By Alan Ward Thomas
Works that are commonly termed noir have been around for at least eighty years or so, and interest in them shows no signs of abating. In fact in recent years interest in noir has not only exploded, but reached almost fetishistic proportions. Search “noir” on Amazon.com books and 10,772 results are returned with Noir in the title. Search all departments and 224,709 results are returned for everything from films, animation and music to computer apps, clothing, accessories, deodorant and even baby cream. YouTube turns up 181,000 videos and a Google Web, Image or Video search returns 792-million, 36.5-million and 240,000 results respectively. Even a Google Map search for any large city returns scores of entries for restaurants, clubs and bars with Noir in their name or theme. And the single most popular videogame of the year is L.A. Noire. Yet noir remains distinctly difficult to define and the question of whether or not it even qualifies as a genre continues to be debated.
The term film noir was first used in 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank to describe Hollywood films of an existential flavor that were based largely on the American hard-boiled fiction of the previous decade. At the time, however, those making such films in Hollywood referred to them merely as melodramas, as they tended to exaggerate plots and character to achieve certain visceral and emotional effects.
There is something dream-like, even Jungian, in the surreal exaggerations and intricate complications of noir. The temptations of notoriety, wealth, devious femme fatales, and the endless series of wrong turns the characters make, create fatalistic nightmares whose brutal eroticism leaves us despondent if we wake too soon. There is something almost cubist in the different angles, perspectives and styles employed in this hazy battleground where the distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, light and dark break down. And it is this same ambiguity that not only makes noir hard to define, but speaks to the turbulence of our times and makes it all the more vital, intriguing, and popular.
In the scholarly book Existentialism, Film Noir, and Hard-Boiled Fiction, Stephen Faison, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, documents the existentialist elements in the hard-boiled fiction of depression era writers in the United States and the subsequent films of the 40s and 50s that drew on that body of work, and points out the major contributions these made to the development of the European existentialist philosophy of Sartre and others in the wake of World War II and during the rise of the Cold War. Faison describes how the isolation, anxiety, futility, and death of the Great Depression formed a particularly working-class brand of existentialism that made the detective pulps so popular and gave rise to what later became loosely referred to as noir.
Now, at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century, we are not only wracked by a world-wide financial crisis whose tendrils seem to worm its way into every aspect of our lives, but by a seemingly infinite number of other external factors that add to the pathos of the times. From Columbine to the recent case of an eight-year-old who shot his skinhead father four times while stopping to reload after each shot; from 911 to the recent bombing and mass killing of children in Norway; from the corruption of Enron to the financial and emotional drain of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the hacker Max Vision taking over a world-wide underground criminal empire from a single room in San Francisco to the US government and Israel releasing a computer worm named Stuxnet into the computer environment of Iran’s nuclear program; from the rise of the sex industry to human trafficking; from the fall off in religious beliefs in some areas to the rise in religious fundamentalism in others; from waves of immigration to the rise in brutal attacks by ultra-rightwing extremists; from the petty corruption that daily plagues the citizens of many countries to the massive corruption and irresponsibility at the highest levels of finance and government that contributed to the world-wide financial crisis, the list goes on and on. Then add into this the concerns over deforestation, climate change and natural disasters—hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes in China and Haiti, the floods in US and Pakistan, or the recent tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, to name just a few—whose havoc were greatly increased by human factors and greed.
But it goes much deeper than this. Internally we are faced with extremes from something much more subtle and troubling. Because now, more than at any time in all history, the ubiquity of instant media that continuously stream the external lusts, greeds, fetishes and moral ambiguities of all humankind into our homes, laptops and phones not only reminds us that we exist in the hazy regions between calm and violence, rich and poor, good and evil, but increases our isolation. Those of us who remain physically untouched by all the havoc—which is a majority of the over six billion people on the planet—are kept at a cool, even surreal, distance from the pain and suffering by the same media technologies that bring it to us. The same smartphones, social-networking sites and blogs that bring us closer together, simultaneously remind us that we are physically separated from our fellow man. For all our empathy, wealth, and technological dexterity, we feel overloaded with a sense of powerlessness in the face of all the suffering.
Information overload, however, is nothing new. Shortly after Gutenberg’s presses began churning out edition after edition of the first printed books, scholars began to describe the chaos the information in the multitude of new books caused in their minds, and from that time on we have invented ever more complex systems and machines to help us organize and handle it. But the very machines we’ve built to help us store, analyze, and digest that information have distinctly increased the overload. Along with the practically infinite amount of information available to us on the Internet via the World Wide Web, we have an ever-growing number of applications on our computers and smartphones to help us handle it. So much so that there are now apps to help us keep track of all our apps and web pages to help us organize all of our favorite sites. Google Wave, a site that went online in 2009 to help people keep track of their many social networking sites, blogs and news feeds, has already given way to its next generation, Google Shared Spaces, a name that suggests that even the boundaries between individuals have broken down. We are now living in a physical and mental infinite complexity orders of magnitude more intricate and convoluted than that brought about by Gutenberg, and it continues to grow on a daily basis. And it is beginning to fracture not only our awareness, but also our very minds and personalities.
In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, the psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude documents the ever-widening split between our online and offline personalities and explores the Internet’s unconscious power to facilitate dramatic shifts in identity and behavior. He observes the alarming rise in the rate of new pathological behaviors as more and more of our daily activities such as shopping, socializing and many forms of entertainment move online.
Aboujaoude’s findings are supported by recent studies in neuroscience that have shown that even the adult brain is plastic, and, as technology writer Nicholas Carr explains in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is not only easily, but rapidly, alterable. The many hours we spend online and staring into electronic devices is literally rewiring our brains, dismantling our intellect, and casting our identities into superficial shadows. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web,” he writes. “We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.”
