115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Raymond Chandler, Contemporary Posthumanisms, and the Detection of the World

Gabriel Mehlman, UCLA

In Chandler the link between vision and interpretation is broken. He creates an alternate vision: the detective sees style, an incoherent world as coherent as artwork. Posthumanisms detect unmediated clues in the world, seeking to revise his solution to the same problem.


Raymond Chandler, a seminal voice of the literature of Los Angeles, has long inspired critical fascination, most recently exhibited by Fredric Jameson’s Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality. Jameson’s study continues the lengthy history of critical thought on the figure of the detective, which stretches from Poe to Benjamin to Moretti. For these critics, the detective embodies a uniquely historical epistemological quest—to map, explicate motive in, and make coherent the increasingly differentiated world of modernity. Chandler is a unique figure here. His midcentury novels, featuring the iconic private eye Philip Marlowe, have the grand, even utopian, aim of mapping the social totality.

Chandler’s Marlowe is a brilliant talker but an astonishingly passive character. He watches as events unfold around him, seldom moving from perception to solution. His bewildering cases eventually resolve themselves through the death of their actors. I argue that Chandler’s novels invent a mode of vision that compensates for the failure of visual systems to move from percept to mapping. The classic mode of detection—the progression from vision to ratiocination to solution—fails in a world in which the link between unmediated vision and understanding is broken. In lieu of this failure, a new style of vision and epistemology emerges. Because the viewed world remains unsolvable, Chandler writes a world in which Marlowe sees style itself. For instance, in Chandler’s famous epithets—like "From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class” or “She had eyes like strange sins”—what Marlowe sees figures of speech embodied. I argue that Chandler’s outsized style, and the figuration that characterizes it, order and cohere the world, transforming visual referents into literary form. Crucially, these figures become percepts. Style is itself seen, rather than simply aestheticizing objects in the world. The detective is the means of shaping an incoherent world into the formal coherence of the work of art.

Once my paper has uncovered this unique mode of vision in Chandler’s fiction, I turn to contemporary critical questions. Chandler’s revision of vision into form, his solution to the schism between unmediated vision and interpretation, corresponds to a source of contemporary critical discontent. What Chandler renders in fiction dramatizes what the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”—our language dictating our relation to being (and so our relation to things in the world). Chandler’s world of literary form as the seen world emblematizes what much contemporary criticism is reacting against. Critical movements like Object Oriented Ontology, Speculative Realism, Affect Theory, Network Studies, and various Posthumanisms aim to describe percepts extrinsic to a mediating style. Indeed, they can be conceived of as modes of vision and modes of critical detection. These critical movements are like detectives who seek to detect the unmediated world. What Chandler allows us to see is a vital instance of literature posing problems that connect with contemporary criticism. But can these critics move beyond Chandler’s structure of vision? The contention of this essay is that no matter how skilled the detective, uncovering unmediated clues is an impossibility.