, cheap disposable commodities, and cheap likes) and what is actually ecologically sustainable (let alone what might actually fulfill a person) is quite literally toxic waste (one kind of aleatory abyss). In The Age of Anger: A History of the Present Pankaj Mishra puts it this way:
There is plainly much more longing than can be realized legitimately in the age of freedom and entrepreneurship; more desires for objects of consumption than can be fulfilled by actual income; more dreams than can be fused with stable society by redistribution and greater opportunity; more discontents than can be allayed by politics or traditional therapies; more demand for status symbols and brand names than can be met by non-criminal means; more claims made on celebrity than can be met by increasingly divided attention spans; more stimuli from the news media than can be converted into action; and more outrage than can be expressed by social media. Simply defined, the energy and ambition released by the individual will to power far exceed the capacity of existing political, social and economic institutions. Thus, the trolls of Twitter as much as the dupes of ISIS lurch between feelings of impotence and fantasies of violent revenge . . . significantly numerous members of the precariat know there is no such thing as a level playing field.
The reality show president presides over reality as a show, in which the actors are sentimental consumers whose individual eyes are much bigger than the collective stomach (ecological carrying capacity), and in which braying self-assertion, no matter the cost to others, is the script. As Hampton puts it, “As long as I’m talking, I can’t see what’s inside me.” Trump’s administration stands for bad theater, the sad donkey of ego, and metabolic drift, the “garbage between us, the discards lying between our bodies.” What’s broken are shared principles. The tiller and the hand are not in agreement; the boat sails nowhere.
Hampton is an adjunct at a community college in a very small town. She wants to tell her students, but doesn’t, to move into an inconspicuous place, some habitable place suitable for life that could be temporarily unmarked, neither theirs nor anyone else’s, neither private nor public.
What does not resemble private property but represents it? What defines it without being it, just as the non-abject is defined by the abject, or citizenship by non-citizenship? “Find the space inside the structure that’s been forgotten,” Hampton advises, “by the architects, by the contractors, by the security patrol—and make that your home. Be absorbed by it. Furnish it with things you buy from the ones you’re hiding from. Or better, furnish it with things you find. Furnish your secrets with garbage.”