As/Is







9.29.2019


Deep Noir '19


Recessional times, such as are currently being endured in the United States; times of financial, cultural, and general societal instability; are inherently dark. Dark times call for dark art; when it’s literature, dark writing. Sometime mid-century XX, the appellation “noir” was affixed to all forms of creativity heavily tinted with darkness, brooding self-consciousness, and chiaroscuro perceptions of the world. What "noir" signifies, in popular culture, is an aesthetic condition of extreme stylization. Look at the elements which configure, say, the average Raymond Chandler novel, and which do not change from book to book; stylized elements— a hard-bitten detective (Marlowe) pursuing a treacherous villain, encountering a standard, cemented-into-place cast of characters. There's the coy femme fatale, attached somehow to a criminal underworld or with underworld connections, seductive nonetheless; dirty and double-dealing cops (police officers), who may or may not be trustworthy, and in on certain hits, games, “rackets”; and innocent bystanders drawn into matrixes of crime and hustle against their will. What stylization implies, as a kind of mold for artistic forms to fit into, is homogeneity, and the solidity of homogeneity— we, as readers, need never wonder what to expect from Raymond Chandler. To the extent that more serious artists develop individual and individualized aesthetic concerns and formal-thematic, consistent topoi, stylization in their work becomes inevitable— this is how we know Picasso from Manet, Manet from David; or, in literature, Byron from Browning, Amis from Updike; etc.

If I am interested in "noir," and in poaching "noir" from American popular culture and granting it another context, it is because the stylistic elements of my literary interests share, in the kinds of moods, impressions, and ambience generated, something with noir, and noir stylistic conventions. The entire edifice of twenty-first century cultural Philadelphia coheres around a set of imperatives, which lean towards the revelation of shadows rather than light, dark tones and hues rather than bright ones, and labyrinthine complexities rather than scintillating clarities. Levels of cognitive awareness, represented in books and paintings which seek to boast some philosophical import, particularly in regards to ontological awareness in the midst of extreme (even pornographic) vulgarity, separate our Philly drastically from the rote, pop culture consonant facility of Chandler's books.

Indeed, the chiasmus between noir and serious, sustained intellection is, as far as I know, a novel mode of stylistic inquiry and exploration. One equivalent of Chandler's shocking plot-twists and peripeteias are linguistic innovations which multiply meanings and make key words and phrases serve dual, or triple, ends; so that these words and phrases are set in place, figuratively, to split the heads of their audience, towards recognitions of hidden semantic-thematic depth, and against surface ("surface-y") orientations and sensibilities. That is why I call this version of noir "deep noir"— Philly Free School art is crafted, on some semantic levels, from similar molds— towards chiaroscuro and the enchantment of multiple meanings. It is also easy to notice that the work being referred to is, in fact, haunted by coy femme fatales, dirty-dealers, and an interrogating, interrogative protagonist ("I"), who attempts to sift his way through mazes of psycho-cognitive, and psycho-affective, complications. The pieces shudder towards satori-like head-split semantic inversions; and whether any give satori ends its poem or not, the ultimate stylistic effect is to startle, unsettle, and re-wire the minds of the audience who reads them. Chandler, in a pop culture context sans intellectual heft, is far less unsettling. Century XXI Philly creates mysteries and remains centered in them, in a negatively capable fashion, while Chandler's level of stylization insures easy, unchallenging comprehension. Still, I like "noir" as a stylistic formulation here nonetheless, because this imagined landscape creates and maintains a shaded ambience, which is recognizably itself from artwork to artwork. I have spoken of the "body heat" passed from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, in spite of the new century's reservations— and, as one level of inheritance which takes what I have envisioned to a secure hermeneutic locale, "noir" and "deep noir" both work surprisingly well.

As to the issue of why, in 2019, a "noir" aesthetic, inclusive of formal-thematic depth, would be of wide interest once placed into circulation— the reason is fairly simple. On many levels and in many variegated contexts, few sensibilities other than "noir" could be generally and widely representative in America, against the facile breeziness of post-modernity. The Great Recession has created a climate, both within and without aesthetics, of entrenched circumstantial darkness and shadowy languor. Inspired or not by political developments (which seem to evince not only corruption but flatulence, at regular intervals), untold, unreported catastrophes may have wiped out entire sectors of the population— yet the media chirps away as though nothing has changed. American pop culture is in an advanced state of erosion and deterioration— there are no new rock stars anymore, and new American cinema not only isn't selling but is divested, for the populace, of the perceived glamour which used to enable it to sell. The secret passageways which used to make America interconnect have largely been severed; even as the Internet has created new labyrinths and passageways which often amount to a subversive conspiracy against the normative.

The truly noir facet of the Internet is that it allows the American public to understand how and why it has been duped; and what is left of a thinking American populace is cognizant of these things. What I call the Philly Free School (P.F.S. Post is Philly Free School Post) was created to hold down a cultural fort radically on the side of serious culture and thoughtful inquiry, scribed by individuals from within the bounds of the United States and elsewhere. For those watching closely, and who know how the American literary landscape has largely been configured over long and short periods of time, this congeries of circumstances is a rebellion and an innovation. That the Philly Free School is not only indigenously American (if standing, aesthetically, on the shoulders of historical Europe) but indigenously Philadelphian is another innovation— the creation of literary Philadelphia, in the twenty-first century, has to do with the noir elements already built into Philly as a mythological construct.

Philadelphia, much more so than New York (which offers, to experienced eyes, nothing labyrinthine beneath a bold, brusque surface) is perpetually ravaged by contradictions and conflicting internal imperatives— the Main Line surface/patina is all about the prestige of old money, while Conshohocken and King of Prussia boast world-class architecture; South Philly prizes blue-collar, ethnic simplicity, but falsely and disingenuously (against the complex and baroque machinations of an active South Philly underworld); underworlds also appear at least partly in other suburbs supposed to be middle-class, and standardized to American suburban norms, which they are only intermittently; and the architecture in Center City Philadelphia is also world-class. The "noir" sense, at the end of things, is that Philadelphia is a shadow-plagued city, and what you see is certainly not what you get here. The representatively Philadelphian surface/depth tensions are what make the city fertile ground for serious art, rooted in formidably intellectual narratives, slanted towards the stylized chiaroscuro of noir symbolization and signification.

Make no mistake— Philadelphia makes a more than reasonable microcosm of the United States, because Philadelphia has many things to hide. Every thoughtful Philadelphian has their own Philadelphia narrative. That Philadelphia is often misrepresented on the surface is one of its noir allure-features. Philadelphia, in fact, may be taken as the secret capitol of America, and much of America's internal darkness is exteriorized and embodied with precision in our labyrinths here. From a certain angle, for Philadelphia to produce representative American art is no stretch at all— higher art requires higher faithfulness to complex human truth. Because complexities are difficult, both to perceive and to assimilate, they are, or can be, dark. If my version of noir borrows stylistically from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the substance of the art is uniquely set within its own thematic manner/mode of confused, perplexing darkness. Yet attempts to unearth deep truth, when performed skillfully, are always cathartic, as pitiful and terrible as the deep ("noir") truth can be, and in this, this newfangled art finds its strength and metier.