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  • Radical Noir:Negativity, Misogyny, and the Critique of Privatization in Dorothy Hughes's In a Lonely Place
  • Christopher Breu (bio)

Like a cut that won't stay closed, noir scars the landscape of twentieth-century American culture, shearing off scabbed-over surfaces of everyday life to reveal the festering puss and clotted blood that lies beneath. Such is the ambiguous promise of noir, to uncover the infectious wounds that have been imperfectly scabbed over by the work of ideology. Noir thus invites us to reopen the cleavages of social violence, demanding that we cut away the irregular sutures provided by our idealizing fictions of the world and confront the wound in its intransigent refusal to disappear.

It is the infectious recurrence of noir in twentieth-century culture that has made it both so seductive and so hard to theorize. It seems to be both everywhere and nowhere at once, simultaneously eluding generic definition while at the same time parasitically infecting a host of other genres, metastasizing their stable contents into something alien and lethal.1 I want to suggest that it is precisely the elusive and parasitic qualities of noir that give it its critical versatility and force. Noir is not so much a genre, as a negative deformation and phantasmatic volatilization of other genres such as the hard-boiled detective story, the crime story, and the romance narrative.2 It remakes the substance of these other genres, drawing out their [End Page 199] negativity and reworking their positive or utopian content into self-canceling allegories of failure and futility.3

As I have argued elsewhere, noir is best characterized as a resolutely negative cultural fantasy about the relationship of the subject to the law, one that finds expression in a wide range of twentieth-century literary and filmic texts and that functions as both a condensation of and a catalyst for various forms of social negativity that are distinct to the middle decades of the twentieth century.4 In defining noir as a historically specific cultural fantasy, I am both synthesizing and reworking earlier definitions of noir that tend to categorize it as either a historical expression distinctive to the thirties, forties, and fifties and/or as a specific fantasy structure that obsessively replays a set of transhistorical psychoanalytic meanings. On the one hand, for historically-minded critics such as Lee Horsley, E. Ann Kaplan, Alain Sliver, Frank Krutnick, Robert Corber, Paula Rabinowitz, William Marling, and David Reid and Jayne L. Walker, noir is theorized as either an expression of post-World War II malaise or as a coded form of Depression-era social protest. On the other hand, for psychoanalytic theorists such as Slavoj Žižek , Joan Copjec, Christopher Metress, and Elizabeth Cowie, noir is theorized as narrativizing a specific ontological or critical fantasy structure.5

In positing noir as a historically specific negative cultural fantasy, I am offering a definition that attends equally to psychoanalytic and historical resonances. This definition of noir attempts to account not only for its elusiveness and mobility, its ability to fasten itself onto a number of different genres and its openness to a range of different political positions, but also for the diversity of cultural fantasy work it undertakes, work that is at once socioeconomic and subjective, markedly public and putatively private.

It is this ability to bridge and volatilize the public/private divide, even as it marks the divide's ideological persistence that made noir an ideal vehicle for addressing the ideological campaign to privatize women's roles and subjectivity in postwar American culture.6 It is, of course, a critical commonplace that one of the central preoccupations of noir is postwar gender relations.7 Much of the literature on film noir, in particular, emphasizes that the genre's representation of gender as a site of antagonism is an imaginative response to the large scale entrance of women into the industrial workforce during World War II and the attendant postwar crisis of masculinity produced by this entrance. This historicization, derived as it is from film studies, has been challenged by David Reid and Jane L. Walker, who argue that both the representation of gendered antagonism we associate with noir and the...


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pp. 199-215
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