The Noir Subject

One aspect that hard-boiled detective novels differ from the traditional detective novels is that, in contrast to the restored peace at the end of the traditional detective novels, the hard-boiled detectives set out to investigate in crimes but only to find out that the detective itself is at the center of this quest. Far from acting as a distant observer and reclaiming peace for the small town, the protagonist happens to bear witness to some truth that s/he is not yet ready to know. The identity of the detective is disturbed. The very point of view to make observations — the calm and rational detective in the traditional genre — is all of a sudden gazed back, forced to reveal the truth of the subject and consequently causing the subject to disappear.

Two neo-noir films, Blade Runner and Angel Heart, serve perfectly as examples in which the protagonist is forced to become aware of the terrifying truth. In Blade Runner, the protagonist is after a group of replicants at large and ends up finding out that he himself is a replicant. (This is directly expressed in the director cut, but only vaguely implied in the released versions.) In Angel Heart, it turns out that the dead singer that the protagonist has been searching for has always been the protagonist himself. In both films, their self-identity was threatened and undermined at the end of their quests. The flashbacks of childhood memories in Blade Runner cease to be the kernel of his authenticity, but instead become further proof of his artificiality: even the deepest part of self is controlled and planted by an omnipotent Other — the Tyrell corporation in the case of Blade Runner. The subject is unplugged from the symbolic narratives that it used to tell itself (the memories we have, for example) and forced to realize that it is not what it thought itself to be.

The target that the noir detective searches for, in Lacanian terms, is the objet petit a, the object-cause of our desire. When the objet a turns out to be the subject itself, the subject ends up encountering itself from the other end, as if an eye somehow gazed into itself. “I am the one I have been searching for!” This over-proximity between objet a and the subject results in a de-realization of reality, the loss of self with which we can make sense of reality. This is delineated in the psychoanalytic term aphanisis, the literal meaning of which is “disappearance”. Aphanisis was first introduced by Ernest Jones, meaning “the disappearance of sexual desire”.1 Lacan further modifies this term to be the disappearance of the subject, the fading of the fundamental split of the subject which institutes the dialectic of desire.2 The objet a is decentered with regard to the symbolic texture which constitutes the subject’s identity. In other words, the object-cause of desire is something external to the subject’s desire so that it is desirable. The subject can confront this external-intimate (intimate in the sense that it is the very core of the subject’s desire) kernel only at the price of the subject’s temporary aphanisis.

Suffice to recall how in our daily lives we blush red when our fantasies are publicly exposed. I can only be who I have been thinking myself to be insofar as I do not recognize the difference in-between, as the objet a is extracted from my reality (it remains something I claim to desire but never obtain in reality). Once I am confronted with the external core of my desire, as a consequence, a discordance rises in myself that provokes tremendous anxiety: “the story I tell myself no longer makes sense”. This noir subject can also be seen in the field of literature. In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the Underground Man confronts a prostitute called Liza about her future and offers to help. When Liza comes to his home for help, the protagonist senses gazes from his servant Apollon and Liza in two distinct ways. First from Apollon:

’There’s a certain person asking for you,’ he said, giving me a particularly severe look… He didn’t want to leave and kept staring at us sarcastically.3

Then Liza in an opposite way:

‘Sit down,’ I said mechanically, bringing a chair up to the table for her. She sat down immediately, obediently, all eyes, and she was evidently expecting something from me there and then. The naivety of this expectancy drove me into a frenzy.4

In proposing to help Liza and giving up later, the protagonist is obliviously aiming at something other than helping Liza for her own sake. Is the protagonist not creating an ideal image of himself that knows right and wrong (the right of himself and the wrong of the society, of course)? Liza is after all merely an element in his fantasy, someone that the protagonist sees fit for his “good willing”. When the protagonist is gazed upon by Apollon and Liza, the crack between his fantasy and himself begins to reveal itself. He is no longer able to act as if he was the image he tries to create. It is not hard to list a few possibilities of questions that may come to the protagonist’s mind: Am I not a pathetic person who uses Liza as means for my own satisfaction, as to how Apollon looks at me? Am I capable of being the good man that Liza expects me to be? Is my incentive purely to help Liza? and so on… The more he reflects into himself through the gaze of others, the more the subject is separated from its content (ideal image). Thus the protagonist is drove “into a rage”, eventually becoming the Underground Man as he is now who prefers doing nothing to doing something. Is it not because he recognizes the hidden self-interest even in denoted Good? He cares about what is right only insofar as he can be different from others who he looks down upon.

The psychoanalytic insight we can draw from this is that the object-cause of desire only ex-ists (externally) with regard to the subject. As long as the protagonist does not know what he truly desires, he is able to desire, to act in conformity with the identity he has. What we have here is the subversion of the Cartesian subject. If we conceive of the Cartesian subject as the injunction of thinking and being, then the subject here is exactly in their disjunction. When the subject thinks — reflects into itself — the subject loses its being, the content qua desire of the subject. When the subject identifies with an image of itself, it does not know about itself, in other words, it does not think.

Another example would be the figure of Oedipus. We can describe him as someone who is in search of a certain piece of knowledge. Despite the warnings he receives, he persists in his search and ends up learning about the parricide and incest he has committed, which results in him plucking out his eyes. We should take a moment to consider the question: what is the truth for Oedipus that makes him pluck his eyes? It would be false to conclude the commonplace that if we look directly at the truth, it will result in our blindness. The problem is that neither the parricide nor the incest constitutes the truth for Oedipus. The truth is not an epistemological matter that one does not yet know, but rather one concerning the subject: that Oedipus himself is the object he has been after. He did not expect himself to be the target. That is, the subject is eliminated from the picture in the beginning, but somehow the subject gazes at the viewpoint it stands and loses its focus on the picture. When Oedipus blinds himself, it is not the result of glancing into some all-too-shining truth qua content that he used not to know and burning his eyes, but an attempt to escape from his own gaze.

  1. Jones, “The Early Development of Female Sexuality”, 1927.↩︎
  2. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 208, 211.↩︎
  3. Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground and The Double, 106.↩︎
  4. Ibid., 107.↩︎