The Critic as Paranoid Criminal-Detective

  • Jean-Michel Rabaté: Given: 1° Art 2° Crime. Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture. (Critical Inventions) Brighton, Portland/Oregon: Sussex Academic Press 2006. 184 S. Hardback. GBP 47,50.
    ISBN: 978-1845191122.

Murder as Art


Recommended for faculty and graduate students, Jean-Michel Rabaté’s Given, 1º Art 2º Crime is a study that aims to link avant-garde art to the aesthetics of murder in order to bridge the gap between modernism and mass culture, where the latter is often embodied by both popular best-selling novels and tabloid coverage of unsolved murder cases. As such, it might be more accurate to think of Rabaté’s study as »Given, 1º Murder, 2º Art.« That is, he premises his argument on Thomas De Quincey’s contention that murder can be considered one of the fine arts, if one separates the aesthetic from the moral. This separation of ethics and aesthetics is permissible if the murder has already been committed, whereby it ought to be treated as an aesthetic spectacle to be enjoyed. However, how we enjoy the aesthetics of murder has changed over time. Instead of basking in the sublime aura of masterpieces, Rabaté argues that we now reduce this aura into a network of clues and traces. In doing so, we need to turn into skilled detectives in order to discover the hidden clues left in the body of evidence. Yet this extends beyond the idea of critic-as-detective and into the realm of paranoia. In other words, what is new about Rabaté’s assertion is the idea of critic as paranoid criminal-detective. Like the basic law of the genre of detective stories, everyone has to be suspected (p. 80) by a critic who is ready to become criminal (p. 13) through the offering of transgressive interpretations of works of art. Even when there are no obvious traces to be found in the work of art, the critic can always hallucinate them into being through the use of paranoia-criticism (p. 21).


Applying this critical method, Rabaté analyzes a series of famous works of art dating from the 19th to the 21st century. The radiating aura of the celebrated work of art becomes the point of departure for a series of traces that function as a contrived network of biographical, cultural, architectural, biblical or imaginary clues. In turn, the interpreter turns these clues into a feasible story. He begins with Sigmund Freud’s interpretive analysis of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. Here, Freud imagines that Moses’ finger is sodomizing the Golden Calf (i.e. symbol of repressed animality, anality, and pagan rituals), which is hidden in the prophet’s beard. Following Freud, Dan Brown’s recent bestselling thriller The Da Vinci Code imagines Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpieces (e.g. the Mona Lisa) as containing unsolved riddles that culminate in a complex conspiracy theory. As an example of overzealous interpretive paranoia, Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer attempts to identify distinguished painter, Walter Sickert as Jack the Ripper through a misreading of the aesthetic traces in Sickert’s paintings. In contrast, Rabaté investigates the aesthetic traces left in Johannes Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, to ›solve‹ the literary murder of Marcel Proust’s fictional character Bergotte in The Prisoner. As his centrepiece, Rabaté offers his most involved and sophisticated analysis in dissecting Marcel Duchamp’s last work of art, the posthumously unveiled, Given 1º The Waterfall 2º The Illuminating Gas. The key to Duchamp’s riddle lies in a visual parallel between the work of art and a few Los Angeles tabloid photographs of the unsolved Black Dahlia murder, which showed a woman’s posed and mutilated body.


The aesthetics of the
paranoid criminal critic


Since Rabaté understands criminals to also be creators (p. 23), being a criminal critic requires the creation of a new writing style of criticism, one that deviates from the main thrust of the argument as the criminal deviates from the law. In Given, Rabaté can be seen as attempting to pioneer a new hermeneutics of interpretive paranoid suspicion through a digressive writing style, which may be off-putting to some readers. Rabaté’s digressions, perhaps in homage to De Quincey’s distinctive writing style, ensure that his analyses and arguments are not presented in a linear manner. Instead, by coming to the beginnings of a conclusion but never actually offering the reader such closure, Rabaté’s analyses are themselves labyrinthine. They challenge; they frustrate; they unsettle. In being provocative, Rabaté’s digressive maneuverings often undo attempts to impose order onto aesthetic programs, such as Patricia Cornwell’s attempt to solve the identity of Jack the Ripper.


However, at a deeper level, this particular writing style might prove problematic for Rabaté’s own attempts to impose order onto any aesthetic program. Although he never explicitly defines modernity, the program of identifying and connecting traces suggests that the bedrock of modernity lies in its faith in rationality. Hence, such a program reduces the sublime splendour of artistic masterpieces to a riddle, which makes it more tolerable for »our rationalistic minds« (p. 134). Even though paranoiac criticism owes some of its conceptualization to Salvador Dalì’s paranoid-critical method (chapter 6), it does not seem to systematically engage in Dalì’s method of provoking confusion and demoralization.


