Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Where is the justice in crime fiction?, or Noam Chomsky gets his ass kicked

We were talking about Madness and Civilization the other night, and not as commentary on our fellow drinkers at Philadelphia's press club.

The talk got me interested in Michel Foucault, that French historian, philosopher and public intellectual (though he might have rejected the intellectual designation), and I realized that he belongs here. He wrote and talked about crime, punishment, madness, sex and death, after all.

It's his invocation and critique of justice, though, that caught my attention because I realized how rarely crime writing concerns itself with justice, at least in the social, society-building sense. How many crime novels take the perp through the criminal justice system, for example? What does it imply about Western crime stories that they generally end just before the justice system swings into action (or before it gets a chance to do so)?

(See Foucault debate Noam Chomsky here and here. See Chomsky shrink before your eyes, especially around 3:50 of the second clip. Click here for the only effort I know to bring justice into the crime-fiction discussion.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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26 Comments:

Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I have just finished reading Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xialong.
Of course nothing that Mao, or Pol Pot, ever did could rival the disgusting Bush 'cultural revolution' when he forced Cambridge MA professors to go on hunting trips with Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin.

February 03, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got a headache trying to follow those two clips, Peter. Just two pointy-headed types throwing abstractions at each other to no good effect.

Chomsky seemed like Woody Allen's smarter but humourless older brother. Foucault looked like a villain in a Bond movie. All he needed was a white cat on his lap to complete the picture.

One of the things I liked about the series Law&Order when it came out twenty years ago was that it did what you mention. It followed a case from investigation to prosecution. That format works well in TV but it would be harder to pull off in a novel. Of course, 'courtroom thrillers' do concern themselves with the application of justice.

My v-word is prost. So here's Prost! to you Peter

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Barbara said...

I suspect the reason crime fiction tends not to go right through the system is that people often read CF to get a sense of things going badly wrong, then having some modicum of justice restored (unless it's noir, in which things just get worse and worse until the final twist of the authorial knife).

The real "criminal justice" "system" doesn't have a story arc. It's just a big clanking machine that moves glacially and is more about cutting deals to avoid anyone actually getting into a courtroom because the docket is full. So are the jails, because so many people are awaiting something done with their case and so are the prisons who've had something done. And of course it's not fair. Incarceration rates are a pretty strong indication that some people get the wrong end of the stick routinely. If you're looking for stories about justice, it's liable to disappoint.

One book that knocked my socks off is Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis about the Cook County public defender's office. It manages to be both sobering and inspiring. It's brilliantly written, too - with some real life characters who are unforgettable. And in the end you do have some respect for people who try, even though the system's whacky.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anon, it's hard for me to argue with your assessment of the program, with the caveat that in 1971, when the debate was recorded, the abstractions might have seemed more concrete. And did you see the audience? Everyone looked pointy-headed then.

I also might have added "more awkward" to your assessment of Chomsky with respect to Woody Allen.

In any case, my interest was less in the debate's substance than in how helpless Chomsky turned when asked to define his terms. His nervous defense of "fundamental human qualities," which, however, he could not define, may be admirable or even right, but as a philosopher and a debater, he was out of his depth. He was like a freshman in a sociology class in a debate with the campus' most brilliant professor. And yep, Foucault did look like an especially gleeful Bond villain.

I do think his insistence that one question everything is admirable, though not at every moment essential to the day-to-day operation of a crime-fiction blog.

"Law and Order" is probably a fine example, though I could never stand its jerky camera work, its principals' ultra-seriousness, or that wooden headlines inserted into the characters' mouths and masquerading as dialogue. It would be interesting to see a crime novel bring a similarly long view to a case, though. And I did exclude legal thrillers from my thinking in this post. for one thing, I've read few of them. For another, I'm not sure they're about justice as much as they are about the lone good lawyer's battle against an enemy. That's a stereotype, of course, and the best of the genre probably do muse upon justice.

Here's mud in your eye.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Of course, your headache might have been due to the subtitles, especially the English subtitles superimposed on the original Dutch ones when Foucault speaks.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah, that's a brilliant example. One wants to avoid spoilers, but the judicial resolution of Death of a Red Heroine is both just and unjust, not to mention highly effective dramatically. Yep, that one got me thinking about ethics and justice, all right. And I'll take this opportunity to recommend the book in the highest possible terms, one of the great crime novels of our time.

I just might have something to say about Mr. Bush and his predecessors and successor in tomorrow's post.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, one counter-example I had in mind was the old Chinese "Judge Dee" stories, upon which Robert van Gulik based his own Judge Dee novels. Those old stories, one of which Van Gulik translated, laid great stress on the punishment meted out to the criminals. Van Gulik modified this and other aspects of the stories when he wrote his own Judge Dee tales.

Defending the Damned is a compelling title. No one wants to be damned, and most of us probably don't believe that folks are literally damned or blessed in the old-fashioned sense these days. But that title restores a bit of the old teleological zing.

February 03, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter
I was struck by those faces in the crowd too. Central casting couldn't have done a better job.

It's years since I've seen L&O and I had forgotten the camera style. A bad memory sometimes has something to recommend it. I saw Man On Fire on DVD recently and Tony Scott's camerawork drives me nuts.

My earlier comment somehow came through as Anon. Obviously, I was more sleepyheaded than usual this morning or else it was the soporofic effect of the pointy-heads.

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was pretty sure you were that early Anon.

Man, folks wore weird clothes in the 1970s.

With respect to Law and Order ... though keep in mind that the author of that post is both ill-tempered and ill-informed.

