At what period would the the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Lery and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realise that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing data and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape: the less human societies were able to communicate with each and therefore to corrupt each other through contact, the less their respective emissaries were able to perceive the wealth and significance of their diversity. In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lose on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should
Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss
‘Time’ is the agent that resolves Lévi-Strauss’s double infirmity. He claims that the ability to commune with his earlier experiences is only activated after the elapse of a period of some twenty years. He also proposes, as a critical alternative to (the then vogue for) the existentialist approach to ‘truth’ (truth perversely demonstrates itself, he says, by the care it takes to remain elusive) a theoretical model by which initial disjunctions between experience and the world are later re-calibrated, and perhaps flooded, by a retroactive categorisation.
It is Lévi-Strauss’s model of this interaction of experience and deductive mechanisms set in motion by temporal ruptures, rather than his general project, that is of significance for further exploration of the mythic (mythic because irresolvably doubled) figure of the singing detective.
The singing detective is not an investigator who performs karaoke, nor a singer who dabbles as an amateur sleuth. He does not conduct enquiries by means of singing his own song – it is not a matter of echo location. He is not a Siren, there are no supernatural enchantments; he neither winds in villains to the moment of their confession, nor does his singing draw him inexorably towards the culprit. The singing detective’s doubled, portmanteau, character is resultant of an incongruous, through the looking glass convergence of two registers in his approach to the scene, at the very point where a disjunction, or non-association, would ordinarily be expected.
Singing detection supposes the running together of two distinct affective registers, singing and detection, within the same activity. The register of songs in the practice of the singing detective, is a means of divination, of channelling, of unprocessed data collection. The songs are given by the crime scene, they emerge as evidence of the relations inherent to the event and appear in the form of a shamanistic performance by the detective.
The song is not the detective’s song, nor does it belong to the victim or criminal. There is no ‘voice’ in it. The song is not the sound of the scene itself, it is not a matter of resonant tradition or folk music. The song is nothing but a dirty low-down commodity, a cheap mass-produced representation of some or other trivial sentiment as imagined by a disinterested hack looking to manipulate the responses of unknown millions. The commodity song works by means of cognitive association... it is associated subjectively by projection, by reading into it that which is not there.
The singing detective is always intrigued by the process by which causes the individual’s most profound emotions to be best expressed in the tritest and most cliched form – he understand that the most potent aesthetic form of all, the form that elicits the highest rate of affect, is musical theatre. It is his role therefore to turn the crime scene into a music video. He must mime the affect, mouth the words, whilst keeping strictly to the 3 minute dynamic... it is precisely the method of Lévi-Strauss. The singing detective, in involuntarily channelling the song that is somehow associated with that place and that moment, reconstructs the crime scene by manifesting the residues of affect congealed into it, crystalising them, and rendering them as concrete evidence.
The register of investigation is deployed over, or as unrelated to, the channelling of affect and it specifically takes the form of, as Lévi-Strauss puts it, the constructing of ‘a model and to study its property and its different relations in laboratory conditions in order later to apply the observations to the interpretation of empirical happenings, which may be far removed from what had been forecast.’
The model of deduction is an austere clockwork contraption which, as it is perpetually in the process of winding down, assigns data (relevant and irrelevant) to ever-subdividing categories. Where song precipitates the visceral theatrical energies latent in a scene of crime, the analysis, by going in the opposite direction, sets in motion self-alienating mechanisms of abstraction. Where the song associated with that moment and that place draws the detective into it, that he might relive it, become one with it, the analysis simultaneously removes him from the scene irrevocably. Where the song complicates the scene, the analytic contraption simplifies it.
The object of singing detection is an encounter with the unknown, it involves a communion with the otherwise absent, or un-deduced, traces that are still secreted within the scene. The singing detective appears in the place where what has occurred is no longer occurring, and yet where the consequences of that event are still resonating. He does not seek to solve the mystery but rather to reveal the forces that are no longer apparent. The object of singing detection therefore, is fundamentally archaeological.
The absence of written records in prehistory permits present day investigations to become immersed entirely within a meta-forensic frame, an immersive mise-en-scène which facilitates the means of engaging with its hidden relations and practices. Artefacts are related only to artefacts under the mediating gaze of the investigator, who has donned the necessary costume... it is his project to categorise and associate objects, to bring them together and to hold them apart as if he were playing the conductor of an orchestra.
The prehistoric remains mute even as it sings and so the struggle over its meaning occurs entirely in the present and particularly within the variously motivated practices of the investigations into it. All such investigative engagement involves both ‘singing’ (i.e. driven gestures of projection and introjection) and contraption building (modelling). However, the disproportion of present, reconstructive, activity to evidence widens in engagements with prehistorical events, and narrows in engagements with historical events. The faultline which Lévi-Strauss refers to, the basic disjunction between the two moments of knowledge (singing and analysis) is ever active, ever productive of proportionate allocations of investigative energy.