Attention is a scarce commodity and thus has become the currency of a new attention-based economy. As we navigate the Web we are constantly posed with decisions whether or not to click on hyperlinks and ads hundreds, even thousands of times a day, and each of these choices not only puts money in someone else’s pockets and distracts us from our chosen paths, but has the potential to greatly alter whatever course we are on.
Just as the tiniest disturbance from the wings of Edward Lorenz’s fabled butterfly as it flutters into the air from a branch in the Brazilian rain forest has the potential to cause a tornado weeks later in Texas, the accumulated effect of so many seemingly unimportant click-through decisions has the potential to land us in mental turmoil and disintegration somewhere down the line. How many people in the world’s packed prisons began their journey in that direction with a single poor choice, petty misdemeanor or indiscriminant act? As Nicholas Carr explains, “We cede control over our attention at our own peril.”
The Internet is a maze, and just as every sentence in a good crime story may bring a twist or turn in the plot, a double-cross or unexpected alliance, every link we follow on the Internet can bring out an opposing point of view or make an unexpected connection. Every click of the mouse contains the potential to create tremendous turbulence and, like the protagonist in a noir story, may cause us to become irretrievably lost. Perhaps this is why surfing the web, like a good crime story, is so much fun and so addictive.
In their 2011 book The Techno-Human Condition, Banden R. Allenby and Andiel Sarewitz explore how the ever-growing wave of technological complexity appears to be breaking down the very idea of what it means to be human, and they discuss the transhumanist suggestion that the essence of humanity itself has been cast into shadow and doubt.
Transhumanism as an idea has been around at least since the 1960s, but recently has grown into a worldwide movement that has sparked a fantastic amount of controversy and vehement debate. A definition of Transhumanism seems about as hard to pin down as is a definition of noir, but some of the tacitly-agreed-upon generalities seem to be the beliefs that humanity and the human condition are dynamic and that as a species we can and generally do improve over time; that technology is what drives these changes in our brains and bodies; and that we not only can, but should, use technology for the benefit of humanity by further merging with technology on a biological level.
In the 1980s, pop culture saw a great increase in the number of transhumanist tales presented to the public in the guise of science fiction. The film Robocop, and William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer are two prime examples. Both have deeply noirish qualities; however, in the nearly three decades since their release many of their sci-fi elements have lost their fictional qualities, leaving just the noir.
In the nightmarish and surreal Robocop, characters responses are either overdrawn or distinctly unresponsive to extreme events, and the two forms of robotic policemen in the film echo the current military use of drones and other remote killing machines. In Gibson’s Neuromancer the two main characters are a computer hacker hyped up on synthetic drugs and vat-grown organ transplants and a technologically enhanced femme fatale that at times appears to be more machine than human. In the real world they battle genetically modified ninjas and holographically shifting personas, and in cyberspace are involved in tug of war between two AIs who follow a distinctly non-human logic and seem to not only be able to predict, but to guide, their every move.
The AIs in Gibson’s masterpiece do not seem all that different from Google’s algorithms who use the data from every click we’ve ever made on the internet to not only predict what we are trying to find, but often get us there before we are fully aware of what we are looking for ourselves. It is hard not to feel there is something sinister lurking in the shadows at the Googleplex. It seems to offer both extremes of the spectrum simultaneously: the altruistic gift of infinite information instantaneously at our fingertips for free, and the greed of making billions off the clicks we make to get to that information via their search engine. And the more one looks at Google’s intellectual ethic and all their complement products and services, the hazier the ground between the two extremes becomes.
A case in point is that some of the same publishing firms that have sued Google for copyright infringement are simultaneously partners with them in Google Book Search. Forget whose side each is on, it’s hard to even tell what the sides are anymore. Again, just as in a good noir story, the line between good guy and bad, moral and immoral, has become inextricably blurred into grainy black and white shadows.
In Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies—and What it Means to be Human, journalist Joel Garreau explores the three possibilities we are facing as a species. On one side is the path to utopia, on the other the path to dystopia, and in between the twisted and murky path on which we may somehow muddle through the two extremes. The utopian and dystopian paths in this book are lined up behind billionaire-inventor Ray Kurzweil’s and the CEO of Sun Microsystem’s Bill Joy’s takes on the subject, respectively. Jaron Lanier, one of the original inventors of virtual reality, represents the more interesting and existential third path, where we manage to muddle on through and ultimately, hopefully, prevail. Lanier’s own book You are Not a Gadget, seeks to remind us of the humanity we feel slipping away and attempts to offer solace and encouragement to those of us seeking to hold our personalities together and maintain a sense of individuality and esteem.
We are living in fractured, infinitely complex times where the boundaries between extremes, even as they become more extreme, seem to have broken down. Even more frightening—or perhaps more thrilling, depending on one’s point of view—is the evidence that not only are the distinctions between individuals breaking down, but that the distinctions between our inner and outer realities are as well. This disintegration of perspective and emotion into schizophrenic shadows is a particularly existential position to be in, and strongly suggests why noir has not only continued its relevancy, but has exploded in popularity. For no longer are we only lost in the maze of external affairs, the maze is now in us.
Alan Ward Thomas was the editor of OPTIMISM MONTHLY, an international journal of poetry, prose and art, in Prague, from 1995 to 1998, and the current Eastern Hemisphere editor of Noir Nation. He has a degree in Physics and teaches higher mathematics in international schools. Besides writing and publishing, his current interests are in 21st Century learning techniques, Universal Design for Learning, and the balance of technology and human interaction in the classroom. He also writes about and follows the problem of homelessness in the United States. He is married, has two children, and lives and works in Prague.