February 03, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter
Don't boast to me about being ill-tempered and ill-imformed. In that department, I yield to no man.

I used to have somewhat anarcho-syndacalist views myself when I was in my twenties but I grew out of them. Sometimes Chomsky hits the nail on the head but the alternatives he offers are naive beyond belief. I see international politics as a choice between bad and worse and while American hegemony chafes somewhat, the alternatives look much worse.

I don't know much about Foucault but my instincts tell me French intellectuals should be considered mad until proven otherwise. Any society that still treats Freud and Psychoanalysis seriously, as France does, has something defective about it.

February 03, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Uriah, can I presume "Of course nothing that Mao, or Pol Pot, ever did could rival the disgusting Bush 'cultural revolution' when he forced Cambridge MA professors to go on hunting trips with Dick Cheney, and Sarah Palin" is you just being a provocateur looking for a bit of a laugh...?

February 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sod you, pal. I'm the ill-tempered one here. Solo, my knowledge of Foucault is rudimentary in the extreme, but I have read enough in recent days to know that, at least in his later years, he wrote lucidly, was open to questions, and found much to admire in the US -- including club sandwiches and Cokes.

I'll say in favor of French intellectuals that they know how to address the public. We don't have much of that of that in America, though I did hear Garry Wills speak tonight at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, Uriah is a gentle provocateur of humane and sensible views, though capable of righteous anger when the situation calls for it.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Elisabeth just a 'bit of a laugh', or else the seriousness of our situation would drive us all crazy.

Obviously the las two Democratic candidates for the office of Vice President have had their faults as well.
Although I am not sure whether marital infidelity or plagiarizing a speech by Britain's former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock is the greater impediment to high office.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe amid the uproar over Biden's plagiarism.

"I have not yet begun to fight," I wrote, and I signed the letter "Joe Biden."

The Globe did not print the letter.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Peter, I thought you'd enjoy this.
Cheers
Paul

http://www.postmodernhaircut.com/chomskyArchive/?PHPSESSID=10477347b9667ae7e451a2dc01754829

February 04, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's great. Thanks. I once heard Chomsky speak on the radio. I don't remember the topic, but I do recall his degenerating very quickly into ranting hyperventilation. I almost drove off the road avoiding the spit spewing from the radio.

February 04, 2010  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Late to this discussion. I'm no fan of Chomsky (I visited S21 in Phonm Penh) however at least he didn't lie down in the urinal troughs of Paris and encourage young men to piss on him.

February 06, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

A boy needs a hobby, Adrian...

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He was expanding the boundaries of human pleasure, you pinch-faced Presbyterian prude.

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Still, I'll refrain from jocose references to intellectual pissing matches.

Apparently Chomsky's stance on the Khmer Rouge included grudging concessions that the complaints might be accurate followed by a change of subject to American abuses. I wonder how much linguistics he's done the last few decades or whether he shifted to full-time activism long ago.

A disproportionate share of my contact with the work of both Foucault and Chomsky has been through interviews. A couple of Chomsky's interviewers have been acolytes whose obsequiousness has been creepy.

That's an interesting form, the interview with intellectual. I wonder when it came into fashion and what such interviews might have been like in earlier eras.

No one would have needed to interview Montaigne because he was too busy asking himself questions, but a friendly chat in interview format with the pre-Socratics might have been fun.

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, can you imagine the excitement such encounters must have brought into a young fetishist's life? Just to be asked to pee on a member of the College de France ...

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

It's bad enough having to be in Paris. Rubbish city, that...

Of the two, Norm is the least awful to me though I don't know why. I think he was okay when Ali G interviewed him

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fOIM1_xOSro

February 07, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Stepping away from the aforesaid topics above, I'll go back to crime fiction and why we read it.

Is it to get a sense of justice?

I don't know, not for me anyway.

I love Donna Leon's books starring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Rarely do the culprits get justice in Venice. They're always highly connected--to the government, army, corporations, the Church, the Mafia--and rarely is anyone caught, prosecuted and jailed.

Yet I devour these books; all other life falls by the wayside until I'm finished when I get a new one.

This is true of friends of mine, too.

Leon writes a good story with Venice backdrop, tidbits about life in Italy, an interesting detective who reads Roman and Greek classics, a complicated
crime, with social and political
overtones.

But justice? No. To me it's more realistic than many books which have nice, pat, unrealistic endings.

Although as I talk to more people who read mysteries and read more blogs, what one likes to read is an individual matter of taste.

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd have to read more of Foucault's major works before I developed any kind of an opinion on him. All I know now is that if Foucault and Chomsky had taught at any university I attended and the two taught lecture courses at the same time, I know whose I'd sign up for.

I'd always expected impenetrable prose from him, but I liked what he wrote at the beginning of "The Order of Things" about the experience of viewing Velazquez's "Las Meninas." I don't know or have forgotten what lessons he drew from his viewing, but I've stood in front of that painting for a long time, and it does do odd things to the mind. He captured the experience well.

February 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is it to get a sense of justice?

I don't know, not for me anyway.


That's one of the classic explanations for why readers read crime stories -- restoration of the social or moral order and so on. I wonder how long that explanation has been applied to crime fiction and whether it was more popular when crime fiction consisted of detective stories to a greater extent than it does now. Of course, we still could read for those reasons without recognizing that that's why we read.

I've never thought much about why I read crime fiction. Because quite a few authors write the stuff well, I suppose.

But justice? No. To me it's more realistic than many books which have nice, pat, unrealistic endings.

Just fiction about Venice that just happens to include crime, perhaps.

February 07, 2010  

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