History becomes more historical (and less prehistorical) the thicker it is filled out with contemporary data, and prehistory becomes more prehistorical (and less historical), the thinner its reserves of evidence. Prehistory is essentially the keening of isolated objects. Therefore, prehistory, that is the essentially unknowable, emerges, lurching forward, wherever evidence is lacking for what is occurring. Prehistory is not a moment confined once and for all to a specific temporal location. It is rather a condition that recurs throughout human relations, and is identifiable after the formation of any constellation of retrospectively locatable artefacts, but before a self-conscious historical record has been generated out of them.
Theory and artefacts regulate discourse in inverse proportion. The more theory, the less artefacts. The more artefacts, the less theory. Why should this be so? Simply because the artefacts do not fit within the register of theory, they are reduced by inclusion within an argument, or where they serve as mere illustration... artefacts as objects are fundamentally irreducible; the more they are, the less they are understood; the more they are understood, the less they sing.
From this, we understand that the mechanism of analysis (the work of detection) is not a procedure that is for truth. It reduces things, causes them to cease to be themselves and instead fits them into pre-formed categories where they then function mechanically as units of knowledge. The theoretical model is a tool which releases the investigator from his fascination with the song of objects, and permits him to move on to other matters. It is because of this variation between entrapment within and release from registers of knowledge, that the deductive mechanism is always winding down before what is known. Artefacts are not identical to, or in accordance with, the knowledge of them... they perpetually evade the knowledge constructed around them and return to the unknown, to the prehistoric. The investigative model is not identical with the world, there is no once and for all movement of the world into knowledge, and science should not to be thought of as interchangeable with its objects.
Therefore, the portmanteau activity of singing detection addresses a discontinuity, a faultline, between the historical datum and the prehistorical artefact. History’s discursive objects record known co-ordinates, they are situated in relation to knowable events and illuminate the paths which knowable figures have passed along. But prehistorical artefacts are the persistent evidence of what is unknown. And whilst such artefacts are thus always identifiable specifically in terms of the degree of their being not wholly locatable, that is by their not belonging to well-known history, and thus always falling into themselves, the historical object may also suddenly lapse back into the prehistorical. There is in knowledge a tendency for the known to become unknown which is at least as powerful as the tendency running in the opposite direction... knowledge is mortal.
Prehistory relocates in relation to knowledge. The territory of what is known is not increasing. The non-space of what is unknowable is not decreasing. The disjunction between these ‘places’ is continually reconfigured, and the singing and the detecting remain in remote, irresolvable, tension.
However, the distinction between the historic and the prehistoric provides us with an opportunity to explore further the theory of singing detection. Freud supposed that the unconscious has no time, and by this he means that the prehistoric is always present. It refers to the structuring of human relations which functions beyond the manifest content of those relations. Elsewhere, I have termed this armature the pre-human, by which I mean a portion of existence which is given, autonomic or hard-programmed, a set of internalised conditions upon which all consciously present activity is the product, and this pre-human portion of life remains inaccessible to present activity.
Singing detection relates present activity back to the prehistoric. Its primary move is the therapeutic re-relation of autonomous behaviours within a context of causal forces. But, on a secondary level, it also converts the juxtaposition of manifest behaviours with determining forces into a narrative history. And narrative recomposition is only ever temporary, being broken down by the unknowable. The prehistoric precipitates song at the boundaries of what may be modelled because the register of song is what appears where the register of modelling breaks down. That is, involuntary song causes in the investigator a shift in cognitive register. The prehistoric therefore should be understood as the crumbling lip of any arrangement of power; it marks the edge of coherence in organised bodies of knowledge and therefore appears as the irreducibly problematic starting point (Lévi-Strauss’s ‘doubled infirmity’) of revisionist projects concerning the objects of knowledge.
The project of singing detection (predicated as it is on that strange involuntary emergence from one’s mouth of an alien vocalisation) does not propose that the prehistoric must be converted into history; it takes for granted that the category of the prehistoric denotes that which has time but which cannot appear as itself in the historical model. The modelled relations that may appear as narrative in investigative projects are abstracted by, and to, that purpose. Just as the final winding up of the case in the drawing room by the whodunit detective is conventionally hurried and perfunctory... so any narrative-model construct is besides the point. No narrative exhausts the resistance of the object to its inclusion in the model’s categories. Renewed incidents or outbreaks of the unknown in familiar objects mark their prehistoric boundary... the unknown is known by its infinite regressions.