Instead, Rabaté understands paranoia as a capacity to construct and organize reality in a predictable way, one that leaves nothing to random chance. In introducing order rather than creative disorder, paranoiac criticism and its attendant conspiracy theories do not question rationality, but instead further its reach towards surrationality (p. 165). If the scientific counterpart to conspiracy theory can be understood as risk assessment tools, whereby traces are understood as risks and events are made predictable through probabilistic calculations of their occurrence, then it should be noted that even risk assessment tools allow for the possibility of random chance to upset risk calculations. In contrast, the surrationality of paranoiac criticism violently imposes its own order on a world imagined to be devoid of chance occurrences. However, paranoiac criticism’s program of surrationality is unraveled by its digressive writing style, which flirts with the idea of chance encounters. While Rabaté tries to correct Patricia Cornwell’s identification of Jack the Ripper and Dan Brown’s ›factual‹ understanding of the Priory of Sion, by proving them false (i.e. Rabaté is sur-rational, which trumps Cornwell and Brown’s respective rationalized conspiracy theories), his own attempt to link Marcel Duchamp to the Black Dahlia murder is a rationalized conspiracy theory made possible by chance encounters between Duchamp, Man Ray, and George Hodel (the alleged murderer).


Forensic criticism
and the forensic gaze


Perhaps a more fruitful way of understanding Rabaté’s work would be to understand it as a study of the forensic gaze accompanied by forensic criticism. That is, Rabaté’s ›corrections‹ (as described above) can be understood as forensic criticism. Forensic criticism takes the form of a verbal re-narration of a narrative in order to persuade consumers of the narrative that it is inaccurate or implausible. 1 For example, Rabaté re-narrates how the documents relating to the existence of the Priory of Sion in the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale are themselves deliberate forgeries and falsifications, which in turn proves false the ›accurate‹ and ›factual‹ nature of Dan Brown’s narrative The Da Vinci Code.


More importantly, the treatment of an artistic masterpiece as a body of clues might be read as symptomatic of the forensic gaze, which has increasingly captivated the (American) popular imagination in the last decade or so. While Rabaté criticizes Patricia Cornwell for a »naïve or positivistic belief in the powers of American scientific criminology« (p. 116), in attempting to use the tools of DNA testing and comparative graphology to pin the Jack the Ripper murders on Walter Sickert, it should be noted that this belief arises in the context of the popularization of forensic psychology / criminology on American television. For example, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) is an immensely successful and popular television show that promotes the forensic gaze. Furthermore, it has impacted the American public to the point that researchers have dubbed the existence of a »CSI effect«: That is, the show has given rise to inflated public expectations about what forensic science can do, and what forensic evidence ought to be able to accomplish in the courtroom.


Implicitly working within this context, Rabaté’s study is useful for linking the art interpreter / critic’s gaze to that of the forensic gaze (which he also typically links to detective stories in chapter 3). For example, Freud’s artistic interpretation of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses results from his narrowed gaze on Moses’ ›despotic finger‹. According to his essay The Moses of Michelangelo, Freud narrowed his focus in order to follow a method devised by Russian art critic Ivan Lermolieff, a method used to identify forgeries by focusing on details such as finger-nails and ear-lobes (p. 16).


What is interesting about this example is that if the reader follows Rabaté’s paranoid interpretive method, then she notices several noteworthy insights, which have eluded Rabaté because he failed to suspect Freud of ›murder‹. First, Lermolieff’s method arrived around the same time that French police official Alphonse Bertillon transformed criminology with his method for criminal identification. In the late 19th century, the jewel of Bertillon’s morphological vocabulary for criminal identification centred – like Lermolieff’s method – on insignificant details, such as fingerprints and the ear. 2 This suggests that the forensic gaze established itself around the late 19th century in criminology (through the Bertillonage method and photography), fictional criminology (detective stories) and art criticism (Lermolieff / Morelli), thereby linking mass culture, modernity (symbolized by scientific rationality) and murder. Second, Ivan Lermolieff is actually a nom de plume for an Italian named Giovanni Morelli. 3 Although it is clear that Rabaté refers to sensationalistic murders that have captured the public imagination, often because they are bloody, it might be instructive to think of murder as textual distortion: »In its implications the distortion of a text resembles a murder: the difficulty is not in perpetrating the deed, but in getting rid of its traces«. 4


While Rabaté does not cite this short passage even though he does briefly discuss Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, it might be useful for thinking of the connection between traces and murder and more specifically, how Freud successfully ›murdered‹ Morelli. That is, Freud removed all traces of an Italian named Morelli, by referring to him as the Russian »Ivan Lermolieff«. In taking Freud at his word, Rabaté repeats the original ›murder‹, never extending his paranoid forensic gaze to recover the art critic’s true identity. Therein lies the challenge in Rabaté’s work: although the paranoid forensic gaze is one way to do suspicion, it is likely that it will ultimately fail because we – as scholars – are rarely paranoid enough. Perhaps it is time to actually begin to suspect everyone at every single turn.



David A. Black: Law in Film: Resonance and Representation. Chicago/IL: University of Illinois Press 1999.   zurück
Simon A. Cole: Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cambridge/Massachusetts: Harvard University Press 2001.   zurück
Carlo Ginzburg: Clues. Roots of a Scientific Paradigm. In: Theory and Society 7.3 (1979), pp. 273–288.   zurück
Sigmund Freud: Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Translated by James Strachey and Anna Freud. Vol. 23. London: The Hogarth Press 1964, p. 43.   zurück