restricted access The Prisoner and Self-Imprisonment
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THE PRISONER mo SELF-IMPRISONMENT Shai Biderman and William j. Devlin Know Thyself When we discuss the cinematic realm of noir, what exactly are we talking about? Literally, the word "noir" means dark. But what is so dark about these cinematic features to constitute them as films noirs? Typically, such features are dark in their imagery and content. Visually, most noir is characterized by dark scenery, tilted angles, black-and-white film to sharpen the contrast, and gloomy atmospheres. Meanwhile, their content is characterized by moral ambiguity, usually emphasized by the leading character—the dark hero who exemplifies the existential qualities of disturbance, complexity, anguish, and despair.' Quite often, we find that this angst-ridden character is a private eye (though for our purpose, it is better to see him as a private I). The audience enters the noir scene by adopting the eye of the I, so to speak. As we follow the private eye through his perspective, we come to discover the darkness —the misapprehension, ambiguity, and confusion—of the world as seen (or known) through the eyes of the main subject. As viewers, we are led to take the point ofview ofthe noir hero, to see reality from his perspective and identify with him. We share his engagement with the world and share the epistemological and ethical questions he encounters. We immediately grow to learn (due to the noir elements) that it is not easy being the noir hero: the world seems a grim and confusing place, and the moral and epistemological questions we ask are met with ambiguous answers (and sometimes with no answers at all). The ambiguity and darkness of reality projects itself on the protagonist. It is not just reality that is unknown and ambiguous—the protagonist himself is, as well. His moral standing is in doubt; he skeptically 229 230 Shai Blderman and William J. Devlin questions what he knows and does not know. In other words, his entire self—and not just the mystery case at hand—is under examination.2 Questions of selfhood can be fruitfully explored through film noir. Such questions include: How do we construct our self-identity? Am I free to create my own conception of selfhood? Is selfhood merely a fiction? Selfhood is one of the most elusive concepts in the western tradition: it is necessarily presupposed and yet it eludes analysis. On the one hand, the self can be interpreted as an active ontological entity that engages the world and directs individuals in their actions. For instance, Rene Descartes claimed that the self is an active thinking entity—it is the only thing of which one can be certain and so provides the starting point for all of our investigations. On the other hand, the self can be interpreted as a passive linguistic apprehension insofar as it is simply a name ascribed to the collection of experiences that one can have. David Hume, for example, held that the self is a fictitious concept; when one looks inside oneself, there is no self to be found, only a bundle of impressions. At best, the self is a passive container that receives these impressions through experience. But there is no active enduring agent, as Descartes maintained. Whether we take the self to be something that is active or passive, however, we use the notion of selfhood to refer to the particular person one is—that which persists though time, that which makes us unique and distinguishable from one another, et cetera.3 The self thus takes center stage in noir. In this essay, we discuss the issue of selfhood with reference to an out-of-the-ordinary private eye. He is not a detective but a secret agent. But his selfhood suffers the most acute withdrawal when he is deprived ofhis freedom through imprisonment. This imprisonment is not simply a case where our private eye is behind bars. Rather, not only is he stripped of his physical and actual freedom of action , but also, and more importantly, he is losing his conceptual freedom as a self—one who has the freedom to reflect and to define himself. As we shall see, such imprisonment leads our hero to confront the ambiguity of his selfhood and therefore the ambiguity and uncertain nature of the concept of the self. This existential engagement with selfhood, accompanied by a psychedelic cinematic atmosphere, allows us to call him a dark noir hero. In the 1960s television series The Prisoner, a man we presume to...


Subject Headings

  • Detective and mystery television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy television programs -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
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