Thursday, 2 January 2014

Detachment Theory

Much of the response to the new series of Sherlock has focused on the increased humanity of the protagonist, shown through the introduction of his parents and the warmer sibling rivalry with Mycroft (their playing of speed-Operation was a nice touch). The seasonal subtext was the love-hate of family and the warm glow of friendships reaffirmed. Fans (who got their own homage plus some incidental fanfic sexual fantasy) stay happily on the hook as the solution to the not-fatal fall remains unexplained, though some have grumbled about the rather uninspired plot at the centre of the fun. They seem to have forgotten that it's also panto season: a decommissioned Tube station, a bomb under the Palace of Westminster, and a peer in the pay of North Korea. Short of a couple of homicidal ugly sisters, it couldn't have been more obvious.

Naturally, you can't please everyone. Tim Stanley in the Telegraph reckons that "Sherlock owes less to Arthur Conan Doyle than it does to Marvel comics". The improbability of his resurrection, not to mention powers of deduction that "bordered on the psychic", mean that Sherlock is a superhero, even a god: "Jesus with OCD". This is a reactionary bleat against the blasphemy of man, the enlightenment Prometheus who challenges throne and altar. Stanley reveals his true colours when he bemoans the gay running-gag as evidence of "the death of brotherhood" in modern society, as opposed to the evolution of tolerance. The playful resurrection conceit ("I believe in Sherlock Holmes") is clearly a riff on the madness of a voracious media that deifies and demonises by turn. There were many similarly Pythonesque moments to enjoy, from the barking fan club through Mycroft's foolproof method for learning Serbian.

The inability of fogeyish conservatives like Stanley to "get the joke" is a badge of honour. This is not just the elevation of moral seriousness above frivolity, which turns plenty of lefties into humourless bores as well, but the deliberate isolation of the contemptible and decadent. What Stanley fails to appreciate is that Sherlock is camp - or more precisely High Camp with a dash of the post-modern (the fluid boundaries between actor and role and between fan and fiction). As Susan Sontag wrote in the 60s, "The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious". But this is not the mocking laughter of the cynic: "Camp proposes a comic vision of the world. But not a bitter or polemical comedy. If tragedy is an experience of hyperinvolvement, comedy is an experience of underinvolvement, of detachment." But this raises the question, what is Sherlock detaching us from? Let us employ the Holmesian method to see if we can find out.

As the world's first consulting detective noted, his method was one of "reasoning backwards" from effects to causes. Presented with a crime, he would seek to create a pattern from disparate data that would explain why and how the crime occurred. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he expanded on his method: "we hold several threads in our hands, and the odds are that one or other of them guides us to the truth. We may waste time in following the wrong one, but sooner or later we must come upon the right." This explains the need for large amounts of data and also hints at the network mapping that is central to its interpretation. It also emphasises the importance of the apparently inconsequential (Homles's party trick) and suggestive absences (the dog that didn't bark, most famously).

In Holmes's method there is usually a "singular feature" that starts the process of deduction. In the current TV series, that feature is his use of information technology. Sherlockian gadgets are just updated variations on old habits, thus the smartphone replaces Bradshaw's Railway Guide and his monograph on the varying tensile strengths of natural fibres is now a blog post. Though a modern-day Sherlock would struggle to survive without the Internet, given how much information is now only available via that medium, the human brain is centre-stage at all times. Related to this, we have the explicit introduction of the "mind palace" (or method of loci) technique as his key working tool, represented in whizzing text overlays as he presses his temples. You never saw Basil Rathbone do that, because Conan Doyle never described it.

Sherlock is an information system incarnate, hence the desire to humanise him. The data network is represented through the old-fashioned method of pinning things on the wall in order to create connections. At the heart of the network are photos of people Sherlock refers to as "markers", shady people whose atypical activity (e.g. fleeing the country) may indicate an attack is imminent. Though The Empty Hearse centred on the prevention of an implausible crime (the bomb plot), and the failure to adequately explain another (the near immolation of Watson), small crimes were satisfactorily solved along the way on the basis of a few inconsequential facts. These were cameos of domestic betrayal, such as the cheating husband and the abusive father, implying that the truth about ordinary folk is easily deduced.

What the camp of Sherlock is detaching us from is the reality of surveillance, which depends on banks of servers and questionable algorithms, not a discriminating mind. If camp is detachment, then it succeeds by making the gap between reality and representation obvious, like a middle-aged Irishman in drag (Mrs Brown's Boys was the other big festive TV hit, condescendingly admired by Tim Stanley for "irritating the kind of people who claim to understand Sherlock" - apparently there is a rule against enjoying both). In this sense, Mark Gattis's camp interpretation of a fogey state suggests a different reality (incompetent, venal). For all the bromance, the key relationship is not between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, but between Sherlock and his brother Mycroft. It is the love-hate of information technology and government.

Between the second and third series came the Edward Snowden revelations. I have no idea if they informed Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat in any way, but the personification of information (Sherlock can deduce as much about you as Facebook can), and its uneasy relationship with the security state, looks to be at the heart of its camp "detachment".

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